Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

James Houle: Dial a Nuclear Disaster — Fukushima and America’s Nukes

In Around Mendo Island, James Houle on July 11, 2011 at 7:45 am

Redwood Valley

There are over 440 large commercial nuclear power plants operating in the world, mostly in the 30 post-industrialized countries. Many of the largest commercial plants have already exceeded their 40 year design lives but continue to operate, despite serious maintenance problems in many plants, and in the United States, with weakened inspection and regulatory controls. The Chernobyl disaster in 1989 and the Three Mile Island melt-down in 1986 illustrated the danger and astronomical long term costs associated with generating electric power by the seemingly simple task of boiling water when it is done in a highly radioactive nuclear reactor and then spinning this steam through a turbine to generate electric power. No big nuclear  power plants have been built in the post industrialized world since the late 1980s when it became obvious to all capitalists that the economics of nuclear power was very unattractive, the risks far higher than any profit-making electric power company could handle, and the disposal of radioactive waste products seemingly insolvable.

The Safety Myth in Japan:
Since the end of the Cold War, we have drowsed along and most of us are not informed about the threat that aging nuclear power plants pose. And then the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami set off our alarm clocks. Today, Japan has three reactors where enriched uranium has melted through the high pressure containments and threatens to enter the aquifers. School children are now required to carry Geiger counters at all times and trace amounts of radioactive iodine and cesium have been found within the bodies of school children living as far as 60 kilometers from the stricken nuclear plants. TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima plants was panicked into pumping seawater into four reactors when reactor meltdowns occurred and where spent fuel cooling ponds lost all their water supply. Now this highly radioactive seawater is leaking out to the ocean as reactor melt-through occurs, compromising the reactor shells themselves. No solution to this catastrophe has yet been found. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has consistently down played the seriousness of the problem, refused to expand evacuation zones, and needlessly exposed the local population to radioactivity.

The Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Banri Kaieda, told the Vienna meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in June that “in Japan we have something called the ‘safety myth’ – an irrational and “unreasonable overconfidence in the technology of  nuclear power”. Despite having been the world’s only victims of nuclear war, and long after every major western country stopped  building new plants, Japanese society holds to this “safety mythology”.  Japan still has a number of big nukes in construction or on the drawing boards. (NYT Normitsu Onishi 6/24/11). TEPCO lacked the basic equipment needed for a disaster such as portable water pumps, robots capable of entering the containment structures and clearing debris, emergency equipment available to pump water to the spent fuel pools in the event of a power failure, and any disaster preparedness drills whatsoever. The power companies and the government have placed their focus on indoctrinating the public with the notion that nuclear power was absolutely safe. Any safety drills would only undermine that focus. PR (public relations) buildings were attached to nuclear plants to spread the message of safety as almost a “holy grail”.  Initially set up as places where the male population could learn about  technical side of nuclear power, the focus was changed after Chernobyl and the PR buildings converted into elaborate theme parks geared towards young mothers and children. School books have been rewritten throughout Japan to down-play nuclear accidents and to eliminate references to anti-nuclear activity in Europe.

Today, the Japanese Government holds to the radiation evacuation zone set at 20 kilometers even though radiation hot spots at high as 100 times acceptable levels were detected 60 kilometers away in the City of Fukushima (population 290,00). The government has responded to alarmingly high radiation levels by raising the acceptable radiation exposure for children from 1 milliseverts per year to 20 milliseverts. Despite government reassurances, tens of thousands of Japanese families have evacuated the greater Fukushima area and moved to the south and west. TEPCO warns that releases of radiation will continue and no solutions have yet been found for the  problems of overheated reactor cores, dry spent fuel ponds, or radioactive water releases into the aquifer and the ocean front.

Deadly Dangers Right Here in the U.S. of A:
In the United States, 82 of our 104 commercial reactors have been in service more than 25 years and 66 of these have been licensed to operate another 20 years, well beyond what they were designed for. Problems with steel embrittlement in the reactor vessels, broken down and out of date control systems, and serious electrical malfunctions continue to plague these old plants while the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Agency) has weakened its system of inspections and relies increasingly upon the  operators to detect and to report their own failings. (AP Impact Report 6/20/11). “Lord please lead me to confession booth”

In the State of California , we have four large reactors that match all too eerily the combination of The Three Deadly Dangers experienced at Fukushima: aging nuclear plants approaching the end of their design life; mindlessly located so as to straddle several major active earthquake fault; placed right on the shoreline where their emergency generators can be easily inundated and knocked out of operation by Tsunami waves. These emergency diesel driven generators supply power to the cooling water pumps essential to cooling the reactor cores and spent fuel pools. The four reactors, two at San Onofre near San Diego and two at Diablo Canyon north of Santa Barbara, were designed to withstand 7.0 and 7.5 Richter earthquakes respectively. The Fukushima quake was 8.9, almost 100 times more severe than what our American designers anticipated.  Forty-five minutes after the quake, a 46 foot high tsunami wave hit the plant flooding the emergency generators and most of the control systems.  Their break-water was only 5.7 meter (19 feet) in height. No breakwaters have even been erected at the San Onofre or Diablo Canyon. Furthermore, NRC only requires that emergency generators operate for four to eight hours, by which time it is a assumed that connections to the main power grid would be restored. The regional power grid in the Fukushima area was not reconnected for months.

Twenty-five miles up the Hudson River from New York City, the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant struggles along with numerous safety violations and maintenance worries.  It is located within fifty miles of 20 million people. The two reactors at this site will compete their 40 year design life in 2013-15. The owner/operator Entergy has submitted an application to operate for another 20 years despite a catalog of NRC complaints including wholly inadequate fire detection and suppression system and many reports of radioactive leaks from spent fuel pools. The chief engineer of Fairewinds (a Burlington-based environmental and energy litigation consultants), Arnie Gunderson, explains that the emergency evacuation plans only cover a ten mile radius and the former head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt, calls even this plan totally unworkable. (Harvey Wasserman, Huffington Green 6/16/11). Governor Andrew Cuomo has demanded the shutdown of Indian Point, while the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, wants its life extended 20 years and fears a blackout in the city more than death by radiation. A report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that Indian Point had many engineering vulnerabilities, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has largely ignored. Governor Cuomo said the report indicates  “That of all the 104 nuclear plants across the country, the Indian Point power plant is most susceptible to an earthquake because Reactor No. 3 is on a fault line.”

At Vermont Yankee, a reactor with the same vulnerable General Electric design as the 4 units at Fukushima, the government just granted a 20 year extension to its operating license. The Fermi Reactor in Michigan has been leaking and suffering breakdowns for years and has not been thoroughly inspected in decades. The Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, our oldest reactor, has a myriad of corrosion cracking problems, plus leaky valves, bad electrical cables and the like. The Davis Beese plant near Toledo came within two months of a breech of the reactor from corrosion. The Catawba plant in North Carolina was found to have 8,000 corroded steam tubes, more than half its total.

The cooling ponds for spent fuel rods have not been adequately protected at any of the nuclear sites in  America. There is no cooling water supply for these ponds except from the power grid, and we have seen in Japan how easy this can be get knocked off line by a major quake. Beyond all these problems inside the plants, we still have found no means to permanently store spent fuel and probably never will. The steel and concrete casks that have now been offered as an alternate to endless life in the fuel pools, will probably not last more than 100 years and are very expensive: as much as $7 billion for the US spent fuel alone. Germany is moving all their depleted uranium to such casks. Uranium 238 has a half life of 4.4 billion years while Plutonium 239′s half life is 80 million years.

Europe is Cooling Off to Nuclear Power
Germany is shutting down all 17 nuclear power reactors by 2022 and 8 of these are already out of service. Switzerland will phase out all of their plants as well and Japan is moving in the same direction. Italian voters just took the nuclear power option off the table, despite Premier Burlesconi’s sponsorship of a program to introduce large nuclear power plants into Italy. Italy currently imports nuclear power from France. The French Republic is the leading nuclear power producer in Europe with 59 plants generating 79% of their electricity. They have not indicated, despite the news from Fukushima, any intention to shut them down any time soon. Nevertheless, we can expect Europe to move away from nuclear power as their existing plants approach their design lives, as solar power becomes more practical and no longer financially unreasonable, and the bad news from Japan continues.

Obama Extends the Life of Old Plants and Wants to Build New Ones
An expose by AP entitled “Aging Nukes” reveals that the “NRC and the nuclear power industry have been working in tandem to weaken safety standards so as to keep aging reactors within the rules.” (Jeff Dunn, Democracy Now 6/28/11). When the embrittlement of steel around reactor vessels has been found to be too advanced to squeak back under the rules, plant owners have requested and received waivers or special exceptions so as to keep running. Bombarding steel reactor vessels with neutrons for 30 or 40 years causes the steel to become very brittle and easily shattered when it undergoes a force like an earthquake. Senators recently called for an investigation after they learned that leakage of radioactive tritium from corroded reactors and buried piping had been found at 48 of the 65 nuclear plant sites in the US.

Seemingly unconcerned by all this, Obama announced this Spring “A New Nuclear Generation” and requested $56 billion in loan guarantees for the builders of these new and improved nukes in America.  Not surprising, all of the engineers, metallurgists and physicists who designed our 104 reactors way back in the 1980s are now retired. The only country where reactor vessels are currently fabricated is Japan. Like a bad dream, TEPCO, the Tokyo owner/operator of Fukushima, is a major investor, along with Toshiba, in the Obama’s South Texas Project that would build 2 nuclear reactors by 2017. While no notification of cancellation has been made, TEPCO is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Helen Caldecott, an Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist, demands that all of the 104 reactors in the United States be shut down now. (Barry Vogel, Radio Curious, 6/26/11). She feels that this is the only real protection we have.  When the next reactor springs a leak or goes into melt-down, it will be  too late. She sees little if anything we can now do to protect ourselves from the radiation released at Fukushima nor from additional leakage of radioactive elements to the air and to the seas. She demands that the EPA begin to monitor radioactivity in fish and seaweed caught for US markets and that special testing of air for radioactivity, initiated immediately after Fukushima, be re-instated. The EPA had found in the weeks following Fukushima that radioactive materials like cesium and iodine-131 were being detected on US soil. Citing declining levels of radiation, the EPA has abandoned these extra tests in May. (Mike Ludwig, –  6/23/11).

It seems as if the heavens have rained upon Obama’s nuclear picnic.

See also Nuclear Evacuation Zones: How Close Are You To A Nuclear Power Plant? (INTERACTIVE MAP)

  1. Rained on Obama’s picnic? He’s merely brought out the umbrella of his hyper legal intellectual training.

    The education furnished by undergraduate courses leading to qualification for law schools, and then the further honing of “rational” skills required for adversarial, and yes, even “theoretical” constitutional analysis (all the historical grunt work of case study, etc.), all of that, historically, has produced some pretty impressive leaders in government, etc., obviously including the Supreme Court. But there are myriad DUDS out there, whose perspectives are, essentially, de-humanized and so detached from the broader perspectives of our society’s most critical needs, that the situation is a disgrace to the legal profession in question.

    Obama, in his own quasi-”liberal” fashion, is as bad as Justice Roberts and the supporters of “corporate personhood” and other pro-corporate abominations. Thumbs down, with as many hands as we can muster. He “rationalizes” his role as President, perhaps dreaming that he can “unify” and keep everyone strung along.

    Bottom line is two fold: The President “selects” his battles altogether too selectively, this nuclear stuff being a major case in point – and this context is not where the catalog can be spun out.

    Secondly, we are in dire need of an effective REVOLUTIONARY agenda, not more of the kind of whining we all are guilty of.

    NOTE: I have included myself.

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