Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nuclear power, Fukishima, and incompetence

Back in the 1980's, America's elites were running scared of Japan. It was stated that Japan would be the #1 economy in the world by the end of the 20th century, that America needed to learn from the Japanese, yada yada yada. Yet in the 1990's, Japan's economy stumbled. And in the 2000's, Japan's vaunted reputation for quality took multiple hits as coverups of faults in Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Toyota vehicles came to light.

So what happened? Well, what happened was that the Japanophiles were looking at the strengths of Japan's society, but not at its weaknesses. And the biggest weakness is that Japan is a consensus-based shame-based society where nobody will make hard decisions because they will bring shame upon the decision-maker or cause a disruption of social harmony within the company or within society as a whole. As a result, when Japan faced a depression caused by a collapse in housing and land prices in the 1990's, they were unable to make the hard decision to close down the bankrupt banks and fund new ones or to provide a massive bailout restoring the solvency of the bankrupt banks. Instead, they pretended they still had a credible banking system because admitting their banks were bankrupt would have brought shame upon various decision-makers in their society, thereby cutting off credit to large parts of the Japanese economy. And credit is the lynchstone of capitalism. Credit is what allows capitalism to be the most nimble system for creating goods and services ever invented, because credit is what allows a company to swiftly adjust to changing consumer needs by paying for the capital equipment needed to meet those needs with the future sales thus generated. Without a functional banking system, you must wait and slowly accumulate capital to make that capital investment. Japan's banks basically ceased to exist from an economic point of view in the 1990s, pulling one of those legs off the three-legged stool of capitalism, and as a result their economy went sideways -- and has stayed sideways.

The fact that Japan is a shame-based society that values social harmony above all else especially is problematic when you have managers who are drunk, incompetent, or both. And there are such managers scattered all through Japanese industry. And Japan's nuclear industry appears especially prone to that. TEPCO (the utility which owns the Fukishima power plant) has in particular a long and sordid history of mismanagement including submitting fraudulent inspection data to the Japanese government and covering up previous nuclear accidents. Unfortunately the problem is that if a boss is drunk and incompetent, said boss will remain in power pretty much forever, because firing him would be an admission that you made a mistake hiring him and thus bring shame upon you. And there’s far too many of these roadblocks to competence scattered in halls of TEPCO…

So, is the result going to be another Chernobyl? Well... no. There were no safety features at Chernobyl. It didn’t even have a reactor containment vessel, and it was a graphite-moderated reactor, where the graphite would burst into flames if you poured water onto the reactor fuel to cool it down. Completely different design from an old-school boiling-water reactor like Three Mile Island or Fukushima.

Indeed, Fukushima is almost identical in design to Three Mile Island, and almost identical in its operation — i.e., incompetence rules. TEPCO in fact had its operating license yanked for several years in the early ‘oughts for submitting fraudulent inspection reports to Japan’s nuclear regulator. It’s the flip side of the problems caused by America’s “at will” employment system… in Japan, if you have a job, it’s pretty much for life even if you’re incompetent and drunk all the time. And if you happen to be the manager of a nuclear power plant and incompetent and drunk all the time… well. You still have a job for life. Because to fire you would bring shame upon your manager for hiring someone who is drunk and incompetence, and shame-based societies like Japan just can’t deal with that.

That said, there *ARE* designs that will automatically shut down if they lose cooling, like pebble bed reactors. What we should be doing is replacing all these old boiling water reactors (which were designed by the military to power friggin’ NUCLEAR SUBMARINES, not generate electricity, and they’re inherently designed to be compact enough to fit in submarines, not safe) with reactors that are far, far safer. To shut down a pebble bed reactor in an emergency, for example, you *stop* cooling it -- energetic particles then become too energetic to stay in the fuel pellets and stop causing fission, there by preventing the reactor from melting down. This is just one example of reactors which have passive safety systems, which most of today's reactors do NOT have, instead relying upon pumps and other such active devices (devices that require external energy to operate) to prevent them from melting down.

As for “alternate energy”: Energy density. I’ve talked about this before. But you basically cannot maintain technological society with the energy density possible with solar, wind, and geothermal power. And I *LIKE* technological society. Amongst other things, it makes this blog possible… as well as making alternate energy possible. Without technological society, you can't have solar panels or efficient distribution of electricity from wind or geothermal power. Just doesn't work. Wind, solar, and geothermal will be important in the future, but simply will not provide sufficient energy to maintain the kind of technological society needed to create and maintain such an infrastructure. We'll need some kind of more energy-dense power source for that... and right now, unless you want to continue contributing to global warming by burning more hydrocarbons, nuclear power seems to be "it".

-- Badtux the Energy Penguin


  1. Actually, I think the optimal nuclear reactor design would be one based on the molten salt reactor experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) during the mid-1960s. The only reason why we are not using molten salt reactors (MSRs) is because of political wrangling between the head of the project and the engineers that were working on it. There has been some interest in reviving the MSR concept, but it is a radically different design from a light water reactor and the US already shits its pants from the very mention of the word "nuclear". Because of this, I think the prospect of building an MSR would be politically impossible in the US for the foreseeable future.

  2. The reactors at Fukushima were due to be decommissioned this February after 40 years, but were granted a 10-year reprieve. And so it could well have been in 2021, and 2031, etc. In America, you can bet that a nuclear power plant is forever: the political will to shut down and replace a plant that cost in the billions of dollars to build is simply absent in today's government.

    You can play the "no one could have imagined" game all you want with the circumstances of the Fukushima catastrophe (which is still getting worse), but there are two realities that must be faced: one, a nuclear plant is forever (see above), and two, sooner or later, the event that "no one could have imagined" will happen... 10 or 100 or 500 years later, but it will happen. Plain and simple: nuclear power is not safe, not even with improvements in technology in the last decade.

    IMHO the right way to address the energy density problem you emphasize is to build devices that require less power... a lot less power, little enough that solar, wind and tidal generation produce in total more than ample power for a hi-tech world.

  3. One last thought... the world has suffered three major nuclear power disasters (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima) in only 25 years. Do the arithmetic.

  4. Yes, well...look at the safety record of fossil fuel power stations by comparison. Coal kills thousands of people each year through its normal operation. Natural gas plants are also very vulnerable to disaster like the one last year in Milford, Connecticut.

  5. Neurovore... your point is valid, but not relevant to my comment. Please point to the sentence in which I advocate fossil fuels for power generation. Right... there isn't one, because I don't.

  6. Fukishima is in Japan, Steve. Not the U.S. And you do point out a major problem -- these old 1st generation nuclear power plants are basically either military steam generators for operating warship steam turbines (boiling water reactors) or military plutonium production reactors placed into service as power plants by running steam pipes past the plutonium production pile (the old graphite-moderated reactors like Chernobyl or the heavy water reactors like Canada's CANDU), and none of them were designed to be inherently safe. Yet they're still out there, ticking time bombs, because the political will to replace them isn't there in part thanks to scare tactics of people like you who don't understand how they work but are sure that anything with the word "nuclear" in it is bad because, well, because.

    As for the notion that you can reduce the necessary energy density for technological society to that possible with only solar, wind, and geothermal -- you're running up against fundamental laws of physics there. The glass for those solar panels, for example, is made of silica (silicone dioxide). Silica has to be heated to 3000F. That's physics. It takes energy to heat it to 3000F, and no amount of efficiency enhancement is going to make that less. The silicon wafers in the solar panels are made by refining silica to purify it and remove the oxygen bonds. This is done via melting it with carbon in a blast furnace at 2000C which produces silicon + carbon dioxide, then reacting other metallic impurities (such as aluminum) and slagging them off. All of this requires energy, and there's nothing to be done about that fact because we're talking physics here, materials melt at the temperature they melt at, no more, no less.

    Now, let's look at electric cars. They're welded together by melting steel panels together ("welding"). Steel melts at around 2600F. That requires energy, large amounts of energy, as you'd know if you'd ever done any welding yourself -- even welding together sheet metal panels will require at least 15 amps of 115v power, welding together frame pieces requires at least 30 amps at 240v to heat up enough metal to melt it together. There's nothing to be done about that, the melting point of steel is dictated by physics, not by something we mere humans have control over. And of course the blast furnaces that created that steel in the first place were heating up huge vats of the stuff to react it with carbon in much the same way as refining silica to create silicon...

    In short, reality simply is. And reality is that while there's low hanging fruit in heating, cooling, and transportation, the most important energy use is for maintaining technological civilization (that is, industry) especially for refining things like steel, silicon, and, yes, oil, and that energy use is largely dictated by physics -- materials melt or vaporize at the temperatures they melt or vaporize at, no more, no less, and there's nothing to be done about that. Reality simply *IS*.

    - Badtux the Reality-based Penguin

  7. Steve, note that your first long message was caught in my spam trap when N^3 posted his message. Only your second shorter message was there. You're assuming he read a message that was not there when he posted.

    -Badtux the Much-spammed Penguin

  8. This morning's news crawl told me that the Swiss government has cancelled plans for three nuclear reactors. Setting aside what the design they would have been, when was the last time Switzerland had a major earthquake?

    BadTux is right on energy density: the only two sources that can supply the need are fossil fuels and fissile fuels. Them's the breaks.

    (verification word for this comment is ALLAS!)

  9. "Wind, solar, and geothermal will be important in the future, but simply will not provide sufficient energy to maintain the kind of technological society needed to create and maintain such an infrastructure..."

    Granted, but none of these technologies will provide an important percentage of our energy needs until the gas and oil companies have less control over our legislators.

  10. Anyway, at the risk of sounding like a shameless self-promoter, I have attempted to put together a post on the details of what the situation is in Japan with its nuclear power plants that have been affected by the earthquake. Although Fukushiima Unit-1 and Unit-3 have been severely damaged, the panic surrounding the incident has also gotten far out of hand. You can read about it on my N^4 blog, here:

    Special Post on Japan

  11. "... in part thanks to scare tactics of people like you who don't understand how they work but are sure that anything with the word "nuclear" in it is bad because, well, because."

    Ouch. Needless to say, BadTux, I disagree.

    I also believe I may understand a bit more about the whole business than you think I do. But I know a lost battle when I see one, so I'll reduce my response to a single thought: the only long-term solution to the energy problem is the development of technologies that consume less of it. It's not the whole of my argument, but it will have to do for now.

  12. Well, good luck trying to get silica to melt at a lower temperature than it melts at. You'll have as much luck jumping off a skyscraper and flapping your arms to fly. It's as much a contradiction of basic scientific principles as creationism, it's just a different set of True Believers.

    - Badtux the "Gravity simply *IS*" Penguin

  13. "It's as much a contradiction of basic scientific principles as creationism, it's just a different set of True Believers."

    Ouch again. Can we discuss this (if at all) with fewer assumptions about motivations? Mine are not as new-age-freaky as you seem to think. I do have a technology background and an engineering degree; I'm not a nut-case, at least not of that sort, and my realities are probably more like yours than you seem willing to admit today.

    As you note, it's not a question of belief. Certain physical realities do impinge on any processes we may propose or attempt; you've named some of them. I started to write a long post here naming some more, but thought better of it.

    Suffice it to say that I grant you your results given your goals, and I probably have different goals that lead me to classify energy generation technologies according to different criteria, even apart from safety issues, even if all nuclear or coal-burning plants could be made perfectly safe for human health.

    Hope this passes your spam-checker...

  14. Given that my main goal is keeping most people on the planet alive, which can't be done outside of technological society (going back to a stone age hunter-gatherer society would not support more than a few million people on each continent), yes, my goal (the maintenance of technological society) can't be done without dense energy sources, even if we *do* deal with all the low-hanging fruit of inefficient energy uses. We can probably cut energy use by around 30% by adopting more efficient transportation mechanisms, retrofitting buildings with better insulation, and so forth. The problem is that even if we do that, alternate energy simply won't provide all the necessary energy to maintain technological society.

    My own background has significant manufacturing engineering in it. I have noticed that most engineers have no idea what it takes to manufacture the products they design. I'll tell you what it takes: It takes an *enormous* infrastructure. Simply the disk controller board on one of my employer's products contained over a hundred components sourced from a dozen different countries, each of which involved significant amounts of energy to manufacture. That entire product, a large NAS array server used to store image data for semiconductor manufacturing (amongst other things), used components from four continents and a sum of energy for the manufacture and transportation of said components that is utterly staggering if you think about it. Such big iron is still needed for the massive sums of data that are getting flung around, sums of data that are needed for society itself to become more efficient both energy-wise and otherwise. So that's the background that says to me, "you can't maintain modern civilization without a *lot* of energy." I might be able to live comfortably myself with nothing but some solar panels and a few batteries, using an earth-sheltered home to maintain a consistent temperature and LED lights for my illumination. But I couldn't manufacture that solar panel or those batteries or the solar controller without a massive infrastructure spread over multiple continents... no single country has the resources to do that kind of thing anymore, the Soviet Union drove themselves bankrupt trying to do it.

    - Badtux the Manufacturing Penguin

  15. BadTux, that's an impressive background you have.

    My career was always more software than hardware, starting with factory process control and monitoring systems. After that, I worked for a medical research institution for a few years, writing custom controllers and data acquisition s/w for gas chromatographs - mass spectrometers and later for other lab instruments.

    Eventually I moved into a more academic environment, developing the wherewithal to maintain and analyze sets of data from (really fairly large and more-than-average complexity) health research databases.

    After that, I went indy for 20 years, working on all sorts of things in the private sector, including a 24x7 trading board for rare coins. My last project before forced retirement (disability) was a commercial hospital management system for maintaining room readiness (a more complex task than I would ever have imagined), using AJAX technology aimed at clients all over the hospital, running in browsers. (I was reminded of the election day systems on news web sites, which inevitably use the same client technology.) IOW, I'm not exactly a technophobe!

    I do in fact have a different priority from you. First and foremost, IMNSHO, we must avoid global climate change. Does choice of energy technologies affect that? I am convinced it does. Some flavors... fossil fuels, biofuels, nuclear... actually add energy to the system. Others simply divert energy already in the system to serve our purposes. Inasmuch as very, very small changes in average temperatures can have disproportionate effects, and considering the increasing prevalence of extremely efficient greenhouse gases (do you have any idea how much heat can be trapped by methane added to the atmosphere from melted polar ice?), we really have to think about what absolutely requires high energy densities and what can do with energy from more benign sources.

    It's always a gamble, and reasonable people can disagree about how many processes that demand the high energy densities of which you speak can be redesigned or minimized or simply done without. The thing is, if we get it wrong, there may be no reversing the change... a dozen failed nuclear plants a year will seem as nothing compared to the effects of global climate change. And that's why I put that first in my list of considerations for future technology.

  16. Indeed, the thing about nuclear energy is that it does not contribute to global warming. Well, other than the fact that we have a giant nuclear reactor sitting 93 million miles away from us. Breaking our fossil fuel habit is the first step to stopping global warming. Proposing to replace all existing coal and natural gas fired power plants with solar and wind power isn't happening, because the amount of turbines and solar panels required would have dire environmental effects in and of itself -- plants don't do well when their light is blocked off by solar panels (and vice-versa for that matter) while sufficient wind turbines would change weather patterns just as much as global warming does by changing how the wind blows around the planet.

    Not to mention that the only large-scale way we have of storing this energy right now is massive pumped hydro-projects -- i.e, two dams, when the wind is calm water is released from the upper one through electrical generation turbines and collected at the bottom reservoir, when the wind blows water is pumped from the bottom reservoir back into the upper one. This wrecks havoc on rivers. And the geography in some areas simply isn't conducive to pumped hydropower. You certainly couldn't do it in the Houston area, for example -- too flat, as you well know.

    If there were an alternative to nuclear power for dealing with global warming, I'd be all for it. But right now we just don't have anything else that'll keep the lights on and the wheels of industry turning. Well, other than burning more coal and oil, but you know how *that* one turns out...

    BTW, designed my first manufacturing process in 1996 for a small computer manufacturer. Still doing that today for another computer manufacturer. It's frustrating at times because sometimes even managers don't understand what it takes to actually build the things the engineers are designing, but so it goes...

  17. GE Scientist Quit Over Troubled Reactor’s Design
    Wednesday, 16 Mar 2011 11:21 AM
    By Jim Meyers

    Three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant use a GE design , including the damaged No. 1 unit that began operating in 1971.


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