Japan’s nuclear power plant crisis

Author: Matthew Bunn, Harvard University

As bad as it is, Japan’s nuclear accident is dramatically less catastrophic than Chernobyl. That accident spread millions of curies of radioactivity — 3-4 per cent of all radioactivity in the reactor core — around the surrounding countryside, exposing millions of people in several countries.

Large areas are uninhabitable to this day. Here, there is no real prospect of a runaway chain reaction as occurred at Chernobyl. Instead, what has happened is the melting of fuel in reactor cores, leading to the release of a very modest amount of cesium and other fission products.

There is still a possibility of a larger release, if melted fuel falls to the bottom of the reactor and manages to burn through the containment, contacting water and creating radioactive steam. At present, it seems more likely than not (though the situation is still changing) that most of the evacuated people will be able to return to their homes and live their lives as before.

At the same time, this is the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and in some respects worse than Three Mile Island. At TMI, they managed to avoid a hydrogen explosion; in this case, Japan had hydrogen explosions that destroyed much of the buildings at two reactors (though not the steel pressure vessels around the reactors themselves). At TMI, there was only a very modest release of radiation. Here, you have at least one worker reportedly suffering from substantial radiation sickness and scores of people whose exposure is being carefully assessed and clear signs that there has been some significant release of radioactivity, including cesium and iodine (though reports seem to conflict as to how much).

‘Defence in depth’ is crucial – but sometimes not as deep as expected

This is clearly an example of the huge importance of taking redundant safety systems seriously, and carefully considering the full scope of events that could occur.  Given the huge magnitude of the quake, I think it is impressive that all the affected reactors initially managed to shut down automatically as planned, and begin emergency cooling operations. None of the reactors, for example, suffered damage that prevented the insertion of the control rods. When the Fukushima-1 lost power, the backup diesel generators started up as planned. But they were then knocked out an hour later, apparently by the tsunami. The reactors suffered, in effect, a one-two punch that hadn’t really been expected. Clearly, given that an earthquake might well cause a tsunami, the diesel generators should have been designed in a way that would not be affected by tsunami waves. This is very likely a broader issue, that people have not adequately thought through the possibility of multiple traumas that could be caused by the same initiating event (for example, a blackout and a large object crashing into the diesel generator as a result of a tornado — one could imagine many such coupled events). This reinforces the view that whenever someone says there is less than a one-in-a-million chance of a complex system failing, there is more than a one-in-a-million chance they have made unjustified assumptions in their estimate.

We’re less prepared for security incidents

The reason that the disaster hasn’t been worse was that the Japanese system had many, many safety precautions in place. Japanese reactors are required to be designed and built to survive substantial earthquake accelerations. They are required to have backup power systems in place. And so on, and so on. Everyone in the nuclear industry is trained to think about safety from day one. Security, by contrast, is something most people in the nuclear industry might get a half-hour briefing on once a year. If you have intelligent adversaries, it wouldn’t be a surprise to have the main power for the cooling and the backup power both fail — the adversaries would plan to make sure that happened. This transforms all the probabilities we rely on for safety. The global nuclear safety regime needs strengthening — but it is far stronger than the global nuclear security regime. And that applies to theft of nuclear material as well as sabotage of facilities.

On the other hand, only the power of Mother Nature would likely be able to cause the scale of damage we’ve seen at several reactors at once.

Potentially severe impact on nuclear’s role in responding to climate change

It remains to be seen what impact this will have on the future of nuclear power in Japan, and the future of nuclear power elsewhere. China will likely continue its ambitious plans, for example. But if I had to guess, I would say public and investor perceptions of the safety of nuclear power around the world has been dealt a serious and lasting blow. This did not take place in a developing country that had just built its first plant and hadn’t had time to develop a proper safety culture — this took place in Japan, one of the wealthiest, most experienced, and most safety-conscious nations on earth (though one that also has had a history of safety issues that were covered up and not reported to the regulator in a timely way). Admittedly these were old reactor designs and the new reactors people are considering building today would be safer — but whether that logic will address the public perception remains to be seen. My guess is that while we will still see some growth of nuclear power in some places, the prospects for growth on the scale required for nuclear to be even a noticeable part of the answer to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions have been substantially reduced.

Matthew Bunn is Associate Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Co-Principal Investigator, Managing the Atom Project in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; and Co-Principal Investigator, Energy Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment Policy Project. His research interests include nuclear theft and terrorism; nuclear proliferation and measures to control it; the future of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle; and policies to promote innovation in energy technologies. Before joining the Kennedy School in 1997, he served for three years as an adviser in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House.

This commentary was originally published here on the Harvard University’s Power & Policy Forum.


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  • “This did not take place in a developing country that had just built its first plant and hadn’t had time to develop a proper safety culture — this took place in Japan, one of the wealthiest, most experienced, and most safety-conscious nations on earth”.

    I very sincerely hope that developing countries like India and Pakistan that have high population densities, weak regulatory bodies (most of the minor nuclear accidents in these countries have not even been brought to public notice because nuclear assets are crown jewels), and dysfunctional disaster management systems (they still do not know how to handle usual floods and landslides!) should immediately stop building new nuclear reactors and begin phasing out the older ones.

    Countries like Australia should continue to deny uranium supplies to India. The Indian government gives an impression that uranium exports are necessary for healthy Indo-Australian relationship. But Australia ought to take into account the fact that the people of India have a different opinion. For instance, even before Japanese accidents, the people of Jaitapur in Maharashtra were protesting against a new nuclear power plant that is going to be built in an ecologically fragile coastal region that is also earthquake prone.

  • James Davis

    That is an excellent perspective, Vikas. As noted by Bunn, “The reason that the disaster hasn’t been worse was that the Japanese system had many, many safety precautions in place.”

    It is a good point – aside from the NNPT considerations, the capability of the industry to manage such a disaster should be a foremost consideration when Australia decides who to sell uranium to.

  • Suzie Wong

    It is a tragedy and my heart extends to the Japanese victims of the tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear contamination.

    On the other hand, I feel the catastrophic event has lightened the disparity in terms of the balance of power in the Asia Pacific region. After the last tsunami, the crisis of the Strait of Malacca was solved. This tsunami helps defer the timing of Japan’s objectives in the Pacific. Ironically enough, the tsunami earthquake is a deterrence mechanism in the Asia Pacific context. It also brings to everyone’s attention the nuclear issue, where the impact of catastrophy indeed spreads beyond nation-state boundaries.

  • Deng Changchun

    Perhaps this tragedy is a warning to all human beings! Human just see the benefit from nuclear reactor but forget its potential danger! How human can controll the situation if the Chernobyl accidents repeat?
    human need to restrain their conceit and learn to fear nature power again. Science and technology are not cure-all.

  • richard shumate

    Yes, the conditions in Japan are constantly changing. As of 9pm est (3-16-11), my resources indicate that this situation in Japan is worse than Chernobyl. I’ve spent all day defining “meltdown”. Considering a 9.0 earthquake,tsunami,these are events that can cause a breach of the containment structure. There is no water in the bottom to cool anything. My prediction: more explosions, panic- Chernobyl- a possible China Sydrome.