Sunday, March 13, 2011

Can Nuclear Power Plants on Taiwan Withstand Earthquakes and Tsunamis?

Can Nuclear Power Plants on Taiwan Withstand Earthquakes and Tsunamis?
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
March 14, 2011

Japan has experienced an "earthquake of the century" measuring 9,0 on the Richter Scale. Its destructive power was terrifying, and captured the world's attention. Two nuclear power plants along the coast, in Fukushima Prefecture, suffered tsunami damage. This is the first time in history that a nuclear power plant has suffered severe damage from an earthquake and tsunami. Did its safety features work as intended? As of today, the eastern Japan earthquake has been the only real world test of nuclear safety measures against natural disasters.

Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants One and Three face the most serious threat. They are in danger of level one reactor core meltdowns. Once this happens, no one can predict how far the radioactive contaminants might spread. The Japanese government has expanded the size of the evacuation zone, from ten kilometers from to twenty kilometers. It has evacuated hundreds of thousands of residents. But that number is about to increase.

This was a super earthquake. The public on Taiwan is particularly sensitive to the dangers of earthquakes. Taiwan too is in a seismic zone. Taiwan too has three nuclear power plants close to the sea. Following the east Japan earthquake, a tsunami warning was issued for Taiwan's northeastern coast. This is where Nuclear Plants One and Two are located. As a result the public is deeply concerned about the spread of radioactive contaminants. They hope radioactive contaminants will not spread to Taiwan. The prospecgt has provoked controversy, and received substantial media coverage.

At one time the Three Mile Island nuclear incident in the US, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union commanded the media's attention. But distinctions must be made. The Three Mile Island reactor core did in fact melt down. But the power plant's safety provisions contained the radioactive contaminants within the structure. No contaminants leaked or affected local residents. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant on the other hand, had a completely different design. It was unlike most Western-style nuclear power plants. The biggest difference was a highly flammable graphite reactor core, instead of a design enabling containment and defense in depth. Human negligence also contributed to the catastrophic explosion. Large amounts of radioactive contaminants were released. An estimated 30 million people were affected.

Now compare the three nuclear power plants on Taiwan with Fukushima Nuclear Plants One and Three. All three are Boiling Water Reactors. All three have the same basic design. But the power plants at Fukushima were built in the 1950s. Nuclear Plants Number One and Two on Taiwan were built during the 1970s and 1980s. Twenty to thirty years of improvements, resulted in a more secure design and better construction materials.

Their safety concepts and design features may be very different. But the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant teaches us an important lesson about nuclear power generation on Taiwan. Violent and sudden changes have occurred in the earth's climate. Earthquake intensity has steadily increased. Huge earthquakes of magnitude seven, eight, or even nine on the Richter Scale are now common. Will nuclear power plants built according to the old seismic design standards still hold up? After 20 or 30 years of operation, are these power plants still as safe as they were when originally designed?

Nuclear power plants on Taiwan must face another problem. We have detailed records for natural disasters. But we lack information tsunamis. The current nuclear power plants were designed to resist 12 meter high waves. But the south Asian tsunami waves already exceeded this height. And no one can guarantee that no more earthquakes or tsunamis will occur in the future. In fact, the probability is high. Government agencies must conduct detailed reviews, and establish detailed preventive measures, in advance.

The east Japan earthquake has once again demonstrated Japanese self-restraint and calm in the face of disaster. Ten to twenty million people were evacuated. Traffic in the disaster area was blocked the entire night. But no one lost his patience or sounded his horns. One could not characterize it as orderly. But few traffic disputes or arguments occurred. Such behavior is an indicator of national character. It is also the result of public understanding and peacetime training.

On Taiwan, by contrast, nuclear power plant disaster exercises are just that -- exercises. No one takes them seriously. No one engages in genuine disaster relief efforts. Frankly, many members of the public merely show up for free lunches and to party. Admittedly the public has never attached much importance to these exercises. But government agencies have also failed to promote them properly, They have failed to make the public aware of the importance of disaster prevention. They have failed to inculcate disaster prevention awareness.

Nuclear safety on Taiwan must take into account the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Mainland China currently has a dozen nuclear power plants in operation. Most are located on the southeast coast. Over ten are currently under construction. The two sides are close. They often share the same weather system. In the event of a radiation leak, it is likely they will affect each other. Domestic experts have long called for the establishment of a nuclear safety reporting system, as soon as possible. Such a system must be established, even if it is never used. Alas, this "technical" problem is something the two sides never discuss.

The Japanese have long maintained high standards for industrial safety. Its nuclear safety record in particular, has been exemplary. But in recent years, a string of human errors have led to nuclear safety accidents. Japan's safety record has been shattered. Today, Japan faces a nuclear disaster, caused by a natural disaster. It is testing the resilience and self-confidence of the Japanese people. A neighboring nation has suffered a misfortune, We empathize with its people. The government and public must also acquire a new understanding of nuclear safety. All aspects of nuclear safety, including psychology, design specifications, and security systems, must be bolstered. If we fail to do everything humanly possible, then we cannot place all the blame on natural disasters.

中國時報  2011.03.14












No comments: