What the Fukushima
Now that the world media has stopped paying attention, the folks battling the blown apart nuclear reactors in Japan are breaking worse news. Today we learn that the water collecting under the reactors is much more intensely radioactive than previously reported:
TEPCO says a survey last Thursday found an increase in the density of radioactive substances in the water in the basement of the No. 4 reactor's turbine building.Iodine-131 has a half-life of only 8 days. After the course of 32 days, the amount of iodine-131 in any given sample should be 1/16th of what it was at the start of that period. Instead, the concentration of that radioisotope in the collected Fukushima wastewater has increased to 12 times what it was before.
The company says the levels of cesium-134 and 137 increased about 250-fold and iodine-131 increased about 12 times compared with one month ago. TEPCO says contamination of this level requires them to prioritize the transfer or disposal of the water.
Yikes, people -- yikes.
The water under reactor 4 is coming either from what they're pouring into the damaged fuel pool in that reactor building, or from water that's getting shot at reactor 3 next door. A lot of melted fuel must be getting washed out of one or both of those facilities, and the rate at which the oozing wreckage is getting mixed in with the water must be increasing substantially. Another possibility is that some of the wrecked nuclear fuel has gone critical in uncontrolled reactions since the earthquake -- a scenario that Tokyo Electric and the Japanese government aren't talking about. If that's the case, one reason the iodine isn't dissipating is that nuclear fission is continuing, at least sporadically, producing more iodine.
The cesium isotopes have half lives of 2 years and 30 years, and so their buildup is going to continue at a much more sustained rate than the iodine. And where there is radioactive iodine and cesium, there's also radioactive strontium and heaven knows what other dangerous radionuclides.
Given how badly damaged those reactor buildings are, it would be a miracle if that nasty water isn't leaking into the ocean, either via the groundwater or directly. And it's a given that no human being is going to get near that water any time soon.
Which brings us to the robots. Who doesn't love a robot story? Wouldn't it be great if remote-controlled machines saved the day by fixing the many problems at the destroyed reactors? A closer look at the robots that have been employed at Fukushima so far exposes that as highly wishful thinking.
In their first expeditions into a few of the radiation zones, the robots revealed themselves to be wimpy, spindly things and by no means high-tech marvels. For example, to take a radiation reading, two robots were needed: one to hold the Geiger counter and the other to point a video camera at the Geiger counter so that the plant workers could read the dial. It appears the new joke will be about how many Tokyo robots it takes to screw in a light bulb.
And when the 'bots entered reactor 2, the humidity was high, and the lens on the videocam immediately steamed up, and so that was the end of that foray. High-tech salvation, this isn't.
The promoters of nuclear energy continue to remind us that the Fukushima reactors were old, and that more recent designs are safer. But that only throws into a worse light the continuing practice by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of tacking an extra decade or two onto the licenses of reactors of the same design and vintage as Fukushima.
Here's one case from the Atlantic coast in New Jersey, a mere stone's throw from where our cousin the blogger lives. As an alert reader pointed out on our blog yesterday, that plant has already been busted for leaking radioactive tritium into the nearby Barnegat Bay, and into the groundwater. The reactor is 42 years old; it has outlived its design life. When it came online, the Beatles were still a band, and "Come Together" was the number 1 song in America. The reactor is old and brittle. It's tired. It has less containment than Fukushima. It shouldn't run for another two decades, but the nuclear cheerleaders at the NRC are happy to let it do so. The license now runs to 2029.
Do we ever learn? Not when there's money to be made.
In recent years, Wall Street ne'er-do-wells like Henry Paulson have been doing to Americans the same thing that the power companies have been doing to us for decades with nuclear power: privatizing the profits and socializing the losses. In the case of the nukes, the losses are cancer -- sneaky losses that can't be conclusively proven. It's money vs. life, and we all know where that comes out.