March 19, 2013

Much ado about nearly nothing hit Japan over the past 24 hours, and it is the lead story in all Japanese Press. An electrical malfunction in a switchboard for four spent fuel pools (SFP) at Fukushima Daiichi stopped cooling water flow. SFPs for units #1 and #4 was lost at 7pm on Monday evening, but were returned to operation by 10am Tuesday morning (Japan time). The cooling for the pools in unit #3 and the “common” spent fuel storage facility is expected to be resumed by 8pm Tuesday night. Tepco announced the problem within two hours of discovery and the Nuclear Regulatory Authority confirmed it an hour later. Tepco crews will investigate the cause after recovering the remaining cooling systems. Tepco says it was probably faulty switchgear, but cannot say for sure, at this point.

The decay heat level being generated in the pools is so low, two years after the Fukushima accident, that it would take weeks to months of a complete loss of cooling to any of the pools before evaporation would uncover any of the fuel bundles. Unit #4 pool, which contains the largest number of bundles, and some of which are producing the highest level of decay heat, increased in temperature from ~25oC to 30oC over its 15 hour cooling loss. All others experienced considerably less temperature increase. The technical specification (upper limit) for SFP temperature is 65oC; this is the number the Japanese press and some politicians are fixated on. Actual fuel tube damage (deformation) cannot happen until temperatures exceed more than 100 degrees Celsius. Hypothetically, the fuel’s Zirconium tubes can “burn” (actually, like a large fireworks sparkler) when temperatures reach 900oC. However, before this could ever happen, all water in an SFP would have to evaporate away. Plus, the natural convection of heat would somehow have to be stopped for a long period of time to reach those high temperatures because the dry bundles would necessarily lose heat to the surrounding environment, and then only with a few isolated locations inside the hypothetically dry pool.

In other words, the worst-case scenario is so unlikely that it approaches the impossible…much ado about nearly nothing!

But this has not stopped the Japanese Press from blowing it completely out of proportion and a few lawmakers from trying to make political hay out of it. A majority of the Press stories focus on the nigh-impossible worst-case scenario, but neglect to put in in any kind of real-world perspective. They point to the 65oC tech-spec and make it sound like radioactive contamination will soon be spewed from the pools and everyone should cower in fear. One newspaper went so far as to allege the absolutely impossible. Japan Today posted, “Even used nuclear fuel becomes dangerous if its temperature is allowed to rise uncontrollably to the point where a self-sustaining critical reaction begins, causing a meltdown.” However, temperature alone cannot cause criticality. The fuel must be immersed in water in order to slow down neutrons enough to cause a chain reaction. No water equals no criticality. There will be no meltdown either, because that needs more than 2500oC.

And what has all of this vacuous hoopla done? Japan Times lets everyone know how frightened the Fukushima evacuees are. A 27-year-old housewife in the city of Fukushima said, “I am very worried because I have a baby. I want the information to be disclosed as quickly as possible because it will be difficult to evacuate promptly if (an emergency occurs) at night.” Takashi Haga, a 49-year-old office worker in the city, said, “It revived the memory of the nuclear accident two years ago.I thought it was under control.” NHK World reports that a university student in Fukushima city said the outage itself causes her serious concern because such problems could seriously affect residents. For the moment, fear of a spent fuel pool catastrophe has compounded fear of radiation in the minds of evacuees, and the Press is letting everyone know.

Meanwhile, politicians flock to the issue and make headlines. In Tokyo, Industry Minister Motegi said the issue is serious and he has ordered Tepco to fix the problem as quickly as possible. Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “We will make utmost efforts to prepare alternative methods to cool the pools in consideration of a worst-case scenario.” (Mainichi Shimbun)  Suga makes a wholly politically-expedient statement over a worst-case scenario that will not happen. One local official, Mayor Masahide Matsumoto of Katsurao village said, “We will be in trouble unless Tokyo Electric Power Co. properly investigates the cause (of the outage) and restores power.” Statements like this from public officials only fuel the fears of innocent people.

It makes me want to chew my foot off!  For two years we have been faced with fear of trivial amounts of radiation exposure in Japan. Now, it’s fear of essentially harmless spent fuel pools. And who’s to blame? Tepco? No. The Press and policians? Partially. I lay the primary blame on the international prophets of nuclear energy doom that have filled the antinuclear Press of Japan with ridiculous visions of Apocalyptic cataclysm concerning spent fuel pools for two years, the most culpable of which is probably America’s Arnie Gundersen. From a phantom “teetering” of reactor building #4 just because the 3/15/11 explosion caused one of the non-load-bearing outer walls to bow out a few inches, to making ridiculous speculations on a radiological release more than 100 times worse than Hiroshima/Nagasaki, these prophets should be held accountable for the on-going, completely unnecessary psychological damage they have inflicted on the unsuspecting people of Fukushima.