Japan, Nuclear Power, Real Challenges


The earthquake in Japan brings us face to face with another challenge to the engineering community.  The earthquake is certainly a disaster, and we hope and pray that the loss of life in Japan will be small.  But the emerging crisis of radiation leaking from nuclear powerplants that have been damaged by the quake and tsunami waves are pause for serious reflection about the future of energy.

The damage is the result of natural forces that are beyond the ability of designers to engineer against.  And how we take heed of these events, or even if we take heed, may be the real measure of progress in western civilization.  The future of nuclear power plants is going to have include choices and alternative technology.

A nuclear power plant is a complex system, mostly controlled by technology from the process industry because it creates steam to drive a turbine which turns a generator.  The generator is a classic electric motor run in reverse to create electricity from torque.  So there is mechatronic technology involved in the process itself.

Even more mechatronics content is involved in the creation of the fuel and the operation of the control rods in water cooled reactors.  Robots are also frequently used in the processing of the fuel into the final shape for use in a reactor.

But the bigger question is what are the technology choices for nuclear power generated electricity that can survive the forces of natural disasters?  Interestingly, there are a number of mini reactor technologies that because of their small size, are much more likely to withstand the forces of nature.  Just Google mini nuclear reactors and you will find pages of information.  And discussions of numerous technologies that are competing for use in the power industry.

Large water cooled reactor have been producing electricity for 40 years or more.  But these designs are massive and susceptible to failure when the water flow is interrupted.  Which is what we have going on in Japan.

There are wave reactors, Thorium reactors, small water cooled designs and pebble bed reactors.  Each technology working its way through the torturous process of qualification for use by federal regulators.

Some of the technology is unproven and controversial.  But since I have seen the pebble bed reactor demonstrated, for me this is a leading edge technology.  The pebble fuel is a small .5mm diameter pebble of uranium contained in layers of graphite and ceramic.  By spacing the fuel apart in small bits, it cannot reach thermal runaway, and in fact, using helium coolant, the system can reach thermal equilibrium at 800 degrees.  Since the ceramic insulator is designed to withstand temperatures of 3000 degrees, there is little chance of the fuel melting the insulator and creating a runaway chain reaction.  Safe, small.  The American Nuclear Regulatory Commission attended a demonstration of this technology years ago.  I saw the video.

So the question is, when are we going to see some progress?  At the rate our government chooses to do things, it will take years.  At the risk of being redundant, providing electricity shouldn’t be about politics, it should be about free markets, and doing things right.  If the electric power industry is going to be regulated by politicians, then politicians need to be doing the people’s business and getting it done.


15 Comments on “Japan, Nuclear Power, Real Challenges

  1. Mr. Meyer I enjoyed reading your article and argument ‘pro’ Nuclear power generation. The message to (US) policians is clearly put. I do have Nuclear background (acamic and work) and I do feel strongly that Nuclear power generation should have a larger than 20-ish % share in the US energy production.
    Advanced technical solutions (with ‘enhanced’ safety considerations) abound. All it’s needed is the policians getting the message. But I also this that this being ‘politics’, alas!, it requires the public buy-in… how do you address that? We all need ‘good luck’.

    Thanks again for the spirited read!

  2. While we can’t expect to design for every possible “act of God”, the information as best we know it at this time suggests that catastrophic damage might have been avoided through design. It appears that the reactors went through the earthquake and Tsunami without significant damage; it’s the peripheral cooling equipment that was damaged / swept away. Had that been in a hardened facility like the reactor, we likely would have avoided the nuclear part of this catastrophe altogether. The message should be that we learn from our experiences and then take steps to make the next ones better, whether that’s naturally cooled reactors or whatever. As a society we have to move away from a paralysis mindset (no reactors) to informed action (improved reactors and systems)

  3. In the late 1970’s I was finishing up my nuclear engineering degree when Three Mile Island happened. I was sure it would not amount to much given the “inherent safety” of nuclear power or so we had been told. The aftermath was not pretty even though it was broadcast as an event that lead to no deaths or injuries. Nevertheless, how could an industry that was so sure of itself suffer the unthinkable and highly improbably nuclear meltdown precipitated by something as common as a sticky valve? Then, came Chernbyl where a not-so-safe reactor blew sky high. Although Chernobly’s technology was far different than that used in the United States, when reading about what happened, much of the disaster sprang from another nuclear agency in the former-USSR believeing they were overseeing a technology with “inherent safety”. After the tidal wave destroyed Japan’s plant and the meltdowns began, I saw Japan’s nuclear watchdog agency immediately claim the problem was contained and that all of the lessons learned at Three Mile Island had served to make the upcoming events much less severe than Three Mile Island. Here we go again with the assumption of “inherently safe” blinding people who should know better. If the nuclear plant in Japan had been any other technology: coal, oil, natural gas, or wind, this disaster never would have occurred and continue to plaque the world. Why doesn’t the nuclear industry learn from this and start from a clean sheet. Let’s assume the obvious: nuclear energy is inherently unsafe, and see how that goes toward the development of truly safe reactors. This approach worked well for the aircraft industry. When we place ourselves into an aluminum tube that takes use miles above the earth and travels at 500 miles per hour, we don’t foolishly believe we are doing something inherently safe. The aircraft industry openly acknowledged the risks of public flight from the beginning and that lead to means of travel with an excellent safety record.

  4. Certainly new technologies are advanced in nuclear safety. But I think the venturi nozzle used in large-scale production of electricity from wind energy, a new, previously unknown alternative to the atom.
    Please browse the few calculations using such nozzle:

  5. I think that there are really four issues associated with the disaster in Japan that need to be addressed:

    (1) Society in Japan needs the power (several thousand MW’s) from those 4 nuclear reactors. So if not nuclear what would have the disaster been from another type of generation? If oil fired power plants would the oil tanks have been ruptured by the tsunami and created a huge environmental oil-spill mess? If liquified natural gas fired generation would the tsunami destroyed the power plant LNG storage facility creating a fire? The point is the alternative is not nuclear versus nothing. The damage and concern we are seeing would have been something else and probably greater had some other form of power generation been producing several thousand MW’s at that location on the coast of Japan.

    (2) Post 9/11 & Post Katrina, the USA National Electrical Code (NEC) was changed to add Section 708 Critical Operations Power Systems (COPS). The reasons was that after a major disaster there were critical power systems like at hospitals or firestations that didn’t have electric power. The loss of power could have been foreseen and yet at some hospitals the emergency generators were only designed to operate a few days (standby as opposed to prime power units) and some were even below sea level. Also in an emergency there was a need to evacuate towns and yet gas stations did not have back up power to pump gasoline. The idea behind COPS was to look at what could likely happen in a natural disaster and do something to mitigate the consequences. Obviously, nuclear power plants designed many many years ago could use a COPS-type power review. I would rather see such a review performed on all COPs-types of facilities power plants, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, etc. than a wholesale abandonment of a particular type of generation. There is a real need to perform this type of review on all critical systems including power plants.

    (3) The Japanese nuclear plants were designed to withstand 7.1 to 7.9 earthquakes from what I have read. They were hit by a 8.9 to 9.0 earthquake. That is a factor of 10 to 100 times stronger forces than they were designed for. There sould be some serious research into what “should” be maximum design basis natural disasters and building codes as well. Also, there should be a review of secondary containment structures like the ones that protect spent fuel pools and what their design basis accident should look like.

    (4) Finally, whether it is the BP oil spill, Katrina, the nuclear problems in Japan, companies and government have been lacking in their ability to work to work together and solve problems without focusing first on legal liability concerns, public relations, impacts on stock prices, or causing panic among the general public. Society needs to focus on and come up with a better way of putting skilled experts with all the necessary resources they need in charge of containing potential disasters at man-made facilities. Had Japanese firefighters & their equipment been available earlier to the power plant staff, to bring water to the spent fuel pools things might have been different.

    The events in Japan are monumental. The loss of life from the tsunami is huge and the economic damage is even greater. However, the disaster at the Japanese nuclear reactors (when the radioactive dust and water settles) will be mostly economic with little, if any, loss of life. For some reason, radiation is the ultimate faustian fear the media and the public seems to face.

  6. Bravo, great bits of truth that should help our elected officials to make better choices, but we can only hope.

  7. If we had more scientists and engineers in government , we would have more informed and effective policies.We cannot expect people educated in history politics and economics to understand that we must design manufacture and sell products in order to survive.If you pay people to sit at home because of some failed political idea then you don’t deserve to succeed as a nation.

  8. Excellent reference work on Thorium powered electric generators. This should be required viewing for anyone in government.

    Thanks for the input.

  9. Especially when those people educated in history and politics are so often mis-informed by the state run educational system. It seems as though any service provided by government ends up being deficient. And sadly, energy policy has become the province of politics instead of local decision making.

  10. Bob

    Awesome input. Really well thought out. I hope we see some of this kind of thinking after the immediate emergency gets resolved.

  11. The Earthlings are not mature enough for this magic way of boiling water.

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