The important point for nuclear power is that some of the plants were swept with a wall of seawater that may have instantly converted a multi-billion dollar asset into a multi-billion dollar problem. That’s bad news. But suppose the money had been invested in a pharmaceutical factory, or an electronics factory, or a chemical plant or an oil refinery. Is there any reason to believe that such facilities would be any more resistant to damage from such a seawater surge? There is nothing in nuclear plants that makes them uniquely vulnerable to seawater.
Moreover, the extent and nature of the damage from seawater may be less than first indicated. Rod Adams, a former nuclear submarine officer, who operated a nuclear power plant at sea for many years, says that inadvertent flooding of certain equipment with seawater was not uncommon. He includes electronics-laden missile tubes. “We flushed them out with fresh water,” he said. “Sometimes we had to replace insulation and other parts. But we could ultimately bring them back on line, working satisfactorily.”
The lessons from Japan involve seawater, not radiation.
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Dr. Rockwell’s classical 1956 handbook, The Reactor Shielding Design Manual, was recently made available on-line and as a DVD, by the U.S. Department of Energy.