Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Three catastrophes: the view from downwind and downstream

Now that Japan's nuclear meltdown is being officially compared to Chernobyl, a month after the quake and tsunami, this triple catastrophe leads to a few inescapable conclusions:

1. Earthquake: Japan was admirably prepared for the earthquake, the fourth largest ever recorded, and most buildings escaped without major damage. In fact, no country on the planet has taken comparable measures to accommodate a "worst case" seismic event. (According to an ABC report, thousands of California schools don't meet even minimum legal standards for quake resistance in the that state's Field Act.)

2. Tsunami: The tsunami was so overwhelming that it fell far outside the design parameters of Japan's massive seawalls and other coastal protections. One could argue that the walls and barriers needed to be even higher, certainly around the Fukushima nuclear plant, but the required investment would've been astronomical. But the only alternative would be to entirely prohibit structures on coastal plains and adjacent river valleys, requiring the relocation of entire cities and tens of millions of Japanese.

3. Meltdown: The nuclear disaster was entirely foreseeable and, therefore, preventable. The General Electric Mark I reactor, the type used at Fukushima and at least 23 plants in the U.S., has long been criticized for various design flaws. The proximity of the spent-fuel storage pools to the failing reactors in the Mark I has created insurmountable problems. For example:
"The spent-fuel pools are also not housed within robust concrete containment structures. Instead, 'the pools are often housed in buildings with sheet metal siding like that in a Sears storage shed,' Lochbaum [an expert] said."

This vulnerability, combined with inadequate protection from tsunamis and lack of redundancy in reserve power systems, combined to create a perfect nuclear storm that was the essentially the result of human error and, finally, greed:
"G.E. began making the Mark 1 boiling-water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.
"American regulators began identifying weaknesses very early on.
"In 1972, Stephen H. Hanauer, then a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, recommended that the Mark 1 system be discontinued because it presented unacceptable safety risks."
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we're several days downwind from Fukushima. Its radiation has already been detected, in minute amounts, in milk from Spokane farms. We're also downstream, thanks to the Japan Current, which will carry tsunami debris and radioactivity across the North Pacific during the next 3-5 years. The radioactive isotopes, we're told, will be so diluted by the time they reach the West Coast that there will be no risk to human health.  As the meltdown continues at Fukushima, with no end in sight, it's hard to feel reassured.

[Photo: SciAm]

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