Shaken, Flooded, Stressed by Power Outages, Fukushima Daiichi Moves into Second Place

Fukushima Daiichi, ca 1975

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article titled Nuclear plant issues in Japan are the least of their worries that attempted to provide a realistic prediction of the worst case consequences of the one-two punch from a very large earthquake and tsunami on a large nuclear power station on the coast of Japan. It has become increasingly apparent during the past week that my view from afar was not as clear as I would have hoped. I was overly optimistic about the final consequences of the events at Fukushima Daiichi.

On the catastrophic scale of commercial nuclear energy accidents, where Three Mile Island was in second place and Chernobyl was the clear leader, Fukushima Daiichi has moved into second. It is likely that it will end up to be far closer to Chernobyl than to Three Mile Island in overall economic, public health and geographic consequences.

Update: (Posted on March 27, 2011 at 0234) The above paragraph has been changed to specify commercial nuclear energy accidents to avoid complications with discussions about accidents that have occurred in the other aspect of nuclear technology. The commercial and military sides of nuclear are complicated enough to merit two mostly separate conversations. End Update.

There has been enough damage to the plants and enough radioactive material released to pose a danger to public health for someone who does not take any precautions, though actions to evacuate, shelter and monitor contamination have minimized the actual effects – so far. There have also been a fair number of plant workers and other emergency responders who have received substantial radiation doses in the range of 100-200 mSv (10-20 Rem). Those doses are about 20% of the dose required for early signs of radiation sickness (1 Sv or 100 REM) and at the threshold where there is a statistically significant increase in long term cancer risk.

None of those heroic recovery workers has been exposed to the doses that caused radiation sickness for Chernobyl first responders, but the use of emergency limits for large numbers of recovery workers is certainly no cause for celebration among those of us who believe strongly in the importance of safely using nuclear energy. As long as the recovery workers pay attention to their monitoring devices and use caution, there is no reason to expect that there will be anyone exposed to any higher levels than those already received. Achieving the goal of acceptable individual doses will likely require rotating a rather large, well trained work force over a long period of time during the clean up operations.

The radioactive material released from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has already complicated recovery and response efforts for the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami. According to a recent story in the New York Times titled Extent of Damage to Japan’s Infrastructure Still Unclear transportation to the area is not easy, and some assistance from normal sources of expertise is being prevented because there is enough contamination to cause insurance concerns. I even heard through the grapevine that some of the US Navy ships that were off of the coast of Japan are having to engage in some complex and expensive efforts to clean up the fallout.

The final results are worse than what I predicted. Even if you are deeply steeped into the science of the health effects of low level radiation and recognize the evidence showing that doses below a certain level have a very good chance of being hormetic, it is not good to “crap up” a large geographic area with a significant mass of fission product isotopes like Cs-137 that will give off strong gamma radiation for many years. (Cs-137 has a 30 year half life.) Though I hope that the Japanese government does not take the step of permanently evacuating large, lightly contaminated areas, there is little doubt that some formerly prosperous farms and fisheries will be out of business for a very long time.

What this event has taught me is that I need to retreat a bit. I remain firm in my belief that human society needs nuclear energy and that there is no other alternative to fossil fuels that has a chance of meeting needs for reliable power. The importance of reducing fossil fuel consumption should be apparent to anyone who is following the current events in the Middle East and North Africa, whose community is a new host to gas extraction, whose mountains are being blown up, or who is concerned about the effects of dumping 20 billion tons of waste gases into our common atmosphere.

However, I am now certain that not all operating reactors are equally safe, equally well maintained, or equally well sited. I have always known that there are risks associate with nuclear energy – it is such a concentrated source of power that it is impossible to ignore just how quickly it can get out of control.

The importance of keeping fission and the resulting radioactive material under control; the importance of careful civil, mechanical, electrical and system engineering; the imperative for intensive, continuing training; and the always vital step of conducting operations and maintenance with a questioning, learning attitude was such a part of my indoctrination into the technology that I projected that attitude onto the entire enterprise. That was a mistake that I will not repeat. Humans can learn to use nuclear energy safely and effectively; we can design and operate systems that do not put the public at risk. However, that does not happen automatically.

There will always be some who are tempted to take short cuts or to fail to correct design errors because they are concerned about short term costs. The best lesson that I can take from Fukushima Daiichi is a better understanding of the scale of the potential losses. Final costs in the tens to hundreds of billions can overwhelm any short term savings in materials and construction time. It is not worth it to engage in efforts to slice a few dollars from initial costs by slimming down the defense in depth that has made most nuclear plants the safest, cleanest and most reliable energy production systems on the planet.

The good news is that no one has been building the types of boiling water reactors whose limits were exceeded at Fukushima Daiichi in many decades. Today’s Generation III and beyond reactors include numerous design features that would have provided substantial margins against the specific challenges faced at Fukushima, but that is no cause for complacency. There is always something more to learn and improve.

Rod Adams is the founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. He is host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast, as well as author of Atomic Insights Blog, where this post originally appeared.

17 replies »

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  2. @BobbyG – I am happy to go back to the original issue of the impact on a large nuclear power installation when there is a very large earthquake that is followed by a tsunami.

    As near as I can tell, there were few injuries. One worker was apparently killed during a chemical explosion at the facility. 21 workers have received radiation doses in excess of 100 mSv (10 REM) but none of them have received doses in excess of 250 mSv (25 REM). The earliest onset of radiation sickness does not occur until 1 Sv (100 REM). There is a statistically significant chance of an increased risk of cancer at doses between 10 and 25 REM. That increase will raise a person’s chance by about 1% over the already existing risk.

    Four out of six units at the facility have been destroyed beyond repair. The site will need an expensive clean up effort, but the cost of that effort will not be determined for several years.

    As I stipulated in an earlier comment, I would be supportive of an international effort to build up a catastrophic insurance fund. Collect a single penny for every kilowatt hour produced by nuclear power plants and the fund will grow at the rate of $26 billion per year. That rate would increase if more nuclear plants are built and contribute to the fund.

    The word “expensive” has to be quantified to have any meaning. Nuclear power plants are “expensive” but they also produce reliable, emission free power without being dependent on a continuing source of bulky fuel. If a plant owner is so inclined, it is possible to purchase and store a lifetime of fuel at the plant site. The cost would not be all that high compared to the price risk taken when burning natural gas delivered by pipeline.

    Just a few years ago, the price of natural gas in the US was about $13 per million BTU. When I was shutting down my atomic engine design company in the mid 1990s, the gas industry was implying to customers that natural gas prices would increase at less than the rate of inflation. Just ten years later, natural gas prices were more than 6 times as high as they were in 1998. Inflation during that time was under 2% per year.

  3. OK, fine.

    “When it comes to energy density, it is hard to beat uranium.”

    Stipulated. Just that it comes with a LOT of expensive endemic liabilities, especially in the context of large scale general civilian commercial use vis a vis powering highly secured, narrow-mission military ships. It’s noteworthy that there are no civilian commercial nuke ships (there was one, the NS Savannah, a “showcase” vessel launched in 1962, decommissioned 10 years later).

    Let’s go back to the original issue here. The Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, which remains a huge unresolved mess.

  4. @BobbyG – it is not that H2 does not exist in “pure” form. It is that most of it exists in the compound – H2O – that is the product of the chemical reaction that uses H2 to produce energy.

    It is a bit like saying that you plan to use falling water as your energy source, but you live in a place where no rain falls on the higher elevations. The only way for you to get the water into a place where it can fall is to pump it up hill first.

    In that case, your pump needs power and your pump will not be perfect. Anyone who touches a working pump will recognize that it gets hot, all of the energy used to make it hot is NOT used to pump water, so there are losses. When the water flows back down hill, the turbines that spin to produce useful electricity will also have some losses. The whole endeavor will be a little like the tale of Sisyphus.

    When it comes to energy density, it is hard to beat uranium. A mass small enough to fit under my office desk powered the 9,000 ton submarine on which I served for more than 14 years. These days, Virginia class submarines are built with lifetime fuel supplies that will last 33 years – as long as the hull of the ship can continue to submerge.

  5. Energy content factors/multiples of hydrogen vs hydrocarbon fuels by unit weight:

    Gasoline 2.80
    #2 diesel 2.84
    Methanol 6.23
    Ethanol 4.51
    MTBE 3.46
    Propane 2.62
    CNG 2.58 (Compressed Natural Gas)
    Biodiesel 3.20


    Which, yes, differs from “energy density” by volume. And, additionally, it’s problematic if you burn dirty coal (which is to just say “coal”) to produce H2. Moreover, if you assume the historical production paradigm of remote centralized “refining” sites and long distribution lines to the points of consumption, then H2 has that liability as well.

    Yes — before you start in on me — I KNOW that hydrogen doesn’t exist in pure form in nature (unlike gasoline, which of course just flows naturally out of the ground like spring water, LOL).

  6. “hydrogen used to be used to float dirigibles, not power them.”

    Hence the smiley face following the comment. But, as you know, either helium or hydrogen requires less fuel to keep the airship in the air.

    “The real promise of nuclear energy is to vastly increase the supply of reliable energy. By doing so, it shifts the balance between supply and demand, thus driving down the price of all other energy fuels.”

    Did you factor in taxpayer subsidies (including caps on liability) to the nuclear industry and it’s investors? If it’s so benign why do they need safe harbor from law suits?

    Cheap coal also helps keep prices low(er). All energy is under priced given the side effects it produces. Low prices are counter to low consumption and technology innovations (as you know), both which benefit everyone (excluding energy providers) in the long run. I recently argued against “environmentalists” who were protesting Duke Power’s application for a 13% price increase (the first increase in 15 years) that was, at least partially, to be used to build a coal fired plant. Before the regulatory commission I argued for the increase but wanted it put toward offset usage for conservation. The plant was supposedly also to replace old dirty air coal plants. By the way, the poor don’t get to participate in efficiency upgrades, and receive little financial support to do so – a point I also made at the hearing where I urged part of the increase be used for that purpose. The commission argued that that was outside their jurisdiction. Low oil prices can help support the rise of human rights in despotic regimes and what they, and the oil industry fear the most, is an energy tax that encourages revenues to stay at home. Iran seems to be hedging it’s bets. We also know that nuclear for power production is cover for nuclear for bomb production – India being a prime example.

    I don’t know if nuclear power is the answer, given Fukushima, but I fear hubris the most.

  7. Peter – hydrogen used to be used to float dirigibles, not power them. That application ended once the Hindenburg provided a graphic demonstration of the flammability risk associated with a large volume of H2. Sadly enough, the Fukushima situation has provided another such demonstration – H2 is dangerous stuff and was the source of the very visible and often replayed explosions at units 1, 3, and 4.

    The real promise of nuclear energy is to vastly increase the supply of reliable energy. By doing so, it shifts the balance between supply and demand, thus driving down the price of all other energy fuels. When the world was building large numbers of new nuclear power plants, the additional energy that those plants provided every year had to be absorbed in the market. Just because nuclear plants were being built did not mean that people automatically used more electricity or more heating.

    According to BP’s annual energy outlook, the world’s nuclear plants currently produce 12 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Adding that amount of new energy supply to the market during the period from 1970-1995 was like finding a new Saudi Arabia PLUS a new Kuwait. There is a good reason why oil and gas prices were very low from 1985-2000, but few people have actually done the math to realize that nuclear technology should get a major portion of the credit.

    If you like the idea of high prices to discourage consumption, at least think about the way that Europeans have used high taxes on fuel to put the revenue into public hands instead of automatically allowing dictators, kings and oligarchs to benefit from the increased revenues that high fuel prices without high taxes provide.

    Your idea for a world wide “disaster” tax is not a bad one. At a penny per kilowatt hour, the fund would be accumulating at a rate of about $26 Billion per year. It would not take very long for governments to begin salivating as they think of all of the things they could be doing with the money as we go through many years without an enormous earthquake and a several times higher than expected tsunami.

  8. “I see no possibility of ever powering aircraft with hydrogen”

    Dirigibles? :>)

    Ron, what is the real promise of nuclear? If it’s to save us from carbon suffocation then I’m for it, but it is always sold also as “cheap(er)” when present costs are compared – always the yardstick. What consumers don’t want is the actual price to reflect the consequences a Fukushima. Risk is always calculated based on a time frame and an assumed level of disaster, where you stand in that time frame means everything because time is your enemy and a level of disaster is only acceptable if you’re not part of it.

    I would at least propose a disaster tax on all world wide nuclear energy (probably held by the World Bank) that could only attempt to compensate for the massive (worldwide) effects of disasters such as Japan’s.

  9. Thanks for the detailed thoughts in reply.

    “Geothermal can never provide power for transportation.”

    Where did I propose that? (Although, by proxy, geothermal driven electricity generation could indeed help power electric vehicles.)

  10. BobbyG – I am not a scientist. I was the Engineer Officer on a nuclear powered submarine for a few years, so I would put myself into the category of an operating engineer. My formal degrees, however, have been a BS in English and an MS in Systems Technology.

    In a previous life, I founded a company called Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. that was working to commercialize one particular development path for high temperature gas cooled reactors that have been tested in actual operating systems to be “passively safe” up to a certain power level – roughly 600 MW thermal. The Chinese HTR-10 is based on the same kind of pebble bed reactors with fuel that is capable of withstanding temperatures as high as 1600 C without damage. The relatively small sized cores can be designed so that they lose enough heat to their surrounding environment that they cannot exceed that temperature even if they lose all cooling flow for an indefinite period of time.

    For a variety of practical reasons – including the demise of the South African PBMR program – Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. is in a deep sleep. It might wake up if the fuel we need is ever available; we have no ability to be our own fuel producers.

    Geothermal can never provide power for transportation.

    Hydrogen fuels are not practical because of their low energy density and extreme propensity for leakage – even directly through metal containers.

    I recognize that hydrocarbons are not perfect, but if we greatly reduce the rate at which we are adding their combustion waste products to the environment by using nuclear energy wherever it is practical, we would be able to use some clean hydrocarbons produced in more politically stable places than the Middle East and North Africa. I see no possibility of ever powering aircraft with hydrogen that is not put into liquid form by combining it with carbon.

  11. I have to give you your due with respect to the detail of your arguments. I am no apologist for the dirty extractive hydrocarbon fuels industries, and would applaud advances in nuke power technology that might make it significantly safer.

    I have to disagree with this:

    “we could be moving toward a system of using nuclear heat to efficiently and cleanly convert coal into liquid hydrocarbons.”

    Why not use it to produce hydrogen fuels, which would have none of the environmental externality liabilities?

    I would also like to see more emphasis on wider deployment of geothermal (though, I know it too entails some potential greenhouse gase emission risk).

    Are you a nuclear scientist, btw?

  12. Perhaps it was the rest of the sentence “using dangerous, unstable heavy elements to heat water to spin turbines” that led to my use of the word “dismissive.” It sounded to me like you were dissing the steam cycle with words that remind me of comments like Nader’s famous one about a very complex way to boil water.

    My point was that boiling water is a very important industrial process. It is important enough to spend about $50-100 billion per year on extracting and burning coal and another $30-60 billion on natural gas – and those are just the fuel costs. The plants and transportation needed to move that fuel from source and convert it into electricity are not cheap either.

    Yes, TMI was an economic disaster for the owning utility. The company eventually went bankrupt as a result of both the cost of the clean up and the cost of owning another perfectly good unit that was not allowed to operate or generate any revenue for 5 years after Unit 2 was destroyed. No money from the Price Anderson Act was used to pay for that accident.

    I hope that you understand that the first $12 billion from any nuclear energy plant accident in the US would come from both insurance on the plant and from a pool that would collect about $112 million from the owners of each of the operating units in the US. NO claim has ever been paid out from taxpayers related to nuclear energy production, a statement that certainly cannot be applied to either the oil, gas, and coal industry OR to the airline industry.

    Please understand that the 104 plants operating today generate about 806 billion kilowatt hours per year. At the average wholesale price of electricity in the US, that is an annual economic output worth about $64 billion. If we had simply continued building the plants at the rate established for the period from 1963-1990, we would have displaced the coal industry by 2000 and pushed natural gas almost completely out of the power generating business by 2010.

    Our electric power system would be similar to the nearly emission free one in France. Because of other natural resource advantages, our country would be far more resilient to imported fuel interruptions because we could be moving toward a system of using nuclear heat to efficiently and cleanly convert coal into liquid hydrocarbons.

    That prospect, envisioned at least one President who understood both the advantages of nuclear fission and the enormous vulnerability of our country to dependence on imported hydrocarbons protected by a vast and growing military-industrial complex, scared the heck out of some very wealthy and powerful people in the establishment.

    Many of them tacitly encouraged their children to become anti-nuclear protesters and then kept feeding the antinuclear industry with enough cash to allow it to do the work that benefited them. My theory is that The Establishment did not want the disruption in the very economic system of fossil fuel dependence that has given them so much for so little effort.

  13. Rod – Why do you equate my “not being a big NET fan” with “why are you so dismissive”? Pro-nuke partisanship a bit?

    “when we put together just the right combinations of materials we can obtain a tremendous amount of energy from a very tiny mass of material.”

    And, a lot a very bad people would love to get their hands on it, and never stop trying. Hence the requisite National Security States. Can you quantify THOSE costs?

    Three Mile Island Unit 2 cost ~a billion dollars to sequester, in 3 decades-ago dollars. We now have 4 reactor units in much worse shape at Fukushima Daiichi. What will be the cost of sequestering those (I think you would divide by about .37 to get current dollars per)?

    Not to mention the power generating capacity now lost forever, along with whatever other quantifiable adverse environmental become evident?

    Why do we need PAAA?

  14. BobbyG – why are you so dismissive of the importance of boiling water to produce steam to spin turbines? I hope you realize that the United States burns about a billion tons of coal every year to perform exactly that task. We also burn about 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, most in combined cycle gas turbine plants where about 40% of the overall power comes from that same “Rodney Dangerfield” technology of boiling water to create steam to spin turbines.

    The advantage that steam turbines have over water or wind turbines is that humans get to control the process that creates the steam, giving us power when we want it and where we want it. With the turbines that try to harness natural flows, you are limited to getting power only when the weather is just right or if you happen to own the rights to the rivers that flow down hill.

    I happen to be quite in favor of using scientific knowledge of atomic structure to use neutrons to destabilize the former stable nuclei of uranium. The process does not happen by accident, but when we put together just the right combinations of materials we can obtain a tremendous amount of energy from a very tiny mass of material. I keep a little simulated fuel pellet on my desk for inspiration. That pellet, about the size of the tip of my finger, represents the amount of low enriched uranium used in current generation reactors to produce as much heat as burning a ton of coal or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas or 149 gallons of oil.


  15. Point taken. Yeah, Rod, you’re right, that probably was a gratuitous partisan cheap shot phrase allusion. Sorry.

    I’m not a big net fan of using dangerous, unstable heavy elements to heat water to spin turbines, and I don’t buy the continuing inexorability of “nuke vs dirty extractive hydrocarbons.”

  16. @BobbyG:

    It would really be nice to have a conversation about nuclear energy without bringing up a casual remark made by a politician during a speech in 1954. The “too cheap to meter” remark that Strauss made was in the context of many other visions. Here is the full quote:

    “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”

    Lewis L. Strauss
    Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City September 16th, 1954.

    That phrase was NEVER used by nuclear power plant vendors to sell their wares – what commercial product salesman would ever claim that his product was going to be really cheap sometime in the future. That would have the effect of killing any current interest – customers would simply wait.

    You also mention the acute toxicity of the fuel. I agree that the fuel can kill anyone who gets too close. However, even in the case of Fukushima, we have a pretty fair record of keeping people from getting too close. The same cannot be said of the competitive fuels like coal, oil and gas, which also have deadly components that often kill people who get too close.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  17. Thanks for posting this.

    “There will always be some who are tempted to take short cuts or to fail to correct design errors because they are concerned about short term costs.”

    Yes, and this is where Gresham’s Law comes to bear. Absent rational and effective regulation, the bad always drives out the good. Think nuke site incidents, Wall Street ad nauseum, BP in the Gulf, etc.

    Two principal benefits from nuke power? [1] No greenhouse gas emissions at the point of production; [2] no need to spend massively to defend the foreign oil sea lanes. Downsides? Well…everything associated with the inherent acute toxicity of the fuel.

    It was all gonna be “too cheap to meter.”