The need for responsible nuclear regulation

Got a tweet from a reader here who recommended The post by Rupa Subramanya Dehejia on the Wall Street Journal on Why We Need a Proper Nuclear Regulator and asked me for my opinions. Since I had intended to wait until the direction of the Fukushima tragedy becomes more clear, I decided to combine the two. If we pursue nuclear power, we must understand possible nuclear risk scenarios and do all we can to minimize risks of nuclear accidents.

Destroyed Reactor 3 building at Fukushima

As always, I am stating upfront, that I am a curious lay person and not any kind of authority. I write based on what information is available and how I understand it. I hope that these posts trigger thought around these subjects rather than provide an authoritative reference. It is not.

First, I’d like to share a useful resource to understanding this tragedy that I found on cryptome. This pretty much describes everything in the order it happened, with illustrations.

The Fukushima tragedy is nowhere near a solution, and the pretence of it not being a big deal is wearing down fast. Even as early “information” about it being not so dangerous was being released, I had raised the question of what happens to the spent fuel tanks the minute I heard about the explosions in the buildings. I had got a comment or two about how I was scare mongering and that I should read facts. Facts published by a government and company keen on a cover up or facts by a nuclear lobby not wanting to jeopardize its business. No thank you. I don’t need an expert to tell me that  a bathtub is under the sky if the roof of the house is blown up.

Rubble of the reactor 3 at fukushimaThe reason for that is that the fuel in the reactor is under considerable safeguards, while the fuel in the spent pool tanks is essentially in a bathtub – that is how open it is. Agreed, that spent fuel is about as radioactive as the radioactive substances in their form in nature, but we don’t live in uranium mines, do we? Nor do we spray it in the air. Doing that with natural uranium is also going to be dangerous.

Anyway, my certainty that the spent fuel tanks were in trouble was simply that the building was gone. It was near certain that the pool was now open to the sky (other than debris, of course). Normally, this shouldn’t be a problem at all, because the radioactivity emitted is of particles, which have very little capacity to penetrate much and are only a problem with proximity. The water effectively traps them, and they don’t get out of their pool, which is why there is absolutely no problem with keeping the pool open on the work floor.

The problem is if that water is gone. There is no longer anything trapping the radioactive particles. They are still not dangerous enough to reach very far, but the problem is that they don’t need to. The particles colliding with other radioactive atoms in the fuel trigger further fission. Fission is happening all the time, but the water controls it so that it doesn’t escalate to a chain reaction. With the water gone….. An uncontrolled fission chain reaction is essentially a nuclear bomb, whether it was intended as that or not. The fuel not being designed to function as a bomb will probably make it less efficient, but make no mistake, it won’t prevent it from exploding or even if some controls survive, to generating enough heat to convert a lot of the radioactive matter into dust/gas.

So what? There was water in the pools, they are still safe? Nope. The residual fissions in the radioactive material are constantly generating heat. Heat evaporates water. Nuclear heat evaporates water real fast. Which is why there is such a rush to flood the spent fuel tanks with water. Even sea water, with its risk of corroding material. They cannot afford that fuel to run dry – that is the bottom line.

We have three major scare areas apart from the general lethality of the whole thing of course:

  • The fuel in Reactor 4 is not all spent. The reactor was closed for maintenance. There is nothing inside the reactor. The potent stuff that was generating electricity in reactors 1,2 and 3 is soaking in its bath tub in reactor 4. This is why we hear more news of reactor 4’s spent fuel pool being flooded with sea water. Because it gets hot faster, and evaporates water faster. And no, the water is not going to cool that down. This is going to happen for a long, long time, because it is enriched still, and becuase partial exposure to air accelerated the fissions within it even more.
  • The fuel in reactor 3 is called MOX. It contains Plutonium in addition to Uranium. This plutonium is far more potent (radioactive) and it is essentially the plutonium recycled from decomissioned nuclear weapons. Plutonium is also extremely dangerous to get contaminated with, and it lasts longer than you can imagine. With a half-life of 24,000 years, that plutonium is likely to outlive mankind altogether. Got that? So, keeping that reactor from exploding is a huge priority. Good part being that the enriched fuel is inside, and while still dangerous, the spent fuel tanks have spent fuel only.
  • Reactors are leaking. First it was thought that it was only reactor two, but now it seems that its all three. Worse, the tanks storing the seawater coming out of the reactors have at least one confirmed leak, possibly more. They are leaking directly into the sea. Baaad news.

Not kidding you. We don’t have a prayer of containing gas in a facility where we couldn’t secure solids and liquids. Not to mention the little matter of it already being open to the elements, free to ride the breeze and go where it wants.

The government has finally given up euphimisms and has admitted that the reactors will be decommissioned (no shit Sherlock!) and buried in concrele, a la Chernobyl.

Bad news on that front too. Uh…. Chernobyl had exploded. It was a horrible, ghastly incident, and the reactor was dangerously radioactive, but there was no further action forthcoming. Encasing it in concrete helped to block the radiation. Fukushima is still a fight. The reactions are on. They are needing a phenomenal amount of controlling to keep from exploding. Unless they either explode (we don’t want that) or are brought under control, the concrete idea is a fantasy. Or, if something goes wrong, we don’t even have access to fix it, and the whole thing explodes, concrete and all. Just more radioactive debris than before. And its guaranteed to go wrong, because it is nowhere near stable. In fact, it is so volatile, that a large part of the work there is simply about keeping it from going into unchecked chain reaction. This is before we start discussing water. The crack in the tank that is leaking radioactive water into the sea could not be patched because the water kept washing the concrete away. How is this going to work, where we are actively dousing the reactors in water, and if we stop dousing them, or even if the concrete succeeds in setting and prevents the water from reaching the reactors, boom?

At this moment, the world has ZERO solution to this situation other than continuing the desperate fight against chain reactions from being started.

How is this relevant to India? Because natural disaster, compromised standards and calamity don’t follow nationalities or national boundaries. While no catastrophe repeats itself, the scale of that danger is not impossible for any reactor gone “rogue”.  I am not saying that we should stop using nuclear power. We need it. So far, we have also been lucky to not lose a single person in a nuclear accident, however small. We also are generally less prone to natural disasters (we manufacture our own). Of course, that is no guarantee, and lack of scrupulous measures has led to contamination in minor, but many incidents.

This brings me to what Rupa advocates in her article. The need for regulation that is free of vested interest. She describes it as a regulatory body and brings up two metaphors – one of a prison run by inmates, and another, less applicable, of a student grading his own marksheet. For some reason, she seems to have a thing about progressive schools, and me as an ardent advocate of unschooling will naturally find that a little “off”, but I find this metaphor also runs the risk of decreasing the magnitude of risk. A student assessing himself is essentially an occurrence with minimal impact to others. This is where it differs phenomenally from the nuclear scenario today. The prison run by inmates is something that strikes more accurately at the situation, though I hardly think of our scientists as criminal. But the point the article makes comes through clearly. When someone has a reason to represent something in a certain way, that person or body cannot be counted on to be neutral from the perspective of the world in general.

It is something I brought up earlier as well, when I suggested that local bodies be trained to monitor risks to their community and given the right to call for inspections or evaluation, because they will be suffering the consequences of folly. Another idea that comes to mind is neighbouring countries also being involved in safeguards planning, training, and other non national-security aspects, because radiation contamination knows no national boundaries. Like Fukushima contaminating American shores, an incident in Pakistan can contaminate India, and an incident in India can contaminate Bangladesh.

So, what do you think? Given that India’s power scenario doesn’t afford us the possibility of giving up nuclear energy as a source of power, what can we do to minimize risk?

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About the Author

Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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