Aftershocking: Frontline’s Fukushima Doc a Lazy Apologia for the Nuclear Industry

There is much to say about this week’s Frontline documentary, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” and some of it would even be good. For the casual follower of nuclear news in the ten months since an earthquake and tsunami triggered the massive and ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, it is illuminating to see the wreckage that once was a trio of active nuclear reactors, and the devastation and desolation that has replaced town after town inside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone. And it is eye-opening to experience at ground level the inadequacy of the Indian Point nuclear plant evacuation plan. It is also helpful to learn that citizens in Japan and Germany have seen enough and are demanding their countries phase out nuclear energy.

But if you are only a casual observer of this particular segment of the news, then the Frontline broadcast also left you with a mountain of misinformation and big bowl-full of unquestioned bias.

Take, for example, Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien’s cavalier treatment of the potential increase in Japanese cancer deaths, courtesy of the former property of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO):

MILES O’BRIEN: When Japanese authorities set radiation levels for evacuation, they were conservative, 20 millisieverts per year. That’s the equivalent of two or three abdominal CAT scans in the same period. I asked Dr. Gen Suzuki about this.

[on camera] So at 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?

GEN SUZUKI, Radiation specialist, Nuclear Safety Comm.: Yeah, it’s 0.2— 0.2 percent increase in lifetime.

MILES O’BRIEN: [on camera] 0.2 percent over the course of a lifetime?


MILES O’BRIEN: So your normal risk of cancer in Japan is?

GEN SUZUKI: Is 30 percent.

MILES O’BRIEN: So what is the increased cancer rate?

GEN SUZUKI: 30.2 percent, so the increment is quite small.

MILES O’BRIEN: And yet the fear is quite high.

GEN SUZUKI: Yes, that’s true.

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] People are even concerned here, in Fukushima City, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation contamination is officially below any danger level.

There was no countervailing opinion offered after this segment–which is kind of disgraceful because there is a myriad of informed, countervailing opinions out there.

Is 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year a conservative limit on exposure? Well, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the average annual dose for those living in the United States is 6.2 mSv, half of which is background, with the other half expected to come from diagnostic medical procedures. And according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the maximum additional dose for an adult before it is considered an “unacceptable risk” is one millisievert per year.

Then, to assess the cancer risk, O’Brien, practically in the same breath, changes exposure over a single year to “over the course of a long period of time”–an inexcusable muddying of the facts. One year for those who must live out their lives in northern Japan might wind up seeming like a long period of time, but it would actually be a small fraction of their lifetimes, and so would present them with only a fraction of their exposure.

So, is Dr. Gen Suzuki assessing the increased cancer risk for 20 mSv over a lifetime, a long time, or just one year? It is hard to say for sure, though, based on his estimates, it seems more like he is using a much longer timeframe than a single year. But even if his estimate really is the total expected increase in cancer deaths from the Fukushima disaster, what is he talking about? Miles O’Brien seems almost incredulous that anyone would be showing concern over a .2 percent increase, but in Japan, a .2 percent increase in cancer deaths means 2,000 more deaths. How many modern nations would find any disaster–natural or manmade–that resulted in 2,000 deaths to be negligible? For that matter, how many of the reporters, producers or crew of Frontline would feel good about rolling the dice and moving their family into an area that expects 2,000 additional fatalities?

Further, the exchange doesn’t say anything about the person who is supposed to casually endure the equivalent of three abdominal CAT scans a year (something no respectable professional would recommend without some very serious cause). The effects of radiation exposure on children are quite a bit different from the effects of the same exposure on adults–and quite a bit more troubling. And young girls are more at risk than young boys. Though the Frontline episode features many pictures of children–for instance, playing little league baseball–it never mentions their higher risks.

Also missing here, any mention that in a country now blanketed north to south in varying levels of radioactive fallout, radiation exposure is not purely external. The estimates discussed above are based on an increase in background radiation, but radioactive isotopes are inhaled with fallout-laden dust and dirt, and consumed with food from contaminated farmlands and fisheries. Outcomes will depend on the isotopes and who consumes them–radioactive Iodine concentrates in the Thyroid and has a half life of a couple of weeks; Cesium 137 tends to gravitate toward muscle and has a half-life of about 30 years. Strontium 90, which concentrates in bones, lasts almost as long. The affect of all of this needs to be factored in to any estimates of post-Fukushima morbidity.

So, as one might imagine, Dr. Suzuki’s cancer estimate, be it from his own deliberate downplay or O’Brien’s sloppy framing, is widely disputed. In fact, a quick survey of the literature might call the estimate in Frontline an absurdly low outlier.

By way of example, take findings compiled by Fairwinds Associates, an engineering and environmental consulting firm often critical of the nuclear industry. Using data from the National Academy of Science’s report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR), Fairwinds explains that one in every 100 girls will develop cancer for every year they are exposed to that “conservative” 20 mSv of radiation. But Fairwinds believes the BEIR also underestimates the risk. Fairwinds introduces additional analysis to show that “at least one out of every 20 young girls (5%) living in an area where the radiological exposure is 20 millisieverts for five years will develop cancer in their lifetime.”

It should be noted here that five years of 20 mSv per year would equal 100 mSv lifetime exposure–the newly revised lifetime maximum set by Japan after the start of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And some cities in northern Japan, uncomfortable with this blanket prescription, have set limits for children at one millisievert per year.

None of this information was hard to find, and all of it stems from data provided by large, respected institutions, yet, for some reason, O’Brien and Frontline felt content to let their single source set a tone of “no big deal.” Worried Japanese residents featured just after the interview with Dr. Suzuki are portrayed as broadly irrational, if not borderline hysterical.

The dismissive tenor of the medical segment carries over to several other parts of “Nuclear Aftershocks.” Take Frontline’s assessment of the German reaction to the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has pledged to entirely phase out their reliance on nuclear power within the next decade. O’Brien call this decision “rash” and “hasty,” and he doesn’t qualify those adjectives as the viewpoint of one expert or another; instead, he uses them matter-of-factly, as if everyone knows that Germany is a nation of jittery, irresponsible children. The political reality–that the German government is actually pursuing a policy that is the will of the people–is treated as some sort of abomination.

Japanese anti-nuclear protestors get similar treatment from Frontline. That large demonstrations like those seen over the last ten months are a rare and special occurrence in Japan is not considered. Instead, the documentary, time and again, hints at a shadowy doomsday somewhere in the near future, a sort of end-of-civilization scenario caused by an almost instant cessation of nuclear power generation. Indeed, as the program ends, O’Brien declares that every nuclear plant in Japan will be shut down by May–and as he says this, the camera peers out the window of a slow-moving elevated train. The view is a darkened Japanese city, and as O’Brien finishes his monologue, the train grinds to a halt.

Ooh, skeddy. Was this Frontline, or Monster Chiller Horror Theater?

Yes, the end seemed that absurd. “Nuclear Aftershocks” paints a picture many members of both the nuclear and fossil fuels lobbies would love to have you believe: a sort of zero-sum, vaguely binary, cake-or-death world where every possible future holds only the oldest, dirtiest and most dangerous options for electrical power generation. You get coal, you get gas, or you get nuclear–make up your mind!

But the show, like the handmaidens of those out-dated technologies, perverts the argument by glossing over the present and omitting choices for the future. As much as many concerned citizens would like to see nuclear power disappear overnight, it will not. Germany is giving itself a decade, the US is looking to run its aging reactors for another twenty years, and even Japan, dream though they might, will likely not decommission every reactor in the next four months. There is a window–big or small depending on your point of view–but a decided period of time to shift energy priorities.

Even the nuclear advocates who appear on Frontline call nuclear power “a bridge”–but if their lobby and their fossil fuel-loving brethren have their way, it will likely be a bridge to nowhere.

“Nuclear Aftershocks” does mention Germany’s increased investment in a wind- and solar-powered future, but the show calls that shift “a bold bet” and “a risk.”

Likely the producers will argue they did not have time for a deeper exploration, but by allowing fissile and fossil fuel advocates to argue that renewables cannot meet “base load” requirements, while failing to discuss recent leaps forward in solar and wind technology, or how well Japan’s wind turbines weathered the Tohoku quake and tsunami–or, for that matter, how much Japanese citizens have been able to reduce their electrical consumption since then through basic conservation–Frontline’s creators are guilty of flat-earth-inspired editing.

Indeed, missing from almost every discussion of the future of power generation is how much we could slow the growth in demand through what is called efficiencies–conservation, passive design, changes in construction techniques, and the replacement and upgrading of an aging electric infrastructure. The Frontline documentary highlights some of the potential risks of an accident at New York’s Indian Point nuclear generating station, but it contrasts that concern with nearby New York City’s unquenchable thirst for electricity. Missing entirely from the discussion: that New York could make up for all of Indian Point’s actual output by conserving a modest amount and replacing the transmission lines that bring hydroelectric power from the north with newer, more efficient cable.

No single solution is a panacea for every region of the globe, but many alternatives need to be on the table, and they certainly ought to be in any discussion about the “aftershocks” of nuclear’s annus horribilis. It should be seen as impossible to evaluate nuclear energy without considering the alternatives–and not just the CO2-creating, hydrofracking alternatives that are the standby bugbear of those infatuated with atomic power. Coal, gas, and nuclear are our links to the past; renewables and increased efficiency are our real bridge to the future. Just as it is dishonest to evaluate the cost of any of the old-school energy technologies without also considering environmental impact and enormous government subsidies–and now, too, the costs of relocating hundreds of thousands or millions of people and treating untold numbers of future health problems–it is also misleading to treat energy funds as permanently allocated to entrenched fuels.

The billions pledged to the nuclear industry by the Obama administration dwarf the budgets and tax incentives for conservation, alternative fuels, and green technology innovation combined. Factor in the government-shouldered costs of cleanup and waste storage, not to mention the sweetheart deals granted to the hydrocarbon crowd, and you could put together a program for next-generation generation that would make the Manhattan Project look like an Our Gang play (“My dad has an old barn!” “My mom can sew curtains!”).

It is a grave disappointment that Frontline couldn’t take the same broad view. The producers will no doubt argue that they could only say so much in 50 minutes, but like Japan, Germany, and the United States, they had choices. For the governments of these industrialized nations, the choices involve their energy futures and the safety of their citizens; for the Frontline crew, their choices can either help or hinder those citizens when they need to make informed choices of their own. For all concerned, the time to make those choices is now.

It is a shame that “Nuclear Aftershocks” instead used its time to run interference for a dirty, dangerous and costly industry.


Greenpeace Activists Enter French Nuclear Plant, Hang Banner to Highlight Lax Security

EDF's nuclear plant at Nogent-sur-Seine, France (photo: Aramis1955)

You Just Can’t Find Good Help These Days.

Not only were members of Greenpeace able to get past the security guarding at least one, and possibly three, nuclear facilities in France, they were able to plan and execute this operation less than a month after the plant operator, French energy giant EDF, was fined 1.5 million Euros ($2 million) for hacking into Greenpeace computers.

So, how bad is security at France’s 58 nuclear power plants? You be the judge:

Activists from environmental group Greenpeace managed to sneak into a nuclear power plant near Paris Monday in a move they said highlighted the dangers posed by France’s reliance on atomic energy.

. . . .

In a statement, Greenpeace said some members had entered the nuclear site at Nogent-sur-Seine, 95 kilometers southeast of Paris, to “spread the message that there is no such thing as safe nuclear power.”

“A group of militants managed to climb on to the dome of one of the reactors, where they unfurled a banner saying ‘Safe Nuclear Power Doesn’t Exist,’” said Greenpeace spokesman Axel Renaudin.

“The aim is to show the vulnerability of French nuclear installations, and how easy it is to get to the heart of a reactor,” said Sophia Majnoni, a Greenpeace nuclear expert.

Greenpeace activists also hung banners at two other EDF plants (EDF–or Electricite de France SA–runs all of France’s nuclear power stations), but as of this writing it is not yet clear whether those banners were unfurled in- or outside of security gates.

The government of Nicolas Sarkozy has demonstrated a full-throated commitment to nuclear energy–despite popular calls in the wake of the Fukushima crisis for a reexamination of the dominant role nuclear plays in generating France’s electricity. Just last month, thousands of French protestors delayed a convoy of nuclear waste from being transported to Germany (the hazardous waste has since made it across the border). Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel has signaled her country will phase out nuclear power in the next ten years.

The Party Line – September 23, 2011: In Post-Fukushima Reality, What is the Future, and Who is Winning It?

Beginning a story with a correction for what might seem a technical detail might not provide the most attention-grabbing lede, but it opens the door to a broader, and important, observation.

Last week’s column contained reference to “large nuclear power-generating nations,” and then listed Australia as part of that group. That, as pointed out by reader Dgdonovan, was incorrect:

Australia is not a large nuclear power producing nation, in fact none of Australia’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. Australia is a large uranium producing nation, however.

Indeed, while Australia may posses nearly a quarter of the world’s remaining uranium deposits, it has not commissioned a single industrial-scale nuclear reactor for electrical power generation. While the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant makes that look prudent, given the expansion of nuclear power over the last 50 years, it does seem odd.

Australia is hardly an industrial backwater. A member of the G20, Australia is the world’s 13th largest economy in terms of GDP. And it is not as if Australia has not considered building nuclear plants, most recently about five years ago. But nuclear power has never gotten off the ground in Australia for a rather basic reason: it is not supported by a majority of its people.

What the public wants, however, (as some recent events in the US seem to indicate) is not always what the public gets. Also required is a mechanism for the electorate to impose their will.

As previously observed, in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel committed her country to phasing out nuclear power generation in relatively short order, choosing to instead invest in renewables and efficiency. Merkel may have come to this decision based on the facts as now understood post Fukushima, but German domestic politics almost certainly came under consideration, too.

Merkel’s ruling coalition in the Bundestag currently includes her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), and the rightwing Free Democratic Party (FDP). By every indication, the FDP is heading for substantial losses in the next federal election, so the CDU will need a new coalition partner to keep Merkel in power. The most productive option is expected to be the Greens, and to woo them, Merkel found an opportune moment to move on a core Green Party issue.

Australia’s system is not identical to Germany’s, but the parliamentary (or Westminster) plan of the lower house introduces some of the same power dynamics. (Liberal-National Coalition PM John Howard proposed developing nuclear power in 2006; his party lost to anti-nuke Labor in 2007.) Federal and most regional elections are also decided by “preferential voting” (also known as IRV, or “instant runoff”). This form of democracy tends to give voters more options, and allows tertiary parties, and their issues, to gain a foothold in the system. Australia also accords a great deal of autonomy to its six state governments, where, for instance, it would be virtually impossible for the federal Australian government to put a nuclear power plant in a state if that state’s government had rejected it.

Contrast this with the United States, where, rather than responding to the new, post-Fukushima realities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signaled it is “full speed ahead” on the relicensing of old nuclear facilities (many of which are nearly identical to the Fukushima reactors; all of which are reaching the ends of their projected lifespans). Seabrook, in Connecticut New Hampshire, has just been granted permission to proceed toward relicensing, and it looks like re-upping the Massachusetts Pilgrim plant will also be moving ahead. This movement runs counter to the NRC’s own recent task force report advocating a new safety regime that incorporates lessons learned from Japan. And this relicensing also runs counter to substantial objections from state governments, nuclear watchdogs, and community activists.

Shouldn’t the chief regulatory agency wait until its new, proposed regulations are in place before giving out licenses for another 20 years of potentially dangerous operation? Under a governmental system that draws its regulators from the industry it regulates and funds its two-party, first-past-the-post elections with money from that industry, it appears not.

And regulatory protocol is not the only point of contrast. In Germany, the marketplace has already recognized the changing reality. Siemens, a German industrial giant, has announced that it is getting out of the nuclear power business:

It [Siemens] will build no further nuclear plants and is canceling its nuclear joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom. Siemens built all 17 of Germany’s existing nuclear plants. Siemens chief executive, Peter Loescher, (pictured) praised the Merkel government’s decision to close all its nuclear plants by 2022 and aim for an 80% to 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, calling it “a project of the century.”

Siemens recognizes that without government support, and without an automatic customer, there is no profit in nuclear power.

In the United States, where President Obama (a beneficiary of large campaign contributions from nuclear power companies) went out of his way to affirm the US commitment to nuclear generation immediately following the Japanese quake and tsunami, and where the federal government continues to offer loan guarantees for maintaining and operating nuclear plants, a very different picture is emerging:

Exelon Corporation and Constellation Energy have filed for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval of their proposed merger. In the filing, the companies commit themselves to divesting three of Constellation’s non-nuclear power plants totaling [sic] 2648 MWe in a step to ensure the merger will not cause power market or competitive concerns in the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) Power Pool in which they operate.

Constellation is the owner of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, which has recently come under scrutiny (OK, closer scrutiny, it has a long history of safety concerns) because of an emergency shutdown triggered by a transformer explosion during Hurricane Irene. Exelon, itself the product of a merger brokered by former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of Barack Obama’s largest campaign contributors. Exelon already operates more US nuclear plants than any other power company.

And this isn’t the only consolidation move in the US power sector. Duke Energy and Progress Energy, companies that operate nuclear facilities throughout the southeast, are seeking to form the country’s largest electric utility.

The Exelon-Constellation deal is facing opposition from Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, while the Duke-Progress merger has raised questions in North Carolina. But the final say on whether either deal goes through rests with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC is comprised of five commissioners, each appointed by the president to a five-year term (in theory, anyway–one commissioner is still there, despite his term supposedly ending in June). As currently constituted, three members are George W. Bush appointees, two were picked by President Obama (though that does not necessarily predict how they will act). FERC’s decisions are final, and are not subject to any kind of Congressional vote.

The differences are stark. In Germany, where electoral realities have forced to the government to take an honest look at nuclear safety, market realities have delineated a path away from nuclear power and toward a renewable energy economy. In the US, where government is not only insulated from popular opinion but also beholden to corporate largess, elected officials, regulators and industry work hand-in-hand to perpetuate dangerous, expensive and inefficient technologies (while, on Capitol Hill, House Republicans vote to slash already threadbare programs meant to encourage renewable energy development).

In an age where so many economies are desperately trying not to lose any more ground in the present, could it be that the ones more responsive to their rank-and-file electorates are the ones in the best position to (to borrow a quickly forgotten phrase) win the future?

The Party Line – September 9, 2011: Shaken, But Still Not Stirred

Sunday, September 11, will of course be the tenth anniversary of a tragedy that fundamentally changed America in ways we are still trying to understand. But this 9/11 is also a day for other anniversaries, ones that will likely get little, if any, recognition in the US.

In 1985, for instance, September 11 saw a Keystone Kops-like collection of miscues during a test of the remote shutdown protocols at the Limerick Generating Station, a boiling water nuclear reactor outside of Philadelphia. During the shutdown, a valve on a cooling system failed to open, and attempts to manually open the valve were met by a locked door, and a call for a key, which, after a 15-minute wait, turned out to be the wrong key. Once the proper key was found and the door was opened, the operators found the valve’s hand wheel chained and padlocked to prevent accidental opening. Those keys were in the abandoned control room. Bolt cutters had to be used before the operators could finally open the valve.

All that time, the reactor core’s temperature was increasing. Fortunately, the test was done during startup, when decay heat is relatively low, so control rods were able to slow the reaction enough to provide time to overcome the multiple barriers to opening the valve. Had the plant been operating at full power when this series of problems occurred, the outcome would likely have not been so rosy.

September 11 will also mark six months since the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan triggered a series of cataclysmic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. That accident provides no amusing anecdotes or happy endings, but those horrible events should provide a loud wakeup call and numerous object lessons for nuclear power programs across the globe.

As previously noted, the Japanese nightmare and domestic political realities have spurred German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to announce a rather rapid phase out of her country’s nuclear plants. The Japanese government, too, has spoken of turning away from nuclear power and toward renewable alternatives.

But here in the United States, six months on from Japan’s quake, there are no such proclamations or pledges–if anything, quite the contrary–and almost no movement on even the most incremental of recommendations.

In the face of lessons still not learned, a trio of nuclear experts gathered in Washington, DC on September 8 to highlight key concerns that still have not been addressed six months after the start of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Included on the list are several issues discussed in this space since the Fukushima quake (this is a partial and edited list–please use the link for more concerns and more explanation):

The U.S. regulatory response since Fukushima has been inadequate. “Six months after Fukushima, it seems clear that the U.S. is not going to undertake the type of fundamental, no-holds-barred look at its nuclear regulatory practices that followed the much less serious accident at Three Mile Island some 30 years ago.”

America should avoid post-9/11 mistakes in tightening reactor safety standards. “In responding to Fukushima by issuing orders, the NRC should not make the same mistakes as it did following 9/11, when industry stonewalling delayed implementation of critical security measures for many years. Even today, some post 9/11 security upgrades have not been completed at numerous plants. . . . The U.S. must respond to Fukushima in a much more comprehensive way or it may soon face an accident even worse than Fukushima.”

The U.S. was warned of Fukushima-style problems but failed to act … and is still failing to do so. “U.S. reactors have some of the shortcomings of the Fukushima plants. Furthermore, citizen groups and scientists had tried to call one of these – spent fuel pool vulnerability — to Nuclear Regulatory Commission attention during the last decade. The NRC dismissed these efforts. . . . Without a root cause analysis of its own failure to heed the now validated warnings about spent fuel pools, the NRC may patch the technical problems revealed by Fukushima, but it won’t fix the underlying shortcomings that allow defects to persist until catastrophic events rather than regulatory vigilance force the nuclear industry and the public to face up to them.”

Emergency planning zones in the U.S. must be expanded. “In contrast to the [NRC] Task Force conclusions, we believe that emergency planning zones should be expanded, certain hydrogen control measures should be immediately enforced and spent fuel transfer to dry casks should be accelerated. Also, the safety margins of new reactors need to be reassessed.”

The recent East Coast earthquake should spur more NRC safety analysis. “The earthquake near the North Anna nuclear plant, which reportedly exceeded the plant’s seismic design basis, reinforces the urgency of the NRC Fukushima task force’s recommendation that all plants immediately be reviewed for their vulnerability to seismic and flooding hazards based on the best available information today.”

To that last point, as noted before, the earthquake that struck Mineral, VA in late August should have moved US nuclear regulators to quickly adopt the recommendations of the Fukushima task force. Well, the quake doesn’t seem to have moved the NRC much, but it did move some things, like most of the 117-ton dry storage casks at the North Anna facility. . . and, as we now have learned, pretty much everything else there:

Last month’s record earthquake in the eastern United States may have shaken a Virginia nuclear plant twice as hard as it was designed to withstand, a spokesman for the nuclear safety regulator said on Thursday.

Dominion Resources told the regulator that the ground under the plant exceeded its “design basis” — the first time an operating U.S. plant has experienced such a milestone. . . .

That a facility experienced such a milestone is now known because, over two weeks after the fact, data from the so-called “shake plates” has finally been released (almost a week after it was expected):

“We are currently thinking that at the higher frequencies, the peak acceleration was around 0.26” g, which is a unit of gravity that measures the impact of shaking on buildings, said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman.

The plant was designed to withstand 0.12 g of horizontal ground force for parts that sit on rock, and 0.18 g for parts that sit on soil, Burnell said.

Dominion’s sensors recorded average horizontal ground force of 0.13 g in an east-west direction and 0.175 g in a north-south direction, officials said.

The apparent discrepancy seems to stem from the distance between instruments used by the US Geological Survey and those cited by North Anna’s operator, Dominion, but even taking the smaller numbers, the design limits of the plant were exceeded.

Dominion officials have been quick to point out that even though some things have moved and some structures show cracks, those changes are merely cosmetic and in no way dangerous. But nuclear engineer John H. Bickel says that vessels and pipes are not the first things to go in a quake:

[A]n analysis of plants hit by earthquakes had shown that the most vulnerable components were ceramic insulators on high-voltage lines that supply the plants with power and electrical relays, which resemble industrial-strength circuit-breakers and switches.

Even if the relays are not damaged, they might be shaken so that they change positions, cutting off the flow of electricity or allowing it to flow without any command from an operator.

As previously noted (with more than a hint of irony), in order to safely generate electrical power, nuclear plants need an uninterrupted supply of electrical power. Without electricity, cooling systems and important monitors in both the reactors and spent fuel storage pools cannot function. Without effective cooling, nuclear facilities are looking at a series of disasters like the ones encountered at Fukushima Daiichi. That the most quake-vulnerable components directly affect a nuclear plant’s power supply is yet another data point underscoring the urgent need to review and enhance seismic safety at US facilities.

But even before that nation-wide examination can take place, the damage to the shaken North Anna plant needs to be surveyed and analyzed so that Dominion might restart its reactors. What does Dominion need to show in order to get the thumbs up, what criteria need to be met, what repairs or retrofits should be required? To paraphrase the head of the NRC: Who knows?

In an interview last week, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Reuters it was unclear what the plant would need to show to resume operations because it is the first time an operating plant has sustained a beyond-design-basis quake.

As Hurricane Irene revealed the lack of national guidelines for what to do in the face of an approaching storm, the Virginia earthquake has shown that the United States has no regulatory regime for learning, analyzing, or acting on data from events that exceed the often-negotiated-down design parameters of its nuclear facilities.

In fact, the NRC does not even have a post-quake inspection protocol. Inspections of North Anna are being done according to procedural guidelines drawn up by the Electric Power Research Institute, “a nonprofit utility consortium that has inspected dozens of industrial plants hit by earthquakes around the world.”

Yes, the nuclear industry has written its own post-event checklist, and, in the absence of any other standard, is left alone to use it.

That sort of self-policing leads to some noteworthy analysis, like this from a nuclear industry attorney: “You shake something really hard, and it’s not designed to be shaken that hard — it doesn’t mean that it’s broken.”

But there is something even more disturbing, if that is possible, propagated by the weak regulations and weak-willed regulators. It leaves space for arguments like this one from that same industry lawyer:

The incident helps make the case for new-generation nuclear plants, which have additional safety features. . . . “If you can have a car from 2011 vs. a car from 1978, what are you going to put your toddler in?”

Beyond the fact that no one is actually suggesting the 1978 plants get traded in for newer models (just augmented with them), cars have to compete for consumer dollars in a way that nuclear plants do not. Nuclear plants could not be built, fueled, operated or maintained without massive subsidies, loan guarantees, and infrastructure commitments from the federal government.

Also of note, a 2011 automobile is safer and more efficient than a 1978 model because of government regulation. The auto industry has fought improvements like mandatory airbags, three-point restraints, and CAFE standards, but a strong government imposed those requirements anyway. And your toddler is safer in that car because the Consumer Product Safety Commission reviews the design of child car seats, and laws mandate their use.

Where the comparison does work, however, is that both represent a false choice. Just as a car is not the only way to transport a toddler, nuclear plants are not the only means by which to generate power. And in 2011, there are many more choices, and many safer choices, than there were in 1978.

Which recalls the important contrast between a country such as Germany–which, faced with a restive electorate and lessons to be learned from Japan’s misfortune, has made a commitment to not just trade in nuclear but trade up to renewable alternatives–and the US, where corporate influence and politics as usual have left the government with seemingly few options beyond willful ignorance and calcification.

Even without recognition of the Japan quake’s semi-anniversary, September 11 will probably be a tense day for most Americans, especially those with personal connections to the events of ten years ago. But while remembrance will be hard, it will mostly be so because of an event now relegated to history.

Residents of Japan, still living with an ongoing and ever-evolving threat, cannot so neatly define their anguish. And if there is a message to be found in this coincidental concurrence of dates, it perhaps springs from there. While Americans can debate what could have been done to prevent the attacks of 9/11/2001, it is a debate held in hindsight. For the Japanese dealing with the aftermath of their disaster, hindsight still seems like a luxury to be enjoyed very far in the future.

But, for the United States, a debate about what can be done to prevent a Fukushima-like disaster here is theoretically blessed, both because it is a debate that can be had before the next crisis, and because it is a debate that can be informed by events. And experience, science, economics and common sense are all pretty clear on what needs to be done.

The Party Line – July 15, 2011: Japan’s PM Recommends Shift Away from Nuclear Power; US Report Recommends Regulatory Tweaks

While most of creation is still trying to predict if Congress will raise the debt ceiling, and what will happen to the economy if they don’t, I thought I’d spend some quality time with disasters quite present, and in some ways, quite predictable. I am talking about nuclear power in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

As I detailed a few weeks back, Germany’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, announced a plan to shut down all of her country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. This week, Japanese PM Naoto Kan made similar noises:

We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy. When we think of the magnitude of the risks involved with nuclear power, the safety measures we previously conceived are inadequate.

And, also this week, here in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released, via its website, an 80-something-page report on the Japanese nuclear disaster [PDF], which included a series of recommendations for improving safety and disaster response at US nuclear power facilities.

Just doesn’t have the same oomph, does it? Kind of missing the gravity or sense of urgency of a head of state declaring an unambiguous move away from nuclear power, no?

Style points aside—I mean, you can hardly expect President Obama to break away from round-the-clock deficit hysteria to address a looming threat that also happens to siphon billions of dollars from federal coffers in the form of subsidies and loan guarantees—the content of the report itself, its findings and recommendations, also leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

As noted, the report is long–and it is dense–but as I understand it, the task force recommends that regulators pay more attention to what the report calls “low-likelihood, high-consequence events”. . . you know, like earthquakes and floods that damage nuclear reactors and safety systems.

Hard to argue with that. . . but then the task force also says that the sort of high-consequence disaster that happened in Japan can’t happen in the US—and that is a point that I and many experts and activists would argue against. To put it very briefly, the United States has many reactors past their projected life spans, many similar in design to Fukushima’s, and many built in areas vulnerable to seismic activity, floods and, yes, even tsunamis.

Also recommended, that the government standardize safety regulations and emergency response plans—and make them actual rules as opposed to voluntary industry initiatives (aka “suggestions”)—which is good as far as it goes, but in the wake of a multi-part AP exposé showing how the NRC conspired with the nuclear industry to lower safety standards, I’m thinking that doesn’t go that far.

Perhaps what is most important, however, is what’s missing from the Near-Term Task Force Review. As noted by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the report makes no recommendation for moving spent nuclear fuel from over-packed pools to hardened on-site storage. A striking omission considering that used fuel rods stored in pools inside the Fukushima reactor buildings were and continue to be a serious part of the crisis in Japan.

Also highlighted by PSR, though completely outside the prescribed scope of the investigation, the task force states that there is an “expectation of no significant radiological health effects” from the Fukushima disaster.

No significant radiological health effects. When I first read that, I assumed the NRC review was referring to the United States—an assertion that already strains credulity as far as I’m concerned, but one that can be debated, given the distance and the data (or paucity of data). But, as I read it—uh, re-read it—this “conclusion” is a general one, as in everywhere, as in an expectation of no significant radiological health effects in Japan.

Now, that assertion, without any long-term health screenings or any epidemiological studies, is as worthless as it is irresponsible, but to make such a statement a week after a Japanese report revealed that 45 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have thyroids that show evidence of exposure to radiation makes one wonder what the US task force used for data. . . or if they felt the need to use data at all. Also revealed at the end of June, soil samples from the city of Fukushima—an area well outside of the quarantine radius—contained radioactive cesium at levels 1.5 to 4.5 times greater than the legal limit. (Radioactive cesium 137 has a half-life of approximately 30 years and tends to accumulate in plant tissue and fungal spores.)

But wait, there’s more:

Another sample taken from a street ditch — where nuclear fallout often accumulates — registered as much as 931,000 becquerels per sq. meter, surpassing the 555,000 becquerels per sq. meter limit for compulsory resettlement in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

An earlier survey on soil in the city of Fukushima by the science ministry has found 37,000 becquerels of radioactive substances per 1 kg — equivalent to 740,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

That’s Japan. Here in North America, we found out this week that the Environmental Protection Agency was measuring radioactive iodine in rainwater out west at levels 30, 40, and, in one case, 130 times what is considered the safety standard for drinking water. Granted, a drinking water standard is not the same as a rainwater measure (as I understand it, the drinking water standard is based on the chances that consumption of a glass a day for 30 years will result in cancer), but that does not mean that this revelation doesn’t raise many questions.

For instance, what about negative non-cancer health effects? Has rain-borne radiation contaminated reservoirs, wells, or watersheds? What about bioaccumulation, what about the radiation that winds up in and on plants and animals? And what about—and this has been one of my big questions since the early days of this crisis—what about other isotopes, ones with other deleterious health effects, ones with half-lives measured in decades (like Cs-137) as opposed to days (like I-131)? And, of course, since it has been determined that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of radiation exposure, no matter the source, shouldn’t the government do a better job of informing the public of any significant increases?

To that last point, the report on radioactive rainwater, which is from Heart of America Northwest, also revealed that, in many cases, there was a lag time of a week between the radiation readings and the posting of the information on the EPA’s RadNet website. So, even for those that could parse the data on the less-than-lay-friendly site, the news was nowhere close to real-time, and so nowhere close to immediate enough for individuals trying to assess risk and adjust behavior accordingly.

The same report notes that though the EPA says it stepped up rainwater sampling following the start of the nuclear disaster in Japan, several sites (Portland, OR, for example) do not show additional sample dates beyond the standard once per month. That leads one to assume that the EPA was less diligent than they claimed, but could it also be that the EPA collected samples but chose not to post the data? (That’s an honest question—I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it did occur to me.)

By the way, that increase in sampling—it ended on May 3. . . because, of course, the Fukushima crisis is over. . . .

But, of course, the crisis is not over. Beyond the melted cores in several Fukushima reactors—where Japanese response teams are still trying to understand the shape and temperature of fuel and the integrity of the containment vessels—there are the pools of spent fuel rods, still very radioactive, still sitting in reactor buildings without roofs (which were destroyed by hydrogen explosions in the days after the earthquake and tsunami). Those pools are still sending an unknown amount of radiation into the atmosphere, and those pools will remain exposed for months to come (the first attempt to cover one of the reactor buildings is expected in late September).

So, that’s a lot to digest—for me, yes, and maybe for you, too—but at least I am trying to take it all in. Did the NRC task force take in any of this before they issued their report? Did they digest it? Yes or no, I find their assertion of no significant radiological health effects hard to swallow.

The differences in the levels of response—Germany announcing a plan to end its use of nuclear power, and Japan’s PM stating that his country should do the same, versus the United States quietly releasing a wonky report with a set of recommendations for a sustained nuclear future—tells me that the US government will not learn the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, and I find that hard to stomach.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – June 3, 2011: A Tale of Two Countries

It isn’t the best of times; how can we keep it from being the worst of times?

In one country, a government that campaigned on a move to green energy reacts to the nuclear crisis in Japan by reaffirming its commitment to nuclear power. In another country, a government that, only nine months ago, endorsed a plan to expand its reliance on nuclear power reacts to the Fukushima disaster by vowing to shut down all domestic nuclear reactors by 2022, and invest in conservation and alternative energy.

The latter of the two examples is, at present, actually the one more dependent on nuclear power for its domestic electricity production, so what can explain its more populist response to current events?

The first country is, of course, the USA, where the federal government is the product of a “first past the post,” two-party electoral system. The second country is Germany, which chooses its national government by a multi-party, mixed member proportional representation system.

In Germany, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is reacting as much—or more—to domestic political pressure as it is to the disaster in Japan. . . and that is not at all a bad thing. Because, in Germany, not only is the government showing a reasonable reaction to a global catastrophe, not only is it changing policy to more accurately reflect the desires of the German people, the government has made a move that looks like it will boost the German economy.

The value of German alternative energy companies instantly shot up after Chancellor Merkel moved early in the week to shift her country away from nuclear power and toward renewable resources. Whereas, in the US, once-promised government investment in a green energy revolution has fallen victim to Beltway deficit hysteria.

This contrast threatens to leave he United States off the leading edge of a technological revolution for the second time this century.

Because of the anti-science policies and hot-button politics of the George W. Bush administration, the US has, to a large extent, missed out on the economic benefits of the genetic engineering revolution. Other countries have made themselves much more hospitable to the research and investment necessary to capitalize on those breakthroughs. And now, the pro-nuclear, pro-coal, Big-Oil-coddling posture of the current Congress and the Obama administration—combined with the cuts to alternative energy programs—threaten to again leave America behind.

A green energy revolution could provide more than “green shoots,” it could be an economic engine equal to, or even greater than, the information revolution that propelled growth in the 1990s. At a time when the US is mired in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, this is an opportunity it cannot afford to miss. And yet, without an effective group or mechanism available to pressure the people in power, a miss is looking more and more likely.

As it now stands, Germany has a chance to capitalize on a disaster, while the United States looks likely to lose another decade. For Germany, a shot at wisdom. For the US, continued foolishness.