A Different Take on the Japanese Tsunami: Long-Term Impact on the Nuclear Industry

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I had originally intended to write a post countering some of the “panic/hysteria/fill in the blank coverage of the nuclear reactors in earthquake/tsunami-stricken Japan. But the headlines of the past three days have placed more than a kernel of doubt in my mind whether Japan’s nuclear reactor(s) would escape the fate of a TMI (Three Mile Island) or Chernobyl. So instead, I reached out to some experts in the nuclear industry to either a) make myself feel better or b) turn that kernel of doubt into something much stronger. I’m going to make a feeble attempt at turning kernels of doubt into some data points. Perhaps by stringing some of these points together we can collectively make some informed impressions about the future of the nuclear energy industry and place this event in context with others as well as comment on the notion of “Black Swans.

To try and make sense of the various reports coming from western media, I turned to John D Metzger, Director of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering and asked him several questions. After the first where does he go for accurate information on the nuclear situation? John suggested two sites: The Nuclear Energy Institute and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Here are ten key takeaways I gathered from our conversation:

  1. Every country that has deployed nuclear power has had some “incidents
  2. These Japanese plants will never operate again
  3. At Chernobyl and TMI, operators did not react correctly. Chernobyl operators didn’t follow procedures and the plant had major design flaws. But the situation in Japan has nothing to do with a faulty design or improper procedure or response. This earthquake (natural disaster) represented the fifth largest in modern times
  4. We can’t design for 1000-year events (Ed. note: we will revisit this point later in this post)
  5. The containment vessels may have a breach — but not a wholesale breach
  6. The culture of safety in the nuclear industry remains so strong and so prevalent that we have to relate this situation into the context of this specific natural disaster. Furthermore, the argument goes, the loss of life due to the nuclear power plants so far appears minuscule in comparison to the loss of life from the tsunami and earthquake. The nuclear power industry still remains one of the safest of all power industries
  7. Even Chernobyl had a small loss of life. The failure of Chernobyl also involved the errors of the Soviet government to quickly distribute potassium iodine pills to minimize instances of thyroid cancer. Few died from the actual radiation effects; however, upwards of 35 people died fighting the initial fire. The real death toll occurred when pregnant women aborted their fetuses as a result of the press accounts of the potential dangers of radiation. TMI also had little-to-no loss of life. Click here to see then-governor Dick Thornburgh’s account of health risks from TMI
  8. Lessons learned from TMI have greatly improved the integrity of nuclear power plants. For example, pressurized water reactors are no longer built with once-through steam generators because they do not have a large enough water inventory. According to Dr. Metzger, the industry adopted both procedural changes as well as design changes. About that time, a GE engineer quit the firm and publicly raised some design concerns about boiling water reactors. The industry went through a lot of changes to address the concerns. With this situation, we’ll also see procedure and design changes
  9. With regard to the observation that the US nuclear industry is “old and outdated, Metzger said this, “We have 104 reactors operating. All are in the process or have been licensed for an extra 20 years. They are in great shape. TMI unit 1 has all new steam generators and a new reactor vessel head. The overhaul cost approximately $1 billion. We see constant upgrading of these plants to ensure safety.”
  10. In terms of materials, we won’t see any wholesale changes, but the DOE continues to fund the development of new materials. Many of these materials will go into the next generation of reactors but they are looking at fuels and cladding with better and higher temperature capabilities. We’ve seen funding go into ceramics. Changing materials becomes challenging because operating history with current materials gives us a performance record and confidence in how the materials work in operation

Yesterday, my colleague Taras suggested the magnitude and combination of the earthquake with the tsunami and the effects of nuclear plant breakdown perhaps equate to a Black Swan. Dr. Metzger suggested we can’t design for a once-in-a-thousand-year event. But certainly we had a thousand-year event in 2004 with the Sumatra earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. Black Swan or not, the future will require a re-examination of risk scenarios. Certainly a Japanese “big one couldn’t have had tiny statistical odds. But rather than a knee-jerk overreaction calling for an across the board shut-down of the nuclear industry, perhaps the NRC will take a page from the risk officers out there and really “run the odds of various climatic or natural disaster possibilities by plant site location. Then we can weigh the economics against the risk scenarios.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

–Lisa Reisman

Postscript: Click here to see the US Industry Nuclear Response Sheet

Comments (2)

  1. wei says:

    Calling for across the board shutdown is immature for sure. But isn’t it wise to start some kind of commission to study the safety of the nuclear plants?

  2. jorge Vazquez says:

    Very informative and relevant article!

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