Monday, March 14, 2011

Things are looking worse every day in Japan

On a Fox News show this evening, I heard a supposed nuclear energy expert, Jay Lehr*, pronounce with conviction that there would be no health consequences in Japan from the meltdowns taking place at various reactors in that country.

Then, at the next commercial break, I turned to CNN where the scroll at the bottom of its screen read: "Japanese government expects serious health consequences from nuclear meltdowns."

I wanted to believe the guy on Fox. But it struck me that the Japanese government would not say there will be health consequences to its people if there was even a small chance the guy on Fox was correct.

Here is the latest report from the Washington Post:

Japan’s nuclear emergency turned more dire on Tuesday after the third explosion in four days rocked the seaside Fukushima Daiichi complex and fire briefly raged in a storage facility for spent fuel rods at a fourth, previously unaffected reactor.

Officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the nuclear complex, said radioactive substances were emitted after a 6:14 a.m. explosion, which took place in the unit 2 reactor. The blast took place near or in the suppression pool, which traps and cools radioactive elements from the containment vessel, officials said. The explosion appeared to have damaged valves and pipes, possibly creating a path for radioactive materials to escape.

That sounds bad.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told the nation Tuesday morning that radiation had already spread from the reactors and there was “still a very high risk of further radioactive material escaping.” He advised people within 19 miles of the plant to remain indoors. He urged calm.

If there were no health risks, I don't think the prime minister of Japan would be urging people who live 19 miles away to remain indoors.

Tokyo Electric, which over the weekend said it had 1,400 people working at the complex, said it was evacuating all but 50 workers. Kan hailed those workers, who he said “are putting themselves in a very dangerous situation.”

Tokyo Electric would not say this was a very dangerous situation if it were as safe as Fox News's Jay Lehr thinks it is.

Tuesday began with a fire that broke out in a pool storing spent fuel rods at the base of unit 4, which had been shut down for inspection before last Friday’s earthquake. Radioactive substances might have spewed outside from the fire, officials said, because the structure housing the pool was damaged by Monday’s explosion at unit 3.

Half an hour later, the explosion at unit 2 took place. Experts said that, unlike the two previous explosions that destroyed outer buildings, this explosion might have damaged portions of the containment vessel designed to bottle up radioactive materials in the event of an emergency.

I claim no expertise, but that sounds very bad.

The explosion — more serious than the earlier ones — was followed by a brief drop in pressure in the vessel and a spike in radioactivity outside the reactor to levels more than eight times what people ordinarily receive in a year, the company said.

I can't spend an hour in the sun without getting too much solar radiation. I cannot imagine how bad it is to get 8 years of radiation in one day.

The new setbacks came on the heels of a difficult Monday at Fukushima Daiichi unit 2, one of six reactors at the site. Utility officials there reported that four out of five water pumps being used to flood the reactor had failed and that the other pump had briefly stopped working. As a result, the company said, the fuel rods, normally covered by water, were completely exposed for 140 minutes.

Given that the Japanese are about the most competent people on earth and they cannot handle this, I wonder how much worse this disaster would be in another, less advanced country.

The string of earthquake- and tsunami-triggered troubles at the Fukushima Daiichi plant began Friday, when a loss of grid power (caused by the earthquake) followed by a loss of backup diesel generators (caused by the tsunami) led to the failure of cooling systems needed to keep reactor cores from overheating.

In hindsight, it seems like it was a terrible idea to put nuclear power plants in a zone with both earthquake and tsunami risks. In California, we have two nuclear power stations, San Onofre in north San Diego County and Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, on the coast.

I don't think either one is at risk of being flooded by a tsunami, though there is a serious earthquake risk at Diablo Canyon. When I was in college, I protested PG&E building a nuclear generating station right on an earthquake fault. It still seems like a bad idea to me, though it has operated safely for more than 20 years.

The U.S. 7th Fleet said Monday that some of its personnel, who are stationed 100 miles offshore from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, had come into contact with radioactive contamination. The airborne radioactivity prompted the fleet to reposition its ships and aircraft.

Using sensitive instruments, precautionary measurements were conducted on three helicopter aircrews returning to the USS Ronald Reagan after conducting disaster relief missions near Sendai. Those measurements identified low levels of radioactivity on 17 crew members.

What is so sad about this heightened radiation leaking into the air is that the victims of the tsunami and earthquake need hordes of relief workers to come in and help them with food, water, shelter and medical care, but it is now dangerous for anyone to expose themselves anywhere near the nuclear plants.

“Let’s hope they can get these reactors under control,” said Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They’re not there yet.”

My hope is that in the next decade we build dozens of new nuclear power plants in the United States. But we should try to learn every lesson possible from what has gone wrong in Japan, so that we don't have any such meltdowns and are as prepared as necessary for them to survive natural disasters.


*I just looked up some facts on Jay Lehr. He is not a scientist of any sort. He has a PhD in economics. He works for a conservative think tank called The Heartland Institute. He makes his living as a motivational speaker. I discovered, among other things, he is a global warming skeptic (though, of course, he has never studied climate science or any hard science). Yet he goes around preaching some crazy theory that carbon dioxide plays no role in global warming.

Mr. Lehr rejects the global consensus of the IPCC scientists which say this about carbon dioxide's role in warming our planet:

The reason the Earth’s surface is this warm is the presence of greenhouse gases, which act as a partial blanket for the longwave radiation coming from the surface. This blanketing is known as the natural greenhouse effect. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapour and carbon dioxide. The two most abundant constituents of the atmosphere – nitrogen and oxygen – have no such effect. Clouds, on the other hand, do exert a blanketing effect similar to that of the greenhouse gases; however, this effect is offset by their reflectivity, such that on average, clouds tend to have a cooling effect on climate (although locally one can feel the warming effect: cloudy nights tend to remain warmer than clear nights because the clouds radiate longwave energy back down to the surface). Human activities intensify the blanketing effect through the release of greenhouse gases. For instance, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by about 35% in the industrial era, and this increase is known to be due to human activities, primarily the combustion of fossil fuels and removal of forests. Thus, humankind has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere with substantial implications for climate.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to take Mr. Lehr seriously, even if he calls himself an expert on nuclear energy. The government of Japan knows much more about what is happening with its reactors than this Fox News ideologue, Jay Lehr.

1 comment:

Darrell said...

I saw Mr. Lehr on CNN. He didn't say there are no dangers, he said the danger is greatly overblown at this time.