Friday, April 15, 2011

Fukushima’s future blueprints are incomplete, danger persists

Decommissioning plans must wait for stable reactor conditions

Fukushima_symbolThe world’s biggest nuclear energy firms are lining up with proposals to clean up a historically huge radioactive mess at the Fukushima, Japan, reactor site. There six reactors in various degrees of damaged condition are presenting new engineering challenges on a daily basis punctuated by earthquake aftershocks and the continuing threat of new tsunamis.

At the same time, the Japanese and U.S. news media are publishing stories about the early stages of the crisis which may partially explain why NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko issued a call for Americans to evacuate to a distance of 50 miles from the site.

Control of Fukushima reactor Units 1-3 is key with the most urgent priority the need to keep the reactor fuel assemblies covered with water. The reactor pressure vessel for Unit 1 is being filled with nitrogen, an inert gas, that drives out any oxygen which could sustain combustion of free hydrogen. It isn't known if there are plans to do the same with Units 2 & 3.

At the spent fuel pool on top of the badly damaged secondary containment building for Unit 4, a stationary pump truck is pouring 100-200 tons of water a day on the pool. Even at that rate, rapid evaporation is taking place that threatens to uncover the spent fuel assemblies in the pool. Some are quite hot having only recently been removed from the reactor.

The radioactive water from the Unit 4 spent fuel pool spills down to the ground where TEPCO is now setting up measures to try to contain it. The emergency pumping of fresh water to all four reactors will likely continue through June according to utility officials. This process of pumping in cool water and venting radioactive steam is called “feed and bleed.”

Decommissioning rivals may join forces

Two giant nuclear consortium are forming to manage the cleanup of the Fukushima site, remove of all reactor fuel, and eventually make it a much less dangerous place. The first consortium is composed of General Electric and Hitachi with support from Exelon and Bechtel. The second group is led by Toshiba which is partnered with the U.S. branch of Areva, the French state-owned nuclear giant. Babcock & Wilcox and The Shaw Group are part of the Toshiba team.

The cost of decommissioning the six reactors could be as much as $12 billion and take more than a decade to complete. Industry experts agree this won’t be an ordinary job to tearing down a safe and cold reactor. For instance, to remove the spent fuel from Unit 4, a giant superstructure will have to be built around the devastated secondary containment structure to safely load the hot fuel assemblies underwater into special transportation casks.

The job is so big that the two consortium are reported to be having exploratory talks to combine forces. So far TEPCO, the utility that owns the site, hasn't said how it plans to pay for the cleanup. The Japanese government is said to be considering a form of receivership for the Fukushima site which would allow taxpayer funds to cover cleanup costs and pay compensation to people forced to evacuate their homes within the 13 km government defined danger zone around the plants.

The government is expanding the evacuation area working with people in so-called "hot spots" where radioactive cesium ejected from the reactors has been found at levels above the danger limits. The C-137 has a half life of 30 years which may present long term management problems for these hot spots.

Does TEPCO have a plan?

While the longer term plans to clean up the site are forming, it isn’t clear that TEPCO is able to do much more that try to keep the reactors stable on a day-to-day basis. The utility has moved the emergency diesel generators from their original location to one that is 30 meters higher than the sea. The tsunami that swept over the plant site is now said to have been 15 meters high or more than two times the height of the sea wall meant to stop them.

Temperatures inside some of the reactor pressure vessels are still a cause for concern. On April 14 TEPCO reported that Unit 1 had temperatures of over 200 Celsius and that it was believed that 1.65 meters of the 4 meter long fuel assemblies were not covered by water. TEPCO reports little progress in raising the water level there despite 20 days of pumping water into the damaged reactor.

What did the NRC know and when?

U.S. NRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko called the situation at Fukushima “static,” but not “stable.” In testimony April 12 to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Jaczko said “significant additional problems” could still occur at Fukushima with the first four reactors. Units 5 & 6 are in cold shutdown.

However, the NRC has had to back off from other statements it’s officials have made about conditions at Fukushima. The New York Times reported April 14 that Jaczko said explosions in the secondary containment structures might have been caused by hydrogen from spent fuel pools rather than from exposed fuel assemblies and oxidation of zirconium cladding from inside reactor pressure vessels.

Second, the newspaper reported that Jaczko had said the NRC believed, based on an agency risk assessment, that there was a plausible scenario in which the core in one or more of the reactors had melted through the pressure vessel and made its way into the dry well of the primary containment. It is now thought that is not the case based on the kinds of radioactive releases that are being measured outside the reactor building.

No one has been able to look inside any of the reactors since the earthquake March 11 which leaves these issues open to conjecture.

Third, Jaczko had said the NRC believed that the spent fuel pool for Unit 4 was dry, but there is less evidence now that might have happened and the NRC is reportedly less certain that it was ever the case. This early assessment was said to be the basis for the NRC Chairman’s call to evacuate Americans to a 50 mile radius from the plant. There may, it turns out, be other reasons.

Early delays in U.S. Japan cooperation

Despite the second guessing, Jaczko might have had good reason to assume a worst case scenario for radioactive releases at Fukushima in the first days following the earthquake. According to an April 11 report in the Japanese newspaper Daily Yomiuri, the Japanese government and TEPCO rebuffed early offers of help from the U.S. government even as the reactor crisis became more difficult. And they weren’t sharing information with American counterparts in Japan despite an obvious worsening of conditions based on news media reports.

According to the newspaper, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell became alarmed by what the paper calls the “on idle” mode of the Japanese prime minister’s office to unfolding events. Campbell, in a remarkably undiplomatic message, said at the time that if the Japanese government didn’t do more to get the reactors under control, that the U.S. government would call for the mandatory evacuation of all Americans from Japan.

This input from the State Department may have been shared with the White House and NRC’s Jazcko prior to his initial appearance before Congress where he called for the 50 mile evacuation zone for Americans.

Another view is that it may have been a political maneuver to signal to the Japanese that telling U.S. nuclear experts in Japan that "there was no room for them" in the Prime Ministers emergency command center was an unacceptable answer.

We probably won't know the real reasons for some time, but in any case this kind of locking the barn after the horse is gone won't do much to stabilize the reactors.

Status of reactors and control of radioactive water

(NucNet) April 15, 2011 - Water being used to cool the Unit 2 reactor at the Fukushima nuclear plant might be leaking into the trench between the reactor and turbine building, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has said.

The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), transferred about 660 tonnes of highly contaminated wastewater from the Unit 2 turbine building installation trench to a turbine condenser on 13 April 2011. The contaminated water needs to be moved because there is a risk it might continue to leak outside the unit's controlled zone and from there flow into the sea.

Contaminated water has also been found in the turbine hall basements of Units 1 and 3, although its level of radioactivity is much lower than the water at Unit 2.

The total amount of water to be removed is estimated at more than 60,000 tonnes, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.

TEPCO plans to transfer contaminated water to the plant's waste processing facility, but the facility has not yet been made leak-proof. The utility says it does not know when it can start removing water from reactors other than Unit 2.

NISA reported that an earthquake that hit Fukushima prefecture on April 13 had an epicenter 75 km from the Fukushima nuclear power plant and 67 km from Fukushima, but no unusual events have been reported at either facility.

Meanwhile, interim analysis of water from the spent fuel pool of Unit 4 at Fukushima-Daiichi shows higher than normal levels of radiation, which suggests some of the fuel assemblies stored there might be damaged.

TEPCO said analysis of samples collected from the pool on 12 April 2011 showed 220 kilobecquerels per litre (kBq/L) of iodine-131, 88 kBq/L of cesium-134 and 93 kBq/L of cesium-137.

The utility also said the water temperature in the unit 4 SFP had risen to about 90 degrees Celsius, significantly higher than the normal temperature range of 20 to 40 degrees Celsius.

To cool the fuel, workers sprayed almost 200 tonnes of water on the SFP for six hours on Wednesday morning.

The condition of spent fuel in the SFPs at Units 1 and 2 is not known, while at unit 3 TEPCO says it suspects there might be some damage.

Update Saturday April 16, 2011

The Japan Times reported fragments of damaged nuclear fuel assemblies have sunk to the bottoms of three reactors at Fukushima. A scenario exists where they could melt through the pressure vessels if emergency water-pumping operations are seriously disrupted, the Atomic Energy Society of Japan said April 15th.

"It will take at least two or three months ... until the situation of fuel rods is stabilized" said Takashi Sawada, vice chairman of the nuclear group.

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Stop the Sensationalism on MOX Fuel

Guest blog post by Jacques Besnainou, CEO, Areva, Inc

Jacques Besnainou 3I am writing this essay today as a frustrated and fed up reader of nuclear-related stories originated by anti-nuclear organizations. While most recent reporting on the Fukushima reactors has been fair, some quite admirable, the coverage of MOX (mixed oxide) nuclear fuel has been mostly inaccurate and filled with half-truths.

As you may know, one of the reactors at Fukushima used MOX fuel. So what? The situation in Japan was not related to MOX fuel nor has its presence worsened the situation.

Yet, following this event, several anti-nuclear organizations have waged a campaign to spread misconceptions about the fuel and its use to serve their ideological agendas. They seek to discredit the U.S. Department of Energy’s MOX program and stop the completion of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

This project is part of one the world’s most important nonproliferation programs. It seeks to eliminate surplus weapons-grade plutonium under a disarmament agreement with Russia and produce electricity for the benefit of an energy-hungry population. Is it not bizarre that the same organizations opposed to nuclear weapons for decades are now so against the best option for eliminating them?

Enough is enough! I want to share the facts about MOX fuel, because I am confident that you, like me, do not want to be misled.

The debate over MOX fuel is too vital to our national energy security to let false information overwhelm the news coverage. For instance, some reports have suggested that developing MOX fuel creates greater proliferation risk, that it is more dangerous than traditional fuel in the reactor, or that it isn’t cost effective.

The facts about MOX fuel tell a different story.

MOX Fuel Is Safe

mox fuelMOX fuel is not a new technology. Electric utilities have used MOX fuel for decades; it is simply recycled fuel for commercial nuclear plants. Some 40 reactors worldwide use MOX fuel today in five countries (France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Japan).

The first reactor began using MOX fuel in 1972. That means the technology has been tested and improved continuously for nearly 40 years, and international safeguards ensured no proliferation occurred during these four decades. These are the facts.

MOX Has Been Rigorously Tested

Independent safety authorities in five countries have assessed the use of MOX fuel in reactors and determined that it achieves the same safety standards as traditional fuel. Some critics point to the higher plutonium concentration in MOX fuel as reason for concern.

In fact, all nuclear fuel produces plutonium during the fission process. Generating power with MOX fuel safely burns plutonium, significantly reducing the amount requiring safeguards.

MOX Is Cost Effective

As a CEO, I know that our international customers do not use MOX fuel for philanthropic reasons or just to please AREVA. They are focused on their bottom line. The economics for MOX fuel are very sensible when you consider the rising cost of uranium and the challenges of waste disposal, if you do not recycle used fuel.

At AREVA, we respect positions different from our own, but we also value transparency and honest debate, which has not been the case when it comes to report on MOX fuel. Therefore, I encourage you to learn the facts of this issue and come to a reasoned perspective.

In addition, I encourage you to see for yourself. Please go to to sign up for a tour of the Savannah River Site and MOX Project in South Carolina. Or please accept my personal invitation to visit AREVA's La Hague and MELOX recycling facilities in France. We all have everything to gain through an open dialog!

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Ohio nuclear workforce conference May 26th

A one-day meeting to help overcome barriers to the nuclear renaissance

bray_butterfly_valves_lgOn May 26, 2011, a Nuclear Workforce Training Needs Workshop will be held at The Ohio State University (OSU) sponsored by the OSU Nuclear Engineering Program. The concept for this workshop was developed as a product of activities led by former Senator George Voinovich to identify and address barriers to a nuclear renaissance. During his two-terms, he was a strong supporter of nuclear energy.

The objective of the workshop is to identify training needs to support all aspects of the nuclear industry. Speakers have been invited from nuclear utilities, architect-engineers, nuclear steam supply system vendors, nuclear component fabricators, DOE laboratories, nuclear fuel cycle facility operators and educational institutions in Ohio.

The purpose of the conference is to obtain their perspective on the extent to which educational needs for nuclear workers are being met. In a round table format alternatives will be considered for expanding nuclear educational programs, changing the manner in which educational programs are delivered, or increasing coordination among Ohio’s academic institutions.

Some of the outcomes of the meeting include consideration of a full spectrum of levels of collaboration from the sharing of training/course materials to a Nuclear Workforce Training Institute in Ohio. It could either be virtual with programs at a number of Ohio educational institutions or have a physical headquarter at one of the academic institutions.

Ohio has a robust nuclear industry

FirstEnergy LogoOhio is home to two operating nuclear reactors, with a proposal for a third, a uranium enrichment plant, and supports many firms that fabricate components for use in nuclear reactors.

The two reactors are both owned and operated by FirstEnergy Corp. These plants are the Davis-Besse reactor, a 879 MW PWR located near Toledo, OH, and the Perry reactor, a 1,245 BWR located near Cleveland, OH.

FirstEnergy is working with B&W to assess possible use of that firm's 125 SMR for expansion of its nuclear generation capacity though no decision has been made.

In June 2009 Duke Energy, in collaboration with Areva, announced plans to assess the business case for building a 1,600 MW EPR near Piketon, OH, as part of a Clean Energy Park.

In Piketon, USEC is building a $3.5 billion uranium enrichment plant which will supply feedstock for nuclear fuel for the nation's 104 nuclear reactors and for export to international customers.

In March 2010 AT&F in Cleveland, OH, opened a major expansion of its nuclear fabrication plant. The facility is used for welding and assembling nuclear components, and the clean-environment fabrication of non-safety and safety-related metal components.

The Nuclear Fabrication Consortium (NFC), which represents a wide range of firms, is located in Columbus, OH.

Conference Agenda


Workforce Needs from the Viewpoint of the Utility – Joel Gebbie, AEP

The Viewpoint of the Vendor – Michael Rencheck, Areva NP, Inc.

The Viewpoint of the A-E – Jeff Benjamin, CH2M Hill

The Viewpoint of a DOE Lab – (invited speaker)

The Viewpoint of the Fabricator – Steve Levesque, EWI

The Viewpoint of the Fuel Cycle (Piketon Facility)

The Viewpoint of the Regulator – Steve Arndt, NRC

12:00-13:00 Lunch.
Invited Speaker - “The Path Forward for the Nuclear Renaissance in Light of the Fukushima Event”, Michael Rencheck, Areva

13:00- 13:30
Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program – Lakeland CC Hiram Reppert

13:30- 15:30
Panel Discussion – Collaboration among Ohio Academic Institutions in the Training of the Nuclear Workforce

15:30 – 16:00 Wrap-Up – Proposed future action items

How to Register

There is no cost to attend the meeting.

Send an email with your contact information to:

Grace Hines at
Tel: 614-292-8519

Location Information

Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Scott Laboratory, OSU, Rm E-100 (map)

Building 148
201 W. 19th Ave.
Columbus, OH 43210

This blog post will be updated with parking information prior to the meeting.

Program / Conference Organizer

Rich Denning
Professor, Nuclear Engineering
The Ohio State University
(614) 292-2544 (w)
(614) 736-1793 (c)
Richard Denning Email:

E406 Scott Laboratory
201 W 19th Ave
Columbus, OH 43210


Some costs for holding the conference are being covered by a grant from the Ohio Section of the American Nuclear Society.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

USEC, TENEX Ink $2.8-Billion deal

It's even more complicated than it looks. Chess anyone?

This is my coverage published in Fuel Cycle Week V10:N418; 03/31/11, published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC. Posting it here was delayed by the press of business related to the reactor crisis in Fukushima, Japan.

megatonslogo_220As the 20-year, $8-billion Megatons-to-Megawatts program winds down in 2013, struggling U.S. uranium enricher USEC (NYSE:USU) will usher in a replacement contract that will confer upon it two immediate advantages.. First, it will provide material (21 million SWU) that USEC probably needs to fulfill contracts that it might not otherwise be able to satisfy, due to delays in getting its American Centrifuge Plant built and producing.

“By supplementing its domestic capacity with continued access to Russian LEU, USEC can assure customers that its supply mix will remain sufficiently robust to meet their needs throughout the transition to the American Centrifuge Plant,” USEC spokesman Jeff Donald told FCW.

Second, this reliable supply of low-enriched uranium from TENEX will reduce USEC’s need to run its electricity-gobbling gas-diffusion plant in Paducah, Kentucky at full capacity. USEC may even gain bargaining leverage regarding what it pays its electricity supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority. In short, the TENEX deal, worth about $2.8 billion, according to the Russian press, seems like a smart move for USEC. It is probably also based upon the minimum contract take over the 10-year period.

Building ACP Bona Fides

It will also enhance USEC’s bona fides for the Department of Energy’s review of USEC’s application for a $2 billion loan guarantee for the construction of the ACP.

Jeff Donald was quick to assure FCW that the company remained “fully committed to deploying our American Centrifuge technology in our new plant in Ohio and extending the operations of our Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky. This contract complements those ongoing activities as we maintain our market position during this important transition period.”

USEC also needs to show revenue streams sufficient to justify the financing of up to $1 billion it will seek over and above the $2 billion covered by the loan guarantee (FCW #410, Feb. 3).

Of that amount, $600 million is to come from potential investors in Japan along with a contingency for another $200 million related to possible cost overruns. But the funding from the Japan Export Bank may be in jeopardy due to the need for funding the recovery from the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11.

But the most startling element of the deal was an announcement that the two companies will immediately begin a feasibility study to build a separate, new uranium enrichment plant in the U.S. that would use Russian enrichment technology.

“Building such a facility... is a long way away, which cannot be covered in one day, but today we started moving in that direction,” Rosatom’s Sergei Kiriyenko told RIA Novosti on March 24.

A spokesman for TENAM, the newly established U.S. branch of TENEX, declined to respond to several requests for comment.

TENEX Project Tenuous

But a TENEX enrichment facility would face significant challenges in gaining market share, considering the existing and planned uranium enrichment plants in the U.S. There may not be enough business to justify the expense and effort to build another one.

Jacques Besnainou, AREVA U.S. CEO, has estimated that the U.S. nuclear market in 2012 will require 13 million SWU. By then U.S. production should be approaching 12 million SWU. With Urenco’s plant in New Mexico and AREVA’s Eagle Rock plant in Idaho, plus USEC’s current production at Paducah, the need for a TENEX facility is not compelling.

Urenco and AREVA each plan to double their annual capacity from three million to six million SWU by 2018. If GE-Hitachi decides in 2012 to build a laser-enrichment plant in North Carolina, the numbers look even worse in the out years for a USEC/TENEX plan.

Would TENEX take an equity position in the ACP instead? No chance, USEC’s Donald said. “While this contract strengthens USEC’s financial position and increases certainty of supply over the next decade as we deploy the American Centrifuge Plant, the contract does not involve the American Centrifuge Plant directly.”

The diplomatic issues might be even more daunting. A Washington, D.C.-based industry expert told FCW he did not see how it would happen. The expert, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the U.S. government would have no appetite for a Russian-owned and operated enrichment plant on U.S. soil.

USEC’s Donald emphasized to FCW that the Russian enrichment plant is not a done deal. “We have agreed to conduct a feasibility study to explore options of building a Russian centrifuge plant in the U.S. well beyond the deployment of the American Centrifuge project.”

The feasibility study would only examine the marketplace, government agreements, licensing, financing and market demand aspects of a project, and help determine whether or not to proceed to next steps. Any decision to proceed would be subject to further agreement between the parties and their respective governments.”

Into the Global Market

USEC must export much of the TENEX material, under U.S. law limiting the amount of Russian LEU that can be sold to U.S. utilities, to prevent dumping of uranium on the domestic market. This means USEC might need to pick up some international customers for the material it buys from TENEX.

The Russian firm will probably not allow USEC to compete directly for supply contracts in China; that leaves Taiwan and Japan as potential customers in Asia.

But USEC would compete in the international market with AREVA, which will supply fuel to new core loads of two 1,600 MWe reactors in China and another two in India.

But Japan’s need for fuel is about to shrink by 10% with the closure of the six reactors at Fukushima, equivalent to 4.2 GWe of its total 43 GWe nuclear generating capacity. It could be a decade before new replacement reactors are ready for their first core loads.

On the other hand, in the latter part of this decade, Russia’s Atomstroyexport will need to supply new core loads to 5 GWe in Turkey and another 5-10 GWe in India. Within that same timeframe Russia will also install a string of reactors for Vietnam.

In addition, the United Arab Emirates will soon open competition for fuel supply contracts for the four new reactors Korea is building there. Plus the Koreans themselves are planning to expand their home fleet. The U.K. is building 19 GWe of new nuclear generating capacity at seven sites. Four of them are to be built by EDF, using AREVA EPR reactors.

The international market is a crowded field, but not so crowded that USEC could not make its numbers with TENEX product.

New LEU Not Downblended HEU

USEC said in a statement that the quantities of material supplied by TENEX will comes from Russia’s commercial enrichment activities rather than downblending of excess Russian weapons HEU. This is a significant change and may reflect sensitive policy decisions at the highest levels of the Russian government. There is no obvious technical reason why the Russians changed their source for the feed. It may have more to do with diplomatic relations with the U.S. in the area of arms control than the USEC deal with TENEX.

“The contract is for the SWU component of low-enriched uranium,” said the USEC spokesman. “While USEC will provide natural uranium equal to the uranium feed component of the LEU delivered to USEC, that specific amount will depend on the assays ordered by us, which in turn will depend on what customers request.”

The March 24 report by RIA Novosti said TENEX would deliver 21 million SWU for $2.8 billion, which produces a price of about $131/SWU. Quotes for SWU in the uranium industry trade press for March 28, 2011, show a delivered price of $154/SWU. The difference indicates Russia’s cost of production.

USEC said in a statement on its website that contract deliveries are expected to continue through 2022. USEC will purchase the SWU contained in the LEU and deliver natural uranium to TENEX for the LEU’s uranium component.

Uranium Producers Cautious

In a new statement the Uranium Producers of America indicate cautious support for the TENEX-USEC deal.

UPA President Paul Goranson told FCW that the group did not oppose it as long as the deal does not exceed Suspension Agreement limits imposed on Russian sales in the U.S.

“Our objection to the agreement is based on the fact that there is no reciprocity for U.S. producers in Russia,”

Goranson said, adding that the group recognizes that the deal is good for USEC. He passed the following statement along to FCW shortly before press time:

“The Uranium Producers of America is supportive of the ability of U.S. Enrichment Corporation to commercially participate in the importation of Russian sourced LEU. As an association that represents the domestic uranium industry, we are continually concerned with the transparency and monitor of the Russian material entering under the amended Suspension Agreement.”

“Our hope is that this commercial arrangement will provide support for the development of additional domestic enrichment capacity. However, this does not clarify the need for USEC to re-enrich high assay tails from the Government’s Excess Uranium Inventory to remain viable as announced in prior press releases. The introduction of new sources of LEU into the commercial market will have the potential for adversely impacting the domestic uranium industry, including mining and conversion.”

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Economist seeks responses to nuclear energy debate

Time to stand up to be counted

Economist goes nuclearThis is to inform you that “The Economist” is conducting an online debate on nuclear  power – in which online voting is invited.

Resolved  This house believes that the world would be better off without nuclear power.

WNA’s Ian Hore-Lacy is presenting the pro-nuclear case by opposing the motion that “This house believes that the world would be better off without nuclear power”. The anti-nuclear case is being presented by Tom Burke, formerly of Friends of the Earth.

The debate can be found at: 

To vote, click on “Vote Now or Add Your View”.

Closing statements will be published on 13 April, and voting closes on 14 April.

If you vote, remember that the anti-nuclear vote is for the motion, and the pro-nuclear vote is against the motion!

Opening statements

Tom Burke

Defending the motion

Tom Burke
a founding director of E3G (Third Generation Environmentalism)

Avoiding the radiological risks associated with civil nuclear power, whether in normal operation or from a catastrophe, is not the main reason the world would be better off without it. Atoms cannot be made to work for peace without making them available for war.

Ian Hore-Lacy

Against the motion

Ian Hore-Lacy
Director for public communications, World Nuclear Association

Despite the media circus regarding Fukushima, which has eclipsed the coverage of 20,000 or more lives lost in a huge and tragic natural disaster, nuclear power remains necessary and virtuous in relation to to sustainability criteria.

& & &

The full text of both opening statements and a moderator message are at the Economist web site for this online debate.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Fukushima accident rating from 5 to 7 on INES?

It would make the disaster the most severe since Chernobyl

FukushimaFukushimaThe Kyodo News Service reports that the the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan released a preliminary calculation April 11 saying that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had been releasing up to 10,000 terabecquerels of radioactive materials per hour at some point after a massive quake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan on March 11.

According to the wire service, the disclosure may require the government to consider raising the accident's severity level to 7, the worst on an international scale, from the current 5, government sources said. The level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) has only been applied to the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

The change doesn't come as a result of new releases, but rather reviews of data about initial releases of radiation in the early days of the accident events and also current measurements.

The current provisional evaluation of 5 is at the same level as the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.

INES level 7 accidents correspond with a release into the external environment radioactive materials equal to more than tens of thousands terabecquerels of radioactive iodine 131. One terabecquerel equals 1 trillion becquerels.

The measurement reports how much radioactive material was emitted, not the dose absorbed by people, plants, or animals.

Radioactive iodine has a half-life of about eight days. The wire service report did not identify cesium releases or numbers.

(Note to readers: See this web page at MIT for an explanation of radiation measurements.)

Kyodo news reported that Haruki Madarame, chairman of the commission, which is a government panel, said it has estimated that the release of 10,000 terabecquerels of radioactive materials per hour continued for several hours.

The commission also released a preliminary calculation for the cumulative amount of external exposure to radiation, saying it exceeded the yearly limit of 1 millisieverts in areas extending more than 60 kilometers to the northwest of the plant and about 40 km to the south-southwest of the plant.

It encompasses the cities of Fukushima, Date, Soma, Minamisoma, and Iwaki, which are all in Fukushima Prefecture.

The commission used the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information to calculate the spread of radiation.

Reuters reported that a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said on April 12 that the level of the Fukushima incident was still a 5 and that he was unaware of any move by the government to raise the level.

CNN reports that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the Japanese government's leading spokesman on the crisis, made distinctions between their crisis and Soviet experience at Chernobyl.

"The change in the level reminds us the accident is very big. What's different here from the Chernobyl accident is that we have not yet seen a direct impact on the health of the people as a result of the nuclear accident. The accident itself is big, but we will make, as our first priority, our utmost effort to avoid any health impact on the people."

Separately, media reports indicate the Japanese government may order permanent evacuations of some of the areas affected by the radiation. The Global Security Newswire reported that while the evacuation order is not mandatory, it does expand the evacuation zone from 13 to 18 miles. According to other media reports, the population of the new evacuation zone is 115,000 people.

World Nuclear News has a map of the new radiation levels which shows the location of hot spots.

Update April 12, 2011: Full text of NISA press release in English.

In other developments the government clarified that the expansion of the evacuation zone is for specific hot spots and not a blanket enlargement of an arbitrary distance around Fukushima. Also, the evacuation order isn't mandatory.

For humanitarian reasons, the Japanese government has been encouraging people in the earthquake and tsunami damaged areas to move to government run shelters so that delivery of food, medicine, and the necessities of daily life can be brought to them.

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