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Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Japan's Nuclear Reactors threaten nuclear power's future!

Fukushima's Spreading Impact -Japan's spiraling reactor accident threatens nuclear power's future.

By Peter Fairley
    The nuclear accident at Japan's troubled Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex appears to be heading from very bad to critical in the wake of the third explosion in four days, a fire in one of the plant's spent fuel ponds, and radiation readings spiking to deadly levels within the plant.

    Authorities in Tokyo, 140 miles southwest of the plant, observed rising radiation levels yesterday, and anecdotal reports of residents leaving Tokyo are mounting. Meanwhile, iodine pills to ward off nuclear poisoning are selling out in some cities on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, despite assurances from nuclear safety authorities that the risk of harmful exposures in North America is minimal.

    Whatever the immediate dangers to health, one clear victim is the growing confidence in nuclear energy internationally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement today was the most decisive turnabout in response to the crisis—she suspended her government's decision just last year to extend the operating life of Germany's nuclear power plants. She also ordered the immediate shutdown of seven plants built before 1980; officials say the plants will remain closed for safety evaluations through at least June.

    Similarly doomed could be Italian utility Enel's plans to revive nuclear energy. Enel and France's Electricité de France have proposed the construction of four reactors that could provide a quarter of Italy's electricity, but they must first win a referendum that would overturn Italy's post-Chernobyl nuclear moratorium. The vote is set for this spring.

    In an interview with Bloomberg News, the Indian Nuclear Power Corporation's chairman acknowledged that Japan's crisis could be "a big dampener" for his country's plans to invest in nuclear generation by 2030. China, however, was holding firm on its nuclear ambitions. The Chinese government issued a statement Monday affirming its massive shift toward nuclear power—with over a dozen reactors in construction.

    The unfolding tragedy's impact on a nascent revival of reactor construction in the United States is too early to call, say experts. "It will be at least the end of the week before we will know enough about the progression of these accidents to assess policy outcomes," says Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "Much will depend upon whether any radiation deaths or significant land contamination result."

    So far, the Obama administration is standing by hopes for a nuclear renaissance. Daniel Poneman, the U.S. deputy secretary of energy, said at a White House news conference Monday that nuclear has a key role in the U.S. power mix: "We have 104 operating reactors—that's 20 percent of the electricity of this country; 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity in this country comes from nuclear power. We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we're trying to build for a clean energy future."

    However, some in Congress are pushing for a rethink. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a longtime nuclear supporter, told CBS News this weekend that the U.S. should "quickly put the brakes" on reactor construction until the Japanese incidents are analyzed.

    The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is expected to vote this year on the first of two construction permits; the most advanced is Southern Company's proposal to build two new reactors at its Vogtle, Georgia, nuclear power plant. Southern has conditional approval for an $8.3-billion federal loan guarantee to backstop its financing and has broken ground at the site.

    Meanwhile, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) has been critical of the NRC's decision-making on the Westinghouse AP1000—the reactor design for half of the 28 reactors proposed in the U.S., including Southern's. Markey sent a letter to the NRC last week criticizing its plan to approve the AP1000 this spring or summer despite a dissenting opinion from one of its senior engineers, who has raised doubts about the earthquake hardiness of the AP1000's concrete-steel hybrid containment building.

    The earthquake concerns, ironically, undermine confidence in the passive safety system designed to make the AP1000 less vulnerable to the power blackout that sparked the Japanese crisis. The AP1000 holds a pool of water above the reactor, ready to flood it via gravity. But Markey's letter suggests that if the AP1000's containment building is compromised by an earthquake, the passive cooling system could fail.

    Southern Company released a statement yesterday saying that its leadership "continues to monitor the recent events in Japan, and remains committed to completing the new Vogtle units on schedule and on budget." The statement argues that the site's seismic risk is "much lower" than Japan's, as is the risk of a tsunami 130 miles from the Atlantic coast and 220 feet above sea level.

    The French nuclear engineering firm Areva also defended its EPR design, which is also pending NRC approval. While the EPR relies on active pumping to maintain reactor cooling, an Areva spokesman told Technology Review yesterday that it has extra backup generators for added redundancy. And the diesel tanks to fuel the EPR's generators would be protected by bunkers, unlike those that were washed away by Friday's tsunami in Japan.

    David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and director for nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is critical of the NRC's policing of safety at existing plants in the U.S. He wants the NRC to take a second look at critical vulnerabilities to power blackouts, including outdated fire-suppression equipment and battery-power backups that, at most U.S. plants, provide for only four hours of reactor cooling—half the capacity of batteries at Japanese plants. "We're light compared to what Japan had, and Japan came up short," says Lochbaum.

    Just as serious is the U.S. nuclear operators' heavy reliance on cooling ponds rather than more expensive but safer dry-cask storage of their spent fuel. Lochbaum notes that the spent fuel ponds for 23 U.S. reactors are in the attic of their concrete reactor buildings—structures that were blown away by the first two hydrogen explosions at Fukushima.

    Japan Earthquake Coverage:
    Questions Over the Design of Fukushima Nuclear Plant
    Internet Activists Mobilize for Japan
    80 Seconds of Warning for Tokyo
    How Japan's Earthquake and Tsunami Warning Systems Work
    Crisis Continues at Japanese Nuclear Plants
    Cellular Technology That Told Japan An Earthquake Was Coming
    The Reliability of Tsunami Detection Buoys

    Fire at Japan nuclear reactor heightens radiation threat

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    TOKYO | Tue Mar 15, 2011 10:47pm EDT
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Another fire broke out on Wednesday at an earthquake-crippled Japanese nuclear plant that has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo and triggered international alarm, suggesting that the crisis may be slipping out of control.

    Academics and nuclear experts agree that the solutions being proposed to contain damage to the Daiichi reactors at Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, are last-ditch efforts to stem what could well be remembered as one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

    While public broadcaster NHK said flames were no longer visible at the building housing the No.4 reactor of the plant, Japanese TV pictures showed smoke rising from the facility at mid-morning (1000 local, 0100 GMT).

    Experts say spent fuel rods in a cooling pool at the No. 4 reactor could be exposed by the fire and spew more radiation into the atmosphere. Operator Tokyo Electric Power said it was considering using a helicopter to dump boric acid, a fire retardant, on the facility.

    Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said two workers were missing after blasts at the facility a day earlier blew a hole in the building housing the No. 4 reactor.

    In the first hint of international frustration at the pace of updates from Japan, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he wanted more timely and detailed information.

    "We do not have all the details of the information so what we can do is limited," Amano told a news conference in Vienna. "I am trying to further improve the communication."

    Several experts said that Japanese authorities were underplaying the severity of the incident, particular on a scale called INES used to rank nuclear incidents. The Japanese have so far rated the accident a four on a one-to-seven scale, but that rating was issued on Saturday and since then the situation has worsened dramatically.

    "This is a slow-moving nightmare," said Dr Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at the Center for International Studies, which is part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "This could be a five or a six -- it's premature to say since this event is not over yet."

    France's nuclear safety authority ASN said Tuesday it should be classed as a level-six incident.
    Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Tuesday urged people within 30 km (18 miles) of the facility -- a population of 140,000 -- to remain indoors, as authorities grappled with the world's most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

    Officials in Tokyo said radiation in the capital was 10 times normal at one point but not a threat to human health in the sprawling high-tech city of 13 million people.

    The best advice experts could give them was to stay indoors, close the windows and avoid breathing bad air -- steps very similar to those for handling a smog alert or avoiding influenza.

    While these steps may sound inconsequential, experts said the danger in Tokyo, while worrisome, is slight -- at least for now.

    "Everything I've seen so far suggests there have been nominal amounts of material released. Therefore, the risks are generally low to the population," Jerrold Bushberg, who directs programs in health physics at the University of California at Davis, said in a telephone interview.

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