Monday, March 14, 2011

Is Another Chernobyl Possible?

The crater of the
Chernobyl reactor
In 1986 one of the reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant exploded. Now, a quarter of a century later, the entire area around Chernobyl that used to be a beautiful, florid place is completely dead. If you want to see what a nuclear disaster really looks like, do a Google search. You will see such horrible devastation, such terrifying birth defects that you will not be able to forget it. 

Today, we keep hearing that there is no possibility of a similar catastrophe in Japan. Of course, we are being told that while more and more people test positive for radiation:  

Japan’s nuclear safety agency said there is “absolutely no possibility of a Chernobyl” style accident at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, Koichiro Genba, the national strategy minister said, as quoted by Jiji Press. 
The minister made the comment citing the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency at a meeting of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. 
Meanwhile, a US aircraft carrier deployed for relief efforts has repositioned after detecting low-level radiation from a malfunctioning nuclear power plants, a US statement has said. 
People around the area, already ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami, are worried at the prospects of nuclear radiation. 
“I am due to give birth soon, I want to know exactly what is going on at the nuclear plant. I am scared,” said one woman. 
Twenty people have tested positive for radiation exposure and that number looks likely to rise.
I truly hope that Japan is spared the horrors a nuclear disaster brought to my country and the neighboring Belarus by Chernobyl. Still, we will never be free from the terror that another such catastrophe is possible. Humanity is not ready for nuclear power, in my opinion. We should give it up.

We condemn tyrants like Hitler and Stalin, but what about the irresponsible scientists who shared this potentially fatal discovery with the world? How much worse are these people, who for fame and money, brought humanity to the brink of extinction?


Anonymous said...

With the raising price of oil, do you think there are many options left, giving the high energy consumption of the world?

I really hope things in Japan don't get any worser than they are now.
I must say however, that I see a great difference in comparison with the Ukraine disaster. They've undergone a 9.6 degree earthquake !. Chernobyl was not a result of a natural disaster but solely the result human negligence.

Pagan Topologist said...

A woman who is about to give birth has much less to worry about from radiation than one who does not yet know she is pregnant. Damage caused by radiation on unborn foetuses is much greater the earlier during the gestation the exposure occurs.

I think it is likely that nuclear power can be made safe. However, like all human inventions, safety is a consequence of making terrible errors and correcting for them. Aircraft have had many fatal crashes over the last century or so. Each one has led to better understanding and consequently greater safety, to the point that nowadays flying is the safest way to travel.

Sometimes, of course, accidents frighten people from continuing with a particular technology. This could happen with nuclear power, just as it did with zepplins. There are other options, notably wind and photovoltaics, but we have too little experience as of yet to know what the dangers of these technologies are. Since we don't know, the assumption is that they are safer. I hope they are, but there is simply no way to tell except by trying them out.

One thing is certain. This catastrophe, like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, will lead to safer nuclear power plants, unless the technology is abandoned. I have no really strong feelings as to whether it should be abandoned or not, but I think that every energy production method is going to have problems. (For the record, I do not think that the bird kills associated with wind turbines will be a long term problem. Natural selection is a powerful force, indeed, and bird strikes will inevitably diminish over the next few decades.

Clarissa said...

"that I see a great difference in comparison with the Ukraine disaster. They've undergone a 9.6 degree earthquake !. Chernobyl was not a result of a natural disaster but solely the result human negligence"

-What difference is that supposed to make to people affected by the catastrophe? If you, god forbid, happened to live in the vicinity of a melted reactor, would it make you feel a lot better to know that your body has been ravaged because of a natural disaster or not?

Clarissa said...

" I do not think that the bird kills associated with wind turbines will be a long term problem. Natural selection is a powerful force, indeed, and bird strikes will inevitably diminish over the next few decades."

-I think so too.

Pagan Topologist said...

Two other thoughts on energy production:

I think that long term nuclear disarmament is really important, and nuclear reactors (which might as well be used to produce usable energy) are the ONLY way to get rid of plutonium permanently. No matter where we hide it, it could be retrieved and made into weapons later. If we do not use plutonium, nuclear power will become unavailable just because fissionable uranium is exceedingly rare (.07%, of natural uranium, if I recall correctly.)

The possible consequences of large scale wind energy harvesting could well include dramatic changes in climate such as massive droughts which would decimate agricultural production. As I wrote above, we simply do not know what will happen without trying the technology out.

Anonymous said...

@Clarissa For them indeed. It doesn't make a difference.

I was my argument against your "Humanity is not ready for nuclear consumption."

People will continue to suffer and die due to natural disasters.

profacero said...


Nuclear winter is still possible, people, and it doesn't have to come about as a result of war.

Clarissa said...

If the reactors simply weren't there, consequences of this natural disaster would be smaller.

Clarissa said...

profacero: Oh yes. The way Russia treats its nuclear power doesn't bear thinking about.

Anonymous said...

Discovery of how to create and maintain nuclear reactions was simply a fait accompli of the rest of modern science.

In other words, give that up*, and the rest goes, too -- Blackberries and ipods, computers and all the rest.

*I'm not saying that nuclear reactors had to be created because it was understood how to do so, just that scientists who discovered the principles of nuclear power (like Einstein, Marie Curie, Wolfgang Pauli, etc.) weren't really hoping to create reactors, or bombs, and that the same science that brought about reactors also brought about cell phones -- it's all of a piece. You can't just not do some areas of science, because it all fits and works together.

Really surprised to hear such anti-science and anti-scientists views from you.


Clarissa said...

I don't buy this "Oh, they didn't know what they were doing" argument. Some people refused to experiment on human beings while Dr. Mengele didn't. Condemning Mengele and Sakharov as vile monsters doesn't mean that I'm anti-science.

Anonymous said...

You aren't understanding what I am saying, or perhaps just don't care.

I am trying to say that if you understand how the atom works, which is necessary to build, say, a computer, then you can build a nuclear reactor.

No evil required. Marie Curie had no idea that what she was working on could even be a reactor, or what the implications were. Einstein did, at least later on, but he was trying to understand the universe, not construct nuclear devices.

Science just isn't as separable as you and many in the humanities wish it were.

I'm only lightly teasing, but I've often said that I wish scientists were required to take four years of courses in humanities before they even could begin to become scientists, and that humanities scholars should also be required to take four years of science before they could even start on humanities.

Impractical from a time scale, I know, but it would be a great benefit to everyone if we all lived to be 150 because in general the two sides just do not understand how the other works, at all, in any way, in my experience.


Clarissa said...

There were people who were busting their asses in the forties to build a nuclear bomb for Stalin and for Hitler. These people were not trying to come up with some general principle of understanding an atom that might have later led both to the creation of a computer and the creation of a nuclear weapon. They were very specifically trying to create nuclear weapons for genocidal regimes. These are the people I condemn. They worked 18 hours a day because each one of them wanted to be "the first" to create the weapon that would win the war. What that would cost to humanity was of no interest to them.

I have nothing against scientists. It's Mengele and Sakharov types that I abhor.

Anonymous said...

That makes sense, though I don't think it's that simple. The world would be better, though, if nuclear weapons had never been built, though I am not even 100% sure about that.

Why? Because it probably would have led to more devastating and more frequent conventional wars.


Clarissa said...

I knew that you and I could never disagree for long. As long as it isn't about opossums, of course. :-)

Anonymous said...

I just didn't understand what you were getting at. And I'm kind of over-reactive from how many people blanket declare science evil while using cell phones, computers, GPS and being unable to give them up.

But you're in academia, so you are used to pointless and petty arguments. ;-)


Pagan Topologist said...

Mike, we have abandoned certain technologies as unfeasible because of the dangers. Nuclear power could be abandoned in a similar way. Abandoned technologies include lead-based paints and dirigibles filled with hydrogen. Those are the ones that come to mind; I am sure there are many others. You need not give up all the advantages of chemistry to agree that discontinuing the use of lead based paints is a good idea, although giving up the technology is not without cost. Not using lead means, for example, that lane lines on highways become less visible to drivers much more quickly, and thus require more frequent repainting.

el said...

If you want more interesting blogs to read, I would recommend
and probably
who has recently written on the topic:

As for refusing nuclear energy, I think we all understand it's but a dream. Human species being what we are, we don't stop in general, for good & for bad. Especially when it's a matter of power. I am sure that even if nuclear reactions could be used only for atom bombs' creation, in the long run, when stakes would begin to rise, countries would create them, US or no US. Nowadays atom energy is killing 2 birds with 1 stone: relatively cheap energy (=economical independance + higher standard of living) and the ability to create a bomb under the guise of peaceful uses, see Iran.

David said...

I guess as we become more and more scientifically advanced we're going to get better at killing each other and destroying our environment.

Doesn't matter anyway, world's going to end in 2012, right? ;D

Clarissa said...

In 2012 when President Palin begins her first term? :-)

Pen said...

"I think that long term nuclear disarmament is really important, and nuclear reactors (which might as well be used to produce usable energy) are the ONLY way to get rid of plutonium permanently."

-Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't uranium used in nuclear reactors, not plutonium?

Pagan Topologist said...

Uranium is used in the present day nuclear reactors. Plutonium can be used also.

Canukistani said...

Here is an animation of the nuclear reactor event in Japan.

As you can see any leakage of the water coolant will cause the reactor to overheat since gravity will drain the water which acts as a moderator for the nuclear reaction. This is an inherently bad design and a human failure. Any unexpected external event and you have a problem if the backups fail due to the nature of the design. As of midnight Tuesday, nine reactors are in trouble. The design limit was an earthquake of 7.9. Unfortunately it was 9.0 so they're screwed.

Clarissa said...

It seems like a meltdown is imminent at this point. This is horrible. I can't believe this is happening again.

Anonymous said...

There are several crucial differences between the Japanese reactors and the Chernobyl ones.

The Japanese ones have a hard containment shell. Chernobyl had none. Chernobyl also used graphite rods, which are combustible (and burned for four days). This has no possibility of occuring.

While I am not saying everything is peachy, even in the worst meltdown scenario, the Japanese reactors have the possibility -- at the very worst -- of being about 1/1000 as bad as Chernobyl.

People are understandably terrified of the word "meltdown" since Chernobyl. I get that. But I just wanted to throw some facts into the mix that you won't hear in the press.

By the way, a coal-fired plant releases vast amounts of radiation, and chances are anyone reading this lives near one.


Canukistani said...

Mike is correct about his facts but there are other items to be considered. I live not far from a very large nuclear power plant so I pay attention to these things. We used to joke that the local restaurants would hand out Potassium Iodide after dinner mints. Fortunately my plant has a better design (Candu) than the Japanese one (GE). The reason that the Japanese bought the inferior General Electric design was it was tied to military sales and subsidized by the American government. The Candu reactor uses a lower grade of uranium and heavy water as a moderator. The heavy water slows down the neutrons and allows the nuclear reaction to take place. In the event that the heavy water is lost due to leakage or any other reason the reaction is self terminating unlike the General Electric design.

One of the problems with all nuclear plants is metal fatigue caused by neutron irradiation from the fuel rods. This leads over many years to loss of structural integrity in the metal components of the reactor. In the Candu system these components are designed to be swapped out during the ongoing operation of the plant. In the GE system the metal containment to which Mike was referring is not replaceable and only removed on the decommissioning of the plant. If the plant is old then this is an accident waiting to happen and loss of the structural integrity would lead to catastrophic failure with total exposure of the radioactive material to the surrounding area so his conclusions based on partial evidence are incorrect. My conclusion – they’re TOTALLY FUCKED. (pardon my language.)

Fukushima Daiichi 1 Date of Reactor Design Size Commercial operation

Fukushima I-1 General Electric Mark I BWR 439MW March 1971
Fukushima I –2 General Electric Mark I BWR 760 MW July 1974
Fukushima I - 3 General Electric Mark I BWR 760 MW March 1976
Fukushima I - 4 General Electric Mark I BWR 760 MW October 1978
Fukushima I - 5 General Electric Mark I BWR 760 MW April 1978
Fukushima I - 6 General Electric Mark II BWR 1067 MW October 1979

Fukushima Daini II
Fukushima II-1 General Electric Mark II BWR 1067 MW April 1982
Fukushima II-2 General Electric Mark II BWR 1067 MW February 1984
Fukushima II-3 General Electric Mark II BWR 1067 MW June 1985
Fukushima II-4 General Electric Mark II BWR 1067 MW August 1987

In 1986, Harold Denton, then the NRC's top safety official, told an industry trade group that the
"Mark I containment, especially being smaller with lower design pressure, in spite of the
suppression pool, if you look at the WASH 1400 safety study, you'll find something like a 90%
probability of that containment failing."

UPDATE 8:15 am, Tuesday, March 15, 2011. The situation at Fukushima is going from bad to worse. There was briefly a fire in the irradiated fuel pool at Unit 4. The fire is said to be extinguished for now.

Most disturbingly, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has evacuated all but 50 people from the
reactor site. This skeleton crew (of heroic workers) is not likely to be enough to handle
simultaneous crises at four reactors and four fuel pools. This may well be a sign that Tepco
has given up hope that it can successfully contain this crisis and prevent full meltdowns.

A 30 kilometre (18.6 miles) exclusion zone has been set up around the site. No one is being
allowed inside this zone. However, only residents within 20 kilometres of the site so far have
been evacuated; residents from 20-30 kilometres are being told to take shelter indoors.
There is no indication whatsoever that grid power will be available anytime soon. Without
power to run safety systems and the clear inability to provide adequate backup power, there is
unfortunately little likelihood this crisis can be contained.(official statement)


The US navy fleet is getting the hell out of the area. What does that tell you?

Canukistani said...

Here’s more New York Times, the paper of record B.S. masquerading as informed opinion. This is in an article called “Realism about Costs and Benefits” by Michael W. Goley published on March 14, 2011.

“Nuclear plants in the U.S. are designed to standards similar to those used in Japan, which are quite comprehensive. And where there is higher potential for strong earthquakes, as in California, more stringent performance requirements have been imposed.

No particular design for nuclear power plants is more vulnerable to earthquakes than others. And even age is not necessarily a factor for greater vulnerability (the typical reason for closing older U.S. nuclear power plants is that they have smaller power capacity and are near the end of their service lives).”

See my previous comment for a refutation.

Clarissa said...

It happens time and again, and yet I never cease to be amazed at the way NYTimes fails to do even the most basic research on anything. Do you think they are misleading the public on purpose in order to avoid panic? Is the gravity of what's happening being concealed from us even at this point?

I already experienced all this (the rumors, the fear, the lies of the media) when Chernobyl happened. Will nobody ever come up with a new way of dealing with such things?

Canukistani said...

The short answer to your question about the gravity of the situation is yes. One example is the statement on CNN that the situation in the storage rod pool is stable because 1) they are pouring sea water into the pool and 2) the rods are protected by a protective coating. Sea water is salty and salt is not chemically compatible with the protective coating so it will disintegrate. The idiot who designed this crap put the storage rod pool on top side of the reactor with minimal containment like Chernobyl. If the recirculation pumps fail which they will because there is no electricity, the pool will evaporate. All six reactors at this site have some problem as of 7:30 pm, Tuesday. From the Christian Science Monitor:

“A particular feature of the 40-year old General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor model such as the six reactors at the Fukushima site – is that each reactor has a separate spent-fuel pool. These sit near the top of each reactor and adjacent to it, so that cranes can remove spent fuel from the reactor and deposit it in a swimming-pool-like concrete structure near the top of the reactor vessel, inside each reactor building.

If the hydrogen explosions damaged those pools – or systems needed to keep them cool – they could become a big problem. Keeping spent-fuel pools cool is critical and could potentially be an even more severe problem than a reactor meltdown, some experts say. If water drains out, the spent fuel could produce a fire that would release vast amounts of radioactivity, nuclear experts and anti-nuclear activists warn.

“There should be much more attention paid to the spent-fuel pools,” says Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the anti-nuclear power Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “If there’s a complete loss of containment [and thus the water inside], it can catch fire. There’s a huge amount of radioactivity inside – far more than is inside the reactors. The damaged reactors are less likely to spread the same vast amounts of radiation that Chernobyl did, but a spent-fuel pool fire could very well produce damage similar to or even greater than Chernobyl.”

This event is currently happening at reactor #4 and will probably happen at all six reactors.

For a lot more information:

If you think this can’t get worse then you’re wrong. The jet stream travels right over top of the reactor, across the Pacific Ocean and through the states. At the current speed of the wind 40 hours after the isotopes leave the plant, they will be falling on your head in Edmonsville. This means a lower dilution factor and higher radiation.

For a lot more information:

Canukistani said...

Seems like I'm not the only one complaining about the NYT coverage. MIT did a negative article on the NYT radiation map.

"The New York Times website has published an alarming interactive map that shows a massive plume of radiation moving across the Pacific and reaching Southern California tomorrow. The map was created by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, an arm of the United Nations. The text around the map explains—in bold type—that the map does not indicate levels of radiation, and that the plume would be so dilute by the time it reaches the U.S. that it would have "extremely minor health consequences." But unfortunately, the picture is going to be far more powerful than the words. For a dispassionate look at the health impacts of radiation, see our story today.

Here's what's wrong with the map. First, is uses a logarithmic scale: parts of the plume indicate radiation levels that are several orders of magnitude lower than others. The yellow parts of the map show levels that are one thousand times higher than the purple ones. But just looking at the map, you wouldn't notice this at first. The levels all seem pretty close to each other, in part because of the gradual differences in color between them. Second, the map uses "arbitrary units." We have no idea whether even the highest concentration parts are dangerous, let alone the dilute parts. But given data from Japan, even the highest concentrations shown are at levels that are not dangerous to human health. The levels that reach the U.S. would be far lower. They might be just barely detectable above natural background radiation."

Its not just the Japanese that are giving misleading information.

Clarissa said...

I have not looked at a single article in NYT on this issue. It's difficult enough as it is to figure out whom to trust in a situation where huge amounts of conflicting stories are coming in. What the NYT's agenda is in all of this is unclear to me right now. If you have an idea, please share.

Canukistani said...

Today GE made a lot of technical complaints about NYT reporting. Without going into technical details, I'll just quote the first and last parts:

"The New York Times published an online story last night and an accompanying graphic about the Mark I boiling water reactor (BWR) containment system used in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The story contains errors and distorts the facts about the technology with misleading comparisons of the BWR design and that of the pressurized water reactor (PWR).

The Times cites GE as one of its sources. GE did speak to them but the information they present is wrong.

Without doubt, these issues are incredibly complex but that makes it all the more important for The New York Times to treat these issues with care."

I realise that GE does have its own agenda but they have valid points. I'm thinking about writing an unbiased article.

Clarissa said...

Now I realize that this whole story about the GE technology originated with the NYTimes. Many sources quoted it later, some even without attribution.

At this point, it's completely unclear to me who should be trusted more in this situation, GE or NYTimes. Both have been known to be dishonest in the past.

I wonder if we'll ever know. Is there a possibility of a thorough, responsible investigation on Japan's end of things?

Canukistani said...

If you think that the NYT reporting is bad then how about Fox news. They showed a map of the nuclear power plant locations in Japan. Unfortunately one of the sites shown is really a rock and roll night club.

"Fair and balanced reporting" indeed!

Clarissa said...

"Shibuyaeggman" as a nuclear reactor is priceless. I'm starting to think that they are doing it on purpose. Can anybody really be this unprofessional? Or is it their profound lack of respect for their viewers that leads to these egregious mistakes?