Archive for Fukushima

Fukushima – a year on

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 9, 2012 by telescoper

It’s almost a year since the Japanese earthquake that produced a tsunami and consequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant on March 11th 2011.

Here’s a video, produced by Nature magazine, showing the continuing efforts to clean up.

I’ve been teaching Nuclear Physics this term and while I was talking about chain reactions, neutron capture, control rods and the like, the other day I suddenly realised that the class of twenty-somethings in front of me had all been born after Chernobyl and were probably unaware of just how scary it was at the time. The current generation of students, and those following it, will be among those who are going to have to grapple with a very serious problem as oil and gas supplies dwindle over the next decades. People can make their own mind up about what’s the best way to tackle this crisis, but my view is that at least in the short term we’re stuck with nuclear fission reactors for at least some of our energy needs – with improved energy efficiency and appropriate use of renewable sources helping – until fusion power comes to the rescue.

Desperate Measures

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March 17, 2011 by telescoper

Heard this morning that helicopters are being used to drop sea water onto the stricken reactors at Fukushima. This looks like desperation to me. A back of the envelope calculation suggests there’s no way they can get enough water in that way, and it’s exposing the pilots to radiation risk too.

I’ve been looking at the layout of the plant I posted yesterday

Notice that it’s right on the coast, with the sea just metres away from the reactors. It seems to me that what they could do is get hold of some ships (e.g. fire-fighting vessels) with heavy duty pumping equipment, get them right up to the plant, get the pumps working and then get all the crews the hell out of there.

Can anyone see a reason why that wouldn’t work?

And while I’m at it, over on Cosmic Variance there’s a pretty clear explanation of what exactly went wrong when the tsunami struck.

Although the tone of the above post is a tad melodramatic, it’s nothing compared to what Michio Kaku’s been saying. Physicists never look good when they go seeking publicity for themselves…

Here’s a more measured summary at New Scientist and another from the Telegraph by way of balance.



Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by telescoper

I haven’t commented so far on the crisis engulfing Japan after last Friday’s devastating earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. I can assure you that it’s not because I don’t care, it’s just that it’s hard to see how simply adding to the blizzard of words can do anything to help the Japanese people meet the immense challenges ahead. I’ve also wanted to make sure that everyone I know who’s actually in Japan at the moment was safe before I felt comfortable about writing anything.

The first thing I want to do is to express deep condolences to anyone who has lost relatives or loved ones in the disaster. Catastrophes such as this, coming out of the blue, must be extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with. My thoughts are with everyone struggling to provide assistance to those still suffering in the aftermath. It’s important to express compassion and humanity at times like this, especially when so many others seem anxious to do the opposite. An even better way of distancing yourself from the revolting pondlife that lives at the bottom of the internet is to donate to the relief effort. There are various ways to do this, but a good one is via the Red Cross.

One of the thing’s that has disturbed me most about the way the media (at least here in the UK) have behaved the aftermath of the earthquake is that they have focussed almost exclusively on the state of the nuclear power station at Fukushima. I’m not saying that this isn’t newsworthy, but it’s certainly not the only thing in Japan that merits coverage. Half a million people are homeless, many of them in freezing conditions, needing food and medicine, and emergency repairs will need to be carried out over a large part of the country. I think it’s disrespectful to all those caught up in the wider catastrophe to be so fixated on Fukushima.

Moreover, much of the press coverage of the Fukushima situation has been at best ill-informed and at worst scaremongeringly hysterical. I suppose that’s the sort of stuff that sells newspapers. It hasn’t helped that accurate information has been hard to come by – speculation always follows when that’s the case. Nevertheless, not to put too fine a point on it, I think we should all be concentrating on doing whatever we can to help the victims of the earthquake, instead of jerking off over the prospect of a nuclear catastrophe.

I’ve reblogged a much calmer account written by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, which might help calm some fears.

Situation at the Fukushima Plant, 16/3/2011

Hopefully the situation will be contained before long, but whatever eventually happens at Fukushima it’s clear that there will now be hugely increased political opposition to further investment in nuclear (fission) power around the world. Indeed, the German government has already overreacted in bizarre fashion by shutting down existing reactors. One can certainly question the Japanese decision to build reactors so close to a major fault zone, but I can’t see any justification for German panic because the events in Japan over the last few weeks can’t possibly be repeated in Germany.

I have to admit that although I don’t fear nuclear power, I’ve never thought of the fission reactor as anything other than a stop-gap. I’d personally like to see much higher investment in long-term renewable energy sources and on fusion power, and rather less on fission reactors. We also need to learn to use less fuel, especially petrol. I don’t understand it’s so unthinkable to so many people, but I’ve never had a car fetish.

The loss of capacity from its nuclear reactors is going to be a major factor for Japan for some considerable time. Before the earthquake, Japan relied on nuclear energy for almost 30% of its electricity generation. Even if there were both the political will and the financial resources available to rebuild and restart nuclear power facilities – both of which are highly unlikely – it would take many years to restore the losses. Japan is not blessed with rich fossil fuel reserves, and it is unlikely that renewable energy can make up much of the shortfall. It seems to me, therefore, that Japan has no alternative but to cut its power consumption by a significant fraction for some considerable time. It’s going to be tough to achieve that, but they have no choice; just as much of the rest of the world will have no choice when the oil and gas runs out a few decades from now.

Alongside the critical question of how Japan will power itself in the short to medium term, there is also the cost of rebuilding the infrastructure so comprehensively destroyed by the tsunami. Estimates of the cost of this are well over £100 billion. Moreover, Japan’s economy was struggling with a very high level of per capita debt even before this blow. Likely power cuts and short-time working will not make it easy to rebuild the country.

The full impact of the Japanese disaster on the rest of the world is difficult to assess, but it’s not impossible that it may precipitate another global financial crisis.

Put all this together and it’s hard not to disagree with the Emperor of Japan who is reported to be “deeply worried”. I think we all are. But worrying won’t help anyone. Crises like this have a habit of bringing out the best in certain people, and although the forthcoming months and years will severely test the resilience and resourcefulness of the Japanese people, I hope and believe that they will pull through. And teach the rest of us a few things on the way…