While Chuck DeVore is no longer an elected official and his exploratory committee for the Third District’s supervisor’s seat demonstrates his eagerness to return to public sector life, he was the state’s biggest advocate for more nuclear energy throughout his six year assembly term and ill-fated run for the US Senate.Â A quick scan of Chuck DeVore’s website and blog have links to stories about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but no fresh link to the growing nuclear crisis there with four plants in serious risk. Here’s an update.
I found this YouTube video of Chuck addressing an audience on the benefits of Nuclear power for California.Â I certainly don’t want to be accused of taking his words out of context.
Could an 8.9 earthquake happen in California?Â Yes it could.Â California has an abundance of wind and sunshine. That, coupled with improving battery technology, while more expensive than nuclear power, wouldn’t have the devastating side affects of lethal waste byproducts.
In looking for more details on the nuclear plants in Japan, I came across this thoughtful post about the design of the affected plants that’s worth reading.
I will try to summarize the main facts. The earthquake that hit Japan was 7 times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for (the Richter scale works logarithmically; the difference between the 8.2 that the plants were built for and the 8.9 that happened is 7 times, not 0.7). So the first hooray for Japanese engineering, everything held up.
When the earthquake hit with 8.9, the nuclear reactors all went into automatic shutdown. Within seconds after the earthquake started, the moderator rods had been inserted into the core and nuclear chain reaction of the uranium stopped. Now, the cooling system has to carry away the residual heat. The residual heat load is about 3% of the heat load under normal operating conditions.
The earthquake destroyed the external power supply of the nuclear reactor. That is one of the most serious accidents for a nuclear power plant, and accordingly, a â€œplant black outâ€ receives a lot of attention when designing backup systems. The power is needed to keep the coolant pumps working. Since the power plant had been shut down, it cannot produce any electricity by itself any more.
Things were going well for an hour. One set of multiple sets of emergency Diesel power generators kicked in and provided the electricity that was needed. Then the Tsunami came, much bigger than people had expected when building the power plant (see above, factor 7). The tsunami took out all multiple sets of backup Diesel generators.
When designing a nuclear power plant, engineers follow a philosophy called â€œDefense of Depthâ€. That means that you first build everything to withstand the worst catastrophe you can imagine, and then design the plant in such a way that it can still handle one system failure (that you thought could never happen) after the other. A tsunami taking out all backup power in one swift strike is such a scenario. The last line of defense is putting everything into the third containment (see above), that will keep everything, whatever the mess, moderator rods in our out, core molten or not, inside the reactor.
When the diesel generators were gone, the reactor operators switched to emergency battery power. The batteries were designed as one of the backups to the backups, to provide power for cooling the core for 8 hours. And they did.
Within the 8 hours, another power source had to be found and connected to the power plant. The power grid was down due to the earthquake. The diesel generators were destroyed by the tsunami. So mobile diesel generators were trucked in.
This is where things started to go seriously wrong. The external power generators could not be connected to the power plant (the plugs did not fit). So after the batteries ran out, the residual heat could not be carried away any more.
At this point the plant operators begin to follow emergency procedures that are in place for a â€œloss of cooling eventâ€. It is again a step along the â€œDepth of Defenseâ€ lines. The power to the cooling systems should never have failed completely, but it did, so they â€œretreatâ€ to the next line of defense. All of this, however shocking it seems to us, is part of the day-to-day training you go through as an operator, right through to managing a core meltdown.
It was at this stage that people started to talk about core meltdown. Because at the end of the day, if cooling cannot be restored, the core will eventually melt (after hours or days), and the last line of defense, the core catcher and third containment, would come into play.
But the goal at this stage was to manage the core while it was heating up, and ensure that the first containment (the Zircaloy tubes that contains the nuclear fuel), as well as the second containment (our pressure cooker) remain intact and operational for as long as possible, to give the engineers time to fix the cooling systems.
Because cooling the core is such a big deal, the reactor has a number of cooling systems, each in multiple versions (the reactor water cleanup system, the decay heat removal, the reactor core isolating cooling, the standby liquid cooling system, and the emergency core cooling system). Which one failed when or did not fail is not clear at this point in time.
So imagine our pressure cooker on the stove, heat on low, but on. The operators use whatever cooling system capacity they have to get rid of as much heat as possible, but the pressure starts building up. The priority now is to maintain integrity of the first containment (keep temperature of the fuel rods below 2200Â°C), as well as the second containment, the pressure cooker. In order to maintain integrity of the pressure cooker (the second containment), the pressure has to be released from time to time. Because the ability to do that in an emergency is so important, the reactor has 11 pressure release valves. The operators now started venting steam from time to time to control the pressure. The temperature at this stage was about 550Â°C.
We’re eagerly awaiting positive news out of Japan.Â And that doesn’t mean the announcement of a new Godzilla movie.