For the past several weeks, America’s preeminent prophet of nuclear energy doom has been touring Japan. He says that Fukushima Daiichi is an accident still-in-progress, with the greatest potential for disaster being the spent fuel pool (SFP) of unit #4. (1) His prolific panderings have precious little real-world evidence to support them, but the Japanese Press and many politicians treat him as an expert voice to be reckoned with. But, don’t think he’s doing it out of the kindness of his heart. His latest book on Fukushima skyrocketed to the top of the Japanese non-fiction best-seller list last spring, and he’s surely receiving consultation fees for his current tour of appearances. Technically his company, Fairwinds Energy Education, is not-for-profit. However, one can be sure that he’s paying himself handsomely out of the windfall of money Fairwinds is receiving from Japan. Preaching that Nuclear Judgment Day is an ongoing possibility has become a lucrative endeavor.
But, the money he’s making in Japan isn’t the issue of greatest importance. It’s that he’s given equal expert billing with reputable professionals and organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency! If it were merely the Japanese Press presenting him as a “balancing” voice to counter Japan’s nuclear community, we might dismiss what he is doing as yet another antinuclear activist seeking fifteen minutes in the sun. However, he has been given audience by a goodly number of lawmakers from Japan’s Diet in Tokyo! They take him SERIOUSLY!
During his trip to Japan in late August and early September, Gundersen met with Diet members, lawyers and citizens’ groups to share his notions concerning the F. Daiichi situation, primarily focusing on the on-going fears relative to unit #4 SFP. In a Kyoto public presentation, Gundersen said, “The spent-nuclear-fuel pool at Fukushima No. 1’s unit 4 remains a sleeping dragon. The situation and possibility of a fuel pool fire in reactor 4 in the days (immediately) after the (March 2011) quake was the reason the U.S. government recommended that the evacuation zone be (set at) 80 km.”(1) The statement itself is grossly misleading. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman speculated to America’s Congress that #4 SFP was dry on March 16, 2011, and that fuel bundles in the unit #2 SFP were protruding out of the water. In addition, not actually knowing what was happening at the plant, combined with America’s 50 mile emergency planning zone philosophy, Washington naively ordered all Americans within 50 miles (80 kilometers) to get out of Dodge. Did Gundersen mention that in July of 2011 the NRC said they over-reacted and the American evacuation was unnecessary? It seems he did not.
Undaunted, “Apocalyptic Arnie” added that America’s Brookhaven laboratories did a study on a hypothetical SFP fire in 1997 which would cause the permanent evacuation of a 50 mile radius.(1) However, the study itself says nothing about an evacuation radius, only that near-by evacuations would be prudent if the assumed fire took place at an actual nuke. Further, in 2003 the NRC pointed out that a Zirconium fire (1100oC ignition point) was a highly unlikely event. Further, the assumption of releasing between 10% and 100% of the contained fission products was just plain wrong. The NRC states that these over-estimations and were off by as much as an order of magnitude (factor of ten). Further, the study assumed no human intervention to mitigate the postulated event.(2) In other words, Gundersen intentionally misrepresented the content of the Brookhaven study, and conveniently neglected to say anything about the NRC’s critical appraisal of the report. To make matters worse, he stretched the truth even further by saying, “The Fukushima plant’s reactor 4 (pool) has 1,500 fuel bundles. That’s more cesium than was released into the atmosphere from all of the nuclear bombs ever exploded, (which total) more than 700 over a period of 30 years. That’s also why the U.S. recommended an evacuation with an 80 km radius.”(1) A complete fabrication! This was not why America recommended an 80km evacuation radius. It had nothing to do with nuclear weapon associations. But, it seems believable in Japan where the Hiroshima Syndrome(3) holds sway. Confusion between reactors and bombs is commonplace in the island nation, and Apocalyptic Arnie is exploiting it to the maximum extent possible.
But, he doesn’t stop there! Gunderson continues, “I told Tepco that while I realized they hoped and believed that there will always be water in the nuclear fuel pool, I had to ask whether or not they had (already prepared and stationed) any chemicals to put out a nuclear fuel pool fire in the event they were wrong. Tepco’s response was that there was nothing in the fuel pool that could burn, a statement I find appalling.”(1) For someone touted as a nuclear expert, that is a stupendously stupid statement. The heat generated by spent fuel drops dramatically over the course of time. Yes, at the immediate point of reactor shutdown decay heat is 7% of full power. An hour later, it’s about 1.5%. At the end of one day, it’s below 1%. After 10 days, it’s about 0.3%. This sort of heat-generating reduction continues for at least 50 years (the radiological lifetime of 99% of the contained fission fragments, by volume). The “hottest” fuel bundle in SFP #4 has been out of the reactor for nearly two years and its current decay heat rate is in the 0.01% range! Further, if all the water in SFP #4 suddenly vanished and the staff at F. Daiichi did nothing, the fuel cells would be exposed to open atmosphere and cool rapidly via natural convection. In other words the fuel bundle’s present heat production would never get them hot enough to ignite the Zirconium cladding. It’s doubtful that the heat being generated at this point would boil water. Apocalyptic Arnie’s response to Tepco is in-itself appalling and patently inexcusable for someone ballyhooed to be an expert of repute!
Now, here’s the truly depressing part…The Japanese Press and many government officials find Gundersen’s sale of fear-laden Fukushima snake-oil worthy of serious consideration. Prior to 3/11/11, there was absolutely no public education in Japan on nuclear power plants, nuclear safety, or the realities of radioactive decay. Nothing! Even teaching about the aftermath of Hiroshima/Nagasaki has been out of the schools for three decades. The only nuclear and/or radiological education to be found was on the university level, and merely for those aspiring to be part of what is known as Japan’s “nuclear village”. Japan was, and for the most part still is, a nation plagued by abject nuclear and radiological ignorance. Because of the rampant fear resulting from confusion between reactors and bombs, Japan’s people are severely suffering the psychological distress spawned by the Hiroshima Syndrome. Because of ignorance, a foreign street corner prophet of nuclear energy doom is given free license to line his pockets with Japanese yen.