Update as of March 13: Nuclear situation worsens. Full blown disaster. Fund fusion!
A devastating 8.8 earthquake has struck Japan unleashing terrible tsunamis and untold damage. Our prayers go out to those struggling with the aftermath.
Before we continue, take a moment to support Red Cross relief efforts. Text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10; the charge is automatically added to your phone bill. Or donate online at http://www.redcross.org
Is someone you know missing? Google Crisis Response can help. It has information on the crisis with real time updates and a “Person Finder” (Embedded here in the left column).
In Berkeley, in 1989, I felt the terror of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. That was a 6.9 quake, and I was far from the epicenter. An 8.8 is two orders of magnitude greater - meaning 200 times as powerful. I’m trying to imagine 200 times the terror, and just can’t. NPR’s Linda Wertheimer puts it well:
There is something so profoundly upsetting about the earth moving that way that I’ve never forgotten the feeling — and it is just the smallest part of what people are living through in Japan right now.
To have that followed up with a tsunami, unimaginable. (According to Nate Berkus, a previous tsunami survivor, it’s like being in the spin cycle of a washing machine - with cars and bricks. Getting out is pure luck). Once again, Google Person Finder box, embedded on this page as well.
In Support of Fusion Research
The earthquake triggered an emergency at the Fukushima nuclear fission plant, reminding everyone of the dangers of fission. Now that people are worrying about these dangers, it is a good time to point out the lack of energy options on our planet, the still unfulfilled promise of fusion, and most importantly, the lack of systematic action towards the goal of better energy options. In the US, the energy industry as a whole spends less than 0.3% of revenues on Research and Development, compared with an average of 3% for all other industries (and 25% for information technologies).
Imagine a world in which energy research was a priority and we kept coming up with better, safer and cheaper energy options, as they do in the communications sector. The energy sector seems content to stick to old technologies and have us deal with terrifying oil spills and fears of meltdowns. Energy advancement has a long way to go. The cost of one BP oil spill last summer has reached $40Bn. To date, the US has spent $22Bn on fusion research. This is over the past 50, (yes, fifty) YEARS. What’s wrong with this picture?
Think big. As noted, the communications industry pumps 25% of their revenue back into research. The result? Slim iPhones and androids and many amazing wonders. Meanwhile, we starve energy research for funds, and whine about it.
Could we one day live in a world of amazing energy wonders? Could we have a broad selection of attractive, well developed energy options? Could there be ever more elegant, small, easily deployed energy production units that could quickly restore power in disaster prone areas? We have not yet begun to put our best foot forward. In addition to the mainline fusion approaches, there are many fascinating ideas that might blossom with reliable funding (LPPX, for one!)
To the right is an image of the damage in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture in Japan (Kyodo News / AP). From much of the rest of the affected cities, I’m impressed that anything is left standing. It’s a testament to great building codes. Unfortunately for Sendai, building codes can’t do much about tsunamis.
Ishihara Oil Refinery
The Piers Morgan report on CNN discussed the nuclear power plant troubles while regularly showing images of the Ishihara Oil Refinery, blazing away. That’s not the nuclear plant. It is, once again, an oil refinery.
Images of burning oil refineries remind us that fossil fuels are combustible. This is what makes them a great energy source, and also dangerous to handle. The fuel for nuclear fission also has difficulties.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Fission Plant
[Note: The nuclear power plants discussed here use fission. Our organization promotes fusion, especially aneutronic fusion. More about the differences here » ]
Most of the nuclear power plants in Japan held up well in response to the 8.8 quake. The exception is the Fukushima Daiichi plant (shown right, in happier days), which also had to contend with a tsunami. Fortunately, fears of a meltdown at the plant are decreasing. Per this CBS article:
“Eleven reactors shut down automatically when the earthquake hit. And with most of those, the cooling has been reasonably straightforward, because there’s been a power supply to the plant, either from the grid, or from the backup generators. But with the first two units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the generators cut in and ran for about an hour and then stopped. And we understand the reason they were stopped is because they were overwhelmed by the tsunami. And that precipitated the crisis, really, and then the challenge of keeping the reactor cool, because they then have to default to their battery power. And as far as I understand it, that may not have been sufficient to do everything that was fully required.”
On top of the cooling problem came the hydrogen explosion problem, as explained in this more alarming report:
Regarding the hydrogen explosion, the CBS article notes:
But Hore-Lacy said they should just “sit tight and watch. It’s really—I mean that hydrogen explosion ... was a surprise. But hydrogen is always a factor in any nuclear reactor, but I think that the focus here has been on keeping the things cool, and obviously there was a hydrogen buildup somewhere and (it led to the explosion). ... But that was a bit of a diversion. I don’t think it’s increased the risk of radiation release at all. There is a slight risk of radiation release, but not, I think, of any magnitude. And there is a possibility that some fuel may be damaged. But I think that a meltdown, particularly at this stage, some 30 hours after shutdown, is most unlikely.”
Of course, public trust in nuclear power plants is always sketchy. Per Richard Black, BBC:
The term “meltdown” raises associations with two nuclear accidents in living memory: Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.
In both, excess heat in the reactor caused fuel to melt - and in the first, wider melting of the core. The question is whether the same thing has happened in Fukushima.
It appears that the reactor was shut down well before any melting occurred, which should reduce considerably the risk of radioactive materials entering the environment.
However, the detection of caesium isotopes outside the power station buildings could imply that the core has been exposed to the air.
Although Japan has a long and largely successful nuclear power programme, officials have been less than honest about some incidents in the past, meaning that official reassurances are unlikely to convince everyone this time round.
Updates are available at the IAEA Facebook Page.
Fox news Japanese Nuclear Power fact sheet.
Historical reference, 1999 Nuclear power plant accident, no tsunami required. BBC: Nuclear Accident Shakes Japan.
This is another reminder of the benefits of energy research. Solar and wind energy require improvements in battery technology if they are ever to handle baseloads. As we see from the Fukushima nuclear reactor emergency, it came down to battery power as the last line of defense, holding off a meltdown. Batteries are inherently useful things, especially in times of disaster.
How far along would battery technology be if the Energy industry had routinely been spending 3% of revenues on R&D? How much more secure would we be in this time of crisis? Remember, the current expenditure on R&D in the Energy industry is a pathetic 0.3%. If there’s one thing we hope comes out of this mess, it’s an industry-wide commitment to bringing energy R&D up to par.