Three Lessons From The Japanese Nuclear Disaster
    By Sascha Vongehr | March 29th 2011 08:01 AM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    The disaster at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, is still unfolding. It is still not ensured that the reactors will stay under the partial control achieved. The media keep downplaying the problems, focusing on any good news it can make up: That electricity has been brought to all six reactors is “news” every day again for over a week now. The electricity, although brought in, is still neither connected to most of the reactor blocks, nor do you hear anybody asking what electricity is supposed to do with the broken equipment in those blocks.

    Actually, the problems are getting worse; no spin can hide that anymore. Ever more radioactive material leaks out, now even plutonium. There is as yet no solution to the catastrophe even suggested. They keep pouring water on the problem areas and hope for the best, literally. The run-off carries radioactive material into the nearby ocean and ground water. There is no end in sight.

    Almost every day, officials are forced to admit more mistakes, violations of safety codes, downplaying risks, not reporting radiation levels, not reporting whole explosions, evacuating too little too late, distribution of potassium iodide only three days after it was necessary even according to official sources, loading storage facilities beyond capacity, and so forth.

    What are the most important lessons we could learn these few weeks? The top insights may be the following three.

    1) The Main Problem is Conventional not Nuclear

    Nuclear reactors cannot actually be switched off. All six reactor blocks at the plant experienced trouble. Some started to do so as much as several days after the earthquake, although half of them were off-line during the earthquake – they were already “switched off” all along! It was not only the reactors that gave rise to the current problems. Equally important are the so called “spent” fuel rod storage facilities. This strongly reminds us: one cannot switch the reaction off even if the fuel is supposedly “spent”.

    The difficulties with nuclear emergencies are the usual bunching of failures with entirely conventional technology (!) when trying to keep the nuclear reaction under control in unusual circumstances. (Please note that this summary cannot go into the details; plenty of relevant background information is provided in four previous articles, especially here, here, and here)

    The present failures occurred in the technologically most advanced society of Japan. One can only expect worse from similar emergencies in the US or say China, which currently builds many new nuclear power plants.

    Usual routine operation leads to emergencies more often than natural disasters. This further stresses that the main problem is not the nuclear technology as such. The main problem is the necessity of humans being involved and all that this implies, the pressures of human society, including economical and political constraints during as well as long before any breaking emergency.

    With the main problems being mostly conventional, there is no reason to expect the failure rate to decrease. Without exiting nuclear energy, we will have such nuclear disasters at about the now empirically established rate.

    Block 3 of the Fukushima nuclear plant –the one with MOX fuel rods which contain large amounts of extremely poisonous plutonium that now leaks out. It is still not under control at the time of this posting. Workers keep spraying it with water, pumping water were they can, and hope for the best.

    2) The Media have Changed, But in Questionable Ways

    That the media largely downplays the dangers of established big business is nothing unexpected, but there is one fresh issue: The internet does little to balance corporate media. It merely adds what defenders of traditional newspapers always claimed: Lots more of unreliable, undigested misinformation. The worst aspect is: It was precisely many so called science sites and blogs that let themselves be fed and actively contribute to biased misinformation. (Again, details have been discussed before.)

    Old school journalists are correct in that one problem with the new media is their amateurish dealing with raw information. Information must always be interpreted with regard to its source. The shallowness of much of the online world is disconcerting. The new media claim to be better at covering the relevant science than traditional media care to do. What actually results is that the disaster is often reduced to a “we know how to convert milliSievert into microSievert” issue without any of the deeper background questioning that good journalism is all about.

    The main science involved is not sexy nuclear physics, but messy sociology, ugly psychology, and ever repeating history. Industrial disasters are never a from sociological considerations divorced “hard science” issue about nuclear radiation or engineering. Admitting that a certain species of long nosed ape is the most important factor is not a conspiracy theory, fear mongering, anti-nuclear industry politics or anything remotely like that.

    3) The Public has Perhaps Become a Little Wiser

    Downplaying by officials, the media, the involved industry and so on are no news. Leaks, whether they are oil leaks or radioactive ones, are invariably kept secret for too long, radiation monitors are taken off-line when they are most needed, and the information that gets through is heavily framed and distorted. The public is only “informed” with the aim of avoiding the appearance of those in power not being in control.

    Contrary to all the derogatory snobbishness displayed by elitists who chide the stupid, uneducated rubble, the public is largely aware of their dependence and how it is exploited. You do not need a science education or to remember exact data in order to remember that you have been taken advantage of before.

    Taking simple precautions like staying indoors in case of a leak is often all that is needed, if you could rely on being informed about a leak. You cannot make informed decisions if bad news is withheld. Being the ones who pay the price with their families’ health, the public of course fears the “nothing to see here” type news. At least some people do learn once in a while. Dishonesty and lack of transparency is what gives rise to healthy skepticism and precaution.


    On grounds of this analysis, there is almost no difference between the Windscale reactor fire in the UK in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, or Fukushima in 2011, to just list the most well known nuclear disasters. Human society has largely not learned from the previous lessons and there is no indication of that this will be different this time around.

    Large earthquakes are not bad luck, as they do happen with certainty – we just cannot predict when. Not having had a complete core meltdown without really knowing why – that is luck. Experts know that we have been very lucky in Three Mile Island and that we have been also quite lucky up to now in Fukushima.

    Nevertheless, the number of radioactive no-go zones that next generations will have to properly deal with is increasing. We do not know where to finally store the radioactive products and “spent” fuel safely for thousands of years. With new data and insights coming in, we must learn and at times throw out our pet assumptions - such is true science. We thought we may be able to control nuclear power, but we now know that we are too silly to handle that dragon.


    I agree with everything you have posted. When the IAEA disseminates as fact information provided by a group of Japanese nuclear lobbyists this is the end result. Money trumps lives every time.

    I appreciate you bringing Fuckyoushima back to the top. I feel it will be an important topic for decades. Perhaps Hank can make a visible permanent link to it where people can get clear updates and comment. Every day or so I do an advanced Google search on Fuku… … filtered to links within the last 24 hours. I would prefer something better. The physics is fascinating. The sociology is also very interesting … albeit … hard to stomach.
    I'm fascinated that this all started because he felt like I was being opportunistic for writing an article dispelling the notion that the Moon caused the earthquake (Riding An Earthquake Wave) and has since written more articles about this earthquake than the rest of the site combined.
    1) I did not attack you for the supermoon article or for being opportunistic.
    2) The article in question was this one, the criticism was about the balance between fast versus how well thought through.
    3) That article you link to is the only article about that earthquake, and it isn't even about the earthquake.
    Glad to see you can log in again. Sad to see that it is not me who brings Suckmeshima back to the top - it still brings itself to the top - as I said before, this is not over. I sure hope it does not - I derive no pleasure from dancing around "I told you so, I told you so".
    Nevertheless, the number of radioactive no-go zones that next generations will have to properly deal with is increasing. We do not know where to finally store the radioactive products and “spent” fuel safely for thousands of years. With new data and insights coming in, we must learn and at times throw out our pet assumptions - such is true science. We thought we may be able to control nuclear power, but we now know that we are too silly to handle that dragon.
    Tell me, couldn't it make economic/environmental sense to put it in rockets and send it to the sun? [keep it topped up for a bit? ;-) ]
    I suppose, even if that were possible, we'd then find we needed it at some point in the future, perhaps for a different purpose

    Not a chance Henry, it's very heavy and there's a lot of it. If(when if you listen to Sascha) there was a launch accident, it'd be discharged into the air over a much larger area.

    Personally, if I were to look for a place for really long term storage, it'd be deep in a subducting plate, where it's end up deep in the earth in the far future.
    Never is a long time.
    so .. when do we get superpowers?

    Nuclear power has always been a great lie. All that a nuclear power plant produces is steam to turn generators that produce electricity. Nuclear power plants are hugely expensive tea kettles that produce permanent pollution. The so called spent fuel rods remain dangerous to all living things for tens of thousands of years. Steam can be produced using solar power or geothermal heat. Solar panels directly produce electricity. Water powered generators (hydro electric power) produce electricity without polluting the water. Wind powered generators may kill a few birds but they do not permanently pollute the planet. Anyone promoting so called nuclear power is a sociopath.

    Best thing to come out of a Japanese crisis....this is getting loads of publicity

    More energy than a nuclear reactor

    Drs. Vongehr and Mammen, and all the knowlegeble commenters, thanks for all your explanations of what happens in the world of nuclear physics, and its application in commercial reactors, in particular this unfolding disaster in Japan. May we all consider the selfless work those people are doing, and the cost to themselves and their families on all our behalf.

    The question now is, given the extent of our dependence on nuclear reactors for electrical generation, with what can we replace, say, U.S. generating capacity, if we are compelled to shut down a significant number of aging plants without driving up the cost of fuels used for heating and transportation?

    While wind and solar sources are nice alternatives, the sheer volume required cannot be matched, from what I have seen. That brings us back to coal, oil, and gas as the fuels that can meet the needs of a nation of 300+ million.

    Assume I am a politician with a large component of poor constituents, and am looking for answers that:

    1. Cause no increase in the cost to the home owner/renter/car owner.

    As a point of order, an increase of any energy source cost is most punitive to the poorest of society, who can least afford it. Doubling an inner city familiy's electric bill, let alone creating $4-5 gasoline, as some in politics want to do is catastrophic. This literally spells the difference between barely surviving, and subjecting them to crushing economics, made even worse if the only job they may have access to is lost due to higher energy costs. I know something of this, as I spend quite a bit of time in said environments, not some office that "studies" inner city issues, where those who do the "studying" never even see a poor person.

    Quite literally, there are millions in this predicament, now bracing for the higher energy costs they know are coming, and we still have no viable national energy policy in place, other to import from what may become some very unreliable sources... .

    For the sake of those stand to lose the most, what do any of you recommend be done?

    Admit that air-conditioning was/is a bad idea for general housing needs. Encourage people to migrate northward (reduce subsidies, yada yada) Reinvent basic housing so that it can naturally be cooler and comfortable in southern climes. In arid locales, nighttime cooling can easily carry over into the day … This is more difficult to pull off in Houston, of course, and Florida should never been so heavily populated. Be comfortable wearing white robes … without feeling that you are Jesus Freaks or 13th century Muslims. Wear white hats. Use parasols. Simple things like these will NEVER be implemented or fashionable again. The insurmountable challenges are not scientific, they are sociological I still think that Nuclear Power can be designed to be reasonably safe (for robots or transhumans). If the Japanese had simply raised the backup generators and control rooms 30 or 40 feet, the tsunami would not have been a problem. I’m still waiting for a robot to see if there are cracks in the reactor floors. I suppose that even there, one could have designed a floor that rolls free of what the earth is doing below … or put the reactors on floating islands (as we do with aircraft carriers). The fundamental problems are in the limits as to what humans can consistently rise up to sociologically ….

    An interesting idea.  Instead of only the rich being able to afford nice weather, only the rich will be able to afford terrible weather.   Buy property in Portsmouth right now!!
    Yeah, put reactors on floating islands, what could possibly go wrong with that!
    I recently came across a comment that appeared on a number of blogs to the effect that the radiation level at Reactor 1 had exceeded the maximum sensor level of 100Sv/h. At first I thought this was ill-informed or made up, but it appears it's true; the source is here (select the option for displaying the text in English):

    It appears that this pertains to the level at (or in) the drywell. I'm knowledgeable about science but not about nuclear engineering. Can anyone shed some light on what this means in terms of the reactor condition, especially in relation to the apparently lower levels at Reactors 2 and 3?