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Negligent design doomed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to failure.  (Source: AP Photo)
Company is forced to examine whether quake may have damaged the plant buildings or generators, as well

Something happened at the Fukushima Daiichi that's only happened once before in the history of nuclear power -- a full meltdown occurred.  Only this time, unlike the previous incident at Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine, a natural disaster was to blame.

I. TEPCO Gives Disaster Timeline

In the wake of the disaster Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) (9501), the operator of the damaged plant, is still working to clean up the contaminated water now that the rods have been cooled.  

And it's facing tough questions from the Japanese government, both at a provincial and national level.  The governor of Fukushima recently admonished the head of TEPCO and ordered that the Fukushima I (Daiichi) Power Plant be permanently shut down.

TEPCO has released a new report, trying to sate the Japanese government's demands.  The analysis provides a fascinating timeline of the events that are believed, based on evidence, to have occurred in the early hours of the disaster.

According to the timeline, within 5 hours of the quake, which occurred on March 11, the fuel rods were exposed and rapidly melting.  By the next morning, 16 hours later, the uranium rods in Reactor No. 1 had melted down and dropped to the bottom of the core's cylindrical steel containment vessel, which holds the nuclear fuel during reactions.

Reactors No. 2 and 3 also melted down, following a similar frame of events. 

As the Japanese pumped in water to cool the damaged reactor, it leaked out of the containment vessel, creating a large pool of radioactive water.  This water contains longer-lived isotopes like Caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, approximately.

Authorities fear that the water could leak, contaminating ground and seawater.

II. Chance to Advert Meltdown May Have Been Lost Due to Inaction

On the morning after the quake TEPCO finally decided to vent steam from the reactors in an effort to reduce them from heating.  One thing the Japanese government is upset about is that TEPCO didn't vent them sooner.  It was instructed to vent them on March 11, but failed to act until the next morning.

Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame told Japan's Parliament, "We can certainly say that if the venting took place a little earlier, we could have prevented the situation from worsening."

Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Trade Minister Banri Kaieda also criticized TEPCO, stating that they had ordered the company to act, but that it did not immediately do so.  Stated Mr. Kaieda, "We had instructed them to go ahead with the vent and I think Tokyo Electric was trying to do this. Even though we asked them repeatedly to vent, it did not happen and so we decided to issue an order. All of us there, including the prime minister and myself had said it should be done as soon as possible."

It is thought if the steam was vented sooner the rods could have been cooled faster, preventing the full meltdown that occurred.

III. Did the Quake Damage the Plant?

TEPCO, under government orders, is now conducting a study examining the events immediately after the record-setting magnitude 9.0 quake that struck Japan.  The question being raised is whether the quake itself could have damaged the reactor building or backup generators.

It is widely believed that the plant escaped the quake intact, with all reactors properly terminating nuclear reactions.  It is thought that the subsequent tsunami flooding was what knocked out the backup generator, preventing the rods from being properly cooled down.

The possibility that the quake itself damaged the backup generators hasn't been ruled out, though.  Junichi Matsumoto, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co on nuclear issues, told reporters, "We want to review the data from the 40 to 50 minutes between the time of the earthquake and when the tsunami struck."

Japan's Kyodo news agency cited an unnamed source as claiming that the reactor building at Reactor No. 1 is though to have sustained structural damage from the quake.  This is troublesome as it raises the possibility that radioactive water may have leaked from the building after it seeped out of the containment vessel housed inside.

IV. Conclusions

The Fukushima nuclear disaster shows the dangers of using ancient reactor designs in flood-prone regions without proper precautions.  TEPCO likely skipped on flood proofing the backup generators for expense reasons, but in the end paid a far greater cost for their negligence.

The disgraced firm has been working hard to try to minimize the damage resulting from accident.  In that regard, it is perhaps handling the incident better than authorities did Chernobyl.

However, the familiar themes of outdated technology and gross negligence were central to both the Chernobyl and Fukushima stories.

The impact of the disaster remains to be seen, but one thing is for the sure -- the accident stands as a stirring cry to decommission older reactors and move to modern designs, and as damning condemnation on engineering negligence.



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RE: Speculation, as always by Mick.
By Belegost on 5/19/2011 2:50:05 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
I'm sorry but your goal as an engineer should be to make a design that works, not a design that narrowly meets government regulations.


You're obviously not an engineer in industry. The engineer's job is to make a design that works under the specified conditions, while meeting budget and deadlines. It is impossible to engineer a design that can account for all possible events. Perhaps we need to build things to survive the possible direct strike of a mile-wide meteor as well.

The best you can do is design for probable events. And it seems to me that based on probable disaster estimates generated 40 years ago (note that both engineering and risk assessment fields have advanced dramatically since then.) the engineers designed to meet the specifications. And to their credit the design worked for 40 years, and only failed under a rather low probability event, after the original lifetime estimates. Consider that Chernobyl was designed in the same generation, had this plant been built according to the same design we may have been looking at a situation in which much of mainland japan was rendered uninhabitable.

It may be argued that the plant should have been updated with newer risk assessments based on added tsunami and earthquake model data, however it seems like the plan was already in place to deactivate the plant entirely.

I think where we both agree is that the real failure is one of regulatory nonsense and a misinformed populace that has made it overly difficult to construct new plants in a timely fashion. I don't believe the company would have kept up maintenance and fuel costs on an inefficient aging plant if it had been easy enough to build a new one.


RE: Speculation, as always by Mick.
By JasonMick (blog) on 5/19/2011 3:27:25 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
You're obviously not an engineer in industry. The engineer's job is to make a design that works under the specified conditions, while meeting budget and deadlines. It is impossible to engineer a design that can account for all possible events. Perhaps we need to build things to survive the possible direct strike of a mile-wide meteor as well.


Are you really arguing that an engineer shouldn't design a system to protect against a predictable event?

Tsunamis have occurred regularly throughout Japan's history... this was not a surprise.

If you can't understand the difference between a low probability, but likely danger, versus a statistical impossibility (e.g. a meteor strike on the generator) YOU'RE not an engineer in the field... not a good one at least.

Additionally, there's a difference in standard engineering, versus mission critical design. Designing a part for the Space Shuttle is much more rigorous than designing your computer fan. If the computer fan breaks, big deal buy a new one. If the Space Shuttle breaks, your nation is embarassed, millions are lost, etc. Nuclear power is a mission critical design.

Thus it is reasonable to hold nuclear plant builders/operators to a much higher standard, as the cost of failure are also higher.

quote:
The best you can do is design for probable events. And it seems to me that based on probable disaster estimates generated 40 years ago (note that both engineering and risk assessment fields have advanced dramatically since then.) the engineers designed to meet the specifications.


Clearly those estimates were either badly cooked up or the TEPCO itself ignored them and cut corners and that went unnoticed. Either way, it's a moot point. TEPCO AND the Japanese gov't BOTH should have predicted and prepared for tsunami flooding. After all, it IS a predictable event in Japan.

quote:
I think where we both agree is that the real failure is one of regulatory nonsense and a misinformed populace that has made it overly difficult to construct new plants in a timely fashion. I don't believe the company would have kept up maintenance and fuel costs on an inefficient aging plant if it had been easy enough to build a new one.


We agree there, and at the end of the day that's the most important point, so that's good at least.

Normally the market dictates technology to advance towards safer and more efficient designs. Unfortunately nuclear technology met a huge roadblock of mass public ignorance and political posturing over the past few decades...


RE: Speculation, as always by Mick.
By croc on 5/19/2011 9:13:37 PM , Rating: 2
"If you can't understand the difference between a low probability, but likely danger, versus a statistical impossibility (e.g. a meteor strike on the generator) YOU'RE not an engineer in the field... not a good one at least."

Study statistics much? There is never, ever, a statistical impossibility. It might be highly improbable that a meteor will strike a nuclear power plant, but please find me a statistician that will say that this event is impossible. If everything (even your so-called mission critical stuff) had to be built to withstand anything that MIGHT happen, then it would never get designed, let alone built, as the probabilities for the 'anything' happening would be endless. Such as your meteor strike event.

So, in your statistical opinion, what was the probability of a tsunami of that size striking that area? Let me give you a hint... The Japanese have historical records going back many hundreds of years, and they have many excellent statisticians - they built a flood wall to a height deemed statistically valid for that area. Note, the wall was even increased in height due to concerns raised by new events that raised the statistical probabilities for a larger tsunami than originally thought.

So, to my mind at least, the reactors that were built and the protective measures undertaken were all deemed more than adequate by the engineers of the day, and were also given improved protections as new data were found. In hindsiight, would anyone ever again build a reactor on any coastal area? And if they did, would their backup generators be 'water-proofed'?

And in hindsight, would the US ever launch another shuttle in weather conditions such as the conditions at launch time of the Challenger? Or ignore foam insulation breaking loose during the launch of Columbia?


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