Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Carnegie Endowment Paper: "Why Fukushima Was Preventable"

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace just released a paper by James C. Acton and Mark Hibbs titled "Why Fukushima Was Preventable".

Their main argument is that TEPCO and the Japanese government could have better prepared for the tsunami if they had followed the international standards (for flooding).

The authors say TEPCO and the NISA's assessment for tsunami risks were inadequate because:

  • Insufficient attention was paid to evidence of large tsunamis inundating the region surrounding the plant about once every thousand years.

  • Computer modeling of the tsunami threat was inadequate. Most importantly, preliminary simulations conducted in 2008 that suggested the tsunami risk to the plant had been seriously underestimated were not followed up and were only reported to NISA on March 7, 2011.

  • NISA failed to review simulations conducted by TEPCO and to foster the development of appropriate computer modeling tools.

Never mind that TEPCO and NISA didn't intend to pay enough attention. But that is beyond the scope of the analysis by these authors. Not to mention that the earthquake alone may have doomed the plant, even without tsunami.

The following is the opening section that summarizes the paper "Why Fukushima Was Preventable" (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2012):

Public sentiment in many states has turned against nuclear energy following the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The large quantity of radioactive material released has caused significant human suffering and rendered large stretches of land uninhabitable. The cleanup operation will take decades and may cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Fukushima accident was, however, preventable. Had the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and Japan’s regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), followed international best practices and standards, it is conceivable that they would have predicted the possibility of the plant being struck by a massive tsunami. The plant would have withstood the tsunami had its design previously been upgraded in accordance with state-of-the-art safety approaches.

The methods used by TEPCO and NISA to assess the risk from tsunamis lagged behind international standards in at least three important respects:

* Insufficient attention was paid to evidence of large tsunamis inundating the region surrounding the plant about once every thousand years.

* Computer modeling of the tsunami threat was inadequate. Most importantly, preliminary simulations conducted in 2008 that suggested the tsunami risk to the plant had been seriously underestimated were not followed up and were only reported to NISA on March 7, 2011.

* NISA failed to review simulations conducted by TEPCO and to foster the development of appropriate computer modeling tools.

At the time of the accident, critical safety systems in nuclear power plants in some countries, especially in European states, were—as a matter of course—much better protected than in Japan. Following a flooding incident at Blayais Nuclear Power Plant in France in 1999, European countries significantly enhanced their plants’ defenses against extreme external events. Japanese operators were aware of this experience, and TEPCO could and should have upgraded Fukushima Daiichi.

Steps that could have prevented a major accident in the event that the plant was inundated by a massive tsunami, such as the one that struck the plant in March 2011, include:

* Protecting emergency power supplies, including diesel generators and batteries, by moving them to higher ground or by placing them in watertight bunkers;

* Establishing watertight connections between emergency power supplies and key safety systems; and

* Enhancing the protection of seawater pumps (which were used to transfer heat from the plant to the ocean and to cool diesel generators) and/or constructing a backup means to dissipate heat.

Though there is no single reason for TEPCO and NISA’s failure to follow international best practices and standards, a number of potential underlying causes can be identified. NISA lacked independence from both the government agencies responsible for promoting nuclear power and also from industry. In the Japanese nuclear industry, there has been a focus on seismic safety to the exclusion of other possible risks. Bureaucratic and professional stovepiping made nuclear officials unwilling to take advice from experts outside of the field. Those nuclear professionals also may have failed to effectively utilize local knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, many believed that a severe accident was simply impossible.

In the final analysis, the Fukushima accident does not reveal a previously unknown fatal flaw associated with nuclear power. Rather, it underscores the importance of periodically reevaluating plant safety in light of dynamic external threats and of evolving best practices, as well as the need for an effective regulator to oversee this process.

In "Predicting the Disaster" section of the paper, the authors say:

First, there appears to have been insufficient attention given by TEPCO and NISA to historical evidence of large earthquakes and tsunamis. Best practice, as promulgated by the IAEA, requires the collection of data on prehistorical and historical earthquakes and tsunamis in the region of a nuclear power plant in order to protect the plant against rare extreme seismic events that may occur only once every ten thousand years.36 Historical data was used in assessing plant safety.

If that's the case, going back 10,000 years, there should have been no nuclear power plants approved anywhere in Japan.

The international best practice the authors cite is that of flooding, not tsunami that comes after a large earthquake. I haven't finished reading the paper yet, but their proposed actions to protect the plant from the tsunami seem viable as long as there is no damage from the preceding earthquake, which in Fukushima's case was M.9. The actions that could have saved the plant, as proposed by the authors, are:

  • Moving emergency diesel generators and other emergency power sources to higher ground on the plant site

  • Establishing watertight connections between emergency power supplies and the plant

  • Building dikes and seawalls to protect against a severe tsunami

  • Installing emergency power equipment and cooling pumps in dedicated, bunkered, watertight buildings or compartments

  • Assuring that seawater-supply infrastructure is robust and providing additional robust sources to serve as the plants’ ultimate heat sink.

None of the actions seems to assume any damage to the buildings, structures, pipes, equipment from an earthquake.

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Uncle Genpachi and Tama on Tsunami:

10 comments:

JAnonymous said...

Two problems here, and with most analysis done by people high up in glass towers (those who should not throw stones):

- Most of the people living outside the coastline have no idea what a tsunami really is. They assume it is a big wave. It is not. I know a person whose kid was snatched from him forever, by the 'big wave' in Thailand.

- Most of the people living outside Tohoku have no idea what a M9 really is.

I am with you on this analysis, only way to prevent Fukushima incident was to preemptively not build it at all.

By the way, about flooding, the NPP in Blaye, close to Bordeaux, France, had a Fukushima-like near miss during the large thunderstorm that happened around christmas in 1999. That included a large flooding that disabled most of the security systems.

http://www.dissident-media.org/infonucleaire/page_blayais.html

sorry it's in french, I can translate it a bit later if you feel interest.

no6ody said...

It seems to me that a hillside was cut away so that the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station could be built much closer to sea level for reasons that I do not know. I also do not know how much higher the plant could have been built because the hillside may have been too unstable for a massive structure, or whether the expense of pumping the cooling water through pipes a couple hundred of meters long would have cut into T3Pco's profits too much... but I do know that earthquakes and tsunamis are a fact of life in Japan, and that such events occur much more frequently than once every thousand years.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

@JAnon, yeah the closest I can picture tsunami is those huge waves at Maverick. They are not waves but the entire ocean is moving behind the waves.

@no6ody, the hillside was cut as it was unstable. They dug down to the stable rock, or so I heard. If they had built the plant without cutting the hills, then they would have needed long pipes to transport seawater for cooling, and in the earthquake and tsunami that would have broken.

no6ody said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_historic_tsunamis
"Japan is the nation with the most recorded tsunamis in the world. The number of tsunamis in Japan totals 195 over a 1,313 year period (thru 1997), averaging one event every 6.73 years, the highest rate of occurrence in the world." Most of these listed on the wiki page are not as large as the Mar 11 2011 event, but the Acton and Hibbs paper is a bit misleading.

arevamirpal::laprimavera, I think you are correct, but I would hope that a nuke plant could survive the loss of seawater cooling without such catastrophic results. Thank you very much for the work that you do.

Anonymous said...

what is really worrying is that climate change is making 1-in-500 years events become 1-in-10, according to predictions. All flood (or drought in other areas, or both due to the predicted much increased weather variability) defences of nuclear plants should be reevaluated and updated accordingly. Else, climate change could easily cause a few fukushimas around the world.

Anonymous said...

See above comment about near miss in france. Also I think that last year 2 nuclear reactors were on the edge during the mississipi /missouri floods.

Anonymous said...

The report seems to miss other "best practices" that are standard in EU, if all else fails (to at least avoid large radioactive release):
1) Passive catalytic hydrogen-oxygen recombiners (avoid explosions)
2) Passive containment gravel bed filters (retain I-131 & Cs-134/137)
Explosions and fires are bad not only because they damage the reactor, but also throw the much more dangerous nonvolatile stuff (plutonium & the like) into the air...

Chibaguy said...

@anon 11:37,

This was not a flood but rather an earthquake followed by a tsunami that caused this human disaster. Climate change is also attributed to NPPs.

MIke said...

Article summary: "Fukushima was a fluke, only plants in tsunami zones are a danger, other nuclear plants are safe, and if we build more they will REALLY be safe."

misitu said...

no6ody said... "It seems to me that a hillside was cut away so that the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station could be built much closer to sea level for reasons that I do not know." on March 7, 2012 8:18 PM

It was cut away because the cost of pumping sea water coolant up 35metres was an economic burden on the profitability of the plant.

I documented this a few months back on enenews: if you want to find it, good luck (maybe search for geology). There was a source document, I believe a Japanese daily, maybe the Asahi but am only guessing here. The article included a picture of the site being excavated.

This incidentally leaves the base of the turbine halls some 4 metres below sea level, believe it. As a consequence, there is no barrier to the flushing water entering the sea directly.

Hope this helps
M.

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