Sunday, July 6, 2014
Was the Nuclear Crisis in Japan Worse Than the Catastrophic Earthquake for the Environment?
Nuclear Crisis in Japan Just a Huge Spike of Media Hype Overshadowing More Important Earthquake Story Issues? Was the Nuclear Crisis in Japan Worse Than the Catastrophic Earthquake for the Environment? As time goes on it is likely that the count of the dead and missing from the great Japanese Earthquake of March 2011 is possibly going to reach 20,000 or more. The total number of deaths at the crippled nuclear plant so far is nil. The break down of the nuclear plant may or may not have been avoidable with one of the highest magnitude force earthquakes in recorded history. Considering that electric company crews have been able to gain control on most of the reactors at the plant with the possible exception of one of them which may have melted down seems to help downplay much of the hysteria about the situation in the news. While the news media focused on the worst case scenarios of nuclear melt down there was very little attention paid to the loss of thousands of people, their property and widespread environmental degradation that is being ignored. Just the fact that ocean sea water rushed in at high velocity miles in land has left many local fresh water resources and habitats in a dire state because of salt contamination. Salt contamination to farm land and forests can have long term environmental consensus. Nearby lakes are probably salt contaminated for a number of years to come. Local water supplies are also compromised. Other environmental degradation includes top soil being washed away and perhaps replaced with sand and gravel from below the ocean surface. The areas hit by the tsunami waves are 100s of miles of coast line. Urban areas were swept away and chemicals and petroleum products were probably released into the environment. Little media concern has been spent talking about general environmental degradation that was completely "natural" of natural origins. Some parts of the Japanese coast effected apparently dropped significantly in elevation. These were areas of land mass which were above mean high tide line and now are below mean high tide which means that they can more easily flood at various times during the annual cycle of the tides. A number of well built tsunami protection walls were breached or pushed over by the tsunami that came ashore leaving tons of debris some man made and a lot more of natural origins strewn across the landscape. A lot of fuel will be required for heavy machinery to go to these sites and clean up the mess. Eventually some of the lost materials and homes will be salvaged but a lot of it will end up needing to become landfill material or will end up needing to be burnt. Along the coast trees and fertile areas will die because of salt exposure. Urban areas are already flooding because of the drop in ground level. This is not to say the problems at the nuclear plant are acceptable but it does help to put the danger of the nuclear accident in perspective as a smaller component of the whole mess created by the earthquake. Some of the biggest spikes in radiation so far in air and water have come from elemental components of the nuclear plant that have a shorter half life than some of the more dangerous materials at the center of the broken core. The Nuclear plants were built en mass in the area because of the huge power needs of nearby Tokyo , a top world industrial city of 30 million people, in the vicinity. The building of successive reactors in a single plant in that area was the product of the much hailed idea of a "national energy policy" of the sort that politicians continue to tell us here in the USA that we need to transform the generally open free market of energy in the USA into one that is carefully planned by the world's smartest people who are certain that they are the world's smartest people. A lot of mistakes were apparently made at the Japanese nuclear site affected by the earthquake. First they made the mistake of concentrating too many reactors at one site for efficiency purposes. Second is they made the horrible mistake of keeping spent nuclear waste not only on site but above the active reactors on a related cooling system above grade level where water could have automatically flowed in because of gravity and least resistance in an emergency. Tokyo and vicinity was saved from years of costly imports of diesel and gas for its growing urban and industrial electric power needs and benefited from clean electric power running machines instead of having perpetual smog like Mexico City . The trade off of having a lot of nuclear power may have meant higher costs than importing diesel depending on how you make the calculations and now with the accident the costs of nuclear power when you factor in the cost of the nuclear crisis and eventual clean up and it maybe that Importing more diesel and coal would have been a cheaper cleaner energy solution than the nuclear option the central authority planners decided on. Cost benefit analysis trade offs were always part of the engineering and design planning involved. Even with all of this in mind the main disaster and consequences of the possible nuclear melt down may not be the worst thing that happened for the local environment due to the earthquake. The cat is out of the bag with nuclear power. What that means is that once nuclear material is mined , refined and concentrated for industrial use it is not going to go away. There will be a long incremental deconstruction of the plant and engineers will have to consider how to dispose of nuclear materials that do not lose their potency for up to 10,000 years. Burying it on site is the Chernobyl cop out solution. The smarter engineering solution is to use a different kind of nuclear energy technology to generate electricity that relies on disposing of nuclear waste rather than putting it out of sight and mind. Questions linger though because although the other types of nuclear plants have been running at places like Fermi lab and Los Alamos, the economics of actually committing a plant for market profitability is yet unknown. At the moment these new plants may cost more to build than any long term payback period based on existing market prices for more conventional alternative fuels such as gasoline .gas and coal. Incremental deconstruction of the plants can either cost money or ultimately create a means of cash compensation for the ordeal. National energy policy theory looks like it failed rather badly with the nuclear catastrophe which challenges the need for a more market oriented approach to future reconfiguration of the nuclear materials that will not go away as the cat out of the bag which they are. The bottom line and getting more energy out than is put in at the lowest possible price is going to be a real concern especially if the clean up costs exceed not only the original cost of the plants but of all the energy produced. National top down energy planning was probably as big a mistake as having wasted money on tsunami walls that were not high enough to contain a real catastrophic tsunami. Some things and people may have been saved because some of these tsunami expenses but as time goes on it maybe that the planning was over valued. A new generation of nuclear facilities either for disposal for for more future energy production are now assured not just in Japan but everywhere where the nuclear industry is active. The media hype should be turning to nuclear hope just because the mistake of the past are now better understood by nuclear engineers and they have at their disposal unlimited super computing power that was not available when the original plants were designed. The news media is doing a great disservice hyping nuclear fear and hysteria instead of talking about the fact that the cat is out of the bag and can't just easily be put back. The clean up of the Japanese plant probably means some parts of it will be off limits to humans for a very long time and that incrementally the other operating plants that are interconnected will need to be deconstructed and decommissioned. The melted down plant will need to be incrementally cleaned up with material hauled away in small manageable parts. Monitoring And of the immediate environment will be required for some time. In Chernobyl where the last melt down occurred humans have left the scene and nature is thriving there in spite of the accident. New statistical studies from the University of Pittsburgh by Cohen are showing that some fears of radiation exposure causing cancer and / or lower life expectancy in general may be false. You can look up those studies by Cohen by searching on line with those key words. A more careful analysis of what when wrong with the earthquake is to start with the old fashioned notion of an act of god. That thinking began in the insurance industry where insurers have generally not wanted to underwrite any act of god. This earthquake was a worse case act of god not a punishment of god but one that was generally uninsurable. The nuclear plant as well as everything else in the way of the quake and tsunami were at the mercy of nature. The news media should be concentrating more emphasis on what a great job the Japanese nuclear crews and engineers have done so far securing most of the reactors and containing the one that may have melted down as the best that might be done under the circumstances of an act of god. Most of the nuclear contamination will be diluted and fade away in air and water and its half life will curtail its long term nuclear instability. Incremental clean up will be costly but probably do-able. National energy policy probably needs a lot of reconsidering in that its choices are just as arbitrary or more arbitrary than what precipitates from market forces alone helping to guide decision on a profit motive basis. Thanks to the inverse square law there maybe 20-50 miles of nuclear effected mostly temporary environmental degradation from the possible nuclear melt down at the plant but the total environmental destruction from the quake is more than 500 miles square and all of those effects are not yet known. Heavy rainfall in that part of Japan may help to flush away salt and other contaminants including nuclear. More emphasis in media reporting should be concentrated on talking about buildings in the areas affected that may not have fallen in the quake but may have been rendered structurally compromised as a result. The clean up of non nuclear destruction is likely to be at least as costly if not more costly than the nuclear mess. Figures of losses are now exceeding 300 billion dollars and this may not be the final total cost that will be realized as it will take years to fix everything that was broken. It is even possible that some species of flora or fauna are now at risk or even doomed because of what happened in this quake and that has nothing to do with the nuclear accident. News reporters are fascinated by nuclear contamination because it is invisible and a big risk. What you can't see can kill you and that makes for spectacular headlines. It is still hard to find a tsunami inundation map of the Japanese coastline anywhere in the news media! I also have tried to find a map showing the subsidence areas in the quake and a map showing the intensity of shaking timeline over the topography of land and sea affected. The media has been completely hysterical about the incident and not very scientific. Sure the sensationalism of actually seeing on video what happened is amazing and necessary but the way the reporting over emphasized the nuclear power plant problem has left a lot of people in the dark as to the wide spread environmental damage and the enormous loss of life and property. We see the Tsunami as the second main sensationalism event in the news media and what happened up in the hills and mountains is ignored. Some of us wonder if the magnitude of the shaking in central Tokyo was at a much reduced magnitude from the area of the epicenter. Some of us are curious if even so many Tokyo structures have been compromised. The nuclear story took precedence and left a big dark shadow covering over many important aspects of what happened in this quake. .