I would hope that a disaster of this magnitude can promote some serious lessons learned both from the standpoint of future nuclear reactor designs as well as disaster recovery best practices. Given that most of these plants are aging, particular those in the U.S., this event should prompt some serious rethinking and reengineering of many of these plants' core structures. Whether there's money to be had to fund these retrofits, which no doubt will be costly, is another story.
Based on my experience working with firms in Japan I can only say that they are fast learners. It is true that the government may delay many of the changes and recommendations, but the next plant will be over-protected. I do not thibk that they will allow same errors in such an important application where lives of so many people are affected.
Unfortunately events like this cause a kneejerk reaction in the public. While tragic, the disaster here still pales in comparison to the damage to the envirnoment caused by coal mining and burning. And the lives lost by coal miners as well as health hazards make the impact here small in comparison.
There are lessons here to be learned and one of them is don't store waste fuel at the site. Additionally we now have much better reactor design. The reactors which failed were the older ones at the plant. the remaining reactors while newer, still are not as good as what we can do today. We have designs now where you can lose cooling water (though you do want to avoid if possible, hard on the reactor). And future designs should take into account how to protect backup generators.
I would hope that we retire old plants and replace them with new, better and safer ones. Until we have an viable alternative, nuclear is a good way to go. Efforts at solar and wind cannot totally replace coal, hydro, nuclear sources. And demand for power generation will skyrocket as we move to electric vechicles. Using a coal fired plant to generate electricty for an electric vechicle will dump way more CO2 into the atmosphere than just staying with gasoline. However a nuclear, hydro, solar or wind source for electric vechiclesworks. We need a thoughtful approach to power generation and no one solution works. However I would like to see coal go.
Also clean coal is an oxymoron and it generates even more CO2 per kilowatt and requires even more coal mining
In my opinion, nuclear engineers lost a lot of credibility in this latest fiasco. The mantra of nuclear engineers for many years has been, "we have redundant safety systems" and "an accident cannot happen" because we have thought of everything. The only reason those plants even had a problem was due to the generstors being built too low. Really? In my opinion, if you build a plant in an eatrthquake zone where tsunamis regularly happen and you don't provide for multiple redundant power backup systems, you might want to find a new calling. This never should have happened. Shame on the planners of this plant.
It's not just Engineers who need to learn these valuable lessons, it's their leaders who often slash the budgets the engineers have to work with, and force what was a good design into a compromise between cost and capability. I run into this situation all too often, where the managers of engineers are finance people by background, and they just don't get it. It's amazing how many times I've have to explain why the codes and standards are what they are to someone who doesn't understand why they need to spend the $$ I'm asking for.
Although in this case...point taken. It couldn't have cost much more to install the generators on high ground, duh.
I'm always concerned with redundancy & in Japan the backup pumps were not protected. They could have been used earlier to pump seawater as a coolant.
Spent fuel rods should never be present at a powerplant. They should be recycled immediately after use. Jimmy Carter stopped recycling of spent fuel rods and must take part of the responsibility for the tragedy in Japan. Japan copied our technology & followed the Carter no-recyle plan.
France recycles spent fuel & stores the resulting less toxic material in a closet in Marsailles. We should also be recycling fuel in the USA.
Any environmentalist with a proliferation "concern" should be told to store spent fuel in their back yards or turn off their lights & go off grid.
The single most important thing that should NEVER be done with nuclear reactors is to build a bunch of them at one sight. If one has a problem, the radiation level and other effects make you abandon ALL of them. Storing waste material near the reactor makes it even a bigger problem.
I LIKE nuclear power...but storing and not re-processing fuel is a big mistake, and if you can't clean the litter-box, you shouldn't own a cat.
It's a shame that the Fukishima disaster occurred on several fronts. First off, the hardships incurred by the Japanese is eclipsed, perhaps, only by the Ukrainian nuclear disaster. Second, this disaster seriously-compromised the future of nuclear power generation. Last, because its future is compromised, pressures to develop renewable energy sources will escalate to levels that may, in fact, result in the deployment of inferior solutions, simply to appease those who are abnormally-frightened about nuclear power generation.
The world actually needs more nuclear power generation to serve as a logical bridge between conventional power generation, and renewable generation. People have a distorted view of renewable power generation: thinking that all one has to do is to erect a wind turbine, or assemble a photo-voltaic array, tie them into the grid, and call it a day. The reality of renewable energy generation is that we still do not have viable, long-term storage, and until science develops such a break-through in stationary batteries - batteries that can deliver relatively-constant DC for several weeks at a time, while not requiring an enormous land mass to implement - practical renewable energy generation is still 15 - 20-years down the road.
I am reasonably confident that the Japanese culture will remedy the current issues uncovered with Nuclear plants in new and remedial work. A look at the systematic, incremental improvements they made in autos demonstrates this.
I am seriously concerned that the US culture of not spending a penny more than we need to to obtain a benefit will hamper us from doing the same with expedited timing. Some suggestions for our activities: (1) For flooding, earthquake , tsunami, and wave action where are the tall berm walls to break up the waves and encircle plants and diesel genertors. Should we add redundant powered pumps inside the berm walls that can come on immediately? Should we reloacate the genertors to high ground? Should we have redundant bare bones control rooms at the edge of the site or offsite? (2) For offsite power should we have reduadant offsite power from 2 diverse locations? Should it be located underground and protected from both terror and natural interruption? (3) Should we over ride the no preemptive shutdown policy of utilities in the interest of national security? How many dollars can compensate for human lives put at risk? Now that we have seen the creative ugly face of terrorism, we should rethink the entire issue for Nuclear and fossile plants and see is we can sufficiently isolate units from each other as well as the nearby neighborhood. (4) I noted a few new safety systems in Japanese plants that were not in US nuc plants when I wrote FSARs 20 years ago, we need to evlauate how well they worked and which ones to incorporate. (5) We need to coordinate military protection for national assets like this and train with special forces to defend the plants. Use redundant diverse communications. Even the spent fuel pool can be a contamination problem. (6) We need a national spent fuel reprocessing and storage faciklity and policy to get the spent fuel safe from accidental and deliberate compromises and away from populated areas. If we can isolate and protect missile silos, we can protect spent fuel. (7) We need a major initiative to inspect plants from corrosion and other silent dangers. Then make a list of infrastructure that needs replacementand do so on a schedule. How can a small utility have the expertise to know where to look for problems and how often, especially in rooms that are only entered once every year or two?
I want to see us do better, we are capable, but really need fresh eyes. The world has changed since the assumed risks were written down in the 1960s and 1970s and we need to evaluate the landscape again.
It seems that as the plants come up for re-licensing here in the US we should seriously consider retiring the older designs and replacing them with new ones.
There are many good points in the article and in the comments. Separating plants physically, removing spent fuel and reprocessing it, and replacing older reactors with new modern and safe designs seems like a no brainer.
It is interesting to note how many of these problems and issues are the result of poor decisions made in the past. Not reprocessing the fuel is a good example. But we can go even further back and ask why we are using uranium fueled reactors instead of thorium? The reason is you cannot make a bomb from thorium. The US wanted the uranium technology to support the defense requirement for nuclear weapons.
One thing I have learned is the sooner one corrects the mistakes made the sooner one can obtain the benefits of doing it right. Unfortunately the NRC has also become the poster child for what is known as "Regulatory capture". The NRC is not so much regulating and providing oversight as they are promoting and acquiescing to the industry demands.
The smartest thing to do is to look at the entire industry and the energy requirements it is intended to support and come up with a national (even international) energy policy. The policy should correct the errors of the past and provide a carefully thought out and well engineered solution for the future. I just don't see that coming from the Federal government and the Department of Energy. I might blame the oil companies for part of this.
People involved with the very strong march 11 seism evaluation feature this : strength 9.1, duration : 3 minutes. The Fukushima NPP is designed for 7.x strong seism. With that duration and the big power difference larger than 100 times of the seism (more than 2 logarithmic point between 7 and 9.1) no chance the Fukushima design can resist. Bringing on the top of the mountain the generators is of no use. The whole vessel design was off well before the tsunami impact. I fear no one can design a NPP to sustain such a powerful and sustained earthquake, the energy ratio is in the range of thousands above the current design ratings. Now the corium is out of containment and the TMI disaster is a gentle affair compared to Fukushima. The whole planet is concerned, no customs for radioactivity. Can we longer rely on nuclear energy : only 2.6% of final energy used by humanity and each big accident cost so large it nullifies spares from the origin of nuclear era energy.
You're right, disinformation makes people think the drama is the result of the big stroke followed by a big water. The best winning disinformation process is the ONE MONTH DELAY before the INES7 level declaration, and no word about a real level INES8 because no solution exist to stop the Fukushima corium to day. The INES7 reference is Chernobyl : the soviet involved many people digging deadly under the RBMK to stop the corium. Fukushima pressure and temperature data monitoring are always hidden from citizens, hope the release of these data is a matter of weeks, not years. Every one of us must act to make these figures public, we need to know before we can make our mind about these NPPs.
It's my understanding that a nuclear plant must be cooled with heavy water and nothing else will due because it is inefficient and can't keep up with the heat generated. Having this in mind, I knew the reactors where doomed to fail. I only hoped that it wasn't another Chernobyle type incident for the people of Japan. Because of the heavy water requirement and large halflife of radioactive fuel, I think nuclear power is not that bright of an idea. The plumbing broke, engines failed to start, and foundations broke apart, the only thing one could do was try to lessen the damage.
We all agree that hindsight is 20/20, but putting a nuclear power plant with numerous reactors and spent rod fuel tanks right on the coast of an area known for earthquakes and sunamis may be the recipe for disaster. As was mentioned already, the spent fuel needs to be taken away from the coast and populated areas. The backup pump systems and facilities need to survive earthquakes and any size sunami.
I would favor smaller, modular reactors away from, and down wind from population centers. Thus reducing the radioactive risk at any one site. Also grid them together in such a way that if any one (or two) go down, the others can pick up the slack.
If any one reactor should fail it could be dropped into a reinforced concrete hole and sealed up forever while it cools down.
Portable reactors could be useful - if such a thing is practicle. Submarines and aircraft carriers are effectivly portable nuclear reactors as well.
Fukishima needed information on the damage in real time - but could not put humans close to the problem. There seems to be a need for robotic video and mechanical construction type equipment to assist in the control of this type of disaster.
We will need massive amounts of electricity to run our cars, and also think we should consider remote nuclear plants which generate hydrogen to power our vehicles...
Chernobyl : every robot from USA, Japan, France quickly broke down because of radioactivity. Fukushima : same problem. Nobody knows how to design a robot sustaining high radioactivity level. A silicon sensor is quickly burned, Chernobyl demonstrated the only robots you can use to solve these disasters are "biorobots". 800 000 young man, named "liquidators" have given their health to stop the Chernobyl drama, a big shrunk of Japanese population will lose health because moving them elsewhere is too expensive. Is the nuclear energy with only 2.6% of the world production worth the price ? Really, we must profoundly rethink the way we live, the future is not solely a technological issue.
Nuclear power is the most expensive way of producing steam... its the most expensive and dangerous steam engine out there... and dealing with the wasted rods and other radioactive waste is not safe for our health either, there are many dumpsites which are done poorly, and they are waiting for us one night in a dark alley...
I just don't see how we can ever design and build fail safe power plants no matter how they are operating...
So we better build power plants that when they will fail, no harm will happen to humanity, and we will just need to build new ones...
There are already great ideas how to harness mother nature to give as much power as we need forever, there is heat below our feet where ever we are, we just need to dig it out, and there are ways to dig only 2Km instead of 5Km and get to boiling temp of certain fluids, which can create steam at 60C in a closed circle...
If this power plant ever breaks, we will fix it, or build a new one, and no one is hurt.
There are ways to harness the oceans' tides and lows, and get all the power we need, of course these systems will be big, but again with no danger to our lives. and if they break, we will fix them without hurting anyone on the planet...
Nuclear power will show us time after time that it is not benevolent for life, and the prices in health and other costs will get higher and higher specially with the earth changes which are accruing now more and more...
I think these two power sources will prove to be better and more efficient than wind and solar power plants because they can operate 22/7 as long as we have the moon, and as long as we have heat inside our planet...
The future will belong to safe power plants which will depend on nature...
I am for starting now with these future ways of getting all the power we will ever need... and with out paying with our health...
We Should tap into Geothermal - what are we waiting for! Perhaps the technology to develop a little further. And tidal power generation makes perfect sense, but there are those who oppose the same due to environmental considerations. To that I say boo hoo. Good news, is I see solar power going up at schools and public facilities as well as homes.
France relys heavily on nuclear power, and we don't hear about disasters from the technology there.
We need to do whatever we can do to generate power since fossil fuels release CO2 and will not last forever...
Greg There are SEVERAL geothermal systems in operation especially in Texas and other southern states. I attended a meeting in the early 2003 or 4 that showed the cost savings of the school system using the technology for over a decade to other greater DFW area school districts. The SAVINGS were impressive and included very lowmaintenance cost yeilding TOTAL 10 YEAR SAVINGS over 45% compared with other local districts.
MORE: Other SAFE nuclear technologies ARE available that have NOT EVEN BEEN CONSIDERED. They can be stopped, started, have been tested for years, DO NOT POLUTE in any way ARE EXTREAMLYcost effective since they are based on nuclear science and other proven qtantum energy discoveries, notusing enriched materials.
Knowing this to be true is difficult as an engineer to condone the continuance of fision designs and their proliferation of dangerous waste materials. IT IS TIME TO ABANDON 20th CENTURY ENERGY and LIGHT THE FUTURE NEEDS OF MANKIND WITH 21st CENTURY ENERGY SOLUTIONS.
It is interesting to read all the comments regarding the problems at Fukishima. Keeping in mind the design of these reactors probably predates the birth of most of us, the true take-away from this mess is that not enough "what-ifs" were asked. For instance, what-if a 40 ft high tidal wave hit these reactors, what would happen? How about a 50 ft wave? What about a 100 ft one? And what-if all the electrical power was lost at these reactors, what would happen? Clearly, if these questions were asked in the design phase, significant changes would have been made. Probably the best recommendation is to not put these reactors so close to a known active fault line.
Of course, the best design for nuclear power plants is one that can stand a complete disruption of cooling flow and still survive. I refer those who are interested to an article in August 2011 issue Mechanical Engineering Magazine, page 53 (available online), in which Lee Langston describes a pebble bed reactor cooled with helium that can survive a loss-of-coolant incident. There are other designs, such as molten salt reactors (see May 2010 issue of Mechanical Engineering) which are low pressure, also do not suffer from loss of coolant problems, and most significantly, do not create radioactive materials with essentially infinite half-lifes and the associated disposal problem.
Clearly, there are better alternatives to the antiquated reactors at Fukishima. As engineers, we should demand that self-sufficient energy sources consider all alternatives, including nuclear, but with a clear understanding of potential benefits and problems. It is our job to make sure all the "what-ifs" are asked and properly answered.
WE can count up the very obvious fundamental flaws that led to this disaster. And we can be certain that the culture in Japan will assure that disaster will strike again and again, since there is an unwillingness to point out mistakes, as well as to admit to them.
But I can point out that the very first huge mistake was designing and building a system that required outside power to run the cooling system. That is especially dumb considering that the ocean, a natural source of cooling, was right there. All that would have been required would be to build the cooling system low enough to allow gravity feed of cool water. Designing the inner loop to use natural convection would be the other part of the plan. These are the way it should have been, which would have allowed the reactors to keep running. Of course they might have cost a bit more, but they would not have failed because of los of poower. But refusing to point out an error of a manager made certain that nobody ever considered the option.
Learning from disaster is so obvious we think it is anybody's motto. But when money must flow, learning is second, money is first. Here in France, in 1999, we have experienced a quite Fukushima situation, a big NPP relied on only one pump to survive, politics were on the verge to evacuate the Bordeaux town in a hurry. This was hidden from public for years, revealed only years after because an innocent journalist question to a politic triggered the hidden truth. In France, we know now that numerous NPP designs were undersized regarding lots of aspects, our NPPs are aging and we have no money to dismantle, so we keep them running. Around every NPP arise health concerns, traces of tritium are everywhere, I suppose the situation in USA is the same. Ok, nuclear is lower CO2 than coal, but children cancers are increasing year after year, no need too work in a mine to get disease, it breathes to you directly from the NPP. My conclusion is that learning from disaster is “distance” dependant and vanishes rapidly in time with a good public communication lobbying.
I have to agree, and this is exactly the technology we need to develop, the pebble bed reactor cooled with helium, the molten salt reactor, which make the best use of the technology while doing as much as possible to mitigate the risk, and reduce hazardous by-products.
Seems like if we can 'put a man on the moon', we can make nuclear power safe and reliable...
I was not aware of those issues in France. And remember an expert on CNBC referring to Frances's technology as being safe and without incident. Apparently there was a spin on that reality and I suspect some management, cost cutting or politics behind the single pump degign...
Why not use Stirling Cycle Engines that would use the waste heat from whatever is being cooled to power the cooling pumps? Then no diesel fuel or external power would be required.
For new plants the passively safe technologies are the way to go. But are there situations where retrofitting existing reactors or cooling ponds with Stirling Cycle Engines would be a safety improvement?
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This radio show will show what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.