There are reports that water levels in both the Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactors at the wrecked Fukushima Nuclear Plant are falling as a result of additional damage from the earthquake a few weeks ago. (Nobody really knows what is going on in Unit 2, the sensors are offline.) This is Not Good(tm), since that water is essential for keeping the damaged reactors cool during the long decommissioning process, and it indicates further damage to the primary containment system. This is requiring Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owners of the reactors) to pump in more water to try to keep levels up. That means even more contaminated water coming out that has to be captured and stored or otherwise dealt with, and there just isn’t any place to put it. TEPCO received preliminary permission to slowly release the contaminated water offshore (to allow for dilution), but there is fierce opposition both by local fishermen and the international community and a final decision has not been made. The problem is, that decision might well be moot with this new damage: they will have to do controlled releases, because it’s about to get out of control. And, given the roughly 1.4 million gallons already stored, any additional quakes could result in a massive uncontrolled release. It’s a classic difficult decision: do you accept small harm over a long period of time from the slow releases, or risk massive catastrophe of an uncontrolled failure while you figure out something smarter to do.
I’m starting to see a few estimates on the cost of this episode in the media, for what it’s worth here’s the Enki estimate … there is probably going to be on the order of $30-35 Billion in physical damage across the Southwest and Midwest, mostly in the form of water damage from busted pipes, of which about $20 Billion or so will be covered by insurance, making this a big but not catastrophic event for the suits. The economic hit on the other hand is probably another $40 to $55 Billion, making this a $80 to $90 Billion dollar episode when you roll together the physical damage, economic impact, and government budget hits. When you consider that a few hundred million dollars of mitigation efforts (efforts that were recommended as far back as 1989) could have prevented maybe all but about $10 Billion of that, not to mention all the human suffering and even loss of life, there should be a serious reconsideration of priorities and some well deserved finger pointing …
I just had the following comment blocked from FB for violating community standards for hate speech, in reply to a comment that Fox News was blaming renewables for the Texas outages:
And CNN is blaming climate change. It’s no wonder ‘Muricans! are so ignorant.
I’m assuming this was some automatic thing, but if one of you reported it I would appreciate you sending me a note so we can discuss …
I filed an appeal with the following commentary:
It is not clear to me what about this comment constitutes “hate speech.” This reply was in response to a user comment who was attacking a particular news outlet. In context it was a perfectly reasonable political commentary, and the term “ignorant,” meaning per the dictionary “lacking knowledge or awareness in general”.
If the term “ignorant” is automatically considered hate speech in all contexts, I’m astonished, and would be happy to provide you with dozens of academic citations and surveys that show that the American People are woefully uninformed (dare I say “ignorant”) regarding the basic facts of science, engineering, and world events. The primary reason for this lack of knowledge is the entertainment driven “news” media that values dramatic, politically driven conflict and sound bites over content and information.
The term ‘Murican!’ is widely used to refer to Americans in general and the overly nationalistic, jingoistic worldview that permeates Fox News viewership. By pointing out that CNN is guilty of the same thing in reverse, and the juxaposition of the term ‘Murican!’ with CNN viewers, it was designed to trigger the thought that perhaps they aren’t as different as their supporters would like to believe. In this case, combining these two terms seems perfectly reasonable and was not an attack on any individual, but on the media that has placed the American People in the position of “lacking knowledge or awareness in general.”
Lots of misinformation and spin going around about the ongoing wave of power outages in Texas. The TLDR is that 1) the systems in Texas are not properly protected from winter weather that it should be able to handle; 2) it’s mostly a natural gas problem; 3) the fact that a nuclear plant is offline, and renewables (wind, solar) are also offline due to weather isn’t helping. Here are some details …
The Texas grid -managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT – has around 84 Gigawatts (GW) of power available to it; winter peak demand is expected to be 67GW, and the peak demand earlier this week hit 69GW according to ERCOT. On Tuesday 16GW of renewables and 30GW of “thermal” sources (mostly natural gas) were offline. The biggest problem is that the natural gas system wasn’t able to handle the weather.
Yes, it is cold – but we have had colder events in the past. My quick-look analysis shows this is maybe a 1 in 15 year event, in the southern part of the state 1 in 25 or so. For “lifeline” infrastructure like the power grid, it should be able to handle a 1 in 50 event with intermittent outages. In 2011 there was a cold weather event that caused widespread outages. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) wrote a report about it with recommendations on how to address the problems. The report is pretty blunt, saying
The experiences of 1989 are instructive, particularly on the electric side. … investigated the occurrence and issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization on the part of the generators. These recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011. … However, in many cases, the needed fixes would not be unduly expensive.
This 2011 report also points out “On the gas side, producers experienced production declines in all of the recent prior cold weather events.” and “It is reasonable to assume from this pattern that the level of winterization put in place by producers is not capable of withstanding unusually cold temperatures.”
The report describes the causes and impacts of storms in 1989, 2003, 2011, and others. The 2011 report executive summary states:
This report makes a number of recommendations that the task force believes are both reasonable economically and which would substantially reduce the risk of blackouts and natural gas curtailments during the next extreme cold weather event that hits the Southwest.
Needless to say, this wasn’t done. Therefore it would seem that what happened in Texas this week was completely foreseeable, and not some freak of nature, but a direct consequence of natural gas providers and the electric utilities not taking recommended actions to protect the grid from infrequent – but not rare or terribly unusual – weather events.
Commentary: A lot of commentators and sources like those on Fox News with an ax to grind are saying that this is because the wind and solar sources are offline. True, that isn’t helping, and the increasing reliance of the grid on these sources will over time be problematic on a lot of levels. Likewise, CNN is actually blaming climate change! That too is a bunch of bull crap, even though anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem we need to deal with. But the simple truth is that the blame this time is firmly on natural gas providers being too cheap to winterize their equipment against an eminently foreseeable event. This can be attributed in part to deregulation, the way the capital markets work, and the prioritization of quarter over quarter profits against overall system reliability. There are other complexities here, such as the move to NG based electricity production to speed the shutdown of coal fired plants (a move pushed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is much more complex and less effective than policy planners want to admit). In short, this is an economics and political problem, not an engineering or mother-nature-sticking-it-to-us problem.
The bottom line is that for lifeline infrastructure like electrical power, the current system is unacceptable. The problem is, given the politics and economics, it isn’t going to get any better, and while not responsible for this particular disaster, the push for the “Green New Deal” and elimination of nuclear and fossil fuel based energy production will make it worse, just as the push to deregulate set up the current situation.
PS – for some great discussions about the energy industry, follow Art Berman’s twitter feed and if you’re in that world his blog and consulting resources are invaluable.
People love sports analogies. Maybe that’s why talking about weather records – be it record lows, record snow, whatever – gets a lot of press and attention. Sometimes it’s warranted, a lot of times it is (Surprise!) exaggerated and, almost always, reported out of context. The series of winter storms causing so much disruption across the US right now are certainly severe … here’s the current snow cover map, and forecast additional snow over the next 48 hours …
But just how “record breaking” is it? Let’s take a quick look at one weather station in Texas and try to get some context. Since we’re talking about the US, we’ll use medieval measurement units related to the FFF system 😛 …
Here is an excerpt from the official daily climate report from the NWS office in Houston, for Houston International Airport yesterday (Monday the 15th):
000 CDUS44 KHGX 160849 CLIIAH CLIMATE REPORT NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HOUSTON/GALVESTON TX 249 AM CST TUE FEB 16 2021 …………………………….. …THE HOUSTON INTERCONTINENTAL CLIMATE SUMMARY FOR FEBRUARY 15 2021… CLIMATE NORMAL PERIOD: 1981 TO 2010 CLIMATE RECORD PERIOD: 1892 TO 2021 WEATHER ITEM OBSERVED TIME RECORD YEAR NORMAL DEPARTURE LAST VALUE (LST) VALUE VALUE FROM YEAR NORMAL …………………………………………………………. TEMPERATURE (F) YESTERDAY MAXIMUM 25 3:10 PM 83 1962 66 -41 67 1990 2000 MINIMUM 16R 7:26 AM 18 1905 47 -31 40 AVERAGE 21 56 -35 54
That “R” next to the minimum means it is a new record. So … using the period 1892 to 2021 as the period of reference, the low temperature Monday set a new record for the 15th of February at 16 degrees. The old record was 18. In media headline terms, RECORD LOW IN HOUSTON!!! LOWEST TEMPERATURE IN OVER ONE HUNDRED YEARS!
But … if you read down a bit you will see the record for the 16th is 13 degrees, and if we check the 14th, the record was 10 degrees F (yes, ten!). So in that context, 16 is really cold but not so bad. Plus or minus a day in climate terms is no big deal, so for context you have to look at a couple of days either side of a record to see. In my global data archive I have daily records for thousands of stations since the mid 1970’s (that is the beginning of somewhat regular satellite data which is important in my research). Looking at Houston Intercontinental, we see that the twenty coldest temperatures since 1973 are:
dtg | lotempf---------------------+--------- 1989-12-24 00:00:00 | 7 1989-12-23 00:00:00 | 7 1983-12-25 00:00:00 | 11 1989-12-25 00:00:00 | 11 1983-12-26 00:00:00 | 11 1982-01-11 00:00:00 | 12 1985-01-22 00:00:00 | 16 1985-01-21 00:00:00 | 16 1989-12-22 00:00:00 | 16 1979-01-03 00:00:00 | 17 1979-01-02 00:00:00 | 17 1983-12-27 00:00:00 | 18 1983-12-31 00:00:00 | 18 1977-01-20 00:00:00 | 18 1977-01-11 00:00:00 | 18 1977-01-10 00:00:00 | 18 1983-12-24 00:00:00 | 18 1977-01-19 00:00:00 | 18 1983-12-30 00:00:00 | 19 1976-11-30 00:00:00 | 19 (20 rows)
So a low of sixteen is in fact pretty cold – now in the top 10 years since 1973, and the coldest mid February temperature since 1981 when there were a couple days that hit 20F.
In technical terms, this is the danger of looking at the tails of distributions, because of the way weather works with systems spanning several days, there is correlation between days, and gaps in the extremes.
So, yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s disruptive (even though it shouldn’t be, but that’s a different rant). It’s hazardous or even dangerous if you don’t exercise some common sense and take some precautions. But while extreme, I think calling it “once in a lifetime” is probably a bit overblown, given the 1989 Christmas cold snap with a week of lows below 20F. As with most things, context is everything.
Final note – during these kinds of extreme weather events, especially with power outages, please keep an eye on your neighbors (especially the elderly and those with health issues or disabilities) to make sure they are safe. Bring animals in for sure, and consider helping with projects that try to shelter strays. Given icy roads, DON’T DRIVE ON THEM IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! And if you grew up in the south, be realistic: you don’t know what you are doing!!
Oh, and a reminder: WINTER STORMS DON’T HAVE NAMES!
There has been a M7 earthquake just offshore from Fukushima. Fortunately the geometry is not favorable for a tsunami, and it’s somewhat deep at 54km, and about 85km offshore (33 miles deep and 52 miles offshore for those of you still stuck in the Middle Ages). Effects onshore should be power outages (significant outages are being reported) and structure damage to varying degrees in the area marked orange in the map below. But the biggest fear is for the structural integrity of the thousands of tanks of contaminated, radioactive water stored on the site of the former Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Station. Here’s a view from last year showing, well, look for yourself … click to embiggen. Yes, all those round things are full of radioactive water.
Lots of these tanks are already leaking, and many show signs of structural degradation from the years of holding contaminated water. Subjecting them to MM VII earthquake conditions as happened a couple hours ago is potentially a recipe for disaster. There are no reports from on-site yet, and it’s the middle of the night Japan time (the earthquake was at 11:07 PM, and as I write this it’s only 1am local time so there hasn’t been time to assess the damage). Hopefully this won’t be a big story in the coming days … but it’s a dangerous situation, and with a quake this size there is a strong potential for aftershocks (or even that this is a foreshock of something bigger on the way). Here’s the impact area map …
Economic impact is expected to be around $1 Billion USD – assuming nothing broke that shouldn’t. Which is a big assumption at this point.