The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster could have been much worse. But it may have been avoidable.
Meltdowns and non-nuclear explosions at the power plant didn’t directly kill anyone.
More than 40 patients who were evacuated from a nearby hospital died later. They had been critically ill. Getting rushed away from a nuclear incident in progress wouldn’t have been good for their health.
Three former power company executives now face criminal charges.
The earthquake, tsunami, and meltdowns in 2011 killed nearly 16,000 folks and left many others homeless. Many folks still can’t return to their homes. Quakes happen. This one was nobody’s fault.
What happened in Fukushima is another matter. I’ll be looking at the disaster, what’s happened since, and why questioning authority can be a good idea.
- March 2011: Trouble at Fukushima Daiichi
- In the news
- Radiation, Bacteria, and a Robot
- Fears, Reasonable and Otherwise
- Question Authority: Wisely
- Using tech, and our brains
Earthquake and Tsunami: March 2011
Earth’s mantle is sinking near Japan’s east coast, pulling part of the crust under the Okhotsk Plate. But not smoothly.
On Friday, March 11, 2011, about 32 kilometers below the surface, Earth’s crust moved abruptly.
About 31 seconds later, the Japan Meteorological Agency’s detectors had sensed the event and broadcast warnings to several million folks. That probably saved many lives.
Japan is now up to 2.4 meters, 7 feet 10 inches, closer to North America.
The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami destroyed about 45,700 buildings and damaged about 144,300 more.
It’s stronger than any other recorded in Japan during the last 16 centuries, and the fourth strongest recorded anywhere on Earth since 1900.1
Tsunami: Over the Wall and Into the Generator Room
(From Shigeru23, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Diagram of the #1 Fukushima reactor building and seawall. A – Plant building, B – Tsunami’s peak height, C – Ground level of site, D – Average sea level.)
TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is the famous, or infamous, one.
The crew of its sister plant, Fukushima Daini, were what my culture calls ‘lucky.’ Most of them. One person, trapped at a console during the quake, died later.
The tsunami flooded Fukushima Daini’s standby generators, too. The 2,000 folks working there still had one remaining high-voltage power line connecting the plant to Japan’s power grid. That kept the plant’s control systems online.
Part of the crew remained at the plant while others assembled a nine-kilometer emergency power connection. Each 200-meter section of cable weighed over a ton.2
Meanwhile, folks at the Daiichi facility were dealing with their own disaster.
The Fukushima Reactors 1, 2, and 3 automatically shut down immediately after the earthquake.
They’re supposed to do that.
If a reactor’s going to be shaken, it should be comparatively inactive and cooling.
Reactors 4, 5, and 6 were already shut down and cooling. They were due for refueling.
During normal operation, these reactors provided power for their own cooling systems. Reactors stay hot for a long time after shutting down, so the cooling systems must keep running.
Diesel-powered generators started normally and were providing power to the cooling systems when the tsunami hit.
The tsunami was about 13 to 15-meters, 43 to 49 feet, high. It reached the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant about 50 seconds after the earthquake started. The plant’s seawall was 5.7 meters, 19 feet, tall.
The tsunami went over the wall and kept going.
The diesel generators were in a low-lying room. They promptly flooded, and failed shortly after submersion. That cut power to cooling systems for reactors 1, 2, and 3.
Temperatures rose inside the reactors.
Water, instead of cooling the reactor reactor cores, circulating through radiators, and returning to to the cores, stayed in the reactors’ containment vessels. It turned to steam.
Pressure began rising in the reactors’ containment vessels.
By about 6:50 Saturday morning, reactor one’s core had completely melted, dripping to the reactor pressure vessel’s base.
Something exploded inside reactor one’s building at 3:36 Saturday afternoon. The concrete building collapsed. By that time, folks near Fukushima reactors one or two were being evacuated.
The explosion was non-nuclear.
It’s a near-certainty that very hot steam reacting with the zircaloy fuel assembly cladding produced hydrogen. This wouldn’t normally happen, but this was not a normal day.
The containment vessel wasn’t designed to hold hydrogen, and was already under excessively high pressure.
Hydrogen — again, almost certainly — leaked into the the rest of the building. It rose to the top of the building, mixing with oxygen. Eventually the hydrogen-oxygen mix reached something hot, and exploded.
That was Saturday morning, March 12.
Pretty much the same thing happened in the reactor three building on Monday, March 14. Nobody died, but 11 folks were injured. A vent pipe connected buildings holding the number two and three reactors, letting hydrogen flow into the reactor two building.
An explosion in the number two reactor’s building on Monday caused more damage.
Japanese and world nuclear authorities may have been trying to reassure folks and prevent panic. During a March 15 news conference, the IAEA’s director general, Yukiya Amano, said that there was a “possibility of core damage” at Unit 2 of less than 5%.
That may have been an accurate estimate, based on valid data. But it was an estimate. Radiation levels near most of the damaged reactors were too high for humans. Even wearing hazmat suits.
The good news is that fires at the Fukushima power plant didn’t last as long as the Chernobyl blaze. Nowhere near as much radioactive material leaked out.
But folks responsible for the plant’s design should have known that the seawall wasn’t nearly high enough. Given the circumstances, putting the generator room below what would be sea level was also a regrettable decision.3
1. Radiation, Bacteria, and a Robot
(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Lava-like rocks were spotted underneath one of the damaged reactors”
“Fukushima disaster: Robot finds possible melted nuclear fuel”
(July 23, 2017)
“An underwater robot has captured what is believed to be the first images of melted nuclear fuel deposits inside Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, its operator Tepco says.
“Large amounts of solidified lava-like rocks and lumps in layers were seen underneath its unit three reactor.
“If confirmed, it would be a major milestone in the clear-up operation.
“The power plant was hit by a tsunami in 2011, causing the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl….”
A few bacteria, like Deinococcus radiodurans, thrive inside nuclear reactors. It’s no place for most critters, though.
That’s why researchers working with Toshiba developed the “little sunfish” submersible robot.
It looks like a high-tech loaf of bread, and is about the same size, trailing a cable. “Little sunfish” carries two cameras, a dosimeter, and uses tail propellers to maneuver.
Folks recently sent the submersible robot into what’s left of the Fukushima’s unit 3 reactor. The melted and re-solidified stuff they found looks a bit like icicles and layered lumps.
It’s probably from the reactor’s core: melted fuel and metal that dripped to the containment vessel’s base and burned through, ending near the bottom of the vessel’s concrete pedestal. We’ll know more as the investigation continues.
Why Design Matters
(From Japan Atomic Industry Forum, Tepco; © British Broadcasting Corporation; used w/o permission.)
(“How Japan managed to get Fukushima’s reactors stable during the disaster”
What happened at Fukushima could have been worse. I think folks who were at the plant, working with the equipment, deserve credit for dealing with the disaster.
Higher-ups who decided where the equipment was, and what tasks the crew was allowed to do — not so much.
Nuclear reactors always produce heat when they’re active. That’s part of what makes them such good energy sources for power plants.
Once a nuclear reactor becomes active, it stays hot for a long time: even after it’s shut down. The ‘up’ side of this is that nuclear reactors can make a great deal of very steady heat for a long time.
When their cooling and safety systems aren’t well-designed, carefully maintained, or regularly tested, we’ve got problems.
Happily, competent folks with an interest in public safety took control of what was left of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the meltdowns started. Thanks to past disasters, we’re getting better at containing broken reactors and cleaning up afterward.4
(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Tsunehisa Katsumata (L), Ichiro Takekuro and Sakae Muto all deny the accusations”
“Fukushima nuclear disaster: Tepco executives on trial”
(June 30, 2017)
“Three former power company executives have gone on trial in Japan on charges linked to the Fukushima disaster.
“It is the first criminal trial over the 2011 meltdown at the nuclear plant.
“The meltdown, triggered by an earthquake which caused a massive tsunami, was the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
“All three have pleaded not guilty to professional negligence resulting in death and injury of patients evacuated from a hospital near the plant….”
The former TEPCO chairman and two vice-presidents could get up to five years in prison.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s still much more than a ‘slap on the wrist.’ Particularly since they seem to be around my age. Five years is a good-size chunk of how much time I’ve got left.
I don’t know whether to be sympathetic or not.
On the one hand, they were old enough to know better when they made their decisions. ‘Boys will be boys’ isn’t an excuse for some behavior, but youthful inexperience helps explain some daft things we do.
On the other hand, They’re probably around my age. They might not have had opportunities to stay informed about what’s happened over the last half-century.
That’s be a lousy defense, I think, since they were responsible for nuclear power plants.
Ignorant managers and executives make good characters in comics and stories. In real life, they’re somewhere on a continuum between ‘annoying’ and ‘dangerous.’
I have no idea what motivated them or how much they knew. For their sake, I hope they really did not understand the risks they were taking with lives and health.
3. Fears, Reasonable and Otherwise
(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Tens of thousands of families were forced to leave their homes as the reactors melted down”
“Fukushima: Japan court finds government liable for nuclear disaster”
(March 17, 2017)
“A Japanese court has ruled for the first time that the government bears partial responsibility for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“The court was responding to a case brought by a group of evacuees who had been forced to flee their homes.
“It ruled that the disaster could have been averted if government regulators had ordered plant operator Tepco to take preventive safety measures.
“The government and Tepco were both ordered to compensate the evacuees….”
International news is focusing how folks are coping with the Fukushima Daiichi disaster’s lasting effects. So am I.
But let’s remember that the quake and tsunami caused severe damage along much of eastern Japan, and indirectly affected the entire country.
The worse of it was along a 670-kilometer, 420-mile, section of Japan’s coast: from Erimo, Hokkaido, to Ōarai, Ibaraki. Well over 100,000 folks are still homeless.5
This court’s ruling, holding both Japan’s government and TPECO responsible for not planning ahead, seems reasonable. Nobody involved in decisions that led to the Fukushima meltdowns came out looking good.
Some harm is obvious. About 80,000 folks had to abandon their homes. Many would have been well-advised to leave anyway, since a tidal wave set off this SNAFU. Concerns about radiation were legitimate, too.
However, this isn’t a “Beginning of the End,” “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” or “Creature with the Atom Brain” scenario, where radioactive monsters attack a city. Most folks, happily, realize that atomic grasshoppers, octopi, or zombies, are make-believe.
I think we’re still working on reasoned caution where radiation is involved.
“Radiophobia,” obsessive fear of ionizing radiation, isn’t new. The term goes back to “Radio-phobia and radio-mania,” a 1903 paper by Dr Albert Soiland.6
Some folks had unreasonable fears of radio broadcasting and receiving technology.
Their fears were slightly fact-based.
Sticking my head in an active microwave oven wouldn’t be healthy. That’s why we’ve got safety switches that cut power when we open the door. Usually.
Opening the door while the oven is working will, occasionally, release a very short burst of microwaves. It’s not enough to hurt anyone.
The microwaves are, however, strong enough to register on a radio telescope’s receiver.
A hastily-opened microwave oven ‘sounds’ a lot like a Fast Radio Burst, or FRB. But not not quite.
Astronomers at the Parkes, Australia, observatory eventually realized that some odd FRBs were from their break room: not from still-unknown sources beyond our galaxy. And that’s another topic.7
My guess is that Dr. Soiland’s “radio-mania” described folks who were entirely too willing to use ‘cures’ like Bonnore’s Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid. One chap, an eager imbiber of Radithor, “Perpetual Sunshine,” wound up buried in a lead-lined coffin. (October 14, 2016)
Getting back to sorting out the Fukushima mess, I strongly suspect that psychological and emotional disorders will account for some compensation. I’d better explain that.
I think “intentional infliction of emotional distress” is a form of assault, and a legitimate legal accusation.
I also think that ‘you made me feel bad, give me money’ can turn into a legal scam, if judges and juries trust their feelings more than their reason.
Many folks who lived near Fukushima are ‘stressed out’ because they can’t go back home and get on with their lives.
That’s understandable. Folks who lived near Chernobyl felt the same way. What’s happened to them since suggests that at least some Fukushima evacuees will develop serious psychosomatic disorders.
Technically, it’s ‘all in their heads:’ like posttraumatic stress disorder. Or brain cancer.
We’re learning, sometimes the hard way, that psychological disorders can be as real as physical ones.8
Unlike what happened at Chernobyl, radiation exposure didn’t kill anyone at Fukushima. Not yet, anyway.
Folks living in the area may eventually have a higher than average risk of developing cancer. Their exposure was and remains very slight. We simply don’t know for sure.
No wonder they’re feeling a bit stressed.
What a few ‘experts’ said didn’t help, I think.
Safety Protocols and “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail”
Folks living in Japan have more reason than most to understand why being careful with nuclear energy is a good idea.
Aside from radiation burns, ionizing radiation can damage DNA and other molecular machinery in our cells.
Some damaged cells become cancerous, malfunction in other ways, or simply die.
Ignoring safety protocols is a bad idea for folks using any technology, from campfires to nuclear devices.
Some researchers at a Los Alamos laboratory in 1946, and added “tickling the dragon’s tail” to my culture’s vocabulary.
Reasonable caution is one thing. Publishing bogus research is — less than helpful. So, I think, are overly-eager news reports. More about that in the next section.
Perhaps someday more reporters will write as if they have a basic understanding of what they’re covering. Editors showing more interest in factual articles might help, too.
I also hope that someday we will have a competent international authority that will deal with conflicts before they become wars. I’m not sure which hope may be realized first.
Some facts about Fukushima aftermath are, by themselves, alarming.
In 2013, for example, the World Health Organization reported that “…for thyroid cancer, the estimated lifetime risk increases by up to around 70% over baseline rates in females exposed as infants….”
Scary, right? I could use that excerpt to ‘prove’ that WHO is trying to scare folks — or that we should all be scared silly.
Instead, I’ll quote the next sentence from that report:
“These percentages represent estimated relative increases over the baseline rates and are not absolute risks for developing such cancers….”
(“Health Risk Assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami based on a preliminary dose estimation,” Executive Summary, World Health Organization (2013))
Women who live near Fukushima should probably make sure they get tested for thyroid cancer a bit more often than average. But the odds are very good that something else will kill them first. Like old age.
The WHO report goes on to say that the baseline lifetime risk of thyroid cancer in women is just three quarters of one percent. Being exposed to Fukushima-level radiation over a lifetime raises that by one half of one percent. One half of one percent is not much.
Fast-forward to October of 2015. Someone at Okayama University got his 15 minutes of fame by publishing research that inspired headlines like “Experts Link Higher Incidence of Children’s Cancer to Fukushima Radiation.”
Children, cancer, and the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl: now that’s news!9
Epidemiologists, professional ones, pointed out that the fellow’s numbers were accurate. Sort of. But his conclusions were misleading, at best. He’d done an ‘apples to oranges’ comparison.
His Fukushima data was real enough. It was the result of careful screening of kids — using advanced ultrasound tech. He compared those results to exam results from old-school clinical exams: the sort I might have had back in the ‘good old days.’
Careful screening with the latest diagnostic tech actually did show thyroid “cancer” in an alarming number of kids living in the Fukushima area. Again, this is with cutting-edge tech; used by folks looking for this sort of thing.
Even if the numbers really were more than might be expected, publishing an illogical conclusion is not the way to get attention.
More accurately, it’s not how to get the right sort of attention for situations like this.
Following the usual ‘cancer — experts — radiation’ line and getting creative with a carefully-chosen excerpt, I could ‘reveal’ that a third of all adults have thyroid cancer:
“…close inspection of the thyroid by sonographic imaging shows that as many as one-third of women and one-fifth of men have small nodules in their glands….”
(Goiter & Thyroid Nodules, University of California San Francisco)
With or without all-caps and exclamation marks, that sort of thing gets attention.
But don’t rush out and demand that your doctor remove your thyroid.
Those nodules are “cancer” only in the sense that they’re abnormal growths. At least we think they are. We may learn that they’re normal but unusual. Or simply normal and previously-unnoticed.10
Getting Attention, Making Sense
We’ve been learning a lot recently, partly thanks to new imaging technology.
Low-resolution ultrasound imaging tech goes back to 1939 or 1940, depending on whose work you count.
The first medical use of industrial ultrasound tech was in 1941. That was apparently quite experimental, and didn’t catch on. Someone tried again in 1953, again using industrial testing tech.
Again, it didn’t catch on. But medicos kept trying. A contact scanner designed specifically for medical imaging was tried in the early 1960s. That, finally, caught on. Slowly.
Much more recently, we’ve developed high-resolution scanners.11
Just as important, I think, we’ve started using the tech around the world: and are learning to understand what we see.
When specialists look very carefully at high-resolution scans, they find that about a third of all women and a fifth of all men have small nodules on their thyroid glands.
The growths are, technically, “cancerous.” But they don’t do much except grow, slowly, as we age and die of unrelated causes.
Without careful examination with a specialist using advanced tech — most of us will never know we’ve got the growths. Or care. They don’t hurt us. But I suppose ‘relax, we’re okay’ wouldn’t be an exciting headline.
I think the World Health Organization got it right. That outfit said a 2013 thyroid ultrasound screening program uncovered an unexpected number of thyroid growths. But did not say we should panic.
4. Question Authority: Wisely
(From Digital Globe, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
“Japan panel: Fukushima nuclear disaster ‘man-made’”
(July 5, 2012)
“The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant was ‘a profoundly man-made disaster’, a Japanese parliamentary panel has said in a report.
“The disaster ‘could and should have been foreseen and prevented’ and its effects ‘mitigated by a more effective human response’, it said.
“The report catalogued serious deficiencies in both the government and plant operator Tepco’s response.
“It also blamed cultural conventions and a reluctance to question authority….”
I don’t know enough about Japanese culture to have a well-informed opinion on their conventions or general willingness to question authority.
My guess is that all countries have cultural conventions that could use review and revision. Or, occasionally, replacement.
I do remember the 1960s, when American culture was going through a major sea change.
Timothy Leary-style ‘question authority’ made more sense at the time. Even then, though, I thought it took skepticism well past reasonable limits:
“…To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself….”
(Timothy Leary, as quoted in “Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of the Illuminati,” p. 170, Robert Anton Wilson(1977) via Wikiquote)
I also think Benjamin Franklin had a point:
“Distrust & caution are the parents of security.”
(“Poor Richard’s Almanack,” Benjamin Franklin, (1733))
Respect for authority comes with being a Catholic. So does obedience. Within reason.
Two Saints and a King
Rational respect for authority is important.
Communities work better if someone’s coordinating things. How we choose our leaders is up to us. There isn’t one ‘correct’ method. What matters is how closely we pattern what we do on natural law.12 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1897–1917, 1954–1960)
Ideally, secular law would always follow natural law and promote the common good. (Catechism, 1951–1960)
We don’t live in an ideal world. That’s why unthinking obedience is a bad idea. No king, president, or other boss, is above the natural law. (Catechism, 1902, 1960, 2155, 2242–2243, 2267, 2313, 2414)
When someone in charge forgets that, we have trouble. Folks who think God outranks any secular leader sometimes get killed. That’s what happened to Thomas More and John Fisher.
A bit shy of five centuries later, they’re recognized as Saints. England’s Henry VIII is often remembered chiefly for his many wives. I think they made the right decision. Not an easy one, though.
Hindsight and Preparing for the Next One
Some ‘I told you so’ claims that TEPCO and Japanese official ignored obvious dangers may come from frustration and anger.
Even adjusting for 20-20 hindsight, I strongly suspect that TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant could and should have been much less vulnerable to disaster.
What I don’t know is how much information TEPCO executives had, and when they received it.
And how much of it they understood.
Geologists have been learning that earthquakes are sometimes periodic, with major ones happening at fairly regular intervals in a given area.
The Tōkai earthquakes, for example, come every 100 to 150 years: roughly. The last one was in 1854.
It’s not a question of whether there will be another. It’s when it’ll happen. It’s already due. Maybe a bit past due. The Japan Meteorological Agency is trying to predict just how much time folks in cities like Nagoya have to get ready.
The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake gave them more data, but it’s not exactly reassuring. There’s a good chance that the next big quake near Japan will be another in the Tōkai series.13
Putting a nuclear power plant near the coast makes sense. For one thing, there are precious few places in Japan that aren’t near the ocean. I am pretty sure there are good logistic and technical reasons for the plant’s location, too.
However, building a seawall that was so dramatically inadequate seems shortsighted. So does putting generators in a low-lying part of the plant. Again, with 20-20 hindsight.
It’s starting to look like TEPCO leadership knew, or should have known, that what happened in 2011 was likely: sooner or later.
If they knew, and did not act on that knowledge, that’s a problem.
If they weren’t told because someone was too in awe of their authority to say that their plant was badly designed, that’s also a problem.
If government officials or inspectors wouldn’t act for similar reasons: more problems.
That’s all speculation, of course. My point is that respect for authority is a good idea: but only within reason.
Authority: Three Quotes
Timothy Leary’s ‘question authority’ remark came as America was recovering from McCarthyism. I quoted him earlier.
More accurately, I quoted someone who quoted him. That’s as close to the original as I got.
I remember when quite a few Americans acted as if patriotism and unthinking support of their views were the same thing. That attitude still colors my perceptions. Not positively.
Now, about the folks I’ll quote next.
Albert Einstein was writing about an editor’s rejection of a young Einstein’s criticism of the editor’s electron theory of metals. The editor apparently hadn’t bothered to read, or think about, Einstein’s critique.
Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt delivered his Lincoln Hall speech while negotiating for his people’s right to settle near their homeland. The powers that be apparently respected him. But they went along with what ‘civilized’ folks who had taken over the territory wanted.
Claudius Claudianus wrote in the days of Flavius Honorius Augustus, an emperor with the dubious honor of being in charge during the first sack of Rome. He composed many of his poems for either the Emperor or the Emperor’s chief general.
“Autoritätsdusel ist der größte Feind der Wahrheit.
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
(Albert Einstein, from “The Private Lives of Albert Einstein,” quoting a letter to Jost Winteler (1901))
“I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.”
(Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, “Chief Joseph;” Lincoln Hall Speech (1879)
“…Peragit tranquilla potestas
quod violenta nequit; mandataque fortius urget
“…Quiet authority accomplishes what violence cannot, and that mandate compels more which comes from a commanding calm….”
(Panegyricus dictus Manlio Theodoro consuli, lines 239-241; Claudius Claudianus, Claudian (lived c. 370 – 404))
My reasoned respect for authority includes the Pope’s authority. That doesn’t mean I think popes never make mistakes, and that’s yet another topic.
Anti-nuclear protests have been a recurring news item for decades.
Oddly enough, despite the obvious dangers of using fire, and disasters like the 2009 Beijing Television Cultural Center fire or the recent incident in London, I’ve yet to hear or read of folks protesting another dangerous technology: fire.
Fire-related disasters, particularly the avoidable ones, produce protests often enough. Particularly when folks feel that nobody’s trying to fix the problem.
But I don’t think we’ll see protesters chanting “freeze fire now” or “ban the burn.” I suspect that’s partly because we’ve been controlling exothermic chemical reactions for a very long time. Cooking and camp fires don’t seem artificial.
More exotic or indirect applications, like coal-burning power plants, seem to be perceived apart from their underlying fire tech. But the simplest cooking fires are technology, practical application of knowledge to a practical use. (oxforddictionaries.com)
What’s changed recently is how much energy we use. I don’t see that as a problem.
Not using our brains? That’s as potentially lethal as it ever was.
The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters both involved explosions. Neither were nuclear explosions.
The Chernobyl explosion happened when too much steam formed in the reactor’s pressure vessel. Prototypes of Denis Papin’s steam digester had the same problem, on a smaller scale. That’s why today’s steam cookers have safety values.
Descriptions of the Chernobyl disaster generally use more technical language, but the blast was basically a boiler explosion.
That photo shows the results of a boiler explosion in Strømmen, Norway, around 1889.
We learned that using redundant valves, pumps, and instrumentation, was worth the additional expense.
I think we’re on a similar learning curve with the newer tech.
The steam explosion at Chernobyl started fires that burned for about nine days, producing updrafts that spread about as much fallout as the original explosion. That helped make the 1986 Chernobyl disaster the worst nuclear accident we’ve had.
The Chernobyl disaster happened after a late-night test of reactor number four’s safety systems.
Periodic testing is a necessary safety procedure. So is making sure folks running the tests know how the equipment should be run.
The lesson from Chernobyl and Fukushima is not, I think, that technology is evil. I’ll get back to that.
It’s certainly not that periodic safety tests are Satanic plots, or that reactors should never be assigned the number four.
What we should learn, I think, is that any technology can be useful: or harmful. What matters is how we use it, and whether we use our brains.
Power Plants and Pedal Power
Most power plants generate electricity by converting kinetic energy into electricity by spinning magnets inside closed loops of conductive material.
It doesn’t matter what’s spinning the magnets. Interaction of moving magnetic fields in the loops is what counts.
It’s the same principle that runs a bicycle’s ‘light generator.’ That’s the little gizmo often mounted near the rear wheel.
Water running downhill can provide the power. The Hoover Dam generators work that way. It takes a lot of water, so hydroelectric power plants can’t be built anywhere.
Chemical fuels like coal will burn anywhere we live, so coal burning power plants were an obvious choice for most places.
Burning coal produces its own problems, like London’s death fog. That’s why we’re looking for alternatives.
I’m a little surprised that someone hasn’t insisted that we generate electricity by making everyone sit on bicycle generators and pedal until they produce their quota.
My guess is that too many folks know about Northern Arizona University’s Bicycle Generator Project. Or something like it. It’s a good learning tool for high school students.
The project takes a modified bicycle, belt, scooter motor serving as a generator, battery, display, and peripherals like a phone charger.
Folks get hands-on experience, learning how much energy it takes to power gadgets like a light bulb or leaf blower. Feet-on, actually.
Living in Tomorrow’s Yesterday
Like I said, technology isn’t our problem.
It’s whether we use our brains while using it. Learning about this universe and using that knowledge is part of being human. (Catechism, 2292–2295)
Most Americans probably wouldn’t be like the inventor’s neighbor, “…a local clergyman in a state of considerable distress who had mistaken his carriage …. for the devil….” (February 5, 2017)
Steam engines are now nostalgic technology, symbols of a bygone era.
A few centuries from now, some may daydream about ‘simpler times,’ when many a horizon was graced by the gentle curves of a power plant’s cooling towers.
This photo’s of the Ohaaki Power Station, by the way. Its generators are run with geothermal power, and that’s yet again another topic.
- “Climate Change, Attitudes”
(July 14, 2017)
- “‘The Federation of the World’”
(May 28, 2017)
- “Climate Change, Whirligig Icebergs”
(May 26, 2017)
- “Conservative? Liberal? No: Catholic”
(January 22, 2017)
- “Authority, Superstition, Progress”
(October 30, 2016)
2 Two Fukushima power plants and TEPCO:
- “Plant Status of Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Station (as of 11pm March 12th)”
Press release, TEPCO (March 12, 2017
4 Reactors and a little history:
- Progress to Date: Recovery and Reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake
Reconstruction Agency, Japan
7 (March 17, 2017) The Parkes Observatory break room and all that:
- “Parkes Observatory: Extraterrestrial messages or microwave noodles?”
Michelle Starr, CNET (April 12, 2015)
- Part of my take on FRBs and SETI:
- “Fast Radio Bursts” (March 17, 2017)
- “SETI: What If?” (December 23, 2016)
- “ESA’s Gaia, HD 164695, and SETI” (September 16, 2016)
8 Risks, physical and psychological:
- “Reconsidering Health Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident”
Yehoshua Socol, Dose Response (January-March 2015) via PMC, NIH
9 Radiation, informed-and-otherwise news, a WHO report, and my opinions:
- “Cancer Rates Spiked After Fukushima. But Don’t Blame Radiation”
Sarah Fallon, Wired (March 9, 2016)
- “Experts Link Higher Incidence of Children’s Cancer to Fukushima Radiation”
sciencealert.com (October 12, 2015)
- “Health Risk Assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami based on a preliminary dose estimation”
Executive Summary, World Health Organization (2013)
- A quick look at how I see science and journalism:
- “London: Death, Hope, and Love” (June 4, 2017)
- “Climate Change, Whirligig Icebergs” (May 26, 2017)
- “Alchemy, Science, Life, and Health” (October 16, 2016)
- “Proxima Centauri b, Looking for Life” (September 2, 2016)
- Goiter & Thyroid Nodules
University of California San Francisco
12 Natural law, ethical principles written into reality’s source code:
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- My take, in part
- “Climate Change, Attitudes” (July 14, 2017)
- “We are Many, We are One” (June 4, 2017)
- “Natural Law, Our Rules” (February 5, 2017)
- “Citizenship and Being Catholic” (July 24, 2016)
Pingback: Fukushima, Six Years Later
Brian, I apologize up front, I could not read this all. I don’t have enough time for such a lengthy but excellent piece. But what I read was interesting and informative. Just a question, are you an engineer? I don’t know if you said this or not, but what I take from the Fukushima experience is actually positive. Here we had an under designed facility take one of the worst earthquakes in history and a tsunami on top of it and it wasn’t catastrophic. We should learn from this an design better nuclear plants in the future.Just my opinion.
That is my opinion, too.
The issue of inadequate attention to design and procedures isn’t, I think, limited to nuclear power plants.
The lethal collapse of a bridge here in Minnesota, 10 years ago, was a reminder that even well-designed and constructed structures must be maintained. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I-35W_Mississippi_River_bridge )
I think you make a good point. The Fukushima experience is an opportunity to learn.
I also agree about this piece’s length. No apologies necessary. 🙂 That’s why I put headlines and links near the top: to let folks pick what seems interesting.
About my background: no, I’m not an engineer. My academic background is in history and English, with two years of computer science on the side.
Research skills developed while earning the history degree, and a passion for knowledge, have helped me learn about engineering, architecture, and humanity’s growing scientific lore. Among other subjects.
The math is, for the most part, beyond my skills. But the underlying logic is reasonably straightforward.
Your comment at my post reminded me about my comment here. I meant to return to see your response. Thanks. I do remember that bridge collapse in Minneapolis. You reminded me that I was in Minneapolis a short time before (a week or two sticks in my mind, but time has distorted the memory) it collapsed. I remember when I heard in the news it collapsed I recalled being by it not too long prior.
I happen to be an mechanical engineer, and yes unfortunately technology is expensive, even to upkeep. We try to come up with models on what these things should cost, and yes the intent is to try to save money, But for the most part, you have to realize we do a good job. It’s actually the rare occasion that a disaster happens. And just throwing money at an issue doesn’t mean the money is spent wisely. Trying to save money is typically a means of figuring out how to spend it so it makes a difference and not on something extraneous.
One more thing, a clarification.
I strongly suspect that the (happily rare) structure failures in America are due more to a failure – for whatever reason – of those who determine operating budgets and resource allocations: *after* engineers and construction crews finish their work of designing and building the structures.
There seems to be little glory in approving another year of maintenance, replacing weathered materials, or any of the other tasks required for long-term safety.
Perhaps I am being unfair. But consider: when was the last time anyone saw a bronze plaque proclaiming that someone approved routine maintenance on a bridge?
Stutter: “than any other recorded in in Japan during the last”
Another stutter: “sister plant, Fukushima Daini, were were what my culture”
Incorrect punctuation: “During normal operation. these reactors provided power”
Incorrect contraction: “That’s be a lousy defense, I think, since”
Missing word: “news is, understandably, focusing how folks are coping with”
Missing punctuation: “It’s not enough to hurt anyone”
Missing article: “Ignoring safety protocols is bad idea for”
Another missing word: “But the odds are very that something else will”
Extra article: “We may learn that they’re a normal but unusual.”
Missing… something: “The powers that be apparently respected him, but did what territory’s new regime wanted.”
Another missing article: “technical language, but blast was basically a boiler explosion.”
The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader
Thanks, and fixed! Changed, at any rate. 🙂