Friday, October 26, 2012

Nuclear regulator changes looks to change definition of 'active fault'.

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has announced that it will review what constitutes an active earthquake fault in a nationwide survey of nuclear power plants.

Currently faults that have moved sometime within the last 120,000-130,000 years are considered active.  The NRA reportedly intends to extend the definition to cover faults that have moved within the last 400,000 years.  As the government does not allow nuclear power plants to be built over 'active' fault lines, this could put into doubt both current construction projects and the planned re-starting of power plants that have already been built.

The NRA is not overt about why they are making this decision, but I think that one can assume that activity within the past 400,000 years is dangerous because of the complementary possibility of activity within the next 400,000 years.  In other words, the NRA is intending to prohibit the operation of nuclear power plants because of the possibility of an earthquake under the plant sometime within the next 400,000 years!

Am I the only person in Japan who finds this idea completely preposterous?  Am I really living on a planet where people can curtail economic activity because of the possibility of an earthquake 400,000 years in the future?  Is my species truly that idiotic?

Let's consider some of the real threats humanity will likely face during that timespan.  The next ice age is expected anytime within the next 30,000 to 100,000 years.  A supervolcano along the lines of the TOBA eruption, which almost caused the extinction of the human race, is estimated to come along about every 50,000 years.  Then there are asteroid strikes; a hit with a space body of 1 kilometer in diameter, more than big enough to destroy civilization, occurs every 500,000 years or so.

This is the category into which an earthquake-caused nuclear accident is being placed.  Despite the fact that the largest quake in a thousand years of  Japanese history did not seriously damage Fukushima Daiichi. That despite 3 meltdowns, nobody was killed or injured.  Despite the fact that no nuclear power station has ever been seriously damaged by earthquake, anywhere.

Ah, the irony.  The only effect this ludicrious regulation will have will be to increase the chances of the Japanese nuclear industry not rebounding fully.  This in turn will seriously impact on one of the most urgent of humanity's real challenges: mitigating climate change caused by CO2 emissions.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In which the Japanese government inadvertently perpertuates fear

Since March 11 last year, the Japanese government has been between a rock and a hard place in regard to its public policy on nuclear power and radiation.

On the one hand, the Japanese economy depended on (and, in truth, still depends on) its large fleet of nuclear power stations to provide reliable power.  In addition, I am quite sure that those who make decisions have been informed about the scientific and engineering realities and are quite aware that the radiological effects of the accident were minimal, at least after the panicked days of the middle of March.

On the other hand, an increasingly fearful public has made ever-more desperate and irrational demands, whipped into paranoia by a global overreaction and a general fear of the unknown.  In retrospect, this was entirely predictiable.  In the Japanese psyche, the world is a dangerous place.  These are a people who are afraid of sunlight (which, admittedly, is far more dangerous than nuclear radiation and causes millions of cancers every year). So it is little surprise that something which is invisible, esoteric and known to be dangerous could generate such fear.  The only surprise is that public reaction has been so vocal and vehement, a rarety in Japan.  In fact, the misdirection of dissent is a real tragedy. If only this anger could have been directed at government-industrial corruption, or the abusive education system, or the entrenced gerontocracy, all things which might have been the targets of a real revolution.

But this fear of radiation is a fear that knows no boundaries, that is not susceptible to reason or concession.  Arguments about dosage and safety limits fall on deaf ears.  Thus the Japanese government has been forced, in a futile and self-defeating attempt at placating public concern, to assume a stance that publicly presents minute amounts of radiation as a threat to public health, and perpetuates the belief that the accident is a continuing crisis.

A number of examples can demonstrate this problem:

  • The government has repeatedly revised safety limits of various isotopes in foodstuffs downward, to where the limits are significantly below safety limits in other countries, which are already extremely conservative.
  • There is an actual ministry devoted to perpetuation of fear, with its own 'nuclear crisis' minister, Goshi Hosono.  What his duties are it is challenging to imagine.
  • The government is going ahead with expensive and unnecessary 'decontamination' in areas that were evacuated, right down to areas getting 5 millisieverts of radiation a year, a level barely above background radiation.
  • 'Public hearings' were staged which were designed to give people the chance to discuss Japan's energy policy, but the meetings were so vitriotically anti-nuclear that when a pro-nuclear speaker received hundreds of complaints Mr Hosono was forced to step in and promise that such a speaker would not be heard again.
  • Even the word 'crisis' is still being used, months after the plants achieved cold shutdown.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A nuclear wasteland?

Here is a picture of downtown Hiroshima.

On the 6th of August 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic weapon on the city, killing 90-160,000 people, of whom 15-20 % were killed by the radiation produced in the explosion and not by the explosion itself. 

It looks quite nice now, and I quite fancy the Starbucks frappaccino.

Although a direct comparison between Hiroshima and Fukushima is not possible as the events were very radiologically different, it may be useful to think of the image of a bustling modern Hirshima when considering claims made by some anti-nuclear activists, such that large areas of Northern Japan will be 'uninhabitable for centuries', or that Fukushima will be a 'wasteland for a thousand years'.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Why we don't need Fukushima 'decontamination'

Yesterday Prime Minister Noda visited reactor 4 up at Fukushima Daiichi.  Amongst other things, he was seen inspecting the spent fuel pool, yes the one that will supposedly kill everyone when it collapses.  The PM was wearing a protective suit, probably a good idea as a precaution, though it might have been more useful were we granted updated reports of actual radiation levels at the plant.

During the day Noda also visited an elementary school in Naraha, a town in Fukushima prefecture within the 20km radius of the plant that is currently undergoing 'decontamination'.  There the Prime Minister gave a speech stressing that decontamination efforts must continue in order to 'revive' Japan.  According to information released to the media, Naraha is in the 'first zone', which is receiving 'less than 20' millisieverts of radiation a year.  Those watching were treated to pictures of workers wearing ludicrous protective masks clearing rooftops of leaves and other rubbish...

It is worth pointing out that moving to Naraha today and living there for a year, you would receive rather less than 20 millisieverts of radiation, because radioactive isotypes have been decaying steadily since the accident, when these radiation estimates were made, and will continue to decay.  To my knowledge, radiation levels on the day the measurements were taken were simply extrapolated for an entire year, leading to a yearly measurement that wildly overestimates the actual radiation level.  This kind of thing is regularly done when radiation is concerned just in order to be conservative, to be 'on the safe side'.  I wouldn't suggest that it is not advisable to have a margin of error, but it is a good idea to keep overestimation in mind when these issues are discussed.  In this context, it is a shame that current radiation levels in Naraha town weren't made available on the same broadcast as the Noda speech; that might have been interesting.  My guess is that they would be very close to background level in the rest of Japan.

Even if the radiation level in Naraha is accepted as 20 mSv/yr, this is one-fifth of the dose estimated by a plethora of respected international bodies to be the minimum that could possibly expose a human to possible health risks.  And we are talking about highly conservative ultra-safe judgements made with the goal a having a wide 'safety margin'.  For example, UNSCEAR's conclusions are made reflecting the background of the most rigorous scientific studies on the planet, capable of detecting the elevated cancer risk of a minute fraction of a per cent that results from being exposed to radiation of more than 100 mSv/year, and then only if the most pessimistic of unproven theories of radiation is accepted.

20 mSv/yr is also about one twentieth! of the radiation that residents of Ramsar, Iran receive as natural background radiation every year, without any known deleterious effects.  It is no higher than the natural background in many other parts of the world, and comparable to many many others including Denver, Colarado.  It is the equivalent of a single chest scan, and much much less than a full-body CT scan; yet medical scans deliver this radiation over a single dose, not spread out over an entire year.  Yet nobody seems to be complaining about chest scans, or demonstrating outside hospitals waving pictures of deformed fetuses.

When I think of some of the likely things those workers have done in their lives that have measurably increased their actual risk of cancer before they started cleaning rooftops in Fukushima prefecture I feel a certain amount of righteous anger.  Have they ever lived in a major city with smog?  Do they eat fried chicken? Drink too much? Go out in the sun? God forbid, did one of them whack a cigarette in his mouth a minute after taking off his mask?

I'm thinking here that if Noda really wants to 'revive' Japan, he might be better off trying to 'revive' a sense of perspective and start dealing with problems that really exist.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Nuclear Power: Why the hell not?

This blog has very nearly become totally dedicated to the support of nuclear power in Japan and throughout the world.  My conversion from skeptic to nuclear supporter has been accompanied by a slow shift of perception in other areas of opinion; this is because once atomic energy is accepted as the basis for the production of the bulk of world energy supplies, many other seemingly intractable problems crystallise into non-issues.

Naturally, energy production becomes vastly more sustainable and reliable.  There are no more concerns about peak oil.  And oil itself becomes vastly less valuable- its main remaining use being for the production of gasoline.  That would remain a problem, but long-term it is possible to imagine all vehicles being electrical vehicles.

When you consider the fact that tension and war in the Middle East is due, at least in part, to desire for oil on the part of the West, it is not completely naive to believe that, if that desire were to subside, the stresses that have led too many times to war in the region will also subside.  For example, America would have had no need to invade Iraq if they hadn't neede to guarantee oil supplies from the region.  A dependence upon oil keeps many economies vulnerable to political crises in one of the most unstable parts of the world- and Japan is one of those economies. And if you believe for an instant that the American invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with oil and everything to do with 'weapons of mass destruction', I invite you to consider the case of North Korea, which to this day is still working on atomic weapons but, luckily for them, has no oil.

Around the world carbon-trading schemes are costing huge sums of money, often with the net outcome of no reduction of carbon emission at all, as the 'right to pollute' is merely traded.  All that results is the supression of economic activity. In Australia the issue of carbon-pricing has brought down a prime minister, an opposition leader and very nearly a government.  The newly-introduced emissions trading scheme remains hightly unpopular and has substantially raised electricity prices around the country.  And the scheme, which is designed to make non-carbon-emitting energy production competitive, is in its very conception ludicrous, as the most efficient production of emission-free energy, nuclear power, is illegal in Australia. If there were nuclear power in Australia, there would be no purpose in having such a scheme, as nuclear power is practically emission-free.

Pollution around the world, from coal ash, gasoline exhaust and many other pollutants would be vastly reduced in a nuclear world, saving about 2 million lives a year.  Global warming would be massively mitigated, and the attention of world governments could be more readily directed to other pressing concerns, such as poverty and hunger.  Which, by the way, are much more easily alleviated with a source of clean, reliable and conflict-free power. 

I am not suggestion that nuclear power can single-handedly solve the world's problems.  But it is galling to me when something extraordinarily useful and productive is being ignored, or worse, treated as it were a problem.  It doesn't have to be this way.  A better world is possible.