Amongst the devastation of the worst earthquake to hit Japan in over one hundred years, a series of man-made structures stood firm. Japan’s nuclear reactors have come under a critical media spotlight in recent days but the real news is how well these second generation reactors successfully shut down to sub-criticality and maintained their integrity while all around was a picture of destruction.
It was the subsequent impact of thirty foot tsunami waves knocking out back-up generators and flooding secondary cooling systems that caused pressure levels to build in the reactors’ outer containment at Fukushima. The resultant blasts have been replayed on television but the real lesson is this: If reactors can successfully withstand one of the world’s biggest ever earthquakes, surely the technology has little more to prove in terms of its overall operational safety. The Tohoku earthquake has demonstrated just how safe nuclear power actually is.
Of course, anti-nuclear advocates swooped into television studios to cast their denunciations even as the tragedy unfolded. For nuclear detractors, a partial melting of fuel within a sealed unit appears to have no bounds in terms of its possible consequence. The release from the blast at unit 2, though short-lived, brought “told you so” admonishments. The line is that a man-made tragedy has been added to a natural one.
But with the reactor vessels in two of the damaged units remaining largely intact, and the third now expected to stabilize without creating a prolonged release, Fukushima has defiantly denied nuclear opponents the failure they so triumphantly seek.
The seriousness of events should not be magnified any more than it should be downplayed. Workers have been injured trying to stabilize the reactors and one has been killed by a crane. A radioactive release did occur, although it is nothing like the magnitude from Chernobyl in 1986. Defueling and remedial operations will be complex and take time. Reactors flooded with seawater will not operate again.
At the same time, TEPCO and Japanese regulators should be praised for dealing so successfully with the technical challenges they so suddenly faced. They should also be commended for resourcefulness in issuing regular status updates on the internet – in English.
What are the other lessons? Regulators will surely examine how to better protect electrical systems from tsunami waves in the future. The latest generation of reactors are designed with passive features that reduce reliance on electrical power to run safety systems.
We might also conclude that reprocessing spent fuel and vitrifying high level waste has advantages over keeping discharged fuel elements on site. And we might gain the perspective that natural disasters are far more powerful and complex than climate change alarmists would have us believe.
Alas, it has become predictable that the media will draw the wrong conclusions. The major lesson at Fukushima is that nuclear reactors are robust. The case for building more of them has been strengthened.