Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When Nuke Planning for the Worst Is Not Enough

As hopes dim for controlling the explosive self-destruction of six decomposing nuclear plants on Japan's northeast coast, safety experts around the world want to know what was missing in the tens of thousands of pages of repeatedly tested emergency drills crafted to cover every eventuality.

Japanese and U.S. safety officials say the emergency plans for almost every plant, everywhere, precisely detail every possible response after an earthquake, flood or tsunamiand explosion. But as the past five days have shown, these disaster plans seemed fine until reality reared back and slapped them silly, and this is just what happened at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.

When Nuclear Plant Planning for the Worst Is Not Enough
DigitalGlobe / AP
A satellite photo shows the damage after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant complex. Steam can be seen venting from the No. 2 reactor building, as well as from the No. 3 reactor building.

Some of the answers are in the numbers.

The plants were meticulously designed to survive a 7.2 quake and were hit with a violent tremor of 9.0.

Plant designers knew that they were tsunami bait, so they built a 25-foot-high protective wall between the ocean and the reactors. Japanese safety officials say that the 30-foot wave triggered by the quake didn't even pause as it thundered toward the six reactors in the complex.

Even scary nuke-drama movies usually threaten just single meltdowns. But in Dai-ichi, we've seen five days of unfathomable destruction, like falling dominoes. Hydrogen-fed explosions and fires are moving among four of the 40-year-old reactors, meltdowns of varying degrees are believed under way in at least four of the units and problems are showing up in the two remaining units.

When the quake and tsunami struck on Saturday, there were a few less than 800 men and woman staffing the plants. On Sunday, all but 200 workers were ordered off the site. Five have died, 24 are hospitalized with trauma and radiation injuries and two are missing.

Fifty men continued to battled heroically to control the calamity disaster, manning hoses and pumping seawater on the steaming reactors and fuel pools. Many are believed to have already received lethal radiation exposures trying to fight an impossible battle. Earlier this morning, government officials ordered the remaining crew off the site because of soaring peaks of radiation.

While nature's worst triggered this catastrophe, the actions of men made it even more dangerous.

The uranium fuel source is hazardous enough, but at least one of the reactors was using a new volatile and toxic fuel concoction called mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, which blends reprocessed plutonium and uranium oxides. This is even more lethal if inhaled, because plutonium even in very small quantities is considered the most toxic substance known to man.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the plutonium in MOX comes from thousands of dismantled nuclear weapons and is also used in many U.S. nukes.

The other factor exacerbating the hazard is that within all the threatened reactors are poorly protected pools containing spent fuel.

For decades, nuclear activists (and even some proponents of using the atom to power the world) have warned of the hazards of storing spent fuel rods in lightly protected pools in or near the reactors. In fact, it had been one of the most combative arguments against building new plants. The term "spent" may sound benign. And the shimmering blue glow emitted from the deep pools holding the dime-size tubes of radioactive uranium pellets looks far from threatening.


The fuel rods are highly radioactive and often unstable. Should there be a loss of the constantly circulating water (needed to dissipate the heat from the decaying uranium), they could melt, burn and explode and emit heavily radioactive steam.

Tsunami Relief: Network for Good

Here's a key point that helps explain the worry over the spent fuel: Unlike the reactors, which have 6-foot-thick walls of steel and concrete, these storage pools have no steel and concrete containment for protection.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Pacific, government officials continued today to say they expect no dangerous level of radioactive material to reach U.S. shores, but they "are watching the situation closely." When the plants at Chernobyl caught fire, it took between a week and 10 days for traces of radiation to get here, and even then the levels were far too low to cause harm.

Nevertheless, there is a run on the tiny, white potassium iodide, or "KI," pills. Taken at the right time, they can block radiation from poisoning the thyroid gland, which can and did cause cancers in thousands of people, mostly children, after the explosions at Chernobyl in 1986.

The thyroid, which produces hormones that regulate the growth and rate of function of many bodily systems, acts as a biological magnet for the iodine-131 radiation that is emitted in most nuclear events.

State and federal agencies told AOL News that they had no plans to dispense the pills. But for some people, that's not good enough.

When I checked with 11 drugstores and specialty natural food outlets in the Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia, area, one said "never heard of it," and the other 10 said they sold out on Monday and Tuesday.

Sellers on eBay and Craigslist apparently have no shortage. Offers for the pills -- which cost pharmacies 4 cents each in 1-pound jars that contain about 3,300 adult doses -- were priced anywhere from $10 for four to $750 for a "family-size bottle." And, of course, there is no way to know what these black market pills actually contain.

Maybe it's good that KI isn't easy to find. Physicians in the U.S. and elsewhere warn that the pills should not be taken unless radiation is at higher than normal levels and medical authorities tell you to take them. Of course, federal and state government health departments tell AOL News they have "adequate" stockpiles available for quick distribution, but they not could define was "adequate" and "quick" meant.

Some people, like those allergic to shellfish or iodine, should never take the pills.

While a lot of Americans seem only slightly skeptical about the government's assessment on the arrival of a radioactive plume, many of us are incredulous at statements assuring that U.S. nuke plants are safe. This isn't a new problem. Corporate honesty often seems to quickly dissipate when it comes to the nuclear industry.

Japanese media are quick to remind readers and viewers that Tokyo Electric Power, the owner of the smoldering nuke plants on the country's northeast coast, has an abysmal record on honest responses to problems with the plants.

Back here, people are still grumbling over remarks by Gregory Jaczko, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who said Monday at a White House briefing that power plants in the U.S. are designed to handle all "significant phenomena," including tsunamis, flood and earthquakes.

Although asked several times about the level of quakes U.S. plants are designed to withstand, he flipped the question back to the Japan crisis, avoiding answering what he had been asked.

I called the NRC press office and was told that each U.S. site is built to a different seismic activity standard. That sounded logical, but when I requested a list of the earthquake design limits for each plant under NRC control, the official reply was that the information was not available. When asked what the range of protective limits was, the spokesman said he didn't think that information was available.

The spokesmen and executives of America's nuclear lobby have been masterful at evading almost all specific questions on U.S. plant safety. A CNN correspondent who was questioning a spokesman at a California coastal nuke plant Monday received assurances that the plant could withstand anything -- but was offered no specifics. A frustrated Wolf Blitzer told his reporter to call the PR guys back on camera and tell him to answer the questions and stop blowing smoke. (Which, of course, did not happen.)

This feels like the 1960s and '70s revisited. Anti-nuke and pro-nuke factions are picking up the old arguments right where they left them.

It all reminds me of the scene from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" in which the governor is avoiding questions from the press and proudly croons:

Ooh, I love to dance the little sidestep
Now they see me, now they don't
I've come and gone
And ooh, I love to sweep around a wide step
Cut a little swath
And lead the people on!

Andrew Schneider, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, spent more than two years investigating problems at the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the U.S.

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