The Japan nuclear emergency in context

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The earthquake and tsunami in Japan delivered a devastating one-two punch to that island nation and to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. So what does much of the world do? You guessed it. They blamed the designers, builders and operators of the nuclear plant for not doing a good enough job. They call for all reactors in the world to be closed down.

Electricity has been restored to all the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. That means that the control panels have lit up and banished the inky darkness. Electricity is available to the electrical cooling pumps.

The overall situation is looking much better. They are not out of the woods yet, but day by day the residual nuclear decay heat, in the reactor fuel elements, is dropping and the prospect for any major release of nuclear material is diminishing.

It seems likely that the main toll from the nuclear emergency will be to a small number of heroic plant workers and emergency responders who continue to brave exposure to radiation to restore cooling to the reactors.

The focus for Japan and the world should remain on recovery from this crisis and we should be wary of any seeking to exploit, rather than solve the situation.

Serious risks remain, however, it is appropriate to place the harm and risk from Japan’s nuclear emergency in context of the full scope of the tragedy. The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami stands at 9,300 with 13,800 missing. These numbers continue to rise. Any death or injury is tragic, but inside the nuclear plant only one person, a crane driver died from injury sustained, and some nuclear workers may have been exposed to high levels of radiation. Outside the nuclear plant no people have been injured in any way from any radiation. We should also compare the harm done from this and other nuclear power emergencies with past power plant disasters. Look at the following list (from “What is the worst kind of power plant disaster? Hint: It’s not nuclear” by Annalee Newitz):

1975: Shimantan/Banqiao Dam Failure
Type of power: Hydroelectric
Human lives lost: 171,000
Cost: $8,700,000,000
What happened: Shimantan Dam in China’s Henan province fails and releases 15.738 billion tons of water, causing widespread flooding that destroys 18 villages and 1500 homes and induces disease epidemics and famine.

1979: Morvi Dam Failure
Type of power: Hydroelectric
Human lives lost: 1500 (estimated)
Cost: $1,024,000,000
What happened: Torrential rain and unprecidented flooding caused the Machchu-2 dam, situated on the Machhu river, to burst. This sent a wall of water through the town of Morvi in the Indian State of Gujarat.

1998: Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Jess Oil Pipeline Explosion
Type of power: Oil
Human lives lost: 1,078
Cost: $54,000,000
What happened:Petroleum pipeline ruptures and explodes, destroying two villages and hundreds of villagers scavenging gasoline.

1944: East Ohio Gas Company
Type of power: Liquified natural gas (LNG)
Human lives lost: 130
Cost: $890,000,000
What happened: Explosion at LNG facility destroys one square mile of Cleveland, OH.

1907: Monongah Coal Mine
Type of power: Coal
Human lives lost: 362
Cost: $162,000,000
What happened: Underground explosion traps workers and destroys railroad bridges leading into the mine.
Compare these to:

1986: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Type of power: Nuclear
Human lives lost: 4,056 (Source for this number: United Nations Scientific Subcommittee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation)
Cost: $6,700,000,000
What happened: Mishandled reactor safety test at Chernobyl nuclear reactor causes steam explosion and meltdown, necessitating the evacuation of 300,000 people from Kiev, Ukraine and dispersing radioactive materials across Europe.
NOTE: Monetary damage is measured in 1996 US dollars, except in accidents since that time measured in the dollar values of that year.
From: IO9 What is the worst kind of power plant disaster? Hint: It’s not nuclear.  By Annalee Newitz via Creative Commons

Consider had a passenger jet landed as the devastation struck. The pilot loses power and makes an emergency landing. The aircraft touches down, runs 300 metres beautifully, then runs into the debris. The wheels dig in and promptly sheer off. The aircraft spins, a wing breaks off, fuel spills across the sand and catches fire. The automatic escape slides deploy and most people get out safely and run from the wreckage.

The international news media hear of the story and splash it across the world. There is immediate concern for the passengers, but the crew does a good job calming them all down.

Then TV commentators say that the wheels should never have come off the aircraft. They add that the aircraft was poorly designed and built because a wing came off too. Others add that the fuel tanks should never have ruptured. Other commentators want to ban all 747’s from flying, yet others want to ban all aircraft from flying until the deficient designs have been corrected. The Germans ground all their aircraft, even though their pilots say that there is nothing wrong with their fleet.

This whole scenario sounds a bit silly. Nobody would react that way. They would all say; “Who on earth would have expected the 747 to have landed safely under those totally unforeseen circumstances.” They would have said that no aircraft would ever have been designed to have survived such an attempted landing. The pilots would have been praised for their skill and dedication.

But that is not what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The world jumped on the plant owners, operators, designers and builders. The media wanted answers concerning the “catastrophe.”

Think about the similarity to the Boeing scenario. The largest Japanese earthquake on record Miyagi-ken Oki strikes the nuclear power plant, closely followed by the largest ever tsunami.

The plant shuts down, as designed. The cooling pumps operate, as designed, but the earthquake disrupts the electric grid from which the pumps usually draw their power in an emergency. So the diesel backup pumps switch on, as designed, but only run for a short time before the tsunami sweeps their fuel supply tanks away. The plant then goes over to battery power, as designed, but the batteries only last eight hours.

The roads have been washed away, the fire brigade and emergency units are not coming, they cannot get through the obstructions.

The Fukushima plant was forty years old, near retirement. Its staff did a fantastic job under the circumstances. There was no disaster. No people outside the plant got injured, no property outside the plant was damaged by nuclear material. Give the reactor crew a round of applause. Nuclear power just got a whole lot better and safer. Nuclear power survived the onslaught well, and we learned a great deal. The lessons learned will be shared with the rest of the world to the betterment of all. Current designs could withstand even this worst-case scenario. Nuclear power remains, safe, viable and vital.

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About the Author: Kelvin Kemm

Kelvin Kemm

Dr Kelvin Kemm is the CEO of Nuclear Africa, a nuclear project management company based in Pretoria, South Africa. He is a member of the International Board of Advisors of CFACT. Dr. Kemm received the prestigious Lifetime Achievers Award of the National Science and Technology Forum of South Africa.