Saturday, March 12, 2011

This could be Japan's version of the China Syndrome

After I published a short blog entry yesterday regarding the troubles with 5 of Japan's nuclear power plants and Hillary Clinton's very bizarre account of the USAF delivery mystery coolant to one of them, a much scarier event took place--there was a massive hydrogen explosion (see photo above) outside of one of the damaged reactors.

Here is the L.A. Times account:

A day after responding to one of the worst earthquakes on record and a massive tsunami, the Japanese government sought to allay fears of a radioactive disaster at a nuclear power plant on the country's battered northeastern coast.

The outer walls of the Fukushima power plant's No. 1 reactor were blown off by a hydrogen explosion Saturday, leaving only a skeletal frame. Officials said four workers at the site received non-life-threatening injuries.

The inner container holding the reactor's fuel rods is not believed to be damaged, said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, and workers were cooling the facilities with seawater.

If this kind of explosion happened in most countries other than Japan, I would be highly skeptical that such a blast would not pose a great threat to public safety. However, I have faith in the Japanese. I hope what they are now saying is true. If any country could design their facilities to weather such a horrific natural disaster, it would be the highly competent Japanese.

In a press conference shortly after the explosion, which left the facility shrouded in plumes of gray smoke, Edano explained that the reactor is contained within a steel chamber, which in turn is surrounded by a concrete and steel building. Although the explosion destroyed the building, it did not occur in the chamber.

"The escape of hydrogen mixed with the air between the chamber and the concrete-and-steel building and led to the explosion," Edano said.

Hydrogen explosions tend to be awesome. Their ferocity makes me wonder if we really want to move from gasoline powered cars to hydrogen fuel cells.

"Tokyo Electric Power Co. has confirmed that the inner reactor is undamaged," he added. "There was no massive release of radiation."

Still, the reactor was already showing signs of a partial meltdown after Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake had prevented the plant 150 miles north of Tokyo from fully powering its water cooling system. Without it, the facility could overheat and explode, spewing radiation into the air.

If that reactor explodes, I would guess that will set back the expansion of new nuclear power plants in the United States by at least 20 years. That would be a shame, given that nuclear power is one of the only technologies which can produce electricity at a reasonable price and emits no carbon dioxide. Given the realities of global warming, we must start producing more of our power from clean sources of energy, and nuclear power should be in that mix.

People were reportedly fleeing the surrounding area and Japanese television was urging people to cover their faces with wet towels and not to expose any skin to the potentially contaminated air. An evacuation zone was doubled to a 12-mile radius around the plant by Saturday evening.

It seems like I have seen this movie before: Japanese people wearing face masks running away (from Godzilla) in a mass panic.

Japan relies on nuclear power for a third of its electricity and is said to require exacting safety standards for its plants.

I don't think Japan has ever had a better choice than nuclear power for its electricity production. The problem, though, is when you get a crisis like this and 11 power plants are shut down, you are in a serious bind. You cannot produce enough electricity to provide power for your people and industry.

That said, there are many other countries, mostly in Europe, which are even more reliant on nuclear power than Japan is.

Here are the top 10 most reliant on nuclear energy:

Lithuania 78%
France 77%
Belgium 58%
Slovakia 53%
Ukraine 46%
Sweden 44%
Bulgaria 42%
Hungary 39%
Slovenia 39%
South Korea 39%

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