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Radiation Spread Seen; Frantic Repairs Go On

David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, New York Times
…. another day of frantic efforts to cool nuclear fuel in the stricken reactors and the plant’s spent-fuel pools resulted in little or no progress, according to United States government officials.

Japanese officials said they would continue those efforts, but were also racing to restore electric power to the site to get equipment going again, leaving open the question of why that effort did not begin days ago, at the first signs that the critical backup cooling systems for the reactors had failed.
(17 March 2011)

The Crisis in Japan: A Hunger for Information

John Bussey, Wall Street Journal
the crisis at Fukushima has been aggravated by the spare, often contradictory information issued by the government and Tepco, revealing what at times appears to be their own uncertainty about what’s happening in the reactors.

Tuesday was a case in point. As more explosions reverberated at the facility and radiation levels spiked in venues far from Fukushima, the government sought to reassure the public that health was not threatened. But actions spoke otherwise: Officials evacuated workers from the plant and expanded an exclusion zone around the dying reactors to 30 kilometers, helpfully advising homeowners trapped by wind-borne radioactivity to “please keep the windows shut. If you are hanging up your laundry, please do it indoors.”

Tepco was particularly short on facts and long on deflection. A public hungry for information and guidance was often told: “We are still investigating the matter.”
(17 March 2011)

Plant’s Design, Safety Record Are Under Scrutiny

Norihiko Shirouzu and Rebecca Smith, Wall Street Journal
The design and safety record of the damaged power plant at the center of Japan’s nuclear crisis are coming under scrutiny, even as authorities continue to struggle to keep its overheating reactors under control.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, where workers are battling to prevent dangerous releases of radioactive material, is Japan’s oldest, with six reactors that all came online in the 1970s. The boiling-water reactors—an older nuclear technology—are housed in six square buildings lining a stretch of coast in northeastern Japan, giving the plant access to seawater if needed and making possible transporting heavy equipment by ship.

The plant was central to a falsified-records scandal a decade ago that led its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, to briefly shut down all its plants and led to the departure of a number of senior executives. Nuclear experts say that led to a number of disclosures of previously unreported problems at Fukushima Daiichi.
(16 March 2011)

Japan nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate
George Monbiot, Guardian
The nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan is bad enough; the nuclear disaster unfolding in China could be even worse.

“What disaster?”, you may ask. The decision taken today by the Chinese government to suspend approval of new atomic power plants. If this suspension were to become permanent, the power those plants would have produced is likely to be replaced by burning coal. While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.

Before I go any further, and I’m misinterpreted for the thousandth time, let me spell out once again what my position is. I have not gone nuclear. But, as long as the following four conditions are met, I will no longer oppose atomic energy.

  1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option

  2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried
  3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay
  4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes

To these I’ll belatedly add a fifth, which should have been there all along: no plants should be built in fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts …

I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green: all experience hath shown that, in most countries, the companies running it are a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags, whose business originated as a by-product of nuclear weapons manufacture. But, sound as the roots of the anti-nuclear movement are, we cannot allow historical sentiment to shield us from the bigger picture. Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally.
(16 March 2011)
Support for nuclear from an unexpected quarter. -BA

From Hiroshima to Fukushima

Jonathan Schell, The Nation
… In part because the earthquake had just lowered the level of the land by two feet, the wave rolled as far as six miles inland, killing thousands of people. In a stupefying demonstration of its power, as the New York Times has reported, the earthquake moved parts of Japan thirteen feet eastward, slightly shifted the earth’s axis and actually shortened each day that passes on earth, if only infinitesimally (by 1.8 milliseconds).

But this was not all. Another shock soon followed. Succumbing to the one-two punch of the earthquake and the tsunami, eleven of Japan’s fifty-four nuclear power reactors were shut down. At this writing, three of them have lost coolant to their cores and have experienced partial meltdowns.

… Until the human species stepped in, there was no appreciable release of atomic energy from nuclear fission or fusion on earth. It took human hands to introduce it into the midst of terrestrial affairs.

… The long, checkered career of nuclear power began. The promise at first seemed great, but the problems cropped up immediately. The distinction between Disney’s smiling, friendly atom and the frowning, hostile one kept breaking down. In the first place, the technology of nuclear power proved to be an open spigot for the spread of technology that also served the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the second place, the requirement of burying nuclear waste for the tens of thousands of years it takes for its radioactive materials to decline to levels deemed safe mocked the meager ingenuity and constancy of a species whose entire recorded history amounts only to some 6,000 years. Finally, the technology of nuclear power itself kept breaking down and bringing or threatening disaster, as is now occurring in Japan.

The chain of events at the reactors now running out of control provides a case history of the underlying mismatch between human nature and the force we imagine we can control. Nuclear power is a complex, high technology. But the things that endemically malfunction are of a humble kind. The art of nuclear power is to boil water with the incredible heat generated by a nuclear chain reaction. But such temperatures necessitate continuous cooling. Cooling requires pumps. Pumps require conventional power. These are the things that habitually go wrong—and have gone wrong in Japan. A backup generator shuts down. A battery runs out. The pump grinds to a halt. You might suppose that it is easy to pump water into a big container, and that is usually true, but the best-laid plans go awry from time to time. Sometimes the problem is a tsunami, and sometimes it is an operator asleep at the switch. These predictable and unpredictable failings affect every stage of the operation. For instance, in Japan, the nuclear power industry has a record of garden-variety cover-ups, ducking safety regulations, hiding safety violations and other problems. But which large bureaucratic organization does not? And if these happen in Japan, as orderly and efficient a country as exists on earth, in which country will they not? When the bureaucracy is the parking violations bureau or the sanitation department, ordinary mistakes lead to ordinary mishaps. But when the basic power of the universe is involved, they court catastrophe.

The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax. It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom.

Jonathan Schell is the Doris Shaffer Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at Yale. He is the author of The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People, an analysis of people power, and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.
(15 March 2011)