Once upon a time there was The Firesign Theatre, a group of cerebral smart-alec comics who in 1969 released an album—we still had albums in those days—called How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All.
I recalled that question when CNN in January posted a piece titled “Chernobyl: Environmental Dead Zone Or Eco-Haven?” Chernobyl is in fact both, as will be seen, but what it mainly is, is no place any human being would want to venture into, at least for the next several centuries. And yet, as indicated in that CNN piece, the Ukrainian government plans this year to start sunnily shepherding tourists through its Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
I’d intended to write about this sooner, but because my name is Molasses Stonecutter, I never got around to it. As it developed, I suppose that’s okay, because now that Japan is in the midst of carving out its own glow-tomb Exclusion Zone, the topic has become one of general interest, rather than just another of my own personal obsessions.
Human beings are majoring in hubris these days, what with genetically modifying organisms, tinkering with nanobots, monkeying with space-time at the Hadron Collider and its fellow facilities, and continuing to behave as if they can harness without consequence the power of the sun, at places like Fukushima. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Greek tragedy knows what hubris always gets you. But I think it may be more or less against the law anymore to consult Greek tragedy, or even to understand what “hubris” means. But this blog has never really been about following such laws, so we’ll go ahead and expend 11,000 words or so on Fukushima, Chernobyl, and whatever passing distractions might present themselves along the way.
I previously devoted around 4000 words to glow-tombs here, in a piece which, once Japan began melting, I recently reprinted here. That piece is useful for understanding, in detail, how the accidents at Three Mile Meltdown and Chernobyl occurred, which is ground I don’t intend to re-plow here.
It also treats the effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe, which I will indeed revisit some here, and which, to be blunt, and to get it over with, are encapsulated in the boy shown in the photo to the left. If you are for nuclear power, you are for that boy. Simple as that. In my view, no conversation on the subject of nuclear power should ever occur without that boy. Because he is the reality, the thing itself, of nuclear power. He is what Chernobyl brought to the Ukraine. And he is what Fukushima will bring to Japan. He is the future waiting to be born of any nuclear power plant. Because any nuclear power plant can become Three Mile Meltdown, Chernobyl, Fukushima. All it takes is Mr. Ha-Ha. And Mr. Ha-Ha never sleeps. Nuclear-power advocates, so often zealots as boorish and relentless as religious fundamentalists, will try very hard to get you lost in their numbers and their graphs. And, like religious fundamentalists, they so often sneer that you Just Don’t Get It unless you have drunk deeply enough from their sacred texts. But never, do they have an answer to that boy.
The January CNN story trots out some folks who would have us throw a sheet over that boy, and gaze instead on a sort of shiny happy smiley-face.
We are first presented with the ghost town of Pripyat, once inhabited by some 50,000 people, until it was belatedly mass-evacuated several days after Chernobyl blew its top. The town has been abandoned by all sane humans ever since.
Yet we are told that “nature seemingly flourish[es] in the town’s deserted streets, squares and buildings,” that the seeds of soybeans and flax grown nearby are “relatively unaffected by radiation.” Why, seeds grown in the glow-zone “compare favorably with ones grown in non-contaminated soil outside.”
“I cannot recommend eating something from Chernobyl,” says one Martin Hajduch, “but I think it will be possible at some stage.”
This same Hajduch person ebulliently describes the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as “full of life.”
And that it is—in one sense. Because human beings do not live there, plants and animals in the Zone are not under the sort of ceaseless assault that afflicts them everywhere else on the planet. Because humans are so rarely encountered, many Chernobyl-area animals have no fear of them; animals elsewhere persecuted, like wolves, now populate the area. Plants and animals in the Zone may go about their business without much human interference. And in this, the Zone is indeed a sort of “eco-haven.”
But the reason that human beings do not live in the Zone is because it is a dead zone. And as the biologist Anders Moller of the University of Paris puts it, “[a]reas with higher radiation have fewer animals, survival and reproduction is reduced, sperm are abnormal and have reduced swimming ability. Abnormalities are commonplace and mutations rates are much elevated.” The mutation rate of birds in the Zone is 1 in 10, a rate Moller terms “astonishing.”
And biodiversity in the region is declining, among insects, birds, and mammals. With some of the most radiation-vulnerable species being migratory birds, which means the glow-effects travel far and wide, hundreds and thousands of miles beyond the Zone.
Over 40 types of radiation were unleashed by Chernobyl; some, like cesium and plutonium, will remain dangerous for far beyond the lifetimes of anyone reading this article, or their children, or their children’s children. Plutonium, in truth, is dangerous for more than twenty times as long as there have been human beings on this planet.
Chernobyl continues to kill people decades after it was sealed up in its leaky concrete sarcophagus. Nearly 25 years after Chernobyl went glow-tomb, children and teenagers who drank contaminated milk or ate affected cheese in the days and weeks after the accident still suffer increased risks of thyroid cancer. This is believed due to radioactive iodine, which has a half-life of “only” eight days. But, it is now clear, this iodine, in its relatively brief life—relative say, to cesium, which kills for centuries, and plutonium, which is fatal forever—can do fatal damage that will not show up until decades later.
Some of those tested, and affected, lived as far away as 90 miles from the Chernobyl glow-tomb, “demonstrating the risks of eating or drinking contaminated foods among people who were exposed to little or no radioactive iodine from the immediate fallout.”
It is easy for mendacious entities to minimize the effects of radiation, because its full impact on human beings is still not well understood. These thyroid results, for example, came as a complete surprise to the Science Men involved: going in to the study, they had No Idea it would be That Bad.
What is known is that there is no safe level of radiation, and that doses are cumulative. So when you hear somebody say that some level or another of radiation, in the air, in the water, in food, in your body, poses a risk that is “low,” or “minimal,” or “nonexistent,” you know that these people are heaving bollocks.
George Johnson put it well in a piece for the New York Times:
With radiation, the terror lies in the abstraction. It kills incrementally—slowly, diffusely, invisibly. “Afterheat,” Robert Socolow, a Princeton University professor, called it in an essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the fire that you can’t put out.”
But some people have no sense . . . which is why Chernobyl was built in the first place. And why the government of Ukraine has commenced to lead tours through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Ukraine’s emergency situations ministry said today that visitors would be offered tours inside the 30-mile exclusion zone set up after reactor four at the plant exploded on 26 April 1986, showering northern Europe in radioactive fallout.
While the area remains heavily contaminated, a ministry spokeswoman said, tourism routes had been drawn up which would cover the main sights while steering clear of the dangerous spots.
Wandering would not be encouraged, Yulia Yershova said: “There are things to see there if one follows the official route and doesn’t stray away from the group.”
There is a reason why it is a Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, rather than, say, Chernobyl Exclusion Hot Spots. And that is because although it may be perfectly true that a particular bit of soil may contain no measurable radioactive detritus, the bit of soil right next to it may be glowing with toxic cesium or plutonium. That’s what it’s like, there in the Zone. And soil—as well as plants, and animals, and air, and water—tend to move around. Glow-atoms do not stay put within the Zone. Which is why it is folly for the government to contend that some state-sanctified “tourism route” has been declared “safe.” When “safe” can be transformed into “fatal” in a simple gust of wind.
As Bill Wattenburg, the nasty, bitter old man who befouls the airwaves of KGO-AM Saturday and Sunday nights, a pro-nuclear zealot rocked by the Fukushima glow-tombs, and desperately trying to find a way to make it All Right, recently said: “I have never said that anything is perfectly safe, and Mother Nature will always throw us a curveball.”
Damn right. And so it’s best not to get into the batter’s box with her at all. Some games sane people just don’t play.
Trolling the news over the past month or so, it would be easy to conclude that Three Mile Meltdown, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have been the only glowing FUBARs in nuclear power’s brief history. But, writing in the Bangkok Post, Benjamin Sovacool, author of Contesting The Future Of Nuclear Power, points out that “The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale,” which has been much in vogue in recent weeks, seriously underestimates what is in truth a nuclear “accident.”
Under these classifications, the number of nuclear accidents, even including the meltdowns at Fukushima, is low. But if one redefines an accident to include incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than US$50,000 in property damage, a very different picture emerges.
At least 99 nuclear accidents meeting this definition, totalling more than $20.5 billion in damages, occurred worldwide from 1952 to 2009—or more than one incident and $330 million in damage every year, on average, for the past three decades. And, of course, this average does not include the Fukushima catastrophe.
Indeed, when compared to other energy sources, nuclear power ranks higher than oil, coal, and natural gas systems in terms of fatalities[.]
There have been 57 accidents since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. While only a few involved fatalities, those that did collectively killed more people than have died in commercial US airline accidents since 1982.
Another index of nuclear-power accidents—this one including costs beyond death and property damage, such as injured or irradiated workers and malfunctions that did not result in shutdowns or leaks—documented 956 incidents from 1942 to 2007. And yet another documented more than 30,000 mishaps at US nuclear power plants alone, many with the potential to have caused serious meltdowns, between the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and 2009.
Mistakes are not limited to reactor sites. Accidents at the Savannah River reprocessing plant released 10 times as much radioiodine as the accident at Three Mile Island, and a fire at the Gulf United facility in New York in 1972 scattered an undisclosed amount of plutonium, forcing the plant to shut down permanently. At the Mayak Industrial Reprocessing Complex in Russia’s southern Urals, a storage tank holding nitrate acetate salts exploded in 1957, releasing a massive amount of radioactive material over 20,000 square kilometres, forcing the evacuation of 272,000 people.
In September 1994, an explosion at Indonesia’s Serpong research reactor was triggered by the ignition of methane gas that had seeped from a storage room and exploded when a worker lit a cigarette. Accidents have also occurred when nuclear reactors are shut down for refuelling or to move spent nuclear fuel into storage. In 1999, operators loading spent fuel into dry-storage at the Trojan Reactor in Oregon, found that the protective zinc-carbon coating had started to produce hydrogen, which caused a small explosion.
Of course, back in the day, nuclear power was supposed to be clean, friendly, cheap, safe, and abundant—all the science-fiction stories told us so. It would power everything from out dishwashers to our cars, and happy indeed would be life under the split atom.
As Elizabeth Kolbert recalled in the March 28 New Yorker,
The age of atomic energy could be said to have begun, literally, with the wave of a wand. On September 6, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was vacationing in Denver, passed a pole with a gleaming tip over a cabinet full of electronic equipment. This “neutron wand” supposedly sent a signal that was then conveyed to an unmanned power shovel, twelve hundred miles away, in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The shovel lurched forward and scooped up three tons of dirt, breaking ground for the country’s first commercial nuclear power plant. “My friends, through such measures as these, and through knowledge we are sure to gain from this new plant we begin today, I am confident that the atom will not be devoted exclusively to the destruction of man, but will be his mighty servant and tireless benefactor,” the President said.
The rapidly industrializing nation of Japan, its coal supplies nearly exhausted, its great forests long ago felled, with little hydroelectric power to speak of, fought WWII more or less for access to oil. When that didn’t work out, post-war Japan needed to make more pacific decisions as to where it would obtain its energy. Like France, Japan wished to remain independent of the vagaries of other nations, and so, like France, it increasingly invested in nuclear power, particularly after the OPEC effrontery of the early 1970s. Today, Japan must import 99% of its oil, and is the industrial powerhouse that it is because it is awash in once and future glow-tombs.
The first thing we have been led to believe about the glow-tombing of Fukushima is that it is all the fault of the company in charge, Tepco, which is portrayed as a sort of mutant gang of clubfoots who couldn’t glow straight, a gang of avaricious knuckledraggers who shouldn’t be trusted to properly paint a fence, much less run a nuclear-power plant.
And there is some truth to that. In 2002, for instance, Tepco was found to have blithely falsified safety reports, and so all 17 of its boiling-water nuclear reactors were shut down, briefly, for inspection.
“This company is really rotten to the core,” says Kenichi Ohmae, a management consultant and former nuclear engineer. He blames Tepco for storing too much spent fuel on the site; for placing too many reactors in the same place (there are six in the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and seven in a nuclear complex on an earthquake fault-line in Niigata); and for not having enough varied sources of power.
Yet it is more complicated than that. The Japanese people increasingly do not want glow-tombs, at least in their own backyards, and so companies like Tepco have been encouraged to place multiple reactors on crowded sites. No one will allow companies like Tepco to take their spent fuel rods off site, and so they are stored—awaiting heaven knows what—in makeshift nooks and crannies; in the case of Fukushima, in what we have learned were the functional equivalent of watery cardboard boxes placed atop the reactor cores. Finally, since the people balk at new plants, old ones are kept running longer than originally envisioned: the Fukushima glow-tomb, for instance, was originally scheduled for decommissioning in March of 2011.
The Japanese have traditionally been a prepared people, more so than most European peoples. But they were not prepared for the glow-tombing of Fukushima.
Once having made the decision to proceed eyes wide shut with nuclear power, the Japanese first seriously underguesstimated how badly an earthquake might shake a Fukushima plant. They arrived at their estimates by returning to the past, employing pocket-protectors who “researched old documents for information on how many tombstones had toppled over and such.” Based on this rearview soothsaying, they figured maybe the worst quake to hit Fukushima would rattle at around 7.0. Oops. A mere aftershock of the March 11 quake, arriving on April 7, measured 7.1
Once plant directors had settled on a relatively cheery scenario of Maximum Badness, they refused, as the decades rolled by, to revise their estimates as scientists produced more detailed and sophisticated information. The government was just as foolhardy—the word “tsunami” did not even appear in its written guidelines for nuclear-plant construction until 2006. “We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent,” says Tsuneo Futami, director of Fukushima in the late 1990s. “When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”
The Wall Street Journal obtained absurdly over-confident and in some cases downright mental Fukushima “disaster-readiness plans,” ones that involved, as an example, equipping the plant, in case of a complete disaster, with a single satellite phone, and one stretcher.
In the event of a “worst-case scenario,” plant mandarins proposed a fax machine as the primary means of communication with the outer world. The plans instructed workers to blithely rev up that fax even when faced with a “probable nuclear chain reaction outside the reactor”—which sounds to me like an atomic explosion.
The main disaster-readiness manual, updated annually, envisions the fax machine as a principal means of communication with the outside world and includes detailed forms for Tepco managers when faxing government officials. One form offers a multiple-choice list of disasters, including “loss of AC power,” “inability to use the control room” and “probable nuclear chain reaction outside the reactor.”
The plans refused to even consider the possibility of any situation in which out-of-town firefighters or troops might be needed. The plant people’s report on its accident-management protocols says: “The possibility of a severe accident occurring is so small that from an engineering standpoint it is practically unthinkable.”
Reacting to the Journal article, Tepco spokespeak Hiro Hasegawa hallucinated that the plans “followed and sometimes exceeded legal requirements, and proved useful in the crisis.” A former Tepco executive—his “former” status meaning he is no longer required to spew bladerdash—demurred: “The disaster plan didn’t function. It didn’t envision something this big.”
Seems to me like the Tepco people learned the wrong lesson from Three Mile Meltdown and Chernobyl.
They shrugged off those disasters as “result[ing] from poor safety standards and bad management,” no doubt concluding that such cock-ups by brain-addled foreign barbarians could never afflict Japanese plants.
But the real lesson is that, when dealing with glow-atoms, if something can go wrong, someday it will. And the result will be near-permanent pollution of the planet.
As a writer for the Jakarta Post put it shortly after Fukushima went glow-tomb:
Once again, we are reminded of the inherent risks of nuclear power, which will always be vulnerable to the potentially deadly combination of human error, design failure and natural disaster.
The history of nuclear energy is a history of accidents, right up to today—from partial meltdowns to radioactive leaks to internal system failures. Records show that these accidents are not confined to a particular time, country or reactor type.
Nuclear reactors may have undergone modernisation since Chernobyl, but the root causes of the technology’s vulnerability to accidents remain the same: unexpected technological failures, operator error, lack of transparency in the industry as a whole, economic or political pressures, and potential terrorist attacks.
And most importantly the obvious—earthquakes, tsunamis and extreme weather events like hurricanes that cannot be predicted but have certainly become more recurrent than ever.
If the Tepco people had accepted this, they would have accepted the possibility of just what happened: a 9.0 earthquake and 45-foot tsunami that avidly erased both the plant’s primary power sources and its backup generators, and demolished all roads and communication lines serving the area. And then they would have quietly decommissioned the plant, and gone into real estate.
But people won’t learn. Just as the Japanese were confident that they would never preside over glow-tombs, like those fumble-fingered American and Russian barbarians, today over in the US people are presently being deafened by the earnest bleatings of nincompoops averring that Fukushima could never happen in the US, because US reactors are—or at least will be—designed and built in ways that are way more spiffy and bitchin’, and, also because, they’re, like, you know, Americans, and therefore exceptional and stuff.
Peter Coy, a Yank-side Sunny Jim writing for Bloomberg, concedes that “nuclear power plants will never be completely safe.” But then the wheels come off, as Coy opines that folks should go ahead and keep building glow-tombs because “they can be made far safer than they are today.”
The key to nuclear power, he says, is “humility.” In this he is right. But then comes the eyes-wide-shut Sunny Jimsing:
The next generation of plants must be built to work with nature, and human nature, rather than against them[.] They must be safe by design, so that even if everything goes wrong, the outcome won’t be disaster.
In the language of the nuclear industry, they must be “walkaway safe,” meaning that even if all power is lost and the coolant leaks and the operators flee the scene, there will be no meltdown of the core, no fire in the spent fuel rods, and no bursts of radioactive steam into the atmosphere.
The problem with all this is that it does not truly evince the requisite humility, which Coy himself identifies as first principle. The fact of the matter is that despite Coy’s would-be respect for nature, nature has made it very clear that it does not want nuclear power plants on planet earth. If it did, it would have put them here. Instead, as was frequently said by Buckminster Fuller, a man smarter than anyone working in the nuclear industry, nature herself has shown us that the safe distance between a nuclear reactor and ourselves is 90 million miles—the distance between the Earth and the Sun. And, as with Fukushima, nature recurrently offers lessons teaching us that no matter what we humans may consider “safe,” in re nuclear power, she can, and will, show us otherwise.
Coy-style Sunny Jimsing also neglects to take into account the fact that no matter how “foolproof” a glow-tomb system may be devised and designed, that system will be placed in the hands of fools—that is, human beings. No knock on human beings: that’s just the way we are. Both Three Mile Meltdown and Chernobyl were replete with human error, and when the histories are written on Fukushima, we will learn that this fiasco was and is knee-deep in human error, as well.
Over at the Shriek Shack, a person traveling under the rubric Empty Vessel wrote a very illuminating recollection of his days staffing a research nuclear reactor. His story rang completely true to me, because it closely tracks the remembrances of time served at an American nuclear weapons installation in Germany, written by a journalism co-conspirator for a newspaper I once ran.
Here’s some of what the Vessel disclosed:
I want to be clear at the outset. I am not a nuclear engineer. I do not really understand much about the physics or details of reactor construction. I am an anthropologist, so I’m just a people person. But what I learned working in a reactor was this . . . no matter how dangerous something is, eventually people become complacent and do stupid things. It’s natural . . . we just can’t keep our attention up, our guard up, or live with that level of anxiety. When working with dangerous things, eventually people forget about the danger.
Here are some of the things I saw working at that reactor.
1. The reactor core was the last place on campus where you could smoke inside. The people running the show were worried the reactor operators would slip out back during their shifts if they couldn’t smoke. As a result, there were always a large number of men (and yes, they were always men), sitting on old La-Z-boys with their feet up on the railing around the reactor pool smoking. The ashtrays were always overflowing.
2. The reactor was built in the 1950s, with no real updates. As a result, the control room looked like some bad 1950s sci-fi film in which aliens stalked and menaced attractive teens. The only modern computer was against the back wall, where the reactor controls were out of sight. Here the reactor operators would spend almost all their time—for the most part downloading pornography from the internet and jerking off.
3. Reactors use distilled water for coolant. Of course some grit and dust gets into the water. So, on the roof of the building there is a settling tank. This allows for the dust and grit to settle out of the water before being pumped back into the reactor. There was a small leak in the sludge tank, that flowed through the roof, down a cinderblock wall, where it seeped into the room I worked in. The main concern of everyone was that it was buckling the vinyl tiling. The solution was to remove the tile, and place a large sticky pad at the entrance to the room so that we would not track the radioactive sludge through the building.
4. For our IDs, we had a Polaroid camera and lamination machine in the office. But at some point the camera was stolen. The solution was obvious. The camera and lamination machine was placed inside the large, lead-lined, walk-in safe intended for fuel rods and other highly radioactive materials. Those materials were then moved to the closet behind the water fountain in the reactor core. The Polaroid was locked up each night, but still managed to be stolen again.
There are other stories, and other things that I cannot believe happened. But there is one last thing. You might be asking how such slipshod standards could have occurred? Weren’t we inspected by the NRC? Yes we were, and we got the highest marks. Throughout high school and college I worked in restaurants, mostly as a dish dog. What I can say is this, a surprise inspection by the NRC has exactly the same feel as the surprise visit of a health inspector at a restaurant. That is, while they are in one room, we cleaned up the other.
The whole point of this is simple—people are people. If you want to know what the staff of a nuclear reactor is like, just imagine the people you work with at whatever job you do—then imagine them operating a machine that could kill everyone in a small city and render that town unlivable for several hundred years.
I have listened to many nuclear engineers explain to me why the latest designs are safe, why we can engineer safety and redundancy into reactor designs—but I have never heard a nuclear engineer explain how they will stop reactor operators from jerking off in the middle of their shift. They may be able to engineer a safe reactor design—but as long as reactors are designed by, built by, and operated by people, they will never be safe.
There are currently worries that what the Tepco “disaster plans” termed “probable nuclear chain reaction[s]” are in fact occurring at Fukushima, though not, thankfully, “outside the reactor.”
Japan’s damaged nuclear plant may be in danger of emitting sudden bursts of heat and radiation, undermining efforts to cool the reactors and contain fallout.
The potential for limited, uncontrolled chain reactions, voiced by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is among the phenomena that might occur, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters in Tokyo.
A partial meltdown of fuel in the No. 1 reactor building may be causing isolated reactions, Denis Flory, nuclear safety director for the IAEA, said at a press conference in Vienna.
Nuclear experts call such reactions “localized criticality.” They consist of a burst of heat, radiation and sometimes an “ethereal blue flash,” according to the U.S. Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory website.
Radioactive chlorine found March 25 in the No. 1 turbine building suggests chain reactions continued after the reactor shut down, physicist Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, wrote in a March 28 paper.
You particularly don’t want a “probable nuclear chain reaction” in Reactor 3, because that glow-tomb contains a plutonium-uranium mix. And plutonium is forever. Plutonium has apparently already escaped from Glow-Tomb 3, littering the ground around the reactor, detected as far away as Tokyo.
Though in truth plutonium is also generated in the other, uranium-only reactors, where it eventually accumulates in fuel rods; spent fuel rods, remember, are stored at the Fukushima facility in the functional equivalent of waterlogged cardboard boxes.
Plutonium will be more than happy to get out from wherever and rampage wherever. It doesn’t care. That plutonium is apparently running wild, while radioactive water is meanwhile pouring from various Somewheres into the Pacific Ocean, moved one government official to concede last week that “[t]here is a high possibility that there has been a slight melting of the fuel rods.”
Newspeople have fastened upon the Tepco workers who gamely trudge each day into the glow-tombs to try and Deal with whatever new Oh My God has developed since their last visit, pronouncing them “heroes.” Although Tepco itself doesn’t see them as particularly heroic. “We don’t think they are heroes,” one official told The Economist. “They are doing what they should.”
Which, I guess, means dying so that Tepco may live. The mother of one of these men baldly stated that her son told her that they all expect to die as a result of their efforts: “He told me they have accepted they will all probably die from radiation sickness in the short-term or cancer in the long-term.”
And there are far more at risk than “the fabled 50” identified in most news reports: there are in fact “hundreds of employees staying within the plant’s perimeter to support the restoration efforts,” all of these people living and working in “conditions that are equally as hazardous.” Conditions also described as “intolerable.”
On April 1 the government slapped Tepco’s hand because it had determined the company still hadn’t gotten around to issuing dosimeters to all these increasingly glowing workers, devices useful so that the workers can more easily track their journey into sickness and death.
These people are not exactly living like kings:
Banri Kaieda, the interior minister who also acts as a deputy head of the nuclear disaster task force jointly set up by the government and Tepco, said 500 to 600 people were at one point lodging in a building within the complex. He told a media conference it was “not a situation in which minimum sleep and food could be ensured.”
[N]ot all of the workers had apparently been provided with lead sheeting to shield themselves from potentially radiation-contaminated floors while sleeping.
“My son has been sleeping on a desk because he is afraid to lie on the floor. But they say high radioactivity is everywhere and I think this will not save him[.]”
The Wall Street Journal obtained email correspondence between a worker at the plant and a Tepco colleague back in Tokyo. The Fukushima worker is a local resident who lost his parents in the quake and tsunami.
I myself have had to stay in the disaster measurement headquarters the entire time ever since the earthquake occurred, and have been fighting alongside my colleagues without any sleep or rest. Personally, my entire hometown, Namie-machi, which is located along the coast, was washed away by the tsunami. My parents were washed away by the tsunami and I still don’t know where they are. Normally I would rush to their house as soon as I could. But I can’t even enter the area because it is under an evacuation order. The Self-Defense Forces are not conducting a search there. I’m engaged in extremely tough work under this kind of mental condition. I can’t take this any more!
The quake is a natural disaster. But Tepco should be blamed for contamination caused by the radioactive materials released from the nuclear plants.
Crying is useless. If we’re in hell now all we can do is to crawl up towards heaven.
Please watch out for the hidden strength of nuclear power.
“Watch out for the hidden strength of nuclear power”—absolutely goddam right.
Out at Fukushima they are now in the realm of not really knowing what they’re doing. Just hoping that something or other that they come up with may have some sort of positive effect, somehow. And they’re finding that, as is usually the case in such things, doing something designed to be Good in one area, causes Bad in another. All the while, the nuke poison keeps growing and spreading, confounding attempts to contain it, like some sort of deadly glowing form of Oobleck.
Tepco has been pouring massive amounts of water into the reactors and spent nuclear fuel pools at the plant as a stopgap measure to cool them down, because serious damage to fuel rods from overheating could lead to the release of enormous amounts of radioactive materials into the environment.
However, pouring the water is believed to be linked to possible radiation leaks from the reactors, where fuel rods have partially melted.
”This will not lead to a sustainable condition. We want to restore power and rebuild the cooling system, but such efforts are hampered by the stagnant water,” [government spokesperson Hidehiko] Nishiyama said. ”We have to find a way out of the contradictory missions” of the incoming water and the removal of contaminated water.
Bad reporters at the New York Times got hold of a confidential Nuclear Regulatory Commission document addressing the Fukushima FUBAR.
United States government engineers sent to help with the crisis in Japan are warning that the troubled nuclear plant there is facing a wide array of fresh threats that could persist indefinitely, and that in some cases are expected to increase as a result of the very measures being taken to keep the plant stable[.]
Among the new threats that were cited in the assessment are the mounting stresses placed on the containment structures as they fill with radioactive cooling water, making them more vulnerable to rupture in one of the aftershocks rattling the site after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. The document also cites the possibility of explosions inside the containment structures due to the release of hydrogen and oxygen from seawater pumped into the reactors, and offers new details on how semimolten fuel rods and salt buildup are impeding the flow of fresh water meant to cool the nuclear cores.
While the assessment does not speculate on the likelihood of new explosions or damage from an aftershock, either could lead to a breach of the containment structures in one or more of the crippled reactors, the last barriers that prevent a much more serious release of radiation from the nuclear core. If the fuel continues to heat and melt because of ineffective cooling, some nuclear experts say, that could also leave a radioactive mass that could stay molten for an extended period.
[T]he document raises new questions about whether pouring water on nuclear fuel in the absence of functioning cooling systems can be sustained indefinitely. Experts have said the Japanese need to continue to keep the fuel cool for many months until the plant can be stabilized, but there is growing awareness that the risks of pumping water on the fuel present a whole new category of challenges that the nuclear industry is only beginning to comprehend.
A rise in the water level of the containment structures has often been depicted as a possible way to immerse and cool the fuel. The assessment, however, warns that “when flooding containment, consider the implications of water weight on seismic capability of containment.”
Margaret Harding, a former reactor designer for General Electric, warned of aftershocks and said, “If I were in the Japanese’s shoes, I’d be very reluctant to have tons and tons of water sitting in a containment whose structural integrity hasn’t been checked since the earthquake.”
The assessment provides graphic new detail on the conditions of the damaged cores in reactors 1, 2 and 3. Because slumping fuel and salt from seawater that had been used as a coolant is probably blocking circulation pathways, the water flow in No. 1 “is severely restricted and likely blocked.” Inside the core itself, “there is likely no water level,” the assessment says, adding that as a result, “it is difficult to determine how much cooling is getting to the fuel.” Similar problems exist in No. 2 and No. 3, although the blockage is probably less severe, the assessment says.
Nuclear engineers have warned in recent days that the pools outside the containment buildings that hold spent fuel rods could pose an even greater danger than the melted reactor cores. The pools, which sit atop the reactor buildings and are meant to keep spent fuel submerged in water, have lost their cooling systems.
“I thought they were, not out of the woods, but at least at the edge of the woods,” said [nuclear engineer David A.] Mr. Lochbaum[.] “This paints a very different picture, and suggests that things are a lot worse. They could still have more damage in a big way if some of these things don’t work out for them.”
“Even the best juggler in the world can get too many balls up in the air,” Mr. Lochbaum said of the multiplicity of problems at the plant. “They’ve got a lot of nasty things to negotiate in the future, and one missed step could make the situation much, much worse.”
Upon the discovery of an 8-inch crack in a concrete channel at the lower levels of Glow-Tomb #2, a crack spewing radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, those old stand-bys of techno-man, concrete and plastic, were employed in an attempt to seal it. Both failed.
On Sunday, engineers tried to plug the leak with a mixture of sawdust, shredded paper and a polymer or plastic that expanded to 500 times its normal size when exposed to water. They had then hoped to pour concrete on top of the polymer to form a permanent seal, but the polymer did not form a plug either, and as of Sunday night, water was continuing to flow into the ocean.
Apparently this second failure hope-mongers were determined to view as a partial success: into the stubborn crack workers “injected sawdust, three garbage bags of shredded newspaper and a polymer—similar to one used to absorb liquid in diapers—that can expand to 50 times its normal size when combined with water. ¶The polymer mix in the passageway leading to the pit had not stopped the leak by Sunday night, but it also had not leaked out of the crack along with the water, so engineers were stirring it in an attempt to get it to expand. They expected to know by Monday morning if it would work.”
On Monday, not content with the diaper solution, glow-men started hurling “liquid glass” into the breach. And on Wednesday Tepco announced that the gusher was gone . . . though people weren’t exactly sure why: “Tokyo Electric officials had said an attempt to plug the leak had shown a ‘significant difference,’ despite the material not setting as hoped. The company had injected a silica-based polymer dubbed ‘liquid glass’ to reduce the leak.”
Worrywarts at the NRC now believe that at least “some” of the core of Glow-Tomb #2 has melted from its steel pressure vessel “into the bottom of the containment structure. The theory implies more damage at the unit than previously believed.” Tepco of course hallucinated that this was balderdash, but Japan’s only nuclear safety agency concurred that it is probably true.
This possibility, it is said “raise[s] new questions.” I’ll say. Because since “the flow of core material out of the reactor vessel would explain high radiation readings in an area underneath, called the drywell,” similar high readings at Glow-Tomb #1 and #3 are most likely indicative of core-melts there, too.
At No. 2, extremely radioactive material continues to ooze out of the reactor pressure vessel, and the leak is likely to widen with time, a western nuclear executive asserted.
“It’s a little like pulling a thread out of your tie,” said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect business connections in Japan. “Any breach gets bigger.”
Broken pieces of fuel rods have been found outside of Glow-Tomb #2, where they are quickly covered over by bulldozers. It is Not Known whether these rods come from the core, or from the cardboard boxes housing spent fuel rods atop the reactor, where they may have been hurled to the ground by hydrogen explosions.
Ah yes: hydrogen explosions. Of these there have already been at least three—one each in Glow-Tomb #1, #2, and #3. “Engineers plan to begin injecting nitrogen gas into reactors Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in an attempt to prevent possible explosions from the buildup of hydrogen gas . . . Explosions at the three reactors in the first four days after the magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake and the accompanying tsunami badly damaged the reactor buildings and destroyed the cooling pumps that provided water to the reactors.”
[B]ad weather has delayed Tepco’s plans to limit the spread of radiation from the plant. It has intended to spray a water-soluble resin to affix radioactive particles and substances to the debris sent scattered across the devastated complex to prevent it from being dispersed by wind and moisture.
It will now attempt to test the synthetic solution using remote control vehicles to spray an area of 95,000 square yards at reactors four and six. The company hopes the resin will provide sufficient protection to allow restoration workers better access to areas critical to restoring the reactors’ cooling systems to prevent a meltdown.
Growing pools of dangerously radioactive water and deposits of plutonium have been inhibiting access to important parts of the plant.
A large sea tanker is also being prepared to siphon and ship the water from the plant after it was discovered that run-off containers and drainage tanks were almost full at three of the most critical reactors.
The government says it has yet to be decided where they will dispose of that water.
Here’s a suggestion: dispose of the water in the swimming pools of those who own, control, and profited from the Fukushima reactors.
One doubledome has declared that it may be 100 years before it is safe to remove the fuel rods from the Fukushima reactors. And that in the meantime, leaks of radiation will be ongoing, so long as water is poured upon the rods to cool them, because that water in turn eventually dribbles out of the various and sundry holes in the glow-tombs.
Water is still being poured into the damaged reactors to cool melting fuel rods.
“As the water leaks out, you keep on pouring water in, so this leak will go on for ever,” said Dr John Price, a former member of the Safety Policy Unit at the UK’s National Nuclear Corporation.
“There has to be some way of dealing with it. The water is collecting in tunnels and concrete-lined pits at the moment and the question is whether they can pump it back.
“The final thing is that the reactors will have to be closed and the fuel removed, and that is 50 to 100 years away.”
A month after the glow-tombs first blew, “atomic energy experts, regulators and politicians around the world are still puzzling over a basic question: How much danger is still posed by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant?”
That seems a pretty basic question. But the truth is, not one, among all the many Science Men in this world, truly knows:
[R]emarkably little is known for sure about what is really happening inside the reactors because some areas remain far too radioactive for workers to approach, and some instruments have malfunctioned.
Much of the automated measurement equipment in the reactors has been damaged, either by explosions in the early days of the crisis or by intense radiation since then. Damage to the reactors, as well as high radiation, has prevented technicians from making detailed assessments.
The paucity of data and the conflicting estimates of what the available information really means have prompted a series of confusing analyses and a rift between officials in Japan and those overseas[.]
The Japanese prefer to interpret this lack of knowledge as No Danger, so that they don’t lose money:
A senior Foreign Ministry official accused the foreign media of exaggerating the threat posed by the power plant and the radiation spreading from it. Radiation fears are hurting sales of Japanese products abroad.
Masashi Goto, a former Toshiba nuclear power plant designer, said that Japanese officials appeared to have decided that they gained nothing but panic from predicting outcomes. “They will never speak about the worst-case scenario,” he said. “They will never predict.”
Too, apparently it’s a cultural thing, emerging to spout numbers and stuff, and then walking away without explaining what those numbers might mean:
The Japanese also seem to prefer presenting raw data without explaining what they think it means, said Takashi Inoue, a professor of public relations at Waseda University. Every day, Tokyo Electric, the nuclear agency, the chief cabinet secretary and others hold news conferences at which they present a blizzard of facts and numbers but rarely make broader declarations about the conditions at Fukushima Daiichi.
Maybe it’s a sort of Zen thing: officials will keep banging you over the head with a stick of raw numbers; when your hair starts coming out in great clumps, and blood begins gushing from your nose, well, then you’ll get it.
The Japanese government is, however, slowly, ever so slowly, coming around to something resembling reality. An aide to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan admitted last weekend that it would take “months” to get the runaway reactors under some semblance of control, at which time “we will have a better idea about the future.”
The government has meanwhile announced that people forcibly evacuated from an area roughly 12 miles from the reactors are dreaming if they believe they will return in “a matter of days or weeks. It will be longer than that.”
It will actually be centuries, just as around Chernobyl, but nobody drawing a government salary is apparently prepared to say that yet.
The people dwelling 12-18 miles from the glow-tombs, who have been “encouraged” to leave, or, if they remain, to stay indoors at all times, are also going to have to pack up and go, permanently, but no one has told them that yet, either. People just outside that zone have not even been warned to stay indoors, even though if they spend but 25 hours outdoors, they will absorb an amount of radiation exceeding the yearly limit.
Cesium-137 has now been detected by the IAEA in two villages at amounts greater than the level the Russians established for necessitating abandoning land around Chernobyl; cesium remains dangerous for centuries. The problem for the Japanese is that these villages are 25 miles from the plant, six miles outside the current 19-mile Looks Like Danger zone. While these cesium levels are not high enough to cause acute radiation sickness, they will quite definitely generate, somewhere down through the years, tumors.
Also, Greenpeace does not like the radiation levels it has detected in the village of Iitate, located 25 miles from the glow-tombs.
“The Japanese authorities are fully aware that high levels of radiation from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant have spread far beyond the official evacuation zone to places like Iitate, yet are still not taking action to properly protect people or keep them informed them about the risks to their health,” Greenpeace radiation safety expert Jan van de Putte said.
“It is clearly not safe for people to remain in Iitate, especially children and pregnant women, when it could mean receiving the maximum allowed annual dose of radiation in only a few days. When further contamination from possible ingestion or inhalation of radioactive particles is factored in, the risks are even higher,” Jan van de Putte said.
The US has recommended that Japan evacuate everyone in a 50-mile radius around the plant. But Japan is not listening. And, given America’s less-than-stellar record with Three Mile Meltdown and other nuclear mishaps, it is hard to fault the Japanese for telling the nation that dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to bugger right off.
Nonetheless, towards the end of last week, word emerged that the Japanese government may set new glow-person standards that would effectively widen the Exclusion Zone to something round what the Yanks have suggested.
The government has meanwhile ordered Tepco to start buying off the people it has irradiated. And so, last week, there floated a Tepco proposal to heave a lump sum of $234,000 to each of the towns evacuated.
Then there is the water.
The gravity of the water crisis apparently went undetected until three Fukushima workers stepped into some water sloshing around in the turbine building of Glow-Tomb #3, at which time the feet and ankles of the two men not wearing high boots burned to shit: the water was saturated with glow-atoms.
That there might, indeed, actually be A Danger, despite ceaseless representations to the contrary, is indicated in the photo above, which depicts medical people arriving at a hospital to treat the workers who stepped in the glow-shit.
In the course of investigating why these workers’ legs had turned into glow-sticks, it was belatedly discovered that glow-water was merrily dancing into the Pacific Ocean: “a picture released by Tepco shows water shooting some distance away from a wall and splashing into the ocean[.]” This water was merely 7.5 million times the legal limit for glow-water.
And, it was water spewing from Glow-Tomb #2, first into a drainage ditch, and then into the ocean that first alerted people to the probability that the tomb’s core had melted: “extremely high levels of radiation were detected in the water from a recently stanched leak that ran from the reactor building into a drainage ditch and into the ocean.”
All this glow-water continues to stump the Tepco people. Last week, the Japanese were reduced to employing bath salts, as a sort of dye, in an attempt to determine where Bad Water is Coming From. Tepco also announced it would erect a sort of shower curtain in the sea, somewhere off the plant, in order to try to prevent Bad Water and Bad Silt from befouling the Pacific.
Tepco enraged the fishing industry, and all the world’s sane people, when it dumped some 10,000 tons of radioactive water directly into the Pacific, water removed to make room for more irradiated water to come, there in the waste treatment reservoir of Glow-Tomb #2.
The Russians have offered the Japanese a decontamination ship for its future accumulations of glow-water. The US has dispatched, via Russian cargo jets, two of the world’s largest concrete pumps, weighing 190,000 pounds each. The pumps can spew either water or concrete; one of the pumps was used to seal Chernobyl in concrete following the 1986 explosion. It is now expected that the Fukushima glow-tombs will, eventually, someday, be sealed in concrete, too.
Last I checked, levels of radioactive iodine-131 in the Pacific waters off the Fukushima glow-tombs were at present 4,385 times the legal limit. Cesium-137 levels in these same waters were 527 times the “safe” standard.
“That’s the one I am worried about,” said Michael Friedlander, a U.S.-based nuclear engineer, explaining cesium might linger much longer in the ecosystem. “Plankton absorbs the cesium, the fish eat the plankton, the bigger fish eat smaller fish—so every step you go up the food chain, the concentration of cesium gets higher.”
Yes, well, that’s the problem with glow-atoms. They get into things, and they stay there. And when those things are eaten by other things, the glow-atoms move into the new things, and there they only glow brighter.
So we have glow-atoms not only in Japanese air and groundwater, but also in beef, and in vegetables, and, soon, glow-atoms will be singing happily in seafood. Russia has identified some 300 fish-processing plants in what it considers to be the Looks Like Danger zone, and though Russia currently imports roughly 57,000 tons per year in seafood from Japan, it is preparing now to say: “no thanks.” China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, the European Union, and the United States have already determined that they do not want any Japanese glow-in-the-dark seafood, and are spurning Japanese vegetables and milk products as well.
Meanwhile, the bodies of an estimated 1000 victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami are rotting and suppurating and deliquescing there in the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, because they’re considered too hot to touch. These remains were “exposed to high levels of radiation after death,” and nobody is real eager to lay hands on them. This is because nuclear-infused bodies can irradiate those who handle them, and the process of retrieving and disposing of them could further spread radiation throughout the land.
Elevated radiation levels emanating from a corpse in the town of Okuma convinced police officials to abandon attempts to retrieve it. This body, and its estimated 1000 fellows, are now just lying there, as “authorities are considering how to collect the bodies, given fears that police officers, doctors and bereaved families may be exposed to radiation in retrieving the radiation-exposed bodies, or at morgues.”
Plans to haul the bodies out of the zone before examining and interring them have been “reconsidered,” as it is now understood that doing so would not only pose a threat to those handling the remains, but would bring high levels of radiation from out of the zone and into the wider world. The problem of eternal rest is a stumper, because “cremating them could spread plumes containing radioactive materials, while burying the victims could contaminate the soil around them[.]”
The brutal truth is that if these bodies are so hot that they can not be safely examined or transported, then the entire area in which they lay, and everything in it, constitutes a dead zone, which should be declared as such, and placed off limits for the next several centuries or so. Just like Chernobyl. The bodies should be buried, deep, where they lie. And it is right and meet that this burial work should be performed by those who own, control, and profited from the Fukushima plant.
Glow-atoms from Fukushima are drifting in the air to everywhere, detected now as far away as Europe. In the Untied States, grass-clippings in Illinois bear Fukushima radiation; Fukushima glow-atoms are falling in rain throughout the northeastern United States, particularly in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
We are of course assured that This Was Expected, and that there is positively No Danger.
There is Fukushima iodine-131 in milk in the state of Washington, and in cows in San Luis Obispo, California. Radiation-sniffing equipment at three nuclear power plants in Florida have detected glow particles floating over from their crippled sister facility in Fukushima. A Florida resident’s take on this pretty much sums up the state of things these days:
Ponce Inlet resident Joseph Sioui said he doesn’t think there is “much to be concerned about right now.” Sioui said he figures there’s already so much pollution in the air that a minute trace of something else isn’t going to be a reason for concern.
Of course, people in the US don’t know exactly how many glow-atoms are floating over from Japan because the nation’s network of radiation monitors is completely buggered.
“The monitoring system isn’t functioning fully,” Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California Santa Cruz told WTVM.com.
Hirsch said that EPA is far too slow in sharing data about the radiation that is moving across the country from the nuclear accident in Japan and some of RadNet’s monitoring systems have been offline for months awaiting repairs.
Meanwhile, Singapore is screaming that cabbages received from Japan glow with nine times the amount of radiation permissible under the standards governing international trade. Other nations are not even allowing cargo or ships from Japan to drop anchor until they have been thoroughly checked: China is sniffing out all ships arriving from Japan for radiation, and so is the US. One of the world’s largest container shipping lines, Hapag-Lloyd of Germany, has halted service to Tokyo and Yokohama; so have Claus-Peter Offen, also of Germany, and Hong Kong’s OOCL. In the end, it is probable that some ships out of Japan will be consigned to the dustbin:
Merchant vessels may have to be scrapped if quarantined even temporarily for radioactivity, because they would face extra coast guard checks for years at subsequent destinations, said Basil M. Karatzas, the managing director for projects and finance at Compass Maritime Services, a ship brokerage in Teaneck, N.J.
The extra inspections make it hard to keep a schedule. “The charterers in the future will try to avoid the vessel because of the likelihood it will be delayed again,” Mr. Karatzas said.
As I noted here, international shipping is what makes our current world go round. And it is a system that is delicate: the slightest change or delay can collapse the ability of Americans to, say, eat pineapples, strawberries, and mangoes all year round. People worldwide, though in ways they may not attentively notice, will be effected by the fact that ships coming out of Japan are now under suspicion of glowing in the dark.
To wit: some 40 miles west of the glow-tombs is a factory owned by Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. that, prior to the quake, provided 20% of the advanced silicon wafers powering the planet’s smartphones, portable music players, and the like. Chip-makers like Intel and Toshiba are already suffering; the earthquake knocked hell out of the plant; whether it, and its products, will also glow in the dark, has yet to be determined.
“Shin-Etsu had huge damage inside; machines and equipment fell with a crash,” said Toshiaki Ishi, 49, a lifelong resident of the area, as he relayed what friends who work at the plant told him. Employees were asked to stay home.
Making silicon ingots and slicing them into wafers takes weeks and is a precise and delicate process. Analysts said it’s possible that ingot furnaces, typically 12 to 15 feet tall, may have toppled or shaken so hard that ingots dropped inside the machines, breaking internal equipment parts. There also could be issues of poison gas leaks, and persistent aftershocks have complicated the recovery work.
It’s hard to know the extent of Shin-Etsu’s problems and the looming capacity crunch because the company has disclosed little information about the damage and the overall supply situation, said Joel Scheiman, a Tokyo analyst for MF Global Holdings who has followed Japan’s chemical industry for 25 years.
Damage to Shin-Etsu, and other plants, has exposed the nimroddery of current planetary supply systems:
[I]t is almost certain to lead to a rethinking of a global production and logistics system in which a natural disaster in a small part of Japan’s industrial base could have such broad effects around the world.
“There should have been fail-safe measures taken, if one [plant] goes offline it doesn’t throw your whole production schedule off,” said Kenneth Grossberg, a business professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “How could you make yourself so vulnerable?”
[T]he disaster and its aftermath revealed just how far some companies had pushed the just-in-time supply system. The practice, pioneered by Toyota Motor Co., allows companies to reduce inventories, thus freeing up cash for more profitable use elsewhere. But in managing supplies ever so tightly, companies also narrowed their vendors, sometimes to just one or two, leaving little margin for adjusting if something went wrong.
Thomas Noyes pointed out in the Guardian last weekend that when the pocket-protector people start toting up the costs of various energy sources, they invariably neglect to note that the costs of nuclear power are “incalculable.”
It is for this reason that people of private capital are reluctant to go there unless they receives assurances that government will bail them out, if and when a nuclear reactor is transformed into a glow-tomb.
If the costs and benefits of nuclear power are so attractive, where are the investors? At least with wind and solar power, it is possible to see the cost curve dropping to the break-even point in the near future. Nuclear power, by contrast, may never be able to convince investors to put their money down without government guarantees.
Several years ago, I heard Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, say that commercial nuclear power won’t be developed in the US without federal liability or financing guarantees. The risks, however remote, are so expensive that investors don’t want to take them on, no matter what the return.
[T]he total costs of nuclear power are, in any meaningful sense, incalculable. Investors face cost overruns that could burn through even the deepest pockets. The true cost of waste disposal still is not known. The cost of decommissioning, even decades away, is also a big unknown. And the cost of catastrophic failure is more than a company as large as GE is willing to face. How can any investor calculate the return on investment with such large uncertainties?
Looking at the bigger picture, I don’t see why I or anyone should apologise for advocating developing energy resources that don’t blow up and take their investors with them. The renewable energy advocates I work with are willing, and even eager, to discuss the full costs and benefits of all sources of energy. Supporters of nuclear power should be willing to hold themselves to the same standard.
But they’re not. A recent piece in the Connecticut Post notes that taxpayers in New England have over the past three decades contributed nearly $1 billion to a fund intended to secure permanent storage for spent fuel from the region’s nuclear reactors. But that money has instead bought them but “an empty $11 billion hole in a Nevada mountainside, a broken promise from the U.S. government to remove the radioactive waste, and mounting bills that could still saddle New England with mothballed plants and hundreds of spent-fuel casks, turning communities into mini-nuclear waste dumps for decades, if not forever.”
While safety, not finances, has been at the core of the intense debate about the industry following the Japan calamity earlier this month, analysts, antinuclear activists, New England politicians and even plant operators said the cost issue sorely needs public attention.
In exchange for their investment, taxpayers have not received the promised benefit of affordable, clean energy, according to a February report by the Union of Concerned Scientists[.]
“Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past 50 years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away,” the report summary states.
And after 40 years of operation, the plants still can’t stand on their own financial footing, the report continues.
“The financial story is that nuclear power is not viable without subsidies,” said Ellen Vancko, who runs UCS’s nuclear energy division. “The waste issue is just one example.”
“The colossal failure of nuclear power is really seen in decommissioning,” said Deborah Katz, who runs the Massachusetts-based Citizens Awareness Network[.]
“When you have to engage in cleanup then this notion of being a clean, technologically advanced form of generating power is really put to the test. These are basically nuclear pigsties,” Katz said.
Operators or owners of some New England plants have a limited-liability corporate structure, meaning taxpayers could be financially responsible for a plant disaster.
In attempting to discover how the word “fukushima” would translate into English, I learned that in some areas of Japan the notorious fugu, or pufferfish, is instead known as fuku.
This seems to me perfectly apt. The fugu, or fuku, is a fish that will quite definitely kill you, when you eat it, unless it is prepared just so. The toxic portions of the fish must be wholly removed, and in a way that does not contaminate the rest of the meat. Only chefs who undergo rigorous training are permitted to prepare and serve fuku. And yet, every year, some people die from consuming the fish. But there is always another daredevil, ready to shove the corpse out of the seat, and take its place.
Why anyone would want to eat a fish that can kill you, when there are plenty of other fish that are just as tasty, that will not kill you, is one of the true bafflements of human nature. So, too: nuclear power. Why anyone would want to pursue a power source that “may blow up and take [its] investors with [it],” when there are so many other sources that will not . . . well, beats me.
Maybe the most depressing piece I’ve encountered throughout this entire Fukushima FUBAR is this one, from Voice of America. It seems, you see, that researchers are developing a drug “that can both prevent and repair cell damage from all types of radiation exposure.”
And why, you may ask, do I find such a thing “depressing”? Shouldn’t that be Good News, that people suffering from radiation damage might be healed?
It should indeed. But get this:
Such a healing medication has the potential to lessen panic and fear generated by catastrophic reactor accidents. Plant workers trying to make repairs near a crippled reactor’s radioactive core might be less fearful if they could take a pill to repair their own radiation-damaged cells.
See? Once such a wonderment reaches the market, why then, when a nuclear-power plant goes glow-tomb, the public can be definitively assured that, as ever, there is No Danger—why, all you have to do is take this pill. Workers can be dosed and sent back into the glow-tomb, to clean up for the company good. People living around the glow-tomb can be slipped a pill, patted on the head, and told to go back home—because Everything Is Fine.
The folks driving production of such a pill are people in the United States military—you know, those who control the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Ramesh Kumar, the CEO of a U.S. drug research firm called Onconova, says his company has just such a wonder drug in the works.
The company has been collaborating on the drug, called Ex-Rad, with scientists at a U.S. Defense Department research laboratory.
“Ex-Rad is a drug which is effective in saving a cell damaged by radiation,” he says, “and we have found that it can be given in advance of exposure to radiation up to a day ahead or it can be given up to a day after the exposure to radiation.”
The Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute has been leading the Pentagon’s quest for a more effective antidote to radiation sickness, which has a wide range of symptoms.
The Pentagon’s search for radiation sickness treatments is intensifying.
[T]he Department of Defense and Onconova have collaborated on the development of Ex-Rad.
Oh happy day. Glow-tombs may melt, may explode; nuclear weapons may fly hither and yon; but All will be All Right. For, as long as you’re not actually crisped, you can just take a pill. And then life will go on. It may be life like that boy, but hey, you can still be one of “the fabled 50,” scuttling into a glow-tomb to scoop up radioactive water, even on stunted legs, and with but one arm.