The Party Line – August 19, 2011: Japan Nuclear Crisis Continues, Highlighting More Potential Dangers in US

Imagine, if you will, living somewhat close to a nuclear reactor—not right next door, but close enough—and then imagine that an accident at that reactor causes a large release of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. Certainly scary, but maybe less scary because you know your government has computer models that show where the nuclear fallout will blow and fall, and they explain that the amounts that will blow and fall on you are negligible.

Sure, you might think twice about that reassurance, but it is not like they are saying everything is OK. The government, after all, did evacuate some people based on their fallout models. . . so they are on top of it.

Then imagine five months later, after you’ve breathed the air, drank the water, and tramped dirt and snow in and around your home, the government reveals that even though they had the models, and even though they knew the amounts of radioactivity pouring into the atmosphere from the damaged nuclear plant, they didn’t input the known amounts into the fallout model, so that when the government was reassuring people, it was doing so based on a minimum measurable number used to build the model, and not the actual amounts then being released. So, now, you find that not only have you been living in a place that was well within a zone now littered with hazardous fallout, you find that many who were evacuated were moved directly into the path of that radioactive plume.

While you’re at it, imagine that you’ve been eating contaminated beef, because the government failed to stop the distribution of radioactive rice straw. And, also, imagine you’ve been drinking tea containing three times the allowable limit of radioactive cesium because the government didn’t think they needed to monitor tea that was grown over 100 miles from the failed reactor.

Imagine, too, that your children are safe because the amount of ionizing radiation they are exposed to is under the government’s annual limit. . . because the government just increased the allowable annual limit twenty-fold, from one millisievert to 20 mSv.

Of course, as I am sure you have already surmised, if you live in many parts of Northern Japan, you don’t have to imagine any of this—this is your everyday reality.

This rather terrifying reality really isn’t limited to Northern Japan, however. Yes, that region has suffered the worst of the triple play that was a massive earthquake, a tsunami, and reactor meltdowns, but the contaminated food has been found all over Japan (and now there is word that tuna is also showing evidence of contamination), and in Tokyo, outside the evacuation zone and even the worst of the newly revealed plume models, a rainstorm ten days after the earthquake increased levels of background radiation in the city, and they have remained high ever since.

A professor at Tokyo University recently made a speech before the Japanese Diet in which he compared levels of contamination and exposure from the Fukushima disaster to that from the atomic blast at Hiroshima—the current crisis being upwards of twenty times worse.

More troubling still—for the Japanese, and anyone, frankly, that shares a jet stream with them—the last couple of weeks have seen evidence of a fourth meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, and, perhaps even more disturbing, news of highly radioactive steam emerging from cracks in the ground around the reactor buildings. What makes that last point especially scary is that some believe this is evidence that the “corium” (the molten mess of fissile material that was once fuel rods inside of a reactor) has not only melted through the bottom of the containment vessel, but has started to burn through the concrete floor of the complex and is sinking toward the water table. (Images of Jane Fonda and Jack Lemon make this seem less serious to me, but you will hear others talk of this and reference The China Syndrome.) A constant leaking of a sort of radioactive smog is bad enough—it makes working on the cleanup go from ridiculously difficult to nearly impossible—but the bigger concern is an interaction between the corium and the groundwater that separates the hydrogen from the oxygen, causing a big explosion, sending more contaminants up into the atmosphere.

Such a scenario also sets up another imagination exercise: try to imagine just what effect this development will have on the already dubious plan to cover the breached reactor buildings with giant tarps. That’s one you will still have to imagine, because, as yet, there is no reported adjustment in the containment and cleanup plan from the Japanese government.

Of course, as terrible as this all is, it seems terribly removed from what should concern inhabitants of the mainland United States. After all, the US has not suffered this nuclear accident, it has no issues with leaking radioactive isotopes, America is a much larger and less densely populated country than Japan, and, after all, the dual disaster that caused the Fukushima reactors to meltdown is near to completely impossible for almost any of the reactors based in the US.

Except that none of that is true.

Though none have yet risen to the size and scope of the Fukushima disaster, the US has a long history of nuclear accidents. Some are of the instantaneous crisis variety, like Three Mile Island (to name only the most obvious of several), but many are of the slowly evolved, quietly revealed variety. For instance, just this week, health officials announced that radioactive tritium released from aging pipes at the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility had leached into the soil and has now been detected in the Connecticut River. In past years, strontium contamination had also been linked to the same plant. Vermont Yankee officials, now lobbying for a license renewal, have basically responded with “Pipes? What pipes?” and “Those are not our isotopes.”

And Vermont Yankee is just one of a long list of aging nuclear facilities built dangerously close to population centers. One third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.

Feeling eerily similar to the Japanese response, the US government has met elevated readings of background radiation and radioactive isotopes triggered by the fallout from Fukushima with a decrease in the reporting of such data (and in some cases, an actual decrease in data collected). There is talk (behind closed doors, of course) of revising upward the acceptable amounts of radioactive contamination in certain foods. An AP report exposed a history of US government regulators working closely with the nuclear industry to weaken safety requirements and paper-over violations. And, even a series of relatively modest recommendations on how to enhance nuclear safety based on what has been observed in Japan is being slow-walked into non-implementation.

And maybe most disturbing of all, the very premise that is supposed to comfort us, that the meltdowns in Japan were the result of a catastrophic coincidence of events—an earthquake shutting off electricity to the plant, a tsunami knocking out the diesel back-up generators, thus leaving the facility with no way of powering the cooling systems—while already not wholly impossible in the United States, might turn out to be seriously flawed and overly optimistic. Evidence is beginning to emerge that some of the Fukushima meltdowns might have begun almost immediately after the earthquake, likely the result of multiple ruptures to the cooling system itself caused not by the tsunami, but by the tremor. In other words, even with full power to the plant, the cooling systems would have failed.

Reports right after the March earthquake in Japan found a disturbing number of US nuclear plants in active seismic zones, and found several near large population centers in the east to be even more vulnerable to earthquake damage than the two oft-cited California facilities. But here’s the clincher, those probabilities of whether a nuclear plant can survive an earthquake of a size likely to occur in a particular area are calculated on whether the tremor will damage the reactor core—those numbers do not factor in damage to the cooling system as the cause of a crisis.

How does the US government assess risk if a double whammy is not necessary? How does the NRC rate a facility if a breach of the containment vessel is not required to start a meltdown (or an explosion in an overheated spent fuel pool, for that matter)? As best I can tell, it doesn’t.

Imagination, as the song says, is funny. It makes a cloudy day sunny. It makes a bee think of honey. . . but it doesn’t cover-up reality when a real-world disaster continues to provide measurable data and cause considerable suffering. Governments on both sides of the Pacific might want to pretend that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, but the facts will prove that whether we know or not, the pain—both physical and economic—will be felt far and wide.

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

The Party Line – July 22, 2011: Fixing a Hole

Focusing on broad, long-term goals while ignoring obvious, near-term problems is order of the day, be it in the Fukushima reactors or deficit-obsessed DC.

I feel like I am saying this every week, but tear yourself away for a minute, if you can, from the daily deficit follies—I promise we’ll get back to them.

As I detailed last week, a study called the Near-Term Task Force Review listed a set of suggestions for ways the US nuclear power industry could improve safety in the wake of the meltdowns and continuing crisis in Japan’s Fukushima reactors. The recommendations were a mixed bag of mostly regulatory tweaks–nothing particularly bad, as far as they go–but obviously missing from the report was any program that would effectively improve the way spent fuel rods are stored.

Earlier this week, the task force officially presented its report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and NRC chair Gregory Jaczko said the full commission should move to accept or reject the recommendations within 90 days, and implement any new rules within five years.

That sounds glacial, especially given the ongoing Japanese crisis and many US plants of similar design facing the possibility of similar problems, but even this cautious approach to some cautious recommendations was more-or-less opposed by three of the five commissioners.

The commissioners reacted much like the Republican leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee did a day earlier, asking for a “full and deliberate process of review”—a rather naked demand that the NRC slow-walk these recommendations with an eye toward weakening or killing them. The ECC has yet to schedule any hearings on the task force report.

On the Senate side, I am told that the Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold hearings in August, but nothing as yet is listed on the committee website. (EPW is chaired by Barbara Boxer; if you want, give her a call and express your interest in a timely hearing.)

Sadly, it seems like the US takeaway from the triple meltdown and massive environmental disaster in Japan is that we need to stick up for our domestic nuclear industry. In fact, just yesterday, the NRC approved a 20-year operating license extension for Hope Creek in New Jersey. Hope Creek is a boiling water reactor, just like Fukushima Daiichi 1, and stores spent fuel in above-ground pools, just as was done in the now-crippled Japanese plants.

Conveniently, practically no one in the US has any time to devote to nuclear concerns—after all, we are facing a debt-pocalypse!

I write that with a healthy degree of sarcasm, but it seems to me more than a happy accident that absolutely nothing else can get done in Washington because of the never-healing, self-inflicted wound that has tied our governing in knots and threatens to cripple the entire government. Forgive the cheap allusion, but it is a meltdown of accountability.

An easy turn of phrase, but I have been feeling like there is some deeper connection—or, if not connection, parallel—between the ongoing crisis in Fukushima and the never-ending “crisis” in Washington.

Earlier in the week, TEPCO (the power company that owns Fukushima Daiichi) and the Japanese government updated their plans for cleanup and containment of the disaster area. They announced that their goal is a cold shutdown of the crippled reactors in three to six months, and with that, they hope to reduce the radiation level around the plant to one millisievert per year by mid-January. That would be substantial. Officials even talk of allowing some to return to the quarantine area if that goal is met.

But for that goal to be met—for any of the goals to be met, really—the crews at Fukushima will have to do something else first. Namely, emergency workers must find and fix the cracks and holes in the containment vessels of the damaged reactors that continue to allow contaminated, radioactive water to leak into the reactor buildings, the surrounding tunnels and neighboring facilities, and onto the ground, possibly into the ground water, and, almost certainly, into the sea. Yet, the problem of fixing the holes, a goal that was part of the previous plan of action, a goal that has not been met, is not in the latest Japanese report.

When asked about the omission, officials said that they expect progress to be made on the leaks. They did not say how. They did not say when. But, you know, obviously, that will be addressed. The main thing is, though, focus on the big, happy, longer-term goals.

Is this starting to sound at all familiar?

In the current context, I can certainly find fault with many of the details, but let’s say, OK, long-term deficit reduction is not a bad goal, in and of itself. It would, in theory, be good to spend less on interest, and more, say on education or infrastructure. . . .

But that is not how I hear President Obama addressing this. Instead, I hear him mimicking self-interested deficit hawks, blurring the difference between debt and deficit, allowing the Tea-OP to frame budget cuts as linked to the debt ceiling, and purposely dragging entitlements into the mix when they don’t have a bearing on the matter at hand. And, worst of all, the president and practically every other leader in DC has made deficit reduction the stand-in for the warm, fuzzy goal of rebuilding the economy—which is, at best, putting the cart before the horse, but is more likely a damaging and dangerous lie.

Before we get to jump in to the magic happy balanced-budget pool, perhaps there are a few holes and cracks the administration might want to spackle. And the cracks are legion, aren’t they?

Of course, there is the war. . . the wars. . . the three, three-and-a-half, or four wars, sucking trillions out of the economy.

And, of course, there are the very-much-still-here-even-though-they-should-have-already-expired Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy. And there is the hedge-fund-manager’s loophole and any number of other breaks for the rich that deprive the supposedly going-up-in-flames system of a cooling river of cash.

But I want to talk about an even more obvious, immediate, gaping hole, a hole that should be goal one in any discussion of the economy, and yet is embarrassingly absent from the beltway back-and-forth:

Jobs.

Before we spend another breath of air or drop of ink on the goal of deficit reduction, the federal government should be focusing on the goal of decreasing unemployment—focusing on the goal of creating jobs. It is, in fact, the obvious first step, the obvious hole you plug on the way to broader economic health. With more and better-paying jobs, you pump more money into the marketplace, increase demand, and spur expansion. And you also create a more robust revenue stream for the government. Almost every new job is a new taxable income.

And right now, when interest rates are so extremely low, when money is cheap for the government, now is an excellent time to invest in the country by spending. You know what would make this a less-good time for borrowing? Defaulting on our debt.

If the jerk circus in Washington fails to raise the debt ceiling, sends a message that it is some degree less than a sure thing that America will honor its obligations, then the cost of borrowing could go up, and then maybe we have a real problem.

Now, if you were president, what frame would you rather be forced to defend?

Why not take advantage of this situation—which has the added advantage of being the truth—and demand a clean vote, and only a clean vote, on the debt ceiling? Why not tell the American people that if we do this, and keep the money supply cheap and fluid, then government can do what it is supposed to do—what it can do: care for its people, create jobs in a time of need, repair aging infrastructure, research and develop new, greener energy sources (hint, hint—which will not only wean us off of expensive oil and nuclear power, but it could help build the economic engine that could power the US economy for the next decade), and provide a better life for every level of society?

Then, when we are back on terra firma, when we have plugged the gaping hole, we can re-examine the big rosy budget goals. But then we can do so from a place of strength, do so from a place where we are not trying to bail out a sinking ship with a perforated bucket, do so without running from crisis to crisis like terrified citizens in some Japanese horror film.

Let’s at least try to learn one thing from the Fukushima crisis: Make our goal to fix the hole.

 

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