How nuclear reactor design played a role in Fukushima crisis

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On Monday, PBS Newshour had a special report on the Fukushima nuclear crisis with Miles O'Brien and David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. The breaking "what's happening now" parts of this are somewhat outdated at this point—apologies for not getting it up sooner—but there's some really interesting tidbits in here about nuclear power plant design, what was weird about Fukushima Daiichi, and what is different between this power plant and nuclear power plants in the United States.

From the transcript:

GWEN IFILL: And is what we just saw in those pictures, is that what we have here in the United States? Is it the same kind of setup?

MILES O'BRIEN: Well, basically, our structures are a little beefier than this.

And one important point which I should tell everybody is that the diesel fuel tanks for the auxiliary generators which keep the water pumping are all buried here in the United States. These tanks were above ground, for reasons that a lot of engineers can't fully understand.

This is, after all, a seismically active area, the Ring of Fire. And the Japanese, after all, invented the term tsunami. So, the fact that they had fuel tanks of diesel to run these generators, this last-resort generator, above ground has people mystified.

GWEN IFILL: One of these reactors went online in 1971. Is the age of the plant significant in this case?

DAVID BRENNER: I think it is. I think it's actually key to the — to the whole scenario.

You know, that's 40 years ago. The actual lifetime of this reactor was scheduled to be 25 years. And, really, what we see is, as you have just heard, that the backup systems were really not as good as they should have been. And, as time has gone on over the years, the newer plants have better and better and more and more backup systems in place.

This plant actually had only one backup system, the secondary generators. And when they failed, there was nothing. And that's not the case with any modern nuclear reactor. So, it is crucial that this was a 1971 machine.

It's stuff like this that led Germany to shut down eight of its older nuclear reactors for the next three months, just to make sure there aren't similar safety flaws that have gone unnoticed there.

If you want to understand a bit more about nuclear reactor design there's a couple of new news stories that talk about the design's role in the current Fukushima crisis:

• New York Times: A Nuclear Shock Felt Round the World Could Resonate For Years

• The Economist: Japan's Nuclear Industry—the Risks Exposed

I would also highly recommend reading the MIT report on the future of nuclear energy. This paper is written to be readable by non-scientists, and it gets into the design differences—and the safety implications of those differences—between the generations of reactors.