Nuclear Cataclysm in Japan: Learning a New Language

As the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex intensifies, Japan — and the world — is facing a disaster of unprecedented, almost unimaginable, dimensions.

Radioactive steam is currently pouring out of several of the stricken reactors.  For certain, one irradiated fuel pool has been completely drained.  Other pools are at risk. There is the distinct possibility of multiple reactor core meltdowns and multiple fuel pool meltdowns.

Radiation levels are "extremely high" — according to a generally pro-nuclear source, Gregory Jaczko, the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Meanwhile, Japan in a desperate, last-ditch effort is dumping sea-water coolant via helicopters.

Depending upon the unpredictable vagaries of the wind, a toxic plume of radioactivity could threaten thousands of tsunami-and-earthquake pummeled refugees or descend on Tokyo and other major metropolitan areas, such as Sendai.  Or the wind could send the plume offshore — depositing exceptionally long-lived poisons in the Pacific Ocean with its rich fisheries.  

How did we arrive at this cataclysmic point? 

Yes, there was a devastating earthquake and a horrendous tsunami.  Let's not throw all the blame at Mother Nature.  Decisions were made deliberately and carefully by human beings, by politicians, by CEO's, by the media — and the experts.  Experts in nuclear engineering, experts in geology, experts in health physics, experts in nuclear safety.  Many of those experts are still on TV.  In soothing voices they offer bromides. 'There, there,' they murmur.  'The radiation levels aren't too high.  Not to worry.' 

Undoubtedly, over the decades as more and more nuclear power plants proliferated in Japan and around the globe, many of the experts wrestled soberly and seriously with their decisions.  They were good-intentioned.  They had jobs to keep and families to support.  They believed what they were doing was in the public good.  And, despite a vibrant and intelligent cadre of citizens pointing out the dangers, much of the public generally abdicated.  The lure of more and more electricity was simply too attractive.  The seduction of the 'peaceful' atom was too fierce.  The issues were simply too complicated, too thorny.

Fast-forward to Fukushima, 2011.  The world confronts a new Chernobyl.  Now we don't have the habit of examining these complex issues, we don't have the conceptual framework.  We don't even have the vocabulary. 

In the midst of a terrifying crisis, we suddenly have to learn a new language.  For example, finally, the mainstream media announces what nuclear critics have been writing about for days: the threat from a fuel pool meltdown at Fukushima "outweighs" the risk of a reactor meltdown.

The mind whirs. A reactor core meltdown isn't as bad as it gets?  There's something worse?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes.  But to understand this issue, we need to look at what most of the industry and the media refers to as "spent fuel."

"Spent" fuel?  What's that?

"Spent" is an industry-euphemism.  It implies something harmless or used up.  Quite the opposite.  Spent fuel is irradiated fuel: fuel rods that have been irradiated inside a nuclear reactor's core.  As a result this fuel is massively contaminated with toxic, radioactive elements.

Just how massive is the toxic load in the irradiated fuel stored in pools at Fukushima?

Robert Alvarez, formerly of the US Department of Energy and now at the Institute of Policy Studies, says the fuel in each of the pools at the Fukushima complex has 5 to 10 times the radioactivity of the fuel inside one reactor core. And there are four pools at the complex with much of the radioactive material being the highly toxic and long-lived radionuclide, cesium-137. 

Another problem: Unlike the reactor cores, which have a hefty, six-inch thick steel containment vessel, the fuel pools at Fukushima are in unhardened and therefore highly vulnerable concrete structures.  The roof of one of these structures has been completely demolished in at least one of the stricken reactors, Unit 4.

Why on earth is irradiated fuel sitting in pools?  (The pools are sort of like swimming pools, though considerably deeper.  About 40 feet long, 40 feet wide and 45 feet deep.) 

After removal from the reactor core, the irradiated fuel is fiendishly hot.  The fuel is so hot it will cause the water it is immersed in to boil — if the water is not cooled.  What about the pools' back-up cooling systems?  There aren't any.  Nada. 

So, if one or multiple fuel pool's cooling systems fail?  Disaster.  When the water is not cooled, after a certain number of days or weeks, the water will boil off.  Next, the fuel can catch fire, releasing its toxic load to the environment.

Already we know one fuel pool at Fukushima — in Unit 4 — has drained.  Given the repeated explosions and fires at this reactor, it is highly probable that an irradiated fuel pool meltdown is underway.

Pools of water hanging up in the air?  With no back-up water circulation, no back-up generators?  Pools not in hardened or sealed containments?  Pools stuffed to the gills with extraordinarily toxic materials that are now threatening the health and safety of thousands of already suffering Japanese citizens?  Pools in reactors plunked down in one of the most seismically-active, tsunami-prone locations on the planet?

Who could possible wrap their minds around and sink billions of dollars into such a stupid, utterly flawed concept?

Right now, we all need to do whatever we can to assist the Japanese people. 

For the longer term, however, let's remember the nuclear industry and its "experts" got us to this extremely dangerous moment.  An informed, organized and determined citizenry is the only way to free us of our dependency upon this exceedingly dangerous and unforgiving energy source. 

Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City.  She is a Research Associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates.  Formerly she was the Co-founder and Co-director of the Sierra Club's Radioactive Waste Campaign, an organizing and educational program on the hazards of the nuclear fuel cycle.  She was a contributor to the book, Critical Mass:Voices for a Nuclear-Free Future.  She frequently writes about nuclear issues.  She can be reached at minaham@aol.


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