Fukushima Dai-Ichi, Three Months On

First of all, let me come clean and admit that this particular post has been written, rewritten and edited quite a few times in the past few weeks, so it may be even more rambling than usual. My original intention, weeks ago, was to share what I know. Yet then I asked myself, what do I really know about this for sure?  I realised that I would just be commenting on things I have heard Now that things have settled down a bit, at least as far as the release of information goes, it seems more sensible to talk. The situation is far from resolved; it will probably not be until next year at the earliest that the reactors achieve ‘cold shutdown’ and in the meantime, just recently the IAEA described the situation as ‘highly serious’. This may be a few notches down from the verdict ‘highly apocalyptic’, but it is enough to note that there is still a lot to be done there and we can only hope that the experts know enough to manage it stably and that  prophets of doom on the issue are just as wrong as this guy. So what I write below is as based on expert opinion as I could make it, yet it is the rambling thoughts of someone who is definitely just a beginner when it comes to this issue.

An advantage of ‘social media’ has over ‘news media’ is that, having no deadline to fulfil, there is freedom to digest the news before commenting rather than having pressure to comment before all the facts are in. I should admit that many times I am tempted towards the latter, but the problem with it is that it so often can lead to passing on a misunderstanding, or faulty information. I’ve noticed that ‘special interest groups’ are especially guilty of making interpretations here which are convenient for their ideology. For instance, on the one hand there are people who very sincerely believe that nuclear power, with man’s limited level of technology, is just too dangerous to be toyed with, that the genie of nuclear power, with it’s promise of enormous and efficiently delivered energy risks unleashing a terrible threat along with it. To me, this is a very honest and cautious point of view, yet I still wouldn’t want it to colour the interpretation of reported facts, subconsciously up-playing dangers because it verifies their position.

Then there are others who promote nuclear power as the most feasible way to combat global warming, describing alternative fuel sources as being in their infancy and unable to efficiently deliver the vast amounts of power societies need now. They feel that relying only on fossil fuels in the meantime is just too risky, especially considering the tyrannical governments and unstable societies in many of the countries that are needed to supply them. Despite what some say, with all the associated costs, especially those of decommissioning old plants, nuclear power ends up being a very expensive energy source, but for any country with huge energy needs, it remains a strategically vital one. The question is, is it worth the risk of such accidents and can plants ever really be made in a way that’s safe from them? The answer on many people’s lips right now is ‘no’. It seems to me we need to find safer alternatives, yet in the mean time, we need to make nuclear as safe as humanly possible. If this pushes up the cost so that it’s not as economical as it might have seemed, then so be it; the immense, incalculable cost of a disaster is too great to risk. Whist it may never truly be enough, an expensive ‘insurance policy’ of extensive safety measures is a necessity, not an option and with it, inspection authorities with the power to enforce them.

In this area, we can see humankind charting a new future as we speak. Not only do people tend to see what they (often subconsciously) want to see, but just by the very act of looking, they alter the reality they perceive. We maintain here at Perfect Futures that realities experienced by Man are being made by him at both an individual or group level. In a free universe, ultimately nothing is ‘forced’ on anyone, though it may seem to be so. Positive thinking, being stress-free and optimistic will be a lot better for people’s health than diving into a sea of fear. Yet, a calm, rational, reasonable voice of concern is still well-worth listening to. Being positive isn’t about deluding yourself, it is more a case of being as proactive as possible and filtering out any fear (which is not to be confused with intelligent caution), to take a calm and realistic view of the situation.

What we Know Now

The first thing we would like to say here is probably to restate the obvious. This was a terrible accident at a nuclear plant woefully unprepared for a quite conceivable event- a large earthquake followed by costal tsunamis in a seismically-active region. Presumably, even though there is no way of actually stopping a Tsunami, it is possible to sufficiently protect a plant and it’s back up power generators from one. If not, then Japan really has to think carefully about continuing with their costal nuclear plants. some would jump quickly to one or the other sides of this assessment. Yet I’d stress that it isn’t an easy one to make, with Japan needing to import so much energy and the danger of, for example, oil being suddenly cut off being a grave one potentially), it is understandable that a reliable source of energy would be desired, which came in the shape of nuclear, which could continue to fulfil this role until a satisfactory replacement is found.

The next thing we have to look at is what actually happened. We now know that there were not just one, but three meltdowns and that at Unit One and quite possibly at the others as well, it was total- leaving an intensely radioactive blob at the base of a leaking containment vessel. There is even some talk of a ‘melt through’, in which it has melted through through the containment vessel, possibly even through the concrete underneath it and reaching unknown depths, the so-called ‘China Syndrome’, in which people wondered if an unstoppeable core could pass all the way through the Earth, or at least to an unknown depth. Then there are also the additional dangers posed by the fuel storage pools, damaged by the earthquake and hydrogen explosions, which contain many advanced products of the nuclear reaction in their tightly-packed fuel rods and are prone to become reactivated (attain criticality) and even explode if allowed to overheat too much; not in a nuclear explosion, but in a conventional one.

The details behind this have been shrouded in mystery by Tepco for some time and in fact are still only being drip-fed out. It’s conceivable that they simply don’t know, or at least not for sure and are waiting for confirmation. It’s also possible that they are worried about incriminating themselves if serious mistakes were made, a possibility which makes you wonder if the system that keeps outside agencies relatively at bay is a good one, if they can withhold evidence at will, though what to me is more probable is that they are in fact reasonably transparent with the government and international atomic energy agency (IAEA), yet there has been a conscious choice to slowly release information when it is thought people are ready to absorb it without panicking. When there is an immediate potential danger, like within the 20km around the plant or highly contaminated food, action is taken. Yet in terms of revealing the facts as to what happened, which are thought to be too alarming and could provoke panicked reactions that could have terrible economic effects, it is being decided to slowly reveal the truth. Whether this is ethical or not is questionable, I am more on the side on the public’s ‘right to know’, but considering their position, it is an understandable choice. Some people compare this to ‘boiling a frog’; you increase the heat slowly, so it doesn’t suddenly jump out.

For example, it was pretty obvious to people arount the world and especially to visiting experts that there were (and still are, as I speak) multiple meltdowns in progress, that cooling was intended to slow down but could no longer fully prevent. Yet it may well have been decided that this is a truth that people just couldn’t be trusted to handle, so it was held back until lots of lesser bad news was digested first, the same way one might give small drops of a bad-tasting medicine before a big gulp is administered. In terms of the response, it seems to me that they reacted as well as they could have done when you take into account their limited resources. Yet it also shows the essential problem with nuclear power- even an ‘exemplary response’ (as described by the IAEA) is still woefully inadequate, with contamination spreading wide and far, poisoning crops and having an effect we are only beginning to gauge. The myths of impervious containment structures, failsafe safety systems and diaster response teams proved to be empty promises when the forces of nature were unleashed upon the plant.

With a lack of official transparency, one person I turned to to fill in the blanks has been Arnold Gunter.  None of us can see the future, perhaps we wouldn’t want to if we could, but he may well have some important things to say about what has already happened and the delicate nature of supposedly well-protected plants. In this video, we can see one of his main points of contention with the official line that Unit 3 had a hydrogen explosion like those suffered by units 1 and 2, is his claim that it was a ‘moderated prompt criticality’; that despite being outside of the reactor, the fuel rods became ‘active’ and fuel-producing again when they no longer received enough cooling. He says that it was an explosion at Unit 3’s fuel rod pool that sent a cloud of extremely toxic radiation over the pacific and deposited parts of fuel rods as far as a mile inland. The evidence seems to increasingly support this, with the fuel rods in Unit 4 being intact, but pieces found a mile away, though I have to admit that as someone new to the whole world of nuclear power and the accidents that occur with it, I’m not really the best judge. Even so, his claims are coherent, calmly delivered and to my mind very plausible and I wouldn’t be surprised if the official story changes to something a lot more like his claims.

In the early days of the incident, I did a lot of research into the accidents in Russia- Chernobyl and the Mayak Reactor near Kyshtym and found the later had some similarities. It also featured a large explosion (though much larger than Fukushima had) and also involved a lack of cooling to nuclear materials. It was covered up for decades, something that was impossible in the case of chernobyl and would be inconcievable in our interconnected world of today. Apart from not wanting to cause panic, there was a strong urge to save face, in that case the face being the Soviet Unions. Yet people don’t change, even in different systems. In fact, cover-ups are something TEPCO is also notorious for, being far more concerned over the years with the image their nuclear-based products have than with dispensing with timely information. Until now, this is something they have largely gotten away with, as the inadequate safety measures had yet to be put to the test. It seems that this period is over and a lot of people are even wondering if nuclear power in Seismically-active Japan can really ever be safe.

Tepco can be credited with meeting the Tokyo area’s electricity needs over the past decades- no small task for such a resource-poor country. Yet we have to wonder what has been going on in this secretive company, that has been entrusted with some of the most powerful and delicate technologies known to modern man. In their history of using nuclear power, there have been not just a few, but over 200 safety breaches that they have attempted to conceal from the public, including in them localised mistakes that could well have be seen as precursors to this one. With the lack of any centrally co-ordinated team in Japan to deal with such accidents, TEPCO was forced to rely on fire brigades and help from other countries, help that they thankfully accepted rather than trying to keep saving face. To make matters worse, the situation isn’t particularly different with the other electrical companies in Japan. The urge to pretend that everything is okay can lead to vital issues being left unresolved.

We can’t blame this accident and it’s continuing effects on an Earthquake or Tsunami. They are not sentient beings that deliberately targeted the plant, but predictable natural phenomena in the vicinity which, despite their unusual intensity, regularly appear there. It seems much more plausible to blame a culture of concealing earthquake vulnerabilities the nuclear plants had, even in the courtroom, in order to save the massive expenses needed to better proof the plants against them and obtain viable emergency equipment to deal with the aftermath of potential problems. An article in the New York Times goes into this in some detail.

The practice of allowing former government officials to get cosy retirement jobs in the company, the now infamous practice of ‘am’ seems also to be flawed, as it is unrealistic to expect people with vested interests in a company’s financial success to approve funding for safety measures for hypothetical situations they might think too unlikely to be worth funding. The regulators and whistleblowers made many points, which had they been heeded may well have minimised this tragedy. Looking at the cost not only to those living around the plant, but to the company itself, with it’s liability in the billions, surely it can be seen that their listening to objective criticism, often very bravely offered in the face of threats, would have saved them in the long run? Yet even now we see the continued retreat into an incestuous way of doing things, with independent or critical reporters bared from press conferences. When people only talk to themselves, or to those who can be trusted to say ‘yes’ at every opportunity, how can they learn the truth, whether or not it is what they want to hear?

Even now, we are only beginning to find out what happened in the early days of the accident, learning facts that are not necessarily the same as what we had been lead to believe. It seems that it wasn’t just the apocalyptic Tsunami that cased the damage, but the earthquake itself, which the plant was supposedly built to withstand. As anyone who has been following this will know, the meltdowns started before the Tsunami hit, due to the earthquake- an earthquake the plant was supposedly designed to withstand. Safety equipment seems to have been rendered useless without electricity and manual controls for valves and water cooling inoperable. Filters to let out explosive hydrogen gas simply couldn’t open when their power was gone- yet their very exoistance was to help deal with a cooling crisis that a lack of power was likely (we now know, invevitable) to cause.

In fact, the containment may well have been compromised in hours- the same containment we were daily reassured was ‘impregnable’. All of this makes the early decision to resort to poring on tonnes of corrosive seawater, a measure considered desperate, all the more understandable. Which makes us think- if even the equipment to deal with emergencies fils when needed, if the containment is unreliable, if only due to weak spots such as seals, who is to say that other, ‘better’ designs won’t reveal their weaknesses when put to the test? Are we really, truly ready to build ‘safe’ reactors in an extreme situation (which I am afraid needs to not just encompass natural disasters, but also operator errors, unforeseen equipment failures, or even terrorism)? If we are, fine, new ones will be better, but if not, alternatives need to be found as quickly as possible. These could well be renewable energy sources, but they may include the seemingly safer Thorium reactors being developed, which don’t melt down.

Conclusion

All of this only reinforces the view I have come to have that nuclear technology is a uniquely powerful one in the history of mankind and can only be safely handled by mature people and societies, perhaps even more so than those we now have. It’s obviously something we desire for our electricity appetites, but are we ready to handle it safely, transparently, responsibly? It is a serious test, not only for the localised actors, but for all mankind, if only because the radioactive releases involved quickly become international, if not global. Already, radioactive particles from Fukushima have been found as far away as France, where pregnant mothers are being cautioned about certain foodstuffs. Even a small danger should be avoided if possible, the same way such mothers would avoid alcohol or tobacco.

Yet, in all of this, there are hopeful signs. Humanity wants to have a future and is willing to take these matters seriously. Now that it has happened, tremendous efforts are being made to mitigate the effects of the accident, some of them truly heroic and, hopefully, none of them in vain. Seeing the danger, other countries are improving their safeguards (or claiming to, everyone wants to save a buck, it seems) and making large investments into renewable sources, which is being seen as a safer wave of the future. Germany has even shut down their aging reactors and plans to make a complete move to renewables. Where there is a will, theer’s a way.

The suspension of Hamaoka plant is another sign, something undertaken when it became clear just how dangerous an earthquake can be to such a plant. We have to applaud Prime Minister Kan on having the foresight to cut through the red tape and force a decision there, even though the more gentle process of the courtroom could have achieved this earlier and also in a way that could have transformed the legal landscape in which Japan’s plants exist. The sign that we are moving in the direction of far greater safety measures is a silver lining to this cloud. An accident with the wind blowing inland would have been far worse, rendering vast stretches of Japan uninhabitable for generations. The spectre of this happening at Hamaoka was just too great to risk. Let us hope that such an event is less likely than ever at this point and that the issues that remain at Fukushima are resolved as calmly, quickly, smoothly and above all gently as possible.

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