Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fukushima, Japan: (Somewhat) Good News, Bad News

First, the good news:

"Tokyo Electric Power Laid 1 Kilometer of New Power Line"
Natalie Obiko Pearson, Jim Polson, Bloomberg (March 19, 2011)

"Tokyo Electric Power Co. engineers have laid a new power line to the stricken No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.

"The new line, measuring about one kilometer (0.6 miles), aims to restore power to the plant's cooling systems, which were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami March 11, a company official earlier told a press conference on NHK...."

Someone described the emergency power line that Tokyo Electric strung to the Fukushima plant as "the world's longest extension cord." Which, in a way, it is.

More detail about what's been happening at the Fukushima power plant:

"Latest Reactor Status at Japan's Stricken Fukushima Nuclear Plant: Table"
Naoko Fujimura, Bloomberg (March 19, 2011)

"The following is the latest status of each nuclear reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant.

"No. 1: Workers are ready to restore power to the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said on NHK Television today. The reactor was damaged on March 12 by a hydrogen explosion that destroyed the building walls. The reactor is rated level five in terms of threat on an international scale of 1-7.

"No. 2: Engineers hope to use the power cable attached to the No. 2 reactor as a hub to restore electricity to the other five reactors, Tokyo Electric said. A March 15 explosion may have damaged the containment chamber. The reactor is rated a level five threat.

"No. 3: Firefighters sprayed to control the reactor between 2 p.m. yesterday and 3:40 a.m. today, NHK reported. Similar actions March 18 managed to replenish water in the spent-fuel pool...."

That, considering what's been happening in the Fukushima area lately, actually is good news. In the Lemming's opinion.

A slightly more chatty take on the same news:

"Electric power partially restored at Japan nuclear plant"
Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times (March 19, 2011)

"Engineers restore power to cooling pumps at two of the buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but not to the most troublesome reactors yet. Meanwhile, manual spraying of seawater seems to be reducing radiation levels.

"Working overnight into Sunday, engineers have successfully restored power to cooling pumps in two reactors at the disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the first genuinely hopeful sign in the week-long battle to prevent a full-scale meltdown at any of the six reactors at the site.

"Although power has so far been restored only at reactor buildings 5 and 6, which were not considered a particular threat, that success suggests that workers are finally beginning to make some headway in their effort to prevent more radiation from escaping the plant...."

So, that's the good news: there's a better chance now, that there won't be more catastrophic failures at the Fukushima facility. Getting the place running again - or at least cleaned up so that folks can move back into the area - - - well, that's another story.

Now, the bad news:

"Radiation found in food as workers scramble to curb nuclear crisis"
CNN (March 19, 2011)

"As workers scrambled to curb a nuclear crisis Sunday, the Japanese government considered halting the sale of food from farms near the Fukushima plant after abnormally high levels of radiation were found in milk and spinach.

"Very small amounts -- far below the level of concern -- of radioactive iodine were also detected in tap water in Tokyo and most prefectures near the Fukushima Daiichi plant damaged by last week's monster earthquake and tsunami.

"Six members of the emergency crew at the plant have been exposed to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation per hour, the equivalent of getting 10 chest X-rays per hour, plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Company said...."

"...People are naturally exposed to about 3 millisieverts of radiation a year. The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends no more than 50 millisieverts exposure in a given year for nuclear rescue and recovery workers. It offers no restriction in a crisis when 'the benefit to others clearly outweighs the rescuer's risk.'

"Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said levels of radiation exceeding safety limits stipulated by Japanese law were found in some samples of spinach and milk from the Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures but authorities said the radioactive iodine-contaminated food posed little risk.

"Tainted milk was found 30 kilometers (18 1/2 miles) from the plant and spinach was collected as far as 100 kilometers (65 miles) to the south, almost halfway to Tokyo.

" 'Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about eight days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body,' warned the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"A person who consumed the tainted food continuously for a year would take in the same amount of radiation as a single CT scan, Edano said. That's about 7 millisieverts or double what an average person in an industrialized country is exposed to in a year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration...."

The first part of that last paragraph bears repeating, in the Lemming's opinion.

"...A person who consumed the tainted food continuously for a year would take in the same amount of radiation as a single CT scan ... That's about 7 millisieverts or double what an average person in an industrialized country is exposed to in a year..." (CNN) [emphasis mine]

That detail about just how big a risk the "tainted food" was - appears rather deep in the article. Which is standard 'inverted pyramid' reporting: an old journalistic standard, and another topic.

The point is that the "Radiation found in food" is - not much more than we're exposed to, just by living on this planet. It makes sense for Japan to have stringent standards for food - and to check what's being grown around the Fukushima power plant. In the Lemming's opinion.

But the Lemming hopes that folks won't take the "Radiation found in food" part of the news, remember that, and be scared of eating anything that's grown in northern Japan. Or in Japan.

Folks who survived having their towns destroyed and lives disrupted have, in the Lemming's opinion, enough trouble as it is - without having folks elsewhere shunning their exports.

Still - focusing on the (somewhat) good news: there's now a better chance that folks working at the Fukushima power plant will be able to get the situation under control. Before the radiation kills them.

Under the circumstances, that is (somewhat) good news. In the Lemming's opinion.

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Atlanta Roofing said...

Could one of the reactors have been put on line after they realized the back up power diesel generators were disabled by the Tsunami? If so, then they over reacted by not using one of the reactors as power. If another shock wave took it off power then one of the other reactors could have been prepared in turn until the diesel engines were fixed or other powers lines were put in place. Was total shutoff the right position without power backup?

Brian H. Gill said...

Atlanta Roofing,

Good point. Also sorry about taking so long, attending to your comment.

It's possible, I suppose, that one of the reactors could have been put back on line - but the earthquake was a sincerely non-trivial event by itself, and the tsunami does not seem to have been particularly localized in its effects.

There's going to be a lot of 'what if' speculation: but the impression I've been left with is that, after Japan's most powerful earthquake ever recorded - none of the reactors were particularly reliable. Which is why they were being shut down.

I think that nuclear reactors are a practical way to generate electricity. But I also think that keeping a reactor running, when it may have been seriously damaged, makes about as much sense as smoking in a room full of gasoline vapor.

Which doesn't mean that I think that the company running the plant did a flawless job.

I do think that there's a great deal of re-evaluation going on in Japan right now, about how the Fukushima plant was handled.

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