Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi: Update

I cannot in good faith go without writing an update on this issue, given the new information made available to the public.  Now, the worst sounding of these news stories (the first link) consists of unofficial information, leaked to the press.  The basic summary, according that news story (and since reported in a great many places, including the PBS Newshour) was that the fuel in Reactor 1 melted very shortly after the loss of power, and may have violated the integrity of the pressure vessel (there has been some throwing around of the word 'containment' in an unclear way in the press, which is not helpful).  There has also been a substantial uptick in the estimated amount of radiation released.

Now, a few points here:  Firstly, the last news story linked above suggests that TEPCO does not believe the pressure vessel was seriously violated, which is in line with what happened at Three Mile Island as I discussed briefly before. Second, all of the information reported thus far has been based on estimates of what took place, the size of potential breaches, new information obtained by the recalibration of instrumentation on site, etc.  What this means is that these new numbers are potentially not much better than the previous, and in keeping with much of the data presented by the Japanese, is something of a worst case.

Unfortunately, until radiation levels inside the containment buildings reaches low enough levels that the pressure vessels can be inspected, much this remains guess work, at best.  Currently the robots being used to inspect the reactor buildings are not able to reach to the actual pressure vessels, probably due to design limitations (they have tank treads, and can't climb ladders, etc).   However, given that TEPCO is able to circulate water through the reactors, the extent of damage to the vessels cannot be that severe (i.e. the fuel cannot have melted through and poured out into the containment structures), or water would not be able to circulate through the system.  This is not to say the integrity of the pressure vessels is perfect: there may be smaller holes that are plugged with solidified fuel, which may not have been hot enough to flow well.

There has been some data that suggests that there may have been exposure of molten fuel to the air; the map linked shows a few data points where radiation present is coming from heavy, non-soluble metals that could only be dispersed by direct exposure of fuel to the air. It's not clear, however, how high the detected counts are above background.

The larger perspective here remains fairly straightforward, and not all that different than before:  there have still  been no fatalities related to the release of radiation.  The area around the plant has not yet been surveyed, and the extent to which soils in the area have been contaminated with long-lived nucleotides is still unknown.   The majority of the miles of plumbing and conduit that service the reactors have yet to be inspected (though some steam leaks have been found with robots, and it is these sorts of things that are preventing them from establishing a closed cooling water cycle at the plant, something that needs to happen rather badly).  The backup generators were still badly sited and poorly protected.  The reactors were still old, well past their design lifetime, and were subjected to disasters above what their safety systems were designed for, and the US NRC was still probably wrong to suggest that a larger area needed to be evacuated.

The best summations of what is known definitively so far will be found on the IAEA's website, which I linked to above, and an excellent summary of take-away messages thus far was assembled by some folks at MIT, and is well worth reading if you're interested in this stuff, and the future of nuclear power.

The things that continue to concern me are the fate of the contaminated water on site, much of which has leaked into the ocean, though that appears to be nearly under control, and the degree of contamination of soils and surfaces around the plant.  Only time will show how bad those situations are, unfortunately.

I would also add that none of the news released thus far has changed my views on nuclear power, at least in part because much of it is simply estimates produced by computer models, using untested assumptions regarding the conditions in the reactors.  Not that you'd take that away from the news, of course, where this information is being treated as fact.  Which I confess irritates me greatly.
But we can't expect the media to learn things that might reduce their ratings, can we?


  1. This 'Nobody has died yet' argument is just stupid.

    People will die from this most likely - they did at Chernobyl.

    Dying is not the only thing that happens to people - there are other forms of harm - Why do nuclear proponents forget all suffering besides instant death?

    Not to mention that there have been deaths from the Fukushima accident, so your assertion is wrong.

    The folks at MIT are from the same school founded by the person who invented the safety system the NRC uses - they in my opinion are responsible for this mess also.

    They made claims that have turned out to be false.

    If you believe the MIT people - then you are quite stupid.

    Now - stop killing people slowly for profit and get a life.

  2. Forgot to mention - My understanding is that Melt-Through is possible based on the Japanese Government Report.

    If you doubt the Japanese Government then that is fine - but I have to assume they have some information.

    The radiation readings from the Reactor 1 drywell leads me to think they may be right.

    Claiming this is all speculation is true - the full mess will not be known until something goes into the drywells. I doubt a human will be inside the Reactor 1 drywell anytime soon.

    And the amount of melted core will not be known until the RPVs are opened - true - and that may be 10 years.

    Also you may look into the history of the MIT info - oh what a tale of false expertise.

  3. Hey look, my first angry commenter! I'm like, cool and important now! Awesome sauce.

    Firstly, the only people who currently have an elevated risk of cancer, based on the numbers reported on the ground (by various bodies, not just TEPCO or the Japanese gov't) are the site workers, and aside from the two who suffered contact burns from wading into a pool, none have exceeded the exposure limit in place for the workers (which yes, was doubled because of the nature of the emergency).

    There were deaths onsite, yes, due to other things, but none were from radiation, which was my point. And as the fellow on the Newshour pointed out (if you watched those segments) the number of people who may ultimately die from elevated cancer risks will in all probability be orders of magnitude less than those killed by the tsunami.

    In fact, it is likely that the number of people who die of Fukushima Daiichi related cancer will be less than the number of people killed in coal mining accidents over the course of a few years. And less than those killed on the highway in the US over the course of a few weeks.

    As for false claims, well everyone involved has made false claims, thus far, some of them saying it was worse, and some saying it was better than it really was.

    You're correct that we won't know a lot of things for sure for sometime. That was sort of one of my points, up above. Inspecting deeper inside the containment structures will happen eventually. It's honestly not super duper important, at this point, unless it turns out damage there is preventing the operators from getting things completely under control. But it's mostly a historical footnote at this point. No one is going to build another one of these reactors again. Seeing as how the design has been obsolete for decades.

    You'll also note I said some small amount of melt through is possible, or even likely (based on the readings put out by DIRT), but it can't have been very big. The report estimated 30 square centimeters, IIRC. And this is still inside the containment structure, and is certainly solid ceramic, at this point.

    As for MIT being full of "false expertise", I'm more inclined to trust their statements (and their blog served mostly to help lay people understand what was going on, anyway), given that they run half a dozen or so nuclear power related programs, than the word of some random dude on the 'tubes.

    And last, but not least... I'm really unsure about how I'm making money from nuclear power, since I don't even have ads on my site, and am in no way affiliated with the industry.

  4. There are those with political and economic agendas who used cold war propaganda to inspire fear. The anti-nuclear movement generally is filled with cold war era superstitions. Not that I would consider myself a nuclear advocate. (I say only that we need to decide _rationally_ whether nuclear plants make sense, just as we should for solar, wind, geothermal, coal-powered, and so on.)

    I should point out that I'm not claiming anything about the earlier commenter, whom I am unacquainted, nor the views he expressed. I'm really thinking about the motives behind those who release speculative statements and those who pick them up and emphasize them as though they were facts.

  5. Hey Walt. Much of the spread of the linked information, is i think, just because that's what the media does. And they're far more interested in eyeballs than they are in facts, unfortunately.

    Of course, a lot of people aren't that concerned with facts, generally. Or making rational decisions. I have been quite disappointed by the German response to this mess, in particular.

  6. Oh yeah - more deaths from other things - great!!!

    How is that in fact relevant to any scientific point?

    No I didn't watch newshour - and what journalism I read I tend to assume is filtered through their lack of knowledge and in some cases bias.

    More people die from car accidents than terrorism - so by Nuclear safety logic - terrorism is safe.

    As I said - my belief of the possibility of melt through comes from the Japanese Government review.

    Yes -I get upset by the stupidity of your death comparison. It is insulting and heartless.

    And yes the deaths so far are not - but they are still caused by the need to avoid the radiation -and without a nuclear event would not have happened.

    The deaths later may very well be significant - depending on how the government reacts.

    I get my views on the dangers of the nuclear industry from the NRC documents and other industry studies, not from the media.

    The problems with nuclear power do exist - the NRC knows this - the industry knows this - and yet what is said in public ignores what the NRC says in it's own studies.

    And I get fairly well sick of people like you saying such innane things that devalue human life for the profit of a few people.

    So yes - you got your first angry poster - no reason for you to gloat about your own denial of facts.

  7. Oh and before anyone wants to assign cold war agendas to me - I don't have any.

    I have no reason to incite fear of nuclear war - I don't in fact expect it.

    I do not use cold war fears to justify anything.

    I do know some history of cold war fears being used to pretend power plants were being built for power generation when actually built for weapons material production for the cold war though.

  8. I'm a scientist, see. Cold and heartless assessment of facts is my bread and butter.

    I kid!

    The point of using those comparisons was to point out that the risks associated with nuclear power are generally vastly overstated. Much like terrorism, actually. Though terrorism is actually more dangerous than civilian nuclear power generation, having killed quite a bit more people.

    Anyway. You don't seem to have read my post very closely, or to have followed many of the links to the sites I'd referenced. And that's fine. You can be angry about nuclear power and that's fine too. But I also hope that your angry about coal mining, and car accidents, and fracking, and the destruction of the Niger river delta, and the million other things that destroy more people's lives than nuclear power.

  9. Of course.

    If someone said "driving is perfectly safe - nobody died today" -I would take them to task.

    If someone said - nobody died from cars this week - I would tell them they were wrong.

    Do I try to get coal mining stopped - yes.

    Do you know anyone who was in the Ukraine when Chernobyl happened? I do.

    Do you know how many people died from Chernobyl?

    Do you know how many people will die from Fukushima?

    Do you know about the other people who have died in Russia from nuclear accidents?

    Do you know about the workers at other japanese plants who have died when there were no reported accidents?

    I criticised your post because it subtly mislabelled a conclusion by the Japanese government as some sort of assumption by people with no knowledge.

    I also criticised it because the nuclear proponents - who I have spoken to in great number - have a consistent mantra. Part of that mantra is to incorrectly quote the death stats from nuclear power.

    Also the nuclear fans use death stats as the only relevant comparison of effect - you are seeing gross displacement of people right now - the suffering is large already.

    The MIT info page has a history of it's own.

    MIT's nuclear department has a history of it's own also.

    You can choose to believe it if you like - but belief without question would be unscientific - and just belief in dogma.

    The MIT opinion went round the internet early on and was quoted by many media outlets without question also - the media lack of understanding goes both ways. It soon turned out that their opinion was seriously flawed when facts no longer fitted the assurances of no danger.

    After that it became apparent that the MIT professor was not qualified to have that opinion and the nuclear faculty at MIT tidied it up a bit.

    For me to be talking about one cause does not require me to even have knowledge of any other cause to be right or able to hold an opinion - that is flawed logic on your part.

    Every protection of a human life and avoidance of suffering is justified on it's own.

    If you want to be qualified to speak on this matter - I have about 20 GB of Nuclear industry documents for you to read.

    I also have about 2000 urls to articles and data sources on Japan that I have read since the crisis started.

    You want to compare notes?

  10. You are correct, in that I have stated that the results of the study above are preliminary, based on extrapolation and modeling, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I said that because it was, and is, true.

    I pointed this out because I get tired of seeing the media running around like a chicken with its head cut off, failing to contextualize the exposure levels, what the radiation levels mean, how much people are exposed to in their daily lives, etc. And because all of the attention on the Fukushima plant is a major distraction from the very real suffering of many hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who were displaced by the tsunami. Not to mention that fact that the international media failed at all to talk about the enormous fires at various fossil fuel oriented industrial facilities in the impacted area.

    You should also note that in the above post I did not down play the negative possibilities: I am very concerned about the contaminated sea water, and the area likely contaminated on land. I provided links that suggest that indeed, very hot fuel material was exposed to the atmosphere for some period of time.

    So your premise that I am attempting to somehow sweep the negative aspects under the rug doesn't really hold up, I'm afraid.

    What I am trying to do is contextualize what the leaked report is supposed to say (since we don't actually know yet), and balance out the shrieking about how it's the end of the world.

    Nor have I anywhere stated that nuclear power is perfect, because that's a stupid thing to say. It doesn't appear you've read anything else that I've written on the subject, which is fine, I suppose. I don't expect you to do so. It could be that I am not as clear as I want to be, but i think you're going to see in what I have written what you desire to see.

    And I hate to break it to you, but you can read as many gigabytes of material on any subject you want, but that doesn't make one 'qualified to comment' on it's own. It's rather like that scene in a "Fish Called Wanda" with Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis. A good film, I do recommend it.

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  12. My initial response to you was not as you assumed made in anger.

    I see so many times some subtle and ultimately dangerous ideas being put up by the nuclear lobbyists.

    Those who repeat them are often not the lobbyists but are those influenced by the ideas. They are often committed to the ideas because they believe nuclear Power is a necessary evil.

    I do know the difference between having documents and understanding them.

    I saw a Fish Called Wanda many years ago in original cinema release - and yes I understood the joke then.

    The documents I have and the parts that are relevant that I am referring to are well within my level of understanding - and I can refer you to 3 paragraphs on Spent Fuel Pools that are loud and clear indications of why nuclear power is not safe.

    If you had not introduced death count comparisons I would not have responded at all. They are just plain wrong though.

    The death counts from Chernobyl are almost always significantly under-reported.

    There are many incidents that are just not in anyone's counts.

    The figures from coal or gas are lacking a proper comparison of like -for-like.

    Coal as a future power source should be avoided, but the figure for deaths will be reduced even further by any 'clean' coal technology.

    You simply cannot get a gas accident that causes the fukushima issue.

    46 people did die from the effects of the Fukushima incident - and they were not at the plant. This has been reliably reported in the Japanese media. These deaths were not radiation poisoning, but from the response to the spread of radiation.

    Fukushima is a distraction from the rest of the EQ/Tsunami death and destruction - but Japan cannot pretend it is not relevant and ignore it to concentrate on the other issues.

    The fact that it is a distraction is in itself sufficient reason to be concerned - the country has it's resources diverted at a time when it can least afford to. The Tsunami affected areas were neglected due to radiation risk also.

    So before you try in vain to insult me - consider that just maybe I do know what I am saying and that you should not try to write someone off for criticising your postings.

    Also consider that the technique of personally attacking me is well known to those who have watched me argue the point with those defending the nuclear industry. Your response to my statements was predictable and somewhat lame.

    Now I should also mention that I have come back to post because some of the Ustream posters were a little upset by your comments about watching the Ustream channel.

    The posters found that a little creepy - so please do not upset them.

    If you wish to join in there you may actually find some extraordinary 'ordinary' people discussing the events. To lurk and post about it and the browser usage on another blog was a bit upsetting for some.

    This is their view though - I am not against lurking by those who do not feel they know what to say.

  13. I find it odd that you should scold me for personal attacks, when your first post called me stupid, and insinuated that I profited off the suffering of others. Which is rather worse than making a reference to a foolish character in a silly movie, don't you think (it does speak well of you as person that you saw it in the theater, btw)?

    It also strikes me as odd that you should suggest I not 'write someone off', when the content of your first several posts were essentially nothing -but- writing me off.

    Had you arrived and made a comment more like your last few (minus the one you deleted), you might have gotten a different response. Instead you arrived and aggressively impugned my character, and then continued to mis-characterize or ignore the actual content of what I have written on this site.

    Feel free to post a link, or the name of the study from which your three paragraphs on Spent Fuel Pools. I'm not going to promise to engage in extensive discussion on the matter, but I'm certainly interested in reading it.

    As for your Ustream friends, I surmised that they used Internet Explorer based on the big change in the distribution of browser usage statistics for my blog, and the fact that the majority of the traffic for the post was coming from a Ustream URL. It is also somewhat ironic that they should be uncomfortable with me seeing their discussion (on a public channel, on a public website, from which one of them linked to me), when part of said discussion was, in fact, about me and what I had written.

    I'm a curious person, and I like to know who is reading what I write. This was the first post that I had written where people unconnected to me in an obvious way were linking to my writing, and coming to read it. So I went to see what the site was (I have not been back, if you're wondering), and I commented over on Diaspora (again, publicly) with some amusement at their opinions of me.

    Because it's the internet, and one shouldn't take things personally, if at all possible. I'm sorry if that weirded them out, but you must confess it's a bit hypocritical.

    I appreciate the offer to join the conversation there, but this is really something of a tangential issue for this blog. My main goal is to write about urban ecology and related subject matter here. I began writing about Fukushima out of frustration more than anything else, and have posted updates on the subject because I feel an obligation to my small pool of readers to continue to deal with the subject as more information emerges.

  14. Out of order response:

    I passed on the views of the other posters on your post - I said my views were different.

    I understand the nature of internet statistics point you made - internet statistics is something I was a pioneer of. I am not sure of your thoughts on IE - and why you mentioned it as significant when it has been so dominant.

    I suggested you kept them in mind, that is all.

    As for writing you off - I did not do that.

    I objected strenuously to your comments.

    I made a remark that was a general remark about the industry - and intentionally left it so it could be pointed in your direction. You may or may not be the one profiting - and I would assume that any reasonable person would assume that you are not the nuclear industry. So therefore rationality would suggest you were not the subject of the remark.

    As I said I have now had debates with many posters on this subject - and a few other topics in my time.

    I find it is best that when you are debating an opinion which is based intentionally or not on industry spin - it is best to take that approach.

    What may surprise you as much as it surprises me is that I have made friends this way with quite a few people.

    As for the report: I will give you link to the relevant part - you can read the rest - including the disclaimer of the exact meaning, which I have also read.

    The last few paragraphs on that page are what made me realise that the supposed advantages of new designs failed to take into account what was in fact a greater danger.

  15. Interesting paper (or book, I suppose)... though I have long thought our policy of storing 'spent' fuel was quite foolish, when we could be reprocessing it. Also worth noting that many new/old reactor designs don't actually use fuel rods (I wrote about this in an older blog post, a bit). I imagine you've heard of the MSR experiments at Oak Ridge, back in the day.

    As for mentioning IE, my visitors tend to use IE a bit less than 50% of the time, so when it jumped up to more like 75%, I took notice. It's been interesting to watch the browser and oOS stats shift, as my audience has grown and shifted a bit. It might not surprise you that the Diaspora crowd tend not to use Microsoft products.

  16. I have seen quite a few designs that are much better - what I am referring to are the new designs that are proposed for construction.

    The safety issue is certainly not a matter of adding extra features.

    MSR has had it's problems in Japan also, with the usual attempt at cover up.

    There are designs using linear accelerators that have some advantages. I think this shows some promise - you may be thinking of these particular uses of molten salt.

    Reprocessing is probably better than not reprocessing - but by no means trouble free.

    Thorium provides advantages but also provides dangers and is not the panacea it is painted as.

    I am actually putting my mind to safer nuclear designs - so far the level of complexity and the inherent inefficiencies rule out current designs. I don't want to see peak Uranium or Peak Thorium. We probably need both of them for what they can uniquely provide.

    Electricity can be provided in much better ways without wasting no-renewables and risking large areas of a country.

    It is reassuring that this crowd do not use IE so much. I certainly don't.

  17. Sorry - I posted before realising - you meant MSR fuel not MSR cooling. I failed to get your connection.

    So many terms have more than one meaning, or get misused by those who should know better, it confuses the rest of us. I don't mean you, I mean those who work in nuclear fields.

    Lack of fuel as rods will not in itself remove the problem - burning the fuel more completely will reduce the problem, and reducing the decay heat produced by using thorium will also.

    Using an accelerator works to this end - the need for spontaneous fission is lower and the decay heat falls off faster.

    The problem here is that these designs are not the ones being proposed for construction, and what we are being told is now safe is in fact not much better than Fukushima, and in many cases untested design.

    I am all for efficient and safe nuclear in limited use - or really efficient nuclear in wider use. I see no examples of efficient or safe designs though.

    The defence in depth approach to kludge an inherently bad idea into 'safe' is no answer.

    Time we got out of Nuclear Kindergarten.

    When we get to Nuclear Adulthood, then we should consider Nuclear but only for where it is really the only option.

  18. Richard -

    I am not familiar with accelerator designs for fission... I believe I've seen that idea suggested for intermittent fusion (as a way of overcoming issues with maintaining/containing a continuous reaction), but not fission. I'll have to look into it, as it sounds interesting, and if any of my guesses about the design are correct, very promising.

    I concur with the majority of your last comment, and I think it's a place where we're failing pretty badly, for a wide variety of reasons.