This week, around 200 kilometres North of Tokyo, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have started the tricky business of removing 1,500 fuel assemblies from number four reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It’s an operation without precedent, in an environment that poses a risk to all humanity. So, it’s that little article you read on page five.
This is the first step in a decommissioning process that is scheduled to last at least three decades. Very simply put, nuclear fuel assemblies require constant cooling, normally with sea-water, as they are highly unstable. The water that touches the assemblies becomes contaminated and has to either be re-used or treated to make it safe(ish). Right now at Fukushima more than 1,000 tanks hold 350,000 tons of contaminated water – they’re clearing nearby woods to make room for more tanks.
The assemblies need to be removed and stored in specially sealed casks (let’s not even discuss how, or how long before they become safe). But the current problems are manifest. First, the area is too radioactive for human activity, so a specially designed crane has to be used, and controlled remotely. The precedent is not good – attempts to use robots to determine the exact location of the melted fuel in the other reactors have failed. And because of the damage from the March 2011 tsunami and subsequent explosion, which blew off the reactor’s roof, the pool is still filled with tiny pieces of debris.
If the rods collide during removal (as has happened before) they may fuse, cause a fission reaction and devastating release of radiation. Still, the work must proceed, and take place quickly, as an even greater threat remains. The pool storing the rods is suspended 100-feet above ground level – should a 7.0 or higher magnitude earthquake strike Northern Japan, many believe the floor of the pool may crack (it’s already leaking), draining it of the cooling water and precipitating the worst disaster in modern human history.
TEPCO have tried to reassure the public, stating that even in the instance of such an earthquake, the odds of such an event are ‘very close to impossible’. But this is the same company that shelved a 2010 report on the dangers facing the plant should a 9.0 magnitude earthquake strike until the day before the tsunami – the same company who lied repeatedly about massive leaks of contaminated water into the Pacific. This company has consistently demonstrated its inability to deal with the threats involved with nuclear power in Japan, to manage this crisis and to be honest about the situation they find themselves in. It’s hard not to conclude that a Japanese Homer Simpson works at Tepco, but this time the joke is on all of us.
The odds on a 7+ magnitude quake in Japan in the next three years are 95%. Tepco say that in that instance there is next to no risk, but they have been wrong a number of times before. The stakes are beyond imagination. Let’s consider what happens if Tepco are wrong one more time.
If a 7.0 or higher magnitude earthquake strikes Northern Japan, there is a chance that the cooling pool at number four reactor will crack, causing the liquid to drain away and exposing the assemblies. The assemblies will rapidly heat, explode, and release a cloud of radiation that will dwarf by many order of magnitude that released at Chernobyl. This would kill millions of Japanese within days, many millions more in the following months and years, and cause the West Coast of the United States to require evacuation. With a world economy on its knees, this would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with a powerhouse such as Japan rendered virtually unviable and in utter devastation. Capitalism would collapse.
These are not my words, they are the words of award-winning scientist David Suzuki, as well as many others.
In a sane world, an international delegation of the best minds in the world would be in Japan now, helping Tepco with all aspects of the operation, but Japan has shown once again the pride that makes their society so respectful but causes flawed hierarchical behaviour, and refused all international help. They could change their mind if things get bad, but they probably won’t.
The problem here was one of risk management, but is now intractable. We all seek to reduce risk in our lives to incredibly small, but ‘fool-proof’ assumes people won’t act in a foolish way, and Tepco’s behaviour has remained consistently foolish.
Nuclear power is, in practice, similar to the death penalty. Most people feel that in the instance of the most appalling crimes, it’s better to get rid of the perpetrator than pay tens of thousands of dollars to keep them alive, and in a cage forever. Just so long as there is zero chance of the wrong person being killed, of course, because the idea of executing an innocent man (or woman) renders things utterly unacceptable. The problem is that no fool-proof justice system has been developed, and in places where the death penalty is common (I’m looking at you, USA) there remain countless examples of appalling judicial process, and innocent people going to their grave knowing that it wasn’t them.
So it is with nuclear power – we are assured that modern plants have so many fail-safe measures that they are fool-proof, but again and again we see examples through modern history of extraordinarily foolish behavior. The (US) Pentagon publishes a dubious and incomplete list of historical ‘broken arrows’ – nuclear weapon near misses – and to see how close we have come to the detonation of a nuclear missile on ‘home’ soil, due to incredible incompetence, chills the blood.
We can’t do it. Humans are sophisticated enough to split the atom, but currently nowhere near sophisticated enough to safely manage the energy that comes from uranium atoms. Sooner or later, and it may be sooner, a major catastrophe is going to devastate the world – and we’ve been incredibly lucky until now. If Fukushima is that event, it will decimate the world, both in human and long-term cost, as well as economically.
All of the world’s power plants need to be closed immediately. The risks are far, far too high – we need to look for another way to make our energy. If we are lucky, the first of many stages at Fukushima will proceed without disaster. Even then we are not out of the woods. If we’re are not lucky, we could witness the most devastating event since the Second World War.
This should be the focus of world attention. An international delegation should be there. All nuclear power plants should be shut immediately, given the clear evidence of the risks they pose to humanity.
We should, but we probably won’t. Nuclear power and weapons will one day cause our downfall, and the earth will shrug it’s indifference.
Don’t want to be a downer, but this is real, and it is here and now.