Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

  Operator overload & nuclear troubles at Fukushima 1

I'd actually written my last blog post on monday, thinking it was tuesday, and wednesday in Japan. Shows how much sleep I've been getting.

The quality of media coverage has improved significantly, but the scope of the cascading failures at the Fukushima nuclear plants has grown - with secondary damage from the explosions and over 500 aftershocks in Japan complicating matters.

The original links I pointed to in my first post have been updated and revised, with MIT's department of nuclear energy doing a better job of filtering through the events involved than any other media organization.

MIT has not addressed the questions raised about the Mark I containment facility that concern me the greatest. I daren't speculate.

Several other aspects of the news coverage and analysis bother me:

A) lack of understanding of the effects of all those aftershocks, and for that matter, coverage seems to be limited to talking about the first quake, even on wikipedia. It's obvious that these had effects, in part, making post-quake inspection difficult.

B) lack of understanding that these were some of the oldest and most obsolete plants in the world, not just Japan. I keep seeing calls for increased safety, or damning nuclear plants for their lack thereof, when these were generation II plants, kept running long beyond their initial design life, due, in part, to the difficulty in getting new plants built.

Generation III+ plants such as the AP1000 have, for example, entirely passive cooling systems, and have safety ratings 1000+ times better than the Gen II plants did. Furthermore they use their fuel more efficently with less waste. Nuclear energy is much more well understood now, nearly 50 years after these plants were designed.

C) The on-going storage of the fuel rods - due to being unable to find another place to store them - is likely the largest danger now, as it appears as though at least one storage pool was damaged in one of the quakes and explosions.

Everybody - on all sides of the nuclear debate - agrees that continued storage of the fuel rods at the facilities was dangerous - and most facilities were not designed with long term storage in mind.

Now, that after the fact, the "out of sight, out of mind" nature of the ongoing storage of fuel rods in ad-hoc facilities in the presence of such debate has been exposed - perhaps some rational decisions about what to do with the spent fuel will emerge.

I doubt the US will become rational on this point anytime soon. I suspect Japan will become so. I also think we'll see a surge of interest in solar power worldwide.

D) with less than 50 operators on duty, that translates out to 12 or less operators managing the 4 reactors in trouble - I imagine that some of the additional failures since monday were in part caused by exaustion and overload, and the inattention to other pre-emergencies due to these factors. It's unclear how many people are monitoring plants 5 & 6.

One of the big causes of both prior major nuclear accidents was operator overload. Too many things beeping, and buzzing and alarms going off, and too much complexity in the control systems.

Future plants - if they are ever built - should have a good offsite management and monitoring facility inconceivable to those in the pre-computer design era.

For all that, I do wonder that the world-wide reaction is overblown. I can't imagine, were I in charge - not sending in every available qualified volunteer and resource available.

For all the worry reported in the press, this (via wikipedia as of about 10AM Wed MDT), remains true:

“To date, the radiation leaks beyond the plant's boundaries have not reached a level high enough to constitute any significant detriment to public health. However, there is still significant risk that a leak at levels high enough to affect public health may occur.”

E) There have been more than a few hair brained schemes floated to cool the reactor pools - for example, cooling the overheating fuel pools by dumping water via helicopter. Dumping water by helicopter cannot be done gently, and would release a great deal of radiation to the crews dropping it.

There is a huge amount of mis-information on the web regarding the deaths of the pilots that flew over Chernobyl, I've been unable to determine the truth of matters.

I find myself tearing up at the dedication of those working to stop an even worse nightmare not just at Fukushima, but throughout the country and the world. I wish I could help.

I also remain in awe and admiration at an high-tech engineering culture and country that could go through a disaster this size, and have under 20,000 dead.

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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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