One Year On – International Atomic Energy Agency
“Beneath the Pacific Ocean’s floor deep in the Japanese trench, tectonic plate boundaries slipped repeatedly, triggering one of the most severe earthquakes in recent history. The earthquake’s epicenter lay off the eastern coastline of Japan near the Fukushima Prefecture. The plates’ movements generated a tsunami that swiftly drove forward ranks of waves towards the earthquake-battered Japanese coast.
It was 11 March 2011.
Along the coastline, sensors detected violent ground motion and automatically shut down all operating reactors at Tokai Daini, Onagawa, Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Stations.
Off-site Power Lost
The reactors at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant require an electric power supply to safely remain in “shutdown” condition. If power fails, back-up generators supply electrical power for the equipment needed to shut down the reactor safely and maintain the security of the plant.
The “Great East Japan Earthquake” toppled pylons supporting the overland electrical power lines. As soon as off-site power was lost at Fukushima Daiichi, on-site emergency diesel generators started automatically, supplying electricity to the reactors’ “essential loads”, namely emergency core cooling pumps, valves, monitoring instruments and controls.
Minutes after the earthquake hit the plant, the specially trained operation teams confirmed that the chain reaction in the three operating reactors at Fukushima Daiichi had stopped and that the emergency diesel generators were operating.
In an operational nuclear power plant, the fission process in the reactor core produces heat. Cooling water continuously absorbs and carries off the heat. In a “boiling water reactor” like those operating at Fukushima Daiichi, the cooling water boils in the core. A mixture of steam and water then flows through separators where steam is extracted and diverted to spin the power plants’ turbine-generators to produce electricity. When the steam is cooled, it condenses into water, which is returned to the reactor core that heats it again, producing steam and restarting the cycle. Powerful pumps drive the primary cooling fluid, in this closed loop, maintaining the reactor core at operating temperatures.
After the emergency shutdown, the nuclear fuel in the reactors nonetheless continues to release a considerable amount of decay heat. Continuous and reliable cooling, provided by the emergency diesel generators, is vitally important to prevent overheating and fuel damage.
About 40 minutes after the Fukushima Daiichi reactors were shut down, several massive tsunami waves crashed over the six-Unit plant’s protective wall, forcing seawater deep into the plant. Emergency generators and some of the associated electrical equipment were flooded. Thirteen generators ceased operating. Only one emergency generator survived the onslaught, providing power to Units five and six.
The earthquake had already disrupted mobile and landline communication and now the on-rushing tsunami waters hurled debris into the plant, damaging equipment and buildings and blocking access.
The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami devastated the coastal area, exacting a dreadful toll: almost 16 000 lives were lost, over 8 000 people remain missing, and more than 679 000 homes were destroyed or damaged.”
The accident at Fukushima resulted from:
- Natural disaster combination – First the reactors had to withstand a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, an earthquake far more powerful than they were designed to handle. Next came 14 meter high tsunami waves that swept over the reactors protective sea wall
- Human and organizational failing – Oversight of the plant operator (TEPCO) was weak because Japan’s nuclear regulatory authority was not sufficiently independent and the plants emergency response training for its workforce was inadequate for this situation
- Plant design – The backup power supply vital for reactor and spent fuel rod cooling, in case of loss of primary power supply, was not properly protected
It was the tsunami – caused by the largest earthquake ever to strike Japan – that killed 16,000 people.
It was the tsunami – and the earthquake – that destroyed or severely damaged hundreds of thousands of buildings. But it’s Fukushima that’s the headline disaster. Yet the Fukushima reactors did not completely melt down even after:
- A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and aftershocks
- A relatively direct hit from multiple, and massive, tsunami waves
- Backup power supply failure
- The plant itself was well over 40 years old and slated for decommissioning in the very near term – Fukushima was built in the 1970s
- The technology on which it was based dated from a decade earlier
Since Fukushima nuclear power generation has become safer.
The nuclear industry’s safety record was second to none before Fukushima – today it’s even better. New plant designs – the generation III reactors – have enhanced safety features compared to the Fukushima 1970s era generation II’s. The regulatory framework has been strengthened – new and extremely high benchmarks for the regulations and the licensing of every stage of the process have been modified and put in place, steps were taken and are still being put in place:
- Improving preparedness for prolonged power outages, protection of backup power sources and ensuring the availability of water for cooling even under the most severe accident conditions
- Global nuclear safety standards are being reviewed and international emergency response capabilities are being upgraded
- Countries are opening their plants to more international safety reviews and plant operators and national regulators are being scrutinized more critically
Japan – No Energy Security
Japan had plans to construct nine new nuclear power plants by 2020 and at least another 14 by 2030. After Fukushima, Japan’s then Prime Minister Kan advocated replacing nuclear energy with renewables. Kan resigned because of criticism of his handling of the crisis and questions over his energy strategy. Japans current Prime Minister has changed course and backed away from his predecessors sudden shift to phasing out nuclear and jumping headlong into renewable energy.
Japan has little of its own coal, oil or natural gas so the country has made up a good portion of their missing nuclear supplied energy by burning even more imported liquefied natural gas (LNG), coal and fuel oil. Japan is now the world’s largest importer of coal and liquefied natural gas and is the second largest importer of oil – the country now imports about 84% of its energy requirements.
In response to an appeal for support from the US regarding an Iranian oil sanction Japan pledged to further cut Iranian oil imports – In 2011 Iranian crude made up just 8.8 percent (3.6 million barrels a day) of Japan’s total crude oil imports.
“It would cause immense damage if they were cut to zero.” Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi said referring to Japan’s Iranian imports.
Playing Populist Politics in Germany
In 2002, Germany enacted a law to phase out nuclear power, but the current government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel decided (autumn 2010) to extend the lifetimes of the country’s reactors by an average of 12 years. This was based on the judgment that Germany would not be able to meet its power demand using only natural energy sources – wind and solar power – and would not be able to meet the governments ambitious goals of a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 burning more coal and natural gas.
Then, playing populist politics and over reacting to the partial meltdowns in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex Merkels government immediately shut down almost half of the country’s nuclear power. Germany, overnight, decided 40 percent of its nuclear power capacity will be shut down and removed 8,800 megawatts (MW) from the grid, the remaining 12,700 MW of nuclear supplied electricity will be gone by 2022.
It will be difficult for any country to achieve sustainable energy supplies and curb greenhouse gases unless nuclear power remains an important part of their energy mix.
Nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide
Japan has unplugged their nuclear reactors that provided 30 percent of the country’s electricity before Fukushima.
“They’re swapping fossil fuels for nuclear, and that’s driving up their CO2 emissions and the carbon intensity of their electricity supply.” Jesse Jenkins, energy analyst, the Breakthrough Institute
Germany’s 17 reactors provided 28 percent of its power. Germany is going to shut down all its nuclear plants by 2022 – eight were shut down immediately after Fukushima.
There’s a similar CO2 rise in Germany as in Japan and its going to effect the entire EU.
“The additional German emissions alone could add up to more than 300 million tons by 2020, which according to the World Nuclear Association, would ‘virtually cancel out the 335-million-ton savings intended to be achieved in the entire European Union by the 2011 Energy Efficiency Directive’.” New Scientist
Germany had pledged to slash its *carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
* Nuclear power’s life-cycle emissions range from 2 to 59 gram-equivalents of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. Only hydropower’s range ranked lower at 2 to 48 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalents per kilowatt-hour. Wind came in at 7 to 124 grams and solar photovoltaic at 13 to 731 grams. Emissions from natural gas fired plants ranged from 389 to 511 grams. Coal produces 790 to 1,182 grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilowatt hour.
According to Siemens (which built all of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants) Germany’s exit from nuclear power could cost the country as much as 1.7 trillion euros ($2.15 trillion) by 2030 – two thirds of the country’s GDP in 2011.
“This will either be paid by energy customers or taxpayers.” Michael Suess, head of Siemen’s Energy Sector, in a Reuters interview
Siemens is no longer in the nuclear business, however the company is active in several areas including power transmission, solar, wind and hydro power.
Many decisions, made with the best of intentions, yet undertaken when emotions are running high might not result in the best direction for individuals or countries.
A civil nuclear renaissance, because of energy security, safety and a reduction in our carbon footprint, should be on everyone’s radar screen. Is it on yours?
If not, maybe it should be.
Richard (Rick) Mills
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