Posts Tagged ‘meltdown’
All three were nuclear accidents? True enough. Not what I’m looking for though. The Japanese government report on the Fukushima nuclear accident was released a few days ago. It clearly laid out the cause of the still smouldering Fukushima nuclear disaster: Human error. This is what I was looking for, in both prior nuclear accidents, human error was a huge part of the problem. This isn’t terribly surprising, in numerous industrial accidents human error was a major contributor. The Texas City Disaster. The Piper Alpha Fire. The Exxon Valdez spill. Bhopal. I could go on but I think I made my point, human error is often a major contributory factor in industrial accidents. And that’s being generous I am sure, I’ve yet to find a major industrial accident that didn’t have some component of human error. It’s not surprising. There are so any things that can go wrong with any complex system, some of them unforeseeable, that sooner or later someone is going to make a mistake or mistakes that lead to catastrophe.
I don’t think this is really debatable. Even airliners, where we have spent enormous (and largely successful) efforts to make safe, still sometimes crash. It’s just now been determined that the Air France jet that flew into the Atlantic a few years ago could have recovered had the crew acted correctly. People sometimes make bad calls in a crisis, that’s not ever going to change. The point here is that no matter how well designed something is; no matter how many safeguards, alarms, and back-ups it has; sooner or later someone or someones are going to bypass them all and cause a problem. And this of course applies to nuclear power plants, which are certainly as complicated as airliners. And we now have three “crashed” nuclear power plants, and it is 100% certain it will happen again. No matter how much they learn from Fukushima, it will happen again.
This is a problem. A big problem. A problem the nuclear industry and most of the world’s governments don’t want anyone to know about. It’s a problem because when an airliner crashes, a factory blows up, a ship sinks, etc., the damages are generally local and containable. Chernobyl badly contaminated 1,000 square miles, seriously contaminated thousands more, caused problems thousands of miles away, eventually spreading fallout all over the Northern Hemisphere. There’s every reason to believe that the damage from Fukushima will be at least that extensive. This is serious damage on a global scale from a single industrial accident. When a plane crashes or a factory blows up a few hundred people are killed, but ultimately the damages are limited in geography and over time. The worst fallout (Cesium 137, Strontium 90) from a nuclear accident has a half life of 30 years, which means it might be decades or centuries before the worst contaminated areas are safe again.
Which leads into the second major problem with nuclear accidents. We don’t really know how much damage they cause. Some people say Chernobyl only killed 28 people, most experts put the total at around 10,000. Some experts peg it at over 100,000. And in both of the last estimates, non-fatal cancers are estimated at about ten times the number of fatal cases. Basically one can find “expert opinion” for pretty much any level of death and cancer one wants. How do us worms know? Well, the cigarette industry had no trouble finding “expert opinion” saying cigarettes were more or less harmless for decades after the issue was settled as far as scientists were concerned. The nuclear industry is just as well funded as the cigarette industry, it’s far more difficult to do research on the topic, and it’s very easy to manipulate the data to get any result one wants. And unlike the cigarette industry, the nuclear industry has friends in big government and big military everywhere. In other words, when some government or industry spokesman claims that nuclear energy is “safe,” it should be taken with a large dose of salt.
My only real point here is that the safety of the nuclear industry has been wildly exaggerated, usually by comparing apples to oranges. There isn’t any really comparable industry. What other kind of industrial installation in the worst case scenario can render everything within 15-20 miles uninhabitable for decades, and cause thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of cases of cancer over an entire continent, if not an entire hemisphere? And how close is the gentle reader to the nearest nuclear power plant anyhow?
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I’m not sure who to credit it too, but got it from this fine site. It’s an image from the abandoned town of Prypiat near Chernobyl. I chose it because it is a beautiful and haunting image.)
Well, as was obvious almost immediately, the nuclear power lobby and their supporters went into overdrive to downplay and obfuscate the seriousness of the Fukushima crisis in Japan. No, this isn’t another Chernobyl. And World War Two wasn’t the same as World War One, that doesn’t mean World War Two was no big deal either. I’ve even read commentaries claiming Fukushima “proves” that nuclear power is safe. My jaw drops on that one, the Fukushima crisis isn’t over yet, so how the hell does this prove nuclear power is safe? Until the plant is safely brought back under control, and that may take up to a year, it’s a little premature to claim that this crisis is even over, let alone claim that Fukushima is no big deal.
The biggest lie I see about nuclear accidents is ones revolving around the death toll. By focusing entirely or almost entirely on how many people died, it’s easy to make nuclear power look safe compared to say coal power. There are two things horribly deceptive about this argument. For one thing it relies on the lowest possible estimates for deaths caused by nuclear accidents, often even limiting it to the people directly killed on site! It’s debatable how many people were killed by Chernobyl, maybe a few thousand, maybe many more, but focusing on this single statistic obscures the bigger picture. What about the people who got cancer but didn’t die? What about the hundred thousand people who were rendered homeless by Chernobyl? What about the area the size of Rhode Island (or Lancashire) that was rendered uninhabitable by Chernobyl? And what about the incredible cost of accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl? Can a fire at a coal power plant bankrupt a nation?
And speaking of coal power plants, the claim is often made that we have a choice between coal power plants and nuclear power plants. To say this is oversimplification would be unfair, this is simply regurgitated energy industry propaganda. The energy industry has done a fabulous job convincing people that the only way to provide power in the modern world is giant power plants and their attendant giant electrical grids. Conservation, energy efficiency, distributed power generation, etc. are all simply dismissed as hippie nonsense. If this were really the case, the energy industry wouldn’t need tireless propaganda for their cause, and more importantly, it completely obscures the massive public subsidies that the energy industry has enjoyed for decades. From the Rural Electrification Act to the development of nuclear power itself the energy industry has enjoyed generous public subsidies. Not to mention that the health costs of both coal and nuclear power are simply dumped on the public. Anyone who says coal and nuclear plants and centralized power are the “only option” is missing a big part of the picture.
Then we come to the amazing amount of misinformation spread about radiation itself. Mostly through conflating various types of radiation, and by claiming that “radiation” is normal and that a little bit more won’t hurt. Yes, we live in a world where there is a lot of radiation, it’s unavoidable. What the “it’s all OK” people deliberately ignore or don’t mention is that fallout is not normal. Fallout is radioactive particles that get released into the environment. And yes, the radiation produced by fallout is trivial. What they don’t mention, is that if the fallout gets incorporated into bodily tissue, it is horrifically non-trivial. It’s like if someone was shooting at you with a BB gun, close your eyes and you would be safe. If however they could insert that BB gun inside our body at shoot at point blank range at various organs, the results would not be pretty. This is the difference been the radiation one receives on a plane flight and the radiation one receives by ingesting fallout, same “radiation,” wildly different consequences.
The other way that nuclear industry apologists deliberately understates the risk from fallout is that they make the claim that it’s so widely distributed in the environment that the dose anyone gets is small. While this is sort of true, it completely ignores the way fallout in the environment get concentrated in the food chain. Sure, there’s very little fallout on that grass. Then however the cows eat that grass, and a small amount of radioactive fallout gets concentrated and becomes dangerously radioactive milk or meat. In fact there are all sorts of ways radioactive fallout can get concentrated in the food chain, many of them no doubt as yet unknown. This especially goes with the release of fallout into the sea, this is simply a complete unknown at this point. Don’t worry though, the risk is so small that our government is going to protect us by not even bothering to test for it. Phew, see, no problem.
Which leads to another point. It’s so easy to hide the damage caused by this sort of event. Let’s think about this. Governments and the nuclear industry have incredible incentive to downplay the consequences of Fukushima. Combine this with the fact that the actual risks of this, increased cancer rates in decades to come, are going to be very easy to conceal and obfuscate and deny. Pretty sure any poli-sci freshman can give many reasons why governments lie through their teeth in situations like this. This is just how human institutions work, especially today when the mainstream media is owned lock, stock, and barrel by these very same interests that have reason to lie. Is this proof that they are lying or that the consequences of Fukushima are extremely serious? Of course not, but it’s definitely proof that people need to take government, industry, and media “expert’s” pronouncements of safety with an extremely large dose of salt.
Lastly, a related point that Fukushima illustrates. Nuclear waste. There are decades worth of nuclear waste “stored” at Fukushima, under circumstances that are hardly safe. This is the most toxic waste humans have ever produced, and it’s going to remain dangerous for thousands of years. The fact that the fawning corporate media never even mentions this issue anymore is proof that they are simply shills for big energy and big government. I mean, passing their negative costs onto society is standard procedure for big business, but in this case they are passing the costs on to countless future generations. This should be factored into arguments about how “safe” and “practical” nuclear power is, but instead it simply gets ignored. I’m sorry, but ignoring the nuclear waste issue in the discussion of nuclear power makes about as much sense as ignoring a lump in your breast or testicle in a discussion about your health.
In summary, am I saying that Fukushima is a mind numbing disaster that’s going to kill huge numbers of people and proves that nuclear power is insane? Not at all. I’m saying that Fukushima is a serous disaster of yet untold proportions, and it’s very much proof that the whole issue of nuclear power needs to be publicly debated. And I’m also saying that anyone, government or otherwise, who claims Fukushima is “no big deal” is at best premature in their pronouncement, and at worst simply lying. No one knows the future scope of the Fukushima disaster, especially since the reactors and nuclear waste storage pools won’t be brought under control for months at best. This could still get a lot worse before it gets better. Sadly, I’m betting on worse.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. And yes, I’m kinda skirting the boundaries of copyright law here, but since I’m plugging their show, I hope that in the extremely unlikely event that a CBS corporate copyright attorney sees this blog, they can overlook this copyright violation. At worst, they can tell me to remove the image. Credit and Copyright: CBS. Anyhow, I digress. I chose this image for several reasons, the main one being that it illustrates that the comfortable post World War Two fantasy that most Americans have been living in is rapidly drawing to a close, and Fukushima and its attendant costs and disruptions to the world economy are one of the factors driving this sea change. Wealth can only be funnelled upwards while costs are passed onto the public for so long before the whole rotten edifice collapses of its own weight. And also because it as a really good TV series and I highly recommend it to my readers.)
“Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.” — C. Montgomery Burns
Sigh. Nuclear power. One can read opinion pieces all over the map about nuclear power, from Ann Coulter’s “radiation is good for you” to more sober analysis. Basically, if someone wants to believe this accident is no big deal, there’s plenty on the web to reinforce their beliefs. If one wants to go the other extreme, there’s stuff out there as well. The bottom line is that us sheep will never really know the full story, both because there are so many unknowns that no one knows, and the flood of conflicting opinion and information. However, this doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands in despair, there’s still wiggle room for thoughtful analysis. So, in my usual rough order, my current thinking on this unpleasant situation.
The first thing is that like the gulf oil spill, the powers that be have tremendous incentive to downplay this situation. More incentive really, we are talking about one of the world’s most important centres of finance and industry, not just some gulf coast fishermen and tourist traps. This means that it is a given that governments and the media are going to show a strong “everything’s OK, move along now” bias, they have to. Now this isn’t evidence that things are worse than they say, since they are going to downplay the situation no matter what, it just means that we shouldn’t simply take their word for it that this is no big deal. A codicil to this point is that it’s not over yet. IE, anyone who is now saying, everything’s OK, is considerably jumping the gun. The goddamn damaged nuclear power plants are yet to be brought under control, and the final cost is anyone’s guess, it’s way to early to assess the final impact of this disaster.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there’s no such thing as a “safe” amount of radiation. And by radiation I mean radioactive particulates tossed into the air by fires and explosions at the plants. Fallout basically. This is basically highly toxic dust that remains toxic for decades, though it does get less toxic over time. And unfortunately it is dust that gets concentrated in unpleasant ways in the environment, from animals grazing on radioactive grass to collecting in the ventilation systems of ships and buildings. And if it gets incorporated into an animal’s (or person’s) tissues, it continues to poison them for years or decades. Now maybe only modest amounts of fallout will ultimately be released in this accident, in which case, phew, we dodged a bullet. The point I am making is that pound for pound radioactive fallout is easily the most dangerous pollutant mankind makes. It’s been estimated that about 500 tons of cobalt could be used to make nuclear weapons that could destroy most life on Earth. I’m not saying that’s a possibility, but as a counterpoint to the argument so many people make about how dangerous coal power is as well. Yes, there are terrible costs to coal power, but is there any way to destroy the human race with 500 tons of coal?
So how bad is it? Is there any way for us to know? Well, actions speak louder than words. The US Navy for example is pulling the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out to sea to avoid fallout. And it’s considerably further from the reactors than Tokyo. The fear is that the ship could become permanently contaminated by sucking fallout into its ventilation system. The buildings in Tokyo don’t have the pulling out to sea option, so let’s hope the fallout doesn’t get that bad. It’s bad enough that they warned that Tokyo’s tap water is unsafe for babies to drink. I also find it a little disturbing that they Japanese government dramatically raised the level of radioactive contamination a person must get before decontamination is mandatory. And to me possibly most disturbing at all, a German bond rating company will no longer rate real estate bonds in Tokyo … because it is simply impossible to to assign value to real estate in Tokyo. All of this adds up to … I am not reassured.
A couple of old friends of mine reviewed the videos of the various explosions at the nuclear plant, one of whom whom worked in the nuclear industry his whole life, the other an engineer. The nuclear guy is the guy who pointed out to me that the promise of “clean” nuclear fusion plants is a lie, that a hydrogen fusion plant would have similar if not worse nuclear waste problems than a conventional fission plant. One has to remember that the whole nuclear industry is built on lies and prevarication, but that’s a topic for another post. In any event the nuclear fellow thinks that the biggest explosion was definitely a criticality event, so some sort of partial meltdown at least occurred … and released God knows how much fallout. On the plus side he doesn’t think it poses much danger to North America, but it’s the danger it presents to Tokyo that should concern us all. And again, so far I am not reassured.
Lastly, I should point out something that is also getting short shrift by the media, the nuclear waste issue. When a nuclear plant is refuelled, the old fuel rods are stored on site in what are basically swimming pools. This is because no one has ever figured out a way to properly and permanently store the rods. And these rods are basically just as dangerous used as when brand new, IE they still retain most of their radioactivity. And if not stored properly (say the water drains from the pool) they most certainly can go critical and create huge amounts of fallout. My point here is that decades worth of these used rods are in temporary storage at the plant (not to mention nuclear plants all over the world,) vastly more nuclear material than is inside reactor cores. And unlike reactor cores, there’s no containment vessel around them! This is literally insane, and it’s one of the things the mainstream media has obligingly ignored for the past few decades. We’re passing a terrible problem onto future generations so that we can enjoy the benefits of “clean” nuclear power now. Yeah, coal fired power plants kill a lot of people, but at least when the plant is closed it no longer poses much health risk. The health risked posed by nuclear power will be around for thousands of years, so it’s a little disingenuous to claim nuclear power is safe when it poses a risk of future Chernobyls generations into the future even if every nuclear plant on the planet was closed tomorrow.
I’m not saying that nuclear power is a bad idea, I’m saying that building nuclear power plants (and storing their waste) where they present a danger to great cities is clearly insane. Chernobyl only required evacuating Pripyat, a city of 50,000 people. If Tokyo or other major Japanese cities have to be evacuated, the cost to Japan will be incalculable, and the cost to the world will be non-trivial. I hope nothing of the kind happens, but until the Fukushima plant is safely shut down and brought under control, it’s premature to be claiming that nuclear power is safe. And even when it is, the topic is debatable. “See, it was only a minor disaster after all” isn’t really a very convincing argument.
And speaking of still unfolding world wide disasters, my next post, Libya … where Obama has bravely led Nato crusaders to achieve, well, who knows. The USA has gone from starting wars on false pretexts to just starting the war and hoping to come up with a convincing pretext later. Historically, these sorts of random military adventures don’t go well.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I don’t know who holds the copyright, but I got it from this site. It’s an image of Pripyat, the abandoned city near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. I chose it among millions of Pripyat images on line because of its ominous sombre feel. That’s the power plant in the distance. For a motorcycle tour of the region, click here: KIDDofSPEED.)
Just when I thinks the news can’t get any worse, it does. Actually, I always know things can get worse, I’m just a bit dismayed that my predictions of doom and gloom are bearing fruit from unexpected quarters. And by that I mean the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This is already one of the largest earthquakes in history, and the most destructive earthquake in Japan in nearly a century. This was badly timed to say the least. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and here are a few points of interest, thoughts about the quake, global implications, etc.
First, Japan is an organized an efficiently run country, right, so at least the rescue and rebuilding and all that will go smoothly, and they were well prepared? Well, sort of. My readings have indicated that Japan has one of the world’s best government bureaucracies. And by that I mean like all well run government agencies, they are really good at covering up problems and shifting blame. And they don’t have a good track record for honestly either, especially when it comes to nuclear releases. My point here? Take anything the Japanese government says with a grain of salt. Like any other government when they need to, they will lie. (Not putting them down though, in fact Japan has practised sustainable forestry and agriculture for centuries, nearly 80% of Japan is forested, something no other industrialized country can claim. That’s fodder for an upcoming blog.)
And how the hell did a bunch of nuclear power plants fail? Aren’t they designed to withstand earthquakes? Well, yes. Just not this earthquake. Nuclear power plants are designed to (hopefully) withstand a major quake, like a 7.0 or something. This quake was around 9, one of the largest quakes in history. And the cost to make a nuclear power plant able to withstand a 9.0 magnitude quake would be ridiculous, if it could even be done. Basically by building nuclear plants in Japan they were betting they wouldn’t have a quake like this in the lifetime of the plants. They lost the bet.
So what’s the worst that could happen? Something as bad or nearly as bad as Chernobyl is possible. The fact that they are evacuating huge numbers of people alone says that. Chernobyl killed over a hundred, certainly gave thousands cancer, and likely in the final analysis will have caused hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer. Then there’s the plain economic damage from abandoned cities and towns and lost agricultural land. Yes nuclear fallout is the gift that just keeps on giving. For generations. And this wouldn’t just be confined to Japan. Measurable (and thus cancer causing) fallout could easily reach the USA west coast, I mean, Japan sent balloon bombs to the West coast in World War Two, that’s just the way the wind blows. Sigh. Is this disaster an argument against nuclear power? Yes, yes it is.
Now globally, what are the implications of this earthquake? There’s two areas of concern here. The geophysical and the economic. The geophysical first, could this be a harbinger of things to come? There have been a lot of quakes lately, what’s up with that? Statistically, nothing. There’s big quakes all the time, usually they hit remote areas because most of the world’s population is very concentrated. There’s been a bit of bad luck lately in that some big quakes have struck areas were a lot of people live, but these things happen. Still, humans have made some enormous changes in a very short time geologically speaking in terms of how weight is distributed on the Earth’s surface. Think massive erosion, countless trillions of tons of soil have been eroded off deforested mountains the world over and washed into the oceans. Add to that cubic miles of ice melted from ice caps and glaciers the world over in recent decades. So maybe we are in for more quakes as the earth “settles” so to speak. Global rattling, great.
That’s pretty speculative. The economic news, well, that sucks. Japan is one of the world’s largest economies, so this is going to hurt. Tens of billions of dollars in real damage. Real damage in that real things were destroyed, infrastructure, farms, homes, businesses. Printing money won’t replace these, actual wealth has been destroyed. Then there’s further pressure on already shaky global food supplies. In and of itself this might not be a big deal, but in combination with other economic disruption running through the world today, this quake and tsunami is a body blow the world’s economy didn’t need. And by other economic disruption, I mean events in Libya and the Middle East. Just look at Libya, for one thing their imports and exports have dropped to zero. That’s going to hurt any business that had dealing with Libya. Then there’s refugees flooding into neighbouring countries, they have to be fed and housed. Then there’s the just plain loss of wealth because people in Libya aren’t working. And what’s playing out in Libya is also going on in a half a dozen other countries throughout the Middle East in one fashion or another. Not to mention ongoing war in a few countries, the west is pouring a lot of wealth into Bush’s foreign adventures still.
I wrote most of this last night. This morning I see there’s been another explosion at an afflicted reactor in Japan. And the rebels recaptured a city in Libya. I should mention that at this point, almost no matter what happens in Libya, it’s going to cause global problems for years or decades. If Qaddafi wins, great, Libya is a pariah state with an ongoing insurgency. Yeah, the world needs another one of those. And if Qaddafi loses, rebuilding Libya into a modern state and undoing the damage wrought by the rebellion will take years at best.
Sigh. So since things might get worse before they get better, my next post will be a helpful guide to surviving the coming appocalypse, whatever shape it may take. Suggestions welcome.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, having been created over a century ago. It’s titled “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” and was created by Hokusai. It’s not a tsunami though people often assume that. The reasons I selected it for this post seem pretty self evident to me, so I’ll let people guess. My heart goes out to the people of Japan, I can’t imagine what they are experiencing.)