2012/02/28

My brain hurt like a warehouse

David Bowie's concept album
about mankind's foreknowledge
 of the end of the world
As the first anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown syndrome approaches, I thought I would write a more personal account of what it feels like to have experienced life in post-disaster Japan.
On March 11th I was living in Toronto with my wife and children, safely removed from the disasters unfolding in our home country. We had been living there for only one year on a temporary leave, and we were due to go back to Japan on March 30th. As we watched events unfold we became more conflicted about what to do. We proceeded with plans to leave our rented house, sell the car and book a hotel for our stopover in Los Angeles, but all the time we were thinking it may be madness to return to Japan. For two weeks in March we seriously had to consider the possibility that Tokyo was slowly being rendered uninhabitable, and we might never see it, or all our loved ones there, again. But we’d just wave that thought away, wondering if we had watched too many disaster movies.
In any case, how do you call up the boss and announce to colleagues that you’re not coming back because you think they are all doomed? Businesses and schools were all getting ready to carry on as usual, as people believed, to some extent, the official reassurances and at the same time resigned themselves to their fate, and buried their fears in a place they didn’t want to go. Of the fifty million affected people, few of them had a foreign passport or a country to escape to.
 Three days before departure, there still had not been much reassuring news about Fukushima Daiichi, then there was a warning that iodine 131 levels in Tokyo drinking water made it too dangerous to be consumed by infants. This was the major indication that things were much worse than had been admitted, and it hinted that the trend might worsen. We put the brakes on our plans for departure. We cancelled our flights, even though it was too late to stay on in our rented house. We spent the next two weeks occupying my sister’s apartment while we waited for a sign that the death spiral of this nuclear plant was being brought under control. By mid-April this seemed to be the case. We might evacuate later if it became clear that we had to, but in the meantime we had a job and mortgage payments to get back to.
It turned out that the nightmare we contemplated in March, from a safe distance in Toronto, was not at all unrealistic. Later in the year, inquiries revealed that had the people in power been just a little more negligent and incompetent than they actually were, the nuclear contamination would have led to the necessity of a “voluntary migration” over the next year away from Tokyo and most areas of Northern Japan. The US government was aware of the danger at that time, and dependents of military families in Japan were allowed compensated voluntary evacuation, which most of them took. Several thousand of them spent a couple weeks at hotels stateside.
The details of how dangerous the situation really was are only now becoming clear. The New York Times reported today that an independent private study now completed concludes that the risk of a much larger accident was much higher than a previous government study concluded. The Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation “… offered one of the most vivid accounts yet of how Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis...” After the accident, conflicting reports appeared asking whether TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu had actually called for the evacuation of all staff from Fukushima Daiichi, a decision that would have led to the ruin of Japan. Government reports later claimed that he had said only some of the workers should withdraw, but the private report found that he did, in fact, want to withdraw everyone. This finding suggests that top management did not even understand the fundamental science of the crisis, or the potential dangers of the reactor cores and spent fuel. Or it seems they lacked the reasoning skills needed to conclude that lives would have to be put in danger in order to save many more lives.
 The New York Times report goes on to describe the private report as saying,

“Mr. Kan and other officials began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This would allow the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns…. The report also described the panic within the Kan administration at the prospect of large radiation releases from the more than 10,000 spent fuel rods that were stored in relatively unprotected pools near the damaged reactors. The report said it was not until five days after the earthquake that a Japanese military helicopter was finally able to confirm that the pool deemed at highest risk, near the No. 4 reactor, was still safely filled with water.”

Thus it was only on March 15 then that they knew that the worst case had been averted. The report credits Prime Minister Kan with making the right decision. Mr. Funabashi, the lead author of the report concluded, “Prime Minister Kan had his minuses and he had his lapses, but his decision to storm into TEPCO and demand that it not give up saved Japan.”
Despite this finding that the worst had been averted by March 15, the fallout from the reactor explosions showed up for months afterwards, in places that had been said to be safe. By a stroke of luck, 80% of it fell over the ocean, but the remaining 20% came down in dry or wet deposition in varying patterns. For example, the unlucky town of Kashiwa, a Tokyo suburb located in Chiba Prefecture, became a hotspot as hot as many places in Fukushima, and this was just because of the way the rain fell on a couple days in March.
Most disturbing of all is that the danger has not really been resolved. The damaged cores of reactors 1-3 are still in a perilous state, and the large spent fuel pool of the reactor 4 building, housing a massive pile of spent nuclear fuel, looks like it could crumble at any time in the next large earthquake, tsunami, plane crash or act of sabotage. Note to Japanese government: Have you ever heard of a no-fly zone? 
The Reactor 4 Building, February 2012

Akio Matsumura, founder and Secretary General of The Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, has taken up the reactor 4 building as a top priority. He declares on his website:

“I, along with many eminent scientists, are emphasizing the precarious situation of the fourth reactor that contains 1,535 nuclear fuel rods in the pool and is balanced on the second floor, outside of the reactor containment vessel. If the fuel rods spill onto the ground, disaster will ensue and force Tokyo and Yokohama to close, creating a gigantic evacuation zone. All scientists I have talked with say that if the structure collapses we will be in a situation well beyond where science has ever gone. The destiny of Japan will be changed and the disaster will certainly compromise the security of neighboring countries and the rest of the world in terms of health, migration and geopolitics.”

One of these eminent scientists, Bob Alvarez, added, “… the risk of yet another highly destructive earthquake occurring even closer to the Fukushima reactors has increased, according to the European Geosciences Union. This is particularly worrisome for Daiichi’s structurally damaged spent fuel pool at reactor No. 4 sitting 100 feet above ground, exposed to the elements. Drainage of water from this pool, resulting from another quake could trigger a catastrophic radiological fire involving about eight times more radioactive cesium than released at Chernobyl.”

Most people, even the highly educated ones I work with, seem oblivious to the danger they passed through and to the sword that still hangs over them. In addition to the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, there are other hazards in the enormous amounts of spent fuel stored all over Japan. Japan really has few options for long-term storage. In a certain sense, Japan is just one big dirty bomb waiting for an event to set it off.
As I walk in Tokyo these days I keep thinking, ”What would that have been like, for everyone to know that they had to get out within the year?” What an instant, profound awareness of how much we have screwed the future. I have an exquisite appreciation of my daily bread and my family, and as for everyone else, as the song says, “I never thought I’d need so many people.”

(I would like to credit the comedian and superb monologue artist Lee Camp with some inspiration for this post on the theme of carpe diem.)

By David Bowie

Pushing through the market square
so many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
we had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us
earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
then I knew he was not lying

I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.'s
My brain hurt like a warehouse
it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things
to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people

A girl my age went off her head
hit some tiny children
If the black hadn't a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them

A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheel of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest
and a queer threw up at the sight of that
I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor
drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine
don't think you knew you were in this song

And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor
And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
Your face, your race, the way that you talk
I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk

We've got five years, stuck on my eyes
We've got five years, what a surprise
We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot
We've got five years, that's all we've got

Five Years, written by David Bowie and released in 1972. It was the opening track on the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The song describes a civilization with foreknowledge of Earth dying within five years due to resource exhaustion. More background at The Ziggy Stardust Companion, with excerpts from a Rolling Stone interview in February, 1974 between William S. Burroughs and David Bowie.


2012/02/21

A voice that must be heard

- Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb

In previous posts I’ve argued that the eyewitness testimony of radiation victims provides some of the most reliable data to make judgments about the hazards posed by the present disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. Subjective accounts are often dismissed as being anecdotal, but in an age when hard data gets cherry-picked, filtered and turned toward any desired interpretation, it starts to make more sense to listen to the common message that comes out of thousands of historical eye-witness accounts that get offensively dismissed as "anecdotal."
Today, Japan’s Mainichi News (2012/02/21) carried a story about Matashichi Oishi, the last surviving member of the crew of the Lucky Dragon #5 (Daigo Fukuryu Maru) which was caught in the fallout of the American Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test held in 1954 near the Bikini Atoll.
Mr. Oishi describes how he was covered in ash and pulverized coral from the explosion, receiving a dose that was estimated later to be 2,000 to 3,000 millisieverts. To put this in perspective, keep in mind that the annual permitted dose for children in Japan was raised after the Fukushima accident from 1 millisievert per year to 20, which is 1/100th of the amount Oishi received in a single incident. Nonetheless, no one knows how Oishi’s experience will compare with the experience of a child born this year in Fukushima.
In addition to the hard science, the social science revealed by Mr. Oishi’s experience is perhaps the most valuable lesson to take from his life story. When news of the incident escaped the veil of nuclear secrecy, the reactions of the American and Japanese authorities, followed by the treatment by Japanese society, prove once again that radiation victims are assaulted twice – once in the initial exposure, then again in their pursuit of justice.
The head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, at first denied the fallout that landed on the Lucky Dragon #5 was radioactive, then he accused the crew of being a “red spy outfit.” Even though they told the Japanese that the ship was not contaminated, the US government quickly banned imports of tuna from Japan. The incident soon grew into a diplomatic nightmare, as it was the second time in less than a decade that Americans had victimized Japanese citizens with atomic weapons. As a nascent Japanese anti-nuclear movement became mobilized by the affair, the pro-American LDP government and the US government came to an agreement about how to arrange an "ex-gratia" settlement (one that gives condolence but does not admit guilt). The US paid $2 million dollars to the Japanese government, little of which was received by the victims. The ship’s captain died of acute radiation sickness soon after the incident, and his widow received $2,500. Mr. Oishi received a settlement of 2 million yen (about $25,000 at today’s exchange rate).
After the Lucky Dragon incident, the Japanese government established the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, which Mr. Oishi visited from 1957-1992. He said he stopped going when he became dissatisfied with their attention to his case. “My liver cancer was detected at a different hospital,” he said, “I began to feel that for the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, we were merely research subjects [as opposed to patients]. Based on what I’ve seen and heard about the slow response of the national government to the plight of people in Fukushima, I get the impression that things haven’t changed. Unless we try to learn from the lessons of past radiation victims, I’m afraid that our painful experiences will be repeated.”
Mr. Oishi outlived all of his crew mates, most of whom died in middle age, but he has had numerous health problems and says he has stayed alive only because of the numerous medical interventions he has had. He takes 30 kinds of drugs each day, and has the same health problems described by the Chernobyl liquidators and other Chernobyl victims, as well as other victims of weapons fallout: cataracts, arrhythmia, angina, asthma, liver cancer, infections, and a lung tumor. Various governments and UN bodies deny that these symptoms are the effects of radiation exposure, and the Japanese government has been no different. Mr. Oishi was never recognized, like the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as officially a radiation victim. He received only the same health benefits as any other Japanese citizen.
Someone might be tempted to hold Mr. Oishi up as an example of how little harm radiation does, saying, “Think of the amount of radiation he received, and look, at 78, he’s still alive!” This way of thinking about radiation’s effects counts only the deaths, as seen in the optimistic reporting about Chernobyl that claims only a few deaths were ever confirmed as directly related to Chernobyl. 
Leaving aside the emotional pain of the bereaved, another way to look at it is to say the deaths are the least of our concerns. The dead are gone and there is nothing more we can do for them. The thing we should be concerned about is the impact on the living – not that lives were ended but that they were filled with suffering and shortened. Mr. Oishi’s tale speaks to this point. What society would tolerate, on a moral level, this suffering for the sake of energy and security, and what society could afford the treatment for the victims of a large nuclear accident? But in fairness to nuclear advocates, we have to admit that this question applies to all forms of energy. The byproducts of fossil fuel burning also shorten millions of lives, a fact which millions of modernized and prosperous Chinese citizens are now painfully aware of.
The current Japanese government has reluctantly announced plans to make lump sum payments to evacuees of the Fukushima crisis so that they can get on with their lives, and this seems sensible and overdue to outside observers, but Mr. Oishi’s experience reveals something that may be a peculiar Japanese phenomenon. The government is perhaps aware that if they are helped to resettle elsewhere, victims of radiation will suffer not only discrimination, but also envy and resentment. It is not always easy to predict their future and conclude whether they will be better off leaving or staying. Mr. Oishi experienced discrimination toward himself and his daughters for having an irradiated bloodline, but he was also resented for his “lucky” windfall compensation payment. The little reported aspect of the Lucky Dragon incident is that the wide-scale testing that Japanese scientists did in the following months revealed that hundreds of fishing boat crews were affected, as was the entire catch of fish from the South Pacific. Fallout was detected on produce and in rainfall over Japan. It was the first time that fallout data had been made known to the general public, and this incident is seen now as the beginning of the end of atmospheric testing.
     Because so many fishermen had also been affected, they resented that only the Lucky Dragon crew received compensation and attention. Otherwise, Mr. Oishi grew annoyed that friends and relatives pestered him to co-sign for loans, so he left his small town for the anonymity of Tokyo. But since the 1990s, and more so since the Fukushima crisis, Mr. Oishi has chosen to step out of his anonymity and speak publicly to honor the memory of his deceased crew members, and all radiation victims. He feels that what he has to say no is no longer just “someone else’s pitiful story.” He added, “What are we going to do about radiation, and about nuclear power? We can’t leave it up to the leaders who don’t want to lose in international competition, because they will resist seeing the health effects of radiation exposure as significant. The public must think this through with raised awareness, or this problem will remain unresolved forever.”
What is most significant is that Mr. Oishi is also speaking for millions of victims like himself whose suffering has been dismissed, or at best, neglected for decades. The American government later admitted that hundreds of fishing boats were hit with fallout from the Castle Bravo test. The bomb yield was larger than expected, and the wind also blew in an unexpected direction. The Lucky Dragon was exceptional in that it got back to a country with a sufficiently vital media and political culture that could turn its story into an international incident.
In addition to the fishing boats affected by this one bomb test, the natives of the South Pacific Islands were affected by numerous British, French and American tests, not to mention the military personnel from these countries. There were victims of Soviet bomb tests in Kazakhstan, British bomb tests in Australia, Chinese bomb tests along the Silk Road, and victims of various nuclear reactor accidents, some large and famous, some small and little known. Finally, there are the uranium miners, and nuclear workers who lost their health doing nuclear fuel processing for bombs and power generation. Resolution 275, a US Senate resolution designating October 30, 2011, as a national day of remembrance (that almost no one remembers or even knows about because it went largely unreported) for nuclear weapons program workers who were “left with debilitating illness that far too often led to their premature deaths,” according to Senator Harry Reid.
Mr. Oishi’s final judgment of the Japanese National Institute of Radiological Sciences is worth reflecting on as we wonder exactly what the Japanese government is doing to help Fukushima Prefecture. The government has promised to establish the best program to monitor the health of citizens for the coming decades, and since government officials deny there is a risk, the purpose of such an expensive program could only be to make a show of responsiveness and to prove a desired conclusion. This is what they do instead of helping people move away to safer locations.
     One can’t help but think that the plan is to repeat the process of the official UN research on Chernobyl. The government will control who can do the research, and then the research parameters, data selection and final interpretations will be massaged to yield the foregone conclusions that confirm the safety of nuclear energy. In the end, the people will feel as Mr. Oishi did, as research subjects rather than as patients, unless we follow his warning: think this through with raised awareness, or this problem will remain unresolved forever.

Other Sources:

Oishi, Masashichi. The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, The Lucky Dragon and I. University of Hawaii Press. 2011






2012/02/17

The (False?) Promise of Small Modular Reactors


Book Review
By Reese Palley

The Babcock and Wilcox MPower  SMR

The nuclear energy debate is framed in what became its fossilized form in the 1970s and 1980s as the global disarmament movement and the anti-nuclear movement had some successes. Even this year, as the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns dominate the discussion, most of the debate is about the wisdom of building more of the familiar, large-scale gigawatt nuclear power plants that have been with us since the 1960s. The public has the image of the old technologies from forty years ago that failed in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear proponents argue that new designs are going to be “passive safe,” often smaller, and with a less poisonous waste product. Anti-nuclear groups have to focus on how to wind down the old generation of power plants, and also pay attention to this new generation because from now on this is what the debate will be about.
In 2011, American author Reese Palley wrote The Answer: Why Only Inherently Safe Mini-Nuclear Power Plants Can Save Our World, in which he presents a powerful argument that all alternatives except these new SMRs (Small Modular Reactors, or mini nukes) offer false hope as solutions to the energy crisis. The argument for these SMRs has some severe weaknesses, but Palley must be credited with having written some excellent prose that provides a brutally frank description of how bad our energy predicament is.
Reese served in WWII, attended the London School of Economics, and had a successful career in the art business. He then spent two decades sailing the world, pausing in China and the Soviet Union along the way to establish businesses there. And he’s an author of several books who has now turned his attention to the planet’s greatest problem.
Palley agrees with anti-nuclear activists on the point that large gigawatt power plants must be a thing of the past. They were designed to produce plutonium for the build-up of nuclear weapons, while different options for reactor design were pushed aside. They are too expensive and time-consuming to build, and have too many real and perceived dangers for the public and private investors to support.
Anti-nuclear activists, however, hesitate to get on board with his enthusiasm for the new generation of SMRs that are now in the design stage. Palley promotes these reactors as “walk away safe” because they are to be buried in the ground and run for a few decades without human intervention. They are modular and scalable, leaving behind no weapons grade material because they are based on the safer reactor concepts that were passed up in the early days of the Cold War. Some of the designs are said to be capable of using up existing spent fuel, which is sufficient enough, supposedly, to provide the earth’s energy needs for centuries.
Palley’s assessment of alternatives is hard to dispute. He notes that there is no oil, coal or gas shortage. There are enough of these sources to last a few more centuries, but the problem is that ecosystems will collapse from global warming before these resources are gone. We have to stop using them soon, and it is not just a matter of cutting back. We have to get carbon dioxide emissions close to zero to avoid the worst outcome.
Renewable energy sources have severe shortcomings as well. Water behind hydroelectric dams contains rotting vegetation which spews out the greenhouse gas methane. There isn’t enough space to put wind farms in the places where they are needed. The solar energy striking the earth is finite. It has to be used to grow plants, which sequester carbon and feed people, so there is a limit on how much solar energy can be used to produce electricity or biofuels. Geothermal sites contain greenhouse gases and toxins, and there are difficulties in finding sites close to populations that need energy. Finally, sequestering greenhouse gases in underground storage is utterly unrealistic. In short, there is no solution except SMRs, apparently. 
The most fascinating argument that Palley presents is in his discussion of the black swan, civilization-ending massive solar flare which would knock out power grids all over the world. He uses this as an argument for breaking up large, interconnected grids into local isolated grids powered by SMRs. This could save the world from a complete, prolonged blackout. Such a flare actually occurred in 1859 and it caused fires, and destruction of the small telegraph grid that was in place at the time. No one knows for sure how a recurrence would effect electricity grids now. After sufficiently scaring the life out of his readers, he may not have wanted to associate this disaster with its effect on nuclear power plants. He conveniently omits mention of this long blackout leading to hundreds of nuclear power plants running out of fuel for backup cooling systems, after which they would go into meltdowns. Fukushima X 400 (or 400 Chernobyls, as this report explains it).
Palley’s argument becomes suspect when the reader notices that the sharp, critical eye he has for every other energy alternative is not applied to SMRs, or even to conventional nuclear power plants. A few moments of research on the Internet turns up numerous articles that raise safety concerns about these new nuclear power plants, and Palley gives very short shrift to the known extent of radiological contamination from various accidents. The health consequences of Chernobyl are given less than a page, and what is written is just a pat repetition of the big lie that I’ve covered in previous posts. These omissions begin to seem quite disingenuous by the end of the book.
The physicist Michio Kaku voiced criticisms of SMRs in a short interview on CNN. He conceded that these power plants might be used in remote communities, but he felt it was extremely unrealistic to think that they could provide a city like Chicago, let alone the whole world, with all its requirements. As one power plant could supply energy to 20,000 homes, it is inconceivable that Chicago would have dozens of these plants throughout the city. He notes too that even though the spent fuel would not have a potential to be turned into nuclear bombs, it would still be high level nuclear waste that posed a risk of mishandling or sabotage in the form of a dirty bomb.
A more thorough critique was written by Arjun Makhijani and Michele Boyd in a report for The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility. They point out that the low cost estimates of SMRs may be underestimated, as every proposal for new technology tends to be. Mass production of numerous SMRs could be more expensive than the building and maintenance of fewer large plants. There will be thousands of sites that need to be secured, monitored, staffed, and serviced when recalls are required. The existence of thousands of sites also complicates retrieval of waste and decommissioning.
The makers of SMRs also propose that these reactors could be used in developing countries, but many such places are unstable and they lack an educated workforce that can handle this advanced technology.
Makhijani and Boyd also cover the details of different proposed types of SMRs. The ones based on sodium cooling are particularly worrisome considering the history of accidents and delays with this technology (for background, refer to the Fermi I reactor accident near Detroit, and the expensive, unproductive monster that is the Monju reactor in Japan). They point out that one of the many problems of the pebble bed reactor design (which a German company gave up on a long time ago) is that the uranium it uses is more enriched than what is used now in light water reactors. How is this less of a proliferation risk? Finally, the thorium reactors don’t produce the same bomb making material as light water reactors, but they still produce fissile Uranium 233 isotopes.
Worst of all, the SMRs may be a false promise that deflects attention away from the need to reduce population and consumption, and improve efficiency. Palley himself admitted that endless growth and thirst for more energy is the root of the problem, but he doesn’t acknowledge that the proliferation of thousands of SMRs would only feed this endless desire for more energy and lead to more population growth.
The flaw in the logic may be right in the title of Palley’s book: The Answer. There seems to be a faulty assumption that there has to be an answer. The thinking goes that if it is not a, b, c, d or e, then it must be f. People involved in the energy debate often choose their favorite answer, ignore its flaws and defend it at all costs. Meanwhile, they demolish the arguments for all other alternatives. This process ignores the possibility that there may be no answer. The universe doesn’t care if we go the same way as the dinosaurs. If there is an answer, it remains elusive.

Sources:

Arjun Makhijani and Michele Boyd. Small Modular Reactors: No solution to the cost, safety and waste problems of nuclear power. A fact sheet produced by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility, September 2010.
Is Thorium a Magic Bullet for our Energy Problems? NPR. May 2012.
John G. Fuller. We Almost Lost Detroit. 1984.
Hiroko Tabuchi. Japan Strains to Fix a Reactor Damaged Before Quake. The New York Times. June 17, 2011.

2012/02/16

Japanese state mobilizes its young women to give comfort

I was starting to think that the news of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was slowing down. Of course, it's all just as horrible as ever, and the government's reaction to it is the same list of shameful failures it has been since March last year, but lately there hasn't been anything new to report.
Then today there were a couple of items that added to or even surpassed the list of outrageous events. 
First, the Ministry of Agriculture has persuaded nine university campus queens to join a promotional campaign in which they will be featured eating food from Fukushima Prefecture. It's bad enough that university student associations still hold beauty pageants and elect a Miss Campus, but somehow someone in government latched onto the idea that these young ladies could be used in the revival of the Fukushima economy. It would be a nice idea if all the food from Fukushima were safe and the government and the producers had done an effective job of food monitoring, but, in fact, these efforts have been riddled with failures. This has shattered public trust in any food from Fukushima, as well as some surrounding areas, even though many of the food products are clear of contamination. As the blog post from ex-skf.blogspot.com makes clear, these women will be asked to eat and promote many types of food that have been found to be contaminated. I can't imagine why they let themselves be used in this way, but I have to keep in mind that it's a tough job market out there. These women probably, sadly, believe in what they are doing, and believe it will lead to a good job offer when they graduate. I take small comfort in knowing that the university I work for was not considered prestigious enough to be invited to participate.
Other news, also reported by ex-skf.blogspot.com, is that a citizen with a consumer grade dosimeter has found a mysterious "black powder" on the streets of Minamisoma, a town just near the boundary of the evacuation zone of where many residents - with children - decided to stay put. This powder was measured at a whopping 295 microsieverts per hour! No official survey noticed this fine, black powder which this citizen found throughout the streets of the town. A sample of the powder was analyzed by a professor at Kobe University and the cesium content was found to be:
Cs-134: 485,252 Bq/kg
Cs-137: 604,360 Bq/kg
TOTAL: 1,089,612 Bq/Kg

This is an astounding level. The soil in the parks near my home in Chiba are reported to have a total of 450 Bq/kg, and a gamma dose rate of 0.12 microsieverts per hour (up from a natural background of 0.06). In the evacuation zone of Fukushima this number is in the range of 2 ~ 8 microsieverts per hour. One can only speculate, until further testing is complete, as to whether this black powder is a very concentrated form of nuclear fuel that must contain high levels of uranium and plutonium. 

2012/02/09

Jevons' Paradox

The so called “nuclear revival” that was rolling along nicely before March, 2011 was succeeding without much opposition largely because it was deemed the necessary way to diminish the impact of global warming. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were distant memories, and the nuclear industry seemed to have learned how to manage this dangerous form of power generation.
This view changed drastically when three reactors in Fukushima melted down after the Japanese nuclear industry had failed to prepare for the easily foreseeable hazard of a tsunami. A skeptical public now doubts that any culture can safely manage the complexity of nuclear power that involves the unwieldy framework of finance, regulation and engineering that is so prone to corruption and error. In other industries, accidents can be dealt with and relatively contained, but a single nuclear accident has enormous potential for widespread ecological and social destruction. There is no room for error.
However, we are being asked to accept the “allowable risk” of nuclear energy because of the insistence that nuclear energy has the potential to save us from global warming. Unfortunately, this is a false hope.
At present, nuclear energy provides about 14% of the world’s electricity, and it is not conceivable that this share could grow significantly. The possibility of growth is constrained by the shrinking supply of uranium, and the hesitations of voters, investors and insurers to back new projects. A gas turbine generator can be built in a short period, but it takes over a decade for a new nuclear plant to go through design, approval and construction, and there is too much uncertainty involved now for anyone to make a bet on continuing down the nuclear path. Even if some projects go ahead in spite of the obstacles, it is hard to see world supply going much above the present 14%.
So the question becomes this: Do we want one problem or two? When the sea levels rise and coastlines are hit with hurricanes of unprecedented strength, do you want the problems to be compounded by your local nuclear power plant having a station blackout followed by a meltdown?
One might argue that we could have a power supply made of 20% nuclear, combined with 20% reductions in carbon dioxide, and additions of alternative energy, and this combination would give us time to save the planet, or invent a way to do fusion energy. However, the nature of human development is such that, even when there are energy efficiency gains, there is an overall  increase in energy use. Carbon dioxide output will continue to climb with or without a nuclear supplement. The paradox was first described by William S. Jevons in 1865:

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase in consumption.”

Jevons was talking about coal consumption, but in modern parlance it means that the invention of the hybrid car leads to more people buying cars, and their owners, delighted by the thought that they are using clean energy, driving them farther.
     The pro-nuclear argument assumes that this growing demand is inevitable and even good for reducing unemployment and other social problems. Christine Todd and Patrick Moore (the latter formerly of Greenpeace), celebrating the licensing of two AP1000 reactors in the U.S., claim, "We need a cost-efficient, low-carbon solution to the nation's increasing electricity demand - projected to rise 24 percent by 2035. Expanding nuclear energy as part of the mix of electricity generation options is necessary to meeting our nation's growing power needs cleanly and cost-effectively." It is significant that increasing demand is defined as inevitable needs rather than controllable desires.
Matt Ridley discusses the Jevons paradox in The Rational Optimist, and notes with his own example that he wanted to think Jevons was wrong, but one day found himself shouting into his cell phone, while making a non-essential call, in order to talk over the noise of a neighbor using a leaf blower.
Ridley writes, "Civilization, like life itself, has always been about capturing energy… human history is a tale of progressively discovering and diverting sources of energy to support human lifestyle."
Steam engines began with 1% efficiency, then efficiency progressed up to 60% in modern gas turbines. Economists study the energy intensity of nations as a calculation of watts used per dollar of GDP. Energy intensity tends to rise as countries go through industrialization, but it then levels off. The US now has an energy intensity that is one half of its 1950 level. This is partly due to gains in efficiency, and also due to the loss of manufacturing that is now done elsewhere. The point is that US GDP is more than double the 1950 level, so total energy consumption in the US, and in the whole world, has increased since 1950, in spite of gains in efficiency. This tendency is forgotten as each new energy technology brings hope that all our energy "needs" will now be fulfilled. When the generators of Niagara were switched on, journalists gushed about the marvelous future ahead. When the first nuclear generators were being developed, American nuclear pioneer Lewis Strauss said electricity would soon be “too cheap to meter.” However, he was referring to the still unrealized potential of fusion energy. Fission reactors at the time still did not have proven cost efficiency, and critics insist they never have.
Bill Gates has invested in a radical new concept in nuclear reactors which he believes is the only hope for getting the world to zero carbon dioxide emissions. This new travelling wave reactor would use spent fuel already in existence, and have passive-safe features that make accidents impossible. He has consulted with the experts and he says that in order to save the world, carbon dioxide emissions can’t be just reduced by some amount. They have to be brought to zero, but he is an optimist who believes that the standard of living of the poorest billions in the world can be brought up to First World levels, and he says energy is essential for delivering the "services" they want. Green alternatives can play a role, according to Gates, but they will never meet the base load demand. According to Gates' plan, if the timing of this energy input comes before ecosystems collapse, the standard of living of the poor will increase, birth rates will level off as a result of development, and world population will stabilize, or even decline.
Somehow, this all starts to sound like a pipe dream, and the details Gates provides about the traveling wave reactor raise more questions than they answer. In the same way that he developed Windows software in isolation, in a private enterprise, he seems to not want skeptics to raise questions, or hack or crowd-source the system he proposes. Furthermore, like he did with numerous versions of Windows, he is willing to put this technology into use first, without any regard for the problems that may come after sales. (Reactor makers are infamous for transferring after-sale liability to the buyer. Any future accidents become the responsibility of the plant owners and operators, which they pass on to citizens.) It is one thing to do this with software, but quite another to do it with a nuclear power plant. Bitter experience has shown that operators are loathe to fix mistakes when they are found after the plants have been built. Bill Gates is not even trying to get the reactors approved in the US because he knows he would face regulatory hurdles and the hindrances of the democratic process.
The questions about this technology seem obvious. How many reactors would you need to build to bring global carbon dioxide output to zero? Could you get that much fuel? The reactor uses spent fuel, but what hazards are involved in handling the spent spent fuel? If the vision is to have hundreds or thousands of these reactors spread around the world, some of them small and rather portable, how does this solve the present threat of accidents, storage leaks, theft of nuclear fuel, or deliberate sabotage? We were fooled once before into thinking we could steal the fire of the atom without having to pay a price, so what’s different this time? In light of what has happened in 70 years of nuclear history, it seems extremely ill-advised to hope for anything more from nuclear energy. It was an experiment the human race tried but should now walk away from. Perhaps it bridged a gap and offset carbon emissions, but it is time to recognize the grave hazards and make nuclear energy taboo.
It would be better to recognize the limits to growth and get serious about finding a level of sustainable energy use. Alternative energies will not be able to supply us with everything we want. In fact, the unrestrained growth of renewable energy would have a negative human and environmental impact. The focus will have to shift to using less energy and controlling population growth before the hypothetical time when everyone will be up to the present First World standard of comfort. It is standard development philosophy that people in the Third World need electricity in order to have any hope, but this view may be wrong. Perhaps there are forms of justice and prosperity that don’t require everyone getting hooked up to the grid. The human race lived a long time without it, and may do so again. Finland is building a nuclear storage facility that presupposes that for 100,000 years its design needs to warn away a future race of people who are technologically undeveloped, perhaps illiterate, and speaking a language that does not yet exist. This presumption, arrived at by the engineers designing the Onkalo Waste Repository, is a sharp contrast to Bill Gates’ rosy vision of the future.

Sources:

“Abundant Power from Atom Seen; It will be too cheap for our children to meter, Strauss tells science writers,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 1954, p. 5.

Jevons, S. (1865) The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines. Macmillan, p. 103.

Madsen, M. (dir.)(2009) Into Eternity.

Moore, P., Todd-Whitman, C. New Reactors Signal U.S. Nuclear Energy Resurgence, February 10, 2012.

Ridley, Matt (2010) The Rational Optimist. Harper Perennial.

2012/02/02

Is there a stress test for stress tests?


A report in the Asahi Shimbun today entitled Nuclear Safety Advisers Slam Stress Tests describes the encouraging news that some members of Japan's nuclear village have seen the light and have decided to choose life.
Masashi Goto, a former nuclear power plant designer, and Hiromitsu Ino, emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, who both served as members of an advisory committee to Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), have criticized the stress tests being applied to the nation's nuclear reactors. They say the tests don't "… look at complex scenarios, such as system-wide failure due to the aging of the plant, or human errordo not assess aging of plant equipment or other potential causes of accidents, such as fires, plane crashes, tornadoes or lightning."
They note that during the tsunami that hit Fukushima Daiichi there were pieces of rubble and boats flowing in, large amounts of fuel, and fires out at sea. These factors are not considered in the stress tests. They ask, "Is it sufficient that a plant can withstand an earthquake 1.8 times stronger than that it was designed for? What happens if an earthquake twice as strong hits?" They claim that the stress tests are nothing more than an "optimistic desk simulation."
They also doubted the impartiality of the IAEA, saying, "It is highly unlikely that the IAEA can undertake a fair assessment. The agency promotes the nuclear industry and it is only investigating the stress tests for a short time. The last IAEA report was very flimsy, and I fear it'll be the same this time."
There's something happening here. A few months ago I never thought I would be hearing anyone connected to NISA echoing what anti-nuclear activists and bloggers like me have been saying about these problems.
Goto and Ino also slammed an advisory committee for shutting out citizen participation. They announced, "It is inadmissible that the citizens' right to closely observe the review process was inhibited, the minimum requirements of democracy for such a crucial decision-making on whether or not to reopen nuclear power plants after a historic nuclear disasterIn reality what would make nuclear power really safe would be to make entire plants earthquake-proof, everything down to the wiring system. That's the viewpoint of the residents, and if you can't do it for financial reasons then I think they wouldn't want nuclear power at all."
In the same Asahi report, IAEA spokesman, Greg Webb, was reported as saying that the agency's mission is to improve safety regulations among member countries. He stressed, "the IAEA cannot guarantee the safety of any nuclear power plant and does not have the power to shut plants or keep them open…. Nuclear safety is a national responsibility in any country. No country has asked the IAEA to be a safety watchdog. We don’t conduct nuclear safety inspections."
I've been following the news of the IAEA's recent visits to Japan, and this is the first time they’ve gone out of their way to distance themselves from the consequences of Japan’s decisions about nuclear energy. Extremely diplomatic and vague language is the norm. Maybe means no, room for improvement means egregious lapses in safety procedures, it’s difficult means hell will freeze over before that happens, and and when the IAEA says nuclear safety is a national responsibility in any country it means Japan would have to be batshit crazy to continue accumulating nuclear waste and operating nuclear reactors on these seismic fault lines, but it's their choice if they want to kill themselves. I suspect there are many nuclear engineers in other countries with lower risks of earthquakes who are thinking this way. They may be confident about their own safety record, but they have come to the sensible conclusion that nuclear is not a wise energy option for Japan.

2012/02/01

Nowhere to Run after TMI

In January 2012 I was interviewed on Corbett Report Radio by independent radio journalist James Corbett (see also his blog Fukushima Update). After the interview, I thought of dozens of ways I could have answered the questions better, and one such question that stuck with me, before this interview and afterward, is: Why do you stay in Japan? I have never felt that I have a satisfactory answer for myself or for others.

President Carter touring the TMI-2 control room, April Fools Day, 1979
This week I came across a series of radio documentaries on nuclear issues aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1990s. In part 3 of this series (Counting the Costs – Chalk River to Chernobyl), there was an interview with Jane Lee, a farmer from Etters, Pennsylvania, who became active in various public-awareness groups following the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station on March 28, 1979. In this short interview (transcribed below), she gives the best answer I can think of to the “why I stay” question:

70% of the core has been compromised, and they are in a process now of grinding up the core to remove it from the reactor [a process which lasted until 1990], and as they do that, of course, they are constantly having emissions coming from the plant.The infant mortality rate in this area doubled. But what is even more alarming than that is the enormous increase in cancer deaths in children in the four counties surrounding Three Mile Island. Compared to the numbers previous to the accident that the health department listed even just on leukemia.

We have done an in-depth report on plant life where we are seeing many mutations… All the birds on the farm disappeared. It looked like winter. And not only did we see complete defoliation, we saw trees that were defoliated at different levels.

Interviewer: Why do you stay here?

I think that most people can understand when you talk about roots. You set down roots in a community. And you are part of that community. That’s one reason, but the main reason that we will not move is because we went to a map and we looked and there’s no place to run. There is no place to run. The United States right now is operating 101 nuclear power plants – that’s commercial plants. We’re also operating university reactors, we’re also operating military reactors, and then you have the processing plants, and the processing plants are the worst violators of all because they are dumping tons, and I say tons, of uranium dust into the atmosphere. So if you move from here – here you know what you’ve got – even if you’re living in danger – you know what’s here. We know what came out of the plant now, and so, why do we want to run some place and start the process all over?

50% of the people in this area left. They sold their properties and they went. And you know what happened? They’re just as close, or almost as close to a reactor as where they left here. So it’s futile to think that you’re going to escape this. You have to stand your ground. You have to do your research and you have to challenge your government and say you cannot continue to do this because you’re going to kill this planet.

This population [in the Three Mile Island area] is very passive and very conservative. Most of the people in this area don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to read about it. They simply know, and they have a feeling of helplessness about their own government. Now, we’re not talking about Russia. We’re talking about the good old USA.

Whether Jane Lee's answer is sensible depends on the level of contamination one is living with. In heavily contaminated areas it would make no sense to stay, but for people who are in areas of lighter contamination, and for whom the initial blast of iodine 131 and xenon 135 (now decayed away) can't be undone, the decision is not so clear cut. Sometimes it makes more sense to take precautions with food, monitor the health of people around you, and, like she says, "stand your ground."

Further information about the work of Jane Lee appears in various reports about the Three Mile Island accident–-a word which the CBC report suggests should be replaced with something that means "an unfortunate event foreseeable because of previously known hazards."

In the article People Died at Three Mile Island, Harvey Wasserman describes how the TMI operator, and the Pennsylvania and US government downplayed the consequences of the accident and reneged on promises to carry out thorough health studies. He states, "… the most reliable studies were conducted by local residents like Jane Lee and Mary Osborne, who went door-to-door in neighborhoods where the fallout was thought to be worst. Their surveys showed very substantial plagues of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, respiratory problems, hair loss, rashes, lesions and much more."

Such research has been routinely dismissed with pejorative connotations by the word “anecdotal.” If hundreds of people in an area report the sudden onset of health problems after a nuclear accident, but the researcher is deemed to be just an unqualified farmer-activist (not participating in officially sanctioned research), the findings are treated contemptuously with such zingers as "the plural of anecdote is not data." Actually, the plural of anecdote in much academic research is data. If you describe your symptoms to a citizen mobilizing her own research project, you are telling anecdotes. If you describe your symptoms to an approved researcher, you’re giving data.

Wasserman also cites the work of Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer who left the industry in order to pursue anti-nuclear work. He quotes Gundersen as saying, "When I correctly interpreted the containment pressure spike and the doses measured in the environment after the TMI accident, I proved that TMI's releases were about one hundred times higher than the industry and the NRC claim, in part because the containment leaked. This new data supports the epidemiology of Dr. Steve Wing and proves that there really were injuries from the accident.” Dr. Wing’s findings have been rejected by many because they were inconsistent with what was believed to be the possible effects of the known releases from TMI. This inconsistency disappears if Gundersen is correct that the releases were a hundred times higher than previously thought.