Would a Canadian reactor have staved off the Fukushima nuclear disaster?

by Andrew Horvat / Literary Review of Canada / September 1, 2011 /

On March 14, 2011, three days after a 16 metre tsunami knocked out the cooling systems of four of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Washington Post’s Slate website carried a column by Anne Applebaum in which the Pulitzer Prize–winning author gave voice to a widely shared sense of disbelief: “If the Japanese can’t build a completely safe nuclear reactor, who can?”

One is tempted to write, “Canadians could have, had they been given the chance.” After all, Japanese nuclear engineers engaged in extensive studies of Canadian deuterium (heavy water) technology throughout the 1970s. In August 1979, however, Japanese bureaucrats decided against constructing CANDUs, making Japan the only country in Asia generating electricity with nuclear power not to have at least one CANDU or CANDU-derived reactor. (Korea has four, China two, Pakistan one; 14 of India’s 16 power plants are CANDU-derived.)

At the time Japanese bureaucrats said no to CANDU, Japan’s U.S.-designed light water reactors of the type then already in operation at Fukushima were down for maintenance or refuelling for as long as six months a year. The extremely low efficiency rates of Japanese LWRs were in marked contrast to the 80 percent and higher operating levels that would be achieved within a very few years by CANDUs in neighbouring Korea. In fact, it would take decades for LWRs anywhere to reach near 90 percent operating efficiency. Japanese LWRs on average still operate at lower levels.


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