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Entries tagged "Nuclear Power"

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French Government Advises its Citizens to Stay Away from Tokyo, Japan Stays Silent

March 15, 2011 ·

In the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, and in light of the possible radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plants in partial meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, on March 13 the French Embassy advised all French citizens in Japan to leave Tokyo for the next few days. In a communiqué, the embassy warned that fallout could settle on Tokyo in "three to four hours" in a worst case scenario and cause widespread contamination.

The communiqué outlined two possible scenarios: The first, more optimistic, scenario involved controlling the various defective nuclear power plants in Fukushima. "In that case, the risk is of a residual contamination from the controlled release of radioactive gas and poses a negligible risk for the Tokyo region. This scenario is favored by the Japanese authorities and a large number of scientists." However, the second scenario would involve an explosion of the reactor, unleashing  a radioactive cloud. "That cloud could arrive in the Tokyo region in a matter of hours depending on the direction and speed of the wind. The risk is of widespread contamination."

The memo went on to say: "The Japanese Weather Report Agency just announced a probable repeat of a magnitude 7 earthquake. The probability is up to 70 percent within three days and 50 percent over the next two days.

"Because of the above (the risk for a strong earthquake and the uncertainty regarding the nuclear situation), it seems reasonable to advise those who do not need to stay around Tokyo to go away from the Kanto region for a few days."

The memo strongly advised all French citizens living close by the nuclear plants "to remain at home (venting systems should be shut down) and to, whenever possible, stock bottles of water and food for many hours. When venturing outside, a breathing mask should be worn."

On the use of potassium iodide tablets as a prophylactic measure, the French embassy wrote: "We remind you that the absorption of iodine is not a benign gesture. Excessive repeated use can be harmful to your health. It is therefore very important to choose carefully the appropriate timing of the absorption when necessary. There again, it is recommended to follow the Japanese authorities recommendations as well as our own recommendations when communicated."

It's ironic that the French are giving such strong advice to their citizens in Japan while the Japanese government has yet to utter such dire warnings for their citizens. France derives 79 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, the highest share in the world. Japan derives 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

Here in the United States, we get 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power. In the aftermath of what appears to be the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown, the White House has reaffirmed its commitment to nuclear power as a "clean" energy resource that the U.S. should  ramp up. President Barack Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that nuclear power was a key facet of a so-called "Clean Energy Standard" which would require power companies to produce 80 percent of their electricity from a variety of sources including nuclear power by 2035.

Obama continues to support nuclear power, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday, even as Germany boldly heeded Japan's tragic wake-up call. Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that seven German nuclear reactors will be shut during a three-month review of their safety. There are 23 reactors in the United States that are the same model as the General Electric Mark 1 models that are in partial meltdown in Fukushima  -- about one in four that are in operation today.

Four reactors in California are on or near earthquake faults, as are others in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and elsewhere around the country. In addition, geologists warn that there appears to be a strong correlation between earthquake "swarms" and nearby natural gas hydro-fracturing of rock and the subsequent high-pressure reinjection of wastewater deep underground. Hydro-fracturing for natural gas -- or "fracking" -- is an increasingly common if controversial U.S. and global practice.

Meltdowns Grow More Likely at the Fukushima Reactors

March 13, 2011 ·

Japan's government and nuclear industry, with assistance from the U.S. military, is in a desperate race to stave off multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns — as well as potential fires in pools of spent fuel.

As of Sunday afternoon, more than 170,000 people have been evacuated near the reactor sites as radioactive releases have increased. The number of military emergency responders has jumped from 51,000 to 100,000. Officials now report a partial meltdown at Fukushima's Unit 1. Japanese media outlets are reporting that there may be a second one underway at Unit 3. People living nearby have been exposed to unknown levels of radiation, with some requiring medical attention.

Meanwhile, Unit 2 of the Tokai nuclear complex, which is near Kyodo and just 75 miles north of Tokyo, is reported to have a coolant pump failure. And Japan's nuclear safety agency has declared a state of emergency at the Onagawa nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan because of high radiation levels. Authorities are saying its three reactors are "under control."

The damage from the massive earthquake and the tsunamis that followed have profoundly damaged the reactor sites' infrastructure, leaving them without power and their electrical and piping systems destroyed. A hydrogen explosion yesterday at Unit 1 severely damaged the reactor building, blowing apart its roof.

The results of desperate efforts to divert seawater into the Unit 1 reactor are uncertain. A Japanese official reported that gauges don't appear to show the water level rising in the reactor vessel.

There remain a number of major uncertainties about the situation's stability and many questions about what might happen next. Along with the struggle to cool the reactors is the potential danger from an inability to cool Fukushima's spent nuclear fuel pools. They contain very large concentrations of radioactivity, can catch fire, and are in much more vulnerable buildings. The ponds, typically rectangular basins about 40 feet deep, are made of reinforced concrete walls four to five feet thick lined with stainless steel.

The boiling-water reactors at Fukushima — 40 years old and designed by General Electric — have spent fuel pools several stories above ground adjacent to the top of the reactor. The hydrogen explosion may have blown off the roof covering the pool, as it's not under containment. The pool requires water circulation to remove decay heat. If this doesn't happen, the water will evaporate and possibly boil off. If a pool wall or support is compromised, then drainage is a concern. Once the water drops to around 5-6 feet above the assemblies, dose rates could be life-threatening near the reactor building. If significant drainage occurs, after several hours the zirconium cladding around the irradiated uranium could ignite.

Then all bets are off.

On average, spent fuel ponds hold five-to-ten times more long-lived radioactivity than a reactor core. Particularly worrisome is the large amount of cesium-137 in fuel ponds, which contain anywhere from 20 to 50 million curies of this dangerous radioactive isotope. With a half-life of 30 years, cesium-137 gives off highly penetrating radiation and is absorbed in the food chain as if it were potassium.

In comparison, the 1986 Chernobyl accident released about 40 percent of the reactor core’s 6 million curies. A 1997 report for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by Brookhaven National Laboratory also found that a severe pool fire could render about 188 square miles uninhabitable, cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities, and cost $59 billion in damage. A single spent fuel pond holds more cesium-137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined. Earthquakes and acts of malice are considered to be the primary events that can cause a major loss of pool water.

In 2003, my colleagues and I published a study that indicated if a spent fuel pool were drained in the United States, a major release of cesium-137 from a pool fire could render an area uninhabitable greater than created by the Chernobyl accident. We recommended that spent fuel older than five years, about 75 percent of what's in U.S. spent fuel pools, be placed in dry hardened casks — something Germany did 25 years ago. The NRC challenged our recommendation, which prompted Congress to request a review of this controversy by the National Academy of Sciences. In 2004, the Academy reported that a "partially or completely drained a spent fuel pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding fire and release large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment."

Given what's happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, it's time for a serious review of what our nuclear safety authorities consider to be improbable, especially when it comes to reactors operating in earthquake zones.

On the Brink of Meltdown: The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

March 11, 2011 ·

In the aftermath of the largest earthquake to occur in Japan in recorded history, 5,800 residents living within five miles of six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear station have been advised to evacuate and people living within 15 miles of the plant are advised to remain indoors.

Plant operators haven't been able to cool down the core of one reactor containing enormous amounts of radioactivity because of failed back-up diesel generators required for the emergency cooling. In a race against time, the power company and the Japanese military are flying in nine emergency generators. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that the U.S. Air Force has provided cooling water for the troubled reactor. Complicating matters, Japan's Meteorological Agency has declared the area to be at high risk of being hit by a tsunami.

The plant was operating at full power when the quake hit and even though control rods were automatically inserted to halt the nuclear reaction, the reactor core remains very hot. Even with a fully functioning emergency core cooling system, it would take several hours for the reactor core to cool and stabilize. If emergency cooling isn't restored, the risks of a core melt, and release of radioactivity into the environment is significantly increased. Also, it's not clear if piping and electrically distribution systems inside the plant have been damaged. If so, that would interfere with reactor cooling.

A senior U.S. nuclear power technician tells me the window of time before serious problems arise is between 12 and 24 hours.

Early on, Japanese nuclear officials provided reassurances that no radiation had been released. However, because the reactor remains at a very high temperature, radiation levels are rising on the turbine building – forcing to plant operators to vent radioactive steam into the environment.

The devastating Japanese quake and its outcome could generate a political tsunami here in the United States. For instance, it may become impossible for the owners of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon reactors to extend their operating licenses.

These two California reactors are sitting in high seismic risk zones near earthquake faults. Each is designed to withstand a quake as great as 7.5 on the Richter scale. According to many seismologists, the probability of a major earthquake in the California coastal zone in the foreseeable future is a near certainty. The U.S. Geological Survey reports the largest registering 8.3 on the Richter scale devastated San Francisco in 1906.

"There have been tremblers felt at U.S. plants over the past several years, but nothing approaching the need for emergency action," Scott Burnell, a spokesman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Reuters.

As the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe approaches next month, Japan's earthquake serve as a reminder that the risks of nuclear power, when things go seriously wrong. The Chernobyl accident required nearly a million emergency responders and cleanup workers. More than 100,000 residents from 187 settlements were permanently evacuated because of radioactive contamination. And area an equal to half of the State of New Jersey was rendered uninhabitable.

Fortunately, U.S. and Japanese reactors have extra measures of protection that were lacking at Chernobyl, such as a secondary concrete containment structure over the reactor vessel to prevent escape of radioactivity. In 1979, the containment structure at the Three Mile Island reactor did prevent the escape of a catastrophic amount of radioactivity after the core melted. But people living nearby were exposed to higher levels of radiation from the accident and deliberate venting to stabilize the reactor. With one hour, the multi-billion dollar investment in that plant went down the drain.

Meanwhile, let's hope that the core of the Japanese reactor can be cooled in time. We shouldn't need yet another major nuclear power accident to wake up the public and decision-makers to the fact that there are better and much safer ways to make electricity.

SOTU: Parsing Obama's 'Clean Energy' Promises

January 26, 2011 ·

Tellingly, President Barack Obama didn't utter the two words "climate change" once in his State of the Union speech. He did, however, mention "clean energy" several times.

Read these sentences carefully:

"So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

What's happening behind the scenes is that Democrats and Republicans believe that a so-called "clean energy standard" is the way forward on climate change. It takes the word "standard," which environmentalists had successfully paired up with the two words "renewable energy" — as in "renewable energy standard," and perverts its meaning. What once meant a renewable energy target that the nation should shoot for — reliance on wind, solar, and other truly clean, renewable energy — is now becoming conflated with the same old dirty energy of the past: coal, nuclear power, and natural gas.

Code for 'Clean Coal'

But what Obama suggests is that this is a divide to be bridged, that we can move forward with all the old, dirty forms of energy, and maybe add in some wind and solar. The truth is that "clean energy" in this instance is code for "clean coal" (an oxymoron if there ever was one), nuclear power, and natural gas. And "clean coal" and nuclear power are so expensive that they'll starve truly clean energy options in the cradle, and will saddle future generations with debt, radioactive waste, and climate chaos.

The other goal Obama mentioned that has climate implications is high-speed rail. As oil becomes more expensive, this form of transportation will be desperately needed. So hearing this commitment — "within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car" — is welcome news. Will Congress follow through with funding for such a bold initiative? Don't hold your breath.

So, too, his mention of "one million electric cars" coming online is good news, but only if we have a grid that's largely powered by clean and renewable energy. Otherwise, it simply means a greater growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

It's worth noting that Obama made no mention of the state of scientific integrity and openness within his administration, despite making clear in his inaugural address two years ago that science had become politicized to the point of interference with sound scientific policy. Today, scientific openness remains almost as constrained as it was under the previous administration, when climate scientists were muzzled by their media handlers. Obama must take this issue on from his bully pulpit, and not leave it to the Office of Management and Budget to determine what science passes the "cost-benefit" evaluation of economists and what remains off limits for public discussion.

Scrapping Subsidies

Obama did propose ending subsidies for oil companies, adding, "I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own." He also offered a catchy slogan: "Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s."

However, as long as the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling stands, allowing unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, including large oil companies, it's unlikely that Congress will embrace this proposal.

Obama made no mention of the worst oil spill in U.S. history which occurred less than a year ago. It's also worth noting that the recommendations that emerged from the oil spill commission's findings on the BP oil disaster will require a Congress not beholden to the oil industry to act on those recommendations. Without action, a catastrophe like the BP disaster is likely to recur, according to the commission.

Yet by staying silent on this spill, on the commission's findings, as well as on the disastrous public health and environmental fallout that persists today as a result of the EPA's decision to allow dispersants to be used in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama has let down thousands of fisher-folk and others in the region who are paying for this disaster with their livelihoods and their health.

Recklessness with Nuclear Waste

December 16, 2010 ·

President Obama is holding a meeting today with the leaders of indigenous people in the U.S. One important issue is the fact that tribal people, because of their subsistence lifestyle, are the most vulnerable group of humans to environmental contaminants.

In 2002, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control reported that tribal people eating fish from the stretch of the Columbia River flowing through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford nuclear weapon production site in eastern Washington had a 1 in 50 risk of dying from radiation-induced cancer between the 1940's and late 1960's – the highest of any group living near this nuclear bomb plant. Along the near-shore, nine nuclear reactors used the river to cool their radioactive cores in order to make plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. During the production period, this stretch of the Columbia, known as the Hanford Reach, was considered the most radioactive stream in the world. Radioactive contaminants were found to migrate to the mouth of the Columbia in Portland OR and as far as the Baja in Mexico. Since then, most of radioactivity has decayed away.

The same year that CDC released its report, the Environmental Protection Agency also came out with a study that found that indigenous people eating fish at the present time from the same stretch of the Columbia have a 1 in 50 risk of dying from cancer due to pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyl’s (PCBs) and heavy metals. For several decades, the Columbia River has been a disposal medium for huge amounts of farming chemicals and toxic dumping by the mining industry. It’s extremely difficult to determine how much of these contaminants are coming from the Hanford site. Normally, the EPA is supposed to take action when a human health risk exceeds 1 in 10,000.

Production at Hanford ended twenty years ago, and left behind one of the most contaminated zones in the western Hemisphere. Some 400 billion gallons of liquid wastes were dumped into the soil-- enough to create a poisonous lake the size of Manhattan Island -- 80 feet deep. Enormous groundwater plumes containing radioactive and other hazardous wastes are migrating into the river. The most immediate threat is from hexavalent chromium, a potent carcinogen, made famous by the movie, Erin Brokovich. Large amounts were used in Hanford’s reactors, and are now creeping into the Chinook salmon spawning beds. Tribal people are extremely dependent on the salmon for subsistence and their economic well being. The Chinook also make up a large portion of the total Pacific salmon harvest.

In 2000, a study by the U.S, Geological Survey found that juvenile salmon in the Hanford Reach are being seriously harmed by the chromium entering the river. It was heavily criticized by the DOE and effectively squelched. Further research was thwarted after a refrigerator that held samples of salmon tissue at DOE’s Pacific National Laboratory was mysteriously unplugged.

The Yakama Tribe, whose land is occupied by the Hanford site, has repeatedly tried to get the U.S. government to acknowledge this problem. At a meeting in 2003, with EPA Region 10 officials, tribal members were told EPA had no money to reduce their risks and that they should be more concerned about pesticide residues on Mexican strawberries. In exchange for relinquishing their land, the Federal government has a legal trust responsibility to ensure that tribal treaty resources are protected and that the health of tribal people is not being harmed. Violation of this trust responsibility has a long, well-documented and tragic history. So far, no attempt by the U.S. government has been made to correct this injustice on the Hanford Reach.

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