Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants

It Is Safe To Say That Nuclear Reactors Are Inherently Unsafe

If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds of the ongoing disasters in Japan it may be that the world will think twice before entertaining the notion that the solution to the world's hunger for power can be safely satisfied by the production of nuclear energy as it is now attempted. Think five hundred pound man on a tightrope.

Last month President Obama pledged the nuclear industry a further 8 billion dollars for building new nuclear reactors in the United States.   LINK  The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented that subsidies to the nuclear industry already exceed the value of the power produced.  Obama made a statement in his address that is neither a truism, nor possible,  nor feasible.  "..we'll have to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in America."  We don't "have to build" them, also,  the safety and cleanliness of these plants as we know them have always been an issue of dispute and the major argument against their safety and cleanliness is on display in Japan for all the world to see 
The President neglected to mention the cost of nuclear power. But when you are President and you are making corporate America happy, money is no object.   Although, to be fair, he ran for the Democratic nomination stating in one debate that "we should explore nuclear energy as part of the mix" which turns out to be a bland precursor to what he wants to do now. In my mind there is a difference between "explore" and handing over bags of cash. I didn't notice his warm cuddly feelings for nukes at the time he was running for President. That was probably because he is usually quite diffident about the things he is actually going to do. 

I think that these kinds of subsidies for the likes of General Electric (Hitachi) and Westinghouse Electric Company, (Toshiba) who build these behemoths, are a waste of money that leads to further waste of money. This is corporate welfare, pure and simple.  If you have ever had a look at a Westinghouse HDTV you would wonder what this company is doing even thinking of building a reactor. All of the plants at the Fukushima Daiichi complex are General Electric designs. They are operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Here is your scorecard (with reactor manufacturers noted) for the Fukushima Daiichi plants as they experience their unfortunate events:

Status Updated 7:30 AM 17 March 2011 EDT, Thursday night Tokyo time, monitoring NHK World TV Live in English.  Further updates will be given via new blog posts. 

(Via NHK) Thursday night : Casualty reports indicate over 5,500 confirmed dead in the earthquake and tsunami and over 9,600 unaccounted for. 

Plant 1 July 1967-General Electric Reactor
Hydrogen gas caused outer housing explosion Saturday. Core may be in partial meltdown, estimated 70% fuel rods damaged.

Plant 2 June 1969-General Electric Reactor
core threatening to  In partial melt down.  Explosion early Tuesday damaged the containment system. Fuel rods were  fully exposed. An estimated 33% damage to fuel rods was reported. The suppression chamber in the reactor is reported damaged. 

Plant 3-December 1970-Toshiba (Westinghouse) Reactor
(uses mixed oxide Plutonium fuel and therefore is the most potentially hazardous)
Hydrogen gas caused outer housing explosion Sunday. Core may be in partial meltdown. White smoke was reported Wednesday morning. The reactor container is said to be intact but there are contradictory reports on the actual condition of the container. 
(Via NHK) Thursday the water in the spent fuel pool was reported too low which caused authorities to authorize helicopter water drops despite dangerous levels of radiation.  There is almost no water left in the spent fuel pool.  It will require many helicopter runs. A helicopter can carry 7.5 tons of water per drop. The pool capacity is 2000 tons. It is believed that the pool can cool the spent rods if brought to a level perhaps one third full. The rate of possible leakage in the pools is unknown. Authorities have given reactor 3 first priority for cooling as of noon Thursday, Japan time. This reactor is potentially the most dangerous as it uses plutonium mixed oxide fuel. The first helicopter run was at 9:48 AM Thursday morning Japan time. Water cannon may be used on site by police. Effective range of water cannon is 30 meters. Riot police have been instructed to begin use of riot water cannon on reactor 3 as soon as possible. 
Two helicopters made two drops each of 7.5 tons of seawater each from 90 meters altitude Thursday with an insignificant drop in measured radiation in the area at 3754 microsieverts per hour after the drops, measured 100 meters from plant 3. From my observation of video of these helicopters it looks like very little seawater is actually reaching the pool from these drops. Because of the risk of radiation the helicopters were unable to hover about the spent fuel pools. The had to drop the seawater while moving which spread out the water over a large area rather than the target area. Lead plates were installed underneath the helicopters to provide some protection against radiation. The extra weight is was said to hamper mobility and  ability of the helicopters to carry a payload. 
Five fire engines have been brought into the area to cool the spent rod piles. Police water cannon efforts to add water to the cooling pools was discontinued Thursday. Water cannons were unable to reach the pools without putting police personnel in danger of excess radiation effects. 
Water sprayed or dropped into the pool seems to be vaporizing as soon as it enters the pool. 
Thursday night heroic Japan Self Defense Force (SDF) personnel commenced spraying water from five fire engines into the spent fuel storage pools at plant 3 and 4. SDF personnel were able to operate the fire engines from inside the equipment helping them to avoid some radiation. 
TEPCO personnel are attempting to restore high voltage electric power to the water pumps at the reactor sites. It is unknown if the pumps will operate when power is restored.
"At a certain point, they're going to have to abandon ship, they're committing a suicide mission to go in there. The radiation levels are near lethal right now…you're committing suicide to spend large amount of time there." theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku said Thursday.

Plant 4-February 1973-Hitachi (General Electric) Reactor
A reported  fire Tuesday morning was suppressed but fire started again on Wednesday. A possibility of drained water from spent fuel pool caused burning of exposed spent fuel rods. 
US officials were quoted Thursday as saying the spent fuel pool is empty at this reactor. 
The walls of this reactor have collapsed, according to a TEPCO spokesman Thursday night. Thursday night a TEPCO spokesman stated that some water was left in the spent fuel pool at reactor 4. 

Plant 5-May 1972-Toshiba (Westinghouse) Reactor
There was a  report Wednesday, Japan time, of  low coolant pool water level causing  a high temperature in the spent fuel pool. No combustion has been reported. 

Plant 6-October 1973-General Electric Reactor
A report Wednesday indicated that coolant pool water level was  low, causing an elevated temperature in the spent fuel pool. No combustion has been reported. 

On Thursday, in cooperation with the Japanese government, a USAF Global Hawk surveillance drone plane was dispatched from Guam to take detailed photographs of the Fukushima Daiichi complex and surrounding areas damaged by the earthquake and Tsunami.  

Plant 7 planned for 2016
Plant 8 planned for 2017

No one really knows what is going on inside these plants. It is too dangerous to go inside and monitoring equipment is probably inoperable. Actual readings of radioactivity just outside the plant seem to be a guarded secret. Only observations of smoke and structural damage can be made at this time.
Plants#4,  #5 and #6 were reported shut down and under maintenance at the time of the earthquake.
General Electric and Hitachi nuclear power divisions merged (or created an "alliance") in 2007 as GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy.
Westinghouse Electric was sold by CBS/Viacom to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. in 1999.
In 2006 BNFL sold Westinghouse Electric to Toshiba.

Maybe it is not a great idea to put six nuclear plants in the same place.
I think it is now safe to say that the generation of nuclear energy as we know it it not a good idea. 

And to those who would glibly defend the industry I ask:

Will you be around for 200,000 years to ensure the integrity of the nuclear waste?
If you were not directly or indirectly making a buck out of nuclear power, would you defend it?
And.... Would you have the balls to fight a reactor fire like those brave bastards in Japan? 

Rube Goldberg Machine
Nuclear power plants as we know them are unsafe overly-complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions.
They require inordinate attention and effort to maintain the illusion of safety, but never safety itself because they are inherently dangerous with an unacceptable degree of potential damage to people and the environment. 
They produce waste that must be protected for millennia. 
In the long run nuclear power is far too expensive and not worth the gigantic risk.

And if it were not for government subsidies (welfare) and government assurances of reduced liability, no private company in their right mind would build a nuclear power plant. They would never make a profit and they could never afford insurance on the open market.

By illustration of that statement I submit to you the sad spectacle of  Presidents and Congresses over the years offering cash to subsidize the building of the plants (Like Obama's charitable donation of $8 billion last month. Was it pledge month for the nuclear industry in February?) and laws like the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act that puts the government (in effect, the people) on the hook for liability over a set amount ($12.6 billion in 2011, not bad when estimated damages for a meltdown are as much as $500 billion) when the nuclear power industry has that inevitable "unfortunate accident". Such events are attended to by officials wringing their hands and wailing about the fact that no one could have foreseen the disaster. But that is exactly the problem with nuclear energy as we know it. No one can foresee all the potential for trouble in a giant complicated radioactive machine  and nuclear trouble is BIG potential trouble.
See article: "A Japan-reactor repeat in the United States could cost the government dearly"

And if you believe in free markets what are you doing supporting nuclear energy? After fifty years nuclear power is not viable without subsidies from YOU, as we read in this article, published just last month from the Union of Concerned Scientists titled aptly "After 50 Years, Nuclear Power is Still Not Viable without Subsidies, New Report Finds". LINK  We discover in this report that over thirty subsidies support the nuclear power industry every step of the way from the mining of radioactive materials to the long term storage of radioactive waste materials. Nuclear power represents the purest form of corporate socialism. And the way it is being shoved down our throats despite the known danger  is corporate terrorism.

Quotes of the Day
"The tsunami is a horrible human disaster, but to the shark it is the answer to his prayers."
"You can have it both ways when you begin and end with conflicting assertions."- John Bonanno 
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