Ninety-six percent of Japan’s nuclear power fleet is idled, and has been for more than a year. Much of the resulting electricity shortfall has been recovered by pulling old, unreliable “thermal” (mostly liquid natural gas-fueled) power plants out of mothballs. This past summer Japan’s operating fossil-fueled plants were run constantly: many of which were long over-due for maintenance and refurbishment. A few of them experienced mechanical failure, bringing Japan’s electrical infrastructure precariously close to its limit. Had but two or three more large units failed at the peak of the summer’s heat, localized rolling blackouts would have happened. The politically-thinned electrical supply caused by the nuclear moratorium has many of Japan’s major businesses seriously considering emigration to foreign lands where a stable energy supply exists. One utility, Hokkaido Electric Company, has already projected an energy shortfall of 10% this coming winter. The majority of the currently-idled nukes are ready to produce the electricity which would alleviate the current crisis. The energy supply situation in Japan is critical, but it seems the majority of the country’s news outlets and politicians don’t really care. They would rather dwell on fear concerning exaggerated assumptions of earthquake impacts on operating nukes.
Japan may well be the most earthquake-prone country on our planet. The northeast coast of its main island (Honshu) is located roughly 100 kilometers from one of the most active tectonic subduction zones in the world. The people of Japan live with earthquakes occurring one or more times a week. Their buildings are mostly built with earthquakes in mind – it only makes sense. However, the structures constructed to best survive earthquakes are nuclear power plants…without a doubt. But if you read Japanese newspapers, hardly a day goes by without a major posting of earthquakes and their impending threats to nuclear power stations. Populist politicians use this to pressure the new nuclear regulators to investigate earthquake fears above all else. Doubt-generated fear of another Fukushima spawned by another one-in-a-millennium earthquake has kept Japan’s nukes idled and placed Japan’s energy infrastructure in crisis.
The problem is actually the result of a naïve, albeit complicated assumption. All empirical evidence concerning the Fukushima accident shows that the massive earthquake of 3/11/11 did not damage any of the Tohoku coast’s reactors or their safety systems. The nuke power station closest to the earthquake epicenter and experiencing the most severe ground movement, Onagawa, suffered no damage at all. All control room instruments at F. Daiichi showed that everything was working precisely as designed during the 40 minutes between the quake occurring and the tsunami swamping the power station. The tsunami caused the full electrical blackout. The blackout caused the three meltdowns. The evidence makes it all seem obvious, but uncertainty and doubt fomented by one of Japan’s five nuclear accident investigative committees has taken precedence over facts.
The problematic assumption was created by the Diet’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigative Committee (NAIIC) report of July, 2012. In it, the NAIIC (which had no-one with any nuclear engineering or operational experience) said they felt there may have been some earthquake damage to F. Daiichi unit #1, causing a Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA) condition before the tsunami engulfed the site. Their reasons behind this speculation are disturbing. To begin, unit #1 SCRAMed (auto-shutdown) before the quake ground movements reached their peak. Thus, NAIIC says it may have been due to the plant’s electronic detection system sensing a leak strong enough for a SCRAM. Actually, the plant was designed to SCRAM with ground movement more than 10 times below the 3/11/11 peak. No wonder it SCRAMed before the full intensity of the quake was felt! Anyone with nuclear engineering or operational experience would have known this, but no such expertise existed on the NAIIC panel.
Next – some workers say they saw a leak from piping in the unit #1 reactor building just after the earthquake. NAIIC says they cannot rule out the possibility that it came from piping associated with an emergency cooling system (the Isolation Condensers) at such a low rate that there would be no indication of it in the control room.
Further – NAIIC says there was no operator report of hearing the Reactor Vessel’s safety relief valves (SRV) operating. (Yes…when they slam shut, they make a terrifically loud noise) The operators at units #2 & 3 reported hearing their SRVs cycling, but not unit #1 control room staff. NAIIC says they do not believe the SRVs ever opened to keep the reactor vessel from over-pressurizing. Now, here’s the critical assumption – because of their three stated reasons (above), it should be assumed that a LOCA may have occurred before the tsunami hit which was caused by the earthquake itself. In the process, NAIIC opened the door for Japan’s Press to speculate that the earthquake, and not the tsunami, caused the meltdown at F. Daiichi unit #1.
There are serious problems with the NAIIC’s rationale, beyond their naivety concerning earthquake-induced SCRAMs. First…where was the alleged pre-tsunami leak coming from? As it turns out, a major piece of equipment not built to nuclear safety standards sits adjacent to the Isolation Condensers – the building’s air conditioning unit. Chilled fresh water flows into the air cooler through standard industrial piping which is not subject to the same earthquake resistance requirements as a nuclear safety system. It would make sense to at least mention that the observed leak likely came from the air conditioning unit’s piping, but this is nowhere to be found in the NAIIC’s executive summary or recently-released English version of their full report. Clearly, the group decided to point a guilty finger at the one piece of technology in that 4th floor room that was the least-likely source of the leak, and ignore all other more reasonable possibilities. Drawing a conclusion based on an assumption created in isolation from all other possibilities, simply because it is not possible to prove or disprove it at this point in time, is illogical at best. Not considering the potential for the negative ramifications of the ill-conceived conclusion is seriously short-sighted.
But the second aspect of the quake-caused LOCA assumption defies adequate verbal description. NAIIC says that possibly stuck-shut SRVs contributed to (or maybe caused) a LOCA. That’s the same as assuming that paperwork was blown all over the room because all the doors and windows were shut! The stuck-shut SRV portion of the NAIIC’s “the quake did it” assumption is utterly preposterous – ridiculous…ludicrous…absurd! What on earth were they thinking? Did anyone on the NAIIC panel have inkling as to how absurd this would make them sound?
Ever since the NAIIC report was released, the majority of the Japanese Press has been exploiting nuclear earthquake phobia to the maximum. Every speculation that a geologic anomaly near (or actually under) a nuclear power station might be seismic produces a myriad of headlines and political exigency concerning the possibility of another Fukushima. The articles in the Press, even the precious few newspapers treating the issue rationally, make it sound like any and all faults will cause another Fukushima accident…and it could happen tomorrow! These assumptions are directed towards the structures and systems best-built to withstand, and (due to the Great East Japan earthquake of 3/11/11) now proven to be fully capable of surviving, any and all possible Japanese earthquakes, are the ones under the microscope of doubt and uncertainty. It doesn’t matter that Japan’s economy is seriously circling the drain and that restarting nukes will significantly slow the decline. All that matters is boosting nuclear fears over earthquakes…fears exacerbated by the NAIIC’s obvious desire to keep earthquake-did-it rumors alive. Fears propagated by a group of lawyers, “policy experts”, bureaucrats, and two scientists with no nuclear background.
Nuclear fear, uncertainty and doubt runs rampant in the Japanese Press…it’s good for business. Populist politicians exploit the panderings of the Press because they believe it will garner votes. Will the Japanese people ever be made aware of what’s really the case? And, if they are made aware, when will they say “Enough!!” and demand rational recovery from the very real tsunami-spawned, politically-exacerbated economic disaster ravaging Japan?