Saturday, April 2, 2011

Atomic Snowflakes: The Myth Of Safe Nuclear Power Is In Melt Down.

Atomic Snowflakes:  The Myth Of Safe Nuclear Power Is In Melt Down.

“Our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.”
—former NRC commissioner

"The delusional premise behind nuclear energy is that we can create this material and then contain it for the duration of its dangerous phase. For plutonium, that’s 24,000 years, or about 15 times as long as something called civilization has existed. For uranium-235, that’s 700 million years, a time so vast it’s basically forever."

Crack In Concrete Called Source Of Radioactive Water Leaking Into Sea 02 Apr 2011 Highly radioactive water from Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is leaking into the Pacific Ocean from a cracked concrete sump near the No. 2 reactor, an official with the plant's owner said Saturday. Water from the two-meter deep, concrete-lined basin could be seen escaping into the sea through a roughly 20-cm (8-inch) crack, an official the Tokyo Electric Power Company told reporters Saturday afternoon.

Tokyo (CNN) -- Highly radioactive water is leaking into the Pacific Ocean from a crack in a concrete pit outside a crippled reactor at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, an official with the plant's owner said Saturday.

Water from the two-meter deep, concrete-lined basin could be seen escaping into the sea through a roughly 20-cm (8-inch) crack, an official the Tokyo Electric Power Company told reporters Saturday afternoon. But the company could not explain how the water was getting into the sump.

Radiation levels in the pit have been measured over 1,000 millisieverts per hour, which is more than 330 times the dose an average resident of an industrialized country naturally receives in a year. Utility company officials said Saturday that the plan was to to fill the sump with concrete in order to stop the leakage.

The discovery comes after a feverish search in recent days to explain a sharp spike in contamination in seawater measured just off the plant.ns unidentified victims

Officials announced Thursday, based on samples taken the previous afternoon 330 meters (361 yards) off the plant, that seawater showed levels of iodine-131 measuring 4,385 times above the standard and cesium-137 at 527 times beyond normal. Experts say the latter radioactive isotope may be a greater concern, because it persists longer since it takes 30 years to lose half its radiation -- compared to an eight-day half-life for the iodine-131 isotope.

Highly radioactive water has also been detected in several reactors' turbine buildings, nearby tunnels and groundwater in the immediate vicinity.

The area around the No. 2 unit, which also had has been a focus especially since water in the exposed maintenance tunnel leading from its turbine building showed radiation levels more than 100,000 times above typical levels for nuclear coolants.

A two-day project began Saturday to install a camera in that trench in order to help pinpoint potential leaks, a Tokyo Electric official said.

Spraying was also set to continue this weekend of an experimental new material to lock in radioactive material in and around the nuclear complex -- so that it doesn't seep further into the air, water or ground.

Crews have dispersed about 2,000 liters (more than 500 gallons) of synthetic resin in a 500-square meter locale, according to Tokyo Electric. The aim is to hold the released radioactivity on the ground, so it can't interfere with the restoration of the cooling systems aimed at preventing the overheating of nuclear fuel rods in reactors and spent fuel pools at the plant.

"You spray it to hold down the loose contamination, and it acts like a super glue," said Nolan Hertel, a radiation engineering expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "You don't want radiaoactive materials that are loose to get away."

Meanwhile, Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's nuclear safety agency said there is a plan to inject hydrogen into the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reactors.

While there have been no alarms sounded recently about rising pressure levels, this initiative aims to curb the prospect of an explosion caused by a hydrogen building -- something that had happened, weeks ago, at all three of those reactors.

Still, this initiative as well as the continued injection of tons of waters into reactor cores and spent nuclear fuel pools shows that the race to prevent further explosions or widespread releases of radiation into the atmosphere remains far from over.
All these efforts come just over three weeks after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck northeast Japan, effectively wiping out some communities and leading to the deaths of at least 11,800 people, according to Japan's National Police Agency.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant was hit hard in the disaster, especially after its primary and back-up systems to cool nuclear fuel in its six reactors and their respective spent nuclear fuel pools failed. Since then, there has been a multifaceted and at times problematic race to prevent explosions (three took place in the days immediately after March 11), the overheating of nuclear fuel and the resulting release of radioactive material into the air, soil and water.

Concerns seem to have abated somewhat, by Saturday, about the airborne radiation that led to the ordered evacuation of 78,000 people, with another 62,000 living within 20-to-30 kilometers being told to stay indoors. An official with the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the power plant, said early Saturday that data from eight new monitoring posts around the plant showed that airborne radiation levels had stabilized, at between .390 and .0019 millisieverts per hour.

On Saturday -- after a stop in Rikuzentakata, in Iwate prefecture -- Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan went to Hironocho, a village in Fukushima prefecture that has served as the operations center for the nuclear crisis effort. The trip, described by the prime minister's office as aimed at boosting morale among utility company workers and soldiers involved in the effort, put Kan on the edge of the 20-kilometer evacuation zone.
"I appreciate your significant contributions in fighting the invisible enemies in this battle, which will determine the fate of Japan," Kan said at J-Village, a soccer complex that has become a staging area for the Fukushima Daiichi operation.

CNN's Yoko Wakatsuki, Junko Ogura, Rich Phillips, Midori Nakata and Susan Olson contributed to this report.

"The more water they add, they more problems they are generating," Mr. Sato said. "It's just a matter of time before the leaks into the ocean grow."

“Fukushima Disaster Worse Than Chernobyl”

Japan Pays 'Suicide Squads' Fortunes To Work In Stricken Nuclear Plant As 'Battle Is Lost For Reactor Two' --Four reactors at stricken plant to be decommissioned --Subcontractors offered £760 a day - 20 times going rate - to brave radiation levels but some refuse --One expert who designed reactor says race to save reactor two is 'lost' --Radiation levels in sea water 3,335 times higher than normal --Readings are almost three times worse than last week --Unmanned drone photographs plant from the air amid health fear for pilots 30 Mar 2011 Workers at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant are being paid vast sums of money to brave high radiation levels - as experts warn that the race to save the facility has been lost. Subcontractors are reportedly being offered up to 100,000 yen a day (£760) - 20 times the going rate - but some are still refusing the dangerous work. Radiation levels are still extremely high at the plant, with water around the reactors emitting a highly dangerous 1,000 millisieverts per hour.

Japan Plans To Bail Out Stricken Nuclear Plant 01 Apr 2011 Japan plans to take control of Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of the country's stricken nuclear plant, in the face of mounting public concerns over the crisis and a huge potential compensation bill, a newspaper reported on Friday. Shares of the company, also known as TEPCO, fell as much as 10 percent after the Mainichi newspaper said the government plans to inject public funds into the firm, although it is unlikely to take more than a 50 percent stake.
One Of World's Largest Concrete Pumps Headed From U.S. To Japan
By Rich Phillips, CNN

April 2, 2011 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)


·         A 190,000-pound truck pump is now in South Carolina, being prepped to fly out of Atlanta

·         It had been at a mixed oxide fuel plant site in southeast Georgia

·         A contractor says the truck's first priority will be to supply water to keep nuclear fuel cool

·         Similar pumps were used in Chernobyl, which was eventually encased in concrete

Atlanta (CNN) -- One of the world's largest concrete pumps is being readied to get on a massive cargo plane and head to Japan, all part of the effort to address the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The 190,000-pound truck pump was moved off a job on the Savannah River on Wednesday and, two days later, was in Hanahan, South Carolina. Once preparations are complete, it will head about 7,000 miles toward Asia aboard a Russian Antonov 225 cargo plane, which is considered among the world's biggest aircrafts.

The U.S. Department of Energy had been using the big pumper at a mixed oxide fuel plant construction site in southeastern Georgia. Eventually, nuclear waste is to be disposed of here.

But the decision was made to transfer it to Japan -- along with several other such large pumps, from around the world -- in order to deal with a disaster that has been brewing since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc at the plant and stoked fears about massive releases of radiation.

"I use the pump every day at the river site, but they're trying to avert a situation that worsens each day," said Jerry Ashmore, the owner of Ashmore Concrete Contractors that supplies concrete for the Savannah River facility.

"They need all this equipment. They need help."

Company officials say the prep work should be done by this weekend. Then, Georgia's transportation department must sign off on necessary highway and bridge permits, which are required due to the pumper truck's immensity. Eventually, it will be driven south to Atlanta, to be ideally flown out of the country by next Friday.

Ashmore didn't have all the details about how the concrete pump will be used once it gets to Japan, though he understood its first mission will be to pump water into the stricken facility's reactors and spent nuclear fuel pools to prevent overheating and the further emission of radioactive material.

"I understand it will be used to pump water into the reactor and later they can use it for concrete operations that need to be done," said Ashmore.

The big pump, one of a handful of such trucks built by the the German company Putzmeister, appears to be tailor-made for this type of project -- especially in a radioactive environment.

Its 70-meter boom can be controlled remotely, which should allow it to disperse cooling water in pinpointed locations over a large distance, say experts. Typically trucks this massive are used in large projects using concrete, such as the construction of bridges or high-rise buildings.

According to Putzmeister's website, the company has already re-directed a truck-mounted concrete pump from an unknown location in Southeast Asia to head to the Fukushima Daiichi site, which is 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
Another smaller Putzmeister pumper, currently in Los Angeles, is also being readied to fly to Japan.

This is not the first time the German company's large concrete pumps have been utilized to help address a nuclear crisis.

In 1986, 11 Putzmeister concrete pumps were used after the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. The reactors' core were encased in massive amounts of concrete, to prevent the further release of any more radiation.


 Unpacking for a Disaster: What You Need to Survive the Unexpected
by Rebecca Solnit l Tom Dispatch

The first American responses to the triple calamity in Japan were deeply empathetic and then, as news of the Fukushima nuclear complex’s leaking radiation spread, a lot of people began to freak out about their own safety, and pretty soon you couldn’t find potassium iodide pills anywhere in San Francisco. 

You couldn’t even -- so a friend tells me -- find them in Brooklyn. 

The catastrophes were in Japan and remain that country’s tragedy, so we need to keep our own anxieties in check. Or harness them to make constructive changes in preparation for our own future disasters (without losing our compassion for those killed, orphaned, widowed, displaced -- and contaminated -- in northeastern Japan). But last week saw a deluge of bad information and free-floating fear in this country.

Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, The Earthquake Kit

Somewhere, someone should write about the official euphemisms that accompany disasters.  The roiling set of problems at the Fukushima nuclear complex seems only to grow as one unprecedented situation after another arises, including a possible massive build-up of salt -- 99,000 pounds are estimated to have accumulated in reactors 2 and 3 -- from sea water pumped into the damaged reactors to cool them.  Salt can encrust uranium fuel rods and heat them up dangerously. In the meantime, the “mox” fuel (which contains highly toxic plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years) in reactor 3 now seems to be leaking and venting.  The release of mox fuel into the environment represents a situation with which the nuclear industry has little experience.  Fears are rising that there could be "a crack or a hole in the reactor core's stainless steel chamber or in the spent fuel pool that's contained by a massive concrete container," which could prove devastating.  And that’s just to begin to lay out the problems at the complex itself, which are predicted to go on for "weeks, if not months."

Meanwhile, the tap water of Tokyo, with radiation levels high enough several days ago to be considered a danger to infants, got much attention until it dropped back into a more normal range.  Some other measurements have been at least as eye-opening.  These would include radiation levels 1,600 times higher than normal taken days ago about 12 miles from the plant and modestly elevated ones 74 miles away, as well as a recent spike in levels of iodine to 1,850 times the legal limit in adjacent sea waters, and water leaking into a plant turbine room registering levels 10,000 times more than normal.  One thing you can undoubtedly count on: no one’s going to be eating spinach, found not just to have traces of Iodine-131 (half-life 8 days), but of cesium-134 (half-life 30 years), produced anywhere near Fukushima for a while. 

And as for those euphemisms, on Friday the Japanese government widened the evacuation area around the plants from a mandatory 12 miles to a “voluntary” 19 miles.  (Previously, residents in the 12 to 19 mile zone were simply encouraged to stay indoors.)  According to the Guardian, “The government's chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, said 130,000 residents in the area had been encouraged to leave to improve their quality of life, not because their health was at risk.” 

Quality of life?  The official explanation for such a euphemism would undoubtedly be to “prevent panic.”  But let Rebecca Solnit -- whose book on disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, is already a classic -- explain who really tends to panic in disasters.  (Simple answer: governments, not citizens.)  Last Sunday, TomDispatch published “The Butterfly and the Boiling Point,” the first part of her charting of “the winds of change” this year. This is part two, and just imagine, 2011 isn’t three months old yet!  Tom

Unpacking for a Disaster: What You Need
to Survive the Unexpected

by Rebecca Solnit

Bogus maps of radiation clouds heading our way began circulating, along with a lot of junk science, and all kinds of overwrought fears. Crackpots and quacks in Internet postings, as well as a popular science writer in Newsweek magazine, predicted imminent earthquakes in California, with no grounds whatsoever, or with distorted scientific data. Too many of us combined a reasonable distrust of the authorities with a poor understanding of the science and the situation, starting with the fact that Japan is really, really far away from California, let alone Park Slope.

The great Sendai earthquake of March 10th should, however, teach us that the unexpected does happen, and there’s no time to prepare for it -- except beforehand. And what you do beforehand matters immensely. Japan was both impressively prepared and shockingly unprepared.

The country was indeed ready for a major earthquake, even a massive not once-in-a-century but once-in-a-millennium monster.  Their earthquake drills and building codes are superb and -- as far as I can tell (reporting has been anything but clear on this) -- the temblor itself did remarkably little structural damage.

The country was far less prepared for a tsunami that would breach every protective sea wall and obliterate huge swaths of coastal habitat, even though sirens and evacuation plans went into effect almost instantly. It was even less prepared for the nuclear reactor disaster that quickly overshadowed everything else.   

What Not to Bring

I live in earthquake country, so I’ve been told most of my life that I must have an earthquake kit. Almost anyone anywhere would benefit from having an emergency kit on hand: the usual flashlight, blanket, coins for pay phones (cell phones and cell-phone service die quick in disaster), small bills, potable water, and so forth. To really deal with an emergency, though, you not only need to pack, but to unpack. 

Think of your mind as your most fundamental and important emergency kit. You have a great deal of what you’ll need to survive there already, but if you’re not careful, a lot of junk will end up piled on top of your excellent equipment. Lift up that big television of yours, for example, and gently lob it out the window. It will fill your head with hysteria, presuppositions, misinterpretations, stereotypes, exaggerations, and racial slurs that will leave you ill-prepared for what to expect when your world is turned upside down.

Be careful with newspapers, online media, and those emails your anxious friends forward to you. Watch out for experts who aren’t (or who have an unspoken agenda), for authorities who lie and withhold crucial information, for hysterics, and those who fill in the blanks of disasters past, present, and future with invented scenarios. Be clear that a lot of the worst-case scenarios are just that, not breaking news (though what happened in Japan was and continues to be pretty horrendous).

A disaster is a big foray into the unknown and into uncertainty. We hate those things. We like to know what’s going to happen. Even in our own quiet everyday lives, we like to fill in the blanks. The media feeds this urge during crises with a lot of speculation and a stream of stereotypes. After all, it’s their job to know, and yet a disaster means a million unexpected things are going on all at once amid severely disrupted communications networks, which often means that they don’t know either, that no one does.

Throw These Words Out Right Away

So start this way.  Open up that disaster kit in your mind and throw out two words that cause so much unnecessary confusion and damage in a calamity:panic and looting.

Immediately after the earthquake, I saw a video of a group of Japanese in a wildly shaking office with a British-accented voiceover calling what they were doing panic. They were indeed moving rapidly and in all directions, but they were taking shelter, stabilizing objects that were falling off shelves, and generally doing just what people should do in such situations. The New York Daily News ran a headline several inches high that just read “Panic!” Maybe they were describing themselves.

The media likes to call any rapid movement panic, even when it’s the wisest possible thing to do. When the World Trade Towers were collapsing in New York, the right thing to do was run -- and most everyone did. That’s not panic. That day, “panicked” people also carried a quadriplegic accountant down 69 flights of stairs, slowed down to keep pace with their co-workers, got all the kids safely out of their nearby schools, and helped the fallen to their feet. More than 60 years of disaster research makes it clear that, despite what you think you know, ordinary people generally don’t panic in emergencies. So throw that out.

After both Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the word “looting” was used to justify shooting people down in the streets -- the death penalty, that is, without benefit of trial -- for what in ordinary times might otherwise be called “petty theft.” In extraordinary times, when the electricity goes, and there are no functioning bank machines, credit cards, or banks, and in many places no shopkeepers, you may need to acquire the goods that sustain life by taking them, often from wrecked or abandoned stores. The alternative is hunger, thirst, cold, and misery. To me, that’s not even theft.  What we saw a lot of in Japan was people lining up to buy things in not-so-wrecked places where shopkeepers were actually still doing business. 
Lots of reverse-stereotype articles have appeared about how Japanese don’t loot. In fact, there are accounts of Japanese citizens taking things without benefit of purchase, but since they’re not black, no one gets all that excited about it. Also there have been accounts of people getting really angry while waiting in line. I also saw a photograph of a guy siphoning gas from a minivan tipped up in some wreckage. Was it his? Who cares?

In crises, for some authorities, the media, and many outside observers, civilization tends to consist mainly of property relations, and so they pay more attention to whether someone’s taking crackers than whether a grandmother is dying in the wreckage (while law enforcement goes after the cracker-taker). Throw that out. It’s sludge in your mind. It causes needless deaths -- both of those who get shot as “looters” and those in dire need who get neglected while property is protected. So far, this hasn’t happened (as far as I can tell) in Japan, but it did happen in Port-au-Prince, New Orleans, and earthquake-wrecked San Francisco in 1906, and it might well happen when big earthquakes hit the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Seattle -- as they one day will.

The idea that all Japanese are selflessly dutiful might be undermined by the story of the hospital near the Fukushima reactors where 128 elderly people were simply abandoned. “Most of them were comatose and 14 died shortly afterwards,” the Guardian reported. Of course, six miles from that hospital were the “Fukushima 50” -- the nuclear workers risking their lives to try to keep conditions at the plant from getting worse. What they are undergoing and what it will do to them we don’t know yet. There is so much we don’t know yet. 

Other racial stereotypes suggested that Japanese are quiet and obedient and that this is a good thing -- though one must now hope that they will be neither and demand a major transformation of the private corporations and public institutions that allowed their nuclear nightmare to unfold as it did. Which is to say that, like human beings everywhere, the Japanese vary, and no blanket statements fully cover them. For your future emergency, pack a real blanket or sleeping bag, but don’t pack the usual set of clichés.   

The Human Nature Business

In a disaster, you will want to bring your identity, so we are often instructed, meaning some government-issued form of identification. But you will also want to bring a deeper identity, a sense of who you are and who we are. This matters greatly, because disaster tests our nature, even as it requires us to cooperate with those who are in it with us. 

The usual emphasis on “panic” in disasters implies that, in a crisis, we’re all sheep wheeling around idiotically, incapable of making good decisions, and selfishly trampling those around us. The emphasis on looting implies that, in a crisis, we’re all wolves, taking ruthless advantage of and preying on each other. Both presume that during a disaster social bonds will break. In fact, as the records of disaster after disaster show, mostly they don’t. In fact, those who study the subject (and reams of testimony by those who have lived through it) confirm that, in catastrophe, most of us behave remarkably beautifully, exhibiting presence of mind, altruism, generosity, bravery, and creativity.

Most of us.

Who, then, does it serve to imagine that we are wolves and sheep, fools and savages? Lee Clarke, a disaster sociologist and professor at Rutgers, wroteafter Hurricane Katrina, “Disaster myths are not politically neutral, but rather work systematically to the advantage of elites. Elites cling to the panic myth because to acknowledge the truth of the situation would lead to very different policy prescriptions than the ones currently in vogue.”  That is to say, if we are wolves and sheep, and so not to be trusted, then they are the shepherds and the wolf-killers.

They want the right to police us, to boss us around, and to lie to us in a disaster (and the rest of the time, too, actually). They lie to us on the grounds that we will panic if we know the truth -- and so they withheld critical information when Three Mile Island nearly melted down in 1979, when Chernobyl did melt down in 1985, when the pit where the World Trade Towers had been spewed toxic smoke for months in 2001, when a mass murderer was loose on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, when the reactors in Fukushima started venting radiation into the surrounding environment. The media often repeats these lies and regularly fails to question authority even though the track record of lying in disasters is clear.

Officials in the U.S. lied in this disaster, too.  The amounts of radiation that have reached these shores apparently are, as they have claimed, so minor as to be insignificant in a world already full of toxins and carcinogens, but they also suggested that much higher levels would be safe. Which is a lie. As is the idea that nuclear power is safe.

Authoritarian Technology

In some respects the authorities here and in Japan have been completely crazy, not just in the aftermath of this disaster but every day since the dawn of the“peaceful atom” era of the nuclear age. Nuclear power is essentially an elaborate and unlikely way to boil water to turn turbines to create electricity. Its makers must mine, refine, and consolidate huge amounts of one of the deadliest materials on earth, uranium-235 (the less than 1% of naturally occurring uranium with 235 electrons; the leftover 99%, the less radioactive but nevertheless deadly U-238, becomes nuclear waste in the process). That U-235 and the plutonium created from it are dangerous at every stage of the process.  In addition, constructing a power plant requires a huge amount of carbon-spewing conventional energy, so there’s never been a lot of logic to building them to bridge our move to renewable energy.

The delusional premise behind nuclear energy is that we can create this material and then contain it for the duration of its dangerous phase. For plutonium, that’s 24,000 years, or about 15 times as long as something called civilization has existed. For uranium-235, that’s 700 million years, a time so vast it’s basically forever.

Fifty years into the nuclear age, we’ve had four major reactor accidents, along with a host of minor ones and leaks and ventings, and we still don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste that plants like the ones at Fukushima produce even when no accidents occur.  This is the “spent fuel” that the U-235 quickly becomes. It’s still intensely radioactive and toxic; it’s only “spent” in the sense that it’s no longer useful for boiling water in reactors. It’s still useful for bombs, dirty or otherwise.

There are better ways to boil water.

The Guardian reports: “The power plant at the center of the biggest civilian nuclear crisis in Japan's history contained far more spent fuel rods than it was designed to store, while its technicians repeatedly failed to carry out mandatory safety checks, according to documents from the reactor's operator.”

This news suggests incompetence and untrustworthiness, but most U.S. nuclear power plants also have an overabundance of spent fuel rods in cooling ponds onsite. That’s because the only plans for long-term storage of some of the more than 70,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste American nuclear reactors have produced, now heating those ponds, were also crazy.  If there’s one good, long-term reason to love Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama, it’s that they put a stop to a plan to dump some of the stuff in seismically, hydrologically, and volcanically active Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a couple of years ago. Of course if the Republicans have their way, the dump will lurch back from the dead.

Further Preparations

So in a disaster, unload the usual clichés and stereotypes. Do your best not to fill up the unknown with fantasy or fear. Don’t assume the worst or the best, but keep an alert mind on the actual as it unfolds. Don’t take scenarios for realities. Be prepared to reevaluate and change your plans again and again.

Which is to say that disaster is like everyday life, only more so.

Don’t bring a lot of fear of the neighbors: if you’re not rescuing them, they might be rescuing you, and afterward you may very well be building a community kitchen together in the ruins. In San Francisco, we have a website called, which acknowledges that you’re likely to be on your own in a major disaster.  There just aren’t enough rescue personnel, firefighters, and so forth to respond on the scale such a disaster requires. So help yourself and the people around you.

In preparation, investigate local dangers, whether a refinery, a freight rail line on which toxics roll by, that big earthquake slated to hit New York, a floodplain, or a forest fire, and figure out what to do if the worst happens, since Japan reminds us that sometimes it does. And maybe you can even train your authorities not to panic in disaster and not to treat the rest of us like so many sheep and wolves. Try to ensure that they won’t regard a major disaster as a major occasion for law enforcement rather than a time when civil society should pull together. Make sure they won’t demonize or victimize the most needy in a crisis, as nonwhite people, undocumented immigrants, the poor, and the left-behind have been many times before.

Get a battery-powered, or better yet, hand-cranked radio and decide which media outlets you trust. Then sift through the news with care, because ordinarily useful news sources, too, fall prey to fear-amplifying rumor and government cover-ups and lies in a crisis. The left-wing media is no exception: I heard a fair amount of nutty nuclear stuff last week.

Learn some science about radiation, especially if you live near a nuclear power plant. And keep in mind that it’s better to evacuate unnecessarily than undergo contamination unnecessarily. Don’t forget to take Great-Aunt Helen.  The triple disaster in Japan has offered countless reminders of just how vulnerable the elderly can be in an emergency.

If you want to do more, look into hazard reduction. This can mean learning how to turn off the gas lines in your home, or preventing a new nuclear power plant from being built in your neighborhood or on your planet. It can mean acknowledging that climate change is bringing us a superabundance of disasters -- droughts, floods, heat waves, fires, rising seas, and more -- and that we need to be better prepared than ever for calamity, even as we work to minimize the causes of climate change and its impacts.

And keep in mind that disasters start suddenly and end slowly. Some predict it will be five years before Japan recovers from the Sendai quake followed by tsunami followed by nuclear crisis.  Remember as well that disasters often lead to permanent change. In that sense they’re never over.

The U.S. was permanently changed by 9/11 and Katrina; Ukraine by Chernobyl -- or maybe it would be more accurate to say the whole world by Chernobyl. In 2006, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself said, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month… was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” 

In the wake of its present disaster, Japan may already be changing, and that may not be a bad thing. In its wake, the future of nuclear power may change, and that might be a very good thing. One thing we know now: we don’t know yet.
Writer Rebecca Solnit lives in San Francisco, a city that has never had a major flood, heat wave, blizzard, or terrorist attack, though the panicky U.S. Army did burn down about half the city in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. From 1988 to 2002 she was an antinuclear activist, and her book Savage Dreams is in part about that movement, while her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster deals with major urban calamities.

Atomic Snowflakes

Only two U.S. nuclear sites are in compliance with federal fire regulations. How confident can we be that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has things firmly in hand?

On an ironically clear and placid day in August 2007, a three story tall cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant collapsed, goring a massive hole in the center of the structure and spewing asbestos, rotting wood, plastic panels, and thousands of gallons of water onto the bank of the Connecticut river. It later emerged that several employees had expressed concerns about the tower, and that, in the days before the collapse, others heard odd noises from within the structure.

Plant administrators refused to allow reporters onto the property for three days. They insisted the tower was of minimal import, and continued running the reactor.
Nine days after the collapse, Yankee was forced to make a full emergency shut down – known as a SCRAM at boiling water reactors, like those at Japan’s crippled Fukushima plant and Vermont’s Yankee - after a critical reactor valve failed. The proper lubrication had been neglected.  

“Our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.”
—former NRC commissioner

The plant’s response mirrored its reaction to a transformer fire, in 2004.  In June of that year, as a stream of dense, chalky smoke billowed from the compound, the governor’s office became irate with the plant for not providing sufficient information, according to an official who worked for the state at the time. A month later, the plant was cited by the NRC for “Failure to make timely notification of status upon declaration of unusual event.”

The narrative seems more befitting a Soviet-era republic than modern New England, but strings of jarring failures are what many in southern Vermont, and those across the river in neighboring New Hampshire, have come to expect from Yankee.

In April 2004, the plant announced that two fuel rods were unaccounted for, only to find them three months later in the spent fuel storage pool. In August 2006, materials leaving the plant were four times more radioactive than federal limits permit. In 2008, radiation exposure forced the evacuation of 25 employees after a fan was placed too close to the top of the reactor vessel. In May 2008, a crane dropped a 360,000-pound spent fuel cask four inches onto a concrete floor, and, in August 2009, administrators admitted that they had failed to monitor casks for radiation leaks since they had been installed the previous June. 

In January 2009, the plant sprung two radioactive leaks, one in a “safety sensitive area.” The next month, administrators excavated 135,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil from the plant. And in September 2008, after repairs to the collapsed cooling tower were completed, concerns about further possible rot and corrosion at the plant emerged. It also became clear that Entergy, the New Orleans based corporation that runs Yankee (as well as New York’s Indian Point plant, and eight other nuclear sites), had failed to make renovations to the two cooling tower cells that are critical for an emergency shut down. 

The ongoing failures at Japan’s Fukushima plant have put new emphasis on concerns about nuclear safety here in the United States. And on the heels of recent massive regulatory failures that left our financial markets in chaos and the Gulf of Mexico blackened, one wonders whether American nuclear regulation, handled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in Rockville, MD, is comparably insufficient.

An NRC Investigator General report from 2002, I found, showed that only 53 percent of the employees at NRC felt it was “safe to speak up in the NRC,’ and less than half -- 48 percent -- felt “that management actually trusts the judgment of employees at their level in the organization.”

2006 report observed: “Significant reservations still exist about the Differing Professional Opinions (DPO) program.  Some employees feel comfortable raising an issue and going through the DPO process.  However, a number of employees do not feel comfortable doing so, out of fear of retaliation.”
One former NRC commissioner, speaking on background last June, told me: “our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.”

According to John Grobe, the Associate Director for Engineering and Safety Systems at NRC,  “Approximately one-half of the core damage risk at operating reactors results from accident sequences that initiate with fire events.”
Nonetheless, only two U.S. nuclear sites are in compliance with federal fire regulations; all others continue to operate with exemptions, a stopgap system that was implemented more than thirty years ago and was never intended as a permanent solution.

At a public meeting in July 2008, NRC commissioner Gregory Jaczko, whom President Obama has since appointed to chair the commission, noted: “[these are] simple, straightforward regulations and I don’t think there is one plant right now that is in compliance with those regulations.” He continued, “That's simply unacceptable for a regulator.”

The problem, he pointed out, is a longstanding one: “We have never really been able to have a clear set of criteria that we enforce as a regulatory body in fire protection. To this day, I do not think we do.”

His assessment remains accurate.

He outlined a key piece of NRC Title 10 fire regulations Appendix R, set fourth by the NRC in 1980, dealing with the fire protections for reactor control cables.

“You have to have a three hour fire barrier,” around cables connecting control rooms to reactors, “you have to have an hour [barrier] with fire suppression, or you have to have 20 feet of separation. And if all of those fail, you have to have an alternate shut down capability.”

Plants today, rather than relying on automated fire detection and suppression systems, are using a patchwork of manual actions, that is actions by plant workers outside of control rooms to enact dozens of shutdown procedures, in the event of a serious fire: “The reality is that we have licensees that are using unapproved operator manual actions,” Jackzo said in 2008. The NRC declined to make the chairman available to discuss the matter.

Reactors rely on two sets of control cabling, a primary and a backup. Close to a thousand miles of such cables run through plants. The problem is that reactor designs do not physically separate the two sets of lines, and a disaster that damages one will likely affect the redundant system, as well.

Nuclear supporters hold that plants cannot afford to meet the regulations that Jaczko outlined. Voices within the industry have wisely refrained from arguing this explicitly, and prefer to attack the regulations as overkill that fail to identify and address genuine problem areas. As one industry advocate put it, the regulations make  “no distinction between a room with a tank of diesel and a room that’s bare concrete and steel.”
It’s worth noting that three major nuclear providers, Exelon, Duke Energy, and Entergy, had profits of, respectively, $2.56 billion, $1.32 billion, and $1.27 billion, in 2010.

Rather than comply with regulations, plants have largely earned their exemptions by having workers walk plant floors on “fire watches.” Hotels without smoke detectors and sprinklers would be unimaginable in the America; reactors without them are a given.

Fires are endemic to nuclear power. From 1995 to 2007, there were 125 at 54 of the nation’s 65 nuclear plants, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study. Thirteen of those were categorized as posing an “actual or potential substantial degradation of unit safety.”

None, the report stressed, since 1975, have threatened a plant’s capacity to safely power down, which is how a meltdown is most likely to begin. That fire, which led to regulations that Jaczko outlined, was at the Brown’s Ferry plant, in Alabama. It began when a technician, using a candle to search for air leaks in the reactor, inadvertently ignited the flammable cabling connecting the reactor to its control room. Operators fought the electric fire with water, further fueling the flames.

The NRC, at the industry’s urging, is moving gradually towards a “risk-based assessment system,” that would tailor regulation to the needs of individual sites. “The concern with the risk-based approached,” says David Lochbaum of the Union of Concern Scientists, “is that regulation is no longer black and white; matters become squishy and open to interpretation. And it’s tough for the NRC because there’s no longer a right answer.” Lochbaum worked in nuclear power plants for 17 years and testified in the Senate earlier this week.

Wednesday, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the risk-based system, which is known as NFPA 805 and was written by the National Fire Protection Agency, would allow “you take into account actual conditions, you’re applying your resources where there’s the greatest demonstrated risks.”

I inquired who creates the site-specific plans. “The plant itself draws it up," Burnell replied, “and the NRC checks that analysis to ensure that it follows the basic principles of NPFA 805.”

There are two sites currently engaged in risk-based pilot programs, which began in 2008. One of the two, the Shearon Harris plant in North Carolina, has already come under scrutiny for its self-assessment. Watchdog groups are awaiting the release of an NRC inspector general’s investigation over concerns about the efficacy of computer modeling used to predict fire potential fires.

In June of 2010, just a month before NRC approved Shearon Harris plant’s application to be regulated by risk based NAFPA 805 rather than Appendix R, Alexander Klein, the chief of the fire protection branch at office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, a wing of NRC, wrote a memo outlining lasting concerns.

The memo suggests that fire modeling, referred to as PRA for probability risk assessment, needed to be improved in a number of ways.

“Internal stakeholders identified the need for a better understanding of flame spread rates for fires in electrical cables,” he noted.

It also noted that the model needed to better understand heat release from fires in electrical cabinets; to better understand smoke damage to control circuits; and a better understanding of the behavior of gaseous fire suppressants, like carbon dioxide.
The manual for NRC inspectors, according to the memo, “does not provide sufficient guidance to inspectors” regarding: “findings involving control room evacuation,” nor “findings related to fire brigade performance deficiencies.”
Klein was not available for comment.

For most, there is a visceral reaction to the white, hyperboloid cooling towers that flank many plants; they look to belong to another era, and are, in a perverse sense, exploding upward and out, offering the mind the visual cue for fears that are perhaps instinctual.

Those within the industry hold that they have been unduly scrutinized for the past forty years, and have, by and large, measured up. There has not been a single fatality from the operation of commercial nuclear plants in the US.

The scrutiny, though, is entirely justified, and the gas, oil, and coal industries would be well served to endure comparably consistent and thorough oversight. NRC representatives are stationed at plants full time and can order reactors powered down at any moment.

If one is serious about tackling the challenge of climate change and the degradation of the plant, nuclear power remains the foundation of a tenable path forward.
There is a good deal more that can be done in regards to safety. Fukushima’s slow melt will guarantee new geological assessments, and, in terms of both counterterrorism and fire safety, there are further steps that can and must be taken.

There is little question that Los Angeles and New York, in the case of severe disasters, would be incapable of large-scale evacuations. The problem of spent nuclear fuel, too, must be addressed, whether through reprocessing or securing a national repository. Many casks now lie vulnerable to attack, flooding, tornadoes, and other serious dangers.

The industry, sixty years into the nuclear age, has lacked a viable public outreach strategy, hoping its record of consistency will speak for itself. The federal government has proved incapable of creating a satisfactory regulatory body.
Both facts are as naïve as they are unfortunate.

Wind and solar are alluring alternatives, but a revolution in energy storage - battery efficiency - is crucial to harnessing them. Nuclear energy, industry proponents are quick to point out, as compared with coal mining, oil drilling, and natural gas fracking, is remarkably safe - statistically.

But that, as with many things, is true until it is not.
Last week, Vermont Yankee received a twenty-year life extension beyond its scheduled 2012 decommissioning from the NRC. The plant was designed to run for forty years, but industry proponents argue that it and similar sites can sustain 80 years of use. Quietly, many of them hold that plants can run indefinitely, with parts continuously swapped until reactors don’t posses a single component from the original construct.

It is an unsustainable argument. Metals and cement brittle and rust and corrode with age, and the industry has shown itself more inclined to patch rather than fix or replace in the interest of hitting quarterly earning projections.

The Vermont state senate, though, led last year by Peter Shumlin, who has since been elected governor, voted to shutter Yankee. Its fate appears sealed by the disaster at Fukushima.

It is the right decision. Nothing about Entergy’s management has instilled faith with the public that it can continue to operate safely.

The decommissioning process for Yankee is projected to be a $1 billion endeavor, and Entergy, it is now clear, slowed payments into the decommissioning fund after taking over the plant, in 2002.

It has less than $400 million allotted.

Who has the final word on regulating nuclear power plants?

In 49 states, it's the federal government, acting through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

At the moment, Vermont is the lone exception. As the result of a deal in 2002 and subsequent legislation in 2006, the state Legislature has the authority to block the Vermont Yankee plant from staying in operation past 2012, when its license runs out. The controversial plant supplies about a third of the state's electricity.

The question is especially relevant now, amid growing concerns about nuclear power following the Japanese nuclear crisis and after the NRC granted Vermont Yankee a license extension on Monday, giving the plant the federal government's blessing to operate another 20 years. The Vermont legislature, after a series of leaks at the plant, has already voted against allowing it to remain open.

Letting each state have a veto over energy policy seems potentially fraught with problems — but Peter E. Shumlin, Vermont 's governor, is an unabashed fan and believes more states should follow Vermont's lead.

"It puzzles me that more states don't take control into their own hands about aging plants," Shumlin said in a telephone interview yesterday. "You all have the same rights we have in Vermont."

Shumlin said he was once a supporter of Vermont Yankee, but now believed it should close after 40 years, the timespan it was originally licensed for.

"We seem to have what I call irrational exuberance about the ability to run those plants beyond their designed life," he said. "It will come back and haunt us. It's just a question of where. I am so grateful to be the governor of a state that has taken control of our own future."

Vermont Yankee license on holdBoston Globe - Beth Daley - Donovan Slack - Mar 15, 2011 : Critics say the design of the nearly 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is similar to the most compromised reactor of the plant at the heart of ...

The safety of Vermont Yankee - WWLP 22News

Showdown on Vermont Nuclear Plant's Fate  New York Times - Matthew L. Wald - Mar 10, 2011 : The Energy Department, which by charter is supposed to promote nuclear power, has thus far been silent on the Vermont Yankee plant. ...

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