Machinery Safety 101

Fukushima Dai Ichi – Live

Web Cam Still from Fukushima Nuclear Power PlantIn a recent post on his For­bes blog, Edis­on 2.0, Osha Gray Dav­id­son con­nects read­ers to a live web­cam installed by TEPCO at the Fukushi­ma Dai Ichi nuc­le­ar plant. That web­cam has since been replaced by two cam­er­as, one look­ing at the site from the Unit 1 side and the oth­er from the Unit 4 side [Ed. Note: added the links 16-Jul-17]. The ongo­ing crisis at the plant has made a fas­cin­at­ing, slow-motion hor­ror story for the world to watch. The addi­tion of the live web cam, along with news reports deal­ing with the con­tinu­ing attempts to bring the four stricken react­ors under con­trol, make a great study in emer­gency plan­ning and crisis control.

New inform­a­tion being released by TEPCO shows that the react­or cores melted down earli­er than ori­gin­ally believed, and in at least one case, the con­cern is now focused on the pen­et­ra­tion of the extern­al shield build­ing by the mol­ten core. If the core has actu­ally “left the build­ing” as some experts believe, the poten­tial for envir­on­ment­al con­tam­in­a­tion on an enorm­ous scale exists.

In the mean time, TEPCO work­ers and con­tract­ors con­tin­ue to try to clean up the site, remov­ing piles of debris left from the explo­sions back in March. IEEE Spec­trum reports that a tele­op­er­ated (remote-con­trolled) excav­at­or acci­dent­ally blew up an oxy­gen cyl­in­der that was hid­den in a pile of debris. TEPCO claims that no dam­age was done and that the machine is still in operation.

The res­ult of this nuc­le­ar acci­dent is a glob­al turn-around in what was a resur­gence in interest in nuc­le­ar power. Reports indic­ate that Ger­many will be tak­ing all their nuc­le­ar power plants off­line and decom­mis­sioned by 2023. An uncon­firmed report says that Japan is plan­ning to decom­mis­sion all 54 nuc­le­ar plants on the islands in the near future. A report on the Ahram Online blog indic­ates that the Swiss are also respond­ing to pub­lic pres­sure to decom­mis­sion that coun­try’s react­ors, with the first going off­line in 2019 and the last by 2054. As usu­al, the prag­mat­ic Swiss approach is to allow the react­ors to live out their design life­times and decom­mis­sion rather than refur­bish them at that time.

The Japan­ese nuc­le­ar industry, once con­sidered a mod­el of safety by the inter­na­tion­al nuc­le­ar com­munity, has had its dirty laun­dry exposed. In March, just six days after the earth­quakes and tsuna­mis, Yuri Kageyama wrote an exposé of the industry’s scan­dals on MSN­BC’s World Busi­ness blog. His art­icle cited a cul­ture of secrecy in the industry that pre­vents improve­ments and encour­ages cov­er-ups and corner-cutting.

The oppor­tun­it­ies that Fukushi­ma is giv­ing us are man­i­fold. First, the nuc­le­ar industry gets an oppor­tun­ity to learn from the cata­strophe at the plant, and to see some of the ways that the ori­gin­al boil­ing water react­ors can fail. This may res­ult in design improve­ments to sim­il­ar plants that remain oper­a­tion­al in oth­er coun­tries, help­ing to reduce the like­li­hood of this kind of dis­aster re-occur­ring in the future. Second, it allows emer­gency response spe­cial­ists to learn from the suc­cesses and fail­ures that occurred at the plant, improv­ing the emer­gency response plans at oth­er nuc­le­ar and non-nuc­le­ar facil­it­ies where a dis­aster could have broad envir­on­ment­al and eco­nom­ic impacts. Third, it has giv­en gov­ern­ments, reg­u­lat­ors and the Inter­na­tion­al bod­ies a wake-up call about the nuc­le­ar industry. This is a tech­no­logy that can be safe and effi­cient if man­aged prop­erly, but when corners are cut and prob­lems are covered up, the caged nuc­le­ar dragons can escape and wreak havoc.

Our world is enter­ing an amaz­ing, scary, exhil­ar­at­ing, time of change. Nuc­le­ar power, once seen as the Golden Fleece that would light the world for hun­dreds of years, has shown its dark side again. Altern­ate forms of energy gen­er­a­tion are start­ing to come online, with wind farms and sol­ar farms spring­ing up around the world. Even these more benign forms of gen­er­a­tion have their down­sides, and there isn’t enough installed base to sup­port our energy needs – yet.

So, while we watch the grainy video stream­ing from Fukushi­ma, we need to con­sider our way for­ward and learn the les­sons paid for by the people of Japan.

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