Elemental Nuclear Threats

I was sequestered in a war room for a month during which the Japanese earthquake and tsunami happened as well as the meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. We projected on the wall video of the stories over and over.

It just occurred to me each of the Empedocles classical elements (air, fire, earth, and water) have threatened a nuclear power plant this year. True, only the one event resulted in a melt down. Still, it is interesting how a bit of everything has been a problem.

  • Air: “A nuclear power plant in Alabama that lost power after violent thunderstorms and tornadoes on Wednesday will be down for days and possibly weeks but the backup power systems worked as designed to prevent a partial meltdown like the disaster in Japan.”
  • Fire: “A raging wildfire in Los Alamos on Monday briefly entered the property of the nation’s preeminent nuclear facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory, a vast complex that houses research laboratories and a plutonium facility.”
  • Earth: Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. (Okay technically, seawater from the tsunami is what caused the worst problems.)
  • Water: “The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been dispatched to a nuclear power plant in Fort Calhoun, Neb., where a berm collapsed Sunday…. The breach allowed Missouri River flood waters to reach containment buildings and transformers and forcing the shutdown of electrical power.”

Before you ask, no, the classical elements are not fighting back against the modern elements (Uranium and Plutonium).

Margin of Error

The Trojan Nuclear Plant on the Banks of the Columbia River Is Under Construction by Portland General Electric Environmentalists Strongly Oppose the Project 05/1973
Trojan Nuclear Plant from the U.S. National Archives

The New York Times article “Nuclear Agency Tells a Concerned Congress That U.S. Industry Remains Safe” had a curious statement from Gregory Jaczko, of the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in front of Congress.

“U.S. nuclear facilities remain safe,” Mr. Jaczko told two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees, which had originally planned to consider his agency’s budget for the coming fiscal year at the hearing. “We will continue to work to maintain that level of protection.” Reactors are designed to meet the challenges of “the most severe natural phenomena historically reported,” he said. For earthquakes, that means any that occur within 200 miles of the reactor, and a margin of error, he said.

Jaczko sounds similar to the planning the Japanese did. Earlier I read a Wired Science article, Japan Quake Epicenter Was in Unexpected Location, which said the Japanese looked to patterns in the past to determine the future. Therefore they expected a strong earthquake in the south where the Phillipine plate is overdue for a massive event.

Japan has been expecting and preparing for the “big one” for more than 30 years. But the magnitude-9.0 temblor that struck March 11 — the world’s fourth biggest quake since 1900 — wasn’t the catastrophe the island nation had in mind. The epicenter of the quake was about 80 miles east of the city of Sendai, in a strip of ocean crust previously thought unlikely to be capable of unleashing such energy. “This area has a long history of earthquakes, but [the Sendai earthquake] doesn’t fit the pattern,” says Harold Tobin, a marine geophysicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The expectation was high for a 7.5, but that’s a hundred times smaller than a 9.0.”

It sounds to me like, if in the United States the most powerful earthquake in the area of a nuclear reactor was a 7.5 magnitude event, then a 9.0 could surprise those running it. Given a 9.0 is a hundred times more powerful and a broken reactor so dangerous, I would hope the preparedness is for the larger even where seemingly unlikely.

The Haiti quake was “expected“. However the Chilean, both New Zealand, and the Sendai earthquakes have all sounded unexpected. Of course, living on the Ring of Fire, how can any earthquake be unexpected?