Fukushima nearing total meltdown?

In a frightening development that has received appallingly little coverage in English, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) released the results of a study Nov. 30 finding that melted fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor has nearly reached the bottom steel wall under the concrete at the base of the containment structure. TEPCO estimates the fuel rods have already melted through the concrete base of the reactor container by up to 65 centimeters. If the melt-through continues another 37 centimeters, it will reach the steel wall. If it melts through that, it will be released into the soil, and likely the groundwater.

However, TEPCO’s analysis is rough at best—it is a prediction of the current situation inside the reactor based on its temperature change and injection of cooling water. Said one technician: “TEPCO’s analysis says we have 30 centimeters of the concrete base left to prevent the melted fuel to hit the bottom. But I am not confident that we have that much space left. We have to be prepared for the worst case scenario.”

The only reasonably detailed accounts we could find on the study were from the technical trade website IEEE Spectrum (Dec. 1), Korea’s Arirang TV (Dec. 2), and, in much vaguer terms, The Guardian and The Australian (both Dec. 2).

The New York Times, which evidently finds this news not fit to “print” (merely citing The Australian’s account on its “Green” blog), runs an opinion piece, “After Fukushima: Now, More Than Ever” by Microsoft veteran and nuclear booster Nathan Myhrvold, who finds:

The primary lesson from Japan’s recent trauma, however, is that a tsunami is dangerous to everything in its path, nuclear plants included. Consider the growing needs for reliable energy, the fact that nuclear is probably the safest form of power that can meet those needs, and the unfortunate truth that fossil-fueled alternatives emit so much pollution that they arguably pose a much greater threat than the darkest nuclear accident scenario.

A logician would see no reason for ambivalence, but most people are not logical when it comes to scary events. That’s why people worry about dying in a plane crash while driving to the airport, even though the drive is more dangerous than the flight.

It is Myhrvold who needs a lesson in logic. If tsunamis, earthquakes and human error are inevitable, this is an argument against nuclear power, not for it. The juxtaposing of nuclear power and fossil fuels as an either/or is a false dilemma. And dismissing fears of nuclear power as “illogical” when elevated radiation has been found in topsoil at schools and playgrounds in Fukushima prefecture is itself illogical. Not to mention morally depraved.

Ironically, on Dec. 4, two days after Myhrvold’s piece ran, the NY Times reported another grim TEPCO revelation—that at least 45 tons of highly radioactive water have leaked from a purification facility at the Fukushima complex, and some of it may have reached the Pacific Ocean. (This new leak being but a fraction of the radioactive water that has reached the sea since the start of the disaster.)

On May 27, two months and change after the Fukushima disaster began, Germany’s Der Speigel ran an exposĂ© by Cordula Meyer on the proverbial revolving door between the nuclear industry and supposed government “regulators” in Japan. The opening paragraphs:

Both the nuclear industry and its government regulators are also closely intertwined with the political sphere. TEPCO’s management is among the key campaign donors to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Meanwhile, the union that represents workers in the electricity industry supports Prime Minister Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). So far neither of the two parties has taken a position critical of the nuclear industry.

It’s as if Austrian writer Robert Jungk’s horrific vision of the “nuclear state” had become reality. In his book “The Nuclear State,” once required reading for Germany’s protest generation, Jungk describes how a high-risk technology can erode a democracy, even without a nuclear disaster. Many of the protesters who faced water cannons, batons and concertina wire during demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s at German sites like the Brokdorf nuclear power plant near Hamburg, already felt as if they were living in the dreaded surveillance state.

Germany was ultimately spared Jungk’s vision, but in Japan it has proven to be prophetic. In a consensus-based society, the nuclear industry, electric utilities, political parties and scientists have created a sacrosanct refuge for themselves that has become a threat to Japan’s democracy.

After a generation of propaganda about how nuclear power is the “clean” (sic!) alternative to fossil fuels, the world desperately needs to hear Robert Jungk‘s warning again. Let’s not allow such voices to be relegated to Orwell’s Memory Hole before the Fukushima disaster is even over. It could be just beginning.

See our last posts on Japan and Fukushima and the nuclear threat.

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  1. Another nuclear mishap in Japan
    Radioactive water leaked inside the Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Genkai nuclear power plant in southwestern Saga Prefecture, but did not escape into the environment, the government said Dec. 10. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said 1.8 tons of radioactive water leaked from a pump in Genkai’s No. 3 reactor, and the cause was still under investigation. The water was funneled into a storage area and posed no safety risk, officials said. (AP, Dec. 10)

  2. Hokkaido to accept Fukushima waste —despite protests
    A translation on the EX-SKF blog of a Dec. 8 account in Tomakomai Minpo newspaper on the northern island of Hokkaido says that the public safety committee of the Tomakomai City Assembly unanimously voted down a petition by citizens not to accept disaster debris from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Radioactive debris from Fukushima is among the waste slated to be burned in the city’s incinerator. The loophole appears to be that if debris has less than 100 becquerels/kg of radioactive cesium, then it is not considered radioactive waste under government standards, and can be disposed of like ordinary garbage. City authorities have admitted that “it is not possible to have zero radiation” in the debris.

  3. “Cold shutdown” at Fukushima?
    The Japanese government announced Dec. 16 that a “cold shutdown” has been achieved at all reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. But, the Washington Post cautions: “The plant still leaks radiation into the sea. Its makeshift cooling system is vulnerable to earthquakes. And the cleanup work remains dangerous, with many flooded and debris-strewn areas of the reactor buildings difficult even for robots to access.” BBC News tells us: “Earlier this week, the government said it could take up to 40 years to fully decommission the plant and clean up surrounding areas… Spent fuel rods and melted fuel inside the reactors must be removed. Waste water must also be safely stored.”

    So we presumably do not know how close we are to total meltdown—or even whether this risk still exists.

    1. “Cold shutdown” at Fukushima? Maybe not…
      Some disconcerting news from The Guardian, Feb. 12:

      Fukushima reactor readings raise reheating concern
      Concern is growing that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan is no longer stable after temperature readings suggested one of its damaged reactors was reheating.

      The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), said the temperature inside No 2 reactor—one of three that suffered meltdown after last year’s earthquake and tsunami—may have reached 82C on Sunday.

      Tepco said there was no evidence that the melted fuel inside had reached criticality. The utility reportedly increased the amount of cooling water being injected into the reactor along with a boric acid solution, which is used to prevent the fuel from undergoing sustained nuclear reactions.

      Confirmation that the temperature has risen above 80C could force the government to reverse its declaration two months ago that the crippled plant was in a safe state known as cold shutdown.

      Cold shutdown is achieved when the temperature inside the reactors remains below 100C and there is a significant reduction in radiation leaks. Given that Tepco assumes a margin of error of 20C, the actual temperature could have risen to 102C.

      Plant workers are unable to take accurate readings of the temperature inside the damaged reactor because radiation levels are still too high for them to enter and examine the state of the melted fuel, which is thought to be resting at the bottom of the reactor’s pressure vessel.

      The result has been a series of wildly different readings: two other thermometers positioned at the bottom of No 2 reactor showed the temperature at 35C, local media reported.

      Tepco said it did not know the cause of the apparent temperature rise, but speculated that it might be due to problems with the supply of coolant or a faulty thermometer.

      Let’s hope for that faulty thermometer hypothesis…

  4. Did Fukushima cause US mortality spike?
    We aren’t quite sure what to make of it, but one Janette Sherman—a physician who is apparently a veteran of the old US Atomic Energy Commission, and who studied the health impacts of the Chernobyl accident—is touting a new piece she just co-authored in the International Journal of Health Services claiming 14,000 excess deaths in the United States as a result of the Fukushima disaster. Writes Sherman: “Based on our continuing research, the actual death count here may be as high as 18,000, with influenza and pneumonia, which were up five-fold in the period in question as a cause of death. Deaths are seen across all ages, but we continue to find that infants are hardest hit because their tissues are rapidly multiplying, they have undeveloped immune systems, and the doses of radioisotopes are proportionally greater than for adults.” There is a press release about this from PR Newswire, posted to the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch and dated Dec. 19. Sherman also plugs it on her own website. However, International Journal of Health Services seems not to have its own website. It is evidently put out by Rockwood Publishing Company. Does anyone have any elucidation on this?

    1. activism and bad math
      A Scientific American blogger crunches their numbers and finds them cherry picking. A later piece by the same guy. I haven’t gone over the numbers personally but the thesis seems suspect and, unless the above linked guy is flat out lying, they’re involved in some statistical book cooking to make their point. That said I agree with the above bloggers conclusion:

      Certainly radiation from Fukushima is dangerous, and could very well lead to negative health effects—even across the Pacific. The world needs to have a serious discussion about what role nuclear power should play in a power-hungry post-Fukushima world. But serious, informed, fact-based debate is a difficult enough goal to achieve without having to shout above noise like this.