The incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan shows how vulnerable we are to scenario’s that ar not predictable. A nuclear power plant is the most controlled and checked environment to ensure the safety of a whole nation. But then a simple earthquake can take out all the safety and back-up safety plans and create a disaster.
What happened (according to what the press writes) was, due to the earthquake there was a buildup of hydrogen gas that exploded and blew the roof of the first reactor. Nothing wrong with the nuclear reactor, no significant radiation leakage. Then the tsunami came and caused a major power outage with the result that the cooling systems to the reactor failed. Overheating of the reactor core will lead to a build-up of heat causing a meltdown like in Chernobyl in the Sovjet Union.
Of course there are several back-up plans, like a diesel powered generator and in last resort batteries. These back-up cooling systems all failed due to the tsunami so there is was no cooling of the reactors possible. Now they are trying to cool them down with seawater adding boron to slow down the reactions in the reactor. These are the last ditch attempts to stop a meltdown from happening.
Even if they are able to stop the worst from happening this plant will never be used again due to the use of seawater they used to flood the facility. This just shows that a nuclear power plant can never be safe enough. The plants in China are earthquake proof, but just not an 8.9 earthquake. There will always be a ‘but’ when it comes to safety, and all you need is one disaster…
The use of one big power plant for a nation made me think of the TED video that Tristan posted. There they mentioned small reactors that can be used to power town or cities, they are burried in the ground and work for long periods of time without being serviced. Maybe these are some viable options if we want to continue with nuclear energy. Smaller plants mean more control and smaller problems.