This response was written by Awareness Team Member & Dramaturg Karen Jean Martinson.
On Wednesday I attended the lecture “The Crisis at Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant” given by Caltech Professor Joseph E. Shepherd, the C. L. “Kelly” Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Shepherd first presented a thorough overview of the reactor design including the safety systems, then he sketched out the probable sequence of events and explained the physical and chemical processes that led to the explosions and fires, all from an engineering perspective. I appreciated his “just the facts” approach to a crisis that can be all too easily politicized. Those debates should also happen, but in a different arena. We need to know what happened if we as a global community are to meaningfully debate our relationship to nuclear power.
Nuclear fission generates a lot of heat; that’s why nuclear power plants work so well. In Chernobyl as in Fukishima, heat from nuclear fission in the core of the reactor boils water, which turns to steam; the steam drives several turbines, which generate electricity; the steam then condenses back into water that is returned to the core to begin the cycle again. As long as this process is maintained and temperatures are kept in check, things go along quite nicely. But if something disrupts the ability to maintain control of the temperatures, the heat makes the situation incredibly dangerous, which is why there are multiple backups and independent and diverse cooling systems. In Japan, the sheer power and magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the system – the facility simply was not built to withstand such force.
I bring all of this up, however, not to explain the basics of nuclear power, but rather to describe a moment I witnessed after the lecture. After Professor Shepherd finished and had answered some public questions, the event officially ended. A small crowd, which included two engineering
students, gathered around him to ask additional questions. Engineers have an extraordinary ability to identify problems and seek out solutions for them, and I watched as these two young woman diagnosed and discussed the situation with the Professor.
The problem: the cooling system required external power. The earthquake disrupted this power. The tsunami flooded the backup generators that run when power is disrupted. The batteries that are a third layer of protection ran for 8 hours until they ran out of power.
A potential solution: run a cooling system with the energy of the reactor itself, thereby eliminating the danger of the loss of external power. Why not use the steam already present to run the cooling system?
This, said Shepherd, is what they were attempting to do at Chornobyl.
I found this whole exchange to be extremely enlightening. I was standing with the best and brightest of our nation’s minds – and they reached the Chornobyl conclusion, which at least tells me that the tests at Chornobyl weren’t completely without scientific merit. The Caltech students were brainstorming, and they had an expert to counsel them as they thought through the problem.
Shepard was able to explain to them how many variables were in play, and he generously helped them see how these variables rendered an idea intended to make the reactor more safe exceedingly unsafe. In Chornobyl, tests proceeded without the realization of how unpredictable a nuclear reactor could be.
The other thing that struck me about the lecture stemmed from Professor Shepherd’s extensive use of satellite images in the course of his presentation. We’ve all seen them: the before and after shots of Japan that lay bare the destruction wrought there. In the days following the earthquake and tsunami, I poured over them, trying to wrap my head around what had happened there. For Shepherd, the images enabled him to make reasoned assessments of the nuclear facility, and at one point he said, in an offhand aside, “Thank God for Google Earth.” This got me thinking about the increasingly open connection we have to each other. I, like so many others, watched the tsunami crash into northern Japan as it happened. I followed updates in real time. I watched news programming from Tokyo, the BBC, Public Broadcasting, and the various cable sites.
Fukushima was reported on from all angles, through all types of media.
In contrast, the Soviet Union was able to downplay the international
ramifications of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster for two days until Sweden reported the increased radioactivity. The official Soviet response was
sluggish; it was only when the severity of the situation could not be denied that the extent of the disaster began to be revealed. News trickled out of the region, often with conflicting stories, and in many ways, this not knowing amplified the fear attached to the disaster. The sort of secrecy
that dominated the Cold War no longer seems possible. With these sorts of disasters – incidents which truly affect the entire globe – transparency is a very reassuring thing.
Karen Jean Martinson is a Scholar, Director and Dramaturg.