A few weeks before the devastating Tohoku 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck, Japanese nuclear regulators approved extending the life of one of the six reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi by ten years, although they were warned that the unit's backup power system contained stress cracks that could cause it to become water-logged and inoperable in the rain, let alone in a tsunami.
The day before Tohoku struck, regulators in the United States approved a license extension for a nearly identical old GE Mark 1 BWR: A dilapidated, tritium-leaking reactor in Vermont, one of the most (relatively) pristine places left in America.
The Vermont reactor is surrounded with spent fuel, mainly in pools and also in dry casks. The extremely hazardous process of loading dry casks with spent fuel began at Vermont Yankee in May, 2008.
The small state could kiss itself and its neighbors goodbye if an accident occurs at the plant, or in the spent fuel pool, or as the fuel is being transferred (there are about 3,500 fuel assemblies at Vermont Yankee, each with hundreds of fuel rods containing tens of thousands of individual fuel pellets). The contents of the casks themselves can settle, inappropriately, unnoticed... until disaster strikes. Look it up.. These facts are buried deep in the regulatory data, but are outside the "Design Basis Accident" and discounted.
As you can see in Japan, such discounting has nothing to do with reality.
Shortly after the license extension to Fukushima Dai-ichi's reactor was granted, it was revealed that TEPCO failed to inspect dozens of pieces of equipment inside the plant, including water pumps and other safety systems. We all know what happened next. The system was tested, and failed. Further "testing" may not be over: A few hours ago, Japan experienced three of the most massive aftershocks yet, measuring 6.6, 6.4, and 6.6.
The entire nuclear industry is being very quick to call this a "natural disaster" because there was a large earthquake and a nominally large tsunami involved. But the real root cause was global corporate negligence. This could happen anywhere.
It is well known around here, by those who study the issues, that our local nuclear reactor in Southern California, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, has, like TEPCO, failed to inspect, failed to report, lied on official documents, lied to inspectors, and failed to maintain backup equipment properly. Over the years they've changed large swaths of management, of workers, and of inspectors. And yet these problems have persisted. Unbelievable as it may sound, it's a culture at EVERY nuclear power plant to cut corners. Here's why:
To be in total compliance with every regulation is not only frightfully expensive, it's impossible without doubling (or more) the staffs of EVERY nuclear reactor. But reactors are already short-staffed and routinely require workers to put in long overtime shifts and to work many days in a row. That adds to the stress and inability to react properly in an emergency. Add to that, worker distrust of management (and vice-versa), and both distrust government, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Oh, and add that less than 1% of whatever happens at a nuclear reactor is inspected by federal regulators in any way. And most of what IS inspected is only "inspected" on paper.
The normal way to fix most things at a nuclear power plant anywhere in the world, including large pumps, transformers, switches, valves, pipes, and control cabling, is to wait until they fail. If the failure can be isolated from the system, they keep the reactor operating, unless regulations won't permit it. Otherwise, they shut down the plant and, after the fuel has cooled down (as we can see, that takes a while) they go in and fix everything that broke in the meantime that they could isolate, and whatever broke that made them shut down, and restart the reactor.
Every 18 months they shut down anyway, to load 1/3 of the reactor with fresh nuclear fuel, and remove the oldest 1/3. They also rearrange the remaining fuel for more efficient "burn-up". Fuel that comes out of the reactor is loaded with fission products and approximately ten million times more dangerous than "fresh" fuel.
"Burned-up" nuclear fuel is not really burned up. Uranium (and/or plutonium) atoms that were split produced fission products instead, in a process which releases enormous amounts of heat, as well as neutrons to sustain the "chain reaction".
Ideally, the fission products that are created are NEVER released. At Fukushima Dai-ichi, they have been released in massive quantities.
After an old transformer exploded in a switchyard at San Onofre, other similar transformers were NOT replaced, because of the cost of replacing so many transformers (over 100). Instead, the old transformers continue to be replaced on a fix-on-fail basis instead.
However, a transformer explosion could cascade and disrupt the entire power grid, affecting incoming (offsite) power as well as the reactor's ability to feed power to the grid. When the transformer exploded, the reactor automatically shut down, a very dangerous and expensive procedure that doesn't always go right.
What's happening because of Fukushima Dai-ichi to the people of Japan could happen in Southern California tomorrow because our reactor operators are just as lax, and even if they were perfect, mother nature deals cards they can't trump. Ours are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) and theirs were Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) but PWRs are still very dangerous, perhaps more so. Ours are also very old reactors, and operate at a higher temperature and pressure than BWRs do. Therefore, they age more rapidly.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is currently saying: "We are still in an accident that is still in a very serious condition." That's the best they can offer after nearly two weeks. Unknowns among experts abound. So why are we even calling them experts? What's left for anyone to learn about nuclear power? IT DOESN'T WORK!
At this moment, all six reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi are said to have power lines hooked up, but power has not actually been restored yet. Radiation is "leaking" but they don't know where from. They are still dumping sea water onto at least one spent fuel pool, which suggests that water is still leaking from that pool.
Radiation readings of 160 microsieverts per hour -- said to be 3,000 times Tokyo's normal background levels -- have been recorded six miles BEYOND the evacuation zone around the stricken fleet of reactors. Radiation in the soil was measured at 400 times normal levels 30 miles from the plant.
Japanese government experts say that exposure to 100,000 microsieverts a year is "the lowest level at which any increase in cancer risk is clearly evident." 160 microsieverts an hour will give you that dose in less than in a month.
Most experts assume the risk from radiation exposure increases at a linear rate as the dose goes up. There is no lower threshold for radiation damage to biological systems. Every human will be ingesting and inhaling poisons from this accident forever, from their first breath to their last, from their first suckle of breast milk to their last meal before death's door.
Meanwhile today, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the propaganda arm of the American nuclear industry, released a document written by General Electric defending the Mark 1 reactor design. It's available at their web site. GE says the design works perfectly -- when properly cared for and when big bad accidents don't happen, like this one! Duh! GE admits that, JUST AS WITH EVERY OTHER APPROVED TYPE OF REACTOR, a so-called "beyond design-basis accident" can have serious consequences. Duh.
Once again, self-evident facts have ended any reason for debate, or more studies, or more delay. The Mark 1 reactor design cannot ensure safe shutdown, and nor can any other operating nuclear reactor design in the world. (It should be noted that the proposed Westinghouse AP1000 design -- supposedly innovative -- also cannot ensure safe shutdown except within a narrow range of "Design Basis Accidents" that don't match the real world any more than GE's reactors -- or current Westinghouse reactors -- can.)
San Onofre Nuclear Waste-Generating Station is a disaster-waiting-to-happen which could make even Fukushima Dai-ichi seem small (assuming it doesn't get much worse than it is already): Nuclear fuel at "SanO" is an enormous risk, whether it's stored in dry casks or spent fuels or is still in the reactors.
The Tohoku tsunami, with its 30-foot waves, was able to set large boats down on top of multi-story buildings well inland in Japan. And yet San Onofre officials insist our 25-foot sea wall is sufficient!
Can it happen here? Oh, can it ever. Shut 'em down. Shut 'em all down.
The author's highly acclaimed 2008 handbook on nuclear power, called The Code Killers because of the damage to the DNA code done by radiation, can be viewed online or downloaded at no charge from his site: acehoffman.org
Author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
Free download: acehoffman.org
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