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mattbrowne's avatar

According to WikiLeaks Japanese authorities serially ignored warnings on security lapses in nuclear plants - Gross negligence?

Asked by mattbrowne (31588points) March 16th, 2011

“The Japanese government may have failed to show due diligence in acting on an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warning on security shortcomings in the Fukushima nuclear plant, according to reports. The international nuclear watchdog had alerted the Japanese authorities about two years ago that its nuclear power plants may not be able to survive strong earthquakes, diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks showed. Though the Japanese authorities created an emergency response center at the Fukushima plant, the fact that the plant was designed to withstand only a magnitude 7 quake remained unaddressed. The report also says that a G-8 Nuclear Safety and Security Group in 2008 had also alerted the country over the safety of its nuclear power plants. A leaked US embassy cable had an unnamed official saying that the guidance on how to protect nuclear power stations from earthquakes had only been updated three times in the past 35 years.”

If this is true, the world should be outraged. What’s your take on this?

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28 Answers

Qingu's avatar

I doubt this situation is unique to these plants or to Japan. There are plants in the US that are also built near fault lines.

I’m not sure “outrage” is the right response. There has always been a risk, for almost every nuke plant, that a natural disaster would wipe out containment/cooling systems. It is pure randomness that these plants were the ones to fall victim to such a disaster. Also, the Daiishi plants, while crippled, do have several layers of containment that have worked, that have in fact prevented this from approaching a Chernobyl level disaster (fingers crossed).

Another point of perspective: less than ten people (if that?) have died from the woes of the Daiishi plant. On the other hand, about 10,000 people have died from the earthquake/tsunami. The loss of life stemming from this structure’s vulnerability to natural disasters has not approached that of the broader population’s by several orders of magnitude.

So I don’t think the takeaway should be outrage, it should be reflection. We now have a better idea of the risks of nuclear power. We certainly have a better idea of the need for passive cooling systems, but we should also be humbled and realize that a sufficiently powerful disaster could well overcome any safety system we devise. The question is, do these risks outweigh the benefits from using this energy source (which will run out in 100 years anyway)?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – I think lessons learned are important even for incidents that only come close to a more dramatic disaster. Less than 10 people dying is not significant here. Cities being destroyed by earthquakes and tsunamis can be rebuilt. Long-term radioactive contamination is different. Ukraine still has to spend 5% of its GDP every year just to manage the aftermath Chernobyl. Vast areas of Europe are still affected, including Germany. Hunters keep shooting boar which end up as toxic waste because of cesium-137. That’s the real trouble here. Such disasters cannot be undone easily. Not taking proper precautions is very unethical. Japan needs to be confronted in a couple of months. Now isn’t the time yet.

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, I basically agree with you, but the nitpicker in me has to nitpick. So far, it doesn’t look like this disaster will approach that of Chernobyl, for several reasons, primarily because (unlike Chernobyl), the control rods are inserted. So we are dealing with residual fission, heat, and radioactivity.

Another reason Chernobyl was worse is because the explosion there (a kilometer high, much more powerful than at Daiichi because of ongoing fission) blew apart the core. The core’s fuel rods contain the nastiest species of radioactive particles, and the explosion widely dispersed them. This hasn’t happened at Daiichi and, because the control rods are still inserted, I’m not sure it can happen because of the structure of the containment holds.

So the plant did take a number of “proper precautions.” This disaster clearly could have been a lot worse. It also could have been a lot better. If the plant had a passive cooling system instead of one that depended on power to operate, we would likely not be in this situation.

Maybe this is famous last words. But even if radioactivity continues to worsen at Daiichi, there are still precautions that Japanese can take, are taking, that would have saved the lives of most people around Chernobyl.

All that said—I agree with you that nuclear energy poses unique risks, risks which are unnecessary in light of other power sources, and which may not be worth it overall. I just don’t think “outrage” is the right emotional state to approach this discussion, and I don’t think we should overblow the risks at Daiichi, as horrible as they are. Certainly, if we are going to continue using nuclear power, I think at minimum all plants should be required to have passive cooling systems.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – I see your point. Well, the control rods do stop uranium decay, but not the decay of intermediary fission products. Unit 4 contains older fuel rods which were taken out for a maintenance check. Last but not least, an unlikely but possible scenario is this: one of the containment structures gets seriously ruptured, because of the control rods less radioactivity compared to Chernobyl escapes, wind is strong blowing in a south-westerly direction.

Consequence: 37 million people in Tokyo are affected. Population density near Chernobyl doesn’t even come close.

Passive cooling systems? I’m not sure whether anyone has already thought about this: The installation of a large super freezer containing 1 million cubic feet of ice (100-foot cube) with a temperature of -76 F, and located above the containment structure. In case of a total power loss including all backup generators this might be more effective than the use of batteries. Heat from the containment area would slowly melt the ice. Cold water would be mixed with boric acid to cool the reactor core without the use of pumps (gravity only). There are already commercial companies specializing in super freezers. See

Qingu's avatar

The control rods don’t really stop uranium decay, they stop neutrons… the neutrons being what bump into other uranium atoms to generate a chain fission reaction. I’m pretty sure nothing stops the uranium from decaying; that’s why fuel rods generate heat, even when they’re not fissioning.

You make a very fair point about population density. But we also need to consider the amount—and the particular species—of radioactive particles. Low levels of radioactivity are not dangerous. Many radioactive particles are only radioactive for a few seconds. Iodine is dangerous, but it’s easy to mitigate (and Japanese authorities have done so). Cesium is bad. Uranium would be really bad, and plutonium in reactor 3 even worse—but those are incredibly heavy elements that are wholly contained in the cores. Unless the cores explode, and the explosion carries these elements into the air, they’re not going to be widely dispersed.

I had not heard of the super freezer business (thanks for the info) but gravity based pumps have always seemed like a total f-ing no brainer. I mean, it’s amazing that people were surprised that the cooling system failed.

mattbrowne's avatar

And what about the spent fuel pool in unit 4? I heard that the water level needs to be raised urgently. If this fails things can get ugly. True?

Qingu's avatar

The question is “how ugly.” It’s spent fuel, so it’s not going to fission, so it’s not going to get as explosively hot as Chernobyl.

Basically there is stuff inside fuel rods, both spent and unspent, that is naturally very hot and very radioactive.

If you put a bunch of these rods together, their neutrons start fissioning in a chain reaction, and they get much more hot. The control rods (which absorb neutrons) prevent this from happening. Chernobyl’s control rods weren’t working. Daiichi’s are.

But even if you stop the chain reaction, the rods are still very, very hot (for the same reason that the inside of Earth is—radioactive decay). Spent fuel is too; it’s still radioactively decaying. If this heat doesn’t go anywhere, the zircaloy cladding around the rods starts to melt. Then the stuff inside the rods (ceramic uranium-dioxide pellets) starts to melt too. That’s when the nastiest of the nasty radioactive particles start being exposed to the environment. But even then, you’d need an explosion to widely disperse them. And they are still entombed in multiple layers of containment buildings. Chernobyl did not have such layers of containment, either.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – From what I’m reading, officials seem to prepare to use water cannons of the police to spray water into unit 4.

Qingu's avatar

Also FYI: normally, spent fuel is kept under cool water for years, and then later it’s transferred to air cooled concrete casks. It’s basically dangerous forever. This is the stuff we wanted to store in Yucca mountain, away from the things of man.

Qingu's avatar

From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like #4 poses quite the same challenges, because it’s easier to keep the water level up.

With the other reactors, you also need to keep the water level up… but you need to somehow get the water into/around the cores. The problem is the cores are so hot that, sort of like a hot air balloon blowing up, they create this tremendous pressure in the containment. So it’s very hard to actually spray water in there, because the pressure keeps pushing it back out. As far as I can tell, this is not a problem with #4, but I could be wrong.

the100thmonkey's avatar

I understood the plant was designed to withstand 8.2 magnitude quakes. The plant itself stood up to a 9.0 quake. It was at the very least poor planning to put the backup generators in the likely path of a tsunami. Of course, this turns on the definition of ‘withstand’, and 30 foot high walls of water.

It needs to be repeated that the Tohoku event is the strongest earthquake on record in Japan, and the second strongest earthquake on record, period. I appreciate that nuclear energy requires the highest standards of safety protocols. However, magnitude 9 earthquakes are very rare, and I think that the ultimate source of the problems is poor planning – this crisis likely would not have occurred if the backup generators had been placed somewhere more (in hindsight) sensible.

The placement of the backup generators is something that can be acted upon. If this was the nature of the advice from the IAEA, then it’s pretty clear that the Japanese government has a case to answer. However, if the advice was of the flavour of “your reactors aren’t secure enough”, then I think the issue is a lot more complex – the physical containment mechanisms have actually exceeded their design specifications and held up.

mattbrowne's avatar

The way I understand it, the spent fuel in unit 4 contains more fission products with dangerous long-term implications. So in case (against all odds) the water level can’t be raised, the consequences created by unit 4 are more severe than any of the other reactor cores exploding. Correct?

mattbrowne's avatar

@the100thmonkey – How can you limit the design of a plant to a 8.2 magnitude, when historic records clearly show that there have been more than a hundred quakes 8.3 and higher? Right on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Just look at this list of 8.5 quakes and higher:

So we are looking at rare, but not that rare. And IAEA knew this and told the Japanese authorities. Why was this being ignored?

filmfann's avatar

@mattbrowne You should considered the difficulty in building a plant that can withstand a 9.0 quake.
I don’t know how large a quake you have been thru, but I have been thru a 7.0, and I can’t imagine anything standing after a quake 100 times stronger.
The only choices would be to build it as strong as possible, or not to build it at all, and not have electricity.

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, I don’t think that’s correct, based on my (amateur) knowledge. Containing more fission products does not necessarily mean they’re more dangerous. The non-decayed uranium is more dangerous than many fission products. And non-depleted fuel is still fissioning, just at a very low rate (6 or 7%), so it is creating fission products too. Also, many fission products are harmless because they decay in seconds to a stable form. Finally, you also need to consider not just the particles, but how they might be dispersed (as in the likelihood of a massive explosion through steam buildup, hydrogen, or otherwise) and I don’t think this is as much of a danger at #4 than the other reactors.

I believe the scariest stuff is in reactor #3, because it contains plutonium.

Qingu's avatar

@filmfann but this just means it’s stupid to build plants in places where 9.0 quakes might happen. Even if such quakes only happen once in several lifetimes, these plants are meant to last several lifetimes.

If you can’t secure against such a quake, why would you build a plant in an area where a quake has a non-trivial chance of happening?

filmfann's avatar

Power plants are best when built near the customers. Electricity doesn’t travel well.

bob_'s avatar

This guy seems not to be all that worried.

Qingu's avatar

Well, maybe we should limit the types of plants that can be built near customers who happen live near massive faults in Earth’s crust.

Qingu's avatar

@bob_, that guy posted that (sort of cavalierly, it seems) ... and then his fellow scientists at MIT completely took it apart and rewrote it.

Read the background here, and note the link to MIT’s revised version (which is actually very informative and useful):

bob_'s avatar

@Qingu Thanks for the update.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@mattbrowne – I was pointing out that there’s a lot of fluidity in the facts of this case. I note that your premise changed. The fact remains that the containment system held under a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which would seem to obviate the entire premise of the question.

Still, aside from the stupid placement of a nuclear power station on the coast – even one as well-designed and -built as the Fukushima plant – the question remains how safe nuclear power is. This is an empirical one. I believe the numbers are on the side of “safe”.

Qingu's avatar

@the100thmonkey those numbers (I’m assuming you mean statistics of accidents, deaths, etc vs. other power forms) have to be weighed and considered against:

• the sheer risk of nuke plants. i.e., many more people die from handguns than rocket-propelled grenades each year… but an RPG is still much more dangerous than a handgun.

• the fact that uranium is non-renewable. Uranium reserves will only last a few decades more than oil. So nuclear power, as it exists today, is not a solution to our energy problem. It’s less polluting than FF, but it’s still a stopgap measure.

I’m not totally opposed to nuclear power or anything, but I do think the sooner we replace nuke plants with wind/solar—especially those in high-risk areas—the better.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@Qingu – I totally agree. As I said on another thread, renewable energy is the way forward (the sun isn’t going to disappear in the next 50 years), but we need something to bridge the fall off in fossil fuels.

mattbrowne's avatar

@filmfann – Point taken. So if plants handling 9.0 are impossible, no nuclear power plants should exists near the Pacific Ring of Fire.

The strongest earthquake in Germany in recent history was 5.9 in 1992.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – Well, your amateur knowledge seems to be better than mine. However, today, more people are concerned about unit 4. I wonder why. Well, I read the following:

“A U.S. Air Force Global Hawk UAV based out of Guam is tentatively scheduled to overfly the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant today, in order to provide a more complete picture of what’s going on inside the facility.”

But there are no news about a release of the pictures.

mattbrowne's avatar

@bob_ – I started reading Barry Brooks’s posts several days ago. It seems his optimism may yet prove to be premature. And more recent posts do sound differently.

“The on-site situation remains extremely serious, with glimmers of hope being shrouded by a shadow of deep uncertainty.”

“The spent fuel pool temperature has been rising gradually since last Friday due to the loss of cooling pump.”

mattbrowne's avatar

@the100thmonkey – Many serious incidents are being covered up. Here’s just one example

“According to Lars-Olov Höglund, a former construction chief at Vattenfall, at the time it was the most serious nuclear incident in the world since the Chernobyl disaster and it was pure luck that prevented a meltdown.

However, Kjell Olsson, a researcher at SKI, later confirmed that a meltdown could have developed from the incident and the agency states that the failing safety system proved to be linked together in a “delicate extremely serious” way.

On March 14, 2011, Höglund commented that the Fukushima-disaster parallels the Forsmark incident, i.e. failing UPS system backup, and repeated his statement from 2007 that “only luck” prevented a meltdown at the Swedish plant.”

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