June 2: Japan Nuclear Disaster Update

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | June 2, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

It has been nearly three months since Japan suffered the massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered the ongoing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. And yet the utility owner/operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), only recently confirmed that three of the nuclear reactors suffered complete meltdowns within hours of the earthquake, with reactor Units 2 and 3 suffering the most damage. The containment vessels of those two reactors also developed 7-10 centimeter holes within hours of the March 11 quake, which explains why workers were unable to maintain water levels. This shocking news comes after weeks of Tepco repeatedly denying the severity of the accident, followed by slow-coming admissions that this already devastating situation is, indeed, worse than most previous calculations.

However, if you’ve been following nuclear engineer and expert Arnie Gundersen’s updates on the Fairewinds Associates website, you’d know that most of this is not actually ‘new’ news. Aside from the timeline and the size and shape of the holes, much of this information was discussed by Gundersen early on in the crisis. It is unknown at what point Tepco became aware of this information, and it appears that the ‘discovery’ will likely compromise Tepco’s ability to meet its goal to stabilize the damaged nuclear complex by the end of the year.

France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety recommends that an additional 70,000 people be evacuated from areas outside the already established 20 km zone, which includes 10,000 children. These figures are based on radiation data collected by U.S. and Japanese radiation monitors. Presently, Japan’s emergency plans for nuclear disasters rely on an old standard of an 8-10 km evacuation zone, despite considerations to expand this to up to 30 km in 2006. The United States evacuation plans are based around a 10-mile radius standard (16 km). It is clear to many that evacuation zones need to be re-examined worldwide to determine how to best protect public health and safety.

The nuclear debate here in the U.S. is becoming more intense. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has again raised concerns about the licensing of the AP1000 reactor design, pending revisions to address additional concerns about the reactor’s ability to withstand seismic activity, hurricanes, or tornadoes and potential problems with the design of the cooling system. This news comes over a month after the AP1000 Oversight Group petitioned the NRC to suspend approval of the design, citing similar concerns. Below are more resources regarding the proposed Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design:

  • A presentation by Arnie Gundersen examining the possibility of containment leakage if an accident were to occur in the current revision of the AP1000 reactor design;
  • Press release discussing the petition to halt licensing of the AP1000 reactor design;
  • The Miami Herald examines the issue as it relates to the Turkey Point reactor, near Miami, Florida and hurricane activity;
  • The Atlanta Journal Constitution discusses the issue as it relates to the recent tornadoes that decimated Tornado Alley and the Southeast;
  • Residents near the beleaguered Crystal River plant in Florida are expressing concern, despite a history of support for the facility.

Additional concerns in the U.S. this week include the safety of spent fuel pools and reactor venting systems. A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies charges that we are at greater risk than Japan of an accident occurring in fuel pools due to overcrowding beyond design capacity. It has also surfaced that engineers warned the NRC of design flaws in venting systems 5 years ago, with little action taken. A key issue is the reliance on the power grid to operate the vents, which could contribute to hydrogen explosions in the event of an emergency. Although largely ignored, venting systems should be closely examined in light of the lessons we are learning from the Fukushima disaster.

TVA’s Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama made headlines again after the NRC gave the plant a poor rating, citing “repeated issues of degradation in performance.” The Tennesseean reports that citations include multiple problems with various components for back up power and cooling systems. Part of the issue appears to be faulty equipment complicated by an apparent lack of compliance by TVA in repairing the problems and an over-reliance on “temporary fixes.” This, coupled with patterns of disregarding necessary safety evaluations and improper reporting of safety issues, raises a red flag once again with inspectors at the troubled nuclear plant. Some of the issues where identified as early as the 1990’s, yet the NRC relicensed the aging reactors in 2006. TVA’s poor performance at Browns Ferry is something to take particular note of as it is the same flawed reactor design as the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors and TVA is also contemplating the use of plutonium fuel, or MOX, which was loaded in reactor Unit 3 at Fukushima.

With all of the information that we have regarding the alleged “safety” of nuclear reactors, it becomes ever more clear that worst case scenarios are difficult to predict and almost impossible to fully prepare for. Other countries, most notably Germany, are moving in the direction of phasing out nuclear power altogether while significantly reducing reliance on polluting fossil fuels and aggressively advancing energy efficiency, conservation and renewables. We, too, have a great opportunity to move toward a future powered by clean, safe energy choices — it’s just a question of whether we, along with our policymakers, also have the will to make it happen?

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