Assessing nuclear threat in Japan

The probability of a full nuclear meltdown is low – Energy shortage is a bigger cause of concern


Update 15/3/2011: Since we put this item up on 14th March three of the reactors at the Fukushima complex have been hit by explosions and damage has spread to the fourth reactor too. Japanese Prime Minister Kan has addressed the nation: “The level [of radiation] seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out.”Later there was an unprecidented television address by Akahito, the Emperor of Japan.17/3/2011: The crisis continues both at the complex and the indescribable hardship being borne by the people of Hokkaido and Honshu. We have added further assesments from Frost & Sullivan at the bottom of this blog.

The Irish Red Cross are facilitating contributions to assist survivors of this disaster!

We will continue adding to this blog as we learn of further developments!

Frost & Sullivan’s nuclear expert Enguerran Ripert has commented on the energy crisis in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.

“The hydrogen blasts at Japan’s Daiichi 1 and 3 reactors located in the Fukushima province gave clear signals the reactors were in trouble. The explosion created by the exposure of fuel rods to the air, which increased the temperature of the core and set fire to hydrogen, split the outmost structure of the Daiichi 1 and Daiichi 3 reactor, but did not damage the pressure vessel.

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Nuclear Experts Explain Worst-Case Scenario at Fukushima Power Plant (Steve Mirsky, Sciebtific American 12/3/11)

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e14 have a Japan Emergency website to “aid information flow for the Electronics Industry!”

The water level, which normally covers the fuel rods completely, was too low due to a system failure in the class 1 pumps caused directly by the earthquake tremors. The tsunami, then flooded the backup circuit and generators normally used to stabilise the flow of water, and keep the cooling operational. The sea water now used to increase the water level in the reactors will lead to heavy corrosion within the reactor, and put it out of use indefinitely. These reactors, built in the 70s, were due for retirement but could have gone on for another 5 years.

Despite the spectacular blast, the level of radiation is 10 to 15 times below legal limit, and the damage to internals is extremely limited. Rather than an imminent meltdown, it is the cost of repairs, and the indirect cost of a dramatic loss of power supply which Japan and the rest of the world will suffer the consequences of.

Currently, major companies such as Toyota, Sony, Matsuchita and Nissan amongst many others, have had to halt their production for a lack of available electricity. Japan already has very little room to manoeuvre as real interest rates are very close to zero, and its exposure to re-insurance risk is very high, which will likely drag the global economy down with cost repercussions extended to the next 2 to 3 years”.

17/3/2011: Further assesment from Frost & Sullivan on the continuing threat:
Their nuclear market experts Jonathan Robinson and Enguerran Ripert comment on the energy crisis in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.

It is still too early to say exactly how damaging the Fukushima incident will be for the nuclear power industry, but we can speculate on the potential impact on Europe. Prior to the explosion, a number of European countries had been bringing forward plans to develop new nuclear projects – what could happen now?

In the short-term, the impact is already clear. Safety checks for plants will be tightened up and life extension decisions are likely to be delayed; the talk from politicians will be of making sure existing plants are safe as opposed to discussing new units. But the longer-term impact will likely depend on how this current situation plays out. Frost & Sullivan has outlined three scenarios below.

Scenario 1: The situation is contained in the next 48 hours, the media firestorm subsides and the consensus is that the radiation impact is negligible.

This is the best case scenario and gives the greatest potential for nuclear. Even under this scenario, there is a significant chance that Angela Merkel decides not to risk the wrath of the German voters in state elections through the course of the year and reverses the life extensions granted in 2009. The Italian referendum on allowing new nuclear (scheduled for June) would likely be defeated, unless it is delayed. Even a delay may not be enough; the opposition left parties that are currently tipped as most likely to form the next government are broadly opposed to nuclear and could abandon a future referendum or effectively block plans for new plants. France would reaffirm its commitment to nuclear power, Central and Eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic would push ahead with new units, following increased safety assessments. The delays caused would be minimal, given that many projects are currently on hold due to financing constraints and
also lack of electricity demand caused by the economic downturn. Areva’s and other competitors’ PWR designs would gain an initial edge on BWRs.

Scenario 2: The situation is not controlled within the next 48 hours and critical radiation leaks are still a risk to the immediate surroundings. There is still no substantial evidence that the radiation will damage public health

The German closure program is re-instated and Italy is almost certain to be a no for nuclear. UK public opinion starts to swing against nuclear and the government brings forward the closure dates for older reactors. Concerted opposition in the UK deters utilities from bringing new projects forward, leading to further substantial delays. The private sector’s concern over the viability of nuclear power increases substantially, making it almost impossible for state utilities that lack capital funding to find it at a price that makes projects commercially viable. Technically, reactor designs will need to carry autonomous power systems protected from external damage such as terrorist attacks and tornados and be able to run for an extended period of time without grid supply or refuelling.

Scenario 3: The situation deteriorates to a full meltdown, drawing in technical emergency support from other nuclear countries. The risk to public health increases, with significant risk of contamination within a weather-influenced radius.

Nuclear projects indefinitely delayed across Europe, with even France reluctant to consider constructing any new plants. There is high political pressure on countries to close BWR reactors that are of the same age. Technically, BWRs become the focus of intense scrutiny compared with PWRs which use more internal safety loops amongst other features. Fusion projects ITer and HiPER would gain further momentum in the longer run, but would face further safety scrutiny which will further delay schedules. Research radiation absorbing materials, intelligent nanotech for specific use in a nuclear plant environment will be of increased interest, but nuclear power would still play a part of the overall global energy mix.

Of course all these scenarios do not consider such factors as the future price of carbon, climate change pressures or the potential discovery of new gas deposits, all of which could benefit or derail nuclear. One thing is certain though – the future of nuclear in Europe is once again in significant doubt.

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