Tamahagane steel is bliss
March 30, 2008 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Samurai-Sword Maker's Reactor Monopoly May Cool Nuclear Revival There stands the only plant in the world...capable of producing the central part of a nuclear reactor's containment vessel in a single piece, reducing the risk of a radiation leak. From a windswept corner of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, Japan Steel Works Ltd. controls the fate of the global nuclear-energy renaissance. Each year the Tokyo-based company can turn out just four of the steel forgings that contain the radioactivity in a nuclear reactor. Even after it doubles capacity in the next two years, there won't be enough production to meet building plans.

`If there are 50 to 100 reactors or more to be built, there will be a real shortage and real delays in deliveries, so it's a good hedge to get in line now,'' said Ron Pitts, senior vice president for nuclear operations at the construction and engineering company Fluor Corp. in Irving, Texas.

...Blue-clad workers, some wearing balaclavas to keep warm, draw on knowledge built up when Japan Steel made the 18-inch gun barrel -- the world's largest at the time -- for the World War II battleship Yamato. A 1945 attack on the Muroran plant killed more than 200 workers.

``Our accumulated technology for cannon barrels helped us make this technical breakthrough in forging,'' plant manager Sato said.
posted by KokuRyu (28 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Via Roy Berman at Mutant Frog Travelogue
posted by KokuRyu at 1:33 PM on March 30, 2008


If on your journey you should encounter God, God will be contained.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:36 PM on March 30, 2008 [9 favorites]


Excellent post, thanks!
posted by Demogorgon at 1:38 PM on March 30, 2008


iirc, Russia has been making their own equivalent in their backyards. Then again, there are other reactor designs that don't require these single-unit contianment vessels such as the CANDUs.
posted by porpoise at 1:47 PM on March 30, 2008


I saw it a few days ago and I still don't understand what's so special about the Hokkaido plant. I accept that others, more knowledgable than I, think there's something unique, and apparently non-reproducable, about the plant, but I don't understand what it could possibly be.

I mean, the USA cast plenty of canon during WWII, many more than Japan did actually. Did they stumble across something amazing and keep it secret, or what?

Or, as my layman's ignorance leads me to suspect, is this just a lot of fluff and when the demand for such equipment becomes greater other companies will start making the parts?
posted by sotonohito at 1:48 PM on March 30, 2008


Really interesting. Thanks for this, great post.
posted by nevercalm at 1:52 PM on March 30, 2008


So does anybody know what every happened with pebble bed reactors? I remember hearing a lot about them a couple years back, and it seemed like a really good idea. Have they been successfully deployed yet?
posted by Afroblanco at 2:29 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


It would take any competitor more than five years to catch up with Japan Steel's technology, said the company's chief executive officer, Masahisa Nagata.

Rivals are working to break the Japan Steel stranglehold,...

... [these rivals] may "potentially" be able to produce them in the future, Lipman said in an e-mail.


Seems that it is possible to reproduce what they do, only that at the moment it'd take a few years and a substantial investment to attain a similar capacity.
posted by WalterMitty at 2:32 PM on March 30, 2008


Afroblanco: So does anybody know what every happened with pebble bed reactors? I remember hearing a lot about them a couple years back, and it seemed like a really good idea. Have they been successfully deployed yet?

Eskom in South Africa are still pushing to build one, but they continue to face political and financial hurdles. Who knows if it will ever be built. Meanwhile China has built a prototype PBMR and is conducting tests. The thing to realize is that pebble bed reactors are necessarily less powerful than water cooled reactors. Thus to be economical, they must be much cheaper. It's very difficult to get people to let you build a cheap nuclear power plant.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:58 PM on March 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm also not convinced that the "Nuclear Revival" is as imminent as the press would have us believe. In the nuclear industry "Lots of new reactors" means just "dozens of new reactors". All of the new build contenders in the states are only in the application for approval stage, so it will be at least ten years before the first is built. There's lots of time by then to source a dozen pressure vessels. Moreover, if the industry suffers one accident, no matter how well contained, these orders will disappear overnight. We'll go back to cancerous climate-crushing coal power. Public support is fickle.
posted by Popular Ethics at 3:05 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, and can I flag your second link? That's a picture of a waste disposal cylinder, not a reactor pressure vessel, which is much bigger, and (more importantly since it's hard to make) much thicker. Here are a couple.
posted by Popular Ethics at 3:13 PM on March 30, 2008


Pebble bed reactors are indeed a really good idea. There are still a few problems to be solved and many things we need to learn in order for them to make into large-scale production. No utility or government is going to allow (let alone pay for) a fully operational reactor until we have better models of how they operate and perform, and solve a couple of the engineering challenges that remain. So research reactors need to be built.

Unfortunately the environmental lobby has made this very difficult -- Germany's reactor was shut down after a minor accident created a huge uproar and made it politically infeasible to keep it in operation. South Africa's has been subject to endless lawsuits from green groups. The US will probably never build one due to the moribund state of the NRC and the NIMBY attitude of most states.

Beyond that, though, it's just not very economically efficient to build PBRs yet. They're more expensive per megawatt than traditional reactors, and the fixed costs are higher (since current designs tend to have a maximum capacity of around 300MW, compared to a gigawatt or more for traditional reactors). It takes the resources of a government to sponsor one, and sadly few Western governments are able to for various reasons.

That leaves China with the only operational research reactor -- a 10MW developed together with MIT and live since 2000. The Chinese government is also building 200MW "demonstration" PBR that's scheduled to open in 2010 I believe, with more to follow.

The Chinese, quite rightly, see PBRs as being the key to slowly reducing their pollution problem over the next 50 years without significantly compromising growth and creating the kind of waste storage problems that have plagued the US. Meanwhile we continue to play around with wind farms and pretend we're actually addressing our impending fossil fuel crisis.
posted by xthlc at 3:22 PM on March 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dammit PE, I need to remember to use the preview button.
posted by xthlc at 3:22 PM on March 30, 2008


I saw it a few days ago and I still don't understand what's so special about the Hokkaido plant. I accept that others, more knowledgable than I, think there's something unique, and apparently non-reproducable, about the plant, but I don't understand what it could possibly be. I mean, the USA cast plenty of canon during WWII, many more than Japan did actually. Did they stumble across something amazing and keep it secret, or what?

Well, I'm pretty certain that the US reactors built by Westinghouse and GE et al. had containment vessels forged in the US. But after Three Mile Island there was no need for this capability, and then in the late 80s the US steel industry imploded due to a combination of factors including labor and shipping costs, much of it moving to Asia, where there was a boom.

If any of those US plants that did the work still exist, they're not run by the same companies anymore, or their technology is thirty years out of date, or it's been geared toward entirely different kinds of jobs.

But ultimately, it comes down to the fact that during the fallow period for nuclear power, there wasn't demand for any more than this one plant.
posted by dhartung at 3:26 PM on March 30, 2008


With the crap South Africa is going through with our current electricity crisis, I wouldn't be suprised if Eskom has put their PBMR plans on the backburner while they try to ensure that the coal generation plants are working at optimum level.

I do know that they've put in an order for two new conventional nuke plants from Westinghouse.
posted by PenDevil at 4:27 PM on March 30, 2008


dhartung Thanks, that makes sense.
posted by sotonohito at 6:23 PM on March 30, 2008


sotonohito asks: I still don't understand what's so special about the Hokkaido plant.

I think the answer is because Japanese steelmakers simply are better at working with steel than anyone else. This in turn is because of the Japanese devotion to "takumi" and "monotsukuri."

James Mok, in his excellent article How the Japanese IT Industry Destroys Talent explains takumi:

During my years working as a quality inspector for many factories throughout Japan, I had the opportunity to meet many engineers and technicians who were known as ‘Takumi,’ or ‘The Master’ by their peers. In a magnetic disk factory, for instance, there was a man who could read micron level scratches with his naked eyes in many cases better than a million dollar microscope. In a metal-forming factory, I met a technician who could tell the curvatures of the metal surface just by touching it. His accuracy was comparable to that of a 3D precision measurement machine. He could then make fine adjustments on the forming machine, which was controlled by hundreds of parameters according to his feel. The highly skilled workforce led by such Takumi, with their strong tacit knowledge, constitutes a core part of Japan’s competitiveness in manufacturing.

Much of Japanese life is based on mastery: how to open a door, how to serve tea, how to hold a pen, how to play baseball. A lot of Japanese life, at least for those who care about what they do, is lived as though it were a martial art, a "dou" or a "way", and steelmaking is no different.

Takumi means "mastery", and these folks in Hokkaido have learned how to master and "talk" to steel, which is why their skills are so much in demand.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:12 PM on March 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


KokuRyu,

You make it sound almost mystical, but that doesn't really answer sotonohito's question. So there are, apparently, these amazing "masters" there. But there are machines that can also do these jobs, as even your quote notes. These "masters" are amazing because they can replicate machine work, but a machine can still do it.

So why can't this plant just license their techniques to other plants? I'm sorry, I'm fairly familiar with Japanese culture too, and I simply by the "it's too magical to teach" idea. We're not talking about exporting martial arts, we're talking about steel-forging technologies, which can be scientifically and mathematically described and thus transferred. Hell, if it really is so impossible to teach, just send over a "takumi" to manage the new facility.

So, again, what's so special about this plant that it can't be licensed to others? It seems like they just don't want to do it, that they enjoy their exclusive status.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:57 PM on March 30, 2008


I think the short answer is that it takes a lot of expensive infrastructure to produce 600 ton, 200 foot tall, precisely manufactured, seamless, structurally perfect complex steel reactor casings. I mean, it doesn't say so exactly, but from what I can tell the market is unpredictable enough and the set-up costs (even the costs of making a single prototype would be ridiculously high given companies are putting down $100 million deposits six years in advance) would also be likewise limiting to all but very few investors and so on. If the "nuclear renaissance" pans out then I imagine others would get in on the act but it's a pretty big financial gamble, even with a pretty low risk you are talking about billions of dollars.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 10:19 PM on March 30, 2008


KokuRyu: that is astonishing orientalist bullshit. Yes, the magical yellow men do things that our Western science simply cannot understand.
posted by thedaniel at 11:37 PM on March 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Actually, KokuRyu's quote makes quite a lot of sense. "Know-how" involves much technical knowledge embodied in a handful of specialists. Much of that knowledge is never put on paper and in fact it would be very difficult to do so. It requires decades of personal experience and dedication. This is why outsourcing or transplanting the production of some specialised technology (from giant forged steel barrels to beer, through optical equipment) often results in giant quality problems.

The Takumi, far from being a mythical orientalist figure, definitely reminds me of the German Meister, a figure going back to the medieval artisan guilds. In the German vocational training system, to qualify as Meister, a German manual worker has to produce an end-of-course Meisterwerk, that is, a masterwork. Even today, such masterworks are often things of beauty.
posted by Skeptic at 1:50 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Screw the nuclear BS and make me a sword!
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:19 AM on March 31, 2008


that is astonishing orientalist bullshit. Yes, the magical yellow men do things that our Western science simply cannot understand.

Heh. I suspect thedaniel has read neither the original Bloomberg article I linked to, nor the second Japan Inc article that discusses takumi. But his heart is in the right place (...I think - it's unfortunate he has to introduce an element of racism to this discussion).

Besides, Dillonlikescookies has pretty much nailed why these reactor casings aren't manufactured anywhere else - developing and commercializing this technology is extremely expensive and time consuming, and involves a lot of risk.

However, Japan Steel is indeed working with steel, and this is something they have done for generations. Call me an orientalist, but a culture that stresses mastery, craftmanship and perfection is going to provide a Japanese company, at least in this instance, with a competitive advantage.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:34 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: Sorry for being crude. I know you lived in Japan for a while. I did as well. I got pretty fed up with the attitudes of some of my fellow expats, so when I see something that seems like folks fetishizing that particular Other, I get up in arms.
posted by thedaniel at 11:36 AM on March 31, 2008


thedaniel, ordinarily I would agree with your original observation. I'm not at all found of anime (except for Miyazaki Hayo) or manga (except for Naniwa Kinyudo) or martial arts (calligraphy is pretty neat, though). I'm not one of those guys who dresses up as Evangelion while munching on Pocky chocolates and lip-synching to the newest SMAP tune after watching a Miike Takashi film, in preparation for a Steven Seagal Aikido Appreciation Society night on top of Mount Fuji amidst a snowstorm of haiku-like cherry blossom petals.

But I gotta tell you that things are done differently in Japan, especially in regards to forging steel. Japan Steel and its predecessors have been working with steel far longer than anyone has in the United States, and possibly in the UK. And they have a Shinto shrine (but, then again, most companies erect some sort of shrine to Inari) on site.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:54 PM on March 31, 2008


I really don't know anything about reactors, but I'd love to have a katana made by these guys. Why? So I can say that my blade was forged using the ancient and mysterious arts, with which they painstakingly crafted my weapon using the very same steel that kept nuclear radiation at bay.

That's some superhero shit right there.
posted by quin at 3:24 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have a sudden urge to boil gallons of urine and create phosphor to trade with these Japanese for their fine steel.

(Those of you who get that reference are just as big NERDS as I am. Thankyouverymuch)
posted by thanotopsis at 4:44 PM on April 1, 2008


Skeptic writes "The Takumi, far from being a mythical orientalist figure, definitely reminds me of the German Meister, a figure going back to the medieval artisan guilds. In the German vocational training system, to qualify as Meister, a German manual worker has to produce an end-of-course Meisterwerk, that is, a masterwork. Even today, such masterworks are often things of beauty."

I leased some shop space for a while off a company that employed an old german machinist. His ability to make something out of metal was simply amazing. He told me that during his apprentice training they spent weeks learning and practising filing alone. And I believe it, I saw him hand file a set of straight edges that you couldn't see light through the mating surfaces. No lapping or anything, just a few files and some chunks of hot rolled steel. I also saw him weld cast iron manifolds and pump housings with an oxy-acetylene torch. And he knew exactly how to grind a drill bit for any specific job or material. It was a constantly amazing experience.

I often thought of switching career paths after that if only that level of training and dedication was available.
posted by Mitheral at 10:49 AM on April 2, 2008


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