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Is Fukushima the new normal for nuclear reactors?

Last week’s crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan saw radioactive water leak again from the crippled facility, raising fears that groundwater flowing into the Pacific Ocean could be contaminated…

Does the complexity of nuclear reactors mean they will never be safe? EPA/TEPCO

Last week’s crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan saw radioactive water leak again from the crippled facility, raising fears that groundwater flowing into the Pacific Ocean could be contaminated. The Japanese government also raised the international incident level – the scale used to assess nuclear accidents - from one to three out of seven. The original nuclear meltdown following the 2011 Japanese earthquake was scaled seven.

Even if Fukushima was ultimately caused by the 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, accidents such as this beg the question: can nuclear energy ever be truly safe?

There are three reasons to think that nuclear accidents are common, and could increase - and it’s not because of the technology. Let’s have a look at the evidence.

Lessons from history

In the early 1980s, Yale sociologist Charles Perrow argued that the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island was a “normal accident”. The crux of his argument was that complicated technological systems have unavoidable problems that can’t be designed around.

Perrow’s argument — still relevant today — rested on three pillars. First, people are fallible, even at nuclear reactors. Operator error is still a very common factor in incidents and accidents.

Second, big accidents almost always have very small beginnings. Nuclear power plants are so complex that relatively simple things — shirt tails, fuses, light bulbs, mice, cats, and candles — can disrupt the entire system.

And finally, many failures are those of organisations more than technology. Given the right event, all these factors can lead to system-wide failure. Perrow concludes that such high-tech, dangerous systems are hopeless and should be abandoned, as the inevitable risks of failure outweigh any conceivable benefits.

Nuclear reactors do have inherent advantages over fossil fuels, but Perrow’s argument raises serious questions about nuclear safety.

Never-ending accidents

Even so, Perrow was writing in the 1980s. Surely things have improved since then? Well, perhaps not.

If you consider the full range of incidents and accidents reported on the International Nuclear Event Scale, there have been hundreds of events over the past few decades. One peer-reviewed study identified 105 nuclear accidents totalling U$176.9 billion in damages and 4,231 fatalities worldwide from 1952 to 2011. The International Atomic Energy Agency also reports no less than 2,400 separate incidents since the organisation began collecting data in the 1950s.

Most of these incidents involved no major releases of radiation or fatalities. But three emerging trends still cause reason for grave concern.

First, major modern nuclear power accidents are no longer one-off events. Instead, they can span years or even decades, creating a sort of “continuous accident”.

The infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster may have started on April 25 1986, but it continued into the early 1990s. Secrecy, further accidents, and wildfires in the exclusion zone meant that exposure to dangerous levels of radiation weren’t controlled immediately.

We can see this same “continuous” trend with the accident at Fukushima. The triple meltdown itself at Fukushima in March 2011 was just the beginning.

In March 2013 a power outage left four underground spent fuel pools without fresh cooling water for several hours. The same month, it surfaced that a TEPCO crew laying down rat-proof netting caused another outage. In April 2013 regulators discovered that thousands of gallons of radioactive water had seeped into the ground from a leaking system of plastic sheeting.

In May, a fire broke out near Fukushima Unit 3 — ostensibly caused by cardboard boxes catching flame. And most recently in August 2013, regulators announced that 300 tons of radioactive water was found leaking from storage tanks.

New designs, new problems

There is some evidence that newer reactor designs and systems are more prone to accidents. Dennis Berry, Director Emeritus of Sandia National Laboratories, explains that the problem with new reactors and accidents is twofold: scenarios arise that are impossible to plan for in simulations, and people make mistakes.

As he put it:

Fabrication, construction, operation, and maintenance of new reactors will face a steep learning curve: advanced technologies will have a heightened risk of accidents and mistakes. The technology may be proven, but people are not.

Former nuclear engineer David Lochbaum has noted that almost all serious nu­clear accidents have occurred when operators have little experience with a plant. This makes new systems incredibly risky.

Lochbaum cites numerous historical examples of nuclear reactor accidents, including Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which suffered accidents immediately or soon after opening. Only Fukushima seems to have defied the trend; it was opened in 1971 and continued operating until the 2011 earthquake.

Electric pressure

The third problem is electric market restructuring. This puts more pressure on nuclear operators to keep costs low, potentially compromising safety.

The problem is, as former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Peter Bradford states, “nuclear energy can be cheap, or it can be safe. But it can’t be both.” And even then, “there’s always the possibility somebody will cut a corner”.

For example, the pressure to build new generators on existing sites to avoid finding new locations can increase the risk of catastrophe, since there is a greater chance that one accident can affect multiple reactors.

Nuclear waste storage is also becoming more dangerous, with many spent fuel pools packed with more fuel rods to keep costs low, making them hotter and denser. Operators have to add boron to water pool to absorb neutrons, increasing the risk of chain reaction, or criticality, accidents.

The industry has also been trying to tinker with reactor sizes and promote designs that operators have little experience with, making operator training a factor. Some of these new reactor designs use more fuel and create more heat, meaning they have bigger cores containing larger quantities of dangerous fissionable materials, increasing the magnitude of any accident that could occur.

These factors are worrying (to say the least) given the severity of what a single, serious accident can do. Too bad it seems a matter of when, not if, we will see more of them in the future.

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32 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    With Fukushima perhaps the public is slowly noticing that while 20,000 people died in the quake and tsunami nobody has received an evidently harmful dose of radiation. The Japanese radiation standard (about 100 mSv/y apparently) is lower than many (healthy) people receive who live in granite country. Somehow Fukushima managed to create massive anxiety. Had people been allowed to stay in their homes and perhaps given a dosimeter for re-assurance the public may have been less alarmed.

    About 80…

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    1. Mike Hansen


      In reply to John Newlands

      From Japanese Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report.

      "THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster ..."

      "The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between…

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    2. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email

      In reply to John Newlands

      "The practical reality is that by denying the role of nuclear dirty coal remains firmly entrenched."

      Nuclear v coal? Same dog, different haircut.

  2. Sal Kennedy

    logged in via Facebook

    i'd like to see the new mini reactor designs included here. the only mention of new designs is that they're new so we don't know how they'll break, or "they'll be bigger" so cause a greater catastrophe...

    toshiba have a design that is tiny and autonomous - it's packed in the factory and arrives fueled on the back of a truck, sealed off from operator error and buried in concrete.

    other evolved designs do away with complexity and draw upon existing designs, eliminating much of the issues facing plants like TMI (which caused precisely zero issues in the wider community, just a big mess for the operator to clean up in the core.

    seems we're not getting much balance here

    (now where's my shill money?)

    1. Ev Cricket

      Energy Nerd

      In reply to Sal Kennedy

      I think it would be worth talking about these new small reactors if there were any in commercial operation. Which I don't think there are.

      Both nuclear and renewable energy advocates need to remember that just because something has been invented doesn't mean it's being used. Lab test to commercial deployment is in the order of 10 years for renewables. Closer to 50 for some nuclear developments.

      We can't discuss the new mini reactors because no one is using them.

  3. Peter Boyd Lane


    considering the earthquake rather than the reactor, Japan records more than 2000 earthquakes of greater than 5.5 intensity annually. As is happening worldwide, earthquakes are increasing in numbers and in Japan appear to be progressively at shallower depths. They occur throughout the islands. There are 55 reactors and a helluva lot of nuclear waste and contaminated material, but nowhere safe to store it. There's a high probability that there will be more nuclear accidents in Japan.

  4. Noel Wauchope


    A really important idea - that Fukushima represents the "new nuclear normal" - for the several reasons given.
    The most telling one, is that nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima do not really end - they just keep on being a permanent disaster.

    Related to this fact s another one. Nuclear disasters are not local, or regional, or national, They are global.

    The nuclear lobby would have us believe that the Fukushima catastrophe is just a local problem for one area in Japan. But it's not - the effects of Fukushma radiation on the marine food chain are already becoming a global problem

    1. Graham R.L. Cowan


      In reply to Noel Wauchope

      If we define the radioactivity released to the ocean by the Fukushima Dai-ichi station in spring 2011 as a Fukushima, the ocean's natural radioactivity content -- principally radiopotassium, plus about a one-sixth contribution from uranium -- was 500,000 Fukushimas in 1000 AD. Bomb testing later added a few more, but let's approximate the sum as still 500,000. Then came the event the unit was named after, and now, departing from correct significant figure convention, we can write the ocean radioactivity…

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  5. Comment removed by moderator.

  6. Doug Hutcheson


    "Does the complexity of nuclear reactors mean they will never be safe?" No, but the complexity of human thought means that flawed operators will continue causing accidents, no matter how 'safe' a complex technology is.

  7. Martin Nicholson

    Energy researcher and author

    Clearly Fukushima is not the new norm for nuclear plants. How many plant in the world are built on a coast known to be at risk of tsunamis? To protect against that risk they constructed a 9 metre seawall but it proved to be insufficient. This is an exceptional case and certainly not the norm.

    But I doubt that is really the point of Sovacool’s article.

    What I think he is saying is are all nuclear plants prone to accidents? Given that all industrial plants are prone to accidents, then this is…

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    1. Hugh McColl


      In reply to Martin Nicholson

      So, Mr Nicholson, for you, so long as it doesn't cause death it's OK? Therefore, since Fukushima hasn't caused any deaths (yet, maybe, whatever), what happened there and in the landscape and ocean around it was no big deal, nothing to worry about. You are saying that even though many thousands of people were compulsorily evacuated and remain isolated from their farms and towns and businesses, this is just collateral damage and not to be put down to the nuclear industry. Well, that might be statistical analysis but it sure ain't reality.

    2. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email

      In reply to Martin Nicholson

      “The evidence after 60 years is that nuclear is the safest form of electricity generation. The issue is one of irrational fear not statistical risk.”

      The evidence is deceptive and relates only to accidents, not to slow-cooking radiation illnesses or the $9.2 billion paid over the last eleven years to radiation victims of the U.S. Department of Energy, that department's contractors or subcontractors, a designated atomic weapons employer or a beryllium vendor.

  8. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email

    I am reminded of Australia’s most vehement nuclear proponent (and academic) who declared after the first explosion at Fukushima:

    “The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero. There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with…

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  9. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email

    Nuclear power supplies defence departments with tritium for munitions. Nuclear power supplies depleted uranium for weapons. The US Department of Defence currently has 700,000 tonnes depleted UF6 in storage. DU munitions, detonated by US-led military coalitions have maimed and sickened their own as well as civilians in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Afghanistan and Iraq. The west fails to take responsibility for the carnage and the ever-creasing frightful malformations witnessed in new-born…

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  10. Comment removed by moderator.

  11. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    "In April 2013 regulators discovered that thousands of gallons of radioactive water had seeped into the ground from a leaking system of plastic sheeting."

    How radioactive is this water, compared to the radioactivity of ordinary water? What radionuclides are present and in what concentrations? What radiological dose to any members of the public has occurred as a result of the release of this water to the environment?

    Why is this a "crisis"? Are the number of persons exposed to a substantially…

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    1. Jack Lindsay


      In reply to Luke Weston

      Thank you so much, Luke, for taking the time to dissect and eviscerate much of (though still not ALL of) the FUD that seems to be this writer's specialty when it comes to nuclear power. Usually I can't bear to read through the comments on any article about nuclear power because the vast majority of commenters are talking out of their posteriors. I'm glad I read far enough to find your post. Your are right on the money.

    2. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Luke Weston

      "How radioactive is this water, compared to the radioactivity of ordinary water? What radionuclides are present and in what concentrations? What radiological dose to any members of the public has occurred as a result of the release of this water to the environment?"

      That is pretty much the issue - at this stage no one appears to know.

      Go to the IAEA web site - no information there.

      Go to the nuclear cult site "Brave New Climate". No information there but that is in keeping with their Fukushima…

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    3. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email

      In reply to Luke Weston

      “I don't think anybody will dispute that Lochbaum is an anti-nuclear power activist”

      Certainly not and nobody would dispute that you are a pro-nuclear power activist.

      Nor would anybody dispute that Hans Bethe was a major contributor to the Manhattan Project.

      Did you know that any company discharging hazardous waste beyond its boundaries, commits an offence? The nuclear vandals commit these offences with impunity. The nuclear industry discharges hazardous waste to air, water and soil, across nations and continents.

      The “environmentally clean” industry fudges statistics and obfuscates the crimes and corruption that prevails in the nuclear behemoth – the facts are on the public record – historically and current. No country, no citizen should ever be that desperate for this type of dirty energy. Poisoned workers, poisoned citizens and poisoned places are a state-corporate crime against humanity.

    4. Benjamin Sovacool

      Director, Centre for Energy Technologies, AU-Herning at Aarhus University

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Hey Luke (and Martin and Jack): this piece is an 800 word op-ed. Its goal isn’t to systematically document safety and risk issues surrounding nuclear power like a peer-reviewed article in Nature. You also need to read the piece more carefully. Let me point out just two serious flaws with Luke’s analysis that suggest he isn’t taking the time to read things properly.

      First, the Lochbaum argument. Read the actual report. Just because Lochbaum is an “opponent” of nuclear energy doesn’t mean he’s…

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    5. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email

      In reply to Jack Lindsay

      Well Jack, I believe readers have the intelligence to determine who is “talking our of their posteriors” when an uncredentialed “consultant” insults his opponents without debating the topic.

      1) The author, “Dr. Sovacool has written more than 200 peer-reviewed academic articles and book chapters. Although his primary area of expertise is energy policy, he has also published in the fields of astronomy, bioethics, chemical engineering, environmental law, epidemiology, fisheries, forest management…

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    6. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      On the modeled plume projection given in this paper, the color key shows a concentration of radioactivity in the plume that ranges from roughly 500 Bq/m^3 at the most highly concentrated region right near Fukushima down to zero as we move away.

      However, the normal, natural, average radioactivity of all seawater is about 12200 Bq/m^3. (Almost all of that radioactivity is contributed by extremely long lived, primordial potassium-40 and to a lesser extent rubidium-87).

      So even the most very concentrated part of the modeled plume is only about an 4% increase in radioactivity above background. And as you move further away it's absolutely nothing, it's just completely drowned out against the statistical background noise.

    7. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Luke Weston

      This paper is modelling the radioactive ocean plume from 2011.

      We can assume that you do not have an answer to the original question that you posed either.

  12. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email

    On Monday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, acknowledged that it was unacceptable to allow contaminated water to leak from storage tanks on-site into the Pacific Ocean.

    Ocean dilution of contaminants is not an excuse and if all other industries and regulators adopted the insolent belief of nuclear proponents, every nation would be ditching hazardous waste into the sea.

    Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority has now raised the severity rating of Fukushima to Level 3 (serious…

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  13. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    As JohnN wisely indicates, Fukushima is a man-made tragedy. I'm more blunt -- this article is journalistically specious and disgraceful. It serves, as climate deniers do, to misdirect folks who don't know better,. It endangers us all by thinking the safest form of power generation ever deployed is not safe.

    Let's start with the Independent Fukushima Commission's report...

    Please read the head investigator's comments and then the conclusion here…

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