WASHINGTON — The chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave a far bleaker appraisal on Wednesday of the threat posed by Japan’s nuclear crisis than the Japanese government had offered. He said American officials believed that the damage to at least one crippled reactor was much more serious than Tokyo had acknowledged, and he advised Americans to stay much farther away from the plant than the perimeter established by Japanese authorities.
Yeah, we're going to get to that in a minute.
Mr. Jaczko’s most startling assertion was that there was now little or no water in the pool storing spent nuclear fuel at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, leaving fuel rods stored there exposed and bleeding radiation into the atmosphere.
I don't believe him. I've said so on the forum, and I'll say it here on The Ticker.
We had a temperature reading before instrumentation went offline of 82C from that pool. We can take some reasoned guesses at the volume of water in the pool, and we know the heating time from the loss of power to the 82C reading. Further, the heat of vaporization of water is a fixed physical constant and requires much more energy (to boil the water off) than it does to simply heat it.
Some back-of-the-envelope calculations give us a time to boil dry that is measured in days from the loss of instrumentation, not hours.
In riposte to this some have suggested a serious leak in the pool that has emptied it. That's possible, and you have to acknowledge it. But again, a rapid leak (which would dump the water at a meaningful rate) should have produced a visible leak somewhere. There's a hell of a lot of water in these pools - they're roughly 40 feet deep. Further, the construction is one of reinforced concrete with a steel liner, and they're believed to be safe against airplane impact (for obvious reasons) as a loss of all water quickly via being holed is one of the "worst-case" scenarios that must be avoided. If the quake itself had violated the integrity we would have known this right up front.
Then there is the lack of any credible information of an actual fuel pool fire. If there was one you'd know as it would be immediately obvious and leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.
My largest concern at the moment is that we're not getting honest information from anyone. Unfortunately, I am forced to conclude, after significant effort, that Mr. Jaczko's credibility is questionable - and that's being kind.
In order to support a fission-based nuclear program of any sort in fact, despite whatever jawboning you might do, it is necessary to support reprocessing and burn-up of reaction products. It is also necessary to support production of new fissile materials from fertile ones. This isn't conjecture, it's fact.
There is a very small amount of Uranium-235 in natural ore. This is why the hoopla about Iran building centrifuges is such a big deal - enrichment can be for peaceful power purposes, but it can also be used to make "intentionally prompt critical" assemblies, otherwise known as "atom bombs."
The problem is that when you put mildly-enriched fuel in a reactor and it burns up you always wind up with both more fuel (Plutonium) and a lot of reaction products. Some of those are short-lived isotopes and quickly lose their dangerous properties, decaying to something stable. But some remain dangerous for decades, centuries, or millennia.
In order to support nuclear power in the short term you need a place to store the waste that is secure. In order to support nuclear power in the intermediate and longer term, you need to reprocess fuel to recover the burnable components of what comes out of the reactors, burn up some of the longer-term dangerous components that can be put back in the reactor for reduction to safer isotopes, and secure storage.
But our NRC "Chair" has a history of obstructionism on the first, and no evidence of support for the latter of any sort whatsoever.
A regulatory body that is openly hostile to the required elements for a functional industry in the intermediate and longer term, say much less a robust industry, is one that has a documented hostility to the activity in question and thus cannot be trusted to provide honest information to the public and lawmakers.
Mr. Jaczko has never held a private-industry position. Coming out of graduate school he went to work for Harry Reid. Now he's the NRC Chair. And not only has been accused of obstructing the Yucca Mountain storage facility, he's had a stay lifted on a pending legal review, implying that the Administration is in trouble from a legal perspective. The NRC also heavily-censored the response to a FOIA request for the safety evaluation of Yucca. Their excuse is that the alleged document never was "vetted", but their lack of vetting was intentionally caused by ceasing all work on the application.
I am no fan of "regulators" that are nothing but robber-stampers for industry, as anyone who has followed my work for any length of time is well-aware. But that's very different than an alleged regulator that appears to have as their open and transparent agenda the destruction of the industry they are allegedly regulating. Safety and soundness are important, especially in this area of policy, but that is not the same thing as intentionally attempting to destroy civilian nuclear power in the United States.
It has been the effective position of our government, through the obstruction of a closed fuel cycle for nuclear power that has been present and persistent since Three Mile Island, to do exactly that. Without a closed fuel cycle it becomes inevitable that nuclear power will be destroyed in this nation and the hazards associated with the current installed base of power plants will rise in coming years, not due to the inherent risk in exploiting the atom for power but rather due to the intentional acts of the government and NRC. Storage for spent fuel is not infinite at any plant and closing the fuel cycle requires both reprocessing so that isotopes can be burned up are and those which cannot be are isolated and disposed of safely. The NRC has a documented history of obstructing both over more than two decades and as such their bias and motivation to stretch the facts and elevate rank conjecture to claimed fact is clear.
We need more facts in this case, not fewer ones. We need truth, not hype.
It is of course possible that the situation at those fuel pools will deteriorate further and the worst-case scenario cannot be ruled out. But there's a hell of a difference between something that might occur and something that has occurred. As I have repeatedly pointed out an un-contained fuel fire (that is, out in the open, which these pools are) leaves you with only one realistic option on the ground: Run.
We're not being well-served in this fashion by governments on either side of the Pacific at present, but given the fact that the fuel at Unit #4 has not yet ignited (you'd know if it had - it would be impossible to hide it) along with the NRC's documented obstructionism when it comes to closing the fuel cycle for nuclear power in this nation, the NRC Chair's claim, no matter how many times he repeats it, has to be taken with a very, very large grain of salt.
If Mr. Jaczko has proof that the pool is in fact dry I challenge him to produce his evidence where the public can see and vet it. Until he does or there is external evidence of a fuel fire in that pool I remain skeptical of his claims - and that's being polite.
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