Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cranking the starter-handle of the Sendai Nuclear Power Station

Meltdown - the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor, March 12, 2011
Update: An interesting coincidence has occurred this week. Firstly, and to schedule, the re-inforced Sendai Nuclear Facility in Kyushu has started to come back on line, the first reactivation in Japan since the nuclear shutdown following Fukushima. And secondly, Sakurajima, the volcano just around the corner, is looking set to erupt as of yesterday. Evacuations may be ordered soon.

Rather confusingly, the Sendai Nuclear Power Station is geographically nowhere near the city of Sendai, the epicentre of the chaos triggered by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. However, emotionally it might as well be in the middle of the town square. As the crow flies, it's actually some 1,500km to the south-west of the Tohoku region, located on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. And currently, the Sendai reactor is front and centre in Japan's collective consciousness as it inches towards being the first nuclear power station to be put back into commercial operation following the multi-core meltdown at Fukushima. The question on everyone's lips though is "is it safe?". And that comes down to a "yes" and "no" discussion depending on your view point.

Oh yeah?
There are obviously both subjective and an objective answers to this. Emotions are emotions and have to be respected but are somewhat inherently troublesome to debate. Fact based discussions themselves also run off the rails when the facts are either disputed or, as in the case of Fukushima, not considered credible due to a lack of faith in the messenger. Few in Japan would believe Tepco if it claimed a potato was, well, a potato. In the eyes of many, they simply can no longer be trusted. However, back to Sendai... The island of Kyushu is dominated by both regular and super-volcanoes. At its centre, Aso is an earth shatteringly cataclysmic volcano of Yellowstone proportions, Unzen, near Nagasaki, created a mega-tsunami in the early 18th Century that took an estimated 15,000 with it, and then, located some 60km to the south-east of the power plant now warming it's engines, sits the Aira Caldera. And this one blasted a 300 square kilometre deepwater inlet last time it went up.

Kagoshima, inside the Aira Caldera; Sendai 60km's to the north-west.
The question being raised in the press is whether a nuclear reactor should be located so close to such a dangerous volcano. Given there are over 110 volcanoes in Japan, no one is going to be too far from one whichever way you look at it. However, for comparison purposes only, the pyroclastic flows from Mount St Helens in 1980 stretched a mere 8~10km so no clear risk there. The debate on the use of nuclear power in Japan is rarely around economic, environmental (both nuclear and fossil fuel implications) and realistic renewable alternatives. The emotional concerns are real but saying that Sendai is close to an active volcano somewhat misses the point. In the instance of a surprise eruption and the power plant is covered in meters of concrete-like ash, the 600,000 people of the city of Kagoshima, located inside the Aira Caldera itself, are unlikely to fair that much better themselves.  Possibly a subject for serious debate?

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