Japan Reactors: My Dad Used To Say "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" Overview, Maps, Photos and Thoughts #Fukushima

Google Maps Photo of Fukushima I

Growing up in my family, when one of the kids was worried about something, my Dad would say "What's the worst that could happen?" We'd go over it, and generally, it became clear that even if the worst scenario happened (no hits and many errors in baseball game), it wouldn't really be that bad. But when you look at the design of the ten reactors at two power stations in Fukushima Japan,  and look at Dad's question, the answers aren't pretty. And perhaps, the answers aren't acceptable: (and I appologize in advance and ask for corrections in the comments for the errors that must be in this article...after all it comes from only a few hours of research)
After the dialog is a whole bunch of background information that led me to create this exchange.
What's the Worst that Could Happen? (Imagined Discussion Between My Dad and Reactor Designer)
Dad: What's the worst that can happen in a Boiling Water Reactor accident?
BWR Designer: Well, the worst case would seem to be an earthquake that damages the plant and then something that knocks out the emergency cooling systems.
Dad: What would happen then?
BWR Designer: The plant would shut down right away. The rods would go in, and the nuclear reaction would stop. (Hopefully, unless the earthquake shook the plant even worse than we could ever imagine.) But, the core still generates about 3% of the full power heat even in shutdown. The cooling systems must run to take away that heat.
Dad: What if the cooling systems got knocked out too?
BWR Designer: That's very unlikely. We have multiple backup diesel generators, and even batteries to run the cooling pumps for 8 hours if those don't work.
Dad: But lets just say something really bad happened. Maybe a tsunami from that same earthquake. It floods all the generators and knocks out the power grid. What happens then?
BWR Designer: The batteries keep the pumps going for eight hours, and by then a new source of backup power is set up and the cooling pumps are driven from that power.
Dad: But let's just say things are really a mess. Remember, we're talking here about "what's the worst that could happen." Let's say after the batteries run out, we can't get power to the pumps.
BWR Designer: This is a scenario that is not supposed to happen. You must keep the reactor core cooled or it will overheat.
Dad: What happens if the reactor core can't be cooled?
BWR Designer: Well, that's bad, but things can still be contolled. The core overheats, steam is produced. The steam flows down to the torus below the reactor, and that has a huge amount of water in it. This water supresses the pressure of the steam, keeps the containment intact in time for additional cooling to be brought to bear.
Dad: But what if that cooling is still not available?
BWR Designer: Now things are getting bad, but we thought of that too. Now the reactor is going to start making lots of steam. The reactor pressure vessel is designed to contain only a certain amount of pressure, so much like a pressure cooker, we have extensive pressure relief valves, and they will allow pressure to be released.
Dad: But what if those valves don't work right, or maybe our control systems are damaged and we can't run them.
BWR Designer: Okay, now you're getting to one of our worst case scenarios. If the pressure got too high in the Reactor Pressure Vessel, it could explode. And we have the same issue with next line of defense - the containment. In fact, early on three engineers at GE resigned because they believed the reactor was too vulnerable to pressure failure. We later agreed, and added pressure relief systems. (Editor's Note: As I understand it, they have been venting steam, and that steam, which also contains hydrogen and oxygen, caused explosions in the reactor buildings at Fukushima)
Dad: What happens if the Reactor Pressure Vessel or the Containment does explode from pressure buildup?
BWR Designer: That gets us to the the truly "worst case". In this case, the nuclear fuel is uncooled. It melts, creates intense heat and pressure, and the pressure vessel fails, probably explodes (but not a nuclear explosion...a pressure explosion). That explosion could probably explode the containment as well,  and would carry radioactive fuel into the atmosphere. In the case of Chernobyl, the intense fire carried the radiation high to the jet stream. If we're lucky in this case, there won't be fire and the radiation won't spread as widely.
Dad: What happens if the Reactor Pressure Vessel and the containment doesn't explode, but you just can't get any cooling there?
BWR Designer: There's a lot debate about what would happen. Clearly, the nuclear fuel will heat up and melt. Clearly, lots of steam and pressure will be created. Hopefully, the melted mass will move down from the Reactor Pressure Vessel and meet the containment structure. At that point, we hope that the material begins to spread out and cool down, although there are some people who believe that this molten mass might be hot enough and concentrated enough to melt through the containment. At Three Mile Island, there was a partial meltdown, and the molten mass did not get close to penetrating the containment.
Dad: Well, we have to go all the way. What if the melted fuel did get through the containment?
BWR Designer: (Ed note: this answer is my summary of what I've read. Again please forgive errors and correct in the comments). First of all, we don't believe, but can't be certain that the melted fuel could re-gain "criticality" and begin producing large amounts of fission-based heat. So let's just assume it's a molten mass and gets through the containment. Now we expect it would meet water-bearing earth, large amounts of steam and other byproducts would be produced, and a pressure explosion of some sort could be expected. This explosion could then spread the radioactive fuel into the atmosphere.
Dad: So, have we arrived at the answer to what's the worst that could happen?
BWR Designer: Not really. These plants tend to be built in groups. In fact, Japan has been the most aggressive at using nuclear power. Because of cooling needs, these plants are located right near the water. So I guess if you want to really think about the absolute worst case scenario, maybe you could have a huge earthquake that shuts multiple plants down, but then something else like the tsunami and a widespread blackout that would disable all of the backup systems at an entire power station. For example, Fukushima I in Japan has six reactors located right next to the ocean.
Dad: So, have we arrived at the answer to what's the worst that could happen?
BWR Designer: Um, not really. One more thing. Since we don't really know how to store the spent fuel for the reactor, we keep it in a pool inside the reactor building and next to the Reactor Pressure Vessel. If something goes wrong with the cooling systems, this fuel, which also needs cooling, will begin to boil off the water that protects it and contains radiation. That could cause fuel rod melting, and  could force workers away from the area of the building due to high radiation. Also, in the event of an explosion of the Reactor Pressure Vessel, the spent fuel right next to the reactor would also be spread into the atmosphere.
Dad: Okay, so you actually can imagine six reactors having catastrophic problems at once, involving all current and spent fuel from those reactors, and potentially releasing all that radiation into the atmoshpere?
BWR Designer: Imagine it, yes, but it's just absurdly unlikely. So many things would have go wrong at once, so many backups and backups of backups would have to fail at the same time for this to even get started, let alone occur.
Dad: But you could imagine it?
BWR Designer: Yes.


So why build a plant and a power station like this?
BWR Designer: Because we need the power. And Japan has no oil, for example. And the chances of this worst case scenario are just so small that we feel you have discount it or you'd just have to stop. Or at least come up with a totally different design that would behave very differently in a case like this.
As an engineer, and just as someone who likes to make things work, I feel an obligation to always think of what could go wrong with a design. And I feel there is some kind of "brotherhood" between engineers worldwide. When one of fails, we all fail. When one of succeeds, we all rejoice. So, when something really goes astray, I feel an obligation to understand what and why. The sad thing is, the answer to what's the worst thing that could happen is a bit circular: It's the worst thing that could happen. And Murphy's law has a way of making sure that yes indeed, the worst thing that could happen, eventually will happen. So I believe when our brotherhood and now sisterhood of engineers designs things, we must all design it so what could happen is not that bad. It's lesson our planet, and its inhabitants expect from anyone who designs the systems upon which we all depend.
Background Research
I've been trying to get my mind around what is really going on in Japan at the Fukushima I power plant. (Also referred to as Fukushima Daiichi, which means "one" in Japanese.) This post will describe some of what I found out.

I started with Wikipedia, and found out that there are two power stations with the name Fukushima (I and II.) Fukushima I, the center of the current catastrophe, is the older station, and it lies about 14 miles north of Fukushima II. Amazingly, Fukushima I Unit 1 (the oldest of the 10 reactor units at Fukushima) was scheduled for end of life shutdown on March 26, 2011 (the end of its 40 year life).

Next, Wikipedia provided  a list of all Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), where I found the 10 units described in this post. (There are two more planned for Fukushima I, but it seems construction has not started.)
Twelve Reactors of Fukushima I and II
 [click above to enlarge] Source: Wikipedia - View full list of Boiling Water Reactors (these tend to be the older plants)
Above are the 12 reactors total at the two power stations. Ten seem to be fueled and operational at some level. Six of Eight at Fukushima I are built, and two are planned and this chart shows them as coming online in 2013 and 2014. All four units of Fukushima II were operating, and three have already achieved full cold shutdown.
Status of Six Completed Reactors of Fukushima I
 [click above to enlarge]  Source: Wikipedia - Reactor Status Summary 

This 1975 photo from Wikipedia shows the six reactors that are involved in the emergency. Unit 6 was under construction at the time.

Above is an interactive map of the Fukushima I area.

Design of the GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor (Units 1-5) at Fukushima I
[click above to enlarge]  Cutaway view of a GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor    Source: unknown, but probably GE
The more I learn about the design of this reactor, the less confident I feel. This article by the Reactor Watchdog Group discusses the design issues with the Mark I. (Partial quote) The main feature of the design is a large underground "torus" that is half filled with water. The idea is that in a Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA), steam would be released by large pipes into the "pressure suppression pool", and that the steam would condense, thus suppressing pressure buildup in the containment.

Trouble is, it becomes clear that in an actual accident, pressures would build up too high and could lead to "total rupture of the containment."  So they modified the design to allow high pressure venting to protect against a complete loss of the containment. Not a reassuring approach - vent radioactive steam in order to keep something much worse from happening.
In this Union of Concerned Scientists Report, the writers outline another rather shocking element of the Mark I design. The spent fuel rods are located right next to the reactor pressure vessel. (Blue area). As they point out, "Location inside containment couples Spent Fuel Pool (SFP) accidents and reactor accidents." As we are seeing in Japan, both the reactor and the spent fuel pool need cooling to remain safe. With the complete failure of the backup cooling systems, both sources of radioactivity are now in danger of some form of release. (It seems impossible -- I've searched -- to get any reliable sense of just how much radiation would be released in a full meldown.)
Fukushima II is About 14 Miles South of Fukushima I

Interactive Map of Fukushima I and II area. The two blue dots to the north represent Fukushima I, with the lower dot being the original four reactors, and the upper dot being the newer two. The single blue dot to the south is Fukushima II, which has four reactors, also of BWR design (but newer models) and is said to be shutting down more safely.(This article says three units have achieved cold shutdown and cooling systems are working normally) By the way, Fukushima Dai-ni simply means second or number 2.
Four reactors at Fukushima II - From Wikipedia article (note: comment after Takenaka is mine)
Aerial View of Fukishima II Power Station (shut down more safely than Fukushima I)  Source: Google
Two New Reactors Planned at Fukushima I - "Generation III" Advanced Boiling Water Reactors

GE's Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR)   Source: GE

The planned design for the Fukushima I units 7 and 8 is an Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (Wikipedia) (ABWR) which seem to be in the planning stages. Note that the spent fuel pool is still just above and to the right of the reactor vessel. You can also see that the containment has a suppression pool at the bottom, but eliminates the underground torus used in the BWR Mark I reactors.
While the Wikipedia article is quite dense, much discussion goes to advanced safety features relative to just the kind of failures seen at Fukushima: (Note: I've edited and shortened their bullet points)
  • The overall system has been divided up into 3 divisions; each division is capable - by itself - of terminating (them maximal) accident prior to core uncovery, even in the event of loss of offsite power and loss of proper feedwater. Previous BWRs had 2 divisions, and uncovery (but no core damage) was predicted to occur for a short time in the event of a severe accident, prior to ECCS response.
  • Eighteen SORVs (safety overpressure relief valves), so the reactor can be depressurized rapidly to a level where low pressure core flooder can be used.
  • Further, Low Pressure Core Flooder can inject against much higher Reactor Pressure Vessel pressures,
  • In addition to three highly-reliable emergency diesel generators  an additional combustion gas turbine is located on-site to generate electricity to provide defence in depth against station blackout contingencies.
  • There exists an extremely thick basalt fiber reinforced concrete (BiMAC) pad under the reactor that will both catch and hold any heated fluids that might fall on that pad in extraordinarily contingent situations. (Ed note: I think they mean meltdown) 
  • In addition, there are several valves within the weir wall (the wall separating the wetwell from the drywell) that are squib-actuated and can perform an orderly flood of the BiMAC pad using the wetwell's water supply, ensuring cooling of that area even with the failure of standard mitigatory systems (e.g. overhead flood capabilities).
  • I find it interesting that this most advanced design still has most of the dangers that are discussed below. It does have a number of more aggressive and deeper backup systems. But still, at the end of the day, the ABWR seem risky still. Spent fuel still right next to the reactor. The need for pressure relief during incidents.

    NUREG-1503, "Final Safety Evaluation Report Related to the Certification of the Advanced Boiling-Water Reactor Design"
    More Photos: (all from this site)
    Boiling Water Reactor Pressure Vessel. This looks just like the one in GE's promotional materials for its Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) 
    Fuel Assembly (BWR/6 from GE)
    Refueling Floor During Outage (this is the top of the reactor. Note gantry from other illustration)
    I believe this is a Mark II containment - it has a suppression pool, but no torus. Unit 6 at Fukushima uses this design, I believe.
    Top of the reactor vessel. Gives you a sense of the size of the reactor itself. (isn't there a containment on top of this?)
    Another view of the refueling floor.
    Piping to the Torus
    Maintenance on a pump in a radiation controlled area.

    Other Photos 

    Fukushima compared to Chenobyl
    Source: Telegraph UK

    5 responses
    You mentioned that you could not find how much radiation could be released in a total meltdown. This morning on NPR they said there was 1760 tons of spent fuel in total. Google "fukushima 1760 tons" and you will find more info.
    One more step in the sequence of "worst possible" steps: "what if the people in charge of fixing the problem are incompetent?"
    Bill, The conversion to cheaper "Pluthermal" MOX (Mixed Oxcide) plutonium blend fuel in Fukushima no.3 (and a few of the other Japanese plants) is particularly worrying. Plutonium released into the atmosphere and soil is significantly more toxic. See MOX info: http://t.co/appFCVo - http://bit.ly/eMd1sd - http://bit.ly/eKGNwL

    Additionally, I read a comment from someone who works at the Japanese Jet Propulsion Laboratory that Fukushima no.3 was built without a "core catcher" (i.e. the "extremely thick basalt fiber reinforced concrete (BiMAC) pad under the reactor that will both catch and hold any heated fluids that might fall on that pad in extraordinarily contingent situations.") - a scary fact given that it is believed that this reactor has/is experiencing a core meltdown.

    Okay, but I think it's worth going through the same exercise with conventional power generation. What's the worst case scenario of hydro-electric dams? The Chinese Banqiao dam disaster killed 26,000 people. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banqiao_Dam What's the worst case scenario for fossil-fuel generators? I mean, aside from global climate change? Would the BP oil spill count?

    All in all, nuclear power seems obviously to be a safer option than conventional power generation.

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