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First the Quake, Then the Lies
And with the major malfunction at the Fukushima nuclear power plant comes the lies . . .
That’s the way it’s always been when it comes to nuclear technology: deception has always been a central element in the push for it.
As desperate efforts were made Friday to keep coolant flowing -- to prevent a nuclear meltdown -- “radioactive vapor” was being released from the plant, reported the Associated Press. It quoted Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano as saying the amount of radioactivity was “very small.”
And it “would not affect the environment or human health,” added AP.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear industry trade group, presented a page devoted to the post-earthquake situation involving nuclear plants in Japan which opened with pronouncement: “The Japanese prime minister and the industry’s safety agency say all plants in the country are safe and that there has been no radiation release from any reactors. Utilities there are managing issues with cooling water systems at the Fukushima plant . . .”
To sweeten its tale further, the NEI page featured a quote from the chief PR man at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Eliot Brenner: “In fact, all nuclear power plants are built to withstand environmental hazards, including earthquakes. Even those plants that are located outside of areas with extensive seismic activity are designed for safety in the event of such a natural disaster."
And CNN Friday posed this question in a dispatch on its website: “Do nuclear plants have failsafe systems?” The answer: “Yes. They are designed with an inter-connected system of fail-safes that ensure there are multiple ways of counteracting a malfunction.”
In fact, like any machinery, nuclear plants can -- and regularly do -- undergo accidents.
The big difference with atomic energy: the malfunctions can end up killing large numbers of people and impact on other life as well.
If the attempt now going on in Japan to keep the coolant flowing fails, a loss-of-coolant or meltdown accident could occur -- a disaster that could have catastrophic impacts on Japan and much of the world.
Radioactive material is used in a nuclear plant as a heat source -- to boil water and produce steam that turns a turbine that generates electricity. Huge amounts of radioactive material are made to go through a chain reaction, a process in which atomic particles bombard the nuclei of atoms, causing them to break up and generate heat.
But to keep the nuclear reaction in check -- to prevent the material from overheating -- vast amounts of coolant are required, up to a million gallons of water a minute in the most common nuclear plants that have been built (“light water” reactors). That is why nuclear plants are sited along rivers and bays, to use the water as coolant.
If the water which cools the reactor “core” -- its 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of radioactive fuel load -- stops flowing, the “emergency core cooling system” must send water in. If it fails, a loss-of-coolant or meltdown accident can occur.
In such an accident, the core of nuclear fuel, which in less than a minute can reach 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, burns through the cement bottom of the nuclear plant and bores into the earth. This is what U.S. nuclear scientists have dubbed the “China syndrome” -- based on a nuclear plant on their side of the planet undergoing an accident seemingly sending its white-hot core in the direction of China.
In fact, the radioactive core doesn’t -- in any location -- go to China but it descends to the water table underlying a plant. Then, in a violent reaction, molten core and cold water combine, creating steam explosions and releasing a plume of radioactive poisons.
The problem at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility is that one of its six reactors lost all its power as a result of the earthquake. Back-up diesel generators didn’t work, so battery power became necessary to keep coolant water flowing. If the battery power is depleted and electric power is not otherwise restored, a loss-of-coolant accident or meltdown would ensue.
“The emergency shutdown has been conducted but the process of cooling down the reaction is currently not going as planned,” explained Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano, Friday.
Thus Japan declared a state of “atomic power emergency” and people living within three kilometers of the Fukushima facility were advised to evacuate.
But if the coolant flow is not maintained and a loss-of-coolant accident with a “breach of containment” occurs, people way beyond three kilometers around Fukushima would be impacted. The radioactive releases in the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident affected the entire northern hemisphere, as a book published last year by the New York Academy of Sciences documents. And Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, authored by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, Dr. Vassily Nesterenko and Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, finds that medical records between 1986, the year of the accident, and 2004 reflect 985,000 deaths as a result of the radioactivity released. Most of the deaths were in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, but others were spread through the many other countries the radiation from Chernobyl struck. [See Also: book reviews included in the Chernobyl section --ratitor]
Where the radioactivity spreads after a nuclear plant meltdown is largely a function of where winds take the radioactivity and of the rain that causes it to fall out.
Perhaps the biggest lie ever regarding nuclear power has been the claim by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- created to boost and somehow at the same time regulate nuclear power -- that perhaps 4,000 people will die as a result of Chernobyl.
The Japanese nuclear crisis comes amid a global drive to “revive” nuclear power. After the Chernobyl disaster, good sense -- and the survival instinct -- caused people all over the world to say no to new nuclear power plants.
A leader in this is U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a nuclear scientist. He came to his DOE post after being director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, part of the U.S. government’s chain of national nuclear laboratories. Some got their start during the Manhattan Project of World War II creating atomic weaponry. All have since pushed commercial nuclear power, too.
In a speech last month to President Obama’s “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future,” Chu declared: “The Obama administration believes that nuclear energy has an important role to play as America moves to a clean energy future.” He declared that nuclear power is “carbon free energy" -- disregarding the reality that the “nuclear cycle,” from mining and milling to fuel enrichment and so on, contributes to global warming. And he spoke, in his February 12th address, of “upgrades to our existing reactor fleet” and a move to “speed the development of next generation reactors.”
Japan’s jump into nuclear power is especially ironic considering it was on the receiving end of the bombs built by the Manhattan Project. Furthermore, it is situated on a string of volcanic islands vulnerable to earthquakes. Of course, Japan is not alone on this score: in the U.S., the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility in California was built less than three miles from the Hosgri earthquake fault.
Nuclear power plants are, in fact, life-threatening wherever they are -- they represent the most dangerous way to boil water ever devised.
Wind, solar and geothermal energy and other forms of safe, clean power would not cause massive deadly damage because of an earthquake.
But don’t tell that to the atomic Pinocchios pushing nuclear technology.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has focused on investigative reporting on energy and environmental issues for more than 40 years. He is the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (www.envirovideo.com) and the author of numerous books.
Copyright © 2011 Karl Grossman