Fukushima Update

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Patrick J. Kiger at National Geographic News has an excellent summary of the current situation at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The plant continues to leak radioactive material into the sea, though at a rate much lower than the massive release that happened at the time of the accident. Strontium-90 (Half-life 28.79 years) has increased in proportion over various Cesium isotopes. This is a concern because while Cesium has the potential to enter the food supply in fish that pick it up, Strontium enters the food supply in a different way. In theory Cesium enters tissues and leaves tissues, and doesn’t accumulate over time. (I quickly add that there is evidence of Cesium accumulation in the fish food chain, so that may not be entirely true; certainly, tough, Cesium does not accumulate in large amounts). Strontium, on the other hand, substitutes for minerals in bone, and thus accumulated as a fish ages. Taking fish from contaminated waters for human consumption has mostly been banned since the accident (there are a few species of marine organism that have stopped showing detectable levels of radioactive isotopes, so they are now being caught).

The overall expected health risks of the Fukushima disaster overall and continued health risks because of the ongoing leakage are hard to estimate. There is almost certainly an elevated cancer risk for people living in the area, though the extent of this is unknown. Concerns that we see around the Internet that dangerous levels of radiation are reaching the US are incorrect.

Having said that, I think people often evaluate the significance of the Fukushima disaster incorrectly, for political reasons. Those who want to claim that nuclear power (including existing old-generation nuclear plants) is just honkey-dory seem to do so by feeding off of anti-nuke misconceptions and irrational fears about radiation. Yes, people do get it wrong; the average person has no clue what risks radioactive materials or radiation pose. For this reason, it is easy to creates straw men and then disprove them. The fact that the region around Fukushima is not littered with skeletons of people who were zapped into oblivion by the Fukushima multiple meltdowns, or that all babies in Japan are born with only one head and ten fingers, does not mean that nothing happened there. The fact is that you can’t go near this power plant without taking a serious health risk, and there is a moderate but real health risk because of the prior large scale dispersal of radioactive material and the ongoing lower level but still important outpouring (literally) of radioisotopes.

If we were to propose the construction of 22 nuclear power plants and noted that over a 30 year period one of them would suffer multiple meltdowns, spew enormous amounts of nuclear icky stuff into the air and sea, continued to spread contaminated water into the sea and groundwater for years after at a lower rate, create a very expensive problem that would last for decades and create a deadly no-entry zone filled with millions and millions of gallons of radioactive water and piles of nuclear material in the disabled reactors and spent fuel pools that could not be cleaned up for decades in a zone susceptible to serious earthquakes and tsunamis … the designers of that system might well be asked to go back to the drawing board or seek other alternatives. (Japan has about 22 plants operated over about 30 years, give or take.)

In fact, they were. They were asked to not do what they did, but those who opposed nuclear plants in Japan. The specific reasoning of the anti-nuclear activists and others may have included faulty logic and bad information about nuclear power, but on the list of potential problems was the possibility that what actually happened would happen. They were right. And they were not “stopped clock” right. They were right because they saw a real danger that really existed.

We probably have to build new nuclear power plants. Burning fossil fuels at the rate we are burning them will cause disasters that will make us forget bout our nuclear woes. But it is not true that the nuclear power industry is ready to step in and build significantly safer plants now, and it is not true that “alternative” (a term we should stop using!) energy solutions such as geothermal, solar, wind, and so on deployed on a smart grid with significant enhancements of efficiency at both production and use ends of the grid comprises a secondary solution.

Anyway, I gave only a short summary of what Kiger outlines in his excellent piece. Go now and read: Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know

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32 thoughts on “Fukushima Update

  1. GL,
    Thanks for continuing to write on this subject. It’s originally how I came to the blog (who knew?).
    While it’s difficult to stay strictly scientific on this subject and not dive into the politics of the situation, I do recognize that you are one of only a few who actually allow this ugly ongoing story to resurface occasionally.

  2. Good post Greg, but I do dispute one aspect: the “Stopped Clock” argument.

    Were they actually correct? I seem to recall a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas earlier this year, the Bhopal disaster in 1984, et al. I won’t batter you with examples; rather, I’ll get to the point, and that is: all industry carries significant risk. However, the typical anti-nuclear contingent are not decrying the real and realistic risks; thus, claiming that “Something bad will happen!” does not make one a prophet when something bad does indeed happen.

    I’m definitely not trying to downplay the disaster, but it is disingenuous to imply that safer plants and operations cannot be built and instituted. The real lessons from Fukushima (other than the jovial “All industry carries an inherent risk” point I made earlier) are not of the evils or inherent instability of nuclear power, but rather on the evils of the dual-factors of incompetence and greed when played out on a national level.

    From that aspect, we clearly have not learned from Fukushima (not the right lessons, anyway), any more than we have learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster (which really includes the exact same lessons displayed in a different industrial endeavor), and that is what is truly sad about the whole thing.

    To echo Ron, thanks for bringing this up, because Fukushima has largely faded from the public consciousness, but its effects surely have not.

  3. Edit: I’m not implying that you are being disingenuous, Greg; more stating that you should be cautious to give credit to those who may not deserve it. 😉

  4. Yes, those who questioned nuclear energy at the time absolutely said that even redundant systems for cooling cores that require cooling to not melt down would not stop it from happening sometimes. It really wasn’t a stopped clock. Anti-nuclear activists have been, I think, wrong on storage, but they also sued storage as a strategy to stop building new plants, and that worked, but with dire consequences.

    Also, I don’t think anyone is implying that safer plants can’t be built. Rather, people are insisting that any newer plants must be safer. But, it is hard to trust the nuclear industry to not screw that up. The current fleet of plants is not what they promised at the time.

    Also, right now there is very little in the way of a nuclear industry that can actually build new safer plants. This, I hear from people in the nuclear industry. (As an aside is the other little problem: The first round of Next Gen plants are going to have accidents that will arise because of unforeseen circumstances, just like the current aged fleet had. Then there will be re-engineering and those problems will be fixed. To be honest, that has to be understood. But the nuke industry will never come clean with that. They will start out lying about what they are doing, as they did before.)

    Also, back then, those opposing nuclear plants were talking about and aware of the greed and incompetence problem.

    You are right, I think, about lessons not learned from Fukushima. TEPCO has acted exactly as nuclear opponants have always assumed/known, non-stopped-clock-like, the nuclear industry tends to act. It really is horrible.

    Ron, thanks.

    For the record, I’m a long-time nuclear opponent who opposed the nuclear power industry because of the fact that expensive and unsafe technology (more or less) that was unsafe because of greed and links to the warhead industry were being foisted on us as “clean, safe, and cheap”, who also thinks we need to build some new nuclear power plants, but does not trust the nuclear power industry to do this, and also knows that in fact nuclear material is itself a limited resource, and also, who is unconvinced of the viability of a solution that 50% of self proclaimed experts say can never work and 50% say is ready to go out of the gate and is perfectly clean and safe (thorium) and no, there is no such thing as fusion in the foreseeable future.

    In 1999 it is said that the Chinese Government required all major executives involved in Y2K to be on an airplane at midnight, flying. Or at least, some of the people in charge of making sure that everything was fixed. Not sure if that is true. But one approach might be to a) build next generation reactors on the site of existing older reactors and 2) require the owners to live in them. That might bring together some of the policy issues regarding safety and efficacy under one roof, as it were.

  5. I used to work for someone who ran the nuclear program for B&W which included nuclear submarines. The story was that many of the engineers and workers who designed and built each submarine had to be on the maiden voyage along with Admiral Rickover, and he would commit an act of sabotage.


    But the US nuclear navy has had zero radiation release accidents.

  6. From wiki:

    Some of the most serious nuclear and radiation accidents by death toll in the world have involved nuclear submarine mishaps. To-date, all of these were units of the former Soviet Union.[2][3][16] Reactor accidents that resulted in core damage and release of radioactivity from nuclear-powered submarines include:
    K-8, 1960, loss-of-coolant accident; substantial radioactivity released.[17]
    K-14, 1961, reactor compartment replaced due to unspecified “breakdown of reactor protection systems.”
    K-19, 1961, loss-of-coolant accident resulting in 8 deaths and more than 30 other people being over-exposed to radiation.[18] The events on board the submarine are dramatized by the film K-19: The Widowmaker.
    K-11, 1965, both reactors damaged during refueling while lifting the reactor vessel heads; reactor compartments scuttled off the east coast of Novaya Zemlya in the Kara Sea in 1966.
    K-27, 1968, experienced reactor core damage to one of its liquid metal (lead-bismuth) cooled VT-1 reactors, resulting in 9 fatalities and 83 other injuries; scuttled in the Kara Sea in 1982.[2]
    K-140, 1968, reactor damaged following an uncontrolled, automatic increase in power during shipyard work.[19]
    K-429, 1970, an uncontrolled start up of the ship’s reactor led to a fire and the release of radioactivity[19]
    K-116, 1970, loss-of-coolant accident in the port reactor; substantial radioactivity released.
    K-64, 1972, failure of the first Alpha-class liquid-metal cooled reactor; reactor compartment scrapped.
    K-222, 1980, Papa-class submarine had a reactor accident during maintenance in the shipyard while the ship’s naval crew had left for lunch.[19]
    K-123, 1982, Alpha-class submarine reactor core damaged by liquid-metal coolant leak; the sub was forced out of commission for eight years.[19][20]
    K-431, 1985, a reactor accident while refueling resulted in 10 fatalities and 49 other people suffered radiation injuries.[3]
    K-219, 1986, suffered an explosion and fire in a missile tube, eventually leading to a reactor accident; a 20-year old enlisted seaman, Sergei Preminin, sacrificed his life to secure one of the onboard reactors. The submarine sank three days later.
    K-192, 1989, loss-of-coolant accident due to a break in the starboard reactor loop; reclassified from K-131.

  7. Meanwhile, in the US, no sub nuke accidents. This exemplifies both the potential and problem with nuclear energy.

  8. One thing that I learned was that US submarine reactors are not refuelable. They are fueled (with highly enriched uranium), then welded shut.

  9. Daedalus, that is entirely incorrect. Many, many, many US submarines have had their reactors refueled. Not sure what your source is on that. (The current SSN class is designed to never be refueled, based on the life of the core, not based on any inability to refuel.)

    Greg, my experience is in the nuclear industry, but admittedly, via US submarines. Thus, while I have extensive training, knowledge, and experience in the industry, it’s rather slanted toward those who do it the right way. In other words, I know how safe and effective nuclear power can be, but I also know quite well that regulations and standards in the civilian sector are not nearly as high.

    All that said, I’m not a huge proponent of nuclear. I do see it as a necessity based on the current state of our national power generation (something you’ve blogged on before, IIRC), and I absolutely see it as something that can be done correctly and safely. Will it be? Well, see my previous cynicism about industry in general.

    And yes, your reservations toward Thorium reactors are well-founded. They’re promising, but certainly no panacea. Fusion has been mathematically ruled out as a practical solution (unless there’s some impressive breakthrough in physics in the future, anyway).

  10. Holy shit, I can’t believe that we’ve not already solved it. This is very straight forward.


    We get the Navy to be the entity that makes the new nuclear power plants.


    (I am not joking.)

  11. Wait, that would require more government work (in place of the public sector), but it would ALSO support the military…

    ….that was the sound of Glen Beck’s head exploding.

  12. Also, the PWR plants the Navy uses aren’t so much in vogue in civilian power generation. Military reactors undergo a whole lot more stress than a civilian plant, with many more cycles over core life. However, they’re also much, much smaller in scale, and can therefore afford to be made out of some very, very expensive parts.

    (Historically, that has not been the case in the former Soviet Union, as your wiki-research revealed.)

    If I had to go out on a limb, I’d say that scaling up a submarine (or carrier) plant to a civilian scale, maintaining the same enrichment level and material selection, would simply be prohibitively expensive.

  13. The reason US civilian reactors are light water reactors is because they are scaled up submarine reactors.

    They both use zirconium as the cladding.

    I guess it was only the latest submarine reactors. They are designed to be not refueled and welding them shut is part of that design. Shop welds are ever so much more reliable than any other type of connection.

  14. Roger #12: That’s nota bad thing. The government is very good at doing certain kinds of things. We have the best road system in the world, we have an excellent postal service (when you ignore the unskeptical criticisms of the post office) and so on. The Army Corps of Engineer can be annoying (at least in my own experience) in some ways but no one does better when it comes to many of the things they do.

    The Army Corps of Engineers would also be involved in the National Nuke program.

    In any event, the things that make the private sector what it is (private) are exactly the same things that make the nuclear industry less than ideal. Nationalizing the nuclear power industry would be a very good thing.

  15. “However, they’re also much, much smaller in scale, and can therefore afford to be made out of some very, very expensive parts.”

    Which is partly why they are safe, and exactly what we need. For instance, our new national interurban light rail system that replaces most of our air travel and car travel could be powered by submarine like plants located all along the route. Or, maybe even in the trains.

  16. GL,
    #15: I totally agree. However, there is a rather large contingent of voters out there who are against anything involving the government and government spending. Those people tend to have a limited understanding of economics, but their vote carries the same weight as yours or mine.

    #16: Again, agreement. Pardon my cynicism, though, in that I don’t see that kind of funding getting approval, especially in this economic climate. When we can’t find the money to satisfactorily fund education, science and research (including, but certainly not limited to, NASA), and health care, items like high speed rail and power generation are derided by opponents of “big government” as wasted funds.

    It’s very frustrating to observe.

    Daed, yes, exactly. Although civilian plants utilize a number of different designs. Boiling Water reactors are pretty common, even though that’s a design that, due to size constraints and safety requirements, isn’t something the nuclear Navy is touching.

  17. Remember the Ford Pinto, Rick? It kept blowing up if rear-ended at low speed. The way to address that was not to point out the thousands who die in car accidents, and ignore the Pinto . The way to address that was to redesign the Pinto’s gas tank.

    Same here. Nobody is forgetting the thousands who died as a result of that earthquake. I myself have blogged about the absurdity of having strong cultural memories and science about high water marks of tsunamis and still building and settling extensively below that line.

    This doesn’t happen to be a blog post about that.

  18. @#4 GL 7th paragraph,
    Anti nuke energy due to distrust of private industry, alone? Do you find collusion between industry and the State?
    What entity would / should be trusted to build the needed plants?

  19. http://www.earthtechling.com/2013/08/navy-sees-fuel-cells-ready-for-front-lines/

    The ONR, the scientific research arm of the Navy and Marine Corps, is talking up the new Solid-Oxide Fuel Cell Tactical Electrical Power Unit that uses technology developed through its programs. A 10-kilowatt unit was demonstrated at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland earlier this summer, and it used 44 percent less fuel than a similarly sized conventional generator, the ONR said.

  20. #16 given the dearth of general science and engineering education, together with the abundance of misinformation spread by some news media and teh intertubes , it’s (sadly)unlikely most people would consider getting on board a nuclear powered train

    #2 – with regards to stopped clock – I would be very surprised- and this also refers to Greg’s response in #19 – if there were not lots of local arguments at the time against building reactors in Japan given their earthquake/tsunami history.

  21. Doug, we don’t have to guess. We can remember. There were indeed.

    By the way, on a more global level (or a US level maybe) this is where fiction comes in handy.In case anyone questions whether or not anti-nuclear sentiment included the idea of a china syndrome type meltdown (which happened at Fuki) we can just go watch the Jane Fonda movie.

  22. That’s the problem: a China Syndrome type meltdown is neither particularly practical nor what happened (and certainly not geographically accurate, but that’s irrelevant). A meltdown happened. What separates the meltdown from, say, TMI (other than the earthquake and tsunami), was the mismanagement by TEPCO, improper storage of fuel cells, and pretending that the crisis wasn’t serious to the international community.

    It’s remarkable how often that is the case: an absolute disaster is downplayed by the hosts until it is past the point of no return.

    A study of TMI and Chernobyl lends credence to why so many people remember the China Syndrome, but it does not make it more plausible or accurate from an engineering standpoint. At the risk of repeating myself, I insist that protestors arguing against nuclear power as an industry were largely wide of the mark. Unless they were arguing against storing spent fuel rods on site, without a proper disposal plan, and the dangers of a corporate/government environment predisposed to cover-ups.

    That’s why I am hesitant to give people too much credit for their foresight. Predicting disaster is easy, and nuclear power has a long way to go to catch up to much more traditional engineering fields in terms of disasters and loss of life. Providing useful feedback – WHAT is wrong, HOW it can be fixed – is far less often encountered. A NIMBY approach, like Germany, doesn’t do you much good when you end up facing energy shortfalls and the very real likelihood of increased dependence on coal plants (and thus more pollution, cancer, etc.).

    The obvious example is that opponents of pesticides usually cite potential health effects. The Bhopal disaster didn’t make pesticide opponents into prophets, because that wasn’t what they were predicting or opposing. Japan and TEPCO royally screwing the pooch, skipping routine maintenance, failing inspections while continuing to operate, refusing to admit the scope of the disaster once it occurred, etc., does not retroactively make the China Syndrome into a documentary.

    (Seriously, some day, ask Richard Gere or Martin Sheen exactly WHY they oppose nuclear power. It’s no less humorous, sad, or ill-informed than Jenny MacCarthy against vaccines, or any other anti-science cause. Scientists against nuclear power is one thing; actors, a completely different, and laughable, thing.)

  23. Roger, that’s a bunch of bullshit and you know it. The exact nature of a nuclear meltdown or any similar type of disaster is so specific to the circumstances that demanding that people’s concerns match actual accidents is absurd.

    I think maybe you were not there, and have a concept of what people were saying that was fed to you by your own industry. I was there. I know what I was thinking at the time, and I know what others were as well. And, the truth is, the movie, as a piece of fiction (70s fiction at that) was a damn good representation of a real live engineering problem that people really were concerned about and that did, in fact, actually happen at Fukushima. (Please, don’t throw up the TMI smokescreen. Nobody has said that a meltdown of any kind happened there)

    The China Syndrome was a movie about a meltdown, by the way. The canard that “a china syndrome is this or that or is not this or that therefore nobody knew anything” is infantile. Cut it out.

    Real people had real concerns about real things that really happened and you are not going to get away with dismissing those things.

  24. Greg – I know back then we were thinking stuff like that – I was there too (I’m 64 in 3 weeks) and remember it well. I was trying (poorly) to say that I don’t know how stridently the Japanese citizenry were saying it too (it wasn’t until 76 that i went to Japan and I knew people there then that were not happy with it – but that’s just hearsay and I do remember seeing news clips at home of big protest marches) – it would be interesting to go through the Japanese newspapers of the time and see what level of protests there were and the substance of them. Unfortunately I do not read Japanese so I can’t.

    Given the nuclear fallout heritage of Japan I’m somewhat surprised they went this route (then again since ’45 they no longer have access to cheap petroleum and NG so not a hell of a lot of choice.

    For me the most stunning bit of negligent planning by TESCO (aside from putting it right on the coast in a country with a long history of tsunamii) was not putting the backup generators where they could not be destroyed by earthquake or tsunami – had they done so much of this disaster could have been averted.

  25. I suggest a ground penetrating radar survey of the land inland of Fukushima Plants and laterally uphill. The goal being to determine where groundwater is flowing and at what depth it generally flows. Also to determine the near-site soil geology.
    With this information, a dyke could be enacted to divert groundwater around the area of the Reactors, and the radioactive water tanks. If there are large subsurface preferential channels, boreholes could be drilled and the rainwater subsurface piping could be directly pumped around the Reactor site to sea.
    Cameras of overland flow could monitor surface flows and surface concrete canals build; IDK how much surface flow the area has. Water tracers could be released at higher gorund elevations and then measured at shore. I doubt the utility of radio-tracers. I view storing all this water as a distraction from higher priority goals; if you wait too many decades to get at the melted fuel blobs, another earthquake will hit.

  26. I would assume they’ve used GPR but now that you mention it, I’ve not seen any reference to post disaster surveys. But they did build a big giant nuclear power plant right on that spot, there must be a LOT of geotechnical information about the area from the initial work and subsequent upgrades to that information with re-licencing and so on. I would assume. But perhaps I should not assume.

  27. I was not there, but I am familiar with the movie, and saying it was about a meltdown is like pretending that Transformers is an accurate portrayal of robotics (because it has robots). I’m certainly not implying that you, or activist scientists, didn’t know what you were talking about. I am flat-out stating that the majority of anti-nuclear activists, especially the most visible, are quite off the mark.

    So, no, I do not see it as a bunch of bullshit. I recognize for you it might miss the mark, but I’m not aiming my criticism at you, Greg.

    TMI is not a smokescreen, for the record. It WAS a meltdown (I’ve seen the pictures; I’m assuming that you have not, if you believe it was not a meltdown), and its occurrence lent a lot of credibility and buzz to the movie. This, despite the fact that, as you know, TMI was a non-event in terms of human effects; that hardly matters in the public eye. TMI was far more influential in nuclear policy-making than Chernobyl, because it happened here, and it followed right on the heels of the movie. Fukushima is a far more apt relative to the China Syndrome, but that doesn’t mask the fact that the movie is wildly inaccurate from a scientific standpoint.

    Look, the fears it encapsulated, in a very basic sense, may be right on the mark: if a nuclear reactor melts down, the result could be catastrophic. From a socio-political aspect (cover-ups, et al), it’s excellent to apply it to Fukushima, because apart from the meltdown, THAT is what really happened!

    But to relate it to your field, Encino Man is not a particularly accurate representation of an anthropological study. There are far more accurate portrayals of the dangers of nuclear power in the form of documentaries.

    Look, I have no dog in the fight: I’m not pro-nuclear power, and I’ll never work at a civilian plant, so I don’t care if we never open another one. But I’m not particularly fond of misinformation, either (your second paragraph, referring to US risks from the disaster, show that you aren’t, either). I don’t need some corporate industrial “line” about the supposed safety of nuclear reactors. I’ll take my extensive knowledge on how they work, instead, and base my judgements on that (which is probably why I don’t like the movie; I likely let trivial data and inaccuracies stand in the way of the message writ large, but I think we all do that).

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