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Figure 1 shows the design of the Fukushima plant’s main components. The red numbers identify equipment and areas where the design was unsafe. One of the worst errors in all BWR designs around the world, including the American ones, is that the cooling water pumps could operate only at low pressures. Therefore, as the reactor temperature and the steam pressure increased, they could no longer pump the cooling water and first required the venting of the radioactive steam (“feed and bleed”). Also, in a properly designed plant, means would have been provided to lower the steam pressure by condensing the high pressure steam and return it with the feedwater.
Another major design deficiency common to most early reactors was that no piping was provided to pump water from the outside into the reactors or into the spent fuel rod ponds. This and the lack of elevated water storage provided with separate diesel generator operated pumps made it impossible to use mobile portable pumps, which should have been stored at the plant. Actually, neither stored fresh water, nor diesel fuel or portable pumps were in storage at the plant. This made it necessary to dump sea water from helicopters and fire trucks.
The 140 tons of fuel rods (8) were in the reactors. The fuel rods were provided with four levels of protection: The first was the zirconium cladding on the fuel rods. The second was the wall of the reactor vessel (11). The third was the primary containment (3), and the fourth, the secondary containment, the reactor building itself. In case of the Fukushima plant, both the building and the primary containment were well-designed as (to my knowledge) they were not damaged by neither the earthquake nor by the 45-ft high waves of the tsunami, which were still about 18 ft high (20) when they reached the plant.
The earthquake destroyed the electric power supply of the plant (the connection to the grid) which by itself should not have been a serious problem, because backup diesel generators (18) were provided. It seems they failed because they were not elevated and the 18-ft waves of the tsunami reached and damaged them. The reason for their being installed at low elevation was probably both convenience and concern for their stability. The destruction of these generators could have occurred because water entered the diesel fuel tanks and sank to the bottom because water is heavier than the diesel fuel. As the engine takes its fuel supply from the bottom of the tanks, water instead of oil reached it. It is also possible that the air intakes of the engines were not elevated and ended up under water. If either or both of these conditions existed, the engine could not operate.
The secondary battery backup (19) was of no use either because it was drastically undersized. It provided only about eight hours worth of electricity, while about ten times that would have been needed to supply the electricity needed for a safe shutdown. (It should be noted here that of the 104 American reactors, 93 are provided with only four-hour battery backups). Another problem in the Fukushima plant was the lack of automatic battery recharging. This could have been provided because the plant was still generating steam at a rate of about 5% of full capacity and, therefore, some of the turbine-generators could have been kept in operation.
No other backup was provided at the Fukushima plant. This is unfortunate, because electricity itself is not essential to cool the reactors. For example, if emergency cooling water tanks were provided on the roof, would have made it possible to charge water just by gravity, and if those tanks were properly sized, the accident could have been prevented.
Similarly, in any plant where excess energy is present, that excess energy can be used directly to run the plant and its cooling systems. This could have been done by providing backup pumps with steam or Stirling type heat drives. The design of the Fukushima plant did not provide for any of these options.
Probably the worst design defect was the under-sizing of the spent fuel rod storage pool. This was a universal practice 40 years ago, because everybody assumed that means for permanent storage would shortly be available, but that never occurred. Therefore, at the Fukushima plant 1760 tons of spent fuel rods were in the temporary storage pool (10 times the amount the pools were designed for), requiring continuous cooling to protect against a meltdown. The melting of these spent fuel rods outside the primary containment (3) also caused hydrogen explosions and release of radioactivity. The running out of space in the temporary storage pools is a common problem all over the world because permanent and earthquake proof storage facilities are still not available anywhere.
Some improved storage technology did evolve over the years, such as storing the spent fuel rods in dry casks and/or underground, but these storages are also only temporarily. What is even worse is that, while the temporary storage facilities are getting full, governments are not concentrating on building permanent ones. For example, in President Obama's 2011 budget proposal, all funding for nuclear waste disposal was eliminated. So as of today, nearly 500 nuclear power plants around the world operate without permanent means of storing the waste they produce.
Part 2 of this series (July, 2011) will describe the changes needed in the design of American plants to make them safer and focus on the needed additions of automatic safety controls.