The consensus about Fukushima’s nuclear disaster holds that human error caused the partial meltdown. Failure to anticipate what went wrong is at the heart of the matter. Over the weekend, a reactor at the the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Conn., closed down because its designers back in the 1960s failed to anticipate something in the summer of 2012. The sea water in Long Island Sound, on which the plant relies to cool its reactors, was too warm to use.
For the record, there are plants in the Midwest and other continental interiors that use rivers and lakes as sources for their cooling water, and on occasion, they have had to shut down because the water was too warm. Because of their volume, oceans don’t heat up as easily as lakes, so a coastal plant almost never needs to shut down because of warm sea water. However, this may become common enough for plant designers to begin factoring it into their plans.
The design of the plant in Connecticut caps the water temperature at 75 degrees Fahrenheit (just shy of 24 degrees Celsius), and the water in the Sound on Sunday hit 76.7 F. Engineers are firing up their models to see if a plant designed by guys using slide-rules half a century ago can take the extra heat. I would be surprised if they found it couldn’t, at least for a short while.
However, the oceans are warming (sorry, climate change deniers, the facts are the facts, and I think it’s actually too late to stop – we can only adapt now). Locally, some shallower and more confined spaces like Long Island Sound will experience greater temperature fluctuations for the same reason lakes do; there is less volume to dissipate the heat. That means designers need to find ways to keep the plants running when the water is warmer than usual.
There are several easy fixes, including increasing the water flow through the plant or taking water from lower down where sunlight warms the water less. However, these things need to be addressed now. Fukushima was avoidable had the engineering been more imaginative in the “what could go wrong” department. We might forgive the guys in the 1950s and 1960s for not guessing right about warmer oceans (people were actually worried about global cooling back then). We don’t have the excuse that we didn’t know. If we have to use nuclear fission for electricity, we need to make it as safe as it can be – right now, it isn’t.