Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #19 – Keystone Cops of High Technology

Nuclear bulletin #19
In the 1986 film version of The Transformers, when the protagonist is first confronted by a gargantuan biotronic “autobot” of obvious alien origin, he exclaims, “Must be Japanese!”

That certainly will date the film, since ongoing revelations paint the Japanese as the Keystone Cops of high technology. It is now clear why they can’t rush to entomb the reactor and the story goes like this:
1. In the first days, TEPCO managers trusted industry PR about the inherent safety of reactor designs, and so, without working instruments to monitor conditions, they opted to keep workers away and trust that plant conditions would take care of themselves.  This was very different from Chernobyl where dozens of workers engaged in suicide missions to do reconnaissance and perform necessary manual tasks like closing valves deep inside the reactors. In Japan they let the liability lawyers rule.
2. Without knowing what else to do, they dropped huge quantities of seawater from above, in a vain attempt to reduce temperatures inside, hoping that would relieve any short-run meltdown, and trusting that some passive cooling systems might still function.
3. Salt from the boiling seawater encrusted pipes and containment structures, insulating them, blocking the infusion of more water, and in fact raising temperatures, exacerbating the meltdowns.
4. Restoration of power failed to restore the damaged instruments, but by then workers had been alerted to the radiation hazard and many simply failed to report for shifts. The lawyers, though, had huddled around the scene. So at that point, it was impossible to get workers to go in and do the reconnaissance that was necessary. Three workers who tried landed in the hospital with radiation burns from the contaminated water.
5. Entombment cannot now be done for two reasons — the fuel assemblies remain encrusted with salt, increasing temperatures and voiding any design specifications for containment. More importantly, there is so much ambient water around that if you dropped sand and concrete it would not harden — it would just form nuclear slush, and that might make the overall problem a lot worse. They now have to flood the reactors with more fresh water, which works exactly against any hypothetical entombment.
6. Various reports say that pumping out all the water as a necessary step to whatever comes next may take weeks, months, or YEARS.
And there it lies.
For decades, you see, the nuclear industry has operated a massive scam, with faux safety agencies put in place to provide legitimate covers for corruption. The result in Japan is made clear by this article in the New York Times: Tsunami Caught Japan’s Nuclear Industry Off Guard – Even though tsunamis were forecast that could top the flood wall at Fukushima by five feet, the diesel generators were raised only 8 inches – out of pure denial. Engineering standards were arbitrary:
Engineers employed a lot of guesswork, adopting a standard that structures inside nuclear plants should have three times the quake resistance of general buildings.

“There was no basis in deciding on three times,” said Mr. Aoyama, an emeritus professor of structural engineering at the University of Tokyo. “They were shooting from the hip,” he added, making a sign of a pistol with his right thumb and index finger.

Precedent was used as the basis of design: “seawalls were erected higher than the highest tsunamis on record.”
This is a philosophy of always preparing for the last accident, not the next one. This philosophy has governed after Three Mile Island, after Chernobyl, and now before we even know the extent of Fukushima.
Engineers are taught in school to use the maximum “historic record” of disaster magnitude as a guide. Thus, in planning for earthquake protection for reactors in the Midwest, the 1811 New Madrid earthquake, estimated to have topped 9.0, is not included because the Richter scale had not been invented yet. Therefore New Madrid is not part of the “historical record.”
Similarly there is no preparation for a plane flying into a reactor because it hasn’t happened yet. (Though it was threatened in 1965 when hijackers threatened to fly a plane into the Oak Ridge uranium enrichment plant in Tennessee. No possible building design could guard against the hazard of a commercial jet being flown into a nuclear plant, therefore the risk is ruled out of consideration.
The Japanese Miracle I think they called it. Who believes in miracles anymore?
— Geoffrey Sea

Geoffrey Sea holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Science from Harvard. He did graduate work in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and in radiological health physics at San Jose State University. He is co-founder of Southern Ohio Neighbors Group, which successfully defeated plans for the centralized storage of spent nuclear fuel at Piketon, Ohio. He has published in the American Scholar, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and many newspapers. He can be contacted via email at