2013/02/28

The West Wing has a meltdown

The West Wing. Season 7 Episode 12: Duck and Cover. 2006. Directed by Christopher Misiano, written by Aaron Sorkin and Eli Attie.

Seven years ago Aaron Sorkin dared to put a nuclear accident into his television series The West Wing. Duck and Cover (Season 7, Episode 12) portrays the fictional President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) dealing with a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in “San Andreo” – a fictional city located “near San Diego.” Viewed from the perspective of 2013, we can see that Sorkin had a keen premonition of which of America’s 100 or so commercial nuclear reactors would soon be in trouble. The fictional “San Andreo” was an obvious stand-in for the San Onofre plant near San Diego that has been shut down since 2012 with numerous problems that are likely to be the end of it.
Kudos to Sorkin for wanting to remind the nation about the hazards of nuclear energy almost thirty years after Three Mile Island, and during the nuclear renaissance that was happening in the years before Fukushima. In the time just before and after Fukushima, no major media companies have been eager to air anything critical of nuclear energy. They are either beholden to corporate sponsors with interests in nuclear, or they are owned by conglomerates with interests in nuclear. Even the wide-ranging satirical jabs of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have studiously avoided giving anything but passing reference to the crisis in Fukushima.
In spite of the noble effort to bring nuclear energy back to public awareness, the episode might have done a disservice to the cause by giving audiences an overly simplistic and positive view of how their government would handle an actual crisis. Throughout the series, President Bartlet is the wise, idealistic and effective leader that viewers should know is a complete fantasy. However, many progressives actually seem to believe that the Democratic Party is always led by a Camelot on a white horse.
For example, in Duck and Cover, we see a presidential debate in which one candidate is pro-nuclear and the other anti-nuclear, and they actually discuss nuclear energy in the debate. In reality, during the last election nuclear energy was never mentioned during the debates, and both parties were solidly pro-nuclear.
When the crisis begins at the fictional power plant, it is managed in a way that is totally unbelievable; that is, competently. The president is informed immediately, and he demands that the heads of FEMA and the NRC be in his office within fifteen minutes. He is surrounded by competent advisers who understand nuclear energy and the full implications of a broken cooling system. Credibility is pushed further when the president expresses his wish to make full public disclosure of the situation, including the data on radiation levels, and begin evacuations – even if it turns out later that they were not necessary.
As conditions worsen at the power plant, they have to contemplate the lesser evil of releasing radioactive steam deliberately in order to avoid an explosion that would lead to a catastrophe. The president decides that he will order two NRC engineers into the plant to manually open and close the necessary valves in order to avoid the worst outcome. One gets radiation sickness and the other dies. It’s nice to think that a civilian engineer would make this sacrifice to save children from getting thyroid cancer, a bit like Bruce Willis staying behind on the meteor in Armageddon. But, in reality, nuclear plant managers in Fukushima didn’t send anyone on potential suicide missions. It’s pure speculation to say now that a dangerous mission to open stuck valves manually might have averted the explosions, but it is notable that no one tried. One might be tempted to think it was culture; that is, they were, in Japanese fashion, waiting for a consensus to form before rushing to a decision. If you think Americans would be more heroic, just research the grand FUBAR situation that was the response to Three Mile Island.
Another thing that the story gets wrong is the portrayal of the evacuation. Within hours people as far away as Colorado are jamming the highways in desperate attempts to go eastward. The reality of a real evacuation is that because the threat is intangible, most people have to be prodded into feeling some sense of urgency. People with young children might get out quickly, but everyone else hesitates to believe the threat is real.
Finally, the most laughably implausible line of the story comes at the end when President Bartlet declares that the government will "help with the relocation of those who may not wish to return to San Andreo." Governments tend to leave even the mandatory evacuees with much less than they deserve, so it is a stretch to believe a government would ever offer compensation to voluntary evacuees. As I wrote above, though, The West Wing was wish fulfillment fantasy for American progressives. Such deluding entertainment must have had some effect on a public that fell for “hope and change” right after this show ended its seven year run. They ended up with a president who has little of the idealism, toughness and wisdom portrayed by the fictional president of The West Wing.

In other parts of the story, President Bartlet has some good comeback lines to the Republican presidential candidate (Alan Alda) who had been lobbied years earlier to support the construction of “San Andreo.” The Republican says risk is everywhere, “people die in car accidents,” but the president’s retorts, “Yes, but when they do, they don’t tell you to stop eating produce three states away.” One can conclude from the episode that Sorkin made a noble attempt to portray an anti-nuclear stance.* The Democratic candidate comes out at the end firmly convinced that we have to rethink energy policy and move away from nuclear. The trouble is that in the real world, neither of the two major parties is remotely interested in abandoning nuclear. Only massive pressure from citizens can change policy, and it would probably take a major accident on American soil to make this happen.

*Sorkin took up the nuclear issue again in 2012 by putting the Fukushima meltdowns into a storyline of The Newsroom (Season 1, Episode 6), but the issue was only a sideline in a story about journalistic ethics. It came off a little like an excuse to portray the novelty of a beautiful American actress (Olivia Munn) speaking Japanese.



Coming Across that Kodak Moment

A PC usb port decked out to look like a nuclear missile launcher
The army pressed the button, we did the rest
You never know when you’ll come across a Kodak moment – like today when I found a photography blog that tells the story of how the Kodak corporation in Rochester, New York learned as early as 1946 that their film was being damaged by nuclear weapons testing. After one test, which was followed by a snowfall in Rochester, they recorded 10,000 counts per minute in the snow, compared to a “normal” count of 400 in snowfalls before this test. It’s notable that this is about what people in Tokyo were blanketed with in the days after the Fukushima 
meltdowns. Because people in Tokyo knew what was hitting them, they were not blessedly ignorant like the North American population of the 1950s and 60s. The Japanese spent anxious days wondering if they should flee from a danger they (or their parents) were all exposed to in the past - some of us more than others, actually. I found out recently that I was born nine months after the start of a global weapons testing moratorium that lasted from early 1959 until it began to unravel in late 1960. I couldn’t have picked a less bad time in that era to be conceived. To the extent that I am still healthy, this may be the reason. I was spared, during my most sensitive months of development, from exposure to all the short-lived radionuclides in the fallout - although there is little reason to take comfort from the spike in the fallout for many years after 1960.
1959-60 was a relatively good time to be born (image from Wikipedia).
   In any case, the comparison between America in the 1950s Japan in 2011 just shows that you can oppose nuclear weapons and the civilian nuclear industry, or you can run away, but you cannot hide.
Kodak complained to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1951 and threatened to sue, and thus from that time they were given privileged access to the schedule of bomb tests and the predicted fallout patterns. The North American public was kept in the dark, and food production was not protected, but our film for all those precious Kodak moments was kept safe.
I suppose the people involved in these secret decisions convinced themselves that the film was hypersensitive, while levels detected presented no threat to living things. But then and now scientists knew this was not the case. In particular, the danger of iodine 131 getting into the dairy supply was a well-known hazard, but the interests of the public were put aside for national security.

Source:

2013/02/24

A Tale of Two Cities



Well, actually it’s two tales that appear to be about different places but are actually about the same place called Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco), in the southeast corner of Washington state. It is also referred to as “Washington’s Wine Country” by the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau. This is how the bureau introduces the region and its unique role in national history:

“Richland started out as a small farming community...but the population boomed from about 1,500 to more than 51,000 residents in 1943 when the government built the country's first nuclear reactor on the Hanford Site. The Hanford Site continues to play a major role in the Tri-Cities economy and is also a huge part of the science and technology communities worldwide. The Hanford Reach is the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States and was recently designated as a National Monument by President Clinton.”

In May 2012, the Tri-City Herald proudly announced that the area was named “almost the best place in the U.S. to raise children, according to the current online issue of Kiplinger.com magazine [a publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice.]” The article detailed how the region had high incomes, plenty of land and natural amenities, and high spending on and high achievement in education.
The Kiplinger review describes Richland as a “technology hub” where the Department of Energy, the region’s largest employer, “runs several major operations.” Because of this “families can earn a very comfortable living.” 
The article in the Tri-City Herald quoted the CEO and president of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau as saying, "This is such a plus for us. We're finally being recognized for things we've always known about the Tri-Cities." The local boosters seemed to think that the endorsement from a financial consultancy was equal to ranking high on the UN Human Development Index. They failed to notice that, being interested in business forecasts, Kiplinger.com might have been bullish on the Tri-Cities purely because the ecological contamination there guarantees that the region will continue for a long time to receive billions of dollars in federal funds for decontamination work. Tri-Cities gets a buy recommendation.
Astute readers will catch in that quote above a hint that the region’s boosters are resentful that people tend to know only about the infamous nuclear weapons factory that left behind an ecological disaster. I’ve written about it in earlier blog posts, and the problem was back in the news recently with reports about serious setbacks in the decontamination work. The news has been a top story in major West Coast newspapers this week.
The Los Angeles Times noted, “Construction has been stopped since last year over allegations that the plant's design for mixing radioactive waste could allow explosive hydrogen gas to detonate inside the plant, or allow enough radioactive solids to accumulate in tanks to trigger nuclear fission.” These possibilities have been alleged by whistleblowers, but their concerns have been dismissed by contractors who retaliated against these detractors by, for example, reassigning the person involved to meaningless work in a basement office with no furniture.  
An Associated Press report described the high level of attention the problems are getting from governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, and national senator for Oregon, Ron Wyden, because of new discoveries about leaking waste tanks. In the report, governor Inslee says, "We received very disturbing news today. I think that we are going to have a course of new action and that will be vigorously pursued in the next several weeks."
Hanford's tanks hold about 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste, many of which are known to have leaked in the past. The estimate is that 1 million gallons of radioactive liquid have already escaped. The tanks are also long past their 20-year life span, which raises the possibility that the leakage has been more extensive than just what has recently come to light.
After reading these reports, readers might wonder if the damage done at Hanford is beyond fixing in any meaningful way. For fear of causing hydrogen explosions, or setting off fission reactions, or exposing workers to deadly levels of radiation, people cannot access the tanks to begin the work of solidifying the wastes and moving them out. Meanwhile, the cleanup funds have become an entrenched part of the national budget and lifeline to the “almost best place in the U.S. to raise children.” No one benefitting from this scenario has any financial incentive to work quickly or ever finish the job.
And yet none of this is to say that the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau is wrong. The region is blessed by nature, while the hazards are out of sight and totally intangible to human senses. I would love to live there, if not for the plutonium. The area is blessed again by billions of dollars of federal spending that has come, and will continue to come, for decades - perhaps centuries even - to the area’s “technology hub.” Just like the town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, built during the Soviet heyday, it is a new urban development made expressly for an elite of well-paid scientists and engineers. As every honest educator knows, it is the money and the high socio-economic security of families – not lazy unionized teachers – that determine the good educational outcomes that the Visitor and Convention Bureau boasts of. Nonetheless, being educated does not equate with being wise. Wise creatures never would have created a nuclear weapons factory in the first place.
One ominous example of the region’s meaning in the world may be in the fact that the most high profile convention it can get is that of The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW), who held their convention in Richland in the summer of 2012. This is an apt choice of locale if your goal in life is to prepare for The Rapture, but it is an incongruous pairing with the supposedly rational, technocratic and scientifically literate community. The good news is that the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau has been negotiating to have them come back in 2013, so it looks like the CCJW believe we can at least get one more summer before the “appointed time” for Armageddon. 

2013/02/17

Another final warning in Russia

The map shows the site of the massive 1908 meteor explosion.
The 2013 meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, to the west near Kazakhstan.
I don’t believe in a god that puts mankind at the top of her priorities. Also, unlike a lot of scientists, economists, politicians and other so-called rational thinkers who say we need nuclear because it has a low carbon impact, I don’t see it written in the stars anywhere that we have been promised all the energy we want for the maintenance of our present lifestyles. We cannot rationalize further destruction by just crying (boohoo), “But we need the energy!”
Even though I don’t believe in signs from god, if I did, I would surely take this week’s meteorite explosion over Russia as a final warning to mankind to change its ways. Let’s just say that if there were a god who cared to communicate with us, but she was somehow unable to speak because of a cosmic language barrier, a sign such as this visitation from space would be just the thing to deliver the message. With the entire globe to choose from, why this part of Russia?
from Mashable.com 
Russia was the best place to do it because the meteor blast drew attention to the much more destructive 1908 Tunguska meteorite explosion in Siberia. At the same time, the location of the recent event was over the once-secret nuclear weapons facilities located around the city of Chelyabinsk. The Chelyabinsk-40 nuclear facility (now called Mayak), 72 km northwest of Chelyabinsk, was in 1957 home to one of the worst radiological disasters in history. The area is still contaminated and still has many nuclear facilities and nuclear waste sites. The message should be clear. If a similar meteorite explosion should strike any of the hundreds of sites that store nuclear waste above ground, a disaster worse than Fukushima or Chernobyl is possible. 
   This week's incident also makes us wonder how the Soviet government would have reacted if a meteorite explosion had happened over Chelyabinsk during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As it was this week in the post-Cold War context, some witnesses to the explosion said their first thought was that WW III had started.
   The various national and international agencies that manage nuclear safety have thought of every possible hazard that could strike nuclear facilities. They build walls to protect from tsunamis, design reactors to withstand earthquakes, and containment structures to withstand aircraft crashes, but they have no defense against meteorite impact. They will admit there is no defense, but the risk is considered to be so small that it is worth taking. This week it doesn't seem so small.
All meteorite impacts since 2300 BC. Javier de la Torre created 
this map using data from The Meteoritical Society. 
The Chernobyl explosion was enough of a final warning for me to turn anti-nuke, but it seems that other members of the human race need a few more hints. The Fukushima catastrophe happened, but still many people think we can take heed of the “lessons learned” and safely manage a few hundred nuclear powered steam turbines, and all their waste, forever. What Fukushima taught me was that the low probability thing that wouldn’t happen can happen tomorrow. Anyone who has ever bought a lottery ticket has come to the same conclusion, only with an optimistic expectation of an equally low probability.
Perhaps the human race has over-indulgent parents willing to give us
more than one "final warning." But patience has its limits.
This week an over-kind fate, or god, if you prefer, handed us another “final warning” that we ignore at our peril. A 300 kiloton meteor explosion occurred right over Russia’s legacy of nuclear production, in the country that was previously blasted with the Tunguska meteor event. A message? Naaaah. Just a coincidence, right?

Further reading:

2013/02/14

Radiation is only the half of it

On the seldom discussed serious chemical effects (non-radiological effects) of radionuclides

(whole body counter available in Fukushima 
to measure internal radiation - address below)
   In a better world a scientist like Yuri Bandazhevsky would be nominated for a Nobel prize, but instead he was thrown in prison in 2001 by the Belarussian government (for dubious charges of corruption) when his research on the effects of radioactive cesium suggested that the impacts of the Chernobyl accident were much more severe than officials wanted to admit. He was released in 2005 and eventually took a teaching post in France to be free of the continuing government restrictions on his scientific work. A lengthy report about his persecution is documented by the American National Academy of Sciences report on his case.   A revised English translation of Bandazhevsky’s Radioactive Cesium and the Heart appeared recently on Fukushima Voice. It seems to be a great improvement over the previous translation published by Belrad in 2001 (Yu. I. Bandazhevsky. “Radioactive cesium and heart.” Minsk: Belrad. 2001. 59 pp. ISBN 985-434-080-5.)
   Having read the chapter, I think that many readers would not get past the long descriptions of biochemical processes and they would miss the important conclusions. I’ve written a summary of the chapter with excerpts of and comments on the most important passages.
Bandazhevsky begins by explaining three known ways by which the harmful effects of cesium have been discovered:

1. ECG examination of children of various ages

2. Studies of the organs of individuals in the areas affected by the Chernobyl accident

3. Laboratory experiments on animals
   He states that cesium has a direct impact on cell structures and indirect impacts on health through the effects of cesium on the endocrine and nervous system. Cesium behaves chemically like potassium, thus it can be absorbed and utilized by organisms for any function in which potassium normally plays a role.
   The chapter discusses primarily the effects of cesium on the heart, but the effects on the kidneys and liver are also significant. The damage to chemical processes in these three organs has an interactive and compounding effect.
Bandazhevsky covers the effects on the heart, kidneys and liver:

Heart

   “A direct effect of radioactive cesium on the heart is due to its selective accumulation in the myocardial cells compared to other organs and tissues… Perhaps it is due to the intensive functioning of the Na+/K+ pump: since Cs-137 is similar to potassium, it is absorbed by cardiomyocytes fairly easily… This is accompanied by suppression of a very essential enzyme such as creatine phosphokinase, which is involved in the cellular energetic metabolism.”

   “In reality, accumulation of Ca2+ in the cells under the influence of radioactive cesium can occur due to the energy deficit caused by damage to the energy supply system within the cell membranes, including mitochondria and structures of sarcoplasmic reticulum. That is why the cells cannot release Ca2+ in a timely manner. Calcium ions enter the cells very intensively due to the destruction of membrane phospholipids by free radical hydroxyl groups. In this situation it does not take much effort to cause significant myocardial damage. Death of cardiomyocytes can occur due to prolonged energy deficits, caused by physical exertion, acute infectious processes and alcohol intoxication.”

   This last point is quite significant because it means that cesium can be the ultimate cause of a death whose proximate cause, and only recognized cause, is heart failure. Cesium lowers the threshold for stress that a healthy cardiovascular system can normally tolerate. The effects on a child can be the most devastating. 
   The official studies of the effects of the Chernobyl disaster found that the poor health of people in the affected areas was attributable to deteriorated economic conditions, political instability, poor lifestyle and diet, depression, radiophobia, a mentality of victimization, and welfare dependency. Some of the Japanese specialists now responsible for the health of people in Fukushima visited Chernobyl many times after 1986 and had already accepted this official view of Chernobyl, well before the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. But according to Bandazhevsky’s findings, cesium should rather be regarded as a stealthy and clever murderer that is capable of making investigators fail to recognize a crime scene. The case is closed as murders are recorded in the files as slow suicides. 


Kidneys

“Injuries to the cardiovascular system could not be examined separately from other organs and systems, particularly the kidneys. As the main organ of excretion of radioactive cesium from the body, kidneys are significantly affected even at a small Cs-137 concentration. Kidneys also undergo similar damaging effects as the cardiovascular system...”

“Development of renal insufficiency is the reason for accumulation of metabolic waste products in the body. They have toxic effects, along with the toxic effects of radioactive cesium itself, on the vital organs and systems.” 

“Injuries to the vascular system of kidneys may be one of the main reasons for the increase in blood pressure, especially diastolic pressure, in children.”

Liver

“Impairment to the synthetic function of hepatocytes is manifested as a progressive decrease in the synthesis of L1-globulin and L2-globulin with an increasing concentration of radioactive cesium in the body. This will undoubtedly affect the state of metabolism in other organs, including the heart.”

   Perhaps the most important fact mentioned in the chapter is the remark that it is the chemical properties of cesium that are as damaging or more damaging than its radiological properties:

“It should be noted that the effect of incorporated radioactive cesium on humans and animals suggests its involvement in energetic and metabolic processes, primarily as a chemical element rather than a source of radiation. Nevertheless, the latter involvement, as a source of radiation, cannot be excluded completely. This is especially pronounced with prolonged exposure to small amounts of this radionuclide.”

   The nuclear industry, and related regulatory agencies, are content not to tell the public much about the chemical properties of radionuclides. After the Fukushima accident, the public was eventually given figures estimating the radiological dose to the thyroid or the whole body dose of radiation, and of course they were assured that levels were nothing to worry about. But the chemical effects of iodine, strontium and cesium were never discussed. For the nuclear industry, it is fortunate that most people have no idea what it means to discuss the chemical vs. the radiological properties of radionuclides. The same applies for discussions of uranium, plutonium and other toxins associated with nuclear fuel facilities and defunct weapons factories. If you are a resident of the West End of Toronto and you are concerned about the nuclear fuel factory in your neighborhood, you can’t be satisfied by just being told that radiation levels in the neighborhood are at normal background levels. You have to wonder about the presence of uranium as a heavy metal poison inside and outside the plant, or the chance that there could be dangerous releases in the case of a fire.
   In the conclusion of his chapter, Bandazhevsky comments on the widespread lack of official interest in his field of research: 

“Unfortunately, the attitude of the present society to this issue is, at best, indifference. We pay a very high price for this in the form of human lives. Intelligent ignorance leads to a tragedy. To a great extent the blame rests on medical scientists. Not only did they not try to inform the population using previously obtained data, but they did not study adverse changes in the body due to incorporation of radionuclides.”

   The phrase “intelligent ignorance” might strike English speaking readers as odd, perhaps a translation of an unfamiliar concept. What he means here is deliberate neglect by experts and leaders who know that these dangers are real but also that they have embarrassing and costly implications for governments that are responsible for the health of their citizens.
   Finally, Bandazhevsky makes some statements about the precise amounts of contamination that should be of concern. Long-term incorporation of levels higher than 30 Bq/kg should not be tolerated, while he stresses once again that lower levels are also dangerous, but the harm they cause can remain invisible. Levels of 10~20 Bq/kg lower the threshold for stress that the cardiovascular system can normally withstand: “It might become impossible to function in a variety of stressful and ordinary situations, such as physical and mental stress, hypoxia, extreme temperature fluctuations, drinking alcohol, infections, and allergic diseases.”
   The majority of the Japanese population now appears to have a safe food supply, in terms of radionuclide contamination from the 2011 nuclear accident. This is not because the authorities stepped in immediately to do the right thing. They were slow, complacent and reactive every step of the way. To the extent that we have a safe food supply now, it is thanks to citizens who did their own monitoring and forced private companies to realize that they would be badly penalized by consumers if they were found to be selling contaminated food. Government just followed their lead. But this is not to say that contaminated food is not being sold off to companies willing dilute it into processed foods. The one saving grace of the situation is that Japan imports much of its food and, unlike the people in the Chernobyl area, the people of Fukushima are not poor peasants who will have to spend years eating contaminated food grown on their own farms and gardens. All in all, however, Bandazhevsky’s research shows there is no reason for Japanese people to become complacent about the health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe.


Sources:

Yury Bandazhevsky. Radioactive Cesium and Heart Chapter 4: Pathophysiological Characteristics of Effects of Radioactive Cesium on HeartRevised English translation by Yuri Hiranuma

Earlier translation:

Yu. I. Bandazhevsky. Radioactive cesium and heart (pathophysiologic aspects). Minsk: Belrad. 2001. 59 pp. ISBN 985-434-080-5

Little, Mark P., Anna Gola, and Ioanna Tzoulaki. “A Model of Cardiovascular Disease Giving a Plausible Mechanism for the Effect of Fractionated Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation Exposure.” PLoS Computational Biology 5, no. 10 (October 23, 2009): e1000539.


Saul Chernos. “GE’s West End Secret: 50 Years Later, Uranium Pellet Factory Still a Mystery to Locals.” Now Toronto. October 18-25, 2012 Vol. 32 No. 7.

Citizens Radioactivity Measuring Station (CRMS)
(whole body counter available to measure internal radiation)

Pasenaka Misse 1F
Okitama Machi 8-8
Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture
Japan 960-8034
TEL: 024-573-5697
FAX: 024-573-5698
MAIL: info@crms-jpn.com
市民放射能測定所
960-8034
福島市置賜町8-8
パセナカMisse 1F


2013/02/09

The non-existence of market demand for a clean environment

Consumers camped out on the street and lined up for hours for the
chance to contribute 5% of their income to nuclear waste cleanup. NOT!

The BBC reported this week, "The cost of cleaning up the Sellafield nuclear waste site has reached £67.5bn [US$105 billion] with no sign of when the cost will stop rising..."
Sellafield could be compared to the large nuclear sites in the US such as Hanford and Oak Ridge, or La Hague in France and Rokkasho in Japan. Sellafield has a long history as a nuclear weapons facility, and as a production and reprocessing center for fuel for nuclear reactors. In addition, it serves as a storage site of nuclear waste until a permanent solution is found.
Media reports about government expenses and debts leave the public inured to the impact of large numbers like £67.5 billion. Most people are not likely to stop and think much about $105 billion or put it into any perspective. One useful comparison is to look at the much more reasonable $1.2 billion price tag for the new structure being built over the Chernobyl reactor ruins.
Another way to look at the cost of Sellafield cleanup is to compare it to the national debt. Britain had a public debt in 2012 of £1,278.2 billion, (or 86.8% of GDP), so the Sellafield cleanup will cost about 5% of the present public debt. That may seem like a small share, but it is a lot for an expense that is out of sight and out of mind for most of the public, and it comes at a time when there is a dire need to reduce the debt and the deficit. Furthermore, in these constrained economic times, there is intense competition for funds for health care, education, defense and the other commonly known uses of the national budget.
Some politicians, and heads of corporations that stand to profit, say that these enormous expenses for nuclear cleanup are not so extreme and they will, in any case, provide jobs and economic stimulus. This is true to some extent, but if the cleanup did really have such fine advantages, all the countries with this problem would not be so terribly behind schedule in tackling the problem. British MP Margaret Hodge said in the BBC report an “enormous legacy” of nuclear waste exists at the plant. “Over decades, successive governments have failed to get to grips with this critical problem.” A labor union officer said, “There needs to be immediate change at the top of the consortium and a radical re-evaluation of the piecemeal hiving-off of the nuclear sector to private companies that are clearly ill-equipped to cope and have little interest in ensuring Britain has world-class nuclear facilities.”
In other words, environmental remediation projects have to be conceived of differently from other ways money is spent in a modern economy. There is no market demand for environmental cleanup, and the people who profit from the work have an incentive to not ever finish the job or ever do it effectively. The longer they take, the longer they remain employed. 
Normal market demand is for essential goods, things for which people feel a natural need. There is also market demand for luxuries, but no one wants to spend 5% of personal income on nuclear waste vitrification. Spending money on waste cleanup, or on any effort to prevent further damage to the environment, gives no bang for the buck. People don’t want it the way they want iphones. Spending on waste is, in this sense, a waste. When an economic argument is made for it, there is a false notion that it is good because it creates jobs, not because it is the right thing to do for future generations. If it didn't create jobs, would that be reason not to spend on it? Environmental cleanup is a debt, a cost to be paid for benefits received in the past, in some cases by people who are dead and gone. Thus argument for environmental cleanup has to be moral, not economic, and the decision to clean up has to come from a collective will to make the necessary sacrifices.
Compared to Britain, Japan is in a much worse situation. It has a national debt of $11 trillion, over 200% of GDP, and if the desired inflation of the present government leads to higher interest rates, it will face a terminal debt* meltdown. In this dire circumstance, a few dozen nuclear reactors are headed for decommissioning because so many of them are just now being found to exist on active seismic faults. Whether or not a few of the old ones are deemed safe enough to operate, and whether or not a few new “modern and safe” ones are built in the future, these enormous decommissioning costs will exist. In addition, temporary spent fuel storage capacity is full, and a permanent solution for disposal has to be built. Then there is the Monju fast breeder reactor and the Rokkasho fuel reprocessing site, both of which devoured billions of dollars in national treasure, but never functioned as promised. It is just a matter of time before the government admits they need to be scrapped too. Then, lest we forget, there is the 30-year cleanup job at the smoldering ruins of Fukushima Daiichi. After the looming debt default happens, there will have to be some extremely creative thinking applied in order to establish a social and economic system that can deal with the challenges ahead.
   I think the first step will consist of saying sorry and thanks to the generation of patriotic savers who put their money in low interest bonds and savings accounts. This money has financed the debt for the last twenty years, but it is becoming pretty obvious that it will never be repaid. They might as well say now that borrowed money should be thought of as a kind of tax, retroactively defined as such. In Japan's case, the creditors are also the voters who elected the government, so it is hard to imagine how a government will choose to break the news to its own people.  For many years the comforting truism about the Japanese debt was "it's OK, we owe it to ourselves," but Japanese people may come to wish that they borrowed from foreigners. The historical record shows that only occasionally do foreign creditors organize an army and invade. They are usually content to negotiate a controlled implosion. That might be preferable to the unprecedented situation of a nation defaulting on this scale on its own citizen-creditors.

Further reading: 

If you can't take my word for it, read what two professional economists have to say about Japan's looming debt "singularity:"

Edward Hugh and Claus Vistesen. "Japan's Looming Singularity." Credit Writedowns. February 12, 2013.

Source on British debt: UK Debt Bombshell.

"Government debt reaches record 997 trillion yen." [$10.84 trillion at 92 yen per dollar]. Yomiuri Shinbun. February 10, 2013.

*Terminal debt: the point at which the payments on the interest of a debt are greater than the revenues of the debtor.

2013/02/06

The Chernobyl Prelude

Wreck of the K-431 Soviet nuclear submarine
that exploded on August 10, 1985
There is something sad but instructive in looking back to the early years of this century to learn which nuclear safety issues were of concern to researchers and policy makers in Japan. Instead of proper planning for earthquakes and tsunamis, or an overhaul of the corrupt Japanese nuclear regulatory system, there were worries over the hazards to Japan of Russia’s operating and decommissioning of Soviet era nuclear submarines in the Russian Far East. There were also studies on how much cesium from Chinese weapons tests was landing on Japanese soil.
Compared to what has befallen the country since 2011, these concerns seem quaint, even enviable. The cesium from Chinese weapons tests was miniscule compared to the levels we have to deal with now. It would be nice if the trace deposits from China were our biggest worry.
The concern over the Soviet submarines was more substantial. The Chazhma Bay (alternatively spelled Chasma) explosion of 1985, near Vladivostok, raised some alarming questions about the hazards posed by the Soviet fleet to Russia and countries nearby – North and South Korea, China, and Japan. Or, actually, it would have raised alarming questions if anyone had known about it.
Japan was so concerned about the danger by the late 1990s that it donated money and technical assistance after the fall of the Soviet Union, yet the 1985 accident remained largely unreported, even after 1993 when the Russian government released previously classified information about it.
In a scientific paper about the accident (Takano et al., 2001) authored by Japanese and Russian researchers, the authors concluded that the impact was mostly local. The paper was concerned with possible future accidents, similar to the actual accident that occurred in 1985, with emphasis on the possible effects on Japan if winds had blown in the opposite direction. It concluded, “… the radioactive material might be transported through the atmosphere to Japan in one to several days and might contaminate a wide area of Japan. However, the radiological dose to the area might not be significant.”
The severity of an accident would depend on whether fuel rods were new or old, and whether the Russian government would know or release information about the nuclear inventory involved in the accident. In the case of the 1985 accident, precise data was hard to determine because of Soviet secrecy. A 2003 paper about the accident (Sivintsev, 2003) asked in its title, “Was the Chazhma Accident a Chernobyl of the Far East?” and responded in the negative:

“It is shown that the emission of long-lived radioecologically significant radionuclides in Chazhma was approximately 0.79 Ci, while in the Chernobyl accident this emission was 90 MCiThese quantitative estimates are used to show that the Chazhma accident is not analogous to the 1986 accident in Chernobyl.”

Nonetheless, the accident was still horrific for those involved. Ten people died instantly in the explosive criticality incident and ensuing steam explosion, and 10 others had acute radiation exposure. In total, 290 cleanup workers had to live with the consequences of their exposure. Chernobyl was too big to be kept a secret, but the Chazhma accident was successfully covered up until 1993. In 1998, 205 responders were finally recognized as atomic veterans - equal to Chernobyl liquidators in rights to compensation. Ironically, their accident was overshadowed by Chernobyl happening only eight months later. The local environment was contaminated, both the surrounding hills and the bay. The remains of the submarine itself are still too hot to handle.
The accident illustrates in typical fashion the most unsettling thing about nuclear accidents. In spite of the utmost attempts to foresee problems and control complex systems, it is impossible to know all the complex ways complex systems can break down. In this case, the refueling operation was being done between the submarine and a ship parked alongside it. There had been some problems with the refueling, and these were tragically compounded by the fact that someone had forgotten to make sure that marine traffic in the area was stopped. A navy boat passed by, causing a large wake that disrupted the fuel transfer at a critical moment.


Chazhma Bay Accident Summary:

·           deaths: 10
·           total radiation released: 259 PBq (Fukushima: 840 PBq)*
·           iodine 131 released: 29 GBq
·           workers exposed to radiation: 290
·           workers who suffered acute radiation sickness: 10
·           sediments of Chazhma Bay are 2,000 times more radioactive than before the accident
·           the K-431 submarine wreck continues to be a source of radiation
·           other submarine wrecks in the bay still emit radiation
·           the Dunai Peninsula is still heavily contaminated
·           runoff from the accident’s disposal site still leaks into the bay
·           saving grace: the fuel rods were new and contained almost no strontium or cesium isotopes

source: IPPNW Poster Exhibition: Hibakusha Worldwide - Chazhma Bay, Russia International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
*This figure for Fukushima may not be accurate. No definitive methodology or tally for the catastrophe has been agreed upon by the scientific community. One reliable estimate was as study by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research that estimated two of the radionuclide releases as 16,700 PBq of short-lived xenon 133, and 36 PBq of long-lived cesium 137 – 42% of the cesium 137 released from Chernobyl. The total release would include data for many more radionuclides.

Unanswered questions:

The few studies on this accident that exist have nothing to tell about how widely the short-lived radionuclides were dispersed. The world learned about the Chernobyl accident from the staff at a Swedish nuclear reactor. They had picked up radiation outside their workplace and set off alarms when they entered it. The Chazma Bay accident begs the question of whether something similar happened at Japanese nuclear power plants. The paper by Takano et al. lists in the references a person by the name of Y. Murakami, and the reference is described as “Radiation monitoring at three TEPCO nuclear reactors facing the Sea of Japan in August 1985, Private Communication, July (2000).” Takano et al. claim that the wind direction, as usual in summer months, was away from Japan toward Russia, and this private communication confirmed that no spike in radiation levels was observed in August 1985. However, it is odd that an unidentified private communication is the best recorded evidence that these researchers could find. If TEPCO had the records, why could they not be made public?
Reading the paper by Takano et al. after the Fukushima catastrophe, it is easy to smile sardonically. In retrospect, we see that the scientific establishment was worried about Russian submarines when it faced the largest threat from its own nuclear power plants – an infrastructure for which everyone had far too much confidence and complacency. But the lesson for everyone in the world is that the next accident is never like the last accident. We need to expect what we least expect. Even if Japan restarts some of its nuclear power plants, the next major nuclear accident will probably happen somewhere else. I’m starting to wonder if it will be in China, Taiwan or South Korea and the winds will blow the fallout over Japan anyway. Japan seems to be destined in history to play a central role as nuclear victim. The only nuclear bombs used in war were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Castle Bravo tests in the Pacific contaminated the Japanese tuna fleet (and tuna catch), the Chazhma Bay accident may or may not have released a radioactive plume that drifted over Japan, and with Fukushima Daiichi Japan victimized itself.

Sources:

The Bellona Foundation. “What is the Committee for Veterans at Special Risk hiding?” October 29, 2007.
Commander Gregory D. Young, U.S. Navy (Retired) Russian Sub Casualties. Proceedings, April 2005.
IPPNW Poster Exhibition: Hibakusha Worldwide - Chazhma Bay, Russia. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Hideshi Fujiwara. “Atmospheric Deposition of Radioactive Cesium (137Cs) Associated with Dust Events in East Asia.” Bulletin of the National Institute of  Agro-Environmental Sciences. pp. 85 115. 2010.
Takano, Makoto, Vanya Romanova, Hiromi Yamazawa, Yuri Sivinitsev, Keith Compton, Vladimir Novikov, and Frank Parker. “Reactivity Accident of Nuclear Submarine Near Vladivostok.” Journal of Nuclear Science and Technology 38, no. 2. pp. 143-157. 2001.
Yu. V. Sivintsev. “Was the Chazhma Accident a Chernobyl of the Far East?” Atomic Energy. June 2003, Volume 94, Issue 6, pp 421-427.


2013/02/03

In Praise of Amateur Hour

Cocos Island, Guam.
A tourist resort now exists where US Navy sailors once
washed down their ships after taking part in nuclear weapons tests.

In 1905, the man who showed the world the theoretical possibility of the energy in matter (E=mc2) was a Swiss patent clerk who did physics as a hobby. Ninety years later, Mark Purdey was another science “amateur” who revealed some very interesting, additional features of atomic energy.
Purdey was a British cattle farmer who passed up a chance to attend university and instead chose to stay on the farm. Nonetheless, he had to become a self-educated scientist in order to question the logic behind the conventional views of what was causing brain wasting diseases in British cattle. His investigations led him to a sound theory that these conditions were not contagious or spread by feed, but were caused by imbalances of manganese and copper, which were ultimately caused by government imposed applications of drugs and pesticides.
One might, at this point, be tempted to dismiss him as an amateur obsessed with wild, speculative theories, but his ideas were taken seriously by many specialists in the field. Prince Charles lent him support, government officials listened, and reports in the mainstream media took him seriously. Even though he did not dislodge the reigning approach to managing brain wasting diseases, his theories still hold up and seem more plausible as we gain some un-panicked perspective on the 1990’s outbreak of Mad Cow Disease. 
Purdey's obituary in The Telegraph stated, “… his theory failed to withstand scientific scrutiny, a fact that Purdey himself could never bring himself to admit,” but the report also noted, contradicting itself, that it was not a failure to withstand scrutiny but a failure to gain funding for research. Support for proper testing of his hypothesis was abandoned while he suffered mysterious threats to his life and damages to his property. This suggests that the official line is again like the drunk who has lost his keys. The keys were lost in the dark somewhere, but he insists on looking only under the lamppost.
In 2003, Mark Purdey’s curiosity took him to Guam where he investigated another outbreak of neurological diseases. He was interested in anomalies that happened in unique times and places for unclear reasons. Since the 1950s, in one corner of Guam, the native people had been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer at alarmingly high rates. Government studies had concluded that the problem was related to mineral deficiencies and a naturally toxic diet that consisted of too much fruit from the cycad tree. But this explanation didn’t make sense because the natives had been eating this food for centuries without knowing these diseases.
The scientists who did the official studies were unable to look up from their trenches toward disciplines that could have provided more plausible explanations. A simple regard for the recent history of the area was enough to point to a cause that a good investigator should have been aware of. After the nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands, over 100 navy ships came to Cocos Island, a small island just offshore from the south tip of Guam, to be scrubbed down and decontaminated.
Purdey examined the dead coral around the island and found it was highly contaminated with strontium 90, and other products of nuclear fission. Unfortunately, the native Chamorro people had a custom of grinding up coral and adding it to a chewable mixture of betel nut and papula leaves. He asked whether “… the Chamorros’ unwitting use of the radioactive coral with the betel could represent the most concentrated source of strontium 90 contamination that has ever been endured by the human race.” (In addition to the radiation, there is the officially acknowledged contamination of this small island with PCBs, but this was not the focus of Purdey’s research.)
The most interesting aspect of Purdey’s research is that he applied his knowledge of neurochemistry to raise questions about the effects of radiation that go beyond official research that admits only cancer as a health effect of radiation. Purdey presented an explanation of how the ingestion of radionuclides could affect not only DNA but also protein structures, and the disruption of protein structures are known to be the cause of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – diseases which have clearly been on the rise since the dawn of the chemical and nuclear age.
The sad irony of Mark Purdey’s life is that in 2006 he died at age 52 from brain cancer, leaving the obvious question of whether he was exposed to carcinogens during his investigations of contaminated environments.
Cocos Island Resort
Mark Purdey’s report on Guam also contains an interesting observation about the Japanese tourists who come to the island. Throughout nuclear history, there are numerous examples of Japanese society running obliviously into the arms of the beast that struck them first in Hiroshima. After the Castle Bravo tests of 1954 irradiated fishermen and the tuna catch, Japan still went with nuclear power and the American light water reactor design that failed and poisoned northern Japan in 2011. In 2003, Purdey ironically observed, “I felt a chilly shiver down my spine as I watched the arrival of yet another boatload of ‘uninformed’ Japanese tourist girls onto the newly developed ‘Cocos Island Resort.’”
This brief summary can’t do justice to Purdey’s work. The links below lead to more information and his accounts of the scientific investigations he conducted during his career.

Read on…

Cocos Island Resort.


Recent evidence supporting Purdey's theory: 
Deloncle R, Guillard O, Bind JL, Delaval J, Fleury N, Mauco G, Lesage G. "Free radical generation of protease-resistant prion after substitution of manganese for copper in bovine brain homogenate." Neurotoxicology. May 2006; 27(3): 437-44.