Sunday got off to a rocky start as CBC’s Martina Fitzgerald cheerily announced at 8AM Atlantic Time that workers at the base of the No. 2 reactor building at Fukushima had recorded a you’re already dead reading, and this was mostly confirmed on the internet by Voice of America; looked like a major breach of containment.
Fortunately, within an hour this was retracted and a revised reading two orders of magnitude lower was issued as a clarification:
UK Independent (3/28): “Workers flee Fukushima after radiation readings soar”
The technician who took the reading at reactor No 2 yesterday was so alarmed by the numbers that the team fled the building before taking a second measurement. And later, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of the Fukushima plant, said: “There is a suspicion that the reading … is too high, so we are redoing our tests… We are very sorry for the inconvenience.”
The revision was still rather alarming, and the presence of very short-lived isotope species pretty well proves that there’s leakage from the No. 2 reactor, if only from problems in the exterior connections, not through the reactor vessel itself.
However, the original story obviously rattled people world-wide:
As radioactive particles coming from the Fukushima nuclear power plant have been reportedly detected in as far away as China, the U.S. west coast and even Iceland, Jeffrey Merrifield, former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), told Xinhua that there is no need yet to worry.
Then this from our local paper hit the breakfast table:
Halifax Chronicle-Herald (3/27): “Nuclear power is the worst option”
The industry itself is also repellent — a kind of reptilian mutation from the arms industry, with leaders who tend to be arrogant, secretive and sly. (George Monbiot calls nuclear executives “a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags.”) But they made a claim that in 1982 I dismissed too lightly. They said, in effect, that although you may consider nuclear power to be vile, generating power from fossil fuels is actually worse.
You’ve got to know things are getting desperate when someone hauls out Churchill’s old chestnut about democracy. Meanwhile, another spokesperson seems to be channeling Vizzini from The Princess Bride:
“[It] is inconceivable that this should happen. We think there is no chance of the stagnant water (in the buildings) flowing directly into the ocean,” a senior agency official told a news briefing when asked about such a scenario.
Doomers will likely appreciate that this story arc is playing out very much like the subprime crisis and the world-wide credit crunch, but on a much compressed time frame [later: see Bloomberg story link below for more on this angle]. The 3/11 earthquake/tsunami event was bad enough, but it uncovered a hidden flaw in the system (the all eggs in one basket concentration of in-use and spent U/Pu fuel still in temporary storage facilities) which applies to most of the world’s nuclear power plants. The clear implication is that all the plants everywhere must go into cold shutdown immediately and we’ve got to start a crash program to put all the fuel into hands-free storage. For now and in the medium term I suppose that means Yucca Mountain (and the equivalents in other countries) and vitrification.
The proof of that last requires a modest amount of imagination, and let’s hope it stays that way. If the US military’s barge shipments of fresh water into Fukushima don’t serve to reverse the scaling problem from the seawater applications then in a few months we’re not going to need imagination at all
Further stories as things develop …
Reuters (3/28 ’11): “Highly radioactive water leaks from Japanese nuclear plant”
Fires, explosions and radiation leaks have repeatedly forced engineers to suspend efforts to stabilize the plant, including on Sunday when radiation levels spiked to 100,000 times above normal in water inside reactor No. 2.
As Sunday progressed folks began to realize that 100,000x was still a pretty big jump.
Bloomberg (3/28 ’11): “Shippers Stick With Tokyo as U.S. Says Radiation Easily Cleaned”
Five of the six biggest container shippers are maintaining routes to Tokyo and Yokohama after the U.S. Navy said radiation on vessels from the leaking Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant can be scrubbed off with soap and water. // … // The Japanese government is allowing ships to sail as close as 30 kilometers to the stricken reactors, and the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, says operations in and out of Japan can continue as normal, with levels of radiation presenting no medical basis for imposing restrictions.
Anyone with memories going back to ’41 will recall that Japan can get a bit testy about trade restrictions.
Forbes (3/27 ’11): “Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Looks A Lot Like Our Financial Crisis”
The [cited NYT] story says the Japanese used a “deterministic” as opposed to “probabilistic” approach — studying past tsunamis to determine how high the next one could be, instead of planning for the unthinkable. “Japanese safety rules generally are deterministic because probabilistic methods are too difficult,” said nuclear consulant Noboru Nakao, adding that “the U.S. has a lot more risk assessment methods.” // How ironic: It was just this sort of deterministic analysis that caused the financial crisis, only this time the U.S. was to blame. …
A bit like I was saying above 😉
Los Angeles Times (3/28): “Japan crisis evokes comparisons to its pop culture disaster narratives, historic events”
The three-headed calamity of earthquake, tsunami and near nuclear meltdown that has ravaged Japan this month has awakened some of the country’s most familiar disaster narratives. From short stories inspired by previous natural calamities to comic book series based on survivors’ accounts of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some of these apocalyptic narratives are being evoked by commentators in and outside Japan to draw meaning from the latest catastrophes that have rocked Japan.
FWIW the amateur tsunami video and news footage of the hydrogen blasts at Nos. 1,3,4 have been far more awesome than a lot of computerized special effects from recent efforts.
CNN (3/28 ’11): “TEPCO says plutonium found on quake-damaged plant grounds”
“It is not a health risk to humans,” the company said. But it added, “Just in case, TEPCO will increase the monitoring of the nuclear plant grounds and the surrounding environment.”
No. 3 was upstaged by No. 2 over the weekend; however, …
New York Times (3/28 ’11): “Japan Fears Nuclear Reactor Is Leaking Contaminated Water”
TOKYO — Highly contaminated water is escaping a damaged reactor at the crippled nuclear power plant in Japan and could soon leak into the ocean, the country’s nuclear regulator warned on Monday.
File this under conceivable.
TV Squad (3/28 ’11): “European Networks Pull ‘Simpsons’ Nuclear Jokes in Response to Japanese Crisis”
Installments of the sometimes-controversial show have been pulled before. Jean noted that the 1997 episode ‘Homer Versus the City of New York,’ which took place at the World Trade Center, was pulled in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.
No doubt YouTube will be assiduously snuffing any of these that threaten to go viral.
Huffington Post (3/28 ’11): “Nuclear Naysayers and the National Interest”
… It is an issue that needs be examined openly and not simply left to those who are pre-programmed to present us with the familiar saws railing against nuclear energy with the tailwind of current events at their back.
… certainly a high stakes debate; civility optional.
Reuters (3/28 ’11): “IAEA calls nuclear safety summit amid Japan crisis”
The disaster has prompted a rethink of nuclear power around the world, just as the technology was starting to regain momentum as a tool to fight global warming.
A sort of Superbowl for corporate communications.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Rebel Yell (3/28 ’11): “Radiation panic: Japan fallout”
A complete freeze on nuclear power spurred by unwarranted fears would be unfortunate, preventing the expansion of our safest and most environmentally friendly energy source.
“Ah. This is obviously some strange usage of the word ‘safe’ that I hadn’t previously been aware of.” – Arthur Dent
UK Guardian (3/29 ’11): “Letters: Weighing up the cost of nuclear power”
Nuclear power is unsafe because the consequences of any accident are so dire. Despite George Monbiot’s perverse conclusion (Why Fukushima made me stop worrying about nuclear power and love it, 22 March), the disaster at Fukushima has so far caused the evacuation of over 100,000 people, the suspension of fisheries and agriculture over a large area and a ban on the consumption of drinking water by babies in a city of 12 million.
Several letters respond to Monbiot’s 3/22 piece.
AP/NPR (3/28 ’11): “No Threat From Japanese Radiation Spread Across US”
The development of super-sensitive equipment to detect radiation is both a blessing and a curse, allowing scientists to monitor materials released in nuclear accidents, but also causing unnecessary worry, said Kathryn Higley, director of the nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University. // … // While memories of the Chernobyl disaster in what is now Ukraine have raised concerns, the amounts of radioactive material released in Japan have been much less than at that event., said William H. Miller, a professor at the University of Missouri Research Reactor.
Heavy use of the “It’s not Chernobyl” meme.
New York Times (3/29 ’11): “Japan Tries to Stem Leak of Radioactive Water”
“There is a high possibility that there has been at least some melting of the fuel rods,” said Yukio Edano, the government’s chief spokesman. “That in itself is a very serious situation,” he said.
Each day seems to bring a slightly different crisis.
Oakland County (MI) Daily Tribune (3/27 ’11): “With improved safeguards, nuclear plants are still feasible”
Murphy’s law alone, “if anything can go wrong, it will,” doesn’t constitute a well-founded objection.
With enough money at stake, people will argue for anything.
UK Telegraph (3/29 ’11): “Japan and the vanity of western journalists”
… The coverage of the Japanese disaster confirms that, given the choice between reporting what we know (that thousands of people have died in an historic catastrophe) and speculating about what we don’t know (what exactly will happen at Fukushima), journalists will choose the latter. …
Perhaps the weirdest effort to provide cover for the nuclear industry yet, and there’s been lots of competition.
AP/MSN (3/29 ’11): “Long blackouts pose risk to US reactors”
The risk of a blackout leading to core damage, while extremely remote, exists at all U.S. nuclear power plants, and some are more susceptible than others, according to an Associated Press investigation. While regulators say they have confidence that measures adopted in the U.S. will prevent or significantly delay a core from melting and threatening a radioactive release, the events in Japan raise questions about whether U.S. power plants are as prepared as they could and should be.
UK Guardian (3/29 ’11): “Nuclear is the safest form of power, says top UK scientist”
Sir David King mounted a robust defence of nuclear power on Wednesday as renewed fears over its dangers buffeted the industry. He said it was the safest form of electricity generation, and that the recovery of most of Japan’s nuclear fleet after the worst earthquake in living memory showed that safety systems were working.
Just because the high-priced help keeps saying something doesn’t mean it’s true.
UK Guardian (3/29 ’11): “Japan may have lost race to save nuclear reactor”
Richard Lahey, who was head of safety research for boiling water reactors at General Electric when the company installed the units at Fukushima, told the Guardian that workers at the site appeared to have “lost the race” to save the [No. 2] reactor, but said there was no danger of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe. // Workers have been pumping water into three reactors at the stricken plant in a desperate bid to keep the fuel rods from melting down, but the fuel is at least partially exposed in all the reactors.
This then is No. 2, the one that **didn’t** blow up. If they get through this stage of the crisis without losing the ability to keep water in No. 2’s storage pool then perhaps we’re close to getting past the point of maximum danger. Perhaps today will be seen as the climax of the story.
Huffington Post (3/29 ’11): “Don’t Give Up on Nuclear Power”
… An initial knee-jerk reaction is to point out at this accident as a confirmation that nuclear energy is dangerous and causes dramatic public harm. However, giving up on nuclear energy would be hasty, short-sighted and counter-productive.
The Martians have landed.
Reuters (3/30 ’11): “Japan orders immediate safety steps for nuclear plants”
The crisis at the Fukushima plant of radiation leaks and partial meltdown of nuclear fuel had three direct causes, the ministry’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said on Wednesday, pinpointing a loss of emergency power and disabled cooling systems for reactors as well as for pools holding spent nuclear fuel.
This is called preparing for the previous war (which, by the way, isn’t won yet).
The company said smoke was detected in the turbine building of reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant around 6 p.m. (5 a.m. ET). // … // The Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where workers have been scrambling to stave off a meltdown since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems there.
Of course not only are they fighting the after-effects of the earthquake (not the tsunami thankfully), but Fukushima II will have been sending resources down the road to help I, so they must be stretched. And if I really goes south, it will be hard to maintain humans at II as well.
AP/BL/BW (3/29 ’11): “Toxic plutonium seeping from Japan’s nuclear plant”
Safety officials said the small amounts of plutonium found at several spots outside the complex were not a risk to humans but support suspicions that dangerously radioactive water is leaking from damaged nuclear fuel rods — a worrying development in the race to bring the power plant under control. // “The situation is very grave,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Tuesday. “We are doing our utmost efforts to contain the damage.”
Excellent summary of the situation as this story nears its climax. Doomers will recognize the eerie similarity to the figurative financial meltdown that peaked on the evening of 9/18 ’08 — only Paulson’s & Kashkari’s $700 billion bailout didn’t have to deal with Pu-contaminated radioactive water!
Wall Street Journal (3/30 ’11): “Edano Says Japan to Step Up Acceptance of Help”
The U.S. government and military are part of Tokyo’s efforts to put together longer-term solutions to the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, while battling urgent day-to-day problems, Mr. Edano said. On Tuesday, the Department of Energy said it shipped a robot with several “radiation hardened cameras” to be used in surveys in areas where radiation levels are high. The U.S. military has sent in a barge to help with efforts to cool the plant’s overheating reactors.
Doomers of a certain age will remember this http://youtu.be/xJlshJzNff8 @ 3:47 on the tape — Agent 99: “Look, Siegfried, your men look like they’re about to panic.” Siegfried: “Never. My men are thoroughly trained. They will not panic until I give them the order to panic.” (sound of large explosion) Siegfried: “Prepare to panic!”
AP / Houston Chronicle (3/30 ’11): “Setbacks mount in Japan at leaking nuclear plant”
Complicating matters, the tanks storing the contaminated water are beginning to fill up. Pumping at one unit has been suspended since Tuesday night while workers scramble to drain a new tank after the first one reached capacity. And the water just kept coming Wednesday, when a new pool was found.
We appear to be at the point where stabilization has been largely achieved, but short term expedients are now becoming medium term headaches. The Opening is now winding down and the Middle Game is commencing.
New York Times (3/30 ’11): “Obama to Focus on Clean Energy, Daring Republicans to Call It ‘Froufrou'”
There’s another, more immediate, concern. Republicans might suffer on Election Day if they’re perceived as old-fashioned politicians supporting oil and gas companies while opposing alternative energies, said Glen Bolger, a prominent Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies. // “I think Republicans look on alternative energy as something that is too, for a lack of a better word, froufrou — not realistic,” Bolger said. “But voters see that as the future. Running that down means that you’re living in the past.”
‘Froufrou’ might have been an unfortunate choice of word Fukushima I has turned into a long frantic race fraught with a variety of perilous obstacles. Not too many Americans realize that Yogi Berra was channeling Tolstoy when he remarked, “It’s not over till it’s over.”
New York Times (3/30 ’11): “Countries Begin Radiation Checks on Ships That Have Visited Japan”
So far, very few ships or planes appear to have registered unusual radiation levels or suffered holdups because of contamination fears.
Of course the problem here is that in the still unlikely event of a wider evacuation this is one of the issues that would complicate any such operation.
Christian Science Monitor (3/30 ’11): “Fukushima warning: US has ‘utterly failed’ to address risk of spent fuel”
Nuclear experts told Congress Wednesday that spent-fuel pools at US nuclear power plants are fuller than safety suggests they should be. They say the entire US spent-fuel policy should be overhauled in light of the nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima plant.
Economist (3/31 ’11): “Plutonium and Mickey Mouse”
This week the discovery of large pools of highly radioactive water and raised levels of radiation in seawater near the plant has shown how far the authorities really are from regaining control. Previous releases of radioactive iodine and caesium had shown that material from the core of at least one reactor has been released. The new findings suggest that the systems designed to contain such releases may have been badly compromised. The tanks into which contaminated water is being pumped will eventually fill up. And conditions for workers are getting more dangerous, which means that fixing up the cooling systems and hooking up vital measuring instruments takes longer.
No magazine on the planet does nasty better, and this week’s human sacrifice appears to be TEPCO.
Bloomberg (3/31 ’11): “Fukushima Turning Point May Put an End to Secrecy of Nuclear Safety Group”
Measurement networks showing how radiation plumes move globally, along with commercial satellite imagery and Internet communication, mean the public has more information than ever before about the consequences of nuclear breakdowns. Policy makers will have to adapt, said Odette Jankowitsch-Prevor, an international nuclear-law specialist in Vienna who helped write the treaty as a senior legal officer with the IAEA.
Crimes in public are a bigger public relations challenge than crimes in private. Who knew?
NPR (3/31 ’11): “Public Anger Against Nuclear Power Mounts In Japan”
Purdue University political scientist Daniel Aldrich says government officials and power companies have had to conduct detailed surveys to find communities where labor unions and other civic society elements would not fight back. // “A critical aspect of what they’re looking for are these pockets of weaker civil society,” Aldrich says.
It’s a dirty war all right.
New York Times (3/31 ’11): “U.S. Response to Japan’s Crisis Should Be a New Spent Fuel Strategy, Senate Panel Is Told”
Having no permanent waste fuel repository in sight, the NRC has concluded that spent fuel may be safely stored at reactor sites for as long as a century, if necessary. Feinstein challenged Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko on that conclusion at yesterday’s hearing. // “We must begin to rethink how we handle spent fuel,” Feinstein. “I’m amazed at the idea of storing it there for 100 years.”
So most nuclear operators have constructed one of these zircon bombs next to each one of their reactors, right in the same building. How dumb is that? If nothing else, 3/11 ended up revealing to the public one of the most egregious and closely held secrets of the corporate world.
… These aerial photographs of the facility, taken by a drone on March 20 and 24, put a new face on the ongoing nuclear crisis.
If I’m reading text from the previous (NYT) story right the third-last image is showing us the site of the first “successful” detonation of a zircon bomb, the spent fuel storage pool at No. 4. The second-last image shows, I believe, the site of the common storage pool building behind No. 4 at the upper left of the picture. Recall that that facility’s got about 60 percent of all the spent fuel assemblies from the 40-year history of a six-reactor nuclear power plant. This seems a troublesome situation, to say the least.
Australian ABC (4/1 ’11): “Crews ‘facing 100-year battle’ at Fukushima”
A nuclear expert has warned that it might be 100 years before melting fuel rods can be safely removed from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant.
This could get a bit expensive.
AOL (4/1 ’11): “Japan Utility Ordered to Review Soaring Radiation Figures”
TOKYO — Japan’s nuclear safety agency ordered a review Friday of the latest radiation measurements taken in air, seawater and groundwater samples around a leaking, tsunami-disabled nuclear plant, saying they seemed suspiciously high.
Well, yeah, but what if they’re right?
Tepco, the plant operator, said earlier this week that it had – on 13 occasions – detected beams of neutrons near the reactors. Neutrons are produced during fission of nuclear fuel, and are the key driver of the chain reaction that sustains continuous fission reactions in a reactor. … [analyst quote,] “… But if accidental chain reactions are occurring, it means that the efforts to completely shut down the reactor by mixing boron with the seawater have not completely succeeded. Periodic criticalities, or even a single accidental one, would mean that highly radioactive fission and activation products are being (or have been) created at least in Unit 1 since it was shut down. …“
Each damaged reactor building seems to be presenting it’s own menu of technical challenges. Note in comments that there’s an “Andy Dawson” who’s trying to debunk the worrying aspects of this story. Here’s a possible ID for the guy, only peripherally involved with nuclear (yeah I should talk 😉 ) http://preview.tinyurl.com/3zgoeyg
Christian Science Monitor (4/1 ’11): “Japan nuclear update: Where will they put the radioactive water?”
But on Thursday International Atomic Energy Agency officials announced that earlier in the week workers had stopped pumping radioactive water from the basement of the Unit 1 reactor because the unit’s turbine condenser – the place they had been putting the water – was full. // … // US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, at a breakfast in Washington hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, said that data provided by Japan indicates that Reactor Units 1, 2, and 3 have all suffered partial meltdowns.
Always something to keep the rabbit’s tail short.
Daily Yomiuri (4/2 ’11): “N-reactor builders fret about loss of business”
U.S. and European nuclear reactor builders increasingly are concerned about the situation at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant because a prolonged crisis could force countries worldwide to change their policies on nuclear power and eventually deal a heavy blow to their business.
The business of business is business: glad we’ve got that one straight …
UC Riverside Highlander (4/1 ’11): “Concerns over use of nuclear power irrational, reactionary”
The fact that this plant exists as more than a pile of rubble and has not already melted down should stand as a testament to our capacity to defend our buildings against nature’s assaults and dissuade fears that nuclear power is unstable.
Not sure if the concerns are “reactionary” but the rubble sure as heck is.