Six years since the worst natural disaster of the decade – Fukushima. The most extreme fears of nuclear meltdown did not materialise. Still, a number of silver linings have emerged from even this tragedy. For starters, it expanded the boundaries of thinking about “black swan” worst case possibilities for designers and regulators. Subsequent reviews of nuclear facilities around the world have uncovered flooding vulnerabilities that escaped previous inspections. While the costs of clean up, recovery and lingering radiation continue to be borne, also consider the potential disasters averted and lives saved from the lessons of this cruel classroom.
What’s the best way to prepare for and learn from mistakes? Even the disasters of the worst kind? Make them happen. That is what scientists are doing with one of the most nightmarish failures of modern life – the nuclear reactor meltdown. Like one of the biggest in history that happened four years ago today at Fukushima.
The Argonne National Laboratory have contrived a way to create an nuclear meltdown in a controlled laboratory environment as described in this article, “First look at nuclear fuel in a meltdown”…
- “Scientists have managed to take their first close-up look at what happens to nuclear fuel when it becomes molten, as it would in a nuclear reactor meltdown. In an innovative lab experiment, they discovered that uranium dioxide fuel behaves differently when molten than in its solid state…Uranium dioxide melts at over 3000°C, far too hot for most furnace container materials which would melt and react with the test samples…The melting of the uranium dioxide fuel represent the first stage of any nuclear meltdown…In a real nuclear reactor core meltdown, such as occurred at both the Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai’ichi plants, the molten uranium dioxide melts and reacts with the zirconium metal cladding on the fuel rods, and with the surrounding steel and concrete structure, forming a lava which scientists have called corium.”
The researches want to witness first-hand what actually happens in such an event. Standard operating procedure for such tragedies is to escape as quickly as possible. So there is not a lot of opportunity to hang around and check out what’s going on. Unless, you make such a failure happen on your own terms.
As it happens, our son Chase landed in Japan today. He is chronicling his 300+ mile walk from Tokyo to Kyoto along the ancient “Tōkaidō” (East Sea Road) connecting them with field recordings at each of the 53 stations along the route. He will be sharing his work on his own blog, “Dōchūki”.
Japan’s current crisis is the classic example of the ‘double failure’. Most people embrace failure with contingency plans for the inevitable visit by Murphy. The real problem then happens when Plan B fails as well. The spare tire in the boot…that is also flat. Japan is well prepared for earthquakes, but the tsunami on top of it was a double blow combo that overwhelmed the most carefully thought out plans of the Fukushima nuclear power station.
Bob Sullivan writes a brilliant piece ‘Why ‘Plan B’ often works out badly’ which examines the increasingly inexorable spectre of failure in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Another problem with the increasingly ‘black box’ nature of the world is the heightened difficulty of embrace its failure with effective Plan Bs. He examines different types of failure such as ‘synchronisation failures’ and ‘bad fallback plans’.
“Engineers used to talk about guarding against the ‘single point of failure’ when designing critical systems like aircraft control systems or nuclear power plants. But rarely does one mistake or event cause a catastrophe. As we’ve seen in Japan, disaster is usually a function of multiple mistakes and a string of bad luck, often called an ‘event cascade’ or ‘propagating failures.’… Making matters worse is the ever-increasing interconnectedness of systems, which leads to cascading failures, and the fact that preventative maintenance is a dying art…History is replete with stories of failed backups — in fact, it’s fair to say nearly all modern disasters involve a Plan B gone bad.
His call to action is renewed embrace of the ‘dying art’ of preventative maintenance that embraces not just the possibility, but the growing likelihood of failures.