Examining the Missteps In Japan’s Nuclear Crisis

A leading U.S. expert on nuclear energy discusses some of the fundamental failures that led to the intensifying nuclear drama in Japan and looks at what might lie in store for nuclear power worldwide.

Michael W. Golay, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has watched with concern as the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has steadily worsened. While acknowledging that the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant were extremely rare, Golay says he was nevertheless surprised that the operators had not taken some basic and relatively low-cost steps — most notably elevating backup power generators well above sea level — that could have averted this slow-moving disaster.

Michael Golay
Michael W. Golay

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Golay, an authority on nuclear power safety and innovation, said it’s still too early to tell just how bad the situation may get at the Fukushima complex. Given the large amount of nuclear material at the site — in active reactor cores as well as spent fuel rods — the potential exists for a large discharge of radioactive material. But he remained hopeful that if plant operators can succeed in restoring electricity to the reactors, enabling them to pump water to cool the nuclear material, the worst can be averted.

As for the future, Golay believes that improvements initiated in response to the Fukushima crisis, as well as new reactor technology that does not rely on electricity to shut down or cool reactors, will likely mean that nuclear power will continue to play an important role in the low-carbon energy mix of the future. “I think we’ll do what common sense dictates,” he said, “which is that you take a pause, you examine what you’ve learned, and probably some changes in practice will emerge… My view is that nuclear power is here to stay.”

Yale Environment 360: Given Japan’s long history of seismic activity, and given its sophisticated nuclear industry, how did this happen? It seems bizarre that in a country as advanced as Japan, an accident of this type could have taken place.

Michael Golay: It occurred because a historically very rare earthquake occurred, and it had consequences that had been recognized as being possible, but the people making decisions there had decided that the risks were low enough that they weren’t going to protect against events as severe as those that occurred.

e360: When the sequence of events began to emerge that triggered the current emergency, were you surprised by what appeared to be some of the laxness of preparation, such as the fact that the auxiliary power was basically at sea level?

Golay: I was surprised by some details, such as the vulnerability of the backup power, because these were things that were certainly not necessary, because there were design choices that were alternatives when they were building the plants. And I was somewhat surprised that they hadn’t considered doing fairly low-cost things which would have provide greater protection, such as elevating the backup power sources, their fuel supplies, the switch gear.

e360: Elevating these things to a few hundred feet or less would have certainly done it.

“The importance of having backup power has been very well recognized in the nuclear enterprise world for a long time.”

Golay: Well, it’s easy in hindsight to be critical. But you’ve got to take a look at that site. What they have, as far as I can tell — I’ve never been there but I’ve looked at the satellite photos — is that they’re got a fairly narrow coastal plain backed by somewhat low mountains. So building the plant up on the mountainside would have probably been a much more expensive proposition, which is I presume why they put the plant where they did. So what I was thinking was using man-made structures to elevate the diesel generators somewhat above potential tsunami height. If you look at the damage in the towns that occurred, it seemed, from what I can tell, to have involved fairly flimsy single and two-story structures — residential structures primarily — and things which are built to more civic and industrial standards of multi stories seemed to have survived reasonably well. Now I’m probably only commenting on the ones that seemed to have survived and I’m probably discounting the ones that didn’t make it and were not visible. But, probably at modest cost, some greater protection could have been gained in this area, and the importance of having backup power has been very well-recognized in the nuclear enterprise world for a long time and certainly the Japanese were aware of this. So one can speculate about their decision-making processes, but I’m telling you what would have been factors they could have considered, and I don’t know why they didn’t consider them more deeply. Certainly they were aware of the hazards.

e360: And it really was the loss of backup power that has set in motion all of the subsequent events?

Golay: Well, it was two things. First was the loss of the [electric] grid, which probably happened because of the earthquake itself. And that, coupled with the lack of backup power, is crucial. But it’s really the loss of the two together. Had either one survived, we wouldn’t be having this phone call. The possibility of tsunami has been well recognized and at this plant there were tsunami barriers, just as there were to protect the towns along the coast. But they proved to be inadequate. But we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that this is really a very rare event. When you build a barrier like that, you always have the question, “How big?” And clearly they missed what happened. But if you were to rewind two weeks ago and ask, “Do you have compelling evidence that you should double the height of your tsunami barrier?”, they could have well asked, “Well, why should I spend money on that as opposed to protecting people in Tokyo from an earthquake that could happen there?”

e360: I’m going to assume that you are a supporter of nuclear power?

Golay: I think it should be part of our portfolio, yeah.

e360: Watching the event itself and this blanket media coverage, how have you reacted to the coverage and what are your concerns about what this might mean for an expansion of nuclear power to meet our energy needs in a low-carbon way?

“What to do about nuclear power is in the category of complex decisions that democracies have trouble with.”

Golay: Basically, what to do about nuclear power is in the category of complex decisions that democracies have trouble with, because they are complex and involve uncertainties, as well as personal values. And I am concerned about how this story is being handled because the nuclear story is being co-mingled with the story of the direct earthquake effects. I was really struck on Monday by a report on the BBC — and I love the BBC, I think they’re responsible — so I don’t think there was anything intentional, but rather their careless treatment, where they did the nuclear story and all the things to be worried about, and then in the next breath they said something about 2,400 people are dead. But nothing in between to say, “Now we’ll shift over to the effects of the earthquake,” nor did they note that these people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami. So people could easily be forgiven for thinking, “Gee, this nuclear thing has killed 2,400 people.” And that kind of thing doesn’t help us think straight about these matters.

So that’s going on, and I’m sure that enthusiasm for using nuclear energy, as opposed to other things that we might do, will probably be set back for a time. If the past is any guide, it will probably recover. That’s what’s happened in other such events. But this thing isn’t over. We don’t know how bad it’s going to be.

e360: Let’s assume that the worst doesn’t happen and there’s not a Chernobyl-like explosion, if that’s even possible here…

Golay: It’s not, but there could be a big release. In terms of the damage to the reactors it’s much more extensive than Three Mile Island. Three Mile Island involved one reactor. They melted a fair chunk of the core. But it wound up being contained and only a very small amount of radioactive material got out of the plant, and nobody in the public was hurt, except perhaps for mental health effects. And Chernobyl was huge, where much of the core was spread over both Middle and Western Europe. So I would put this in between the two in terms of the offsite consequences that have occurred and appear likely to occur. But the amounts of radioactive material involved in this event are larger, I believe, than we had at Chernobyl — that is, potentially. There’s a lot of radioactive material at this site in different locations and so it could end up being an event putting more radioactive material into the biosphere even than Chernobyl, but right now I don’t think we have a basis for fearing that.

“My view is that nuclear power is here to stay, regardless of what our attitudes in the U.S. are towards it.”

What we had at Chernobyl was a violent steam explosion driven by heating from fragmented nuclear fuel, so far as we know. Most of the radioactive material [at Fukushima] is in fuel rods that have been removed from the reactors for quite a long time — years, is what I mean — and then we have smaller numbers, but still large amounts of radioactive material, in fuel rods in the reactor cores or [that] had only been recently removed. So you have a whole spectrum of rods and what they contain, and the key problem is keeping them cool. And you get different reports about how well the plant operators are doing that. They have right now a really difficult situation because they don’t have electric power, they don’t have much instrumentation to tell them what’s going on in the plant. So it’s very difficult.

On the other hand, the thing to really pay attention to here is when they recover electricity. Once they get electricity back, they have the potential to stabilize things much more confidently. And I’m sure that they must be working very hard to do that, although nothing’s being said about it, either by recovering the grid or providing backup power.

e360: If they get the electricity, are their pumping capabilities to get water into these rods and reactors still intact?

Golay: Well, they would have the ability to pump. Right now they’re using fire engines to do that and putting water in, so that’s a pretty crude improvisation, and it will give you some idea of how many options they don’t have. The key thing is whether contamination would make it difficult or impossible for personnel to go into regions of the plant that they would need to get to in order to provide hoses and things like that to get the water to where it’s required. And there’s no way to know what the story is on that.

e360: In terms of moving forward from here, if your desire is to try to ensure that nuclear power remains an option for a low-carbon future, what do you think needs to be done now from the point of view of the nuclear industry to allay public fears? And what steps would you like to see be taken in the U.S. and globally to try and get this so-called nuclear renaissance back on track?

Golay: I’m not worried about the nuclear renaissance now. It was off track before this, and maybe it will get back, I don’t know. We in America tend to think that we’re the most important player in all this, and we’re not. My view is that nuclear power is here to stay, regardless of what our attitudes in the U.S. are toward it. And it may not do well here no matter what. Conditions in the U.S. are not friendly to enterprises like nuclear power. They’re not friendly to much of anything that’s big, actually. So in looking to the future you really should separate what happens here from what happens outside the U.S. And in the U.S., my take in watching this for many decades is that American attitudes are based pretty much heuristically on how much of the nuclear enterprise has stayed out of the media. And that means having boring, repeated operations. And they’ve done a pretty good job of that. And my guess is that if they continue doing that and things calm down, then in the U.S. we’ll decide to keep nuclear power as part of our portfolio.

e360: You were saying it was off track, particularly in the U.S., given that we’ve had no construction for so many years.

Golay: Well, we have four units that are moving forward. By that I mean construction preparations are being made, licensing approvals are being obtained, and there are something like 28 applications for licenses. But after the economic downturn in 2008, the momentum for lots of ambitious enterprises slowed, and the nuclear industry was part of that. That recovery hasn’t yet occurred, and who knows what will happen with these recent events? But our model is, you attract investors who want to make a profit on this kind of thing, and with nuclear, the uncertainties could deter investors.

e360: Are these plants that are being designed or underway, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, are they a good deal safer than the plant in Fukushima, Japan?

Golay: They actually do offer improved performance because they don’t need electric power for both shutdown and cooling. They cool using natural convection. And there are a couple being built now in China, and my guess is that will be more typical of future nuclear power plants worldwide. It’s an American design, a Westinghouse design, but the order actually came from China.

e360: Looking ahead, where do you think this is going to go, assuming you don’t have some tremendous release of radioactivity?

Golay: I think we’ll do what common sense dictates, which is that you take a pause, you examine what you’ve learned, and probably some changes in practice will emerge. That tends to happen after one of these dramatic events, whether it’s nuclear or otherwise, and then you go forward. That’s what I think is likely and it seems to make sense to me.