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Reflections on a fortnight in Fukushima

Richard Black | 16:15 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

Earth Watch posts have been in smaller supply than usual in recent days.

For a week, your humble correspondent was virtually living inside the Fukushima nuclear power station, attempting to make sense of what we knew and what we didn't know as the situation unfolded.

Now - almost two weeks after the devastating Magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and a few hours before heading on leave for a little while - it seems like an apt time to take stock.

Anti-nuclear protest

Fukushima has raised protests elsewhere in the world - how serious is another matter

In the broadest of senses, the situation at the power station itself appears slowly to be coming under control. Electrical power is progressively being restored across the site - no small task - and as time goes by, the rate of radioactive decay and therefore the heat output in the cores will naturally get lower.

Temperatures and pressures within some of the reactor containment vessels are well above the intended operating levels. A bulletin from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) on Thursday put the vessel temperature in number 1 reactor building at 390-400C (734F), against an operating value of 138C (280F).

So the reactors themselves are not completely in the clear.

Nevertheless, the longer time goes by without any significant new development, the smaller the chances of something serious occurring.

It's important to point out a couple of things here.

Firstly, nothing definitive can yet be said about the sequence of events at the plant, nor about the response of Tepco employees in the critical early hours.

And it is certainly too early to make a comprehensive assessment of the health impacts. With the Windscale reactor fire of 1957 - like Fukushima, rated Level Five on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) - the health consequences were still being assessed four years ago, on its 50th anniversary.

Fukushima will not take half a century to analyse because the facility has a civilian rather than a military purpose, because monitoring and knowledge of nuclear processes are far higher now than in 1957, and because the Japanese population is not likely to stand for it.

Destroyed petrol station

Operators have had to struggle with devastation from the earthquake and tsunami across the region

But at the moment, information is being disinterred bit by bit - and a truly comprehensive picture will in all probability have to wait on the first official inquiry.

The second point is that despite the allegations of secrecy and poor flow of information levelled against Tepco in the early days of the crisis, those allegations do not currently stand up to scrutiny.

The company is now publishing bulletins several times a day, sending them to reporters, responding to questions promptly and seriously, and posting mounds of data such as radiation levels on its website.

Whether the company is taking this stance entirely voluntarily or whether it has been dragged kicking and screaming by the government - whose leader, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, was possibly our best source of information early on - is not entirely clear.

And it cannot be proven that all the data we receive is entirely accurate. Nevertheless, this has to go down as a huge change from the situation seen at every other serious nuclear accident (by which I mean INES Level Five and above) in history.

At the time of writing, there are some intriguing tidbits.

Perhaps the most tantalising is a report by Kyodo News, Japan's principal news agency, to the effect that neutron radiation was observed more than a kilometre from reactor buildings 1 and 2.

Neutrons are emitted during a nuclear chain reaction; so given the context, is Kyodo's report to be taken as indicating that a chain reaction took place after the reactors shut down?

If it is, does that relate to the company's warning last week that there was a possibility of "re-criticality" in a pool storing fuel rods?

The neutron flux outlined by Kyodo - 0.02 microsieverts per hour - is within levels that are observed naturally in some locations - which raises the question of why it became an issue in conversations between reporters and Tepco representatives in Tokyo.

As I said, a tantalising tidbit; and a demonstration that in this story, every piece of information comes swimming in a sea of questions.

Meanwhile, what we are seeing away from the Fukushima site, in terms of restrictions on drinking milk and water and eating vegetables, recalls measures in place after Windscale and Chernobyl.

The big difference is that monitoring by Japanese agencies appears to have been prompt, informed and proactive, with results quickly disseminated to the public.

Milk being drained into field

Milk has had to be thrown away near the plant

Outside Japan, the big issue is what Fukushima means for nuclear power - and by implication, for plans to switch away from fossil fuels to restrain carbon emissions.

There are plenty of analyses around suggesting climate targets can be met through efficiency and renewables alone - Greenpeace's is one of them - but the political equation is more complex.

Imagine, for example, a decision at European level not to build any new nuclear power stations.

Nuclear is the basis of low-carbon electricity in France. Finland and the UK are among other countries committed to a partially nuclear future.

The question is not whether it is technically feasible to scrap those plans and replace the shortfall with wind turbines, solar panels and storage capacity - clearly, it could be done.

But would it be politically feasible? Given that we are past the era of state direction, will the private sector deliver on this scale?

On the other hand, utilities that are currently sounding pretty bullish about continuing with new nuclear build may look at things rather differently if public discontent manifests itself at building sites where new plants are scheduled.

On yet another hand, will Fukushima actually lead to serious public opposition? In Germany, it produced marches; but the UK public does not appear to have taken against the technology completely because of an accident on the other side of the world.

Perhaps a bigger practical issue than new build is how ancient plants should be regulated - what should be insisted on in terms of upgrading, given that safety practices have changed hugely in the 40-odd years since the Fukushima generation of commercial reactors came online.

How all this plays out cannot, I think, be predicted; and events will be fascinating to follow.

But at the present time, Fukushima can be used to bolster the arguments of either anti-nuclear or pro-nuclear factions.

One can - and is - saying, essentially, "you see - nuclear will never be safe - here's proof".

The counter is that if you exclude events in closed societies and those that took place in the 1950s, there have only been two nuclear accidents big enough to rate a Level Five or above - Three Mile Island and Fukushima.

No-one appears to have died in the first; and it is possible that the second will end with a similar statistic, given that workers unaccounted for at the plant may have come to grief in the tsunami rather than any nuclear cause.

Fukushima Daiichi was designed to withstand seismic ground movements of the scale that materialised during the Tohoku quake.

But it was not designed to withstand a 14m (46ft) tsunami - the latest estimate of the wave height that engulfed the plant two weeks ago.

So whatever governments and societies decide on the nuclear question, however they prioritise questions of energy security and climate change, it will have to be on the basis of relative risks; because nothing in this arena comes with certainties attached.

Comments

Page 1 of 2

  • Comment number 1.

    Thank you Richard for some facts, hard to find elsewhere at the BBC.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm hoping no one will die any younger than they otherwise would as a result of this accident, not just because I'm a moderately decent guy but also because this is a vital "exceptional test case" for -- or against -- the cause of nuclear power.

    I've personally come across some very strong feelings expressed over George Monbiot's pro-nuclear stance:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/21/pro-nuclear-japan-fukushima

    I imagine my own experiences are a taste of disagreements to come, along mostly arcane lines within the left ("splitter!", etc.).

  • Comment number 3.

    As industrial accidents go, if one forgets the usual hype when anything 'nuclear' is involved, this hardly rates a mention, 2 killed? that may sound a tad heartless but its a fact

    The real disaster here was the earthquake and of course the tsunami it caused

    50 poeple were killed as a result of Chernobyl, since that time 25 million people have been killed in road accidents, a sense of proportion is called for here, obviously given the medias taste for the sensastional, (and our insatiable appetite for it ourselves) we wont get it

  • Comment number 4.

    Running a modern country without reliable supplies of electricity is impossible.

    This takes wind and solar power out of the equation right away.

    Here is the UKs electricity supply figures for the last 24 hours - taken from http://www.bmreports.com/bsp/bsp.php

    Gas 33%
    Coal 41%
    Nuclear 22%
    Wind 0.5%
    Hydro 1.1%

    2.2% of supply came from France and Holland

    I have seen wind as high as 3% - but this is the real problem with wind. It stops and starts. I have also seen it down to zero.

    Just imagine if you tried to replace Nuclear with Wind. Power one day and power cuts the next.

    If you were serious about running a modern econoimy and cutting CO2 then gas and nuclear would be the only way to go.

    Anything else is feng shui.

  • Comment number 5.

    Richard states, "...despite the allegations of secrecy and poor flow of information levelled against Tepco in the early days of the crisis, those allegations do not currently stand up to scrutiny."

    Since you were one of the journalists making these unsubstantiated speculative accusations then at the very least you should make an apology to Japan and Tepco.

    Where is your apology?

    How many people will only remember reading your shameful nuclear fear-mongering?

    Shameful.

  • Comment number 6.

    @Jack Hughes
    Let's just keep waiting (and putting money into more research and experimental plants) for nuclear fusion. If that can be made relatively safe our energy needs have been sorted.

  • Comment number 7.

    In Europe the quantity of caesium-137 deposited by Chernobyl was 400 times more than the peak levels released by all the atmospheric nuclear weapons tested up to 1963. The UN estimates that an area the size of England, Wales and Ireland combined has been contaminated. Now we are being given these nonsensical figures: "only 50 people died as a result of Chernobyl" I suppose this refers to deaths that happened straight away, and all the possible thousands of cancer victims that may have died prematurely across Europe are ignored, as it would be very hard to prove the cause. However there is an ongoing legacy from radiation including birth defects. If one were to examine the suffering that has been caused in the Bellarus, Chernobyl region one might not be so glib about Nuclear power and its dangers. the UN estimates that the fallout has directly and indirectly affected up to 7 million people. The land formerly known as the ‘breadbasket of Russia’ is now poisoned with contamination from the fallout. Some 480,000 hectares of farming land, including 230,000 hectares of arable land have been withdrawn from agricultural production. The territory adjacent to the river Pripyat, once a major meat and dairy- producing area, has been turned into a depopulated radiation zone. The river is highly radioactive, and since it feeds into the river Dnieper in the Ukraine, it has caused the slit bed of the Dnieper to become radioactive. The Dnieper is now the world’s most radioactive river. Would you want to live nextdoor to a nuclear power plant?

  • Comment number 8.

    Would you want to live nextdoor to a nuclear power plant?

    If the energy provided gives cheap power to run countless industries and provide jobs for millions of people then I think the obvious answer for a great many people is YES!

    If the alternative is no industry and less jobs and a medieval age economy then the obvious answer for a great many people is, once again, YES!

  • Comment number 9.

    Hopefully the Fukushima incident will continue to be brought under control, and can form part of the argument *for* nuclear power. If six 40 year old reactors can survive a 9.0 earthquake and then a 46ft tsunami without catastrophe doesn't that say a lot for their safety?

    Also like to add I think it a shame that in nearly all of the BBC reports on Fukushima, the death toll for the quake/tsunami was hurriedly mentioned at the top of the article on Fukushima, as if somehow the nuclear plant was responsible for the death toll. Poor form to try to associate the death toll with the nuclear plant.

  • Comment number 10.

    Wait a second!

    You (Richard) said:

    "The question is not whether it is technically feasible to scrap those plans and replace the shortfall with wind turbines, solar panels and storage capacity - clearly, it could be done."

    "Clearly it could be done"?

    Do you have any idea what you are talking about? What do you think the cost of electricity would be if solar & wind were to attempt to replace nuclear? You need at least 3x (probably 5x) the generation capacity of what is being replaced for redundancy (that is - 66 to 110% of the UK's entire electricity production!) due to variability of power supply, and you also need storage capable of smoothing out continuing smaller scale variability.


    I think the fact you even suggest replacement of such a reliable base power load of nuclear with wind/solar suggests you, like many with a focus on the environment, are completely out of touch with what is, and what is not, technically possible.

    Power =/= Energy. You would do well to consider that fundamental fact before making any rash statements in future.

  • Comment number 11.

    #7

    Over 23,000 people in the US alone died last year from respiratory diseases resulting from the smog of coal-fired power plants.

    An estimated 250,000 died as a result of the Banqiao dam failure. We'll also not mention the methane released into the atmosphere from dams shall we?

    How many have died due to oil wars over the years? What about gas explosions?

    Nuclear is far and away safer than the practical alternatives.

  • Comment number 12.

    9. At 21:08pm on 24th Mar 2011, EricTViking wrote:

    "...If six 40 year old reactors can survive a 9.0 earthquake and then a 46ft tsunami without catastrophe doesn't that say a lot for their safety?.."

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    But that's just it. The reactors themselves were not damaged by the quake or tsumami. It would be astonishing if such massively strong structures were. (But what, exactly, do you mean by "survive without catastrophe" in any case?)

    What it in fact shows is that a nuclear plant such as this cannot withstand a mere ***power cut***.

    We therefore need urgently, information as to the cooling systems, and back up for the power to the pumps (if any) and the pumps themselves, should they fail, for all plants everywhere in the world.

    It's now become plain that nuclear reactors, so far as heat generation is concerned cannot be shut down, whatever the position re the fission reaction.

    This has now been brought graphically into the public domain by the excellent footage of the buildings in 4/4 such reactors being blown sky high under these circumstances.

    That, quite rightly, will not be forgotten.




  • Comment number 13.

    #10 "suggests you, like many with a focus on the environment, are completely out of touch"

    "Out of touch" is an understatement.

    We will never know how these folks can flip open their laptops and write such codswallop without the merest inkling of what it takes to produce said laptop and the power to run it, and everything else in their warm comfy well-fed lives!

  • Comment number 14.

    Thankyou Jack Hughes for the link to the bmreports site - I think it puts the whole situation in perspective vis how the UK manages.

    At the end of the day we are an energy hungry nation (world) with limited resources. Even the winds not going to blow in a direction which favours us forever

  • Comment number 15.

    geothermal plants for large scale and reliable supply.

    microgeneration such as solar PV and other renewables to provide partial domestic self-sufficiency.

    Larger scale renewable installations such as wind, tidal and hydro etc where most appropriate.

    ephemeralisation/efficiency doing more with less, wasting less.

    then add all the other ways of generating electricity safely.

    we have the technology and capability to generate far more energy than we need without the present nuclear industry with far more jobs too.

  • Comment number 16.

    In an ideal world, nuclear power is a good choice for our energy needs. However we have not yet seen a war where nuclear power stations are deliberately targeted. That would lead to Chernobyl scale events which have rightly been highlighted above.

    In the same way that the Japanese plants weren't designed to meet real events we don't design our plants to withstand targeting under war conditions.

    Blow up a conventional or even green power generation facility and you are likely to have little in the way of long term effects. Blow up a civil nuclear site and the contamination could prevent land usage for centuries.

    So in our risk assessment, what do we make of the war risk in our nuclear design? We don't consider it. What chance of war? Just look around. Population pressure will make war more likely in the future.

  • Comment number 17.

    #15 At 21:45pm on 24th Mar 2011, i_have_the_answer

    Geothermal, wind, tidal, hydro, efficiency.....

    Dream on! You have been drinking way too much Western Government Eco-Propaganda Kool-Aid.

    Why are the Chinese building two Coal powered power stations a week?

    Because, in the real world, the mathematics of green energy is totally bogus pie-in-the-sky nonsense...that is why!!!

  • Comment number 18.

    Eddy from Waring (comment 12) - the Fukushima plant is an old design of boiling water reactor (built in the sixties and expanded in the seventies), and relies upon external cooling through diesel generators.

    Any reactor built today would not require this as designs have changed and been adapted to overcome this shortfall.

    To say that "a nuclear plant such as this cannot withstand a mere ***power cut***" is incorrect; it would be more accurate to say that *this* forty-year-old nuclear plant could not withstand the complete destruction of its entire integrated support network.

    Nuclear power will always have an inherent risk, albeit a very small one when you consider that there are over 400 plants worldwide running night and day with no problems. In the medium term at least, nuclear will have to remain central to meeting the world's energy needs as natural resources dry up and renewables remain - for the time being - inconsistent and expensive.

  • Comment number 19.

    @shadorne.

    haha very funny...but even simple research (wiki geothermal) will show you i'm not talking guff. There are so many ways to generate the energy we need that nuclear is not needed and finite resources are er..finite? The Chinese are also producing phenomenal amounts of solar PVs.

    What do you propose? fossil fuels and nuclear? is that the 'real world' you want? might not be much of it left to enjoy if we don't take more care.

    i have done my maths and green technology adds up fine. It is my occupation and i am glad to say it has a future.

  • Comment number 20.

    Generally I was pro-nuclear, but this, unfortunately, changes much. For those who claim these accidents are minor, you need a bit of realism. 50 dead from Chernobyl?! The estimated total cancer deaths from Chernobyl are in the region of 200 - 250,000 in Europe alone (source; Annals of the New York Acadamy of Sciences). Gastric and rectal cancers take 30 years to develop post radiation insult. Head and neck cancers in Eastern Europe are currently rampant. We are already treating many, many more head and neck cancers in young people as a result of immigration from this population.

    Cheap? My understanding is that nuclear is no cheaper than conventional power supply, and, given the increased regulation that will result from this current disaster will be even more expensive.

    No easy answers I'm afraid, but we certainly won't get any with a non evidence based discussion containing a lot of ideologically driven statements.

  • Comment number 21.

    I am on neither side in this argument, I still have an open mind. But a couple of considered thoughts:-

    Jack Hughes at #4 suggests the bmreports provide the facts. As I read it, those reports show the energy generated that is connected to the high voltage national grid. One of the advantages of both wind and solar is they can provide energy in remote locations, and to dedicated installations. Therefore I don't think those figures truly reflect the contribution of wind, because it doesn't take into account the reduced demand for electricity resulting from standalone wind turbines. In truth it probably makes little difference, but if that is the case, why try to distort the facts?

    Bob Wallum at #16 makes a very valid point. It would be rediculous to think that one-day a nuclear plant will not be targetted in a terrorist act. We need to be designing our western lifestyles to be more resilient to terrorism, not less so.

    Shadone at #17 says the Chinese are building two coal powered stations a week. Maybe, but they are also behind the vast majority of solar patents, and they also publicly subsidise wind power on a massive scale. To just quote the coal powered energy is a distortion.

    Finally, it seems to me wrong to talk about our energy needs (and generation) on our known technologies. Innovation in this area is moving so fast that we'll soon need diddly squat energy to run our laptops in our comfy lifestyles, and the efficiency of renewables will grow exponentially. It seems highly likely that nuclear is not the future, but simply an interim measure to allow us to keep our excessive demand for energy until a step-over technology out-dates it. But we'll be left with the legacy for generations to come.

    Good article Richard, I thought it had good balance.

  • Comment number 22.

    This prevention of a nuclear meltdown project has been a shoot from the hip event from the start and we're still shooting from the hip.
    We as a whole civilization didn't learn from the Katrina Hurricane in the U.S.A that what humanity believes will be high enough, strong enough won't be against nature. There is no moderation or that will be good enough when dealing with nuclear material or nature.
    Both events should have been avoided by discipline to building the sea walls higher year by year. 40 years of building sea retaining walls and they would have now been in the ranges of 30+meters.
    We as a humanity recently witnessed and experienced the Indonesian tsunami of that height or more. We can't use ignorance as an excuse or reason to why this accident occurred after Indonesia's catastrophe. We did see the increase of the height to these sea retaining walls over the decades as wasted or lost revenue.
    Hind sight is always 20/20 and after the fact, Unfortunately.
    Nobody wants to believe that we will experience the China Syndrome in Japan. The salt water is highly corrosive and we're running out of time for continuation of cooling the nuclear material with salt water.
    I am not blaming any of us for using salt water. The blame goes to greed and selfishness and we don't mean to do it but none the less it happens. There's an accident waiting to happen right now because of our weakness to greed and selfishness.
    A change in our attitude I would advise immediately because in France the Fusion Reactor is being built. The reactor that doesn't have containment walls and instead uses a electro-magnetic shield to retain the heat. If we screw that reactor machine up, will the atlantic ocean boil into the atmosphere?
    Children shouldn't play with matches. I know that from first hand experiences. Private power companies should not be responsible for safety measures because they'll always stop short of doing extraordinary measures of safety precaution because that will decrease their profit margin (the Gulf of Mexico oil rigg explosion and consequential leakage of oil, 2010 is an example to that).
    I've mountaineered for 30yrs. I check and recheck my safety harness during each climbing event. It's not necessary looking at the tied off belt after seeing it twice. Twice should be good enough but I check it and recheck all the time.
    We are so far from out of the woods on this one. The Pacific Ocean can only handle some much more nuclear particle displacement. It's ridiculous to say things are getting better, Better would have been sea proof diesel generators. Better would have been an emergency if needed pure water reservoir nearby.
    Instead we as a humanity are experiencing the same type of accident over and over again.
    At Reagan Airport on the graveyard shift the only flight controller fell asleep. That's s/he's fault, but s/he not totally at fault because the hierarchy had thrown precaution to the wind by having a sole flight controller.
    They say the tide turns the wind. In Japanese area that tide coming in is radioactive and so is the wind. It'll stay that way indefinitely for a while.
    We as a humanity need to help the Japanese as much as possible right now to solve the mysteries to stopping these reactors and storage containments units from destroying Japan. The reactors can be sealed and depending on the circumstances we might have to include the Russian invented meltdown catch basin. That will be challenging because the ocean is so close. Otherwise We might come to experience a new volcano formed on Japan way bigger than Mt. Fuji.
    When it come to precautionary measures I don't hold back my imagination anymore because our second daughter got through my wife's birth control methodology and her odds of getting pregnant .03%.
    That was a happy mishap for us unlike this unhappy mishap we are most of all experiencing from the Japanese Nuclear accident today.
    I have gone on in great length about this nuclear accident without mentioning the displaced and homeless innocents that my heart goes out to in Japan. I'm here for you Japan in spirit all the way. I myself am a displaced temporarily homeless man. I can take care of myself but I am unable to assist you Japan. I'm sure financially stabilized people of the world are organizing charity fund raising events for the homeless Japanese people but I haven't seen any promotion to such charity promotions as of yet.

  • Comment number 23.

    i_have_the_answer wrote:
    "i have done my maths and green technology adds up fine. It is my occupation and i am glad to say it has a future."


    Glad that you benefit from all these massive government subsidies - at least subsidies create a few jobs temporarily!

    At least Western Governments are racking up massive deficits to help more than just the banksters...

    However, all this debt will have to be paid for on the back of industries & workers that actually create real value (rather than destroy it with scams like "wind farms" or "solar power").

  • Comment number 24.

    We live in a world that depends on computers; computers need constant power, solar and wind provide intermittent power. This means we need backup to use them; you cannot just shutdown large boiler plants they need to be in a state of readiness and burning fuel constantly even when not producing electricity. I suggest we actually use a little bit of the grey matter before we build any more of these nonsensical wind farms.

  • Comment number 25.

    @shadorne

    well i think we might agree about the banksters.

    The feed-in-tariff is not subsidised by the government.

    it is our present methods that are temporary in that they will not last very much longer.

  • Comment number 26.

    18. At 22:23pm on 24th Mar 2011, Jarrel

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    I don't substantially dispute what you say re modern designs.

    However, you in effect paraphrase my point re plants like Fukushima rather than refute it. The point is I, (and I expect millions of others) were led to believe a nuclear reactor could be "shut down". We reasonably took that to mean rendered passive. That has now been revealed blatantly clearly as not possible, and the implicit misleading also exposed. Accordingly we are now doubly mistrustful of anything else the nuclear interest may have to say to us.

    Furthermore, many of the plants still in operation today are indeed to old designs.

    Presumably this accounts for the EU's decision to gather without delay the sort of information to which I refer.

  • Comment number 27.

    If the Japanese are so good about providing accurate, timely information about the reactors, then why is it significant and even somewhat dangerous radioactive levels have been found as far away as Tokyo in the tapwater, and 18 kilometers out into an enormous ocean that should be diluting it to nothing at that distance?

    Just today we hear that a mustard spinach plant GROWN IN TOKYO is radioactive. Yet we've seen nothing from the authorities that would have indicated more than trivial amounts of radiation at a distance from the reactors.

  • Comment number 28.

    Why did the boss of the IAEA go to take tea with Prime Minister Kan - and didn't go to look at Fukushima? Is this Reuters story made up - or is it truthful? I understand that unaccountable anti-nukes can spurt nonsense, which slightly allows TEPCO a bit of leeway with the truth, but if there is anything in this story it is (to me) ureasonably frightening - but it does seem to accord with the difficulties which seem to have been experienced sorting these 'reactors'.

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/03/21/us-japan-nuclear-idUSTRE72K47A20110321?pageNumber=1

  • Comment number 29.

    Re comment 26 - I wasn't trying to refute your point per se, I think you raise a good point about the general public's ignorance of the facts of nuclear energy.

    However, if you asked anyone in the nuclear industry at any time about whether a reactor can be "shut down", they would never have said this was the case: you can't simply 'turn off' a nuclear fuel source's radioactivity any more than you can 'turn off' the sun. You can reduce its power output to almost nothing very quickly by manipulating it within the reactor's mechanism - this happened automatically at Fukushima as soon as the earthquake hit.

    My point is - I don't believe we can abandon the idea of building new nuclear facilities, with newer designs that do not rely on external cooling systems, on the basis that an old design plant is struggling to cope with cataclysmic circumstances.

  • Comment number 30.

    Eddy from Waring writes:

    Furthermore, many of the plants still in operation today are indeed to old designs.

    This is true in the United States at least. Also they are temporarily storing used fuel rods onsite at nuclear reactors, which is less safe than encasing them permanently and burying them.
    Reason is because there's so much opposition to building new nuclear power plants. So the old ones are kept going as long as possible. And so much opposition to permanently storing nuclear waste underground.
    One point that seems to get lost is that a magnitude 9 earthquake and 10-meter tsunami is a GIANT, rare event! The other nuclear power plants that are in earthquake zones are generally not near a fault that can generate such a huge earthquake and tsunami (I don't know if any are). Geologists can predict roughly what a fault is capable of.
    The reactors at Fukushima got into trouble not just because of the power outage, but because the diesel generators - the safety backup in a power outage - got damaged by the tsunami.

  • Comment number 31.

    Comment 4, Jack Hughes.
    Interesting use of the word "modern" (as a rhetorical shield) - you may be proceeding from a position which is dating very rapidly. To plan, you have to consider what will be "modern" in the future - what will best practice be in 50 years time?

  • Comment number 32.

    #22 Bradley wrote "A change in our attitude I would advise immediately because in France the Fusion Reactor is being built. The reactor that doesn't have containment walls and instead uses a electro-magnetic shield to retain the heat. If we screw that reactor machine up, will the atlantic ocean boil into the atmosphere?"

    Having read this I assume you are unaware of the fundamental differences between Fission and Fusion. As such, please take the time to read this: http://www.jet.efda.org/fusion-basics/fusion-as-a-future-energy-source/advantages-of-fusion/

    This "Atlantic boiling reactor being built in France" is inherently safe and the most promising potential energy source being developed.

    There are absolutely no circumstances under which a Fusion reaction can "run away". If anything changes that shouldn't, the plasma will harmlessly collapse and everything will stop, instantly.

    Just in case you are worried "collapse" sounds dangerous, I can assure you it is not.

    A Plasma is just a charged gas. The heat of the plasma means the electrons separate from the atoms, which are positively charged, so you have a positively charged gas. If you remove the heat, the electrons come flooding back, leaving you with air, that is it.

    The plasma is contained within an electromagnetic field because Fusion requires things to get a little warm. Too cold and Fusion simply won't happen. If the plasma is touching the metal walls you are losing heat energy through the walls, because metals are fantastic conductors. If you are losing heat, you are wasting energy. Contain the plasma within a magnetic field (which is possible because its a charged gas and magnets and charges interact, think of how an electric motor works), you lose no heat.

    The magnetic field is also produced using electricity, the same electricity used to heat the plasma. If the power fails, the heating fails so the plasma instantly cools, again leaving us with just air.

    I hope this explanation, along with the website, has given you a scientific insight into exactly how safe Fusion is and dispelled the many myths surrounding it. Should you wish to know more browse the entirety of the website given above and should that seem bias, any A Level Physics textbook will give the same information, impartially.

  • Comment number 33.

    We all know that the world is 2/3rds water and we all know just how powerful this water, waves, tides etc can be. So surely the answer to all our energy worries has got to be in some way connected to the worlds oceans and seas.
    Instead of constantly drilling into the sea bed for more gas and oil why aren't we looking at harvesting the power of the water. The UK is one big island surrounded by water, surely this has got to be the way forward? Water gives us life, i'm quite sure it can also give us energy if only we put the money into research and development.

  • Comment number 34.

    Would this be a good time to mention - again - that *no one has solved the long term spent fuel storage problem.*

    Currently spent fuel is kept in ponds. No one has any idea what to do with it. It will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.

    It's a fire risk - if it's exposed it's likely to burst into flames and spread radiation over vast areas.

    According to an official report a spent fuel fire is more dangerous than a core meltdown and could lead to six or even seven figure casualties.

    So - nuclear works until it doesn't. Then it kills people.

    It has the potential to literally destroy entire economies - as the Japanese are finding out now.

    And it's only as good as its worst case. Unlike renewables which fail safe, nuclear risks are so great they're literally *unquantifiable*.

    You cannot assess the risk of making a country uninhabitable. You cannot put a useful number on the cost of a dead economy. And you cannot say it cannot happen - because it has in the past, and it only takes one accident, act of war, or act of terrorism to make it happen again.

    With Chernobyl, too few people know just how close that came close to a disaster of biblical proportions that would literally, without any exaggeration at all, have made most of Europe uninhabitable.

    It's happening again in Japan as radiation release is corroding the inhabitability of an expanding area. Let's not forget that we already have a 30km exclusion zone, and poisoned water and food are appearing outside it.

    If that's some people's idea of "cheap", I'd hate to find out what they consider too expensive.

  • Comment number 35.

    Very calm and balanced reporting Richard. Congratulations. The frenzy of hysteria and speculation in most media has been wild over this.

    What has been most irritating to me are so many reports of radiation but so few details, as though any level radiation is evil or harmful. And endless irrelevant references to Chernobyl.

    In any case, this is a genuine disaster on top of a genuine disaster (tsunami) on top of a genuine disaster (earthquake) and the whole thing is most sad for Japan.

    As for the future of nuclear power this will just make future plants safer. After this they may also plan for asteroid hits. There is no real alternative... unless you are thrilled about the renewed talk of coal.

    Using natural gas is one alternative but burning that fuel to make electricity seems not smart in the long term - better for home heating and vehicles - and when you factor in the environmental impacts of all those wells and pipelines it gets complicated. Moreover, that will involve LNG and LNG tankers and LNG storage facilities and that's an explosive disaster waiting to happen too.

    No easy answers. But given the number of nuclear plants quietly and safely pumping out steady mass streams of almost CO2-less electricity, compared to the number and the circumstances of accidents... and how bad they actually turn out (see the Three Mile Island Greatest Disaster That Never Happened), I see larger and safer nuclear power supplies in the future.

  • Comment number 36.

    Bob Wallum #16 wrote:

    Population pressure will make war more likely in the future.

    I wonder what population "pressure" might be, what makes you think it's increasing, what makes you think it was lower in the past and why, and finally how increasing "pressure" (whatever that might be) is compatible with a clear downward trend of deaths resulting from wars?

    clockwisehat #7 wrote:

    Now we are being given these nonsensical figures: "only 50 people died as a result of Chernobyl" I suppose this refers to deaths that happened straight away, and all the possible thousands of cancer victims that may have died prematurely across Europe are ignored, as it would be very hard to prove the cause.

    People die of cancer all the time over the place, and statistical increases in such deaths in more localized areas (such as downwind of Chernobyl) are easy enough to detect. There was as increase in children's thyroid cancer, probably the result of drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine, but no clear pattern with adults.

    However there is an ongoing legacy from radiation including birth defects.

    A UN report of 2005 found that that was not the case. Again, we must conclude that there is no clear pattern here. There are charities which trade on the widespread assumption that there was an increase in birth defects, but alas charities by their very nature tend to avoid proper public and journalistic scrutiny.

  • Comment number 37.

    The estimates for long-term Chernobyl-related cancer deaths are strongly disputed.

    The U.N. put the figure at 9,000. Greenpeace disputed this in 2006 and estimated that the number of such deaths would be 93,000, though (they said), given that there are difficulties with diagnosis, other illnesses could take that total up to at least 200,000. (The forward to that Greenpeace report, incidentally, was written by leading Russian environmentalist Dr. Alexey Yablokov, who also co-authored the report, making similar very high forecasts, which Gasman1234 mentioned in post 20. Greenpeace were then challenged by internationally renowned cancer specialist Dr Geraldine Thomas of the the Chernobyl Tissue Bank project, who said that the 9,000 figure was very likely to be the right one after all.

  • Comment number 38.

    CraigMorecambe #37 wrote:

    "The estimates for long-term Chernobyl-related cancer deaths are strongly disputed."

    From Wikipedia: "Thirty one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggest it could reach 4,000 while a Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. According to WHO, mid-2005 about only 50 deaths could be directly associated with the Chernobyl disaster."

    Whatever the actual death toll may be, the fact that estimated disagree with each other so wildly -- almost laughably -- indicates that there is great uncertainty over the matter, and that in itself is noteworthy.

    Much of the uncertainty is generated by old-fashioned conceptual confusion. The simple metric of "number of deaths caused" is far too simplistic since every living thing inevitably dies, no matter what, and dies as a result of numerous factors (i.e. various causes). A better metric would be "number of years of individuals' life lost that would not have been lost except for the Chernobyl accident", but even that is too simplistic. For example, the childhood thyroid cancer attributable to Chernobyl was at least partly caused by gross irresponsibility and foolishness on the part of Soviet scientists who did not dispose of contaminated milk.

    Whatever the complicated messy truth may be, Chernobyl clearly did not cause death on a huge scale, as a war, famine, or outbreak of a plague might.

  • Comment number 39.

    Suppose I die five minutes earlier than I otherwise would have died as a result of exposure to radiation from Chernobyl (it marginally weakened my immune system, let's say). Does it follow that "Chernobyl killed me"? Of course not.

  • Comment number 40.

    Unfortunately, all our arguments are somewhat irrelevant.

    The choices reduce to this:
    (a) Build new Generation III nuclear reactors to replace existing Generation I/II reactors.
    (b) Build new Generation III nuclear reactors to replace both existing Generation I/II reactors and coal/oil/gas power plants.
    (c) Continue some variation of the current mix, with reduced nuclear contribution.
    (d) Increased contribution from renewables, with reduced nuclear contribution.

    Unfortunately (c) means electricity prices will be highly susceptible to the cost of coal/oil/gas - and this will only rise in the future, increasingly rendering our economy uncompetitive on the global market.

    Additionally, (d) means a massive step increase in electricity prices, destroying our economy's competitiveness on the global market.

    Theoretically, renewables sound nice from a distance. Practically, right now, there is no alternative to nuclear power. So your choices are either build new nuclear, or be prepared for the UK to no longer be a 1st world country; the problem is that serious.


    I know this sounds incredibly arrogant to say, but people that would attempt to block nuclear builds (through legal processes for example) and argue otherwise simply have to be ignored - they do not understand just how screwed we already are in terms of power gaps and rising £/kW generation costs. Additionally they simply don't comprehend the scale of the energy storage/power variability problems which prevent renewables working on a large scale. I cannot be any more clear in saying - there simply is no alternative.

    If you don't want to believe me - fine - but go ask any other engineer that has been through the numbers.

  • Comment number 41.

    30. At 00:11am on 25th Mar 2011, Loreav wrote:
    "...The reactors at Fukushima got into trouble not just because of the power outage, but because the diesel generators - the safety backup in a power outage - got damaged by the tsunami..."

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Yes and it doesn't take a tsumnami to cause a diesel generator to fail. They can not start or stop for many reasons and that's why I-and apparently others- are asking whether there is more than just this single line contingency in event of power failure at plants in general.

    As dramatically shown, it is ***absolutely essential***power is maintained.

  • Comment number 42.

    41.I have worked on many large scale industrial sites that required backup power, server centres for instance have backups backing up the backups backing up the backups, grid power, diesel power and battery power, I think it was the fuel tanks to the diesel generators that were damaged - a lesson learnt here

    BTW Richard.............

    """The question is not whether it is technically feasible to scrap those plans and replace the shortfall with wind turbines, solar panels and storage capacity - clearly, it could be done."""


    Clearly it could be done??????????????????????

    It isnt clear at all

  • Comment number 43.

    #32, Brownie,
    When the U.S.A., Japan and France were deciding on where to build the first Fusion Reactor there was a several page article, I read about it. There was no fear about the fusion in the article. There was a statement that there is no wall on earth strong enough to absorb this heat without melting and that was the purpose to confining this process within electromagnetism besides the pressurization from it. There concern and still my concern is the very heat you have security about and it's true that there will be no heat if the magnetic pressure drops the fusion process stops. There will be tremendous heat if the process goes 99.999% right. It's that quantum mechanic physics .001% (imaginary numbering to emphasize least probability) a wave or a particle is here or not some of us know that probability (reality) does exist.
    Light isn't a concern to us unless it is a lazer beam. Then a altered benign substance has become similar or stronger than lightning. Here very hot and gone in a moment. What will be the aftermath of that fusion moment? This depends on our scrutiny to be ever so cautious around quantum mechanical heat factoring.
    I've melted my shoes next to a camp fire because I didn't feel the heat on my feet until it was too late. Shoes were easy to replace a moment of this heat lost to the atmosphere, unimaginable circumstances will be after that fact.
    I am for this project and not against it. It has to be done right the first time.
    Magnets break or worp under extreme duress. Can this happen during the fusion reaction? No testing on a lab table van answer that. Can thee light of the sun (heat) escape through a demagnetized 001% breach. Yes.
    China in this article claimed they already have this Fusion Reactor nearly to completion. The article I read is an old hat now. I read your attachment on fusion and I am open to science having developed an alloy to withstand this heat. That alloy can be utilized as a containment shielding then beyond the electromagnetism shielding. Fusion is like discovering a new land or continent with great resources to to be exploited. That new land, we haven't even stepped foot on yet. What's is there interior that is yet to be discovered. Angels or devils, Savages or humans, an abundance of food or an abundance of poisonous substances. We live and must accept our life is dependent upon the connection to opposites (day and night). Murphy's rule, 'what will go must go wrong'.
    Theologically Knowledge has always been heads or tails on a coin. I'm just saying spend the greater coin to make sure we end up, heads up so that we don't look like Ostriches with our heads in the sand.

  • Comment number 44.

    Is there a "Nuclear" solution to our energy needs? As far as I'm aware, we haven't anywhere to put the waste; it's not being stored in a responsible long-term manner.

  • Comment number 45.

    40 - Well said. I am not an engineer. Neither am I a nuclear physicist. I have a modest understanding of both having done A levels in the late 1950s that might have led that way - but instead my career was in computing. So please take what I say with those facts in mind.

    I am by no means convinced on global warming, but enough people are convinced that I consider it should be taken seriously. What we do in Britain is utter peanuts compared to what happens in China, India and USA. But that doesn't mean we should do anything to make it worse.

    I came to the conclusion in 2004 based on numbers and capability that the only way we could meet our obligations under the Kyoto protocol was a massive switch to nuclear power. We needed to be starting a new nuclear power station every year from then till at least 2030 and be shutting down coal stations as soon as spare capacity allowed.

    The last government dithered. We are only just getting round to even CONSIDER the questions and we fall further behind.

    Renewables are not any kind of an answer. They cannot do baseload. They are very marginal and will continue to be.

    As a seperate issue, but still to do with carbon emissions, we need our railways electrified. I was very thankful to see that at last the lines to Bristol and Cardiff will get wires. Lets hope the lines to Sheffield and Nottingham follow shortly. We need nuclear to power those lines - otherwise we are simply displacing one carbon technology with another.

    Now try imagining the wind dropping in the middle of the London rush hour and all commuter trains except those from Marylebone stopping dead as well as trains to Scotland, Leeds, Manchester Birminham and Liverpool. Plus trains in the Chunnel. Then the wind picks up and things can move again.

    As you will gather from when I did my A levels, I am crowding 70 now. I hope to see a new nuclear station in Britain open in my lifetime. But not very hopeful.

  • Comment number 46.

    RE reactors being built to earthquake standard the Wiki differers
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_I_Nuclear_Power_Plant
    Watching the continuous coverage on NHK English it seems they still have no grasp of their problem! They have cracked reactors emitting caesium, and vast number of spent fuel rods, many times the intended number,in an unknown state! A site that will not be usable for an unknown number of years, yet they are still thinking of getting some reactors back working. There should be a new International Nuclear body formed with powers to close down dangerous unsafe reactors. At present the Japanese hope to use the new 10 year licence the just got. Bearing in mind the exact reactors were deemed unsafe to operate in France in the seventies! They should be starting to move out the spent fuel rods to an other site! Both sites are now a total write off! When the stored rods are removed, start to build massive containment buildings around the reactors! I still feel this is going to get worse! Best result 25km radius permanently contaminated. Here in France yesterday the newspapers had maps showing low level radiation has spread all over Europe .
    http://blog.alexanderhiggins.com/net2/japan-nuclear-plume-radiation-map.aspx
    I notice the ground wind spread radiation is just hitting the US West coast! I hope there is no rain!

  • Comment number 47.

    The fear of death is universal. The fear of death becomes greater when the cause is invisible. Death comes to us all. Excessive exposure to radiation increases the chance of developing cancer. Cancer scares people because it kills indiscriminately. Virulent flue scares us for the same reason. Several people I have known have died of cancer, at a comparatively young age, as a (possible) result of working as radiographers.
    Let us not get too hung up on this. Cancer can also be caused by other pollutants in our environment of which we are largely ignorant of knowing about. Look at the many socially acceptable ways of dying young. I say socially acceptable because all the evidence and warnings do not stop people binge drinking, drug taking, smoking, driving dangerously etc.
    Perhaps the fear of nuclear radiation comes from the knowledge that it is associated with war and that it travels invisibly across continents.
    Perhaps fear is generated by those who have more choices, and who have the financial means to avoid thirst, starvation, heat exhaustion, hypothermia and diseases associated with poverty. Real fear should be about these things because they are far more likely.

  • Comment number 48.

    Stock taking with the benefit of time to collate information and consider a broad swathe of input is always good before committing.

    A shame therefore that the rectitude shown here has been rarely mirrored in print or broadcast elsewhere from the moment the tsunami struck, especially with matters nuclear.

    I fear that, without the benefit of avenues of counter view being enabled, an awful lot was poured forth that was open to question at the time and becomes ever more questionable in hindsight.

    'virtually living inside'

    Might that not more appropriately have been 'virtually living inside, virtually,' at least?

    http://justcreativedesign.com/2010/02/24/living-virtually-or-virtually-living/

    Some have been pretty much on site the whole time. Literally.

  • Comment number 49.

    I can hardly believe that some people still think that nuclear engergy is clean, cheap and efficent! I don't know how it is in England, but in Germany it is the taxpayers` money that pays for storing the nuclear waste. Nobody wants this site to be on his doorstep, so we don't have a solution for where the waste will lie and radiate for the next 1000 years to come! (This includes all the building material from shut down reactors too) It is like building a toilet without a septic tank or proper sewage! We are living at the expense of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and handing over the problem to them when we are not here any more. What about Sellafield? Have you forgotten all of the incidents at Sellafield with all that pollution in the Irish Sea? According to the European Commission no controls at Sellafield are possible because of the high radiation and difficult conditions caused by the accidents. Now they have build a robot to take apart the shut down reactor. This is going to take 20 years at least and will cost 500 million pounds!

  • Comment number 50.

    Finding radiation in food sourced from Japan is just the first stage. The longer the reactors are allowed to leak the greater the likelihood that the radiation will contaminate other Japanese products. Soon it will be manufactured goods, and parts for use in manufacturing. Do countries carry out any radioactivity checks on imported non food products?

  • Comment number 51.

    As i said...even with present technology...

    geothermal, microgeneration and other renewables could give more than we need.

    the problem with nuclear is scale:
    1. Plant design and storage must consider geologic timescales. Not feasible.
    2. The scale of devastation even if the chance of major accident is miniscule.

    Those that so readily dismiss renewables should do a bit more research before advocating the use of a technology that has the potential to wipe us all away.

    solar power is safe nuclear power. the sun blasts us with energy constantly, creating all our weather as well as life. solar power made fossil fuels.

    who can call that unreliable?..it's been shining 4.5 billion years. If we can harness the power of the atomic nucleus and drill down miles for oil, surely we can also this knowledge for other technologies.

  • Comment number 52.

    Interesting article but you seem to ignore the risk of uranium extraction and transportation and the still completely unresolved problem of safe "disposal" of depleted uranium – the beginning and the end of a story that should force us all to move away from nuclear energy generation NOW.
    Also, please don't dismiss the Greenpeace report and analysis:
    "The International Energy Agency has looked into future energy scenarios and concluded that if existing world nuclear power capacity could be quadrupled by 2050 its share of world energy consumption would still be below 10%. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by less than 4%."
    That means that if "we set a target of quadrupling nuclear power capacity [it] would mean building a new reactor every 10 days from now until 2050. [But] it would seem unlikely that nuclear power plants could be built fast enough to make a difference. We have only a few years left before greenhouse gas emissions need to peak and start to decline, so that we can avoid catastrophic climate change."
    We had better put our money into renewables and the reduction of energy consumption, another issue nobody seems to be taking seriously.

  • Comment number 53.

    Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, certain mushrooms in Ticino and wild boar in Bavaria – to quote just two examples published recently*) – still have levels of radioactive Cesium that are far higher than the so-called safe limits. Methinks the massive economic interests involved in the nuclear industry like to brush any problems under the carpet – current Japanese openness notwithstanding.
    *) moneta – Zeitung für Geld und Geist – #1, 16 March 2011, p. 16 (published in Olten, Switzerland)

  • Comment number 54.

    Soulwalker #49 wrote:

    "we don't have a solution for where the waste will lie and radiate for the next 1000 years to come!"

    This presupposes that nuclear technology will not advance beyond its present state. But just as we have learned to recycle more and more products that earlier generations considered mere "waste", it seems very likely that future generations will learn to recycle nuclear "waste". The very thing that makes it radioactive makes it a potential source of energy. (Compare used cooking oil -- the very thing that makes it grungy and nasty makes it a potential fuel.)

    A mature nuclear industry might employ a wide spectrum of specialized reactors for treating a wide range of different types of radioactive products, which would no longer be considered mere "waste".

    It's science fiction so far, of course, but even if it completely resisted being harnessed for energy, it might be got rid of via some sort of "controlled meltdown" -- sending it into the molten core of the Earth (which is molten in the first place because of its natural radioactivity).

    Please remember that we have as little idea of what our grandchildren will be able to do as our grandparents had of what we are able to do right now.

  • Comment number 55.

    #38. bowmanthebard wrote:

    ""From Wikipedia: "Thirty one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggest it could reach 4,000 while a Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. According to WHO, mid-2005 about only 50 deaths could be directly associated with the Chernobyl disaster."

    Classic example of 'reliable' Greenpeace information. They need to hire Tony Bliar. When are they going to launch some hysterical campaign against bananas?

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/02/16/going-bananas-over-radiation/


  • Comment number 56.

    52. MPJ wrote:

    "Also, please don't dismiss the Greenpeace report and analysis"

    Why not? Their consistently false, exaggerated, and fear-mongering propaganda should be dismissed.

  • Comment number 57.

    MPJ #52 wrote:

    "Also, please don't dismiss the Greenpeace report and analysis"

    If a Greenpeace report talks flat-footedly about "200,000 deaths" because of Chernobyl -- instead of tackling the much fuzzier grey-area of "shortened lives versus lengthened lives" -- then it's hard to not dismiss Greenpeace reports and analysis. It's just ideology talking.

    "Lengthened lives"? -- In addition to lives being shortened by the Chernobyl accident, other lives were lengthened by the absence of the carcinogen-spewing coal-fired generator that would have had to have been there instead of a working nuclear power plant. But I''d guess such thoughts are way beyond Greenpeace's cognitive capacities.

  • Comment number 58.

    The author excludes accidents from the fifties ? Why doesn't he also exclude those from the sixties, seventies (Three Miles Island) ? There are no rational arguments to exclude nuclear accidents from a specific period. It's just a way to bend the statistics.

  • Comment number 59.

    To quote Nuclear related statistics in isolation is a mistake. Others here have mentioned the road death toll over the period - which is a good point. What I'd draw readers attention to is that in the US alone there were over 100 thousand deaths in the coal mining industry alone in a hundred yr period. Thousands died constructing hydro. And as for areas now rendered useless by man made environmental screw up - we should cite along side Chernobyl the large areas of the US where underground coal mine fires have left large areas inhabitable, miles and miles of slag heaps, and my favourite 'overlooked' atrocity - the pacific plastic vortex. That last one is the size of Texas. Let us try to at least demonize even-handedly.

  • Comment number 60.

    This disaster was made much worse due to the loss of power at the plant.
    Two things occur to me.
    1. There should be a facility to use the excess heat and pressure in the reactor to run an emergency turbine fixed magnet generator to run the cooling pumps.
    (or more generally a plant should be able to achieve cold shutdown with no external power or assistance)
    2. It seems a trivial exercise for the army or air-force to get some portable generators on the site to provide power for the cooling pumps.

    These poor operators were left with no assistance for two weeks.

  • Comment number 61.

    Japanese nuclear insiders speak out about attempts to cover up the Fukushima nightmare:

    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110320x2.html

  • Comment number 62.

    All of this is food for thought for future plans for energy production. There is one bright side. Development of superconductive materials will make electronics even smaller and more efficient. Manufacturers are spending money on this because small, powerful gizmos are selling well, and they want you to buy more of them. It will also, if made into wire, decrease the loss involved in pushing electric current from any power station to the end user, from the large and wasteful percentage of loss we have with copper wire to nearly zero. With the exception of plasma televisions, most gadgets we have are using less electricity than they used to. Reduction of power demands is something we all can do and we will be the first to benefit from the smaller electricity bills.

  • Comment number 63.

    The electric plant is too close to the Pacific ocean and if one of the reactors melts through the floor it will meet up with the Pacific Ocean. Yuk!

  • Comment number 64.

    "The second point is that despite the allegations of secrecy and poor flow of information levelled against Tepco in the early days of the crisis, those allegations do not currently stand up to scrutiny."

    In your opinion Mr Black. There are plenty of correspondents who disagree, and who have also been closely involved in the containment of this incident. All along you have tended towards a less serious assessment of the situation, and yet the whole has been, and continues to be, a roller coaster with no one capable of making objective assessment of the kind that would have been newsworthy. And so it has been a case of educated guesses. You have set your pitch, fine, but please do not claim to know whether Tepco have been totally co-operative with either you or anyone else. You simply cannot know that.

  • Comment number 65.

    A well thought through and informative piece. It would be good to see more comment from his reporter in the coming weeks and months, perhaps exploring what he learnt about the atmosphere at the plant during the emergency and his own feelings of being so close to it all.

    He is right when he says that the future of nuclear will come down to a judgement of risk by people and nations and that the full extent of the contamination there may not be known for years. It is also interesting to note that while for many people nothing serious has "happened", its obvious that the worlds most advanced and organized country has been wrestling with this problem for weeks and its still not fully under control. How many other countries would perform as well under similar circumstances, especially in the context of other countries who are considering new nuclear power programs.

  • Comment number 66.

    The party responsible for this entire terrible situation is entirely th American corp GE. They convinced th Japanese to use their design & their conception of th ideal place t site th damn thing.

  • Comment number 67.

    As an engineer and someone who studied the wider effects of nuclear radiation, personally experienced in plant design and systems engineering in industrial sites and having looked at the news data supplied, truely the dangers of the out of control and little contained situation is fearfully understated.
    Truly the Japanese may be looking at the need to evacuate Tokyo city.
    Further, there is no discussion that radioactive iodine while having a theoretical biological life, so assumed to be of low risk, yes mitigated by iodine intake assumes no further contamination. The increasing significant contamination is an indicator of a far more serious hidden long term problem. Iodine is a tracer, like in warfare; the real bullets do not glow, and hit you unseen.
    Complicating and certainly the nemesis of the dreadful problem is the proximity of these overcooked reactor sites to each other making normal recovery and straightforward containment impossible.
    The new reports speak volumes to a pragmatic forward looking engineer, that the horrifying invisible situation is totally understated.
    Yes, we cannot risk unnecessarily panicking people but the truth is people should not be in Tokyo now. The high risk is weighed now against economic and practical realities. Statistics did not predict this accident for sure. Yet it happened wildly beyond anyone imagination. At what stage do we become a statistical risk? Who chooses when we substitute fertility for in-fertility?
    I urge my country and any others to welcome fully any refugee and anyone wanting to leave the area.
    This is one of the evolving horrors that feared when I personally protested against the use of nuclear technology, where the radioactive isotopes have deadly lifetime’s way beyond our civilizations possible life time, and know no borders. We, the world’s people, need to have a rethink.
    Nuclear power does not ensure a safe future, as it assumes that our societies are organized in sophisticated responsible cross -border co-operatives forever. Tell me how we can ensure this forever?

  • Comment number 68.

    reply to bowmanthebeard

    You are free to base your future on "science fiction", but I would not like to do the same for my children or theirs! At the German ex atomic powerplant presently being dismantled a woman there said much the same thing as you: Yes, we dont have any solutions to this disposal problem, but we trust that someone will find one in the future. In other words: we have our comfortable toilet and no sewage pipes, but the mess ... well we trust someone will look after it eventually if it stinks too much to high heaven. If scientist or people with this stance run our atomic plants God be with us! Or rather with future generations. Surely a responsible way of action is to have a sewer first and then install the toilet.

    If you include the cost of protection of all the contaminated sites, spent fuel etc. for the next couple of hundred years and all the taxpayers subsidies sunk into atomic energy so far, as well as the cost of cleaning up the messes after accidents like in Japan, electric energy from atomic plants will show up as the most expensive energy in human history.

  • Comment number 69.

    Looks like an up to date report on the status of the plants...

    http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_Fukushima_Daiichi_two_weeks_on_2503111.html

  • Comment number 70.

    Hello from Tokyo and thanks for the thoughts but I just can not be without pointing out a serious mistake in the article.

    It says: "a report by Kyodo News, Japan's principal news agency"
    Unfortunately Kyodo News is as much principal as The Sun is the principal newspaper in present day England ... actually even less than that.

    Principal and unbiased news come from NHK: http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/



  • Comment number 71.

    Join me, wherever you are, for the Earth Hour event. So at 8.30 this evening, switch off your lights (if you haven't already done so). :-)

  • Comment number 72.

    Soulwalker #68 wrote:

    'You are free to base your future on "science fiction"'

    I'm not "basing" my speculation about the future on science fiction, so much as admitting it's speculative, and suggesting that it needn't be all bad. Trying to guess what the future will be like is futurology, and futurology is no science. Your own speculation about the future -- which assumes that future generations of humans will not be better equipped to deal with nuclear waste than we are -- is also futurology.

    Personally, I think it is a better guess that technology will advance rather than that it will not advance.

    "electric energy from atomic plants will show up as the most expensive energy in human history"

    Again, this makes a series of guesses about the future, all of which are pessimistic. That is futurology again, which is fine, but here it is not admitted to be a matter of speculation. Your futurology is entirely dystopian, like many twentieth century novels, which strikes me as expressing an anti-technological ideology.

  • Comment number 73.

    cpcotton #67 wrote:

    "Nuclear power does not ensure a safe future, as it assumes that our societies are organized in sophisticated responsible cross -border co-operatives forever. Tell me how we can ensure this forever?"

    We can't. Life is risk. We have to get used to risk, deal with it sensibly, and then die. That's what happens.

  • Comment number 74.

    There is much to resemble banking in the nuclear sector.

    If it works well its promulgators get very rich. If it fails the world suffers and someone else, the rest of us do what we can to clear up the mess. The former cannot go wrong it would appear.

    It would hardly be surprising therefore if, like banking, it attracted a particular type.

    This must change, and I expect the Japanese people will think so too.

    The least they will probably demand, and rightly, is that the riches and assets of those at TEPCO who made fortunes are seized, and used towards the cost of restatement, even if it's only a small fraction of the cost. If there's a case to bring charges such as involuntary manslaughter, then they should very much be brought too.

    Let's hope that sets the benchmark for capitalism generally around the world.

    (I'd say that satisfies the "deal with it sensibly" to which posting 73 refers re risk).

  • Comment number 75.

    bowmanthebard @many

    Your thesis seems to be that life is risk, so bury your head in the sand.

    I suggest you go and start a business in Pripyat - except that you can't because it's not fit for human habitation. Believe you me, if it were, the Ukrainians would be recolonising it.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,752688,00.html

    As for Monbiot, he seems to have had an emotional epiphany. This earlier article by him demonstrates his lack of any understanding of the science, as well as ignorance of the facts. A good sixth for student could do better.

    http://www.monbiot.com/2011/03/16/atomised

    I don't claim to have the answers, but I know nonsense when I see it!

  • Comment number 76.

    What we need now is a crash course in radiation from fallout for the journalists reporting this. As long as there are people running around with Geiger counters and making comparisons to air plane flights, chest X-rays and background radiation ie. external ionizing radiation, you are being mislead by the nuclear industry spin machine and regulatorily captured officials.

    We should not be interested in 'radiation' but in contamination: radioisotopes that you can breath in or consume into your body giving a dose rate completely different from those given to the media by the authorities. You cannot compare the doses and they are completely misleading.

    Let me explain. Walking past a microgram particle of caesium-137 will indeed give you a harmless gamma dose compared to background radiation and the officials measuring it will be able to release nice figures for the press. But for the local people having to live there for the next 100 years, digesting that same particle, biochemically similar to potassium, with a biological half-life or longevity in the body of some 70 days - will give them 'a dose of their lives'. Even more so for strontium-90 which does not show up in Geiger counters but is a strong beta source and accumulation in the bones causing leukemia in the local population for decades to come.

    Please learn about Sieverts, Rads, Curie and Becquerel and the different isotopes and their effect. Long term contamination of the soil by long half-life bioaccumulating radioisotopes is what is the key to determining the fate of Japan. Please interview someone who can authoritatively explain this for you: for example Dr Helen Caldicott, MD. I work for the military so I can't be interviewed.

    If you overlay the CIA World Handbook Chernobyl fallout map from 1996 on top of Japan Google maps you get this: http://koti.mbnet.fi/tehuty/falloutmap.jpg That is most of northern Japan uninhabitable for a generation.

  • Comment number 77.

    Richard - I have been watching the nuclear debate for about forty years. Has there ever been nuclear generation which was "profitable" without hidden state subsidies? These should include the costs of cleanup and waste storage to be borne by future generations.

    You say "Given that we are past the era of state direction..... But this is talking about the triumph of an ideology which has shown itself to be inadequate and not congruent to reality.

    There must be significant collective provision for future energy needs, which may well involve public subsidy. One problem with some renewables is storage. However, I suspect that, if there's a will, this is soluble with improved battery technology and use of electrolysis to produce hydrogen.

    There must also be tax and subsidy regimes to encourage energy efficiency. I've recently installed 3w led spots in my kitchen. I experimented a year ago and the results weren't so good, but now they are better and more compact than the 7w cfl lights they replaced. Each 3w spot has 260lm light output. The technology is constantly improving.

  • Comment number 78.

    @76 Ransu

    Excellent comment and link. Send it to Monbiot!

  • Comment number 79.

    #26. At 23:08pm on 24th Mar 2011, Eddy from Waring wrote:

    ...
    However, you in effect paraphrase my point re plants like Fukushima rather than refute it. The point is I, (and I expect millions of others) were led to believe a nuclear reactor could be "shut down". We reasonably took that to mean rendered passive. That has now been revealed blatantly clearly as not possible, and the implicit misleading also exposed. Accordingly we are now doubly mistrustful of anything else the nuclear interest may have to say to us.
    ===========================================
    Of course you can shut a nuclear plant down, its just that it takes five or ten days for a large reactor to shut down - the Japanese didn't have four or five days. The whole problem at Fukushima was that the backup and subsidiary systems weren't designed to survive a tsunami. It also highlighted that the reactors didn't have the ability to be passively cooled unlike modern designs, and above all that like Chernobyl the reactors were an old fashioned and inferior design (boiling water).

    In design terms (to me) all reactors including their subsystems should be designed to survive tsunami like events. It is expensive but in comparison to the plants lifetime the cost is almost nothing, we are talking about a strong water-proof building - like a bunker.
    -----

    Saying all the above this disaster is still another big proof that nuclear paranoia and hysteria is almost totally overblown.

    If we want to talk about 'nuclear' killers then radiation through coal- radium through mining plus uranium release through burning kill something like several thousand people every year. And radiation from coal has been killing people for hundreds or thousands of years.
    Mind you coal isn't anywhere near to being the biggest killer through radiation, over the years that big reactor in the sky has probably killed tens of millions of people through its radiation. Yes ban the sun thats what the anti-nuclear lobby really want. As I've said before, living systems get harmed by radiation but they are designed (evolved) to survive and withstand high levels for sustained periods. Such as thousand to ten thousand year plus long events that happen when the Earths magnetic shields fail during pole reversal.

  • Comment number 80.

    My last contribution today. Can we guarantee that our decision making processes are better than this muddle?

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,752696,00.html

    Look at key members of this government, and the last one. When under pressure from a determined commercial lobby, would any of them have a clue about what questions to ask?

  • Comment number 81.

    So anyone tracking down the commerical and health sources of radiation that were washed away by the tsunami?
    Or are they just lying in a field somewhere slowly decaying?

  • Comment number 82.

    Sasha Clarkson #75 wrote:

    "Your thesis seems to be that life is risk, so bury your head in the sand."

    My thesis is that we are all mortal, so we should learn to accommodate risk without pretending that we are immortal.

    For example, a report that says that Chernobyl "caused 400,000 deaths" assumes that otherwise immortal people had their immortality snatched away from them. That is a ludicrous measure of risk. It is Greenpeace who is burying its head in the sand, by denying the fact of human mortality.

  • Comment number 83.

    Dear Sasha, I wish there would be something I could say to George. It's been a decade since I've been back there. He is his old self, riding his little trip and preaching to his choir. I wish him all the best in his quest for human rights and social justice - but he's always been an apologist for the environmental activists - all the while riding their fame. I too read his recent articles on Fukushima which lack any substance and really thought. He is perfectly educated enough to be capable of informing himself of the technological and scientific aspects but he chooses to ignore them. He has chosen his path long time ago and I don't feel anyone can convince him otherwise.

    Be strong and keep up the good work! - Ransu, Finland

  • Comment number 84.

    62. At 23:15pm on 25th Mar 2011, quaschrome wrote:

    "...There is one bright side..."

    How can filling the world with cheap electric gizmos that are contaminated with radioactivity because they were made in Japan be construed as a bright side?


  • Comment number 85.

    Actually there are a few things that people have overlooked here:
    • After the quark Fukushima went into shut done for a full hour before it lost all electricity. Imagine what would have happened had it been running a full load when the electricity when off. The core would have very quickly boil all water in the core and then burnt through the reactor.
    • Now imagine this happening to one of the reactors on the South Coast or in Northern France. The result would be a total write-off of City of London, all the major banks would leave. How much would this cost the UK?
    So the question is, no matter how painful it is to find alternatives, can we afford the risk of Nuclear Power?
    In my opinion the answer is no especially as there are good alternatives that will make better use of what we have, such as:
    • Combined heat and power at home,
    • Solar power wind power.
    • Not to mention mass solar generation in locations like the South of Spain and Morocco either of which is supposed to be capable to generating enough electricity to supply the whole of Northern Europe.
    We need to start getting a grip on the alternative / renewable technology now.

  • Comment number 86.

    Whatever our long-term nuclear position, we need, immediately:

    To close down any reactor that does not have multiple, comprehensive back-up cooling systems and a compulsory testing, maintenance and inspection regime, carried out transparently by independent inprectors.

    If none of them have this then "shut them all down" (not that it appears we can within a reasonable meaning of the word anyway).

    I'd rather make do with a few power cuts for now.

  • Comment number 87.

    To all:
    One unfortunate worker killed by hydrogen deflagration, several others 160mSv irradiated (if only 160mSv, no harm at all) and we are into a scenario of Catastroph, immediately leading to "stop nuclear energy and use renewable".

    When an airliner crashes and kills 500 person, shall we stop air traffic for ever?
    When a car ferry goes to the Baltic bottom with 750 dead, shall we stop navigation?

    One can see the effect of ideology upon otherwise smart & educated persons.

    Renewable energies: Nice & romantic, quite used in past milleniums (wind mills, sail ships,...) they have been abandoned because unfortunately unable to sustain our industrial development. Lighting saving is nice, house insulation too, but these are droplets in front of our society needs. For every kilowatthour we individually use, Industry spends 3kWh and burns 1 pound of oil. In case we save 0.5 kWh, Industry would not save anything, unless supermarkets become deprived of goods, cars rust, houses degrade and health research dwindles.
    Energy is society blood.

  • Comment number 88.

    Duperray #87 wrote:

    "One can see the effect of ideology upon otherwise smart & educated persons."

    It is certainly remarkable how attitudes to radiation are so different from attitudes to other sorts of danger. Everyone accepts that Chernobyl was easily the worst nuclear accident of all time, yet many turn a blind eye to the fact that as disasters go, it was a relatively small-scale disaster. It probably shortened many thousands of lives, but of those, many were not shortened by all that much. Scientists were genuinely surprised by the fact that the expected huge increase in adult cancer rates did not occur. There is no very clear evidence of increased birth defects.

    The clear increase in childhood thyroid cancer was caused by Chernobyl all right -- combined with a stunning neglect on the part of scientists who did not insist on disposal of milk that was known to be contaminated. I don't think these criminals should be exonerated, as they are if all we do is blame "nuclear power" in the abstract. Let us not protect priests, scientists and the like -- big shots whose "expertise" we are supposed not to question.

    If you hate Big Oil, go for nuclear.

    If you like egalitarianism, go for nuclear too, so that the risks of energy-production are shared more widely by society in general (and middle-class engineers in particular) rather than impoverished coal miners.

  • Comment number 89.

    #82. bowmanthebard wrote:

    "For example, a report that says that Chernobyl "caused 400,000 deaths" assumes that otherwise immortal people had their immortality snatched away from them. That is a ludicrous measure of risk. It is Greenpeace who is burying its head in the sand, by denying the fact of human mortality."

    No, no bowmanthebard. Apparently all human deaths since 1945 were ultimately caused by Hiroshima. I'm not sure of the exact total but Greenpeace probably has some conservative estimates... possibly less than a zillion.

    In any case, with all the mass hysteria and misinformation spinning around out there, and in these comments, seems reasonable that we can all make stuff up since the media does.

  • Comment number 90.

    #71. sensiblegrannie wrote:

    "Join me, wherever you are, for the Earth Hour event. So at 8.30 this evening, switch off your lights (if you haven't already done so). :-)"

    I see that it is almost time there (UK) now for the Great WWF Lemming Hour. We have our lights tuirned off now so I guess that will cover it. Time to go outside for a nice walk in the spring sun.

    Every hour is Earth Hour in North Korea.

  • Comment number 91.

    "No, no bowmanthebard. Apparently all human deaths since 1945 were ultimately caused by Hiroshima. I'm not sure of the exact total but Greenpeace probably has some conservative estimates... possibly less than a zillion."

    bowman and rockies....the statler and waldorf of bbc blogging?

  • Comment number 92.

    #91 - rossglory... I'm shocked, shocked, to see you using electricity during Earth Hour! Don't you care about the children?

  • Comment number 93.

    The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity.

    Quoted from Canadian academic Ross McKitrick.

    He continues...

    "Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century. Every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity..."

    Then

    "People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their
    fridge,
    stove,
    microwave,
    computer,
    water heater,
    lights,
    TV
    and all other appliances for a month, not an hour.

  • Comment number 94.

    Humans, humans, humans. We cannot ignore the effect radiation has on microorganisms, from the soil food web to marine microbes. Energy from coal does affect humans but it's pollution doesn't destroy the vital inter-reliance we share with micro life. We must reduce our demand and concentrate on energy generation that protects the micro-life source, the basis of Nature.

  • Comment number 95.

    #93 Jack Hughes

    I have to disagree with you. Earth Hour was an event, no more and no less. You can make of it what you will and that remains your opinion, no more and no less.

    And getting used to not having electricity is simply a matter of how long it takes for an addiction to wear off; any addictive substance has a a half life often twice as dangerous as having the real thing, but, once the mind and body have adjusted there will come a time when we have all but forgotten what it was like to have whatever it was. And we will also have become increasingly innovative and imaginative about alternative ways of doing what is essential. Of course without electricity the change would be massive to negotiate, massive but not impossible.

    My concern is the corner cutting in high risk energy provision as highlighted by the fears of those employed by Tepco who feel they have been betrayed into working in highly dangerous conditions in Fukushima after the earthquake struck. It is a mistrust seen too often to be just an exception. Corporations have much more than just responsibility to their shareholders, something increasingly forgotten over a few generations of humanity and nuclear power plant types.

  • Comment number 96.

    Earth hour was brilliant even though it was totally out of my comfort zone. Our event was held in the woods. To get there without light was a challenge. The event involved sitting around a camp fire, singing, drumming, dancing, poetry, music and eating food cooked over an open fire. The chat was meaningful with no mention of trivia from TV. I thought of manysummits and his virtual camp fire. We made wish/prayer flags and hung them up to flutter in the wind. Nice!

  • Comment number 97.

    Who has insured Fukushima? Not just the plant itself, but the public liability insurance for the immediate losses and clean-up, and potentially for the cancers to come? I suspect that the public liability risk from a nuclear power station in these terms is not insurable -and it will be the Japanese people that have to bear the cost.

    If the UK is going ahead with new nuclear stations, will they have to insure themselves, or will (as is the case now) they be insured by the government - a huge hidden taxpayer subsidy?

  • Comment number 98.

    An estimated 2 billion people joined in earth hour - going without electric light for an hour on Saturday night.

    They mostly live in rural parts of Africa and Asia - and places like Papua New Guinea.
    Every hour is earth hour for these people. They have never enjoyed the benefits of electricity:

    hygiene
    reading in the evening for education
    power tools for more productive work
    healthcare

    Will they ever enjoy these things ?

  • Comment number 99.

    Cloud-Cuckoo,
    You can be sure that insurance pay-out expenses are always met by the population. The more people protest, the more governments and insurance brokers will device alternative ways of getting money out of the population to cover such major costs. As I understand it, insurance is a bit like gambling and the very big win/losses cannot always be met by conventional means. Hiked taxes and devaluation of money usually does the trick when there is not enough money in the pot.

  • Comment number 100.

    Here's a sensible BBC viewpoint on radiation:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12860842

 

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