Sunday, March 27, 2011

Radiation Exposure Standards – Making Hard Judgements

Radioactive decay is inherently probabilistic. It’s not possible point at a particular unstable atom and predict when it will decay. Further, some types of unstable atoms have more than one path for decay; it’s also not possible to predict the path of a single atom.

The behavior of large numbers of atoms, however, is statistical, and we can say some things about their collective radioactive decay: half of the atoms present will decay within a time called the half-life, and the fractions of atoms that take the various paths of decay are predictable.

When probabilistic physics is combined with the uncertainties and unknowns of biology, prediction becomes much more difficult. Ingested radioactive materials are excreted from the body in times also measured by half-lives. Whether radiation kills a cell or alters its DNA is probabilistic. Whether that altered DNA leads to cancer is probabilistic. And we don’t know the probabilities of those events, although we can derive some overall numbers from epidemiology.

What we know about radiation effects on the human body comes largely from epidemiological studies of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombings in 1945 who were exposed to very high levels of radiation. Those effects are expressed in probable numbers of cancer deaths per number of people exposed. The effects of low levels of radiation, those that most people encounter, require studying extremely large numbers of people. Such studies are prohibitively expensive, so few have been done, and those effects have been extrapolated down from the higher exposures. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding this approach. It is more likely to overestimate probable numbers of cancers than to underestimate them.

The limits set on radiation exposure, therefore, represent a judgement about the acceptable increase in cancers in a population. Background levels of radiation and other contributors to cancer vary from place to place, so additional radiation at sea level may still be less than natural exposure at higher altitudes, making this judgement still more complicated.

The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) provides the basis from which national radiation protection standards are developed, but nations and subnational bodies decide what level of protection is desirable.

For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency prefers a risk of 1 in a million that an individual will develop cancer in a lifetime as a goal for environmental remediation, but the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission assesses the risks differently. A report by the US General Accounting Office (now General Accountability Office, GAO) from the year 2000 provides some helpful general discussion on radiation standards in addition to its discussion of the differences between agencies in developing standards for the Yucca Mountain Repository. (At the time the report was written, rem was the commonly-used unit of biological radiation effect. Today, sievert is the unit in use. One sievert equals 100 rem.)

The chart by XKCD gives the EPA yearly limit on radiation exposure to a single member of the public as 1 mSv (green area, about halfway down the left-hand side). It gives the yearly limit for a radiation worker as 50 mSv. The ICRP has issued exposure recommendations for Fukushima that allow up to 20 mSv per year for citizens in the area, “with the long-term goal of reducing reference levels to 1 mSv per year.”

The differences in these levels represent judgements that the risk to the public should be less than the risk assumed by workers who understand that they are raising their risk level. The higher exposure levels represent higher risks of cancer. But they start from a one-in-a-million risk for the general population.

Radiation Measurements Gone Wrong

I haven't said much about it, but if you've worked with radiation counters, you know that there are lots of ways they can go wrong. Get a particle or drop of something on the probe. Spikes (the up-and-down kind, not the current misuse of that word) from electrical transients or cosmic rays. High or low humidity. In my experience, the errors tend toward false positives rather than false negatives. Alpha counters are particularly prone to things going wrong, but they should be less used than beta-gamma counters at the Fukushima plant right now.

Today there's a report of a measurement that the plant workers want to re-check. Always a good idea, whether it's an unexpectedly high measurement or unexpectedly low.

Program note: I'll be mostly away from the internets for the next week. There'll be another post this afternoon on how radiation exposure standards are derived that you won't want to miss. Then there will be a few more at BMJ that overlap with what I've posted here already. I'm not ignoring you if I don't respond to comments. I'll try to tweet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Is There a Leak at Fukushima #3?

We simply don’t know. There are enough radionuclides in the outflow to the sea and in the water in the plant that it looks like a leak is possible, but there are too many other things that we don’t know. If there is a leak, it is not a big one.

It’s not a big one, because reactor #3 has been pressurized. If you try to blow up a balloon with a big leak, nothing happens. You can blow up a balloon with a pinhole leak, though. The steel reactor containment vessel is equipped with pressure gauges to measure the pressure. With a big enough leak, the pressure wouldn’t rise, but it has been rising as water is pumped in and turns to steam.

So where is the radioactive water coming from?

The information available doesn’t allow strong conclusions. An enormous amount of seawater has been pumped into the reactors and the spent fuel pools. Some of it is evaporating, but the reactor containment is a closed system. The reactors have been vented when their pressures went too high; fission products would have been released with the steam. If the fuel is damaged, and it almost certainly is in reactors #1, #2, and #3, more fission products will be in the coolant and steam than there are normally. They may condense out in the buildings. Or it is possible that water has been released during the venting.

Standing water in the Unit #3 turbine building has high levels of radiation. Two workers have suffered radiation burns on their feet from stepping in it without protective gear. These burns are being treated as heat burns would be. Although the doses (180 mSv) are in a range that is close to producing symptoms of radiation sickness for whole-body exposures (see chart), exposures to extremities are less likely to do so.

There are different kinds of fission products in the cores and in the spent fuel pools, because the short half-life fission products, like iodine-131, have disappeared from the fuel in the pools. Sampling in Seattle seems to indicate that the releases are coming from the cores.

Electricity has been partially restored to the control rooms. Here’s a photo from the control room for Unit 2. Fresh water is being injected into Units 1, 2, and 3, which removes some of the concern about salt buildup from the use of seawater. Fresh water may also be injected into Unit 4.

There has been some discussion about whether Tepco is holding back information about radiation levels. I’m inclined to think that if information is not being released in an entirely timely manner, it is because the operators’ and managers’ first priority is dealing with the emergency. But Tepco has been less than forthcoming on past accidents, so suspicion remains.

I’m making this assessment from IAEA reports and other sources.

And Now...Becquerels!

Some of the news reports are giving the radioactivity of water and soils in Becquerels. Those numbers are likely to be big. A Becquerel is one count per second, or one alpha, beta, or gamma per second.

Becquerels do not translate simply into the dose units of Sieverts, which I've mentioned in several previous posts. Sieverts measure biological effect, and alphas, betas, and gammas have different effects.

Each count represents a single atom. For comparison, in a cubic centimeter of water (about a tablespoon), there are about 3 x 1022 molecules, or 1023 atoms. A billion is 109. The superscripts indicate the number of zeroes after the first number (assumed to be 1 in the last two numbers).

If You're Anywhere But Japan, Don't Take Potassium Iodide!

Or any of the other things the unscrupulous are trying to sell you as radiation remedies. A couple of recent conversations showed me that this information isn't getting out, or isn't being believed.

Here's a message from from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the American Thyroid Association, The Endocrine Society, and the Society of Nuclear Medicine on why you shouldn't.

And there is stuff out there that is just plain junk. Anything to make a buck.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Blogging at BMJ Blogs

The British Medical Journal has asked me to contribute posts on Fukushima to their blog. Some of what I write, like the latest post, will be posted in both places. I'll probably have some background incorporating earlier posts up over there, too. One post is up.

They also have a doctor in the Fukushima area writing for them.

Go over and say hello.

Reading Fukushima Status Reports

Now that things are happening less rapidly at Fukushima, I’ve been looking less frequently at the status reports. It became obvious early on that the more general aftermath of the earthquake, the loss of electrical power and communication, and other factors were leading to erroneous reports and too much instant interpretation. Taking some time helps to sort out the erroneous reports, but conflicting reports and interpretations still exist.

Several sources are making status reports available. The basic reports come from Tepco, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Fukushima generating plant. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) Washington DC Office is also issuing updates which are based on the Tepco reports and other information. They are not directly accessible via the Web, but Jeffrey Lewis is posting them regularly at Arms Control Wonk. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) is making their radiation readings available in English here.

What do today’s status reports tell us?

From Tepco’s “Status of TEPCO's Facilities and its services after Tohoku-Taiheiyou-Oki Earthquake(as of 5:00PM March 23)”, all four of the Fukushima Daini reactors are in cold shutdown. There has been some concern about their condition, but it has not been as serious as at Fukushima Daiichi. It’s reasonable to expect they’ll remain in cold shutdown.

The latest Daiichi report (as of 11:00 PM Mar 22nd) says that two workers were injured while setting up a temporary power panel. These injuries are most likely industrial injuries, rather than radiological ones.

A concrete pumping truck is now being used to pump cooling water. This appears to be both to the spent fuel pools, which are located high in the reactor buildings, and also over the concrete containment structures, which is an indirect, but apparently effective, way of cooling the reactor cores when water cannot be injected directly into the containment.

The puffs of smoke that have caused temporary evacuations of the control rooms have not been accompanied by increases in radiation. A gray or black color could indicate a fire, while white “smoke” is more likely steam.

From the FEPC reports, the spent fuel pools at Units 2, 5, and 6 are at acceptable temperatures. Water is being added to the pools at Units 3 and 4, but no temperature is given. The reactor cores in Units 1, 2, and 3 remain partially uncovered by water, but the fact that their containment is holding pressure suggests that there are no large breaches.

The estimates for the height of the tsunami at Fukushima keep going up. Today’s is 14 meters.

I’ve wanted to look at the radiation readings in detail and haven’t had a chance to so far. Maybe I will do that next. The radioisotopes that I have seen reported are those that would be in the reactor cores rather than the spent fuel pools. Iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, which means that it is down to insignificant levels after about three months and would be in the reactor core, but not in the pools. We know that steam has been vented from the reactors, so it appears that the radiation being seen is from this venting, or possibly from breaches of containment.

If there had been fires in the spent fuel pools, additional radionuclides would have been detected.

I am reserving judgement on reports like this. If it is true, we will find out in the investigations that will follow. But it doesn’t tell us anything useful about the current situation.

[Cross-posted at BMJ Blogs.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Inspections Begin Under New START

Russians inspected a B-1B heavy bomber at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona on March 18, and Americans are now inspecting Russia's newest intercontinental ballistic missile, the RS-24 Yars. That's the first time in over a year, and it's because New START has come into force.

More about data exchanges and why they should be made public, from Hans Kristensen.

We Can Only Hope

This morning's headline in the New York Times:
U.S.-Led Assault Nears Goal in Libya
Look next for why it's really necessary for the US to help with stabilization, why Britain and France really aren't appropriate (former colonization, y'know), and other things we've heard before. Also look for US government to fall for it.

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.

The Latest on Fukushima and Some Great Web Resources

If you just dither long enough, someone else in the blogosphere will do it for you!

XKCD, originator of the talismanic internet joke, has developed a chart illustrating radiation levels that seems both accurate and capable of giving some sense of the relative exposures that are relevant to understanding the issues at Fukushima. They’re still hard to grasp, what with the blocks of various colors being such a small part of the next color up.

Also, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is making their radiation readings available online. The graphic on the last page of the readings is a nice complement to XKCD’s boxes. Here's a NYT graphic that seems to get the MEXT data right.

I’ll come back to exposures in another post, but today’s news is that things are stabilizing at the plant. Reactor units 5 and 6 are in cold shutdown. They have external power to provide cooling water from the sea. That’s what the operators are aiming for with all the reactors. The temperatures of their spent fuel pools are going down. The pressure was increasing in reactor 3, which is mostly good news: if the pressure increases, there is probably not a breach in the primary containment. And it looks now like venting will not be necessary. Units 1, 2, and 4 seem to be reasonably stable but still need external power, which is expected to be connected to units 1 and 2 today. (Updates from Tepco and World Nuclear News)

There’s also a new blog - Where are the clouds? - that is tracking the radiation plumes from Fukushima. Check it out. This is much more knowledgeable information than that awful NYT map.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

NRC Webcast Monday and How Not To Do Modeling

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission will present a webcast, "Briefing on NRC Response to Recent Nuclear Events in Japan," Monday, March 21, at 9:00 Eastern Time. You can reach the webcast from here.

In other radiation news, the New York Times may have maxed out on the potential for causing radiation hysteria. They've got a graphic that shows everybody dead within a mile from the Fukushima plant. As I noted yesterday, you need dose rate and time to calculate an exposure. The Times didn't bother with that second little detail. What's worse, though, is that this map represents some kind of modeling, and the explanation is quite clear:
The recommendation was based on a model that predicts potential radiation levels depending on whether the containment vessels remain intact, weather patterns, and other factors.
What's not clear, or even mentioned, is which of those "depending" factors (also called assumptions) were used for the calculation. For those of us who've done modeling, the first thing we ask about someone else's model is what the assumptions are. Is this a dispersal of all reactor contents? How high in the air are they blown? It looks like a worst case, or, as a colleague e-mailed, an impossible case.

The Times text also has me wondering exactly what the basis was for the US evacuation order. This graphic, with its lack of relevant information? Or other modeling results that may have made more sense?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Political Followup

On Wednesday, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko testified to Congress that the situation at Fukushima was much worse than the Japanese were saying it was. I considered the political implications, which weren't good for US-Japan relations.

There have been a couple of news stories that seem to indicate that both governments have decided to move past this potential breach. From Reuters:
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko said the United States was working to provide ideas and possibly equipment to help Japan cool its overheating Daiichi nuclear power plant about 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

He stressed that it could take weeks to succeed in cooling the reactor down.

"This is something that will likely take some time to work through, possibly weeks, as eventually you remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and then the spent fuel pool," Jaczko told a briefing at the White House.

His agency will carry out the U.S. review Obama requested. The commission will meet on Monday to begin discussions about it, a NRC spokesman said.
From the New York Times:
“There was a slight delay conveying to the U.S. side the information about whether or not there is water,” the government spokesman, Yukio Edano, said about the No. 4 reactor. Mr. Edano was responding to a question asked by a Japanese journalist at a morning news conference — the single one that dealt with Mr. Jaczko’s comments.
I'm reading those two statements as Jaczko's pulling back and Japan's gracefully allowing him to do so.

Unfortunately, neither gives much information about what the status really is. I'm speculating, but the lack of unexpected events since the helicopter water drops and the water-cannon cooling suggests that those interventions were effective and that the containment, both of the reactors and of the water in the spent fuel pools, is reasonably intact.

Another note on the Jaczko incident. The Nuclear Energy Institute update for 5 pm Thursday, March 17:
Dan Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy, said today that two U.S. flights to Japan collected information on radiation levels. These readings informed the decision to recommend that Americans evacuate an area 50 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility.
I would expect them also to collect air samples. The US has been doing this since the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949. The isotopes collected give a great deal of information about what's happening.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

More Links On Japan, Reactors, and Radiation

Everything you need to know about potassium iodide. Actually, everything you need to know is that if you're in the United States, you don't need it. President Obama:
We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska, or American territories in the Pacific.
More from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It looks like a power line is almost installed to Fukushima. This is extremely important, because it will allow the cooling-water pumps to operate. It was losing this power that caused the crisis.

Video of the damaged buildings from a helicopter.

How likely is a fire in the spent fuel pools? Experts seem to disagree.

I'm not sure what the situation is in Japan, but spent fuel rods are stored at reactors in the United States because they have nowhere to go. At one time, they were to be stored in Yucca Mountain, and that facility is close to being ready to open. But politics have put that off the table. Another possibility is that they might be reprocessed (or recycled, as the industry is now putting it). After Fukushima, there will be questions about the wisdom of storing spent fuel at reactors. Update: According to the New York Times, Japan has been doing what the US has been doing: storing most of their spent fuel in these pools at reactors. (Some of the rest of that article seems not quite reliable.)

Doses and Dose Rates

The reporting on doses and dose rates has been particularly bad and hard to understand, but I think it may be possible to pull out some information from it to help understand how bad the incident is. In this post, I want to provide a framework in which to think about what’s going on at Fukushima. I’ll work on the numbers in another post.

Reporters on the Nuclear Energy Institute call-in a few days ago seemed to want a single number to summarize whether reactors were safe or not. The NEI speakers weren’t willing to give that kind of answer. There’s an argument going on that I’ve been ignoring as to whether the situation at Fukushima qualifies as a 4 or a 6 or a 7 on a seven-point scale for rating nuclear accidents. Given the uncertain state of the knowledge that is input for that rating, this argument at this time seems rather silly to me. I suppose the benefit of this argument would be a big headline, “Fukushima at top of accident scale!”

The situation at Fukushima is constantly changing. We get snapshots from the Tepco press releases or aerial photographs. If we want to understand what is happening and what is likely to happen, though, we have to put those snapshots into time sequence.

Thinking about time sequence means thinking about rates. The rate most of us work with most frequently is the speed we drive our cars: miles per hour (or miles/hour, or mph). If we’re driving 50 mph, we expect to cover 100 miles in 2 hours. That’s multiplying 2 hours by 50 miles/hour. I’m going through it step by step because it is analogous to dose calculations. The slash in miles/hour indicates division. So when you multiply hours by miles/hour, the hour unit cancels out to give miles as the result.

Now on to radiation doses.

What Kind of Exposure Is It?
I discussed this a few days ago, but I’ll go into more detail here.

An operating reactor, or the fuel in spent pools, spews out neutrons and alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. Under normal conditions, the reactor or pool shielding protects the operators from that radiation. But in reactor accidents, there have been times when operators have to go inside the shielding and are irradiated (or “exposed to radiation,” as the media often put it).

The kind of radiation I’m talking about is emitted by unstable atoms, so there is always matter associated with the radiation, radioactive matter. The matter doesn’t escape from an intact reactor or pool, so the irradiated person doesn’t become radioactive* and the effects of his exposure don’t transfer to people in contact with him. This is a concern for the people at the reactor only.

What is of concern for the people in the areas around Fukushima is radioactive matter that comes out of the reactors or spent fuel pools. When steam is released from the reactor, it may carry gaseous fission products like krypton and iodine. The krypton remains gaseous and dilutes itself in the atmosphere, but the iodine cools and solidifies into particles or attaches to dust particles already in the atmosphere. If material is on fire, as in some reports about the spent fuel pool at reactor #4, solid particles containing fission products and uranium and plutonium** will be lofted into the air with heated combustion gases. The particles will eventually fall out of the atmosphere onto people, houses, plants, animals, and the ground. This kind of contamination can be spread by those who carry it, but, because it consists of solid particles, as it spreads, it becomes more dilute and less harmful.

What’s the Dose?
This can get complicated fast, but I’m going to leave most of the complications out to emphasize the general concepts. I’ll be happy to handle questions if you put them in the comments or tweet them to me (@cherylrofer).

For the operator inside the reactor shielding, there is a radiation flux that can be translated into units of sieverts, which indicate its effect on his body. Here’s an explanation of radiation units from the CDC. The dose rate, which is the number that usually shows up on instruments, is sieverts/unit time, or fractions of sieverts/unit time. Those fractions are usually microsieverts (μSv) or millisieverts (mSv). Most instruments use hour as the unit of time, but that is not always the case. Popular listings of everyday exposures, as in x-rays or in airline flights, are usually per incident.

The rate at which a person is irradiated makes a difference; small doses over years may have no effect at all or may cause cancer; the same total all at once could produce radiation sickness. It’s the total dose that is important, so we need the dose rate and duration of exposure, in the same units, to be multiplied together to give the dose, just as we multiply speed times time to get distance.

Many news reports provide no time units at all, and some have confused milli- and micro-. Ezra Klein posts a color-coded chart that lists doses, dose rates, and doses per incident. From orange down, they’re for immediate exposure, not exposure over time. Apples and oranges. He’s evidently received some critical comments (including an e-mail from me), but he doesn’t try to clarify. I doubt that a variety of comments from anonymous posters are helpful. The numbers seem to be all right, although confusing in the way Klein has presented them.

More reliably, the American Nuclear Society provides an interactive dose estimation chart that you can use to estimate your yearly dose from common sources of radiation. Unfortunately, their doses are given in rem. One sievert (Sv) equals 100 rem.

I’m off to collect some numbers and try to do some comparisons for the next post.

*This statement is not quite true, but, unless the dose is enormous, the amount of material in the person’s body that is activated is small and of no danger to other people.

**Plutonium is always present in spent reactor fuel. It is produced when uranium-238 absorbs neutrons.

Politico-Diplomatic Considerations

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko's statement yesterday indicates some serious problems between the US and Japanese governments. Jaczko describes a much more dangerous situation at Fukushima than does Tepco and the Japanese government.

Let's consider the possibilities. Both Jaczko and the Japanese government are unlikely to be right.

If Jaczko is wrong, he has contributed needlessly to concern among the Japanese and has provided information that could damage other nations' perception of Japan.

If the Japanese government is wrong, or, worse, concealing information, it is endangering other nations' citizens in the country and potentially neighboring nations.

I suspect it's possible to argue that both could be working from different information from different times, some of it incorrect. One would prefer to believe that they are sharing information, but the chaos of the earthquake-tsunami aftermath and, yes, nationalistic predelictions on both sides could hamper that.

Dan Yurman (@djysrv) has tweeted the suggestion that American spy satellites might have picked up a temperature signature from the spent fuel pool at Fukushima #4. I'll note that there was an American helicopter that flew through a steam (smoke?) cloud at Fukushima and needed decontamination. There are also American ships in the area that can take air samples. Infrared data and air samples could be what Chairman Jaczko is relying on. Air samples would be the better evidence for troubles in the spent fuel pool.

On the other hand, and there always seems to be another hand, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu testified quite differently earlier yesterday. Was it too early for him to have the evidence that Chairman Jaczko had? Or is there something wrong with what Jaczko is saying?

To be continued. I hope to do some analysis on numbers today that may shed more light on what is happening at Fukushima.

[I've updated this post here.]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Historical Photos for a Change of Pace

A history of Europe in pictures: 1900-1945

A history of Europe in pictures: 1945-2011

From The Guardian.

Big Disagreement

US Nuclear Regulatory Chairman Gregory Jaczko said today in testimony to Congress that all the water in Fukushima reactor #4's spent fuel pool had boiled off, and he urged Americans in the area to evacuate.

I'm in touch by e-mail with a number of nuclear experts, and what I conclude from what I've heard is that Jaczko is wrong. That's what Japanese officials are saying, too.

I'll keep looking into this. I've gotten feedback from readers and tweeps that it would be a good idea to write some more about radiation dose, and that is part of understanding whether it's likely that the situation is as dire as Chairman Jaczko testified. Radiation outside the reactors are going up AND DOWN. They wouldn't go down if material from the fuel rods were being spread around.
Radiation levels were as high as 10 millisieverts per hour today, the equivalent of getting a CT scan for every hour of exposure. Radiation levels have since dropped and the plant workers are planning to return to work, officials said.
I'll post as soon as I can, but it's likely to be tomorrow morning.

Hanging in There at Fukushima

I closed down my computer last night to news that another fire had started up at Fukushima #4. It's been put out now, and none of the fires seem to have been in the fuel pond, despite some reports.

In other confusing reports, the bottom line appears to be that the workers are still on the job at Fukushima, despite reports that they were removed because of too-high radiation readings. What has happened in other nuclear incidents is that workers have been willing to take high radiation doses that sometimes meant their death. So far, only one worker at Fukushima has been reported to have taken a high dose, and that dose is at the "you'll probably get sick but won't die" level. I'm guessing that he went close to the reactor to fix something that wasn't responding to controls or to check that a reading was right. If his exposure had been from a release, it would have been several people rather than just one.

I probably should have said yesterday that I don't expect that things will be smooth at Fukushima now. The news since I've read that post is consistent with what I expected: things are far from normal, but the operators are coping.

A few things to think about; I may write more about them later.

Radiation is very easily detected at very low levels. The fact that you can detect it doesn't necessarily mean it's harmful. At some point, there is likely to be a report that radiation from Fukushima has been detected on the West Coast of the United States. That will be a few atoms' worth. No, you don't need potassium iodide if you live in California.

Two things are being poorly understood: the concepts of concentration and rate. Whether something can harm you depends on its concentration. If you eat a tablespoon of common salt, your heart might stop from a sodium-potassium imbalance. Lower levels, over time, can contribute to high blood pressure. Low levels are essential for life. How much of a substance is present in a volume or weight of air, water, or food is important in understanding how it's likely to affect you. Unfortunately, this point is often missed in reporting.

I'd like to see more numbers for radiation levels in various places in Japan, like Tokyo. I'd also like to see them done right, namely expressed in rates, like so many microSieverts per hour. Or day. Both are likely to be how the rates are given. But reporters leave off the unit of time. Like concentration, rate of exposure to radiation makes a big difference in the likely effects. And a pet peeve that goes beyond this story: the word spike has meant, until recently, a quantity that goes up and quickly falls, not just the going-up part. Please use it correctly, reporters! And readers, keep in mind that they often don't.

Fukushima reactor #2 has had some noises coming from inside it that could have damaged it. We don't know that they're explosions - steam and water in confined circumstances can make noise. And we don't know that the reactor is damaged, much less that it's leaking. So reports that say the containment on reactor #2 may have ruptured, or that there are fears that it may have, aren't wrong, but it's easy - too easy IMHO - to read them quickly as saying that this has happened. They could have equally said that the containment may not have ruptured, but that wouldn't be as exciting. When the radiation levels around it rise, we'll know it's ruptured.

Update: Nice photo of an American contingent headed for Japan to help out.

I have the feeling I haven't said enough times how much credit those tending the reactors deserve.

Further Update: Ezra Klein presents a chart and proves he doesn't realize the difference between dose and dose rate. Dose rates coming out of Japan can't simply be compared to this table. Dose rate multiplied by the time spent in an area with that rate can. And the WaPo rebuild isn't letting me comment.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Good (or at least not bad) Nuclear News

Vice President Joe Biden urges more commerce between the United States and Russia. This is what he said in his speech last week at Moscow State University, although not a transcript. He doesn't skimp on his criticism of the state of Russia's legal system, but the promise to work to get rid of Jackson-Vanick and the stress on common interests are very good things.

North Korea seems to be ready to discuss its uranium enrichment program. This probably won't lead to any quick results, but it's pointing in the right direction.

And, at the moment, my more volatile Twitter follows are bouncing around about a fire at Fukushima's #4 reactor. I guess this doesn't quite go with the title on this post, but I'm definitely going to wait until some solid information is available. Right now, that's just that there's a fire and it seems to be in the same place as before.

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.

Good Morning, I Think

It appears that the fire at Fukushima #4 is out and containment is holding at #2. The radiation levels I was worried about last night are reported to be dropping. Looks like those scary precautions announced by the government were indeed precautions against something that might happen.

Apparently there is another false e-mail making the rounds, claiming to be a BBC report on health effects of radiation. Amazing what crawls out from under rocks in an emergency.

I'll probably write more today.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Need More Information

This is not good news. The order for evacuation and staying inside suggests that radionuclides are being spread. The fire at reactor #4 is particularly of concern. What is burning? Some reports have said that the fire is non-nuclear, but other reports say that the concern about radionuclides is not from reactor #2, but rather from reactor #4.

I've felt all along that we need more information, but it's clear that the government of Japan has other concerns, given the deaths, injury, and homelessness from the earthquake and tsunami. Personnel at the plants clearly need to concentrate on dealing with the reactors. But it would have been desirable to have a team of people to communicate information as soon as it could be verified.

It's the surprises that raise questions: the hydrogen explosions, and now a fire.

Maybe there'll be more information tomorrow.

More Links on the Japanese Reactor Situation

Some nuclear reactor basics from Boing Boing.

And more from the New York Times. Nice graphics!

William Saletan, Slate: Nuclear Overreactors

Michael Levi points out that talking heads that know about nuclear policy don't necessarily know about nuclear engineering.

Christian Science Monitor: Why this isn't Chernobyl

Kevin Drum: The problem with nukes isn't immediate casualties, it's economic viability.

Stephen Walt sees economics as the issue too, along with fear.

Matt Bunn: Some context.

Added later:
Just in case someone e-mails you this "fallout map".

Mark Hibbs discusses Fukushima with Deutsche Welle.

Intervention in Someone Else's Civil War: Lessons from the Russian Revolution

I’ve been providing links to what I think are the more sensible articles on intervention in Libya’s uprising in “Bits and Pieces” for the past week or two. The pressure to set up a no-fly zone has been increasing from Senator John Kerry, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, and the Anne-Marie Slaughter at the New York Times. It’s terrible to see a government using military firepower on its own people, but we need, as Stephen Walt said, to think with our heads as well as our hearts.

It seems to me that those advocating intervention, military or otherwise, assume that intervention will assuredly result in a good outcome. They are not considering what happens if things go badly. If the US intervenes and things do not go well, the US will look weak or even venal, and any other intervention in the area becomes much more problematic. Pretty much the same for NATO and others. There are many ways for things to go badly: Gaddafi overcomes the rebels anyway; the rebel force that intervention backs are overcome by their rivals; or that force turns out to be a lot less wholesome than the advocates of intervention are assuming. All are possible and have happened in other attempts at revolution.

Consider the Russian Revolution, once again.

Members of the Fourth Duma persuaded the Tsar to abdicate in March 1917 and formed the Provisional Government. Alexander Kerensky, whose memoirs I just finished reading, was a member of the Duma and then the Provisional Government, winding up as Prime Minister in mid-summer. Kerensky was a member of the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, quite hostile to the Tsar. There were a number of parties, Trudoviks, Mensheviks, Cadets (bourgeois, center-right), and monarchists, among others, and the military. The Provisional Government underwent several rearrangements during those months and couldn’t pull together the continuing war effort and governance across Russia’s wide expanse.

Kerensky mentions no trusted allies or close associates, nothing that he did to build alliances and teams. Rather, he presents himself as a lone actor, frequently at odds with others who might have been his allies. He shows pique at what he seems to consider slights by the wartime Allies, particularly Britain and France, toward his government and himself. That section (Chapter 22) reads almost as though he expected to assume the Tsar’s unquestioned autocracy.
Up to the moment that the Tsar was deposed, all the foreign diplomatic representatives in Russia behaved with the greatest decorum and in strict conformity with protocol. None of them ventured, certainly, to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs. But no sooner had the upheaval begun than the situation took a drastic turn. Diplomatic practice was thrown to the winds. For the first time the Corps Diplomatique felt it was free to associate with anyone at all. Officially, of course, there was no reason why this should not have been possible before, but in practice foreign diplomats had mixed only in court circles and high society. Now, in Free Russia, every one of them was able to go anywhere, attend any council, and sit in on any meeting. Some diplomats kept to their former custom and continued to visit their favorite salons, but others promptly sought the friendship of newly returned political exiles, the convicts of the day before.
He presents no plans for his government, no strategy for movement to the democratic rule he seems to have wanted, no description of his preferred future for Russia.

It’s not surprising that, during such an upheaval, the government’s attention would focus on the immediate, and that is probably the case now in Egypt and Tunisia. But without longer-range plans, poor decisions are likely to be made.

The Allies were happy to recognize a new, ostensibly democratic government in Russia. At the time, the Provisional Government seeemed reasonably stable, unlike the earlier situation of a variety of squabbling Duma factions united only in favor of deposing the Tsar, which are more analogous to the groups currently fighting Gaddafi. President Nicholas Sarkozy of France seems to have recognized one of the factions in Libya, and other EU members seem to have de-recognized Gaddafi.

But recognition didn’t strengthen the Provisional Government, which suffered from internal weaknesses and its inability to deal with other Russian factions. The Bolsheviks mounted large demonstrations in July, which the government survived, and the military mounted a coup attempt in September, which seriously weakened the Provisional Government.

In September, General Kornilov, the military’s Supreme Commander, asked Kerensky to step down in favor of a military dictatorship. According to Kerensky, Kornilov had the backing of bankers and rich industrialists. But Kerensky refused, and Kornilov didn’t back up his request with action by the military, yet another faction that didn’t manage to put its plans together effectively. Kornilov’s action was Lenin’s luck, though; his demand put additional stress on Kerensky and the Provisional Government, making it less able to respond to another wave of Bolshevik demonstrations in October. The Bolshevik takeover was relatively bloodless.

Lenin had allies and comrades, long-term plans, a story for the masses, a great sense of timing, and a willingness to be totally ruthless. That’s not to say that the Bolsheviks didn’t have their divisions. But even from Kerensky’s account, it appears that Lenin had the solider strategy. Part of his strategy was to withdraw from the war as soon as possible, even if that meant a separate peace with Germany. That was not so acceptable to the Allies in the war. Keeping Germany occupied on two fronts was essential to avoiding the total destruction of France.

The Soviets (councils) in the various cities across Russia, including the Petrograd Soviet, were not yet Bolshevik, and some were quite resistant to this latest faction taking charge in a faraway capital, along with various monarchist factions and parts of the military. The further from Petrograd and Moscow (to which the Bolsheviks moved their government), the more resistance. Further, there was a military force of 45,000 Czechs and Slovaks in Siberia who were unsympathetic to the Reds, as they would be called, the opposition being the Whites.

Britain, Japan, and the United States intervened through the northern port of Murmansk and through Siberia. During the summer of 1918, nineteen anti-Bolshevik governments were formed in Siberia. Civil war raged. Ultimately, the Reds won.*

That intervention was quite ineffective. In fact, intervention by outside parties may well have contributed to a nationalistic inclination to support the Bolshevik government in Moscow.

It seems to me that there are many parallels in Libya: we don’t know the rebel groups or their programs well; power seems to be shifting rapidly; our interests in the outcome are not clear; and intervention may well stir nationalistic feelings against outsiders. Establishing a no-fly zone will require bombing airfields, an act of war, and it’s not clear that Gaddafi’s airpower is the biggest factor in his holding off the rebels.

There are no guarantees that whatever happens after Gaddafi will be any better. I’m sympathetic to the people who want to remove him. But we’ve got to consider what intervention is likely to be able to do, which requires knowing a lot more about what’s going on in Libya than we seem to.

Ross Douthat on parallels with the war-drum-beating for Iraq.

Nicholas Burns: intervention not a good idea.

Rami Khouri: non-military intervention.

Added later:
Steve Clemons: It's not about us.

Fred Kaplan: No-Rush Zone.

A Pew poll just in - 60% say the US doesn't have a responsibility to act in Libya. But evenly split over a no-fly zone. More interpretation here.

* A good reference on the civil war in Siberia and foreign intervention is W. Bruce Lincoln’s The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians.

Plans for Today

Pressure is building for intervention in Libya. I've been working on a post with lessons on intervention from the Russian Revolution. (Short version: don't do it.) It's almost done, and I will be working to get it posted today.

Meanwhile, another sort of pressure seems to be building in some of the Japanese reactors. Although the situation there is serious, I still think that there will be no significant radiation release, and certainly no "Chernobyl" or "China Syndrome" results.

Another caution on reports of radiation sickness: the early symptoms are like those of a number of things that can happen during an emergency: extreme anxiety, ingesting bad water or food, or the million viruses that colonize us. Immediate reactions to radiation occur only when a person has taken an enormous dose, and, as far as I'm aware that has happened to three people max, possibly only one.

I'll keep retweeting stuff that looks useful (@cherylrofer). And I'll try to get up another bunch of links after I post on Libya.

Libya Intervention

Daniel Larison, borrowed from Balloon Juice:
It is “essential” to American credibility and the stability of the region that Gaddafi be overthrown? The last time that interventionists were warning about the de-stabilizing regional effects of a dictator, we ended up with the Iraq debacle in which millions of people were displaced or driven into exile, and hundreds of thousands were killed. Widening and escalating Libya’s civil war into an international one are more likely to contribute to regional destabilization than anything currently happening in Libya. When did Gaddafi’s downfall become “essential” to American credibility? When Obama said that he “must go”? It wasn’t a good idea to say that publicly if there was no intention of following through on it, but this is a bit like saying George Bush was required to attack Iran because he included them in the “axis of evil” or else undermine American “credibility.” Careless rhetoric is unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean that U.S. policymakers have to treat it as if it were an ultimatum.
Mistermix goes on to say,
In the Ivory Coast, for example, the same kind of slaughter of civilians is being perpetrated by a callous dictator. The only difference is that he hasn’t publicly thumbed his nose at the US for decades, so Bill Kristol and the other neocons’ don’t feel butthurt enough to demand his ouster by force.
I touched on this point earlier. What occurs to me to add here, however, is something Americans have trouble seeing because they're inside the very fishbowl they're trying to examine. It's an emics/etics problem.

What I want to point out is how the creation of faux debates, faux outrage, and faux interests in the US, whether generated by 24-hour mass media/infotainment or by the anti-other-party rhetoric of the two political parties or by bloggers, serves to construct the "problem" to which the country is supposed to respond. Much of the time the US is responding to foreign policy problems that are at least partially of its own manufacturing.

When some commentator (David Frum in the case cited above) says that the US must respond in such and such a way to such and such a crisis abroad or lose credibility, it's not that the actual problem (e.g. Gaddafi killing his own people) does not urgently demand a response. It's that the problem is framed as an issue of "American credibility." And "American credibility" is simply shorthand for "my particular views about what the US ought to do."

When you spend a significant amount of time abroad, you may be horrified to see just how much such non-issues end up determining US action. And because the US is then responding to a mistaken characterization of the problem generated from within the fishbowl, the response often ends up a disaster.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More Links on the Japanese Reactor Situation

I've been off-line for most of today, enjoying the company of friends. Back to the news. I do have another post on parallels between the Russian Revolution and events in the Middle East almost ready to go, but the situation in Japan is more immediate.

I am having trouble reaching the Tepco site; the server is probably overloaded.

Graphics from the Washington Post on the nuclear reactors.

Another summary of what's happening at Fukushima, this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And another, from The Guardian. This one has an overhead photo, but clouds make it hard to see much.

World Nuclear News is providing continuing coverage. Here's their article on exposures. Some of the measurements are given in counts per minute, which will look high, and others in micro- and milliSieverts. If the two workers who "felt bad" are being counted by the media as two of the three reported to have "radiation poisoning," that's not really reliable reporting. Just using a breathing apparatus can make you "feel bad," as can anxiety. The best way to keep up with WNN is through their Twitter feed: @W_Nuclear_News

Why I am not worried about Japan's nuclear reactors, by Josef Oehmen, an MIT scientist. Provides a fair bit of background about the reactors and how they operate.

More about the isotopes being released from the reactors. I would add that the amounts reported so far are very small.

CDC fact sheet on how radiation doses are measured (pdf). Some specifics would help here; you can find some useful comparisons at the WaPo link above.

Jerome á Paris provides some context in relation to economics and other energy sources.

The Neutron Economy is a new blog from a graduate student. He's doing a good job of providing explanations.

Background on the Three Mile Island accident. I should have read this before that last post.

Added later: Information Sheet Regarding the Tohuku Earthquake, from the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan Washington DC Office.

"Exposed to Radiation"

I've been learning Estonian. It's quite a different language from English, and the syntax is, um, interesting. So I occasionally provoke laughter from native Estonian speakers, who will tell me "Nothing you've said is wrong, but no Estonian would say it that way."

I have that feeling a lot when I read news reports about nuclear reactors and radiation, most recently this article in the New York Times. The way the authors refer to radiation suggests to me that there's a lot they don't understand about it. And that, then, makes me wonder what else they've got wrong.

Radiation is a particular type of energy. Sunlight is radiation. Your microwave oven uses radiation. Heat is radiation. Because the understanding of this kind of radiation was developing at the same time that nuclear radiation was being discovered, the word got extended to energy emitted by unstable atoms. That energy includes x-rays (called gamma rays in relation to nuclear energy) and also energy carried by particles emitted by those atoms: helium nuclei (alpha radiation), electrons (beta radiation), and neutrons.

What reporters seem to lose track of, or perhaps never understood, is that nuclear radiation is inextricably connected to a certain kind of matter. Sometimes they make it sound like an all-enveloping condition, or something that suddenly appears out of nowhere.
The Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said that as many as 160 people may have been exposed to radiation around the plant, and Japanese news media said that three workers at the facility were suffering from full-on radiation sickness.
A nuclear reactor emits gamma rays and neutrons when it's running and afterwards. In the case of Fukushima, it appears that fuel elements have been damaged and some of the radioactive material inside them has gotten out. There are two different things that "exposed to radiation" could mean. One is that a person has been too close to the reactor or inside the shielding that protects workers from the neutrons and gamma rays. The other is that the person has been in contact with radioactive material. The material could be on their skin, or they might have breathed it in or swallowed it. In either case, the exposure may be small or large. The consequences depend on what kind of exposure it was.

If three workers are suffering from "full-on radiation sickness," the probability is that they are brave people who volunteered to go inside the reactor shielding to fix something. The reactor is still contained, and there's no indication that there was a critical excursion, in which a great burst of neutrons and gamma rays might overwhelm the shielding.

The people outside who may have been "exposed to radiation" probably were downwind from a release of radioactive material (which includes gases) from the reactors. Some of that material may be in the form of particulates, and the people who were exposed may have that material on their skin, where it can be washed off (this is what is meant by decontamination), or in their lungs. The reason that iodine tablets are being distributed is that radioactive iodine is one of the fission products that could be released from the reactor. Radioactive iodine, when it's taken into the body, goes to the thyroid gland, where it can cause cancer. Taking non-radioactive iodine in those tablets loads up the thyroid so it won't absorb the radioactive iodine.

If the reports are accurate, the releases so far of radioactive material are small, and the damage and probability of later effects, like cancer, depend on the amounts of material people are exposed to.

Then there's the term "meltdown." It's what happened in the movie, "The China Syndrome," which seems to color all use of the word. But put "partial" in front of it, and it could refer to a few spots on a few fuel elements. It's been clear for some time (and I've been saying it), from the fission products that are being seen, that fuel elements are damaged, which could be cracking or melting from higher temperatures than normal. It also seems clear from the reports so far that the damage in Japan is much less than a total meltdown. There was a total meltdown of the core at Three Mile Island. But it showed that "The China Syndrome" was wrong: the melted material made its way less than an inch into the concrete containment. And hardly any of it was released from the containment. [This isn't quite right about Three Mile Island; see comments. But the point stands: Three Mile Island was probably worse than what is happening in Japan, and it wasn't as bad as people thought it could be.]

So I'd say "damaged fuel elements", but "meltdown" is much more exciting.

Not wrong, just not how someone who knows what they're talking about would say it.

Update: I see a question from someone who has googled in to this post. Can you "catch" radiation from someone who has been exposed? If it's a matter of being exposed to gamma rays or neutrons from a reactor, and there's no contamination, the answer is no. If someone has radioactive dust on their skin, it can rub or fall off and become attached to another person. How serious that is depends on how much radioactive material there is and if they breathe or swallow it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Timun Tahun and Timun Bulan

Information on the Explosion at the Japanese Nuclear Site

Here are the latest releases from Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company):

As of 5 pm local time:
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station:
Units 1 to 3: shutdown due to earthquake

Units 4 to 6: outage due to regular inspection
* The national government has instructed evacuation for those local residents within 10km radius of the periphery.
* The value of radioactive material (iodine, etc) is increasing according to the monitoring car at the site (outside of the site). One of the monitoring posts is also indicating higher than normal level.
* Since the amount of radiation at the boundary of the site exceeds the limits, we decide at 4:17PM and we have reported and/or noticed the government agencies concerned to apply the clause 1 of the Article 15 of the Radiation Disaster Measure at 5PM.
* In addition, a vertical earthquake hit the site and big explosion has happened near the Unit 1 and smoke breaks out around 3:36PM. Our two employees and two cooperation workers who had been working for the foundation of safety are suffered and they are all sent to the hospital.
* We continue endeavoring to secure the safety that all we can do and monitoring the periphery.
Increase of radiation at site boundary:
At 2:46PM on March 11th, turbines and reactors of Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Unit 1 (Boiling Water Reactor, rated output 460 Megawatts) and Units 2 and 3 (Boiling Water Reactor, Rated Output 784 Megawatts) that had been operating at rated power automatically shutdown due to the Miyagiken-oki Earthquake.

After the shut down, the values of radioactive materials (iodine, etc) measured by the monitoring car have been increasing. Increase in the measured value has also been recognized in one of the monitoring posts.

Furthermore, today at 3:29PM, radiation dose measured at site boundary has exceeded the limiting value. Therefore, at 4:17PM, it was determined that a specific incident stipulated in article 15, clause 1 has occurred.

We will endeavor to secure the safety and alongside, continue monitoring the environment of the site periphery.

Noriyuki Shikata, Director of Global Communications at the Japanese Prime Minister's office, is on Twitter (@norishikata). His latest tweet:
In spite of the blast at 15:36 at Fukushima , no damage to the container housing the reactor occurred. Radioactive level fell after that.

It may be that the containment vessel hasn't ruptured, but there's a leak somewhere, probably not a big one. That's my conclusion. The only two American commentators I'm following are Mark Hibbs (@carnegienpp) and Dan Yurman (@djysrv). Others are panicky or downright inaccurate.

Update: Here's a set of good interviews. Other Reuters reports have been inaccurate, though.

The leak may be a breached fuel rod, and, judging from the relatively small amounts of radiation that have been released, probably only one or two. That plus a leak in the primary coolant system (or a deliberate release to decrease the pressure) would account for what is being seen.

Second update: The Nuclear Energy Institute has a page of information and links, constantly updated.

Matt Wald of the New York Times has a pretty good explanation of how the explosion probably occurred. Further update: Japanese authorities are now saying that the explosion was in the reactor building but that the containment vessel is intact.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is keeping in touch with Japanese authorities and has some background information here.

Third update: Satellite photos. I haven't spent a lot of time on these, and they're from before the explosion. The damage seems to be from the tsunami.

Fourth update: Good article on how to understand what's going on at Fukushima from a reporter who was at Three Mile Island.

Fifth update: Press release from Tepco on status as of 2 am March 13 Japan Time.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Hoping Things Get Better...

I've been thinking a lot about Estonia this week. Here's a photo of the road headed east out of Tallinn, along the water (the one on the left). Many thanks to Paco Ulman for taking the photo and to Phila for finding the link.

Bits and Pieces - March 11, 2011

Troutsky was right. I woke up this morning with a clear idea for a post on French and English intervention in the Russian Revolution with the ideas floating around for American (or NATO) intervention in the Libyan uprising. But the Japanese earthquake and panicky reports of ZOMG favorite cliches, ANOTHER CHERNOBYL or THE CHINA SYNDROME, for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I probably shouldn't respond to some of those tweets. See XKCD, Duty Calls. Here's a sort of reasonable report on the situation at the plant. Note that the emergency cooling system has not yet been brought into play, so there's still a backup, and other measures are in progress.

You've probably seen the horrifying pictures of destruction in Japan by now. The earthquake is rated at 9.1, one of the biggest ever, and certainly the biggest in such a populated place. 88,000 people are reported missing. Update (March 12): The numbers for the missing seem to be all over the map - from hundreds to tens of thousands. Someone pointed out that phone service is out in many places, which may contribute to exaggerated estimates of the numbers missing.

My first thought on hearing Japan's news this morning, too.

The network of sensors set up for monitoring nuclear tests helps in an earthquake too.

Some other things happening,...

Glenn Beck outs James O'Keeffe's NPR video editing. (Huh? More of teh crazy. Can we believe this?)

I listened to Vice President Joe Biden's speech yesterday at Moscow State University and though he made two hard-hitting points while being totally and utterly charming.

Estonia is now a player in the US oil shale market. Although their oil shale is much richer than ours.

Color photos of the San Francisco 1906 earthquake.

David Lodge on H.G. Wells.

I still plan to do that post on the Russian Revolution. Maybe things will calm down over the weekend. In the meantime, here's some cat and dog blogging.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bits and Pieces - March 9, 2011

Oh noes! An attack on the continental US! Americans killed!

More about a no-fly zone in Libya from Mark Goldberg and a nice checklist from George Will. Added later: And how'd that Iraq thing work out for you neocons?

Is Wisconsin's populist revolt spreading?

Sure is a good thing Pete King is pertectin' us agin the terrists.

As I was reading this article, I kept thinking that if spreading lies weren't the major part of one political party's strategy, people might not be so misled. And the article does say that, way down at the bottom. The results are not so good for our governance.

And if you need a diversion from the craziness (as I really, really do today), the Smithsonian has made available over 200,000 photos of animals from automated cameras like my birdcam. The Smithsonian's are from researchers and presumably are the best of the best. I think I'm approaching 200,000 myself. If you want to see mine, I usually send them out on Twitter: @cherylrofer.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The New Right

You know, one thing I've got to give the new right is how much they teach me on a quotidian basis about pre-industrial, and even feudal, political economy.

After the Autocrat

Today, International Women’s Day, brings one consequence that echoes problems of revolutions past. Egyptian women decided to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, and they were met with chants of “Not now,” “Women should stay in the home.” The women were harassed, chased, and groped. That info is from multiple sources on Twitter; maybe you’ll see something about it in American news sources.

It’s easy to unite to depose the autocrat. He’s insulted or oppressed practically everyone, and the objective is clear. Differences among groups can be glossed over in the belief that others are supporting your objectives. Which they are, for the moment.

But deposing the autocrat brings the need to build a new government, and that’s the hard part.

Back to Russia in the early twentieth century.

Tsar Nicholas bought some time in 1905 by forming a Duma, or representative council. He wasn’t accustomed to having elected representatives advise him, so he dissolved three Dumas when they didn’t look like they were going his way. Meanwhile, there were a number of political parties gaining strength, along with the military, monarchists, and people who had their own objectives but weren’t organized.

The Bolsheviks, a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, were so radical that most of their leaders were in jail, exiled to Siberia, or out of the country.

Nicholas’s very bad luck was the start of a war with Germany in 1914. Russia had internal problems and really didn’t need a war, but Serbia’s honor and independence had to be supported. The war further strained Russia’s resources and endangered its capital, now called Petrograd in sympathy with brother Slavs.

Another piece of bad luck was the Tsarevich’s hemophilia. Tsarina Alexandra had found a holy man, Rasputin, who seemed to be able to help young Alexei. Alexandra also wanted very much to pass full autocratic power to Alexei, so, with Rasputin’s advice, she urged her husband to make some very bad selections for his ministers.

So the pressure for revolution grew again, and this time the political parties were more ready for it. Soviets were being formed by industrial workers in the larger cities; Petrograd’s was the most influential, being located in the capital. The Duma eventually, in March 1917, managed to insist on the Tsar’s abdication, which they initially envisioned being in favor of his son Alexei, who was twelve at the time, under the regency of his uncle Michael. But Nicholas didn’t want to leave his son, and Michael didn’t want the job. So the Duma, somewhat reluctantly, took over.

The Duma formed the Provisional Government, and the Petrograd Soviet struggled with each other over power. Meanwhile, the war continued and the Bolsheviks agitated, displeased with all other political sides. The Provisional Government never really was able to exert control across the enormous expanse of Russian territory.

In August, in response to continuing disorder, General Kornilov attempted a military takeover which failed. Alexander Kerensky, a Revolutionary Socialist who had moved quickly from a Duma representative to ministerial positions and then to Prime Minister of the Provisional Government, felt it necessary to ally with groups further to the left, including the Petrograd Soviet and the Bolsheviks. He released Leon Trotsky from jail. Germany, seeing an opportunity to further weaken the Russian government as a move in the continuing war, allowed Lenin to pass through its territory on his way back to Russia. Stalin came back from Siberia. The Bolsheviks took over rather easily in October.

The first things that must be decided when the autocrat goes down are how to deal with the existing government. The government, after all, keeps a number of things going, particularly in the case of an autocrat, and particularly when you’re in the middle of a war. There’s no simple plan. Not enough of the old system was swept away in Russia in 1905. Much of the success in the breakaway of the Soviet satellites in 1989 and the republics in 1991 had to do with governments already in place that leaned toward the revolutionaries. Removing all the Ba’ath Party members from the Iraq government in 2003 was a disaster. Tunisia and Egypt are now removing many of their old guard. They have also broken into the headquarters of the secret police. The Okhrana files passed secretly to the Bolsheviks, and we still haven’t seen inside the NKVD, KGB, or FSB.

To be continued.

Bits and Pieces - March 8, 2011

I love flags, and this diagram helps clarify some things about Europe. For an explanation, go here.

It's the 100th International Women's Day, something started by the labor movements of the early twentieth century. For some time, it was mostly celebrated in the Communist Bloc, but with dissolution of that body, it's spread more generally.

How it's declined in Russia.

Where are all the daring women's heroines?

The drumbeat for US intervention in Libya continues. Simon Tisdall on the pressures on President Obama, and a nice overview of the issues from Stephen Walt. I suspect that if Obama were sending bombers to start setting up a no-fly zone, the same people now criticizing him for inaction would be hollering about illegal intervention.

Battleship Potemkin

There is a new print out of "Battleship Potemkin." I saw it last night. It's supposed to be much closer to Sergey Eisenstein's original than others.

It was made in 1925, after the Russian Civil War was over, and its purpose was to help unify the Soviet Union.

There was a film class in the theater with us, and the instructor shared his lecture with the rest of us as well. It's important in both film and propaganda history. The Potemkin's crew took over the ship in the Black Sea during the Revolution of 1905.

See it.

[Poster from here.] Google Images for "Battleship Potemkin" is interesting: obviously the "Odessa Stairs" part of the movie has made the greatest impression on those using images.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation

As long as there has been war, there have been efforts to deter actions a nation considers threatening. Until fairly recently, this meant building a military establishment capable of intimidating the adversary, defeating him or making his victory more costly than the projected gains. This, with conventional weapons, took time. Deterrence and war strategy were identical.
That’s how the latest Wall Street Journal op-ed from George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn begins. (That link may or may not run into a paywall. Here's a link that will work.)

Deterrence took another turn into mutually assured destruction (MAD) with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union, which were locked in what could have been a duel-to-the-death under any circumstances. Nuclear deterrence became a major building block of strategic thinking during the Cold War, and it’s hard to give up. Confusing the picture is the use of the noun deterrence without its adjective nuclear, when today’s common meaning implies both.

The op-ed four (still no name that I like for the group*) seem to be trying to find a way from the Cold War to something useful for today, and I think they’ve got part of it, but it’s really, really hard to give up that deterrence thing.

So they end the piece with
Moving from mutual assured destruction toward a new and more stable form of deterrence with decreasing nuclear risks and an increasing measure of assured security for all nations could prevent our worst nightmare from becoming a reality, and it could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations.
There it is again, that word! I think they mean prevention of war.

There will be no general deterrence of the kind that we had during the Cold War, which, as the four note in this op-ed, deterred only a massive nuclear attack and allowed a great many other kinds of martial adventure. Also as they note, that massive nuclear attack is highly unlikely in today’s world, because it is clearly not in the interest of the United States or Russia even to threaten it.

We have gone back to where deterrence means a great many things. North Korea deters attack by being so heavily armed, being located so close to South Korea’s capital, and by the danger of its refugees moving into China. Whatever nuclear capability it has is frosting on the cake. Iran deters attack by being a large country with influence over a terrorist network that can do a great deal of damage. Again, nuclear capability is a small part of that. Psychologically, though, adding nuclear weapons seems to increase the barrier to attack.

If there is such a thing as general deterrence, it lies in the realization by many nations that war is not in their interest. It is expensive and destructive. For most nations, no longer can an autocrat order the masses to their death in war. There are getting to be fewer autocrats, too.

The four points put forward in the op-ed are reiterations of what the four writers have said before. If there was an age of nuclear proliferation, it was the 1960s and 1970s, when more countries were working on developing nuclear weapons than are now. We could see more in the future, but the future looked like that back then too.

What is important about this latest WSJ op-ed is, unfortunately, buried. More countries must be involved in the process of denuclearizing the world.
Can we devise and successfully implement with other nations, including other nuclear powers, careful, cooperative concepts to safely dismount the nuclear tiger while strengthening the capacity to assure our security and that of allies and other countries considered essential to our national security?
Conventional arms must be addressed.
All conventional deployments should be reviewed from the aspect of provocation.
That sentence is addressed to the United States and Russia, but it should be broadened to all countries. Seriously considering it would also imply considering conventional arms sales.

It’s significant, too, that this group of four keep reminding us of this issue. This latest in their continuing series reminds us how much work we have ahead of us.
* The classical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. Seems inappropriate for these op-ed guys.