November 29, 2013

Last week, the staff at F. Daiichi transferred 22 unused fuel bundles from unit #4 spent fuel pool (SFP) and loaded them into a common storage facility 100 meters away. The process went without a hitch. However, America’s provocative antinuclear voice, Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education, says the dangerous part is yet to come. In fact, he assures us that there will be accidents during the removal of the irradiated spent fuel bundles which will release so much radiation that workers will have to evacuate.

In the grossly misleading video of November 15 entitled “Remove TEPCO Before Removing Fuel”, (1) Gundersen states that the company’s attention to detail with spent fuel removal will be for naught. He says Tepco is incompetent, “outgunned”, and has no commitment to informational transparency. In the video Gundersen says, “Tepco has never been committed to getting information to the public in an accurate and timely manner.” He adds that the staff at F. Daiichi hasn’t the expertise and they don’t have the money to do the job right. Gundersen calls for a complete stoppage of the fuel transfer process, a replacement of Tepco staff of qualified fuel transfer operators because they are “not engineers”. Further, he demands “citizen oversight to make sure the job is done correctly.” He goes on to say this won’t happen because “The nuclear priesthood will circle the wagons and not tell us everything that is going on [because they are not] concerned about the dose Fukushima Prefecture is getting and the health effects being hidden.”

Gundersen asserts that the irradiated spent fuel in the pool are brittle and the racks holding them have been deformed to the point that the bundles will not be capable of removal without breaking them. He says, “I assure you there are not many surfaces that are vertical and horizontal anymore.” Gundersen believes there must be rack deformities due to the large chunks of debris that fell on them from the explosion of March 15, 2011. He then adds “and we know that after the accident they boiled violently,” which he says must have warped the plates. Finally, because of small debris pieces that he says must have worked their way between the fuel bundles and the rack side-walls, the removal will create so much friction that the bundles will “likely snap”, releasing enough radiation to force the staff to abandon the operation.

This is absolute balderdash. First, for neutrons to cause embrittlement, Zirconium would need to have the property of neutron absorption. Steel can absorb neutrons and become somewhat embrittled over decades of bombardment at full power operation, but not Zirconium metal doesn’t do that. Fuel bundles are a grouping of Zirconium tubes filled with uranium fuel pellets. The reason Zirconium is used as the structural metal is because it is essentially transparent to neutrons. Neutrons pass through it like light passes through a window pane. In fact Zirconium itself is described as a “strong, malleable, ductile, lustrous, grayish-white metal…resistant to corrosion…and very poor at absorbing neutrons” (2) Hardly something easily embrittled by neutrons.

There is a kernel of truth with what Gundersen says, but he confabulates it into statements that bear no resemblance to the seed it came from. Zirconium can be embrittled if immersed in water and heated to around 900oC. If this happens, the metal strips Oxygen atoms from the water molecules in the process known as oxidation. However, none of the spent fuel bundles in F. Daiichi’s unit #4 SFP have ever been heated to more than about 300oC. Further, the alleged boiling of the pool never happened. Japanese pilots flying over the pool said the pool was never empty and it wasn’t boiling. For Gundersen to assert to the contrary is nothing more than the intentional perpetuation of a myth convenient to his argument.

Thus, Gundersen’s claim of the unit #4 fuel bundles being brittle enough to easily “snap” completely collapses. In addition, his claims of the F. Daiichi staff being incompetent and Tepco not being trustworthy enough to tell us what is really happening are nothing more than rhetoric. Antinuclear pundits have long-maintained that Tepco, and everyone working for them, is incompetent. Finally, his reference to the fictitious “nuclear priesthood” is merely an appeal to a time-worn main-stay of the antinuclear persuasion since Three Mile Island in 1979. It does not exist, never existed, and never will. If there is a “priesthood” with respect to nuclear energy, it is comprised of the leaders of the antinuclear demographic, one of which is Gundersen.

Arnie Gundersen’s statements are clearly the irresponsible rantings of a prophet of nuclear energy doom. He should be given the same credibility as a hooded figure standing on the street-corner hold a sign proclaiming “The End is Near”.


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