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Fukushima, TMI, and Chernobyl

April10

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.

Early in the crisis still unfolding at Fukushima, the thought crossed my mind that when all the dust settles, there will be those arguing that even when much more goes wrong than anybody imagined possible--not just partial reactor meltdown and probable pressure vessel breaching, but hydrogen explosions blowing up outer containment buildings and a spent fuel pond overheating--the consequences of very bad nuclear accidents are still well within the range of what we tolerate in other areas of modern life.

Hundreds die in the occasional airline crash, after all, and oil refinery and chemical plant explosions often take many dozens of lives. Tens of thousands die prematurely every year from exposure to air pollution in the United States, and hundreds of thousands in China. Seen in that perspective, are worse than worst-case nuclear accidents really all that bad?

After all, no fatalities are attributed to the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, and even the dreadful Chernobyl catastrophe caused only a few dozen immediate deaths. To be sure, thyroid cancer rates soared among children in Ukraine and Belarus, but long-term leukemia incidence traced to the accident still seems to be considerably lower than might have been expected.

This is a tempting line of thought, but it also leaves a lot out.

For one thing, the situation at Fukushima is still far from stabilized and under control. So all the consequences of the accident may turn out to be even worse than we know about now. In addition, as in many situations like this, as soon as investigators start looking into the conditions that led the disaster, unsavory ramifications come to light that will be costly to fix now that they have to be fixed. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Japanese reactor operators have long been using low-tier labor on short-term assignments to get the dirty work done at nuclear power plants, exposing them to unsafe conditions. It's like turning over a rock and finding the worms and lizards underneath.

For another thing, there's the question of dealing with the long-term environmental consequences of the accident--and the very real issue of whether the consequences will ever be adequately addressed. Today, two and a half decades after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the severely damaged reactor still has not been properly encased and secured. Ukraine has been seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance to take care of the job, and so far the money has not been forthcoming. So Ukraine continues to drag its feet. Meanwhile, vast areas of surrounding land will be uninhabitable or only partially habitable for decades to come.

If the world nuclear industry and the political authorities that nurture it cannot be counted on to clean up the mess when something really bad happens, then it's pretty hard to make any honest case for further expansion of atomic power.

Photo: TEPCO

Large North Dakota Wind Farm Falls to the Birds

Wind power's impact on wildlife has long been a sticking point when it comes to the renewable resource's development. Ever since the Altamont, California turbines went up in the late 1970s, bird kills have been highlighted as the best reason to show some restraint on massive wind farms. Nothing has changed today: most recently, Minnesota-based utility Xcel Energy canceled a contract to build a 150-megawatt wind farm because of concerns over bird impacts.

The wind farm, which was to be built in southeastern North Dakota by enXco Development Corp., would have cost about $400 million and was scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. But two endangered species have scuttled the plan: the whooping crane and the piping plover. Xcel would have had to spend time and money attempting to mitigate any threats to the birds, and apparently those requirements made the project too uncertain to move forward.

Bird groups and some other environmentalists have focused heavily on the wind turbine impacts; a recent American Bird Conservancy video showed a vulture being struck by a turbine, and there are reportedly hundreds of thousands of bird fatalities each year due to wind power. As Andy Revkin points out at Dot Earth, though, this is actually a fairly low number compared to other manmade structures. If buildings kill hundreds of millions of birds every year, stopping short on wind power entirely because of such concerns might be the wrong move.

Still, Xcel's move to protect two species that are down to only a few individuals in certain areas is commendable. Proper siting and configuration of wind farms can obviously help with this issue as well; the Altamont turbines were small and situated extremely close together. Doing things carefully, in this case, will be better than not doing them at all.

(Image via Dirk Ingo Franke)

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Fukushima Inspiring Change in China and Germany

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.

Amidst the stubbornly disappointing string of news emanating from Japan's Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear complex, there are signs that its melting nuclear fuel rods are inspiring some important and long-overdue developments in global power systems. And there's good news for both nuclear supporters and critics.

Hopeful spinoff number one: Berlin is getting serious about upgrading the balkanized and inadequate transmission grid that represents a serious liability for Germany's renewable energy ambitions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision last month to shut down Germany's oldest nuclear reactors and temporarily scrub life extensions for the rest was widely seen as a sop to voters in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Well, Merkel's Conservative Democrats lost the state to the Green Party, and she hasn't looked back. Last week a document leaked from Germany's Economy Ministry and reported by Bloomberg revealed plans to revamp the power grid--a precondition to replacing nuclear energy with solar, wind and other renewable power sources.

The need for action is evident. The German Energy Agency estimated in 2005 that the country needed 850 kilometers of new high-voltage lines by 2015 to absorb growing levels of wind power on its fragmented grid. So far, only 90 km have been built, and the challenge keeps growing: An updated study released in November estimated that 3,600 km of new lines have to be built by 2020/2025.

Hopeful spinoff number two is China's modest nuclear slowdown. Beijing reaffirmed its nuclear ambitions immediately after Japan's earthquake-tsunami double-punch unhinged Fukushima Dai-1's cooling systems. But then it began to backpedal, suspending new plant approvals and stepping up safety inspections at existing plants. Whether you're a nuclear supporter or not, this is very good news.

That's because while China's nuclear future is assured, its nuclear safety is not. China has some two dozen reactors under construction, including a domesticated and upgraded version of France’s existing light-water reactors, Westinghouse’s AP1000 advanced light water reactors, and a modular pebble-bed reactor of Chinese design.

Problem is that China's nuclear exuberance outstripped the process of training  nuclear operators and inspectors. That inspired surprisingly frank criticism from National Nuclear Safety Administration director Li Ganjie two years ago -- to little apparent effect.

Confronting proposals to more than double the pace of China's nuclear construction schedule, Ganjie courageously warned an IAEA meeting in Beijing that "over-rapid expansions" could diminish reactor quality and safety. Ganjie lost that round, and China's nuclear capacity goal for 2020, already set to jump more than four-fold to 40 gigawatts, shot up to 86 GW. 

Now we're hearing a different tune. Last week AP cited state media reporting that, "China is likely to scale back its ambitious plans ... under a new policy that stresses safety instead of rapid development." AP quoted deputy director of the China Electricity Council, Wei Zhaofeng, predicting that the policy change would trim growth by 10 GW.

That 10 GW may look small relative to China's target, but in real terms it is a massive quantity of reactor construction. Most nuclear power proponents will count themselves lucky if the U.S. adds that much reactor capacity by 2020.

Vestas Unveils Goliath of Offshore Wind Turbines

Danish wind power giant Vestas has announced plans for a turbine of giant proportions. The 7-megawatt behemoth is an offshore design; it will rise 135 meters (443 feet) above the waves, and feature a rotor blade that measures a full 80 meters (262 feet).

This isn't the first turbine to crack 7 MW -- that honor probably belongs to Enercon's E-126 -- but it is the first time the world's biggest wind turbine company raised the bar that high. In an introductory video for the Vestas V164, the company's technology R&D president Finn Madsen said this is the first turbine "100 percent dedicated to offshore, and optimized for the conditions in the North Sea."

Most of the existing offshore wind turbines -- none of which, of course, are yet spinning in U.S. waters -- max out at around 5 MW capacities. Vestas is responsible for a huge percentage of the worldwide offshore wind capacity: as of the end of 2010, the company had installed 580 offshore turbines, for a total capacity of 1407 MW. This accounts for about 43 percent of the world market.

The first 7-MW giants will be built by the end of 2012, with full scale production starting a few years later.

Of course, building any turbines, let alone truly enormous ones, in offshore conditions is difficult. As Peter Fairley has reported here, wind conditions around the world could be changing and making it even more challenging; increasing dangerous gust conditions could require big turbines like the new Vestas entry to shut down to avoid damage more often than in the past.

(Image via Vestas)

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Energy Shocks

It must be a tough time to be working at the OECDs  International Energy Agency. Ordinarily, what could be better, if you're a bright young economist or computer modeler, than working in a plush Paris suburb and dining at Michelin-starred restaurants? But right now your job is to figure out how prices for all fuels will be affected in the coming year by Mideast turmoil and the Japanese nuclear crisis--and the obvious truth is, nobody has the slightest idea how much costs of alternative energy sources will rise, and what all the ramifications will be.

Less that a week after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Financial Times reported that European natural gas prices were up 13.4 percent, coal prices 10.8 percent, and carbon emissions allowances 10.8 percent. Even before the crisis coal prices in Asian markets had climbed by a factor of four from 2003 to 2011 and in European markets by a factor of 2.5.

With the global oil industry still reeling from the aftershocks of last year's Gulf oil spill, and companies like Shell and Toyoto predicting gasoline prices of over $5/gallon by 2015, now more than ever the prospect of such sky-high costs is credible. To what extent will consumers opt for hybrid electrics or much more fuel-efficient conventional cars?  And will utilities go mainly for gas, wind, or alternative fuels, and how fast?

Those aren't the only unknowns that have energy specialists chewing their nails rather than sipping their Beaujolais.

In response to the ongoing Fukishima reactor crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel temporarily shut down the country's seven oldest nuclear power plants and ordered a review of all operating reactors. She has asked for a Europe-wide "stress-test" review of all the continent's 143 nuclear power plants. The industry is pooh-poohing that idea. But Merkel, a PhD physicist, has repeatedly shown a determination and stubbornness that one underestimates at one's peril.

China, though continuing to build some 30-plus nuclear power plants, has suspended authorizations for any additional ones. A comprehensive review already is on in the United States as well, and it's a pretty safe bet that the most dubious operating reactors--those nearest big cities, and those vulnerable to earthquakes or tsunamis--will soon be shuttered for good.

Overall, the net number of nuclear power plants operating in the advanced industrial countries--that is to say, countries rich enough to have many options--will decrease rather than increase in the coming decades. That would seem to be bad news for all those who have sharp reduction of greenhouse gases at heart--except that there's also a countervailing effect, namely, the impact of generally rising energy costs, which will induce conservation and efforts at greater energy efficiency.

And then there are the ongoing effects of ever-stricter coal and carbon regulation. The week after the Japanese crisis began, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues unprecedented rules for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, which the agency said might save as many as 17,000 lives annually. The impact of those rules on coal generation will be sharp, even if Republicans succeed in blocking EPA from also issuing greenhouse gas reduction rules, contrary to a Supreme Court ruling that instructed EPA to do so.

The week before Fukishima, the European Commission made known that it plans to adopt a new goal for reducing the European Union's greenhouse gas emissions even more than previously sought. Europe's existing objective is to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020 relative to 1990, and it "is on track to meet that goal," as The New York Times reported. The new goal will be a 25 percent cut.

So, will utilities and localities seeking to find alternatives to nuclear have no choice but to increase reliance on fossil fuels, or might new alternatives emerge? In New York City, the city government is quietly reviving the idea of building waste-to-energy plants in all five boroughs, an idea that went down in flames a couple of decades ago because of community opposition. If the concept can be revived, it would kill two or three birds with one stone: It would help solve the city's garbage problem, which became critical with closure of the huge Fresh Kills disposal site on Staten Island; and it would not only generate alternative energy but save energy, because of all the trucking as associated with garbage disposal at a distance. It might also help make up for energy lost if the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of the city is forced to close.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is on record as favoring closure of Indian Point. Now, under the circumstances, he may just succeed.

Luckily for those poor folk in Paris, they have till the fall to figure out what will be said in the next world energy outlook, which normally appears in November.


 

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A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines

In January we reported that winds across the Northern continents were losing some of their punch, and that climate change threatened to weaken them further -- altogether bad news for wind power. In stark contrast, Australian researchers report today in the journal Science that gusts are accelerating over Earth's oceans.

Unfortunately the trend offers offshore wind power a mixed bag: stronger but also more dangerous winds. "Mean wind conditions over the oceans have only marginally increased over the last 20 years. It is the extreme conditions where there has been a larger increase," says Ian Young, vice chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra and principal author of today's report.

Young and collaborators at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology created a global picture of offshore wind trends by mining 23 years of nearly continuous data from satellite-based altimeters. The biggest trend they found was a stiff boost in winds gusting in the 99th percentile for wind speeds, which have been increasing over most oceans by at least three quarters of one percent per year.

Those winds pack lots of extra energy, since the energy in wind increases with the cube of its speed. But it's extra energy that's worse than wasted on wind turbines, which must feather their blades and shut down to avoid being damaged by extreme winds.

The Australian researchers did find a boost in mean wind speeds where offshore turbines thrive. Those increased by 5-10 percent over the past two decades.

Even that "marginal" boost for offshore wind may be ephemeral. Young's team is confident in their satellite-based snapshot, which matches up well with measurements from ocean buoys. But they say the satellite dataset is still too short to predict whether the observed trends are here to stay.

At the Speed of a Gas Fill-Up: Battery Advance to Allow Rapid EV Charging?

An advance in battery technology could help push past one of the persistent criticisms of electric vehicles: the extended time needed to charge the battery.

Researchers at the University of Illinois published a paper this week in Nature Nanotechnology on a change to the cathode of a battery that allows for rapid charging and discharging without a loss of capacity. They describe it in their abstract as follows:

We demonstrate very large battery charge and discharge rates with minimal capacity loss by using cathodes made from a self-assembled three-dimensional bicontinuous nanoarchitecture consisting of an electrolytically active material sandwiched between rapid ion and electron transport pathways.

The 3-D structure could eventually allow an EV to charge in the amount of time it takes to fill a tank with gas. Senior author Paul Braun said in a story published at ClimateWire and Scientific American that batteries in the lab can be charged in "tens of seconds."

The lithium-ion batteries used in todays EVs generally take hours to charge fully. For example, Nissan says that charging the Leaf (battery pack pictured above) at home will take about seven hours; Chevrolet says the Volt can recharge in about four hours. Charging stations, where existing batteries can be refilled in shorter periods, will need to provide more power if the new battery type's rapid-charge abilities are to be used fully.

(Image via Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)

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Tepco Missteps Before and During Nuclear Crisis

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.

With the onset of Japan's nuclear emergency, observers were quick to recall that the Fukishima Daiichi plant owner and operator, Tepco, had to fire all its top management in 2003 when regulators discovered the company had been filing falsified safety reports for years. The conduct of the supposedly reformed utility leading up to and during the current crisis has done nothing to refurbish its image.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Daiichi had one of the worst safety records of all large nuclear power plants in Japan. Tepco officials attribute the poor record to the age of the plant, specifically the high rate of worker injuries, which they blame on the plant's higher repair rate. According to the report, written by the Journal's superb Rebecca Smith with Ben Casselman and Mitsuru Obe, a Tepco official said that the company, in making frequent repairs, "aimed to give old plants the same functionality as new plants. However, in reality it is quite difficult."

Today, top Tepco management held a press conference and ritually apologized to the Japanese public and those who have been risking their lives, trying to get the Daiichi reactors and spent fuel cooling pools under control. The pools are now said to be refilled, thanks to the efforts of the elite Hyper Rescue Squad, from Tokyo.

The Journal says that the Japanese practice of temporarily storing new fuel loads in spent fuel ponds during routine maintenance has long been controversial in the industry. The fresh fuel loads are considerably more radioactive and hot than spent fuel assemblies, and therefore represent a much higher risk if water cooling is lost. The pool in which assemblies caught fire last week, resulting in an explosion, contained fresh fuel assemblies.

It appears--and to far there's been no evidence I know of to contradict this impression--that the plant technicians and Tepco management were so preoccupied with getting the damaged and melting reactors back under control, they simply forgot about the fuel cooling ponds. I would attribute this--having here too seen no evidence to contradict my impressions--to the failure of Tepco management and Japan's nuclear regulators to immediately set up an emergency command center at Fukishima, to direct all operations. Had such a center existed (assuming it did not), the acute dangers posed by the cooling ponds would not have been overlooked.

Criticisms of Tepco's and regulators' conduct does not end there. Contrary to general impressions in the first days of the accident, when the reactors were flooded with sea water in a desperate attempt to cool them, this was not merely a "Hail Mary" pass. Sea water cooling is foreseen in General Electric emergency management literature, according to an expert quoted in a New York Times report last week. Tepco is being widely criticized for not having flooded the reactors with sea water much sooner. Evidently they hesitated, knowing the measure would ruin the reactors forever.

Instead what likely will be ruined for ever is the immediate environment of the plant--and the situation, with winds shifting in the direction of Tokyo and the reactors not under control, still could get much worse than that. Given Japan's high reputation for technical competence, commentators like Anna Applebaum are naturally asking whether, if the Japanese can't do nuclear right, can anybody? Actually, despite Japan's unhappy history with the atom and the country's nuclear phobia, nuclear management appears to have been an area of singular national incompetence.

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)

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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

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