The Risks of Nuclear Roulette

Nuclear industry practices and government policies set the stage for the nuclear disaster in Japan


by Chris Williams
Socialist Worker, March 15, 2011

The desperate nuclear emergency at three Japanese nuclear reactors is growing worse by the day. One of the three stricken reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant is now close to complete meltdown. Should this happen, molten uranium fuel may burn through the containment vessels, leading to a catastrophic release of radiation over the surrounding area.

“We are on the brink,” Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear specialist in Japan, told the New York Times. “We are now facing the worst-case scenario. We can assume that the containment vessel at Reactor No. 2 is already breached. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released.”

Incredibly, even in the midst of this crisis, the nuclear power industry and its political enablers are sticking to their story — that nuclear energy is a clean and safe alternative to fossil fuels. For example, Kevin Book, energy analyst at ClearView Energy Partners commented “The problem here is not a structural problem with containment. What really failed here was the seawall.” Jack Spencer, a nuclear research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, insisted, “This has done nothing to show we should not be building nuclear power plants.”

In other words, don’t worry, maybe there were a few oversights here and there, but we’ll get it right next time. The problem with nuclear disasters is, of course, that while they perfect their nuclear safety technology–60 years and counting —a lot people may die as large areas of land, sea and air are irradiated, with huge and irreversible long-term consequences.

In an utterly ludicrous statement in the midst the Japanese crisis, the previous head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, said that working in nuclear power plant is “safer than working in a grocery store.”

As is usual with the nuclear industry — and has been ever since we were told that electricity produced by nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter”—not everything is as it seems. In fact, the Japanese government’s nuclear regulatory agency was warned that a tsunami following an earthquake could cause exactly the kind of cooling failure that is now occurring. As with other nuclear bodies around the world, it also has a history of cover-ups.

In 2007, Japanese seismologist and professor of urban safety at Kobe University, Ishibashi Katsuhiko warned that Japanese plants built along the coast near fault lines have a “fundamental vulnerability” due to “fatal flaws” in their construction, thereby making an accident such as the one now occurring at Fukushima highly likely.

Katsuhiko pointed to three incidents at nuclear plants at Onagawa, Shika and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, which were all hit by earthquakes stronger than their design tolerance between 2005 and 2007. No action was taken after these accidents, despite a two-hour blaze and radiation leak at the Kushiwazaki plant.

Contrary to the rather encouraging spin being placed on the crisis — and following the initial denial of any problem at all by the Japanese agency responsible for nuclear power — the New York Times reported a senior nuclear industry executive as saying, “They’re basically in a full-scale panic…They’re in total disarray, they don’t know what to do.”

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For a country permanently scarred by the nuclear atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a sense of dread and fear is pervasive, as nuclear engineers and workers scramble to avoid losing complete control at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant.

Some 300,000 people have been told to evacuate. Up to 200 people have been reported as having been exposed to radiation poisoning, and iodine tablets have been distributed to counteract its effect. The American warship USS Ronald Reagan has detected radiation 100 miles away from the disaster site.

It is to be fervently hoped that emergency workers attempting to regain control of the reactor vessels will be successful, and any leak of radiation contained. However, increasingly desperate and untested methods are now being tried, as all regular back-ups have failed under the weight of events.

The crisis began mid-afternoon on Friday, March 1. The massive earthquake 50 miles off the northeast coast of Japan led to the automatic shutdown of the reactors at the Diichi and nearby Daini atomic plants. Japan is on a known fault line and has suffered severe earthquakes before–most recently, the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

What no one had bargained for in this instance was a titanic wall of water that would overwhelm Japan’s first line of defense. Over 30 feet high, 250 feet long and large enough to alter the orbit of the earth, with a power equivalent to a nuclear bomb, the tsunami was hurtled toward land, crashing over and through the vast network of coastal defense systems.

Japan is the most disaster-prepared nation in the world. It has massive concrete breakwater barriers along 40 percent of its coastline, which rear up out of the sea as high as 30 feet. But these defenses were completely overwhelmed by the tsunami.

As it crashed into land and inundated towns, the tsunami also swamped the first backup power system for the reactors. Diesel generators at the plants, designed to kick in emergency power to keep the reactor cores within tolerable temperature limits when the electricity grid fails, were inundated with seawater.

According to reports, the buildings housing the generators were placed in low-lying land because no one thought a tsunami could reach them — buildings that are currently underwater.

The loss of electrical power is critical because even after the nuclear fission reactions have been terminated in the reactor’s core, the heat buildup continues for weeks and months as the result of ongoing nuclear reactions. It is therefore imperative that electrical power be maintained in order to operate machinery that can circulate coolant through the core in order to avoid a catastrophic meltdown.

But with the failure of the power grid and the backup generator, the nuclear plants were forced to rely on a third backup power system: emergency batteries. These, however, are designed to last a maximum of eight hours under the best of conditions.

By that time, it was assumed, power either from the diesel generators or the main grid would be restored. Yet given the destruction cased by the earthquake and tsunami, neither of those is likely for some time. Thus, the batteries failed sometime Saturday night at two reactors at Daiichi.

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By the early hours of Saturday morning, workers were authorized to make a last-ditch attempt to prevent temperatures rising in the core.

As temperatures rise, the coolant water that surrounds the core is boiled off, exposing the uranium fuel rods, which are encased in protective Zirconium cladding, to the air, allowing them to heat further. This begins to rupture the cladding, which then allows the uranium fuel pellets to melt, precipitating further melting and so on. It is now clear that partial meltdowns of the core have occurred in all three incapacitated reactor vessels in Diichi, and possibly at another plant 10 miles away in Daini.

Workers were given clearance from central government officials to pump seawater into the damaged reactor vessels. Nobody knew whether this would work, but it was the only thing left to do.

When seawater is pumped in, in order to release the immense build-up of pressure that occurs as the water is boiled and turns into super-heated steam, it has to be vented to the outside. It was likely this venting that caused the multiple explosions that blew the roof off the concrete containment building.

Workers have to balance pumping in seawater to cool the reactor with venting the superheated — and now radioactive — steam out of the reactor core to prevent another explosion. Unfortunately, temperature gauges in the reactor core were by this time malfunctioning, and vents are failing to close or open.

This is the most likely the reason that radioactive substances that are normally contained within the reactor cores — such as the highly dangerous cesium, strontium and iodine isotopes — have been detected in the surrounding area. While the primary containment vessels remain intact, radioactive steam needs to be vented, and now the secondary outer containment vessel no longer has a roof.

The effects of these substances on the human body are catastrophic. Radioactive cesium takes the place of potassium as an electrolyte in the body, radioactive iodine goes straight to uptake by the thyroid gland, and strontium will be selected in place of calcium for bone formation. This is why iodine tablets are being distributed to people in the surrounding areas — to try to saturate the bodies of exposed people and prevent too much radioactive iodine from being incorporated into peoples’ bodies.

The operator of the nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power, has now confirmed that the desperate pumping in of seawater failed to work at reactor number 2, leading to fuel rods being exposed for several hours.

Should this continue, a full meltdown is almost certain. In this case, all of the fuel rods will melt, rupture the cladding and potentially melt through the primary and secondary containment vessels. This will create a situation where either the entire reactor core will explode due to an uncontrollable pressure build-up or the molten radioactive material will burn through to the ground, where it will interact with cold earth and create another explosion of radioactive material.

There are many other hazards that come into play. For example, on the roof of the secondary containment vessels, in similar fashion to all nuclear plants around the world, spent nuclear fuel rods sit in pools of water — they have to be kept cool for several years after use due to ongoing nuclear decay. All of the water used for this purpose itself becomes radioactive. It’s highly likely that the roof explosion damaged the integrity of the containment system for these rods, too, further complicating the dangerously escalating situation at Diichi.

No country in the world has a plan for what to do with the spent fuel from nuclear reactors, nor all of the highly radioactive material from the plants themselves when they are eventually decommissioned — a lengthy and extremely expensive process in itself.

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Whether a full meltdown and core breach happens or not — and let us all hope it does not — the catastrophe in Japan underlines the argument that anti-nuclear campaigners and socialists have made since the inception of nuclear power: There is no such thing as a safe nuclear plant.

For every contingency and back-up plan, there will always be something unexpected that overwhelms even the best preparations. And when those plans center around preventing the general release of something as inherently toxic as nuclear radiation, the only rational answer is to avoid the problem in the first place.

The nuclear disaster at Fukushima–which has exponentially compounded the catastrophe of the original earthquake and ensuing tsunami that caused a death toll in the tens of thousands by itself — has worldwide implications. Many plants in the U.S. are of a similar design to Fukushima — which was, in fact, built by General Electric.

One simple question must be: What kind of system makes constructing nuclear plants on known earthquake fault lines seem a sensible alternative to building energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels?

Beyond that, a reinvigorated anti-nuclear movement — determined to stop the spread of this insanely wasteful, hugely uneconomic and inherently dangerous form of energy — now has to respond.

This is an urgent priority. With new nuclear plants or the reauthorization of old ones being planned around the world in response to climate change and the nuclear industry’s attempts to cast itself as an environmentally benign, safe and the “green” alternative to fossil fuels, many mainstream environmental groups have succumbed to the arguments of the pro-nuclear camp.

It’s time for anti-nuclear activists and socialists to step up our activity and say once again: Nuclear power — no thanks!

In Germany, the Japanese crisis has already led to a response — some 50,000 people protested against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of extending the life of old nuclear plants for another 12 years. She has been forced to put those plans on hold.

Sentiment in this country remains solidly anti-nuclear. A recent poll in the Wall Street Journal showed that three-quarters of Americans back the elimination of tax credit for oil and gas companies to reduce the federal deficit, and 57 percent deem it “mostly” or “totally” acceptable to “significantly cut” subsidies to new nuclear power plants. This is in direct contrast to President Barack Obama’soffer of new loan guarantees to the nuclear industry worth more than $50 billion.

Instead, in contrast to what is on offer from either main political party in the U.S., the number one and number two choices for raising money, by overwhelming majorities, were eliminating congressional earmarks and imposing a tax on millionaires.

It’s up to us to go out and organize once again around the demand: No nukes!

Chris Williams is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis

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Bonnie Jay
5 years 6 months ago

“There is no such thing as a safe nuclear plant.”

There is also no such thing as a safe natural gas well, a safe coal mine, or a safe fire. Nothing is entirely safe. Just stop building them on top of major earthquake faults. Japan is the most earthquake prone country on earth and to build nuclear reactors there was madness to begin with. But building one on 1,000 ft. of granite bedrock in the Midwest is quite another thing entirely, isn’t it?

Mark
5 years 6 months ago

Thanks! This is the best summary of the issues that I have read so far.

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