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Failed Risk Analysis that Felled Fukushima

3/8/2016 00:01 AM EST
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Stargzer
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Re: Why was Fukushima a breeder reactor?
Stargzer   4/20/2016 3:06:48 PM
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@DMcCunney: "But despite being sited in an area prone to tsunamis, the backup plants were sited where the tsunami could take them out, too, and did.  The fact that the tsunami was a once in a thousand years strength doesn't change the bad design.  If one concern is that a storm might damage your main cooling plant, you don't put your backups where they might be subject to the same damage. "


Dennis,

I agree; I think I would have had backup systems stored off-site for quick delivery in a very safe, waterproof place, like a cargo container ready to be popped onto a flatbed for delivery.  Sort of the reverse of moving your data center to a hot site; there are mobile hot sites, but you still have to have some place left for it to move to.

My roommate back in 1973 had to do a paper on the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Virginia.  He said the Environmental Impact Statement was something like 8 or 16 linear feet of shelves of binders.  They had to account for what would happen should a tsunami come roaring up the Potomac River, which is a good distance from the sea, although it does flow into the Chesapeake Bay. It looks to be about 60 miles as the crow flies from the nearest part of the Potomac.

Of much greater concern in my book is that the plant is also about 12 miles from the epicenter of the 5.8 magnitude 2011 Virginia Earthquake (the one that damaged the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC), which it survived.  Four backup generators came online when the reactors automatically shut down, and a fifth was brought online to replace one of the four that had cooling problems. They seem to have planned properly, although it now seems there is a risk of a stronger earthquake than previously planned for.

Regarding the siting of backup systems, in a Homeland Security course I took I read in the report on Hurricane Katrina that the New Orleans Police radio room and backup generators were on the ground floor, which of course was flooded out by Katrina.  Not the best of plans, Mr. Mayor.

I remember reading long ago about a fire at another nuke. They ran the backup power and communications through the same conduits as the main systems, so a fire in the conduit took out the backups at the same time it took out the main controls.  I think the fire was started by an electrician using a lit piece of paper to look for a draft to see if the conduit was sealed properly.


As the old song says, "When will they ever learn? When will the ever learn."

{Side note:  I was on the 13th or 14th floor of an office building in Bethesda, MD, when the earthquake hit, issuing PIV credentials (Uncle Sam's post-9/11 Government ID Card). At first I thought a large skid mover was shaking the floor outside the office.  It takes a while to walk down that many floors!  One of my co-workers refused to take the elevator up or to go down to the parking garage to get the car. I collected the gear and the card so we could head back to Woodlawn. )

DMcCunney
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Why was Fukushima a breeder reactor?
DMcCunney   3/19/2016 5:33:21 PM
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@Junko_Yoshida:  Junko, thanks for the update on this. I consider EE Times' coverage of the event the best I saw back then, and my opinion hasn't changed.

I'm pleased to see the takeawy I got from the original coverage reinforced by subsequent analysis - this was a design error.  Nuclear plants require cooling, and Fukushima had backup capacity to take over if the main cooling plant failed.  But despite being sited in an area prone to tsunamis, the backup plants were sited where the tsunami could take them out, too, and did.  The fact that the tsunami was a once in a thousand years strength doesn't change the bad design.  If one concern is that a storm might damage your main cooling plant, you don't put your backups where they might be subject to the same damage.  I don't think it would have taken a storm as powerful as the one that hit Fukushime to cause the same problems.

One thing I am still curious about, however,  I recall that Fukushima was a breeder reactor design, intended to produce more fissionables as a byproduct.  That simply made the issues worse.  Has anyone revealed why a breeder design was used there?  I don't understand why that was done.

>Dennis

DMcCunney
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Re: Have a look at China
DMcCunney   3/19/2016 5:21:05 PM
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@David_Aston_EC: Until Solar and wind have good enough and cheap enough storage technologies to cope with base load, give me gas and maybe nuclear rather than coal.

I concur.

Back in the 1970's, I worked for a US government (HUD/ERDA) sponsored project to promote alternative energy.  OPEC was in first flower, gas prices were rising above $1/gallon at the pump, and there was considerable interest in reducing dependency on foreign oil.  What my employer pushed was solar collectors to heat hot water.  That was about 20% of the average residential energy bill, and the collectors had a relatively low up front cost and relatively quick payback period.  We were aware of and tracked a variety of alternative energy sources, but didn't expect them to gain traction.  They cost too much to implement, and had too long a payback period.

As a general rule, economics rules. The energy used will be the cheapest available that does the job.  Alternative energies will get take up when they are cost competitive with fossil fuels.  In recent years, even with gas prices at $4/gallon at the pump, fossil fuels still won on costs.

And a factor missed in discussions like this is that more than one sort of energy gets used.  These discussions focus on production of electricity.  Back in the 70's, a national energy budget broke roughly into quarters: 25% heavy industrial heating and cooling, 25% residential/light commercial heating and cooling, 25% transportation, and 25% electriciy generation.  That's still pretty much the breakdown, and electricity isn't the only form of energy used and can't fill all energy needs.

I'm in NYC, and the last thing ConEd wants to do is build new generating capacity.  They are pushing conservation and energy efficiency as hard as they can.  Construction of new plants is a political nightmare, beginning with siting (all will agree it's needed, nobody will want it near them), and proceeding through getting the various regulatory approvals, raising the billions needed to build the plant (can you say bond issues?), and getting the approval to raise rates to pay for the financing.  They really want to avoid all that, and I don't blame them.

If there's no choice, and new capacity must be added, I favor natural gas and nuclear too.  Coal is relatively abundant but nasty, with environmental and health costs involved in getting it, aside from the byproducts it produces when burned.  (A coal fired plant produces more stray radiation than a nuclear plant.)

Wind and photovoltaics are still essentially niche applications.  You need substantial space to put the wind farms, with healthy up front costs, and while photovoltaics have dropped in cost, you need places to put the arrays to generate any significant amount  or power.  They're a decent solution when you have lots of sun and lots of open space to put the arrays, but are a lot more problematic in an urban area.  And you face the storage requirements that aren't yet there.

We have abundant natural gas (modulo environmental concerns over fracking), and most electrical generation in the US these days is gas fired, with nuclear second.  Oil sees occasional use as a backup to gas.  I'm not sure any plants still use coal.

It's quite possible to build safe nuclear plants.  The US is hobbled by a legacy of Cold War construction where the assumption was the US and the Soviet Union might trade nuclear punches, and breeder reactors to produce fissionables were the order of the day.  We also face shortages of trained plant operators.  Those had historically drawn from the Navy, and tended to be folks like nuclear submarine techs.  As the Navy reduced nuclear vessel usage, that source dried up.  If I were building a nuclear plant now, I'd look hard at Thorium as the fuel.  It's a lot cleaner, and can't go up in a mushroom cloud.

>Dennis  

 

David_Ashton_EC
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Re: Have a look at China
David_Ashton_EC   3/19/2016 5:01:44 PM
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@Wilco1... "Hopefully your next government has a bit more common sense and reintroduces the carbon tax."

I'm not holding my breath!  Australian governments don't have a monopoly on stupidity but they do pretty well.  Especially the current crop of environmental vandals.  Renewable energy is a no-brainer, but our current government sometimes seem to have negative brains.....

Wilco1
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Re: Have a look at China
Wilco1   3/19/2016 11:07:16 AM
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Yes the numbers for Australia are way out of date, the 2015 LCOE results are the same for coal and gas excluding any tax on carbon or pollution. Hopefully your next government has a bit more common sense and reintroduces the carbon tax.

Wind and solar are so cheap today that it is best to build as much as possible (on-shore wind is now the cheapest form of electricity in the UK). Storage is likely to become competitive in the near future, but until then gas/diesel peakers are a reasonable solution for those times when it's both dark and not windy.

David_Ashton_EC
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Re: Have a look at China
David_Ashton_EC   3/19/2016 2:19:00 AM
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@Wilco1...I had seen the Wikipedia tables - the US has gas cheaper than coal, Australia (where I am) had coal cheaper than gas....and various other results (wikipedia does warn that a lot of them are outdated).  In any case, all other things being equal, the advantages of gas as above still stand.  Burning gas makes water and CO2 - coal makes a witches brew of other stuff as well.   Until Solar and wind have good enough and cheap enough storage technologies to cope with base load, give me gas and maybe nuclear rather than coal.

Wilco1
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Re: Have a look at China
Wilco1   3/18/2016 6:26:04 AM
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Look at the large set of detailed US figures: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

Every LCOE estimate/projection agrees that gas is cheaper than coal. And wind is even cheaper. Ideally one should add externalities such as huge cost of pollution to mankind which is not currently included in these numbers - in that case coal, especially cheap inefficient plants that don't even scrub their exhaust, would be priced out of the market immediately (only IGCC+CCS is acceptable as a future for coal).

David_Ashton_EC
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Re: Have a look at China
David_Ashton_EC   3/18/2016 1:44:42 AM
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"Moreover, gas is cheaper to build and run"

All the figures go against this - gas is a bit more expensive - BUT as far as I know:
  • gas is a bit cleaner than coal (emissions, but not as much pollution)
  • gas is easier to ramp up and down quickly hence more useful to run in conjunction with non-constant sources like solar and wind (coal fired power stations are like supertankers, they are not easy to start and stop)

 

JamesM951
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Re: Have a look at China
JamesM951   3/18/2016 12:45:46 AM
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"Moreover, gas is cheaper to build and run"

Where did you get this tidbit ?  The studies I've read all say coal power cost less than ccgt. As much as 1/2 the cost of ccgt kw/h.

"The costs you hear quoted for a nuclear power station in China are obviously very dubious"

They don't have the overhead of lawyers at $600/hr. And why is it obvious ?  The Chinese lie a lot ?  Unlike the ever truthful US government. 

"This extremely cavalier approach to "safe" storage of nuclear waste shows humanity is simply not capable of dealing with it."

Don't extrapolate the incompetent Brits to the rest of the world.

harpat
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Re: Have a look at China
harpat   3/17/2016 10:04:14 PM
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We are not competing with China or any other Asian country. We are in the business of printing dollars and buying stuff for free, just the price of paper. As long as the dollar hegemony as a global trade currency persists we have nothing to worry about. Economic theory does not apply to USA. The printed dollars serve as a medium of goods exchange for other countries and do not cause the classical runaway inflation, at least not yet.

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