Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cooling Off Or Melting Down?

I think I'm going to do a bit of the former today. Here's how I understand the situation at Fukushima.

It appears that cooling is available where it's needed, both in the reactors and the spent fuel pools. The fire is out at Reactor #4, and it wasn't in the spent fuel pool, which would have spread radioactivity, but rather in some lubricating fluid. I learned that in a conference call held this morning by executives of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's policy organization. And the radiation levels, which were rising to levels that could impact human health near the reactor buildings, are going down. If there is a leak at Reactor #2, it's not a big one.

I'm chilling because yesterday it was becoming evident that information was coming from multiple directions, not necessarily in time order. (Was the fire out? Was it on?) It's possible that something more could go wrong, but it looks like the reactor operators are getting a handle on things.

I was following closely because I hoped to be able to figure out what was going on, but I'm concluding that some of my questions will be answered only when the after-accident investigation takes place, months from now. So I'm paying attention, but not as closely as the past few days, unless something terrible or particularly good happens.

The media coverage is interesting, and I may write more about it. Most of the reporters who asked questions on this morning's conference call did a really poor job. Because they didn't understand what they were asking about, many of their questions didn't make sense. Some were overly general: "What do you expect to happen?" "Will things get worse?" Many required a crystal ball or a simple answer, like 42. "What magnitude earthquake are US nuclear plants designed for?" was asked more than once. The answer was that each plant is designed to meet the hazards at its site, so there is no single number that applies to all.

And mistakes abound, some small, some large. Far too much speculation and expectation of disaster. Just a few examples. From the New York Times:
Workers have released surges of radiation each time they bleed radioactive steam from the troubled reactors in an attempt to manage the pressure inside the reactors, but the reactors are not yet releasing high levels of radiation on a sustained basis, Japanese officials said.
It's not clear whether the Japanese officials used the word "yet," which I've emphasized in the quote. Its presence seems to imply that we can expect that high levels of radiation will be released later on a sustained basis, but there's no way any of us can know that. Same article:
The explosion in reactor No. 2, a little after 6 a.m. on Tuesday, particularly alarmed Japanese officials and nuclear power experts around the world because it was the first detonation at the plant that appeared to occur inside one of the primary containment buildings.
The primary containment is the steel vessel in which the reactor core is contained. The reporters still don't understand containment.

We know that the Washington Post doesn't check their op-eds for fact, so there's no reason to be surprised at Anne Applebaum's op-ed, which has pretty close to no factual support at all. Headlines aren't the responsibility of the writer, but "If the Japanese can't build a safe reactor, who can?" is entirely consistent with Applebaum's message. Except the Fukushima reactors were built by GE, an American company. Sort of destroys the whole premise of the op-ed. The whole piece has the feel of regurgitated prejudices. Probably took a whole half-hour to write without cracking a single Google.

But there are some reliable things being printed out there, and I'll share some of them now.

Updated news and links from the American Nuclear Society.

Radiation: When to worry. Good job, CNN!

FAQs from the World Health Organization.

Update: These two updates, from World Nuclear News (which is doing a great job of keeping up) and the IAEA, are consistent with what I've said in this post, although they don't cover everyone.

1 comment:

Steve Aplin said...

Cheryl, excellent post. So nice to read sober-minded analysis after all the hysteria.