Nuclear Energy reality check, Part III

Anyway, I was until recently, under the impression that the “fallout” (if you’ll pardon the pun) of nuclear power being kicked into the long grass for the last two decades, had led to the adoption of a more safety conscious attitude ….well, that’s what I thought until Saturday morning anyway!

The key cause of these accidents in Japan has essentially been a loss of electrical power on-site. Nuclear power stations rely on electricity, typically drawn from the local grid, to supply power to run the computers, control systems, and crucially the cooling pumps needed to keep the reactors cool. Even with all the control rods fully inserted there enough residual heat being generated by the core that it could meltdown if the cooling systems failed (and one problem with an Earthquake is there’s a danger some might become jammed, thought I would caution there is no evidence that this has happened during this particular incident). The procedure in the event of on-site electrical failure is to use diesel standby generators, although there is a delay of up to a minute between power loss and the generators kicking in. During this time potential damage can still be done to the core, plus the operators are left sitting twiddling they’re thumbs in a darkened control room.

There are ways this time gap can be closed, UPS systems, or a technique called “Turbine Inertia Generation”, this uses the residual inertial energy in the steam turbines to keep everything running until the diesels kick in. It was just such a test of “turbine inertia” that the Chernobyl crew were running during the 1986 meltdown.

One nagging worry I’ve had about the nuclear industry for the last few years is I’ve not heard of anyone repeating such tests. Obviously it’s something that, as Chernobyl demonstrated, can go horribly wrong, but its also an important safety procedure that technicians need to be able to access in an emergency. I remember that the Brits planned to run a similar test on a reactor back in 1988 but after a storm of protest they cancelled it. Since then there have been a number of incidents of on-site power being lost at a nuclear station (such as the Finmark incident mentioned earlier) and its led me to worry that the Nuclear industry was now not running such safety tests as often as they should (or at all!), probably in an effort to avoid tabloid headlines like “Local Reactor to undergo Chernobyl style testing – page 3 girl’s scared” and negative publicity, something that could easily scupper the so-called “nuclear renaissance”.
While this failure to test loss of power procedures may have nothing to do with the current incident (although it seems likely it does), it seems to me that the nuclear industry has been more worried recently about PR than about safety. The fact that many opponents to wind farms are now known to be Nuclear lobbyists also suggests that in an effort to push for new reactors that the industry is back to its old tricks of the cold war.

If so then, courtesy of the incidents in Japan that are ongoing, we may well see history about to repeat itself – there may now be a massive swing in the public away from nuclear energy towards outride hostility towards nuclear power, much like we saw in the 1980’s. As then, any hint of the nuclear industry being underhand or dishonest will simply add extra ammo to the anti-nuclear campaigners case that the industry simply cannot be trusted. And remember it was this failure of trust that largely led to the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980’s.


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