Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Workers Give Glimpse of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis"

From the New York Times:

With the power out, trucks were parked in a circle with their lights on, creating a shadowy stage. A manager from the Tokyo Electric Power Company explained how the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had been slammed by a mammoth tsunami and rocked by hydrogen explosions and had become highly radioactive. Some workers wept.

That was the scene at J-Village, 12 miles south of the plant, on the night of March 15. Hundreds of firefighters, Self-Defense Forces and workers from Tokyo Electric Power convened at the sports training center, arguing long and loudly about how best to restore cooling systems and prevent nuclear fuel from overheating. Complicating matters, a lack of phone service meant that they had little input from upper management.

“There were so many ideas, the meeting turned into a panic,” said one longtime Tokyo Electric veteran present that day. He made the comments in an interview with The New York Times, one of several interviews that provided a rare glimpse of the crisis as the company’s workers experienced it. “There were serious arguments between the various sections about whether to go, how to use electrical lines, which facilities to use and so on.”

The quarreling echoed the alarm bells ringing throughout Tokyo Electric, which has been grappling with an unprecedented set of challenges since March 11, when the severe earthquake and massive tsunami upended northeastern Japan. It is also an insight, through interviews, e-mails and blog posts, into the problems faced by the thousands of often anxious but eager Tokyo Electric Power employees working to re-establish order.

Many of them — especially the small number charged with approaching damaged reactors and exposing themselves to unusually high doses of radiation — are viewed as heroes, preventing the world’s second-worst nuclear calamity from becoming even more dire.

But unlike their bosses, who appear daily in blue work coats to apologize to the public and explain why the company has not yet succeeded in taming the reactors, the front-line workers have remained almost entirely anonymous.

In the interviews and in some e-mail and published blog items, several line workers expressed frustration at the slow pace of the recovery efforts, sometimes conflicting orders from their bosses and unavoidable hurdles like damaged roads. In many cases, the line workers want the public to know that they feel remorse for the nuclear crisis, but also that they are trying their best to fix it.

“My town is gone,” wrote a worker named Emiko Ueno, in an email obtained by The Times. “My parents are still missing. I still cannot get in the area because of the evacuation order. I still have to work in such a mental state. This is my limit.”

...In Tokyo, bosses at Tokyo Electric ordered transmission and distribution teams to prepare their gear, including tons of batteries, cables and transformers. On March 14, workers were told that the assignment was dangerous and that they could opt out. Few did. Many workers felt duty-bound to go to Fukushima, particularly those with families who were directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

One worker said in an interview that he left for Fukushima on March 15. His convoy had free rein on the highways, which had been cleared for utility vehicles. The local roads were slower going because parts of some streets had literally disappeared.

After heated arguments about how to proceed during the impromptu meeting at J-Village, teams on March 16 went to the Daiichi plant. Everyone wore a mask and special suit. There, they jury-rigged a connection that carried electricity from a nearby substation to the plant.

“I wanted to plug in the cable as soon as possible so the plant would have power again, but the nuclear people wanted to check the safety of various instruments first,” the worker said. “I was so excited to do something that I couldn’t stand the slow speed of the decision making.”

...At J-Village two days later, several dozen Tokyo Electric workers who had completed their tasks were killing time when their boss walked to a white board where their to-do list was written. Next to the last item, he wrote the character “ryo,” which means “good” or, in this case, “completed.”

“I’ll never forget the moment when the manager told us we were done,” said the longtime Tokyo Electric veteran present that day. “Everyone started yelling and crying.”

Many of the workers also used their cellphone cameras to take pictures of the white board and the character, which was circled in red ink. Lacking beer, the worker and his friends celebrated by sharing two bottles of Coca-Cola.

...But like several false dawns in the effort to control the plant, the work they did to extend electrical power to the facility has yet to provide the turning point it once seemed to promise. The main reactor buildings are either too badly damaged, or too laden with radioactivity, to readily reconnect plumbing and electrical systems. And fellow workers at the plant now face even more severe hazards in keeping the reactors cool by pouring water on the fuel in the reactors and spent fuel pools.

Even in the Tokyo office of the power company, the lights and heaters are shut off to save energy. Many people wear coats at their desks and go home when it gets dark. The nuclear crisis is far from over; their company faces possible bankruptcy or nationalization, and many workers fear for their paychecks.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Radiation Disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

Photo from the Institute for Science and International Security

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami was enough of a disaster in itself. One of the effects of 10 meter tsunami was to knock out the system that cooled the nuclear facility at Fukushima. The plants automatically shut down with an earthquake - but a tsunami of that size was not anticipated. Without cooling, there has been explosions and some amount of melting and release of radiation.

The presence of radiation has made it difficult to have people working at the plant to fix the problems because of the high levels of radiation around the plant. Based on the sievert level (see below) - there are limits to how much a person should be exposed to in an hour, in a day, in a year.

From the BBC ->"After Tuesday's explosions and fire, radiation dosages of up to 400 millisieverts per hour were recorded at the Fukushima Daiichi site, about 250km north-east of Tokyo. Later, a reading of 0.6 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was recorded at the plant's main gate, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said."

Radiation has spread out app. 15 miles. The US advised an evacuation of 50 miles out. France advised it's citizens to leave the country. Tokyo is about 150 miles away. People have been concerned about the wind direction - as far as radiation spread. It has mostly gone out over the ocean so far.

Summary of conditions put together by Greenpeace as of March 18th:

Overall, with possible exception of spent fuel pool of reactor #3, the status of all facilities is very similar to yesterday, which is a bad thing. Major uncertainty relates to amount of radiation already being released to air and sea, to risk of a violent fire in the cladding of the fuel rods as the spent fuel pools are exposed for hours, as well as to the behavior of the reactor cores as water levels remain low.

Good news is that the violent release of radioactivity due to fire or explosion feared yesterday has not happened yet. Power is still not restored to the facility, but some progress has made to bring off site power and more equipment. This means more effective cooling could be established in some days. At least until that happens, the situation remains critical and unpredictable.

Reactors 1-3: water level in reactors low (about half of fuel rods exposed), no grid power, seawater injection apparently ongoing. Fuel rods have certainly damaged and are releasing radioactive substances.

Fire department has brought in 30 more trucks, at least one reported to be a “Super Bomber” able to shoot to a distance of 2 kilometers. Yesterday police trucks were unable to operate close to plant because of high radiation levels, only SDF (Self Defense Force) trucks that can be operated from inside the cabin were used.

Spent fuel pools of units 1&2: Water levels in Unit 1 are decreasing. Steam was reported from unit 2, expected to be boiling.

Spent fuel pool of unit 3: Water in #3 almost depleted, but Tepco hopes some water is left. Fuel rods have certainly damaged, releasing radioactive substances. The reactor buildings are heavily damaged, allowing releases directly to outside air.

Spent fuel pool of unit 4: Water level very unclear.

Spent fuel pools of units 5&6: Temperatures still rising, water left but level unclear.

Worst case scenarios

* The zirconium contained in the fuel rod cladding can react violently with air, if exposed for hours. This fire would release and spread very large amounts of radioactivity high up in the air. Wide disagreement on the probability of this happening.

* A large amount of molten fuel accumulates at the bottom and a nuclear reaction starts. Very low probability and can be prevented if there is any borated water in the pool.

* Reactor boils dry, molten core breaches reactor pressure vessel and comes in contact with the water in the containment, which boils rapidly causing a steam explosion.

* A major risk is an event (e.g. increased release of radioactivity from a spent fuel pool due to overheating) that raises local radiation levels to completely intolerable levels - preventing further work to restore cooling.

Tepco seemed to suggest that encasing the plant in concrete is an option if cooling efforts fail (according to Reuters live feed).

Local wind speed slowed down considerably in the morning but direction remained towards the sea. Winds towards Tokyo are still feared for Sunday.

A more detailed summary can be found @ Reuters


There was 3 Mile Island, there was Chernobyl, and now this. This situation has made it clear that all nuclear plants need to have their systems and possible catastrophic scenarios more thought out. There are many plants of the same type in the US - where people have warned of this and this sort of possible problem and yet - nothing has been done to fix and avert the potential problem.

Clearly more people need to accept that nuclear energy poses very extreme risks to people and the environment.

About that Radiation and Sieverts:

The sievert (symbol: Sv) is the SI derived unit of dose equivalent. It attempts to quantitatively evaluate the biological effects of ionizing radiation as opposed to the physical aspects, which are characterised by the absorbed dose, measured in gray. It is named after Rolf Sievert, a Swedish medical physicist renowned for work on radiation dosage measurement and research into the biological effects of radiation.

Frequently used SI multiples are the millisievert (1 mSv = 10−3 Sv = 0.001 Sv) and microsievert (1 μSv = 10−6 Sv = 0.000001 Sv).

An older unit of the equivalent dose is the rem. In some fields and countries, the rem and millirem (abbreviated mrem) continue to be used along with Sv and mSv, causing confusion. Here are the conversion equivalences:

1 Sv = 1000 mSv (millisieverts) = 1,000,000 μSv (microsieverts) = 100 rem = 100,000 mrem (millirem)

Single dose examples:

Eating one banana: 0.0001 mSv
Sleeping next to a human for 8 hours: 0.0005 mSv[1]
Dental radiography: 0.005 mSv[2]
Average dose to people living within 16 km of Three Mile Island accident: 0.08 mSv; maximum dose: 1 mSv[3]
Mammogram: 3 mSv[2]
Brain CT scan: 0.8–5 mSv[4]

International Commission on Radiological Protection recommended limit for volunteers averting major nuclear escalation: 500 mSv
International Commission on Radiological Protection recommended limit for volunteers rescuing lives or preventing serious injuries: 1000 mSv

Hourly dose examples:

Approximate radiation levels near Chernobyl reactor 4 and its fragments, shortly[clarification needed] after explosion are reported to be 10–300 Sv/hr

Yearly dose examples:

Living near a nuclear power station: 0.0001–0.01 mSv/year
Living near a coal power station: 0.0003 mSv/year
Cosmic radiation (from sky) at sea level: 0.24 mSv/year
Natural radiation in the human body: 0.40 mSv/year
New York-Tokyo flights for airline crew: 9 mSv/year
Total average radiation dose for Americans: 6.2 mSv/year

Current average limit for nuclear workers: 20 mSv/year

Lowest clearly carcinogenic level: 100 mSv/year

Elevated limit for workers during Fukushima emergency: 250 mSv/year

Dose limit examples:

Criterion for relocation after Chernobyl disaster: 350 mSv/lifetime

Public dose limits for exposure from uranium mining or nuclear plants are usually set at 1 mSv/yr above background.

Symptom benchmarks

Symptoms of acute radiation (within one day):

0 – 0.25 Sv (0 - 250 mSv): None

0.25 – 1 Sv (250 - 1000 mSv): Some people feel nausea and loss of appetite; bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen damaged.

1 – 3 Sv (1000 - 3000 mSv): Mild to severe nausea, loss of appetite, infection; more severe bone marrow, lymph node, spleen damage; recovery probable, not assured.

3 – 6 Sv (3000 - 6000 mSv): Severe nausea, loss of appetite; hemorrhaging, infection, diarrhea, peeling of skin, sterility; death if untreated.

6 – 10 Sv (6000 - 10000 mSv): Above symptoms plus central nervous system impairment; death expected.
Above 10 Sv (10000 mSv): Incapacitation and death.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Global Warming & Earthquakes?

I was skeptical - but it sounds like it could be so....

Japan quake ranks as 5th largest since 1900

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — The massive earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan Friday ranks as the fifth largest in the world since 1900, scientists said.

The magnitude-8.9 "megathrust" quake is similar to what happened during the 2004 Sumatra quake that spawned a killer tsunami and the earthquake last year in Chile. In all these cases, one tectonic plate is shoved beneath another.

Such earthquakes are responsible for the most powerful shifts in the Earth's crust.

Japan is at particular risk, sitting in the "Ring of Fire" — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 percent of the world's quakes occur.

"The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month's worth of energy consumption" in the United States, said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Brian Atwater.

Today’s tsunami: This is what climate change looks like

So far, today's tsunami has mainly affected Japan -- there are reports of up to 300 dead in the coastal city of Sendai -- but future tsunamis could strike the U.S. and virtually any other coastal area of the world with equal or greater force, say scientists. In a little-heeded warning issued at a 2009 conference on the subject, experts outlined a range of mechanisms by which climate change could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity.

"When the ice is lost, the earth's crust bounces back up again and that triggers earthquakes, which trigger submarine landslides, which cause tsunamis," Bill McGuire, professor at University College London, told Reuters.

Melting ice masses change the pressures on the underlying earth, which can lead to earthquakes and tsunamis, but that's just the beginning. Rising seas also change the balance of mass across earth's surface, putting new strain on old earthquake faults, and may have been partly to blame for the devastating 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia, according to experts from the China Meteorological Administration.

Even a simple change in the weather can dramatically affect the earth beneath our feet:

David Pyle of Oxford University said small changes in the mass of the earth's surface seems to affect volcanic activity in general, not just in places where ice receded after a cold spell. Weather patterns also seem to affect volcanic activity - not just the other way round, he told the conference.

Scientists have known for some time that climate change affects not just the atmosphere and the oceans but also the Earth's crust. These effects are not widely understood by the public.

"In the political community people are almost completely unaware of any geological aspects to climate change," said McGuire.

This means a world in which we are warming the earth by pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at a pace that is unprecedented in Earth's history is also a world in which the consequences of climate change could come hard and fast, including tsunamis and earthquakes.

Parts of the earth that are now rarely affected by tsunamis, such as northern coastal regions, could be hit by "glacial earthquakes," in which glacier ice crashes to earth in massive landslides.

"Our experiments show that glacial earthquakes can generate far more powerful tsunamis than undersea earthquakes with similar magnitude," said Song.

"Several high-latitude regions, such as Chile, New Zealand and Canadian Newfoundland are particularly at risk."

It's often difficult to visualize what climate change-related disasters might look like, but the images pouring out of Japan are yet another reminder of the specter of storm surges supercharged by more powerful weather and rising seas, and even climate-change caused tsunamis. (All of America's coastal cities are vulnerable to these impacts -- including, in this remarkable animation, New York City.) Right on the heels of Brisbane, Snowpocalypse, and Australia's record dust storms, we have yet another reminder of what an Earth transformed by climate change could look like.