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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. 

Plymouth on the edge

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The town on Plymouth, on England’s south coast, can trace its history back to the bronze age. A natural harbor, it has a proud maritime tradition. The pilgrim fathers left from its port in 1620 to settle the New World. It is currently home to the largest operational naval base in Western Europe.

On 29 July, last year, Plymouth almost became a radioactive ghost-town – the victim of a reactor meltdown due to a technical mishap. The UK’s own Pripyat or Fukushima. Or so recent disclosures suggest.

Plymouth isn’t even home to a nuclear reactor. Not a permanent one anyway. Its naval base services many of the UK’s nuclear submarines. The near catastrophe was was caused when a series of “unidentified defects” [echoes of Normal Accidents here – ed] led to the loss of both primary and secondary power to the onsite subs’ coolant systems for more than 90 minutes.

A subsequent investigation pinned the failure on a “defect in the central nuclear switchboard.” A failure that would almost certainly have been deemed “impossible” by anyone studying the system’s blueprints in advance.

Who knows how close Plymouth came that night. The incident certainly seems serious enough, but the secrecy around such events invariably prohibits proper scrutiny for decades. I highlight the scare mainly as a rejoinder to those who dismiss revelations about near-misses in the past with the argument that technologies have changed since then, making past failures irrelevant.

Technologies change, yes, but the fact that complex systems fail for unexpected reasons that defy our risk analyses remains. It is as constant as our willingness to wager, over and over, that this time, this time, the systems are safe and the assurances are accurate.

 

The changing meaning of dual-use nuclear technology

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Monterey aquarium has a mesmerizing jellyfish exhibit, which includes the moon jellyfish pictured here. This species also happens to be the primary offender in the latest round of nuclear reactor shut downs in Sweden–Slate has a nice video explaining the problem and showing what these lovely creatures turn into after getting sucked into the cooling system of a nuclear power plant.

I assume that the risk models used to manage reactor safety account for the jellyfish threat, which is really more of a nuisance that a calamity. Nevertheless, this kind of event highlights one of the challenges of managing reactor safety in a rapidly changing climate environment–growth in invasive jellyfish populations has been linked to climate change. It also points to new kinds of trade offs.

In case you haven’t been following the problem, jellyfish blooms also shut down beaches over the summer in Spain. Spain has seven operating nuclear power plants, some of which are located on lovely beaches. There was debate about whether or not to renew the operating license for the Vandellos 2 nuclear power station in Hospitalet del Infant (pictured below), but currently it has been extended until 2020. Nuclear power plants are usually an unwelcome site on a beach vacation, but they are apparently also great for jellyfish abatement. Vandellos 2 nuclear power station in Hospitalet del Infant

 

Policy Relevance 101: Know your audience

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Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Eilene Gottemoeller

Policy relevance is a term that is thrown around in academic communities that thrive on soft money. It is what you have to figure out how to be in order to receive funding–something that fewer and fewer of us who once aspired to the Ivory Tower lifestyle can afford to ignore as even those with tenure-track jobs are asked to bring in grant money. However, what exactly being policy relevant means is not always readily apparently if you believe, as I did, that it is primarily about arguing the merits of different policy options.

When I first arrived in Washington DC a couple years ago, I had my first real conversation about what it meant to be policy relevant. As I recall, I sat down across from Jeffrey Lewis in his cramped office on K Street not sure what we would talk about. Being unsure of what you want out of a conversation in Washington can go very wrong, but with the right person it can quickly turn into a revelatory experience. At the time, Jeffrey and I were working for the same organization, but lived in very different intellectual worlds. I had only recently graduated from the University of Chicago and was still in love with knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Jeffrey had already built his very successful blog, armscontrolwonk.org, where the nuke policy community debates the finer points of what the US should do about the topic du jour and the validity of the intelligence on which those decisions are being made.

In the first few moments of our conversation, it became readily apparent that what I considered policy relevant was painfully naive to a Washington insider. Jeffrey asked me to name the officials who implement US arms control and nonproliferation policy and I couldn’t name a single one. I was still holding onto the mistaken notion that being policy relevant actually meant saying something meaningful about policy. In my case that meant arguing about whether and how the system of deterrence and nonproliferation works. What I learned from Jeffrey is that the process of becoming policy relevant begins with knowing your audience.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the nominations for the top three arms control and nonproliferation positions:

The Honorable Rose Eilene Gottemoeller of Virginia, to be Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

Mr. Frank A. Rose of Massachusetts, to be Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance

Mr. Adam M. Scheinman of Virginia, to be Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, with the Rank of Ambassador

These nominations, and the nomination for the top official, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, in particular have been tied up in partisan politics for some time. As Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, Rose Gottemoeller negotiated the New Start treaty with Russia. Not surprisingly, today she was questioned repeatedly about whether or not the Obama administration had any intention of obviating the treaty process and reducing the nuclear stockpile either in concert with the Russian, but without a formal treaty, or unilaterally. Ms. Gottemoeller repeatedly stated that the US intended to move forward with negotiating a treaty with the Russians, but that further reductions outside the treaty process were “not currently on the table.”

You can watch the hearing and read the testimony here: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/nomination-09-26-2013

There was a lot more to my conversation with Jeffrey that I will save for another post; He was in no way reducing policy relevance to the idea of influencing individual policymakers. Really his question about who holds what position was simply a rhetorical device to prove a larger point about the relationship between policy and politics. I’m still collecting answers to what it means to be policy relevant (or politically relevant, maybe?) from others in Washington. I think this is an important question for the project of nuclear philosophy and am curious what you have to say on this topic.

Fukushima’s (Non-)Surprises

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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.

 

The Price of Nuclear Reductions

Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has threatened to block $75 million from the FY 2014 budget for reductions to the US nuclear arsenal. The planned reductions will bring the US into compliance with its commitments under the New Start Treaty. The bi-lateral arms control agreement with Russia commits the US to reducing deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018.

Public battles over funding nuclear programs are a major change from the blank check that Congress handed the US nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War. At the time, Congress related to the production and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in much the same way the public relates to the manufacture of circulating coinage and paper currency. On the one hand, politicians knew very well that the U.S. arsenal was not free. After all, Congress financed the nuclear weapon complex. Yet, on the other hand, the arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union proceeded as if it were costless. U.S. nuclear security policy was not set within the budgetary constraints that applied to other public programs. Nuclear weapons were considered cheaper than conventional forces because they offered “more bang for the buck.”  Nuclear weapons programs evaded the intense scrutiny of partisan politics and garnered strong bipartisan support. Moreover, the financial costs of nuclear weapons were shielded from public scrutiny by classification levels that kept most information about costs out of the news media. It was as if the supply of nuclear weapons was infinite, and the U.S. could just continue producing nuclear weapons much the way it minted money.

This practice of treating nuclear weapons as virtually costless changed after the Cold War ended. For the first time current and former costs of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex were subjected to ongoing scrutiny by nongovernmental organizations, and as the process of reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal became a reality, budgets for research, development and modernization became tighter. (The effects of budget constraints are already visible to anyone personally acquainted with the National Labs.)

The biggest changes, however, are yet to come. In his first-term, President Barack Obama made reducing the role of nuclear weapons a central feature of his administration’s foreign policy agenda, an initiative that the Republican-controlled Congress vigorously opposed. Obama is said to be considering further reductions during hus second term. Given the resistance in Congress to passing New Start, Obama will likely seek an informal agreement with Russia in the form of a Presidential Nuclear Initiative, obviating the need to seek ratification in the Senate. That leaves the appropriations process as the battleground and will likely lead to a very public debate about the current financial costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

And so it begins…the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee has made their approval of the $75 million for New Start reductions contingent on a report specifying the planned reductions. For his part, Rep. Rogers wants a “personal commitment” that  Obama “will not seek reductions that circumvent the treaty or the congressional authorization process.”

The Irony of Deterrence Failure

Sequester was, in principle, set up as a strategy of deterrence. The idea was to create an outcome that would be so terrible for all of the parties involved that the costs of standing on principle would outweigh the benefits of compromise. Hence, the language of the Fiscal Cliff, with which all Americans are familiar. The Fiscal Cliff was a combination of across the board automatic government spending cuts (sequester), the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, and the end of the pay-roll tax cuts. Unless Congress could pass a budget before the end of the year, taxes would go up and spending would go down, deepening the financial crisis. The budget debate dragged on throughout December as each side pulled the other closer to the edge of the cliff threatening to step off. Scrooge-like, the politicians begrudged the American public their holiday from partisan politics and the gloom of financial distress.

The fiscal cliff debate reads like a page out of Thomas Schelling’s instruction manual on nuclear deterrence. He instructs statesmen in how to manipulate the risk of nuclear war in order to prevail in a conflict of wills. Likening the situation to two individuals hand-cuffed to one another standing at the edge of a cliff, in order to prevail, one must convince the other that he or she is willing to jump, plunging both to their death, unless the other caves.

In the end, the threat of the Fiscal Cliff failed to do its job. It did not force a grand bargain, but rather a minor compromise (preserving  Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, but raising taxes on the top 2%. and delaying sequestration). Deterrence failed and sequestration has now taken effect. And now for the irony. As Jeffrey Lewis so nicely points out here one of the only things not being cut is support for the US nuclear deterrent.

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