Fukushima's threats to health and the environment continue. (graphic: Surian Soosay via flickr)
You can’t say you have all the answers if you haven’t asked all the questions. So, at a conference on the medical and ecological consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, held to commemorate the second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan, there were lots of questions. Questions about what actually happened at Fukushima Daiichi in the first days after the quake, and how that differed from the official report; questions about what radionuclides were in the fallout and runoff, at what concentrations, and how far they have spread; and questions about what near- and long-term effects this disaster will have on people and the planet, and how we will measure and recognize those effects.
A distinguished list of epidemiologists, oncologists, nuclear engineers, former government officials, Fukushima survivors, anti-nuclear activists and public health advocates gathered at the invitation of The Helen Caldicott Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility to, if not answer all these question, at least make sure they got asked. Over two long days, it was clear there is much still to be learned, but it was equally clear that we already know that the downsides of nuclear power are real, and what’s more, the risks are unnecessary. Relying on this dirty, dangerous and expensive technology is not mandatory–it’s a choice. And when cleaner, safer, and more affordable options are available, the one answer we already have is that nuclear is a choice we should stop making and a risk we should stop taking.
“No one died from the accident at Fukushima.” This refrain, as familiar as multiplication tables and sounding about as rote when recited by acolytes of atomic power, is a close mirror to versions used to downplay earlier nuclear disasters, like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (as well as many less infamous events), and is somehow meant to be the discussion-ender, the very bottom-line of the bottom-line analysis that is used to grade global energy options. “No one died” equals “safe” or, at least, “safer.” Q.E.D.
But beyond the intentional blurring of the differences between an “accident” and the probable results of technical constraints and willful negligence, the argument (if this saw can be called such) cynically exploits the space between solid science and the simple sound bite.
“Do not confuse narrowly constructed research hypotheses with discussions of policy,” warned Steve Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health. Good research is an exploration of good data, but, Wing contrasted, “Energy generation is a public decision made by politicians.”
A public decision, but not necessarily one made in the public interest. Energy policy could be informed by health and environmental studies, such as the ones discussed at the Fukushima symposium, but it is more likely the research is spun or ignored once policy is actually drafted by the politicians who, as Wing noted, often sport ties to the nuclear industry.
The link between politicians and the nuclear industry they are supposed to regulate came into clear focus in the wake of the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami–in Japan and the United States.
The boiling water reactors (BWRs) that failed so catastrophically at Fukushima Daiichi were designed and sold by General Electric in the 1960s; the general contractor on the project was Ebasco, a US engineering company that, back then, was still tied to GE. General Electric had bet heavily on nuclear and worked hand-in-hand with the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC–the precursor to the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to promote civilian nuclear plants at home and abroad. According to nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, GE told US regulators in 1965 that without quick approval of multiple BWR projects, the giant energy conglomerate would go out of business.
It was under the guidance of GE and Ebasco that the rocky bluffs where Daiichi would be built were actually trimmed by 10 meters to bring the power plant closer to the sea, the water source for the reactors’ cooling systems–but it was under Japanese government supervision that serious and repeated warnings about the environmental and technological threats to Fukushima were ignored for another generation.
Failures at Daiichi were completely predictable, observed David Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and numerous upgrades were recommended over the years by scientists and engineers. “The only surprising thing about Fukushima,” said Lochbaum, “is that no steps were taken.”
The surprise, it seems, should cross the Pacific. Twenty-two US plants mirror the design of Fukushima Daiichi, and many stand where they could be subject to earthquakes or tsunamis. Even without those seismic events, some US plants are still at risk of Fukushima-like catastrophic flooding. Prior to the start of the current Japanese crisis, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission learned that the Oconee Nuclear Plant in Seneca, South Carolina, was at risk of a major flood from a dam failure upstream. In the event of a dam breach–an event the NRC deems more likely than the odds that were given for the 2011 tsunami–the flood at Oconee would trigger failures at all four reactors. Beyond hiding its own report, the NRC has taken no action–not before Fukushima, not since.
An IAEA inspector examines the remains of reactor 3 at Fukushima Daiichi (5/27/11)
I was up working in what were in my part of the world the early morning hours of March 11, 2011, when I heard over the radio that a massive earthquake had struck northeastern Japan. I turned on the TV just in time to see the earliest pictures of the tsunami that followed what became known as the Tohoku quake. The devastation was instantly apparent, and reports of high numbers of casualties seemed inevitable, but it wasn’t until a few hours later, when news of the destruction and loss of power at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant hit the English-language airwaves, that I was gripped by a real sense of despair.
I was far from a nuclear expert at the time, but I knew enough to know that without intact cooling systems, or the power to keep them running, and with the added threat of a containment breach, some amount of environmental contamination was certain, and the potential for something truly terrifying was high.
What started as a weekend of watching newswires and live streams, virtually around the clock, and posting basic tech and health questions on email lists, expanded as the Fukushima crisis itself grew. Two years later, I have written tens of thousands of words, and read hundreds of thousands more. I have learned much, but I think I have only scratched the surface.
We all might be a little closer to understanding what happened in those first days and weeks after the earthquake, but what has happened since is still, sadly, a story where much must be written. What the Daiichi plant workers really went through in those early days is just now coming to light, and the tales of intrigue and cover-up, of corruption and captured government, grow more complex and more sinister with each revelation. But what has happened to the environment, not just in the government-cordoned evacuation zone, but also throughout Japan, across the Pacific, and around the world, will likely prove the most chilling narrative.
Radiation levels in the quarantined parts of Japan are still far too high to permit any kind of human re-habitation, but exposure rates in areas far outside that radius are also well above what would have been considered acceptable before this disaster. And water, used to cool the molten cores and damaged spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi, now dangerously radioactive itself, continues to leak into the ground and into the ocean at unprecedented rates.
Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety. Without electricity, nuclear power plants are unable to pump cooling water through reactor cores and spent fuel pools to prevent overheating and fuel melting.
Without power, plant operators cannot control reactor activity or remotely monitor spent fuel.
It was the loss of electrical power that led to the partial-meltdown of multiple reactors, significant radiation release and damage to the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March.
First, I can’t move on without noting two problems there in the last paragraph.
I don’t know how Feinstein defines it, but I think most of the world has dropped the “partial” from the assessment of the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Maybe DiFi has some secret pictures that show tiny bits of intact cladding floating on top of the blobs of corium now understood to be at the bottom of at least some of the damaged reactors, and so she feels uncomfortable going all the way, but the company that nominally runs the facility and the country that is unlucky enough to serve as its home feel sure enough to call it a meltdown without the modifier, so I think US Senators should, too.
Also, it is now believed that a meltdown in at least one of the reactors started before the tsunami that followed Japan’s March 11 earthquake. In other words, as I reported previously, the earthquake damaged the containment vessel or, more likely, the cooling system before the massive wave knocked out the backup generators and, thus, power to the cooling system. So, the loss of power did not lead to at least some of the meltdown—earthquake damage did.
That is not just an academic nitpick, it goes directly to how Feinstein and the entire US regulatory structure should evaluate the safety of domestic nuclear power plants.
Second: “Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety.” Just think about that for a second. Uninterrupted electricity is essential for the safe generation of electricity. It is a logic that seems as vulnerable to reason as nuclear cooling systems are to seismic and tidal events.
But third, I do want to congratulate Senator Feinstein for recognizing and writing the obvious:
The incident [Tuesday’s magnitude 5.8 quake centered in Virginia] was a stark reminder of how vulnerable America’s nuclear power plants are to natural disasters.
I mean that congratulations sincerely. Yes, we didn’t really need a new reminder—Japan’s Fukushima disaster is recent and ongoing—but the Mineral, VA earthquake was another indication that our nuclear plants are vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters at many points. And more American politicians should say just what DiFi said, instead of brushing off Japan’s already extant stark reminder as a “can’t happen here” event, or quickly forgetting Tuesday’s quake because it resulted in “minimal damage and no loss of life” (to use Feinstein’s own rosy words).
Feinstein continues by laying out four “lessons” that Japan and Virginia should teach us. (It is really more like two or three points with repeats, but that’s OK.) The headlines:
First, our country needs a comprehensive, national policy to address the management of spent fuel, the radioactive waste produced while generating electricity by fission.
Second, today’s efforts to protect against seismic and flooding hazards may not be sufficient.
Third, we must improve the redundant safety systems to respond to disasters.
Finally, for spent fuel stored at reactor sites, dry casks are safer and more secure than permanent storage in spent fuel pools.
Both the first and fourth points note that storing spent fuel in pools of circulating water is not a particularly safe, efficient, or cost-effective way of dealing with one of nuclear power generation’s biggest problems. Not only are these pools also dependent on an uninterrupted source of electricity to keep water circulating and levels high enough to keep the rods—now packed in at many times the pools’ original designed capacity—from overheating and melting themselves or cracking the water and triggering hydrogen explosions, the cooling systems for the pools are also vulnerable to seismic events.
Feinstein says that spent rods should be moved to dry casks and eventually to a secure repository, observing that spent fuel in Japan housed in dry casks had no problems after the March 11 quake and flood. Strangely, though, the senator cites the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s special taskforce report on the aftermath of the Japanese disaster as the inspiration for making this call for dry casks and a national fuel repository—strange because, as both Physicians for Social Responsibility and I noted back when the report was released, the task force pointedly did not make any recommendations for moving spent fuel to dry casks or to off-site repositories.
Feinstein also says she has learned that protections against earthquakes and flooding may not be sufficient. Again, DiFi modifies—there is really no need to say “may” here. From Fukushima Daiichi to the reactors in Virginia known as North Anna 1 and 2, it should now be very clear that nuclear plants are walking a precarious line between “minimal damage” and catastrophic failure.
Let’s look more closely at what happened on Tuesday. A 5.8 earthquake centered 15 miles from the North Anna nuclear power generating facility cut electrical power to the plant. Backup diesel generators kicked in to provide power to the cooling systems, averting the overheating of either the reactor core or the pools of spent fuel. Good news, as far as it goes, but there are several disconcerting caveats.
First, we don’t know if the plant—which is theoretically designed to withstand a quake of a 6.2 magnitude—has actually emerged from Tuesday’s tremor completely unscathed. The reactors are currently being brought to a cold shutdown so that they may be inspected further. Not only must the containment vessels be more closely inspected, the cooling system must be tested for leaks. Some of the pipes and conduits for that system are underground. As reactor expert Paul Gunter has noted, an underground rupture, one that might be leaking radioactive tritium into ground water, is quite possible and needs to be investigated more fully.
(As a caveat to the caveat, I must note that we also need to find a way to verify that the public is being fully informed about any damage and radioactive leaks—not a sure thing in light of both the evolving story of cover-up in Japan and this summer’s expose on collusion between the NRC and the nuclear industry.)
Second, the North Anna plant gets its name from Lake Anna, an artificial lake created to provide a reservoir for the cooling requirements of the nuclear facility. What if the quake had caused the dam that holds the water in Lake Anna to rupture? Beyond the dangerous flooding to well-populated communities downstream, the water level in the reservoir would drop to a point where the nuclear plant’s cooling system would fail. If this were to happen, no amount of redundant power generation would fix the problem. Does this sound farfetched? It is not. Virginia is noteworthy for its lack of attention to its aging infrastructure—in fact, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card [PDF], the condition of Virginia’s dams gets a D-minus.
(It should be noted that the initial inspection of the Lake Anna dam after Tuesday’s quake showed no new damage.)
Third, not all of North Anna’s backup generators worked on Tuesday. Only three of the four came online after power was lost. (Hooray for required redundancy.) What is not clear is what effect this had on the plant’s ability to function normally, or what would have happened if grid power had not been restored as quickly to the facility.
And finally, to simply give a Richter scale number as a sort of assurance of the safety of a nuclear facility is overly simplistic if not downright deceptive. Here’s why:
As noted here today and before, there are many systems that have to survive an earthquake—the reactor containment vessel, its cooling system, the spent fuel pools, their cooling systems, the reactor building, the monitoring equipment, and a plant’s connection to a steady supply of electrical power. In theory, all these systems were evaluated when the plans for a nuclear facility were initially approved. They all should survive a quake of a specified magnitude.
However, all of America’s nuclear facilities were licensed during a time when regulators assessed designs based on what is called Deterministic Seismic Hazard Analysis (DSHA). But, as noted in a May Congressional Research Service report [PDF]:
Since then, Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis (PSHA) has been adopted as a more comprehensive approach in engineering practice. Consequently, the NRC is reassessing the probability of seismic core damage at existing plants.
I am not an expert in plate tectonics, but what I read tells me that you would feel more secure with a PSHA-generated standard—and what I have learned from Fukushima is that I want that standard applied to all the systems needed to safely operate a nuclear power plant. But what this report tells me is that the NRC is only in the midst of some process of reevaluating plants’ seismic vulnerability—a process that was to have begun last year but has moved very slowly (and this is only the evaluation stage)—and that this re-evaluation is of the probability of core damage, which, to my eye, is not the same as an evaluation of every system needed for the reactor and the spent fuel pools to remain safe.
And I am not alone in my worries. Here’s the NRC itself after it looked at North Anna in April (via the Institute for Southern Studies and the Center for Public Integrity):
Specifically, the NRC report notes that portions of water and gaseous suppression systems and hose stations “are not seismically designed.”
The report noted that “potential leakage can occur through penetrations following seismic event.”
There’s also concern about what a major quake would mean for the water-filled pools used to store spent fuel at most U.S. nuclear plants. Bob Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies who recently authored a report on the dangers of spent fuel storage in the United States, addressed the issue in a piece on the IPS blog posted shortly after the quake:
The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.
Alvarez went on to note that almost 40 percent of the radioactivity in North Anna’s spent fuel pools is in the form of cesium-137, a long-lived isotope that presents serious health risks and accumulates in the food chain. He continued:
The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more spent fuel than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements.
This goes to explaining the confusion I see over whether just parts or the entirety of a nuclear facility is required to meet a specific earthquake safety standard. But what it doesn’t do is imply that a single, plant-wide standard will be used in the future.
As noted when the special task force report came out earlier this summer, the recommendation that the current patchwork of safety rules should be unified and standardized was actually being slow-walked by three of the five NRC commissioners. Finally, one week ago, the commission agreed to give its technical team 45 days to analyze some of the recommendations, but they will be given a full 18 months to analyze the recommendation that the NRC revise its entire regulatory framework in light of lessons learned after the Fukushima disaster.
It should also be noted that there is currently no law that requires the NRC to apply the new, better seismic standards when evaluating requests for license renewals or the building of additional reactors at existing facilities. (There is a bill, languishing in the House, designed to fix this. . . did I mention it was languishing?)
Which brings us back to Senator Feinstein, or, really, her California colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works and has oversight responsibilities over the NRC. While DiFi has written about the lessons of this week’s Virginia quake, Boxer has demanded action on the NRC taskforce report on the lessons learned from Fukushima. At a hearing on August 2, Boxer demanded the NRC pick up the pace on evaluating the recommendations and report back to her by November. With the NRC’s decision on how it will move forward, and the latest in a lengthening string of “wakeup calls” having caused incidents at North Anna and a number of other eastern nuclear facilities, perhaps both of California’s Senators might consider official hearings before then.
It must also be mentioned that while I was writing this post, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has stepped down. Stories on the resignation concurrently cite his dismal poll numbers from an anti-nuke electorate, and the lack of support from pro-nuclear members of his party. Kan, who had previously hinted at leaving after the Fukushima crisis was brought under control (it seems I correctly predicted he’d be gone well before that), has also signaled that he wanted to wean Japan off nuclear power for electrical generation and move more aggressively toward renewable sources. Both possible reasons for his early exit speak to some form of accountability—one to the public, the other to entrenched nuclear industry masters—and both have probably played some roll. But what matters going forward is to whom the next leader will answer, and what happens with Japanese nuclear facilities will make that very clear.
In the US, we have a less clear choice—no one has proposed a move away from nuclear power (quitethecontrary)—which, alas, probably tells us who calls the shots in our country. But that ugly political reality doesn’t change the physical one—United States nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to numerous seismic and tidal threats. As Diane Feinstein concludes, “We need to learn the lessons we can to assure that next time we are ready—not just lucky.”
While most of creation is still trying to predict if Congress will raise the debt ceiling, and what will happen to the economy if they don’t, I thought I’d spend some quality time with disasters quite present, and in some ways, quite predictable. I am talking about nuclear power in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.
We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy. When we think of the magnitude of the risks involved with nuclear power, the safety measures we previously conceived are inadequate.
Just doesn’t have the same oomph, does it? Kind of missing the gravity or sense of urgency of a head of state declaring an unambiguous move away from nuclear power, no?
Style points aside—I mean, you can hardly expect President Obama to break away from round-the-clock deficit hysteria to address a looming threat that also happens to siphon billions of dollars from federal coffers in the form of subsidies and loan guarantees—the content of the report itself, its findings and recommendations, also leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed.
As noted, the report is long–and it is dense–but as I understand it, the task force recommends that regulators pay more attention to what the report calls “low-likelihood, high-consequence events”. . . you know, like earthquakes and floods that damage nuclear reactors and safety systems.
Hard to argue with that. . . but then the task force also says that the sort of high-consequence disaster that happened in Japan can’t happen in the US—and that is a point that I and many experts and activists would argue against. To put it very briefly, the United States has many reactors past their projected life spans, many similar in design to Fukushima’s, and many built in areas vulnerable to seismic activity, floods and, yes, even tsunamis.
Also recommended, that the government standardize safety regulations and emergency response plans—and make them actual rules as opposed to voluntary industry initiatives (aka “suggestions”)—which is good as far as it goes, but in the wake of a multi-part AP exposé showing how the NRC conspired with the nuclear industry to lower safety standards, I’m thinking that doesn’t go that far.
Perhaps what is most important, however, is what’s missing from the Near-Term Task Force Review. As noted by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the report makes no recommendation for moving spent nuclear fuel from over-packed pools to hardened on-site storage. A striking omission considering that used fuel rods stored in pools inside the Fukushima reactor buildings were and continue to be a serious part of the crisis in Japan.
Also highlighted by PSR, though completely outside the prescribed scope of the investigation, the task force states that there is an “expectation of no significant radiological health effects” from the Fukushima disaster.
No significant radiological health effects. When I first read that, I assumed the NRC review was referring to the United States—an assertion that already strains credulity as far as I’m concerned, but one that can be debated, given the distance and the data (or paucity of data). But, as I read it—uh, re-read it—this “conclusion” is a general one, as in everywhere, as in an expectation of no significant radiological health effects in Japan.
Now, that assertion, without any long-term health screenings or any epidemiological studies, is as worthless as it is irresponsible, but to make such a statement a week after a Japanese report revealed that 45 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have thyroids that show evidence of exposure to radiation makes one wonder what the US task force used for data. . . or if they felt the need to use data at all. Also revealed at the end of June, soil samples from the city of Fukushima—an area well outside of the quarantine radius—contained radioactive cesium at levels 1.5 to 4.5 times greater than the legal limit. (Radioactive cesium 137 has a half-life of approximately 30 years and tends to accumulate in plant tissue and fungal spores.)
But wait, there’s more:
Another sample taken from a street ditch — where nuclear fallout often accumulates — registered as much as 931,000 becquerels per sq. meter, surpassing the 555,000 becquerels per sq. meter limit for compulsory resettlement in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 becquerels per sq. meter.
An earlier survey on soil in the city of Fukushima by the science ministry has found 37,000 becquerels of radioactive substances per 1 kg — equivalent to 740,000 becquerels per sq. meter.
That’s Japan. Here in North America, we found out this week that the Environmental Protection Agency was measuring radioactive iodine in rainwater out west at levels 30, 40, and, in one case, 130 times what is considered the safety standard for drinking water. Granted, a drinking water standard is not the same as a rainwater measure (as I understand it, the drinking water standard is based on the chances that consumption of a glass a day for 30 years will result in cancer), but that does not mean that this revelation doesn’t raise many questions.
For instance, what about negative non-cancer health effects? Has rain-borne radiation contaminated reservoirs, wells, or watersheds? What about bioaccumulation, what about the radiation that winds up in and on plants and animals? And what about—and this has been one of my big questions since the early days of this crisis—what about other isotopes, ones with other deleterious health effects, ones with half-lives measured in decades (like Cs-137) as opposed to days (like I-131)? And, of course, since it has been determined that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of radiation exposure, no matter the source, shouldn’t the government do a better job of informing the public of any significant increases?
To that last point, the report on radioactive rainwater, which is from Heart of America Northwest, also revealed that, in many cases, there was a lag time of a week between the radiation readings and the posting of the information on the EPA’s RadNet website. So, even for those that could parse the data on the less-than-lay-friendly site, the news was nowhere close to real-time, and so nowhere close to immediate enough for individuals trying to assess risk and adjust behavior accordingly.
The same report notes that though the EPA says it stepped up rainwater sampling following the start of the nuclear disaster in Japan, several sites (Portland, OR, for example) do not show additional sample dates beyond the standard once per month. That leads one to assume that the EPA was less diligent than they claimed, but could it also be that the EPA collected samples but chose not to post the data? (That’s an honest question—I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it did occur to me.)
By the way, that increase in sampling—it ended on May 3. . . because, of course, the Fukushima crisis is over. . . .
But, of course, the crisis is not over. Beyond the melted cores in several Fukushima reactors—where Japanese response teams are still trying to understand the shape and temperature of fuel and the integrity of the containment vessels—there are the pools of spent fuel rods, still very radioactive, still sitting in reactor buildings without roofs (which were destroyed by hydrogen explosions in the days after the earthquake and tsunami). Those pools are still sending an unknown amount of radiation into the atmosphere, and those pools will remain exposed for months to come (the first attempt to cover one of the reactor buildings is expected in late September).
So, that’s a lot to digest—for me, yes, and maybe for you, too—but at least I am trying to take it all in. Did the NRC task force take in any of this before they issued their report? Did they digest it? Yes or no, I find their assertion of no significant radiological health effects hard to swallow.
The differences in the levels of response—Germany announcing a plan to end its use of nuclear power, and Japan’s PM stating that his country should do the same, versus the United States quietly releasing a wonky report with a set of recommendations for a sustained nuclear future—tells me that the US government will not learn the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, and I find that hard to stomach.
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