Tsunami

I hope everyone reading this, and everyone they know, is okay…

Stories, anyone?

Check out this animation from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

The tsunami was unnoticeable here in Singapore. It was just 10 centimeters tall when it hit the North Maluku islands in Indonesia, and we’re protected from the open Pacific by lots of Indonesian islands.

Of course, this “protection” has its own dangers, since Indonesia is geologically active: since I’ve lived here there have been two volcanic eruptions in Java, and an earthquake in western Sumatra created a tsunami that killed over 282 people in the Mentawai islands. An earthquake in eastern Sumatra could cause a tsunami here, perhaps—Sumatra is visible from tall buildings downtown. But today things are fine, here.

They’re worse in California!—though as you might expect, some there took advantage of the tsunami for surfing.

139 Responses to Tsunami

  1. WebHubTel says:

    Earthquake magnitudes follow roughly a power-law distribution. Is there a simple way to understand this behavior? The current thinking is that it is all self-organized criticality related to phase transitions (via the suggestion of power-laws involved in many phase transitions). Yet I tend to think that criticality in a breakdown region is all that is required.

    • The Cosmist says:

      An interesting person to read on this subject is Didier Sornette. You can read a summary of some of his ideas here: http://www.pnas.org/content/99/suppl.1/2522.full

      Here is a paragraph that addresses your question:

      “The view that complex systems are inherently unpredictable has recently been defended persuasively in concrete prediction applications, such as the socially important issue of earthquake prediction (see the contributions in ref. 2). In addition to the persistent failures to find a reliable earthquake predictive scheme, this view is rooted theoretically in the analogy between earthquakes and self-organized criticality. In this “fractal” framework, there is no characteristic scale, and the power law distribution of earthquake sizes reflects the fact that large earthquakes are nothing but small earthquakes that did not stop. They are thus unpredictable because their nucleation is not different from that of the multitude of small earthquakes, which obviously cannot be all predicted (5).”

      For more mathematical details, see his book Critical Phenomena in Natural Sciences

      • WebHubTel says:

        I do have Sornette’s Critical Phenomena book, which is a great resource, BTW.

        … reflects the fact that large earthquakes are nothing but small earthquakes that did not stop.

        My feeling is that this part is likely true, in the sense that this is the stress or energy accumulation part. The stress part of an earthquake continues to grow with some stochastic spread (i.e. dispersion), while the strain critical point has a measure of dispersion as well.

        The interesting result is that when I convolve the stochastic stress and strain parts together as a probability integral, it comes out as a ratio distribution. And importantly a ratio distribution typically results in a simple power-law. This doesn’t seem to depend on a fractal framework. The scale-free nature actually comes about from the ratio of two max entropy distributions where all you need to know are the mean values.

  2. Phil Henshaw says:

    I went to a talk at Columbia not to long ago on the detailed mechanisms of how seismic slips within a strata of the mantle develop. I’m not sure if all earth quakes develop as horizontal slips, but I think most do.

    It’s really cool, propagating from the fringe of a small lens shaped “seed” of breaking bonds or liquidity, or something. The lecturer wasn’t yet able to describe it completely. But it’s apparently one of the great variety of friction or other bond breaking phenomena, like a bow on a string, chalk on the blackboard, losing your footing or having a tendon giving way.

  3. Ali Moharrer says:

    Reading the news about the loss of cooling water to the nuclear reactor of Japanese Fukushima-1 power plant, it makes me wonder about upfront verification of ‘design critical reliability and safety’. As much as I know, safety approaches to the design of nuclear power plants are through analysis of levels of protection. The same concepts are applied more and less across the design of refinery and power plants projects. There are international standards for analysis and evaluation of levels of safety across the components of a process system (instruments, control systems, controlled process equipment etc). I am working as a project engineer on a large solar thermal concentrated power project and as part of design review I keep reasoning with other process engineers (in charge of safety analysis of hazardous material in the heat transport cycle) that safety breach situations involving double jeopardy can be a viable case for safety design considerations and that the engineer should be able to estimate the probability of its occurrence and recommend mitigation measures. This might not make sense in the context of keeping the project cost to an acceptable level resulting in complicated system design excluding addressing min permit requirements for safety. I am concerned with errors in engineering judgment and the attempt that to reason in a serial mode how things might fail in actuality.

    Given ‘coincident low probability risk’ situations (double jeopardy and I am not sure this is the right term for process safety design), can anyone give me a perspective on how simultaneous combined causes of such risks can lead to a vaster failure of the power system and within the plant boundaries? Are there model to treat these situations or would anyone know of similar examples. I am much interested to hear about.

    For the recent event in Japan, I hear that both normal and emergency cooling water supply for this reactor failed (loss of normal cooling water and also diesel generator not starting) leading to build-up of pressure within the reactors cooling medium. Similar (coincident failures) situation happened as the causes of the US North East blackout event of 2003. The final report of the Joint US and Canadian task force addressed the root causes events leading up to the total system failure, as I understood from my review, there were ‘coincident failure situations’ within the operating system (engineering actions from humans and the operation of the equipment) that caused the rolling electrical fault to bring down several regional power grids.

    Ali

    • WebHubTel says:

      What you describe as ‘coincident low probability risk’ are also known as “common mode errors”. Somebody pointed out that the 5 at-risk reactors are situated in only two local regions.

      So the common mode error is that if one goes, another one is more likely to go due to proximity of underlying cause or due to a possible chain-reaction.

  4. John Baez says:

    Here’s some good news from Japan:

    Some perspective on the Japan earthquake.

    A quote from this extremely readable article:

    Everything Pretty Much Worked

    Let’s talk about trains for a second. One of them were washed away by the tsunami. All of the rest — including ones travelling in excess of 150 miles per hour — made immediate emergency stops and no one died [on these three]. There were no derailments. There were no collisions. There was no loss of control. The story of Japanese railways during the earthquake and tsunami is the story of an unceasing drumbeat of everything going right.

    This was largely the story up and down Honshu. Planes stayed in the sky. Buildings stayed standing. Civil order continued uninterrupted.

    On the train line between Ogaki and Nagoya, one passes dozens of factories, including notably a beer distillery which holds beer in pressure tanks painted to look like gigantic beer bottles. Many of these factories have large amounts of extraordinarily dangerous chemicals maintained, at all times, in conditions which would resemble fuel-air bombs if they had a trigger attached to them. None of them blew up. There was a handful of very photogenic failures out east, which is an occupational hazard of dealing with large quantities of things that have a strongly adversarial response to materials like oxygen, water, and chemists. We’re not going to stop doing that because modern civilization and its luxuries like cars, medicine, and food are dependent on industry.

    The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed. Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked and the system worked and the system worked.

    That this happened was, I say with no hint of exaggeration, one of the triumphs of human civilization. Every engineer in this country should be walking a little taller this week. We can’t say that too loudly, because it would be inappropriate with folks still missing and many families in mourning, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

    Let’s Talk Nukes

    There is currently a lot of panicked reporting about the problems with two of Tokyo Electric’s nuclear power generation plants in Fukushima. Although few people would admit this out loud, I think it would be fair to include these in the count of systems which functioned exactly as designed. For more detail on this from someone who knows nuclear power generation, which rules out him being a reporter, see here.

    • The instant response — scramming the reactors — happened exactly as planned and, instantly, removed the Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenarios from the table.

    • There were some failures of important systems, mostly related to cooling the reactor cores to prevent a meltdown. To be clear, a meltdown is not an Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenario: the entire plant is designed such that when everything else fails, the worst thing that happens is somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it.

    • Failure of the systems is contemplated in their design, which is why there are so many redundant ones. You won’t even hear about most of the failures up and down the country because a) they weren’t nuclear related (a keyword which scares the heck out of some people) and b) redundant systems caught them.

    • The tremendous public unease over nuclear power shouldn’t be allowed to overpower the conclusion: nuclear energy, in all the years leading to the crisis and continuing during it, is absurdly safe. Remember the talk about the trains and how they did exactly what they were supposed to do within seconds? Several hundred people still drowned on [the one train that was washed away]. That is a tragedy, but every person connected with the design and operation of the railways should be justifiably proud that that was the worst thing that happened. At present, in terms of radiation risk, the tsunami appears to be a wash: on the one hand there’s a near nuclear meltdown, on the other hand the tsunami disrupted something really dangerous: international flights. (One does not ordinarily associate flying commercial airlines with elevated radiation risks. Then again, one doesn’t normally associate eating bananas with it, either. When you hear news reports of people exposed to radiation, keep in mind, at the moment we’re talking a level of severity somewhere between “ate a banana” and “carries a Delta Skymiles platinum membership card”.)

    I’ve added some clarification to what Patrick seemed to be trying to say about the trains. I think he was trying to say that one got washed away by the tsunami and several hundred people died, while three others were fine.

    • DavidTweed says:

      Whilst I can support the general tenor of Patrick’s post, there is another side, which is to look at what failed, why it failed and how it can be modified to avoid failing in future. For example, it seems that additional protection of the power system for the cooling systems is important. That’s an important part of engineering, to see what unanticipated failures occur and modify to deal with them. That’s why I’m always nervous about incredibly rapid build-out programs of anything: you will make design oversights, so you need to have some level of deployment on a limited scale to work out the worst of these.

      • John Baez says:

        David wrote:

        Whilst I can support the general tenor of Patrick’s post, there is another side, which is to look at what failed, why it failed and how it can be modified to avoid failing in future.

        I agree with that wholeheartedly!

        For example, it seems that additional protection of the power system for the cooling systems is important.

        About a thousand people have died so far. Of these, it seems several hundred died from a bullet train being washed out to sea, and none from the problems with the nuclear reactors.

        From this, I’d have to guess that what’s really important is improving the safety of bullet trains and other aspects of life, not anything about nuclear power plants!

        But yes: if your job were nuclear power plans, it seems you’d want to focus on the cooling system problems.

        As you’ll see from my post below, it seems there were multiple layers of redundancy in the cooling systems. For various reasons they all failed.

        So, even better than adding extra layers of redundancy, might be developing fail-safe nuclear power plants that don’t need electric power for cooling. In other words: power plants that automatically approach a stable cool state when a disaster occurs and you flip a switch—even if there’s no power available.

        I think I’ve heard that such designs already exist. Is that true?

        It also seems odd that two buildings exploded due to hydrogen buildup from venting steam. Didn’t they learn their lesson the first time? Isn’t it better to just open windows near the top of the building, or poke a hole in the ceiling if necessary?

        As Oscar Wilde said:

        To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

        • Tim van Beek says:

          John said:

          From this, I’d have to guess that what’s really important is improving the safety of bullet trains and other aspects of life, not anything about nuclear power plants!

          A very important aspect of learning, for example for the critical incident technique, is that one should learn as much from a disaster that was avoided (which counts as a critical incident as well) as from a disaster that happened. It’s true that most people change their driving style, for example, only after they had an actual accident instead of changing it after having almost an accident, which makes it even more important in engineering to knowingly observe accidents that almost happened.

          BTW: Of course the whole topic has lead to an increased pressure on the German government to take nuclear power plants offline, as expected.

        • John Baez says:

          Tim wrote:

          BTW: Of course the whole topic has lead to an increased pressure on the German government to take nuclear power plants offline, as expected.

          And I thought the Germans would be pressuring the government to ban those evil, deadly bullet trains!

        • Tim van Beek says:

          I think the major point here is that people underestimate risks that they understand well, and that they think they can control, like the risk of dying in a traffic accident. So they accept the risk that a train could be washed away by a big, very powerful tsunami. But they don’t know much about the odorless, silent killer “radioactivity”.

          There are already articles about the “nuclear catastrophe that could happen any time anywhere” in major German newspapers, despite the fact that there is not any “nuclear catastrophe” (yet).

        • Frederik De Roo says:

          Tim said:

          I think the major point here is that people underestimate risks that they understand well

          What about the odourless carbon dioxide, vs radioactivity, and the opinions here on the Forum?

          I want to read Yudkowsky’s book ;-)

        • DavidTweed says:

          It also seems odd that two buildings exploded due to hydrogen buildup from venting steam.

          Actually, one of the things that you’d expect is that two buildings built at the same time as variants on the same design would be vulnerable to the same failure mode. That’s the kind of thing I was getting at in my post above: mass production both gives ease of manufacture/use but also in the same conditions they’re all likely to fail at roughly the same time.

          With regards to “protecting” the power supply, I agree that excessive layers just make things complicated, but I get the impression that it wasn’t considered that the backup cooling power supply might need protecting from a tsunami.

    • nad says:

      “• There were some failures of important systems, mostly related to cooling the reactor cores to prevent a meltdown. To be clear, a meltdown is not an Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenario: the entire plant is designed such that when everything else fails, the worst thing that happens is somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it.”

      One had seen how the “worst case plant design” worked in the case of Chernobyl. I hope that you didn’t mean Chernobyl with “somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it” since if – then such a cynicm would hardly be acceptable.

      I really hope that the plant design of Fukushima works also for the case of a meltdown, but what if not?

      This is not about a beer destillery which may fail being safe or not – this is about the living space for over 36 million people which is at stake.

      • John Baez says:

        nad wrote:

        One had seen how the “worst case plant design” worked in the case of Chernobyl. I hope that you didn’t mean Chernobyl with “somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it” since if – then such a cynicm would hardly be acceptable.

        The material you quoted was not written by me, but rather by someone named Patrick, on another blog. So, please don’t refer to him as “you”.

        He didn’t say anything about “worst case plant design”. He was talking about the worst-case scenario at the Fukushima reactors. His claim was that the Fukushima reactors (not Chernobyl) are designed so that in the worst possible situation, someone will get a cleanup bill with a lot of zeroes in it.

        This might or might not be true. I would love to have a discussion about it with well-informed people. But it’s not clear that Chernobyl is relevant, since Chernobyl was designed very differently.

        For one thing, Chernobyl had no containment vessel, so nuclear fuel was released into the environment. The Fukushima reactors come with a containment vessel, and apparently no nuclear fuel has gotten out.

        A much more detailed account is presented here:

        • Barry Brook and Josef Oehmen, Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation.

        It’s worth reading the whole article, but I summarized it below, and if his description of the worst-case scenario is correct, it’s fairly close to someone getting ‘a bill with a lot of zeroes’. Here’s his description again:

        Here is the worst-case scenario that was avoided: If the seawater could not have been used for treatment, the operators would have continued to vent the water steam to avoid pressure buildup. The third containment would then have been completely sealed to allow the core meltdown to happen without releasing radioactive material. After the meltdown, there would have been a waiting period for the intermediate radioactive materials to decay inside the reactor, and all radioactive particles to settle on a surface inside the containment. The cooling system would have been restored eventually, and the molten core cooled to a manageable temperature. The containment would have been cleaned up on the inside. Then a messy job of removing the molten core from the containment would have begun, packing the (now solid again) fuel bit by bit into transportation containers to be shipped to processing plants. Depending on the damage, the block of the plant would then either be repaired or dismantled.

        Of course what actually happened worse than just “a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes”, because a number of people have gotten injured in explosions caused by steam with a lot of hydrogen in it. This seems like a clear case of a design flaw, and I’d like to know more about it… but I wouldn’t say it’s like Chernobyl.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          TEPCO just pulled its people back from reactor #2 at Fukushima after a sharp rise in radiation levels after an explosion occurred there which may have breached the pressure containment vessel. I’m listening to a live feed from NHK w/translation: http://www.ustream.tv/channel-popup/nhk-world-tv

          About 2.7 meters of the fuel rods have been exposed and are apparently melting; and the pressure in the containment vessel is equal to atmospheric pressure after the explosion, 3 atmospheres before, and some radioactive water has been released. The explosion occurred about 6:14am Japan Time. It’s getting close to Chernobyl…

        • John Baez says:

          Thanks for news, streamfortyseven! I’m stilll not seeing anything that seems ‘close to Chernobyl’, but I’m not mainly in this to argue about the severity of the accident—I’m more interested in finding out what’s actually happening.

          Josef Oehmen said that the nuclear fuel in the reactors at Fukushima is triply protected:

          • The uranium dioxide pellets are sealed in tubes called ‘fuel rods’ made of Zircaloy, a metal with a melting point of 2200°C.

          • The fuel rods are put into a larger package called the ‘core’, which in turn is put in a sturdy sealed container called the ‘pressure vessel’.

          • The pressure vessel is put on a large concrete basin together with a lot of graphite, and then put inside a sealed steel container (18 inches thick). If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts, this container is designed to be able to hold the molten fuel and everything else for an indefinite period of time, until everything cools down.

          So, if this is correct, the pressure vessel could burst and the fuel would still be contained. But if the outer container also breaks, the fuel can get out.

          Does anyone know the best constantly-up-to-date sources of technical information on these nuclear reactors? Here’s what I know:

          • Barry Brooks, TEPCO reactor by reactor status report at Fukushima and Fukushima Nuclear Accident – 15 March summary of situation.

          Timeline of Fukushima nuclear accidents, Wikipedia.

          All these have information on ‘containment integrity’, and as I read it now this seems to be ‘not damaged’. But things keep happening, and the details are technical, and the details really matter.

        • nad says:

          John Baez wrote:

          “The material you quoted was not written by me, but rather by someone named Patrick, on another blog. So, please don’t refer to him as “you”.”

          I quoted a whole passage from Patricks text so I thought it was clear whom I meant by “YOU”! But I’ll try to be clearer next time.

          In his text: “To be clear, a meltdown is not an Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenario: the entire plant is designed such that when everything else fails, the worst thing that happens is somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it.”
          Patrick writes about “A” meltdown that is he switches to the general case and then he speaks about “the plant”. I found that confusing and wanted to remark that to talk about “clean-up bills” while being eventually ambiguous could easily be misunderstood. And even if he was talking “only” about the Fukushima plant (and not Chernobyl) – there were (as you wrote) already people injured in Fukushima and at least one worker died, judge yourself what it means to talk about “clean-up bills” in this context.

          I know that Chernobyl had basically no containment. I mentioned Chernobyl as an example of a design failure which had extremely bad consequences. The key point is that in every design there may be mistakes and the question is at some point “what do you risk if everything fails?” Even the by your commenters highly praised Fukushima plant displayed already quite some design mistakes: It wasn’t designed for such an earthquake, the cooling system wasn’t designed for such a Tsunami etc. Morever there is often a financial trade-off between safety and profit pressure.

          I looked at the blog post by Mr. Oehmen. I found it informative, but not informative enough. Like it would be interesting to get to hear about the material and construction of the control rods, or an account on how exactly the hydrogen gets out of the vessel? The reports of today suggest that “the suppression chamber may be damaged.”, what does this imply? How much damage did the explosions to the outer containment? There are not many images of the damaged plants. The japanese BWR design seems to be a little bit different than the general electric one (which is e.g. also on Barry Brooks site by Barry Brook). It would be helpful to get a more precise account of the BWR design, especially with regard to the Fotos.

        • John Baez says:

          nad wrote:

          I quoted a whole passage from Patrick’s text so I thought it was clear whom I meant by “YOU”! But I’ll try to be clearer next time.

          Okay, thanks! Of course, if I’d quoted Einstein, and you replied by saying “You’re so smart! I’m a big fan of your theories”, I wouldn’t be complaining.

          The reports of today suggest that “the suppression chamber may be damaged.”, what does this imply? How much damage did the explosions to the outer containment?

          Yes, I spent some time yesterday trying to figure out the answer to those questions, with not much success. I’m not even sure what “the suppression chamber” is. Is it the same as the “pressure vessel”? I’m guessing that it is—maybe just a bad translation.

          As of 8:00 GMT March 16 there seems to be some damage to the crucial outer containment in Unit 2, while the containment for Units 1 and 3 seem okay. One can see fairly up-to-date information about that on Wikipedia.

          But, how much damage? Nothing I’ve read says whether it’s superficial scratches, a serious crack, or something in between. Maybe nobody knows.

          There are not many images of the damaged plants.

          Are there any, except for exterior photos of blown-up buildings? Someone must be taking photographs of the actual reactors, I imagine. But we don’t get to see them. I’d like a bit more transparency when disasters like this happen.

          (During the Gulf Oil spill, BP worked hard to keep people from taking underwater photographs of the spill.)

        • streamfortyseven says:

          The place is an absolute wreck, see these pics (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1369216/Fukushima-Fifty-First-pictures-emerge-inside-Japans-stricken-nuclear-power-plant.html?ito=feeds-newsxml) taken on site by (apparently) one of the workers. The control rooms are also in bad shape, they’ll definitely require a lot of work to get back in working order.

          As to the Chernobyl resemblance, here’s some data from ZAMG (english translation by Google first, then me):
          “Japanese nuclear plant accident in Fukushima (Update: March 23, 2011 11:00)
          Large releases of cesium and iodine at the beginning of dispersion of radioactivity / current favorable weather / iodine measured in Iceland

          Weather in the crisis region

          The atmospheric disturbance in the crisis region has moved out of the area. Behind it, there are still deep and medium high clouds. The rain has stopped. The surface winds are weak, mainly from western to northern directions. Fukushima reached by air, therefore increasing again to the Pacific.

          Tomorrow there is little change. The wind is weak and predominantly westerly winds, radioactivity is mainly transported to the Pacific.

          For Friday and Saturday, we expect low pressure influence with heavy rain and potential transport of radiation in the interior.

          Emission estimates

          Because of the numerous incoming data of the CTBTO stations in Japan, California, Alaska and Russia, it is possible to estimate source terms of the substances iodine-131 and cesium-137. This is particularly true for the first three days of the reactor accident.

          During the first two days (March 12 and 13) material was transported to the Pacific Ocean and reached California as early as March 17 (see picture below). The highest measured concentration of iodine-131 were 14 000 μBqm-3, with an accuracy of 10 μBqm-3. On 14 March the wind shifted toward the interior, and the cloud reached the CTBTO Takasaki Station (see picture below). Eventually on 15 March there was a measured level of 15,000,000 μBqm-3 of iodine-131, which is exactly 1000 times that measured in California. These two measurements may eventually be used to roughly estimate a source term.

          The estimated source terms for iodine-131 are very constant, namely 3.1x10e17 Bq/day for the first two days (U.S. measurements) and 1.2x10e17 Bq/day for the third day (Japan). For cesium-137 in the U.S. measurements yield 5x10e15 Bq/day, while there was much more cesium in the air in Japan. On this day, the source term in Japan would have been estimated to be 4x10e16 Bq/day.

          In the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl the entire source term of iodine-131 was 1.76x10e18 Bq and of cesium-137 was 5.8x10e16 Bq. The estimated Fukushima source terms are thus at 20% of Chernobyl-term for iodine, and 20-60% of the Chernobyl-term for cesium.

          Cesium-137 and iodine-131 only comprise a fraction of the total dose rate in the vicinity of the reactor; this does not mean that local radiation exposure in Fukushima is as high as in Chernobyl. The source terms explain only the levels of radioactivity present in food and water. The dose rates of cesium and iodine, resulting from our source hypothesis are much lower than those observed in total in Japan.

          Plumes

          The dispersion calculations show for today, that a potential radiation cloud would go to the Pacific. And especially the day after tomorrow more radioactivity will be transported into the Japanese interior (see illustrations).

          The color scale is currently showing a total of 5 colors. With “Area E” areas are identified that are currently burdened with an effective dose of about 10 milli-Sievert per hour, which is a maximum estimate based on the data in a 25×25 km2 box. The “Area A” (purple color) defines a region with a maximum load of 0.3 micro Sievert per hour. This value corresponds to the dose rate of global average background exposure.

          Radiation data / CTBTO

          The current radiation data from the CTBTO (last one today, data from 20.3. 2011) shows that extremely dilute radioactivity has already reached Iceland in the last 72 hours. The iodine-131 levels in Reykjavik were near the detection limit (μBqm-3), other isotopes as iodine were not detected. No danger to health is seen in these data from Iceland.

          Dr. Gerhard Wotawa
          Office of Data / methods / models
          Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics
          Hohe Warte 38, 1190 Vienna

          gerhard.wotawa @ zamg.ac.at

          The ZAMG can not answer any questions related to travel to Japan or other parts of the world. We refer to the current Austrian State Department travel warnings, which are available from http://www.bmeia.gv.at. The telephone number is 0501150 4411

          For general inquiries a call center is at the Home Office at this number: 059133 9500

          This information is updated daily. If there should arise in the meantime any fundamental changes, an update will be prepared.

          (see http://www.zamg.ac.at/aktuell/index.php?seite=1&artikel=ZAMG_2011-03-23GMT10:57)

      • John Baez says:

        Since people are starting to make comparisons to Chernobyl, it’s worth reading about what happened in Chernobyl. I wasn’t very interested in the technical details at the time, so now I’m reading the Wikipedia article:

        At 1:23:04 a.m. the experiment began. The steam to the turbines was shut off, and a run down of the turbine generator began, together with four (of eight total) Main Circulating Pumps (MCP). The diesel generator started and sequentially picked up loads, which was complete by 01:23:43; during this period the power for these four MCPs was supplied by the coasting down turbine generator. As the momentum of the turbine generator that powered the water pumps decreased, the water flow rate decreased, leading to increased formation of steam voids (bubbles) in the core. Because of the positive void coefficient of the RBMK reactor at low reactor power levels, it was now primed to embark on a positive feedback loop, in which the formation of steam voids reduced the ability of the liquid water coolant to absorb neutrons, which in turn increased the reactor’s power output. This caused yet more water to flash into steam, giving yet a further power increase. However, during almost the entire period of the experiment the automatic control system successfully counteracted this positive feedback, continuously inserting control rods into the reactor core to limit the power rise.

        At 1:23:40, as recorded by the SKALA centralized control system, an emergency shutdown or scram of the reactor was initiated. The scram was started when the EPS-5 button (also known as the AZ-5 button) of the reactor emergency protection system was pressed thus fully inserting all control rods, including the manual control rods that had been incautiously withdrawn earlier. The reason the EPS-5 button was pressed is not known, whether it was done as an emergency measure or simply as a routine method of shutting down the reactor upon completion of the experiment. There is a view that the scram may have been ordered as a response to the unexpected rapid power increase, although there is no recorded data convincingly testifying to this. Some have suggested that the button was not pressed but rather that the signal was automatically produced by the emergency protection system; however, the SKALA clearly registered a manual scram signal. In spite of this, the question as to when or even whether the EPS-5 button was pressed was the subject of debate. There are assertions that the pressure was caused by the rapid power acceleration at the start, and allegations that the button was not pressed until the reactor began to self-destruct but others assert that it happened earlier and in calm conditions.

        For whatever reason the EPS-5 button was pressed, so the insertion of control rods into the reactor core began. The control rod insertion mechanism operated at a relatively slow speed (0.4 m/s) taking 18–20 seconds for the rods to travel the full approximately 7-meter core length (height). A bigger problem was a flawed graphite-tip control rod design, which initially displaced coolant before neutron-absorbing material was inserted and the reaction slowed. As a result, the scram actually increased the reaction rate in the lower half of the core.

        A few seconds after the start of the scram, a massive power spike occurred, the core overheated, and seconds later resulted in the initial explosion. Some of the fuel rods fractured, blocking the control rod columns and causing the control rods to become stuck after being inserted only one-third of the way. Within three seconds the reactor output rose above 530 MW.

        The subsequent course of events was not registered by instruments: it is known only as a result of mathematical simulation. First a great rise in power caused an increase in fuel temperature and massive steam buildup with rapid increase in steam pressure. This destroyed fuel elements and ruptured the channels in which these elements were located. Then according to some estimations, the reactor jumped to around 30 GW thermal, ten times the normal operational output. It was not possible to reconstruct the precise sequence of the processes that led to the destruction of the reactor and the power unit building. There is a general understanding that it was steam from the wrecked channels entering the reactor inner structure that caused the destruction of the reactor casing, tearing off and lifting by force the 2,000 ton upper plate (to which the entire reactor assembly is fastened). Apparently this was the first explosion that many heard. This was a steam explosion like the explosion of a steam boiler from the excess pressure of vapor. This ruptured further fuel channels—as a result the remaining coolant flashed to steam and escaped the reactor core. The total water loss combined with a high positive void coefficient to increase the reactor power.

        A second, more powerful explosion occurred about two or three seconds after the first; evidence indicates that the second explosion resulted from a nuclear excursion. The nuclear excursion dispersed the core and effectively terminated that phase of the event. However, the graphite fire continued, greatly contributing to the spread of radioactive material and the contamination of outlying areas.

        [...] the ratio of xenon radioisotopes released during the event provides compelling evidence that the second explosion was a nuclear power transient. This nuclear transient released ~0.01 kiloton of TNT equivalent (40 GJ) of energy; the analysis indicates that the nuclear excursion was limited to a small portion of the core.

        Contrary to safety regulations, a combustible material (bitumen) had been used in the construction of the roof of the reactor building and the turbine hall. Ejected material ignited at least five fires on the roof of the (still operating) adjacent reactor 3. It was imperative to put those fires out and protect the cooling systems of reactor 3. Inside reactor 3, the chief of the night shift, Yuri Bagdasarov, wanted to shut down the reactor immediately, but chief engineer Nikolai Fomin would not allow this. The operators were given respirators and potassium iodide tablets and told to continue working. At 05:00, however, Bagdasarov made his own decision to shut down the reactor, leaving only those operators there who had to work the emergency cooling systems

        So, in Chernobyl there was no earthquake, no tsunami; instead a deliberate and dangerous experiment. In Chernobyl a flawed design meant that inserting moderator rods to kill off or ‘scram’ the chain reaction actually increased it. In Fukushima the moderator was inserted and the chain reaction was brought down—though unfortunately, the reactors were designed in such a way that electric power is needed to keep the fuel rods from melting even in this ‘off’ state! In Chernobyl a runaway chain reaction led to an explosion that shot nuclear fuel into the air and started a fire on a roof made of bitumen (!?!). In Fukushima, cooling the reactors with water is leading to the production of steam containing some hydrogen… and it seems that instead of this hydrogen being vented out, it’s being allowed to collect and then catch fire and explode. But so far—at least as far as I can tell through the fog of confusion—the nuclear fuel in Fukushima is contained.

        It’s also worth trying to compare the levels of radiation.

        After the hydrogen explosion at Fukushima’s Unit 2 at 6:10 JST 15 March 2011, radiation “spiked at 8217 microsieverts per hour and then dropped to about one third that”. In various places near the Chernobyl reactor the radiation ranged from about 1000 to 20,000 roentgen per hour. I don’t understand these units very well, but a sievert is 100 roentgen equivalent man.

        So, while at Chernobyl the radiation ranged from 1000 to 20,000 roentgen per hour in various places, the highest radiation level I’ve seen mentioned at Fukushima is 0.8 roentgen per hour.

        That’s about a milli-Chernobyl, so far.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          “the nuclear fuel is being contained” – that’s not what I’m hearing on the NHK live feed here http://www.ustream.tv/channel-popup/nhk-world-tv .

          They’re reporting that the #4 reactor is on fire and that the containment vessel has been breached. They’re telling people within 15 miles of the plant to evacuate and within 22 miles of the plant to stay inside, preferably in concrete buildings, don’t bring laundry in the house, if you’re at work stay in the building, make sure to brush any dust off of clothing, and so forth. Sounds like what they’re describing is radioactive fallout coming down. They’re talking about radiation levels in the hundreds of milliSieverts in the zone in a radius of 12 miles from the #1 plants. Now they’re reporting radiation levels above normal in nearby cities; they’re emphasizing these levels are not an immediate threat to health.

        • John Baez says:

          streamfortyseven wrote:

          They’re reporting that the #4 reactor is on fire and that the containment vessel has been breached.

          Before you said ‘pressure containment vessel’; now you’re saying ‘containment vessel’.

          It’s not your fault, of course, but wish I knew what was really being referred to, because in my understanding there’s a ‘pressure vessel’ which can explode and still be safely contained in a larger vessel which has 18-inch-thick steel walls. I don’t know the technical term for this larger vessel. I’ve seen reports that the pressure vessel was damaged but the larger vessel is okay… at least in reactors #1 and #2.

          But reactor #4 is a different story. It was not actually in operation when the tsunami occurred! Apparently the fire is doing something nasty to spent fuel that is being stored there.

          How did this fire start? I don’t know. My estimation of the competence of the people involved is declining, though.

          They’re talking about radiation levels in the hundreds of milliSieverts in the zone in a radius of 12 miles from the #1 plants.

          That would make a huge difference—a factor of 1000 from my previous report.

          Anyway, thanks for the news, confusing though it be. I could easily stay glued to my computer all day trying to figure out what the $%&@ is going on, but I need to write a talk on “energy and the environment”.

        • Giampiero Campa says:

          Gunter Stein also went over the Chernobyl events in his Bode Lecture (the third part of the article). The description of the events seems slightly different though, probably it’s just that different things are emphasized.

          By the way, while I am at it, via Krugman, this article references two papers on how to use wind to supply all global energy. Nothing really new but very interesting reads.

    • nad says:

      according to http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/05/90715.html:

      Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, revealed Thursday that holes had been created by melted nuclear fuel at the bottom of the No. 1 reactor’s pressure vessel.

      and according to

      http://www3.nhk.or.jp/daily/english/12_23.html

      The utility company also believes that the water is leaking from the containment vessel into the reactor building. This is because the estimated volume of water inside the containment vessel appears to be less than what leaked into it from the reactor.

  5. John Baez says:

    Here’s the clearest account I’ve read so far of the situation at the Japanese nuclear reactors in Fukushima:

    • Barry Brook and Josef Oehmen, Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation.

    Barry Brook is an advocate of nuclear power and Josef Oehmen is a nuclear physicist, so this should be taken with a grain of salt. However, the information is clearly written and it may serve as a corrective to the alarming but extremely vague accounts one sees elsewhere.

    I’d like to write a brief summary, because it’s a fascinating story, and I’d like to test my understanding of the situation. I’d appreciate any corrections.

    So:

    The nuclear fuel in the reactors at Fukushima is triply protected:

    • The uranium dioxide pellets are sealed in tubes called ‘fuel rods’ made of Zircaloy, a metal with a melting point of 2200°C.

    • The fuel rods are put into a larger package called the ‘core’, which in turn is put in a sturdy sealed container called the ‘pressure vessel’.

    • The pressure vessel is put on a large concrete basin together with a lot of graphite, and then put inside a sealed steel container. If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts, this container is designed to be able to hold the molten fuel and everything else for an indefinite period of time, until everything cools down.

    All this stuff is inside a reactor building.

    What happened?

    At 14:46 JST on 11 March 2011, an earthquake occured. It was 7 times as powerful as the Fukushima reactors were designed to handle. Within seconds, control rods were inserted into the core and the nuclear chain reaction halted. The heat produced was reduced to 3% of the amount produced when the reactor is functioning. Nonetheless this heat needs to be carried away by a cooling system or the core will eventually melt.

    The earthquake destroyed the external power supply which runs the cooling system. But of course this was no surprise: there was a plan for what to do in this event. Backup diesel generators kicked in to continue running the cooling system. This was the first of several redundant sets of backup generators.

    So far, everything was working better than expected.

    Then came the tsunami. This took away all the backup diesel generators.

    But there was a plan for what to do in this event. The power plant operators switched to emergency battery power. The batteries were designed to provide power for cooling the core for 8 hours. And they did.

    During this time, backup power had to be found. So, mobile diesel generators were trucked in.

    But apparently the plugs did not fit. (More details, please?)

    So after the batteries ran out, the residual heat could not be carried away, and the core began to heat up.

    There are multiple systems for cooling the core, but didn’t work as well as they should—at least not for the first reactor, which is the only one I’ll talk about from now on.

    So, the power plant operators started letting steam vent from the reactor pressure vessel.

    The steam was slightly radioactive, since it came from water that was in contact with the core—but only slightly, since it was not in direct contact with the fuel rods. To give the radioactivity some time to dissipate, the operators decided not to let the steam directly into the outdoors, but into the space between the sealed steel container and the reactor building.

    Perhaps this was a mistake, born of over-caution?

    Since the steam was extremely hot, some of the water molecules had broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. This again was an expected occurrence (should things get this bad), so there was a safety system designed to ignite the hydrogen before too much built up.

    Unfortunately it seems this system failed. (More details, please?)

    And so, at 15:36 JST on 12 March 2011 there was an explosion at Unit 1. Four workers were injured, and the upper shell of the reactor building was blown off, leaving in place its steel frame.

    However, the reactor itself seems to have been undamaged by this explosion.

    The next day, it seemed that the fuel rods were beginning to melt. On 20:05 JST 12 March 2011 the government ordered that sea water be used to cool down the core. (Why not pure water? Maybe it was in short supply?) Later boric acid was added, which serves to inhibit nuclear reactions.

    So, what’s the story so far at Unit 1? According to Joseph Oehmen:

    Here is the worst-case scenario that was avoided: If the seawater could not have been used for treatment, the operators would have continued to vent the water steam to avoid pressure buildup. The third containment would then have been completely sealed to allow the core meltdown to happen without releasing radioactive material. After the meltdown, there would have been a waiting period for the intermediate radioactive materials to decay inside the reactor, and all radioactive particles to settle on a surface inside the containment. The cooling system would have been restored eventually, and the molten core cooled to a manageable temperature. The containment would have been cleaned up on the inside. Then a messy job of removing the molten core from the containment would have begun, packing the (now solid again) fuel bit by bit into transportation containers to be shipped to processing plants. Depending on the damage, the block of the plant would then either be repaired or dismantled.

    Some other aspects of the story:

    As of 14 March 2011, about 200,000 local residents have been evacuated.

    The IAEA has reported that one worker was exposed to radiation levels that were higher than normal but falls below their guidance for emergency situations.

    Apparently there have been a total of 6 injuries of workers at Fukushima, including 4 in the explosion mentioned above.

    There was also a second hydrogen explosion at unit 3 on 11:01 JST 14 March 2011.

  6. Svein Vik says:

    From the “news” articles it sounded like a total failure at the nuclear up to 6 plants in Japan.
    But after talking to my coworker (who worked on some Candu stuff) and checking out the facts it appears that the Control Rod dropped right away and after that it takes 9 days for the non-Uranium by-products to decay and leave the reactor cold.

    Here is a slightly exaggerated but true article from “the reg”

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/14/fukushiima_analysis/

    sv

  7. streamfortyseven says:

    Looking at the steel framing at the plant which blew, it looks like there’s no deformation at all, which seems to suggest that the outer cladding which blew off was not attached in any mechanical way to the framing – perhaps this is a “safety feature”…??? the beams are straight, the cross-bracing isn’t blown out. Perhaps the walls were steel sheeting, about the gauge that you’d see in a steel storage building.

    • John Baez says:

      That sounds about right. From what I read, this outer structure is not supposed to play any role in containing the nasty nuclear stuff. It’s basically there just to keep the rain out. Unfortunately it seems to have also kept the hydrogen in, at least in Unit 1.

      • Frederik De Roo says:

        About the hydrogen being kept in, there is some information in the link provided above . It sounds reasonable:

        It’s dated 14th March 2011 13:58 GMT

        The normal systems use very pure de-mineralised water, and the plant operators couldn’t get a supply of this running again at these reactors. Water adulterated with other things – such as sea salt – is less desirable, as its use means that other radionuclides are generated in small quantities: also it will cause a lot of expensive equipment corrosion and so forth.

        [...]

        The plant operators thus bit the bullet and fell back on yet another backup system: they injected seawater mixed with boric acid (liquid control-rod material) into the cores. This meant a fair bit of expensive damage to the two reactors, and also that the steam emitted when venting would be slightly more radioactive due to the salt and other trace chemicals in the sea water.

        This is why the Japanese operators have chosen purposely to release the steam from these reactors, not into the atmosphere, but into the interiors of their reactor buildings. These too can be made gas-tight in order to contain leaks from the containment vessel, though they aren’t terrifically strong and able to hold massive pressures.

        The idea was to hold the steam in the buildings for the necessary short periods until it was no longer radioactive at all before letting it out of the building – and then venting off some more steam into the building, so cooling the cores. Holding the steam in the buildings wasn’t really necessary – more of a gesture than anything else – but it was done nonetheless.

        [...]

        The risk of explosion was known and notified in advance: it was accepted by the plant operators and regulators in return for the very slight reduction in radiation exposure close to the reactor buildings.

        nevertheless, this line doesn’t make me too confident in the information provided above:

        So to sum up: all plants are now well on their way to a cold shutdown. At no time have their operators come even close to running out of options.

  8. streamfortyseven says:

    Open Street Map Resources:
    See http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/2011_Sendai_earthquake_and_tsunami

    For those who can read Japanese:

    http://www.sinsai.info/ushahidi/

  9. John Baez says:

    It’s a bit frustrating how little agreement I’m finding about the radiation levels near the Fukushima reactors: below you’ll see figures ranging from 0.6 to 400 millisieverts per hour.

    But it’s possible that everything I’m hearing is true. That would merely mean that radioactive material is being spread around in an extremely inhomogeneous way—both in space and in time.

    One big problem is that since most of us aren’t used to ‘sieverts’, the numbers being thrown around make little sense unless we have a few things to compare them to.

    Here are some comparisons from Wikipedia. If you don’t mind, I’ll put everything in millisieverts:

    Living near a nuclear power station = less than 0.01 millisievert/year

    Chest x-ray: 0.04 millisievert

    Average American’s total radiation exposure: 6.2 millisievert/year

    Smoking 1.5 packs/day: 13 millisievert/year

    Current average limit for nuclear workers: 20 millisievert/year

    Lowest clearly carcinogenic level: 100 millisievert/year

    Criterion for relocation after Chernobyl disaster: 350 millisievert/lifetime

    250-1000 millisievert in one day: Some people feel nausea and loss of appetite; bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen damaged

    1000-3000 millisievert in one day: Mild to severe nausea, loss of appetite, infection; more severe bone marrow, lymph node, spleen damage; recovery probable, not assured.

    3000–6000 millisievert in one day: Severe nausea, loss of appetite; hemorrhaging, infection, diarrhea, skin peels, sterility; death if untreated.

    6000-10,000 millisievert in one day: Above symptoms plus central nervous system impairment; death expected.

    Above 10,000 millisievert in one day: Incapacitation and death.

    During the Chernobyl disaster radiation levels right near the reactor ranged from roughly 10,000 to 200,000 millisieverts per hour.

    I hope this helps us understand some of these figures:

    World Nuclear News, 1.22am GMT 15 March 2001.

    Loud noises were heard at Fukushima Daiichi 2 this morning and a major component beneath the reactor was confirmed as damaged. Evacuation to 20 kilometres is being completed, while radiation levels decrease from a high in the morning. Concern is growing over the status of fuel cooling ponds at units 4, 5 and 6.

    Confirmation of loud sounds at unit 2 this morning came from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). It noted that “the suppression chamber may be damaged.” It is not clear that the 6am sounds were explosions in the usual sense.

    [...]

    The pressure in the pool was seen to decrease from three atmospheres to one atmosphere after the noise, suggesting possible damage. Radiation levels on the edge of the plant compound briefly spiked at 8217 microsieverts per hour but later fell to about a third that.

    So, that’s about 8 millisieverts per hour. Next, a report that matches what streamfortyseven mentioned, which mentions a vastly larger figure: up to 400 millisieverts an hour.

    Vastly larger—but remember that in the vicinity of Chernobyl, during that disaster, radiation levels ranged from roughly 10,000 to 200,000 millisieverts per hour.

    • International Atomic Energy Agency, Japan Earthquake Update, 05:15 UTC, 15 March 2011.

    Japanese authorities informed the IAEA that there has been an explosion at the Unit 2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The explosion occurred at around 06:20 on 15 March local Japan time.

    Japanese authorities also today informed the IAEA at 04:50 CET that the spent fuel storage pond at the Unit 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is on fire and radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere.

    Dose rates of up to 400 millisievert per hour have been reported at the site. The Japanese authorities are saying that there is a possibility that the fire was caused by a hydrogen explosion. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano had, at one point, said radiation levels near the stricken plant on the northeast coast reached as high as 400 millisieverts (mSv) an hour.

    Next, figures dropping from 12 to 0.6 millisieverts per hour, but an apparently confirmation that the much larger figure was not just a mistake:

    • International Atomic Energy Agency, Japanese Earthquake Update (15 March 11:25 UTC) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Update.

    The Japanese authorities have informed the IAEA that the following radiation dose rates have been observed on site at the main gate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

    At 00:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 11.9 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed. Six hours later, at 06:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 0.6 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed.

    These observations indicate that the level of radioactivity has been decreasing at the site.

    As reported earlier, a 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour radiation dose observed at Fukushima Daiichi occurred between units 3 and 4. This is a high dose-level value, but it is a local value at a single location and at a certain point in time. The IAEA continues to confirm the evolution and value of this dose rate. It should be noted that because of this detected value, non-indispensible staff was evacuated from the plant, in line with the Emergency Response Plan, and that the population around the plant is already evacuated.

    And finally, another report of figures between 12 and 0.6 millisieverts per hour:

    • CNN, Radiation levels drop at Japanese plant, 15 March 2011.

    Japanese authorities said radiation levels had dropped at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant Tuesday

    “The level has come down to the level to cause no harm to human health, according to the report I have received,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters, describing reading taken at the plant’s front gate.

    Edano said readings at the gate at 3:30 p.m. (2:30 a.m. ET) were 596.4 microsieverts per hour — compared to a high reading of 11,930 microsieverts per hour at 9 a.m (8 p.m. ET Monday).

    “We have to monitor the situation closely, but the high concentration of radioactive material is not emitting constantly from the No. 4 reactor right now,” he said.

    And if you’re wondering about faraway Tokyo:

    • CNN Wire Staff, Handful of ‘heroes’ battles to keep nuclear plant under control, 15:18 GMT, 15 March 2011.

    Radiation levels in Tokyo—which is 223 kilometers (138 miles) southwest of the plant—were twice the usual level on Tuesday. But the reading—0.809 microsieverts per hour—was too negligible to pose a health threat, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said.

    So, that’s 0.0008 millisieverts per hour.

  10. streamfortyseven says:

    Right now, NHK is reporting that no more flames are reported coming from the plant which was on fire this afternoon, but that large plumes of “white smoke” are coming out. I’ll bet this “white smoke” is actually steam which is being condensed in the air to ice crytals – snow – since the air temp at the plant is around 0degC. They’re having winds pick up, out of the NNW, to about 18 km/hr, so the “smoke” is being blown out to sea. The more precipitation they get, the better, because that’s more fallout that gets precipitated into the sea. 200 to 300 microSieverts per hour at a town north of the plant, so for 24 hours, that’s less than 0.5 REM per day, which is high but not in any way dangerous.

  11. streamfortyseven says:

    What I can’t figure out is why they’re dumping water on the fires instead of ice made with boric acid and water – or even dry ice, which would deny oxygen to hydrogen plumes so they couldn’t burn…

  12. streamfortyseven says:

    Here’s an article published yesterday on theoildrum.com:
    (http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7638)

    Excerpts:
    “The Soviet nuclear bureaucracy ignored obvious risks and concealed accidents wherever possible. While nothing remotely like so serious has occurred previously in Japan, Fukushima 1 has been at the centre of transparency problems in the Japanese nuclear industry before. In 2002, the president and four executives of Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) were forced to resign over the falsification of repair records.

    ‘The company was suspected of 29 cases involving falsified repair records at nuclear reactors. It had to stop operations at five reactors, including the two damaged in the latest tremor, for safety inspections. A few years later it ran into trouble again over accusations of falsifying data.

    In late 2006, the government ordered TEPCO to check past data after it reported that it had found falsification of coolant water temperatures at its Fukushima Daiichi plant in 1985 and 1988, and that the tweaked data was used in mandatory inspections at the plant, which were completed in October 2005.’”

    “the real embarrassment for the Japanese government is not so much the nature of the accident but the fact it was warned long ago about the risks it faced in building nuclear plants in areas of intense seismic activity. Several years ago, the seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko stated, specifically, that such an accident was highly likely to occur. Nuclear power plants in Japan have a “fundamental vulnerability” to major earthquakes, Katsuhiko said in 2007. The government, the power industry and the academic community had seriously underestimated the potential risks posed by major quakes.

    Katsuhiko, who is professor of urban safety at Kobe University, has highlighted three incidents at reactors between 2005 and 2007. Atomic plants at Onagawa, Shika and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa were all struck by earthquakes that triggered tremors stronger than those to which the reactor had been designed to survive.”

    “Proponents argue that the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for nuclear power is sufficient to power our societies, that nuclear power can be scaled up quickly enough as fossil fuel supplies decline, that there will be sufficient uranium reserves for a massive expansion of capacity, that nuclear is the only option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and that nuclear power can be operated with no safety concerns through probabilistic safety assessment (PSA).

    I disagree with all these assertions. Looking at the full life-cycle energy inputs for nuclear power, it seems to be barely above the minimum EROEI for maintaining society, and the costs (in both money and energy terms) are front-loaded.

    Scaling up nuclear capacity takes extrordinary amounts of both money and time. While construction can be speeded up, where this has been done (as it was in Russia), the deleterious effect on construction standards was significant. Uranium reserves, especially the high-grade ores, are depleting rapidly. The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the full life-cycle do not impress me. In addition, nuclear authorities make risk decisions without informing the public. They have consistently made risk calculations that have grossly underestimated the potential for accidents of the kind that can have generational impacts.

    In my view, nuclear power represents an unjustified faith in the power of human societies to control extremely complex technologies over the very long term. Any activity requiring a great deal of complex and cooperative control will do badly in difficult economic times.”

    After the Japanese disaster, proponents of nuclear power may face a formidable uphill battle in getting new plants approved, especially in light of the effects of criminally negligent actions on the part of government, regulatory agencies, and the companies which run the plants which has been seen in Japan.

    • John Baez says:

      Very interesting!

      After the Japanese disaster, proponents of nuclear power may face a formidable uphill battle in getting new plants approved…

      I think that’s likely. For a somewhat mournful assessment see:

      • Euan Mearns Safety of nuclear power and death of the nuclear renaissance, The Oil Drum, 15 March 2011.

      He begins:

      Yesterday, I believe, will go down in history as one of the most significant for mankind. Whilst most citizens of the developed and developing world do not realise this yet, the future of the human global energy system has just changed course with potentially far reaching consequences for human civilisation.

      Perhaps an overstatement; only time will tell—but if nuclear power is ruled out, our menu of options becomes more severely constrained, and people are going to have to start thinking very hard. So this could indeed be a turning point of sorts, if people decide to make it so.

      And if this accident was “to be expected… at least in retrospect”, then perhaps it fits into Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan theory, that the course of human history is dominated by important events that were unpredicted and indeed unpredictable, but rationalized by hindsight and thus made to seem as if they could have been predicted.

      I’m very curious about this:

      Looking at the full life-cycle energy inputs for nuclear power, it seems to be barely above the minimum EROEI for maintaining society, and the costs (in both money and energy terms) are front-loaded.

      Scaling up nuclear capacity takes extrordinary amounts of both money and time. While construction can be speeded up, where this has been done (as it was in Russia), the deleterious effect on construction standards was significant. Uranium reserves, especially the high-grade ores, are depleting rapidly. The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the full life-cycle do not impress me.

      I see wildly divergent claims about the carbon footprint of nuclear energy, and also its EROEI (energy return on energy invested). Of course, I also see wildly divergent claims about the safety of nuclear power… but there I understand to some extent what’s really going on: nuclear energy is in fact extremely safe, except when it’s not. In the case of its carbon footprint and EROEI, I don’t have a sense of the truth of the matter.

      By the way:

      Proponents argue that [...] nuclear power can be operated with no safety concerns through probabilistic safety assessment (PSA).

      Anyone who claims that nuclear power (or oil refineries, or coal power plants, or anything like that) can be operated with no safety concerns is a complete idiot. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Intelligent people know this, regardless of whether they’re for or against nuclear power.

      In addition, nuclear authorities make risk decisions without informing the public. They have consistently made risk calculations that have grossly underestimated the potential for accidents of the kind that can have generational impacts.

      It would be great to see some details here. How are the calculations done, and how do they underestimate the risks? Maybe after this disaster we’ll see. But since Ishibashi Katsuhiko is a professor of urban safety at Kobe University, he’s probably already written something about this.

  13. Phil Henshaw says:

    Did anyone notice the curious sighting of those power plants, right in the tsunami bulls eye of one of the world’s most active faults… that is the a major focus to Japanese history and modern day defensive design, and the emergency generators were kept neatly out of sight in the basement, where they got flooded by it?

    Apparently when giving people ever more complex analysis tasks, they STILL leave glaring things out of their plans! Should the plan to take on ever more complex analysis tasks should be reconsidered perhaps?

  14. streamfortyseven says:

    Democracy Now! interview with Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, at: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/3/15/vermont_gov_fights_to_close_vermont

    SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re talking about the nuclear disaster in Japan. We’re joined right now by the Vermont Governor, Peter Shumlin. Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it would renew the license for Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, the only power plant in Vermont. Last year, state legislators voted to close the plant when its license expires next year. The 38-year-old plant is one of the oldest in the country and has had a series of leaks.

    Governor Shumlin, welcome to Democracy Now! How does what’s happening right now in Japan affect Vermont Yankee?

    GOV. PETER SHUMLIN: Well, let me first say that my heart obviously goes out to the people of Japan. Extraordinary crisis and everyone’s worst nightmare, when they have aging nuclear power plants in their country or in their state. Vermont is no different. We have an aging nuclear power plant here. It’s owned by Entergy Louisiana, a company that we found we can’t trust. And obviously, you know, I think it asks all of us to reexamine our policy of irrational exuberance when it comes to extending the lives of aging nuclear power plants—we have 103 in America—that were designed to be shut down after 40 years. Ours was designed be shut down in 2012.

    We’re the only state in the country that’s taken power into our own hands and said that, without an affirmative vote from the state legislature, the Public Service Board cannot issue a certificate of public good to legally operate a plant for another 20 years. Now, the Senate has spoken, 26 to four, saying, no, it’s not in Vermont’s best interest to run an aging, leaking nuclear power plant. And we expect that our decision will be respected.

    SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Now, the day before this earthquake and the tsunami hit Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the lifespan of Vermont Yankee for additional 20 years. Explain the struggle that’s happening at the state and federal level.

    GOV. PETER SHUMLIN: Well, you know, that’s really—should be of no surprise to anyone. There are 104 aging nuclear power plants in America. We do have a policy of irrational exuberance, as if we can run them beyond their designed life. And the NRC so far has approved 60—all 60, I should add—of the applications for extension that have been granted. So it certainly would have been big news if for some reason the NRC said no.

    The good news is, for Vermont, at least, that the chair of the NRC reaffirmed Vermont’s authority to also determine our own nuclear future, and they don’t intend to stand in the way of that. So, really, it was sort of a no news, no surprise item. It’s not a surprise that they continued their policy of, as I mentioned, irrational exuberance around our aging plants. The good news is that they respect Vermont’s authority to determine our own future.

    SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Obama administration wants to expand the use of nuclear power. Do you oppose that?

    GOV. PETER SHUMLIN: Well, you know, I spoke with the President about that directly a couple of weeks ago at the White House. And I said, “You know, Mr. President, if you want to convince us that new nuclear has a future in America, you have to help us deal with old nuclear in a more rational way.”

    And, you know, we have a number of challenges right here in Vermont that should be an example for the country. The first is, our plant keeps leaking. It’s leaking tritium, other nuclear substances, into the ground right here in Vermont, in a state wherein—a Green Mountain state—there is nothing that Vermonters cherish more than our quality of life and protecting our natural resources. We are the environment state. So, that’s a challenge.

    Second, the NRC currently is allowing the nuclear plant operators to determine, once a plant is shut down, whether they decommission it, which is what they all promised to do when they built them 40, 50 years ago, or whether they put it in something called “safe store,” which allows the carcass of the plant to sit in its location for up to 60 years, because the companies who own them have been unwilling to fill up the decommissioning funds to take them away.

    Now, what I said to the President is, “Listen, you’ve got to help us deal with old nuclear before we can have any confidence in new nuclear. Make sure that these profitable companies, like Entergy Louisiana, fill up the decommissioning funds so they’re taken away on time and we’re not left, in our case, with a carcass of an aging nuclear power plant in a flood plain on the banks of the Connecticut River for 60 years, because the company is unwilling to fill up the fund. Secondly, let’s deal with the high-level waste issue.” We have high-level nuclear waste sitting in dry cask storages on the banks of the Connecticut River for as long as the eye can see, after having been promised when the plant was built that the federal government would magically take all that high-level waste away. So, I said, “Mr. President, you know, help us deal with old nuclear first. Let’s stop this policy of insanity about old nuclear, and we’ll be happy to talk to you about new nuclear.”

    • John Baez says:

      Shumlin was already opposed to nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster, so of course he’ll use it to get more support for his position. There’s nothing unusual about that, but when it comes to the Fukushima disaster, I’d be more interested to see examples of people who are changing their opinion based on new evidence.

      First of all, I might be one. Second of all, as Eliezer Yudkowsky pointed out:

      Rationality isn’t something you can use to argue for a side you already picked. Your only chance to be rational is while you’re still choosing sides…

      • I also might be. I have a few concerns. First, in a couple of weeks we’ll know if there’s any substantial zone of substantial radioactivity around the Fukushima power plant. So far it seems there’s none, but if there’s gonna be such, then for me it will be a huge argument against nuclear energy.

        But even if there will no fallout zone, then I would like to understand what would happen if the reactors had to be unattended for 1-2 days after the tsunami. It seems not unimaginable that in the case of a disaster like the one in Japan this amount of time would have to pass before anyone could start handling the situation.

        Couple of days ago, I though that even if noone came to Fukushima all that would happen would be this “clean-up bill with many zeros”, but it’s not clear this is the case.

        I would be fine with a nuclear plant only if I knew that if three Boeings 747 smash into it and noone can get to it for 2 days, then still the worst that can happen is a melted core contained in an unbroken containment.

        (I imagine that checking whether a design fulfills this requirement can be done experimentally.)

        One message from the previous comment of streamfortyseven I agree with is that if something works fine for many years (as is usually the case with power plants), then people tend to start cutting costs, start being sloppy, and the safety decreases.

        • John Baez says:

          Lukasz wrote:

          I would be fine with a nuclear plant only if I knew that if three Boeings 747 smash into it and noone can get to it for 2 days, then still the worst that can happen is a melted core contained in an unbroken containment.

          (I imagine that checking whether a design fulfills this requirement can be done experimentally.)

          We could even hire jihadists to pilot the 747′s, and kill two birds with one stone.

          Seriously, I think you may have a good idea there. If someone isn’t willing to test the design of their nuclear plant by running a carefully controlled ‘accident’ somewhere far from any people, with a nice deep hole nearby to put the nuclear waste if things go wrong, why should we trust the design?

          Above, Governor Shulmin complains that:

          We have high-level nuclear waste sitting in dry cask storages on the banks of the Connecticut River for as long as the eye can see, after having been promised when the plant was built that the federal government would magically take all that high-level waste away.

          I’m no expert, but to me dry-cask storage seems safer than storing spent waste in a pool of water that needs to be replenished continually to prevent a fire from breaking out, as at Fukushima Unit 4.

          I also don’t like the idea of a reactor that requires constant cooling to prevent meltdown, even when it’s ‘turned off’. You should be able to walk away from a reactor and ignore it for a year—with the electric power and water turned off or left on—and have nothing terrible likely to happen.

          The pebble bed reactor is one attempt to accomplish this:

          All reactors have reactivity feedback mechanisms, but the pebble bed reactor is designed so that this effect is very strong and does not depend on any kind of machinery or moving parts. Because of this, its passive cooling, and because the pebble bed reactor is designed for higher temperatures, the pebble bed reactor can passively reduce to a safe power level in an accident scenario. This is the main passive safety feature of the pebble bed reactor, and it makes the pebble bed design (as well as other very high temperature reactors) different from conventional light water reactors which require active safety controls.

          The reactor is cooled by an inert, fireproof gas, so it cannot have a steam explosion as a light-water reactor can. The coolant has no phase transitions—it starts as a gas and remains a gas. Similarly, the moderator is solid carbon, it does not act as a coolant, move, or have phase transitions (i.e., between liquid and gas) as the light water in conventional reactors does.

          A pebble-bed reactor thus can have all of its supporting machinery fail, and the reactor will not crack, melt, explode or spew hazardous wastes. It simply goes up to a designed “idle” temperature, and stays there. In that state, the reactor vessel radiates heat, but the vessel and fuel spheres remain intact and undamaged. The machinery can be repaired or the fuel can be removed. These safety features were tested (and filmed) with the German AVR reactor. All the control rods were removed, and the coolant flow was halted. Afterward, the fuel balls were sampled and examined for damage and there was none.

          Nonetheless, the current design of pebble bed reactors may not be optimal:

          The most common criticism of pebble bed reactors is that encasing the fuel in combustible graphite poses a hazard. When the graphite burns, fuel material could potentially be carried away in smoke from the fire.

          I think these problems are worth solving because with global warming and peak oil biting at our heels, we need all the options we can get. Even if the ultimate solution is to “power down”—reverse growth and shrink our impact on the biosphere—doing this quickly may cause lots of suffering.

        • Frederik De Roo says:

          John said:

          to me dry-cask storage seems safer than storing spent waste in a pool of water

          (you probably know this, but) the spent fuel first has to cool down while the heavily radiation components decay, before dry cask storage is possible

          from Wikipedia

          Dry cask storage is a method of storing high-level radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel that has already been cooled in the spent fuel pool for at least one year.

        • Frederik De Roo says:

          John said:

          You should be able to walk away from a reactor and ignore it for a year—with the electric power and water turned off or left on—and have nothing terrible likely to happen.

          replace reactor with fuel waste and year with a longer timescale and I guess that’s why many people worry about nuclear power (neglecting the fact that radioactivity decreases). But geological storage may be relatively safe, at least that seems to be the case in Oklo .

  15. streamfortyseven says:

    Here’s an interesting article from firedoglake.com which gives a better idea of what is happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi #4 (the spent fuel rod pool): http://my.firedoglake.com/kirkmurphy/2011/03/15/why-fukushimas-spent-fuel-rods-will-continue-to-catch-fire/

    and here’s a graphic taken from the NHK live feed showing the spent rod pool located above the ground on the 4th floor of the concrete building where at least two fires have broken out today:

    Excerpts from the article:

    “The spent fuel rod pool at reactor 4 is one of seven pools for spent fuel rods at Fukushima Daichii. These pools are designed to store the intensively radioactive fuel rods that were already used in nuclear reactors. These “used” fuel rods still contain uranium (or in the case of fuel rods from reactor 3, they contain both uranium and plutonium from the MOX fuel used in that reactor). In addition to the uranium and plutonium, the rods also contain other radioactive elements. …

    Six of the spent fuel rod pools are (or were) located at the top of six reactor buildings. One “common pool” is at ground level in a separate building. Each “reactor top” pool holds up to 3450 fuel rod assemblies. The common pool holds up to 6291 fuel rod assemblies. [The common pool has windows on one wall which were almost certainly destroyed by the tsunami.] Each assembly holds sixty-three fuel rods. This means the Fukushima Daiichi plant may contain over 600,000 spent fuel rods. The fuel rods once stored atop reactor 3 may no longer be there: one of the several explosions at the Fukushima reactors may have damaged that pool.”

    “The ability to remove decay heat from the spent fuel also would be reduced as the water level drops, especially when it drops below the tops of the fuel assemblies. This would cause temperatures in the fuel assemblies to rise, accelerating the oxidation of the zirconium alloy (zircaloy) cladding that encases the uranium oxide pellets. This oxidation reaction can occur in the presence of both air and steam and is strongly exothermic—that is, the reaction releases large quantities of heat, which can further raise cladding temperatures. The steam reaction also generates large quantities of hydrogen….

    These oxidation reactions [with a loss of coolant] can become locally self-sustaining … at high temperatures (i.e., about a factor of 10 higher than the boiling point of water) if a supply of oxygen and/or steam is available to sustain the reactions…. The result could be a runaway oxidation reaction — referred to in this report as a zirconium cladding fire — that proceeds as a burn front (e.g., as seen in a forest fire or a fireworks sparkler) along the axis of the fuel rod toward the source of oxidant (i.e., air or steam)….

    As fuel rod temperatures increase, the gas pressure inside the fuel rod increases and eventually can cause the cladding to balloon out and rupture. At higher temperatures (around 1800°C [approximately 3300°F]), zirconium cladding reacts with the uranium oxide fuel to form a complex molten phase containing zirconium-uranium oxide.

    Beginning with the cladding rupture, these events would result in the release of radioactive fission gases and some of the fuel’s radioactive material in the form of aerosols into the building that houses the spent fuel pool and possibly into the environment. If the heat from one burning assembly is not dissipated, the fire could spread to other spent fuel assemblies in the pool, producing a propagating zirconium cladding fire.

    The high-temperature reaction of zirconium and steam has been described quantitatively since at least the early 1960s….”

    “Translation for laypeople: Without enough water to cover the, the fuel rods will keep on igniting, just like trick birthday candles keep re-igniting after we blow them out. Just like trick birthday candles, the only way to put out the fuel rods is to put them under water. That’s why even after Monday’s reactor 4 spent fuel rod fire was quenched, the spent fuel rod pool caught fire again this afternoon.

    Unlike trick birthday candles, the spent fuel rods burn hot (3300 degrees F) enough so that the radioactive material in the rods is aerosolized: carried into the atmosphere in clouds of hot smoke. And unlike our trick birthday candles, the spent fuel rods in reactor building 4 are four stories off the ground – just like the other five reactor spent fuel pools at Fukushima. And unlike our trick birthday candles, right now the radioactivity around the spent fuel rods is so high that no one can approach them to put out the fire.”

    Looks like Homer Simpson designed Fukushima Dai-ichi…

    • nad says:

      Kyodo news reported

      http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/03/78496.html

      ”The possibility of re-criticality is not zero,” TEPCO said Wednesday as it announced the envisaged step to put the No. 4 reactor under control.

      Does anyone know more about that?
      Reactor 4 was down for maintenance, what happens to the fuel rods in that case?

      • streamfortyseven says:

        Reactor #4 was in fact decommissioned, and there was no reaction running in the reactor at the time. Reactor #1 was scheduled to be taken out of service on March 26, and the rest of the plant was to be taken out of service later on this year, as the 40-year service life had come to an end. In all six reactors, apparently the spent fuel rods are kept in the buildings in a storage pool on the fourth floor of the buildings until the rods cool sufficiently to be safely removed to the “common pool” at ground level. I’m not sure how long that would be, perhaps on the scale of months. Since the (apparently) sheet steel roofs over Reactors 1, 3, and 4 have been blown off, the spent rod pools are now open to the atmosphere, and when the cooling water is boiled off, it is possible for the rods to heat up sufficiently to catch on fire; apparently oxygen and steam catalyze this reaction, so the real danger from Fukushima Dai-ichi is going to come from the spent fuel rods… It’s a good thing that (1) they’re getting rain and snow there and (2) the wind is blowing across the land and pretty much out to sea, even if it’s a straight north wind, the radioactive fallout cloud will go over water and not over any populated areas. They’re in one hell of a fix, there, there are no good options. Maybe if they dropped a load of high explosive bombs on the plant it would disperse the fuel rods over the local environment and make it less possible that criticality would be reached, and make it easier to cool them off, given current weather conditions.

        • nad says:

          streamfortyseven wrote:

          Maybe if they dropped a load of high explosive bombs on the plant it would disperse the fuel rods over the local environment and make it less possible that criticality would be reached, and make it easier to cool them off, given current weather conditions.

          I think the dispersion of radioactive particles is a major threat. If one wouldn’t be concerned with the dispersion of radioactive particles then one wouldn’t need to worry about the containment etc. Bombing the plant could immensely disperse radioactive particles.

          I hope still that the containments hold.

          For the pools: especially for Reactor 3 (where the containment seems to be already damaged) it doesn’t sound like a good thing to throw a bomb on the pool (the pool seems to be on the side above the containment). Moreover in Reactor 3 there is plutonium as I understood (alone by toxicity aspects this shouldn’t be flying around).

          Unfortunately it seems at the moment they can’t even use the helicopters anymore. Otherwise one could imagine to building concrete tanks in the vicinity, which are more accessible then the existing ones, and then trying to move the rods in the pools via helicopter crane into these tanks. I don’t know.

        • John Baez says:

          streamfortyseven wrote:

          Maybe if they dropped a load of high explosive bombs on the plant it would disperse the fuel rods over the local environment…

          Everything else you’ve been saying sounds sensible, so it’s unfair for me to focus on this… but this sounds like a really risky idea.

          If those spent fuel rods at Unit 4 are damaged and releasing radioactive material (which seems to be the case, given what you wrote), dropping a bomb on them sounds like a great way to spread this material all over the place.

          nad’s link said that the radiation was too bad for people in helicopters to come close to Unit 4. Here’s a more easily readable link with the same information:

          ‘Slow-moving nightmare’ unfolds at Japan nuclear plant, Today, 16 March 2010.

          Later Wednesday, Japanese broadcaster NHK showed footage of Japanese Self-Defense Force helicopters flying above the No. 3 reactor at the Dai-ichi plant with giant containers of sea water.

          However, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported the operation was aborted after deciding it was not safe.

          But Edano had already warned that using helicopters might not work.

          “It’s not so simple that everything will be resolved by pouring in water. We are trying to avoid creating other problems,” he said before the operation. “We are actually supplying water from the ground, but supplying water from above involves pumping lots of water and that involves risk. We also have to consider the safety of the helicopters above.”

          Where are those robots the Japanese are so famous for… when you really need ‘em?

          Another big question: how much are the problems being caused by broken infrastructure? For example, why were they using seawater to cool the reactors? I guess water mains are broken?

        • Frederik De Roo says:

          John said:

          For example, why were they using seawater to cool the reactors? I guess water mains are broken?

          The best I have found is the almost meaningless

          But after trouble developed with a fresh water pump

          But not cooling them would have been worse, still…

      • Frederik De Roo says:

        nad wrote:

        Does anyone know more about that?

        I personally don’t, but on Wikipedia they write:

        Metal racks keep the fuel in safe positions to avoid the possibility of a “criticality”— a nuclear chain reaction occurring.

        I suppose that if the metal racks melt, the spent fuel may come too close, thus leading to a chain reaction. Well, I guess once criticality can be reached, it’ll probably become overcritical – for a very short moment…

        • Frederik De Roo says,

          I suppose that if the metal racks melt, the spent fuel may come too close, thus leading to a chain reaction. Well, I guess once criticality can be reached, it’ll probably become overcritical – for a very short moment…

          The natural reactor at Oklo, whose uranium’s U-235 percentage 1.8 billion years ago was about the same as that of light-water reactor fuel today, showed that a minute degree of supercriticality can persist for a while, until the fission-suppressing effects of temperature increase and boiloff of water push it back down to critical or below.

          The phrase “for a very short moment” suggests De Roo is thinking of the deep supercriticality that nuclear bombs must quickly establish.

  16. streamfortyseven says:

    The plant is close enough to the water’s edge that blowing some good sized craters in the ground that could fill with seawater, and then reducing the plant to rubble in the craters might be the only way to stop the fires, the idea would be to disperse the fuel rod assemblies so they weren’t so concentrated. The fact that they’re concentrated in a small area is what’s causing the problems, because without a continuous flow of cool water, they’ll catch on fire again and again. True, the rubble will be a pain to pick through and get all the fragments of the rods, but they won’t be burning and producing radioactive aerosols and smoke.

  17. Tim van Beek says:

    Tsunamis: I hope that one day the Azimuth project has explanations and demonstrations of oceanic dynamics along with other critical factors of global climate models, including for example the propagation of tsunamis, meanwhile Terry Tao has taken up the task to explain the shallow water approximation to the Navier-Stokes equations which explain a lot about tsunamis on his blog here.

  18. Frederik De Roo says:

    There’s a Wikileaks cable on the safety of Japanese nuclear plants in the Telegraph.

    According to Kyodo News, there has indeed been a partial meltdown in the reactor core of Reactor 1 at Fukushima.

    The explosion at reactor 4 (with the spent fuel rods) reminds me of this one:

    Another accident at the uranium processing plant at Tokaimura, Japan, plant exposed fifty-five workers to radiation. More than 300,000 people living near the plant were ordered to stay indoors. Workers had been mixing uranium with nitric acid to make nuclear fuel, but had used too much uranium and set off the accidental uncontrolled reaction.

    On September 30, 1999, an accident at a uranium-processing facility in Tokaimura, 70 miles northeast of Tokyo occured. The accident was triggered when the three workers used too much uranium to make fuel and set off an uncontrolled atomic reaction.

    A total of 439 people, including nearby residents, were believed to have been exposed to radiation. There were two fatalities.

  19. streamfortyseven says:

    The object with the bombing is indeed to disperse the fragments of the cooling rods over a wider area, say a square mile area, rather than have the rods burn up in open air, and disperse a radioactive aerosol and fallout cloud over hundreds of thousands of square miles.

    As long as the spent rods are in the pools, they’re a risk for a zirconium cladding fire, because the heat transfer to the cooling water fails due to the proximity of the spent rods to each other.

    The spent rod pools are a high concentration of heat, and the heat transfer medium, water, unless continuously replaced, boils away into steam (and some of the steam is hydrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen) and catalyzes an oxidation reaction with the zirconium cladding, kind of like what you see in sparklers (a type of fireworks), except the smoke is highly radioactive.

    Well, the water isn’t being continuously replaced, and they’ve got a zirconium cladding fire now, which is putting a plume of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere, which is forming a radioactive fallout cloud. This fallout cloud extended out to sea at least for 100 miles back four days ago. The strength of radiation in this cloud and its location at this time are unknown, although it might make sense to see if there are sensors on the West Coast of the US recording higher levels of radiation.

    In addition, the contents of the core of at least one of the reactors are now exposed to the atmosphere, and the core is in meltdown, and so there’s a fallout cloud from that.

    So my solution of spreading the radioactive material over a wider area, say of a square mile, isn’t so crazy after all, because it will stop the cladding fires and get the fragmented rods under seawater.

    Since the reactors are located about 100 yards (meters) from the ocean, with a cladding fire, the concrete is going to crumble away, so the rods are probably going to melt together in a heap if they haven’t done so already, and they’ll end up in the open air, burning merrily away like 600,000 highly radioactive sparklers.

    It’s like Chernobyl, except the cores are in open air and not in a reactor. Right now the open air radioactivity in the 20 km zone around the plant is 93 milliSieverts per hour, according to NHK, and the Japanese have now evacuated the zone 30 km from the plant, where people had been told to shelter in place. If the winds come about, and instead of blowing seaward, blow landward, then the smoke plume gets blown over the mainland, and then radioactivity over the land will go up sharply.

    They’ve got no good solutions to this thing

    • John Baez says:

      streamfortyseven wrote:

      Right now the open air radioactivity in the 20 km zone around the plant is 93 millisieverts per hour, according to NHK…

      That’d be pretty bad! This article explains some of the problems quite clearly, but no numbers:

      • Normitsu Onishi, David E. Sanger and Matthew L. Wald, U.S. Calls Radiation ‘Extremely High;’ Sees Japan Nuclear Crisis Worsening, New York Times, 17 March 2011.

      Just so people remember what 93 millisieverts per hour means:

      100 millisieverts a year: the lowest level at which any increase in cancer risk is clearly evident.

      250-1000 millisievert in one day: Some people feel nausea and loss of appetite; bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen damaged

      1,000 millisieverts over a lifetime: expected to cause a fatal cancer many years later in 5% of people

      1000-3000 millisievert in one day: Mild to severe nausea, loss of appetite, infection; more severe bone marrow, lymph node, spleen damage; recovery probable, not assured.

      [NOTE ADDED LATER: the figure of 93 millisieverts per hour may be incorrect - it's very high, and I've been unable to find this figure online.]

      • nad says:

        There is an overview about the values measured so far at the Fukushima plant here:

        (Click to enlarge. Messpunkt=measure point, Haupttor= main gate, Hauptgebäude= Main building.)

        This German website:

        http://www.grs.de/informationen-zur-lage-den-japanischen-kernkraftwerken-fukushima-onagawa-und-tokai

        gives more details.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          I looked at their chart, from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) data, and I saw the high measurements of 3, 8, 10, 9, 8, 12, 6, 5, and 11 milliSieverts taken from the Haupttor measuring device, and these are very short-lived peaks, decaying quickly to background within 30 minutes. All of the other measuring points showed radiation in the range 0.5 to 1.0 milliSieverts. 1.0 milliSieverts is the absolute peak, decaying to background in 15 minutes, and there appears to be a sustained measurement of 0.5 milliSieverts for approximately 6 hours at the new Measuring Point at the West Tower which appears to be located at approximately 300 meters from Reactor #1, and a 4 millisievert reading taken at the new measuring point at Hauptgebaeude (high building) whose location is not noted on the map inset. The rest of the measurements at the sensors are at background levels.

          The Haupttor measurement point appears to be located at one of the towers very close to the reactor buildings, easily within 50 meters of a reactor. The rest of the measuring points MP1 through MP8 appear to be no more than 2 km away from the reactors, and none of these have ever shown measurements exceeding normal background for longer than one hour, and the three measurements which did exceed background, the value was less than 1 milliSievert.

          Now, I don’t believe any of these numbers, because the maxima of 10 and 12 milliSieverts, equivalent to 1 and 1.2 REM, and lasting for no more than 15 minutes, are in no way dangerous to personnel on the site, and telling people for a radius of 12 miles from the plant to evacuate, when the sensors 1.5 miles from the plant show no sustained level of radiation higher than normal background is just nonsensical – and then increasing the evacuation zone to 20 miles radius when the sensor levels show no sustained increase above background is equally unbelievable. Finally, given these extremely low levels of radioactivity, pulling workers back from the plant and risking meltdowns and zirconium cladding fires is nothing less than criminally negligent. That’s why I don’t believe these numbers.

        • nad says:

          Streamfortyseven wrote:

          The rest of the measuring points MP1 through MP8 appear to be no more than 2 km away from the reactors,…

          It is not clear to me how true to scale this chart is. I may have overlooked something but there seems to be also no indication about the distances in the text. Thus I actually wrote an email to grs about that but got no answer sofar.

      • Svein Vik says:

        93 millisieverts per hour (NHK) can’t be right.

        I checked the NHK web site just now and got “0.17″:

        Japan’s science ministry says radiation levels of up to 0.17 millisieverts per hour have been detected about 30 kilometers northwest of the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

        &bulll http://www3.nhk.or.jp/daily/english/17_38.html

        So that should have been 0.093 milli-svs per hour.
        The highest values I’ve seen so far for the 20 km zone is 0.33 milli-svs.

        That is still too high.

        sv

        • streamfortyseven says:

          The numbers don’t match the actions of TEPCO in pulling their workers from the site, or in evacuating 200,000 people from the 30 km zone around the site, especially when the Japanese regulatory authority increased the allowable exposure rate from 100 milliSievert/hr to 250 milliSievert/hr “so that the workers could stay on site longer…” Somebody is lying here, and I think it’s the publicly reported numbers from TEPCO that are BS, because if the numbers are as low as they’re talking about, they’re engaging in gross criminal negligence in risking meltdowns from the spent rods in the buildings…

        • streamfortyseven: that’s not a very useful response, is it? If you want to defend your data, give a reliable source where we can find them.

        • nad says:

          oops I used the wrong reply button, the reply is now before your comment, sorry.

        • nad says:

          Does anybody know how standardized these radiation measurements are? Like is the distance from the ground a standard distance?

        • streamfortyseven says:

          @LG, sorry it wasn’t clear, I’m using the numbers from http://www.grs.de/sites/default/files/images/Messungen_Japan_17.03_13Uhr.png

          Just for fun I made a slideshow of some of the images I’ve downloaded, and a composite image showing sensor locations and reactor sites. The scale is in the lower lefthand corner.

      • John Baez says:

        Thanks for that nice chart, nad! I like it so much I’ll include it again here:

        (Click to enlarge.)

        Streamfortyseven wrote:

        Right now the open air radioactivity in the 20 km zone around the plant is 93 milliSieverts per hour, according to NHK…

        S. Vik wrote:

        93 millisieverts per hour (NHK) can’t be right.

        Indeed, I think it’s wrong. I looked for it online when responding to streamfortyseven’s, comment and I couldn’t find it. All the figures I’ve been seeing are much lower.

        streamfortyseven wrote:

        I looked at their chart, from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) data, and I saw the high measurements of 3, 8, 10, 9, 8, 12, 6, 5, and 11 milliSieverts taken from the Haupttor measuring device, and these are very short-lived peaks, decaying quickly to background within 30 minutes.

        That’s more like what I’ve been seeing—and it’s consistent with everything I know about what’s actually going on there.

        streamfortyseven wrote:

        Now, I don’t believe any of these numbers, because the maxima of 10 and 12 milliSieverts, equivalent to 1 and 1.2 REM, and lasting for no more than 15 minutes, are in no way dangerous to personnel on the site, and telling people for a radius of 12 miles from the plant to evacuate, when the sensors 1.5 miles from the plant show no sustained level of radiation higher than normal background is just nonsensical…

        It’s not nonsensical: it’s extreme caution. Extreme caution is a good idea in this situation, for lots of reasons.

        For example, if we’re seeing peaks of 12 millisieverts per hour at some measuring point, it could easily be 10 or 100 times higher closer to the reactor. I see no reason for the radioactive crud to be quickly spread in a way that makes it homogeneous throughout the environment. So, a factor of 100 or even more seems quite possible.

        Second of all, the lowest clearly carcinogenic level is said to be 100 millisievert/year. So, an unprotected worker who stayed for 10 hours at just 10 millisieverts per hour would be at heightened risk for cancer.

        As you note, they’re claiming these 10-millisievert readings are just 30-minute long spikes.

        But, it would be quite hard for a company to say to a worker: “Don’t worry, you’ll just have a chance of getting hit with a 30-minute-long spike of radioactivity the next time something blows up or catches on fire. And these spikes tend to be just 10 millisieverts per hour, so you’d have to stay there 10 hours before your cancer risk goes up. Well… at least that’s what these spikes have been like so far. Well… at least that’s what they were like at the location of our measuring device.”

        It’s much more sensible to get everyone out who doesn’t absolutely need to be there, and have nobody stay any longer than absolutely necessary.

        Here are the radiological contamination events reported so far, as of 01:15 UTC, 17 March 2011::

        • 17 people (9 TEPCO employees, 8 subcontractor employees) suffered from deposition of radioactive material to their faces, but were not taken to the hospital because of low levels of exposure;
        • one worker suffered from significant exposure during “vent work,” and was transported to an offsite center;
        • 2 policemen who were exposed to radiation were decontaminated; and
        • firemen who were exposed to radiation are under investigation.

        And here are the injuries:

        • 2 TEPCO employees have minor injuries;
        • 2 subcontractor employees are injured, one person suffered broken legs and one person whose condition is unknown was transported to the hospital;
        • 2 people are missing;
        • 2 people were “suddenly taken ill”;
        • 2 TEPCO employees were transported to hospital during the time of donning respiratory protection in the control centre;
        • 4 people sustained minor injuries due to the explosion at Unit 1 on 11 March and were transported to the hospital; and
        • 11 people (4 TEPCO employees, 3 subcontractor employees and 4 Japanese civil defense workers) were injured due to the explosion at unit 3 on 14 March.

    • Mixolydian says:

      Streamfortyseven: please provide a link for your claim:

      “Right now the open air radioactivity in the 20 km zone around the plant is 93 milliSieverts per hour, according to NHK”

      I have found no such report on NHK or any other news service.

      Thank you.

      • nad says:

        The above mentioned grs site at:
        http://www.grs.de/informationen-zur-lage-den-japanischen-kernkraftwerken-fukushima-onagawa-und-tokai
        which was mentioned above has also an english version of the informations at: http://www.grs.de/en/news/information-updates-japanese-nuclear-power-plants

        which is regularily updated. Here it is reported in http://www.grs.de/sites/default/files/UE-STC-Stand%201230_180311.pdf that:

        According to the operator, on 17-03-2011 at around 10:00 h, local dose rates of 400 mSv/h were measured on the landward side of Unit 3 and 100 mSv/h on the land-ward side of Unit 4.

        The grs is a company which is owned by the state of Germany to about one half. They are in charge of the supervision of technical installments and reactor safety.

        • Mixolydian says:

          I addressed my question to streamfortyseven but thanks for your answer. The 100mSv/h to 400mSv/h figures are for on-site measurements which wasn’t what I was asking for. I found official measurements from MEXT and posted a link (see below) if you are interested.

        • nad says:

          The plant is in a 20km zone around itself. It seems you wanted to ask for out of the 20km zone?

          Thanks for the japanese website below.

      • streamfortyseven says:

        @mixolydian: try harder. Btw, why is this guy from TEPCO talking about radiation causing deaths ( as in immediate deaths, not long- term mortality increases) and breaking out in tears: http://www.zerohedge.com/print/337967
        “TEPCO Director Weeps After Disclosing Truth About Fukushima Disaster

        By Tyler Durden
        Created 03/18/2011 – 14:13
        The Daily Mail [1]has released a dramatic picture showing the emotional exhaustion of TEPCO managing director Akio Komori who is openly weeping as he leaves a conference to brief journalists on the true situation at Fukushima, following his acknowledgment that the radiation spewing from the over-heating reactors and fuel rods was enough to kill some citizens. “A senior Japanese minister also admitted that the country was overwhelmed by the scale of the tsunami and nuclear crisis. He said officials should have admitted earlier how serious the radiation leaks were. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said: ‘The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management contingency plans.” This is precisely as Zero Hedge had expected would happen all along, following our recurring allegations of a massive cover up by the Japanese government. And furthermore as we predicted a week ago [1]when we said that continued government lies and subversions would make the situation untenable once the population loses faith in the government, this is precisely what has happened.
        A contrite Komiri crying after he discloses the truth:”

        And there was a report on the NHK streaming video about the house staff of a hospital within the evacuation zone hightailing it the hell out of there and leaving 138 bedridden and mostly elderly patients to fend for themselves. Some of the staff finally grew a pair and evacuated the hospital by bus, two of the patients kicked the bucket on the bus, and 12 more cashed in their chips soon after they got to the evac center.

        If the radiation levels are as low as you’re saying, what’s up with all the hysteria? Hospital workers usually have a pretty good idea about radioactivity and radioactive substances, since both are used in diagnostic procedures, and the TEPCO guy probably has a good idea about what’s really goig on here; if the radiation levels are as trivial as claimed, levels of exposure which if experienced for a year (100 microSieverts for one year comes to about 3.5 REM) won’t cause any health problems shouldn’t be a reason for the entire staff of a hospital to flee in fullbore panic.

        tEPCO has been caught lying and falsifying data before: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/fukushima-nuclear-plant-owner-falsified-inspection-records/story-fn84naht-1226023073141 and http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2011/03/16/bloomberg1376-LI7CHJ07SXKX01-27JLEJH6UQPBTE0NLL2I2HSRRJ.DTL&tsp=1

      • John Baez says:

        Mixolydian wrote:

        Streamfortyseven: please provide a link for your claim:

        “Right now the open air radioactivity in the 20 km zone around the plant is 93 milliSieverts per hour, according to NHK”

        I have found no such report on NHK or any other news service.

        streamfortyseven:

        @mixolydian: try harder.

        That’s not very satisfying. It seems to me that a figure is worth as much as its source. It’s easy to do a Google search for 93 millisieverts, and when I just did it, it didn’t turn up anything relevant.

        (Eventually this blog entry will show up, but that doesn’t count!)

        If the radiation levels are as low as you’re saying, what’s up with all the hysteria?

        It’s pretty easy to see why people would get hysterical in this sort of situation! A tsunami has devastated the region, over 7 thousand are dead and over 10 thousand are missing, four nuclear reactors are suffering explosions, fires, and partial meltdowns… isn’t that enough?

        I don’t think we can infer anything precise about radiation levels from the amount of hysteria. Most people don’t know the meaning of a millisievert; they’re not going to say “If it’s just 150 microsieverts per hour 30 kilometers from the plant, I’ll stay calm. Only if it reaches 50 millisieverts per hour will I… PANIC!

        If radiation levels as high as you’re saying, we should be able to get some direct evidence for that. We shouldn’t need to rely on stories of hysteria in hospitals, or tear-stricken officials.

        For example, I know the US was suspicious that Japan was underestimating the danger: that’s why the US sent in their own planes, and boosted the recommended evacuation radius to 50 miles. Now the planes are there, making measurements:

        • David Sanger and William Broad, Radiation spread seen; frantic repairs go on, The New York Times, Friday, 18 March 2011.

        WASHINGTON — The first readings from American data-collection flights over the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan show that the worst contamination has not spread beyond the 19-mile range of highest concern established by Japanese authorities.

        But another day of frantic efforts to cool nuclear fuel in the troubled reactors and in the plant’s spent-fuel pools resulted in little or no progress, according to United States government officials.

        Japanese officials said they would continue those efforts, but were also racing to restore electric power to the site to get equipment going again, leaving open the question of why that effort did not begin days ago, at the first signs that the critical backup cooling systems for the reactors had failed.

        The data was collected by the Aerial Measuring System, among the most sophisticated devices rushed to Japan by the Obama administration in an effort to help contain a nuclear crisis that a top American nuclear official said Thursday could go on for weeks. Strapped onto a plane and a helicopter that the United States flew over the site, with Japanese permission, the equipment took measurements that showed harmful radiation in the immediate vicinity of the plant – a much heavier dose than the trace levels of radioactive particles that make up the atmospheric plume covering a much wider area.

        While the findings were reassuring in the short term, the United States declined to back away from its warning to Americans to stay at least 50 miles from the plant, setting up a far larger perimeter than the Japanese government had established. American officials did not release specific radiation readings.

        American officials said their biggest worry was that a frenetic series of efforts by the Japanese military to get water into four of the plant’s six reactors — including water cannons and firefighting helicopters that dropped water but appeared to largely miss their targets — showed few signs of working.

        “This is something that will likely take some time to work through, possibly weeks, as eventually you remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and then the spent fuel pool,” said Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, briefing reporters at the White House.

        The effort by the Japanese to hook some electric power back up to the plant did not begin until Thursday and could take several days to complete – and even then it was unclear whether the cooling systems, in reactor buildings battered by a tsunami and then torn apart by hydrogen explosions, would have survived the crisis in good enough shape to be useful.

        “What you are seeing are desperate efforts – just throwing everything at it in hopes something will work,” said one American official with long nuclear experience who would not speak for attribution. “Right now this is more prayer than plan.”

        After a day in which American and Japanese officials gave radically different assessments of the danger from the nuclear plant, the two governments tried on Thursday to join forces.

        Experts met in Tokyo to compare notes. The United States, with Japanese permission, began to put the intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates Fukushima Daiichi.

        American officials say they suspect that the company has consistently underestimated the risk and moved too slowly to contain the damage.

        Aircraft normally used to monitor North Korea’s nuclear weapons activities – a Global Hawk drone and U-2 spy planes – were flying missions over the reactor, trying to help the Japanese government map out its response to the last week’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the tsunami that followed and now the nuclear disaster.

        President Obama made an unscheduled stop at the Japanese Embassy to sign a condolence book, writing, “My heart goes out to the people of Japan during this enormous tragedy.” He added, “Because of the strength and wisdom of its people, we know that Japan will recover, and indeed will emerge stronger than ever.”

        Later, he appeared in the Rose Garden at the White House to offer continued American support for the earthquake and tsunami victims, and technical help at the nuclear site.

        But before the recovery can begin, the nuclear plant must be brought under control. So American officials were fixated on the temperature readings inside the three reactors that had been operating until the earthquake shut them down, and at the spent fuel pools, looking for any signs that their high levels of heat were going down. If they are uncovered and exposed to air, the fuel rods in those pools heat up and can burst into flame, spewing radioactive elements.

        So far they saw no signs of dropping temperatures. And the Web site of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, made it clear that there were no readings at all from some critical areas. Part of the American effort, by satellites and aircraft, is to identify the hot spots, something the Japanese have not been able to do in some cases.

        Critical to that effort are the “pods” flown into Japan by the Air Force over the past day. Made for quick assessments of radiation emergencies, the Aerial Measuring System is an instrument system that fits on a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft to sample air and survey the land below.

        Daniel B. Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy, said at a White House briefing on Thursday that one instrument pod was mounted on a helicopter, and the other on a fixed-wing aircraft.

        Mr. Poneman said preliminary results of the initial flights “are consistent with the recommendations that came down from the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” which led to the 50-mile evacuation guideline given to American expatriates. Although the worst contamination is closer to the plant, the recommendations take into account the possibility of shifting winds or greater emissions.

        The State Department has also said it would fly out of the country any dependents of American diplomats or military personnel within the region of the plant and as far south as Tokyo. Space will be made for other Americans who cannot get a flight, it said.

        Getting the Japanese to accept the American detection equipment was a delicate diplomatic maneuver, which some Japanese officials originally resisted. But as it became clear that conditions at the plant were spinning out of control, and with Japanese officials admitting they had little hard evidence about whether there was water in the cooling pools or breaches in the reactor containment structures, they began to accept more help.

        The sensors on the instrument pod are good at mapping radioactive isotopes, like cesium 137, which has been detected around the stricken Japanese complex and has a half-life of 30 years. In high doses, it can cause acute radiation sickness. Lower doses can alter cellular function, leading to an increased risk of cancer.

        Cesium 137 mimics the way potassium gets metabolized in the body and can enter through many foods, including milk.

        On Wednesday, when the American Embassy in Tokyo, on advice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Americans to evacuate a radius of “approximately 50 miles” around the Fukushima plant, the recommendation was based on a specific calculation of risk of radioactive fallout in the affected area.

        In a statement, the commission said the advice grew out of its assessment that projected radiation doses within the evacuation zone might exceed one rem to the body or five rems to the thyroid gland. That organ is extremely sensitive to iodine 131 – another of the deadly byproducts of nuclear fuel, this one causing thyroid cancer.

        A rem is a standard measure of radiation dose. The commission says that the average American is exposed to about 0.62 rem of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.

        The American-provided instruments in Japan measure real levels of radiation on the ground. In contrast, scientists around the world have also begun to draw up forecasts of how the prevailing winds pick up the Japanese radioactive material and carry it over the Pacific in invisible plumes.

        The former are actual measurements, whereas the latter are projections based mostly on predicted weather patterns.

        Private analysts said the United States was also probably monitoring the reactor crisis with a flotilla of spy satellites that can see small objects on the ground as well as spot the heat from fires – helping it independently assess the state of the reactor complex from a distance.

        Jeffrey G. Lewis, an intelligence specialist at the Monterey Institute, a research center, noted that the Japanese assessment of Reactor No. 4 at the Daiichi complex seemed to depend in part on visual surveillance by helicopter pilots.

        “I’ve got to think that, if we put our best assets into answering that question, we can do better,” he said in an interview.

        One of the particular concerns at No. 4 has been a fire that was burning there earlier in the week, but American officials are not convinced that the fire has gone out.

        Even the weather satellites used by the Defense Department have special sensors that can monitor fires.

        The No. 4 reactor has been of particular concern to American officials because they believe the spent fuel pool there has run dry, exposing the rods. Japanese officials, however, have concentrated much of their recent efforts on Reactor No. 3, which has been intermittently releasing radiation from what the authorities believe may be a ruptured containment vessel around the reactor. Temperatures at that reactor’s spent fuel pool are also high.

        I’m no expert, but it seems a projected cumulative dose of “one rem to the body or five rems to the thyroid gland”—in other words, the equivalent of 1.5 or 8 years of ordinary radiation levels—is consistent with all the other figures we’ve been seeing.

        And it seems that the main problem US officials are worrying about is not extremely high radiation levels, but the continued failure of the Japanese to put an end to the problems—especially the problem with spent fuel in Unit 3. The longer these problems continue, the greater the cumulative dose.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          One REM (Roentgen Equivalent Man) is equivalent to 10 milliSieverts/hr, by the way, 5 REM is equivalent to 50 mSv, which is in range of the 93 mSV I heard from the NHK live streaming broadcast.

    • John Baez says:

      Mixolydian wrote:

      Streamfortyseven: please provide a link for your claim:

      “Right now the open air radioactivity in the 20 km zone around the plant is 93 milliSieverts per hour, according to NHK”

      I have found no such report on NHK or any other news service.

      streamfortyseven:

      @mixolydian: try harder.

      Hmm, that’s not very satisfying.

      It seems to me that a figure is worth as much as its source. It’s easy to do a Google search for 93 millisieverts, and when I just did it, it didn’t turn up anything relevant.

      (Eventually this blog entry will show up, but that doesn’t count!)

      If the radiation levels are as low as you’re saying, what’s up with all the hysteria?

      It’s pretty easy to see why people would get hysterical in this sort of situation! A tsunami has devastated the region, 4 nuclear reactors nearby are suffering explosions, fires, and partial meltdowns… isn’t that enough?

      I don’t think we can infer anything precise about radiation levels from the amount of hysteria. Most people don’t know the meaning of a millisievert; they’re not going to say “If it’s just 150 microsieverts per hour, I’ll stay calm. Only if it reaches 50 millisieverts per hour will I… PAAANNNIC!

      If radiation levels as high as you’re saying, we should be able to get some direct evidence for that. We shouldn’t need to rely on stories of hysteria in hospitals, or tear-stricken officials.

      For example, I know the US was suspicious that Japan was underestimating the danger: that’s why the US sent in their own planes, and boosted the recommended evacuation radius to 50 miles. Now the planes are there, making measurements:

      • David Sanger and William Broad, Radiation spread seen; frantic repairs go on, The New York Times, Friday, 18 March 2011.

      WASHINGTON — The first readings from American data-collection flights over the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan show that the worst contamination has not spread beyond the 19-mile range of highest concern established by Japanese authorities.

      But another day of frantic efforts to cool nuclear fuel in the troubled reactors and in the plant’s spent-fuel pools resulted in little or no progress, according to United States government officials.

      Japanese officials said they would continue those efforts, but were also racing to restore electric power to the site to get equipment going again, leaving open the question of why that effort did not begin days ago, at the first signs that the critical backup cooling systems for the reactors had failed.

      The data was collected by the Aerial Measuring System, among the most sophisticated devices rushed to Japan by the Obama administration in an effort to help contain a nuclear crisis that a top American nuclear official said Thursday could go on for weeks. Strapped onto a plane and a helicopter that the United States flew over the site, with Japanese permission, the equipment took measurements that showed harmful radiation in the immediate vicinity of the plant – a much heavier dose than the trace levels of radioactive particles that make up the atmospheric plume covering a much wider area.

      While the findings were reassuring in the short term, the United States declined to back away from its warning to Americans to stay at least 50 miles from the plant, setting up a far larger perimeter than the Japanese government had established. American officials did not release specific radiation readings.

      American officials said their biggest worry was that a frenetic series of efforts by the Japanese military to get water into four of the plant’s six reactors — including water cannons and firefighting helicopters that dropped water but appeared to largely miss their targets — showed few signs of working.

      “This is something that will likely take some time to work through, possibly weeks, as eventually you remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and then the spent fuel pool,” said Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, briefing reporters at the White House.

      The effort by the Japanese to hook some electric power back up to the plant did not begin until Thursday and could take several days to complete – and even then it was unclear whether the cooling systems, in reactor buildings battered by a tsunami and then torn apart by hydrogen explosions, would have survived the crisis in good enough shape to be useful.

      “What you are seeing are desperate efforts – just throwing everything at it in hopes something will work,” said one American official with long nuclear experience who would not speak for attribution. “Right now this is more prayer than plan.”

      After a day in which American and Japanese officials gave radically different assessments of the danger from the nuclear plant, the two governments tried on Thursday to join forces.

      Experts met in Tokyo to compare notes. The United States, with Japanese permission, began to put the intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates Fukushima Daiichi.

      American officials say they suspect that the company has consistently underestimated the risk and moved too slowly to contain the damage.

      Aircraft normally used to monitor North Korea’s nuclear weapons activities – a Global Hawk drone and U-2 spy planes – were flying missions over the reactor, trying to help the Japanese government map out its response to the last week’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the tsunami that followed and now the nuclear disaster.

      President Obama made an unscheduled stop at the Japanese Embassy to sign a condolence book, writing, “My heart goes out to the people of Japan during this enormous tragedy.” He added, “Because of the strength and wisdom of its people, we know that Japan will recover, and indeed will emerge stronger than ever.”

      Later, he appeared in the Rose Garden at the White House to offer continued American support for the earthquake and tsunami victims, and technical help at the nuclear site.

      But before the recovery can begin, the nuclear plant must be brought under control. So American officials were fixated on the temperature readings inside the three reactors that had been operating until the earthquake shut them down, and at the spent fuel pools, looking for any signs that their high levels of heat were going down. If they are uncovered and exposed to air, the fuel rods in those pools heat up and can burst into flame, spewing radioactive elements.

      So far they saw no signs of dropping temperatures. And the Web site of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, made it clear that there were no readings at all from some critical areas. Part of the American effort, by satellites and aircraft, is to identify the hot spots, something the Japanese have not been able to do in some cases.

      Critical to that effort are the “pods” flown into Japan by the Air Force over the past day. Made for quick assessments of radiation emergencies, the Aerial Measuring System is an instrument system that fits on a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft to sample air and survey the land below.

      Daniel B. Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy, said at a White House briefing on Thursday that one instrument pod was mounted on a helicopter, and the other on a fixed-wing aircraft.

      Mr. Poneman said preliminary results of the initial flights “are consistent with the recommendations that came down from the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” which led to the 50-mile evacuation guideline given to American expatriates. Although the worst contamination is closer to the plant, the recommendations take into account the possibility of shifting winds or greater emissions.

      The State Department has also said it would fly out of the country any dependents of American diplomats or military personnel within the region of the plant and as far south as Tokyo. Space will be made for other Americans who cannot get a flight, it said.

      Getting the Japanese to accept the American detection equipment was a delicate diplomatic maneuver, which some Japanese officials originally resisted. But as it became clear that conditions at the plant were spinning out of control, and with Japanese officials admitting they had little hard evidence about whether there was water in the cooling pools or breaches in the reactor containment structures, they began to accept more help.

      The sensors on the instrument pod are good at mapping radioactive isotopes, like cesium 137, which has been detected around the stricken Japanese complex and has a half-life of 30 years. In high doses, it can cause acute radiation sickness. Lower doses can alter cellular function, leading to an increased risk of cancer.

      Cesium 137 mimics the way potassium gets metabolized in the body and can enter through many foods, including milk.

      On Wednesday, when the American Embassy in Tokyo, on advice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Americans to evacuate a radius of “approximately 50 miles” around the Fukushima plant, the recommendation was based on a specific calculation of risk of radioactive fallout in the affected area.

      In a statement, the commission said the advice grew out of its assessment that projected radiation doses within the evacuation zone might exceed one rem to the body or five rems to the thyroid gland. That organ is extremely sensitive to iodine 131 – another of the deadly byproducts of nuclear fuel, this one causing thyroid cancer.

      A rem is a standard measure of radiation dose. The commission says that the average American is exposed to about 0.62 rem of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.

      The American-provided instruments in Japan measure real levels of radiation on the ground. In contrast, scientists around the world have also begun to draw up forecasts of how the prevailing winds pick up the Japanese radioactive material and carry it over the Pacific in invisible plumes.

      The former are actual measurements, whereas the latter are projections based mostly on predicted weather patterns.

      Private analysts said the United States was also probably monitoring the reactor crisis with a flotilla of spy satellites that can see small objects on the ground as well as spot the heat from fires – helping it independently assess the state of the reactor complex from a distance.

      Jeffrey G. Lewis, an intelligence specialist at the Monterey Institute, a research center, noted that the Japanese assessment of Reactor No. 4 at the Daiichi complex seemed to depend in part on visual surveillance by helicopter pilots.

      “I’ve got to think that, if we put our best assets into answering that question, we can do better,” he said in an interview.

      One of the particular concerns at No. 4 has been a fire that was burning there earlier in the week, but American officials are not convinced that the fire has gone out.

      Even the weather satellites used by the Defense Department have special sensors that can monitor fires.

      The No. 4 reactor has been of particular concern to American officials because they believe the spent fuel pool there has run dry, exposing the rods. Japanese officials, however, have concentrated much of their recent efforts on Reactor No. 3, which has been intermittently releasing radiation from what the authorities believe may be a ruptured containment vessel around the reactor. Temperatures at that reactor’s spent fuel pool are also high.

      I’m no expert, but it seems a projected cumulative dose of “one rem to the body or five rems to the thyroid gland”—in other words, the equivalent of 1.5 or 8 years of ordinary radiation levels—is consistent with all the other figures we’ve been seeing.

      And it seems that the main problem US officials are worrying about is not extremely high radiation levels, but the continued failure of the Japanese to put an end to the problems—especially the problem with spent fuel in Unit 3. The longer these problems continue, the greater the cumulative dose. And the more ineffective flailing around we see, the less we should expect a quick resolution.

  20. streamfortyseven says:

    more Homer Simpson at work….:
    from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/fukushima-nuclear-plant-owner-falsified-inspection-records/story-fn84naht-1226023073141

    “Tokyo Electric Power Co injected air into the containment vessel of Fukushima reactor No 1 to artificially “lower the leak rate”. When caught, the company expressed its “sincere apologies for conducting dishonest practices”.

    Dale Bridenbaugh, a GE employee who was not the whistleblower, resigned 35 years ago after becoming convinced that the design of the Mark 1 reactor used at Fukushima was seriously flawed. Five of the six reactors were built to that design.

    Mr Bridenbaugh told ABC News: “The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant.”
    In a document entitled Lessons Learned from the TEPCO Nuclear Power Scandal, released by the company and seen by The Times, TEPCO blamed its “misconduct” in 2002 on its “engineers’ overconfidence of their nuclear knowledge”. Their “conservative mentality” had led them to fail to report problems, the company said, resulting in an “inadequate safety culture”.

    WikiLeaks cables also reveal that Japan was warned in 2009 that its power plants could not withstand powerful earthquakes. The US was highly critical of Japan’s senior safety director at the International Atomic Energy Association “particularly with respect to confronting Japan’s own safety practices”, according to confidential documents obtained by WikiLeaks.“

    • Bruce Smith says:

      > WikiLeaks cables also reveal that Japan was warned in 2009 that its power plants could not withstand powerful earthquakes.

      Too bad that didn’t become public knowledge at the time. Public knowledge of this kind of thing is more likely to lead to reform, I think.

  21. streamfortyseven says:

    FYI, for fallout plume prediction, extended weather forecast for Fukushima, Japan:

    Thursday

    Chance of Snow. Partly Cloudy. High: 36 °F. Wind NNW 13 – 18 mph. 30% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.04 in). Windchill: 21 °F.

    Thursday Night

    Chance of Snow. Partly Cloudy. Low: 21 °F. Wind WNW 6 mph. 20% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.01 in). Windchill: 9 °F.

    Friday

    Chance of Snow. Partly Cloudy. High: 43 °F. Wind SSE 8 – 13 mph. 20% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.00 in). Windchill: 25 °F.

    Friday Night

    Mostly Cloudy. Low: 27 °F. Wind WSW 3 mph. Windchill: 14 °F.

    Saturday

    Partly Cloudy. High: 55 °F. Wind NW 11 – 18 mph. Windchill: 40 °F.

    Saturday Night

    Partly Cloudy. Low: 30 °F. Wind NW 4 mph. 20% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.00 in). Windchill: 22 °F.

    Sunday

    Chance of Rain. Partly Cloudy. High: 55 °F. Wind ESE 5 mph. 20% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.03 in). Windchill: 45 °F.

    Sunday Night
    chancerain
    Chance of Rain. Low: 37 °F. Wind WNW 4 mph. 70% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.03 in). Windchill: 25 °F.
    Monday
    rain
    Rain. High: 48 °F. Wind SSE 9 – 14 mph. 100% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.47 in). Windchill: 30 °F.
    Monday Night
    chancesnow
    Chance of Snow. Low: 32 °F. Wind NNW 6 – 9 mph. 70% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.01 in). Windchill: 29 °F.
    Tuesday
    rain
    Rain. High: 41 °F. Wind NNW 15 – 19 mph. 70% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.14 in). Windchill: 26 °F.
    Tuesday Night
    partlycloudy
    Partly Cloudy. Low: 23 °F. Wind WNW 4 – 7 mph. 20% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.00 in). Windchill: 17 °F.

  22. Mixolydian says:

    Radiation level monitoring data is available at the MEXT website:

    http://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/saigaijohou/syousai/1303726.htm

  23. John Baez says:

    As I lie here sipping my morning coffee, I’ll post some information about Fukushima taken from the things I’m reading:

    At 14:00 UTC 18 March 2011, Graham Andrew, Special Adviser to the IAEA Director General on Scientific and Technical Affairs, gave a briefing on the situation:

    1. Current Situation

    As I reported yesterday, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants remains very serious, but there has been no significant worsening since our last briefing.

    The situation at the reactors at Units 1, 2 and 3 appears to remain fairly stable.

    Seawater was injected yesterday into Unit 2 and white smoke was again observed through the blown-out panels.

    At Unit 3, which was the subject of helicopter water drops yesterday, water cannons have been spraying water on the spent fuel pond and seawater was injected into the reactor pressure vessel.

    An important safety concern remains the spent fuel pools at Units 3 and 4. Information is lacking on water levels and temperatures at the spent fuel pools.

    Efforts are being made to restore electrical power to the whole site. Another positive development is that diesel generators are providing power for cooling for both Units 5 and 6.

    Here’s the first of his slides:

  24. John Baez says:

    Here are some nice graphs of radiation levels, going up to the 17th of March:

    • Renate Czarwinski, Technical briefing on the radiological situation in Japan, 18 March 2011.

    They seem to be going down since Wednesday, when Unit 3 emitted a puff of white smoke and radiation at one point on the plant’s perimeter spiked to 12 millisieverts per hour.

    Here on this blog, Mixolydian has pointed out a site which provides radiation levels at various monitoring points 20 kilometers or more away from the plant:

    • Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Readings at monitoring post out of 20 km zone of Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP.

    From the 19:00 JST 18 March 2011 report:

    In square brackets you see the number of each monitoring station. Then, below that, you’ll see radiation levels measured at 3 times on the 18th of March. You’ll see that the highest levels are at stations 31, 32 and 33, which are about 30 kilometers northwest of the reactors. These stations are showing levels of at most 45, 150 and 52 microsieverts per hour.

    For comparison: a chest X-ray gives you about 50 microsieverts. Worldwide, an average person gets about 2,400 microsieverts per year.

    • nad says:

      If one looks at the ministries readings then it seems that the level at the post 32 was already on march 16 , 11.30 a.m. at 80 microsieverts/h (it was called post 21 then, if I understand correctly). 3*24*100 =7200. This is above normal for a years natural dose but not yet dangerous, however the question is how long this radiation persists (a month at that level would be dangerous) and wether there are more elevated levels of this kind in that out-of-30kms zone, which were not monitored.

  25. John Baez says:

    Here’s a New York Times graph based on data from MEXT. Click to enlarge!

    It’s consistent with the one nad showed us:

    and also Renate Czarwinski’s technical briefing.

    In short: since the spike of 11 millisievert per hour on Wednesday, radiation at the plant gates has been dropping, and now it’s well below 1 millisievert/hour, though it’s higher in the “main office”: about 4 millisievert/hour.

    • streamfortyseven says:

      The charts are identical because they come from exactly the same data, TEPCO, which has a consistent record of lying about radiation releases. Gemessene Dosisleistungen an angewaehlten Messpunkten Fukushima Daiichi – Daten des Betriebers TEPCO is, in English, Measured Dosage amounts from selected Measuring points (at) Fukushima Daiichi – Data from TEPCO operations – and the radiation measured by the US sensors is one or two orders of magnitude higher that that published by TEPCO…

      • G.R.L. Cowan says:

        ‘streamfortyseven’ is really grinding his ax. I think he should not be doing this anonymously. A uniquely identifying real name, please. Not my blog, just a suggestion.

      • John Baez says:

        streamfortyseven wrote:

        The charts are identical because they come from exactly the same data, TEPCO…

        I know. But it’s a nontrivial achievement for journalists to get something like this right. You can’t count on them getting it right.

        The radiation measured by the US sensors is one or two orders of magnitude higher that that published by TEPCO…

        Please show us. Don’t just claim it: give us the source of this claim.

        I’m eager to see data from US sensors. If it disagrees radically with TEPCO’s data, I’ll say you were right, and you can feel triumphant.

        (Of course the US will measure radiation levels at some different locations, like up in the air above the plant where TEPCO can’t get to. But if the US folks are smart, they should figure out a way to clearly check TEPCO’s claim. From what I’ve read, the US government doesn’t trust TEPCO or the Japanese government when it comes to this matter.)

        ‘streamfortyseven’ is really grinding his ax. I think he should not be doing this anonymously. A uniquely identifying real name, please. Not my blog, just a suggestion.

        Streamfortyseven is Hudson Luce (see below). His posts here have often been quite astute. The problem now is not the pseudonym but the fact that he’s made two shocking claims about radiation levels without providing evidence for these claims. This is no mortal sin, but given that these claims are inconsistent with other things I’ve read, I have to put those claims in my ‘unsupported, probably wrong’ box, at least for now.

        By the way: the Azimuth Project crowd has decided to disallow pseudonyms on the Forum, where do our serious work… but here on the blog it seems like overkill. Lots of random people show up and make comments, often under pseudonyms, and that’s generally a good thing.

        Insults and rudeness of any kind are forbidden here — it’s when people start slinging mud at each other while hiding behind pseudonyms that things get quite unpleasant. If someone makes unverified claims under a pseudonym, it does little but reduce their believability somewhat.

  26. streamfortyseven says:

    Hudson Luce on facebook, hhluce@yahoo.com

  27. streamfortyseven says:

    John, here is where i got my figures for my statement:

    • David Sanger and William Broad, Radiation spread seen; frantic repairs go on, The New York Times, Friday, 18 March 2011.

    The statement is:
    “On Wednesday, when the American Embassy in Tokyo, on advice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Americans to evacuate a radius of “approximately 50 miles” around the Fukushima plant, the recommendation was based on a specific calculation of risk of radioactive fallout in the affected area.

    In a statement, the commission said the advice grew out of its assessment that projected radiation doses within the evacuation zone might exceed one rem to the body or five rems to the thyroid gland. That organ is extremely sensitive to iodine 131 – another of the deadly byproducts of nuclear fuel, this one causing thyroid cancer”

    as soon as I get back home, I’ll try to hunt up some official US figures…

    • John Baez says:

      streamfortyseven wrote:

      John, here is where I got my figures for my statement…

      Okay, thanks. I already quoted that New York Times story in full in my response to you yesterday. I don’t think that story supports your claim that:

      The radiation measured by the US sensors is one or two orders of magnitude higher that that published by TEPCO…

      After all, that story doesn’t give figures for radiation measured by US sensors. Instead, it talks about projected total radiation doses:

      On Wednesday, when the American Embassy in Tokyo, on advice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Americans to evacuate a radius of “approximately 50 miles” around the Fukushima plant, the recommendation was based on a specific calculation of risk of radioactive fallout in the affected area.

      In a statement, the commission said the advice grew out of its assessment that projected radiation doses within the evacuation zone might exceed one rem to the body or five rems to the thyroid gland. That organ is extremely sensitive to iodine 131 – another of the deadly byproducts of nuclear fuel, this one causing thyroid cancer.

      A rem is a standard measure of radiation dose. The commission says that the average American is exposed to about 0.62 rem of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.

      And, these projected total radiation doses seem roughly compatible with the radiation levels reported by TEPCO.

      Let’s see why. A rem is equal to 10 millisieverts. TEPCO has reported radiation levels of up to 150 microsieverts per hour at a distance 30 kilometers from the nuclear plants:

      So, for a very quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, we can ask how many hours at 150 microsieverts per hour does it take to reach 10 millisieverts? And since

      10 / 0.15 = 66.666…

      the answer is 67 hours. (I do the calculation explicitly not to be condescending, but because I make lots of mistakes in arithmetic, and I want everyone to check my work.)

      Of course, radiation decays according to the half-life of the stuff emitting it… and there’s an unpredictable amount of radioactive stuff being emitted from the plants at Fukushima. So, this calculation is very rough.

      But, it’s easy for me to imagine current radiation levels going on for 67 hours. So, it’s easy for me to believe that the US estimate of total radiation doses is completely compatible with the figures TEPCO is releasing.

      I don’t see anything here suggesting that the radiation levels are “one or two orders of magnitude higher that that published by TEPCO”.

      By the way, the larger figure of 5 rem for the thyroid gland comes from the fact that this gland concentrates iodine; it’s compatible with 1 rem for an overall body dose, so it doesn’t change the above calculation.

      Also by the way, I’ve seen some newspaper reports that confuse doses with radiation levels, e.g. talking about a “radiation level of 10 millisieverts”, which makes no sense: a radiation level would be millisieverts per hour. So, as usual, we have to be careful when taking information from journalists.

      And finally: I haven’t seen any information about what radiation levels US sensors are detecting! That’s annoying.

  28. streamfortyseven says:

    Apparently the US isn’t making any public release of any of the info it’s gathering, however an Austrian agency is making public reports. Here’s some info they’ve posted so far: http://www.zamg.ac.at/aktuell/index.php?seite=1&artikel=ZAMG_2011-03-18GMT09:52

    I’ll be looking at the other things on their site…

  29. streamfortyseven says:

    Here’s a map from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Compliance Organization giving concentrations of Iodine-131 per cubic meter, but no dosimetry. It does illustrate spread of radionuclides around northern Japan:



    ZAMG have said that they intend to produce at least some data for public use at some point…

  30. Tim van Beek says:

    The government of Germany has decided to take some of the oldest nuclear power plants offline for the next 3 months, a decision that was quickly criticized as

    • being inconsequential because last autumn they decided to let the plants stay online until 2020,

    • being inconsequential because they did not decide to take the plants offline permanently along with all other nuclear plants, but only for three months.

    The whole discussion seems to be oddly idiosyncratic to Germany, as most other European countries did not bother to react at all (yet?). I have no idea what makes Germany so special in this regard – I could cite, as did mainstream media – incidents, novels, discussions of the past that may be special of Germany’s history, but none of this is really convincing, at least not in my opinion.

  31. Tim van Beek says:

    The Fukushima accident has ended the 58 year reign of the conservative party CDU in the German state Baden-Württenberg. The CDU has been an outspoken proponent of nuclear power. For the first time in history the traditionally catholic and conservative state will have a prime minister from the Green party.

  32. nad says:

    does anyone know more about the recent japanese corrections of measurements?
    see e.g. this and the comment underneath?

    • John Baez says:

      Do you mean the story where TEPCO reported radiation levels “10 million times normal” and workers fled the plant… and then TEPCO said it had made a mistake? I’m having trouble getting a clear version of that story. This is the best so far:

      Utility retests reactor water after radioactivity spikes, CNN, 27 March 2011.

      Radiation levels remain extremely high in part of the No. 2 reactor complex at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant although an earlier, even more alarming reading was incorrect, its owner said early Monday.

      Water pooling in the reactor’s turbine building was still giving off radioactivity at a level of 1,000 milliSieverts per hour, the Tokyo Electric Power Company told reporters. That’s more than 330 times the dose an average person in a developed country receives per year, and four times the top dose Japan’s health ministry has set for emergency workers struggling to prevent a meltdown at the damaged plant.
      Advertisement

      But Tokyo Electric said that figure is a mere 100,000 times normal levels for reactor coolant, not the 10 million times normal reported Sunday.

      Tokyo Electric said Sunday that the water had contained a sharply elevated level of iodine-134, a short-lived isotope produced in a nuclear reaction. But after Japanese regulators questioned the readings, the utility conducted new tests that found a minimal level of the substance, the company said.

      • nad says:

        John wrote:

        Do you mean the story where TEPCO reported radiation levels “10 million times normal” and workers fled the plant… and then TEPCO said it had made a mistake?

        Yes I meant that story. I try to make sense of that.
        Tepco has released a document at:

        http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/11032714-e.html

        which displays some measurements of the radioactive puddle at block 2. They list measurements which have the addition: error, re-assessment, re-measurement and re-extraction. I don’t fully understand what they mean by re-assessment nor by re-extraction. The second measurement (the re-measurement) was 18 hrs later than the first. If I haven’t forgotten everything from my physics class then for radioactive decay the number of atoms N after a time of n \, \mathrm{halflife} is

        N(t+n \mathrm{halflife})=({1/2}^n) N(t).

        So like if the halflife is about an hour (like for iodine 134) then the number would go down by a factor of

        {1/2}^{18}

        which is roughly

        1/10^6 = 10^{-6},

        i.e. one millionth. It seems that iodine 134 decays in a beta-decay (see e.g. http://www.nndc.bnl.gov/amdc/nubase/Nubase2003.pdf so by looking at the periodic table it should decay into xenon and by looking at the table of isotopes it seems that it decays into 13454Xe which is stable. Moreover I think this xenon is a gas (but I am not sure). So if there was an initial high percentage of Iodine 134 then if this argumentation is right then this may explain the rather rapid decline in radiation from the first to the second measurement. The measurement of technetium M99 (half life of about 6 hrs) was even slightly higher in the second measurement. Here the decay would have been after 18 hrs 1/2^3 =1/8 of the original number. This could eventually be explained by the fact that their sample of the puddle water was probably varying.

        Iodine 134 and technetium 99M are products of a nuclear fission. So I think there are strong indications that a criticality accident may have taken place after March 11. According to Wikipedia so far no typical criticality accident has resulted in a nuclear explosion, -but still- I guess one should think about evacuation in such a case.

        I am asking myself whether it isn’t possible to let robots do a decent test series. Two measurements are definitely not enough.

        • Frederik De Roo says:

          Nad wrote:

          it seems that it decays into 13454Xe, which is stable. Moreover I think this xenon is a gas (but I am not sure).

          Just to confirm, Xenon-134 is practically stable (though it’s predicted to have double beta decay). Xenon is a gas, regardless of which nuclear isotope you’re considering.

        • John Baez says:

          Indeed even radon, one row down in the periodic table, is a gas. Xenon and radon are the heaviest of the “noble gases”.

          Now I’m curious about their densities. Xenon is 5.9 grams/liter and radon is 9.7 grams/liter; by comparison air is about 1.2 grams/liter under the same conditions. So, they’re pretty dense! As we all know, radon likes to collect in basements.

          Digressing still further: while “noble gases” don’t like to react, they get more willing to do so as you move down the periodic table. So, you get krypton fluoride, a larger number of xenon compounds, and presumably even more radon compound are possible, though I only see one honest compound that’s been produced.

          Hmm! Due to relativistic effects, the next guy down the periodic table, ununoctium, is not a noble gas! It seems that ununquadium may act like a noble gas.

          This has been a total digression. We now return you to our usual discussion of tragedy and disaster.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          And here’s the latest graphic animation of the radioactive iodine cloud spewing out of the reactor site (yellow area – not good):

          and the latest from that crazy survivalist website – scroll all the way down to the bottom –

          27 March -
          “Radiation levels in the basement of Reactor 2 was said to measure 1,000 mSv/h, enough to bring on radiation sickness. For potency relevance, if exposed at this level for 4 hours, it kill half those exposed within 30 days of exposure. TEPCO later retracted the radiation level statement (1,000 mSv/h).

          Two weeks after the disaster, still no cooling pumps have come online, leading one to believe that the damage is severe, the apparent meltdown continues, and the situation there may drag on for some time with little ‘effective’ work being reported.”

          28 March -
          “Plutonium has been detected in soil at five locations around the Fukushima power plant.

          TEPCO continued to remove highly radioactive water from inside reactor buildings, in an effort to enable engineers to restore the power station’s crippled cooling functions.

          It is currently requiring 7 tons of water per hour at building / reactor 2, to stay even with the water that is evaporating / steam.

          It has been revealed that a crane had fallen on to the fuel pool at Reactor 3 and is thought to have damaged the fuel rods there.”

          TEPCO webcam, view obscured by trees, showing no plumes of smoke or fire – so obviously there’s no cause for alarm:

          http://www.tepco.co.jp/nu/f1-np/camera/index-j.html

          Video shot from helicopter on March 27 showing extent of destruction:

        • John Baez says:

          Streamfortyseven: due to factors beyond my control, nobody but me can post images or videos as comments on this blog. I can make the stuff you post actually work, but it takes time, so please don’t make me do it often. It’s usually better to post a link; then if I have time I can make it visible in the comment, but otherwise it’s just a working link.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          Thanks for cleaning things up. I’ll go easy on the fancy stuff in the future.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          Well, the Japanese government and/or TEPCO has decided to call it a day:

          “Japan finally conceded defeat in the battle to contain radiation at four of Fukushima’s crippled reactors. They will now be shut down.

          Details of how this will be done are yet to be revealed, but officials said it would mean switching off all power and abandoning attempts to keep the nuclear fuel rods cool.

          The final move would involve pouring tonnes of concrete on the reactors to seal them in tombs and ensure radiation does not leak out.

          The country’s nuclear safety agency revealed levels of radiation in the ocean near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant had surged to 4,385 times the regulatory limit.

          The dramatic announcement that the four reactors are out of control and will have to be decommissioned was made yesterday by the chairman of the electric company operating the Fukushima plant.”

          (source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1371793/Japan-nuclear-crisis-Fukushima-plant-entombed-concrete-radiation-leak.html#ixzz1IDC3c5mX)

        • nad says:

          There may have been also a criticality accident at Unit 1:

          http://japanfocus.org/-Arjun-Makhijani/3509

          In this context I wonder how
          on march 27 there was no Te129m (which is a fission product
          according to the table on page 8 in
          http://www.eolss.net/ebooks/Sample%20Chapters/C09/E4-23-03-03.pdf
          but it may be in some decay scheme) to be detected in the water on the basement floor of the turbine building of unit 1 the turbine
          (see http://www.nisa.meti.go.jp/english/files/en20110327-1-5.pdf)

          and then on march 29 there was suddenly a rather high concentration of Te129m in the trench of unit 1.
          (see
          http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/11033004-e.html on the website:
          http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/11033004-e.html
          (see also the high concentration of Te129, which I think is obtained at least in part from Te129m via internal conversion, but I am not sure)

        • Frederik De Roo says:

          Nad said:

          There may have been also a criticality accident at Unit 1

          I’ve also heard some rumours about that and personally, I don’t know another explanation of those fission products. But if a reactor core can become recritical after a scram, there seems to be something wrong with the design (up till now I had only heard of reactors having problems due to an opposite phenomenon called neutron poisoning) Though I guess it could also be the spent fuel pool that became critical.

  33. [...] The discussion about an eventual criticality accident in Fukushima which started in the comment section of the blog post about the Fukushima plant continued partially on Azimuth within this comment. [...]

  34. John Baez says:

    Here’s a great chart illustrating different doses of radiation, from xkcd. I hope it quells some of the facile comparisons of Fukushima and Chernobyl, but even more importantly I hope it gives people more of a sense of the wide range of radiation levels being discussed here!

    Sorry, it’s big… click on the image to make it nicer:



    • streamfortyseven says:

      Chernobyl/Fukushima Dai-ichi comparisons continue to be made:

      Euan Mearns, in “Fukushima Dai-ichi status and prognosis”, at http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7722 :

      “Comparison of Fukushima Dai-ichi and Chernobyl
      There are a number of key differences between Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai-ichi making comparisons of the incidents difficult:
      1) The Chernobyl accident took place at fission power blowing the roof of the core and reactor building while Fukushima Dai-ichi was successfully shut down.
      2) Chernobyl had a graphite core that burned, spreading radioactive material far and wide.
      3) Chernobyl lacked a primary containment system.
      4) Chernobyl involved a single reactor load of fuel while Fukushima Dai-ichi likely has 7 to 8 reactor loads spread between the cores of units 1, 2 and 3 and the spent fuel ponds of units 1 to 4.
      5) Fukushima Dai-ichi unit 3 has MOX fuel loads containing plutonium in reactor and in spent fuel pool.
      6) Fuel in pool of reactor 4 is not spent and is a ‘hot’ load outside of containment.
      7) Fukushima Dai-ichi is located in the heart of Japan, the world’s third largest economy whilst Chernobyl is located in Ukraine which has lower economic standing in the world.
      In my estimation, the larger mass of fuel, much of it outside of containment, the geographic location and possible socio-economic impacts on Japan, longer duration and open-ended nature of this event and extant risk of explosion and fire will ultimately make Fukushima Dai-ichi the more serious incident.”
      citing, in part:

      “Japan’s damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima has been emitting radioactive iodine and caesium at levels approaching those seen in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors – designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests – to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.” http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20285-fukushima-radioactive-fallout-nears-chernobyl-levels.html?full=true&print=true
      =====
      Here are some numbers from around the plant site:
      “The following unofficial numbers for 24th March posted by commenter schoff, that I have reason to believe are accurate, show high levels of radiation in the dry well (D/W) which is the volume between the pressure vessel and primary containment. These numbers seem to confirm that the pressure vessels have leaked. At these levels workers would receive lethal dosage in 5 minutes and so it is clear that no one is going to be able to enter the dry well area to inspect damage or attempt repairs or remedial work.
      The readings from secondary containment (the wrecked reactor buildings) are also high providing a lethal dose in 1 to 2 hours. Again, this is sufficiently high to prevent remedial work or repairs and explains why water has to be cannoned into the fuel pools from the exterior.
      Area Rad Monitors
      1 “D/W: 4780 rem/hr S/C: 349 rem/hr”
2 “D/W: 5490 Rem/hr S/C: 193 Rem/hr”
3 “D/W: 6000 Rem/hr S/C: 158 Rem/hr”
      The S/C is believed to stand for Suppression Chamber Torus. D/W is the drywell.
      Heavily contaminated water is now turning up at many locations within and without the reactor buildings and this is now beginning to hamper remedial works around the site.”

      • John Furey says:

        I should point out the vast majority of radioactive materials escaping from the plant boundaries are not in the air but in the seawater. That was deliberate from the start, in an attempt to reduce human exposure. BTW the Washington milk levels, from milk sold last week, took many days of counting at < 1 count per hour above background.

      • streamfortyseven says:

        Fishing has been restricted in a 12-mile radius from the outflows of the plant, as has seaweed harvesting, according to comments on Oildrum article cited above, and bodies of tsunami victims found in evac zones are so contaminated with radioactive fallout that they are unsafe to bury, apparently. Perhaps they’ve been soaking in the contaminated water, at which point things would be rather unpleasant anyway. I think the evac zone will end up as a Chernobyl-style “dead zone” especially now that the Japanese have decided to entomb the plant in concrete.

      • streamfortyseven says:

        Right now, the Japanese have been quite lucky, the prevailing winds this time of year go out to sea and take most of the radioactive plume with it; as summer approaches, the winds tend to shift and blow landwards instead of seawards, and unless they get a lot of concrete on the plants quickly, they could end up losing Tokyo to cesium contamination. God only knows what Akihito will do…

  35. nad says:

    streamfortyseven wrote:

    Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors – designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests – to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.”

    Unfortunately the diagram at the austrian ZAMG http://www.zamg.ac.at/pict/aktuell/20110330_stationen_gr.gif stops at March 23. Here is another chart with iodine data from the measurements of CTBTO (which hosts the measurement network) at http://www.bfs.de/de/ion/aktivitaetskonzentrationen_jod.jpg. The measurements display indeed a more or less constant output of iodine 131 until March 28. The website which hosts this chart and e.g. also a chart of current radiation measurements of CTBTO at http://www.bfs.de/en/ion/kernwatest.html is mostly in german, but I couldn’t find measurements at CTBTO directly. In their newsroom at: http://newsroom.ctbto.org/ they currently report that:

    “The CTBT stands ready to develop strategic cooperation with the WMO, the IAEA and other relevant organizations for disaster prevention and mitigation in the context of nuclear safety, security and peaceful use of nuclear energy,” the Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Tibor Tóth said today.

  36. John Baez says:

    Just to keep the friendly argument going, here are some environmentalists who think the Fukushima disaster should not make us give up on nuclear power:

    • George Monbiot, Going critical: How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power, 21 March 2011.

    • George Monbiot, Seven double standards: Why don’t we judge other forms of energy generation by the standards we apply to nuclear power?, 31 March 2011.

    • Mark Lynas, Nuclear: difference between two and three degrees?, 21 March 2011.

    The piece by Lynas is outdated, since it says “A week into the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the situation seems to have stabilised…” I don’t think he would have guessed that now the only solution seems to be entombing the reactors in concrete! But his rough calculation shows how tough a situation we’re in:

    This is a good time, then, to try to make a first-guess numbers-based assessment of what running down nuclear and switching back to coal and gas will mean for carbon emissions going forward. Let us assume, therefore:

    • A German nuclear phase-out, producing another half-billion tonnes of CO2 by 2020.

    • A US phase-out, replaced by an equal-parts mix of coal and gas by 2030, producing another half-gigatonne per year by then.

    • 100 Chinese nuclear plants not built by 2030, each replaced by coal emitting 10 million tonnes per year (=1 gigatonne CO2/yr).

    • No nuclear renaissance elsewhere, and an additional half-gigatonne from other OECD countries (Japan, UK, rest of EU).

    • A business-as-usual baseline of mitigation pledges submitted by countries to the international climate negotiations.

    • Nuclear/fossil fuels are substitutable: both deliver baseload to densely-populated industrial societies, and renewables increase flat-out anyway to cover increases in demand.

    This gives us, by 2030, another two to three billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Given that the 2020 ‘gigatonne gap’ (PDF tech. summ.) identified by UNEP amounts to as little as 5 gigatonnes per year (this is the gap between projected emissions and what is necessary to stay below two degrees) the amount is substantial, enough perhaps to tip the balance between a 2-degree and a 3-degree scenario. As my book Six Degrees explained, above two degrees lie some very dangerous ‘tipping points’ which could take the biosphere in the direction of uncontrolled global warming.

    I’m curious to see if the Chinese will slow their building of nuclear power plants. They announced some kind of pause during the height of panic in China, when crowds were struggling to buy salt in a mistaken belief that it could protect them against radiation:

    but I’m betting that after a while they’ll keep on. Since they were slated to build a lot of nuclear plants, this decision will be a big deal, one way or another.

  37. nad says:

    Georges Monbiot wrote on his blog (see references by John Baez):

    Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions.

    There are certainly alternatives which are way more harmless then nuclear power.

    You can read e.g. the little paragraph in section 3.5
    in the draft at http://www.randform.org/blog/wp-content/2011/03/game1.pdf about the possibilities of solar energy.

    Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small.

    The impacts of Fukushima -especially the long-term consequences- are not yet fully clear. As pointed out above the ZAMG calculations (here at http://www.zamg.ac.at/aktuell/index.php?seite=1&artikel=ZAMG_2011-04-02GMT09:28 an updated comment to the measurements) display that already the contamination with iodine 131 and cs 137 via air seem to be already now in the range of half of the emmisions of Chernobyl!

    Unfortunately there are only few measurements (and especially the japanese measurement seems to have been reported only on one day?! Why that?) so that this can’t be established as precise as it should.

    Sofar the densely populated Tokyo region was lucky that the winds from Fukushima blew mainly in other directions, so the pollution of this area via air has sofar luckily been moderate (here a Geiger counter in Tokyo: http://current.com/1973p4c ).

    There are very diverging views about the effects of nuclear accidents. The article at http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/apr2010/2010-04-26-01.html displays this to some extend. However if one would accept that Chernobyl radiation (via air!) killed one million people then -given the fact that Cs 137 and Iodine 131 had one of the biggest impacts here- you can get an estimate what this could mean for Japan.

    Moreover most of the emissions of Fukushima seem to be via the pollution of water and not air! Unfortunately one doesn’t get to see many measurements about the water pollution.

    And the water pollution is going to be worse, if I understand the current news correctly: http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/04/83030.html

    The long term consequences of this water pollution are totally unknown up to now. Fish is a major food source in this region. And even if the world oceans could swallow one Fukushima- what if there are ten Fukushimas, like this could be the case with an ten-fold increase of nuclear power generation?

    The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

    So given the above I can’t understand how one can be converted to the cause of nuclear power.

    This german article at http://www.fr-online.de/kultur/medien/skandal-auf-seite-17/-/1473342/8295352/-/index.html talks about a study by the university of Tokyo (financed by TEPCO!) which shall display that even energy generation in Japan could be made without fossil fuels and nuclear energies. The study hasn’t been published according to the article and I also couldn’t find a copy of the study. I even don’t know who did the study may be this (TEPCO?) lab: http://www.hashimoto-lab.iis.u-tokyo.ac.jp/ (which belongs to http://www.energy.iis.u-tokyo.ac.jp/english/e_themes.html?

    Since Mr. Monbiot seems to be a distinguished reporter of the english newspaper “The Guardian” he has maybe better access to this study. It would certainly be of great value if he could give a detailed scientific account of the findings of this study.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks for your comment, Nad! Just two points of disagreement:

      There are certainly alternatives which are way more harmless then nuclear power.

      George Monbiot doubts that, and so do I. Of course solar power and wind power are slightly safer than nuclear power, and both Monbiot and I strongly favor the expansion of these. The problem is that we may not be able to replace enough fossil fuel power by these renewable forms of power fast enough worldwide to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. We should consider realistic alternatives, not purely theoretical alternatives.

      If someone wants to avoid nuclear power altogether they should propose a realistic plan that avoids nuclear power while preventing, say, 3°C of global warming.

      David McKay has attempted to propose a realistic plan for Britain to get all its electric power from renewable energies, without any nuclear power. It’s called “Plan L” and it’s here. Let’s look at it:

      Some people say “we don’t want nuclear power!” How can we satisfy them? Perhaps it should be the job of this anti-nuclear bunch to persuade the NIMBY bunch that they do want renewable energy in our back yard after all.

      We can create a nuclear-free plan by taking plan D, keeping all those renewables in our back yard, and doing a straight swap of nuclear for desert power. As in plan N, the delivery of desert power requires a large increase in transmission systems between North Africa and Britain; the Europe–UK interconnectors would need to be increased from 2 GW to at least 40 GW.

      Here’s where plan L gets its 50 kWh/d/p of electricity from.

      Wind: 8 kWh/d/p (20 GW average) (plus about 400 GWh of associated pumped storage facilities).

      Solar PV: 3 kWh/d/p.

      Hydroelectricity and waste incineration: 1.3 kWh/d/p.

      Wave: 2 kWh/d/p.

      Tide: 3.7 kWh/d/p.

      “Clean coal”: 16 kWh/d/p (40 GW).

      Solar power in deserts: 16 kWh/d/p (40 GW average power).

      This plan imports 64% of UK electricity from other countries.

      (kWh/d/p means “kilowatt hours per day per person”.)

      This is a difficult plan to carry out.

      For starters, it requires that Britain get most of its electricity from other countries!

      Second, 1/3 of the power comes from “clean coal”. As you know, there’s no such thing yet. I haven’t read carefully yet to see if McKay is suggesting carbon sequestration on a large scale: that’s the only way I know to make coal “clean” when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions. (He also has a “plan G” that avoids coal, but under this plan, world wind power is multiplied by 4, with all of the increase being placed on or around the British Isles.)

      Third, 1/3 of the power comes from not-yet-existent solar power facilities in the deserts of North Africa. Of course these countries are famous for their political stability , so the problems are purely technical, but still they are substantial.

      Does anyone think that this amount of carbon sequestration and building of solar power plants in North Africa will really be accomplished by, say, 2050?

      (Of course what really matters is what the Chinese and Indians will do, not the British. But it’s easier to get information about Britain.)

      This german article at http://www.fr-online.de/kultur/medien/skandal-auf-seite-17/-/1473342/8295352/-/index.html talks about a study by the university of Tokyo (financed by TEPCO!) which shall display that even energy generation in Japan could be made without fossil fuels and nuclear energies.

      That would be nice to see.

      However if one would accept that Chernobyl radiation (via air!) killed one million people…

      What? I certainly don’t accept that. The United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reports 57 direct deaths and somewhat more than 6000 cases of thyroid cancer due to Chernobyl. With proper treatment 92% survive this cancer for 30 years. So, that suggests somewhere between 500 and 6000 deaths.

      The World Health Organization, whom I trust to be objective, say that the overall number of deaths caused by Chernobyl “could reach 4,000″.

      Even Greenpeace, whom I don’t trust at all in this regard because they are rabidly antinuclear and eager to scare people, doesn’t argue for a million deaths. They estimate “200,000 or more”. I consider this an insanely large upper bound.

      See Wikipedia for references.

      And let us note that so far, the Fukushima death toll caused by riding bullet trains exceeds the death toll caused by nuclear power by roughly a factor of 100!

      • nad says:

        Thanks for your answer John,

        The problem is that we may not be able to replace enough fossil fuel power by these renewable forms of power fast enough worldwide to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. We should consider realistic alternatives, not purely theoretical alternatives.

        Yes it may be that one is not able to replace fossil and nuclear power “fast enough”. However what is important here is that this seems to be less a technological but rather a political/economical problem. Moreover if everybody is crying for nuclear power because this task seems to be so difficult then there will certainly be no change.

        For starters, it requires that Britain get most of its electricity from other countries!

        Wikipedia writes currently about uranium mining in the UK:

        The South Terras Mine in Cornwall was mined for uranium from 1873 to 1903.

        Substantial uranium deposits were found on Orkney in the 1970s,[55] When Margaret Thatcher proposed a uranium mine on Orkney a campaign followed which successfully argued that uranium mining would mean irreversible environmental, social and psychological damage.

        …but may be you have better knowledge about Britains mining plans.

        John Baez wrote:

        (Of course what really matters is what the Chinese and Indians will do, not the British. But it’s easier to get information about Britain.)

        However if one would accept that Chernobyl radiation (via air!) klled one million people…

        What? I certainly don’t accept that. The United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reports 57 direct deaths and somewhat more than 6000 cases of thyroid cancer due to Chernobyl….

        Thats why I wrote: “if one would accept”. I think it is always helpful to see various viewpoints and especially to have a feeling for how bad the worst case might eventually be. According to the article

        Their findings are in contrast to estimates by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency that initially said only 31 people had died among the “liquidators,” those approximately 830,000 people who were in charge of extinguishing the fire at the Chernobyl reactor and deactivation and cleanup of the site.

        The book finds that by 2005, between 112,000 and 125,000 liquidators had died.

        A first check of how justified the claims in the book are could e.g. be to investigate the lives of those liquidators. These are real people with names. Just as in the case of the Fukushima plant workers.

        As pointed out above the International Atomic Energy Agency seems to have already forgotten about one dead Fukushima plant worker.

      • JB quotes David McKay:

        Here’s where plan L gets its 50 kWh/d/p of electricity from.

        (I guess 50kWh/d/p is not very much for U.S. standards. Still…) …methinks 50kWh/d/p is still obscenely high. 20kWh/d/p should suffice. (Heck I bet I could do with 5-10, incl. washing machine and electric oven. Using wood for cooking and heating and ashes for washing by hand, I could live in total internets connected luxury with max. 0.5kWh/d, for which a small PV panel suffices.)

        Alas McKay doesn’t consider the option of using less energy.

        Plus, another option nobody does consider is generating carbon negative energy from wood: 15kg of wood gives 75kWh energy, keeping max. char coal that’s 50kWh. Given February prices of wood pellets vs. heating oils in Germany, the carbon negative 50kWh would still be cheaper than the fossil 50kWh. (My numbers and ideas here.)

        It would be not impossible to generate and sequester 1Gt of char coal per year, perhaps (if Homo S “Sapiens” gets serious before drastic global plant productivity decline) even 2 Gt. (See Folke Günther’s numbers).

        • Frederik De Roo says:

          Florifulgurator said:

          > Using wood for cooking and heating and ashes for washing by hand,

          Can you estimate how much wood would you need? I’m a bit worried that the yields of our forests won’t suffice for present population densities.

      • streamfortyseven says:

        You don’t need to use wood for heating air or water, you can use passive solar and passive solar water heating; see http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/SpaceHeating/SolarShed/solarshed.htm – a guy in Montana uses this set-up to heat his 2300 sq ft house to 80degF in winter; and see http://www.builditsolar.com/ in general

      • John Baez says:

        nad wrote:

        According to the article:

        Their findings are in contrast to estimates by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency that initially said only 31 people had died among the “liquidators,” those approximately 830,000 people who were in charge of extinguishing the fire at the Chernobyl reactor and deactivation and cleanup of the site.

        The book finds that by 2005, between 112,000 and 125,000 liquidators had died.

        Here ‘the book’ is:

        • Alexey Yablokov, Vassily Nesterenko and Alexey Nesterenko, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, 2010.

        This book appears to be the source for all claims that Chernobyl disaster caused 985,000 deaths—a vastly higher figure than the UN’s estimate of less than 6,000, or the World Health Organization’s estimate of 400.

        Yablokov was also a general editor of the 2006 Greenpeace report, The Chernobyl Catastrophe: Consequences on Human Health.

        It would be nice to read this:

        • M. W. Charles, Review of Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the environment, Radiation Protection Dosimetry 141 (2010), 101-104.

        This may be the only review published in a peer-reviewed journal.

        • nad says:

          John Baez wrote:

          It would be nice to read this:

          • M. W. Charles, Review of Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the environment, Radiation Protection Dosimetry 141 (2010), 101-104.

          Who knows? You have to pay $32 for a one day read. In german this is called “die katze im sack kaufen”, which seems to be in english: “To buy a pig in a poke.”:
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlQwwQjKXPg

    • DavidTweed says:

      There are certainly alternatives which are way more harmless then nuclear power.

      The key word is “alternative”: there are certainly energy extraction technologies which have less issues, but they have power densities/intermittencies/etc which makes it difficult to use the as alternatives to nuclear power at anything close to current energy usage levels (as John says above). So, barring an amazing technological breakthrough, not using nuclear is likely to require also a dramatic power-down.

      BTW, George Monbiot isn’t a reporter but more a famous activist who sometimes writes articles/writes books/does TV appearances about his activism ideas.

      • Frederik De Roo says:

        With respect to his activism, I think he’s a little bit unfair too in his Seven double standards because he writes e.g.

        Even if you accept the official figure, Chinese coal mining alone kills as many people every week as the worst nuclear power accident in history – the Chernobyl explosion – has done in 25 years.

        instead of comparing the deaths caused by coal mining with the deaths caused by uranium mining (a dirty job too) for each kWh.

      • nad says:

        David Tweed wrote:

        The key word is “alternative”: there are certainly energy extraction technologies which have less issues, but they have power densities/intermittencies/etc which makes it difficult to use the as alternatives to nuclear power at anything close to current energy usage levels (as John says above).

        power densitiy with respect to what? Like to area? Like to risk? Intermittencies can be improved with smart grids etc.

        Last but not least one has to balance wether one would want “difficulties in usages” or long-term problems and risks like with nuclear waste.

        A quick calculation displays that alone solar power could be enough to replace fossil and nuclear power.
        see potentials of solar power at Azimuth

        Moreover apart from aspects like power density per area aspects like carbon footprint may play also a role. See e.g. the article:
        http://www.nature.com/climate/2008/0810/full/climate.2008.99.html where

        According to Sovacool’s analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960 gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh. However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh. “

        where one has to say that the nuclear industry sees this differently:

        http://www.world-nuclear.org/education/comparativeco2.html

        • Phil Henshaw says:

          It seems to me that the “quick calculation” methods we use..

          A quick calculation displays that alone solar power could be enough to replace fossil and nuclear power. see potentials of solar power at Azimuth

          …are sometimes not accompanied by a study of the environmental systems the theory is assumed to apply to.

          There was a long discussion on my calculations of the same thing, not much different except for my asking where the end of the solar potential would be. To convert to solar, in 100 years we’d need to cover ~5% of the earth surface with solar panel grids with an area of 6m^2 for a day for each average $1 of products

          That points to problems of numerous practical and financial kinds. What’s the cost of that land? And, would we miss having that 5% of the earth for what it now gets used for..? Would we continue doubling that growing set-aside for energy collection every ~40 years, to have more and more energy? Do those complications reduce the system net-energy??

          One of the hidden reasons for the last question is that there’s a major EROI calculation error in the current business modeling method that makes technologies that seem to deliver high net energy on paper produce far less in reality. Only the visible and traceable energy uses are being accounted for! The visible and traceable energy needs for business technology are often only about ~20% of the total. The “hidden” energy cost of business expenses that don’t leave energy use receipts is often ~80%. So we need a better way to estimate the EROI for Whole Business Systems.

    • streamfortyseven says:

      It strikes me as amazing that no one here has really brought up the use of thorium as fuel for nuclear reactors:

      “Thorium as a nuclear fuel

      Thorium, as well as uranium and plutonium, can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. A thorium fuel cycle offers several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle including much greater abundance on Earth, superior physical and nuclear properties of the fuel, enhanced proliferation resistance, and reduced nuclear waste production.[14] Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), has worked on developing the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors. Rubbia states that a tonne of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal.[15] One of the early pioneers of the technology was U.S. physicist Alvin Weinberg at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, who helped develop a working nuclear plant using liquid fuel in the 1960s.

      In 1997 the U.S. Energy Department underwrote research into thorium fuel, and research was also begun in 1996 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to study the use of thorium reactors. Nuclear scientist, Alvin Radkowsky, of Tel Aviv University in Israel, founded a consortium to develop thorium reactors, which included other companies: Raytheon Nuclear Inc., Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.[16] Radkowsky was chief scientist in the U.S. nuclear submarine program directed by Admiral Hyman Rickover and later headed the design team which built the world’s first civilian nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, which was a scaled-up version of the first naval reactor.[16]

      Some countries, including India, are now investing in research to build thorium-based nuclear reactors. Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, said in 2009 that his country has a “long-term objective goal of becoming energy-independent based on its vast thorium resources.”[17][18] In May 2010, researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, received a grant to develop a thorium-based, self-sustaining light water reactor[19] that will produce and consume about the same amounts of fuel.[19] In the U.S., NASA scientist and thorium expert Kirk Sorensen calls it the “next giant leap” in energy technology, noting that the “potential energy in thorium is staggering,” explaining how just 8 tablespoons of thorium could provide the energy used by an American during his or her lifetime.[20][21]”

      (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium)

      Perhaps John could do an interview with Kirk Sorensen and open a new topic on thorium as nuclear fuel – granted, it’s outside of mathematics, but still it ought to be discussed…

  38. [...] problems at Fukushima are keeping me still busy, see e.g. this comment and the discussion [...]

  39. Phil Henshaw says:

    What about the resource bind at the limits? You’re talking about tapping resources that the economy has repeatedly tried and persistently found produced inadequate net-energy. You’re proposing to use them to continue expanding a high energy overhead economy. There’s a bind when a high overhead economic system tries to grow using low productivity resources, a system EROI < 1.

  40. streamfortyseven says:

    Here’s a video taken by a news crew who ventured into the exclusion zone, taking radiation readings in microSieverts as they approached first the Fukushima Dai-ni plant, and then Fukushima Dai-ichi. At 1.5 km from Fukushima Dai-ichi, the reading was 110 microSieverts per hour, about 0.25 REM per day, which, although not totally safe, would not be a threat to health – 10 days, 2.5 REM, 100 days, 25 rem, one year, 87 REM assuming no drop in emissions… but it strikes me as safe enough to allow people to go back and get their farm animals and pets and their household goods.

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