In the old days this was easy. The power plants were melting down but no one knew what was going on inside them; Water was being poured in and cooking off as steam, and every now and then the way they were getting the water in or the way they were powering the pumps would change, or one of the containment buildings would blow up, or whatever. If you’ve been reading the last few Fukushima Updates, however, you’ll know that things related to the crippled nuclear power plant have gotten more, not less complicated, which at first is counter-intuitive, but on reflection, expected. After all, engineers have more access to the inside of the plants now, though that is still limited. Pumping water into a big concrete box that blows up now and then is not as complicated as assembling a functiniong cooling system from parts that have been mauled by floods and earthquakes and that are highly radioactive. And the secondary but very important ramifications of an out of control set of multiple meltdowns at a large nuclear power plant are developing around the world as entire countries swear off nuclear power while at the same time major, influential industry entities revert to pretending that this is pretty much what we expected and everything is fine. The patterns and problems associated with contamination are starting to emerge and sink in; The fact that the industry expected this sort of meltdown to occur has been revealed.
One of the interested developments for the coverage period for this update was the declaration that Step 1 of the road map plan to bring the crisis to an end was completed. This involved stable cooling of the reactors and eliminating risks of hydrogen explosions. It is probably true that this has been accomplished, however things could change; Cooling systems are in place and hydrogen is no longer burning off, as it were. However even since this declaration there were interruptions in the cooling system. There have also been technical problems with the decontamination units that are supposed to clean the water that is being cycled through the cooling systems. At one point power went out for 5 hours stopping all cooling operations for some of the reactors and storage pools. We might be optimistic and call the situation stable but not trustworthy.
Also interesting is the attempt to redefine the meaning of the planned “Step 2.” This is “cold shutdown” of the reactors, to be completed within six months, which is actually a thing defined by standards. A cold shutdown has two major features: The reactors have to be below a certain temperature internally, and the radioactive stuff in the reactors has to be contained. The second of these two is of course impossible in at least two of the reactors, possibly three, because they melted down and the radioactive stuff will never be contained by any standard that the industry may have specified at any time in the past. The outcome of a “china syndrome” like event is that you get a bit of landscape that is really more like a new geological formation than an ex-power plant. And it will do what it does. The Japanese authorities seem to be interested in redefining both the temperature of “cool” and the meaning of “containment.” The current plan is to build an underground shield running 30 meters deep to contain the radioactive material and contaminated water. Below that is a geological layer that at this time does not absorb water. It is not clear how this feature would be built or how it would be made earthquake resistant. For the time being, engineers and plant managers are seriously considering plugging the holes in the reactors, though there is no known way to do this. Meanwhile, the IAEA has visited the site and tells us that everything is fine.
One of the most prominent features of contamination after a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima is the way radioactive material can become concentrated as it moves up the food chain. Therefore, authorities would naturally be prepared to focus on dairy products and animal meat, as these are well up the food chain from, for instance, grass or hay (or what seems to be called “straw” made from rice stalks, in Japan). But, ooops, they forgot about this problem and officials of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry allowed quite a bit of beef into the market from cattle that had been eating contaminated feed.
The problem is that while steps were taken to avoid having cattle feed on contaminated grass and certain stored feed, the memos regarding safe levels of contamination in feed never got to the rice farmers who provide this “straw” material. And of course, that stuff was contaminated. The beef did get into the market and some of it was even eaten by nursery school children. At first it was reported that almost a dozen cattle had eaten radioactive feed and then were sent to market. Then more such cattle were discovered. It now seems that the number is probably
close to 1,400 over 3,000 cattle shipped.
Also, it appears that straw grown very far from the plant is contaminated, but is still being used as feed. And, some of the beef may have been sold abroad. Other plant products and eggs are also contaminated.
Some time over the next few years the process of removing the spent fuel rods will be initiated. This includes the rods that are inside the reactors. Removing rods so badly damaged from reactors so badly damaged in buildings so badly damaged has never been done before, according to engineers involved in the planning. (This implies that the removal of nuclear material from Chernobyl was easier.) The process is expected to take several decades.
Evacuations continue and evacuation zones continue to be expanded as contamination is discovered or spreads. People are still resigning or getting charged or investigated or otherwise sternly looked at, plant construction plans are being scrapped. Gangsters. There are gangsters benefiting from the cleanup projects. Whistle-blowers are blowing their whistles but the climate for them is just as dangerous as ever; Policies are being scrutinized or changed, except in the US where recommendations have been hastily cobbed together and are now being duly ignored. We have yet to see a good analysis of the effects of these political and economic shifts on global warming. Earthquakes continue to occur in Japan. Contamination of workers is an increasing concern at Fukushima.
Another plant in Japan, Genkai, may have a faulty reactor pressure vessel. You will recall from earlier updates that this is the plant that the industry pushed the local mayor to restart using methods that were not entirely ethical. Other plants have other problems.
One of the most interesting and possibly most important items to come up over the last few days is a simulation created by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization of a meltdown and “china syndrome” event at the type of reactor at Fukushima. The simulation was created before this disaster and appears to be what actual did happen. See below.
Japan has passed a law outlawing this blog post. Don’t expect to be reading this if you are in Japan, or if you do … watch out.
Continue reading Japan Nuclear Disaster Update 32: “Biggest Industrial Catastrophe in History”