Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Disaster Review

Whatever the controversies of where and how far the radioactivity will spread, and however impossible and overwhelming this all sounds (is there anyone not lying to the public? any hope for transparency in the future? and if not, then what's left to do?), the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi has reached international crisis level; authorities have been forced to spend more time fixing and managing the disaster than effectively covering it up. Mainstream and corporate media are finally admitting what only "fringe" media (and a number of scientists) had been saying a few days ago. A lot of people are going to die because of corporate greed, government complacency, and the socially constructed desire for an energy panacea.

According to Stratfor, the admission by Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of a meltdown of the reactor core is especially significant, because is the government agency that reports to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. NISA works in conjunction with the Atomic Energy Commission. Its role is to provide oversight to the industry and is responsible for signing off construction of new plants, among other things. It has been criticized for approving nuclear plants on geological fault lines and for an alleged conflict of interest in regulating the nuclear sector. It was NISA that issued the order for the opening of the valve to release pressure — and thus allegedly some radiation — from the Fukushima power plant.
NISA has also overseen the entire government response to the nuclear reactor problems following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It is difficult to determine at this point whether the NISA statement is accurate, as the Nikkei report has not been corroborated by others. It is also not clear from the context whether NISA is stating the conclusions of an official assessment or simply making a statement. However, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant, also said that although it had relieved pressure, nevertheless some nuclear fuel had melted and further action was necessary to contain the pressure.

Yesterday, a friend reminded me to keep in mind the experiences of the emergency technicians working at Fukushima now. This engineering student's blog, a very well-written, busy blog which more people should subscribe to, has a very effective post that explains the human factor from an technician's perspective.
As the fires at Unit 4 and other sources increase the radiation levels, the dose rates get so high that workers can only spend short times on the site without getting radiation sickness. Moreover, after a worker does a shift in an extreme radiation area--it might be only 30 minutes or less--and receives a large does, he must allow his body to heal before being re-exposed to radiation. I don't know how long, but think in terms of how long it takes to recover from a burn, so several days to a couple of weeks. This creates a manpower problem very quickly. . . Assuming things continue apace, access will get more and more difficult and it is entirely credible the site will have to be essentially abandoned to run its course for several weeks.
They will literally run out of bodies.
From Justin Elliott at Salon, "What the media missed about the nuclear lobby:"

The Nuclear Energy Institute is a Washington-based trade group that has been widely quoted in the press -- including Salon -- in recent days as representing the American nuclear industry. What media reports haven't mentioned is that NEI is actually an international organization that serves several Japanese member corporations, including the very company whose reactors are at the center of the crisis: Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO).
According to the trade group's 2010 "governance roster," TEPCO is one of about 350 member organizations, along with the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, and other Japanese energy interests....NEI has at times given overly sunny takes on what is happening. Early on in the crisis, for example, NEI distributed to reporters a document from the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (an NEI member) that claimed there was "no danger of the nuclear fuel being exposed" at Fukushima Daiichi plant. That turned out not to be true. An NEI spokesman also argued on Sunday that Americans should be "reassured" by what is happening because lessons will be learned in Japan.
Friends of the Earth has compiled a list of experts to contact about the disaster, and their news is not good for the nuclear industry--or, more accurately, the industry's future victims, in America. Just for starters, the fox is guarding the henhouse and writing the PR about it:
The U.S. makes widespread use of the same aging reactors that are in crisis in Japan. Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi 1 site are General Electric Mark I Boiling Water Reactors, including Unit 1, which suffered an explosion that destroyed part of its containment building on Saturday, and Unit 3, which uses plutonium-based MOX fuel and has been the subject of major efforts to cool the reactor.
Michael Mariotte, executive director and the chief spokesperson for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said: “Nearly one out of five -- 23 – of the operating reactors in the U.S. use the GE Mark I design. All but two of these began commercial operation between 1971 and 1976. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved 20-year license extensions for 18 of these aging GE Mark I reactors. Two applications are currently under review; three reactors have not filed for license renewal. When the reactor designs are the same, and the reactor’s ages are the same, comparisons seem more than appropriate -- indeed, it would be irresponsible not to understand what lessons may be learned from the Japanese experience that would apply to so many aging U.S. reactors that are still in use.” has republished an article by Debora MacKenzie at New Scientist describing the health effects of crisis-level nuclear radiation levels. Radiation poisoning isn't pretty--survivable or not.
Radiation damages DNA, especially as it assembles in dividing cells. That means tissues which contain many dividing cells, such as the gut lining, skin and bone marrow, are most at risk of damage. High enough doses also damage brain cells and such doses are invariably fatal. Less severe damage can be treated, however. Gut damage disturbs fluid balance and can lead to blood infection; marrow damage means no blood cells are produced for clotting and fighting infection. If those problems can be managed, people can be kept alive long enough for gut and marrow to regenerate. A cloned human hormone that boosts white blood cell production sometimes helps; there is little else.
The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. However, so far it seems more likely to resemble the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 which, like Fukushima, lost coolant and had a partial meltdown.
So far, the release of radioactivity at Fukushima appears to be closer to what happened at TMI than at Chernobyl. The huge plume of smoke from Chernobyl spread radiation over most of Europe and forced evacuation within a 30-kilometre radius. The gases that escaped TMI, in contrast, might have travelled as far as New York state, but most stayed within 15 kilometres of the plant.
...So, either Chernobyl or TMI. Those are the choices we currently face. It's time to change the range.

Some information for Twitter users:
Standing out from the crowd is Twitter user @shioyama, and the rest of the the outstanding Global Voices team. They have set up a Japan earthquake hub and post updates frequently. Time Out Tokyo, besides posting frequent updates to Twitter (@TimeOutTokyo), has a number of live reports, safety information and photographs on their website.
Blogger Michael Gakuran (@gakuranman) is posting updates on his blog ( ), including links to blackout schedules and other essential notifications. Similarly, Marcy Sensei (@marcysensei) is updating her feed with translations. Roy Berman (aka @mutantfroginc) has a good stream of updates, as well as amazingly informative information on his blog, including an explanation of who can and cannot give blood in Japan.
Individuals who speak languages other than English or Japanese can visit where you can monitor Twitter updates in a wide range of languages including Spanish, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and many more.
There is also a bot collating information from government sources (@earthquake_jp), which we all pray soon remains forever silent.

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