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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Explanation

I was asked why I was following the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident so closely. The reason why is that the Daiichi accident, its aftereffects and the implications for other plants will likely have a very substantial economic effect that will be manifested in Japan's economy for over a year. These effects will inevitably show up in other economies as well.

First, the current situation: While atmospheric emissions at Daiichi appear to be steadily dropping, they are far from being eliminated. It appears that it will be months before they can be. The secondary quakes are not helping. TEPCO is making real progress on stopping some of the severe leaks and on clearing water storage facilities at the site so that they can begin to pump out the very radioactive water from the basements and trenches. When that is done, they'll at least be closer to figuring out where the water is currently leaking from containment. Whether they can fix the leaks in the near term is not known. In the mean time the improvised cooling is proceeding.

In terms of chatter news, the Japanese have finally conceded to reality and are expanding their evacuation zone. It would be almost impossible in any nuclear accident to have an even dispersion of radioactivity in a circular radius around the plant, and this one is no exception. So some areas outside the 20/30 km zone are hotter than others within in it; the result is that evacuation of a few areas outside the zone is necessary. Due to the necessity to expand the evacuation and take other steps to exclude contaminated food, etc, the Japanese are also caving and labeling this as a Level 7 nuclear accident. That does not mean that this accident is as bad as Chernobyl. The actual effect is levels of magnitude below Chernobyl. The nuclear accident scale is not very precise.

The above is chatter news because it has been obvious for some time that these steps would be taken but it is the sort of thing that hits headlines.

Two significant pieces of real news are that the Japanese had another fire break out at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, probably because of the quake they just had. In less than one week they have had two very large aftershocks which would be significant quakes in and of themselves. The fire was not in or near the reactors, it caused no problems with the reactors, and it was promptly extinguished. I regard this as news because it is a marker for the degree of destruction on plant infrastructure and the difficulties involved in bringing up the other nuclear plants within the quake zone.

The second piece of real news is that as a result of the major aftershock another plant lost power and backup diesel power for a short period of time. This caused no problems, but it is a shock and this too is another factor indicating that restarts on plants now in shutdown will be delayed further. This only happened because two of the backup diesel generators were down for maintenance, so when a problem occurred in the only one running, they didn't have a replacement ready.

In 2007 the K-K plant on the Sea of Japan (the largest in the world) was hit by a very intense earthquake. The reactors and containment buildings had been overbuilt and came through the quake without any apparent damage. There was only very minor radiation release. But the damage to the site and plant infrastructure was massive, and it was almost two years before the first reactor was restarted. After rebuilding the site infrastructure and toughening it to some degree, they restarted one reactor at a time and brought them up slowly because they wanted to make sure there was no hidden damage to the reactors and containment vessels. The process is ongoing; in 2010 they restarted two more reactors. The process followed was almost like that of initial startup for a new reactor.

Realistically, Japan now is facing a situation in which they will have to make new rules for nuclear plant safety, and for the reactors that eventually will be restarted (Daiichi is gone), they will probably have to make a risk evaluation one by one. So they are not going to be regaining power very quickly. This leaves Japan in a very difficult situation. Fortunately, the K-K reactors that have come online mitigate the situation somewhat. But only somewhat.

To get an idea of scope, I'd recommend FEPC's (Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan) site. For example, if you click on the hydro plant section you will see that most of the hydro plants are pumped storage. This means that Japan has been running very close to maximum output capacity; they probably divert power at night to pump water so that they can use these facilities to cover peak demand times. Peak demand for Japan occurs in August.

Japan's power strategy has been heavily focused on nuclear power by necessity. It seems unlikely that this can reasonably change, but over the next year they are in one hell of a fix. To understand why, we're going to use a graphic from the FEPC site. Notice that when you look at the 2005 capacity and output by source, you see that hydropower accounted for 18% of capacity and accounted for 8% of output, and nuclear accounted for 21% of capacity and accounted for 31% of output. That actually dropped due to the quake and shutdown at K-K. This is a summary of the nuclear power situation currently and for fiscal year 2010 that I got from JAIF.

There were a few thermal power plants that were badly hit by the quake/tsunami event. I haven't found out the status of those yet, but if you look at this picture of Haramachi, it is clear that some extensive reworking would have to be done. In addition to the plant damage, the issue of port damage is very real. There's a pretty horrific video of the tsunami hitting Haramachi available. I'm thinking major issues. A few days after the tsunami, Haramachi was hit by fire. Even if the port and plant can be brought up to safe operational levels by August, this plant is quite close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, so radiation leakages are something of a complicating factor, as are fuel shipments through a somewhat radioactive sea with prevailing winds that salt the atmosphere radioactively.

Higashi Nigata not only is running but boosted capacity by restarting one of the units there. It's either the largest thermal power plant in Japan or close to it. (See thermal plants).

There are certainly longer term implications for some nuclear power in Japan. I truly doubt that Hamaoka will remain in operation for more than a few more years (even though another reactor is being built there). It's unfortunately right on top of a quake area, and it is also very close to Tokyo. It's been controversial almost since the first reactor was built. Two of the reactors there are currently running and providing power, but the protests are also running and gaining power. Reactors 1 & 2 were already decommissioned. This is a bit of a scare article from 2004, but I include it because the specific vulnerability warnings about the Hamaoka reactors have been demonstrated valid, the possibility of another complicated disaster is real, and while the bullet fired at K-K was a near miss, the bullet fired at Fukushima Daiichi was not, but the bullet fired at Hamaoka might be dead center. Sooner or later, Hamaoka will be hit.

I am neither all pro nuclear power nor all anti. It seems clear to me that Japan cannot keep running without nuclear power. The question is how much risk to take and how to allocate that risk.

In terms of major historical power-related disasters, the Fukushima Daiichi incident is quite low in total impact. Consider, for example, Banqiao Dam. It is the classic complicated disaster scenario; there never has been a nuclear accident to rival it and I don't believe there ever will be. Making decisions about risk based on emotion just kills people.

If you want to be rational about it, losses of human life from coal power are the largest industrial disaster the world has ever seen. In mining accidents alone, every year thousands die. But before howling about windmills and solar power, you have to factor in deaths from no reliable power. The only rational way to think about power risks is with a matrix, and the expected impact of not having reliable power will kill more people than coal or nuclear power. Wind can never deliver reliable power as needed, and therefore is not a meaningful contributor to power sources.

If you accept the CO2-related impacts predicted by IPCC (I do not, every year the evidence against the IPCC predictions mounts) then nuclear power, which does not emit CO2, does make sense and does lower total risks massively. There is no such thing as risk-free power.

For example, Three Gorges dam is providing a great deal of inexpensive and clean power to a country (China) that desperately needs it. In addition, the dam helps in flood control. But there is some risk; Three Gorges is not that far from a fault. If Three Gorges dam ever breaches seriously, it will be one of the world's epic disasters. My hunch is that Three Gorges dam is relatively safe, but clearly it will always remain a potential risk and will require heightened scrutiny and continued assessment.

Japan's major risk for any form of power is that it sits on top of four subduction zones as well as other seismic faults. Subduction zone quakes seem to be more frequent than pure fault quakes; in addition, major subduction zone quakes are particularly harmful because the shake tends to be prolonged, so the continued vibrations do a lot of damage. Japan has gotten superb at quake resistant construction and the sterling performance of the actual reactors and containment vessels which have been subjected to extremely strong quakes shows that Japan's approach works. However, the surrounding infrastructure which is a crucial part of nuclear safety, and the storage of large amounts of spent fuel pose additional risks. See Atomic Power Review.


Level 7 was the name of a cold war science fiction novel where the last survivors of nuclear war were all killed by a radiation leak from the nuclear reactor that powered their deep shelter.

All has been foretold in prophecy or something like that.
More like the Book of Revelations; Japan was hit by three hefty aftershocks on Tuesday their time. It's a devil of a mess.

In the meantime, some on DU are convinced they are getting acute radiation sickness in Hawaii.
Your focus on this event is important as it highlights the overall issue of energy along with global trade. The major news outlets are highlighting the level 7 issue as I type along with various pictures of the radiation zones near the plant. No doubt current and future public opinion will be significantly impacted and it should as industry political lobby tends to sugarcoat risks.
Realistically, Japan now is facing a situation in which they will have to make new rules for nuclear plant safety,

New rules can be as easily ignored as old rules. No different than financial regulation, really. There will be regulation a-gogo for 20 years, then it will slowly ease until it becomes corrupt again.
Every country and every one knows that earthquakes are common in Japan so why did they built nuclear power plants? they know very well if they blasts what will be happened. Now they facing that situation it is very bad and unfortunate. Most powerful countries in this world like Russia, America, China and other European countries should help Japan to come out from this situation as soon as Japan come out from this situation they will fulfill their needs as well before this Nuclear blast in fukushima no one dont know where this city and what is the advantage of this city. Now every one can easily identify fukushima.
Prasad - first, Japan was going through a relatively slack quake period when they entered the nuclear age. Second, they really did overengineer those reactors. The reactors and containments are surviving quakes past design rating without damage.

So it's not as if they didn't think about it.

When Hamaoka was built, they didn't know what was underneath. Japan and everyone has learned a lot about seismology since.

In response to your fundamental question, Japan doesn't have many energy options. Japan must import most of its energy.

As oil prices increased, they had no option but to shift off oil. They have a very efficient economy if you look at output/energy ratios. They've done this with mass transport, etc. They have to have the electricity. They have some coal but not enough, they have to reserve oil for transport, and they could never import enough natural gas.

Japan never ***liked*** nuclear power. They were just forced to it. They have to import food or starve and they have to import fuel or freeze. Whether you like it or not, these people have the right to live.

Quakes are incredibly destructive of conventional power plants as well as nuclear, and will be just as destructive of "green" resources. The lower the output, the more assets you put in and the less you can afford to have those assets destroyed by quakes.

Japan would like to get off nuclear power. It does not currently have the option to do so.
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