Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

For the want of a nail

Posted by Charles II on March 19, 2011


Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said backup power systems at the plant had been improperly protected, leaving them vulnerable to the tsunami that ravaged the north-eastern coast of Japale.

The failure enabled uranium fuel to overheat and was a “main cause” of the crisis, Nishiyama said. “I cannot say whether it was a human error, but we should examine the case closely.”

A spokesman for Tokyo Electric, which owns and runs the complex, said it was protected against tsunamis of up to five metres (16ft) but a six-metre wave of water struck Fukushima on 11 March.

This is something important to understand. The precipitating cause of the crisis was that backup pumps were submerged by the tsunami. Nuclear safety doesn’t just involve fuel rods, containment, and waste disposal. Every element of the system has to work perfectly.

There are things we can do to mitigate potential harm from our obsolete reactors prior to shutting them down, which is probably going to take time. For example: get spent fuel rods off site and into real containment in geologically safe areas, so that we don’t have to worry about them going up with the reactor. Check whether backup systems actually work (this is a real scandal for US reactors). Train staff for real-live emergencies; one factor in Fukushima was a delay of several hours in recognizing that this was a crisis, and a delay of several days by the Japanese government in accepting help.

All of these are things that would be done if the nuclear industry and the US government were serious about preventing disasters.

4 Responses to “For the want of a nail”

  1. jo6pac said

    Yep and when I read about Amerikan nuke sites I can only picture Homer Simpson. I know there are a lot of people in this industry that care but as we know the owners are all about profit. Full speed ahead.

    Yes move the spent rods to a safer site as for all I know there is still rods in the pools at the old Humbolt rector and at Rancho Seco.

  2. Stormcrow said

    Every element of the system has to work perfectly.

    I think you’ve grabbed the wrong end of the problem.

    Those basement-sited backup pumps weren’t a failure of a system element, they were a failure of planning.

    The problem here isn’t really a tech issue. It’s a lack of foresight. The first, worst failure was in the minds of the people who designed this system, before the first concrete was even poured.

    This bodes even worse for American nuclear power than the technical issues do. Far worse. Our corporations have been increasingly managed by looters for the last 3 decades, with utterly predictable results.

    Until and unless the government re-establishes firm regulatory control over the senior management of these companies, when their activities strongly impact the common good, we will be incapable of hosting a nuclear power industry without accepting the certainty of occasional wide-scale catastrophes.

    Right now, these people are subject to a selection process built into the system they inhabit. That process selects for sociopathic or frankly psychopathic personalities. These people are no more capable of managing a nuclear power industry than they are of keeping their own companies from falling to pieces, after they are looted out.

    • Charles II said

      I don’t think I have the wrong end of the problem, Stormcrow. Predatory capitalism is, alas, part of the system in both Japan and the US. That makes aggressive government oversight impossible.

      I also think that the backup pump siting was probably not primarily the fault of the owners, but of shortsightedness on the part of engineers. It’s not more expensive to site the backup pump above ground than below ground. But from an engineering standpoint, it’s not immediately obvious why you would want a long segment of high pressure pipe between the pump and the reactor. It’s more to go wrong and exacts heavier duty from the pump. It’s only when you think about the siting of nuclear reactors–next to large bodies of water–that the thought of flooding occurs. This particular blunder of placing pumps below ground, which occurs in many nuclear plants, is probably due to engineers designing on paper rather than looking at the whole site.

      BTW, I like the term sociopathic too, but DSM-IV has phased it–and psychopathic— out in favor of anti-social personality disorder. We can’t keep up with the crazy, but we can’t even keep up with the nomenclature for the crazy.

      • The Stupid-Evil-Crazy Vortex. (A refinement of the Stupid-to-Evil Ratio.)

        The Stupid-to-Evil Ratio doesn’t explain the subtle differences between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, but the SEC Vortex does. While Palin is stupid and evil, she is not crazy; whereas Bachmann is not stupid, or at least didn’t start out that way, she is going crazy in large part because she has enough intelligence for cognitive dissonance to really trouble her, yet not enough fellow-feeling to curb the amorality that leads her to commit actions that cause friction between her mind and her morals.

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