Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Welcome to the Third World

The people of Tokyo, the world’s largest and in many ways richest city, are learning how the other half lives, that half of the developing world that is used to brownouts and blackout power shortages, a kind of Baghdad without bombs or bullets.

Unlike in the tsunami devastated northeast coast of Japan, there is no real hardship here but many little accommodations to what might be called a post-3/11 (the devastating earthquake hit on March 11) world. After all, Tokyo is like a giant, superbly calibrated machine that runs on electricity.

The glittering neon signs that lit up busy districts such as the Ginza and Shinjuku and were in a way an icon of Japan are mostly dark now. The lights have also been turned off other monuments such as the Tokyo Tower and Rainbow Bridge because of the imperative to conserve.

Tokyo and surrounding communities such as Yokohama get their electricity from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which is the snake-bit owner of the four stricken Fukushima nuclear power plants, not to mention six others nuclear plants nearby which are relatively safe now but shutdown for how long? Nobody knows.

Shortly after the earthquake struck – and gave Tokyo itself a pretty good rocking – Tepco announced it was forced to institute rolling power blackouts lasting four hours or so because it could not supply total electricity demand without further conservation.

In fact most of Tokyo has responded with a lot of little conservation. Building lobbies are dark and cold. Where a building might have four elevators, it has two working. For mid-rise buildings, use the fire escape. Escalators which run on electricity at railroad stations have been shut. You can use the stairs

Another Japanese icon affected are the ubiquitous vending machines, which are on virtually every corner shining like glow worms at night. There are an estimated 5 million of them in Tokyo and by some accounts soak up the electrical output of a nuclear power plant.

Whether that is true or not, they use a lot of energy. Under pressure, the vending machine companies are turning off the night lights but say their livelihood depends on serving heated drinks, so that they need some power. All of these little measures do add up, and Tepco has been able to cancel some of the power outages.

Tepco is in dire straits, its stock hammered, its ratings lowered, its sources of power damaged or destroyed. The utility owns 17 nuclear power plants, of which 13 are shutdown because of earthquakes. That doesn’t even take into account the 17 coal and gas fired power plants that were also damaged in the quake and out of operation.

Three years ago another earthquake impacted Tepco’s seven nuclear plants on the Sea of Japan taking all seven out of commission (three are still down). But then the utility could draw power by firing up more coal plants and drawing power from utilities further north. But those utilities have their own problems now.

The utility will face enormous costs for cleaning up and liability. The six reactors at Fukushima will never operate again. A government hand in Tepco’s rehabilitation will be needed. If there ever was a entity too big, or more accurately, too important to fail it is the company that supplies electricity to 45 million people in the capital and environs.

Tokyo’s train system, which moves literally millions of commuters each day, has been operating on reduced schedules to save energy. The main trunk lines into downtown are running fairly normally but service in many outlying areas have been curtailed. During the past week department stores and other establishments cut back hours to save on energy and commuting.

Shortly after the earthquake hit on a Friday afternoon the entire train system came to a halt. It forced not a few people working down town to walk in their dress shoes back home, not a few of them arriving home almost as dawn was breaking.

France – home of “vive l’nuclear” - was the first foreign embassy here to advise its nationals to leave Tokyo. It was followed by other nations such as Austrlia. Germany and a few other countries have moved their embassy operations to Osaka in the south.

The stricken reactors are 170 miles or (240 km) from Tokyo. The official evacuation zone is 20 km around the Fukushima plants and people living 30 km away are advised to stay indoors. The zones have not been expanded since they were first established more than a week ago. Most people have left the zones.

The United States has advised people living within 50 miles or 80 km of the plant to move out. But Washington also has a delicate problem. It’s one thing for other European governments to tell their citizens to leave, but the U.S. maintains three major military bases in the Tokyo area (and one north of the disaster zone).

If the U.S. were to pull its forces out now it would send a very strong message to Japan that they can’t be relied on in times of crisis, thus endangering the Japan-U.S. alliance, which had already been strained by disputes over bases on Okinawa.

The U.S, has responded for help, although the help is mostly limited to helping those victims of the quake/tsunami, not the nuclear plant. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is sailing off shore, along with other vessels, serving mainly as a refueling platform for helicopters.

In latter part of the week, concern arose over food safety as some milk at dairy farms in the prefecture surrounding the reactors were found to have trace elements of radioactive iodine and cesium. Also contaminated was some spinach from the farms to the north.

Among the expatriate community, people are asking each other: “are you a ‘runner’ or a ‘stay-putter’?” Quite a few are heeding their embassies advice and leaving Japan, or finding they always wanted to take a vacation in beautiful downtown Osaka.

The head of one English language school, which employs many expatriate instructors, said that by the end of the first week of the disaster he had lost 40 percent of his expat staff to the bug out. The Japanese employees left behind to pick up the load are not impressed, he says.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Can Nukes and Quakes Co-exist?

The operators at the Fukushima Unit 1 Nuclear power plant in northern Japan must have realized that a bad day was about to turn into a very bad day when they turned on the emergency core cooling system – and it failed to start. They tried to start the second backup generator, and it failed to start too.

That set off a mad scramble to try to keep ahead of falling water levels, hydrogen explosions, radiation venting and a multitude of other obstacles in hopes of preventing a complete collapse of the reactors ‘ over heated cores, a race which, as of this writing, they are losing.

When the Great Miyagi Earthquake with an intensity of 9 on the Richter Scale hit the coast of northern Japan, Unit 1 and its two sister reactors were up and running and producing electricity. They automatically shut down, as is customary in all such cases even when there is a relatively minor tremor.

(Three other units in the complex were already down for serving and refueling and had not figured strongly in this episode. However, a fire broke out Tuesday morning in Unit-4. The core is said to be empty, but spent fuel is stored on site).

So far so good. But it is necessary to keep cooling water circulating through the core even in shut down mode; otherwise, the fuel will begin to overheat from the decay of the numerous strongly radioactive elements that are created by the nuclear chain reaction. If heating continues, the fuel might melt.

Electricity is the Achilles heel of nuclear power. It is needed to run the pumps that keep the cooling water through the core. Normally, the plant would simply take power off of the regional power grid. But because of the earthquake there was a regional blackout.

That contingency had been foreseen, which is why nuclear power stations have backup diesel generators and backups to those generators, sometimes as many as four per plant. What planners failed to account for was that the resulting tsunami would take out the generators needed to run the back up generators. Next move? Improvise.

The government has been rushing generators of all kinds to Fukushima in order to keep pumping water into the core. Some of them have proved to be too weak to be of much use. One apparently was destroyed in a hydrogen explosion at a neighboring plant. The situation complicated by the fact that airports are under water, rail lines are twisted and some roads are impassable.

Everyone understands that Japan, sitting right on the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire, is very prone to earthquakes. The country has made a huge bet that it can build nuclear reactors that are strong enough to withstand even the strongest shaking. It has 54 nuclear power plants supplying roughly 30 percent of the nation’s electrical energy.

In fairness it can hardly be argued that Japan has been cavalier about the prospects of an earthquake (some anti-nuclear groups might beg to differ). Indeed, even before last Friday’s tremor, Japan had experienced a two recent major quakes that severely impacted its nuclear program though not causing any radiation leakage.

In July 2007 a major quake struck of the coast of the Sea of Japan near where the Tokyo Electric Power Co. has seven huge reactors (largest concentration of civilian plants in the world). Although only slightly damaged, the regional authorities have been very cautious about restarting them. Three units are still out of commission, nearly four years after the quake.

Then in August 2009 another large quake struck in Suruga Bay south of Tokyo near where the Chubu Electric Power Co. has five nuclear power plants. One plant, which experienced unusually high shaking, has only recently returned to service. At one time about 12 nuclear power plants were out of service contributing to Japan’s miserable capacity factor(the percentage of time a reactor is operating).

The event on the Sea of Japan resulted in a general strengthening of seismic standards and some refitting. Chubu decided to decommission two of its older plants near Suruga Bay because they deemed it uneconomical to bring them up to current seismic standards.

But all of this attention was focused on ground movement and protecting the containment. That a tsunami might take out the entire emergency core cooling system at half a dozen plants at once apparently was not a contingency that received much attention..

Masashio Goto, a former engineer who worked on containment designs for Toshiba before he became more critical of nuclear power, says he believes it is possible to design a containment system that can withstand even the most severe earthquake. But, as everyone is now learning, an earthquake-related hugely increases the problems and ability to recover.

Consider some of the problems that the operators at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1984, the two previous most severe nuclear incidents, did not have to contend with: total electric power blackout, airports submerged, rail and highway systems severely damaged or totally destroyed, ports closed.

About 170,000 people living within 20 kilometers of the stricken reactors were advised to evacuate. As the situation worsened Tuesday the government extended the evacuation area to 30 km and advised residents to at least stay indoors and “hang up laundry inside.”

Should a meltdown at any one or all six Fukushima Daiichi plants spew out more radiation, then the imperative to move people will be greater. Already about half of the Japanese armed forces have been mobilized to help in the quake-nuclear relief. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier has moved to the vicinity and presumably can help as the navy did during the Indonesian tsunami.

The reactors at Fukushima are very old. Unit-1 was commission exactly 40 years ago this month, and by modern standards employs horse-and-buggy technology (though, of course, upgraded). There are new reactor designs being implemented that eliminate the need for generators to keep the core cooled by using natural convection to circulate cooling water.

In theory, these advances in reactor design should make them safer and more earthquake resistant. Intellectually, it should be possible for nukes and quakes to coexist. Whether the Japanese, not to mention other people in the world, buy into this argument, however, remains to be seen.