Japan nuclear mess: They really have no idea

  • Published on March 25th, 2011

help japanAfter weeks of government assurances that everything is under control and there is nothing to worry about, recent events at the damaged Japanes Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors have revealed the truth: They really have no idea what’s going on inside there.

If there’s one lesson we can gain from this odyssey, it’s that nuclear reactors are perfectly safe… so long as nothing goes wrong.

How did they discover the latest leakage?

Not from external monitoring equipment. Not by measuring radioactivity inside.

By radiation burns on the feet of workers. By sticking people in there and seeing if they got hurt.

Things that can go wrong

It’s two weeks since the quake, and they are only just now getting the power connected back up to the plant. And as MIT professor Michael W. Golay tells the LA Times, it’s only after the power comes back on that we’ll learn what equipment, including instruments and controls, still works and which got smashed.

Let’s reiterate. What we have here is a nuclear power plant: an incredibly high-tech device that is spectacularly dangerous. We have been assured that everything conceivable has been done to make it safe.

And right now the only thing being done to keep it from melting down and contaminating thousands of square miles with radioactive poisons, rendering them uninhabitable for years, is “Get water into the reactor buildings to stabilize hot fuel rods.”

Water pumped in through holes in the roof by fire trucks.

And the only way they found out that radioactive water is leaking from the reactors is the equivalent of sending someone in there to stick their toe in the water to see if it’s hot.

Evening at the improv

“The operators are having to do a lot of improvisation to figure out what best to do to keep the amount of radiation being released into the atmosphere to a minimum,” nuclear engineering expert Elmer Lewis, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University, told MSNBC’s science editor, Alan Boyle.

“Improvisation” is not really a word you want to hear in this context. In the context of nuclear power, one doesn’t want to hear about monitor and control systems that stop working when there is a disaster. “During a disaster” is precisely the time you NEED monitor and control systems.

If the monitor and control systems can stop working during a disaster, then all the reassurances being handed out by allies of the nuclear industry about how safe it is… are completely worthless.

Think it couldn’t happen here? There are five reactors that share an identical design with the Fukushima reactors, and 17 more that are similar, out of the 104 nuclear power plants in the US. Many of them – like the Diablo Canyon plant in California – are in major earthquake zones.

The real danger

There is a very good chance that the reactor vessel has been breached, spilling radioactive water into the the facility. From there, it will leak out into the air and into the water. Keep in mind that this nuclear reactor sits on the ocean. ALL nuclear reactors sit on oceans and rivers – they need the water for cooling. Unfortunately, that means if there’s an accident, our water supply is contaminated.

It’s already hard enough for workers to get in there to try to fix things. With more radiation inside the building, the workers have had to pull back.

Which means… god only knows what.

Thomas Kauffman, who was a plant systems operator at Three Mile Island during the meltdown there, told the LA Times that they had things pretty much under control by the end of day one.

“We had our electrical supplies, we had our roads, we had our backup systems functioning,” he said. “It’s quite a different story in Japan.”

And that’s the problem. It sure looks like nuclear reactors are perfectly safe… as long as everything is fine. God help us when something goes wrong.

MSNBC’s Boyle says

Virtually all the experts are dismayed that the plant still hasn’t been brought under control. “There’s still too much energy coming out of that fuel to walk away,” [Princeton physicist Frank] von Hippel said. “They still have to keep trying to cool it. The problem is that we’re now two weeks after the accident started, and they don’t have a handle on the situation yet.”


About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.