Sunday, March 20, 2011

What Will We Know and When Will We Know It?

My blogfriend Charles Cameron e-mailed me the other day, when things were still hot and heavy at Fukushima, to ask some questions:
Given that there's a lot of fog around exactly what's going on at Fukushima Daiichi, perhaps you could answer an additional question in your next analytic post: how will we know when the fog has cleared?

There are presumably (I am entirely naive on this) some situations that would be impossible to cover up, some that might be very difficult but not impossible to deny, and some that could happen with nobody outside secretive circles being any the wiser. How does that work? Will we know, six months from now, what we don't already know? Might we need to wait for thirty years, or WikiLeaks, or simply never know?
It's a good set of questions. Now that things are quieting down a little, they're the kind of thing I like to think about in a post.

I wondered early on about how much of which reports to believe. One rule of thumb is that early information on any emergency situation is likely to be wrong, so I mostly waited until there were a couple of confirmations, and, even then, if something sounded far-fetched, I waited a little longer. That kept me from jumping to the conclusion (as some did) that the spent fuel pools were on fire.

Another couple of things I considered had to do with how nuclear energy is regulated and Tepco's history. On the first, Japan has been a responsible member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which keeps track of nuclear doings. Reporting bad information to them isn't a good idea. The Soviet coverup of Chernobyl was a lesson for everyone, too; bottom line is that there are radiation detectors everywhere, and someone's going to say, hey, why are these readings going up? Tepco has a history, however, of minimizing nuclear accidents until they can't hold the information back. I'm recalling an incident in which uranium solutions were being mixed at a fuel fabrication plant and the solutions went critical. Deadly only to those immediately present, but I recall being pretty sure that was what happened for some time before the official word came out. Maybe Tepco learned from that the way Mikhail Gorbachev learned from the first few of those terrible days in late April 1986.

Then, of course, you have to consider the difficulties for the operators when a historically large earthquake is immediately followed by a 10-meter tsunami that wipe out power, communications, and physical access to your plant. The executives back at the home office were probably feeling stressed too. And the government had lost and injured people to think about, plus those power outages and communications problems.

We're seeing articles now saying that there were delays, people did the wrong things. Maybe. There may be a certain amount of blame-shifting going on, so I'm taking that with a grain of salt.

More annoying are the "lessons learned" articles. We don't fully know the extent of damage at the plants; we don't know how much core melted, whether there are breaches in core containment and spent fuel pools. We don't know the sequence of events or how the operators responded. Despite the solemn pronouncements that the accident rates one particular integer on a scale of seven, we don't have the information that those ratings require. And what would that tell us anyway?

There's very little that can be hidden about a nuclear accident in the long run. It's likely that the US already has information from satellites and air sampling from aircraft. That may have been part of the basis for NRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko's statement the other day. Which may have been wrong; we don't know yet.

There will be investigations. Japan's nuclear regulators will investigate. Tepco will have its own internal investigation. The International Atomic Energy Agency will have, if not an investigation, a group of scientists and engineers funded to look at the physical remains of the plants and calculate scenarios that are most likely to have played out in the cores and spent fuel pools. Several countries will track the radionuclides that have been released. The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization has a worldwide network of sensors that are collecting data which will be shared with the IAEA and the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO is already collecting data on its own and will work with the Japanese government on data collection and interpretation, probably mostly monitoring of the spread of radiation and its appearance in foods.

In six months, we'll have a pretty good sequence of events, and we'll know why some of them happened. Pretty much the whole story should be out in two or three years. Details will continue to be filled in after that, the time scale depending partly on how difficult the plants are to clean up. I doubt that there will be many secrets.

1 comment:

Charles Cameron (hipbone) said...

Many thanks, Cheryl. I have very much appreciated the series of posts you've been making here, and I am sure many others have, too.

Isn't in strange how often the voices that are informed are also the calm voices, while the voices that sound inflamed are also so often misinformed?

My thanks again.