Canadian Consulting Engineer

What to learn from Fukushima

August 1, 2011
By Bronwen Parsons

"What Went Wrong at Fukushima?" on July 4 was so popular, the organizers had to relocate the evening lecture to the large OISE auditorium on St. George Street, Toronto.

“What Went Wrong at Fukushima?” on July 4 was so popular, the organizers had to relocate the evening lecture to the large OISE auditorium on St. George Street, Toronto.

Engineering talks don’t usually stir up this much interest, but this one held by the West Toronto chapter of Professional Engineers Ontario and the Ontario Centre for Engineering and Public Policy obviously hit a chord. Anti-nuclear groups were there handing out flyers, and the audience included engineers of all stripes and plenty of members of the public. The atmosphere in the hall was — pardon the pun — electric.

Nuclear power is big and, let’s face it, a little frightening. Combine nuclear with the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, and you have a catastrophe. Four of the five reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi exploded and three suffered a meltdown. The remaining reactors there and at other plants were damaged and disabled.

Dr. John C. Luxat, P.Eng., a professor at McMaster University and NSERC Chair in nuclear safety analysis, gave the Toronto audience his own step-by-step analysis of the events inside each of the GE-designed reactors at Fukushima. However, he noted that no-one will know the truth until Japanese engineers are able to access the reactor cores — perhaps 10 years from now.

Dr. Luxat said he was not there to promote any one source of power, but he clearly wanted to offer reassurances about nuclear. No-one has died as a result of what happened at Fukushima, he pointed out, and at the end he pulled out a device from his briefcase and proceeded to show the radiation of a camera lens and other everyday objects. “We are born in a sea of radiation,” he said, “It’s all around us.”

What were we to make of all this? Are we to go on blithely building nuclear generating stations, adding to the 443 already in existence in the world?

Someone asked Professor Luxat what could be done to make nuclear plants safer in seismic zones. He answered that site issues are important. The safety systems at Fukushima were good, he said. The problem was that the emergency generators were located in the basement and on the ocean side of the plant where they were quickly inundated by the tsunami.

What other lessons could we learn? He said that in risk-planning for nuclear facilities, we need to do more “what if” type scenarios, similar to those done by the military. We also need more emergency equipment staged off site, ready to ride in to the rescue.

Some large engineering companies are involved in building and operating nuclear energy plants. The Canadian government sold the commercial reactor division of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to SNC-Lavalin for $15 million in June. The deal will see SNC-Lavalin have 1,200 employees in its CANDU division. Two groups that include SNC-Lavalin, AMEC, Wardrop and CH2M HILL are also reportedly interested in taking over the AECL Chalk River nuclear research station in Ottawa.

Nuclear power is essential for Ontario’s energy supply and will be for decades to come. We need to know about both its potential and its dangers. No wonder the Toronto lecture hall was full. Bronwen Parsons


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