Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan - using water cannons and replacing lost power

There are two different time intervals (short and intermediate term) for my comments today on the problems that Japan now faces with their nuclear power stations, following the earthquake and tsunami that have left the nation facing concerns over radiation and a shortage of power, that have accompanied the vast and tragic damage to people and property. I am gong to give a short technical comment on putting water on the nuclear station fires (wet stuff on red stuff as they say in the trade) and then comment a little on what the alternatives might be for replacing the lost power in Japan. (UPDATE: The loss of petroleum products due to the damage to nine refineries has cut the amount of oil and its products that is available from 450 kbd to 310 kbd. )

The first aspect of the problem relates to the immediate short-term, and the need to cool the reactor sites and the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Because the attempt to drop water onto the critical areas using helicopters did not work, the current plan is to use police water cannon. Police cannon, for those who have lived a righteous life, are used to control riots where it is desirable to minimize damage to the participants. They can be used either with plain water, or a small amount of a polymer (also used in fracking operations) which reduces friction (it is usually a poly-acrylamide). The latter is sometimes referred to as “Banana Water” since when it is used it makes the ground surface very slippery. After all, it is hard to continue a riot when you cannot get up off all-fours. (The polymer also makes the jet throw considerably further). A water cannon might throw a jet up to 60-meters at a working pressure of around 160 to 200 psi. They are generally designed for relatively close operational ranges, and with a stream that disperses. More effective designs to throw longer distances would have a greater section of straight section behind the nozzle (to stabilize flow) though sometimes internal flow straightening devices are used instead, allowing a shorter barrel.

However, should they wish to get more water into the area from further away, they might want to consider using some of the old hydraulic pumps and monitors left over from the recent past when coal was mined hydraulically in the Hokkaido (large pdf). These can deliver over a thousand gallons of water a minute, with sufficient power that they can mine coal from more than a hundred feet away. The reactors are slowly cooling, and it is hoped, once the water is available to accelerate the process, that those particular problems will subside.

In the intermediate term there is the loss of power from the eleven reactors that have been taken offline. Japan suffers from a lack of indigenous fuels. though it has sought to improve the efficiency of consumption, and thus lowered demand over the past decade the demand for oil and natural gas has remained high. The demand may be constrained in the short term by the disaster, since roads and infrastructure have been severely damaged, with road displacements of over a foot in places. But demands for some form of power, and the need to get the country re-mobilized may shorten any significant decline in demand. Moreover use of fuel oil has, recently, been rising reaching 151,000 bbl/day in January.

(Source EIA)

Twenty-four percent of Japanese electricity is produced from nuclear power and it is a portion of this that may now be out of commission for years.

The Japanese are reported to have shut down some 6,800 megawatts of power, and it has been calculated that, were this to be totally replaced by oil, that this would impose an additional demand of 238,000 bd on the market. On the other hand were it could be replaced by natural gas, a perhaps cheaper alternative, then demand would increase by perhaps 1 billion cu ft/day (BCF/d).

There are several ways in which the power can be replaced, but they will likely be focused on the use of fossil fuels. It should not be forgotten that five coal-fired power stations were shut down by the quake and tsunami, and cargoes for those stations are now being picked up by other stations in Japan.
According to market sources, the five affected power plants are the Tepco and Tohoku Electric joint venture 2,000-MW Soma Kyodo plant; Tohoku Electric's 2,000-MW Haramanchi plant; Joban's 1,600-MM Nakoso plant, and Tepco's 600-MW Hirono and 1,000-MW Hitachinaka plants.

Analysts said the equivalent of 10% of Japan's installed coal-fired generation capacity for electricity was currently offline.
The coal-fired plants will likely prove faster and simpler to repair and bring on line than the nuclear plants.

(Source EIA)

Until the recent events occurred, it was anticipated that the large use of coal in the country would fall, and be replaced by nuclear power. That trend is likely over, and the coal markets are already anticipating the switch back. As noted on Seeking Alpha, the question that arises, in part, is just where it will come from.
No matter the outcome of the current problems with the three old-style reactors in Japan, all of which need pumps to be secure from damage so water can be pumped up into the reactor core to cool the fuel rods (vs. the newer designs that use gravity to let water fall down onto them), one thing is certain: Other coal-fired plants in Japan will be working overtime to make up for this loss of power in order for re-building to be able to take place.

One additional reminder: It isn't as if China isn't already desperate for US and Canadian coal. It isn't as if Australia hasn't already had to reduce coal production as a result of the flooding there. It isn't as if India doesn't need more of both types of coal to power and build infrastructure there.
Utilities in Japan were already taxed, before the earthquake, given that January was the coldest in 25 years.
The 10 main utilities consumed 5.21 million tonnes of thermal coal last month, up from 4.55 million tonnes a year ago. They burned 698,385 kl of direct-burn crude oil (Ed. Equivalent to 141 kbd), rising from 440,534 kl a year ago. LNG burn also climbed to 4.12 million tonnes from 3.71 million tonnes.
With the cold weather diminishing (although it snowed around the damaged reactors yesterday) fuel demand would normally decline, but the balance between what supply is available and that which can be delivered is, in places now as much as a 25% shortfall. This has meant rolling blackouts that may well last into April. Some of this can be alleviated by load shedding by customers, and a re-distribution of load through scheduling. That will, however, take some time to organize,

Repair of the nuclear power stations is going to take a long time, and some may not be replaced by the current means of generating the power. It is perhaps likely that the emphasis will switch to natural gas, since there are spare turbines available, and a plentiful supply of the fuel. Since Japan would be importing LNG this has already given rise to an increase in price.
South Korea said on Sunday it will supply LNG to Japan's utilities after Tokyo made a request on Saturday. It added that Japan was likely to import an additional one million to 1.5 million tonnes of LNG per month after April.
However Korea, which also buys in that market is not as concerned with the rise in gas prices longer term, instead it worries about the rising price of coal, if this is used to replace the lost nuclear power. Coal is a likely intermediate-term answer that Japan may have little alternative but to adopt. But it will depend on who can get the most power available the fastest that may ultimately decide how the Japanese energy picture now changes.


  1. Very nice article, HO. Would that all commenters were as objective!

    "who can get the most power available the fastest that may ultimately decide how the Japanese energy picture now changes."

    It may be not "who can get" but "who is allowed to get". The dead weight of bureaucracy is always with us.

    Probably the fastest source of replacement power would be nuclear submarines tied up at jetties and linked into the grid. Would France & Britain volunteer some of their vessels? Some of the Floating Production Storage & Offloading (FPSO) vessels used in offshore oil production also have large power generating capacity -- but they need fuel.

    One of the reactions to the earthquake/tsunami disaster may be that people around the world are forced to confront the truth about reduced energy consumption -- it makes life much more uncomfortable, even unpleasant. This may hasten the recognition that the only humane solution to our energy "problem" is a greatly expanded supply of power.

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