Wednesday, March 16, 2011

More on the Reactors

Good news, first: All nuclear sites except for the accident-striken Fukushima I1 in northern Honshu are in cold shutdown and safe.

Bad news: the situation at Fukushima I seems to deteriorate. Reactors one and three - the original problem reactors - haven't worsened, and some reports seem to say they've stabilized. But now reactors two and four are having problems too. Unit four has had two fires above the containment building, near the spent-fuel storage tank. Unit two has had an explosion that seems to have damaged the containment. There was a spike of radiation around the time, that now seems to have died off again.

Good news: all effects are purely local at this time. Unless things go very, very bad the effects will stay local. Of course, no matter what happens, the already shoddy safety reputation of the Japanese nuclear industry is going to suffer badly, and rightly so.

Bad news: A number of power plants are shut down, and are not going to start up again in the close future - or ever, in the case of the reactors at Fukushima I. Tokyo is facing rolling shutdowns to ration power at least until the end of April, and northern Japanese power companies say they'll need to ration power for the next few months.

Right now a lot of companies and other facilities are shutdown and powerless in the Tohoku region, but once they restart operation, and rebuilding gets under way along the pacific coast, power consumption is going to increase again. And mid summer - June to August - is the most power intensive time of year, due to the demand for air-conditioning2. And as many plants are unlikely to start up anytime soon, Tokyo may see a return to rolling blackouts at the height of summer.

If one power plant has an emergency and shuts down it doesn't matter much how much time it takes to get it operational again. But in a place where one event - a large earthquake - can shut down many plants at the same time, the time to restore power becomes a real safety issue. It is probably a mistake for a country like Japan to lean on such an unreliable source to the point where it can cripple the reconstruction after a disaster like this.

The question is what combinations of other sources could be a feasible replacement. Geothermal energy is available and underused here. The country is mountainous and there's plenty of wind - way too much wind during typhoon season, so safe, dependable power units would cost a fair bit to erect. Wave power and offshore wind is also susceptible to tsunamis of course, and a large offshore wind park crippled by a storm or tsunami is no better than the reactor it replaces. Solar is still expensive, but costs are coming down.

Any buildout of renewable source is a long-term project in any case. At least in the medium term, this would mean increasing imports and burning of gas and coal; energy sources that cause plenty more damage to health and environment than nuclear does. But they are rather more dependable, have better worst-case scenarios, faster to repair and bring up again, and it's easier to build smaller, distributed plants that are more resilient to disaster. I don't like the idea - if there's anything we need less of, it's coal-burning power plants - but that's probably what'd take to offset the unreliability of nuclear.
#1 "daiichi", "daini" and so on means simply "number one" and "number two". I noted English-language media seems to treat it as given names, not numbers.

#2 It sounds like a frivolous luxury to northern Europeans, perhaps, but the summer heat is no joke around here. You will have weak and elderly people dying from heatstroke unless they can cool their homes.

1 comment:

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