1 iv 2011, 11:00 PM BST—Events in Fukushima Prefecture have settled into unsettledness, with a very long-term process of pumping out vast quantities radioactive water, removing it to tanks under construction, flushing the cores with new fresh water, eventual removal of spent fuel rods, and then long-term entombment. TEPCO has announced final decommissioning of all six units, quashing speculation that two units someday might be placed back in service. The Japanese government has said it will seek control of TEPCO through stock purchases, facilitated by the fact that the stock has lost 80% of its value. This also seems directed at quelling public rumors and fears that TEPCO is not pursuing the public interest.
Meanwhile, the cores in at least three units will continue to melt down, in a time-released catastrophe, wherein the containment vessels have become like pharmaceutical capsules, disintegrating slowly. In contrast to Chernobyl, which was described as a “volcano” that ejected material into the atmosphere quickly, over the initial three weeks, Fukushima was a slow starter, but will unstoppably leak radioactive isotopes for many months or years. Reports now of high levels of plutonium and cesium in water at the site and nearby ocean will continue for a very long time. But there is no ejection force, so the pattern of calamity will be different from Ukraine in 1986. Here we will see concentrated suffering and relative safety at a distance. Inverse square law applies.
This will require an adjustment of public psychology about nuclear disasters. We are used to categorizing atomic dangers into either those that flash and burn, or those that permit the technical salvation of containment. At Fukushima we have neither. Quick remedies like the duck and cover approach or prophylactics like potassium iodide will all be ineffective (store those KI pills for a future episode), because we’re in this for the long haul. Seepage not explosion is the watchword. Yet the wizards of atomic technology gizmos will increasingly be made to look impotent, because their long-term pump and flush campaign will be continually trumped by the irrevocable dynamic of seawater and soil. The Leak shall inherit the earth.
This is the worst-case scenario for the nuclear industry, and for US politicians attempting to triangulate in prep for the 2012 election. They all would like the story to go away, and a cynic might even suspect that the Obama about-face in Libya was aimed at blasting Fukushima off the front page. Let’s get on with our necessary pre-election nuclear boosterism in the dilapidated precincts of Appalachia already.
Well, that’s not going to happen. The German full retreat, the new decision by China to divert development from nuclear to solar — China to Cut Nuclear Goal After Japan Reactor Crisis – Bloomberg, the decommissioning decision in Japan, and even plaintiff howling from the nucleomaniacal French, mean that the industry is in trouble. That industry depended (past tense) on logarithmic future growth projections. It was the only thing they had to anaesthetize the chambers of commerce and trade unions. But now nuclear power is a negative-growth proposition.
So the US Department of Energy is mum on the question of nuclear power, and so are virtually all US politicians except for the anti-nuclear few like Ed Markey and Dennis Kucinich. Obama issued a gung-ho nuclear statement absent of the crucial details, like whether he will grant loan guarantees, which only made him sound like he’s ordered news from Japan redacted from his morning paper. If he sticks to that position, he will lose in 2012. Whether that would mean the end of the world remains to be seen.
— 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 SargentsPigeon@aol.com