Monday 2 September 2013

Fukishima crisis far, far more important than Syria

As much as national pride and journalistic obsession with the Westminster village have promoted Syria sotries to the exclusion of all else, there is another far more important story. Sad as it is to say that mass murder and genocide in Syria is not top of the agenda, this is only becuase of a far more worrying situation in Japan. I started reading and watching more about Fukusima during my travels this summer and have become increasingly concerend by the events now taking place.

For those not up to speed, very little has been done since the 2011 earthquake and multiple meltdown. At least 2 of the 3 cores suffered total meltdown and a storage unit for spent fuel rods and plutonium used for nuclear weapons making remains in a critical condidtion. The Japanese government has done little to help and has left everything to Tepco to sort out until some announcements last week. The wider world, including Russia who have their Chernobyl experience, have been ignored and not called to the site. To try and cool the plant millions of gallons of water have been pumped in and used in a recycling system, this has resulted in the site being full of hastily made water tanks, now containing millions of gallons of highly contaminated water. This is the source of many of the leaks which you may have read about in recent weeks.

What they do not say is there is NO long-term plan for this water, which will be poisonous for eons, except to eventually drop it into the Pacific Ocean. Not only that, but in the case of another earthquake, this jerry-rigged mess will be unable to withstand any major incident, irradiating the whole area and making the rest of the site untreatable. In a good scenario, the leaks are contained and a slow rate of release established that will be diluted enough in the pacific to make only small long-term damage.

But then the next step is trying to remove the fuel rods from Unit 4. This is a highly technical piece of work that has to be done under the most exacting standards. Any break of a rod, and there could be a re-start of the chain reaction and a huge release of radiation, far more toxic than anything yet seen. Due to the damage at the site and difficult working conditions, it will be a miracle (built on the back of superhero men and women working on the project)to avoid this and prevent yet more massive pollution. Even if the cooling water can be maintained to stop chain reactions, the water will become ever more irradiated, creating more problems for the future.

Finally, where are the molten cores? Nobody knows what has happened to the molten cores since the explosion. Whilst wild claims of china syndrome feel extreme it is hard to know in a situation never faced before. Will the cores melt into the earth polluting groundwater with unimaginable levels of radiation for eons? Will they cool on touch water and just release streams of irradiated steam for a few years? Will somehow they solidify? Unlike Chernoblyl the cores are made of MOX fuel, far more dangerous and unstable than those of the Russian disaster which was contained fairly rapidly. There is no insight into where the cores are or there state. In the best case, Fukushima will poison Northern Japan and the Pacific, maybe even the northern hemisphere for decades until containment. In the very worst case, the situation can deteriorate to a situation that could irradiate much of the world and lead to huge cancers throughout all life.

Yet we obsesses with Syria and allow the Japanese Government and media to lead us astray as to the events at Fukushima. hopefully, with the resources of the world focused on the site and massive investment, the best outcome can be achieved. At the moment this seems very unlikely.


Tim Worstall said...

Has this blog been hijacked by Caroline Lucas or something?

You get the radioactivity out of the water by filtering it (more accurately, ion exchange systems).

They're actually doing this as well: that's why the amount of water isn't rising exponentially.

You end up with a few grammes, tens of grammes, of radioactive particles from each tonne of water. Which you then go and store in the same place you keep your old fuel rods.

Breaking a fuel rod would not lead to the reaction restarting. That's simply nonsense. You don't want it to happen, that's certainly true. But you're not about to get something going critical just because a fuel rod breaks.

And the molten cores? They're not molten any more. They're a solid lump of very radioactive metal and that's it. It's not gone anywhere either. It's a solid lump at the bottom of the primary containment vessel. Do note that the primary containment was NOT breached. The secondary one was, in that hydrogen explosion. But not the primary.

Finally, you've got MOX the wrong way around. You don't use MOX to make nuclear weapons. It's the other way around. You turn nuclear weapons into MOX to get rid of the nuclear weapons.

And finally finally, even if all of your fears were true there still isn't particularly a problem. There's just not enough radiation there to do any great damage once it's been diluted into the ocean. We've actually had something far worse than this. Chernobyl, and the outcome of that simply wasn't the disaster some seem to think. Under 100 deaths and with perhaps 4,000 expected (and that's a high estimate). Which is less than dies from the coal industry each month.

DtP said...

Defo. Don't buy tuna at all!

I sign up for this newsletter and whilst it's a bit tin foil hatty - useful for cooking, they've been banging on about the impending cluster fuck for quite some time. It really is kinda terrifying!

Nick Drew said...

Let's assume TW is correct

there is still the substantial issue for UK of the impact on world energy markets

whatever the greens dream about wind etc, there is no scenario in which we are not heavily dependent on gas for a good couple of decades min

any extra calls on gas on a sustained basis are not helpful

we all know what needs to be done (!) and perhaps the degree of urgency has moved up a notch

CityUnslicker said...

Tim - they are hardly doing any water processing at all - look at the site. It's is leaking all over the shop and this bit at least we hear.

I am really pleased if you can point me to some evidence that we know the cores are not free of all containment - nothing I have seen has provved this, on the contrarty most yank scientists seem to say that they could well have broken all the containment which is why the groundwater keeps leaking despite the defences being built up.

CityUnslicker said...

I did get MOX the wrong way round though! Still the point stands, its far worse stuff to be dealing with than they had at Chernobyl. do you really think Chernobyl was worse than Fukushima - It was one reactor, not 4, the Russians dealt with it quickly (at high human cost). The japanese have been far more circumspect. Plus fukushima will always be on a fault line, where as chernobyl is not.

Anonymous said...

How are we spelling it nowadays?

"Fukishima" or "Fukushima"?

Being a potty mouth, I vastly prefer the last spelling/pronunciation.

hovis said...

Nothing to see here, move along. The experts at TEPCO have been handling this in accordance with the strictest regulation. They are beyond reproach in their honesty. So dont worry your little heads about it.

Hmm now where have I heard this type of thing before?

Tim Worstall said...

"if you can point me to some evidence that we know the cores are not free of all containment"

Because if the cores were free of containment all those people wandering around the site would be dead.

" they are hardly doing any water processing at all"

They are processing. They're still using water to cool the reactors. There is not ever more water ending up in storage. Thus they are cleaning some of the water they've already used and recycling it back to cool the plant again.

Chernobyl was vastly worse than this. There you had an actual naked core, on fire (the graphite in it) spewing radioactive poisons into the atmosphere.

There's much more fuel (10 x) at Fukushima, this is true. But radiation release is an order of magnitude lower than Chernobyl.

Demetrius said...

Considering that California has been where so many disaster movies were made it is ironic that there could be a real disaster heading towards it.

AnonAndOn said...

Whether cores are/are not free of containment it seems that those wandering around might be dead. Just not as instantaeously as Tim Worstall would like.

"Last week the plant's operator reported radioactive water had leaked from a storage tank into the ground.

It now says readings taken near the leaking tank on Saturday showed radiation was high enough to prove lethal within four hours of exposure."

CityUnslicker said...

I am with you Tim, so you agree, we are unsure as to where the cores are or what they are doing. Serious.

To date you are right too, there has been fare less emission that he actual fire at Chernobyl. But there is 10x more fuel and a long, long way to go with this.

That is why I am worried. Plus the lies such the the crap about a cold shutdown that were out our last year. They are not even sure where the cores are, let alone performing a closed shutdown.

As I said, I am sure this situation can be controlled. I am equally sure that this is not the case and the downside risks to this are of far worse consequence than the Syrian civial war, sad as it is to make comparisons.

Timbo614 said...

Sorry, other Tim, I am not re-assured at all. A line from the last report I read was something like "Tepco thought the radiation was 100[bq?]/Hour. When in fact it was only that low because that was the limit of what the measuring device would report... Turned out to be 1800[bq?]/ hour. Supposedly enough to kill you in four hours (instantly or not I don't know). That type of thing does not inspire confidence!

I'm with CU, and with the Germans and their reaction(no pun) - The world is not paying enough attention to this disaster for that is what it still is. Two and a half years later. They seem to be doing the same things they were doing 2 and a half weeks later :(

I can, sort of, imagine the magnitude of the problems they face on a daily basis. Four cores in trouble, and HUGE operating site, a HUGELY complex structure that is partially destroyed. Everything they touch liable to be broken, become broken, or cause other parts to become broken or active when they are not desired active. I'm not going to guess any more than that.

If I could see evidence that, while fire fighting, Tepco were building some devices/machines/pods/robots using the very latest in technology and machinery and AI technique, I mean they do have advanced robot know-how in Japan... I might be somewhat assured that they were on the right path... but I see nothing like that being planned or happening. Just incredibly inept measuring, tank building, re-purposing even! And "spray more water on it" are they waiting for the next Fukushima 50?. The 50 may be reluctant to turn up.

No I am not reassured. World wide someone, nay, everyone in technology and engineering should be thinking and working on this problem. Not just for Fukushima, but for NEXT TIME.

Blue Eyes said...

When Chernobyl went up, people mapped the spread of the radiation over Western Europe. There is a map somewhere. Thanks to prevailing winds, there was a drift westwards, then the radiation did a double-back before heading out again to the Atlantic. The place that got a bigger dose than anywhere else thanks to this loop was ...

... drumroll ...


Blue Eyes said...

Also, on a serious note, why is this any more relevant to me than Syria is? I can't quite work myself up to care about either.

Obviously, I would prefer there not to be gazillions of dead Japanese or Syrians as a result of either, but what am I supposed to do about either?

Are you perhaps suggesting that we threaten Japan with rockets until they pour some concrete over FS?

Elby the Beserk said...

Thanks Mr. Worstall. Now, as you know SO much, how the **** do you filter the Pacific Ocean?

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Calm down, Elby, you don't need to filter the Pacific Ocean - it's like, sort of, you know, BIG.

Dilution - do the maths.

rwendland said...

Tim W, the problem is that there is a considerable flow of groundwater under the reactor, from the nearby hills to the sea. About 400 tons of water per day is entering the reactor building through cracks - a lot of the reactor structure is underground - and exiting contaminated before flowing on into the sea. Presumably this can continue for decades - a lot of the water in the tanks is from trying to prevent the worst of this flow getting to the sea.

I've not seen the radiological inventory calculations, but I presume there is a significant risk to coastal fishing areas, if not the Pacific Ocean, as the Japanese govt is seriously considering creating an underground ice wall around the 4 reactors to stop this groundwater flow through the reactor buildings. The ice wall would be nearly a mile long, and very expensive.

There is an article in the MIT Technology Review about it, and Nat Geo has another good article.

The problem is compounded by the likelihood that part/particles of the molten cores have exited the pressure vessels, either with the cooling water leaking or bits of the core escaping through the control rod entry paths which are unfortunately in the bottom of the pressure vessel in this BWR design, and the seals have likely failed. (I've not read anything technical about Fukushima for 18 months, so I might be out of date on this.)

Timbo614 said...

@YW Currents dear boy, currents. As you should know given your nickname. It won't disperse evenly, eventually maybe, even though it is big pond, there will initially be pockets of concentrated pollution.

rwendland said...

And Tim W, you are quite wrong claiming "the primary containment was NOT breached. The secondary one was, in that hydrogen explosion. But not the primary."

In a simplistic analysis, if the primary containment held, it would not matter that the secondary failed, as the radioactive material would be safely held within the primary. And not strewn allover the site and blown 50km away in the winds, and leaking into the sea, as happened.

Even TEPCO admit this. To quote a 2013 TEPCO Lessons Learnt presentation (page 13):

"Unit 1,2,3 containment were breached by high temperature and pressure resulted from core damage, and radioactive materials were released. Lessons Learned: PCV [primary containment] designed [for] LOCA [loss of coolant accident] cannot withstand core meltdown condition."

NB the containment architecture of a BWR as at Fukushima is rather more complex than that of a the more common and conceptually simple PWR that is most commonly discussed. The notion of primary and secondary containment is sometimes confused in a BWR, and there are water and radioactive steam penetrations through them - the original designers did not much use those terms, preferring drywell, wetwll etc. eg in a BWR radioactive steam exits all containments to go the turbine hall, then returns to the pressure vessel - which was a ready-made path for radioactive water escape at Fukushima.

Bill Quango MP said...

IIR the Russians tried to do the ice thing under Chernobyl but decided against. I believe it was just too technically difficult to do under a collapsing structure. And without Japan's modern know how.

And isn't Chernobyl still a bit of a bodge job, even now?
Dump loads and load of concrete over the whole site and stay away for 1,000 years?

Jer said...

BE said:
"Obviously, I would prefer there not to be gazillions of dead Japanese or Syrians as a result of either, but what am I supposed to do about either?"

There's that, and also the fact that doing something does not always equate to doing good.