Friday, March 18, 2011

Fukushima Unit #3 Explosion 14 March '11

Something very bad happened on Monday 14 March. About 3 days after the earthquake. Judging by the flash and the sound the camera recording the event was on the order of 1500 ft to 2,000 ft from the explosion.

The stunned look on the face of the woman in the TV studio says it all.

Some guy on the Intertubes thinks that was a nuclear explosion. I don't think so. I would have expected a flash followed by a fireball. OTOH the first blast was not straight hydrogen/oxygen. There was a fireball.

But it does seem as if you can't believe the published reports. Yesterday there was good news. Today there is good news that is worse than yesterday's good news. That can't be good.

And the double trouble we are seeing was predicted.
The year was 1992 and Lochbaum, working for Enercon, the nuclear engineering consulting firm, had established a reputation as the go-to guy to bring systems into compliance with regulatory requirements and industry standards. He was part of a team evaluating the capabilities of the twin reactors at the Susquehanna River Nuclear Power Station in Pennsylvania, which was seeking permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to increase their power and operating temperatures.

“Susquehanna is very similar to the plants in Japan,” recalled Lochbaum. “But it is much bigger. My partner, Don Prevatte, was looking at safety systems and meltdown scenarios in the reactor and I was looking at them in the spent fuel pool system. What we found was that there was a problem with the spent fuel located inside the containment building.

“If there was a reactor accident, the environment produced by the reactor automatically triggers a spent fuel pool accident. And, conversely, if there is a spent fuel pool accident, it automatically triggers a reactor accident. And since they are both in that confined space, the radioactive environment created by one interferes with you being able to get to the other.”

In a sense, it should have been obvious. Having two complex systems next to each other in a single containment building tied their fates together. The design for the pressurized water reactors, on the other hand, utilized separate, adjacent buildings for the reactor and the spent fuel pools.

“In theory,” said Lochbaum,” if you had a reactor accident, the containment would hold and everything would be nice. But when you combine the two systems, everything failed.”

PPL, which owned the plants, declined to invest in a costly fix, so the two engineers put together an inch thick analysis dropped it off at a local copying center and had it mailed to the NRC. It was dismissed within two weeks
I keep saying that civilians have a conflicting motivations profit/safety. Fine. That is not an unusual conflict (think automobiles). But in systems where failures are infrequent a "nothing has gone wrong yet" mentality can set it. Of course good engineers are pessimists by nature with enough of an optimistic streak (arrogance?) to go ahead and actually do something once in a while. It is a difficult balance. Some one got this one bad wrong. Willfully.


Will Brown said...

Are you trying to imply that nuclear power plants should only be under the control of the military? Stipulated that management operates under conflicting imperatives; name an alternative leadership model that does not.

I've always thought that anarcho-libertarian was an oxymoron, but fascio-libertarian goes well beyond that. Or would totalitarian-libertarian be a better description of a militerised civilian electrical power generation industry?

M. Simon said...

Are you trying to imply that nuclear power plants should only be under the control of the military?

Other than research reactors and the military my answer is yes. Those are both places where the cost of safety is not calculated on the basis of profit and loss.

Of course that is under the present system. If the nuclear industry was fully liable for its errors I'd have no problem. You know - like suing car companies for defective product.

BTW I do not favor a militarized electrical power industry. Coal will do nicely until Polywell comes along or we get enough experience with some new design reactors.

Also note: If you go into the back issues of Popular Science I got a LTE published about how the defect that led to TMI was known years before it contributed to the accident.

The nuclear power industry is badly run. Japan appears to be worse.

Will Brown said...

I actually don't disagree with your synopsys of reactor conditions in Japan (though I do seem to take more reassurance from the MIT page discussing same). We also don't particularly disagree on the lack of civil enforcement capability regarding safety compliance in the existing nuclear power utility model in the US. I find the ready resort to government force somewhat noteworthy coming from a libertarian; I think there are other options having (somewhat) less potential for government expansion then that portends.

If the US were to use military forces to enforce change/compliance on US nuclear power utility companies, what's your opinion of using that circumstance to mandate transition to a thorium fuel reactor model instead?