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Japan Nuclear Emergency Prompts Quick Action in Europe

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

As Japanese authorities continue to struggle with the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear facility after last week's massive earthquake and tsunami, the rest of the world has jumped headlong into a discussion of nuclear power's safety. In Europe, where some countries rely heavily on nuclear reactors for electricity, the reactions have been swift.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that seven older plants -- those that came online prior to 1980 -- will be shuttered until at least June while safety tests are conducted. At the same time, a deal made last summer that extended the life of 30 German nuclear plants has been suspended for at least three months. Nuclear power provides about one quarter of Germany's electricity.

France, on the other hand, gets about 80 percent of its power from 58 nuclear facilities (one of them, at Lorraine, pictured above), a greater proportion than any other country in the world. And though French officials agree of the magnitude and importance of the Japanese disaster, there seems to be little plan to change their reliance on nuclear power. As President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement: "France has made the choice of nuclear energy, which is key to its energy independence and in the fight against greenhouse gases...I remain today convinced of the pertinence of this choice."

France has long been an innovator in nuclear power; as we covered here before, the country has spearheaded ideas like a small undersea nuclear reactor. In an e-mail, the main company developing that project, DCNS, did not say that the Japanese crisis will change the timeline at all.

In the United Kingdom, where nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of electricity -- similar to the United States -- the energy minister Chris Huhne has expressed concern that the appetite to fund nuclear projects might now be lessened. Ten plants in the country need replacing.

There are clearly differing attitudes around the European continent as the crisis in Japan continues to unfold. But on a continent-wide basis, there is general agreement that all 143 plants in the European Union's 27 countries should now undergo additional stress testing. Whether the testing, or the political and cultural landscapes of individual nations, will change the course of nuclear power in Europe remains to be seen.

(Image via Toucanradio)

Implications of Second Japanese Reactor Meltdown

March 13

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

UPDATE 3/16: For the latest news, read Timeline: The Japanese Nuclear Emergency.

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. A more recent post describes the second explosion at the Fukushima I power plant.

With the news Sunday that a second unit at the Fukushima I nuclear power plant is probably suffering a meltdown, and that the possibility of a second containment building explosion also cannot be excluded, the grave implications of the disastrous accident are beginning to sink in.

The previous day, as reports accumulated of radioactive cesium and iodine readings outside the plant, speculation was rife as to whether a reactor meltdown had occurred in Unit 1. Radioactive cesium and iodine are fission products--that is, they are created when fissile uranium splits--and their presence outside a reactor vessel implies not merely that a meltdown has taken place but, even more seriously, that the vessel has somehow been breached.

By today, March 13 in North America, official word had come that the Unit 1 core almost certainly had melted and that the Unit 3 core was likely melting too. A press release from the Tokyo Electric Power Company said that water containing boric acid was being injected into the Unit 3 vessel in an attempt to stop reactivity and cool the core. In what was generally seen as a "Hail Mary" pass the day before, TEPCO had injected sea water as well as boric acid into the Unit 1 core.

The TEPCO press release also said that a buildup of hydrogen in the Unit 3 outer containment building could not be excluded, and that it too might explode. The Japanese prime minister declared the general crisis in Sendai and the surrounding territories the nation's worst since the end of World War II.

What are the international implications? The most obvious is this: Next-generation nuclear power plants are to be equipped with passive cooling systems, such that convection alone guarantees emergency cooling of the core if the primary system fails. The new emergency core cooling system would exclude the kind of meltdowns that appear to have taken place in Units 1 and 3. That's the good news. The bad news is that the nuclear power plants operating in the world today do not have that kind of emergency system, and therefore in principle are all vulnerable to a Fukushima I-type accident.

As reactors are being relicensed around the world to keep operating beyond their intended 40-year lifetimes, the Japanese accident is bound to get universal and very close notice.

Credit: TEPCO

Japan Nuclear Accident: Worse than Worst, Again

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

In the disastrous accident unfolding at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, essentially the same chain of events has unfolded three times: first the failure of backup systems meant to keep cooling systems running if the plant lost external power, evidently the result of damage to turbine generators from the earthquake and tsunami; then the explosion of the outer containment building, apparently the result of hydrogen buildup from several possible sources.

Emergency operators flooded reactor vessels with seawater to cool them and stop core melting. Operators also injected boron to head off a recriticality--a situation in which melting fuel reconfigures itself and starts reacting self-sustainably again. Meanwhile, with some radiation escaping the plant, the evacuation zone was expanded to a 20-30 kilometer radius and authorities passed out potassium iodide, which prevents radioactive iodine from concentrating in the thyroid gland and causing cancer.

Because of the explosion and the radiation leakage, Fukushima already ranks as the second most serious nuclear power plant accident after Chernobyl. In terms of public impact, it may come in first because it's taking place in a country that has the world's most sophisticated earthquake prediction and mitigation systems, top-notch nuclear technology, and a pronounced national radiation phobia. Japan is not a technically backward country with notoriously poor reactor designs, the way the former Soviet Union was. Its nuclear power plants were designed and built with an acute consciousness of extreme earthquake dangers.

So how is it, despite that sophistication, awareness, and preparedness, that the Fukushima crisis has nonetheless exceeded worst-case thinking? Here, the story is reminiscent of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the message seems to be the same: Worst-case scenario builders consistently underestimate the statistical probability of separate bad things happening simultaneously, as the result of the same underlying causes. As the TMI accident evolved, the nation was mesmerized by the buildup of hydrogen gas in the reactor vessel (a prospect no member of the general public had ever heard of before) and the danger of its exploding. Subsequent post mortems found, in addition, that a substantial fraction of the reactor core melted during the accident. Had it melted through the bottom of the vessel, a vast amount of radioactivity would have found its way into the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, poisoning their waters permanently.

In Chernobyl, a peculiar design feature that the general public had never heard of--a positive reactivity void coefficient--caused first one explosion and then, very likely, a second. Such explosions supposedly couldn't happen in nuclear reactors, but it turned out they could in some types. Water flashing to steam had caused reactivity to escalate (the positive feedback loop from water voiding), prompting more water to flash to steam, leading to more overpower, until the plant "disassembled," as the technical literature puts it. In addition, overpressure from the boiling waters in the cooling pipes lifted the top of the poorly designed reactor vessel, rupturing all pipes and control-rod systems, putting the reactor completely out of control. It was, as major reports done by various national and international authorities would later put it, a "worse than worst-case accident."

Actually, every major nuclear accident has been worse than worst case, and that's a fact every nuclear advocate--this one included--will have to take into account. As we learned in the global financial crisis as well, instruments and devices thought of as separate entities can all "go south" as the result of a single underlying cause, upending estimates of how serious and consequential any one failure would be.

Photo: TEPCO/Reuters

Fires and Nuclear Shutdowns: Japan Quake Hits Energy Infrastructure


Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

As news and images continue to roll in from the devastating earthquake that struck near northern Japan, issues at energy sites are among the acute problems being reported.

The 9.0-magnitude quake led to the government declaring an atomic power emergency immediately afterward; four nuclear plants were immediately shut down as a safety precaution. Operators were having trouble cooling the Fukushima I plant, and nearby residents were evacuated. There was not enough electricity available to pump cooling water through, but that situation is apparently under control with no real danger reported. At another nuclear plant, the Onagawa plant (pictured), a fire was quickly extinguished, again with no apparent major damage or danger.

Video taken from a helicopter and shown on (and elsewhere) featured a large fire burning at an oil refinery near Tokyo, and it remains unclear if firefighters have been able to start fighting it yet.

These are obviously only among the first reports coming in since the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time, and it seems clear that the casualties and property damage will be immense.

(Image via Getty Images)

Banner Year for Solar: 2010 Saw Major Growth in US Installations

The Solar Energy Industries Association released its report on 2010 solar markets and installations yesterday, and revealed a rapidly growing sector of the energy market. The United States installed 956 megawatts of all types of solar power in 2010, giving a cumulative installed capacity of 2.6 gigawatts (enough to power about 500,000 homes). Impressive, no doubt, but this still represents less than one percent of the installed electricity capacity in the country

Still, it is the growth in the industry that is most impressive. In 2009, the total value of solar installations was $3.6 billion. In 2010, that number jumped all the way to $6 billion. As reported by Reuters, though, the global share of US photovoltaic installations actually slipped in 2010, to 5 percent of the world's total from 6.5 percent in 2009. Even though the pace is quickening in the US, other countries are pushing solar hard enough to leave the bigger market behind.

And if that's not enough to show how important specific solar-minded policies are, just a glance at the states that are moving fastest on solar power should reinforce the notion. California led the way on solar installations in 2010 and continues to lead in cumulative capacity, but right behind it is little, not-particularly-sunny New Jersey. Those two states, along with Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Pennsylvania (also not the most obvious of solar landing spots), accounted for 76 percent of the solar capacity installed in 2010. New Jersey continues to offer some of the best solar subsidies and tax breaks in the country.

It is of course difficult to predict if the same degree of growth can continue in 2011 and beyond, but there have been good signs, including approvals for some of the largest solar installations in the world. If some of those get built on reasonable time scales, the industry goal of powering 2 million homes by 2015 could be easily within reach.

(Graph via SEIA)

Wind Power isn't Necessarily Small or Beautiful

Wind, having been the fastest growing component of power generation during much or most of the last two decades, is bigger all the time. And it's not just big in terms of generating fraction. As wind farm developers seek to tap higher-speed winds up-hill and off-coast, the size of the turbine towers and blades is getting huge.

The April issue of MIT's Technology Review magazine, available to subscribers online now, contains an outstanding photo essay describing the construction of a 367-MW wind farm in the Irish Sea. The $1.5-billion project is being managed by Denmark's Dong Energy. The turbines, the height of a 30-story building, are supplied by Siemens.

To put such projects in a human scale, IEEE Spectrum's "Reap the Wild Wind," by Robb Mandelbaum, is still worth a look. It's not available online but can be found in the print October 2002 issue. Mandelbaum gives a vivid account of what it feels like to climb one of the giant turbine towers.

A month just spent in a Vermont writers' retreat provided reminders that wind not only is not small but, in many minds, not beautiful either. In a small town east of Burlington, 18-wheelers carrying "oversized loads"--just pieces of the huge turbine blades, actually--regularly rumbled through town. An interstate highway rest area just outside Burlington (photo above) turned out to be chock full of the trucks and trailers.

Personally, I generally find wind turbines strung along a mountain ridge to be a stirring and gorgeous sight. But among the artists and writers resident at the Vermont retreat, more than one felt that the giant turbine towers are about as lovely as a power transmission line. An art photographer confessed to a longing for the old-fashioned nuclear power plant, tucked inconspicuously into a valley glen, capable of producing three times the energy they'll get from that farm in the Irish Sea.

Troubles at Iran's Bushehr Reactor

The disclosure by Iran last week that it has had to remove the initial fuel load from its newly built Bushehr power reactor has ignited or re-ignited a storm of speculation, much of which is best ignored. Well before the latest difficulties, a controversy was raging among experts as to whether the plant had been damaged or its operations impaired by the spectacularly insidious Stuxnet malware. Now, with the news the Iranians have had to take the highly unusual step of de-loading the reactor's fuel, one well-known reactor specialist at a top organization speculated for the press that the plant might be vulnerable to a Chernobyl-type accident.

That possibility can be safely dismissed. The Bushehr reactor is a second-generation Soviet reactor of the VVER type, not an RBMK like the one that exploded at Chernobyl. The RBMK has a singular design defect, namely, that at certain power levels, if the reactor suffers a loss of cooling water, its reactivity can increase rather than decrease. In the boiling water and pressurized water reactors used exclusively in the United States and western Europe, because the chain reaction depends on the presence of water, which acts as a so-called "moderator," if there is a loss of water, the reactor automatically shuts down. (This is a very important and little appreciated passive safety feature of the light water reactor.) The RBMK on the other hand is moderated mainly by carbon, which accounts for why a loss of water can have the perverse effect of boosting reactivity. In the Chernobyl accident, an unexpected spike in power caused liquid cooling water to become steam and thus become less dense; that set off a positive feedback loop that caused the plant's reactivity to escalate by orders of magnitude in microseconds.

The VVER is a light water reactor more like the U.S. and U.S.-derived plants and cannot blow up the way the Chernobyl reactor did. The Iranians, under the deposed Shah, originally planned to have Germans build them a U.S.-type light water reactor at Bushehr. When that deal fell apart after the revolution, they persuaded the Russians to install a VVER at the site they had begun to prepare.

As for Stuxnet, all the expert analysis indicates that its payload was designed specifically to reprogram electronic controllers in Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant. The outer shells of Stuxnet infected many other industrial control systems around the world but generally did no damage elsewhere. It appears now that the problem at Bushehr was a defective pump that must be repaired or replaced.

Fracking Report

A major investigative report published by The New York Times this last Sunday, February 27, identified important environmental hazards in natural gas fracking that previously have received little or no attention. Easily the most eye-catching is the disclosure that waste water from natural gas drilling wells sometimes contains levels of radioactivity that far exceed Federal drinking water standards. But that is not the only significant concern to be aired.

"With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of waste-water that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground," said the 4,000-word Times report, by Ian Urbina. Thousands of documents obtained by the Times "reveal that the waste-water, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known."

An additional major finding, largely overlooked in previous journalistic investigations of fracking (including one by me), is that in Pennsylvania--the main locus of Marcellus Shale gas fracking--regulation of waste-water from fracking wells is singularly lax. Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania does not require waste-water to be put into storage caverns deep under impermeable rock, and alone among the drilling states, it allows drillers to discharge the water directly through sewage treatment plants.

Pennsylvania currently has about 71,000 active gas drilling wells, almost double the number ten years ago. The Times found that 128 wells generated waste water with levels of gross alpha--radiation from radium, uranium, and other radioactive materials--that exceeded Federal drinking water standards, in some cases by a factor of 2,700.

The potential environmental problems do not end with water. Air pollution also is a serious concern, as other reports have found. Sparsely populated Wyoming, for example, failed to meet Federal clean air standards for the first time in 2009, partly because of benzene and toluene fumes from some 27,000 wells. In six Texas counties where fracking is especially intense, early childhood asthma rates exceeded the state average by a factor of more than three.

"We're burning the furniture to heat the house," a former Pennsylvania secretary of conservation and natural resources told The New York Times. "In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas . . . it's not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste."

The Times report is bound to have an impact especially in New York State, where a de-facto moratorium has been imposed on drilling in the New York City watershed, because of concerns about the city's water supply.


A second installment of Urbina's article appears today, March 2, and discusses efforts by frackers to address the waste-water issue by recycling. The general message is that this approach has considerable promise but is not as widely used at present as the industry has been claiming. In Pennsylvania, where it's been asserted that as much as 90 percent of waste water is recycled, the actual number is closer to 50 percent.

It's a telling detail in Urbina's report that the one company and industry representative who agreed to talk with him, Matt Pitzarella of Range Resources, is the very same person who made himself available to Spectrum this time last year, when I did a similar investigative report. The industry as a whole has been very close-lipped, and that is going to have to change drastically if it's going to retain public confidence as drilling becomes much more widespread.

Right now, reports Urbina, there are 6,400 permitted wells in Pennsylvania. In the next 20 years there are expected to be at least 50,000 more.

More Offshore Ideas: Floating Solar Panels

Everything is moving offshore these days. There's the massive potential of wind, then some ideas to float the turbines, and various ways to use tidal and wave power to produce energy... and now there's solar power.

A partnership between a French and an Israeli group aims to use industrial water basins and reservoirs as a platform for solar photovoltaic installations. Okay, so this isn't quite "offshore" in the way, say,  Cape Wind is, but it still involves shedding land-based requirements, and makes use of a space that otherwise was going unused. And the developers say that because these aren't natural lakes or the open sea, there isn't likely to be any local environmental impact of the installations.

A test site will soon launch in Cadarache, in France, and will run for nine months before the technology might be brought to the open market. The technology will make use of a cooling system involving the water sitting underneath the panels; this will allow cheap silicon cells to be used.

There is some concern that covering the water's surface with solar panels, even in an industrial, non-natural setting, could endanger plant and animal life in the water below. According to the developers, though, the panels will allow oxygen to penetrate the water as usual. Still, part of the testing phase will involve checks on the environmental impacts.

With space and land use concerns a constant problem for solar developers, this type of idea could prove invaluable. Others are out there, as well: "floating" takes on a new meeting in this idea out of Israel, involving helium balloons coated with solar cells.

Capped Landfills Get Solar Treatment

Landfills are all the rage these days. Capturing methane emissions from large trash sites has long been considered a solid energy-saving idea, but now a new trend sees capped landfills contributing to renewable goals in yet another way: solar power.

One site in Canton, Massachusetts, along with Southern Sky Renewable Energy, will install 5.6 megawatts of solar photovoltaic panels over the top of a capped landfill. They say it will generate as much as $70 million in combined savings and revenue over the next 25 years. When complete, it will be the largest solar installation in New England.

Jeffrey Osuch, executive secretary of another town in New Jersey following a similar plan, told the AP why this is an appealing idea: 

"Capped landfills have turned out to be a prime location for solar panels since they tend to be raised, can't be built on and have to be clear of trees to protect the integrity of the lining."

More generally, there is a glut of ideas floating around based on how better to use waste, landfills, and the like. Last year we covered here how Spain could get a full seven percent of its power from waste materials, and that British Airways will soon start to make use of a waste-to-fuel plant. And if none of those work, you can always turn your Staten Island landfill into a giant park.

(Image via Southern Sky Renewable Energy)


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