Japan’s Nuclear Armageddon and the Experts
Tuesday, March 15. At 4:45 PM more grim news from Japan. Yet another fire breaks out at a Fukushima reactor. Searing flames shoot to the sky. Radiation levels are too high for workers to get close enough to put out the inferno. Even so, maybe, this fire will be doused. What’s next?
Coming hard on the heels of a monster earthquake and devastating tsunami, the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan is more than heart-breaking. The magnitude of the tragedy is truly unfathomable.
Who has not groaned seeing pictures of the tsunami-claimed bodies? Who has not wept seeing thousands and thousands of Japanese mourning the loss of family, loved ones and homes? Who does not wince at the desperate refugees without water or food packed into freezing shelters?
Now add to the untold miseries multiple reactor core meltdowns? And a fuel pool meltdown? Plus, a radioactive plume heading out over the Pacific to deposit its toxic load in the ocean and its rich fisheries? Not to mention the threat of the wind shifting and carrying the radioactivity towards Tokyo? Korea?
It is understandable for those of us watching from a distance to feel hopeless. What can I do? Who doesn’t want to turn off the TV, climb under the covers – and leave the unfolding disaster in the hands of the experts?
If there’s one lesson this catastrophe should convey: don’t leave it to the experts.
These experts got us here in the first place. One example: what the industry and most media commentators refer to as “spent fuel.”
“Spent” fuel? What’s that?
“Spent” is an industry-euphemism. It implies something harmless, wasted or used up. Quite the opposite.
Spent fuel is irradiated fuel: fuel that has been irradiated inside a nuclear reactor’s core. After removal from the reactor, this fuel is massively contaminated with radioactive elements and must be stored in giant pools.
On March 15 the New York Times said these fuel pools “could pose an even greater danger” than the reactors melting down.
An even greater danger? Isn’t a core meltdown as bad as it gets?
Alas, a fuel pool meltdown could be worse than a reactor core meltdown. Much worse. This is because fuel pools contain far more radioactivity than that which is inside a reactor core. Unfortunately, at Fukushima we may get both types of meltdowns.
Robert Alvarez, formerly of the US Department of Energy and now at the Institute of Policy Studies, provided insight into this potential nuclear Armageddon. In a recent blog Alvarez states the fuel in each of the pools at the Fukushima complex has 5 to 10 times the radioactivity of the fuel inside one reactor core. And much of this radioactive material is the highly toxic and long-lived radionuclide, cesium-137. See.)
Another problem: Unlike the reactor cores, which have a hefty, six-inch thick steel containment vessel, the fuel pools at Fukushima are in unhardened and therefore highly vulnerable concrete structures. The roof of one of these structures has been completely demolished in at least one of the stricken reactors, Unit 4.
Why is irradiated fuel sitting in pools? (They’re sort of like swimming pools, though considerably deeper. About 40 feet long, 40 feet wide and 45 feet deep.)
After removal from the reactor core, the irradiated fuel is fiendishly hot. The fuel is so hot it will cause the water it is immersed in to boil – if the water is not cooled. What if fuel pool’s cooling systems fail? Disaster. If the water is not cooled for a certain number of days or weeks, the water will boil off. Next, the fuel can catch fire, releasing its toxic load to the environment.
Given the repeated explosions at the Fukushima reactors and the latest fire at Unit 4, this count-down to an irradiated fuel pool meltdown appears to be underway.
Pools of water hanging up in the air? With no back-up water circulation, no back-up generators? Pools not in hardened or sealed containments? Pools stuffed to the gills with extraordinarily toxic materials that are now threatening the health and safety of thousands of already suffering Japanese citizens?
Citizens have, over the last 30 years, repeatedly challenged the safety of irradiated fuel pools and repeatedly the nuclear industry and its experts have said, no problem.
Yes, right now, we all need to do whatever we can to assist the Japanese people.
For the longer term, however, let’s remember the nuclear industry and its “experts” got us to this extremely dangerous moment. An informed, organized and determined citizenry is the only way to free us of our dependency upon this exceedingly dangerous and unforgiving energy source.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. Formerly she was the Co-founder and Director of the Radioactive Waste Campaign. She frequently writes about nuclear issues.