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Inside, confidential and off the record

Minimizing nuclear danger

THE FOCUS IS AGAIN UPON THE YEN AND JAPAN… OBVIOUSLY… and the Yen is trading violently… sometimes higher relative to all major and minor currencies and sometimes lower as the repatriation of money back to Japan to pay for the damage done by the earthquake of Friday begins in earnest (and we shall have more on that below). However, at the moment, it does appear that despite the media’s hype and despite the several explosions that have taken place at the Fukujima nuclear reactor the Japanese engineers and those working to bring this situation at the nuclear reactors under control have done their jobs. The massive redundancies built into the Westinghouse reactor that is at the centre of the problem have held, although clearly one or two of the defenses have given way. But that is what defenses and the depths of those defenses are there for; they are there to protect the nuclear reactor’s core from shock after shock after incredible shock.

We need to remember that the reactors in question were built to withstand a quake of 8.2 on the Richter scale and the one that hit Friday was somewhere between 8.7 – 9.0. Recall that the Richter scale is logarithmic. Thus, the difference between an 8.2 quake and an 8.9 quake is a matter of 7 times as large, not 0.7 times as large. It would be possible to build a reactor that would withstand a 10.0 Richter scale quake, but the costs would be so far beyond the realm of reason.

There are 442 reactors worldwide and according to the latest data we have they supply on the order of 15% of the world’s electricity. Presently, there are plans to build more than 155 additional nuclear reactors, with most of them to be built in Asia. 65 reactors are currently under construction. Japan… until Friday… got about a third of its electricity from 54 nuclear power plants. This puts Japan in 3rd place behind France… in 1st… and the US in 2nd. Again, working for what information we could piece together over the weekend, we believe that there are two reactors currently are under construction in
Japan and 12 more were being planned. China is moving ahead rapidly to increase its nuclear capabilities, intent upon tripling the number of its reactors presently working. We believe that China has 13 nuclear reactors up and running and intends to add 27 more. In the U.S., companies including Southern Co. and NRG Energy Inc. have submitted applications to build as many as 21 new reactors, adding to the current 104 existing units.

Over the weekend, as our clients would imagine and have a right to expect… we have tried to find as much information as we could about the situation in Japan. We have relied upon Mr. Tom Drolet, now the President of Drolet and Associates Energy Services. Mr. Drolet spent 26 years with Ontario Hydro in various engineering, research and operations functions. He formed Canada’s research and development program into Fusion engineering and technology (CFFTP) in 1982 and then moved into International commercial work with Ontario Hydro International, a spin-off unit of the world's fourth largest electrical utility, where he was named President and CEO in 1993. Mr. Drolet knows nuclear energy.

Further, we have been in contact with Ms. Nabila Yousef, who is now a Senior Advisor to DTE Energy, was in the past voted one of the fifty most influential
women in the field of nuclear energy, and as Tom says is simply one of the best minds in the field of nuclear power facility safety and management in the world. Tom is to whom we have turned over the years for insight into the nuclear power industry and Nabila is to whom Tom turns for further information.

Tom wrote us the following note yesterday afternoon:

From IAEA, Tepco and various sources the sequence is settling down. Through the key and infamous "Loss of Coolant Accident scenario" the reactor cores of at least one--and maybe up to 3 reactors at the dual Fukushima Nuclear Plants Site.... driven initially by quake damage and then by loss of power from internal and external electricity power sources... the reactor cores became partially or totally starved of coolant water--either from blockage of the coolant water path (pumps, pipes, heat exchangers etc) or by shear loss of power to all main and emergency pump systems. It certainly appears that all reactors were automatically or manually shut down by preprogrammed systems or plant staff.

However, when a nuclear fission reactor like this is shut down, residual heat from the core keeps being produced by the nuclear fuel. That heat must be consistently removed in order to keep the shut down core cool..... in order to stop over heating (and subsequent failure) of the fuel. All those attempts at introducing on-going cooling water failed... or appear to have failed. In the end the staff's were forced to invoke the ultimate back up---introducing available seawater into the core to keep the cores cool. This apparent necessary action has surely made these reactors totally unusable for the future. I suspect we have a horrendous write-off of capital here-- no matter the effects on people, costs of clean up, evacuation etc.

Given the defense in depth policies used in all nuclear reactor design--the dual one two punch of a quake and subsequent loss of power sources--has caused major damage and difficulty in cooling the cores.

Obviously some fuel failure has occurred. The evidence comes from the detection of Cesium 137, Strontium 90 and Iodine 131... all volatile gaseous fission products from the core fuel. The explosion that is incessantly seen on TV networks certainly appears to be from a building that housed a filter system whose purpose was to remove the above gaseous and particulate radioactivity from any deliberate or accidental releases of plant steam or air.

The reason for the explosion is most likely due to the production of hydrogen gas when water/ steam interacts with intense radiation in a static (no flowing coolant) nuclear reactor core--the water disassociates into its components, hydrogen and oxygen. When it was decided that the pressure in the static core had to be relieved to prevent failure of the key steel reactor vessel....the hydrogen in the vent mixture interacted with air (probably in the filter building) and an explosive mixture of hydrogen and air resulted. Above a few % of H2 and air-- an explosive mixture happens.

From all the reports I have seen, I see NO EVIDENCE of the release of major amounts of gaseous radioactive materials. The situation is developing as a major local problem of keeping the failed cores cool enough that only minor venting of gaseous products. Due to the historical realities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japans public has always been sensitized and reluctant to consider Nuclear Power has a source of electricity for its nation. However, Japan has virtually no fossil resources of its own, being forced to import virtually all coal, oil and natural gas fuels. In the 70's and 80's a very extensive national debate happened on the need to have indigenous power sources. The result is over 1/3 of all electricity comes from Nuclear reactors in Japan. They are proud of this home grown system. This system now appears to be in major part unavailable for engineering or societal rejection reasons. The outcome with time will be an increased need to import coal oil etc. This in turn will affect the fossil supply chain worldwide.

Only time will show the affect this natural calamity will have on Nuclear Power worldwide.

Thomas S Drolet
Drolet and Associates Energy Services, Inc.

We have learned more in the past 72 hours regarding Roentgens, subduction, plate tectonics, iodine, Cesium 137, Strontium 90 et al than we ever we thought necessary. We have learned about hydrogen failures; about “core” exposure; about “Defense in Depth;” about fuel rod sheathing and we shall have to learn more. We all shall have to do so. At this point, however, we are most concerned that the main reactor … #1 originally and in the past day #3… had begun leaking and seemed incapable of holding sufficient water to keep the nuclear reactor’s rods cool. That might indicate that the concrete floors beneath the reactor have broken and the water that is being poured into the reactor is simply leeching out from below. For a while yesterday there was hope that the gauges at the reactors were simply broken, but it now appears that they’ve not been and that indeed the sea water being poured in… and which is being vented off in steam… is leaking through below like a bathtub with its plug removed. No matter how much water is poured in, it leaks back out and the authorities are hampered by the fact that the electricity to the pumps in question has not yet been restored and batteries are being used to drive the pumps. Batteries from around the world are being sent to Japan as swiftly as possible… obviously.

We know that the sea water being pumped into the reactors will corrode much of the equipment there very quickly, and we know too that boron is being added to the seawater. Boron, to keep things simple, slows nuclear reactions. The fact that boron-laced sea water is being pumped into the reactor means that the authorities have given up trying to save the reactor itself and have
decided that ending any and all reactions is the only course of action to be taken. The Westinghouse “steam reactors” involved are nearly 40 years old and were soon to be abandoned anyway. Obviously that process has been sped up infinitely in the past three days since the earthquake.

The question on most laymen’s lips is this: Can there be a nuclear blast? The answer is “No, there cannot be.” There is not fissile material extant for a nuclear explosion. The worst that can happen is that the nuclear materials do become wholly “uncovered” and that they reach a point of sufficient heat… several thousands of degrees C… to melt through the various “Depths of defense” that exist. Thus far that seems only very, very, very remotely possible.

Already, the political figures of the US are rushing to be on television to be the first, or the 2nd or the 5th to call for “putting on the brakes” to the US drive toward nuclear energy. Sen. Lieberman (I-Connecticut), whom we would have hoped would know better, called for putting an end… at least for the near term… of any further building of nuclear power facilities. Sen. Lieberman has not called for an outright stoppage, but he did say that he preferred stopping current progress until such time as the situation in Japan can resolve itself and further safety procedures can be put into effect. This is all the more sad and all the more consequential in that Sen. Lieberman has been heretofore one of the strongest advocates of nuclear power in the US Congress.


-Dennis Gartman/ The Gartman Letter / 03/14/ 2011

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