Pop, pop, pop

nuke Nukes in Japan are going off like badly-racked champagne bottles, and the only thing fiercer than the radiation levels is the press circus (I liked that as a sort of simile-thingy, but actually at the moment the radiation levels aren't desperately fierce). How do you folks without blogs manage to bottle up your excitement without writing stuff? Perhaps you actually talk to people, how last-century. Anyway, taking advantage of a brief surge of SB uptime (still dunno what is going on, some people don't see any problem, but it was down for me all last night):

Some people are using the disaster to stick the knife into nukes. Like Roland Nelles in Der Spiegel. These people are clearly just using the disaster to push their own agenda, which is reprehensible but unsurprising.

But even those pro-nuke are saying that the situation has changed now: what was formerly trivial (in terms of radiation release) is now unclear (Timmy makes some good points about the radiation just outside the plant (what from, exactly) and the possibility of garbling). But, depending on how this pans out, Timmy may have been talking bollocks about the Grauniad talking bollocks. Or maybe he was right. It is too early to tell.

But... suppose what we actually cared about in all of this, was saving people's lives, in the future (obviously that *isn't* what people care about: there is a frenzy of axe-grinding and entertainment-disguised-as-news going on, mostly). Then, we'd look at where all the dead people are, now: washed up on various beaches it seems (in Japan, of course; and this may even be one of those very rare disasters that kills more people than car accidents do. If we were actually looking at saving people globally, we'd feed-the-poor, or educate them, or stop their own governments killing them. But that makes the problem too complex, so lets restrict ourselves to Japan). In which case, the clear answer is: people should live in high-rise concrete blocks, not in cute traditional wooden houses.

As to "The earthquake in Japan is emerging as a decisive turning point in the history of nuclear technology" I am beginning to hope that may well be true: that people will see that the plant survived rather well against a quake 7 times bigger than it was built to handle [note: see comment: this has been challenged], and after the hysterical over-reaction (in which wazzocks like Roland Nelles completely blow their credibility) maybe a counter-reaction will set in.

[Update: the SB downtime looks to be some kind of incompetent medical-spam attack from Turkey and Qatar, according to internal feedback. There are rangeblocks put in place to prevent this, that may have unintended targets -W]


* Radiation falls at Japanese plant - the story at 5 pm.
* Transcript of what John Beddington said (via PW)
* Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste (SciAm) ''By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation''

More like this

The tsunami victims? Piffle! What about the firebombing of Tokyo? Hundreds of thousands! You have to keep these things in perspective.

[Not sure I understand you. When they firebombed Tokyo, they were trying to kill people, so the more deaths the better. In this case the objective is to minimise the deaths. Well, the ostensible objective, of course -W]

Someone's notes on Sir John Beddington's talk with the British Embassy in Tokyo today:


"15 March 2011 10:31AM [GMT]

At around 5 PM Japan time today the UK governmentâs Chief Scientific officer John Beddington spoke to the British Embassy in Tokyo, and to others listening in on the teleconference, and gave us some information about worst case scenarios at the Fukushima plant.
I made the following notes on what was said and found it very reassuring:

1. Worst case scenario (reactor explodes) problems would only affect a 30 km radius around the plant.
2. No health problems expected outside this 30 km area. Today's reports of increased radiation in Tokyo are trivial. The increase in radiation they are reporting is not significant. It would need to be 100s of times that level to cause any problems.
3. An allowable dose would be 100 times the background radiation.
4. They can monitor radiation levels in the area from outside Japan, so there is no cover up going on. Conspiracy theorists stand down.
5. In Chernobyl the top blew off the reactor and then the core caught fire and burnt. This convection pushed all radioactive material higher and higher into the air where it reached 30,000 feet and so the spread was much larger.
Here, a build up of pressure as the radioactive material interacts with the containment floor would cause an explosion that would only reach as high as around 500 meters. This would contain any dangerous material within the 20 to 30 km exclusion zone.
6. If all attempts at cooling the reactors fail, a worst case scenario, then there would be an explosion, but this blast would only throw radioactive material up to 500 meters, and the 30 km containment zone stands.
7. Acceptable levels of radiation are based on the most susceptible members of society (children and pregnant mothers). So right now, the levels outside the 30 km zone are fine for all members of society.
8. No matter how strong the wind, the radioactive material released after an explosion of the core wouldn't make it to Tokyo.

These are just the main points I picked up, a transcript/podcast will apparently be uploaded to the British Embassy's Japan Web site. It was reassuring to hear a calm but informed perspective."


Some recommended reading for the fools on the news trying to goad the scientists, and interviewees in Japan, into admitting that they're panicking.

that people will see that the plant survived rather well against a quake 7 times bigger than it was built to handle

Yeah, and for a ship that wasn't built to handle severe impacts, the Titanic still did rather well against that iceberg.

[No. The Titanic was supposed to be safe, and was a failure -W]

That move is called the double-pronged spinmeister, and is really easy to learn - just look at the cause of the most current disaster and chose the appropriate calming remark from this little set of two:

"No need to worry! Turns out only our premises were wrong, our calculations have been proven correct!"

"No need to worry! Turns out only our calculations were wrong, our premises have been proven correct!"

Fill in appropriate details. The only cases were that doesn't work are those where the causes aren't readily apparent, or were the audience being addressed isn't as thick as the walls of a nuclear reactor containment dome.

[But... this is all bollocks. If your complain (now) is that the plant wasn't designed to handle an 8.9 quake, then: your complaint was valid a month ago. A year ago. A decade ago. Nothing has changed. If you cared, you would have complained then - not now - W]

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Sorry, maybe I misfired. I've seen others (like at Brave New Climate) dismiss the Fukushima situation by citing the number of tsunami dead.

What I don't get is how the plant can be said to have survived at this point. At the very least it's been trashcanned. You've worked around seawater, right?

[I think that is right - the in-trouble plants are unlikely to run again, and may be quite messy to take to bits - not quite sure -W]

I get that some sources and a lot of people have been more freaked out than is warranted, but it looks like the risk assesment of the thing, from design to placement to expectations of a day or two ago got clobbered by the long tail. Kind of what Michael Tobis says about climate.

[You could perhaps argue that people should ahve designed them for a bigger quake. And in retrospect, of course, hardening the external fall-back diesel generators would have been a really good idea.

But if you're going down that road: again, the place you should be directing your attention to is the coastal villages that got wiped out: that is where the lives were lost: why isn't Der Spiegel popping up with headlines about "It's Time to Pull the Plug" on living by the sea? I mean, if they actually cared about saving people, instead of just stirring up trouble? -W]

The main lesson I get so far is to put the diesel generators high, not low.
I've long thought too much water was worse than earthquakes, although I may change my mind shelving next Big One hits the San Andreas, 5 minutes' walk from here.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Some concrete highrises built like new beachhouses (on stilts) seem like an excellent idea. Putting the generators high occurred to me too. And not putting the electrical switching in the goddamn basement, which is supposedly an element of the current clusterf*ck.

The culture that gave us the word tsunami might have thought of this before. Why is that not the case? It could be done right, but it isn't, and if you complain you're a luddite treehugger.

And people do indeed ask WTF are we doing putting nukes on the west coast.

Was much high-rise concrete construction hit by the tsunami? If so, how did it fare? Tsunami is bad news for pretty much any structure, and having a concrete high-rise fall on you isn't going to be much better that having a wooden house wash away. Then again, if anyone can do tsunami-proof high-rise, it is the Japanese. There was that recent paper about corruption killing many many people via unenforced building codes.

[I haven't done a proper survey but watching the videos, it seems pretty clear that the concrete survived but the wood didn't. With caveats that being in the ground floor of a surviving concrete structure won't do you much good if the water goes up to the second floor... -W]

By Nick Barnes (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Does anyone know how much of Japan's electrical production was damaged?

It will be interesting to see how Japan replaces this capacity. Here in Canada nuclear plants are always overdue , overbudget and in need of new pipes within 20 years. Such plants can't compete with other generating technologies and depend on government handouts.

Japan has the engineering infrastructure to rebuild the industry in a number of different ways. Will their choice depend on construction time, amortisation and future fuel cost or will they choose the GE nuclear lobby?

The answer may also give a clue to the place of the US in the global firmament during the next few decades.

By John McManus (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

All those people killed by the tsunami might have been saved if they had stayed in carefully designed concrete boxes 24/7. Of course they would already have starved to death, since they could never leave their boxes to go out and earn a living. That's the problem with expecting technology to solve every problem.

Remember the New Zealand earthquake last fall, where no one was killed because the buildings were designed and built so well? The trouble was they had another earthquake and maybe those well-built buildings had been weakend by the first one. There is only so much that technology can prepare for.

The tsunami was a natural disaster, and there was not much znyone could do about it. The survivors of the tsunami will suffer from the effects, but they will not expect to develop cancer in a few years.

The nuclear plants are a human-made danger which are added to the natural dangers that threaten Japan. The effects of radiation are more insidious and longer lasting. Frankly, I would rather drown fast than die slowly of cancer.

I understand the arguments about the need for energy, etc., but I still would always expect things to go wrong.

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

The thing about the nukes is that they are an old design and half of them were shut down. If the quake had happened in May the others would have been shut down. Wouldn't have stopped the leaky fuel rod pond, but would have stopped the other problems.

Regarding the housing, ITV news had footage of a town which had all been washed away. A lot of buildings seemed to be wood, with the occaisonal conrete/ breeze block one surviving like an island. However since they were only 2 story and the tsunami was 2 stories deep, they got damaged.
Holly Stick - there's bugger all likelihood of ten thousand people dying of radiation poisoning from the nuclear plants. Stop being so over the top.
Have you any idea of the number of deaths associated with each energy generating method?

William based on the Three Mile Island (TMI) experience if the fuel has been badly damaged that's it for the reactor. The damaged fuel can't be recovered by the normal fuel handling facilities the fuel has lost its integrity.

This will require waiting a fair bit until activity has dropped off and then special tools will be needed to remove the damaged fuel and a special facility will be needed to store the damaged fuel, the damaged TMI fuel is stored in special to type canisters.

By Andy Railton (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

guthrie, I was not talking about 10,000 dying of radiation poisoning. You should read more carefully.

And not being an insurance wonk, I'm not real interested in trying to figure out how many people each form of energy generation kills, since there are so many factors. When people are killed in a coal mine, is it because it is dirty energy, or because the mine owners are too stingy and lazy to employ safety measures? Do coal deaths include all the people who die from asthmas and smog as well as blacklung? But if some of the smog comes from cars, then should that be ascribed to the oil and gas industry?

But I do not like the idea of being in a radiation fallout zone, and wondering for years afterwards when the cancer would start and what form it would take. And many other people probably don't like the idea also:


By Holly Stick (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

But... this is all bollocks. If your complain (now) is that the plant wasn't designed to handle an 8.9 quake, then: your complaint was valid a month ago. A year ago. A decade ago. Nothing has changed. If you cared, you would have complained then - not now - W

My complaint, and the complaint of the public at large, is the fact that there is a nuclear disaster that should not have happened, and that complaint is most certainly valid simply because it did happen. Opposed to that stark reality, the question of whether the underlying fault concerned the conceptual stage of the plant construction or the execution is of secondary interest - and therefore I would consider it almost bizarre to seriously expect the whole matter to increase public trust into nuclear technology via your suggested "those guys really know their stuff, they almost managed to prevent a disaster despite being caught with their pants down" reasoning.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

A couple of points: as someone who lives in a "cute traditional wooden house" (albeit a single story NZ-style farmhouse), I can testify that they're great in earthquakes (caveat: we're 60 km from ChCh). It flexes and moves and groans and rattles, but gets through. Won't be much use if the fault line we live on goes, but it's doing well so far. Cute wooden buildings are not much use against tsunamis, though, so it's a good idea not to build them near the sea.

Most of the buildings damaged in the two ChCh quakes were "unreinforced masonry structures" - ie old brick or stone buildings. A lot of deaths were caused by facades falling off old retail buildings into busy streets. Big old wooden houses tended to survive well, though most lost their old brick chimney stacks. That said, most deaths were in the two more modern office buildings that collapsed. There will be an investigation into why they failed, but it's worth noting that the ground shaking in the second quake was much more severe than the first, because the fault that ruptured lies under the city's eastern hill suburbs, not 30km to the west as in the bigger earlier quake.

Wooden versus concrete? I recall commentary on the Kobe earthquake. The Japanese have very demanding standards for new building. They also have a great reverence for their traditional buildings. Kobe was absolutely full of houses which were built of wood - topped by extreeemely heavy roofs made with traditional tile. These tiles are apparently much heavier than the equivalent you might find elsewhere.

Quake or wall of water shakes the structure. Doesn't matter that the wooden walls might be able to flex or otherwise withstand the impact. Disturbing the roof, maybe even by the walls flexing, means that the whole structure will certainly disintegrate.

Assume nobody dies outright from radiation. For anyone who owns a place near the reactor (about 140,000, lets say), the value of their property has just plunged to $0. Even if it isn't irradiated, the view for the next 50 years will be a puddle of slag where the only life is wearing hazmat suits.

Do you want one of those reactor thingys coming to your town?

That's how the argument will really go.

WC: 'Some people are using the disaster to stick the knife into nukes.'

The Kent Green Party has announced that because 'predicting earthquakes and their magnitude is not an exact science' it would be prudent to halt the building of new reactors at British coastal sites like Dungeness (where there are no current plans to build a new reactor) even though 'the UK is not as seismically active as Japan'. The cited evidence for this announcement includes Yahoo Answers and the Daily Mail, the latter including a list of Britain's most deadly earthquakes: 1580, two children killed by falling chimneys; 1940, one Welshman had a heart attack and another fell down some stairs.

By Vinny Burgoo (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

The Titanic held up pretty good considering the size of the iceberg it hit. The lack of adequate lifeboats is understandable because no one expected it to take on such large amounts of water. Nothing changed about the design after it hit the iceberg, so there is no need to criticize the designers, regulators, or the PR people who told the public how awesome the ship was. If people had cared, they would have complained before it sank. Besides, it's their fault for booking a trip through an iceberg field.

"Even for a nuclear plant situated very close to sea level, the robust sealed containment structure around the reactor itself would prevent any damage to the nuclear part from a tsunami, though other parts of the plant might be damaged. No radiological hazard would be likely."

No need to worry. They have water tight compartments.

I still haven't quite seen an authoritative explanation for the big spike in on-site rad dose about a half-day ago. Related to a fire in the fuel storage basin of #4? Loss of containment elsewhere? Seems to have been a spike and not something sustained, whatever it was.

In any event, lessons will be learned once there has been a chance to do a proper investigation. All industries, not just nuclear, should think through what could happen in the once-in-a-millenium event. You can have layers of redundancy, but you still should think about how resilient each layer is.

So far as I can tell (and this may be wrong) the chain of bad events does not even start if the diesel-fired backup generators were in some more water-tight place. And maybe, some other backup systems were not designed to last for more than a few hours. We go from that simple problem to a quite complicated problem. Maybe (probably) we will also come to understand that this particular plant design is not the best for surviving loss-of-coolant accidents. But it seems to all go back to the generators, at least at this point, from a comfortable chair thousands of miles away.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

to holly stick:

If you're speaking of the risks of different things, then not being an actuary does not excuse you from looking at actual figures, instead of vague feelings.

Air pollution (in the traditional sense of the word, not including greenhouse gas effects) from burning fossil fuels has a real, already incurred, and ongoing cost in health and life. Something like a half million deaths per year in China alone. Granted, many of their plants are perhaps more polluting than an equivalent would be elsewhere, but that's what is happening now. That such facts do not elicit much emotion or media attention is just a reflection of human psychology, I suppose. A single focused event will get more attention than a distributed chronic one that kills many times more.

Same thing happens with car crashes; if there's anything in life that ought to scare you a bit, it's stepping into your car. But it's not treated that way in society.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

carrot eater, you could discuss that with guthrie who raised the issue @10.

My point is that as an individual, I would not want to be near such a plant, and that many other people feel that way. You may not like "vague feelings" but that is what you get when you are dealing with human beings.

Japan has stated that it has a radiation leak and has told people within 20 km to evacuate. It has told people within 30 km to stay inside, close their windows, etc. If you lived within 30 km, would you be coldly rational and sit in your home with the windows shut, or would you get into your car and drive the hell away from there?

Would you believe a) that the government could not possibly make another mistake about how bad the danger is now; and b) that the government can be trusted to be totally honest about how bad the danger is.

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

All I can say is that different people will assess the same risks differently, and that this is legitimate. But the assessment, whichever way it ends, should be informed.

There is a risk to living near a nuclear plant. There is a risk to living near an oil refinery. There is a risk to living near a sugar refinery. There is a risk to having gas heat in your home. There is a risk to visiting a hospital, and above all, driving a car.

In the absence of good design, good controls and good operation, all of the above things could kill you. So complacence must be avoided. But just because a hazard exists doesn't mean we rule the activity out.

As for trusting the Japanese government: it's hard to lie about radiation dose measurements; I have no reason to think they're making those up. As for me, if I lived within 30 km, I would strongly consider evacuating at this time, yes. At this point, nobody can stand up and say it won't get worse, though you might be able to put bounds on how far an airborne plume might plausibly travel for a given accident scenario.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

adelady: It isn't obvious to me how you'd be able to access the spent fuel pool from a helicopter. Has this been clarified?

By carrot eater (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

The roof's damaged if it's not completely gone. The spent fuel pool isn't protected in the same way as the reactors. In other places they're in the ground hardly protected at all - by reactor standards.

Even if there's only a bit of a hole, I'd go for the notion of such a liquid draining into, rather than off, the structure.

> When they firebombed Tokyo, they were trying to kill people

Actually, I don't know about the Americans (are they really more evil than you Brits?), but for the British it was about 'dehousing'

[Are the Americans more evil that the Brits? Is the Pope Catholic? Come on ;-! -W]

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

All I can say is that wind farms are designed so that they don't suffer a meltdown, however big the earthquake and tsunami.

However well the industry try to spin this as an "aren't nukes AMAZING" story, no one is going to want another one near them now. And it's irrelevant that the UK isn't a tectonically active area - new nukes won't be designed to stop an airliner.

Big nuclear accident? Japan? Boric acid?

So has anyone told the giant radioactive cockroach joke yet? No? Well then!

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

scatter - you might be surprised to learn that airplane crashes are indeed now considered in design, though I can't speak to how well things would really hold up. And there a rather a lot of industrial facilities that would be in a bad way after such an event; do you rule all of them out?

[Well, we have experience of airplane crashes into skyscrapers as a result of 9/11: lots of people die, and pointless wars get started. Therefore, either skyscrapers or airplanes should be banned -W]

By carrot eater (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

I stand corrected.

Only a short time ago they were designing for accidental collisions with the energy of a military fast jet but it appears they have beefed up the requirements.

However a malicious crash is apparently a "beyond design basis accident".


I would argue that given the sophistication of modern commercial aircraft navigation technology, the likelihood of an accidental commercial aircraft collision is vanishingly small and considerably lower than a malicious commercial aircraft collision so that really doesn't fill me with confidence.

I don't rule out other industrial facilities because they tend not to irradiate large tracts of land or sea in the event of an accident.

I haven't the patience to track down where this "seven times larger than designed for" meme started but it is being spread around by people who should know better. The magnitude of the earthquake is quite irrelevent in this case as earthquake engineering addresses the intensity of the shaking. The MM intensity of this eathquake was VII at the reactor site, for perspective this is much less than what was recently experienced in parts of Christchurch (MMI of IX, associated with an earthquake of magnitude only 6.3.)

Current earthquake engineering standards in places like Tokyo, San Francisco and Wellington are such that residential and commercial structures are expected to comfortably survive earthquake intensities of at least MMI VIII, and ideally handle up to MMI X without killing their occupants. I don't know what standards they build nukes for but one would imagine they might set the bar just a little higher than for an office building?

An earthquake intensity of VII is utterly unremarkable for Japan and it would be scandalous if this is what took out these reactors. Presumably it comes down to the tsunami, and it is very clear given they have trouble in all reactors of the complex that they were simply not expecting to have to survive a tsunami that peaked at 10 metres. I will leave it as an excercise for the reader to ponder if this was a reasonable engineering decision given that same stretch of coastline has suffered tsunami in1896 (max of 38 metres according to the USGS) and 1933 (29 metres) plus countless others recorded over the last thousand years or so.

Yes I am a little peeved. I'm sure it is quite possible to build a nuke that can survive an MMI X or so earthquake and associated megatsunami. But the fact is they didn't even try.

[Well, it looks like you know more about this that I do, so tracking down the standards to which it was built would be a rather useful thing to do -W]

By Powelliphanta (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

[You could perhaps argue that people should ahve designed them for a bigger quake. And in retrospect, of course, hardening the external fall-back diesel generators would have been a really good idea.

But if you're going down that road: again, the place you should be directing your attention to is the coastal villages that got wiped out: that is where the lives were lost:

false dilemma. Hardening the generators would have been relatively cheap and quite achievable, and would not have prevented anyone getting to work on seeing what could be done about other coastal areas. Living in a part of the world not further from the Indonesian tsunami than Japan, a quick check would have been logical in the case of critical backup equipment placed just next to the sea.

[Well, it looks like you know more about this that I do, so tracking down the standards to which it was built would be a rather useful thing to do -W]

A bit of poking around via google and wikipedia comes up with a Japanese "design specification for safe shutdown of 4.5 m/s²" for peak ground acceleration, which falls in the middle of MM intensity VIII. That is quite feeble if true, but nonetheless exceeds the shaking experienced last week at Fukushima.

By Powelliphanta (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

It's not about how well/badly they stood up to the quake/tsunami.
It's all about unexpected events that are not included in the safety design.

If you have to evacuate a 30km radius around a design fail for a few decades, it may not matter in Siberia but in the UK thats a lot of people displaced/infrastucture unusable for a few generations.

[Yes indeed. But evacuation for a few days would be less of a problem. And they don't even seem to have done that, yet -W]

Note that at Sizewell and other sea front UK stations (google earth) there are no cooling towers or storage ponds for cooling water. Block the inlet - quake, terrorist, ship - then are there cooling backups????

Of interest:

adelady's link points out that sometimes the contractors who build the plants lie about meeting their Seismic Qualification. And adds:

"...These safety back-up systems are the 'EDGs' in nuke-speak: Emergency Diesel Generators. That they didn't work in an emergency is like a fire department telling us they couldn't save a building because "it was on fire."..."

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

There's an obvious difference between nuclear fission as a type of power source and its practical application at any particular site and in a specific plant design. The latter does not automatically negate the former.

MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub is a good and rational source of information.


scatter: "I don't rule out other industrial facilities because they tend not to irradiate large tracts of land or sea in the event of an accident. "

You're not looking at a wide enough picture. The question isn't only whether other industrial facilities can cause tracts of land to be contaminated with radioactive material. The question is whether other industries can kill people or cause land to be inhabitable for other reasons. And indeed, other industries are capable of this, between explosions, releases of toxic gases, leaving heavy metals all over the place, polluting the ground water with carcinogens, etc, and all these things do happen. Are all these things less bad just because they don't have the word 'nuclear' in them? They kill and mar and despoil, all the same. And as always, coal kills many people each and every day, just from normal usage, not any sort of accident.

Either which way, the Japanese very much need to figure out how to cool these fuel rods down. Fires in the spent fuel pool would be absolutely be something to worry about, for the surrounding population.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

Holly - As in any industry, effective regulation and inspection is necessary.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

Yes, carrot eater, "effective regulation and inspection is necessary." But the fact appears to be that they are neither effectively regulated nor effectively inspected.

So what's the backup plan for the dangers posed by corporate greed and dishonesty, and government ineffectiveness and corruption?

Note again that the emergency diesels did not work during an emergency. Why not, and why didn't someone make sure they would work beforehand?

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink


The broader topic of how to ensure effective regulation (in all fields that present hazards, whether it be financial, oil, nuclear, whatever) is probably a topic ill-suited for this venue. I'll not even try, beyond noting that governments need to hire people who are as clever or are more clever than the people being regulated.

I'll also note that the utility company in question, tepco, has been less than open and truthful in the past.

And yes, as I also mentioned above that the failure of the backup diesel-fired generators appears to be the first critical failure that led us down this path. If those generators had held up, perhaps nothing out of the ordinary happens. Apparently they had been operating, but then the tsunami water knocked them out (?) I imagine it will take months before a proper investigation can piece together all the details, so there will have to be patience on that front.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

Greg Palast wrote:

"...More likely is that the diesels and related systems wouldn't have worked on a fine, dry afternoon.

Back in the day, when we checked the emergency back-up diesels in America, a mind-blowing number flunked. At the New York nuke, for example, the builders swore under oath that their three diesel engines were ready for an emergency. They'd been tested. The tests were faked, the diesels run for just a short time at low speed. When the diesels were put through a real test under emergency-like conditions, the crankshaft on the first one snapped in about an hour, then the second and third. We nicknamed the diesels, "Snap, Crackle and Pop."..."


[Yes, I read that. Didn't someone already post a link? But... is it true? -W]

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

The sad thing is in the general picture. The reason why this event occurred in the first place is seismic activity.

So we have a country with known seismic activity, lots of visible hot springs sites and a need for a lot of winter heating. Why on earth haven't the engineering skills and dedicated hard work of Japanese workers been applied to develop large scale geo-thermal heating and/or power generation?

And now a good look at Japan. Almost 35000 kms coastline. Surely they could find 55 (or 550) sites for tidal power generation rather than 55 nuclear reactors.

Regardless of how well or badly this all turns out, the deeply distressing thing is that it was avoidable. Instead of trying to engineer =against= the conditions provided by their location and their landscape, they could have made the most of them.

Yes of course they do all of those things carrot eater and they're also very bad, but when it comes to accidents other industries tend not to render land uninhabitable for decades and the industry concerned tends to foot the bill (e.g. the TVA cleaning up the Tennessee tailings pond disaster).

[I don't think this is true. There are plenty of example - which, of course, dno't immeadiately come to hand - of industry contaminating land and *not* picking up the bill -W]

Long term and widespread contamination of land and the taxpayer picking up the bill for the consequences are much more likely in the nuclear industry.

As we have viable alternatives to nuclear power that do not have its unique risk characteristics, I say it can go and take a running jump.

I'm sure there are examples, hence the liberal use of the word "tend", but nuclear power has this wonderful get out of jail free card where the state picks up the bill for any major disaster, one of the many fudges that makes the industry vaguely economically viable.

[I agree: the implicit subsidy is bad. Please don't assume that I am a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of nuclear power. You might wish to read this which I wrote in 2005 and which seems to have stood up well.

However, don't forget that an oil company's liability for a spill was limited to $75m in US law, which was also a bad implicit subsidy written in by the oil company's bought congress critters. But it turned out not to apply -W]

@ 47 scatter

Coal's hidden costs top $345 billion in U.S.

The United States' reliance on coal to generate almost half of its electricity, costs the economy about $345 billion a year in hidden expenses not borne by miners or utilities, including health problems in mining communities and pollution around power plants, a study found.

Those costs would effectively triple the price of electricity produced by coal-fired plants, which are prevalent in part due to the their low cost of operation, the study led by a Harvard University researcher found.

"This is not borne by the coal industry, this is borne by us, in our taxes,"

Everyone please understand that I am talking disasters here (accidental or otherwise), not long term effects!

I think I've been fairly clear about that in my comments.

If we're talking about uninhabitable land, please just look at a list of superfund sites. Tailings - mining tends to create some horrible messes, which they may or may not ever get around to tidying up.

The liability cap that was to apply to BP - if I'm not mistaken, it would have applied, except the government quickly changed the rules, and BP quite wisely chose not to object.

But yes, limiting obligations in case of an accident is a huge subsidy that some industries get, and nuclear is one of them.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

scatter - I agree with your general approach. Risks should be proportionate to the benefits, and if the benefits could be had in some other way, you might not take the risks.

Economics would be a simple way to sort this out, but the unpriced costs of coal continue to distort the decisions. Against coal, it's hard for anything to look economical. But in terms of other alternatives, let's not be fanciful - tidal power is still largely experimental/pilot scale now; back in the 1960s when these nuclear plants were built, tidal wouldn't have been ready to implement on such a scale. I think there will end up being room in the portfolio for lots of options - wind, geothermal, etc, etc; each will find a place where its strengths and weaknesses make sense.

The advantage of nuclear over the other non coal/gas options will continue to be the small area needed per unit energy generated, in comparison to wind/solar/etc.. even if you take the worst case scenario and include a buffer zone for damage around the plant. So there will be situations where it would be useful. The downside is that it's darned expensive to build one, and the costs reflect the challenges in keeping it running safely.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink