Even as the struggle to maintain integrity at damaged Japanese nuclear power plants continued on Monday, at least two industry experts from Idaho said they don’t believe the events of the past few days will stop the so-called “nuclear renaissance.”
In fact, one look at the region’s current topography clearly shows just what kind of calamity these facilities are capable of withstanding.
“It will slow it down. We will have to take a breather,” said Akira Tokuhiro, a professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho in Moscow. “We have a responsibility to take that time to evaluate just how they malfunctioned.”
At Idaho State University, George Imel, a nuclear engineering professor and dean of the College of Science and Engineering, agrees that biggest effect might be some slowing in the forward momentum building new nuclear facilities has garnered in recent years.
But he also said the Japanese facilities withstood those natural disasters and are, in fact, dealing with problems stemming from the after effects of the events.
“Considering the damage the tsunami did, and the earthquake did to the surrounding areas, the damage and problems at the nuclear plants are pretty small,” Imel said. “The bottom line is, with the damage they had, I think the containment structures are doing their job.”
Imel points out that the earthquake and tsunami don’t appear to have caused much damage to the working parts of the nuclear reactors at the three facilities, but rather, they caused catastrophic damage to some of the systems and elements the facilities are dependent upon.
“Clearly they had massive failure of auxiliary systems,” Imel said. “That was due to the tsunami. It was a perfect storm, literally. They lost clean cooling water, they lost pumps, they lost diesel generators.”
But even given all of that, Imel says the problems are still manageable.
Words Tokuhiro repeatedly utters.
“Those are all manageable issues,” Tokuhiro said.
When nuclear plants are built, he explains, two scenarios are taken into consideration — the design basis accident and the beyond design basis accident.
Also having a background in race car design, Tokuhiro uses cars as an analogy, saying that preparing for a design basis accident would be similar to car designers building an automobile to withstand a head-on collision with another similar vehicle.
A beyond design basis accident, however, would have designers worried about building a car to withstand a head-on collision with a semi-truck.
“What you have in Japan is reactors that withstood a 9.0 earthquake and then a tsunami,” Tokuhiro said. “It’s still a functional system, but it’s having problems that are manageable. From an engineer’s perspective, it’s working well.
“If you take a look at pictures of what survived the earthquake and tsunami, I saw energy plants survived and a hospital.”
What will ultimately be taken from this event, both professors agree, is a better understanding of how effectively designers of the facilities planned for a worst-case scenario, and what better planning might be made in the future.
Once all is back under control at the respective plants, the individual scenarios will be poured over by nuclear engineers in an effort to better understand the events and bring to light any possible changes that can be made.
But Tokuhiro isn’t certain just how much of the potential changes side of the equation will eventually come into play.
“You have to ask yourself, is this double whammy a once in a thousand years event?” he said. “You have to ?”
Tokuhiro says no.
“We also have to look at cost issues. When you add additional requirements, you add costs,” he said. “That’s one of the problems with this ‘nuclear renaissance,’ nuclear plants were only costing $3 billion to $4 billion per plant when it started, but now they are costing $9 billion to $10 billion.”
Imel does think there is a good chance some industry changes will come from these events, though. Historically, he said that’s the way it’s always been.
“I think every time we have an incident like this, it does lead to significant improvements,” he said.
As an example, Imel cited the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. During the accident, large amounts of coolant were allowed to escape the facility due to a mechanical failure and human error.
“Since then, there is a lot more passive safety as opposed to active safety systems,” Imel said.