Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Fukushima Reveals Nuclear Industry's Real Vulnerability to Terrorist Bombs
Over the past half century, seismic history knowledge has steadily improved and serious risks have been identified. What this means is that the giant tsunami experienced at Fukushima and the Honshu coast was not a surprise and had occurred roughly every thousand years. As reported below, the chance of such an event was easily at five percent and realistically far higher since the last such quake was in the distant past. In fact a better figure since centuries had passed, would have been between 25% to 60%.
I do not fault builders for not knowing the risks when the plants were built. Yet even they had options available to ameliorate tsunami risk which was never zero. By the way, that risk is not zero on any coast line even when it is at least extremely unlikely. This never described the coast of
What is galling, simply placing all reactors on the East coast of
have nicely cut the risks hugely except for some local exceptions easily
identified. That could have been done
from the very beginning.
The real problem is that the problem was identified and then ignored. I have already posted that the emergency back up power could easily have been situated in a far safer locale out of harms way or placed in a strong steel beam building on higher floors. It was that cheap and simple to back up against a possible inundation.
The lesson is that the plants could have survived had back up power been available to tap quickly. Instead they could only watch a melt down.
I think all nuclear power plants need to be carefully reviewed in terms of the practical preservation of support in the event of a natural disaster however unlikely it may be simply because plenty of the solutions are cheap and easy and that particularly applies to the backup power system. It should be painfully obvious that a well placed bomb that took out the back up and grid access could have created just as much damage.
Not all disasters are natural.
Vindicated Seismologist Says
Still Underestimates Threat
to Reactors Japan
By Jason Clenfield - Nov 21, 2011 7:01 AM PT
Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga nuclear power station in Tsuruga city, Fukui prefecture,
Reactor 1 at the Tsuruga plant, which had its license extended for 10 years in
2009, is one of 13 on Wakasa bay, a stretch of Japan Sea of
Japan coast that is home to the world’s heaviest concentration of
nuclear reactors. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Robert Geller, a professor at Tokyo University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, talks about Japan's preparedness for the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left about 19,000 people dead or missing and caused the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. Geller speaks with Susan Li on Bloomberg Television's "First Up." (Source: Bloomberg)
Dismissed as a “nobody” by Japan’s nuclear industry, seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi spent two decades watching his predictions of disaster come true: First in the 1995 Kobe earthquake and then at Fukushima. He says the government still doesn’t get it.
The 67-year-old scientist recalled in an interview how his boss marched him to the Construction Ministry to apologize for writing a 1994 book suggesting
building codes put its cities at risk. Five months later, thousands were killed
when a quake devastated Japan city. The book, “A Seismologist Warns,”
became a bestseller. Kobe
That didn’t stop Haruki Madarame, now head of
Safety Commission, from dismissing Ishibashi as an amateur when he warned
of a “nuclear earthquake disaster,” a phrase the
professor coined in 1997. Ishibashi says Kobe University still underestimates the risk
of operating reactors in a country that has about 10 percent of the world’s
“What was missing -- and is still missing -- is a recognition of the danger,” Ishibashi said, seated in a dining room stacked with books in his house in a
suburb. “I understand we’re not going to shut all of the nuclear plants, but we
should rank them by risk and phase out the worst.” Kobe
most vulnerable reactors are some of its oldest, built without the insights of
modern earthquake science, Ishibashi said. It was only in the last four years
that Japan Atomic Power Co. recognized an active fault line running under its
reactor in Tsuruga, which opened in 1970 about 120 kilometers (75 miles)
northeast ofOsaka and
close to a lake that supplies water to millions of people in the region. Japan
Japan Atomic is reinforcing the plant to improve quake tolerance and believes it’s safe despite the discovery of new active faults lines in 2008, Masao Urakami, a Tokyo-based spokesman for the utility, said.
“We can’t respond to every claim by every scientist,” he said. “Standards for seismic ground motion are not decided arbitrarily, but are based on findings by experts assigned by the government.”
Reactor 1 at the Tsuruga plant, which had its license extended for 10 years in 2009, is one of 13 on Wakasa bay, a stretch of Sea of Japancoast that is home to the world’s heaviest concentration of nuclear reactors. The area is riddled with fault lines found in the last three or four years, according to Ishibashi.
In the first annual review of energy policy since the
disaster, the government on Oct. 28 approved a white paper calling for reduced
reliance on nuclear power. The report also omitted a section on nuclear power
expansion that was in last year’s review. Fukushima
The government “regrets its past energy policy and will review it with no sacred cows,” the report said.
The white paper needs to be followed with action, Ishibashi said. “Changing the energy policy is a good thing, but I really do wonder if there will be follow-through,” he said.
Opinion polls show the
disaster has turned the majority of Japanese against nuclear power. Companies,
meantime, are worried about higher costs and unstable electricity supply. The
country has no oil reserves and 30 percent of Fukushima ’s electricity supply came
from atomic energy before March 11. Japan
Threat to Move
Komatsu Ltd. (6301), the world’s No. 2 maker of construction machinery, has said it will move overseas if stable electricity supply isn’t guaranteed. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said on Sept. 2 that some reactors shut down after the March disaster will have to restart to keep the economy going.
“These plants are a calculated risk,” says Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center in Los Angeles. “
has been reasonably thoughtful but they obviously have problems with
earthquakes and they have underestimated the risks. Still you have to ask the
question: what is the risk of depending on other sources of power?” Japan
Flipping through binders of press clippings in a black T- shirt and grey slacks, Ishibashi said he still remembers his fear of quakes when he was a boy. He slept with a flashlight next to his pillow in case he had to escape in the night.
While in college, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake off
Japan’s coast killed dozens in the city ofNiigata and sent shock waves through Ishibashi’s
apartment in Tokyo.
“There was a radio broadcast that night saying
didn’t have enough earthquake
experts,” he said, adjusting his steel-rimmed glasses. “I decided I’d do that.” Japan
It was 1964. Modern seismology was getting started and
halfway through building its first nuclear reactor. By the time Ishibashi got
his doctorate in seismology from the University of Tokyo 12
years later, there were 24 reactors running or under construction, including
six at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Japan
Dai-Ichi power station. Fukushima
Seismologists at the time still focused on written records, rather than geological history, for clues about where and when quakes struck. And it wasn’t until 1977 that mainstream scientists had the tools to measure the size of quakes like the magnitude-9 that triggered the
The Richter scale used before then went only to 8.5, or about 6 times less energy than the March 11 quake.
“So all of a sudden everyone knew that, hey, there are magnitude-9 earthquakes in the world,” said Robert Geller, a professor of geophysics at the
. “They didn’t know that when they
built the nuclear power
plants at University of Tokyo
or other plants from that era. But when that became known they should have done
some rethinking.” Fukushima
Minutes of a June 2009 trade ministry meeting on safety at the
Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant show Electric and the regulator ignored
scientific findings that emerged after the power station was built. Tokyo
“We didn’t think the damage would be that significant,” said Isao Nishimura, a manager at the utility’s nuclear earthquake resistance technology center, when asked at the meeting why its safety review omitted studies showing the area had a history of major earthquakes and tsunami.
Debate was cut short by an official from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by Bloomberg News. The regulator approved
Dai-Ichi’s safety report a month later, despite studies by Tohoku University
geologist Koji Minoura in the 1990s that showed giant tsunami had hit ’s
northeast coast three times in the last 3,000 years. Japan
“That’s about one every 1,000 years on average,” said Geller. “If you’ve got a plant that runs 50 years, you have a 5 percent chance. You’re talking about Russian roulette.”
Disregard for the science extended to a government panel started in 2001 to revise seismic engineering standards for
’s nuclear plants, said
Ishibashi. He quit the panel after five years of debate that he called rigged
and unscientific. Japan
The revised seismic standards didn’t reflect evidence that earthquakes could occur in areas where there were no signs of active faults. The omission allowed the utilities to carry on without undertaking expensive retrofits, Ishibashi says.
“The point I was trying to make was that if you’re going to have nuclear plants here in Japan, they should be built to withstand the most severe shaking that’s been observed,” he said, recalling the date he resigned from the panel in exasperation on Aug. 28, 2006. “They tried to chip away at that as much as they could,” he said.
Worst Case Scenario
Masanori Hamada, a Waseda University engineering professor who also served on the panel, said there were reasons for not adopting Ishibashi’s views.
“I understood what Ishibashi was saying, but if we engineered factoring in every possible worst case scenario, nothing would get built,” Hamada said. “What engineers look for is consensus from the seismologists and we don’t get that.”
Fukushima disaster is forcing a rethink
nuclear industry. A task
force for theNuclear
Regulatory Commission on the disaster recommended in
July that U.S.
utilities re-evaluate earthquake hazards every 10 years. U.S.
“At this point there is no requirement to re-review basic seismic design information,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said by e-mail.
Nuclear Safety Commission instructed its experts to review guidelines for
earthquake and tsunami defenses at nuclear plants. Japan
License to Operate
There are no plans to introduce regular seismic reviews as the
said a commission official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and
declined to be identified. U.S.
“The nuclear industry has tended to give you a license and then once you have that license you are deemed safe,” said Norm Abrahamson, a seismologist at the University of California at Berkeley and an adviser at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the state’s biggest utility.
“Nuclear plants are such huge investments that operators need some assurance of getting their money back,” Abrahamson said. “They’re looking for what they would call regulatory stability, but regulatory stability and scientific change don’t go hand in hand.”
Ishibashi says he didn’t start out as a critic of
’s nuclear industry. In 1976,
when the then 31-year-old researcher at Japan Tokyo
University made his first important
discovery -- that a fault line west of Tokyo was
much bigger than assumed -- the risk to Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka
nuclear plant in
prefecture didn’t occur to him. The plant had opened that year above the fault. Shizuoka
His view changed after a magnitude-6.9 quake killed more than 5,500 people on Jan. 17, 1995, and toppled sections of elevated expressway.
After a disaster that Japanese engineers had said couldn’t happen, the nuclear regulator didn’t immediately re-evaluate its construction standards. It said the plants were “safe from the ground up,” as the title of a 1995 Science Ministry pamphlet put it. Ishibashi decided to investigate.
The result was an article on Hamaoka published in the October 1997 issue of Japan’s Science Journal that reads like a post-mortem of the Fukushima disaster: A major quake could knock out external power to the plant’s reactors and unleash a tsunami that could overrun its 6-meter defenses, swamping backup diesel generators and leading to loss of cooling and meltdowns.
When the local prefecture questioned industry experts about Ishibashi’s paper, the response was that he didn’t need to be taken seriously.
Ishibashi a ‘Nobody’
“In the field of nuclear engineering, Mr. Ishibashi is a nobody,” Madarame said in a 1997 letter to the
Legislature. Madarame, then a professor at the University of Tokyo school of
engineering, is now in charge of nuclear safety in the country. Shizuoka
Requests made to Madarame’s office in October for an interview on his current views of Ishibashi’s work were declined.
On Oct. 24, Madarame was asked after a regular press briefing for the commission if he’d changed his opinion about Ishibashi.
“Because of the accident there’s a need to take another look at things, including the earthquake engineering guidelines, and we’re doing that,” he said. “Ishibashi contributed a lot to the revisions to the earthquake guidelines and his comments there are important.” He declined to comment further.
Hamaoka’s reactors, the subject of Ishibashi’s 1997 report, were shut in May after then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan went on television to publicly plead with Chubu Electric to close the plant. The utility estimates it will cost 100 billion yen and 18 months to build a seawall around the reactors.
Now Professor Emeritus at
said he hasn’t much time for hiking or other hobbies as his schedule is packed
with speaking engagements. Kobe
The message he gives to business leaders and politicians is the focus on tsunami risk after
has deflected attention from the fundamental issue: The danger of having more
than 50 nuclear reactors in one of the world’s most earthquake- prone
At a private meeting with the Kobe Chamber of Commerce at a Chinese restaurant on July 31, Ishibashi planned to talk through a slide presentation on the risk associated with the 13 nuclear reactors on
up the coast, nine of which are more than 30 years old. Wakasa Bay
The reactors, which keep factories running for companies including Panasonic Corp. (6752)and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. (7012) as well as powering the cities of
Osaka, Kyoto and , are in an area that
has had at least five magnitude-7 and magnitude-8 quakes over the last 500
Ishibashi said he got through only a few of his 36 Power Point slides before his time was up and dinner started. He was seated at a round table next to the chairman of one of
biggest companies, who Ishibashi asked not be identified because the meeting
was private. Japan
“‘I know you want the reactors shut,’” he said the chairman told him. “‘But it can’t happen. We need the electricity.’”