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16 March 2011 @ 07:17 pm
Never not "two minutes to midnight"  

I'm still trying to process the ongoing Japan crisis. Each one of the events among earthquakes, tsunami, and radiation would be a disaster in its own right, but to think there's a place on this planet facing all of them at once is unimaginable. Not that it matters what I can or can't imagine, given it's happening as I type.

It also got me thinking about nukes - well, nuclear energy in general. (I'm a humanitarian who's in two fandoms where nukes feature prominently; yeah, this was coming.) When I'm not thinking too hard about what's underway at the Fukushima plant, I have to question the officials. I'm not just talking some pseudo-reasonable excuse of preventing full-scale panic (because you can totally prevent it by not telling people what's going on, right?) but the fact that throughout the history of nuclear engineering, military and civilian, there have been issues with transparency that not even the latest events seem to lift. Say it with me: there's nothing more hazardous but constantly present in our reality than the radioactive material in nuclear plants, and yet the industry has a history of withholding information and inability to own up. These are accidents when you don't even see the harm coming, and it's nothing new for the officials to be aware of the danger while choosing to downplay it on whatever the grounds will be this time.

It's not ignorance, either. Look at the accidents in early nuclear research - those scientists knew what they were doing probably better than anyone at the time, and yet more than one of them died after exposure while performing experiments they were no strangers to. If it looks like these are isolated and long ago, there are these simple lists showing that radiation accidents have been happening in about every setting that could incite them throughout decades, and the thread of official deception and downplaying weaves through the industry's history as though a matter of course. In addition, there's always a ready rationalization: Windscale was overheated by the engineers and badly monitored. Kyshtym was in a closed-off area and hushed up on both sides due to the Cold War. The Bikini Atoll was a miscalcuated operation instead of the fine-tuned hydrogen bomb testing they decided to perform because that's what you do after WWII, apparently. Chernobyl didn't meet safety standards to begin with. With Fukushima, I suppose, the dismissive line of argument will draw upon its location in a volatile seismic zone and the fact that it has experienced extreme conditions recently. Why fault the industry - it won't happen again! Seriously this time, you'll see!

(Notice how I don't have to go looking for any special sources to get the basic gist? The information is out there and largely accessible by now, but not always getting the attention it should.)

It fails to occur to the atomic lobby that if there's any "lesson" to be learned, it is simply that you can't world-proof a power plant. There will always be some circumstance not foreseen by the designers, engineers or regulators - not everywhere and not non-stop, but it should be abundantly clear at this point that one such incident per decade would be enough to contend with for decades to come. If none of this has been enough, what will it take to learn?

The problem is, of course, that nuclear power plants have become either indispensable to the global industry or hard to replace with an equivalent source (that won't just be a "safe" fossil fuel plant instead). More importantly, this needs to be recognized for what it is: a problem, not a convenient cop-out by which to dig the world deeper into the chasm of nuclear energy. It's not a fact to complacently accept - it should be solved. (Do I know how to break the chain? As a layman, obviously not; I don't even have any useful background for this. But the source of the problem at large is hardly obscure.) One could go as far to say nuclear energy poses a hazard just by existing, which is made even worse by the notoriously unwilling and more-often-than-not belated publication of info when an accident does happen.

The history of cover-ups, be it for the lately common sake of profit or for the sake of secrecy itself, seems to be continuing at Fukushima. (A huge service that does to the personnel who have been and are being exposed to radiation just trying to get the plant under control with uncertain results.) Independent scientists have already pointed out (as it should have been obvious from the start given the inconsistencies and the unwarranted Official Optimism in response to a series of explosions) that the Japanese authorities were downplaying the risks at Fukushima until the situation was so grave it became impossible to hide. The IAEA just parroted the official version - if this is the performance of a "watchdog", you're better off with an electric fence.

And sure enough, the regulators knew about Fukushima-type plants being susceptible to this exact risk all along. Since 1972. If that doesn't illustrate just where safety falls on the priority ladder with the ones running the show, I do not know what does. This is in no way a "local" problem, either.

Meanwhile, I'm watching several live feeds as things get steadily worse, including also the immediate impact of the earthquake and tsunami where even the rescue effort is impeded by freezing weather. The Fukushima situation was (under)rated as a level-4 accident initially - now it's said to be a 6, same as the Kyshtym disaster. 7 is Chernobyl and as high as it goes.

-

Though the public part of this LJ is intended as a writing journal and not a soapbox, I'll keep this post unlocked for now. I dislike moralizing to begin with but this once I want to say: even if you don't give a crap about a place that has been hit by a triple catastrophe and manage to live with that, you damn well should give one about the risks of nuclear power at large. It's not even a matter of politics since it concerns you and everyone you know, whatever you believe. If you "don't care", you might consider starting.

Now excuse me while I donate another pathetically small amount.

 
 
 
otakujeannieotakujeannie on March 16th, 2011 11:31 pm (UTC)
Not to be pretentious or anything but this is hardly unique to the nuclear power industry. Oil and Coal industries are not much better in terms of transparency and giving a damn about the consequences.

Unfortunately, nothing is free in this world and in order to keep electricity affordable right now the options are limited and the demand for renewables (which carry their own risks I am sure)isn't enough for those businesses to see them as viable. I've been unsure of nuclear energy myself but it does seem to be a pandora's box whose 'gifts' might not be worth the price.
Thene: ponyoathenemiranda on March 17th, 2011 12:59 am (UTC)
Hydroelectric power has killed more people than any other form of electricity generation. They mean it when they tell you not to swim close to the dams.

I'd note that nuclear power isn't affordable, partly due to the cost of insurance. It's simply not possible for a private power company to insure a nuclear plant - only a government can underwrite something that is capable of going that catastrophically wrong. (I don't know if you remember the struggle last year to get BP to cover the $20 billion cost of cleaning up the oil spill they caused; imagine that situation, but with a nuclear disaster, and I think you'll see why nuclear power has never and will never be commercially viable).
otakujeannieotakujeannie on March 20th, 2011 01:43 am (UTC)
Sorry for the delay, I haven't been quite all here lately.

Thank you for the information I guess one learns something new everyday. I guess that's what I get from listening to Fox News soundbites about electricity generation and focusing my arguments on the wrong angles.

Thene: innacurate geneticsathenemiranda on March 20th, 2011 02:13 am (UTC)
ffff it's not like there's any easy answers. :( And most forms of power have hidden costs somewhere.
See you later, instigator: Gigaville - speech restrictionsoudeteron on March 20th, 2011 02:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'd be extremely wary of Faux News.
otakujeannieotakujeannie on March 20th, 2011 11:18 pm (UTC)
I am, but at the same time it's something so many of my co-workers seem to take as gospel truth and the few times they do talk about the energy crisis they make it sound like it's either fossil fuels or nuclear are the only realistic solutions, should have been more clear on that point...
燕雀安んぞ鴻鵠の志をしらんや: omg omgomgomgmomg omgomgcowgirlmaxwell on March 18th, 2011 09:31 am (UTC)
Okay, if you don't mind me throwing my two cents in, I'd just like to say a few things.

Firstly, the state of Fukushima Daiichi before the earthquake.
- It is/was Japan's oldest nuclear power station at 40 years old.
- Because of its age, there were plans to decommission Fukushima Daiichi in the next couple of years anyway.
- The design plan that it was built off was designed to withstand up to an 8.2 magnitude earthquake, and a tidal wave size far less than what it was hit with these past few days.
-The power plant actually WITHSTOOD a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, which doesn't sound that impressive, but is actually AMAZING. (The plant had a little hiccup from the earthquake, however it was the tsunami that got the ball rolling with all the problems.)
- They have around 53-54 active reactors in Japan at the moment, many of which lie on the east coast and were very close to the epicenter of the earthquake.
- Japan hasn't had an earthquake this big in recorded history. Some say there was one nearly that big about 1000 years ago, but there's no real way to prove that. In any case, that means that this is a once in 1000 years' occurrence- and nuclear plants don't last that long.

If anything, this disaster has proved that nuclear power stations are much safer than we anticipated- the earthquake/tsunami just happened to occur at a really really bad time.

You also seem to forget about the petrol plants and the like, especially around Chiba, that pretty much caught on fire and burned completely out as soon as the earthquake hit- do you have any idea how hazardous the fumes and smoke from that sudden combustion is?
It's also really important to realise that nuclear power is really important for Japan in terms of sustainable sources of energy. Japan simply does not have the space to use wind power; nuclear power and solar power are its main sources of 'green' energy (numbers tend to be jumbled, but about 24-34% of Japan's electricity these days is nuclear).
燕雀安んぞ鴻鵠の志をしらんや: omg omgomgomgmomg omgomgcowgirlmaxwell on March 18th, 2011 09:32 am (UTC)
I tend to ramble a lot, sorry, but here's what I really wanted to say- comparing Fukushima Daiichi's situation and Japan's handling of the situation in the media to Chernobyl is a pretty horrible thing to say. The media attention around the nuclear issue was a bit muddled, but Japan handled it better than any other nuclear 'disaster' I've heard of. The reality is, they never actually pretended like it wasn't happening or tried to downplay the urgency of the situation, they just tried to quell the 'EVERYONE'S FUCKED' crap that the media started spurting. So no, Japan isn’t trying to cover up what’s happening over there ‘for convenience’s sake’, AT ALL, and saying that they are is kind of really unfair.

On Friday, as SOON as they detected a problem in the nuclear reactors, the survivors left within a certain radius of the plant was evacuated, and that evacuation line has since been widened significantly. They’re trying to keep people decontaminated as much as possible, instructing people in measures of how to reduce the possibility of contamination. They’re stacking Potassium Iodide pills in Tokyo to give to children to prevent thyroid cancer. They’ve been asking for help from everyone they can, asking America for coolant (and receiving it). They’ve accepted that there’s a problem, properly reported it and is properly preparing for it as best as they can- WHILST dealing with the loss of upwards of 10 000 lives, ongoing earthquakes and aftershocks, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. They’re not dismissing it as anything trivial- something that’s actually really admirable. This is such an isolated case that really can’t be repeated elsewhere (unless if you tried to), and it’s really sad how European countries are starting to overreact and pull the plug on their plant plans.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, was a plant that was poorly built (not to proper safety standards or requirements- if you read reports on how shoddily built it was you’ll be shocked - they used combustible materials in the construction of the reactor building, for God’s sake!) and poorly monitored by people who did not know what they were doing. Unlike Japan, the Soviet Union also tried to cover up as much as possible about the plant before it happened and the incident as much as possible. That was what resulted in the explosion, not the fact that it was a nuclear plant alone.

Also, we’re all subjected to heaps of radiation on a daily basis, most of it not actually coming from power plants. The controlled existence of nuclear power plants doesn’t really expose us to much more radiation than we usually get. There are a shit ton of more dangerous things in our world/culture that are far more likely to get us killed.

Also the actual reports on the amount of radiation that will end up released by Fukushima are so varied, it’s hard to determine whether this will affect anything at all.
See you later, instigator: Adrian - Veidt Securityoudeteron on March 18th, 2011 04:38 pm (UTC)
I don't think anyone is actually equating the Japanese government of 2011 with the USSR in 1986. But, given that there's an emergency on all fronts in Japan right now, it's not hard to imagine why the government would want to make the Fukushima situation seem less serious than it is. Yes, they did order a 20km exclusion zone, but you seem to ignore the fact that it remained the same even after the no-fly zone extended to 30km and foreign authorities expanded theirs to 50-80km around Fukushima I. And the marked lack of information there has been is crucial - ask the locals still staying within the zone, complaining that the government "won't tell them anything". Is that any way to raise public morale?

I do not, in fact, think that going "WE'RE ALL FUCKED PANIC NOW" would be conducive to anything, but insisting that there's no threat even as 160+ (probably more now) people are confirmed as having been irradiated, even as radiation levels surge high enough to repeatedly prevent the cooling efforts, is far from being up-front. And we're back to the shoddy information.

Also, the current situation has not been compared exclusively to Chernobyl (Three Mile Island comes to mind), or only compared to it with the intent of starting a smear campaign. The thing is just that radiation accidents will inevitably be compared to one another to assess their relative seriousness. (You may have noticed that I brought up nuclear accidents from various eras and various parts of the world, precisely to avoid the "omg you're comparing Japan to the USSR!" accusation.) Fukushima is not an isolated incident, therefore there will be comparisons to whatever side of the debate. Tepco has been perhaps more accurately likened to BP during the oil spill, for instance.

You also need to realize that I'm criticizing the high-level management with its machinations, not badmouthing the engineers and other personnel risking their lives, facing the radiation we still lack decisive information on, to physically keep the situation under control.

Another important point is that the authorities always have their own interests to think of, which may or may not coincide with the interests of the people or public health. That just means I'm saying no matter where, official versions of events shouldn't be blindly trusted. I don't know what media you're following but I've only come across ones that try to question the authority claims and demand access to hard facts, not to further mass panic. If the media just parrot what governments say, the information society has lost its purpose.

Anyway, I have mentioned that Chernobyl wasn't up to standards to begin with (then again, if you take in account that the first warning of Fukushima's vulnerability to situations of this type came in 1972, it wasn't quite up to date this March either). It comes back to the same problem again and again - not enough transparency, falsified records (which was the subject of a case that came to light in Japan in 2007 or thereabouts), putting profit over safety concerns (e.g. using mixed fuel containing plutonium in one of Fukushima I's reactors), and the list goes on. I object to the authorities' treatment of the issue, doesn't really matter where.

Yep, I believe most of the radiation we take in over a year comes from food. There's just that pesky little fact that nothing that naturally occurs in the environment has the potential to expose you to a multiplied dose of that amount of radiation in an instant - unlike highly radiactive material, such as what's found in nuclear plants. Do you really think I didn't research this before getting up on a soapbox over it, or that I'd never been exposed to business-serving lectures about it before?

Also the actual reports on the amount of radiation that will end up released by Fukushima are so varied, it’s hard to determine whether this will affect anything at all.
Yeah, that's totally the most pressing concern the conflicting information here raises.
See you later, instigator: Kyo - singingoudeteron on March 18th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
I don't mind your two cents, but all the reasonings you're listing fail to take in account that all it takes is one significant radiation incident - something every nuclear plant has the potential of causing; clinging to the oft-repeated "it can't happen here because" idea is frankly more optimistic than is healthy for this kind of thing - and we have a serious contamination problem, the various outcomes of which have not been exhaustively documented even 20+ years after Chernobyl. The fact that they haven't despite the obvious urgency, or the fact that the Japanese authorities knew about the inherent risks of the design they were using at the plant and used it anyway, is precisely why nuclear power isn't and will never be without risk. Granted, nothing is without risk, but few risks compare in impact to radiation leaks and/or criticality accidents - if you choose to disregard all this while still taking those risks, you better be prepared to pay the price. Which I'm pretty sure not many of us can begin to imagine, let alone claim our right to force anyone else to more or less live under the threat constantly.

the earthquake/tsunami just happened to occur at a really really bad time.
But that's the point! Since when does a natural disaster or any other major accident knock on your door going, "Excuse me, is this a good time?"

I kind of don't see how saying "look, it's actually safe because it's not like the reactors exploded and not all the power stations in the area suffered the same fate" is a constructive way to approach the problem. The crisis hasn't even ended and already you see pronouncements of how it's just a fluke and won't matter in the long run - I have the awful feeling that if the whole thing exploded, the atomic lobby would write it off as only important in that one case (again). There's a lack of thinking twice about what's going on, and if there's anything people should think twice about, it's the implications of continuing to use nuclear energy.

do you have any idea how hazardous the fumes and smoke from that sudden combustion is?
Um, yes? The thing is that petrol fumes won't contaminate an area for decades after the fact, to the point of making it hazardous for humans to even approach. (See the EURT and Pripyat.) There's also been enough incidents in Europe to warrant an attitude more prudent than endless proliferation, thank you very much.

The problem of widespread reliance on nuclear power is something I have in fact acknowledged. I still say that it's a problem, not a reason to cop out of seeking another solution at all, which is what you seem to be advocating and why I can't agree.