The Power of Configuration: When Infrastructure Goes off the Rails
01.05.2012, 10:28 am
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“…things that never happened before are possible. Indeed, they happen all the time.” – Charles Parrow, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Control room Grohnde, from Under Control, © Stefanescu/Sattel/Credofilm

On November 11, 2011, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations delivered a timeline to an audience of U.S. industry executives, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and members of Congress.  It detailed the unfolding of events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station during, and in the critical hours following, the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. The story contained within the document titled, “Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station” reads like a screenplay. The gravity of the horrific hours, which is detailed and delivered through stark legal language, continuously rises up and confronts the reader.  The report is a severe reminder of the reality that when things don’t go as planned, human bodies are what must show up to try to steer things back on course.

To FOP, it seems that the report could serve well as a reference manual for contemporary designers, architects, urban planners and engineers. It’s a powerful revelation of how essential it is to consider configuration when it comes to infrastructure:  the ways that humans and infrastructures are situated (and inevitably interact) not only in relation to one another and within the landscape—but also in relation to the multitude of earth forces capable of rising up and challenging our best design and engineering capacities.

TEPCO, the electric company that owns the plant, clearly had never imagined, nor planned for, the spectacular multitude of forces that materialized on March 11.  Tsuneo Futami, a nuclear engineer who was the director of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990s has stated, “We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent. When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”

“configuration” diagram of the Fukushima Daiichi facility, image from the Special Report by INPO

In the crucial minutes and seconds in which the unimaginable actually does unfold, highly complex situations transpire in instants and the configuration of people and things becomes fundamental to what happens. Reality shifts into a configurist map-in-motion, a shifting landscape of trip wires and tipping dominoes. Each action, placement and location sends a vector of consequences cascading into the future. How high the waves reach up the bluff. Where the fire trucks are parked in town. How far inland the dry casks sit. How deep spent fuel rods rest in cooling pools. How far the plant’s exit gates lie. Where each building is sited in relation to each human, each fire truck, each monolithic sea wall, each wave—all matter immensely in interconnected ways. These highly particular configurations of things from moment to moment are what will mix and propagate the resulting “nexts.” Water is no longer water, it becomes the substance that is flooding basements that store backup generators, rendering them unusable.  Utility employees become authorities, emergency personal, evacuees, heroes, victims. In the case of Fukushima, many of the “nexts” seem to have hinged on where the generators were located and how quickly they were inundated with water.

At Fukushima, the force and scale of the events reconfigured an energy generating plant, typically a life-supporting affordance, into something completely else, something unrecognizable. Fukushima Daiichi shifted from being an energy producing infrastructure into a risk generating machine with massive geologic consequence. The facility dissolved into an assemblage of unpredictable actants in form of zirconium rods, uranium, plutonium, hydrogen, salt water, copper, plate tectonics, massive waves, electricity, darkness, design ingenuity, engineering failure, steel, reinforced concrete, basements and sea walls. These elements not only performed independently of human desire, they acted back upon us. Many of these things-become-forces continue to do so today, ten months later. Some will continue to do so for generations to come.  They are shifting the trajectory of global energy futures as they birth new actants: long-term power outages, evacuations, containment failures, explosions, aftershocks, media coverage, government regulations, industry investments, energy dependency, changes in public opinion.

To build infrastructures for simple, seemingly predictable scenarios, is incredibly short-sighted. Perhaps that kind of design thinking is acceptable in relation to some forms of infrastructure. But given what is at stake at nuclear facilities, with long-term outcomes and unimaginably long futures in play, where land can be rendered unusable for decades or centuries to come, planning for what earth forces can instantly transform into “best case scenarios” seems to be an act of willful ignorance at best.

swing carousel in the cooling tower of the “Schneller Brüter” (fast breeder reactor) in Kalkar, that never went into nuclear service, from Under Control, © Stefanescu/Sattel/Credofilm

In case you don’t have time to read the entire 104 page “Special Report”  detailing the chain of events at Fukushima in full, we’ve lifted some excerpts (specifically from the “Unit-Specific Event Narrative” section). All times are provided as Japan Standard Time (JST), 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST), in New York. T=0 2:46 p.m.

On March 11 at 1446 (T=0), an earthquake caused a loss of off-site power and an automatic reactor scram. All control rods inserted; and several actions occurred, including a loss of feedwater and condensate and main steam isolation valve closures, as expected because of the loss of off-site AC power. The emergency diesel generators started and loaded in response to the loss of off-site power and supplied power to the safety systems.

At 1527 (T plus 41 minutes), the first of a series of seven tsunamis, generated by the earthquake, arrived at the station. The second tsunami, which arrived at 1535, flooded and damaged the intake structure. By 1538 (T plus 52 minutes), the tsunami had begun to cause flooding in the turbine building basement. The flooding wetted or submerged the Unit 3A and 3B emergency diesel generators and the electrical distribution systems, resulting in a gradual loss of all AC and most DC power. Lighting and indications were lost as AC and DC power systems failed. Normal control room lighting failed completely, but some DC power remained for emergency lighting and indications. TEPCO management made an emergency declaration because of the loss of all AC power and notified the government and associated authorities. 

The maximum tsunami height impacting the site was estimated to be 46 to 49 feet (14 to 15 meters). This exceeded the design basis tsunami height of 18.7 feet (5.7 meters) and was above the site grade levels of 32.8 feet (10 meters) at units 1-4. All AC power was lost to units 1-4 by 1541 when a tsunami overwhelmed the site and flooded some of the emergency diesel generators and switchgear rooms. The seawater intake structure was severely damaged and was rendered nonfunctional. All DC power was lost on units 1 and 2, while some DC power from batteries remained available on Unit 3. Four of the five emergency diesel generators on units 5 and 6 were inoperable after the tsunami. One air-cooled emergency diesel generator on Unit 6 continued to function and supplied electrical power to Unit 6, and later to Unit 5, to maintain cooling to the reactor and spent fuel pool.

Because the control room had no working indications, operators checked reactor pressure locally in the reactor building. At 2007, reactor pressure indicated 1,000 psig (6.9 MPa gauge). Reactor water level was still unknown.

At 2049 (T plus 6.1 hours), workers restored some temporary control room lighting in the units 1-2 control room when a small portable generator was installed.

At 2050 (T plus 6.1 hours), the Fukushima prefecture began to direct residents living within 1.2 miles (2km) of the station to evacuate.

Water level indication was restored in the control room at 2119 (T plus 6.5 hours). Indicated reactor water level was approximately 8 inches (200 mm) above the top of active fuel (TAF).

2130 (T plus 6.7 hours), when once again the indications began to work. By this point, no cooling or injection had been provided to the reactor for almost 6 hours, and core damage was most likely occurring.

The station had three fire engines, but only one was available to support injecting water into the Unit 1 reactor. One fire engine was damaged by the tsunami and was not functional. The second was parked adjacent to units 5 and 6 but could not be driven to Unit 1 because of earthquake damage to the road and debris from the tsunami. The remaining fire engine, which was located near units 3 and 4, was functional. Workers had to clear obstacles and debris to move the fire engine to Unit 1. A heavy fuel oil tank, INPO 11-005 which had been displaced by the tsunami, made one access road impassable. A security gate that had lost power and would not open blocked another road that provided access to Unit 1. Workers broke a lock on the gate between units 2 and 3, allowing the fire engine to arrive at Unit 1.

As the morning progressed, plant conditions continued to degrade. In preparation for venting the containment, workers attempted to enter the reactor building to perform surveys. When the reactor building air lock door was opened, the workers saw steam and closed the door. No surveys were performed.

At 0514 (T plus 14.5 hours), workers noted an increase in radiation dose rates in the plant concurrent with the decrease in containment pressure. Workers believed this may have indicated a leak from the containment. This was reported to the government. Over the next 30 minutes, radiation levels at the site boundary increased.

At 0544 (T plus 15 hours), the Prime Minister expanded the evacuation zone to 6.2 miles (10 km).

The control room operators formed three teams to perform the venting, with two operators on each team (one to perform actions and the other to assist by holding flashlights and monitoring dose rates, as well as for other safety concerns, such as ongoing aftershocks). Because there were no means of communicating with the field teams, they were dispatched one at a time, with the next team leaving only after the preceding team returned.

Less than an hour after the explosion, radiation dose rates at a station monitoring post along the site boundary had reached 101.5 mrem/hr (1,015 μSv/hr).

By 1825, the Prime Minister had expanded the evacuation zone to 12.4 miles (20 km).

The operators lined up a fire engine to inject seawater into the reactor through the core spray system and commenced injecting seawater at 1904 on March 12. Boron was then added to the water source to address criticality concerns.

Two field operators were noted INPO 11-005 as missing from the units 3 and 4 operating crew. The operators were later found to have drowned after being trapped in the Unit 4 turbine building basement when the tsunami flooded the building.

The workers attempted to lock open the valve locally, but they were not successful because of the adverse conditions in the torus room. The room was dark and hot, and the torus was shaking because of the open SRV. Workers eventually replaced the air bottle, and the air-operated valve was reopened. Similar problems challenged the containment vent lineup over the next few days.

Hydrogen explosions in the units 1, 3, and 4 reactor buildings, coupled with the loss of the blowout panel in Unit 2, resulted in the SFPs of all units being exposed to atmosphere.

The tsunami design basis for Fukushima Daiichi considered only the inundation and static water pressures, and not the impact force of the wave or the impact of debris associated with the wave. The design included a breakwater, which ranged in height from 18 ft (5.5 m) to as high as 32.8 ft (10 m).

The Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness (commonly referred to as the Nuclear Disaster Law) was established in 1999 in response to the September 30, 1999 inadvertent criticality accident at the Tokai uranium processing plant. The accident resulted in overexposure of three plant workers and additional unplanned exposures to 66 plant workers, local inhabitants, and emergency support personnel.


This post documents research that informs the production of the Thingness of Energy project, which will be installed at Parsons, The New School for Design in early 2012. The project is supported in part by The New School Green Fund for 2012.  The ideas expressed and represented in this project are those of the artist (Jamie Kruse), and do not necessarily reflect views of faculty, staff or students at The New School.

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[…] The Power of Configuration: When Infrastructure Goes off the Rails […]

Pingback by Configuring Rapid Adaptation « FOP

[…] this new environment, configuration appears to be of growing consequence.  Borders between “wilderness” and “residential” appear ever more slippery. Where to […]

Pingback by In This New Environment | Anne Percoco

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