Rob Franks wrote on 3/17/2011, 6:52 PM
"The real problem with nuclear power is NUCLEAR POWER!!!"

Right... so what's the alternative there Mr. smarty? This is Japan... not much in the way of moving rivers for dams... a tad too crowded for windmills.... solar panels are too expensive per Watt, coal is too dirty.

Hey... I know... maybe Japan should just stop using electricity!
Serena wrote on 3/17/2011, 6:53 PM
Well, true that if you don't have nuclear power then that problem goes away. Rather like the only problem with guns is the people who have them. However, as guns are not going away so neither is nuclear power, and rather than placards we have to very seriously look at how and who operates nuclear plants. It is important to work towards non-fission power sources, but hopefully you will support increased taxes and costs to achieve that end. Ah, the tea-party.
johnmeyer wrote on 3/17/2011, 8:05 PM
The real problem with nuclear power is NUCLEAR POWER!!!Well ... every large-scale human engineering project has hazards. You build a bridge, and it has a flaw that isn't discovered, and thirty years later it collapses, killing twelve people (the bridge in Minnesota in 2007). Suddenly, everyone gets afraid of going across bridges, and there are calls to rebuild or close thousands of bridges.

We drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and we have a spill, and the next thing you know, everyone wants to stop all oil drilling.

I could go on. The point is that every large-scale engineering project has hazards. I certainly understand that nuclear power seems to spook some people, largely because none of us have any day-to-day direct familiarity with nuclear fission or radioactive material.

I don't know how the Japanese reactor problems will turn out, but I suspect that the death and illness toll, when we look back 5-10 years from now, will be quite low, with (hopefully) no deaths, and probably only the on-site workers having any lingering health effects. Compare that to coal miners where, even today, about 5% still get black lung disease, and usually die from it.

Except for Chernobyl, nuclear power and uranium mining has had a marvelous safety record. Chernobyl was a stupidly-designed reactor, and that design does not exist in western countries.

If you have a problem with nuclear power, then I suggest you REALLY get worried about chemical plants. I suspect you may be too young to remember, but you should really read about


A leak back in 1984 at a chemical plant in India immediately killed over 3,000 civilians (i.e., not people employed at the plant), and eventually killed, or contributed to the deaths, of as many as 15,000.

If you are worried about "too much" CO2 in the atmosphere, resulting from burning fossil fuel, the ONLY energy source that can scale to meet the world's needs -- especially with the fantastically large increase in demand in China and India -- is nuclear. The other non-fossil generation sources -- solar and wind -- cannot scale to meet the demand, and have tremendous problems of their own, most notably the enormous land or sea area (windmills just off shore are the most efficient) required.

And one more thing: I live in California, and the "plume" of radioactive material is supposed to arrive at my house tomorrow. People are buying potassium iodide pills and are probably going to poison themselves trying to stop a problem that doesn't exist. People in the media should be held accountable for the fear-mongering.

I am not worried at all about this plume. I would gladly live next to a nuclear power plant. People who live next to windmills are being driven nuts by the noise, and people who live near coal or oil generation facilities almost all have some long-term ill effects.

I send my best wishes to the people of Japan. They are facing a horrible set of problems. I am sure they are all concerned about the reactors, but once that problem is under control, it will seem to be a small thing compared to the natural disasters that have killed so many and destroyed so much.

OdieInAz wrote on 3/18/2011, 12:52 PM
The nuclear industry exists because they do not have to cover or internalize all the costs. For example, in the US, nuclear reactor owners must purchase $375M in liability insurance for $400k per year from a single company set up for this purpose. Above that threshold, the industry self-insures for another $12B. After that the taxpayer is on the hook. How many $Million homes in California are covered by $12B? What might be the liability in Japan? Who will pick up the claims? I don't know, but I bet it isn't a free market solution like a private insurance company.

The point is this: if nuclear power is so safe, then why aren't insurance companies fighting tooth and nail for this low hanging fruit?

CorTed wrote on 3/18/2011, 12:54 PM
John.... very well said !

johnmeyer wrote on 3/18/2011, 3:24 PM
The nuclear industry exists because they do not have to cover or internalize all the costs. For example, in the US, nuclear reactor owners must purchase $375M in liability insurance for $400k per year from a single company set up for this purpose. Above that threshold, the industry self-insures for another $12B. After that the taxpayer is on the hook.That is very interesting information. I didn't know how the nuclear utilities are insured. That structure is definitely something not available to most other companies.

However, I did a little research, and found that other industries that are involved in large-scale operations which involve potential risks also have similar structures. For instance, there is the "Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund" that is used to provide cleanup funds for oil spills (like the one last summer in the Gulf of Mexico), but only beyond what is paid by the responsible party (mostly BP, but also Transocean and Halliburton).

But, I think you may be only partially correct. You are definitely correct that without the liability waivers provided by the Price-Anderson act back in 1957, no private company would have gotten involved in nuclear power generation. However, the US government, prior to 1957, was already building and operating nuclear reactors and, of course, continues to do so today, mostly on large ships. So, we'd still have some amount of nuclear power generation in the US, but operated by the government instead of private industry. It would be interesting to debate (although I don't propose doing that here) as to whether nuclear power would be run more safely by the US government than by private industry, and whether the funds available for the cleanup after any accident would be more freely available or better spent under that scenario. As I think of FEMA, I'm not sure I'd feel better about having the government do things ...

Rob Franks wrote on 3/19/2011, 7:37 AM
"The point is this: if nuclear power is so safe, then why aren't insurance companies fighting tooth and nail for this low hanging fruit?"

Flying is about the safest way to travel.... but hear about ONE single plane crash in the news.......

Statistically speaking, Nuclear power is by far the safest way to go:
johnmeyer wrote on 3/19/2011, 11:11 AM
Thanks for that link, Rob. I'll be using that frequently.
Byron K wrote on 3/19/2011, 11:12 AM
No looting and lawlessness in Japan despite the worst disaster in recorded history.

As much as I dislike CNN... Jack has made an interesting observation. It's not surprising to me as I've lived there and visit every 2-3 years.

FROM CNN's Jack Cafferty:

In the wake of Japan's deadly earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant explosions, we have witnessed the almost indescribable chaos that follows a disaster of this magnitude: loss of life, severe injuries, homelessness, lack of water, food and proper medical care, the physical destruction of towns and cities, and a growing fear of radioactive contamination from power plants that seem beyond anyone's ability to control.

But one heart-wrenching byproduct of disasters like this one has been missing in Japan, and that’s looting and lawlessness.

Looting is something we see after almost every tragedy; for example: last year's earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the floods in England in 2007, and of course Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. It happens when some people who've seen life as they know it get tossed out the window feel that all morality has been tossed out too. It's survival of the fittest and whatever you can get your hands on is yours, no matter who it belongs to.

But that's not happening in Japan.

Journalist and social commentator Ed West wrote in the UK Telegraph yesterday how struck he was by the Japanese culture throughout this ordeal. He observed how supermarkets cut their prices in the days following the quake and how vending machine owners were giving out free drinks as "people work together to survive." And West was most surprised by the fact that there was no looting.

Many have pointed to the popularity of Japan's distinctive Buddhist and Shinto religions as well as how the values of conformity and consensus are considered virtues in their culture. That's one explanation, but it probably has something to do with remaining true to your moral code even in the darkest hours.
farss wrote on 3/19/2011, 3:55 PM
I shot a couple of videos a few years back for a local insurance company that arranges cover for such liabilities. Nuclear power was not on any of their PPTs but large chemical plants and oil refineries certainly were. Worst case scenarios are a considerable factor in how these companies look at the world, one being "the big one" happening to the west coast of the USA taking out oil refineries and chemical plants.
The risk is sold and carried throughout the western world. It doesn't matter much where a disaster strikes, all of us are affected financially through pension funds, superannuation and government notes. Arguably a case of capitalise the profits and socialise the risks.

On a more topical note many of us are or are going to be directly affected by the events in Japan. Vicotor Milt posted something about this a few days ago. We are fast running out of tape stock and this is already causing some degree of panic in our industry. Both HDCAM and HDCAM SR stock is dwindling and Sony will take an unknown time to get it back into production. I don't know about the situation with DV / HDV tapes. Generally people hold larger stocks of these due to the lower cost. I also hear that production of flash memory has halted and Apple are having issues because of that.

rmack350 wrote on 3/20/2011, 2:24 AM
On the topic of looting...I was at work in San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. I really don't remember any looting after that quake and I kind of wonder if there's something about the experience of an earthquake that makes people pull together a bit more?

People were out in the streets directing traffic after the quake, and the chaos level was pretty low, although we were all kind of stunned.

Still, I've traveled a little in Japan and I've worked with a couple of Japanese production crews and I've noticed that people work well together. When there was something heavy to carry I'd get a cart and they'd get another person.


The Loma Prieta quake registered 6.9 and lasted for less than 15 seconds. The quake in Japan registered 9.0, lasted for about 5 MINUTES. And it was followed by a tsunami that primarily hammered a coastline equivalent in length to our coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's just hard to imagine the scale of this.

Rob Mack
craftech wrote on 3/20/2011, 8:07 AM
Neither Jack Cafferty at CNN nor most anyone else in corporate media will report what goes on in either the US Congress or State Legislatures that benefits corporations first and affects the public adversely.

Wall street has never been too enthused about nuclear energy speculation because of the monetary risks. That is probably going to change thanks to legislation that won't be reported by the vast majority of the cable and network news media.

Legislation at the state and federal level would systematically shift the burden of paying for both nuclear plant construction and the cost of a meltdown and speculative bets on the industry by Wall Street to the taxpayer.

State examples:



The Price-Anderson Act of 1957originally limited liability for any single nuclear accident to $500 million in government funds, plus the maximum liability insurance available back then( $60 million) or $560 million altogether.
The act was extended over and over again and the liability coverage was increased. The last increase was in the Energy Act of 2005. It extended the Price-Anderson Act for another 20 years. George W. Bush signed the longest extension Congress has ever granted.

The act requires operators of the plants -- through private insurance and a Nuclear Industry Trust Fund -- to be responsible for $10 billion (chump change)

For example:

In a study of the nuclear plant closest to me (Indian Point- 25 miles from NYC), Geoffrey Heal and Howard Kunreuther estimated that radiation from the accident would eventually kill 64,000 people. This would likely lead to claims of about $384 billion from surviving family members. The total economic cost would be between $50 billion and $100 billion.
The Price-Anderson Act would limit private liability to about $375 million for the utility owner and $12.6 billion from an industry wide liability pool. Taxpayers would be stuck with the remainder.

The Republicans in the US House will soon be introducing legislation to further guarantee a taxpayer bailout for the Nuclear Industries if they lose money in order to get Wall Street more interested in investing in Nuclear Energy. That will further place the burden on the taxpayer. This will be covered up as usual by US cable and network news.

With wall to wall coverage of the events in Japan, none of this was a subject for discussion in the Mainstream television media. A corporate media that works directly against the public interest and solely for corporate interest every day.


OdieInAz wrote on 3/20/2011, 7:02 PM
JC - excellent reporting! With just a bit of reading between the lines, the links reveal that nuclear energy is not profitable with all the costs internalized. As with any big construction project, the time value of money and financing cost must be accounted for.

Unless it's not. Here the utilitiy companies want special consideration and have their customers provide the fiancing through rate increases. Otherwise, the project is not economically viable, and one of the reasons that it is "cost-effective" is that costs are diverted elsewhere rather than internalized in the project.

Welcome to Socialism American Style! Private companies want the force of law to socialize their cost and risk, but privatize the resulting profits.

Serena wrote on 3/21/2011, 12:40 AM
A simple question has been niggling at me, but apparently not at anyone else, so obviously the answer is self evident. Please enlighten me! The function of the Japanese reactors was to generate electricity, so I would have thought these would have switching capabilities for connection/disconnection to the general power grid. Disconnected the station would be a stand-alone power unit. Why are they dependent on the grid to run their cooling systems? Even with the reactors shut down they were generating steam (too much!), so why wasn't this run through the turbines to generate power to run the cooling system? Perhaps the turbo generator units were damaged? An article on redundancy of backup systems has suggested that cooling pumps should be run on steam rather than electricity.
ChristoC wrote on 3/21/2011, 1:03 AM
That's an interesting point Serena; this article gives some additional insight:
it does seem that many electrical systems were destroyed by the huge influx of salt water - tsunami, and their other backup systems were also damaged.
One hopes the safety design criteria for such plants will be improved with such hindsight; the limiting factors will ultimately be economic, as it will be uneconomic to build completely safe plants that can cope with all forseen or unforeseen disasters. That is the real catch-22 of nuclear power generation.
Jeff9329 wrote on 3/21/2011, 1:54 AM
A simple question has been niggling at me, but apparently not at anyone else, so obviously the answer is self evident. Please enlighten me! The function of the Japanese reactors was to generate electricity, so I would have thought these would have switching capabilities for connection/disconnection to the general power grid.

Of course all power plants have disconnects at multiple medium and high voltage connection points for isolation from the power grid.

Disconnected the station would be a stand-alone power unit. Why are they dependent on the grid to run their cooling systems?

When an entire generation facility is off grid, it is essentially out of service. The generators must syncronize with the grids waveform before being brought online and the generation facility then operates in sync. Similarly, with a total power failure, the backup generators will sync to any existing power and/or isolate themselves from the grid through their switchgear. Obviously, nuclear plants need to look at their backup power more carefully and with more redundancy (assuming it's only a lack of power that is the issue, not ruined infrastructure and switchgear).

Even with the reactors shut down they were generating steam (too much!), so why wasn't this run through the turbines to generate power to run the cooling system?

Its just not that easy.

My day job is in power generation. We are currently designing and building photovoltaic (PV) power plants. Even a grid connected PV plant shuts down in the event of a power failure. The power grid really is a grid. Work is constantly being done to improve it, mainly through smart metering.
Serena wrote on 3/21/2011, 3:40 AM
In general I understand those matters. But when you don't wish to synchronise with the grid? What are the problems then?
farss wrote on 3/21/2011, 5:32 AM
You've still got to keep the tubine spinning at roughly the correct speed otherwise the frequency changes. I don't really have an exact answer to your original question and I agree, there's some irony to the whole situation.

There's a set of control loops involved in power generation. It's quite complex in coal fired, simpler in hydro and nuclear. The bigger the unit the slower the response time which is why nuclear is generally used for base load. I suspect there'd be some issues running these units at light load. Also once the control rods are in residual energy in the core is only 5% and you have no control over it.

I guess it would be possible to have a smaller turbine / generator just to power the station during shutdown but you still need the diesels to provide power once the core is cold to cool the storage ponds etc and to start the unit up again.

Serena wrote on 3/21/2011, 7:08 AM
Interesting. In this case getting the cores cool enough to cease generatating steam appears to be the problem. In general, electric motors aren't much troubled by actual frequency of the power -they'll run. So if the turbines will turn over the generators then their output will power a drive system (doesn't matter if only a small fraction of the available capacity is being used). But it's a long time since I attended lectures on power generation systems! I guess it could be that the voltage required by the cooling system is different to that output by the generators, and that was that.
Guy Bruner wrote on 3/21/2011, 8:00 AM
Generally, the pumps in the safety systems are designed to cool a shutdown reactor. They operate at voltages around 4KV. So, the diesels are designed to output 4KV. Lower voltages are created for instrumentation and smaller pumps through step-down transformers. The pumps used to circulate water through the condenser to quench the steam exhausted from the main turbine can be designed to operate at voltages higher than 4KV to minimize their size. They are not considered to be essential for safety so they have no power supply from the diesels. If the diesels were sized to accomodate operating the circulating water pumps, they would be massive or you would need many of them to handle the startup current these big pumps draw until they get up to speed. The only way to get enough power to allow a unit to start up is to have it connected to the grid. Also, a generator is very unstable if it is not synced to a the grid which serves to provide it a load that allows for better turbine control. So, trying to operate a main generator handling only light station loads without the compensation of the grid would be very, very difficult to do. Since the operation of the main generator affects the operation of the reactor, instability of the turbine would also make the reactor control unstable...which is extremely undesirable.
johnmeyer wrote on 3/21/2011, 12:24 PM
Really interesting information. Like Serena, I too have had a question nagging me:

Why did they "scram" the reactors in the first place? I am sure that it is standard operating procedure in the event of a major earthquake, but didn't this shutdown actually cause the problem. Put another way, while I understand that water got into areas around the reactor, if the reactor was still intact, wouldn't it be better to have done a much more controlled shutdown, one that would have allowed reactor power, whether on or off grid, to continue to provide cooling while the control rods were slowly withdrawn, and the nuclear reactions gradually slowed down? From the sketchy reports, it seems like all the problems happened because there was no power to run the cooling pumps. If cooling had continued, all other problems seem like they would have been manageable.

So, should the operating procedures in the event of earthquake be reviewed and possibly changed?
Guy Bruner wrote on 3/21/2011, 12:37 PM
The safest condition a reactor can be in is when the rods are fully inserted to stop the fission process and the safety systems are operating. Trying to control a reactor on an unstable grid or without a grid is a fools mission that can damage safety equipment due to wide oscillations in the frequency of the electric busses when connected only to the turbine without the stability of a grid. I doubt seriously that the regulators will contemplate a procedure change that creates such a situation. However, there is no doubt that emergency procedures and beyond design basis events will be evaluated and improved where possible. At the very least, the likelihood of an earthquake coincident with a tsunami will have to be seriously evaluated in the design basis of each plant, especially those on a large body of water.
craftech wrote on 3/21/2011, 12:56 PM
Six Reactor Units:

Units 1,2 and 3 went into auto shutdown following the earthquake.
Core and fuel damaged in all three.

Units 4,5, and 6 were manually shut down due to the power outage immediately following the earthquake.
Unit 4 - no fuel rods
Units 5 and 6 - Cold shutdown. No damage expected.

Unit 1 was connected to offsite power substation
Unit 2 was connected to internal power station
No external power station for 4,5 , and 6

Diesel Generator backup for 5 and 6.

Guy Bruner wrote on 3/21/2011, 1:32 PM
At the time of the earthquake, Daiichi units 1, 2, and 3 were operating at full power and shutdown automatically. Units 4, 5, and 6 had been shutdown for about 100 days for inspection so they had substantially cooler fuel.