Friday, 25 April 2014
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Fukushima alarmism is a bigger risk than radiation

It’s been almost two and a half years since the Tohoku earthquake, which triggered the tsunami that swept across Japan, causing massive loss of life and destroying towns and villages. The best-known, but perhaps least serious, consequence of the tsunami is back in the news: the continuing efforts to contain radioactivity from the nuclear reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power station.

Some readers might be wondering how I could describe what’s officially the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl as the least serious consequence of the tsunami. I’m not implying that the incident wasn’t serious. But the way it was — and continues to be — covered is out of all proportion. Over 18,500 people lost their lives as a result of the tsunami. Of those, the number attributable to Fukushima is zero, despite the meltdowns continually being described as ‘deadly’ and radiation levels as ‘lethal’. It all adds to the continuing demonisation of nuclear power, which is — to say the least — unhelpful.

The latest developments concern the containment of water which has been used to cool the molten remains of the plant’s affected reactors. This is being stored in tanks by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), which maintains the plant. Some of these tanks have been discovered to be leaking, leading to radioactive elements reaching the ocean. The latest attempt to contain these leaks, led by the Japanese government rather than TEPCO, is a proposal to create a ‘freeze-wall’ by burying coolant pipes in the soil surrounding the plant to a depth of around 30m, then pumping in salted water at -40°C to freeze the groundwater. This effectively creates a permafrost zone which, the engineers claim, will be able to stop contaminated water from leaking out of the protected zone, and equally stop clean water from leaching in and becoming contaminated.

Despite breathless coverage descibing this as a ‘desperate attempt’ and a ‘crazy plan’ this is actually a well-established technique, used to stabilise loose ground for excavations, for example. It’s been used in London (on the excavation of the new Jubilee Line stations) and at CERN, in the construction of the huge caverns that house the Large Hadron Collider’s detectors. It also has a pedigree in the nuclear sector: it’s used in uranium mining, and has been used to contain nuclear waste at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US. Ice is an effective radiation shield against alpha and beta radiation, and it’s the latter which is believed to be the major problem with the Fukushima water.

It’s certainly ambitious — the Fukushima freeze wall will be the largest ever created, and will have to last for much longer than they are generally used for — and expensive, because the coolant needs to keep flowing to keep the ground frozen; costs are estimated at over £300m, which includes equipment to remove contaminants from the water. But ‘desperate’? ‘Crazy’? Hardly.

As Neil Hyatt, professor of nuclear waste management at Sheffield University points out, the major challenge at Fukushima is to decontaminate the water by removing the radioactive isotopes and stabilising them into a form suitable for long-term storage and disposal — there is significant expertise in this in the UK, based around vitrification techniques developed at Sellafield. The ice-wall will have to be thoroughly tested to minimise porosity; it’s unlikely to be a completely impervious barrier, but should be able to keep the flow of isotopes down to a level which will not lead to dangerous radiation dosages.

As for the effect on the nuclear sector outside Japan, the lessons seem to be the same ones drawn from the Fukushima incident itself. Ensure that regulators are not too close to the companies maintaining and operating nuclear facilities; use the best possible techniques for containing radioactivity (if TEPCO’s storage tanks had been welded, rather than riveted and sealed with rubber, it’s likely that the leaks would have been much less severe, or might not have occurred at all). Overall, it’s a salutory lesson in planning for the worst, because if you don’t, it’ll cost you more to clean up the mess than it would have cost to put the safeguards in originally.

But it shouldn’t be an argument against the deployment of nuclear. Once again, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were old, scheduled for shutdown; their newer neighbours at Fukushima Daiini worked perfectly. The nuclear incident was never more than a sideshow to the natural disaster of the tsunami. It was a tragedy of the intersection of human settlements and plate tectonics, not of the nuclear industry.

Readers' comments (35)

  • Robert Freer,

    Society was hardly living in a medieval slum before the first nuclear power station was commissioned. It sems it takes a fanatic to know a fanatic.

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  • To any pro Nuclear fanatics who may have read this far Re the rather sad comment about Luddites:

    Luddites were reacting to the effects of new technology on their economic roles in the only way they could. It was a perfectly understandable and popular attempt to retain the only livelihood they knew.

    Arguments about the positive Nuclear PR fanaticism in the Engineer of late come from very different angles.

    Nobody's livelihood is being threatened here (Engineers are guaranteed employment in decommissioning, something that cannot be ignored) but several posters do argue that the Nuclear Industry has a long way to go to justify itself economically and there are very reasonable long term concerns about health.

    That's a bit different to Luddism. I'm sorry, I'm not sure what to make of the comment about the Middle Ages. In the middle ages they did not have the bacterial management skills we have today. Soap manufacturers and Plumbers have done more for human progress than the Nuclear Industry can ever reasonably expect to in the future.

    The Luddites were not against the use of soap or the provision of clean water. They were against machines being used unintelligently. If they were around today they may well be objecting to Robotics but it is very hard to imagine a Luddite argument against Nuclear energy or antibiotics.

    My personal feeling is the the Nuclear Industry have behaved and continue to behave without regard for the wider interests of society. An ongoing blind obsession with the over-powering of mostly unnecessary electrical appliances is not a completely healthy response to the social/biological/ecological problems we all face, it has an aura of denial. Electrical energy for all its wonderful advantages does not resolve all problems facing mankind and in fact makes many of them worse.

    The Nuclear Industry has so far been brilliant in terms of economic sustainability - they have by default designed Jobs for 10,000 Generations to come by conducting their ingenious experiments. Unfortunately they completely forgot to ask society for informed consent. In wartime that was understandable, but terms of social sustainability since 1945 that was a teeny mistake. In other words, how can I as a subject of this ongoing experiment ever trust the Nuclear Industry in view of its history of covering up lying and obvious mistakes? Why on earth should I wish to allow an anonymous scientist to decide how much radiation I should to be exposed to ? If I want to be part of your experiment I will volunteer. Please close down your poison plant and remain at your posts until your thousand tonnes of Plutonium has decayed away to near zero. I and my descendants will have to feed and cloth you and your descendants for time takes.

    Thanks for the electricity by the way, but i'd have preferred to turn the heating down if you'd told me the real price.

    Just suppose for example I say I want NO anthropogenic radiation increment from the Nuclear or Coal Industries at all, and that I am prepared to trade my energy consumption off against the consequences.

    Where do you stand on that ethically?

    Do you even understand the question, or are you stuck in some kind of Ethical Middle Age, like a morality Luddite smashing any kind of advance in thinking about the social role of technology as soon as it appears on the scene?

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  • This article is what's dangerous. Who are you fooling with this? We might as well talk about bananas, yup 78,000,000 bananas was the last figure about a year ago that this incident equates to. I am so sorry that anybody actually listens to this stuff. The fact is bananas is radioactive, with k40 (potassium), it's part of us it's part of the ocean. The difference between man made isotopes and a banana is our bodies are able to deal with natural potassium. It will excrete fast then you are able to eat to many banana's to harm you. Although I guess like the Isotopes are dropped on us through fall out and entering the ocean to contaminate the foundation of the Bio-pyramid and the very ecosystem, we can say cs-137, sr-90, 3h, and so on has been thrown at us. So how do you think you will do with 78,000,000 bananas thrown at you. Stop with the down playing of the incident. If the nuclear industry really cared about the people over money they would all jump in to solve the issues at #Fukushima. It would only make sense as the industry is taking a toll and hurting future profits. It would make sense to protect the nature of nuclear power plants by showing the industry is actually the to try and preserve the environment and provide power to the people. That is what would be worth paying for. Not worth paying for is allowing the incident to continue while degrading the environment and future generations...... The Effects of Fukushima on Hawaii is real, check it out.

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  • "Just suppose for example I say I want NO anthropogenic radiation increment from the Nuclear or Coal Industries at all, and that I am prepared to trade my energy consumption off against the consequences.

    Where do you stand on that ethically?"

    Nuclear power kills less people per unit of electricity produced and produces less greenhouse gasses than any other electricity source, therefore building anything but nuclear is unethical.

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  • Its great that the situation is under control we can now get on with our lives, what about those sailors from the uss reagan , and all the other issues in the pacific were they really affected.

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