Part 3 addresses dire but unsubstantiated warnings that North America is in danger from a radioactive plume and fish. This will focus on another set of warnings, that the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Dai-ichi could turn out to be a major problem for human health, perhaps much worse than Chernobyl. Some of the material below comes from a Truthout article citing a number of anti-nuclear experts, and its links. How likely are their predictions? Did these people make reliable predictions in the past?
Introduction: basic facts to get us started
• Nuclear power plants don’t blow up like bombs.
• Spent fuel pools store fuel which is completely spent, or relatively fresh fuel during maintenance. Water keeps the fuel rods cool, and protects us from radiation which can’t make it through 20 feet (7 meters) of water. Reactor 4′s spent fuel pool was unusually full. (See more here)
• The spent fuel pool for reactor 4 never blew up, and never dried up. There is no evidence that it is shaky.
• By April 2011, much was known:
Radionuclide analysis of water from the used fuel pool of Fukushima Dai-ichi unit 4 suggests that some of the 1331 used fuel assemblies stored there may have been damaged, but the majority are intact.
• There is a danger that spent fuel can catch fire. According to NUREG /CR-4982,
In order for a cladding fire to occur the fuel must be recently discharged (about 10 to 180 days for a BWR and 30 to 250 days for a PWR).
The Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors were BWRs, boiling water reactors. (More on NUREG series here.)
Incorrect predictions about the spent fuel pool began early
Paul Blustein writes about Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chair Gregory Jaczko’s recommendation that Americans evacuate if they were within 50 miles of the accident:
It was an honest mistake. On the morning of March 16, 2011, top officials of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that the spent fuel pool in Reactor No. 4 at Fukushima Dai-ichi must be dry.
Thus began an episode that had enormous implications for the trust that Japanese people have in their public officials. To this day, millions of Japanese shun food grown in the northeast region of their country; many who live in that area limit their children’s outdoor play, while others have fled to parts of Japan as far from Fukushima as possible. The reason many of them give is that they simply can’t believe what government authorities say about the dangers of radiation exposure.
The evidence that led a high official in the U.S. government to publicly attack the credibility of another government came from drone flyover sensing heat, but did not depend on multiple lines of evidence (was radioactivity especially high nearby? What fission products were seen downwind from the plant?)
By that evening, Jaczko’s subordinates were already starting to hedge their assessments about the pool when the chairman joined another conference call. The U.S. staffers in Tokyo had heard from Japanese investigators that even though the exterior wall protecting the pool appeared to be demolished, an interior wall was evidently intact; the Japanese offered other evidence as well.
Chuck Casto, the Tokyo-based team leader, related those points to Jaczko, saying he still wasn’t convinced even after seeing a video of what the Japanese claimed was water in the pool. To Casto it was “really inconclusive.” But he acknowledged that the video, taken from a helicopter 14 hours earlier, showed steam emissions.
Jaczko knew his error within 24 hours of publicly stating it, although the U.S. NRC waited 3 months to share this information. (Jaczko resigned in mid-2012 because of widespread unhappiness with his management style.)
And then in 2012
A year later, we hear again vague warnings about the dangers of the fuel pools, this time in the NY Times:
Fourteen months after the accident, a pool brimming with used fuel rods and filled with vast quantities of radioactive cesium still sits on the top floor of a heavily damaged reactor building, covered only with plastic.
The public’s fears about the pool have grown in recent months as some scientists have warned that it has the most potential for setting off a new catastrophe, now that the three nuclear reactors that suffered meltdowns are in a more stable state, and as frequent quakes continue to rattle the region….
[Or if we don't like that idea], Some outside experts have also worked to allay fears, saying that the fuel in the pool is now so old that it cannot generate enough heat to start the kind of accident that would allow radioactive material to escape.
The author cites “scientists” but never names them, gives no evidence they meet traditional assumptions we hold for the word scientist, nor provides a mechanism by which there might be problems now that the fuel rods have cooled down. It is a “he said, she said article”, and we are left to guess. For this article, at least, “outside experts” appear to know more than “some scientists”.
Robert Alvarez also warned us in 2012:
Spent reactor fuel, containing roughly 85 times more long-lived radioactivity than released at Chernobyl, still sits in pools vulnerable to earthquakes.” He warns of possible collapse from a combination of structural damage and another earthquake. “The loss of water exposing the spent fuel will result in overheating and can cause melting and ignite its zirconium metal cladding resulting in a fire that could deposit large amounts of radioactive materials over hundreds, if not thousands of miles.
Yet Tepco has continued to monitor the structural reliability of the spent pool fuels. A huge fire would be required before the radioactivity could be dispersed long distances, and per the introduction, it won’t occur just because it is exposed to the air. Is there some mechanism, up to and including nuclear bombs, that could actually disperse 85 x the radioactivity of Chernobyl? 1% of that amount? Neither Alvarez nor any writer appears to provide one.
Alvarez has experience working in nuclear weapons issues, in and out of government, but no science degree and he does not publish for scientists—I only checked his claims to have published in the journal Science and in Technology Review. Over time, I’ve learned to confirm assertions that people have published in respected journals (the latter is not peer reviewed). My search in Technology Review found nothing. It was not an article in Science (30 April 1982), which would have undergone peer review, but a letter to the editor. In it, Alvarez defends scientists who claim that low level radioactivity is 10-25 times worse than had been thought, a claim which long has few if any adherents.
Dan Yurman addresses Alvarez’s claims in a little more detail and links to a Tepco video of fuel pool 4.
Arnie Gundersen adds even more worries
It’s 2013, and Gundersen is adding erroneous details about what can go wrong:
Well, they’re planning as of November to begin to do it, so they’ve made some progress on that. I think they’re belittling the complexity of the task. If you think of a nuclear fuel rack as a pack of cigarettes, if you pull a cigarette straight up it will come out — but these racks have been distorted. Now when they go to pull the cigarette straight out, it’s going to likely break and release radioactive cesium and other gases, xenon and krypton, into the air. I suspect come November, December, January we’re going to hear that the building’s been evacuated, they’ve broke a fuel rod, the fuel rod is off-gassing.
I suspect we’ll have more airborne releases as they try to pull the fuel out. If they pull too hard, they’ll snap the fuel. I think the racks have been distorted, the fuel has overheated — the pool boiled – and the net effect is that it’s likely some of the fuel will be stuck in there for a long, long time.
I am struck by an image of Japan as a society with no skilled workers or robots, no cameras, trying to accomplish by itself a job that will lead to the Apocalypse if they are off by 1 mm, totally unaware that the job they are facing is complex. The image is not really coming into focus.
Harvey Wasserman adds to this description here:
According to Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with forty years in an industry for which he once manufactured fuel rods, the ones in the Unit 4 core are bent, damaged and embrittled to the point of crumbling. Cameras have shown troubling quantities of debris in the fuel pool, which itself is damaged.
The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the Unit Four fuel pool are unique and daunting, says Gundersen. But it must be done to 100% perfection.
Should the attempt fail, the rods could be exposed to air and catch fire, releasing horrific quantities of radiation into the atmosphere. The pool could come crashing to the ground, dumping the rods together into a pile that could fission and possibly explode. The resulting radioactive cloud would threaten the health and safety of all us.
As discussed in the introduction, the pools did not boil. It’s long past the time when there is a possibility that cladding for the fuel rods could catch fire.
Some background is needed to understand how ridiculous the accusation that fission could result from the pool falling. Commercial nuclear reactors use water as a moderator (some use graphite). The basic idea is that uranium-235 fissions when hit by a neutron, and releases a number of neutrons, one of which makes it to another U-235 atom, causing it to fission. Because commercial nuclear reactors have relatively little U-235, they cannot go supercritical like a bomb. Moderators slow neutrons released when uranium fissions, because otherwise the neutron is moving too fast to cause another fission.
Spent fuel is put in water to cool it down, and the water is deep enough to prevent decay particles and fission fragments from making it out. But because water is a moderator, the rods are stored in borated racks. The racks control the geometry, keeping the fuel rods apart, and the boron absorbs neutrons, so that new fissions do not occur. The decay of all the fission fragments goes on for a few years; cooling is needed as those small fission products decay, producing heat.
For the Gundersen scenario of the pool crashing to the ground, dumping the rods together so that they could fission and possibly explode, the following would have to occur:
• structure breaks
• fuel rods fall in exactly the right geometry relative to each other
• the borated racks disappear, so there is no boron and no impediment to the fuel rods falling in the exact right geometry
• the fuel rods fall with exactly the right geometry into a pool of water, providing the needed moderator
The 100% perfection scenario Gundersen described, only everything must go perfectly, improbably, wrong.
The actual procedure will move one bundle at a time into a cask with other bundles. The cask is then shielded and drained, and moved to ground level to a longer term storage facility. If a bundle is dropped, it may break, and there may be pellets scattered on the pool floor. No radioactivity will be released. When all the intact bundles are removed, bundles that presented a problem and any pellets will need to be separately moved. The entire process does not risk fission, nor will there be radiation release.
This step is occurring long before removal to dry cask storage to allow workers to ascertain if any interesting changes occurred in the earthquake, tsunami, or/and soaking with salt water.
Gundersen has a long career of unsupported assertions. There was the time he found very radioactive soil in Tokyo:
Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer with Burlington-based Fairewinds Associates, says he traveled to Tokyo recently, took soil samples from parks, playgrounds and rooftop gardens around the city and brought them back to be tested in a U.S. lab.
He says they showed levels of radioactivity would qualify them as nuclear waste in the U.S.
Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. industry lobby, asked Gundersen to share the lab results, perhaps let an independent lab check the results. No luck, Gundersen refused.
Gundersen, when interviewed in June 2011, had apparently forgotten Chernobyl, and the Bhopal disaster (which killed immediately and long term more than Chernobyl), and etc:
Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind,” Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president, told Al Jazeera….
According to Gundersen, the exposed reactors and fuel cores are continuing to release microns of caesium, strontium, and plutonium isotopes. These are referred to as “hot particles”.
“We are discovering hot particles everywhere in Japan, even in Tokyo,” he said. “Scientists are finding these everywhere. Over the last 90 days these hot particles have continued to fall and are being deposited in high concentrations. A lot of people are picking these up in car engine air filters.”
Radioactive air filters from cars in Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo are now common, and Gundersen says his sources are finding radioactive air filters in the greater Seattle area of the US as well.
The hot particles on them can eventually lead to cancer.
“These get stuck in your lungs or GI tract, and they are a constant irritant,” he explained, “One cigarette doesn’t get you, but over time they do. These [hot particles] can cause cancer, but you can’t measure them with a Geiger counter. Clearly people in Fukushima prefecture have breathed in a large amount of these particles. Clearly the upper West Coast of the U.S. has people being affected. That area got hit pretty heavy in April.”
Plutonium was not released. A micron is one millionth of a meter, I’m not sure what a micron of cesium is. No evidence has been found that hot particles that can’t be detected with a Geiger counter are poisoning car air filters around Japan and in Seattle.
Gundersen got a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at the time the Fukushima plant was being built, and is now chief (and only) engineer at Fairewinds, an anti-nuclear group. While he began work in nuclear > 4 decades ago, it is not correct to say that he actually has 4 decades experience.
Harvey Wasserman says this is the most danger the world has been in since the Cuban Missile Crisis
• Steam indicates fission may be occurring underground.
• Irradiated water could leak from tanks if there is a really large earthquake, without quantifying either the size of the earthquake, the size of the radioactivity (most of the water in the tanks is very low level radioactive), etc. (More on this in part 5.)
• Evidence indicates increased thyroid cancer among children, despite the UN finding no such evidence after extensive testing.
• The GE-designed pool is 100′ up. A lot of this article is anti-Big Biz, so at some point, I began to infer that if GE or another large company designed it, I was supposed to believe that there must be a design flaw.
This is not Wasserman’s first set of predictions. Now the danger is ahead of us, but in 2011 he posited that it may have already happened:
At least one spent fuel pool—in Unit Four—may have been entirely exposed to air and caught fire. Reactor fuel cladding is made with a zirconium alloy that ignites when uncovered, emitting very large quantities of radiation. The high level radioactive waste pool in Unit Four may no longer be burning, though it may still be general.
I’m not sure what the last clause means.
He quotes Ken Buessler saying,
When it comes to the oceans, says Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceonographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “the impact of Fukushima exceeds Chernobyl.”
(typos in original) It is true that Chernobyl was far from any ocean, but apparently Buesseler didn’t and doesn’t think that the effects of Fukushima merit a Cuban Missile Crisis headline.
Fukushima’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, has confirmed that fuel at Unit One melted BEFORE the arrival of the March 11 tsunami.
In 2012, Wasserman corrects the actual facts about Three Mile Island with untruths:
“Nobody died” at Three Mile Island until epidemiological evidence showed otherwise. (Disclosure: In 1980 I interviewed the dying and bereaved in central Pennsylvania, leading to the 1982 publication of Killing Our Own).
A link is provided to his book, which we can buy to learn more.
Harvey Wasserman is senior advisor and website editor for nukefree.org, which was created by 3 musicians (and I love all of them!) to fight nuclear power. Wikipedia says Wasserman has no degrees in science, and that he coined the phrase, “No nukes”.
All of those warning of the dangers of the fuel rods at Fukushima Dai-ichi—Alvarez, Gundersen, Wasserman, and the others cited in the Truthout article and other articles I’ve seen—say things that aren’t true. Readers, call them on it!