ENERGY, 7 Oct 2013
“Don’t panic” may be the best advice for thinking about the relentless accident at Fukushima, as readers of and listeners to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy already know. After all, even if there is plenty to panic about, how does panic improve the situation?
Panic is not usually helpful to clear thinking, and all sorts of people already seem to have a hard time thinking rationally about the continuing accident at Fukushima, whether the reason is panic or something less honorable.
“Let me assure you the situation is under control,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on September 7 to the International Olympic Committee, even though anyone in the room knew, if they wanted to know, that the Fukushima accident was not under control, and had not been under control since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, tore the place apart.
Later the same day, Abe expanded his false representations, telling reporters that “I explained about the water contamination in Fukushima and explained that the contaminated water was blocked” within the power plant’s harbor. Again, anyone who wanted to know could easily know that radioactive contamination was reaching the Pacific Ocean in a more or less continuing and unmeasured flow.
Power tends to corrupt, as they say, and first it corrupts clear thinking
Dishonesty of the Abe sort has characterized the nuclear industry (weapons and power) since its earliest days when its spokespersons were telling us radiation was more or less good for us and could be measured in “sunshine units.” That particular lie is now a bad joke, but other lies have emerged as needed to cover the deep panic nuclear aficionados must feel when facing the true destructiveness of their enterprise.
Fear-based denial of nuclear reality is an unsurprising, covert response to an untenable circumstance: being responsible for something you can’t control. Its overt counterpart, fear-based apocalyptic perception of nuclear reality, is at least as common and equally irrational, prompting a panic reaction to every nuclear accident as the end of the world, or at least the beginning of the end of the world.
The origin-myth of these perceptions preceded the 1945 Trinity test of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico, when some of the physicists who built the bomb wondered if setting it off might not ignite the atmosphere. But such doubt wasn’t enough to halt the test. The atmosphere survived apparently only a little the worse for wear and the apocalyptic scenario continues to be a show biz staple almost seven decades later.
Godzilla may not be taken literally as a serious threat, but the spirit of Godzilla permeates such scary headlines as this from Natural News in March 2012:
Fukushima reactor No. 4 vulnerable to catastrophic collapse; could unleash 85 times Cesium-137 radiation of Chernobyl; human civilization on the brink
Eighteen months after this headline, fear-mongers continue to peddle a worst-case scenario for Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 that is little changed. Before the 2011 tsunami hit, the reactor had been emptied for re-fueling, with its spent fuel rods moved to the storage pool. That pool happens to be about 100 feet above the ground, at the top of the severely damaged reactor building that has been settling and tilting. The plant operator, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), has shored up the structure and installed a multi-story cap over the fuel pool (completed July 20, 2013). The cap is intended to allow access to the fuel pool and removal of the 1331 spent fuel assemblies and 204 new fuel assemblies (each assembly has 63 fuel rods), a process expected to last at least a year once it begins, probably in November.
Since the summer revelations of increased, continuing release of radioactive water from the site, there has widespread and growing concern in Japan, from the Communist Party (calling for a state of emergency declaration) to the pro-nuclear Institute of Energy Economics (“The government has to step in.”). The common element in these calls is an almost total lack of confidence in TEPCO’s ability to carry out the decommissioning effectively and safely. (In essence, TEPCO is a profit-oriented nuclear operating company without significant engineering capability to cope with the significant and varied engineering challenges posed by Fukushima.)
In February 2013, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amaro, advised that Fukushima decommissioning should not be left to Japan alone. He proposed creating an international panel of experts to supervise the process. An IAEA team visited Fukushima in April and issued an advisory report stating that “the continuing accumulation of contaminated water at the site is influencing the stability of the situation and must be resolved in the near term before other recovery and decommissioning steps can begin.” Since then, the contaminated water problem has gotten worse, TEPCO remains in charge, and the prime minister has assured the world that “the situation is under control.”
The situation is under control, but don’t drink the water
In mid-September, radioactive Tritium at the Fukushima site reached its highest measured level to date, at 97,000 becquerels per liter (up from 64,000 the day before). The officially safe level for radioactivity in water in the U.S., as set by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, is 10 becquerels per liter (slightly less than a quart).
Despite Japan’s promises to allow foreign entities to take part in the Fukushima decommissioning, the reality has been slow to develop. In December 2010, the Japan Daily Press reported: “Bidding records show that no foreign company won any of the 21 contracts awarded this year for developing technologies to scrap the four damaged Fukushima reactors. Japan pledged to accept outside assistance for the process, but almost half a dozen [foreign] company executives have started to raise questions about the process.”
With hundreds of nuclear power plants around the world facing decommissioning in the next few decades, Fukushima appears to provide an opportunity for developing new technologies while addressing a real world disaster. Japan’s reluctance to engage with non-Japanese entities also feeds “the suspicions of other countries or certain communities that Japan is trying to monopolize the decommissioning industry – one that is likely to be lucrative as 400 reactors in the world are about to see their ends,” according to Japan Daily Press.
IAEA’s fundamental conflict: promoting and protecting against nukes
The paper reported on September 17 that, at the IAEA annual assembly in Vienna, Japan was widely criticized by international experts, for both technical failures and unreliable information sharing. In response, “Ichita Yamamoto, Japan’s science and technology policy minister, tried to ease these international concerns about the continued leakage of radioactive water…. [and] also pledged to improve efforts in providing the international community with accurate information on the issue.”
IAEA is more directly involved in mitigating the radioactive contamination in the area evacuated by 300,000 people, according to the Red Cross count. IAEA and Fukushima Prefecture (Japan has 47 prefectures, or states, of which Fukushima is the third largest) have entered into a three-year formal arrangement dealing primarily with remediation, decontamination, and low level waste management, designed to reduce or prevent human exposure from contaminants in the food chain, air, and water.
In July, residents of southern Fukushima prefecture started protesting against the government’s covert plan to burn radioactive waste in their neighborhood – where families still live midst pasture and forest land, where radioactive contamination is comparatively low. Their statement read in part:
Fukushima Disaster is not over, but the Ministry of Environment (MOE) is trying to bring another contamination plan all over the world.
Last fall, MOE secretly ordered Hitachi Zosen [a Swiss corporation] to construct a controversial radioactive waste incinerator in small village of Samegawa with only 4000 population. Construction has been completed late June, but there had been no prior information about the project, no such public consultation. Furthermore, last week, some landowners spoke out they never admitted nor signed the contract, but the government mysteriously announced they had all landowners’ consent to run the project.
It is the world-first demonstration incinerator, with unproven technology, and even MOE admitted the technology is still its experimental stage, but MOE and Hitachi Zosen would not stop the experimental incineration. Rather they have been rushing, because until now no other municipalities accept such dangerous facility. They say radioactive cesium could be caught by baghouse filtration…. There is no way to stop radioactive cesium emitted from smokestack, it simply get into the atmosphere and travel the globe….
How can we tolerate the second contamination by our own government? How can we believe the project of IAEA and nuclear power plant manufacturer? We are so angry. We have right to protect ourselves, our children, our lives and our district. There is no legitimacy for polluting project….
Understanding and trust depend on accuracy and honesty
As of late August, the incinerator remained inactive. In mid-September, other Fukushima municipalities were found to have large amounts of radioactive waste left in the open, unstored. Altogether, national and local governments have failed to deal with some 150,000 tons of radioactive waste, mostly contaminated soil and foliage. Some of the Fukushima “hot zones” remain populated.
No doubt there’s more to worry about. The decades of dishonesty of the nuclear industry and its government co-conspirators around the world have created public suspicion even when nuclear officials tell the truth.
But it’s no better when critics argue with hype and fear-mongering that is just dishonest as the industry’s false assurances. How does it help to compare Fukushima to the Cuban Missile Crisis or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima? Do such comparisons even mean anything? Are they anything but mind-clouding fear markers? What is the point of publishing photos of a damaged Unit 4 building when it hasn’t looked like that for months?
Unit 4 presents real and serious problems without any need to assert that “human civilization is on the brink” or that “this is an issue of human survival” or some other apocalyptic formulation. Such claims are rarely made with any persuasive, fact-based supporting argument. They are, in any event, unprovable, hence not credible, just emotional appeals to fear.
The fuel pool at Unit 4 may or may not produce a catastrophe
Fukushima Unit 4, with its fuel pool holding 1535 fuel assemblies 100 feet above the ground is unquestionably a serious problem with no easy solution. Attempting to remove fuel assemblies that may be damaged from racks that are damaged in a building that is damaged is an unprecedented challenge. But leaving the fuel assemblies in place is not an option, given the instability of the structure, the subsidence of the ground, and the possibility of another earthquake. Former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Gregory Jaczko acknowledged as much at a Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan event September 24. He advised that the work should be done slowly, with safety the first priority. While he didn’t express an opinion as to TEPCO’s competence to do the work, he did say, “There is need for greater oversight at the site, for sure.”
“None of these problems are going to be solved by Tokyo Electric,” said nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen in early September in the course of a discussion on radio station KZYX in Mendocino, California. He noted that the 1535 assemblies in the Unit 4 fuel pool represent 7 to 8 years worth of fuel, including the new fuel that was awaiting loading at the time of the earthquake.
Talking about the possibility of “inadvertent criticality” – an unplanned chain reaction – Gundersen said that TEPCO had admitted that the boron wafers that inhibit criticality had been destroyed, but that TEPCO maintained control by continuing to add boron to the fuel pool water. Loss of that water would also lead to a chain reaction and probably a fire, another reason to remove the assemblies from the fuel pool while it still holds water.
Referring to himself as a “congenital optimist,” Gundersen said the risk of a fuel pool fire was declining, since fuel assemblies can be air-cooled after about five years, since they will have cooled enough not to burn in air. Even now, with loss of coolant, the assemblies would take a week or two to get hot enough to burn, allowing time for possible emergency cooling measures.
Then there’s TEPCO’s difficulty getting water to flow uphill
The other immediately pressing problem at Fukushima is water that becomes radioactive passing through the site and then flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Some of the water is groundwater following its ancient, natural path along the riverbed on which the nuclear power plant was built. Most of the rest of the water is pumped by TEPCO into the three reactors that have melted down, keeping their cores cool enough to forestall further inadvertent criticality.
The Japanese government is proposing to protect the Pacific by creating a frozen earth dam downstream of the plant. The idea is to embed refrigeration plumbing into the ground for about two miles, deep enough to contain the contaminated water. The technique was used to stabilize the leaning tower of Pisa, but has never been attempted on the scale needed at Fukushima. According to Gundersen, the cost of electricity to maintain freezing temperatures will be about $10 million a year, for the expected 20-30 year life of the project.
Another suggestion, apparently not under consideration by TEPCO, is to block the groundwater upstream from the plane, to keep it from getting into the contaminated reactors in the first place.
Needing money for Fukushima, Japan decides to buy the Olympics
The Fukushima site has six reactors in all, three melted down, one empty, and the other two undamaged and in cold shutdown. There is also a fuel pool for each reactor, as well a central storage pool, with a total of about 11,000 fuel assemblies, some of which are in dry cask storage.
When nuclear engineer Gunderson was in Tokyo not long ago, he took five soil samples from the streets. They were all “radiologically contaminated,” and would qualify as nuclear waste in the U.S. “Tokyo is contaminated,” Gundersen concluded.
When Prime Minister Abe asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to hold the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, he said of Fukushima: “Let me assure you the situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.”
When the IOC awarded the Olympics to Tokyo, it did not announce the cost of its liability insurance, or who would be paying it.
So there you have it: the larger problem is understanding that the danger from governments is far greater than the danger from nuclear power or nuclear weapons, or both, since those are only projections of government power. But don’t panic. And it won’t do any harm to keep a towel handy.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
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