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Failure of imagination can be deadly: Fukushima is a warning

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The extent of the damage at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility is still unknown, but comparisons to Chernobyl were inevitable as soon as fuel rods became exposed and an explosion rocked the site. But is the analogy accurate?

Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster thus far in the history of the industry, was the result of a drill that went catastrophically wrong on April 26, 1986. The drill, ironically, was intended to test a known time gap between a potential power failure and the performance of backup generator pumps. Workers had been made aware that the experiment would be taking place, but it still ended catastrophically.

Accidents–even unthinkably irrevocable accidents–do happen. The nuclear industry has measures in place, from protective containment barriers to backup generators, in case of an accident. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake, however, isn’t just an accident. It’s an encompassing situation that impacts every aspect of possible recovery in an ongoing, dynamic environment.

Another key difference is that the Chernobyl reactor used carbon to slow down neutrons, a key part of the fission reaction, while Fukushima’s reactor cores are cooled by light-water, which greatly reduces the amount of radioactive soot in the wind.

Nevertheless, the power grid at the Fukushima site, 150 miles from Tokyo, has been knocked out. Backup generators have been rendered useless by tsunami floods. The containment dome may have been damaged in the earthquake and batteries with an eight-hour life span are being flown in to augment those on site. Multiple reactor cores have been affected.

The explosion and plume of white that rose last night may have been the result of hydrogen deflagration and detonation. At least one study found that it’s possible for hydrogen buildup in a reactor core to form flammable and detonable mixtures, jeopardizing the containment integrity.

Japanese nuclear authorities report that a meltdown may have already occurred.

What is a Nuclear Meltdown?

A nuclear reactor core meltdown occurs when the fuel rod in the reactor core is unable to remain cool. Fuel rods in nuclear reactor cores are filled with uranium oxide ceramic pellets in zirconium cladding. When the "spent" rods are removed from the reactor core they are stored in pools with racks of rods at the bottom or dry casks, usually on site. Periodically the fuel rods are removed from reactor cores and refreshed.

While such rods are spent in terms of their usefulness in the reactor core, they still contain deadly radioisotopes that remain hazardous. Like the fuel rods in the reactor core, spent fuel rods must be kept cool or the release of cesium-137 and strontium-90, among other deadly radioisotopes, could result. Like nuclear power, which has "peaceful" and "wartime" uses, radioisotopes can be deadly when released unexpectedly into the environment in large doses but can also be used for medicinal purposes.

There’s less heat in the spent fuel rods than in the reactor core’s fuel rods, so the danger posed is less intense, but in an encompassing crisis such as a magnitude 9.0 earthquake affecting multiple sites at once, the ability to cool storage pools can be greatly impaired. While it takes longer for the spent fuel rods to become as hazardous as a reactor core meltdown, the ongoing nature of Japan’s crisis presents a unique hazard. The Fukushima facility is old, by the standards of modern technology, with construction having begun in the 1960’s and ending in 1971.

Toxic Waste and Fault Lines

Getting rid of nuclear waste is an issue that continues to plague the industry. In the United States, the Yucca Mountain waste repository project in Nevada, (with an estimated budget of $96 billion, of which over $13.5 billion was spent) was finally canceled by the Obama Administration amid concerns that the expense far exceeded the benefit of transporting spent fuel and storing it at the site. Nevada is one of the most seismically active states and it was discovered that the Yucca Mountain project was placed on a fault line.

In the United States, spent nuclear fuel is not reprocessed as it is in Japan. Various processes, such as deconversion of depleted uranium, are conducted, however. Depleted uranium is left over after uranium has been enriched for use in nuclear reactors or weapons, blurring the line between peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear power.

Many issues related to the process of creating and shipping depleted uranium have been identified. The United States uses depleted uranium to create weapons such as shells and projectiles, to enhance armor-piercing capability. When a weapon containing depleted uranium strikes a solid object a spray of radioactive dust results.

Depleted uranium is stored in 14 ton cylinders at the site of enrichment plants. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a chemical hazard exists from environmental exposure. The same is true for spent nuclear fuel stored on the site of nuclear plants.

A map of the Fukushima site, where a state of emergency has been declared for five nuclear reactors at two sites shows both a spent fuel rod pool and a dry storage facility. It’s unclear how much spent fuel is on the site and how much has been moved to the processing plant or interim facility. Spent fuel is generally cooled in pools for at least five years prior to being moved to dry casks or for reprocessing.

Hundreds of tons of Japan’s spent nuclear fuel have been moved for reprocessing at the Rokkasho facility. Rokkasho and other facilities are also in danger as aftershocks, blackouts and tsunami warnings remain in effect, impacting the ongoing ability to cool multiple endangered reactors and the spent fuel that once generated power from their cores. Der Speigel reported that Rokkasho is also running on emergency power.

The Improbable Can Occur

The complexity of the situation in Japan is significant and ongoing, and it’s likely that all of the reactor cores at Fukushima will remain offline for the foreseeable future. Despite the necessity to prepare for the worst to whatever degree it is possible, business models are not built around contingencies that seem so statistically improbable as to nearly be rendered unthinkable, and yet such events do occur. In the wake of Fukushima, 60,000 Germans are currently protesting the use of nuclear power by forming a human chain. Meanwhile the International Atomic Energy Agency is reporting that over 140,000 people have been evacuated from the regions around Japan’s nuclear power plants.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Waterford nuclear plant outside New Orleans was plunged into a blackout, reliant on backup generators to keep the reactor core and spent fuel on site cool. The issue didn’t make the news because it was a near miss, just as Three Mile Island notoriously missed being far more devastating by a few ticks.

Opinions around nuclear energy tend to be binary, with industry proponents acting as if nothing could possibly go wrong while critics, terrified of nuclear apocalypse, remain convinced that old nuclear plants are time bombs. A distinction is often made between peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear technology, but this is rendered irrelevant by the development of depleted uranium and by the earthquake in Japan, which shows that "peaceful" uses of nuclear power can have extremely damaging extrinsic consequences in the aftermath of a meta-emergency.

We have long been warned of what seems to be another improbable yet very real danger: 30,000 nuclear missiles stud the earth. The United States and Russia own 96 percent of these missiles. Russia keeps their Cold War Era missiles focused on the US and Canada, while the US targets Russian command centers.

On a regular day, running errands and living life, it’s hard to imagine how one of these thermonuclear weapons, many of which are connected to a hair-trigger response system, might not comply with the safety and security systems that have been created to keep them from dislodging. But as the mysterious white plume rose over Fukushima, the distant possibility of old systems and natural disasters pairing up to show us again how short-sighted we are came into sharp focus.


About the Author: Rita J. King is the Founder and Creative Director of Dancing Ink Productions, a company that works with global clients focused on the emergence of a new global culture and economy in the Imagination Age. For several years she worked as a journalist covering the nuclear industry, including a specific focus on Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York.

King is Innovator-in-Residence at IBM’s Analytics Virtual Center, a former Senior Fellow at The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City and a current Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress in Washington DC. Her essays, various writings and works of art have been commissioned, published and exhibited globally.

Rita is a frequent international speaker on the subject of productive creative collaboration and the cultural and economic implications of the Imagination Age. Her work has been featured in or on The New York Times, the Village Voice, Press TV, TIME, CNN, NPR, The Guardian, BBC, Boing Boing, Wired, "MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams," VentureBeat and strategy+business, among others.

Follow Rita on Twitter: @RitaJKing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 19 Comments

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  1. 1. Alexis64 5:46 pm 03/12/2011

    I expect better science from Scientific American, even from a blogger. This article mashes together a variety of topics and paints a very garbled picture.

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  2. 2. scientific earthling 7:37 pm 03/12/2011

    I like this blog, it does cover a variety of problems associated with the nuclear industries. It is well written in a proper logical sequence.

    As a reader from a scientific background I understand why most of the consequences are harmful to living organisms. It’s ironical, without fusion none of us would exist, it also gives us the post Pb elements that are unstable and give us fission which while making the resulting elements eventually safe, the process is destructive of living creatures, it may have side effects causing mutations that could benefit the species, in the very long term.

    All the consequences of living in a universe which was never designed by an intelligent being. Just the hotchpotch result of random events.

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  3. 3. lump1 9:41 pm 03/12/2011

    Hmm, I guess I was here expecting information about what’s going on in that reactor chamber. Instead I got a bunch of misguided comparisons plus the unobjectionable observation that in massive catastrophes, all kinds of things can unexpectedly get messed up. I know it’s still early days for genuine perspective, but eventually, I’d like to see a much broader and data-driven discussion of risks and rewards in all matters having to do with the production and use of energy. SI would be well placed to host such a discussion. I expect the results to be genuinely grounded in science, and not read like journalism school assignments.

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  4. 4. Nytsia 9:57 pm 03/12/2011

    I liked your article. It is so true. The imagination does fail to take into account the all the unimaginable but possible situations that can arise. Some humans suffer from a type of hubris that makes them think they can know everything. Nuclear technology is far too dangerous to risk having and the unimaginable will occur. It has occurred.
    Nature is our master. We must live within the limits.

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  5. 5. Dustron 10:34 pm 03/12/2011

    This is shoddy journalism at its finest. The author is clearly a master of misdirection. Shame on you, SA, for permitting such garbage to be published on your website. To be honest, I find the article to be quite convoluted and difficult to follow, but here’s my interpretation of the author’s argument (please enlighten me if I’m wrong):

    Nuclear power plants are fueled by (slightly) enriched uranium, a byproduct of which is depleted uranium. Depleted uranium is used in projectile weapons (due to its being more dense than lead). Consequently, this "[blurs] the line between peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear power." Because this line is blurred, the distinction between peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear technology is irrelevant. (Blamo! it is suddenly relevant to begin discussing nuclear warheads).

    WHAT?!? "wartime uses of nuclear power"??? Perhaps what the author meant to say was "wartime uses of nuclear technology," or something along those lines. The author later corrects this mistake ("A distinction is often made between peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear technology"). Word choice aside, I don’t quite follow the authors logic. How, exactly, is "the line between peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear technology" blurred? And moreover, how does this line being blurred suddenly make the distinction irrelevant? Jump to conclusions much?

    Wartime uses of depleted uranium are irrelevant to a discussion of nuclear power, and furthermore, there is no connection between depleted uranium (which is used in your run-of-the-mill projectile weapons) and nuclear warheads.

    The comparison of the Waterford incident to TMI is just ridiculous. The author claims "it [Waterford] was a near miss, just as Three Mile Island notoriously missed being far more devastating by a few ticks." TMI was a "near miss" because the core partially melted, yet the containment stayed intact and the release of radioactive material was minimal (not life threatening). TMI made the news, so the authors logic (near miss -> not news worthy) is faulty. Having to rely on backup generators (which just so happened to work without issue) because of a station blackout a far cry from a "near miss." Backup generators are installed precisely for such occasions. Why? Because blackouts happen; it’s a fact of life, and plants are designed to handle it.

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  6. 6. scientific earthling 12:34 am 03/13/2011

    Depleted uranium is left over after uranium has been enriched for use in nuclear reactors or weapons. Is what the author says. We extract U235 from it the mixture of U235 & 238. The U238 is not much good to us except as depleted uranium. We can separate the two because 235 is juts a little bit lighter than 238.

    Most of the uranium on our planet is U238 very little U235 is present on earth. The U235 isotope is unstable and the atom breaks up into lower atomic number elements The process is called fission (or decay). Some of the mass of the U235 converts to energy and is lost as matter (matter and energy are inter-convertible).

    Should the decay rate be controlled we can use the energy to generate electricity, allow the decay to happen instantly, across the entire mass of U235 the energy generated heats up its surroundings so rapidly, we feel a bomb has gone off because of the expansion of air and the instant heating of the surroundings to extremely high temperatures. Assuming you had enough U235 to feel its impact.

    All U235 was initially created from lower atomic number elements by supernovas. All the elements are created in stars up to Iron – Atomic No 26. The higher atomic number elements are created by supernovas. The process of creating higher atomic number elements from lower ones is fusion.

    We can not use U238, its decay rate is too slow. All elements after Lead Atomic number 82 are unstable and will decay on a very long time-scale. Go to a much greater time-scale and nothing remains of the universe. Don’t worry our star the sun will be dead, as will our planet in 5 to 6 billion years. Life on earth does not have that long, its important that it seeds the space around it so perhaps it can return somewhere, sometime, while the universe still exists. Life on earth could have come from some other lucky planet that also fostered life.

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  7. 7. smblues 1:20 am 03/13/2011

    Brilliant article. It hits on all the buzz words and fear around anything nuclear without providing any real substance.

    For example:

    Amazingly enough "What is a Meltdown" doesnt actually go into what it mean for a core to "meltdown." All it talks about is spent fuel rods, and does a poor job explaining anything of substance about those.

    "Toxic Waste and Fault Lines"
    Seriously, throwing depleted uranium into an article supposedly about nuclear accidents? Why is this in here except to hit on buzz words/topics for people who are antinuclear?

    Also while the waste is in cooling pools there is little to no risk from these pools of release of radioactive material from anything that has happened. Furthermore the Yucca Mountain inclusion here is particularly egregious. There is a fundamental difference between a storage facility and an active plant and risks from fault lines.

    Lastly, the attempt to try to tie issues with a power plant to current nuclear arsenals again just serves to devalue any other statement being made given that it comes off as quite perplexing except in the context of an overall antinuclear tirade.

    No power source is perfect that is clear, and there are certainly major issues around nuclear stockpiles and how people relate to nuclear power but this article should be an embarrassment to Scientific American since it is so clearly bait for controversy and doesnt really address any of the relevant issues going on in Japan at the moment.

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  8. 8. syhprum 7:04 am 03/13/2011

    I note that a hydro electric power station dam burst as a result of the earthquake that could well result in more deaths than the Chernobyl incident but I doubt that it will get as much publicity as as the well controlled problems at the nuclear plant.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 7:40 am 03/13/2011

    I don’t think it takes much imagination to test your smoke detectors when you change your clocks for daylight savings time – just don’t forget to also test the backup electrical generators for your nuclear power plant cooling system!

    However, if anything can go wrong, it eventually will. How many nuclear facilities are periodically operationally tested under actual Earthquake, Tsunami, Tornado, etc. conditions?

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  10. 10. JamesDavis 8:11 am 03/13/2011

    I think this is an excellent article that brings to light the cover-up of pro-nuclear activists. Nuclear is a frightening dangerous and expensive to human life source of energy. If there is anything that can go wrong with nuclear, there are people who will make sure it does. All nuclear power plants should be dismantled and destroyed before they destroys us. You shouldn’t have to live in danger every time you turn your light bulb on or heat up your cooking stove.

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  11. 11. Minister 1:50 pm 03/13/2011

    "A nuclear disaster which the promoters of nuclear power in Japan said wouldn’t happen is in progress," the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Japan said. "It is occurring as a result of an earthquake that they said would not happen."

    No one has the right to impose the risks of NUKE power on present and future generations of life on Earth.
    When NUKE promoters post their empty promises of NUKE safety, their hubris is astonishing, and of course extremely self serving.

    NUKES cannot obtain private financing without Federal loan guarantees because NUKES are not cost competitive. NUKES cannot get full liability insurance because the potential property damage a NUKE can cause is astronomical, and the potential genetic harm is beyond calculation. NUKE liability must be unjustly capped by corrupt governments for the NUKE industry to exist at all.

    Solar power is competitive right now with the huge costs of new NUKE plants, and solar power will soon be less expensive than coal. New solar technologies emerging from MIT, Stanford, and other research labs dramatically improve solar power efficiency while lowering costs and raw material used.

    Solar energy cannot be monopolized or embargoed. Those in Japan with roof top solar energy systems still have power and hot water, even as centralized line power is shut off indefinitely for millions and the NUKE plant explosion rains radioactive dust and steam.

    Hundreds of square kilometers have been evacuated near the damaged NUKE plants. Many Japanese people will not rest easy again living in the shadow of potential NUKE plant explosions.

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  12. 12. joseph2237 4:26 pm 03/13/2011

    The failure of the Japanese nuclear plants was not due to imagination. It was due to geography. I understand the need for large amounts of water, but why build a nuclear power plant at sea level a hundred miles from a subduction fault line. The design isn’t at fault it’s the location. The only thing they forgot to do was to make the generator rooms water tight. But who would have guested a twenty three foot wall of water! That’s higher than my house.

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  13. 13. joseph2237 5:55 pm 03/13/2011

    The failure of the Japanese nuclear plants was not due to imagination. It was due to geography. I understand the need for large amounts of water, but why build a nuclear power plant at sea level a hundred miles from a subduction fault line. The design isn’t at fault it’s the location. The only thing they forgot to do was to make the generator rooms water tight. But who would have guested a twenty three foot wall of water! That’s higher than my house.

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  14. 14. mbastnagel 6:51 pm 03/13/2011

    scientific earthling:

    Your reply to Dustron does not connect AT ALL to the point that Dustron was making. Dustron said the article made an incomplete jump from power plants’ depleted uranium to wartime uses of depleted uranium.
    Your reply, such as it was, does not ANYWHERE describe how the article links depleted power plant uranium to wartime usage of depleted uranium.
    Instead, you give a lengthy, IRRELEVANT description of how supernovas form certain elements, capping your nonexistent refutation with a call to seed other planets with life. I applaud you for writing what, to me, is the one of the least focussed or pertinent replies to another person’s ideas.

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  15. 15. joseph2237 8:15 pm 03/13/2011

    The failure of the Japanese nuclear plants was not due to imagination. It was due to geography. I understand the need for large amounts of water, but why build a nuclear power plant at sea level a hundred miles from a subduction fault line. The design isn’t at fault it’s the location. The only thing they forgot to do was to make the generator rooms water tight. But who would have guested a twenty three foot wall of water! That’s higher than my house.

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  16. 16. ritajking 12:35 am 03/14/2011

    The point is that Fukushima can’t be compared to Chernobyl for reasons outlined in the post.

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  17. 17. sethdayal 12:42 pm 03/14/2011

    20 foot high tidal waves happen all the time historically. Wouldn’t have cost em much to protect the generators just cheaper to offer bribes to officials.

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  18. 18. MIT12 11:06 am 03/15/2011

    Thank you for addressing, at a popular readership level, many of the general items we think of when we think of nuclear power. It is now clear that more than a series of "random events" (including industry predicted earthquakes, resultant tsunamis and nuclear plant energy-loss) has lead to not so "well controlled problems" in Japan after all, and we need someone with a wide-angle view to help us see the connections.

    In a time when the distinction between "wartime" and "peacetime" is itself blurred, it is also important for the wider public to be made aware of the link between nuclear power production and weaponry production. A similarly dated distinction between science and technology (or pure energy vs. defense usage) does not free a citizenry of its need to be truthfully informed, nor of a responsibility to act ethically.

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  19. 19. nuclearreader 9:45 pm 09/13/2011

    Reference: Excellent website to learn about nuclear — — concise, to the point, understandable, well-researched and organized. Everything everyone must understand about nuclear power.

    Link to this

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