Japan nuke shutdown underscores safety issue

japan-nuke.jpgAP reports breaking news:

A strong earthquake struck northwestern Japan on Monday, causing a fire and radioactive water leak at the world’s largest nuclear plant.

We see once again reasons why nuclear power is no climate cure-all.

Greenwire (subs. req’d) has a good piece on the the safety and security concerns raised by the accident:

Daniel Cusick, Greenwire reporter

The emergency shutdown today of the world’s largest nuclear power plant following a strong earthquake in Kashiwazaki, Japan, drew swift attention from advocacy groups opposed to a planned global resurgence of nuclear energy.

The 6.8-magnitude tremor, centered about 155 miles from Tokyo on Japan’s northwest coast, sparked a fire in an electrical transformer at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, resulting in the evacuation of about 2,000 people.

“It does show that these plants are not as safe and secure as some might want us to believe,” said Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Program.

But Lochbaum stopped short of characterizing the plant fire as a high-risk incident capable of triggering nuclear disaster. Rather, he noted, the plant performed as it was supposed to by quickly shutting down its reactors when the earthquake struck.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from today’s incident, he said it’s that the plant’s secondary systems — those away from the reactor cores — that may be more vulnerable than they should be to disruptions.

Such systems might include transformers, piping, transmission lines and other controls whose design and construction standards are not held to the same security standards as the reactors themselves.

“A lot of things have to go right to make electricity, only a few things have to go wrong to have a major disruption in electric power,” Lochbaum said.

A spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co. said 1.5 liters of water containing radioactive materials had leaked from the plant’s No. 6 unit into the ocean, but officials downplayed any environmental damage from the release. The plant’s three reactors automatically shut down after the quake, TEPCO said.

Today’s nuclear plant fire is the latest in a string of accidental blazes at plants in Asia and Europe. Within the last month, fires damaged two German nuclear plants, while in May a fire disrupted operations at a British nuclear plant at Oldbury. None of those fires resulted in radioactive releases.

Greenpeace International cited the fires as further evidence that utilities are pushing older reactors to perform beyond the limits of what is safe and reliable.

“This has serious safety implications,” Greenpeace said in a July 6 statement on the fires. “Not only are older reactors prone to all kinds of failures, like any old, complex machines, but many of their crucial components are physically losing their ability to withstand extreme situations that may occur during an accident.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s policy organization, had not responded to calls for comment on the Japan quake at press time.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant comprises seven units, the oldest of which began operating in 1985. The plant’s Unit 6, where the water leak occurred, began operations in 1996.

In the United States, nuclear energy advocates have successfully lobbied Congress and the White House for policies to help foster the development of a new generation of nuclear power plants. Also, spending bills moving through the House and Senate would provide more than $700 million for nuclear energy research and development.

But Wall Street remains uncertain about nuclear power’s future, in part because of high construction and permitting costs, but also because of continued uncertainty about long-term storage of nuclear waste

2 Responses to Japan nuke shutdown underscores safety issue

  1. David says:

    This article shows me how a nuclear plant took a hit from a 6.7 magnitude earthquake and only released half a gallon of barely radioactive material. That is an amazing feat of engineering to me.

    Of course nuclear isn’t going to be a cure all. NOTHING is going to be a cure all. There will be many factors that will contribute to success, and nuclear happens to be one of those factors.

  2. Joe says:

    You say tomato. A 6.7 is a sizable earthquake, but hardly near the biggest we might expect.