Japan's economy in melt-down

SUBHEAD: The cost of recovering after the earthquake, tsunami and failure of several nuclear facilities will be too much for Japan's economy to bear.

 By Steve Ludlum on 12 March 2011 in Economic Undertow

Image above: Disappearance of #1 nuclear containment building in Fukushima Japan. From (http://www.earth-issues.com/2011/03/radiation-down-at-japan-nuke-plant-after-blast).

One thing you can say about the waste-based economy as it exists the world's stage is that it does so with a certain swagger. The National Football League is shut down for the foreseeable future. Can the US government be far behind? What's more important to national security? Greek and Irish debt instruments are priced at default levels.

Spain and Portugal are poised at the edge of the debt void. Italy's investment relationship with Libya looks increasingly faulty for both parties. The waves of uncertainty in the Eurozone reflects stress on credit market mechanisms resulting from competition for capital.

This competition takes place between governments, oil dependent businesses, banks and motorists. This is EU's all-out war between cars and their human slaves. Right now the cars are winning.

In Libya, the civil war intensifies. The revolt of the putative Middle-East's middle class is elsewhere on 'pause'. The propellant for unrest -- a Hollywood way of life that is vanishing fast and must be grasped for -- is intensifying.

The events in Japan drive a stake through the heart of the idea that the world's economic dependency on consumer waste can be retrieved by adding more nuclear reactors. Right now there are an undetermined number of reactors on the ropes with one already subject to an explosion. You can come to your own conclusions about the severity of this current crisis. Several things are clear:
  • The establishment soft-pedals the event and its consequences.
  • The six reactors at one site and two at another are not going to be put back into service any time soon, if ever.
  • The money costs associated with these eight reactors have no practical upper limit. The reactor crisis is at the beginning. One reactor has already experienced core melting. How about all eight?
Here is what the New York Times says about the situation:
Heat from the nuclear fuel rods must be removed by water in a cooling system, but that requires power to run the pumps, align the valves in the pipes and run the instruments. The plant requires a continuous supply of electricity even after the reactor stops generating power.
Reactors do useful work the same way other steam boilers do, by exploiting or 'arbitraging' the heat differential between the reactor core and a heat sink or condenser.

The Japanese reactors at issue are boiling-water reactors. This means the sink is a heat exchanger in line with the generator turbine and the reactor core. Heat flows from the reactor in the form of superheated steam, though generator turbines to a series of heat exchangers.

The last of these is immersed in cold sea water. The heat exchangers cool the steam to water which is pumped back into the reactor. Work results from energy flowing from the core through the turbine to the condenser.  

Radioactive water is cycled through the turbine and the primary heat exchanger all of which are located within the reactor containment building.

This is the structure that was destroyed in this morning's explosion. The Tokyo establishment suggests that little or no radiation has escaped indicating the shed surrounding the containment exploded instead of the containment itself.. The violence of the explosion and the response of the plant managers to flood 'the reactor' with sea water indicates that containment was damaged.

The containment is a shell or vault of reinforced concrete walls several feet thick. There is an access door or lid that can be removed so that the reactor itself can be refueled and equipment replaced or serviced. The pressure vessel within the containment is a forged steel pot like a pressure cooker that is also massively thick and strong. Ironically, many of the world's pressure vessels are made by the Japan Steel Works, Ltd.

Immediately after the quake hit, the turbines were shut down. The reactor computers automatically forced control rods into the reactor to quell the fission reactions. Heat still flowed though the condensers and heat exchanger loops but at a diminishing rate.

 Even as the reactions slow to a crawl the the fuel and water along with the pressure vessels and associated equipment are still intensely hot.

A small amount of reactivity takes place inside the reactor due to decay heat. The heat sink must remain functional so as to remove the remaining heat from the core and achieve 'cold shut down'.

This takes about 48 hours. The reactor operators rely on grid power to pump water needed to cool the core. Backing up the grid are diesel generators to run the pumps then batteries then a steam-powered pump that runs on the latent reactor heat. There is a lot of plumbing and vulnerable heat-transfer equipment inside the containment.

If this equipment fails there is no way to take heat out of the reactor core. In order to effectively shed heat some complete heat transfer mechanism must remain intact. That is, a way must remain to cause cooling water to flow through the core to a condenser or heat exchanger with sufficient cooling capacity to pull latent heat out of the core.

What has taken place in the two power stations at five reactors is the earthquake-related failure of the heat- transfer infrastructure. Grid power failed immediately, diesel generators failed after an hour and batteries died after four hours. The report last night was that a local fire department was pumping water into the reactor containment.

Nothing was said about where this water went. No mention was made of the steam powered pumps failing but one or more obviously did. With the failure to take heat from the core, cooling water turned to steam and boiled off.

Without new water flowing into the reactor core some of the fuel became exposed. One consequence is the failure of control rods to quell core reactions. The reactor fuel gets hotter and the fuel rods warp and buckle.

The fuel bundles themselves spontaneously catch on fire. This is why water boiling off in the pressure vessel is so dangerous. Exposed fuel rods collapse and fuel pellets fall to the bottom of the vessel. The control rods are destroyed or hang uselessly above the fuel. The nuclear reaction and fierce heat caused the zirconium alloy fuel rod cladding to break down into component elements including hydrogen.

The hydrogen bubbled to the top of the pressure vessel and vented into the confinement either as the result by managers aiming to relieve pressure inside the vessel or as the consequence of open valves or broken heat transfer piping.

Hydrogen and oxygen buildup within the confinement structure along with steam caused the explosion. This is evidence that fuel in the reactor melted down and that the heat transfer circuits are broken.

Even if the pressure vessel inside the containment is intact, the heat transfer connections between the pressure vessel and the condenser were sufficiently damaged to allow steam and gases to vent into the containment. The Time's report fails to mention the heat sink or condenser. Water pumped into the core must flow somewhere carrying heat with it.

The only way to avoid a release of radioactive water is if the heat- transfer circuits are intact and electric power can be supplied to run the pumps to circulate cooling water through the core. The operators just now flooded the remains of the confinement with sea water and boron in an attempt to cool the core. This suggests the containment was not completely destroyed and that the pressure vessel is open. If the vessel is closed the pressures will build inside it.

The explosion suggests that pressures within the vessel were too high for the backup cooling systems to overcome and new water could not be added to the pressure vessel. The explosion itself relieved pressure within the core: if the pressure vessel is intact adding more water will simply result in another explosion if the water cannot circulate between the vessel and the containment.

Added water will flow through the pressure vessel filled with tons of intensely radioactive fuel in the now-damaged core and dump into the containment. There is no other way: either the pressure vessel is open allowing cooling seawater to flow into the vessel and out again carrying heat and radioactivity or the pressure vessel is closed and the reactor heat will cause further damage, perhaps a second explosion.

This coolant loss scenario is exactly what took place at Three Mile Island in 1978. Water was pumped into the pressure vessel and allowed to flood the confinement through an open valve. Here are some differences between the current situation and TMI:
  • The TMI containment was not breached. The containment had the capacity for millions of gallons of radioactive water which was kept separate from the outside world. The Fukushima plant's containment is demolished and has unknown capacity for waste water. If the foundations are broken any radioactive wastewater will seep outside.
  • Replacement gear could be had at once from the surrounding area. TMI was not cut off by the earthquake and resulting tsunami.
  • There was only one reactor at risk at Three Mile Island, not five. (TMI #1 was shut down for maintenance in 1979.)
  • The TMI reactor was not where contaminants can easily flow into the ocean.
There has to be a flow of water to remove the latent heat from the core. The confinement floor and the atmosphere are the heat sink. The outcome will be a release of radioactive material through the confinement into the atmosphere and perhaps the sea. It is hard to say which technical outcome will emerge. Multiply this times five and you can see that the Japanese are up against a massive set of largely self-inflicted difficulties.
  • Nuclear power plants just became unaffordably expensive.
  • Japan faces an existential crisis. Prior embraces of modernity have ended badly for Japan. This one looks to end worst of all. Small villages and densely industrialized commercial zones were equally damaged. Small villages cost a farthing to rebuild compared to the massive expense of replacing refinery bits, industrial plants and the reactors. The industrial bits return 'foreign exchange', whatever that is. The price tag for this is a massive pollution event, the outcome of which is impossible to determine. When pundits suggest that 'another Chernobyl' is unlikely, that outcome becomes the most probable.
  • Japan's economy has just failed. Even if the reactor crisis can be managed, the costs of replacing the lost capacity and decommissioning the five failed reactors look to exceed what the deflation- battered Japanese economy can bear. Add to this the massive costs to clean up and rebuild after the earthquake and tsunami damage.
This natural disaster is the latest in a series of blows to the world-wide insurance industry. Modernity relies on a very minimum level of input/externality costs.

Between protests, wars, oil input price hikes and the shrinkage of the skilled labor pool the input costs are being repriced with a vengeance. Everything 'Made in Japan' is going to get much more expensive. There is no choice since there is no other source of new money to the Japanese other than her customers.

At the same time, the ability of the same customers to pay is diminishing. The earthquake and melt-downs do not add anything to purchasing power. It's just the costs are jumping.  
Video above: Footage of #1 Reactor at Fukushima nuclear facility exploding after earthquake in Japan. From (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJ1wFkayp20).


1 comment :

  1. It is too bad to paint such a gloomy picture of Japan. The Japanese experienced quite a few big earhtquakes, they were hit by two nuclear bombs and they recovered. Yes, there is some hardship for a large number of people, but they have very good attitude and they believe in themselves, plus their organizational skills are excellent. They will persevere. And "made in Japan" will be more expensive? Maybe, so will "Made in America".