Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What really caused the nuclear chaos that followed the Japan earthquake and tsunami?

I’m taking a break from updating about my trip to Vietnam as I, like the rest of the world, have been watching the horrific events in Japan unfold and feel that things can’t just go on as normal as Japan lurches from destruction to disaster and back again and as their people and country suffer.

Photo: Associated Press

Photo:  Associated Press

The question that  has been rattling around my head quite a bit  after seeing the devastating effects of the tsunami caused by the earthquake and then learning of the subsequent instability at some of Japan’s nuclear plants was why on earth aren’t things that have the potential to be so unstable under such conditions made to be earthquake proof?

Now I’m no nuclear physicist but actually, it’s not so much the earthquake that caused the instability and explosions we have all been hearing about like the one at the Fukashima Plant – but failure to the power to the grid and therefore the inability to pump in coolant.

Photo: Reuters

And yes there were backup diesel generators which were supposed to deal with that eventuality, but the issue was, according to Brave New Climate, that these were disabled by the Tsunami that swamped them.

But even after that, there was apparently eight hours worth of battery back up. However  by the time the new generators were transported in, more water was boiling off and venting than what was being added to the reactor. Things were getting extremely hot – the fuel rod cladding exceeded 1200 c which ultimately led to the first exposure which led to subsequent explosions. You can read more about what happened after that here.

So yes they were earthquake resistant plants, but the reactors are designed for a maximum 8.2 earthquake – not an 8.9 earthquake which is five times stronger. And when you throw a tsunami into a mix it’s a whole other ball game.

In the US, apparently many plants have been retrofitted to use passive cooling systems such as gravity fed water tanks, in case pumps and electricity fail and you just can’t help wonder why this wasn’t the case in Japan.

Asia is watching closing, not only with concern for Japan, but with concern of how they will ensure that the dozens of new reactors allegedly being planned will resist such disasters in a region at high risk of natural disasters.

According to the Wall Street Journal, China, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian nations have more than 100 nuclear plants on the cards as part of their strategy to make the region less reliant on more traditional sources of energy and Singapore is examining whether nuclear energy is a viable option. Not surprisingly this has met with great push back by groups like Greenpeace.

Let’s hope some lessons are learned if and when these go ahead for all our sakes.


Kuen said...

I doubt they'll have it in Singapore, we have nowhere to run should there be a meltdown here. We'll probably get the power from Malaysia or something. I might have read wrong but i think they are considering building one there.

Ms Demeanour said...

Hi Kuen - thanks for your comment. That is certainly a major concern for the powers that be. With Singapore's size it's very difficult to put it far away from us citizens as that place simply doesn't exist here. But I'm not sure the option has been dismissed as yet but time will tell.

Kuen said...

Hey thanks for the reply too! I really don't see our government building it here unless it's deem very safe.

I actually think it won't be a nuclear plant that will kill us but if you've been here long enough you'll realized maybe it's Singaporeans that are self-destructing haha.

Ms Demeanour said...

Hi Kuen,

You're welcome. That's an interesting angle and actually probably one that can be applied to humankind in general not just Singapore!

Perhaps a nuclear power plant is the least of our worries?

Kuen said...

Maybe so hehehe