fukushima, again.

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.

7 Responses to fukushima, again.

  1. Bluthner says:

    Gunny,

    You are right to keep ringing the tocsin on this issue. The official policy seems to be let’s cross our fingers and, er…. that’s it.

    If our luck holds out no one will be held to account. And if it doesn’t, well, no one among future generations will understand why we didn’t put it all underground, or forgive us for not doing so.

    Yucca Mountain had a certain level of risk, okay, there isn’t any way to deal with this stuff without risk, but nothing LIKE the risks that we are incurring now.

    Why they didn’t go with a salt dome I will never understand. Geologically stable, and water simply does not get out of a salt dome. Not unless you divert a river into one, and that sure as hell wouldn’t happen. Salt is highly plastic under pressure, and so self-sealing.

  2. Squirrel says:

    As many Americans have reminded me on CiFA, the US is a big country . . .so why worry ;-)

    Do you know, I can’t remember what we do with ours? Vaguely recall something about it being encased in glass or something. Is that ‘dry storage’?

    I’ve read some of these reports abt “radiation creeping over the Pacific” and it always struck me as a bit odd that the ‘threat from outside’ got more attention.

    I’m not belittling the possible effects from a cockup in Japan, but Fukushima is a lot further away from the US than Chernobyl was for us, I think. And this suggests that there are dangers in the US much closer than that.

    We don’t see much of it in the papers these days, but I think sheep and pasture are still being tested for radiation up in the north (where I come from) and up in the hills in Wales. (And kept out of the food chain.) Or at least were until not that long ago. And that. when you think about it is quite a few generations of sheep. And we only got the tail end of it, really.

    Isn’t it paradoxical that people say “money talks” but when it comes to something as innately risky as this, “lack of money” shouts even louder?

    What’s more or less dished nuclear power here (despite Nu-Labour and this coalition’s attempts to get it going again) is the revelation of the shocking costs, and amount of time involved, of decommissioning the damn things safely. And it’s not as though they last that long, either. Dungeness A’s cost at least a billion and something like 8 years to decommission so far (I think equivalent to about a quarter of its working life!) and the land it’s on won’t be returned to ‘normal’ use for another century apparently.

    At least we don’t have to worry about what to do with the wind in the North Sea once we’ve used it . . .

  3. KevinNevada says:

    None of these arrangements meet the minimum nonsense test, if these were being analyzed by reasonable engineering criteria. If the actual risks were in any way assigned to those incurring those risks, then the real cost of these facilities would have to include the real cost of buying the insurance for these risks. And the insurance companies hire engineers too, usually good ones.

    But at the very start of the “nuclear era”, that private risk was capped, I think at about a half billion dollars per reactor. That is all the insurance that the plant owners have to purchase.

    The remainder of the risk is borne, free by the taxpayers, IOW we socialized the costs of operations for a private corporation, yet again. Public risk, private profits, it adds up to an enormous hidden subsidy, so these plants could be built by “private investors”.

    But when the government encourages solar or geothermal power with even the slightest hint of an open and honest subsidy, all we hear from conservatives is whining about “socialism” and “interference in the energy markets”. Campaign ads that attack the current administration’s policies in this area are running every day here, right now. I suspect that Gunny is seeing them too. Colorado and Nevada are both “swing” states, we will both see every particle of excrement that this year’s campaign generates.

    As for Yucca Mountain, on which I cannot be neutral (being about 90 miles downwind!), that is a seriously flawed concept too. That site decision was entirely political and the deeper we dig into the matter, the worse it looks.

    The real solution is to reprocess the spent rods, which is expensive. The French and the Russians do it. The process is messy, and the practical engineering challenges are not trivial. (The process creates incredibly dangerous and corrosive chemicals.)

    Now can anyone explain to me that we cannot “afford” to launch a new power generation industry, or two? Space-based solar generation can work, there are very few open questions on the technical side. But all I hear is nonsense about “cost”.

  4. gunnison says:

    Squirrel

    What’s more or less dished nuclear power here (despite Nu-Labour and this coalition’s attempts to get it going again) is the revelation of the shocking costs, and amount of time involved, of decommissioning the damn things safely.

    Yes, that would have shitcanned nuclear here as well, if they didn’t keep moving the goalposts.
    A whole bunch of reactors in the US are already past their design life, so they are simply re-licensed for a whole new generation and kept running.

    In the US there is no money to decommission anything, or any plans either, at the present time. I’ll do a piece just on that one of these days. It’s really unsettling.

    Again, it’s as much about disguising the true costs of the energy more than anything else. If, by force of law, the utility companies were made to conform to the original set of rules (that they agreed to) it would crater the economy. Solution? Colonize the political and regulatory agencies and lobby to change the rules. Simple.

  5. Expat says:

    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.

    Sounds like a good idea. Have the Japanese asked or anyone else offered? Something along the lines of the Chernobyl Shelter Fund.

  6. gunnison says:

    EP

    Have the Japanese asked or anyone else offered?

    Not at any high level, no, at least not yet.
    For the Japanese to ask would be to admit they can’t handle it (which they probably can’t) and that’s a barrier.
    For us, or somewhere else, to offer loudly, or even better insist, would be to acknowledge the danger and put the whole nuclear discussion on the front burner, including our own rickety infrastructure and even more lax storage regulations than those at Fukushima.

    You see the problem, I’m sure.

  7. Expat says:

    You see the problem, I’m sure.

    I don’t like perpetual, intractable, justifying problems. We need to find a way through, under, over or around them. We need solutions. What will it take to get the Japanese to accept our Thunderbirds are Go assistance?

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