Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Fate of Japan and the Whole World Depends on No. 4 Reactor

By Akio Matsumura, Finding the Missing Link
11 April 12

Fukushima Daiichi site: Cesium-137 is 85 times greater than at Chernobyl accident.
rsn-J.jpgapan’s former Ambassador to Switzerland, Mr. Mitsuhei Murata, was invited to speak at the Public Hearing of the Budgetary Committee of the House of Councilors on March 22, 2012, on the Fukushima nuclear power plants accident. Before the Committee, Ambassador Murata strongly stated that if the crippled building of reactor unit 4 - with 1,535 fuel rods in the spent fuel pool 100 feet (30 meters) above the ground - collapses, not only will it cause a shutdown of all six reactors but will also affect the common spent fuel pool containing 6,375 fuel rods, located some 50 meters from reactor 4. In both cases the radioactive rods are not protected by a containment vessel; dangerously, they are open to the air. This would certainly cause a global catastrophe like we have never before experienced. He stressed that the responsibility of Japan to the rest of the world is immeasurable. Such a catastrophe would affect us all for centuries. Ambassador Murata informed us that the total numbers of the spent fuel rods at the Fukushima Daiichi site excluding the rods in the pressure vessel is 11,421  (396+615+566+1,535+994+940+6375).
I asked top spent-fuel pools expert Mr. Robert Alvarez, former Senior Policy Adviser to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Energy, for an explanation of the potential impact of the 11,421 rods.
I received an astounding response from Mr. Alvarez [updated 4/5/12]:
In recent times, more information about the spent fuel situation at the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site has become known. It is my understanding that of the 1,532 spent fuel assemblies in reactor No. 304 assemblies are fresh and unirradiated. This then leaves 1,231 irradiated spent fuel rods in pool No. 4, which contain roughly 37 million curies (~1.4E+18 Becquerel) of long-lived radioactivity. The No. 4 pool is about 100 feet above ground, is structurally damaged and is exposed to the open elements. If an earthquake or other event were to cause this pool to drain this could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cs-137 released by the Chernobyl accident.
The infrastructure to safely remove this material was destroyed as it was at the other three reactors. Spent reactor fuel cannot be simply lifted into the air by a crane as if it were routine cargo. In order to prevent severe radiation exposures, fires and possible explosions, it must be transferred at all times in water and heavily shielded structures into dry casks.. As this has never been done before, the removal of the spent fuel from the pools at the damaged Fukushima-Dai-Ichi reactors will require a major and time-consuming re-construction effort and will be charting in unknown waters. Despite the enormous destruction cased at the Da-Ichi site, dry casks holding a smaller amount of spent fuel appear to be unscathed.
Based on U.S. Energy Department data, assuming a total of 11,138 spent fuel assemblies are being stored at the Dai-Ichi site, nearly all, which is in pools. They contain roughly 336 million curies (~1.2 E+19 Bq) of long-lived radioactivity. About 134 million curies is Cesium-137 - roughly 85 times the amount of Cs-137 released at the Chernobyl accident as estimated by the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP). The total spent reactor fuel inventory at the Fukushima-Daichi site contains nearly half of the total amount of Cs-137 estimated by the NCRP to have been released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, Chernobyl, and world-wide reprocessing plants (~270 million curies or ~9.9 E+18 Becquerel).
It is important for the public to understand that reactors that have been operating for decades, such as those at the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site have generated some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.
Many of our readers might find it difficult to appreciate the actual meaning of the figure, yet we can grasp what 85 times more Cesium-137 than the Chernobyl would mean. It would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.
There was a Nuclear Security Summit Conference in Seoul on March 26 and 27, and Ambassador Murata and I made a concerted effort to find someone to inform the participants from 54 nations of the potential global catastrophe of reactor unit 4. We asked several participants to share the idea of an Independent Assessment team comprised of a broad group of international experts to deal with this urgent issue.
I would like to introduce Ambassador Murata’s letter to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to convey this urgent message and also his letter to Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for Japanese readers. He emphasized in the statement that we should bring human wisdom to tackle this unprecedented challenge.
It seems to us that the Nuclear Security Summit was focused on the North Korea nuclear issue and on the issue of common security from a terrorist attack. Our appeal on the need for the independent assessment at Reactor 4 was regarded as less urgent. We predicted this outcome in light of the nature of the Summit. I suppose most participants fully understood the potential disaster which will affect their countries. Nevertheless, they decided not to raise the delicate issue, perhaps in order to not ruffle their diplomatic relationship with Japan.
I was moved by Ambassador Murata’s courage in pressing this issue in Japan. I know how difficult it is for a former career diplomat to do this, especially in my country. Current and former government officials might be similarly restricted in the scope of their actions, as Ambassador Murata is, but it is their responsibility to take a stand for the benefit of our descendants for centuries to come - to pass on a world safer than our ancestors passed us.
If Japanese government leaders do not recognize the risk their nation faces, how could the rest of us be persuaded of the looming disaster? And if the rest of us do not acknowledge the catastrophe we collectively face, who will be the one to act?

Radioactive particles from Japan detected in California kelp

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station
From the LA Times:

Radioactive particles released in the nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami were detected in giant kelp along the California coast, according to a recently published study.
Radioactive iodine was found in samples collected from beds of kelp in locations along the coast from Laguna Beach to as far north as Santa Cruz about a month after the explosion, according to the study by two marine biologists at Cal State Long Beach. 
The levels, while most likely not harmful to humans, were significantly higher than measurements prior to the explosion and comparable to those found in British Columbia, Canada, and northern Washington state following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, according to the study published in March in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. 
Giant kelp, or Macrocystis pyrifera, is a particularly good measure of radioactive material in the environment because it accumulates iodine, researchers said. They wrote that radioactive particles released into the atmosphere, in particular radioactive isotope iodine 131, made its way across the Pacific, then was likely deposited into the ocean during a period of significant rain shortly after the meltdown in Japan. 
The highest levels were found in Corona del Mar. Researchers wrote that the levels were probably highest there because the kelp is also exposed to urban runoff, which may have increased the amount of rainfall it received.

The study’s authors said that while the effect of radioactive material in kelp is not well known, it would have been consumed by organisms that feed on the kelp such as sea urchins or crustaceans. Certain species of fish, including opaleye, halfmoon or senorita may be particularly affected because their endocrine systems contain iodine, according to researchers. 
"Radioactivity is taken up by the kelp and anything that feeds on the kelp will be exposed to this also,"  Steven Manley, the study's lead author, said in a statement released by Cal State Long Beach. "It enters the coastal food web and gets dispersed over a variety of organisms ...  It's not a good thing, but whether it actually has a measureable detrimental effect is beyond my expertise." 

Jellyfish blooms creating oceans of slime

We here at Universal Jellyfish have been on top of this for awhile. If people decide to get serious about eating them - that would probably take care of it.

Here is a BBC article with updates:

In the last decade enormous plagues of jellyfish have been taking over the seas. And it is our fault. 
As I rose to a couple of metres below the surface, I saw the problem too late: the shallow water was carpeted with mauve stinger jellyfish (Pelagia noctiluca). There was no avoiding it, reaching the surface meant I had to swim through the flames of stingers....
Locals told me the carpet of jellyfish, known as a bloom, was not an isolated case. My dive instructor said he had seen massive blooms off the coast of Gozo every year since 2000. But never before then.
In fact, huge annual jellyfish blooms have been cropping up not just across the Mediterranean, but also the Black Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Yellow and Japan Seas.  Is this a bizarre blip in the continually changing balance of oceanic life, or the beginnings of a new state change in marine diversity?Or in other words: in the Anthropocene, will the seas be filled with slime?If they are, we face some serious problems.
Last year alone, nuclear power plants in Scotland, Japan, Israel and Florida, and also a desalination plant in Israel, were forced to shutdown because jellyfish were clogging the water inlets. The entire Irish salmon industry was wiped out in 2007 after a plague of billions of mauve stingers – covering an area of 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and 35ft (11m) deep – attacked the fish cages. Two years later, a fish farm in Tunisia lost a year's production of sea bream and sea bass after jellyfish invasions. 
Perhaps the most extraordinary blooms have been those occurring in waters off Japan. There, refrigerator-sized gelatinous monsters called Nomuras, weighing 485lb (220 kg) and measuring 6.5ft (2m) in diameter, have swarmed the Japan Sea annually since 2002, clogging fishing nets, overturning trawlers and devastating coastal livelihoods. These assaults have cost the Japanese fisheries industry billions of yen in losses. 

Marine ecologists are warning of worse to come, and pointing the tentacle of blame at us. Some researchers fear that human changes to the marine environment may be leading to a tipping point in which jellyfish will rule the oceans, much as they did hundreds of millions of years ago in pre-Cambrian times. In 2009, Australian marine scientist Anthony Richardson and his colleagues published a research paper entitled The jellyfish joyride, in which they warn that if we do not act to curb current blooms, we will experience runaway populations that will cause open oceanic ecosystems to flip from ones dominated by fish biodiversity to ones dominated by jellyfish.
The problem is that no one really knows what causes the blooms. Some believe that population explosions result from overfishing of their dining competitors and predators, which include more than 100 species of fish, and animals such as turtles. However, other researchers point out that overfishing also hits jellyfish by reducing their food availability.Either way, what is clear is that jellyfish are simply better prepared than other marine life for many of the ways humans are changing the ocean environment, such as warmer temperatures, salinity changes, ocean acidification and pollution. In this sense, humans might be jellyfishes’ best friend. 
For instance, pollution can cause algal blooms that reduce the water's oxygen content. This hits muscular swimmers like fish hard, but jellyfish can cope far better with these conditions. 

Warmer water encourages jellyfish reproduction, and they can also better tolerate population crashes because their reproductive strategies are complex and adaptable. Some species of jelly can clone themselves, whereas others reproduce sexually but also have a polyp stage – like corals, with which they are related – that allows large populations of immature individuals to multiply while waiting for the right conditions to mature into adulthood. In these ways, they can withstand impacts that devastate other marine species.
Even the coastal infrastructure we build seems to be working to their advantage. Rob Condon, a marine scientist at Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, says that the pontoons, piers and even drilling platforms help provide anchors for jellyfish polyps, encouraging local population explosions.... 
Gathering data on jellyfish, though, is notoriously difficult. Although 70% of the planet is covered by ocean, we really only have a hazy idea about most of the life outside of coastal or estuarine zones. Jellyfish, which inhabit open oceans and deep waters, are still an enigma in many ways. Monitoring individuals and blooms cannot be done by satellite because they are so transparent, have very low biomass, and often occupy waters below the optical depth for satellite penetration. Even finding polyps and larvae in sea grass is tricky. So, despite JEDI's efforts, no one can say for sure whether blooms are increasing or not.... 

Perhaps one solution is to sustainably exploit their abundance. Jellyfish do have their uses: in collagen preparations (to treat rheumatoid arthritis, for example), they are popular attractions in aquaria, and their fluorescent proteins have been instrumental in biomedical discoveries.
And, of course, they are a source of food. In Japan and other parts of Asia, jellyfish are dried and chopped into noodle-like strips to be added to soups, for example. Some entrepreneurial Japanese are even making vanilla-and-jellyfish ice cream. Jellyfish are 80% protein and very low in fat, although the high sodium content probably outweighs their health benefits.