This is a series of articles that I wrote here before I rebuilt the site.
Originally published 12 Mar 2011
Reuters reported today that Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said the Earth’s axis had shifted 25 cm as a result of the quake and the U.S. Geological Survey said the main island of Japan had actually shifted 2.4 metres.
I find it difficult to imagine the power that was released by the earthquake and the fact that is moved the Earth.
We get used to the Earth just spinning around in its orbit, so to learn that it can be moved by what is, after all, a small event in terms of the size of the Earth, is unsettling.
What if there were an even bigger earthquake in the future? What could that do to this spinning ball?
Nuclear Meltdown and Risk Analysis
The news from the Fukushima nuclear plant has everyone wondering whether the breakdown will be contained or whether there will be a meltdown. The authorities say that the plant has containment vessels built around the reactor cores to prevent the kind what happened at Chernobyl.
But there have been a string of unexpected events that have led to this point. The tsunami was bigger than planned for as an eventuality. It killed the power grid. It killed the diesel back-up generators. The back-up batteries ran flat. The blast from one reactor blew apart the fire engines that were feeding sea water coolant into the reactor that had already blown.
Sea water corrodes. Assuming there is no meltdown, the reactors are dead, done, and finished. The use of sea water is itself evidence of a desperate last-ditch attempt to kill the meltdown.
And the bottom line is this.
When the consequences of an error or an unforeseen event are so potentially catastrophic, the normal rules of risk analysis should be scrapped.
The only safe course is not to run the risk.
If that means no nuclear plants along a seismic fault line, then so be it. If that means no nuclear plants in Japan, then so be bit.
I have been saying this for years.
My wife has a friend who is Japanese and who lives in Tokyo. We corresponded on Facebook last night – they lost some good china that fell off their shelves but apart from that they are OK.
Of course that was before the news about the nuclear power station – that is a different category of worry – insidious because it is unseen.
I have a friend in Ofunato, a town which I now learn has been badly hit by the tsunami. Thus far, I have not been able to get any news about my firend or his community.
Originally published 17 March 2011
I keep thinking about Apocalypse Now and the scene in the film where the captain of the boat is speared with a homemade spear thrown by some tribesman from the bank of the river.
And the captain looks at the spear impaling him against the bulkhead of the boat, looks in disbelief.
He looks at it as though he sees how the spear has chased him down through the generations.
He looks at is as though he sees and understands that the spear has followed him throughout his life and found him here on a river in Vietnam or Laos.
The spear has found him. It has found him, a black man who is an officer in the army. A man who has tried to put his black roots behind him and has risen in the ranks of the army – or the navy – whichever.
And now, the spear – the symbolic spear – returns him all the way back to where he thought he had come from – was going to kill him.
I am not sure why I think of Apocalypse Now when I think of Japan and the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station.
Perhaps it is because the Japanese have been so eager to please, so willing to enter into the new model of the spirit of the modern world since their dreams were shattered at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And now their enthusiasm is coming back to bite them.
Who can say what is in store? A couple of days ago, a meltdown wasn’t possible. A couple of days before that there was no risk of any breach of the containment vessel. And tomorrow?
I met a very nice man in the coastal town of Ofunato in Japan some fifteen years ago. He was very kind and benevolent. His whole community was as friendly as could be and I had a wonderful time.
I picked wasabi with them.
Ofunato is three hours north of Sendai, where the tsunami hit.
A couple of days ago I heard that Ofunato had been hit hard by the tsunami. I haven’t been able to get any information about the man I knew or his community.
Now there is this added dimension of nuclear material being spewed into the air.
I feel so sorry for them all.
Originally published 27 March 2011
It Will Take Years To Decontaminate The Water Pooling At the Fukushima Plant. Lake Barrett, a nuclear engineer who was a section leader in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation and helped direct the cleanup of Three Mile Island is reported in the Washington Post today as saying that he believes there could be one million gallons of radioactive seawater in the Fukushima facility.
“It will take them years, probably, to get rid of all that water,” Barrett said. “The science is known. But it is a Herculean task.”
UPDATE 01.00 Monday March 28
As the Washington Post reports, Yukio Edano, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said in a televised interview yesterday morning that the reactor itself had not been breached but that “Unfortunately, it seems there is no question that water, which could have been inside the reactor, is leaking.”
Arnold Gundersen, who was an expert witness in the investigation of the Three Mile Island accident, is chief engineer of energy consulting company Fairewinds Associates.
He is reported as saying that unlike with newer reactor designs, there are dozens of holes built into the bottom of the reactor vessels at Dai-Ichi.
Each hole allows a neutron-absorbing graphite control rod to slide into the reactor from below and so stop the nuclear reaction. This happened when the earthquake shook the plant March 11.
However, the graphite has begun to melt under the intense heat – allowing radioactive water to get into the broken pipework around the reactor.
Originally published 9 July 2012
The failure of Fukushima was the design of the reactor vessel. The tsunami caused the mains power to fail. The unimagined height of the tsunami reached the back-up generators and caused them to fail.
But neither of these would have caused the damage that happened but for the fact that the reactor was designed with the holes for the cooling rods at the bottom of the reactor vessel.
When the unimaginable happened and the rods melted, everything just poured out.
So, on top of all the possible things that could happen in these real-world scenarios, there is also human design error.
It was also human error that caused Chernobyl…