Climate change

March 14, 2011

Discussion Thread – Japanese nuclear reactors and the 11 March 2011 earthquake

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 3:04 pm

by Barry Brook

Please use this Discussion Thread for the situation in Japan with respect to the Miyagiken-Oki earthquake (9.0 magnitude) and associated 10m tsunami, and its impact on the local nuclear reactors. Here is a précis of the situation as I understand it:

1. There is no credible risk of a serious accident. All reactors responded by insertion of control rods to shut down their nuclear reactions. Thus, power levels in all cases dropped quickly to about 5% of maximum output,  and the nuclear chain reaction ceased (i.e., all units are subcritical).

Note: I judge the situation would currently be rated INES Level 4: Accident with local consequences on the international nuclear event scale. Update: This level has been confirmed by WNN (5:50 GMT).

2. The concern is providing emergency cooling water to the reactor cores to remove decay heat from the fuel rods. This residual heat comes from the fission products, and will be persistent, but diminishes rapidly over time (i.e., most decay heat occurs over minutes and hours, with cold shutdown within a few days).

3. At one plant, the 40-year old Fukushima Daiichi (unit #1 opened in 1971), the backup diesel generators supply power to the core cooling system failed (apparently due to damage from the tsunami). This allowed pressure to build up in at least one of the reactors cores to about 50% higher than normal (unit 1), and requires venting of very mildly radioactive steam (contains trace levels of tritium). Some discussion here.

4. The nuclear reactor containments were undamaged by the tsunami or earthquake — these structures are sealed from flooding damage and are seismically isolated.

5. New generators and batteries have been transported to the Daiichi site in to provide power to the pumps. The emergency core cooling systems (ECCS) have been invoked, which follows the principle of defense in depth (however, see point #8, below, and TEPCO updates).

6. There are reports of partial exposure of the fuel at Daiichi unit #1, following coolant evaporation that, for a short time, exceeded inputs from the secondary cooling system. Such exposure can lead to some melting of the metal cladding (the ‘wrapping’ of the fuel rods), or the uranium rods themselves if the exposure is prolonged. This is what is technically referred to as a ‘meltdown’. I am still not clear if this exposure of the fuel assemblies actually happened (some evidence here), nor if any fuel underwent melt (due to decay heat, not a critical nuclear reaction).

7. The plant closest to the earthquake epicentre, Onagawa, stood up remarkably well, although there was a fire in a turbine building on site but not associated with the reactor operations, and therefore was not involved with any radioactive systems.

8. There has been an explosion at Fukushima Daiichi at 16:30 JST (7:30 GMT) on March 12. Note: There is no critical nuclear reaction occurring in any of these reactors, and it CANNOT reinitiate as all neutron-absorbing control rods are grounded. As such, any at a plant site fire would be chemical (e.g., hydrogen) or steam pressure during venting (see point #3).

Quote from WNN on the explosion:

Television cameras trained on the plant captured a dramatic explosion surrounding Fukushima Daiichi 1 at around 6pm. Amid a visible pressure release and a cloud of dust it was not possible to immediately know the extent of any damage. Later television shots showed a naked steel frame remaining at the top of the reactor building. The external building structure does not act as the containment, which is an airtight engineered boundary within.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano appeared on television to clarify that the explosion had damaged the walls and roof of the reactor building but had not compromised the containment.

Monitoring of Fukushima Daiichi 1 had previously shown an increase in radiation levels detected near to the unit emerging via routes such as the exhaust stack and the discharge canal. These included caesium-137 and iodine-131, Nisa said, noting that levels began to decrease after some time.

Nevertheless the amount of radiation detected at the site boundary reached 500 microSieverts per hour – exceeding a regulatory limit and triggering another set of emergency precautions. It also meant the incident has been rated at Level 4 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) – an ‘accident with local consequences’.

In this photo released by Tokyo Power Electric Co, the Fukushima Daiichi power plant’s Unit 1 is seen after an explosion in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture on Saturday. AP

Note: The seawater might be used for spraying within the containment, for additional cooling, rather than injection into the reactor core. That is what comes of too much uncertainty and too little hard information.

Japan Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, via Reuters:

We’ve confirmed that the reactor container was not damaged. The explosion didn’t occur inside the reactor container. As such there was no large amount of radiation leakage outside…

Edano said due to the falling level of cooling water, hydrogen was generated and that leaked to the space between the building and the container and the explosion happened when the hydrogen mixed with oxygen there.

(I will edit the above section and provide further updates below, as more information comes to hand)

Some useful links for further information:

Battle to stabilise earthquake reactors (World Nuclear News)

Factbox – Experts comment on explosion at Japan nuclear plant (some excellent and informative quotes)

ANS Nuclear Cafe updates (useful news feed)

How to Cool a Nuclear Reactor (Scientific American interview with Scott Burnell from the NRC)

Nuclear Power Plants and Earthquakes (World Nuclear Association fact sheet)

Tokyo Electric Power Company updates here and here (the plant operators)

Capacity Factor: Some links on the Fukushima Daiichi #1 crisis (with updates)

This is a critical time for science, engineering and facts to trump hype, fear, uncertainty and doubt.

——————————

Updates Below
International Atomic Energy Agency: Japan nuclear plants nearest earthquake safely shut down

TEPCO updates for Fukushima Daiichi (Plant #1) and Daini (Plant #2): 8 am, 13 March

[Nuclear Power Station]
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station:

Units 1 to 3: shutdown due to earthquake

Units 4 to 6: outage due to regular inspection

* The national government has instructed evacuation for those local residents within 20km radius of the site periphery.

* The value of radioactive material (iodine, etc) is increasing according to the monitoring car at the site (outside of the site). One of the monitoring posts is also indicating higher than normal level.

* Since the amount of radiation at the boundary of the site exceeds the limits, we decide at 4:17PM, Mar 12 and we have reported and/or noticed the government agencies concerned to apply the clause 1 of the Article 15 of the Radiation Disaster Measure at 5PM, Mar 12.

* In addition, a vertical earthquake hit the site and big explosion has happened near the Unit 1 and smoke breaks out around 3:36PM, Mar 12th.

* We started injection of sea water into the reactor core of Unit 1 at 8:20PM, Mar 12 and then boric acid subsequently.

* High Pressure Coolant Injection System of Unit 3 automatically stopped. We endeavored to restart the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling System but failed. Also, we could not confirm the water inflow of Emergency Core Cooling System. As such, we decided at 5.10AM, Mar 12, and we reported and/or noticed the government agencies concerned to apply the clause 1 of the Article 15 of the Radiation Disaster Measure at 5:58AM, Mar 13.

In order to fully secure safety, we operated the vent valve to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessels (partial release of air containing radioactive materials) and completed the procedure at 8:41AM, Mar 13,

* We continue endeavoring to secure the safety that all we can do and monitoring the periphery.

Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Station:

Units 1 to 4: shutdown due to earthquake

* The national government has instructed evacuation for those local residents within 10km radius of the periphery.

* At present, we have decided to prepare implementing measures to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessel (partial discharge of air containing radioactive materials) in order to fully secure safety. These measures are considered to be implemented in Units 1, 2 and 3 and accordingly, we have reported and/or noticed the government agencies concerned.

* Unit 3 has been stopped and being “nuclear reactor cooling hot stop” at 12:15PM.

* The operator trapped in the crane operating console of the exhaust stack was transferred to the ground at 5:13PM and confirmed the death at 5:17PM.

Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Station:
Units 1, 5, 6, 7: normal operation

Units 2 to 4: outage due to regular inspection

From Margaret Harding:

Heat from the nuclear fuel rods must be removed by water in a cooling system, but that requires power to run the pumps, align the valves in the pipes and run the instruments. The plant requires a continuous supply of electricity even after the reactor stops generating power.

With the steam-driven pump in operation, pressure valves on the reactor vessel would open automatically as pressure rose too high, or could be opened by operators. “It’s not like they have a breach; there’s no broken pipe venting steam,” said Margaret E. Harding, a nuclear safety consultant who managed a team at General Electric, the reactors’ designer, that analyzed pressure buildup in reactor containments.

You’re getting pops of release valves for minutes, not hours, that take pressure back down”

IAEA alert log:

Japanese authorities have informed the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) that today’s earthquake and tsunami have cut the supply of off-site power to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In addition, diesel generators intended to provide back-up electricity to the plant’s cooling system were disabled by tsunami flooding, and efforts to restore the diesel generators are continuing.

At Fukushima Daiichi, officials have declared a nuclear emergency situation, and at the nearby Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, officials have declared a heightened alert condition.

Japanese authorities say there has so far been no release of radiation from any of the nuclear power plants affected by today’s earthquake and aftershocks.

Tsunamis and nuclear power plants:

Large undersea earthquakes often cause tsunamis – pressure waves which travel very rapidly across oceans and become massive waves over ten metres high when they reach shallow water, then washing well inland. The December 2004 tsunamis following a magnitude 9 earthquake in Indonesia reached the west coast of India and affected the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant near Madras/Chennai. When very abnormal water levels were detected in the cooling water intake, the plant shut down automatically. It was restarted six days later.

Even for a nuclear plant situated very close to sea level, the robust sealed containment structure around the reactor itself would prevent any damage to the nuclear part from a tsunami, though other parts of the plant might be damaged. No radiological hazard would be likely.

World Nuclear News updates (updated 11:44 pm GMT):

Attention is focused on the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants as Japan struggles to cope in the aftermath of its worst earthquake in recorded history. An explosion on site did not damage containment. Sea water injection continues after a tsunami warning.

Three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors were in operation when yesterday’s quake hit, at which point they shut down automatically and commenced removal of residual heat with the help of emergency diesel generators. These suddenly stopped about an hour later, and this has been put down to tsunami flooding by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The loss of the diesels led the plant owners Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) to immediately notify the government of a technical emergency situation, which allows officials to take additional precautionary measures.

For many hours the primary focus of work at the site was to connect enough portable power modules to fully replace the diesels and enable the full operation of cooling systems.

Pressure and releases

Without enough power for cooling systems, decay heat from the reactor cores of units 1, 2 and 3 has gradually reduced coolant water levels through evaporation. The consequent increase in pressure in the coolant circuit can be managed via pressure release valves. However, this leads to an increase in pressure within the reactor building containment. Tepco has said that the pressure within the containment of Fukushima Daiichi 1 has reached around 840 kPa, compared to reference levels of 400 kPa.

The company has decided to manage this “for those units that cannot confirm certain levels of water injection” by means of a controlled release of air and water vapour to the atmosphere. Because this water has been through the reactor core, this would inevitably mean a certain release of radiation. The IAEA said this would be filtered to retain radiation within the containment. Tepco has confirmed it was in the process of relieving pressure at unit 1 while preparing to do the same for units 2 and 3.

Explosion

Television cameras trained on the plant captured a dramatic explosion surrounding unit 1 at around 6pm. Amid a visible pressure release and a cloud of dust it was not possible to immediately know the extent of any damage. Later television shots showed a naked steel frame remaining at the top of the reactor building. The external building structure does not act as the containment, which is an airtight engineered boundary within.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano appeared on television to clarify that the explosion had damaged the walls and roof of the reactor building but had not compromised the containment.

Monitoring of Fukushima Daiichi 1 had previously shown an increase in radiation levels detected emerging from the plant via routes such as the exhaust stack and the discharge canal. Tepco have said that the amount of radioactive material such as iodine it is detecting have been increasing. The amount of radiation at the site boundary now exceeds a regulatory limit triggering another set of emergency precautions. It also meant the incident has been rated at Level 4 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) – an ‘accident with local consequences’.

To protect the public from potential health effects of radioactive isotopes of iodine that could potentially be released, authorities are preparing to distribute tablets of non-radioactive potassium-iodide. This is quickly taken up by the body and its presence prevents the take-up of iodine should people be exposed to it.

Over the last several hours evacuation orders for local residents have been incrementally increased and now cover people living within 20 kilometres of the power plant.

Seawater injection

The injection of seawater into the building started at 8.20pm and this is planned to be followed by addition of boric acid, which is used to inhibit nuclear reactions. Tepco had to put the operation on hold for a time when another tsunami was predicted, but work recommenced after the all-clear.

Raised temperatures

Meanwhile at adjacent Fukushima Daini, where four reactors have been shut down safely since the earthquake hit, Tepco has notified government of another emergency status.

Unit 1′s reactor core isolation cooling system had been operating normally, and this was later supplemented by a separate make-up water condensate system. However, the latter was lost at 5.32am local time when its suppression chamber reached 100ºC. This led Tepco to notify government of another technical emergency situation.

Tepco has announced it has decided to prepare for controlled releases to ease pressure in the containments of all four units at Fukushima Daini.

A three kilometre evacuation is in progress, with residents in a zone out to ten kilometres given notice of potential expansion.

Workers

A seriously injured worker was trapped within Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 in the crane operating console of the exhaust stack and is now confirmed to have died. Four workers were injured by the explosion at the same reactor and have been taken to hospital. A contractor was found unconscious and taken to hospital.

Two workers of a ‘cooperative firm’ were injured, said Tepco; one with a broken bone.

At Fukushima Daiini unit 3 one worker received a radiation dose of 106 mSv. This is comparable to levels deemed acceptable in emergency situations by some national nuclear safety regulators.

The whereabout of two Tepco workers remains unknown.

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