ORLANDO – The nuclear power industry, started in the 1950s under President Dwight Eisenhower and slated for a possible revival through the Obama administration, is likely to suffer a serious setback because of the crisis at the nuclear plant in Japan, John Freeman said.
“The nuclear industry has been coming back,” Freeman said. “They’re in the process now of coming up with new designs, where if something happens the plants shut themselves down. This is going to hurt that.”
Freeman isn’t speaking as an opponent of nuclear power, but rather as one who spent more than 30 years working in this industry. His field of expertise, as it turns out, has been designing plants that can withstand earthquakes.
“All of the Category One systems are designed for an earthquake,” he said. “All of those components of the plant are all designed for the effects of an earthquake. They have a design basis that specifically treated those components to be able to shut down a reactor during an earthquake. But if you don’t have power, those systems are not functional.”
That’s the problem at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. A power outage last Friday following the massive earthquake that struck that nation meant three reactors at the plant lost their cooling function.
Now Japanese officials are in a race against time to keep the plant from suffering a meltdown.
“One of the things I credit Obama with is supporting new plants,” Freeman said. “All this publicity will affect that.”
Last month, the Obama administration announced it would provide loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear plants. Obama had called for the expansion of nuclear power to lower the nation’s dependence in imported fossil fuels and to meet this country’s energy demands.
But following reports of the crisis at Fukushima, there have been calls in Congress to put the brakes on the expansion of domestic nuclear power until there’s a review of U.S. energy policies.
Freeman, who worked for more than 30 years as a nuclear engineer for the Boston-based firm Stone & Webster, said the problem in Japan wasn’t simply an earthquake, but the stunning magnitude of this particular quake.
“I don’t know what their design basis is, but this particular earthquake is well over 1 g acceleration,” he said. “That means if you were standing on the ground, you’d be lifted off the ground when the earthquake struck. It was a huge earthquake. I doubt very much the design basis for those nuclear plants was well over 1 g acceleration. I think that they didn’t anticipate an earthquake of that magnitude — and they got one.”
As Freeman noted, “The big problem is they lost power in the unit, and you’re supposed to have a couple of sources of power so you can continue to run the pumps. You have to run cool water through the reactor vessels so you can continue to get heat out of there.”
But after the quake struck, “no incoming power was available,” Freeman said. “Second, they have diesel generators on site, and the diesel generators didn’t work, so all they had left was batteries and batteries have a limited life.”
The one advantage they did have, he said, was the plant’s location.
“They’re on the ocean, so they brought in sea water,” he said. “They’re trying to reduce the temperature in there. They have to cool it down so you won’t have a meltdown. They’ve got big problems to do what’s necessary to keep that plant from having a meltdown. That means the fuel could end up on a concrete floor and burn through the concrete floor, and then it has the potential to be released into the environment.”
Whether that will happen isn’t clear, he said.
“The Japanese are kind of closed mouthed about what’s going on there, but they’ve got another plant that’s shut down and having similar problems,” he said. “Each of these sites has three reactors in it, and all three reactors are having the same type of problem. They don’t have offsite power to operate the pumps and circulate the water through the reactor vessel. They need a method to keep sending water through the reactor vessel so they can limit the heat. If they limit the heat, then the possibility of a meltdown reduces.”
Once the earthquake struck Japan, “The plant didn’t fall apart,” Freeman said. “But I don’t know what happened to the diesel generators that were supposed to come on and supply power. They didn’t function. Then of course, the other plants in Japan were shut down, so they didn’t have offsite power to use to keep those pumps moving, so that’s when they had to bring things in from outside. After that, you needed something to give you the ability to get cooling water in there.”
But Freeman added that Japan is not facing the same kind of crisis that the former Soviet Union did in 1986 with the Chernobyl disaster. On April 26 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now the Ukraine, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history occurred. It was the only one classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
“This is not Chernobyl,” Freeman said of Fukushima. “That was like putting a reactor in a warehouse, and when that blew, there was nothing to hold it.”
Nuclear plants in the United State and Japan, he added, are “in re-enforced buildings, so the buildings can hold quite a lot of pressure before the buildings themselves could fail. They have a building that can maintain a pressure buildup.”
This incident is more similar to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania that experienced a partial core meltdown in 1979, he said.
“We had Three Mile Island, and some of the fuel in that reactor did melt, but it didn’t escape the reactor vessel, it just formed a big puddle in the bottom of the reactor and they were able to cool it down after the heat had been removed,” Freeman said. “This (situation in Japan) is comparable to Three Mile Island, not Chernobyl. At Chernobyl, they didn’t have a containment building. They didn’t have this big structure to hold it in. There was nothing to contain all the forces. The warehouse is only sheet metal. The Russians standards were pretty low with regard to dealing with potential accidents. At Three Mile Island they did have a reactor building that ultimately contained everything within the building, so there was no real exposure to the public.”
At Fukushima, “They have a similar design basis to the United States,” he said. “I think with today’s reactor systems, we’ve learned through 40 years of experience, and we’re obviously safer now than 30 years ago.”
It was President Dwight Eisenhower who authorized using the technology for commercial nuclear power, Freeman said.
“In that period, the development of commercial nuclear power plants was initiated,” he said. “They had some plants that the government built just to demonstrate the technology, then they authorized it for commercial applications.” Withstanding earthquakes was part of the original design phase from day one, he added.
“You had the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” he said. “When you want to build a power plant, you have to provide them with your basic design and how you considered various scenarios for a natural disaster — what happens if a pipe breaks in a reactor or something like that. Those designs are reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. You don’t get a permit until you can demonstrate it will be safely built.”
He noted that every plant has different standards. Plants constructed in California have high standards for coping with earthquakes, while plants built in New England or Florida do not.
“Each plant has to stand on its own two feet as far as those scenarios,” he said, noting that the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, a twin reactor nuclear power station near Homestead, Florida, had to be shut down during the busy hurricane season of 2004, when four hurricanes struck the Sunshine State.
“Turkey Point has had hurricanes go through there and they shut the plant down, and they survived all right,” Freeman said.
He also noted that 20 percent of the energy in the United States comes from nuclear power, and said programs favored by environmentalists, such as solar heating, are not likely to provide anywhere near the same amount of electricity.
“Even with solar collectors on all of the houses in the country, you wouldn’t create enough solar power to make everyone happy,” he said.
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Hey, I still can’t believe this happened. I wish a lot of luck to all the helpers and survivors in Fukushima and Japan.