back to article Britain's on the brink of a small-scale nuclear reactor revolution

For the first time ever in April, the UK's data centres and clouds ran on electricity generated without burning coal. The National Grid celebrated the news on Twitter with the promise of more coal-free days to come. As coal-fired power plants wind down and with talk of blackouts in the air, nuclear is back on the table after …

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Re: Underground

"Until it doesn't of course. Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?"

All things considered, such as age and failure modes, yes it did fail almost perfectly safely. No deaths, no strange glows at night and no two headed sharks.

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Re: Underground

On the ring of fire, you take your chances. In Norfolk, I think you might be a bit safer...

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

Putting nuclear stations underground doesn't solve any issue that can't be fixed with good design. Only difference would be they're harder to get to if there really was a bad accident.

Nuclear power doesn't have many issues, it's disposal that needs sorting out. This shouldn't be a thing until that is dealt with. I've long been a proponent of deep borehole disposal but it's not ready for commercial use yet and we shouldn't be rushing ahead with new power stations beyond what it will take to prevent blackouts without it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: nuclear reactors in the UK have their own no-fly zone

"All nuclear reactors in the UK have their own no-fly zone"

Most of the UK is a no-bombing zone too, on paper.

How well's that been working ijn the last few decades?

See, there's a difference between what's permissible and what actually happens.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

No it wasn't, and any sensible regulatory authority would have shut down Fukushima temporarily or permanently before the incident happened, due to e.g. well understood and demonstrably inadequate defences against sea water ingress in the event of a realistic tsunami.

See e,g,

http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/03/06/why-fukushima-was-preventable-pub-47361

"[...]

Had the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and Japan’s regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), followed international best practices and standards, it is conceivable that they would have predicted the possibility of the plant being struck by a massive tsunami. The plant would have withstood the tsunami had its design previously been upgraded in accordance with state-of-the-art safety approaches.

The methods used by TEPCO and NISA to assess the risk from tsunamis lagged behind international standards in at least three important respects:

* Insufficient attention was paid to evidence of large tsunamis inundating the region surrounding the plant about once every thousand years.

* Computer modeling of the tsunami threat was inadequate. Most importantly, preliminary simulations conducted in 2008 that suggested the tsunami risk to the plant had been seriously underestimated were not followed up and were only reported to NISA on March 7, 2011.

* NISA failed to review simulations conducted by TEPCO and to foster the development of appropriate computer modeling tools.

At the time of the accident, critical safety systems in nuclear power plants in some countries, especially in European states, were—as a matter of course—much better protected than in Japan. Following a flooding incident at Blayais Nuclear Power Plant in France in 1999, European countries significantly enhanced their plants’ defenses against extreme external events. Japanese operators were aware of this experience, and TEPCO could and should have upgraded Fukushima Daiichi.

Steps that could have prevented a major accident in the event that the plant was inundated by a massive tsunami, such as the one that struck the plant in March 2011, include:

* Protecting emergency power supplies, including diesel generators and batteries, by moving them to higher ground or by placing them in watertight bunkers;

* Establishing watertight connections between emergency power supplies and key safety systems; and

* Enhancing the protection of seawater pumps (which were used to transfer heat from the plant to the ocean and to cool diesel generators) and/or constructing a backup means to dissipate heat.

Though there is no single reason for TEPCO and NISA’s failure to follow international best practices and standards, a number of potential underlying causes can be identified. NISA lacked independence from both the government agencies responsible for promoting nuclear power and also from industry. In the Japanese nuclear industry, there has been a focus on seismic safety to the exclusion of other possible risks. Bureaucratic and professional stovepiping made nuclear officials unwilling to take advice from experts outside of the field. Those nuclear professionals also may have failed to effectively utilize local knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, many believed that a severe accident was simply impossible.

[continues]"

It's not rocket science, but until the nuclear industry in general gets rid of its long standing head in the sand problem, there will understandably be people against it - even well-informed people.

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Re: Underground

"Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?"

In the wake of Fukushima the Swiss have voted to phase out their nuclear energy. That should protect them against tsunamis.

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Re: Underground

Like the ones on Lake Geneva?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Underground

"Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design"

And how many people died?

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

Afternoon, pedant alert here. District heating in pimlico was provided by Battersea Power Station, rather than Bankside. The scheme actually still exists (PDHU), but doesn't use waste heat from the power station, for fairly obvious reasons. They did think about district heating from Bankside, but not until the late 60's early 70's. For extra pedant points, Bankside would have been oil fired by then rather than the coal that you said. The oil crisis did for the scheme, and ultimately Bankside itself. District heating is, by the way, a fantastic idea.

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Re: Underground

"No deaths, no strange glows at night and no two headed sharks."

LOL almost perfectly safely?! It was one of only two International Nuclear Events Scale level 7 events ever recorded! The other being Chernobyl.

So you must have missed the 34 that died during the evacuation, and the hundreds that will eventually die from radiation exposure? http://www2.ans.org/misc/FukushimaSpecialSession-Caracappa.pdf

Not to mention the massive leaks of radioactive material into the groundwater, sea and air!

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Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

"would have shut down Fukushima temporarily or permanently before the incident happened,"

They did shut it down. It then takes several days to cool down. During which time the pumps failed...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

"No it wasn't"

Actually yes it was. It should have cooled itself through convection even without the pumps. However due to operator error, the valves to allow this were closed.

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Meh

"It's only a matter of time before an accident occurs involving an errant aircraft."

Actual fact.

In 8 decades of reactor operations no one has.

That said the one thing that the world does not seem to be running out of a supply of is misguided loons and fanatics so probably the way to go.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No fly zone

Tell me again how well that worked out for the twin towers & the Pentagon?

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Re: Underground

Fukushima wasn't fail safe in the sense of more modern reactor designs. As I understand it, the problem with a lot of older reactor designs is that they require power for cooling, If you lose power, which is what happened at Fukushima, you lose cooling, and then you have a problem. Fail safe designs have passive safety features that do not require power to operate. You lose power, and the reactor shuts down. That's what is meant by a failsafe design.

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

A full-size passenger aircraft from 50 years ago - not the same thing.

First flight of the 747 was 1969 - 48 years ago.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "It's only a matter of time before an accident occurs involving an errant aircraft."

"In 8 decades of reactor operations not one has occured."

Careful please.

Isn't this the "no incidents in X decades" attitude which is allowing some (maybe many, maybe most) of the PHBs in the safety-critical players in the aircraft industry to say "how many accidents has the industry had? why do we need all these safety margins, all this resilience, all this FMEA, all this weird software (Ada!), all this testing? No other electroncs/computer designer bothers with it."

The same complacent attitude to an improving safety record in the UK rail industry which in due course led to a string of incidents and accidents (and more) in the rail industry?

Some of those aircraft industry players also have connections in the SMR business. Historically some of them have avoided software-controlled submarine reactors, for entirely understandable reasons. Is that likely to continue when it's a commercial civil (not taxpayer-funded military) product?

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Lake Geneva tsunami

Only 50 feet high, that's nothing. The one in Lituya Bay in 1958 destroyed vegetation 1700 feet above the normal water level (and someone was in a boat on the water and lived to tell about it!) I don't think you can assume anything stays dry near a lake, especially one with the particular geography of Lituya Bay.

The problem with Fukushima wasn't that they didn't have the generators high enough, it was that they didn't enclose them so they could be underwater for the duration of a tsunami event and keep running. An underwater slide in the wrong place could create a tsunami larger than in Japan's recorded history, and putting them at a "safe height" above the highest tsunami in recorded history just means they are vulnerable to a record tsunami.

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Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

The Tsunami triggered the disaster; however, it was the basic design of the reactor itself that caused the problem: when the tsunami struck it flooded the generators that operated the pumps that were used to carry the heat away from the reactor core. This caused the cores to go into meltdown because the reactor design itself was not failsafe. A failsafe nuclear design is one in which the consequence of removing power is to cause the reactor rods to withdraw and the fission to cease. An additional problem at Fukushima was that it was not possible to connect auxiliary power from outside because it transpired that the connectors were themselves incompatible.

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Re: "It's only a matter of time before an accident occurs involving an errant aircraft."

Someone fired a number of RPG-7 anti-tank grenades at a reactor under construction once. Nothing happened to the reactor, the fellow who said he did it get elected to the Swiss Parliament IIRC.

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Re: Underground

I think the problem with fail safe is that there are three limits:

Theoretical: Limited by the imagination of the designer/engineer.

Practical: Limited by the budget.

Political: What won't prevent re-election.

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Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

Fission ceased at the Fukushima reactors pretty much as soon as the earthquake was detected onshore. The problem was residual heat from the decay of short-lived radioactive fission products in the fuel rods -- when running at full power reactors 2 and 3 generated about 2500MW of heat (reactor 1 was a bit smaller and produced less heat and electricity). After fission ceased the heat output from radioactive decay was about 50MW. When the cooling systems shut down due to loss of external power the cores overheated from that decay energy, not from fission.

A good rule of thumb in the metal foundry business is that 1MW will melt 1 tonne of steel if it is well-insulated so 50MW is a considerable amount of heat energy.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Placed underground you say ?

>First flight of the 747 was 1969 - 48 years ago.

Yep with a max TO weight of 735K lb - new model's (747-8) is 987K lb - has 63K gallons fuel over 48K and so on - and is still smaller, drier and lighter than an Airbus A380.

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Re: Underground

"Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?"

Nope. There's very few reactors operating commercially that are considered fail safe by even old standards. By modern standards.. Even the modern reactor designs aren't fail safe per se.

In the wake of Fukushima the Swiss have voted to phase out their nuclear energy. That should protect them against tsunamis.

Yeah but it won't protect them from France charging them through the roof for power they generate cheaply via... nuclear power.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Placed underground you say ?

>PS. Don't tell Greenpeace. They spent lots of money on fearmongering TV advert campaigns about "what if an aircraft hit?!" ....that people actually considered these issues long before they were born.

Can't speak for Greenpeace, but they'd probably point out that's a small fighter jet (designed to be as light as possible) not a huge passenger/cargo aircraft designed to fly as heavy as possible. Increase the weight 10-fold and the impact energy increases 100-fold. It's a credible test of a military scenario at the time, not the threats we face today.

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Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

> "Insufficient attention was paid to evidence of large tsunamis inundating the region surrounding the plant about once every thousand years."

Correct but to defend against such a large tsunami, the protective barrier would have needed to be at least 50ft high.

The biggest issue was the loss of backup power generation to cool the reactors. Since the diesels were in the flooded basement, nothing could be done to prevent meltdown. Had the diesel backup generators been on the roof, the plant could have been saved.

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Mushroom

Re: Underground

Read up on Molten Salt reactors; Intrinsically safe. IE: if it all goes horribly wrong switch everything off. The salt will "freeze" when it approaches room temperature; As a bonus they are not High pressure reactors so no massive pressure vessel containment. In fact you can run them at a slightly negative pressure which helps contain any unintended emissions.

Very cool looking tech. What the nukeE's call walk-away safe.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

"to defend against a [1000 year] tsunami, the protective barrier would have needed to be at least 50ft high."

Remember the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 (seven years before Fukushima got hit)? Lots of disruption and casualties and maybe a quarter of a million fatalities, with a wall of water up to 100 feet high.

So maybe a 50 foot barrier (or some other way of achieving the same robustness) wouldn't have been a bad idea at Fukushima? Lots of that kind of analysis went on in the years following 2004, what did it show for Fukushima?

Afaik the specific analysis concluded that, based on the updated understanding, there was a very significant (50%?) probability of Fukushima's sea defences being overtopped in the planned remaining lifetime of the power station (a decade or so?), which would cause the loss of not just backup generators but also critical electrical switchgear, both of which had been inappropriately located (or inappropriately protected). How does that sound?

Does it sound like reason to make some significant changes to plant protection? Does it sound like reason to shut the plant down permanently if the changes could not be profitably implemented? Does it sound like reason to stick head in sand and do nothing?

"Had the diesel backup generators been on the roof, the plant could have been saved."

There's that, and there's various other aspects which could have been done differently, some quite low cost, each of which might have helped make the setup safer. Defence in depth, maybe. Or the "Swiss cheese" model, as many safety-aware folks call it:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_cheese_model

"The reactors proved robust seismically, but vulnerable to the tsunami. Power, from grid or backup generators, was available to run the Residual Heat Removal (RHR) system cooling pumps at eight of the eleven units, and despite some problems they achieved 'cold shutdown' within about four days. The other three, at Fukushima Daiichi, lost power at 3.42 pm, almost an hour after the quake, when the entire site was flooded by the 15-metre tsunami. This disabled 12 of 13 back-up generators on site and also the heat exchangers for dumping reactor waste heat and decay heat to the sea. The three units lost the ability to maintain proper reactor cooling and water circulation functions. Electrical switchgear was also disabled. [...] A hardened emergency response centre on site was unable to be used in grappling with the situation, due to radioactive contamination."

[...]

"The tsunami countermeasures could also have been reviewed in accordance with IAEA guidelines which required taking into account high tsunami levels, but [Japanese regulatory authorities] continued to allow the Fukushima plant to operate without sufficient countermeasures such as moving the backup generators up the hill, sealing the lower part of the buildings, and having some back-up for seawater pumps, despite clear warnings."

from

http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-accident.aspx

It was also already known that TEPCO had a history of neglecting things like the periodic tests of the backup power generators. Simple cost effective stuff like that, which can make a big difference on the day you need things to work - as lots of people in and around the real IT industry used to know.

Let's not try to defend the indefensible. This safety stuff is not rocket science. It's not fixable by the industry sticking its head in the sand either.

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Re: Underground

"Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?"

No. And if you had been watching NHK as the events unfolded you would know it wasn't "fail-safe" it was designed well below the potential risks predicted for the area.

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

The essential problem is cooling. Coal fired power plant chimneys obviously blow out a lot of CO2 smoke, but what is less obvious about a coal-fired plant is that the chimney takes away a massive amount of waste heat. Nuclear power plants typically have huge cooling towers precisely because they have no chimney. Putting them underground would create impossible cooling problems.

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Alert

Re: Underground

" in a "fail safe" design"

Until it doesn't of course. Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

And what was the actual (not FUD) result of Fukushima?

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Paris Hilton

Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

...it was not possible to connect auxiliary power from outside because it transpired that the connectors were themselves incompatible.

How can that be? We have an emergency, we need to get power into this place. Er, our plug doesn't fit.

Um, gee. A nation with some of the most amazing engineers and electricians in the world and not one of them could figure out a way to either a) swap out the connectors or b) jury-rig something that would do as a temporary measure? They'd rather risk a meltdown than solder/weld a few wires into place?

What am I missing with this story?

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

errr...

1/2 mv^2, not 1/2 m^2 V...

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Re: Underground

"Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?"

Interestingly, it was meant to be, but the politics and traditions of Japanese culture resulted in nobody being able to point out the design flaws without appearing to diminish their superiors' authority. Hence the sea wall was too low and the diesel back up generator was placed too low.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Underground

"And what was the actual (not FUD) result of Fukushima?"

3 reactors meltdowns and a level 7 nuclear disaster.

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Re: Underground

In Norfolk, I think you might be a bit safer...

From nuclear accidents anyway.

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Re: Underground

TheVogon, no doubting nuclear on here bud, there are contracts at stake (I assume).

Besides some of that stuff will be gone in such a short time, much of it well depleted in a few thousand years and if you think us humans have a good chance at existing for long enough to see it properly cleaned up you are a more positive thinker than me.

The bags that Fukushima cleanup waste was scraped up into, and stored locally have a life of a few years and have been holding it for a few years no so they have chimneys in the stacks to take away the heat from decomposition to avoid the whole thing going up and dispersing all that lovely radio active crap into the air again.

But there I go being negative on nuclear, it just won't do.

By the way how is the Hanford Vitrification plant coming along? and where is that site going to be safe? I mean that's only about 79 tons of plutonium waste there (?), must be easy enough to drill a hole or something and drop it in see I'm getting into "this is not an issue" mindset myself right now.

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

A full sized passenger aircraft from 50 years ago is a 747, everything since then is smaller and lighter.

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Re: Underground

"On the ring of fire, you take your chances. In Norfolk, I think you might be a bit safer..."

Build like there will be a super landslide in Norway, and not repeat the lazy assumptions made at Fukushima

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Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

Fission did cease, the rods were properly in place. The shutdown went just fine. No problems.

The problem was that even a shutdown reactor still has latent heat that needs to be removed.

Which by the way, is the SAME reason that CPU fans continue to run after the CPU is halted. The latent heat STILL has to be removed, or damage to the core will occur.

The PROBLEM was that the pumps doing the cooling had their power source flooded.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Underground

""And what was the actual (not FUD) result of Fukushima?"

3 reactors meltdowns and a level 7 nuclear disaster."

And further, fully documented, proof (as if any more were needed) that regardless of how safe nuclear power is, many of the people in charge of it are simply still not trustworthy.

I say this somewhat reluctantly, as a physicist turned engineer with extensive experience in helping the people who build critical systems, hoping against hope that one day the nuclear industry might get its act together, preferably before the lights go out. It's already been a bloody long time coming, I wouldn't want to bet on it ever happening, would you?

Olkiluoto 3 was originally scheduled to open in 2009. It's not there yet, but it's keeping the lawyers busy.

https://nuclear-news.net/2017/05/19/areva-and-edf-pin-their-hopes-on-delayed-super-costly-olkiluoto-3-nuclear-project/

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Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

What wasn't anticipated was the altitude drop that occurred.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

"The PROBLEM was [...]" @oldcoder

That's part of the picture.

The failure you describe, and those other failures described here by other people, are individual problems, each of which could have been managed differently and likely resulted in a different outcome. But for whatever reason, the "right" approaches were ignored in too many places.

We are where we are. We didn't get there because one single technical thing went a bit wrong, we got there because *lots* of technical things went very wrong, many of them in ways which had been predicted before the big day. But not enough was done to fix them even after issues and impacts were identified.

Swiss cheese. Head in the sand.

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Re: Underground

Read up on Molten Salt reactors; Intrinsically safe. IE: if it all goes horribly wrong switch everything off. The salt will "freeze" when it approaches room temperature; As a bonus they are not High pressure reactors so no massive pressure vessel containment. In fact you can run them at a slightly negative pressure which helps contain any unintended emissions.

This technology is going to take so long to develop the cash might as well go on fusion research. It's the classic electric cars versus hydrogen problem. If the money isn't misdiverted to pie in the sky solutions to simple problems we'll get a proper solution earlier. Fusion is a proper solution (not to say that ITER et al are the correct path to that proper solution).

Any time water is used to cool reactors you have the problem of generating hydrogen and oxygen in the fail condition. This isn't how reactors should be built - and I say this as somebody who is pro nuclear.

The AGRs were a sensible path in reactor technology, shame we tried to build them all at once rather than building a technology demonstrator plant to iron out constriction issues first. In the end Thatcher killed the long term project of course.

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Re: Underground

"Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?"

No, not by a long shot, not even in someone's imagination.(**) Those kinds of features(*) only became mandatory after TMI and that plant significantly predates the TMI accident. It was running more than decade past its design end of life for starters.

(*) A failsafe nuke plant can scram and cooldown indefinitely without needing external power _at all_

(moderating rods self insert under gravity when the power goes off instead of needing to be levered into place, thermosyphon system for continuous cooling circulation) - Fukushima had none of that - and that's without even going into the need for redundant feed locations into the control rooms that didn't exist at most plants before TMI (one of the things that came out of TMI was that the redundant control systems which did exist all exited/entered the control room via the same hole/cableways and as such constituted a single point of failure in case of a fire. That particular change requirement was also propagated to other technology thermal plants.)

(**) And the japanese can be quite imaginative in their failures. Look up Monju sometime. How do you dispose of several tons of slightly radioactive sodium in your basement?

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

"it's disposal that needs sorting out. "

That's the rub. Right now with uranium-fuelled systems we're throwing away at least 80% of the mined metal enriching it to 3% from the natural 0.5% or less(*) and then throwing away 97-98% of the energy content of the fuel at the other end when it's "spent"(**)

It's a bit like picking an entire apple orchard, keeping one tree's worth of apples, making cider with it, drinking one glass and binning the rest.

(*) "Depleted uranium" is favoured by the military as it burns nicely inside tanks, but it's a nasty environmental toxin, worse than lead. It's also an essential component of hydrogen bombs, being what you make the cases of the things out of to get the multi-megaton yield

(**) The military love the used stuff too, extracting plutonium from it to make bombs.

The USA regards the energy expenditure of enriching uranium for the civil nuclear program as a classified military secret, but the power feeds into the facilities where they do it give a clue that it's extremely high. (power feeds into the centrifuges are also the giveaway for Iran's enrichment program)

All this stuff can be "burned down" happily in a LFTR-type reactor, resulting in that 97% output waste becoming less than 1% (the entire waste output of a 900MW nuclear power plant over a 60 year lifespan is enough to fill a single olympic size pool), as well as eating all the "depleted" stuff too.

It's technically possible to make weapons out of LFTR technology, but the various isotopes are so thoroughly mixed up that you'd need a _very_ large set of centrifuges to do it and some of those isotopes are so hot that you don't want to be anywhere near them(***), which should dissuade most terrorists from trying (being dead before they reach the boundary fence is a good persuader) and the power requirements of refining from the fuel are so noticeable that any country trying would be spotted quickly - especially after what India managed to pull with CANDU technology.

(***) Hot as in "fatal radiation dose in seconds"

Uranium tech is a dead end anyway - it's rare, expensive to refine and sources are limited. Thorium is the better long-term solution and as it happens we have megatons of the stuff already mined and ready for the technology. That's why so much effort is being put into making LFTRs commercially viable.

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Re: Wasn't Fukushima a "fail-safe" design?

" Protecting emergency power supplies, including diesel generators and batteries, by moving them to higher ground or by placing them in watertight bunkers"

This in particular was pointed out _DURING CONSTRUCTION_ by GE engineers, who demanded that the generators be moved to higher ground for safety reasons.

The Japanese management smiled, nodded and completely ignored the demands.

During the crisis, they refused outside help until it was much too late (the USA had emergency generating equipment ready to go from Okinawa, but couldn't move until authorised. It could have been onsite before the batteries gave out) - in a series of cockups reminiscent of Japan Airlines flight 123.

The meltdowns were 100% avertable right up to about 6 hours before they happened. It took a goodly amount of hubris and spectacular series of management screwups in the years leading up to and the hours after the tsunami to allow them to happen. It's worth noting that quite a few other plants along that coastline were hit and _none_ were damaged, because they'd taken note of the safety issues and sorted them. Having caused 1500+ deaths in the ensuing panic evacuations, TEPCO manglement should be stripped of their pensions and permanently barred from ever doing business again.

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Re: Placed underground you say ?

" not a huge passenger/cargo aircraft designed to fly as heavy as possible. "

The locomotive tests outmassed and out "grunted" any aircraft you could think of.

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Re: Underground

"Build like there will be a super landslide in Norway"

FWIW the next Storegga Slide will probably occur on the Leptav Sea continental shelf - and probably be larger.

In the other direction, the main risk comes from the Canary islands. It's worth noting as all the UK's west-coast/irish sea nuclear plants are in the firing line when that breaks.

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