Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fukushima: the saga continues...

Sometime during the weekend the mainstream broadcast media cut back on coverage of the "crippled nuclear plant". I guess 10 days of coverage was really stretching their attention spans. And helpfully the UN decided to bomb Libya giving the cameras something else to focus on. Plus getting "new and useful" information about what is going on at Fukushima is about as informative as a parent questioning a typical teenager about the evening's plans.

Despite "happy talk" out of TEPCO about all the efforts to bring the situation at the reactors "under control", it is not clear that anything at the site is under control after almost 12 days!

3 reactors appear to be in slow motion meltdown--all 3 (?) that were running at the time of the disaster have had the fuel rods in their reactors half exposed to air for the better part of a week

1 reactor is believed to have "breached" containment--nearly a week ago--and the status of another reactor's containment has been uncertain for several days.

All 3 buildings that housed running reactors have been damaged (2 of them by major hydrogen explosions removing the top level(s))

A fourth building which housed a reactor that wasn't even "ON" at the time of the disaster but housed spent fuel also blew its top.

My only conclusion is that "under control" in TEPCO/Japanese means "reactor buildings are no longer exploding."

A lot of people have been working heroically--putting themselves at serious health risk--to re-establish power at the two remaining undamaged reactor buildings (No. 5 & 6) which were also off at the time of the disaster. And various efforts have been made to get power to a couple of the damaged reactor buildings. And they have tried various methods of getting seawater into the buildings to cool/top-up the spent fuel rod pools.

Still 3 reactors and 4 spent fuel cooling pools are leaking radiation (and some are smoldering off and on), and while it is encoraging to see power being restored, it is unlikely that much of the equipment inside the reactor buildings is in functional condition following the explosions, seawater "showers", and high radiation levels.

The best news is that for a few days now the situation at the plant has not gotten worse at the same rate as the first week. And while things need to stop getting worse before they can get better, it doesn't mean that things actually are getting better (yet).

New equipment will need to be installed in a very hazardous (potentially deadly) environment in parallel with ongoing efforts to cool reactors and fuel pools, before the term "control" should even begin to be uttered.

Meanwhile reports of contaminated food, water and soil in the surrounding region of Japan have begun to trickle in.

Since I have very little understanding of nuclear exposure levels, I found this chart to be very informative.

Looking the chart over (and reading about reported radiation levels at the plant) it seems clear that over the past 10 days (emergency) workers at the Fukushima plant have been exposed to levels of radiation above what is considered safe over an entire year. With reported readings at the plant sometimes exceeding 3.6milliSv/hr (which is background/normal exposure for a year!) many workers are nearing if not exceeding doses that are clearly linked to increased cancer risk (~100milliSv/yr). While the readings occasionally jump to high values and then fall back down, if a worker were exposed continuously to the high level of these readings for 100 hours (10 days at 10 hours per day) they would have recieved a cummulative dose associated with radiation sickness.

One can only hope that Japan will soon be able to improve the situation at Fukushima, but we should be prepared for a couple more nasty surprises (and likely several days of delays) before things start to improve measurably.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan's disaster cubed

I've been riveted to my TV & computer since Friday, trying to comprehend the devestation of a 9.0 earthquake (upgraded from 8.9), + an 8m tsunami, + a desperate situation when nuclear cooling systems failed at a power plant in Fukushima. Whenever you see such utter devastation and human tradgedy and suffering on a national scale it is truely heartbreaking. I am so so saddened by the loss..

And reminded how precious and unpredictable living on this always changing planet is.

Watching the developing nuclear meltdown in Japan has certainly been a flashing reminder of the dangers posed by so called "safe" nuclear power...I live in Chicago, literally surrounded by about 11 nuke plants. Even when functioning within design limits nuclear plants create tons of really bad stuff (waste) every year. And clearly a 9.0 earthquake exceeded the design and safety limits at Fukushima. We do not yet know how this "incident" will end, although it seems to go from bad to worse.

I believe it has already gotten bad enough to derail the nuclear renaissance many in that industry hoped for. And any pullback there will be a big blow to efforts to fight climate change, since coal is the obvious baseload alternative. That said, in the mid-to-long term this presents opportunities for "true" renewables like wind, solar, and especially fledgling geothermal and wave power which have the power profiles that can support baseload demand without storage.

But even more important than switching our energy ravenous society onto the next "fuel source", I think we need to take a completely different attitude to reducing our power requirements. We need to embrace RADICAL EFFICIENCY. Creating and designing systems that require 1/3 (or less) as much energy to sustain them. And we can't wait 20, 30 or 40 years to get to a more efficient equilibrium. We need to get there in 10 years. This means we need to be doing the planning today and start implimenting(!) systems 2, 3 or 4 years!