Today’s bottom-line information is that the rate of decay heat generation from the damaged fuel inside Fukushima Units 1, 2 & 3 continues to dissipate as a result of the natural process of radioactive decay. Unfortunately, the news waves are a-buzz with a new scare story. It’s purported that the zirconium metal in the fuel cells located in the spent fuel pools can explode. The spent fuel cells at Units 3 and 4 are not, nor never have they ever been in a condition that would cause a zirconium explosion or fire (for that matter). Zirconium (alloy 4) is the primary element in the tubing (cladding) that contains the uranium fuel pellets. It is entirely non-flammable, no matter how hot it gets. It melts at roughly 1850 degrees C (~3330 F). There is no possibility of a zirconium explosion at these temperatures, when it’s in it’s metallic form (even if melted). However, zirconium powder, sometimes used in camera flash bulbs, has been known to detonate, but only in it’s powdered state and in the chemical form found in flash bulbs. Zirconium is not a natural explosive, just as the nitrogen you are now breathing can’t explode. But, that same nitrogen, chemically transformed, becomes the critical element in TNT and nitroglycerine. No one would ever say nitrogen can explode, and by the same token no one should say zirconium can explode.
After a bit of Googling, I think I found where this total fabrication originated. Commondreams.org carries a report by Karl Grossman, a notorious nuclear energy basher and author of the book Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. He’s an admitted lifetime anti-nuke who’s notorious for fabricating so-called “facts” and confabulating them into fearsome scenarios. In the Common Dreams article, he alleges that the zirconium cladding in nuclear fuel is explosive because the zirconium powder in flash bulbs can explode. Absolute rubbish! Utter confabulation.
This seems a good place to define a term I’ve used liberally; confabulation. The dictionary definition is “professing idle chat as fact.” (Webster’s) But the version being used by the scare-mongers being cited as Fukushima experts is far more insidious. They take a kernel of truth, then twist and manipulate the context until the conclusion bears no resemblance to the original context. More often than not, they place the conclusion in a new, unrelated context that fulfills a personal or political agenda. Grossman’s statement that Zirconium in the spent fuel at Fukushima is explosive because light bulbs explode is pure confabulation, which fully supports his unswerving anti-nuclear bigotry. Unfortunately, this form of misleading and dangerous rhetoric is all-too-common with confirmed, unswerving nuclear bashers.
How can the public, largely naïve of of such shenanigans, know when they are reading or hearing the rantings of a false prophet of nuclear doom? That’s a tough one. I offer two critical cautions…
- Never take a blog’s information as fact. This does not mean all blogs concerning Fukushima are confabulated drivel. Many bloggers are trying to get it right, and a few have some serious, reputable credentials which allow them to make firm, factual statements. But, most bloggers wouldn’t know a neutron from a ping-pong ball. Don’t trust blogs, and you can’t go wrong.
- Check out where news reports get their information. Yesterday, an Emailer (allegedly a nuclear supporter) besieged me with questions about my statements on the spent fuel situation at Fukushima, the completely inflammable materials in spent fuel, and where I got the info for my update concerning these issues. I liked the Emailer’s approach, and willingness to take the time to ask. I pointed out the report about the spent fuel pool at Unit #3 not being empty came from a TIME article. I then listed many (but not all) of the sources of news I trusted. Remember, the reputable science information sources, like Science Daily and Scientific American, have only begun reporting on Fukushima in the last 48 hours. Unfortunately, the news media reports prior to this have been rife with confabulatory speculation, and mostly not containing much info you can hang your hat on. I’m trying to pull the good stuff out of the confusing morass of largely fictitious information, in order for the world to have at least one source of reliable, fact-based information on Fukushima, unaffiliated with any pro- or anti-nuclear organization and devoid of political or financial agenda.
Back to Fukushima…
Since yesterday, there has been a lot of focus on contradictory statements between the Japanese Company that owns Fukushima (TEPCO) and the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) concerning whether or not any of the spent fuel pools are, or have been, dry. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that TEPCO reports are quite accurate, albeit way too few and far between for the news media. As pointed out in the March 16 entry of this web page, the Japanese have a very poor communication record with the press. It also seems their government’s communication flow to the rest of the world is woefully inadequate. Regardless of this informational ineptitude, what they have shared with us is turning out to be correct. TEPCO maintains the spent fuel pools are not dry, and strongly implies that they may never have been dry. On the other hand, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko has stated that one or more of the pools is definitely dry. Either one or the other has it wrong, or they are both incorrect. Let’s assume the third possibility is wrong. There is a subtle but significant clue to the answer as to which one may be right. Jaczko is quoted by the Associated Press to have said, “My understanding is there is no water in the spent fuel pool. I hope my information is wrong.” (ref.3) Would he say he hopes his information is incorrect if he actually knew what the answer was? In other words, he’s speculating! As stated here in previous updates, the NRC ought to have taken a severe and firm lesson out of the Three Mile Island informational debacle. Never, ever, ever speculate! The senior NRC officials in office during the TMI/Chernobyl period learned it, but it seems the new breed running the NRC hasn’t.
To continue the technical update…the operating staff a Fukushima is doing everything humanly possible to keep the situations as stable as they can. From my operational experience, I’d speculate they are doing one hell of a job, given the completely un-anticipatable cause and severity of the situation nature foisted on them. In addition, work to string the emergency power cabling from the undamaged electric supply grid to the stricken power plant complex continues. It was hoped this would have been completed by now, but their original time table seems to have been a bit optimistic. Remember, they are trying to string the cabling through the most incredible scene of devastation imaginable. But, it will get done…of this there should be no reasonable doubt. Other than that, there are really no new technical things to write about.
When the news media starts losing new information about their top news story, one they have already promised will last for weeks, if not longer…they go looking elsewhere for their headlines. This has already begun. The Grossman zirconium item is one of the first examples. There are numerous dedicated groups waiting in the wings to fill the information void, and they are all notorious nuclear energy opponents. Two prime examples are Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Such organizations have never said anything positive about nuclear energy, and have strongly implied they never will. Their reports of the dangers of nuclear energy are always rife with fabrication and confabulation. Be skeptical of their statements, and always keep in mind their anti-nuclear political agendas. Besides, if they were authentic environmental groups, they would favor nuclear energy.
There is also a small army of prophets of nuclear energy apocalypse, with two who have been mentioned on these pages (Grossman and Amory Lovins) as merely the tip of a substantial iceberg. Whether or not their entirely predictable statements and allegations have any truth to them, won’t matter to the news media. As long as the Press can attribute prophecies of nuclear doom to someone other than themselves, they will do it. It’s good for business.
Regardless, the War Against the Atom III (Fukushima) has begun. The intense battle will soon be joined. Be skeptical. Check references. Do your homework. The ultimate outcome of this confrontation rests with each of us.
- Grossman, Karl; “Behind the Hydrogen Explosion at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant”; Commondreams.org; http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/03/12-3
- “U.S. Says plant’s spent fuel rods dry; Japan says no”; Associated Press via The News Herald; http://www.news-herald.com/articles/2011/03/16/news/nh3775931.txt
- “Nuclear crisis a tangle of ominous, hopeful signs”; Associated Press via The News Herald; http://www.news-herald.com/articles/2011/03/16/news/nh3776264.txt
- Check out this Weather Channel video on natural radiation… http://www.weather.com/outlook/videos/radiation-is-an-everyday-thing-20063