Editorial : Nuclear lessons - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=36255&Cat=8

The two explosions at Japans’ Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant have tested safety at this type of installation in ways they have never been tested before; and so far it is looking increasingly like the built-in safeguards, even for worst-case scenarios, have held. It is too early to say that the danger is passed, and there could be another severe earthquake by Thursday according to Japanese seismologists which may further damage these installations, but it appears that radioactive leakage is minimal. By late on Monday afternoon there were concerns about the stability of a third reactor, with a possibility of a ‘melt-down’. However, this is not looking like another Chernobyl, but it is going to raise a number of issues for the global nuclear power industry that require early resolution. Power supplies to the reactor were cut in the original quake and the diesel-generator backup system took over – but this in turn was overwhelmed by the tsunami which led to the reactors overheating and the explosions. The explosions were probably caused by a gas build-up and were not nuclear, because if they were there would have been a far greater release of radioactive material into the atmosphere and both pressure vessels – the core of the reactor that contains the fuel rods – appear to have survived intact. They are currently being cooled by seawater, because there was insufficient backup storage of coolant. The impurities in seawater mean that the Japanese have effectively written off these two reactors as they will be so damaged by seawater as to never again be usable.

The nuclear power industry is going to have to consider how best to bring electricity into nuclear power stations in the event of a supply failure, and diesel generators may not be the best way to do that. Clean coolant is also going to have to be stored against supply failure. Both of these measures have cost implications both for the generator and the user. The wisdom or otherwise of developing a 29 percent dependency on nuclear-generated power in a country that has a millennia-long history of massive seismic events, is called to question. Moreover, it appears that some if not all of the reactors in Japan are on or close to active fault lines. Our own nuclear plants are well away from areas of seismic activity, which does not mean that they are immune from it just that the likelihood of an accident of this type is considerably reduced. We would be unwise to be complacent and a review of procedures and structural integrity would be in order. The Japanese may have dodged the nuclear bullet this time, but there will be other quakes, other tsunamis. Alternative sources of power generation are suddenly looking increasingly attractive.

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