Fukushima Update–Nothing to See Here Folks, Just Move Along

by Matthew Payne on December 20, 2011Comments Off

Suzuki's Hidden Camera Shots of Reactor One (c/o Mainichi Daily)

So, the big Fukushima Daiichi news is that TEPCo has announced a “cold shutdown“!  Well, sort of.  Kinda.  Really, not at all. 

There are very real and scientific standards for telling whether or not you have a “cold shutdown” of melted down reactor cores.  To explain as succinctly as possible, “a cold shutdown” is the state in which the nuclear pile is no longer producing a chain reaction and atmospheric radiation is no longer being emitted.  To accomplish such a state, nuclear reactor cores must be carefully managed to allow dampening rods and coolant (usually water) to reach individual fuel rods.  How a mass of fused fuel settling like cottage cheese on the concrete floor of containment buildings would be “cooled” using such mechanisms is less than clear.  After all, the exterior of this nuclear slag could be non-critical while the interior is burning a hole through the floor (uranium is exceedingly dense and therefore a great insulator).   Greenpeace, which has been repeatedly on the ball during the crisis while TEPCo has been–how does one put this–lying, sums up the problems with this declaration of a cold shutdown very well:

In fact, the Japanese authorities have cheated by redefining “cold shutdown” to suit the situation at Fukushima. Only operating nuclear reactors can be put into a state of “cold shutdown”. Reactors that have suffered meltdowns – like those at Fukushima – cannot be. The 260 tons of nuclear fuel inside the Fukushima reactors melted and burned through the steel floors of the containment vessels and into the thick concrete under pads. The melted fuel is far from under control. This means the temperature inside the reactor can’t be regulated by conventional means. Nobody at Fukushima actually knows what state this highly radioactive molten fuel is in or what temperature it is at because it’s obviously far too dangerous to go in and find out.

Yup.  For those who roll their eyes at anything the DFH’s at Greenpeace have to say, the New York Times quotes nuclear engineers, such as Kuzhiko Kudo at Kyusho University, showing a fair bit of skepticism as well.

But “cold shutdown,” even if achieved, says nothing about radioactive water, and as the Wall Street Journal reports with a bit of sang froid,

Fukushima Daiichi is hemorrhaging enough radiated water each month to fill four Olympic-size swimming pools.

And no, they have no idea where the cracks in the containment are and their best option to deal with this problem is to buy up every industrial containment system in Eastern Japan (eventually they’ll run out of room) and try to build a big enough wall to keep all that radioactive water from sloshing into the Pacific (as it did last month!).  Meanwhile even a minor earthquake would likely shred the Rube Goldberg coolant system (over half a mile of hoses) and lead to a major leak.  The good news is that there has been no further detection of xenon isotopes, which leads to at least some hope that there’s no on-going China Syndrome at the plant.  The bad news is that none of this precludes “recriticality”–either from a breakdown of the coolant system or some burp in the melted cores.  So, all the news is great! (except for the news that’s not).

A report from an undercover journalist, Tomohiko Suzuki of the Mainichi Daily News, gives a rather different view of conditions at the plant.  Suzuki got himself hired on as a manual laborer on the site for a month and he presents a harrowing tale of corruption, incompetence and malfeasance, detailing corporate jealousies, in-fighting, rushed and shoddy repairs, as well as Potemkin Village-style facades of “stabilization.”  Perhaps the most shocking allegation he makes is that workers and their corporate masters regularly manipulate radiation badges to allow clean up crews to work beyond their maximum daily exposures to radiation. This playing with the health of their workers is extraordinarily dangerous and but obvious to TEPCo’s subcontractors:

Furthermore, the daily radiation screenings are “essentially an act,” with the detector passed too quickly over each worker, while “the line to the buzzer that is supposed to sound when there’s a problem has been cut,” Suzuki said.

In conditions like this (as at Chernobyl’), Suzuki’s grim prediction that working at Fukushima is akin to a death sentence is hardly hyperbole.  As should be expected with such corporate practices, Suzuki has found evidence that Japanese organized crime, the Yakuza, is involved in recruiting workers for the clean-up.  The grim details shoddy work and worse practices he describes make future large-scale problems at the plant a near certainty.

Finally, for those who think Fukushima is far away and not our problem, the Pacific is starting to deliver Tsunami wreckage to the West Coast of North America.  But don’t worry, I’m sure none of it will be irradiated or affect those salmon steaks people are fond of.  As for lessons learned, the American NRC is, in fact, in the midst of  a palace coup against its director, Greg Jaczko, for pushing implementation of new, post-Fukushima safety regulations.   Jaczko, the first NRC Director not from the industry, has been trying to implement the NRC’s report on modest safety improvements in the industry, much to the shock of official Washington.  Since the “new” regulations following the Brown’s Ferry fire of 1975 were never been implemented, no one expected the post-Fukushima ones would be either.  The execrable Politico has become a willing cat’s paw in these efforts to oust Jaczko for the sin of, you know, doing his job without, actually, doing anything but stenographing GOP complaints that the guy is rude.  Yeah.  Sure.  Right.  This is an all-to-familiar tactic in our Versailles-on-the-Potomac–making an inconvenient person into a political liability whom the moral eunuchs in the White House will be quick to hang out to dry. And why?  Because upgrades to old, shoulda-been-mouthballed-decades-ago, dirty nukes are just too expensive compared to the profitability of these plants.  Clearly, it is better to simply risk a Fukushima than close down the industry’s worst dogs. 

Finally, for anybody who thinks this is all sound and fury signifying nothing–Think again.  (h/t Joieau at Daily Kos)  A peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal indicates that thousands in “excess mortality” may have occurred in the U.S. due to Fukushima already.  A summary quote:

Authors Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman note that their estimate of 14,000 excess U.S. deaths in the 14 weeks after the Fukushima meltdowns is comparable to the 16,500 excess deaths in the 17 weeks after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. The rise in reported deaths after Fukushima was largest among U.S. infants under age one. The 2010-2011 increase for infant deaths in the spring was 1.8 percent, compared to a decrease of 8.37 percent in the preceding 14 weeks.

The entire interview with the authors is worth a read, and these are sobering statistics.  If the actual impact of the accident was only one-tenth as severe as they indicate, it would be a national disaster.  14,000 families suffering a shattering loss due to events half-way around the world, that’s an impact nearly three-times the battlefield deaths in the decade-long Iraq Occupation.  If Mangano and Sherman are right (a big “if”) then Fukushima was far more deadly than all the terrorist attacks on 9/11 by a long shot.  And yet the one guy who seems to be doing something (anything) to prevent a recurrence, is being hounded out of Washington.  It seems that nuclear power brews up a hellish concoction, not only in pollution but also politics.