Letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal

Two weeks ago (Aug. 18), the WSJ published a Saturday essay from Dr. Richard Muller titled “The Panic Over Fukushima”. I submitted a letter to the editor. Sadly, the WSJ decided not to publish it. However, I wanted to share it with my readers. I might add that anti-nuclear people hate his essay, and a fair number of pro-nuclear people hate it as well. Both claim “bad science” as the enemy. While his science isn’t completely accurate, it does provide something a lay person can get their arms around and understand. And it makes clear how miniscule the risks really are. For that I was glad the essay was published.

I want to thank the Wall Street Journal for Dr. Muller’s Saturday Essay. He did an outstanding job in making clear how even using the most conservative limits and estimates, the radiation released during the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility will not have a measurable impact on the residents of the region. The FEAR that has been instilled by those with an agenda and the hopes of other economic gain has done far more harm to Japan and to the rest of the world by convincing people to abandon nuclear energy.

This reliable form of energy generation has few incidents, so each time anything goes wrong, it is news, even when no one gets hurt and the risks are minimal. Unfortunately, this “no news is good news” method of coverage has left many people under the impression that these plants are dangerous and difficult to operate. Dr. Muller’s article helps clarify the fact that one of the worst nuclear accidents in history has had a minimal environmental impact. I hope that this understanding will allow people in Japan to return to their homes and begin the difficult job of picking up the pieces after a devastating earthquake and tsunami ravaged their lives. Restarting their nuclear facilities will go a long way toward bring Japan back on track as one of the largest economies in the world.

The benefits of the high energy density of nuclear energy are enormous. A typical currently operating nuclear energy facility generates nearly 8000 GWH of electricity every year from a facility that takes less than 2 square miles of land. That’s enough electricity to power more than 650,000 households. It takes only 750-800 people to safely operate the plant. But the impact on the local economy of well-paying jobs and high tax base of these facilities makes most localities very supportive of the plants. The presence of these power plants can attract industry, interested in reliable, low cost electricity. Increasingly new industries are concerned about clean energy and nuclear fills the bill nicely with ZERO carbon emissions, low cost and reliable generation. Only hydro power can come close to nuclear energy’s ability to unleash an economy.

Nuclear Energy can continue to provide clean, low cost electricity to power America, allowing manufacturing and high-tech energy intensive industries to employ thousands and recharge the US economy along the way. Only if we don’t let scare tactics and fear mongers frighten us into the next dark age. Let’s keep the lights on!

Now, tell me what YOU think…

Spent Fuel Pool #4 – TEPCO’s moving fuel!

I wrote about this pool a year ago when TEPCO (Nuclear Power and The Witch Hunt) made video footage available that showed that this pool was undamaged, and had the fuel within it was also intact, contrary to some rather inflammatory statements from former NRC Chair Jaczko.

In the past week, TEPCO has begun unloading the fuel from this pool. Such an effort represents a major milestone in progress on the site. By unloading this pool, Unit 4 will no longer pose any risk of radioactive releases. TEPCO can more fully concentrate its resources on the far more difficult challenges of cleaning up units 1, 2, and 3.

TEPCO provided photos and videos from the site of the first fuel bundles being removed. However, there is little explanation of what is actually happening. I’ve seen a number of questions regarding this effort. Let me provide a little clarification.

A little Background

Unit 4 was in a refueling outage when the earthquake and subsequent Tsunami struck. During this outage, they were required to replace some equipment inside the reactor vessel itself. In order to do that, the core was completely emptied of nuclear fuel. In addition, fresh fuel planned to be loaded after the repairs were complete had been staged into the pool for moving into the reactor later.

Nuclear fuel for light water reactors is loaded into long thin tubes of zirconium alloy sometimes called “fuel rods.” These rods are about ½ inch in diameter and 12-13 feet long. Because they are so long and skinny, they are pretty flexible by themselves, so they are grouped into bundles for strength and convenience. Think of single piece of paper vs. a phone book. For Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) like Fukushima, these rods are then grouped into squares of 60-100 rods that are 6 inches in diameter and 14 feet long. BWR fuel also has something called a channel added to it. This box surrounds the fuel and helps to guide the water flowing through the reactor.

Nuclear fuel that hasn’t been loaded into the reactor and bombarded with neutrons is pretty benign stuff. When I worked at GE, I walked through an area we called “the forest” where bundles hang awaiting packing into special boxes for shipping. Unirradiated uranium gives off an occasional alpha particle (the nucleus of a helium atom) which can’t even really escape the bundle. Wearing gloves and regular clothes is more than adequate protection.This fuel is designed such that it can’t start spontaneously fissioning. It requires both a source of neutrons and some water to get the whole thing going, one without the other won’t start the chain reaction, that’s why the fuel is so easy to work with.

What we see

So, in these photos you see a long dark object, that looks a bit like a piece of cast iron dangling from a crane. That is a fuel bundle with a channel on it. In some pictures, you can see a metal cap on the bottom that looks like there’s a handle on it. That’s the lower tie plate that all of the rods are resting in. Some of them are actually screwed into that plate to hold the whole thing together.

The full radiation gear is NOT because that bundle is hanging there. This is fuel that was never placed into the reactor. This means that it is pretty much just like the fuel in that forest. The other fuel in the pool isn’t really affecting them either. The water in the pool keeps the radiation to a minimum. I’ve stood above spent fuel pools without getting even a little radiation from it. They are wearing full protection suits because to get to that platform and work requires moving around on the site and there’s still a great deal of radioactive contamination.

In some pictures they are spraying a bundle down with water and wiping it down. Not completely clear to me why, but an educated guess would say that the water is fresh and they are rinsing off the contaminated pool water (back into the pool as they are standing over top of it. By then wiping the bundle down, they are eliminating any radioactive particles that might have gotten into the pool water and settled on the bundle from events at the other reactors. Yes, it really is that simple decontaminate a surface. Wash it off.

Once they’ve done that, the bundles are being covered with a plastic sleeve. That is frequently done with fresh fuel when it is shipped to keep bits of stuff from getting into the bundles. It’s actually quite possible that bundle could be stored dry in a simple box as it needs neither the cooling nor the shielding that is needed by the exposed fuel.

They have probably 150 or so of these fresh bundles to move out before they start working on the more difficult exposed bundles. Those do require significant shielding and careful planning to remove and transport.

Tell me, what do you think of TEPCO’s progress and how they might go about the next steps?

Lessons Learned from Fukushima Part 3 – Political

For the last two weeks, I’ve been writing about lessons learned from Fukushima. This third and final part is to look at the broader impacts and see what lessons we can learn at the political level.

There are several interactions to look at between corporations, regulators, and governments, nationally as well as globally. Like the technical and the corporate lessons learned, more lessons will be learned as time goes on and more information comes to light.

NISA independence and oversight

Much has been made of the apparent cozy relationship of TEPCO and NISA. There are clear indications that TEPCO as the largest nuclear utility in Japan had far too much influence on NISA, including some preferred hiring practices. Every country should look closely at the relations between the regulated and the regulator in every industry that has such oversight.

Here in the U.S. it was recognized in the 1970’s that having the same organization both promote nuclear energy and regulate it created a potential conflict of interest that might put regulatory oversight in a position of lower importance. From that recognition, the NRC and the DOE were created to separate the two functions. Similar changes were NOT made in other agencies, leaving mining and drilling as a combined agency. Some believe that this led to some of the inadequate enforcement practices that allowed the BP accident to occur.

However, we must be careful not to over-reach in demanding complete separation between the staff of the regulator and the industry. If no one in the regulator has ever worked within the industry, a vital expertise is lost to the regulator. Experience in operation, design, and analysis in the real world make a huge difference to the effectiveness of the regulator. Similarly, having people from the regulator work in the industry can provide a more balanced view of the risk assessment and concerns to assure ideas and products are safer and more robust in their design and operation.

Political Interference – domestic

There have been reports that Prime Minister Kan of Japan was too involved in the response to the Fukushima incident. We’ve heard that he tried to prevent seawater injection and his desire to fly over the site delayed some of the vital activities. In addition, it appears that he bypassed some of the pre-planned emergency response systems that would have assured more balanced expert advice.

In contrast, in the US after the BP accident in the Gulf of Mexico, the government of the US provided strong oversight, but did not directly interfere with BP’s efforts to cap the spill. This was despite significant political pressure to do so.

The US response while emotionally unsatisfying, was the right, measured response. Strong oversight to ensure worker and public safety, but let the experts get the job done.

Political Interference – International

One of the most egregious examples of political grandstanding was NRC Chairman Jaczko’s presentation before Congress on March 16th. He declared that the unit 4 pool was dry and likely on fire and recommended a 50 mile evacuation zone for US citizens. The Japanese government vehemently denied the allegation and was ultimately proven correct.

Dr. Jaczko’s pronouncement did nothing to improve the safety of the people around the site, but created Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt among the Japanese population who no longer knew who to believe between the two governments. It also delayed aid to Japanese citizens who were suffering from the earthquake and tsunami in the 50 mile zone as the U.S. military evacuated from the region.

Further, this damaged relationships between the two governments at a time when full cooperation was important to both the recovery from the earthquake and tsunami AND to the response to the ongoing emergency at Fukushima.

International Emergency Response

IAEA was quick to send people to at least provide some independent international oversight of the risk to the population and the workers on the plant site. The NRC, EPRI, and other agencies also sent personnel with expertise on these plants to provide high level advice and suggestions. Those personnel were used by the Japanese and continue to provide support.

However the international nuclear community was frustrated by its inability to provide immediate help to the stricken nuclear facility. Several factors were at play. In the era that these reactors were built, each design was unique, meaning that people familiar with the design could not simply come to Japan and provide relief to the on-site workers, nor could they provide analytical support for determining what to do next without detailed information of the exact plant design.

Suggestions have been floated to create an international “strike team” that would be available at a moment’s notice to fly to any plant that is in trouble. The idea has a certain appeal, especially to those who like heroes to ride to the rescue in dramatic fashion. I’m not convinced such a scheme is practical.

Conclusion

As I’ve said with every one of these pieces more will be learned as more information comes to light. We, as an industry, need to keep thinking and examining new information to determine how we can operate all of the nuclear plants in the world safely to continue to provide inexpensive, clean electricity to all of the people in the world.

Lessons Learned from Fukushima – the Corporate

I started this series last week with a discussion of technical lessons learned. This week, I’ve spent at the American Nuclear Society annual meeting listening and talking about lots of different topics, but the one that reverberated most was, of course, Fukushima. ANS is a professional society dedicated to nuclear science and technology. There are many different divisions within the society and each has a different specialty and looks at the event differently.

ANS has put together a committee to start to look at Fukushima and develop more lessons learned from all of those perspectives. We will be seeing more from them over the weeks and months to come.

In the meantime, here’s some food for thought on corporate lessons. Remember from last week that these are issues within the corporation. It is about TEPCO and the people within TEPCO, not TEPCO’s relationship with the government or the international governmental relationships.

I have not commented much on TEPCO’s response to this event. Frankly, the company is still working feverishly to get the situation into a stable long term cooling state. Assessing the adequacy of their response at this point is premature in that we have not yet been able to see what was really happening, what resources were available and what support was there when. That said a couple things that appear to be somewhat in common with BP’s response to the Horizon Spill are appropriate to bring up as corporate lessons learned from both events.

1)     Crisis Communication

TEPCO seemed to have been surprised by the international attention paid to the events going on at Fukushima. In the early days, their press releases and press conferences were too infrequent and did not provide enough information. The lack of transparency drove a significant amount of speculation and fueled many rumors that are still reverberating in the media. Given the similar issues seen by BP in the aftermath of the Gulf spill, it was disappointing that TEPCO did not have a stronger crisis communication plan in place.

I do not see US utilities managing this any better. Utilities still seem to loathe talking to journalists or providing them with access and information to help educate them PRIOR to an event. The flooding in Nebraska was a non-event for the nuclear facilities. However, the utilities failed to recognize the potential concerns and provide up front information, leaving anti-nuclear PR to hold sway with ridiculous statements of news blackouts.

2)   Risk Management

It was clear that both BP and TEPCO failed to consider risk adequately. This issue is a tough one for public companies to manage. In many ways, they are driven by the need to be immediately responsive to the stockholder. Thus, understanding and responding to longer term risks is harder to justify. In both events, the risk of catastrophic failure was small, but very expensive. When the shareholder ROI horizon is a few months and the CEO’s typical tenure is a few years, looking at and mitigating risks with low likelihood, but large cost is easy to delay and ignore.

3)   Emergency Response Training

This is an area that came up in several meetings both at ANS and elsewhere. It is a dichotomy that the nuclear industry needs to examine and consider. We want reactor operators to follow the rules. We want them to do what they do strictly according to standard protocols. And yet, when the unexpected happens we want the reactor operators to be able to “land the plane on the Hudson” even if that is not in the rulebook.

This has a larger implication as well, part of next week’s “political lessons learned.”

4)   Know when to ask for help

There were some indications that TEPCO was initially reluctant to ask for help from others. Sometimes during emergencies people and companies get into a mode of looking inward to solve problems. It manifests as “it will take too much time to explain it to someone else, quicker to do it ourselves.” This is a fallacy of course, and getting outside help at crucial times is critical.

As I said at the beginning, I have been reluctant to do much “Monday morning quarterbacking” until TEPCO has brought the site to a stable cold shutdown. Allowing them to concentrate on the technical issues and get the reactors to a stable cold shutdown should be everyone’s top priority. We will revisit this area over and over as more information becomes available.

Next week – political lessons.

Lessons Learned from Fukushima: part I – the Technical

I’ve spent some time over the last few weeks talking about “lessons learned from Fukushima” to several different audiences. There are many different ways to look at this event and many different “lessons” that are to be taught. However, I think it is useful to consider those lessons in about three different general classes.

1)     Technical Lessons

These are internal lessons about what equipment or systems worked in what ways at the plant. There are some very specific lessons that all nuclear facilities should be looking at and learning from

2)   Corporate Lessons

Corporate lessons are the business responses that TEPCO had to the event. These are also internal to companies that are managing nuclear facilities, but could be learned by any corporation operating large industrial facilities.

3)   Political Lessons

It is always hard to take lessons at the political level, but understanding how the interactions between corporations, regulators, and government, both nationally and globally worked is critical in improving emergency response.

Each should be examined for what worked, what didn’t, and why. In the next three weeks, we will examine each. Whether or not people have died in this event, the terrible toll being paid by the evacuated people and the workers at the plant site and the immense cost of response require that we look at what happened and try to determine ways to prevent it from happening ever again.

Technical

Let’s look at things in the order of occurrence, as a sort of step through the defense-in-depth features of these plants.

1)     Natural disasters

The specific events (earthquake and tsunami) shouldn’t be the question. I have had a number of people asking me if they should be worried about the plants in their neighborhood (like Iowa or North Carolina). My stock answer has been “If you have a 9.0 subsidence earthquake and a 15 meter tsunami in Iowa, we have WAY more to worry about than the nuclear facility.” In other words, we need to look at each facility site and understand the risks and potentials for natural and man-made disasters at that facility.

In the U.S. this is an ongoing effort. Every time something happens through the INPO reporting systems and the NRC assessments, the entire industry looks at each facility and assesses any lessons learned or changes that need to be made.However, it is clear that we need to remain vigilant against complacency while balancing cost vs. risk assessments of these potentials.

2)   Long term Station Blackout (SBO)

Generally two issues stand out. Either the possibility of common cause failure needs to be eliminated, or the facility needs to be able to manage for a longer period before regaining power. The inherent issue here is how long is long enough and the fact that batteries aren’t really a practical option for driving pump power.

3)   Ultimate Heat Sink

The underlying issue of SBO is one of maintaining the ultimate heat sink during those early critical hours when the decay heat in the reactor is significant and can cause major fuel failure. Loss of the heat sink is the ultimate reason for the catastrophic failure of the fuel in core. Whether a solution separate from the SBO issues is required isn’t clear, but the issue is one to consider.

4)   Spent Fuel Pools

The issues with the spent fuel pools are still evolving. Claims made internationally regarding the status of the pools in the early days of the event have been clearly proven false. However, at a minimum these pools represented a significant diversion of resources for TEPCO that could have been better spent elsewhere.

5)    Hydrogen

aside: I’ve been told that many believe that hydrogen explosion to be like a hydrogen bomb. That is not the case. The explosion we’re talking about here is that of hydrogen and oxygen recombining rather violently to make water. It is the same mechanism that caused the explosion of the Challenger Shuttle in the 1980’s :end aside.

Much speculation has been made as to the sources of the hydrogen that caused the explosions in units 1, 3, and 4. The only thing we KNOW at this point is that the unit 4 pool was NOT the source of the hydrogen in that explosion. I explained this in more detail in a prior entry (Nuclear Power and the Witch Hunt). Given everything else, it is reasonable to assume that the hydrogen came from the zirconium cladding inside the reactor cores of units 1, 2, and 3.

How that hydrogen migrated to places where it could freely combine with oxygen is not understood at this point. Having that knowledge is absolutely necessary to determine appropriate mitigation. Until that is understood, comments about hydrogen recombiners or hardened vents or other issues and or solutions are mere speculation and do not serve to improve plant safety.

We can go on forever in considering possible technical issues and actions to prevent or mitigate them. As this event stabilizes and more time can be given to expert review of the equipment and events, knowledge will be gained. That knowledge will be used to make plants in the US safer and more secure.

Next week, corporate lessons learned.

Nuclear Power and the Witch Hunt

Across the street from me when I was a little girl, there lived a witch. She and her husband lived in their house and I was sure they buried bodies in the flowerbed. That’s what all my friends said and I believed them. If our ball went into their yard, we all dared each other to go in to get it. There were never any children at the house and we never went there on Halloween. One day, my mother asked me to go to this house to take something to Mrs. Smith. Turned out she was a nice old lady who didn’t have any kids or grandkids. She just didn’t like us kids trampling her flowers very much.

The spent fuel pools at Fukushima are another witch hunt.

Early in the event, there was smoke seen in the vicinity of the unit 4 pool, initially most people thought it was an oil fire created by leaking fluids from equipment on or near the refuel floor. Then, there was a rather large hydrogen explosion. This was assumed to have been produced from a zirconium reaction in the spent fuel pool. And THAT could only have occurred if the pool was essentially dry. I reported the same to numerous reporters, journalists, members of the public over the course of the next six weeks.

This series of events and assumptions led to sharp warnings from the chairman of the NRC, and an opinion on the part of virtually everyone that spent fuel pools are extremely dangerous and should be modified to protect the public from any possible risk of the similar scenario in this country.

End of story, right?

BUT – WE WERE WRONG!!!!!

Let me make it clear. The unit 4 pool fuel is undamaged (see the video here) and the relative contamination of the water is low, indicating that few, if any, fuel rods have even failed, let alone suffered significant degradation associated with a pool fire.

Yet, the story is still being told by industry people to the general public. I heard it again yesterday when a local reporter asked me to explain in more detail about the Spent Fuel Pool storage at Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant. When she came to me, she asked me about the fires in those pools. She told me that the folks at Brunswick had told her about the pool fires at Fukushima.

Should we do something about Spent Fuel Pools in this country? Absolutely, there is a clear risk there. Most certainly the difficulties in keeping these pools adequately cooled have been an added burden on TEPCO in an already difficult situation. But we should make any changes in approach in concert with the larger issue of long term spent fuel disposition. Dry cask storage of older spent fuel is still a good option. The casks are designed to be transported wherever in the country we want them to go as well as keep the fuel safe and cool at any storage site. The casks at Fukushima weathered the earthquake and ensuing tsunami with no apparent damage. A good indication of the capabilities of these systems.

BUT, we should not make significant changes in the approach to spent fuel storage without ensuring that we are not creating a different problem down the road. I’ve heard some suggest that fuel that has been very recently discharged should be moved into dry casks and stored so that very little fuel sits in the SFP’s for very short periods of time. This fuel is extremely hot, both temperature and radiation and has many increased risks in handling and exposure. Before we go fixing a problem, let’s make sure it really exists AND that we are not creating another problem.

The lesson learned here is that we should continue to observe what is happening and make sure we have our facts straight before jumping in again and assuming the worst. Things will continue to develop in Japan and what we thought we knew will continue to change, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. In this case, there is good news that hasn’t been shared well.

So what really happened to cause the explosion in unit 4?

The Japanese are still investigating the cause of the explosion in unit 4 and have come up with some alternate ideas. I’ll let them finish their studies before announcing yet another witch story.

Slow Motion Disaster Movie

Many of you know that I have spent much of the past weeks communicating about the nuclear power plants in Japan and their struggles to manage their situation. At one point, I was talking to a producer for one of the networks, prior to being interviewed on the air. I told the woman that one of the problems with this event was that it was happening so slowly. There was a pause and the woman said “Could you explain that comment?” My answer follows (in a great many more words).

For virtually all other disasters relating to industrial complexes, the event happens like this:

  • Natural/man-made disaster strikes facility
  • Facility blows up in a spectacular fashion and burns an evil glowing orange
  • Poisonous cloud of toxins descends on the nearby neighborhoods and kills whomever it will kill
  • Event ends

These four things happen in pretty short order, usually a matter of moments, at most a few hours. Oh, the fire might last for a while longer, but the event is over.

Events at the power plants in Japan, have been unfolding for ten days and counting and so far, no member of the public has died, or even been hurt. In our modern, fast paced age, we want our events to happen in quick sound bites, not long novels. When things take more than that requisite few hours, we turn it into a disaster movie. The media jumps on the band wagon and we are off to the races.

We all know how disaster movies turn out. A huge calamitous event has to be impending and, depending on the storyline it can occur at any point. In our movie, it is supposed to be at the end when the reactors ultimately melt down and release terrible waves of radiation and dangerous radioisotopes into the environment.

Our movie requires heroes and there are plenty of those. The brave workers who have stayed at the plant site despite the fact that their families and homes were swept away by the tsunami have been an inspiration to many of us in this industry and others around the world.

However, sadly, it isn’t enough to have heroes, they must be put into life-threatening danger for the movie to play out correctly. Sure enough, even that happens here. For reasons  yet to be understood, water levels in the spent fuel pools at units 3 and 4 became dangerously low, leaving our heroes at huge risk for exposure to dangerous radiation and released contaminants. We do not yet know how those workers will fare since  total dose or contamination data have not been determined

This drama has unfolded over ten LONG days. I cannot imagine the stress those workers are under and I can only stand in awe of their courage and dedication. But it looks like this disaster movie will not have the spectacular ending some out there seemed to be hoping for. Instead, the systems and response protocols devised over many years of operation and contingency thinking ultimately worked.

It will take many months to take this event apart piece by piece and understand what happened, what worked, what didn’t and why. But rest assured that detailed analysis WILL occur and the nuclear industry around the world will take those lessons and incorporate them into their own facilities.