Friday, March 11, 2011

The Carnival of Nuclear Energy and the Earthquake

I don't have my usual picture of a Ferris wheel here. Areva NextEnergy Blog has the 43rd Carnival of Nuclear Energy in place, and it is a good one. I encourage you to read it. I have to admit that I am more involved in trying to figure out what is happening in Japan.

Let's start with the first entry into the Carnival, though. The ANS Nuclear Cafe is posting a constantly-updated set of links about nuclear power stations in Japan. This is a great resource for finding specifically-nuclear news about Japan. Another source I found useful was this set of pictures: Massive Earthquake Hits Japan, the Big Picture. Amidst so much devastation, I was charmed to see a picture of schoolchildren praying for the people of Japan. I found the picture warmed my heart because the schoolchildren are in Ahmedabad, India. This is our son-in-laws home town, and a place I have visited.

1989 in Palo Alto

I was in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in California. That was a 7.1 Richter earthquake. I can only begin to imagine what a 8.9 Richter earthquake would be like. Even thinking about it is terrifying.

Our daughter was away at college at the time, and from TV news, she pretty much thought everyone in Northern California was dead. Including us. TV repeatedly showed the same images of the Marina in San Francisco burning and the Cypress Overpass bridge collapse. It wasn't that bad all over the Bay Area, though. At our home in Palo Alto, we lost two vases from high shelves, and we spent a lot of time on the front lawn talking to our neighbors. In other words, the earthquake was not devastating. Where we lived, that is.

In this earthquake, I am trying to figure out if the same thing is happening. The damage is much greater than it was in California. Homes have been swept out to sea. An entire city is on fire, not just a neighborhood. Oil refineries are on fire. But as far as I can tell, Tokyo is shaken, not much damaged. The damage may be more localized than the pictures suggest. Or not. I am going by my own experience here, and with an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, my experience is not necessarily a good guide.

Japanese Engineering

I was in Tokyo during an earthquake once, and they have amazingly effective earthquake engineering. My hotel swayed and it woke me up. Otherwise, nothing happened. It was, however, a small earthquake, not like this one. As I watched the footage of the Japanese parliament during the earthquake, I was reminded of how good the earthquake engineering is in that country.

Anyhow, I am trying to figure things out. These are just my thoughts, and I try to have hopeful thoughts about people's survival, all over Japan.

What about that nuclear plant?

Most of the nuclear plants in Japan are still running, as I read it. The plants in the earthquake-affected area shut down automatically, as they should. The plants in that area had a loss of outside power (sometimes called a LOOP). This is a planned-for situation, though certainly not welcome. When outside power is lost, the plant shuts down automatically. The control rods go in, the plant is off-line. Within seconds after that, the diesel generators start to keep the pumps going and dissipate residual heat in the reactor. Apparently, in the case of the No. 1 reactor at Fukishama, the tsunami put the diesels out of commission.

At which point, figuring out what was actually happening became very confusing. The core of the plant is still covered with water. Batteries have been brought in. America flew coolant (water?) in, according to one report. Why? The Japanese have water, they don't have power! Then an update: No, America did not fly coolant in, the Japanese are handling it themselves. Okay, this I believe.

Besides, coolant isn't the problem. Power is the problem. Why are there batteries instead of diesel generators on the job? (I have no idea.) The fuel rods are still covered by water, and, as Margaret Harding explained, as water is brought in, the pressure rises and must be vented in short bursts. (Margaret Harding was one of the blue ribbon people when I was trying to give a blue ribbon every Monday. She is a nuclear engineer who was head of a GE task force on safety planning.) However, since the fuel rods are covered, the vented water is not particularly radioactive. If the fuel rods were not covered with water, the situation would be different. But so far, things are basically under control, or as under-control as an earthquake and tsunami allow.

I think.

I am following the breaking news, and probably some of the things I wrote in this blog will turn out to be incorrect. However, I have the advantage of following not only the news itself, but the comments of some pretty smart people on a nuclear listserve.

I hope this post is helpful to my readers. This is the sort of thing that it is easier to blog retrospect.

This just in: According to my listserve, this post of David Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientist is probably pretty accurate. I try to give credit when it is due.


Jeff Schmidt said...

So much suffering from Earthquakes and Tsunamis. Those images are just horrific.

My heart goes out to the people of Japan, even as I also remember people all over who've suffered from large earthquakes the last few years. It seems like every 3 or 4 months we hear about a big earthquake. China, Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, just all over.

Meredith mentioned the school children in India praying for Japan - that brought back to my mind the fact that India (as well as many of the Indian Ocean nations) was hit by a huge Tsunami back in 2004.

It just seems unrelenting sometimes - one massive disaster after another. It's heartbreaking.

Martin Langeveld said...

Saturday morning, and things have changed....

When you update, Meredith, it would be interesting to compare the design of the Japanese plant with Vermont Yankee. From what I can tell, they are of more or less the same vintage, both GE-made, both Mark I, perhaps one design version apart.

We're not as earthquake-prone around here, but what does this say about the possibilities for a similar accident in Vernon?

Meredith Angwin said...

Martin, I am having a hard time updating because the news out of Japan is so confusing. I mean, major issues are not resolved. The Nuclear Energy Institute says that the explosion was between the inner reactor system and the containment structure

Fine. Little diagram, okay. (Most of the post is quite informative) HOWEVER, Tokyo Electric at one point said that the explosion was in the generator building, which makes some sense because if you watch the video carefully, the containment building seems to just stand there while all this smoke happens behind it. And generators are hydrogen-cooled.

The New York Times latest update contains these words:

Government officials and executives of Tokyo Electric Power, which runs the plant, gave confusing accounts of the causes of the explosion and the damage it caused. Late Saturday night, officials said that the explosion occurred in a structure housing turbines near the No. 1 reactor at the plant rather than inside the reactor itself.

However, one sentence later, in the NYT article, we are back in the reactor building for the explosion.

When I figure out what happened, I'll put it in context with VY and so forth. Right now, I haven't even figured it out. And neither has the NYT. Nuclear Energy Institute seems confident that it has figured it out, but I am not sure. Unless they have someone standing near the reactor, they have to learn from Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), just like I do. As the NYT said, the explanations are confusing.

Meredith Angwin said...

Martin. The lead sentence of the NYT story is now

TOKYO — An explosion at a nuclear power plant in northern Japan on Saturday blew the roof off one building and destroyed the exterior walls of a crippled reactor, escalating the emergency confronting Japan...

This sounds like the turbine /generator building blew up. Like I said though...I don't know.

Martin Langeveld said...

Agreed, the news is confusing right now.

There is a picture at (which seems to have the best coverage around - Japanese sites are useless, CNN is focused elsewhere). It's on the third page of the lead story right now, sourced from AP. Click on it to enlarge, or use this link:

What that looks like to me is that the explosion took place in the space above the reactor, where there is a large room with hoists and whatnot used during the refueling. It blew out all the walls and roof from that space, leaving just the steel frame. That's not where the turbines are, however. In any case, this is probably relatively good news since it would leave the concrete so-called containment building below it intact, and with some luck did not breach the walls of the spent fuel pool, which is open to that space on top.

Martin Langeveld said...

See also the photo on this page:
The turbine building are the lower, rectangular shoebox-shaped buildings in front. The reactor buildings are the taller cubical buildings in back, just like at VY. As the AP picture linked in my previous comment shows, the explosion was at the top of the reactor building, not in the turbine building.

It would make sense to me that if hydrogen is being released (intentionally or accidentally) from the partial reactor meltdown that it would find its way to that upper space, rather than to the turbine area.

Kit P said...

“It would make sense to me “

You are wrong Martin.

This is not the first roof blown off a turbine building by a hydrogen explosion. Just the first time is was at a nuke plant that happened to be filmed because the fear mongering press was present.

There is nothing on the refueling floor that would cause such an explosion and no way for the hydrogen to get there. I would bet money that the explosion was caused by a hydrogen leak in the turbine building. Large generators are cooled with hydrogen. The turbine building is not built to maintain its function in a earth quake. The off gas system that recombines hydrogen is also in the turbine but it is a very robust system.

The upper portion of the reactor building above refueling floor is just an industrial sheet metal construction and not designed to withstand an explosive pressure wave because it was not required at the time (late 60s).

Here is a link to a drawing of a Mark I containment.

Meredith Angwin said...


Thank you for the VERY helpful links and pictures.

I didn't mean to imply there was a possibility that the reactor would somehow spread hydrogen into the turbine building. However, generators are customarily cooled with hydrogen, which sometimes explodes. This could be at a coal plant or any kind of plant. If a generator exploded, you would see smoke and so forth from the building behind the reactor buildings. Plus, the Japanese made some confusing statements about the generators, as the NYT article noted.

Clearly, the problem was in the reactor building. Here's an NEI picture link. They were right all along, but I wasn't sure.

Meredith Angwin said...


Am I wrong here? I try very hard to be accurate, and Martin's picture and the NEI diagram made me certain the explosion was in the main reactor building. I am just trying to get this right!!

I await further comments.

Kit P said...

Meredith it is not a matter of being wrong but a matter of deducing from the available information. Since I am SRO certificated on several similar older but larger BWRs, I think my deduction is better. It is days like this that I was trained for but I never needed to deal with a loss of off site power because of a tsunami. I am also an expert on hydrogen on both BWRs and PWRs. Hydrogen I am afraid of, radiation not so much. If you watched the video of the explosion of the hydrogen detonation it is not something you can walk away from and go to the docon shower.

The main part of the reactor building (from the basemat to the refueling floor) functions as the secondary containment. There was no explosion there. It surrounds the primary containment. The refueling floor is reactor building houses the refueling floor which is outside of the secondary containment.
Here is a link to a better drawing of a Mark I containment.

The systems that normally have hydrogen are in the turbine building. Could something weird happen so that the hydrogen leaked into the refueling floor? The hydrogen donation that killed one and injured five at a coal plant was a little weird. Just image a hydrogen at a nuke plant not making the front page of the NYT. Again I think the source of the explosion is the turbine building. Just for the record we design for explosive pressure waves. The primary and secondary containment structures performed as designed. I Would suspect on Monday morning there will be a scramble to review those calculations now that the event is no longer hypothetical.

Now that we have had a 1000 year earth quake, we have have a new perspective on disasters. I have considered beyond basis events. Having the Pacific ocean as an ultimate heat sink simplified things. I was at a nuke plant when the watermelons worried that the nuke plant being able to withstand a nuclear war. Well duh! During a real crisis, people are worried about food, drinking water, and shelter. Radiation not so much.

Meredith Angwin said...


Thank you for your comment! We are kind of crossing-in-the-mail here, since I ALSO went to the uvdiv blog (excellent blog) and put up another post at my own blog.

At this point, it is really a matter of I will-think-about-it tomorrow. I am tired.

I totally agree with you about what people face in disasters. On Rod's post on The Energy Collective, I noted that with a nuclear problem beginning, you could have all these discussions. Evacuate? Don't evacuate? How far a perimeter? Should we distribute iodine? Lots of talk.

The LNG explosion didn't give anyone time to talk.

Martin Langeveld said...

First, to Kit:
You can take pot shots at the "fear mongering press", but when you have not just one, but SIX reactors in Japan in trouble, two of them with partial core melting, with two evacuation zones totaling over 100 square miles and 200,000 people, this is no longer fear mongering; this is real. I would hope we can have a discussion here without the usual pooh-poohing of any worries about nuclear power.

Second, today the NYT reports the following about the No. 3 Fukushima Daichi reactor:

Then on Sunday, cooling failed at a second reactor — No. 3 — and core melting was presumed at both, said the top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. An explosion could also rock the No. 3 reactor, Mr. Edano warned, because of a buildup of hydrogen within the reactor.

“The possibility that hydrogen is building up in the upper parts of the reactor building cannot be denied. There is a possibility of a hydrogen explosion,” Mr. Edano said. He stressed that as in the No. 1 unit, the reactor’s steel containment would withstand the explosion.

So, according to this, it's hydrogen from the reactor, not hydrogen somehow seeping from the turbines to the refueling floor.

Kit P said...

Martin what you are doing is fear mongering pure and simple. No one has been hurt by radiation from Japanese nuclear power plants. No one will be hurt by radiation. Many people in Japan died in the earthquake. More died when a tsunami flooded coastal areas. Four were hurt by an explosion at a nuke plant.

We design plants to protect the public from radiation. The design is working. As a precaution, people are being evaluated. If you have been watching the news, you will notice that many Americans have evacuated their homes because things like flooding. What I can not do is protect people from irrational fear. If the NYT tells you there is a boogy man under your bed are you going to believe them?

Martin Langeveld said...

Kit, I have mongered no fear whatsoever, unless trying to get at the facts themselves is fear-mongering.

And, the design is NOT working. The earthquake and tsunami were five times stronger (8.9) than what the reactors were designed for (8.2). The mobile generators brought in after the batteries failed were the final line of planned defense, and they failed. The seawater-pumping strategy is beyond all design strategies, and it is untested. We are now into desperate measures beyond designed "fail safes".

Again, let's lose the cavalier attitudes here and simply try to get at the facts of what actually took place and what is happening now. In the context of this blog about VY, doing so is of considerable importance the process of renewing VY's license. Pooh-poohing those who ask questions is not helpful.

Meredith Angwin said...


Actually, the business with boric acid and is not untested. It's old, standard-issue stuff. All submarines, for example, have a "poison tank" of borated water to use as necessary. Flooding the entire containment building with water (borated water) is one of the things that the containment building is designed to withstand. Howard knows more about this than I do, but I know enough to say that this is actually a planned-for eventuality, for all nuclear systems.

Again, unlike the LNG terminal, nuclear gives you lots of time to plan and to try this and to try that.

Martin Langeveld said...

MMM. I would love to see documentation that flooding that reactor (and, it seems, the entire building) with seawater is a planned-for event. Ditto, flooding VY with Connecticut River water. it's certainly not part of the official tour.

Placeholder said...

No one has been hurt by radiation from Japanese nuclear power plants. No one will be hurt by radiation.

Word is that more than 100 people show signs of exposure, including people outside of the plant perimeter.