21st Century Chernobyl?

by lizard

Two cataclysmic acts of nature—an earthquake and subsequent tsunami—may have initiated what will ultimately be a man-made disaster that could have wide ranging effects for all of us.

It’s been interesting to watch mainstream news tonight. CNN seems to be the only cable news network interested in trying to figure out if a major nuclear meltdown is in fact currently happening in Japan. A quick scan of the other two channels turned up Huckabee salivating over a planned parenthood employee turned pro-lifer, and MSNBC’s Saturday night prison profiles.

Here is what is known: there has been an explosion at the Fukushima nuclear complex, an allegedly small amount of radioactive steam has already been vented, and in what appears to be a last ditch effort to keep the reactor from melting down, salt water is being pumped in as a coolant. This effort has been framed by the talking heads at CNN as a “Hail Mary”.

This is a very volatile situation, and we can’t expect to get accurate information for a number of reasons.

One reason is practical: up to 170,000 people are currently being evacuated, and to keep that evacuation from turning into panic-stricken chaos, now is not the time to disseminate worse-case scenarios.

Another reason is political: the financial beneficiaries of the nuclear power industry have good momentum going with Obama’s proposed budget, and a cataclysmic nuclear meltdown will kill their hopes of government subsidized corporate profit.

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal will call for tripling government loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors, an administration official said on Friday, a move sure to win over some Republican lawmakers who want more nuclear power to be part of climate change legislation.

The $54 billion in loan guarantees, which follows Obama’s pledge in his State of the Union address to expand nuclear power production, will be announced as part of Obama’s proposed 2011 budget that will be sent to Congress on Monday.

Obama on Wednesday called on Congress to pass an energy and climate change bill with incentives to make clean energy profitable. “And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country,” he said.

“As the world moves to tackle climate change and diversify our national energy portfolio, nuclear energy will play a vital role,” said Carol Browner, who advises the president on energy and climate change issues.

No one knows where this chain reaction is going to end up. What I do know is those who stand to capitalize on nuclear energy will try to down-play whatever happens to protect their investments, and we may be witnessing the initial stages of their damage control as evident from the lack of coverage from MSNBC and Fox News.

  1. Pancho

    The nuke power industry has already been doing damage control. On their warnings to the nuke fanlist, they are blaming the disaster on the age of the facility (44 y/o), and ignoring the fact that it was built on the shore of one of the most geologically active seabeds in the world. It’s the right wing noise machine, gearing up to full blast.

    • It all comes to engineering, too. that plant was built to sustain a 7.0 or something like that, despite the potential for a mega-quake. (Japan has, btw, upgraded this quake to a 9.0)

      It all comes to $ and how much the corporation wants to afford. And acceptable risk calculation by the government.

      It appears that the Japanese government miscalculated, because as I went to sleep last night there were 2 meltdowns underway (or “may be underway”). That would leave 3 other reactors that were suffering crippling blows to their cooling waiting in the wings.

      That’s right – a total of 5 reactors. Again, that was last night’s news.

  2. Before anyone thinks this doesn’t affect us, I’ve read a number of reports that would have just one catastrophic meltdown as exposing us here in Montana to 750 rads 10 days after the disaster.

    What isn’t clear is if this is a whole day’s exposure or total exposure or what. What is clear is that 750 rads of exposure isn’t a good thing.

    And someone, please feel free to tell me how wrong I am.

    Can’t find an potassium iodine pills to buy either.

  3. carfreestupidity

    One must also remember that this is Japan which generally has much stronger industry regulation than in America. This disaster caused three back-up systems to fail. The possibility of a lightly regulated nuclear industry in this country via Rehberg’s new energy bill only makes a disaster more likely.


    • oh…and we have a Montana Republican proposing to allow nuclear plants here in Montana.

      Given the extremely important factor of having water, I’d hope someone would move to kill this thing on Monday.

  4. Ingemar Johansson

    It they were mining and burning oil shale this never would’ve happened.

  5. lizard19

    i added an image a friend pointed me to. there are also reports of a second explosion. the situation is bad and getting worse.

  6. Japan does not have a proud history of being honest with itself regarding the risks of nuclear power plants. I’m sure we’ll find that someone questioned the wisdom of building next to the sea in so active an earthquake zone known for tsunamis, but was ignored.

    According to most reports, the plants survived the shaking, but lost utility power. A diesel back-up generator then kicked in, restoring normal circulation and cooling in the reactor vessel. Then, approximately an hour later, the tidal wave hit, drowning not just the operational diesel generator but all of the back-up diesels (some plants had as many as three). That left a pump powered by steam from the reactor, and a battery bank for the controls. That wasn’t enough.

    I think we’ll find that the decision to build by the sea was the key mistake, for the diesel generators provided no redundancy once the tsunami rolled ashore. And I’ll wager there was no plan to fly in a portable generator powerful enough to keep the pumps running.

    Once gain, Mr. Murphy was proven right.

  7. carfreestupidity

    Below is a good update…

    Apparently the fuel rods in reactor 1 have become fully exposed more than once because the air pressure is so high within the containment unit that they have not been able to continually pump new water into the reactor.

    Also, reactor 2 is having the same problem with fully exposed rods along with another reported explosion within the containment building.

    According to the article below a napa exes Govt official has stated that three of the reactors are experiencing core melting.


    It doesn’t appear that the situation is improving.

  8. Chuck

    Just an FYI: your jet stream map is being reported as a hoax.

  9. is there a Source for the Map of the radiation fallout ?

    Thank you,

    send to: williamcrain@earthlink.net if you would please.

    • lizard19

      a friend of mine posted the image before he claims “they took it down.” it looks like it popped up on a site called beyondnuclear.org. they probably figured out it was bunk, and pulled it.

      • lizard19

        decided to take the image off the post.

      • They’re saying radiation could reach the west coast, but not nearly at levels that picture said. Even after Chernobyl, radiation didn’t spread farther than 2,000 miles, and negative affects didn’t spread farther than 1,000 miles. So we might see a spike, but not enough to be concerned about.

        Really, what I want to tell the people who are freaking out about radiation on the west coast is this: It’s not all about us. Let’s worry about Japan.

        • lizard19

          that last point is a good one.

          things are getting really bad now—they pulled the last 50 workers, but i guess they’ve been “allowed” to return.

          as for the image, it appears “beyondnuclear” has a spokesperson getting some face time on MSNBC right now.

        • JC

          While I agree with your point about putting the focus on Japan, where it should be, We still can’t ignore the greater lessons here.

          First off, Chernobyl radiation was measured in the U.S. a week to 10 days after the incident. The levels were far too low to cause health risks, but it arrived, nonetheless.

          I’d encourage anyone who wants to compare Fukushima Dai-ichi to at least get the facts straight. The TORCH report states that “relatively high fallout concentrations were measured at Hiroshima in Japan, over 8,000 km from Chernobyl” and “The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that the total radioactivity from Chernobyl was 200 times that of the combined releases from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

          And there is much ongoing monitoring and studies on the dispersion and effects of Chernobyl, so the jury is still out on how widespread its impacts do (and will in the future) reach.

  10. So much mis-information… so little time.

    First, let me make a few things clear. While I used to be a nuclear reactor operator, I am no longer in the feild and have no real axe to grind in support of the nuclear industry. That said, it really rubs my hind end raw when people lose their damn mind any time the subject of nuclear power comes up.

    Second, I do not want to underplay the seriousness of the catastrophy in Japan. Not only is the situation still developing but the possibility of a release of a significant release of nuclear material is still on the table. The people working to resolve the issue at these plants will quite likely die as a result of their efforts and my heart goes out to them as they struggle to contain the situation.

    All that said, the insane hand wringing being done by people in this country over nuclear power is driving me batshit crazy. NONE of our reactors are even remotely in the same situation as the ones in Japan and the odds of a 9.0 earthquake followed by a tsunami taking out one of our reactors is ludicrus.

    Worse is the “sky is falling” BS about the reactor situation in Japan causing massive radiation poisoning in the US. Let me be very clear here. Even were ALL FOUR of the distressed reactors in Japan to fail catastrophically (something even our experts think is VERY unlikely), the radiation released in the atmosphere would likely be hard to detect by the time it got to us and it certainly would not be 750 rads (rem) – a good thing, too, since 500 rem is considered the “50% lethal dose”. I would love to know who posted the “report” claiming that the failure of the reactors in Japan would cause a dose of 750 rem in the Western US. Hell, the eruption of Mt. St Helens released more radioactive isotopes than we are likely to see here in the US from Japan. Get over your fear, please. It makes you look really uneducated.

    What happened in Japan is plainly and cleared a case of piss poor location for their reactors. It isn’t as if Japan has never had big earthquakes or tsunamis before. I would like to think that the US places their reactors a little better than that – in fact, I know they do. A simple bit of research will show you the same thing. Japan has a history of “forgetting” that they are subject to some rather nasty natural forces (like being centered where three tektonic plates meet…)

    What makes this worse for Japan is how much they depend on nuclear power and (like Russia), they tend to build large central sites instead of a more distributed network like we do. Even if the sites do not experience a true meltdown, there is no question that most of these reactors are a complete loss (that was given when they started pumping boron laced seawater into the reactor building). Damage to the fuel rods is a given in at least three of these reactors – not withstanding the damage sustained by the corrosive seawater. Rebuilding their national electrical grid will be the work of years, if not decades, and the sites that do leak radioactive contamination will take that long just to clean up.

    One last rant before I sign off and go to bed… Iodine tablets are like putting a bandaid on an arterial bleed. It will reduce the amount of radioactive idodine your body absorbs but it does nothing to stop the other radioactive isotopes (like cobalt etc) from being absorbed. Worse, it does nothing for the nuetron, gamma, beta and alpha radiation your body will be exposed to from the decay of the radioactive isotopes. I guess it is a good thing we won’t be needing them.

    • lizard19

      one thing this country sucks at is regulating industry, so i think it’s a good thing that this crises is going to mean more scrutiny on our own nuclear facilities.

      i don’t know about you, but i was pretty shocked to hear one of our nuclear facilities had a backup system that was discovered wouldn’t work if needed. for TWENTY years this back up system was not functional.

      if the oversight of deep sea drilling was as terrible as it was, who knows what potential disasters are lurking because of lax regulatory oversight.

    • JC

      ” I would like to think that the US places their reactors a little better than that – in fact, I know they do.”

      If you’ve got an analysis of every nuclear facility in America plotted against all thousand year threats, I’d like to see it.

      See, we can blame Japan all we want for making mistake x,y,or z. But what it really comes down to is that the earthquake that hit there was a once in a millennia event. And the debate really revolves around 1) can you predict that millennial event? and 2) if you can, can you build facilities to withstand it.

      Of course the issue that always comes up is that building a facility to withstand a millennial event is a gamble. Will that event happen or not during the life of a facility? And depending on the likelihood of that event (which is incredibly hard to predict) how much resources are we willing to devote to mitigating the potential disaster?

      It;s really easy to throw American exceptionalism at the problem of nuclear power. And to play ostrich with the possibility of millennial level events here, but there are many, many disasters-in-waiting out there, ticking time bombs rolling the dice for nuclear disaster.

  11. In other words, neither one of you has any substancial argument other than “something” may happen to cause a nuclear disaster here in America. Not surprising really. Most people in the US have zero knowledge of how nuclear reactors operate beyond “hot rock make water hot”.

    If a 30 foot tsunami hits Montana, I would venture to say that America has a lot more to worry about than whether a reactor shut down. I would remind you that it WASN’T the earthquake that caused the failure, it was the subsequent tsunami. The reactors survived the earthquake and were shutting down (and cooling) by design until the tsunami took out the support systems.

    Why not go all out… Why not postulate that Aliens will arrive tomorrow and zap all the American Nuclear plants with some death ray that makes them all go supercritical… How about zombies overrun the nuclear sites and kill all the operators as well as accidentally cause all the control rods to fall out of the cores…

    Whether you like it or not, 20% of our power in the US is nuclear produced and 75% of our “green” (non-carbon) energy is nuclear produced. That is a fact, not some wild supposition. While you scream for America to get it’s act together and reduce it’s addiction on foriegn oil (or oil/coal in general), you miss the boat on a form of energy that currently is in widespread use in the US. What are you going to replace it with? Solar? The technology doesn’t exist yet. Wind? not enough viable sites available to replace even the existing nuclear footprint? Some yet to be discovered energy source?

    Nuclear Power is a proven means of producing (homegrown) energy and it would accomplish not only reducing our dependancy on oil and coal, but it is also carbon free. Instead of your knee jerk reaction to the industry based on a complete lack of information, spend some time actually learning something about what you are talking about.

    • JC

      Ok. I’ll ignore the condescending remark about your opinion on American ignorance of nuclear systems. But I’ve studied nuclear physics, so don’t go there with me.

      You’ve totally ignored my point–that identifying and planning for millennial events is at the heart of the nuclear debate from here on out–by talking about aliens and tsunamis in Montana, and zombies and all.

      The debate in front of us isn’t about alternate forms of energy. It’s about identifying threats and planning for them. It’s about being proactive when the next round of power generation starts to get planned–whatever that source is.

      And when you make statements like “What are you going to replace it with? Solar? The technology doesn’t exist yet” you clearly are not dealing with reality. There is plenty of solar generation going on. SUre it isn’t a significant percent of total production, but to disclaim the technology is not better than a tea bagger disclaiming global warming or evolution.

      And while the topic in front of us right now isn’t about the future of power generation, I have many thoughts. And one that will play a major role will be a shift to nuclear fusion. Another will the efforts underway to produce hydrocarbon fuels from water, atmospheric CO2 and sunshine utilizing genetically engineered cyanobacteria. Solar and wind and water will play major roles.

      But I ask you, what will happen when the millennial event of a major Mount Ranier eruption on the Columbia Generating Station occurs?

      Or how about theonce-every-half-million-years-or-so eruption of a Yellowstone Super Volcano on the Idaho National Laboratory?

      You may belittle the attempt to do as I suggest–look at the millennial event in your planning, which is the lesson of Fukushima Dai-ichi–but you’re only making a fool of yourself.

  12. Again, you are throwing up strawmen. If Mount Ranier does blow, the plant is far enough away to escape major physical damage and going by the example of Mt St Helens, the geo physical reaction was far less than what the reactors in Japan sustained – and survived. I would remind you that it was the tsunami that killed the reactors, not the earthquake.

    As far as Yellowstone going catastrophically, affecting the Idaho sites, again, that is a strawman. Most of the Idaho reactors are military (I operated one for almost a year…) and as such they are designed to not only shutdown when any kind of event occurs, they are also designed to sustain a lot more than they would sustain if Yellowstone erupted. Further, if Yellowstone were to blow it’s top, there would be far more people killed by that catastophy than by any nuclear emergency at Idaho even were one of the big reactors to suffer some kind of meltdown. Even more germane to the discussion is that most geo experts believe Yellowstone to be “dying”, not working toward another explosion.

    I fully recognise that you hate nuclear fission power. You have made it clear on many occations. Nothing I would say to you will ever change your mind. I am cool with that. What I am not cool with is your blatent attempt to fuel an anti-nuclear witch hunt with mis-information. While I would love to see nuclear fussion hit the big time, it is still years, if not decades away. So is any kind of large scale solar power generation.

    Nuclear power (fission) is here now and it provides power to our current operating power grid. You have yet to show any proof what so ever that our nuclear power generation system is faulty or unsafe. All you have done is try to propose some worst case scenarios that fail the smell test. Sadly you missed the two plants that are potentially suseptable to a “millenium” event. Those plants are under review right now and will probably not recieve a further license.

    What does you “sky is falling” rant against nuclear power get you? Do you think it will spawn new money put into researching your pet projects? Unlikely. The money will go to proven technologies. I sharply remember when I was touring a nuclear fussion site over 25 years ago that we were only a decade or so away from sustainable nuclear fussion power. I see how well that worked out.

    • JC

      You were in the industry too long to be objective. When you call a millennial even a “strawman”, then you have closed your mind to even looking at the situation.

      I don’t care if you think you can refute any scenario I might pose. But it isn’t the scenarios that I pose that are important. You’ll see a call for the nuclear power industry to review all of its emergency and contingency plans in the future.

      It is attitudes like yours that result in situations like the Japanese nuclear power crisis. You think you know it all, and that everybody else is paranoid. And I don’t care if what you call my “ranting” gets me anywhere. I’m not in this for myself.

      Want another potential? Go look at the history of the Diablo Power plant in California. Legal challenges went all the way to the Circuit Court, where they ruled that they didn’t have to consider emergency plans because they had considered all the potential impacts from an earthquake, and it was built to withstand it.

      Then they found another fault just a mile away from the plant just a few years ago. And no emergency planning or scenario testing.

      So tell me… would “the sky is falling” describe the Japan situation? They planned for a 7.2 earthquake and a 25 foot tsunami. They got a 9.0 and a 30 foot tsunami.

      What makes you so certain that in every instance of a U.S. nuclear facility the “sky is falling” scenario has been addressed? Or even should be? Because that’s what I’m hearing from you. Ostrich mentality.

      Oh, and your statement about Yellowstone, ‘most geo experts believe Yellowstone to be “dying”’ is another of your denier attitudes, right up there with climate change and evolution. It just ain’t true, no matter how much you seem to believe.

  13. lizard19

    moorcat, i also don’t like your condescending tone, and you also didn’t address the point i made about how regulation in this country sucks, which is why it took, let me repeat, TWENTY YEARS to catch an inoperable back-up system to keep coolant circulating in case the primary systems failed.

    if you want to remain willfully oblivious to the stupidity of greed, fine, but the reality is some corporations are going to continue cutting corners and lobbying to gut oversight, so i think i’m going to remain suspicious about how safe nuclear power really is.

  14. JC, he wasn’t in “The Industry”, unless you want to rock on the “military-industrial complex”, in which case you verify his point. The military hasn’t had a nuclear meltdown.

    Moorcat, chill out. I know you’re frustrated but for pity’s sake, don’t take it out on folk around here. You don’t need to make an argument with a fist every time. ;-)


    Now, JC, you are wrong about how Moorcat’s ravings are what “result in situations” like Japan. That smacks of hating nuclear power regardless, which might have resulted in his ravings in the first place. These are the facts. Public nuclear power generators (the military) are designed with rather epic fail-proofing and safety features. Private nuclear generators (Fukashima, El Diablo, Three Mile Island) are designed with profit in mind. It shouldn’t surprise you that I am huge fan of socialist energy provision from nuclear power. I might be speaking out of turn here, but I think my brother is kinda the same. If you’re not discussing the same economic running the show, then you’re kinda talking past each other. Just sayin …

    • JC

      It’s definitely two different scenarios talking about military vs. corporate facilities, as to the profit motive constraining emergency planning and site readiness, etc.

      But my main point is one of readiness. And in that regard, even military facilities need to be looked at. I pointed to INL because it is close, and is situated in an area with known recent geologic instability. And INL has some serious issues as a nuclear waste repository, or holding zone.

      If INL undergoes some some catastrophic event–basaltic lava flow or major earthquake, and radioactive waste leaks into the aquifer, the whole Snake River ecosystem and COlumbia River basin get affected.

      Why not a look at the potential for catastrophe and the development of contingencies?

      And the military-industrial-complex thing? Nowhere is it as evident as at the INL, as the military and industry have huge vested interests in each other–the military and government doing the research, and industry building the facility and reaping the benefits of the research. Again a classic case of privatizing the profits and publicizing the risk–and cleanup of current nuclear contamination, and of potential future issues.

      So we’re in agreement with a “socialist energy provision” as it pertains to taking the profit motive out of the risk assessment for energy production. But probably in disagreement over the ability of the government to act unilaterally in construction and cleanup–it regulates itself, which can, and has, created major problems. INL has a huge history of problems with its nuclear materials. Probably far moreso than compared to any current private facility in the country.

      Oh, and a quick search turns up a military reactor meltdown at the precursor to INL in 1961. I realize that was 50 years ago, and hopefully the military has learned a few things in the meantime (I say that tongue in cheek)–but three people died in that incident. There was another partial meltdown there in the 50.s. And we could bring up Hanford…

    • Wulgar is absolutely right about how I feel about socialist energy production. In a lot of ways, both our energy grid and our communications grid are matters of national security. He is also quite correct about my experience in the field – primarily in military facilities – though I have spent some time in power production facilities.

      It might surprise you to know that I agree to some extent with your statements about how the private nuclear feild is regulated. Anytime corporate interests are involved in how a feild is regulated, there is not only the possibility of gaping holes, but the certainty. Safety design and implimentation costs money and that is counter to the primary goal of a privately owned for profit enterprize. That said, I also know that our Nuclear industry is, hands down, the safest in the world… even with the problems it has.

      I would love to see the Nuclear Industry “socialized”. As Wulfgar has already pointed out, the “public” (read military) has never had a serious nuclear incident. There is a reason for that – safety design features that are above and beyond what is required, highly trained and tested operators and a system of inspection, testing and retraining that is ongoing.

      Do I have issues with the civilian Nuclear Feild in the US? Absolutely. I chose not to work in the feild for those reasons. What I don’t subscribe to is the almost pathological fear that many here have expressed over nuclear power.

      • lizard19

        i am curious about this “pathological fear” and would love something from either the post or the comments to back up this assertion.

  15. As far as the accident at INL, I cannot discuss what I know about it. What I can say is that the accident that occured there was one of the factors that spawned the massive regulations on civilian nuclear power that exist today. I would point out, though, that the reactor was not a typical “military” reactor in that it was a power production reactor designed in conjunction with private contractors to provide land based power to military facilities. While run by the US Army, it had civilian contracts. I cannot go into any more detail on that incident other than to say that the wikipedia article you link has a number of incorrect statements in it.

  16. Okay, while everyone is getting mad I’d just like to say that JC, Moorcat and Lizard all have valid points.

    JC is right that we need to plan for even the .01 percent events when we are dealing with shit that kills us.

    Moorcat is right that nuclear power is a decently safe alternative to dead dinosaurs we buy from evil bastards in the desert.

    And Lizard has a point that American de-regulation (remember Lizard, we had regulation in this country) is a cause for concern as we approach the days when we may need those “hot rocks to boil water.”

    It’s been a good discussion so far even with the backhands.

    • lizard19

      we had regulation? (snark)

      but seriously, for the commercial outfits who want to cash in on the Obama-blessed nuclear push, safety and profit often ram heads, and usually profit wins.

      i can’t imagine the scramble going on right now at our own nuclear installations in anticipation of unexpected scrutiny.

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