Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletins – #1 – Commode Failure

Yesterday, I hoped to be able to post Geoffrey Sea’s excellent analyses and updates of the Fukushima disaster. I’m particularly pleased, with the announcement that the scale of the disaster has been retroactively raised to its highest rating, that Geoffrey has agreed to let me post them here. These updates were written for and edited by the Retort Collective, and the first of the updates carried this short description of Geoffrey’s credentials:


Geoffrey Sea holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Science from Harvard. He did graduate work in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and in radiological health physics at San Jose State University. He is co-founder of Southern Ohio Neighbors Group, which successfully defeated plans for the centralized storage of spent nuclear fuel at Piketon, Ohio. He has published in the American Scholar, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and many newspapers. He can be contacted via email at SargentsPigeon@aol.com

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Update #1

Commode Failure
Sunday, March 13—I’ve been asked to provide a brief primer on the situation in Japan. I have no special access to news and up-to-date information is scarce so I will not attempt to encapsulate the rapidly changing reports. I will address some background issues and give some prognostication of what might be expected.

Both affected reactors are US-made light-water reactors of the Three Mile Island type, manufactured by GE in the 1960s. The good news is that we are dealing more with a TMI-type disaster than a Chernobyl-type disaster. Chernobyl was not a light-water reactor and its meltdown consequences were of a much greater scale than anything we might expect here, at least in terms of long-range fallout. (Short-range could be very nasty.) That is, the dramatic effects will be limited geographically and we probably will not see problems like the post-Chernobyl contamination of Mediterranean grapes and olives.

The bad news is that the TMI accident in 1979 was relatively easy to control because there had not been a massive earthquake. So TMI could be limited to a partial core meltdown with most infrastructure and some monitoring systems remaining intact. The real problem in Japan as I understand it is that the infrastructure is gone — general power failure, mucked up roads inhibiting the movement of generators, etc. may mean that it’s not even possible to get on-site monitoring systems to function. This is self-escalating because the worse the problem gets, the more impossible it becomes to keep personnel on site. Staying on-site becomes a suicide mission.

In that sense it is like Chernobyl in that Chernobyl was saved from becoming a much greater calamity by the literal sacrifice of about 200 employees, who stayed on-site knowing their radiation doses would be lethal. I interviewed a number of those workers — such courage is not a trait of the post-industrial world. An open question is whether that will be possible in Japan, given cultural factors, etc.

Whether or not the kamikaze mentality remains in Japan, we could well see a full core meltdown, or two — essentially TMI if the worst case had unfolded. Refer to the eerily prescient film China Syndrome for the judgment that an area “the size of Pennsylvania” would be rendered uninhabitable — meaning all northern Japan. But once again, if there’s a silver lining — we would not see as dramatic long-range fallout as we did with Chernobyl, probably. Different isotopes are involved. Californians need not panic.

That two reactors are in crisis suggests we are dealing with that old bane of the nuclear industry — Common Mode Failure or Commode Failure for short. The nuclear industry fended off safety critics by building in redundant safety systems. The problem, as critics have charged for forty years, is that such redundant systems are subject to common causes of failure — like massive earthquakes. You can put a fire alarm in your house, and a second, and a third, but if your house is hit by a meteorite, all bets are off.

It has been an intellectual argument since TMI as to whether the new redundancy systems really solved the Commode Failure problem or not, since engineers got very creative at exorbitant prices. That debate may now be considered resolved.

So beyond the human suffering issues — which I can’t yet estimate or fathom — all those “Nuclear Renaissance” projections are now looking pretty Dark Age. Look for nuclear stocks to tumble like a tumbleweed in a hurricane on Monday.

This is especially true since the accident happened in Japan, which was ballyhooed as the world leader in achieving “safe nuclear power.” “Why can’t we do it like Japan?” — the slogan actually used by the US nuclear industry, now will have quite a different ring. This is even more especially true since the reactors involved are US-made.

From a policy perspective this will be a big challenge for the Obama Administration and Congress, since Obama just proposed in his State of the Union Address a batch of $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. For the federal government to offer a loan guarantee after this Japanese disaster would be like having the government invest treasury funds in an incandescent light bulb factory run by crack addicts.

One might hope that the loan guarantees for this industry will disappear. Then again, I hope for world peace.

If the worst-case scenario does unfold in Japan, we will also see an unprecedented wave of calls for the shutdown of operating light-water reactors, all of which are aging beyond design specifications. The NRC is just now considering issues related to extension of reactor lifetimes. Neither TMI nor Chernobyl involved the full meltdown of a light-water reactor. Certainly such reactors near major cities, like Indian Point, and those in earthquake zones, will have to be shut down. The resulting sudden loss of generating capacity may be one of the biggest effects of this calamity, coming at a time when oil prices are at a peak.

How Japan will now produce its power is an open question, since it had gone to nuclear in desperation. I suppose the possibilities are that Japan might generally “dedevelop” from the combined effects of the earthquake, lack of energy options, and financial crisis. Or Japan could rapidly become a powerhouse of renewable energy, a direction in which it was already heading.

Yet another possibility is that Japan will place the blame on the US light water reactor type and move to shut down only those reactors. In that case this could feed a general world renunciation of US nuclear “assistance” agreements, which would be most interesting in many ways.

— Geoffrey Sea