Tragedies in Japan Underscore Vulnerabilities and Danger of Nuclear Power

Water cannons being used to cool damaged power plant equipment
Author: Travis Leipzig

On March 11, a monstrous 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a 45-foot high tsunami moving at speeds over 500 mph ripped through Japan leaving behind a wake of devastation. Resulting power outages left Japan's Fukushima Dai-Icha nuclear power plant without cooling power, causing a nuclear radioactive cooling water crisis of epic proportions

After being crippled by the quake and battered by the wave, cooling towers at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were left without power, leading to hydrogen explosions within the facilities. More than two weeks after the natural disaster rocked Japan, emergency crews at the nuclear plant are still fighting to cool nuclear fuel (a disgustingly water intensive process) and prevent an all-out core meltdown.

The New York Times reported on the cooling process:

The setbacks have raised questions about how long, and at what cost, Japan can keep up what experts call its “feed and bleed” strategy of cooling the reactor’ fuel rods with emergency infusions of water from the ocean and now from freshwater sources.

That cooling strategy, while essential to prevent full meltdowns, has released harmful amounts of radioactive steam into the atmosphere and set off leaks of highly contaminated water, making it perilous for some of the hundreds of workers at the plant to further critical repair work.

With already nearly 200,000 Japanese residents having been forced to evacuate the surrounding areas of the nuclear plant, news as to the extent of the radioactive water and air contamination continue to unfold each day.

The image to the left shows a Japanese resident being screened for radiation exposure. Photo courtesy of blog.al.com

It took just over a week for the first traces of nuclear contamination to be discovered in both tap and ocean waters near the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant’s facilities. BusinessWeek reported on the detection of the first traces of radioactive iodine (which can cause thyroid cancer) found in the tap-water of communities living near the plant:

Officials said tap water showed elevated radiation levels: 210 becquerels of iodine-131 per liter of water -- more than twice the recommended limit of 100 becquerels per liter for infants. Another measurement taken later at a different site showed the level was 190 becquerels per liter. The recommended limit for adults is 300 becquerels.

And Reuters reported similar findings in ocean water 18 miles off the coast:

The IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) said a vessel from Japan's Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology had "collected water samples at several points 30 km (approximately 18 miles) from the coastline and found measurable concentrations of iodine-131 and caesium-137."

Only a few days after the discovery of radioactive iodine and caesium in water supplies, news began coming out reporting the discovery of radioactive plutonium found in soil samples. NY Times reported:

In addition, deposits of plutonium — a long-lived radioactive element — were found in the soil around the plant. The government said some of the plutonium may have seeped from damaged fuel rods inside the plant, with Edano (Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary) calling the situation "very grave."

The situation is very grave indeed. To make situations worse, radiation levels have begun to affect Japanese produce grown as far as 25 miles away from Fukushima Dai-Ichi. BusinessWeek reported that a locally grown leafy green called kukitachina recently measured at 82 times the government limit for radioactive caesium and 11 times the legal limit for iodine. Further findings like these will undoubtedly take a heavy toll on the Japanese export economy as neighboring countries will be highly reluctant to purchase goods that are potentially radioactively contaminated.

The image to the right features a Japanese farmer weeding in a crop of kukitachina, one of the many food products that has seen high radioactive contamination rates in response to the Fukushima spills. Photo courtesy of mdn.mainichi.jp

The effects of the natural disaster-caused nuclear catastrophe in japan will likely be felt for a long, long time. As evidence of this, New York Times quoted the deputy director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Japan’s nuclear regulator, admitting the probable duration of the nuclear mess that Japan is facing, saying “We will have to continue cooling for quite a long period. We should be thinking years.”

Fortunately, the situation unfolding in Japan can be taken as a learning experience for all other nations, and used as a basis for change. Nuclear power is not only highly vulnerable to natural (or unnatural) disasters, but can also be extremely dangerous with severe, long term health and economic consequences. It is clear that there has been significant re-consideration in the US as to the safety of nuclear power, as one Nevada lawmaker has already called for the cleanup of water contaminated by nuclear test sites, and some US Senator are proposing the movement of spent nuclear fuel out of cooling ponds into solid concrete and steel storage casks to prevent from radioactively contaminated water causing any kind of contamination as is happening in Japan.

Interestingly enough, despite increased concern with nuclear safety, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced last week that they are currently seeking public comment on the proposed rule to certify the bringing of new GE-Hitachi Simplified Boiling-Water Nuclear Reactors to the US. Something tells me that these new designs will likely still come with the old problems of nuclear power. I would imagine that plants will have to deal with highly dangerous, radioactive fuel disposal; plants will still be highly vulnerability to disaster; and the words “boiling-water reactor” make me think that the new designs will add significant pressure to our already limited national freshwater resources. Comments may be submitted for 75 days following publication of the NRC press release, giving everyone 68 days to submit comments from the date of this blog post.

Submit your comments regarding this proposal to bring new nuclear power plants in the the states via http://www.regulations.gov under Docket ID NRC-2010-0135; by e-mail to Rulemaking.Comments@nrc.gov; by mail to Secretary, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001, ATTN: Rulemakings and Adjudications Staff; or by fax to Secretary, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at 301-492-3466. Submit your comments today! Help keep nuclear power from expanding in the US!

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