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Japan's Meltdown Reveals Weaknesses in U.S. Nuclear Power

Last Updated Mar 14, 2011 6:25 PM EDT

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan has exposed a weakness at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, where operators are struggling to stabilize three reactors and prevent a meltdown. In short, the back-up system -- the kind of thing you want your neighborhood nuclear reactor to have -- is vulnerable.

Unfortunately, for the nuclear power industry and companies like General Electric, this couldn't have come at a worse time. U.S. lawmakers hoping to make a renewed push for nuclear energy will likely be met with apprehension and fear -- some of it justified. Politicians spent the weekend backtracking on their commitments to the nuclear industry, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, who told CBS' Face the Nation that the U.S. should put the brakes on a nuclear power plant building revival for now. Lieberman's caution isn't unfounded. Of the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S., about 30 of them are built according to designs similar to the Fukushima plant, the FT noted.

A flaw exposed
It's not that the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station operated by Tokyo Electric Power failed. The reactor automatically shut down -- as it should -- after the earthquake hit. The problem stems more from the tsunami. Even after a plant shuts down, it continues to produce huge amounts of heat that must be dissipated by the emergency cooling system. To generate electricity safely in a nuclear power plant, there must be an outside electrical source to run the pumps that keep cooling water circulating through the system. That outside source is the area's electrical grid, which was badly damaged by the tsunami.

Ah, but they have a back up plan! Which also failed. The Los Angeles Times explains the ensuing and ironic situation:
All reactors have diesel emergency generators to provide backup electricity, but apparently those at Fukushima No. 1 were damaged by the tsunami and are inoperable.

The reactor also has backup batteries to take over in such an event, and authorities were able to bring those on line and restore the flow of coolant after less than an hour. But those batteries have a life no more than about eight hours, according to nuclear expert Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, an organization working to "free the world from nuclear power and nuclear weapons."
Another back up plan fails
As of Monday, Tokyo Electric is now pumping sea water into the reactor in hopes of cooling the fuel rods and preventing a large release of radiation into the atmosphere. That they are using sea water is a testament to their desperation. Once sea water is pumped into a reactor it will no longer be able to produce electricity.

But at the No. 2 reactor even the sea water strategy didn't work. The pump used to flood the reactor with sea water ran out of fuel, the NYT reported. The water level inside the reactor has fallen and exposed fuel rods at its core.

Regardless of whether operators are able to keep the cooling systems functioning, the damage to the pro-nuclear effort has already been done. Preventing a meltdown is essentially a numbers game, and one most folks would care not to play. In short, when your electrical grid fails, your back-up diesel generators fail and your batteries have a short life, timing is absolutely critical. If power to the cooling supply is interrupted the coolant could boil off in as little as an hour.

Photo of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station from Tokyo Electric Power