The Clock Is Running (Japan Update 3/16)


The authorities in Japan appear to be losing control of the situation at their crippled nuclear plant.

We know serious core-melt incidents have occurred in three of the reactors (1-3.)  These are bad and have economically destroyed the reactors, but none of that news is new, and my assessment of the issues and risks are unchanged on this basis.  Core melts, even catastrophic ones (and the two percentages of presumed damaged rods at the plants in question I’ve seen quoted fall into that category) are not sufficient to result in a generalized catastrophe in the environment.

However, it appears that there’s little evidence that TEPCO and other emergency responders are making any sort of progress in getting water feed back to the fuel pools stored near the reactors.  That’s an entirely different situation, and has now, in my opinion, escalated to an “all hands on deck” event.

The puzzling factor for the last couple of days has been that there have been no real response in getting water sources to the buildings – specifically, to those fuel pools.  There is no pressure (beyond the lift to the height of the pool) required to feed these as they’re open pools but the ability to replace water that boils off is absolutely essential in the absence of the normal heat exchange mechanism.

Actual facts on the ground have been difficult to come by, but one news flash came across late last night that implied what may be going on: TEPCO was reported to be deploying a maximum effort in building (!) a road to get fire engines to the plant.

Remember, this area got hit by a tsunami.  That’s bad.  Apparently, it is much worse in terms of access to the plant that has been let on.  While authorities have not said this, the destruction of three of the four fire engines at the plant by the explosion in Building 3 may have destroyed three of the only four fire engines that could reach the plant.

Rescue and recovery are important.  But unless the Japanese are prepared to abandon a 25-mile or so diameter area of land around this plant permanently (which incidentally means abandoning not only the stricken four units but six more that are undamaged and will be needed for recovery of the nation from this disaster they need to get this situation under control – right now.

Reports yesterday of radiation rate spikes at the plant were very troubling.  If you remember my missive from yesterday I said that the “gold standard” for a reason to get very nervous as to forward expectations were lethal-level radiation readings at the plant.  We’re now seeing them, albeit on an intermittent basis.  Thus far it appears they’re related to the release of steam from the shut down but hot reactors, specifically unit #3.

This will not be the case for a whole lot longer, however, if there is not meaningful progress on getting whatever infrastructure is necessary to provide water to the fuel pools restored and secured.  Again, this is a matter of being able to provide water in volume, but there is no pressure requirement (other than the pressure necessary to lift the water to the height where the pool is) as there is with providing a water feed into a containment building or primary reactor pressure vessel.

I give this situation about another 48 hours before it becomes essentially impossible to manage.  At this point it is likely that some people will have to sacrifice themselves intentionally in order to get the water feeds that are necessary in place and operating.  That number may be significant and the longer it takes before this task is accomplished the higher the count is going to go.

I believe it is time for TEPCO to be relieved of their management of this situation and for civil defense and/or the military to step in and take control of the response.  Irrespective of how or with what, including whatever loss of life may occur in establishing and maintaining water flow, cooling water must be secured on an immediate and continuing basis for the fuel pools.

For those who are in the United States there remains no reason to be alarmed by the events on the ground in terms of effects on human health here.  Scare-mongers are now peddling Potassium Iodide tablets on eBAY for over two hundred dollars for a package of tablets – more than 10x the usual price – and some people are selling expired lots.  This is utterly ridiculous; while there’s a reason to keep some of this substance around in the US in the event of a local nuclear incident there is no reason to buy it as a US resident in response to what is going on in Japan. 

This is not true, however, if you are in Japan.  The impact in that nation, should the authorities fail to get fuel pool water levels under control, is entirely determined by the direction of the wind.  So far it has been cooperative in that most of the radioactive products have been blown out to sea, and will be diluted in the Pacific.  This cannot be assured on an ongoing basis and, in my opinion, if you live within 100 miles of the plant it would be prudent to determine if you can increase that distance on an expedited basis should it become necessary.

The humanitarian problems for those within the tsunami impact zone are extremely serious; large swaths of land were inundated by the flood..  Nonetheless the priority focus at the present time must be to get water supplies secured for the fuel pools at all six plants.

Here in the United States the political debate is, of course, once again heating up.  We have not built a new nuclear plant since Three Mile Island.  Our existing plants are aging and will have to be eventually replaced.  At the same time we must deal with a need to improve our economic security through energy security.  We continue to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to a coherent energy policy for America, relying instead of a patchwork that involves far too many foreign entanglements. 

This must stop right here and now.

Nuclear power is not without risk.  It is, however, the only viable alternative we have at the present time, and the only one we’re likely to have for the foreseeable future, for base-load electrical generation.  There are, in my opinion, better alternatives than the present boiling-water reactor designs that are in common use, but we have been unwilling to have a clean debate on the alternatives and put forward the necessary expenditures and efforts.

The level of screaming from the “anti-nuke” camp has, as expected, increased markedly in volume over the last week.  False claims are being made, including raw acts of fraud such as the widely-distributed “map” that allegedly shows the entire population of the west coast being wiped out by a deadly radioactive cloud.  We must not, as a nation, allow hype and fear to form the basis on which we make decisions for our energy future.  The spent fuel problems at the Japanese plants, and those here in the United States, are largely of our own making as a direct and proximate consequence of our unwillingness to embrace and support reprocessing and re-use of nuclear fuel materials.  We are being treated to a demonstration of what refusal to acknowledge and deal with those risks, instead hiding them away in pools of water, can bring to a nation when things go horribly wrong, exactly as we got a demonstration of how hiding financial risks with “credit default swaps” and other similar games can blow up in your face during the economic crash of 2008. 

Incidentally, despite that lesson being taught in 2008 we have failed to learn from and act on it, and it will return with a vengeance much sooner than anyone (other than a few, like myself, who continue to see the deteriorating mathematical reality) expects.

We cannot make decisions predicated on irrational fear and exploitation of events to score political points.  No economy can survive and prosper without secure energy sources.  We have the technological ability to provide energy security but doing so will always involve the acceptance of risk.  Those who claim that the risks are unacceptable must be charged with producing an alternative that is defensible both economically and on a thermodynamic and physical level, and if they are unable to do so, their opinions, no matter how well-constructed, must be discarded and ignored.

As with so many matters in the economic realm in which children waving the “Armageddon” card have managed to literally rob the public of trillions of dollars, we must, on the energy front, put the howling children in their playpens, close the door behind them, and allow the adults to have a reasoned and logical conversation on the alternatives, including a robust debate on both risk and reward.

The Market-Ticker