Fukushima – 10 Years Later

By Achim Klüppelberg

On 11 March 2011, Japan’s east coast fell victim to the Tōhoku earthquake. The earth shook for several minutes, causing a huge tsunami, 370 km from Tokyo in the Pacific. As a consequence of both, earthquake and tsunami, several nuclear power plants suffered damage. The one most affected was Fukushima-Daiichi. In the course of the following days, three of six nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns. In reactor four, serious damage through hydrogen explosions occurred.

How was that possible? Japan is located in an area highly prone to earthquakes. In the past, there were multiple occasions on which earthquakes were followed by tsunamis, causing substantial damage to the built environment along Japan’s coasts. When building a nuclear power plant, designers and decision-makers, clearly, need to minimize the plant’s vulnerability to external events. A key question is how to do this when it comes to events that occur only once in a century, millennium, or every ten thousand years.

The reactors in Fukushima-Daiichi were constructed between 1967 and 1979. This was also the time when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant started to be built. In an effort to increase safety and in stark contrast to their Soviet counterparts, the Japanese designed their reactors with containments, which added a layer of protection against the unwanted spread of radionuclides. While the Soviet Union also built power plants in seismically active areas – notably in Armenia – the Japanese plants had higher standards when it came to anti-earthquake safety. All in all, the Japanese reactors were state-of-the-art facilities and with regard to safety on par with those in countries such as the United States, France or Sweden.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f5/HD.15.055_%2811839699333%29.jpg
The construction site of the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant around 1971. Author: U.S. Department of Energy, Public Domain.

So what happened? In essence, safety considerations were not taking exceptional disasters of the scope of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami into account. In other words, the magnitude of the earthquake and the height of the tsunami were simply greater than the maximum anticipated strain on the nuclear power plant. The plant operator, TEPCO, did not consider an earthquake of magnitude 9 to be a “credible event” in the Japan Trench, as the IAEA concluded in its 2015 report on the accident. TEPCO did not find it economically justifiable to invest in measures to protect the plant against such an event. As NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius writes in a forthcoming article, the company did consult historical earthquake and tsunami reports, but the conclusion was that although immense tsunamis did occur from time to time along the coast, no tsunami higher than 5.7 meters had ever been recorded in the particular stretch of coast where the Fukushima NPP was located.

Soon, a Japanese parliamentary panel declared that the disaster was not only a natural one. It was also a human-made one, because official institutions believed that measures taken were sufficient and that the cost-safety calculations were appropriate. This is correct, since humans created this envirotechnical system, in which the nuclear power plant was integrated into the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Environmental historian Sarah Pritchard (Confluence) takes inspiration from Charles Perrow’s normal accident theory and Thomas P. Hughes analyses of technological systems. Following these scholars, accidents inevitably happen in complex human-made systems. The creation of the nuclear technological system, of which Fukushima-Daiichi was part, embedded high-risk large-scale technology into an environment prone to natural disasters. Pritchard argues that the Tōhoku earthquake and the ensuing tsunami did not rupture the envirotechnical system between the power plant and the Pacific Ocean, but instead altered it. Water is still being used as a coolant, only this time the reactor has emitted radioactive substances into the sea.

For Pritchard, both the nuclear station and the aquatic system are still bound to and interwoven with each other. This becomes clear when studies find tritium in the groundwater, showing that the envirotechnical system extends beyond the obvious connection to the Pacific. This further leads to the question of how to deal with the accumulating nuclear waste from the plant, much of it in the form of contaminated water stored in tanks on site.

For TEPCO water was both a saviour that made it possible to re-establish cooling of the molten reactor cores and a medium of contamination at the same time. Currently, the operator struggles with securing the rests of the destroyed reactor cores and storing them somehow safely on land. Radioactivity prevents a lot of the decommissioning work. The reactor cores need permanent cooling to prevent further uncontrolled nuclear reactions. Due to the initial destruction of the cooling circuits and the following makeshift replacements, water was not kept within and reused as coolant, as it leaked into the reactor building. From there, it was pumped out, treated and stored outside the plant. On several occasions, it was ultimately dumped into the Pacific. At the time of writing, no end to this problem is in sight.

In connection with the ten-year-anniversary of this tragedy, I was interviewed by the local Greenpeace Group Gießen, Germany. We discussed issues of safety, the current situation at Fukushima and the exciting question of whether nuclear energy could be useful in the context of the current climate crisis.

The interview can be watched here.

This year, we will also commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Therefore, it makes sense to reflect upon the role that nuclear energy plays in global and European energy supply. This is even more true in view of the fact that the nuclear industries in France, Britain, Sweden and other countries face tough decisions whether or not to reinvest into the aging nuclear infrastructure, the alternative being renewable energy sources.

Lithuania’s nuclear history, covid-19 and the search for archival sources

By Achim Klüppelberg

The current covid-19 crisis challenges our usual ways of conducting research. While the spring term might have gone by without too many impairments (although digitisation and the cancellation of conferences and workshops leaves some marks), by now several researchers face the problem of inaccessible archives. Albeit this also stalls my work, I was lucky to slip through a narrow window of opportunity. While spending the summer in Germany, where infection numbers were at that time considerably low, I was able to profit from Lithuania’s State Archives’ reopening. After brief consultations with my supervisors and our administration it became clear: I had green light to finally dig again into Soviet nuclear documents.

On 12 August I arrived in Vilnius. At first, I made myself familiar with the archival opportunities this city offers. Unfortunately, my 10-day-visit did not suffice to exhaust the various archives. I first visited the Modern State Archive. Despite the fact that they eventually did not have the documents I was searching for, they provided me with a contact at the Archive of Technical Documentation at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. This was where I headed next to.

Ignalina is actually a town 50 km south of nuclear power plant and has no obvious connection to it. The plant was earlier called (in Russian) the Drukshaiskaya NPP, after the lake that provided it with ample cooling water: Lake Drūkšiai. However, naming it after Ignalina seemed easier.

After a two-hour train ride I reached the nuclear town of Visaginas. Visaginas was earlier called Sniečkus after a former first secretary of the Lithuanian branch of the Soviet Communist Party. It was built to host about 35,000 people, but the population has now fallen to 18,000. Visaginas provided the base for people employed at Ignalina NPP and is still today mostly Russian-speaking. Obviously, the nuclera power plant shaped the vibe in Visaginas in many respects.

Taking advice from my fellow PhD student at KTH, Daniele Valisena, I explored the two-hour way from Visaginas to the power plant on foot. It was a very scenic experience and let me soon astray from the main road leading to the plant. It was very sunny and warm. Not many people were around in this somehow eerie landscape in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, close to Latvia’s Daugavpils and Belarus’ Braslaŭ.

I found myself walking through a small dacha village called Vishnya. Here, people were gardening and small-scale farming a short distance from the nuclear power plant, which hosted the biggest reactors of the world during the 1980s. It was a strange feeling, in view of a history of incidents and accidents at the plant. From the village I went through a forest towards the plant. Soon I reached a beautiful small cemetery with carefully kept graves. While Lake Drūkšiai was supposed to be very close to me, I did neither see its waters nor noticed its presence in any other way.

After a thorough fight with mosquitoes for the sovereignty over my legs, arms and neck, I soon saw the tops of the power plant’s huge transformer station. Given my experiences with Russian security, I was actually expecting someone to stop me, as I slowly but steadily approached the nuclear power plant. But nothing happened. When Lithuania entered the European Union, it had to agree to decommission the power plant due to the similarity of its reactors with those at Chernobyl. More than three quarters of the money for decommissioning came from the European Union, which, together with Lithuania’s turn towards a freer society, changed priorities from secrecy to openness. Soon I reached unhindered the formal entrance of the power plant.

After a short orientation, I entered the Archive of Technical Documentation and spoke with my contact there. Although I was provided with additional valuable literature and information, I was put off until I would be granted formal access by the leadership of the plant. This could not be acquired while I was in Lithuania, but I might get the chance to come back and follow up on this lead in the future.

On my way back I walked past an installation for the storage of low-level radioactive waste, with a conveyor belt stemming directly from the main building of the plant. This made me wonder what actually was going on inside and how the progress of the decommissioning was getting along. Opinions are split on this issue.

After my trip to Ignalina I spent the rest of my time searching through files in Lithuania’s Central State Archives. A personal highlight was here the discussion of how to make Ignalina NPP safer in the wake of the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe. It was very fortunate that I was able to visit Lithuania. The trip provided me with a first archival overview, some crucial source documents, and very valuable impressions and photographs. Hopefully, we can soon all go back to our data, sources, and interview partners as we used to do. There is so much more to explore.

Uranium mining, radioactive waste and the nuclear fuel cycle

By Achim Klüppelberg

Last Tuesday NUCLEARWATERS guest Andrei Stsiapanau and I interviewed Dima Litvinov on his experiences from being Greenpeace’s representative in Russia. Among other issues, Russian nuclear waste handling during the 1990s became a main topic of our conversation.

While the interview as such was very stimulating for us as nuclear historians, two things stayed in my thoughts afterwards. First, the characteristics of the nuclear fuel cycle and secondly the role of water in it. As NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius has argued, in reality there is no such thing as a fuel “cycle” – proclamations of the nuclear industry notwithstanding. Instead, the management of nuclear fuel follows a linear process. With the mining of uranium it has a clear beginning and with the storage of nuclear waste it has its end. The actual amount of recycled fuel elements can in some cases prolong its lifetime, but they will still ultimately end up as waste. Dima shared with us his experiences of both the mining and the storage aspect. It became apparent that water has been a very crucial component in both. Unfortunately, water is often the carrier of radionuclide emissions in both instances, as it is used as a cleaning agent in the mining process and as a medium for storage in the case of historical dumping of nuclear waste into the sea.

In other words, water is crucial not only for the operation of nuclear power plants, but in virtually all segments of nuclear fuel systems. If we want to improve nuclear safety, water hence needs to be accounted for in our studies of the nuclear industry as a whole.

Nuclear waters at the centre of a Soviet technocratic culture analysis

By Achim Klüppelberg

“In designing the water-graphite reactors used at Chernobyl, Soviet nuclear engineers chose specific design features that made serious – albeit not catastrophic – accidents all but inevitable.”1

Soviet nuclear power plants in the vast majority of cases depended on water as a necessary and safeguarding coolant. But where should one get enough of it in the largely land-locked territory of the Soviet Union? Soviet technocratic planners happily took on this challenge. Over the centuries, the country’s grand rivers, notably the Volga, the Don and the Dnepr, had hosted urban centres and industries, providing them with much-needed water resources. So why not use the immense flow of these waterways for harnessing a new and even greater industry – that of the peaceful atom? The Soviet civilian nuclear programme was one of the most ambitious of the world. Before 1986, the year in which Chernobyl struck, the nuclear industry held grand prospects for further investment and development. Being a country as vast as the USSR, in which 75% of the population lived in the west while 80% of (mostly fossil) energy resources were located in the east, technocratic planners envisioned nuclear power as one way to secure a stable energy supply, especially for industrial hotspots in western Russia and eastern Ukraine.2

Soviet projections in the 1980s stated that nuclear energy, together with coal, would be the only realistic choice for the future production of electricity, leaving hydro power deliberately out of the picture.3 Facing these circumstances, the nuclear inner circle decided, or so it seems, to turn a blind eye to possible detrimental consequences to both the natural environment and human populations, in order to reinvigorate an ailing Soviet economy and facilitate the advent of Communism.

In 1979 only 4.5% of the energy mix of the USSR actually derived from nuclear electricity production.4 Despite well-developed hydropower resources the country was excessively dependent on fossil fuels and stayed so until the red empire’s dissolution in 1991.5 However, Soviet technocrats mobilized tremendous resources into the development of the nuclear industry, hoping to diversify the Soviet energy mix. At the union level central planners agreed to increase nuclear power production from 16 GWe in 1982 to 90 GWe in 1990 and then even further to 200 GWe in 2000, hence aiming to increase nuclear power output 12.5-fold in just 18 years.6 In fact, by 1990 the Soviet Union had succeeded in installing 38.3 GWe.7 Although falling considerably short of the planned goal, these numbers show how technocratic planners in the Soviet Union at least partly managed to implement their vision of a nuclear future for their country.

But how did they use the country’s water resources to their advantage? Rivers, lakes and seashores could be prepared to host nuclear power stations, but each of them had important implications for local stakeholders, such as fisheries, agriculture and local municipalities. It is clear that water was, on the one hand, a limiting factor for the construction of nuclear power plants due to the necessity of sufficient coolant, and, on the other, an interconnecting trans-systemic substance, which incorporated the nuclear industry into the Soviet socio-economic utopia. My part of the NUCLEARWATERS project strives to investigate this linkage between technocratic culture and water, between central planning ambitions and atomic waterways and between communist historical-materialist ideals and nature’s essence of life. Only by investigating this complex of ideology, culture and material environment will scholars come closer to understanding the Soviet nuclear industry. If we want to judge nuclear safety in Europe’s East, this is necessary.

“Science demands sacrifices.”8

Petrosyants, chairman of the State Committee for the Use of Nuclear Energy in the USSR on 6 May 1986, 10 days after the explosions of reactor 4 at Chernobyl.

1Geist: Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl’, p. 107.

2Semenov: Nuclear power in the Soviet Union, in: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin Vol. 25, No. 2, June 1983, p. 47.

3Medvedev, Z.: The Legacy of Chernobyl, New York a. London 1990, pp. 300-301.

4Margulis: Atomnaya ėnergiya i radiatsionnaya bezopasnost’, Moskva 1983, p. 125.

5CIA: USSR Energy Atlas, Washington a. Springfield 1985, p. 7.

6Vorob’ev et al.: Radiation Safety of Atomic Power Plants in the USSR, in: Atomic Energy (Vol. 54, No.4, April 1983), Luxembourg/ Berlin/ Heidelberg 1983, pp. 290-301, here p. 290.

7https://pris.iaea.org/PRIS/CountryStatistics/CountryDetails.aspx?current=RU [25.04.2019]). Also IAEA: Nuclear Power Reactors in the World (Reference Data Series No.2, 2018 Edition), Vienna 2018.

8Medwedew, G.: Verbrannte Seelen. Die Katastrophe von Tschernobyl, Munich a. Vienna 1991, p. 222.

Is nuclear power environmentally friendly only in Sweden?

By Anna Storm

27 May 2019 In an essay article in Sweden’s newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Anna Storm, Achim Klüppelberg and Tatiana Kasperski outline how the nuclear future logics today and in the past differ considerably between Sweden, Germany, Russia and Finland. In connection to nuclear power currently being discussed in Sweden as a critical tool to mitigate climate change, the rhetorical question goes: “Is nuclear power environmentally friendly only in Sweden?” The article concludes that the negotiations on what our nuclear future should look like has to be re-politicized in an international context, and also take into account the legacies of radioactive waste which we will leave to future generations. Link to the article (in Swedish).

Remembering Chernobyl’s 33rd Sad Anniversary for New Impulses in Research

By Siegfried Evens and Achim Klüppelberg

The present authors felt it was desirable to show this positive experience in the domain of the radiation safety of nuclear power. This is all the more important in that the view is often expressed that nuclear power is a dangerous branch of industry and a source of harmful effects on the personnel, the population, and the environment. Such unqualified statements cannot bring anything else but actual harm.1

Soviet scholars in the field of radiation safety discussing the Chernobyl-type reactor in 1983.

Today we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Since that fateful Friday night on 25-26 April 1986, a lot has happened. The world witnessed the thus far biggest nuclear cataclysm in northern Ukraine. The Soviet Union was unable to mitigate the radioactive consequences of the exploded and burning reactor and was frozen in awe to the unknown danger of the invisible power of the atom. Fingers were pointed very quickly towards the personnel as the quickest scapegoat and indeed, many mistakes and transgressions in regard to Soviet regulations were made. Later on, fingers were pointed towards the several institutions and the insufficient design of the reactor. Nuclear engineers in the West assured the general public that such an accident could not happen on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, since Fukushima-Daiichi in 2011 we know for sure that the organisation of nuclear safety by political structures is not so evident as nuclear enthusiasts might want to portray it.

For us, researchers of the NUCLEARWATERS-project, a day like this reminds us of the possibility to engage in an investigation of nuclear safety from many different angles. Chernobyl might not only teach lessons to nuclear engineers and state ministries, but also to researchers of the social sciences and the humanities.

What in our analysis of nuclear safety has been left out so far? What has been neglected? Have we looked beyond the events? Have we considered the more structural causes of the accident, such as safety culture, political decision-making, or the structural complexity of nuclear technology? Have we dared to look beyond the power plant? To its environment, and the huge amounts of water flowing into the cooling system and tipping the balance between energy production and massive nuclear meltdown? And how can we then contribute and translate that knowledge towards a better nuclear safety’s discourse?

Apart from being a day of memory, it was also a regular day in which about 450 reactors produced electricity worldwide. Chernobyl forces us to remember what can go wrong if nuclear safety is not tackled with the necessary attention.

In this sense, let us use the fatal example of Chernobyl, to put substance into our research in order to contribute to a better discourse on nuclear safety.

1Vorob’ev, E.I./ Il’in, L.A./ Turovskiĭ et al.: Radiation Safety of Atomic Power Plants in the USSR, in: Atomic Energy (Vol. 54, No.4. April 1983), Luxembourg/ Berlin/ Heidelberg 1983, pp. 290-301, here p. 300.