With Time and Reflection, Fukushima Lessons Taking Shape

Published January 5, 2012

2011 was a historically important year for the application of nuclear power on our planet. Two significant earthquakes occurred in the immediate vicinity of about a dozen nuclear power plants in Japan and also here in the United States. The two earthquakes provide valuable lessons regarding nuclear power, showing nuclear power plant technology provides extremely strong protection against even worst case scenarios.

Unprecedented Challenges
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011 just offshore from Northern Honshu, Japan, was one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history. The resulting tsunami was also one of the worst ever recorded. The earthquake and tsunami extensively damaged six 33-to-40 year old nuclear generating units at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. More than 10,000 people died in the earthquake and tsunami, yet not a single person died or was made seriously ill by damage to the nuclear power plant.

The magnitude 5.8 U.S. earthquake occurred in Virginia, just west of the Alleghany Mountain Range, on August 23. This was also one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the region. The epicenter of the earthquake was near several nuclear power plants. About a dozen U.S. nuclear plants were affected. Only one plant (North Anna) was temporarily taken off the grid as a result of the strong earthquake. Nobody was injured.

The 1970s-era units at the Fukushima Daiichi Power plant were very badly damaged when a 50-foot-high tsunami arrived. This huge wave of water resulted in some of the most devastating newsreel photographs ever taken. The wave wiped out the plant’s electrical system, its emergency equipment, its standby diesel engine generators, its fuel supply, and the substation connecting the power plant to the Honshu Island grid.

The complete loss of emergency electric power resulted in the loss of the ability to cool the reactors and the spent-fuel storage pools. The resulting damage will probably insure that four – and possibly all six – of these relatively old generating units will never be returned to service.

The four newer nuclear generating units at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power all shut down with some damage. Three newer nuclear generating units at the Onagawa plant located about 60 miles North of Fukushima Daiichi plant apparently shut down without getting any particular notice from the western press.

The remaining 28 light water reactor nuclear generating units on the main island of Honshu received little or no damage.

Historical Challenges Met
When many people think of nuclear power, they think of the 1979 Three Mile Island incident or the Chernobyl meltdown. These incidents have long been used to persuade people that nuclear power is dangerous. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Generating unit number two at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was badly damaged by human error compounded by a faulty control valve position indicator and an emergency alarm arrangement that was very difficult for the human operators to interpret. Despite the fact that the TMI 2 reactor was damaged beyond repair, no one was injured and no damaging amounts of radiation were released. Since then the other nuclear power plant reactor at Three Mile Island has gone on to record an outstanding service record.

The Russian-designed reactor at Chernobyl was a primitive, flawed, and radically different design never used outside of the Soviet Union. The reactor had no pressure vessel and no containment vessel, among other design flaws. Even though the facility went into full meltdown, less than a dozen people died as a result of the meltdown.

Safe Nuclear Future
So what have we learned from Tokyo Electric Power Company’s experience at their Fukushima Daiichi and Onagawa nuclear power plants and at power plants elsewhere in Japan? We have learned, as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, that we can build nuclear reactors that can ride through even the strongest of earthquakes and safely shut down if necessary.

We also know that we can build large, economically sized power plants with either natural draft or forced draft cooling towers. This enables us to build future nuclear power plants away from coastlines that might be hit by another major tsunami.

The Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona is an excellent example. This is the largest operating power plant in the U.S. It is located in the desert west of Phoenix. To cool its huge condensers it uses forced draft cooling towers utilizing treated effluent makeup water from the city of Phoenix waste water treatment plants. It is not only safe, it is environmentally friendly.

As was demonstrated at Three Mile Island and the other 103 U.S. nuclear generating units and the similar 58 generating plants in France, a modern nuclear power plant can be the safest source of reliable base-load electric energy available to power our homes and businesses. The 2011 earthquakes may have put nuclear reactors to the test, but the reactors passed the test with flying colors. Moreover, new technological advances are enabling us to build nuclear power plants in even safer locations that will not be at risk from tsunamis or frequent earthquakes. If 2011 proved one thing regarding nuclear power, the year proved that nuclear power is a safe form of electricity generation that is getting safer all the time.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute. Alan Lloyd is a retired energy analyst living in Hawaii.