International - Nuclear Free Scotland

2007 - 2022

Fukushima, Private Company – Public Catastrophe

As Reuters reports ‘Japan warns of nuclear fuel melting after quake damage’ – it’s worth looking at the background that leaves the Japanese people in this terrible ecological and energy crisis.
Nuclear power is inherently unsafe, and – as polling over decades in Scotland has proved – unwanted. New nuclear remains policy for Scottish Labour, the Conservatives and now the Liberals (though they previously opposed it). The plans, as proposed by the Tory-Liberal coalition, are based on a privatised funding model that has potentially appalling safety consequences.
Japan is heavily reliant on dangerous nuclear power for its electricity. While the government recklessly backs the nuclear industry come what may, public opposition to nuclear power has been growing due the appalling safety record of the industry. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is still trying to recover from the recent scandal it caused by falsifying safety inspections, which forced it to shut down all of its 17 nuclear reactors in 2004.  Kansai Electric was also at the centre of a nuclear scandal in 1999, when nuclear fuel delivered by British Nuclear Fuels was found to contain falsified safety data.
Japan’s nuclear reactors are ageing – many are almost 30 years old. Rather than increasing safety measure and closing old reactors the government is doing the exact opposite – reducing regulation of the industry. As nuclear power is so expensive many of the generating companies have huge debts and have cut plant safety measures to save money.
After the earthquake, Japan is now trying to avoid a meltdown accident at its Fukushima nuclear power plant – a disaster which could have catastrophic impacts on Japan and much of the world…Karl Grossman on Japan’s nuclear emergency.
What Japan is now trying to avoid is a complete loss of power to the cooling systems at its Fukushima nuclear power plant. This would lead to a loss-of-coolant or meltdown accident – a disaster which could have catastrophic impacts on Japan and much of the world.

Radioactive material is used in a nuclear plant as a heat source  – to boil water and produce steam that turns a turbine that generates electricity. Huge amounts of radioactive material are made to go through a chain reaction, a process in which atomic particles bombard the nuclei of atoms, causing them to break up and generate heat.

But to keep the nuclear reaction in check — to prevent the material from overheating – vast amounts of coolant are required – up to a million gallons of water a minute in the most common nuclear plants that have been built (“light water” reactors). That is why nuclear plants are sited along rivers and bays, to use the water as coolant.

If the water which cools the reactor “core” – its 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of radioactive fuel load — stops flowing, the “emergency core cooling system” must send water in. If it fails, a loss-of-coolant or meltdown accident can occur.

In such an accident, the core of nuclear fuel, which in less than a minute can reach 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, burns through the cement bottom of the nuclear plant and bores into the earth. This is what U.S. nuclear scientists have dubbed the “China syndrome” – based on a nuclear plant on their side of the planet undergoing an accident seemingly sending its white-hot core in the direction of China.

In fact, the radioactive core doesn’t  – in any location – go to China but it descends to the water table underlying a plant. Then, in a violent reaction, molten core and cold water combine, creating steam explosions and releasing a plume of radioactive poisons.
The problem at Fukushima Diachi nuclear facility is that one of its six reactors lost all its power as a result of the earthquake. Back-up diesel generators didn’t work, so battery power became necessary to keep coolant water flowing. If the battery power is depleted and electric power is not otherwise restored, a loss-of-coolant accident or meltdown would ensue.
“The emergency shutdown has been conducted but the process of cooling down the reaction is currently not going as planned,” explained Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, according to CNN.
Thus, Japan declared a state of “atomic power emergency” and people living within three kilometers of the Fukushima facility were advised to evacuate.
In fact, if the coolant flow is not maintained and a loss-of-coolant accident with a “breach of containment” occurs, people way beyond three kilometers around Fukushima would be impacted. The radioactive releases in the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident affected the entire northern hemisphere, as a book published last year by the New York Academy of Sciences documents. And Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, authored by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, Dr. Vassily Nesterenko and Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, finds that medical records between 1986, the year of the accident, and 2004 reflect 985,000 deaths as a result of the radioactivity released. Most of the deaths were in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, but others were spread through the many other countries the radiation from Chernobyl struck.
Where the radioactivity spreads after a nuclear plant meltdown is largely a function of where winds take the radioactivity and of the rain that causes it to fall out.
There are numerous lessons to be learned from the situation now underway in Japan including why a nation situated on a string of volcanic islands would build nuclear power plants, vulnerable as they are to earthquakes. Of course, Japan is not alone on this score: in the U.S., the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility in California was built less than three miles from the Hosgri earthquake fault.
Nuclear power plants are, in fact, life-threatening wherever they are – they represent the most dangerous way to boil water ever devised.
Wind, solar and geothermal energy and other forms of safe, clean power would not cause massive deadly damage because of an earthquake.

Comments (16)

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  1. G Barrie says:

    Excellent, clear article -“nuclear power plants…the most dangerous way to boil water”.
    But the content of this article isn’t the whole story. There is the nuclear waste to store. And the wee ‘insignificant hot spots” found at Dungeness, Aberdour, the Solway.
    To reduce supply expectations we need to reduce demand. Credit to the SNP government for there action on home insulation etc., and there drive towards renewables.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    Thanks for the comments the BBC are a bit more coy about the background of secrecy: Richard Black, BBC environment correspondent: “Although Japan has a long and largely successful nuclear power programme, officials have been less than honest about some incidents in the past, meaning that official re-assurances are unlikely to convince everyone this time round.” Er, quite.

  3. G Barrie says:

    There are so many aspects to cover on the subject of the provision and use of energy:
    Power generating plants: Atomic means to provide the heat medium – as you discuss, less than safe and with a thousand year waste storage legacy.
    Clean coal as a heat source – well worth research, we have loads of coal.
    Oil and gas – look at the traffic in the city nearest you, and consider that every city in every country is doing the same. What a crazy way to deplete a finite energy resource. I would gladly have an electric powered car, but at +£25000 cost!
    Wind and tide, and solar – must be developed.
    Nuclear fusion – research is ongoing, here’s hoping.
    Reduce demand, and so supply requirement,not by taxes, but by efficiency.
    – and good operating practises. Note the columns of trucks trundling on the motorways, often parallel to the railway. Ships deliver containers to ports for collection and onward delivery by truck. Why not study a similar approach to railways, with drop -off yards for local transport to collect the containers for local distribution?

  4. Tocasaid says:

    On this topic… did you know they spoke Japanese there? I do. The BBC told me this morning. Its a bugger too. Why can’t they speak English?

  5. Vronsky says:

    After the last tsunami the Herald’s op-ed pages mused loud and long about the existence of God, why he would do shit like this to his flock, and speculated that perhaps only greater piety could protect us against further divine depredations (or at least show us how to take our punishment manfully). Guess we still haven’t got it right.

    Speaking of deep religious conviction, you’d think that this might give pause to our own advocates of nuclear power. But just wait: if the consequences of the Fukushima incident are even just a smidgeon short of global apocalyse, it will be hailed as proof of the safety of the industry. Remember you read it here first.

  6. Ray Bell says:

    I’m glad this is being treated

    It’s probably worth mentioning that the Japanese have the SAFEST and best run nuclear plants in the world. The Japanese are good at these things, but it just goes to show that even they can’t handle everything thrown at them.

    It would be a tragedy if a nuclear event were to be added to the sufferings of the Japanese people at this time.

    p.s. Regarding the Japanese language skills, it is extremely hard for Japanese to pronounce English consonants, and this is a region which has very few foreigners in it. Also, Japanese language teachers are even worse, overall than foreign language teachers in the English speaking world, and that’s saying something.

  7. Ray Bell says:

    “I’m glad this is being treated ”

    Should have read… “I’m glad that this is being treated as relevant to our own situation.” The BBC treat this whole thing as “infotainment.”

  8. Excellent piece. I would argue that that there does need to be some examination of why Japan went down the road of nuclear power, given its lack of domestic power sources and why renewables would really struggle to meet the demand for electricity in modern Japan.

  9. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    See TV for them burning.

  10. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    Tokyo 15:45hrs, 14 Mar 2011
    The city itself seems unscathed in contrast to the devastation near the epicenter and areas gutted by the tsunami at double the wave height of the N-plant safety margins.

    Plants burning. Residents being evacuated or told to seek shelter indoors.

    Helos flying, it would seem, almost non-stop to and from MSDF HQ in Shinjuku, Tokyo. And constant blare of sirens earlier in the day.

    Some Euro embassies advising evacuation: Swiss, German and French.

    Transportation in Tokyo area skeletal but stoic.

    Rolling power and water cuts possible.

    Central Japan just hit again around Niigata according to news a d multiple 3 strength aftershocks dotted about. 7 predicted for end of the week.

    Tokyo calm. People super.

    Weather crisply beautiful.

    Politicos grim. Some seem sullen on TV.

    Makes one wonder about the advisability of N-plants in such a geophysically unstable region and any lessons learned post-Chernobyl?

  11. Vronsky says:

    “Makes one wonder about the advisability of N-plants in such a geophysically unstable region”

    They were warned.

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