Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #7 – The Success of Containment

16 iii 11, 12:30 AM GMT—Well, judging from the day’s news, the argument that nuclear power is just too complicated a technology for mortals to master has gained steam, or lost it, as the case may be. It is extremely annoying that both “sides”, at least in the USA, continue to spin the news to suit their predilection, which leaves the general public at a total loss to comprehend events. The “anti-nukers” continue to make unwarranted Chernobyl comparisons as if they have some Chernobyl-only speech impediment. The “pro-nukers” continue to spew PR homilies as if every possible eventuality must prove the triumph of nuclear engineering.  If a hundred people die, according to them, it will only show that worst nuclear cases are trivial.

My most fervent dream is that this crisis leads to some final understanding that the polemical partisans in the “nuke” war lie like wildfire. All of them.
So the news from Japan is neither good nor bad, it’s simply the news to be understood in its complexity. There is success in bringing the reactor units 1,2, and 3, which had been operating, under control so that there likely will not be an uncontrolled breach of containment as happened at Chernobyl. So probably no massive plumes of Cesium-137, as I originally predicted there would not be. On the other hand, continued common mode failure is causing increasing problems at the other three units which were not in operation.
The big problem now is also one I originally predicted, which is that successful containment actually leaves the reactors with more radioactive material in place, so that worker doses to do the necessary cleanup and containment work are becoming impossibly high. That means many workers may refuse to do the work or simply leave, and the brave ones will die. I anticipate we will soon start seeing the acute radiation sickness cases among workers, and that will be an extraordinary drama reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though on a smaller scale. One estimate is that for some necessary core containment work, a lethal dose will accrue in 16 seconds. I do not volunteer.
And then the question of where to dump the stuff. Japan does not have a desert or Indian reservations. It has quietly dumped much rad-waste at sea. There will be no quiet disposal in this case.
For those curious about the “high radiation levels” variably reported in Tokyo and elsewhere – those levels were caused by transient gas emissions of light gasses like Krypton and Xenon that dissipate rapidly. We have not seen big releases of heavy isotopes like Cesium and Iodine, and we likely will not. Principally light gasses are venting, as is part of the design. The transient high levels reported are not cause for any big concern except in the immediate locale. No special health measures are required in Tokyo, except avoidance of fish and fresh seaweed until ocean releases stop.
So to summarize: No massive plumes of radionuclides as at Chernobyl, as things now stand. But big big problems at the site and in both near and long-term cleanup. No one has ever had to deal with six reactor cores partially melted down all at once. The cost will be unimaginable.
One reason the pro versus anti-nuke debate is now irrelevant, or counterproductive, is that nuclear will be priced out of the market, definitively.  Nobody can afford the kind of costs involved.  Therefore the industry will proceed to die everyplace with the possible exception of China. Amory Lovins has said this would happen for the past three decades.  It’s now a practical matter of dealing with the residuals so that this industry can go away, and in that, polemics and hyperbole will not be helpful.
— 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