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What We Must Learn about Nuclear Energy From Japan by Guest Blogger Grant Marcus

March 26, 2011


When I was young, easily influenced,  and a science fiction nut, I thought nuclear power was the answer to all our problems. When I was in elementary school and we took a tour of the nuclear power plant of Diablo, I was even more sold. My parents and their close friends also thought that nuclear power would solve all our energy needs.

Fast forward 20 or 30 years and you find me adamantly against nuclear power, traveling to the nuclear test sire in Nevada, and participating in protests. Nuclear power, while it seemed like the answer, was too dangerous. Until I was confident about what we’d do with the waste, I wasn’t going to support nuclear power.

A few days ago, Grant sent me the following email about what’s going on in Japan with the damaged nuclear reactors and he gave me permission to post it for my readers.

Grant’s a poet, peace activist and more. A registered nurse for 26 years, he was co-founder of the Abalone Alliance, a group that opposed the licensing of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and was a spokesperson for the Abalone Alliance from 1973-1986.  He is also founder of Nurses for Social Responsibility. He was arrested at Diablo Canyon seven times, protesting the use of nuclear power near a faultline.

Part One–Japan
Part Two–California
Part Three–Nuclear Power: Hidden Costs

In the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, on August 1945, over 65 years ago, hundreds of thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands more lost their lives from radiation poisoning over generations.

It was an atomic bomb in World War II, but it was nuclear reactors designed by GE on March 11, 2011. Although we all know Japan is now an ally of the U.S., and that a past disaster was from a weapon of war, and the current disaster is from atoms of peace, it is the lives that have and will be effected, and the body, receiving radiation, which cannot distinguish the difference between war and peace.

Three GE engineers knew that same fact when they quit the nuclear industry 35 years ago. They knew the catastrophic dangers implied by
the building of nuclear power plants, and the faulty designs they, themselves had created.

And so an engineer named Hubbard, and an engineer named Minor, and an engineer named Bridenbaugh quit GE, because their conscience could no longer justify the jobs they were doing.

Dale Bridenbaugh, one of those engineers, stepped forward again after the catastrophic accident in Fukushima Japan, because his fears had been realized.  Those same reactors he had warned us against in 1976, were now melting down in Japan.  And he knew then and knows now there are still 31 of those plants, near the age of retirement, operating in the United States today. His conscience, again, would not let him be silent.

The GE design is an erroneous, antiquated system. It’s secondary containment vessel, visible to us as the reactor shell, is too small a chamber, particularly for MOX, a new nuclear fuel, made from breeder reactors, consisting of “agglominates,” or pockets of plutonium, which contain greater heat and power, and health hazards. A small amount of airborne plutonium can cause an epidemic of cancers worldwide.

The design also poorly reinforces the reactor, making it unable to endure pressure released by  the core when it overheats.  Weak reinforcement increases the susceptibility of a containment explosion.  And, if  the core completely melts down at a GE plant, it is likely to melt through the weaker floor, in what is called “China Syndrome.”  Hence the movie of the same, released 32 years ago, nearlyto the day of Japan’s nuclear tragedy.

What most nuclear engineers know by now, in spite of the silence and deceit from TOPEC, is that there is already a partial meltdown at the Fukushima site, where GE reactors continue to vent toxic doses of radiation.

How do engineers know this? It is the presence of iodine 131, polluting the water, milk, and leafy vegetables as far away as 180 miles from Fukushima.

Iodine131 could not have come from past wars, or even the spent fuel that lit up the snowy night skies with fire.

It has a half life of only eight days.  And it is released when the cores have melted, the pressure vessels, or primary containments have been damaged, and the secondary containments of the reactor (visible to us) have been damaged and breached.

This means that the exterior shells of the plants are not in tact.  The National Geographic satellite photos bear these findings out, showing what appears to be “fissures” in two of the four damaged reactors.  In effect, this is the worst disaster since Chernobyl, and likely the worst nuclear accident in world history.

There were also three hydrogen explosions in the first four days from three of the four reactors, following the tsunami, releasing so much radiation into the atmosphere that helicopters could not drop water to cool the plants, and spent fuel ponds.  Radioactive hydrogen can only come from the zirconium cladding, insulating the fuel rods, that must have melted around the cores of at least three of the reactors.

The GE designed reactors at Fukushima were built to withstand an 8.0 earthquake.  The 9.0 quake was 10 times more powerful than the plant was designed to withstand. The plant itself had poor plans for a tsunami.  TOPEC prepared backup cooling systems for a 16 meter tsunami. The tsunami reached 23 meters.  TOPEC had made no plans for evacuation of the public.

Four nuclear reactors, each with radioactivity equivalent to 1000 Hiroshima bombs, and six spent fuel ponds open to air and harboring over 200 different radioactive nucleotides, which require months of continued cooling, continue to be at risk for fires, radioactive vent releases, and explosions. And these conditions could last weeks, if not months from now, as each release contaminates the environment with more radiation.

What we also know is that the cores likely failed to receive cooling water.  Even though the plants were shut down during the earthquake, there remained “decayed heat” within the plants, requiring a tremendous amount of cooling water, to be circulated evenly throughout the reactor cores.  But the earthquake ended all electrical power, and the tsunami destroyed diesel backup generation to the reactors.  Without electrical power, only battery packs were left to last hours.

Without electricity and circulation, the water stagnated around at least four of the cores. And there was no power to slow down the chain reactions in the reactors.  The heated water dissipated, and exposed three cores to air. The heat increased within, dissipating more water to radioactive steam, again exposing the cores, which increased pressure and caused the hydrogen explosions and ruptures of  secondary containment vessels.

And here lies the two crucial problems that continue today.  Reactors need lots of water.  It is why they build most reactors by the sea, because they take what is equivalent to one third of the California aqueduct to cool annually. And a fission reaction requires electricity to pump and circulate water evenly around the fuel cores, in order to prevent chain reactions and meltdowns.

In Japan, post-earthquake, this water and electricity must be provided in the midst of rubble and devastation, where water lines have been destroyed or contaminated, and power lines have been wiped out by the tsunami.  The desired water source is simply not available.

Since water is quintessential, it is why heroic Japanese workers are sacrificing their lives in an intense radioactive environment, to continue to pour sea water on the four unstable reactors, in order to prevent further radioactive contamination.

It is rumored that five workers have already died from radiation sickness.  Since radiation has no safe dosage, is cumulative, and lasts thousands of years in the environment, every additional radioactive release could cause more cancers and more birth defects over generations.  It is why the Japanese government and utility company must do all they can to cool down the plant.  Even though sea water is
not nearly as effective as a circulatory cooling system, it must be continued, as a hail mary, or last resort in an attempt to stop further radioactive releases, and until electric power can be restored.

The seriousness and the size of this “event” or catastrophe is far greater than Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island, the latter two incidents involving a single reactor.  The accident at Chernobyl caused 6,000 thyroid cancers over hundreds of miles.  Its fallout was detected as far away as Kansas.  The scope of the Fukushima disaster is “unchartered territory” for the nuclear industry, and includes 6 reactors and 6 holding ponds.  As of March 18, traces of fallout have been detected in California. And by March 21, as far away as Seattle. (EPA, CNN).

As I write this, on Wednesday March 22, the IAEA has found hot spots, or high readings of radioactivity in areas of Japan, and has asked that water be poured into reactor unit’s 3 and 4.  They report two fires, and two releases of radioactive gases.

The “suicide squad” of workers on site have been spraying water into the spent fuel ponds with fire hoses from long distance, so it is difficult to tell how much water is actually reaching its target, while reactor 3 continues to spew and smoke.

In Tokyo, 180 miles away, radiation readings are ten times higher than yesterday, and iodine levels for infants have reached twice the allowable levels.

There is some good news.  Reactor’s 5 and 6, which appeared in tact are.  Electric power has been restored to both reactors.

In California, though there is no safe or harmless dose of radiation, and though radiation is cumulative, the EPA insists that the “trace” findings fall within the safe standards of the nuclear industry, Translated, this means that several deaths related to toxic nuclear releases are possible, yet tolerable in order to maintain nuclear energy as a source of power.

California will keep receiving these daily “traces” for weeks and months, or until the Fukushima reactors can be cooled and stabilized.

What we do not know about Fukushima is the exact series of events that lead to this disaster.  We also do not know the condition of the fuel cores in the four damaged reactors.  And we do not know how much radiation has been released overall. We can’t possibly know how much radiation will continue to be released, or how badly the radioactivity will impact the environment, until the accident has been resolved.

Nor can we determine the amount of cancer fatalities this nuclear catastrophe will cause in the future.  At this point, it is wait and see, and with the rule of caution, for everyone exposed, and who is continuing to be exposed, in Japan and beyond.

We do know that some of the radiation released into the atmosphere will last thousands of years, posing a continued health threat in that duration to the living environment.


*Sources of this article: Union of Concerned Scientists, daily updates, March 14- March 19; Interview, Helen Caldicott, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Friends of the Earth, Los Angeles Times, CNN, DemocracyNow! (Reports/interviews with enviornmentalists, physicists, and nuclear engineers); NRC, IAEA, Nuclear Free World, National Geographic, and ERDA(Energy Research & Development Admin.)

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