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Fukushima’s first days: the US response

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I’m going to break the format of this blog a bit, such as it is, to make a few journalistic observations about the US response to the earliest days of Fukushima.

Firstly, the US NRC seems to have been shell-shocked by the event. It should have been obvious from the first day that Unit 1 was in meltdown. The commission knew, for a fact, that there was no cooling in the core; this is well established. And it does not take a degree in nuclear physics to know what happens to nuclear cores without cooling. Yet it was three days before anyone was willing to admit the obvious, even to themselves. By all accounts the commissioners just watched the clock as over forty hours-without-cooling ticked by, and continued to assure the world that Japan had it under control. It is as if a lifetime of fervently espousing the impossibility of core-melts had made them unable to see what was right in front of their eyes.

This is cognitive dissonance on an epic scale.

Secondly, the Defence Department seems to have been much quicker to grasp the nettle. It was the Navy’s nuclear reactor division that appears to have been the real driver for belated US action. (The voluntary evacuation order, for instance, and a strongly worded message to the Prime Minister suggesting ‘heroic action’ — ie: suicide squads — when it looked like TEPCO were pulling out.)

Thirdly, the limited US evacuation recommendation (50 miles) was far too limited from a safety perspective. Within 72 hours it was clear to everyone that the citizens of Tokyo were in serious jeopardy. This is to say there was substantial evidence of a zirconium fire in the unit 4 spent-fuel pool (not least the fact that the building exploded, despite there being no fuel in the reactor core) — an event that would have released a tremendous amount of radioactive fallout, and would almost certainly have led to the loss of a much larger pool nearby. As it happened, the fuel had begun to melt but the Japanese were able to bring the pool back from the brink; but nobody at the time took this for granted.

When questioned about this, authoritative experts repeatedly stress that the NRC simulations showed no threat to Tokyo, even from a spent fuel fire. What they don’t say, however, is that the NRC simulations (which use a system called RASCAL) were only capable to modeling effects up to 50 miles out, and so they could not have shown a threat to Tokyo under any circumstances. The Germans had already advised their citizens to evacuate the capital, no doubt at some diplomatic cost. So had the French, the Russians and the Chinese — all countries with heavy nuclear investments and none of them exactly wilting violets when it comes to radiological hazards.

Tokyo was in serious trouble, and the US must have known.

This leads to my final observation: that the US decision not to order an evacuation beyond 50 miles — quickly and obediently echoed by the UK — was a political decision not an evidence-based calculation. It was a decision to put US citizens in Tokyo at risk as a favor to the Japanese government, who were desperately worried that a mass international evacuation would have led to uncontrollable panic in their capital.

It was a gamble that paid-off. Other countries looked to the US for cues and echoed their recommendations, stemming the tide of evacuation recommendations. Mass panic was averted. TEPCO — with ‘heroic efforts’ and no small amount of heroic luck — were able to save the spent-fuel pool, and with it the residents of Tokyo. (Although it remains in jeopardy).

In other words, Japan owes the US a solid, and they’re acutely aware of the fact. Sore misgivings about US bases on Japanese soil have all but disappeared since the crisis.

Realpolitik. 

Disaster Mitigation 101: Have a media strategy

From Flikr user "Simply Info"

As someone with a longstanding interest in the media coverage of Fukushima and how it seems to exculpate the nuclear industry, I was struck last night by a passage from  Eric Schlosser’s fascinating new book “Command and Control“. In it he outlines the recommendations of a top secret 1959 RAND report — authored by one-time MIT professor and Undersecretary of Defense, Fred Iklé — concerning how the US should manage the publicity fallout from an accidental nuclear bomb detonation. Schlosser quotes directly from the report:

“If such an accident occurred in a remote area, so that leakage to the press could be prevented, no information ought to be made public. […] If the accident has been compromised and public statements become necessary, they should depict the accident as an occurrence which has no bearing on the safety of other weapons.”

The report further recommended that the crisis be drained of its immediacy by establishing an authoritative “board of inquiry” that would take several months to reach its conclusions. Schlosser quotes again:

“During the delaying period the public information program should provide the news media with all possible news about rehabilitation and relief. There is always a strong and continued interest in such news after a disaster. Within a relatively short time the interest in rehabilitation tends to crowd out reports about destruction and casualties.”

Any parallels with Fukushima are, I am sure, entirely coincidental.

(Page 195 on my kindle, for anyone interested to read further.)

 

Irrational economics

 

I was impressed by this short piece on HuffPo today.

Former White House policy analyst, Jeff Schweitzer, speaks the truth about the irrational costs of nuclear energy, and highlights our propensity to underestimate high-consequnce, low-pobability failures like Fukushima.

To wit:

“… nuclear energy is not viable and never will be; low probability high consequence risk. While bad events are rare, when they happen, the political, economic and human costs are much too high for society to absorb, even amortized over long periods of stability. And this does not include the problem of disposing of nuclear waste or the life cycle costs of decommissioning a spent plant. Nuclear energy sounds good, but only if most of the true costs are externalized. Trapping the true cost of nuclear energy in the price of electricity would render the industry useless.”

“Unfortunately, the industry survives because we fail to evaluate properly low-probably high-consequence events. Nuclear power is with us only because we have inherent flaws in our ability to evaluate risk. That inherent imperfection is blinding us to the simple reality that nuclear power is dead; we just don’t see it yet.”

File this under “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Fukushima’s (Non-)Surprises

800px-Fukushima_I_by_Digital_Globe

Fukushima has been back in the headlines of late, with the ‘surprise’ discovery that hundreds of tons of Strontium-laced radioactive water has been leaking into the Pacific, where the processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification will ensure that it eventually winds up in our sushi. I put scare-quotes around ‘surprise’ because it really wasn’t a much of a shock to people intimately involved with the disaster. Individual leaks might be difficult to spot, but they know how much water they are pumping into the ruined reactor buildings, and they know how much water they are storing. It isn’t a very complicated math problem to figure out how much water is being lost. Especially, one might imagine, to the nearest hundred tons. Seriously, where did people think that water was going exactly?

With all the focus on the leaks though, I worry we have been missing the much (much) bigger dangers the continuing disaster poses. There is still the spent fuel-pool sitting atop unit 4, which is badly damaged and increasingly unstable. Even a relatively modest earthquake (the normal and entirely expected kind) could bring it down. If that happens, which it very well might, it would inevitably lead to a radioactive fire that would dwarf Chernobyl’s by several orders of magnitude. It is difficult to make a case that it would not (at minimum) be the end of Tokyo as a habitable city. (The implications of this alone are difficult to comprehend. It would mean relocating over 30 million people, and who knows what for the global financial system.) Less bad for the environment but almost as bad for Tokyo would be if the reactor cores melts its way down to the city’s aquifer, which runs under the plant. Again, a very real possibility.

Such fears, should they be realized, would come as ‘surprises’ to the vast majority of the media-reading public, but they really shouldn’t. The mainstream media might be ignoring these issues for now, but there are plenty of knowledgeable people trying to make themselves heard about the dangers. This article, for instance, does a pretty good job of summarizing some of the issues.

 

Disowning Fukushima

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All  policymaking about nuclear power — every cost/benefit analysis, every regulatory decision, every discussion about risk — is framed in some way by a quantitative reliability assessment. Such assessments are invested with all the authority that ‘science’ and ‘calculation’ wield over ‘mere judgement’. And given the irrefutably exorbitant costs (human, financial and environmental) of rector meltdowns, it is clear that policymakers would struggle rationalize nuclear energy without them.

So what happens when an event like Fukushima seems to undermine that authority? How do the many institutions vested in nuclear energy shore-up public faith in an assessment practice that appears to have failed? This is a question I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Listen here for some broad thoughts, or follow here for the much more in-depth journal article (assuming you can navigate the paywall).