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Fukushima Daiichi Syndrome

The events unfolding in northern Japan in March 2011 have so many links to the Principle of Imminent Collapse that they are all difficult to count. Every Engineer knows that the there are Earth movements that result in sudden releases of pent-up energy that we call earthquakes. While it is not wise to place critical systems such as nuclear reactors on the fault zones of the earth’s crust, in Japan that is a near impossibility. As it turns out, the proximity to a tectonic fault is not the most critical factor in the placement of a nuclear power plant.

The factors that control the relative safety of a reactor are the human ones that pre-date any catastrophe that might befall such an installation. Previous discussions of the Principle of Imminent Collapse note Hubris as a major contributor to the magnitude of any collapse. When the utility companies decide that they want a nuclear plant and the politicians fall into line to support the plan, they create the beginnings of the Domino Effect where all the parties are aligned and maximum damage is able to occur because the opposition was marginalized. Soon Engineers are brought into the picture. Even the ones who initially might object to the placement and design of such a facility are ultimately replaced or are brought into line by assigning them to make a plan that CAN work.

Perfect plan seldom remain perfect. That has been immortalized in the line “the best laid plans of mice and men, do oft times go astray.” The six reactors of Fukushima Daiichi were about 240 miles from the epicenter of the 9.0 earthquake that shook the northern prefectures of Japan. Had the quake centered closer to the coast, the outcome may actually been far less catastrophic. The tsunami that was generated by the seafloor movements was the bigger culprit. Had the quake been close to shore the wave of water would not have been as great and it would have traveled eastward away from the coastal reactor site. The plant designers did anticipate a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and built to handle that event. They did consider tsunami waves in their designs, but did not consider the combination of the two. They did consider back up diesel power for the cooling systems and battery back up to that, but had not thought beyond the “what then” scenario if the backup systems could not be maintained and the primary ones were still off-line. It seems that they ran out of paper to print the last chapter of the playbook. The Japanese people and indeed the whole world were left hanging for what would happen then. Someone surely said in one language or another, “THAT happening is highly unlikely.”

Then there is the Undiscovered Lie. Few if any major catastrophic failures occur truly unexpectedly. There are and were warning bells that went unheeded in the years, months and days before the calamity. The reactors’ design had been criticized as dangerous for years beforehand. The operators of the plant had been cited for safety violations. The “big” quake had been preceded by large but smaller ones in the days before it struck.

A large number of proponents of nuclear power cite that it has been safer than other sources of electricity. Hydro-electric dams fail killing people downstream. Coal-fired plants exhaust CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere and generate large quantities of fly-ash that must be impounded. Several fly-ash impoundment posts have failed over the years killing people too. Coal miners die digging the coal out of the ground and must be considered as causalities too. On the other side of the Equals sign we must consider the magnitude of possible disaster and the long-term counter-indicators.

If a dam fails, the impact is only in the lower reaches of the river. While that might be significant in terms of human lives and property loss, it is still an event that is limited in time and space. Coal mine deaths are individual events and are constrained to only those people who actually go into the mines. The CO2 and other atmospheric pollutants cause a greater and widespread impact, but their ‘half-life’ can be measured in decades, if at all. On the other hand, the nuclear power plant that fails may kill dozens of people in the following weeks, hundreds in the following months, and tens of thousands in the following years. With radioactive half-lives measured in centuries, we can have tiny ‘butterfly effect’ impacts on our bodies and the biosphere in which we live. The direct cause-effect relationship between death and the radiation of a failed reactor may not be able to be measured or believed, but it will nonetheless be there.

"Past performance is no guarantee of future returns," is the warning placed on every offer to sell you an investment, a stock or a bond. Then the purveyor continues to tell you just how lucrative the investment is and how you must get in on the ground floor to make your fortune with the investment. The same principle applies to nuclear reactors for electricity generation. Just because the US has not had its core meltdown or other nuclear catastrophe yet doesn't mean that it will not ever happen. Four decades of not having a disaster only means that we are four decades closer to it occurring. The reactors and the plants where they are located are 40 years older than they were when new. Every part is incrementally less reliable than before. Many parts are not even able to be inspected, nor would we recognize what the imminent failure might be. Some unfortunate combination of conditions is surely what will bring about the failure.

Then there is the issue of not knowing what to do with the spent fuel from the reactors. The quantity of spent fuel in the pools at the Fukushima Daiichi facility is greater than the amount in the reactor cores. As my solid waste management professor as PSU used to say, “what we do with solid waste is governed by two factors: Habit and Convenience.” It seems that as long as there was space available in the spent fuel pools, that is where they put the stuff. It accumulated there because they had nowhere else to put it. Ignoring the long-term implications was a fatal flaw in the design of the plant from Day-One.

I am not the one to make predictions of actual events at specific dates and times. The conditions that lead to failures are always present, so says the Principle of Imminent Collapse. What we must do is observe the known factors and consider what would happen should those conditions escalate to a major event. Nuclear Engineers learned how to not burn down a reactor building with a lighted candle with the Browns Ferry incident in 1975. They learned that the alleged "China Syndrome" was too easily created with the Three Mile Island incident. And we became acutely aware of what would happen if there was a full scale meltdown with the Chernobyl incident.

The question to ask ourselves is: can we make do with a domestic dead-zone with a radius of 50 miles encompassing 7,854 square miles of real estate anywhere in this country. If Three Mile Island had gone critical, all of Southeastern Pennsylvania from Reading to beyond Gettysburg would have been uninhabitable for the next 1,000 years. Assuming that adequate time was available to evacuate all the people who would actually go, and no unwilling loss of life resulted, who would pay for the tens of thousands of useless homes, cars and other possessions that would be contaminated? Somewhere around 2 million people would have been displaced. Such a dead-zone would be unprecedented in the American experience.

There is no possible contingency plan for what we would do in the emergency or at any time in the near or long term future. lists about 100 reactor sites in the United States along with their operating histories. What is patently obvious is that it does not take an earthquake or tsunami, hurricane or tornado, terrorist or saboteur to initiate a catastrophic event. It only takes waiting too long to identify and resolve a small defect in the system and the plant and the surrounding landscape becomes useless. This mechanism of failure is assured by the Principle of Imminent Collapse. It will be a Nudge that precipitates the failure.


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