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A View from the Altar / Real men and Japan’s nuclear problems
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Real men and Japan’s nuclear problems

The guys at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant keep battling their lingering misfortune.   They deserve our respect for their perseverance and self-sacrificing spirit.  Many of them lost entire families in the tsunami.  But this power plant was theirs.   They made their livings there, and the unspoken deal with the public is that, should an accident occur, nuclear workers must contain it or die trying.   So these men soldier on because duty demands it.   Whatever else happens, civilization says we must honor those who honor their commitments.

Some facts

Given the radiation exposure levels being reported by TEPCO and various groups with atomic expertise, nobody off the plant site is in danger of getting acute radiation sickness. The workers are at some risk of that, but they have methods of dealing with it. Given the low levels of iodine, cesium, and plutonium exposures, the long-term risk of developing cancer from these sources will likely be indistinguishable from unexposed populations. The Japanese government has evacuated the area, some might say too conservatively, and that has put the population beyond reach of real danger.

Furthermore, workers continue to pump water keeping the cores and spent fuel pools cool. As they continue to do this, heat generation in the spent fuel will slowly diminish, so barring further calamities, the situation will gradually improve. What’s critical now, which the workers definitely know, is to keep the cooling going while containing the water so contamination doesn’t spread.

What’s Next

A lot of radioactive crud has found its way into the reactor buildings and turbine halls.  Engineers must determine where it’s coming from. If it’s coming from a reactor core, then that means the core has partially melted. A melted core, if this has actually occurred, would mean zirconium cladding is destroyed, which is where the hydrogen came from that exploded in the buildings. A melted core also means some fairly large proportion of the ceramic fuel pellets has crumbled into pieces and powders. The fuel/crud mix is then leaking from the reactor vessel through the containment wall. That’d be bad and would complicate the job of moving the situation to a completely safe end. It doesn’t make it impossible, just hard.

If the crud is coming from the spent fuel pool, that’d be easier to fix though still a daunting chore. Tools normally used to move fuel bundles in the fuel pool (and also in the core during refueling or de-fueling) depend on the operators being able to see their work through tens of feet of clear, motionless water. If the fuel is destroyed, the water will be opaque. It’ll have to be filtered before anything else can happen. The filters will then be intensely radioactive, so care must be taken to put them where they can be serviced automatically or else by robots.

Long term, the reactor cores and spent fuel must be kept cool for a period of years after which time they can be safely approached and fuel removed. After that, the buildings can be demolished and the exposed/activated hardware safely disposed of.

The worst-case scenario (and right now I don’t foresee this) is to build a cement factory next door and start pouring a Chernobyl-style concrete mound over the site. The Russians were obliged to do that at Chernobyl because the reactor core itself blew up and burned, and the structure afforded no way to shield the radioactive materials to allow workers to get in there. Fukushima is different in that regard because it had no similar exploding, burning core. Besides, the Russians’ sarcophagus hasn’t worked all that well anyhow. It has cracks and according to published reports leaks a little.

At Fukushima, the containment is still structurally holding together even if it’s leaking.  That means the very worst material is still largely contained and mostly shielded.  This creates the opportunity for workers to start cleaning up at the edges, working toward the core and fuel pool, pushing the nastiness into an ever-smaller area.  The smaller they can make the heap, the easier it will be to contain it.

Special Problems

The workers face an assortment of unique problems. First, they’re being exposed to really large amounts of radiation. While I deeply admire their self-sacrificing spirit, I also expect their management to keep these guys safe. Japan needs these guys to stay fit and working for the next several months. They know their plants better than anyone else, and that knowledge is just too valuable to squander by letting men die through a misguided sense of dedication.

Second, the workers face the toxic effects of bizarre elements that are results of the fission process. The so-called daughter products of fission include every exotic chemical element you never heard of. Well, I guess you’ve heard of radioactive iodine and cesium, but the site is now contaminated with plutonium, uranium oxide, zirconium, traces of radium, strontium, noble gases, etc. They have to be careful about stirring dust or inhaling water spray – anything that could subject them to poisoning from odd chemicals.

The contaminated water that’s standing in the buildings is, oddly enough, also functioning as shielding. As the water is drained away, levels of radiation will therefore increase inside the buildings. Drying out the buildings, while it makes the site safer for the public, makes it more dangerous for the workers because it increases exposure and liberates radioactive dust.

Of course, the buildings themselves are severely damaged from the hydrogen explosions.  That means operators don’t really know what equipment will work when they need it, and for how long.  Inspections and repairs will be needed, but radiation in the buildings makes it hard for engineers, operators, and mechanics to get in there and fix things.  Over the next few months, I’m hoping nuclear industry leadership will summon expertise and so-called “high-rad rangers” from around the world to make a trip to Japan and help out.  The Japanese can’t afford to overdose their best people because, as I said before, these are the ones they’re relying on to solve this problem.  A better solution is to invite other workers with nuclear experience to perform one or two jobs and then go home.  Nuclear people refer to it as “making a jump” when they enter a high radiation area and perform a task.  It’s better to have a thousand people make one jump each than to have fifty people make twenty jumps and suffer a radiation overexposure in the process.

Media and Politicians

The news media continue to publish stories that amp up public concern. A guy with a degree in journalism should recognize without having to be told that he doesn’t have a lot of nuclear generation experience. The proper procedure is to have his write-up vetted by somebody who does. If that’s happening, it doesn’t show. When people inside the nuclear industry discuss the media reporting on the event, the description of the media involves a lot of contempt expressed in short, impolite words.

The politicians have been more guarded than the media. I think some of them are aware of the importance of nuclear power to America. Some of them, perhaps a very few, remember that American utilities didn’t want nuclear plants and had to be pushed into it with government promises to take the spent fuel off their hands. The government has now broken that promise even though it is still assessing a fee against the utilities as if the promise had been kept. Maybe some politicians would rather that story not be widely circulated, which it would be if the political class started pushing matters really hard. So except for perennial harpies like Ed Markey, the political class has been remarkably quiet. Uncharacteristically, yet to their credit, they seem to be waiting on facts before drawing conclusions.

Where to from here?

The tsunami may count the U.S. nuclear power business among its victims. America’s nuclear renaissance never really materialized. It was more like the holographic viewer from Star Wars, a flickering image with lots of static. Japan’s distress will make it very much more difficult to get it going again. Maybe, maybe another fission plant will get built, but I feel certain we’ll never put another one in a seismically active area or at an ocean side (which is wise).  A college kid studying nuclear engineering should cut a deal with a utility for a tall pile of extra money.  Since it’s unlikely that nuclear engineering can be a career, he has to make a lifetime of earnings before the plant license expires in 20 years.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

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