There is much more information coming out of Japan about the status of the Fukushima catastrophe than is appearing on the front page of the MSM. We’ll get to some speculation about the reasons for that later, but first let’s note that the main concern for most observers is not the reactor core(s) (though that’s not even remotely insignificant) but the storage pools for the spent fuel rods.
There has been a little flurry of attention resulting from Senator Ron Wyden’s (D -Oregon) visit to the site back on April 6th, and his subsequent expressions of concern;
“Seeing the extent of the disaster first-hand during my visit conveyed the magnitude of this tragedy and the continuing risks and challenges in a way that news accounts cannot,” said Wyden in a letter to Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States.
As someone who has no small amount of experience in construction, and having spent half my life fixing busted stuff (nothing on this scale, or this hazardous though, godknows) that got me to wondering just what he meant, that is to say what do things actually look like now? As the Senator says, a news account, no matter how well written, is not adequate to convey the true scale of the problem. Let’s begin with what they looked like before the tsunami, as a point of reference.
Here’s a photo of the spent fuel pool at reactor #4, where we see the pool itself, the crane apparatus used for loading and unloading the fuel rods and so on;
All pretty shipshape. The pools are where the fuel rods are kept underwater to keep them cool. If the rods become exposed to the air they heat up, which is how nuclear powerplants work—they are basically steam engines powered by heat from nuclear reaction. If the fuel rods are exposed (ie not cooled) for long enough they will catch fire and that radiation will disperse over a wide area in plumes which will depend on the prevailing weather patterns. This is a simplistic representation of the physics but for our purposes here it’s close enough and it is the nightmare scenario.
Lets take a look now at what Senator Wyden actually saw, and which got him so concerned….
….This is the building exterior as it is now, with the crane apparatus from the previous photo now visible through that mammoth hole in the wall. Observe too that the fuel pool is elevated above ground (on the 3rd and 4th “floor”, actually) and is thus supported by what’s left of the building in which it is housed.
Clearly we see that the structural integrity of the building is now severely compromised, and that’s the source of the greatest worries. The entire structure is now so flimsy that even a relatively small earthquake may topple the whole thing, pool and all, and thus expose the fuel rods and release enormous amounts of radiation. Were that to happen there really is no medicine for it, so a non-cataclysmic outcome to this whole mess depends on there not being an earthquake of sufficient magnitude to damage the structures sufficiently to just dump the contents of the pools out onto the ground. Note that there is no “hardened” containment for these storage pools, unlike the reactor core itself.
One does not need to be a sophisticated scientist or systems theorist to understand that when a process depends on some natural (and quite common, in Japan) event over which we have no control not happening, then that is a process that is not in any way “under control”. One might as well say that the wedding arrangements are completely organized and under control just so long as it doesn’t rain, though at least with something like that it’s possible to have a back-up plan.
I suppose this is the place to mention that Tepco, the Japanese corporation that owns this wretched mess, has announced an overall 10 year plan to clean up the site, a plan that calls for continuing to store the fuel rods on site, in these same pools, and only gradually transferring the rods to “dry cask” storage—that process alone being scheduled to take several years. Again, that’s several years without an earthquake throwing the whole plan for a loop.
So under the current mitigation plan, the damaged fuel storage pools, in the damaged buildings that house them, will continue to be used to store the fuel rods until they are gradually transferred outtathere over a period of years. Let’s go back to Senator Wyden— who is a senior member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and has considerable experience with nuclear waste storage issues—and his reaction to all this. Asked if the precariousness of the situation is a security risk to the US, he said;
“The radiation caused by the failure of the spent fuel pools in the event of another earthquake could reach the West Coast within days. That absolutely makes the safe containment and protection of this spent fuel a security issue for the United States.”
That’s not to say that Tepco doesn’t understand the vulnerability here; they have poured concrete and taken other measures to try strengthening the damaged storage pool, but the fact remains that the pool itself is housed in a building now so damaged, and so difficult to inspect because of radiation levels, that its ability to withstand even minor earthquake activity is impossible to assess accurately. Keep in mind that this is not the only pool on site, just the most fragile one. A large earthquake could not only destroy this pool at reactor #4, but also several others, all of which contain large quantities of fuel rods. Even if only this pool is compromised, the radiation would be so severe as to prevent human access for the fire suppression needed to keep the fire from spreading to the other pools.
Now we come to the question of why this is not a bigger deal in the news than it currently is. A lengthy quote from Alternet, with the entire piece being highly recommended (emphasis mine);
So why isn’t the NRC and the Obama administration doing more to shed light on the extreme vulnerability of these irradiated fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi, which threaten not only Japan but the U.S. and the world?
Nuclear waste experts say it would expose the fact that the same design flaw lies in wait — and has been for decades — at dozens of U.S. nuclear facilities. And that’s not something the NRC, which is routinely accused of promoting the nuclear industry rather than adequately regulating it, nor the pro-nuclear Obama administration, want to broadcast to the American public.
“The U.S. government right now is engaged in its own kabuki theatre to protect the U.S. industry from the real costs of the lessons at Fukushima,” Gunter said. “The NRC and its champions in the White House and on Capitol Hill are looking to obfuscate the real threats and the necessary policy changes to address the risk.”
There are 31 G.E. Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors (BRWs) in the U.S., the type used at Fukushima. All of these reactors, which comprise just under a third of all nuclear reactors in the U.S., store their spent fuel in elevated pools located outside the primary, or reinforced, containment that protects the reactor core. Thus, the outside structure, the building ostensibly protecting the storage pools, is much weaker, in most cases about as sturdy, experts describe in interviews with AlterNet, as a structure one would find housing a car dealership or a Wal-Mart ….
….But these reactors don’t merely suffer from the same storage design flaw as those at Fukushima Daiichi.
In the U.S., the nuclear industry has been allowed to store incredible volumes of spent fuel for decades in high-density pools that were not only originally designed to retain about one-fourth or one-fifth of what they now hold but were intended to be temporary storage facilities. No more than five years. That was before the idea of reprocessing irradiated fuel in this country failed to gain a foothold over 30 years ago. Once that happened, starting in the early 1980s, the NRC allowed high-density storage in fuel pools on the false assumption that a high-level waste repository would be opened by 1998. But subsequent efforts to gain support for storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada have also been scrapped.
More recently, the NRC arbitrarily concluded these pools could store this spent fuel safely for 120 years.
“Our pools are more crammed to the gills than the unit 4 pool at Fukushima Daiichi, much more so,” noted Kamps of Beyond Nuclear. “It’s kind of like a very thick forest that’s waiting for a wildfire. It would take extraordinary measures to prevent nuclear chain reactions in our pools because the waste is so closely packed in there.”
Experts say the only near-term answer to better protect our nation’s existing spent nuclear fuel is dry cask storage. But there’s one catch: the nuclear industry doesn’t want to incur the expense, which is about $1 million per cask.
“So now they’re stuck,” said Alvarez, “The NRC has made this policy decision, which the industry is very violently opposed to changing because it saves them a ton of money. And if they have to go to dry hardened storage onsite, they’re going to have to fork over several hundred million dollars per reactor to do this.”
Let’s have a show of hands from anyone surprised by any of this.
No, didn’t think so.
Tell me that this kind of penny-pinching is not one of the reasons that current energy is unrealistically cheap, even today, and one of the very big reasons that “alternative” energy (solar, wind etc) is not price competitive. It’s not because alternatives are too expensive, it’s because traditional energy sources are artificially cheap, and the artifice used to sustain that market distortion is just such a dynamic as this.
I don’t know if we’ll ever come to understand, here in the US, that the days of cheap energy are over for good—they ain’t coming back—and the longer we delay swallowing that bitter pill by fudging (disguising, really) the actual costs by cutting dangerous corners or subsidizing traditional energy providers the more of a whole world of hurt we’re going to be in.
None of this crap is likely to be even of peripheral concern in the coming election process, not, god forbid, without some dreadful new development, but it sure as hell should be. Or are we going to have to wait until it’s necessary to evacuate Tokyo or some such craziness?
I know where I’d place my bet. What should be happening is an unprecedented effort, with equipment and assistance from all over the world, to get all this fuel into dry casks ASAP. Now. And then a serious global conversation about where in the hell we think we’re going, and how, and why. But that won’t happen either, will it? We can’t “afford” it, you see—which is a statement about how our economic principles are topsy-turvy more than it is about our actual technological capabilities.