Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

“Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.” — C. Montgomery Burns

with 5 comments

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.)



Written by unitedcats

March 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Long-time reader here, and as a current resident of Tokyo, I must say I much prefer when the scary things with potentially dire and amorphously unclear consequences that you write about on your blog are happening in some other, far-off place.

    It finally got to sinking in today. I think many of us, myself included, started thinking of the radiation in terms of the way we think of most disasters: Something that suddenly happens to you. Or, something that doesn’t. You get hit by that bus. Or you don’t. The earth shakes and the building collapses on you. Or it doesn’t.

    Those are the kind of threats that our mammalian brains- particularly when injected with some degree of fear- are properly wired to understand: The predator eats you, or you get away.

    We’ve all been waiting for some catacylsmic plume of radiation smoke that’ll force us to abandon the city en masse like we’re in a Michael Bay film, or else it’ll all blow over. Whereas the more mundane and difficult to wrap your head around situation that seems more likely is, we get exposed to incrementally more radiation than average, from sources we gradually become more clear about, and that increase is significant vs. the norm but still well within safe levels, but there’s a chance that it’ll be outside those levels.

    Well, that doesn’t make for a very sensational picture anyway- Pripyat is much more fearfully photogenic in this regard. Also, if you’d find it useful you’re welcome to use this photo of me in my apocalypse garb in Tokyo, taken last week.


    March 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm

  2. The authorities are not being truthful about the radiation readings and their affects. As an example, a speck of plutonium smaller than you can see, WILL give you cancer, if you inhale or ingest it. Yet this same speck of plutonium will give you a ‘safe’ radiation reading from a few feet away.
    A non-technical public is easily misled by the media and government. Too bad the results of this will be fatal for so many people. I guess the authorities hope these downstream deaths are hidden over time.

    People of Japan, you owe it to your families to question the propaganda. Major business forces want you to stay ignorant, their government stooges work for them, not you.


    March 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm

  3. The severity of Japan’s nuclear disaster cannot be overstated, of course, but it took a 9.0 magnitude quake and a tsunami to cause it. And even with that, the plant stood up amazingly well.

    Personally I’m of the opinion that nuclear power is safe and should be widely used. Maybe I drank the Kool-Aid because I was married to a nuclear power plant engineer (former nuclear sub engineer) for several years, but so be it.

    Ask your engineer friend about dry cask storage of nuclear waste. Those rods don’t sit in swimming pools forever. I do oppose shipping those casks clear across the country to Yucca Mountain, however. It’s cheaper and safer to just store them on site, since a defunct nuke station will never be used for anything else anyway.

    I came across a radiation dose chart that helps put the whole dosage/exposure thing into perspective. (Hope I can use HTML here.)


    March 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    • Hmm, did you realize the borders on your pictures change color as you scroll up and down? Weird. And cool.


      March 28, 2011 at 12:19 am

  4. As to storage of used fissionables, the USA has amounts of that suitable to changing one’s complexion to a ghastly hue. Only 14% is in dry storage – the usual resistance to spending money presumably gumming up the works.
    And like many others, I’ve had my stories on the Gulf and on the nukes – just finished one in fact.
    Physicist Dr. John v. Kampen ‘does disaster analysis’ on a routine basis and has on this as well though some of my contacts think the worst case scenario should be followed regard : preventative evacuation.
    Plus Crisis Maven showed up from Germany, where anti nuke sentiment has snowballed. See the Netvibes RSS link in my sidebar for updates.
    The Energy and Uranium files in my Topical Index have been receiving a bit of a workout to update them to changed circumstances.


    March 30, 2011 at 1:44 pm

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