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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Fukushima’s No-Entry Zone

The radioactive zone created by last year’s nuclear plant meltdown is an environmental disaster — one that has received surprisingly little attention in the press

At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, a fire burned at Reactor No. 3 after the reactor building was destroyed by an explosion.
Image Credit: Leakspinner

UPDATED February 27, 2012

Why is it that trivial news stories (for example, reports on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress) often receive disproportionate coverage, while important news stories are sometimes neglected?

Here’s my vote for the most neglected news story of 2011: the radioactive contamination of hundreds of square miles of land around the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Although most news outlets have reported some details of this story, I think it deserves much more attention than it has received.

This radioactive contamination is heart-rending, and its effects will be felt for decades — possibly centuries. The contamination is due to engineering hubris, and most nuclear engineers show few signs of having learned any lessons from the disaster. Considering the fact that a similar disaster occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, it seems entirely probable that other areas of our planet will suffer radioactive contamination in the future.

According to the Japanese environment ministry, the contaminated area — usually referred to as the “exclusion zone” or the “no-entry zone” — measures 930 square miles, an area almost as large as the state of Rhode Island.

On March 11, 2011, the nuclear power plants at Fukushima were hit by a powerful tsunami. Since the backup diesel generators were swamped, no electric power was available to shut down the reactors safely. As a result, the nuclear cores of three of the reactors melted down.

As is often the case in a disaster, the reaction of emergency workers was confused and stumbling. Some of the details are astonishing. The utility that owns the nuclear facility, Tepco, had long assumed that it was impossible for a tsunami to overwhelm the plant, so the official operations manuals had no information on how to address such an emergency.

During the early hours of the disaster, workers at the plant were communicating with their emergency headquarters…

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21 Comments

  1. Garth Sproule 7B | | #1

    More discussion
    Martin
    Thanks for bringing up this huge and thorny issue. Are you familiar with Tom Murphy's blog "Do The Math"? Great educational blog (thanks to Lucas Durand for the link). His most recent blog on nuclear power is here.
    http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/01/nuclear-options/

  2. Philipp Gross | | #2

    Dead end?
    I don`t want to be a pessimist but in my opinion we will not be able to solve the energy equation with business as usual. Our wealth (or debt, however you want to look at this) is build on the abundance of energy resources and now we come to realize (at least the educated folks) that few of the resources used to harvest energy are sustainable or abundant at all. However the current economy and financial system are build upon this energy supply. I don`t know how we fix this but I know it would have to be radical and I am in doubt if the world is ready for this. Unfortunately the educated folks often seem to be a minority and therefore not in charge....

    Also to the point of return of investment calcs: I have yet to see a sustainability factor in these equations. Would be interested to find out what GBA readers think this factor should be.
    My first ballpark suggestions:
    Nuclear : /0 => error
    Coal : /0 => error
    Oil : /0.1
    Natural gas: /0.2
    Renewable: /1

  3. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #3

    Response to Garth.
    Garth,
    I'm glad you seem to be enjoying "Do the math".
    I think there is some very important information there...

    And I think you're right that nuclear is a "huge and thorny" issue...

  4. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #4

    Nice work Martin.
    I also find this story heart-rending.
    There is so much one could say about Fukushima...

    My immediate thoughts are:

    Hubris (not just among nuclear engineers) is a defining characteristic of our times.

    "External costs" are non-negotiable and paid in human suffering.

    Authorities lie to "the people", "the people" lie to each other and worst of all we all lie to ouselves as a matter of course.

    This civilization that we find ourselves a part of is the mother of all "faustian bargains".

  5. Aaron Vander Meulen | | #5

    Thanks for the musing Martin,
    Thanks for the musing Martin, I totally agree this is the least talked about important story of the last year. And lucas, couldn't agree with what you said as well.

  6. Alex A | | #6

    Engineering and civilization.
    We really got ourselves into a jam, haven't we? Can't live with nuclear -but won't survive without it.

    The treatment of refugees is truly shocking. Many of them would probably be better off returning to their homes, rather than enduring the stress of displacement. Other areas are probably lost for decades; the residents of those areas deserve honest answers.

    Whether we like it or not, we live in a civilization that depends on engineering (and chemistry, etc). Tens of thousands of lives are put in the hands of engineers every minute. When an airplane crashes, why do we never ask whether we should fly at all? Why is air travel not "hubris?" Over 15,000 people perished in the Tsunami; should we not live near the sea? Nothing man has created is invincible. We make mistakes (yes, they are horrifying), learn lessons, then pick up the pieces and do it better the next time. Running a civilization on renewable energy will also require almost godly feats of engineering, there's a certain amount of "hubris" involved in that endeavor as well.

    My opinion on the "Faustian bargain" of nuclear power is that we should take the "gamble." Since a comment on a blog rarely changes anyone's mind, I'll list what I read that shaped my opinion: David MacKay's "sustainable energy w/o the hot air" (available for free online), various blog posts by George Monbiot, the Wikipedia article on Chernobyl, a critical re-reading of several Joe Romm (climateprogress) posts, and Mark Lynas' blog as well as his book "6 degrees."

    What does your vision of the future of civilization look like? Mine includes large scale renewables, radically efficient buildings, electrified transport, and yes, nuclear power. Your vision of the future may be radically different and yet equally valid.

    (edit: punctuation)

  7. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #7

    Watch one episode of National
    Watch one episode of National Geographic.

    The world is an eat or be eatin world. The sun will consume the earth. The universe will go and go and then snap, bang. One universe was and is no longer, next.

    Enjoy, love the day or not if you wish.

    aj (I do like the green movement... my choice. You choose for you.)

    Oh and I think most of us would have put the generators on higher ground.... what the hell were they thinking and who made that stupid design? As has been brought up, the Jap plants should have been built on their western shore too. (no techtonic plate action on that side....)

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Alex A
    Alex,
    I agree that we all use many engineered contraptions that carry risk -- including automobiles. Concerning the issues raised in this blog, however, I am proposing that engineers need to seriously consider this question before proposing an expensive machine: "What's the worst thing that can happen if this machine fails?"

    You're right that airplanes sometimes crash. But in most cases, the steel and vinyl detritus can be collected and disposed of, the building that the plane crashed into can be rebuilt, and the jet fuel that spilled can be cleaned up.

    This type of disaster cannot be compared to contaminating hundreds of square miles for many decades to come. It's true that we need engineers to help us manufacture PV modules and to calculate wind loads on PV arrays. But when a windstorm destroys a PV array, the surrounding area will not need to become a no-entry zone for decades.

  9. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #9

    On the hubris of air-travel...
    Depending on the model, a fully loaded 747 can weigh in at almost one million pounds.
    This behemoth cruises five miles above the surface of the earth at a speed somewhere around 600mph for hours on end.
    I'm not sure how much energy is needed to accomplish these feats for a single aircraft - but I'm sure it is a lot.

    Considering the scale at which we currently employ aircraft for "business as usual", it is hubris to believe that this practice is at all sustainable for more than a relatively short time interval.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9r3H4iHFZk&NR=1&feature=endscreen
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1L4GUA8arY

  10. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #10

    On expanding nuclear power generation...
    Martin,
    Personally, I think your conclusion is right on...

    However I might add that trying to meet our future electricity needs with greatly expanded nuclear generation will do little if anything to alleviate shortages of liquid fuels.
    Perhaps nuclear energy can be used to help synthesise liquid fuels, but it is unclear whether the net energy return of these types of schemes will make them worthwhile.

    I think the issue of cost in expanding nuclear generation is under-appreciated.
    It has been becoming more and more clear recently that there is a difference between "financial capital" and what some might call "REAL capital".
    It seems absurd to think that mega-scale infrastructure projects can be accomplished simply by borrowing more "financial capital"...
    I wonder how many personal financial bankruptcies have been indefinately delayed by simply borrowing more money?
    My guess is none.

  11. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #11

    The sky is always falling...
    The sky is always falling... Or not. Right now there is life in the exclusion zone. There are workers at the plants. It is not an instant death zone. It is not a place I want to be either.

    Anyone who truly cares about this topic needs to be for real solutions which I never hear most state. Less people would lower the need for nukes. And the other missing part is that the past is not the future. Anyone with an open mind to the amazing speed of invention should see that solutions to problems like dangerous nuke plants are coming at us as fast as that jet mentioned above.

    Same with all the gum slapping over diminishing resources. As they diminish the market sets upon solutions even if the solution ultimately is nature pulling the plug on a few million or billion of its own.

    I believe in today and tomorrow. I also accept that nature can take a big whack at me at any point. So be it.

    Wax your surfboard and let's go surf.

  12. Garth Sproule 7B | | #12

    For Lucas
    Lucas
    You may have already seen this, but here is a link to David Mackay's calculation of how much energy is used in air travel. He maintains that if one person averaged one intercontinental flight per year (8800 miles) , that his/her share of the energy required would be 33kWh/day...this is about equal to leaving a 1200W electric heater running steady, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c5/page_35.shtml

  13. Alex A | | #13

    Engineering and Civilization and Risk.
    Thanks for the response Martin.

    I think your thought process is fundamentally correct; I would disagree, however, on what risks are acceptable.

    Asking "what's the worst that could happen?" is important, so long as you also ask the same question of the proposed alternatives. "First do no harm" is not an available option with any energy strategy (renewables, fossil fuels, nuclear, or even abandoning modern energy use entirely).

    Renewables have relatively benign failures, this is true. The tradeoff is that you need to consign huge areas to them in the first place. Further, the cost and schedule difficulties of nuclear apply as much or more to renewables.

    My opinion is that many of the risks of nuclear power are overwrought, and the others are acceptable in the face of the alternatives. Some reactor placements should be reviewed. I'm currently undecided about some proposed future reactor technologies (graphite pebbles, sodium-cooled fast reactors), they promise advantages, but also bring additional risks.

    Wringing more "work" from every unit of energy -no matter its source- is essential no matter what path we follow. Learning how to do that is why I read this blog.

  14. Nathan Spriegel | | #14

    Engineers?
    I find it interesting that the emphasis seems to be that the ENGINEERS are at fault. Ther typical engineer wants to build the safest, most reliable "whetever" they can. They may overlook things, or make mistakes. But deliberately build something unsafe? Not likely! As someone who works for an engineering firm (plumbing/mechanical/electrical) my experience has been it is often the "beancounters" who will reduce a well-engineered design to the minimum required to still do the job while still maintaining a MINIMUM of safety. The best an engineer can often do is provide the best design they can given meager resources, time and options.

    Just remember that many of those design features (like the generators in the basement) would have been decided by a group of individuals who looked at the expense (for instance locating the generators on a second floor level) and decided the expense outweighed the risks. It has been shown that you CAN build a safe reactor....if you are willing to pay for it.

  15. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #15

    Nathan, I totally disagree.
    Nathan, I totally disagree. I live half a planet from Japan and do not site or build nuke plants. But no one could get me to design a nuke plant as down right poorly as these plants.

    I keep thinking kamakazi.... I know I shouldn't. Hey, we have people on our lake all the time going on the lake, knowing they can't swim, no life preserver... plunk, call the divers.

  16. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Nathan Spriegel
    Nathan,
    I agree that hubris extends beyond engineers. Utility executives and politicians also display hubris; as Lucas Durand noted, it is a human characteristic we all share.

    That said, utility executives and politicians can't promote a technology unless engineers are willing to design it, build it, and recommend it as appropriate and safe. Evidently a team of engineers were quite happy to stamp the plans used at Fukushima.

    I never said that the engineers who designed the Fukushima plant deliberately promoted an unsafe design; I said they were blinded by hubris, and as a result they ended up promoting an unsafe design.

  17. Donald Mallow | | #17

    Fukishima
    Fortunately for the entire country of Japan the prevailing winds were from west to east during the early days of the disaster....Had the winds prevailed from North to South the entire island might have been in the path of heavy radiation.... How do you evacuate a country?

    Why isn't the issue of overpopulation addressed more openly by the leaders of nations? There is a major factor in the demand for increased energy generation.

  18. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #18

    Wow, someone besides me
    Wow, someone besides me mentions population. Just like gypsy moths, one way or another human population will be controlled.

    So Donald, welcome to the real world group of three. (Robert Riversong also would bring up population)

  19. User avater
    Greg Labbe | | #19

    Thank you Martin
    Martin,
    Thanks for discussing this difficult subject, I feel for the people of Japan. The question remains will the Japanese embrace efficiency like never before, or will it be business as usual? A few other thoughts if I may…

    People have this view that we need piles of energy to be happy. Can anyone alive today say they are happier than any of their ancestors who lived very different lives? My grandfather lived in a house without electricity, running water or the internet and he was a pretty happy guy who laughed, told lots of stories and sang.

    Like it or not, we’re all going to be living radically different lives in the next century. The next generation will find happiness as every generation prior has, but they surely won’t have the level of natural bio diversity or beauty because of our generation’s greed.

    On CO2 accounting, an oft ignored fact the proponents of nuclear never mention is the mining aspect of uranium. Does it require energy to mine uranium? To refine it? Where does that energy come from? Is the process CO2 free? What about the cement needed to make concrete for a reactor? Is that CO2 free too? Hmmm, maybe they buy carbon ofsets and make it all go away...

  20. Alex A | | #20

    @ Greg Labbe
    Japanese economy is already exceptionally energy efficient, especially for a country with a strong industrial base.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gdp-energy-efficiency.jpg

    Always room for improvement though.

    Life-cycle emissions (including mining, refining, plant construction, etc.) from nuclear are more or less in the range of those from renewables.

    Lenzen (2008) estimates current life cycle emissions of nuclear at about 1/10th to 1/20th of fossil fuels (2.5 to 4 times that of wind/hydro, but 2/3 that of solar).

    Fthenakis and Kim (2007) estimate that nuclear life-cycle emissions are on par with PV.

    Vattenfall (Swedish utility) has nuclear beating wind and even hydro (some authors believe this study is incomplete).

    Reactors do contain a lot of cement and steel, but really not much compared to all other uses, so if we can't afford (from an energy perspective) to build reactors, we probably can't afford to build anything else. Using the first numbers I can find, we could build 200+ nuclear reactors using less that 1% of annual global concrete production, so I don't think that's really an issue. Note also that continuing to operate existing reactors avoids this issue entirely. Wind turbines use a lot of steel per kWh produced. PV, especially Si, also has high embodied energy.

  21. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #21

    Topical video...
    Q&A with economist Nicole Foss (editor at The Automatic Earth).

    She provides her perspective on the future of nuclear energy after being asked a question about the Fukushima disaster (8:00-12:59)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAgaCR0_qVE&feature=player_embedded

    "Nuclear power has hubris written all over it..."

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