Gnawing Concerns About Nuclear Power Plant Safety and Other Musings

by Bill Chameides | March 25th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments
Turns out that what was behind a recent mess-up at the hurting Fukushimi nuclear power plant in Japan was something the powers that be had not planned for. Stuff happens that we expect, and other stuff happens too. (Wikipedia /
Hans-Jörg Hellwig)

I smell a rat.

Another Thing to Worry About at Your Local Nuclear Power Plant

Generally speaking … stuff happens. Sometimes when stuff happens, it’s a drag but you deal with it. Other times, it’s a disaster. Accidents at nuclear power plants fall into the latter category and that’s why designers and operators of nuclear power plants spend so much time and effort trying to figure out all the ways in which stuff can happen at nuclear power plants — faulty design, equipment failure, human error, terrorist attacks — and then come up with engineering redundancies and safety measures to assure that the systems will remain intact and safe even if any of that stuff happens.

Tragically, the operators at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant learned the hard way of a “stuff happens” cause that they had not adequately accounted for: namely, tsunamis. The aftermath of that tsunami oversight has been huge; most significant perhaps was the release of radioactive material that will persist in the area for decades (see here and here [$ub req’ed]) while it will be even longer before it will be safe to address the source of the radioactivity.

The accident has shaken many folks’ confidence in the safety of nuclear power plants. And that erosion of confidence has led to a movement away from using nuclear energy not only in Japan (though the new government wants to reintroduce nuclear power to the mix), but also in countries such as Switzerland and Germany who have announced plans to follow suit. (See also here and here.)

Now the folks maintaining the crippled power plant at Fukushima — where cooling water must be continually circulated to prevent the nuclear core from melting — have discovered another new and heretofore unappreciated source of “stuff happens” at a nuclear power plant. This one comes, apparently, courtesy of a rat. And though rats do not compare, when it comes to damage, to tsunamis, this little rodent caused more than some minor trouble.

Last week the New York Times reported that a power failure at the plant “cut … off the flow of cooling water to four pools used to store more than 8,800 nuclear fuel rods.” It took Tepco about two days to restore power — the company’s powers that be assured the public that it would have taken several days without power for temperatures in the core to rise to levels that would cause safety concerns.

Now back to the cause. According to the New York Times, “when its engineers looked inside a faulty switchboard, they found burn marks and the rodent’s scorched body. The company said it appeared that the rat had somehow short-circuited the switchboard, possibly by gnawing on cables.“


Of course the Fukushima plant officials shouldn’t feel too bad. With the exception of the Pied Piper, our battle with rats has, in many respects, been a stalemate. We may have pushed them back, but we are a long way away from eradication.

Take the New York subways. While the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York City has been trying for decades to rid its subway tracks of rats, there is still, according to a recent study, “a roughly 1 in 10 chance of seeing a rat while waiting for a train.” And so, this month the MTA announced its newest weapon in its rat arsenal: ContraPest, a chemical that, if enough is eaten by a female rat, will render it sterile. (Apparently wary of a possible conservative backlash, MTA stressed that ContraPest was not a contraceptive.)

While We’re on the Subject of Rats…

If you’re like me, you probably think that a rat is a rat — they’re all pretty much the same. And if you’re like me, you’d be wrong.

Turns out, I learned from a bit of smart googling, that rats are part of the rattus genus and that there are some 64 species of rattus. The rat you might see scampering on the subway tracks in New York City (or just about anywhere else in the United States) is most likely to be the Norwegian rat. And by the way it may be called a Norwegian rat but that doesn’t mean it comes from Norway. It actually hails from China.

My favorite rat — because of its lilt-like alliteration — is the rattus rattus, also known as the black rat or ship rat or house rat. This is the little guy that is generally thought of as being responsible for the bubonic plague.

While We’re on the Subject of Rattus Rattus

Environmentalists and animal rights activists clash over black rats living and taking over the Channel Islands off California in T.C. Boyle’s “When the Killing’s Done.” In her New York Times book review, Barbara Kingsolver wrote: “Character, science and history co-evolve marvelously here in a tale of fanaticism gone literally overboard.“ It’s a great read. Highly recommended.

Gotta go. Rats. All for now.



filed under: animals, energy, faculty, nuclear power
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  1. Ajoy Kumar Singha
    Mar 29, 2013

    Good Read, opened my eye. Thanks Bill.

  2. Planned Parent
    Mar 25, 2013

    Now mandate it at McDonald’s

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