1. There is going to be a backlash over the kind of coverage this incident got in the media, once the dust settles. The total lack of subtlety that we saw over this period, and the obvious attempt to sensationalize the problems at the reactors while neglecting the wider story of Japan’s suffering will not go unpunished. The media are cannibals, and will turn on one another in a flash if they think there is a story, and there is.

    1. The media has covered several things over the last few years about which I knew a little bit, and I learned that on their best days they only get it mostly right, and on their middling days they get things almost totally wrong. If I didn

      1. The older you get and the more you know, the more likely you’ll see a story in the news about a topic you are knowledgeable about. At that point you’ll come to the realization that journalists are the most highly educated idiots in society.

        1. John – I agree, except for one point. I don’t consider journalists to be all that highly educated.
          Now, I have run across some very highly educated idiots in my time (they’re not all that uncommon), but they had much more prestigious job descriptions than “journalist.”
          Think of it this way: for every stupid article that reads “scientists believe” or “science says,” there generally has to be a “scientist” somewhere who is actually making the stupid statement referred to in the article.

    2. I once worked in a very junior capacity in a nuclear testing lab and then got a degree in chemistry and like many people only have a vague idea of what is going on in a disaster like this. I reasoned the Zircalloy could not burn or it would be very difficult to burn but i saw the videos of the plants blowing up more or less in real time. Hydrogen explosions? I am not totally convinced. Criticality could have been achieved in some of these ponds where design restrictions meant there was too much fuel in too small a pond.
      Some of the attitude here is that people like me are scaremongers and ignorant and others know better and this kind of attitude will back fire on you. Surely you realise highly toxic fumes are being vented from these plants and this process is not likely to end at best for the next week. It could be months before the thing is contained and fumes are being stored.

          1. When a reactor starts up it can do so relatively slowly to the critical state and even if goes to super critical the water boils to moderate the reaction and keep it only critical. Where critical is the normal heating of the reactor.
            if the rods go critical then water was present at that time. If most of the rods are exposed and hot the zirc cladding can fail and dump the U02 towards the bottom – under the water. A critical event could occur near the bottom of the pool. The water would most likely be immediately dumped out of the pool to stop the fission – just as if the reactor had started but meanwhile the high temperatures have vapourised the zirc and you could get a hydrogen explosion, zirc fire and who knows what – but you would not get an atomic bomb like release of atomic energy.
            There was a violent release of energy at one of the reactor buildings.

          2. Not sure why this hasn’t gotten any press, but for the last several days Japanese officials have included in their status updates concerns about criticality in the unit #4 spent fuel pond: “renewed nuclear chain reaction feared at spent-fuel storage pool.”

            1. EL – It’s not news to anyone familiar with situation and the physical phenomena involved.
              They (i.e., nuclear professionals) always worry about the possibility of a criticality event. It’s almost as if it has been worked into their bones. When are you going to finally realize that the nuclear industry worldwide takes safety very seriously?
              Personally, as someone who does not have any responsibility for the safety of the plant and is merely an educated observer, I think that the risks of criticality in the fuel pool are overstated. I won’t say impossible, of course, but the possibility is unlikely.
              The real news story would have been if the Japanese officials were not considering the possibility of the used fuel in the pool going critical. Then, I would be concerned.

              1. Brian
                The issue being discussed was not if it will happen but whether it did happen. So far you have confirmed that you believe it would be unlikely but it could happen and you would be concerned if the authorities were not concerned it could happen.
                So…….if it did happen the next question is what would be observed at a minimum and what is more likely if it did happen? There would be a range of likely possibilities if the worried about event had happened. According to Wiki, at the TL1 event there was little outside contamination even though there was no containment vessel and the explosion ended as soon as it began to the point people in the room were still alive when firemen entered the room. So in that possibility there would be relatively little to be concerned about outside the immediate area given the wind conditions at the time.

                1. Long story short: things would heat up very quickly; water would convert to steam, thereby removing the moderation; the system would return to subcritical. It is quite possible that this could happen very rapidly and violently, but any damage would be local. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that such an event had occurred.

                    1. If it did happen, and all that was observed was what was observed then I guess it was no big deal. If there needs to be discussion on if it happened or not, then it wasn

                    2. if criticality only resulted in a steam and hydrogen explosion that only ejected the contents of the MOX fuel rods over the local area where the sea is only about 200m away, while burning some vaporised contents in a brief fire that would fit some of the data so far i think.
                      The air tight bulldozing tanks were called into removed highly radioactive rubble that was preventing efficient access to the site. Where would such *highly* radioactive rubble have come from?

                    3. “Where would such *highly* radioactive rubble have come from?”
                      They were venting radioactive gasses from the primary containment to the secondary containment, which subsequently experienced a hydrogen explosion. This happened not once, but three times.

                    4. @Brian. They were venting radioactive gases from primary containment to outside the reactor building in 1 and 3 (through a hard vent added to the Mark I design at a later point). The leak at the top of the containment structure to the operating floor of the reactor building was a breach of containment (likely through the removable servicing head and flange at the top of the primary containment vessel). This is disputed by GE and NEI (in a briefing note they added responding to accident), but they have described no other pathway for the gas to reach the secondary containment structure in 1 and 3. Reactor 2 had a hydrogen explosion within the primary containment structure involving some components of the torus or piping in the pressure release safety valves (which shunt steam, residual heat, and pressure to the suppression pool).

                    5. EL – Oh yeah. The explosion in unit 2 is believed to have occurred near the location of the wet well. It had slipped my mind for a moment.
                      On the other hand, the “other pathway” is the valve that the operators opened to vent the gases from the primary to the secondary containment, as has been reported for many days by multiple sources.
                      Hardened vents have been installed on all US Mark I BWR’s because the retrofit has been required by the NRC. It is unclear, however, (at least, to me) whether the Fukushima reactors were ever retrofitted.
                      Your “leak” theory doesn’t make sense.

                    6. This is going to be an important issue in the subsequent dissection of this accident (venting and hydrogen management). But I’m pretty positive that there isn’t a vent that goes into one of the main working areas of the reactor building close to the spent fuel pools and near the servicing hatch for the primary containment vessel. Why on earth would anybody design a venting system for hydrogen into an enclosed area (containing oxygen) and in one of the main working areas of the reactor building? NEI reports the venting of steam from primary containment goes to “outside the reactor building.” The best other alternative I have seen, there are tall 100 meter emissions stacks for diffusing vented radioactive gas next to each of the reactor buildings (you’ve probably seen these in the photos). But these require fans to work properly (and force the gas through filters to remove some of the radioactive particles). Without electrical power to run these fans, there is some thought that gas seeped into adjacent areas along the piping for these vents and into secondary containment. Both theories (and you are right about that) seem to indicate the venting system did not work properly, and may have been a failure of design. E&E publishing (appearing in the Times) is one source looking at these questions.

                    7. @PlanetaryGear. I think instrumentation is a big problem overall (PlanetaryGear).
                      The Japanese Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency (NISA) is publishing daily instrumentation and temperature readings (to the extent this is possible, and the readings are getting more reliable with electrical AC established to control rooms). They are one of the best websites out there providing comprehensive coverage of what is going on at the power plants, worker exposure to radiation, contamination of surrounding areas, etc.
                      The challenges are pretty massive

  2. “If I could attend the above event, I would ask how anyone who understands radiation, radioactive material, doses, dose rates, and contamination could consider an evacuation order to be a conservative approach focused on protecting the public.”
    Good Morning,
    You frame the question to imply that whomever made the evacuation decision must not understand the science. What are the credentials of the Head of the NRC? Does the NRC have a dual mandate, similar to the FAA, to regulate and promote nuclear power generation?
    I assume that the NRC understands that any evacuation order must weigh the potential injuries and deaths caused by the evacuation against the potential injuries and deaths that might occur from not giving the evacuation order. I am inclined to give the US NRC the benefit of the doubt especially given TEPCO’s history of concealing past events.
    I would like to know under what conditions you would have ordered a larger evacuation and how that compares with the NRC guidelines [I assume those guidelines or standards are published].
    Thomas Murphy

    1. “What are the credentials of the Head of the NRC?”
      Apparently, the only credential necessary is to have a resume composed exclusively of serving as a lackey to two powerful members of congress with strong records of opposing the nuclear industry.
      “Does the NRC have a dual mandate, similar to the FAA, to regulate and promote nuclear power generation?”
      Heh … That would be a definite no.

    2. It’s hard not to concur with the basic sentiment vis-a-vis Chairman Jaczko, but his credentials do extend slightly beyond what you mention. Even so, it is profoundly odd that our current NRC chairman was an advisor/aide to one of our most anti-nuke politicians (Markey) and to the Senator (Reid) directly responsible for scuttling the Yucca Mountain Project.
      The NRC was created (along with DOE) out of the old AEC, which was intentionally split into two agencies because the regulatory wing of the AEC had been accused of being influenced by the “promotional” wing of the agency. Thus, we got NRC, which is supposed to be an independent and impartial regulator of civilian nuclear uses, and DOE, which is supposed to promote, improve, and advance energy technologies (among other things).
      Jaczko, sadly, appears to have injected a strong dose of politics into NRC, so it’s difficult to refrain from speculating that his very un-NRC-like statement during the Fukushima crisis was politically influenced. His actions with respect to the YMP, if nothing else, have revealed his willingness to brush aside agency traditions and protocols and to justify his actions with mere “legality,” which is the hallmark of a politician.
      Without going into detail, suffice it to say that time after time the Chairman has made decisions that, while technically permissible, fly in the face of NRC’s usually measured and balanced approach. I mean, think about it: NRC commissioners and chairmen are seldom controversial — seldom even known, in fact. And yet here we have a chairman whose name is extremely difficult to pronounce if you’ve never heard it before (“YATZ-ko”), but every time I’ve seen him appear in Congress, the politicians pronounce his name as easily as “Abe Lincoln”! Here we have the agency equivalent of a unicorn: A notorious NRC Chairman!
      At the same time, I would guess that an unprecedented ex-NRC commissioners and staffers have gone on record disagreeing with things Jaczko has done. Heck, many current NRC staffers have openly disagreed with him, and many others have covertly expressed vehement disapproval of the man.
      Most recently, it came to light that a number of high-ranking NRC experts within the division handling the Yucca Mountain license application evaluation have registered open dissent against Jaczko’s many unseemly and possibly unethical actions to halt the evaluation and prevent the NRC staff from publishing its analysis (the Safety Evaluation Report). One of these experts, the highly respected Dr. Janet Kotra, really criticizes Jaczko in her dissent, strongly suggesting that his actions have been both unilateral and political. And what is especially striking is that the dissenters took advantage of an option in NRC’s process to make their dissents public.
      The dissenters clearly wanted to make public their strong disapproval of the Chairman’s actions.

      1. YMP Refugeee: “… but his credentials do extend slightly beyond what you mention.”
        Oh, right. He has a PhD — not in any type of engineering, but in theoretical physics from doing research on baryons and mesons. Note that this is a research degree that he has never actually used, since he went straight from graduate school to Washington DC. The guy has never held a real job in science or engineering.
        His credentials extend very slightly indeed.

    3. @tom murphy:
      One other thing: I have heard some reports and accusations of TEPCO being less than forthcoming, concealing the severity of past incidents, etc. I don’t know if any of that is true, because my information on the subject only comes from media reports.
      However, with respect to Chairman Jaczko and what is going on at NRC, I have quite a bit more direct knowledge and “inside information” from people I know in the industry and at the agency. Stuff I hear from the latter doesn’t automatically equate with “truth,” but it is certainly more detailed and in most cases highly plausible.
      I can tell you this about the current Chairman: He has been criticized by the most recent Chairman (Dale Klein) on numerous occasions for impropriety and not respecting NRC traditions and protocols. Usually, Jaczko will not have openly violated any law or regulation in doing so, but he is clearly relying on technicalities and the barely permissible, which is doing great harm (many argue) to the credibility and reputation of the agency.
      In other words, though I don’t know offhand the NRC guidelines for evacuations, I would suspect that what Jaczko ordered was permissible within the limits of those guidelines, but that most NRC commissioners would have been more prudent and circumspect, in keeping with the agency’s almost impersonal image as a neutral regulator. They would not, I suspect, have ordered such an evacuation or openly contradicted another nation’s own regulatory agency unless the evidence for doing so was virtually incontrovertible. As events seem to have demonstrated in this case, the evidence was clearly not.
      This is just one of many instances, for people who follow the industry, of Jaczko “stepping over the line” in a way we haven’t often seen with other NRC commissioners or chairmen. It is part of the reason why many people fear that the agency is becoming not only political, but also the opposite but equally bad thing you yourself mention: except rather than promoting nuclear power generation, Jaczko seems to be demoting or even sabotaging it. His relationship to the industry is starting more strongly to resemble that of Eliot Ness to bootleggers.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to explain this. I looked up his background and was surprised that a science advisor was appointed to that position.

  3. Is the real debate nuclear versus fossil fuels, or is it energy versus no energy? Most anti-nukes think the problem is that we use way too much energy, whatever its origin…

    1. They are anti-energy. Nuclear is a thorn in their side because it provides too much energy too cheap. The Fukushima incident goes to show how abundant nuclear energy is – they have trouble cooling it (heat) and it produces hydrogen (fuel). Oil&gas are expensive and they work to keep them expensive (blocking oil exploration, imposing excessive taxes on it in Europe), so people are forced to use less of them and can’t reach higher standards of living (to far above the “natural” way to live). Big Oil likes this and is supporting (funding) it because it restricts the competition – they want to extract and sell the world’s oil in slow motion to maximize profits.

    2. Once the debate becomes (in the minds of the public), “(mostly) nuclear energy) vs “no energy,” it will take about ten minutes for the debate to be won by the nuclear side. Only a few extremists want “no energy.” Exposing the true agenda of these extremists will go a long way to aid the accecptance of nuclear energy.

    3. Over the years, I have known, gone to school with, and worked with many people who strongly identify as environmentalists. Some of them were anti-nuclear. I can’t think of a single person who could be called “anti-energy.” I’m not saying that such people don’t exist. Just that those people are so numerically small and politically insignificant that they not worth discussing.
      In fact, my off-the-cuff estimate would be, if you can categorize it, that at least 2/3 of the opposition to new nuclear plant construction would be regarding the safety of transporting and permanently storing fuel, rather than safety regarding the operation of the plants themselves (concerns about aging and older-design plants is a different matter).

  4. @Rod, “Have you heard or found any follow-up to the story about the hydroelectric dam that collapsed during the earthquake, destroying 1800 homes?”
    On aspect, that I think you seem to consistently neglect or just not get, is that one of the biggest reasons people fear nuclear accidents is that if radioisotopes like radioactive Cesium gets out into the environment, it continues to be a problem and put people’s health at risk over a somewhat large area, for decades. If a dam busts, it might do a pretty devestating amount of damage in a day, and then it’s over. The reservoir is drained, there’s no “on-going” harm from the dam stretching decades into the future.
    On the other hand, in absolute terms, the dam might kill and injure more people in a day, and destroy homes, businesses, etc, than the radiation would do in all those decades. Personally, if given the choice between dieing today from a flood, gas explosion, oil fire, chemical release, etc, or maybe dieing in a few years from a cancer I wouldn’t otherwise have gotten, I’d choose the cancer – I’d get at least that many more years to live before I died. But, I suspect most people probably don’t see it the way I do.
    I also think that we have the science and technology to secure the radioactive fuel much better than we do dams, gas depots, oil refineries, and coal ash retention ponds. I think we have newer technology than the plants in question in this issue which do an even better job of coping with an extreme disaster such as has occured in Japan, and that even the old tech plants in Fukushima have shown a remarkable resiliency and ability to contain most of the radioactive materials in the face of a series of unfortunate events (including the hydrogen explosions caused by the reactors themselves – they still didn’t catastrophically fail despite those explosions).
    But, it is important to at least acknowledge the difference between a ‘one-time’ disaster, and an on-going contamination. With the one-time disaster, you can at least probably rebuild and repopulate the area. If the area gets contaminated, many people will be afraid to live there or do business there, or generally even set foot in the area for any longer than necessary.

    1. 50 years ago it was 1 in 12 or so dying of cancer (yet live expectancy was far lower). Now it is 1 in 3, and soon could be 1 in 2. It’s easy to invent theories for something causing cancer, since cancer is a puzzle that modern medicine has yet to solve. Then there’s the new “health movement” that goes right along with the environmental movement. As long as we consider health more important than any other form of wealth, we will never compete against economic powerhouses such as China.

    2. This appears to be an irrigation dam that broke along the Abukuma River in Fukushima Prefecture on March 12th: “The Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported that the Fujinuma irrigation dam in Sukagawa city, Fukushima, had collapsed, with homes washed away and people missing. The dam was a 57-foot-tall and 436-foot-long embankment-type dam [see photo] located on a tributary of the Abukuma River.” Subsequent reports indicate 5 houses were washed away, 4 bodies have been found (and 4 remain missing).
      I think the confusion with the numbers comes from this CNN report, which indicates 1,800 houses destroyed in total in Fukushima Prefecture.

      1. That does seems to be the only reported dam collapse EL. There was plenty of confusion in reports early on, which is still echoing around attempts to understand the full picture. Good links.

  5. Interesting photo of reactor 3. Very difficult to know status of the cooling pond

  6. Weighing the pros and cons on the evacuation I support it for two reasons.
    1… Fear of danger, real or imagined, is damaging to health. The risk and discomfort of an evacuation may be less harmful than being hunkered down in your home in a constant state of fear.
    2… A low population dose makes it harder for the UCS to cob up a calculation predicting a large number of latent fatalities.

  7. The most interesting outcome of recent events to me is whether the episode in Japan will change the minds of the somewhat reluctant new supporters of nuclear power, who see it as a tool to combat global warming (or “climate change” or “global climate disruptions” or whatever new marketing term it is using these days).
    Of course, I don’t expect Barry Brook at Brave New Climate to change his mind. In fact, he has been at the forefront of getting out accurate information on the accident and combating much of the misinformation out there. His efforts should be applauded. I’m referring to the more lukewarm supporters in the climate crowd.
    I guess only time will tell, but it is encouraging to see this article from George Monbiot today. I have to say that I wasn’t expecting this type of reaction from him, but then again, this is not the first time he has surprised me. I might not agree with Monbiot on certain issues, but to his credit, he is definitely not a knee-jerk automaton, and I respect that.

    1. Brian thanks for the link it is a great read. This weekend I was at a party talking about this so called nuclear crisis with five of my friends and we came to the same conclusion as George.

  8. Why did the NRC publically release a “Dose Calculation” with no explanation of what the numbers mean, and no context or explanations of the assumptions used to come up with those values? There’s probably only a few hundred nuclear professionals that have any idea what those numbers signify, and even they wouldn’t know what the source term was that was being assumed in the calc.

  9. I am glad to see you twittered the Monbiot article. He is such a hard core watermelon (green on the outside red on the inside) that some people claim he was the inspiration for the term of internet abuse: “moonbat”.
    With the NYTimes article I cited below and the Monbiot articles, I think we can claim to be making an impact on the public understanding of the Fukishima incident.

  10. Advocates of fluid fuel reactors can live with a fluid schedule for Atomic Show podcasts.

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