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Japan nuclear situation: fear or fact? « Previous | |Next »
March 16, 2011

What we would expect from Australian scientists and academics with expertise in nuclear power, engineering and energy is to keeping us informed about the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan. We don't expect this from partisan newspapers such as The Australian which uses its op-ed page top fight the culture wars and destroy those on the left side of politics. Anything goes for them. The scientists, in contrast, try to educate the public so that we have an informed citizenry.

I have been reading Prof. Barry Brook's (he's an environmental scientist at Adelaide University) brave new climate blog. Though Brook is a nuclear power advocate he publicly adopts a 'just the facts' approach: one that is designed to inform rather than deceive so as to facilitate a rational debate about nuclear power in Australia. This is important, given the misinformation and hyperbole flying around the internet and media about the Fukushima nuclear reactor situation.

RowsonMJapanearthquake .jpg Martin Rowson

On his March 15 post---a summary of the situation report--- Brook's position was that the situation with respect to Fukushima Daiini, is now under control, and units are in, or approaching, cold shutdown. He adds that units 1+3 at Fukushima Daiich plant were fairly stable. Unit 4 was stable. Unit 2 was the one of most concern, but the odds are that no one will be hurt from radioactivity.

My interpretation of the analysis on his blog is that the situation is under control, there is no reason for concern as the situation is clearly (but slowly) stabilising, and that the radiation level at the site boundary is not a risk to the public.

However, an editorial note by Brook to a guest post by Ben Heard does jar:

[Ben is a relatively recent, but very welcome friend of mine, who is as passionate as I am about mitigating climate change. I really appreciate publishing his thoughts in this most difficult of times. Now, more than ever, we must stand up for what we believe is right]

What is right? Nuclear power is the solution to global warming? Australia should embrace nuclear power? Does this frame the opinion contained in the blog posts?

In his post Heard details how the deteriorating situation at the Fukushima Daiichi has led to a severity rating of INES 6. He says that this is clearly very serious and adds that the Three Mile Island Accident was a 5. Chernobyl, however, was a 7 (the highest), and is a very different league. He finishes thus:

If Japan’s nuclear power sector can withstand the worst natural calamity I hope to ever see in my life and contribute no deaths, minimal injuries and minimal environmental impact, then nuclear power must be just about the sturdiest, best designed, best managed and least dangerous infrastructure in the world. And in a world that is quickly cooking itself through climate change, nuclear power must not be allowed to suffer from the hype, headlines and hyperbole that have stemmed from this tragic event. Fear or facts. I choose facts. I hope you do too.

It's not a case of fear or fact---it's both plus an interpretation of facts. Brook's interpretation of the facts of an "ongoing crisis situation"---ie., new explosions, fires, exposure of fuel rods, containment vessel of reactor #2 being breached, the fire in unit #4 apparently released significant radiation to the environment, etc.--- is that the situation is under control. That is Heard's interpretation as well.

This strikes me as an optimistic interpretation in an unfolding, dynamic situation. A bit too rosy perhaps? If we dig deeper into Heard's post we find this statement:

The bottom line of the events at Fukushima and the nuclear power sector more broadly would appear to be as follows: ...No significant or lasting environmental impact whatsoever

How would Heard know that? The facts aren't even in as this statement refers to future events that have yet to happen. We have spin, or ignorance, in the form of speculation Nor is there any mention of people being evacuated in a 20-30k radius and workers are ordered to leave the site where they are most needed due to radiation.

Recall that Brook's holds that this is a critical time for science, engineering and facts to trump hype, fear, uncertainty and doubt. If we dig into Brook's past post--eg., that of 12 March --- we find this confident statement: "There is no credible risk of a serious accident." Events have proved otherwise, haven't they.

We now have the reactor shutdown generating heat from the hot fuel but no cooling systems. That is the same basic scenario as at Three Mile Island. The company--Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco)-- is having difficulty in bringing the plant under control.The 50 workers left are struggling to keep hundreds of gallons of seawater a minute flowing through temporary fire pumps into the three stricken reactors, Nos. 1, 2 and 3, where overheated fuel rods continued to boil away the water at a brisk pace.

Brook's "clearly (but slowly) stabilising" interpretation does need to be the light of what is happening.

Update 1
Brook's "clearly (but slowly) stabilising" interpretation is looking increasing implausible. Surprisingly, comments to that effect on his blog posts are being deleted. At best it looks as Japan is struggling to regain control as conditions at its failing nuclear plant continue to deteriorate further.

A more pessimistic interpretation was given in a briefing on the nuclear plant crisis in Japan to the US Senate's committee on the environment and public works by Greg Jaczko, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Recall that Brook's position is that Unit 4 is stable. Jaczko, in contrast, says that there is no more water in spent fuel pool at No 4 reactor:

We believe at this point that Unit 4 may have lost a significant inventory, if not lost all, of its water.... There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures....We believe that around the reactor site there are high levels of radiation. It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time."

Tokyo Electric Power are saying that they can’t get inside to check but reckon there is no problem.

Jaczko also said there was the possibility of a leak in the spent fuel pool in reactor No 3, "which could lead to a loss of water in that pool", as well as a falling water level in the spent fuel level at the No 2 reactor. The water level has been dropping in the No 5 reactor as well.

If the American analysis is accurate and emergency crews at the plant have been unable to keep the spent fuel rods at that inoperative reactor properly cooled — they need to remain covered with water at all times — radiation levels could make it difficult not only to fix the problem at reactor No. 4, but to keep servicing any of the other problem reactors at the plant.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:30 AM | | Comments (22)


The position of Brooks and Heard is that nuclear power should be embraced by Australia. They argue that the coming generation of nuclear technology will completely change the energy game to the benefit of all and they want an informed debate on nuclear power in Australia.

The position of the pro nuclear lobby in general is that the events at Fukushima are controlled and contained and exemplary even though the crisis is still happening. The force of of the nuclear industry is currently being directed to spin the event at Fukushima so that it does not create damage to their reputation.

The Japanese Government is following the standard pattern of of secrecy and denial. They have evacuated 180,000 people but they also say there is no radiation. They are certain to have readings but they are saying nothing apart from their claims of safety.

Their words are at odds with the actions at the plant.

It's not over, as the pro-nuclear lobby imply. Nor is the situation stable or under control.

Greg Laden has a thoughtful and valuable post on his blog.

The basic position of brave new climate and its commentators is that nuclear power is safe and that this was demonstrated by how everything is under control at the Fukushima plant.

reactor 2 at Fukushima power station is of concern because its fuel rods were repeatedly exposed yesterday and this morning's explosion damaged the pressure vessel around the reactor.

If the reactor is left to overheat for too long, the fuel rods could melt inside, turning the interior of the core into a molten mass.

Because the containment vessel around the reactor core has been damaged, some radiation would doubtless escape. If the molten core breaches its containment completely, it will release a large amount of radiation into the air.

Brook's says that that units 1+3 at Fukushima Daiich plant were fairly stable. Unit 4 was stable. "

The latest news on the state of each of the reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant:

• No 1: Cooling failure, partial melting of core, vapor vented, hydrogen explosion, seawater pumped in.

• No 2: Cooling failure, seawater pumped in, fuel rods fully exposed temporarily, vapor vented, damage to containment system, potential meltdown feared.

• No 3: Cooling failure, partial melting of core feared, vapor vented, seawater pumped in, hydrogen explosion, high-level radiation measured nearby.

• No 4: Under maintenance when quake struck, fire caused possibly by hydrogen explosion at pool holding spent fuel rods, pool water level feared receding.

• No 5: Under maintenance when quake struck, temperature slightly rising at spent fuel pool.

• No 6 - Under maintenance when quake struck, temperature slightly rising at spent fuel pool.

How can Unit 3 be stable if a potential meltdown is feared? How can Unit 3 be stable when a containment vessel may have ruptured and appeared to be releasing radioactive steam?

One of Brook's links--well worth reading he says --- is to an MIT staffer who argues that events in Japan confirm the robustness of modern nuclear technology — not a failure:

Whether it is confusion of radiation with radioactive material, flailing comparisons to past accidents, or hopeless misuse of terminology, reporting on Fukushima has been a mix of hype and speculation entirely devoid of useful information. Let’s set the record straight: the situation is under control, it is unlikely that the nuclear fuel has melted, the risk to the public is effectively zero, and, depending on whether facts on the ground have been reported correctly, it is possible that the reactors will remain capable of producing power in the future.

The facts on the ground are 3 explosions in 4 days; pump failure and exposure of fuel rods to steam; radiation leaks; workers are only able to remain in the central control rooms at the Fukushima plant for 10 minutes to avoid exposure to excessive radiation levels; Unit 1 and 3 are damaged (partial melt); Unit 2 is "partially" damaged; the control rods are damaged; etc etc

Lets get some simple facts on the board.

1. Once upon a time, not long ago, a series of companies and govts built nuclear power stations on fault lines and the like in tectonically unstable places [Japan included].

2. They [the companies and the govts] promised these nuke sites would be 'safe'.
Note that, we were told, "No problem, she'll be right, trust us".

[Is that an unfair summary so far, perhaps a bit facetious but unfair?]

3. Then, inevitably, along came tectonic activity and the nuke sites were damaged.

This is not the first such occurence, there have been others, not just in Japan.

4. And, consequently, surprise surprise, dangerous radioactive stuff was released into the environment.

5. Now it has happened again.

Nuke sites have been severely damaged, 'fail-safe' systems have er, well, failed and radioactive material has been released into the environment including:
- a USA warship off the coast of Japan detected radiation and turned around and headed in the opposite direction.
- the city of Tokyo [among other places] where umpteen million people live some 200 plus kms from the explosions [hang on ...explosions???... that sounds like a 'problem', doesn't sound 'safe' at all] at the nuke sites received radiation.

Radiation ain't good ya know, its a 'problem'.
Any level.

6. And now the pro-nuke sites [such as Brave New Climate linked above] are telling us this is all right.

That is a strange logic and weird mental process that fails to account for 2 overriding facts:
1. the nuke sites have been damaged
2. if they had not been built in tectonically unsafe places then they would not have been damaged.

Really quite simple isn't it?

fred writes:

2. They [the companies and the govts] promised these nuke sites would be 'safe'.
Note that, we were told, "No problem, she'll be right, trust us".
[Is that an unfair summary so far, perhaps a bit facetious but unfair?]

My understanding is that they--Tokyo Electric Power Co + the Japanese Govt-- took the risk that a big earthquake and tsunami would not happen in the lifetime of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex .

The calculation was simple. A big earthquake and tsunami was seen as one of those one in a hundred years events whilst the life time of the nuclear plant was only 40 years. It was commissioned in the early 1970s. They have a 60 year safety margin.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex was decommissioned last month because of its age, but was repermitted instead, to continue operations for another ten years. The back-up generators failed due to Tsunami damage following the earthquake.This possibility would have been foreseen, but the generators were not mounted higher on tsunami and earthquake resistant structures because of bad planning and excessive risk management.

I'm assuming that the Japanese nuclear industry is essentially profit driven & is subject to poor regulatory supervision, which leads to complacency. Tokyo Electric Power Co was known for falsifying safety records at the plant.

There is really no such option as abandoning the plants, because that would almost guarantee that they all burn to the ground and a large fraction of their total radionuclide inventories get released.

The academic "enlightened" crowd at brave new climate are slowly starting to accept that there is a problem at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex behind all the heroics of not "having any qualms about sitting tight in the zone 20-30 km out from the Fukushima plant until this situation is resolved. (ie., the problem isn't really that serious).

fred says "now the pro-nuke sites [such as Brave New Climate linked above] are telling us this is all right."

The situation at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant remains grave and the latest developments within the crippled reactors show a further deterioration.

It is becoming a nightmare.

Re: "the academic "enlightened" crowd at brave new climate are slowly starting to accept that there is a problem at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex"

Brook's argument is that there will be no major problem because ultimately the containment vessels will do their job and the fuel will be contained safely.

Therefore, nuclear power is a power source whose risk can be managed.

Professor David Hinde, head of the department of nuclear physics at the Australian National University, says that the status of the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima plant is very concerning.Water levels are reportedly dropping in unit 4, and the temperature of the pools in 5 and 6 are now rising.

Hinde says:

It is clearly a serious situation now because there is no containment for those spent fuel pools… My feeling is that they are probably a more serious issue now than the reactors, [where] there's at least a degree of containment remaining.Spent fuel rods are strongly radioactive and the water above them shields against that radiation so as long as the water level is sufficiently high – you can walk up to the edge of the pool and pour a bucket of water in. Once it is even close to the top of the rods the levels are too high to approach the pool, which is clearly what has happened in unit 4.

No doubt the various authorities will continue to assure everyone that the situation is under control as the situation continues to deteriorate.

The Fukushima nuclear facility site is effectively out of control, even if that is not what the Japanese are saying. Tepco, the plant operator are saying the "condition is stable" at the No 4 reactor. They deny that the No 4 reactor at Fukushima may have lost all its coolant.

In a briefing on the nuclear plant crisis in Japan to the US Senate's committee on the environment and public works Dr Edward Lyman, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that:

At least two spent fuel pools at the Fukushima plant have caught fire and are releasing radiation into the atmosphere. These pools are on the upper floor of these Mark I boiling-water reactors and are now open to the air following explosions that breached the buildings around them. ...Although the Japanese are engaged in truly heroic efforts to mitigate the worst effects of this accident and reduce radioactive releases that could harm the public, these efforts have only been partially effective, are already resulting in life-threatening conditions for the workers on site, and are likely to ultimately fail.

He adds that elevated levels of radiation have already been detected more than one hundred miles from the release site. While these levels remain low, if the accident continues to worsen then they could increase dramatically.

I agree with fred--no nuclear plants should be built in fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashores or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned or any other places which are geologically unsafe.

This should have been so obvious that it doesn't need saying. That nuclear power plants have been built in fault zones and on tsunami-prone coasts indicates that the companies in the nuclear industry are the lowest of the low.

I agree that the Japanese have done a remarkable job in dealing with an event of this scale, but where was the thinking as to the siting maintainance and continuation in service of the reactors?
Ounce of prevention?
Only the Japanese could have pulled this up, and at that, only a nano short of utter disaster.
How then, would other less advanced countries deal with runaway nukes, given the way things are some times run in the developing world?
Why is it that politicians and developers remain so stubborn, against all rationality, as to site and location involving toxic or polluting processes and materials?
We see the mentality alive with nuke plants, deep ocean oil drilling and with the Gunns saga in Tasmania.

information has been a hard to come by from the Japanese. According to this report in the New York Times:

Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis. Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant.

Politicians are almost completely reliant on Tokyo Electric Power, which tightly controls the flow of information.

Things are desperate if they are trying to drop water on the plant's No. 3 reactor to douse the fuel pool with seawater using four Japanese self-defence force helicopters.

It cannot be very effective and it would have to be done continuously.It cannot be a practical way to deliver water to the spent fuel pools to water level in the pool drops low enough to expose the spent fuel. They would have struggled to hit their target. It has been abandoned--it failed to bring down radiation levels.

8 police water cannon trucks were then planned to be used to spray sea water on Reactor No. 3. The reactor typically needs 50 tons of water a day to keep from overheating. They were beaten back by the high levels of radiation. It appears that the reactor's primary containment vessel for radiation had been damaged/ruptured.

It is not clear how the plant officials planned to deal with exposed fuel rods at reactor 4 apart from spraying water from ground positions.

Maybe these desperate methods are a holding operation until Tokyo Electric can reconnect the Fukushima nuclear power plant to the electricity grid with a new powerline to get the electricity needed to run the cooling systems?

A clear account of the problem posed by the water levels dropping to expose the fuel rods from the Union of Concerned Scientists. David Wright says:

The pool at Fukushima Dai-Ichi Unit 4 is a particular problem since the fuel rods in it were only removed from the reactor core during a refueling of the reactor in December 2010. Therefore, they still have a very high level of radiation and are generating more heat than the spent fuel at the other reactors at the Dai-Ichi site.

He adds that if water cannot be added to the pool, or if the pool has been damaged and is leaking, the fuel may remain uncovered. The exposed fuel can get hot enough to melt, depending on how long it has been out of the reactor. If the fuel melts, it would release significant additional radioactivity into the air.

This same scenario could occur at Units 5 and 6 if the water in the spent fuel pools is not replenished, although the fuel there has apparently been in the pools longer and is not as radioactive as at Unit 4.

Re the pools of 'spent' fuel.

So we highly radioactive material just sitting there in swimming pools with water no longer circulating around them? The pools are not contained, unlike the reactors. So the water in the pools is boiling off.

David Wright says :

the pools are typically 45 feet deep with the fuel rods stored in the lower 15 feet of the pool, so 30 feet of water would have to boil off before exposing the rods. That could take several days, so this issue may only be appearing now.

We are there now as Greg Jaczko, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says that there is no more water in spent fuel pool at No 4 reactor.

So the fuel rods are uncovered. They are in the process of getting hot enough to melt-Once the fuel melts, it would release significant additional radioactivity into the air. They must be bleeding radiation into the atmosphere.All Tokyo Electric Power is saying publicly is that they are unable to get inside to check.

Things must be getting desperate inside Unit 4. Far more serious than the Japanese Government are saying. They definitely have a crisis on their hands. If the radiation levels inside the plant get too high workers could be forced to vacate the plant altogether, and the fuel rods in reactors and spent fuel pools would be left to meltdown, leading to much larger releases of radioactive materials.

the stages the Japanese Government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co have gone through up to now are these:
First, it's not as bad as we thought. Second, well, perhaps it's a little worse. Third, it's not as bad as it could have been, certainly not as bad as X (Chernybol, et al.). Fourth, danger (radiation) is not headed our way, and if it is, we can handle it.

The on-the-ground reality is that Japan's battle to regain control at the failing Fukushima power plant is a race against time, as the crisis enters a second week.

I'd have added,
"Fifth, even if and tho its is actually a disaster and a chaotic muck up, relative to the bolide collision that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty five millions years ago, it could be worse".

Engineers rolling out an emergency power cable have reached Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant and are preparing to try and restart water pumps to cool overheated fuel rods that are threatening to melt down.

If the option of getting the cooling infrastructure up and running fails, then one option under consideration is to bury the reactors in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release. That method was used to seal off the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.