Wrecks, Lies and Isotopes

   For the past few months, international attention has been on the waterworks of the Fukushima Daiichi ruins. The situation has been spiraling out of control, with TEPCO flailing like the hapless sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
In addition to this fiasco, the precarious condition of the Unit 4 Spent Fuel Pool has also gained a lot of attention because TEPCO will soon be ready to start the delicate operation of removing 1,500 spent fuel rods contained within. The building was damaged by the earthquake and an explosion, leaving it vulnerable to earthquakes and open to the sky. All of the machinery for transferring the fuel rods was damaged, so until now there has been no way to resolve the dangerous situation. If the pool should go dry, or the building should collapse in an earthquake, the spent fuel fire would burn out of control, render the area too radioactive for people to work in, and create an unprecedented disaster. Or maybe not. The only certainties about Unit 4 are (1) that it scares the crap out of everyone, pro and anti-nuke, and (2), although it is exposed to the elements, it remains shrouded in mystery.
Into the void of unanswered questions, all manner of speculation has rushed in. Some say that Japan was running weapons fuel experiments at the time of the earthquake in reactor four, which would account for the secrecy and Japan’s reluctance to accept foreign help. According to this theory, the fire and explosion were in the reactor, not in the spent fuel pool. This could account for the contradiction we hear now. There was definitely an explosion in Unit 4, and some fuel rods burned and became distorted, but TEPCO now says everything should go well with the removal of the rods because none of them appear to be damaged. If this assessment is wrong, one mishap, one dropped fuel rod, could set off a civilization-ending disaster, or a mass species extinction. Or minor fumbles with the rods might just lead to regrettable incidents causing releases of radioactive xenon and iodine that will have to be funneled out the stack to drift over the ocean, or Tokyo, depending on how the wind blows. These will be setbacks, but they’ll go back to work.
When the fears about Unit 4 first appeared, there were occasional comments on blogs by nuclear engineers who tried to assure people that the fuel rods would be sufficiently cooled down within a couple years, and the doomsday scenario would not come to pass. These messages fell silent for a long time, but finally reappeared this week in an article in Bloomberg: Three Mile Island Veteran Optimistic on Fukushima Fuel Removal. It was curious that someone working on the operation was now made accessible to the media. The news story was long overdue after the media had been reporting on it for months from the viewpoint of outside critics who were deeply worried about the situation. Now, finally, there is some limited comment on the situation from the people officially in charge. I suspect TEPCO would have preferred to say nothing, but the international attention from alternative media and NGOs forced them to admit they have to say something to try to take control of the narrative (Here is their video production explaining the operation).
The Three Mile Island veteran working as an adviser for TEPCO said, “There’s no indication based on sampling of the water that the fuel has been damaged in any significant way… There’s a high confidence that the defueling of the pool can go in a normal way.”* The article mentions that two rods were removed as a test, and these were found to be unbroken. Based on this, and water sampling, it is assumed that all the remaining rods, over a thousand of them, are intact! It seems like another case of TEPCO failing to ask, “OK, but what if…” I guess we just have to take their word for it because who else, besides these nuclear industry cheerleaders, could do this job?
The notable reveal in the report was in comments by another voice for TEPCO, spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida:

It hasn’t been decided where the fuel will eventually be taken for storage, Yoshida said. She said she couldn’t provide additional details about when the removal would begin, citing treaties aimed at reducing the risk of terrorist attacks.

So it seems like under those Tyvek suits officials have all been wearing diapers too, prepared to shit themselves at any time. Unit 4 has been sitting open to the sky for 30 months now, a very vulnerable target, with scarcely any mention of the terror risk having appeared in the mass media. It is reasonable to assume that the “international community” has been aware of the vulnerability and doing a lot behind the scenes, all the while ignoring the critics, petitions and campaigns to take action. The less said the better.
Security is the big obstacle to public information on this issue, and the best reason to be anti-nuclear. As it is in personal relations, if you’re doing something that provokes a high level of secrecy and fear, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. 
The public deserves to know all the details of what exactly happened to Unit 4, and what the plan is to get the fuel out of it. The risks have been well explained by outside critics like Arnie Gundersen (listen to Libbe Halevy’s interview with him), Hiroaki Koide and Harvey Wasserman, and many others, so now TEPCO should address all the concerns that have been raised and make a full, convincing explanation of how they can remove those 1,500 fuel rods without a single mishap. The public deserves more than the pathetic press release that was spoon-fed to Bloomberg News this week. The assertion that the rods are intact is not credible, considering the number of experts who have noted that the rods were damaged, not to mention partially exposed and burning in March 2011. Or was it essential to cover up the fact that these things happened in the reactor?
If TEPCO can’t assure the public that this operation will go off without a hitch, wouldn’t it be better to reinforce the structure and let it cool off for a few more years? If not, why not? But we are not going to get squat in the way of a public discussion of this plan. Security trumps all.
The only reason to have a shred of hope is to think that maybe TEPCO has been sidelined or put under adult supervision for this important job. Perhaps the water show has been a convenient, though unintended, distraction while the really important job got done. The nuclear industry certainly should be motivated to get it done right, for the same reason we trust pilots to land safely: self-preservation. If they don’t, it will be the death blow for the industry (one would think — for a while I thought the 2011 accident would accomplish this). But then again, despite the rational motive, we have to remember there is nothing rational about nuclear power. If the industry really worked so cautiously, the accident never would have happened in the first place. Who knows the limit to human recklessness?

* A TEPCO spokesperson contradicted this rosy assessment a few days later in this report filed by The South China Morning Post:

“A spokesman for Tepco said… however, that it was not clear whether any of the rods were damaged or if debris in the pool would complicate the recovery effort. ”

No comments:

Post a Comment