Ubuntu 11.4, GA-H67MA-UD2H-B3, EarthWatts EA-380D, Centurion 5 II, 5K3000

CoolerMaster Centurion 5 II

It’s been 2 months since I have written a blog post that wasn’t about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami or the Fukushima 1 nuclear disaster, but today I am taking a break from those subjects. The reason is that I replaced my local Ubuntu server with newer hardware. The primary requirements were:

  • GNU/Linux (Ubuntu)
  • Reasonably low power usage
  • Large and very reliable storage
  • Affordability

I was considering boards ranging from the new AMD Zacate E-350 dual core to LGA-1155 (“Sandy Bridge”) boards with the Core i5 2500K. First Intel’s P67/H67 chip set problems and then the disaster in Japan prompted me to postpone the purchase.

Finally I picked the GigaByte GA-H67MA-UD2H-B3, a MicroATX board with 4 SIMM slots in conjunction with the Core i3 2100T, a 35W TDP part with dual cores and 4 threads. The boxed version of the Intel chip comes with a basic fan that didn’t sound too noisy to me. I installed two 4 GB DDR3 modules for a total of 8 GB of RAM, with two slots still available. When you install two memory modules on this board you should install them in memory slots of the same colour (either the blue or the white pair) to get the benefit of dual channel.

Gigabyte GA-H67MA-UD2H-B3

I chose a H67 board because of the lower power usage of the on-chip video and the 2100T has the lowest TDP of any Core 2000 chip. I don’t play games and my video needs are like for basic office PCs. Unlike P67 boards, H67 boards can not be overclocked. If you’re a gamer and care more about ultimate performance than power usage you would probably go for a P67 or Q67 board with an i5 2500K or i7 2600K with a discrete video card.

To minimize power use at the wall socket I picked an 80 Plus power supply (PSU), the Antec EarthWatts EA-380D Green. It meets the 80 Plus Bronze standard, which means it converts AC to DC with at least 82% efficiency at 20% load, at least 85% load at 50% load and at least 82% at full load. It’s the lowest capacity 80Plus PSU I could find here. 20% load for a 380W PSU is 76W. Since the standard does not specify the efficiency achieved below 20% of rated output and typically efficiency drops at the lower end, it doesn’t pay to pick an over-sized PSU.

Disk storage is provided by four Hitachi Deskstar 5K3000 drives of 2 TB each (HDS5C3020ALA632). These are SATA 6 Gbps drives, though that was not really a criterium (the 3 Gbps interface is still fast enough for any magnetic disks). I just happened to find them cheaper than the Samsung HD204UI that I was also considering and the drive had good reports from people who had used them for RAID5. The 2TB Deskstar is supposed to draw a little over 4W per drive at idle. I don’t use 7200 rpm drives in my office much because of heat, noise and power usage. Both types that I had considered have three platters of 667 GB each instead of 4 platters of 500 GB in older 2 TB drives: Fewer platters means less electricity and less heat. A three platter 2 TB drive should draw no more power than a 1.5 TB (3×500 TB) drive.

There are “enterprise class” drives designed specifically for RAID, but they cost two to three times more than desktop drives — so much for the “I” in RAID that is supposed to stand for “inexpensive”. These drives support a special error handling mode known as CCTL or TLER which some hardware RAID controllers and Windows require, but apparently the Linux software RAID driver copes fine with cheap desktop drives. The expensive drives also have better seek mechanisms to deal with vibration problems, but at least some of those vibration problems are worse with 7200 rpm drives than the 5400 rpm drives that I tend to buy.

Motherboard, PSU and 4 RAID drives in case

The case I picked was the CoolerMaster Centurion 5 II, which as you can see above is pretty large for a MicroATX board like the GA-H67MA-UD2H-B3, but I wanted enough space for at least 4 hard disks without crowding them in. Most cases that take only MicroATX boards and not full size ATX tend to have less space for internal hard disks or squeeze them in too tightly for good airflow. This case comes with two 12 cm fans and space to install three more 12 or 14 cm fans, not that I would need them. One of these fans blows cool air across the hard disks, which should minimize thermal problems even if you work those disks hard.

One slight complication was that the hard disks in the internal 3 1/4″ slots needed to be installed the opposite way most people expect: You have to take off both covers of the case, then connect power and SATA cables from the rear end (view to bottom of the motherboard) after sliding the drives in from the front side (view to top of motherboard). Once you do that you don’t even need L-shaped SATA cables. I could use the 4 SATA 6 Gbps cables that came with the GigaByte board. Most people expect to be able to install the hard disks just opening the front cover of the case and then run into trouble. It’s not a big deal once you figure it out, but quite irritating until then.

4 RAID drives in case

I installed Ubuntu 11.4, which has just been released, using the AMD64 alternate CD using a USB DVD drive. I configured the space for the /boot file system as a RAID1 with 4 drives and the / file system as a RAID6 with 4 drives with most of the space. Initially I had problems installing Grub as a boot loader after the manual partitioning, but the reason was that I needed to create a “bios_grub” partition on every drive before creating my boot and data RAID partitions.

RAID6 is like RAID5 but with two sets of parity data. Where the smallest RAID5 consists of three drives, a minimal RAID6 has four, with both providing two drives’ worth of net storage space. A degraded RAID6 (i.e. with one dead drive) effectively becomes a RAID5. That avoids nasty surprises that can happen with RAID5 when one of the other disks goes bad during a rebuild of a failed drive. If you order a spare when you purchase a RAID5 set and plan to keep the drive in a drawer until one of the others fails, you might as well go for a RAID6 to start with and gain the extra safety margin from day 1.

I had problems getting the on-board network port to work, so I first used a USB 2.0 network adapter and later installed an Intel Gigabit CT Desktop Adapter (EXPI9301CT). With two network interfaces you can use any Linux machine as a broadband router, there are various pre-configured packets for that.

While the RAID6 array was still syncing (writing checksums computed from data on two drives to two other drives) and therefore keeping all disks and partly the CPU busy the machine was drawing about 58W at the wall socket, as measured by my WattChecker Plus. Later, when the RAID had finished rebuilding and the server was just handling my spam feed traffic, power usage dropped to 52W at the wall socket. That’s about 450 kWh per year.

The total cost for the server with Core i3 2100T, 8 GB DDR3 RAM (1333), H67 MicroATX board, PCIe Ethernet card, 4 x 2 TB SATA drives, case and 380W PSU was just under 80,000 yen including tax, under US$1,000.

Tepco revises core damage estimates

TEPCO has revised its estimates for the core damage in units 1, 2 and 3 of the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant. It now estimates 55% (previously 70%) damage for unit 1, 35% (previously 30%) for unit 2 and 30% (previously 25%) for unit 3. The estimates are based on radioactivity levels measured inside the reactor containment.

TEPCO has experimented with pumping more water into the reactor core of unit 1 to fill the normally dry part of the containment vessel for cooling purposes:

TEPCO says it will raise the amount of water injected from 6 to 10 tons per hour for 6 hours, and then to 14 tons per hour. The temperature and pressure in the containment vessel will be monitored for 18 hours. The utility says it will decrease the flow back to 6 tons per hour by Thursday morning and then send robots into the reactor building to check for leaks. TEPCO also says it will make sure that the containment vessel, with the added weight of the water inside, can withstand strong aftershocks. The firm says robots on Tuesday detected radiation levels of up to 1,120 millisieverts per hour inside the No.1 reactor building. It says some contaminated water may be leaking from the reactor into external pipes. (NHK, 2011-04-27)

Radiation monitoring devices have been issued to 55 schools and kindergartens in Fukushima prefecture. Teachers will keep a log of radiation exposure of the children. At two schools in the city of Koriyama, some 50 km west of the wrecked reactor, workers are removing contaminated topsoil. The soil is first sprayed with water to prevent dust from rising through the work. The soil will be piled up and covered with sheets before later being moved to landfills.

One female worker in her 50s employed at Fukushima 1 received an accumulated dose of 17.55 mSv over the first quarter of the year, over three times the legal limit. She worked at the plant for 11 days after March 11. Most of the exposure was internal, through inhalation. By law female nuclear workers in Japan must not be exposed to more than 5 ms over any three month period.

See also:

Fukushima watch 2011-04-27

Tepco is preparing for a “wet tomb” for unit 1 and 3 of Fukushima 1. It stepped up its water injection for unit 1 from 6 m3/h to 14 m3/h today to test for leaks. It is using robots to visually inspect the inside of the reactors for signs of water leaking.

By allowing water from the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) to overflow into the containment that surrounds it, almost all of the RPV will be immersed in water, which will carry away heat from the fuel rods inside the RPV through conduction. 7,800 tons of water will be injected. If the water starts leaking from the containment, the plan will have to be abandoned. Concern has been raised how the extra weight would affect the seismic stability of the building in the event of another major quake.

Radioactive water has been found in the basement of the turbine building of unit 4, which was shut down at the time of the tsunami and does not have any fuel loaded in its core. The water is assumed to have leaked across from adjacent unit 3.

Tepco has released a radiation map for the Fukushima 1 plant, showing known radiation “hot spots” around the site.

Power companies operating nuclear power stations in Japan have deployed vehicle-mounted mobile backup generators at their plants, but in many cases their capacity is too small to replace the fixed backup generators such as the ones that failed in Fukushima 1. Surprizingly, they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to address that safety problem: Japan Atomic Power Co. is quoted by Kyodo as trying to purchase three generator trucks by March 2012 while Hokkaido Electric Power Co. wants to buy a second generator vehicle for its Tomari power station “within two years”.

See also:

From Chernobyl to Fukushima

Twentyfive years ago an accident at the Chernobyl unit 4 nuclear power station destroyed the reactor and released massive amounts of radioactivity into the environment. Contamination of vast areas of land, mostly in Belarus and Ukraine but also reaching as far as central and Western Europe, persists to this day. Most of the cesium-137 released that day has yet to decay.

It can be argued that the lessons of Chernobyl had been fading much more quickly than the radiation. With fear of Global Warming growing, the nuclear industry was pushing for new reactors to be constructed and old reactors, many of which had been constructed in the 1970s, to have their operating spans extended by another decade or two. One such reactor was Fukushima 1 unit 1, the oldest of the Fukushima reactors, which started up on March 26, 1971. Its original operating span of 40 years would have expired at the end of March 2011, but it had its license extended by another ten years in February. Unlike its siblings units 2 and 3, unit 1 was an older type called BWR3 (the others were of a type called BWR4). One difference between them is that the BWR4 has a Reactor Core Isolation Cooling (RCIC) system. During a loss of all grid and backup power a steam turbine running off decay heat in the core could still pump water from the Suppression Chamber into the reactor core. The BWR3 makes do with an isolation condensor, which relies on electric pumps to cool and condense steam from the reactor using cold outside water. Once the pumps stop, the isolation condenser stops cooling steam. With the RCIC at least liquid water was being injected as long as there was battery power to control valves and the water in the suppression chamber wasn’t boiling yet.

According to the AREVA report, cooling in the isolation condenser in unit 1 stopped at 16:36 on March 11, less than an hour after the backup diesel generators had failed. By contrast, the RCIC pump in unit 3 continued until 02:44 on March 13, about 35 hours after loss of backup power. In unit 2 the RCIC survived until 13:25 on March 14, some 46 hours after the accident.

Immediately after the emergency stop (“scram”) of the reactors, the fuel rods were still producing 6% of the original thermal output in decay heat, which is why cooling was desperately needed. After 24 hours the decay heat had dropped to 1% of original output. From there it takes another 4 days for the output to drop by half again (0.5%). Without adequate cooling, the water level inside the reactor drops and the steam pressure in the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) goes up. At some point a valve opens and steam is released into the suppression chamber (wet well) at the bottom of the reactor. Once the water level drops too far the exposed fuel rods overheat until zirconium cladding gets damaged and nuclear waste starts leaking from inside the fuel rods. At 1200C the zirconium rods start burning in a steam atmosphere, releasing hydrogen as a byproduct. It was estimated that in unit 1 between 300 and 600kg of hydrogen were produced that way (300-1000 kg in units 2 and 3, which hold more fuel). The hydrogen leaks through the water in the wet well into the dry well. This is the first containment of the reactor, which is designed for a pressure of a little over 4 bar. If the containment pressure gets too high, there is no alternative but to release steam and hydrogen from the containment into the environment, along with radioactivity from the damaged fuel rods.

Unit 1 was completely without cooling water for 27 hours (until 20:20 on March 12). Units 2 and 3 were without cooling water for 7 hours (until 20:33 on March 14 and 09:38 on March 13, respectively). Because of the far longer period without cooling, 70% of the fuel assemblies in unit 1 is estimated to be damaged, versus 30% in unit 2 and 25% in unit 3. Perhaps if unit 1 had also had an RCIC system like units 2 and 3, it could have avoided that high degree of fuel damage. All three units were designed before the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident that highlighted the risks of losing core cooling and consequent hydrogen buildup.

When the containment vessel is vented, the gases are normally scrubbed (filtered) before being fed into a pipe that goes up a tall steel tower located between two of the units (1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6). That is not what happened. In units 1 and 3 radioactive steam and hydrogen ended up leaking into the upper part of the reactor building, the service floor above the containment, where the spent fuel pool and a crane for refueling and unloading the reactor are located. After TMI, hardened pipes were installed in US boiling water reactors for venting gas, but apparently Tepco didn’t think it was worth spending money that could instead be paid to its shareholders as dividends. Perhaps the leak occurred because insufficiently robust venting pipes had already been damaged by the initial earthquake, or perhaps the pressure was too high because Tepco waited too long with venting, hoping to still get pumps going again in time and save its capital investment. Whatever the reason, had the venting occurred through the tower, the reactor buildings might have survived and the spent fuel pools wouldn’t be lying full of debris from the collapsed structure now.

As an engineer, I know how difficult it is to build and operate complex systems. Often you might hear engineers confess they’re glad what they’re designing wasn’t used to run a nuclear power station, or fly an aircraft or run medical equipment. It’s one thing when failure of technology causes loss of data or loss of money, but it’s quite another if people die as a result. That is a grave responsibility.

Most of us engineers are aware of our imperfections. It takes careful design and implementation to build mission-critical systems. For example, a friend of mine was working on the avionics of the Airbus A-320, the first fly-by-wire commercial aircraft. Airbus had multiple programmers implement the software in different programming languages and using different hardware platforms in order to ensure that it was as unlikely as possible that if one system failed the other would be in trouble too. Environments such as airlines and nuclear power stations require a corporate culture where safety is always the top priority. Not cost, not convenience, not customer expectations — only safety.

That is not how Tepco has been operating. They have been caught red handed, again and again. One of the most embarrassing cases even involved Fukushima 1 unit 1:

Faked pressure test
Yet in the most serious case of all, Tepco officials are alleged to have faked a pressure test designed to test the integrity of the containment building. The test involves pumping nitrogen gas into the building to increase the pressure to about three times atmospheric pressure, then taking pressure readings to measure the leak rate.

Regulations state that the leak rate must be less than 0.45% per day. However, at Fukushima I-1 in 1992, the company conducted its own tests before the government inspectors turned up, and discovered that the building might not pass the test. One source quoted in the Daily Yomiuri said that leak rates fluctuated from 0.3% to 2.5% per day.

Documents found at Hitachi by Tepco’s own investigative team describe a method to fake the test by secretly pumping in extra air from the main steam isolation valve. At the time, Hitachi had a contract to check Tepco equipment. It is alleged that Tepco officials followed this procedure when the government inspectors were checking the leak rate.

Japan: nuclear scandal widens and deepens (WISE, 2002-10-04)

It has been argued that nuclear power could never be safe in a country so criss crossed with earthquake fault lines as Japan is. But the forces of nature are not the only challenge facing nuclear technology. Chernobyl exploded because of operator errors. Fukushima failed because of mistakes made by the humans who designed and operated it. The Fukushima I nuclear disaster was a man-made disaster, with a natural disaster acting only as the trigger.

In 2001 and again in 2009, researchers had published evidence of past huge tsunamis in the region, which were ignored by the nuclear industry. Fukushima 1 was kept running, without any upgrade to its breakwaters. When the quake struck on March 11, 2011, unit 1 was set to operate until 2021, without the reactor core isolation cooling system that the other units have had since the 1970s and without the upgraded venting systems that US reactors have had since the 1980s.

Instead of thinking of ways to upgrade these ancients plants to at least make them a little bit safer, Tepco was being creative only in dodging vital inspections, for example to hide their leaking containment that was supposed to protect the tens of thousands of people living near the reactors. Extending the lifetime of the plants by another 10 or 20 years with the least amount of money spent was going to be profitable to Tepco shareholders. As a result, hundreds of square kilometers have now become a nuclear wasteland, 90,000 people have lost their homes and probably over a trillion yen (US$12 billion) will have to be spent on cleaning up the mess at the reactor site over a number of years.

See also:

Japan’s nuclear future (or what’s left of it)

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) president Masataka Shimizu was turned down twice when he requested a meeting with Fukushima prefecture governor Yuhei Sato who was very upset about the insufficient safety of Tepco’s nuclear power plants in the prefecture, which were not designed to cope with a tsunami the size triggered by the March 11 quake. Tepco was unable to reestablish cooling for too long, leading to core damage, forced venting of radioactive gas, hydrogen explosions that destroyed reactor buildings and spread radiactivity, a cracked containment, leaks of radioactive water, damage to reactor cores and to spent fuel pools.

Large parts of Fukushima prefectures are radioactively contaminated now. Agricultural and fishery products from the largely rural prefecture will have difficulties finding buyers, even if they were to meet Japanese safety regulations.

Some 80,000 people in a 20 km radius around Fukushima 1 (an area of about 600 square kilometers or 60,000 ha) have lost their homes and will now be prohibited on penalty of a fine of up to 100,000 yen (about US$1,200) or 30 days in jail from returning. The evacuation zone will now be extended to Iitate, Katsurao, Namie and parts of Minamisoma and Kawamata, which lie between 20 and 50 km northwest of Fukushima 1. Another 10,000 residents will be affected by that extension. In Namie, at the edge of the 20 km exclusion zone, backround radiation of 49.8 μSv/h was measured. The natural rate in Japan before the accident was between 0.02 and 0.06 μSv/h. Other notable readings were 3.5 μSv/h in Toyota town some 50 km to the west, 15.5 μSv/h in Iitate, some 30 km to the Northwest and 28.6 μSv/h in Namie 30 km to the Northwest. The current post-accident rate in Tokyo, 230 km to the south, is about 0.08 μSv/h, twice its pre-accident rate. Residents of the newly condemned areas have one month to move out.

Inside the exclusion zone even higher values have been measured, for example around 50 μSv/h in several locations 4-5 km from the plant and 110 μSv/h just over 3 km West of the plant. Under these circumstances, it seems almost unbelievable that Tepco was still talking about restarting units 5 and 6 of Fukushima 1, which lie only a few hundred meters from the wrecked units and had also been surrounded by seawater during the tsunami, but were shut down for maintenance at the time. Who is going to work in those plants and under what working conditions? As of April 21, the radiation level at the South side of the administration building located half way between units 1 and 5 was an astounding 490 μSv/h.

Prime minister Kan has made it clear that he does not want to see units 5 and 6 restarted, but made no mention of Fukushima 2, which is located about 11 km South of Fukushima 1 and 9 km inside its exclusion zone (and inside its own 8 km exclusion zone, which is completely enclosed by the larger 20 km exclusion zone imposed around Fukushima 1). Tepco is pushing for being allowed to restart Fukushima 2 as soon as possible, but Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato opposes the idea.

Before the disaster Japanese power companies had been planning to build enough new nuclear power stations to push the nuclear share of electricity generation from 30% to 50%. It remains to be seen, where they would like them built and what the local population and politicians will have to say about that. I am sure the residents of existing reactor sites are watching very closely as 90,000 of their fellow citizens are being evicted from their homes, their livelihoods destroyed, their communities devastated and ripped apart, their regional agricultural products shunned on supermarket shelves.

How much money do you have to pay a quiet town or village somewhere on the Japanese coast to agree to accept another nuclear power station? I still believe there are some things you can not buy with money. I grew up in Eastern Bavaria, some 30 km from the village of Wackerdorf, which the Bavarian state government had selected as the site of a huge nuclear waste reprocessing plant in the 1980s. Local unemployment was high, so the government thought the promise of jobs and local tax revenue would win over the locals, but nevertheless resistance turned out to be fierce. For years the struggle tore the country apart. Families from grandmother to grandchild would walk to the construction site fence every weekend to protest. Then came April 26, 1986: After the Chernobyl disaster the plan became a lost cause. It was officially withdrawn 2 years later.

I don’t expect Japan will rush to shut down its existing nuclear power plants. However, it will become next to impossible to build new reactors (14 are planned by 2030). Especially the oldest reactors and the most seismically vulnerable ones will receive increasing scrutiny because of a nervous local (and national) population. This is not the end of nuclear power in Japan, but it may be the beginning of the end.

Fukushima watch 2011-04-22

Tepco is talking about plans to cool units 1 and 3 of Fukushima 1 via the containment vessel. The water level inside the usually dry portions of the containment (called the dry well, D/W) will be raised high enough to flood the exterior of the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) up to the top of the fuel rods. Normally only the inside of the suppression chamber (S/C, a circular pipe running around the bottom of the RPV) is filled with water. Tepco thinks the reinforced concrete of the dry well is sturdy enough to take the weight of the water and is now seeking the approval of the nuclear regulators.

The US NRC has previously voiced concerns about the safety of the containment in earthquakes when filled with large amounts of water:

When flooding containment, consider the implications of water weight on seismic capabilities of containment.

Unit 2 is not included in the plan because its suppression chamber appears to have suffered damage in an explosion on March 15 and has probably been leaking since then. Most of the highly radioactive water in a trench under the turbine hall is assumed to have leaked there from unit 2. It is not clear if or how those leaks can be plugged.

Tepco has requested French nuclear company AREVA (which is also its supplier for nuclear fuel) to set up a plant for decontaminating radioactive water at the reactor site. This would make it less risky to move the water to the nuclear waste plant in Rokkasho village, Aomori prefecture or for recycling it as cooling water.

Yesterday I experienced my first earthquake since returning to Tokyo. It was a M6.1 quake centered under Chiba, some 60 km from Tokyo. During the night I was woken up by a M5.6 quake that hit Fukushima.

UPDATE 1: Tepco will be short of 8500 MW this summer

Tepco’s maximum supply capacity today is 38.4 GW (one Gigawatt is 1,000 Megawatt or 1,000,000 Kilowatt). The forecast maximum demand today is 34 GW. Hence there will be no rolling blackouts today. For comparison, last year’s peak demand around this time was about 44 GW.

Tepco expects power demand to stay moderate in the near future, due to mild temperatures and the Golden Week holidays in May, rising to about 38 GW by the end of May. By then it hopes to have restored enough supply capacity for a celing of 39 to 42 GW. Tepco expects to have 46.5 GW online this summer versus a demand peak of 55 GW. Last year’s exceptionally hot summer even saw a peak load of 59.9 GW.

Tepco’s customers will largely have to give up on air-conditioning this summer or periodically lose all electric power. Perhaps after Cool Biz it is time to go one better and recommend Bermuda shorts.

UPDATE 2: Rising pressure in unit

Pressure in the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) of Fukushima 1 unit 1 has gradually increasing since March 24, when it was below 0.5 MPa (about 5 bar). On April 19 according to a NISA report it was at 1.141 MPa (about 11 bar) according to sensor B, while sensor A indicates 0.524 MPa. It is not clear how much the nitrogen being injected is responsible for the rise in pressure and how much may be due to a buildup of hydrogen, but the pressure buildup started two weeks before the nitrogen injection, which was started in response to the rising pressure.

NISA status reports:

Update 3: Spent fuel pools comparison – unit 2 and unit 4

A week ago I wrote here about the results of radioisotope testing on water in the spent fuel pool of unit 4 of Fukushima 1.

There results for the unit 4 spent fuel pool were:

  • Caesium 137: 93,000 Bq/l (half life: 30 years)
  • Caesium 134: 88,000 Bq/l (half life: 2 years)
  • Iodine 131: 220,000 Bq/l (half life: 8 days)

For comparison, here are the figures from an analysis of water in the skimmer surge tank of unit 2, taken on April 16. The skimmer surge tank is an overflow container adjacent to the spent fuel pool into which water can splash or overflow from the main pool. Tepco tested it to get ideas for installing a heat exchanger and decontamination unit for the pool.

Here are the unit 2 skimmer surge tank figures:

  • Caesium 137: 150,000,000 Bq/l (half life: 30 years)
  • Caesium 134: 160,000,000 Bq/l (half life: 2 years)
  • Caesium 136: 4,000,000 Bq/l (half life: 13 days)
  • Iodine 131: 4,100,000 Bq/l (half life: 8 days)

The small container of sampled water radiated at 3.5 mSv/h at the surface, which is roughly 100,000 times the natural background radiation level.

The caesium radioactivity of the skimmer surge tank water in unit 2 is about 1000 times higher than water in the spent fuel pool of unit 4. However the shortlived iodine is only about 20 times more active. This could suggest the radioactivity is from damaged fuel rods in the spent fuel pool and not the adjacent damaged unit 2 reactor core. Spent fuel was unloaded into the unit 4 spent fuel pool more recently than into the unit 2 spent fuel pool, hence it will have a higher Iodine-131 to caesium ratio. The higher caesium activity in unit 2 suggests more damage to fuel rods, but in the case of iodine this is partly counterbalanced by a longer nuclear decay since the last unload from the core into the pool compared to unit 4.

Return to Japan

After a bit over a month in Germany we’re back in Tokyo again. This doesn’t mean I think it’s safe here: Bad things could still happen at Fukushima 1 or elsewhere in Japan. Radioactivity may still be leaking for months from the wrecked nuclear power plant. However we have two kids enrolled at schools in Tokyo whose continued education was at risk if we stayed away longer. Meanwhile unlike up in Fukushima, background radiation levels in Tokyo are supposed to be no higher than in Bavaria, if you trust published figures. As long as no more hydrogen explosions happen, some form cooling is maintained for the reactor cores for the next couple of years and the spent fuel pools get topped up regularly it seems likely that the worst is behind us. The situation at Fukushima 1 will remain severe for a long time, but everywhere else it may stabilize.

There is still a lot of concern about contamination of food from areas closer to the nuclear ruins, or anywhere where rain fell soon after Tepco was forced to vent the uncooled reactors when it couldn’t get cooling pumps restarted. Background radiation spiked on the first weekend, then dropped again around the Kanto area, then picked up again when rains fell during winds from Fukushima around March 21-24. Radiation in rain and dust (in Bq/m2) peaked during those days in the Kanto area:

Sampling period Iodine-131 (Bq / m2) Cesium 137 (Bq / m2) Remarks
2011/04/20 9:00 – 2011/04/21 9:00 20.4 20.8 Rain
2011/04/19 9:00 – 2011/04/20 9:00 Not detectable (ND) 29.8 Rain
2011/04/18 9:00 – 2011/04/19 9:00 55.7 Not detectable (ND) Rain
2011/04/17 9:00 – 2011/04/18 9:00 Not detectable (ND) 14.8  
2011/04/16 9:00 – 2011/04/17 9:00 Not detectable (ND) 6.31  
2011/04/15 9:00 – 2011/04/16 9:00 Not detectable (ND) 4.75  
2011/04/14 9:00 – 2011/04/15 9:00 Not detectable (ND) Not detectable (ND)  
2011/04/13 9:00 – 2011/04/14 9:00 Not detectable (ND) Not detectable (ND)  
2011/04/12 9:00 – 2011/04/13 9:00 Not detectable (ND) 4.02  
2011/04/11 9:00 – 2011/04/12 9:00 100 169 Rain  
2011/04/10 9:00 – 2011/04/11 9:00 2.99 5.18  
2011/04/09 9:00 – 2011/04/10 9:00 19.4 7.9 Rain
2011/04/08 9:00 – 2011/04/09 9:00 8.9 11.7  
2011/04/07 9:00 – 2011/04/08 9:00 5.25 Not detectable (ND)  
2011/04/06 9:00 – 2011/04/07 9:00 6.22 10.3  
2011/04/05 9:00 – 2011/04/06 9:00 8.17 5.57  
2011/04/04 9:00 – 2011/04/05 9:00 16.9 5.94  
2011/04/03 9:00 – 2011/04/04 9:00 20 17.5  
2011/04/02 9:00 – 2011/04/03 9:00 Not detectable (ND) 8.03  
2011/04/01 9:00 – 2011/04/02 9:00 Not detectable (ND) 14.5  
2011/03/31 9:00 – 2011/04/01 9:00 37.6 26.1  
2011/03/30 9:00 – 2011/03/31 9:00 50.1 68.4  
2011/03/29 9:00 – 2011/03/30 9:00 21.3 5.35  
2011/03/28 9:00 – 2011/03/29 9:00 36.9 18.1  
2011/03/27 9:00 – 2011/03/28 9:00 45.5 5.52  
2011/03/26 9:00 – 2011/03/27 9:00 101 35.9  
2011/03/25 9:00 – 2011/03/26 9:00 217 12.2  
2011/03/24 9:00 – 2011/03/25 9:00 173 36.9  
2011/03/23 9:00 – 2011/03/24 9:00 12 790 155 Rain
2011/03/22 9:00 – 2011/03/23 9:00 35 700 335 Rain
2011/03/21 9:00 – 2011/03/22 9:00 32 300 5300 Rain
2011/03/20 9:00 – 2011/03/21 9:00 2880 561 Rain
2011/03/19 9:00 – 2011/03/20 9:00 39.8 Not detectable (ND)  
2011/03/18 9:00 – 2011/03/19 9:00 51.4 Not detectable (ND)  

Until consumers are reassured via broad and thorough testing of food, I think a lot of buyers will avoid food from the whole region (Fukushima and adjacent prefectures), even if radiation in food near or exceeding legal limits was measured mostly inside the evacuation zone (where everybody is forced to leave now) and an area Northwest of it that may also get evacuacted. The government has dragged its feet too much to be able to maintain confidence, for example in Iitate, where both Greenpeace and the IAEA (as unlikely a couple as any) drew attention to radioactive contamination levels warranting evacuation before the government finally asked inhabitants to leave within one month.

Bottled water seems in demand in Tokyo even though, according to the Tokyo water board, caesium-131 and other radioisotopes are below detection levels now.

Nuclear, wind and sockets

Businesses and households are trying as hard as they can to save electricity, after Tepco lost 15 GW of generating capacity, forcing it to impose rolling blackouts. It hopes to restore 5 GW of capacity before the summer by installing gas turbines at existing thermal power plant sites. The situation reminds me of a tongue in cheek advertising slogan used by the nuclear industry in Germany in the 1970s: “Why nuclear power? My electricity comes from the socket!” The nuclear lobby was trying to paint its opponents as ignorant people who had no idea how to secure supplies. It is this arrogant we-know-it-all attitude that has led to disaster and consequently to a disruptive power shortage. “Why alternative energy? My electricity is supplied by Tepco!” is how people were led to think. Millions of sockets in Eastern Japan have been without power because of this, not to speak of tens of thousands evacuated from a nuclear waste land.

Japan has ample potential for geothermal and wind power. It has thousands of km of coastline that could be used for offshore wind farms, yet in 2010 a mere 2.3 GW of wind power was installed, compared to 27.2 GW in Germany. Four of the German states (Sachsen-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schleswig-Holstein, Brandenburg) already get between 47 and 38 percent of their annual electricity production from wind power, far bigger than Tepco’s pre-Fukushima share of nuclear power.

Those junior nuclear engineers

If you thought things were getting back to normal here, think again: In a surprise move, the Japanese Ministry of Education has set a limit of 3.8 microsievert/hour for children in kindergartens, elementary schools and junior high schools. Multiplied by 8 hours a day, 6 days a week for one year it is 10 millisievert per year. This is in fact half the annual limit of radiation exposure that applies to workers in the nuclear industry in Germany, even though children are more sensitive to radiation damage than adults. No, this is not a late April Fool’s joke. Just like nuclear workers, teachers in Fukushima will be issued portable dosimeters to be able to verify that kids stay under the limit. 3.8 microsieverts per hour is about 40 times the current background radiation level in Tokyo. I must admit, that is one of the weirdest developments I have come across in the whole Fukushima disaster so far.

See also:

Tepco has a plan for Fukushima

The New York Times reports that Tepco has announced a timeline for securing the wrecked Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant:

The first part of the plan would take about three months and include installing a cooling system to lower the temperature in the reactors and spent fuel pools, as well as reducing radiation in the surrounding area, said Tsunehisa Katsumata, the chairman of Tokyo Electric.

The second part, which would take an additional six months, would include more pumping of water, the introduction of a new heat removal system and reducing the amount of contaminated water. The wreckage from three of the four most severely damaged reactor buildings would then be removed and the reactors inside would be covered.

While this vague outline is the most concrete recovery plan to date, it is of course subject to what is physically possible. Intentions, even with an approximate time scale, do not in any way prove that the plan is workable.

Let us remember that on the weekend following the quake and tsunami, Tepco moved mobile diesel generators onto the reactor site hoping to restart the cooling pumps using mobile emergency power, but found that the power connections were incompatible and the electrical switches had been destroyed by sea water. That plan had to be abandoned.

Then Tepco installed a fresh external power line and a new switch panel to restart pumps with restored grid power, but no further progress has been made in getting the original cooling pumps going again. That plan has been quietly abandoned and Tepco is still using temporary electrical pumps that inject fresh water from a nearby dam. There is no closed circulation system in place. Unlike the purified fresh water normally used for cooling, the dam water can contain small amounts of calcium that can clog pipes and valves.

Tepco no longer seems to publish how much water is being injected per hour into the three units. It also seems to have stopped publishing radiation figures for the drywell and suppression chamber, perhaps to avoid questions about a sudden major spike of radiation in unit 1 after the April 7 quake.

No explanation is being given about what is happening to all the injected water, how much re-condenses from steam into the reactor drywell (primary containment) or suppression chamber or leaks in liquid form into these areas and how much may be leaking outside the reactor containment or is released as steam (the containments of unit 2 and 3 are at atmospheric pressure). The NRC suspects that the circulation pump seals at units 1 through 3 are damaged, allowing water to leak. Probably Tepco doesn’t tell us where the water goes because nobody (including Tepco) really has any data.

It’s easy to say it will take three months to install a new cooling system, but if even one of the units still leaks large amounts of water too radioactive to go near it, that’s going to be a tough plan to implement. It’s not enough to get water into the reactor and to cool water or steam coming out of the reactor with a heat exchanger, all of this also has to happen without massive leaks that continually carry out radioactivity from damaged fuel rods. Many more afterquakes expected in the region for the rest of the year, some of them at magnitude 7 and greater, will complicate the recovery.

The recovery plan for Fukushima 1 will remain an uphill struggle for many months to come.

See also:

Fukushima watch 2011-04-15

Tepco has released the results of isotope testing in the water of the spent fuel pool of unit 4, which holds 1331 nuclear fuel assemblies:

  • Caesium 137: 93,000 Bq/l (half life: 30 years)
  • Caesium 134: 88,000 Bq/l (half life: 2 years)
  • Iodine 131: 220,000 Bq/l (half life: 8 days)

The figures suggests the fuel assemblies are damaged, but Tepco believes the damage is minor and think some of it may have been caused by fragments of the building collapsing into the pool after a hydrogen explosion and fire.

The pressure reading of one of the sensors in the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) of unit 1 has been steadily rising since March 22 even though the temperature reading has been fluctuating (rising and falling) over the same period. This suggests a buildup of hydrogen from a reaction between steam and zirconium or a buildup of hydrogen and oxygen from radiolysis (breakdown of water into its elements by gamma radiation). Unit one is supposed to have suffered the most severe core damage of the three units in operation when the quake struck.

The RPV is designed for a maximum pressure of 8.7 MPa. The pressure reading on April 15 was about 0.953 MPa. If too much hydrogen accumulates, the operators may be forced to vent the reactor pressure vessel and/or the reactor containment. To minimize the risks of a renewed hydrogen explosion, nitrogen has been pumped into the RPV since April 6, but venting from the containment could also release considerable amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere, as during he first days of the disaster.

Mobile power generators and fire fighting equipment is being relocated to a higher location to be able to cope better with the possibility of a tsunami triggered by another strong aftershock.

Fukushima watch 2011-04-14

Tepco reports that when a concrete pump truck was used to take a water sample from the spent fuel pool of Fukushima 1 unit 4 on 2011-04-12, the water temperature there was 90C, i.e. close to boiling.

The water level in the 13 meter deep pool was 5 meter below normal and only 2 meters above the upper end of the fuel rod assemblies. 195 tons of water were added, raising the water level about 1 meter. No results have been announced yet for the analysis of the water sample.

Pumping of highly radioactive water from the basement of unit 2 was interrupted for 4 hours yesterday for a leak check at the condenser. No leaks were detected. Pumping was completed later that day. The spent fuel pool of unit 2 was topped up using an electric pump for 1 1/2 hours.

According to reports in Japanese media, the Japanese government is discussing setting up a backup site for itself at Itami airport in Osaka in case of a major disaster striking Tokyo.