The New York Times reports that the reactors at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant were equipped with an improved system for venting steam in an emergency, but it failed to work. Originally it had been reported that TEPCO did not retrofit the units that had been online since 1970s with the new designs introduced in the US in the 1980s. However, it appears to have done so between 1998 and 2001.
The problem was, the improved system relied on the same sources of electricity to operate valves as the cooling system, so when the cooling system stopped working as diesel generators failed and dangerous levels of steam pressures built up, the venting system designed to protect the containment wasn’t working properly either. Instead of one system protecting the public if the other system failed, both had a single point of failure, their dependence on diesel generators in the flooded turbine hall basements.
The executives did not give the order to begin venting until Saturday — more than 17 hours after the tsunami struck and six hours after the government order to vent.
As workers scrambled to comply with their new directive, they faced a cascading series of complications.
The venting system is designed to be operated from the control room, but operators’ attempts to turn it on failed, most likely because the power to open a critical valve was out. The valves are designed so they can also be opened manually, but by that time, workers found radiation levels near the venting system at Reactor No. 1 were already too high to approach, according to Tokyo Electric’s records from the accident’s early days.
At Reactor No. 2, workers tried to manually open the safety valves, but pressure did not fall inside the reactor, making it unclear whether venting was successful, the records show. At Reactor No. 3, workers tried seven times to manually open the valve, but it kept closing, the records say.
The results of the failed venting were disastrous.
Reactor No. 1 exploded first, on Saturday, the day after the earthquake. Reactor No. 3 came next, on Monday. And No. 2 exploded early Tuesday morning.
The venting system could also have been damaged by the earthquake.
According to the NYT, the new venting system bypasses filters that hold back much of the radioactivity.
When TEPCO was talking about venting the reactors, before the spectacular hydrogen explosions, they reassured the public that the release of gas would be “filtered”. Either they were misleading the public, or they were talking about the old venting system, which was suspected of not being able to cope with the pressure of an emergency release, which is the very reason the new system had been introduced.
- Reactor Vents That Failed in Japan Are Used in U.S. (New York Times, 2011-05-17)