It is raining outside right now. And coming down with the rain are measurable -- if trace -- quantities of radioisotopes from Japan's crippled nuclear reactors. What we are being exposed to in California today is not a reflection of the current situation in Japan, though. These winds left Japan right after the first radiation releases, and the situation has gotten significantly worse in the past four days. We are not yet at Chernobyl levels, but this is obviously much worse than Three Mile Island.
But while we don't know the most important thing -- how bad is this going to get -- we already know some very disturbing things -- things that go far beyond the reality that an 8.9 earthquake followed by a tsunami is going to create enormous problems.
First, we know that the nuclear industry and its associated government regulators, in both Japan and the U.S., have not learned to tell the truth. Communications are opaque, intended to soothe not inform, to conceal, not reveal. What Admiral Hyman Rickover once called "the nuclear priesthood" is still celebrating its rituals in a language that the rest of us are not intended to understand.
As I previously blogged, early last Sunday morning, a colleague who had previously managed TVA's Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, the twin to the Japanese reactors, emailed me a detailed description of what had actually happened at Fukushima Daiichi. His email predicted precisely the events that were confirmed two days later by the Japanese authorities as having happened -- so they obviously knew the truth on Sunday. But what did they say? As late as Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yuko Edano said, "I have received reports that the containment vessel is sound. I understand that there is little possibility that radioactive materials are being released in large amounts."
The media have reported that all over Japan the public is enraged at their inability to get straightforward information from their own government and from Tokyo Electric. The International Atomic Energy Commission is still, today, asking the Japanese government to provide more information.
This pattern of covering up bungled safety errors has long characterized the Japanese nuclear complex, with a very cozy insider relationship between the government and the nuclear industry.
On Wednesday, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Gregory Jaczko told Congress that things were much worse than the Japanese were admitting. Once again, the Japanese eventually had to concede that Jaczko was right. They admitted that they might have to entomb the reactors in concrete, the measure finally taken at Chernobyl -- but one that worked only after extraordinary amounts of radiation had been released and, by some studies, the lifespans of one million people shortened.
But while the NRC's Jaczko on Tuesday was willing to describe far more of what was happening in Japan than the Japanese themselves, U.S. nuclear authorities are clearly unable or unwilling to tell us the truth about our own risks. On March 13 -- when the magnitude of the radiation releases to come was obviously a complete mystery -- the NRC pledged that "Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radiation." When the first bits of radiation arrived in the U.S. today, health officials in Los Angeles said "Our position has not changed: We still do not expect to see an increase in harmful levels of radiation in California."
What is lacking in all of this are any simple explanation of what the authorities are defining as "harmful," what the possible range of exposures are, and what potential level of releases from Fukushima Daiichi are being taken into account. How bad a scenario are they considering? The information that is being released is unhelpful and won't enable anyone to judge their actual risk. One expert said, intending to be reassuring, that the level being experienced in California was only "one microsievert", about 1/100th of the exposure from a chest X-ray. But one microsievert over what period of time? A week? A day? An hour? A minute? A microsievert a minute is equivalent to a chest X-Ray every two hours -- a very big deal indeed.
The second thing that the crisis reveals is that the nuclear energy endeavor is chock full of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls "Black Swans": high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations. Taleb argues that history is much more dominated than we understand by such Black Swans, things that we have a hard time imagining could happen (just as we expect a swan to be white) until we encounter them, after which we explain them as "just too improbable to have been predicted." Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were fundamentally different than Fukushima Daiichi. In both the Ukraine and Pennsylvania, a single reactor encountered serious operational problems on its own, and plant operators reacted improperly to control them. The reactors and their operators failed to behave as expected.
Here there is no evidence whatsoever of any internal or operator failure in the reactors -- yet we have six nuclear reactors in a state of partial meltdown. The reactors themselves were not destroyed, so far as we know, or even damaged, by the earthquake and the tsunami (which led some nuclear advocates to argue that the disaster was actually proof of the safety of nuclear power!). What happened instead was an unanticipated system failure -- the tsunami took out the back-up power system, after the earthquake had triggered the automatic shut-down of the reactor itself and the electricity it generates. The reactor shut-down system performed perfectly -- if there had been earthquake damage the reactor would have been stopped. What the designers failed to take into account, however, was that a nuclear power plant deprived of both its own primary power and its back-up power burns itself up -- automatically -- because none of its cooling systems can operate without power. Now this is a design problem that can be remedied by providing secure and redundant back-up power. But that doesn't mean that there are not other -- perhaps many other -- Black Swans waiting to provide ugly surprises for the nuclear energy industry.
There is simply no reason to think that Fukushima is the last unanticipated design flaw in the nuclear complex. Or that the next one will not be even worse, just as the really bad savings-and-loan crisis in the U.S., the first Black Swan triggered by financial market deregulation, was followed by the vastly worse mortgage meltdown of 2008. Nuclear power is a Black Swan problem not because failure is frequent -- it's not -- but because the magnitude of failure can be intolerable.
The third staggering lesson is that those who are dedicated to a nuclear future are much less dedicated to making that future safe, even when they know about a problem. You could say that the nuclear industry, nuclear regulators and nuclear advocates can't even handle ordinary white swans. In the United States, on March 15 a federal court turned down an appeal by environmentalists that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should require the Indian Point Nuclear Power plant to meet the commission's own standards for the ability of control cables in a plant to withstand a fire. Indian Point's cables will withstand only half the fire they are supposed to, somethign the commission has known about for six years. But instead of asking Entergy Corporation, which operates the plant, to upgrade its wiring, the commission simply gave it a waiver -- and the Court upheld this decision!
The same day, a coalition of state Attorneys General was forced to sue the NRC, because it is now proposing to allow nuclear power plants to store their high-level spent fuel rods -- the same rods that caused the majority of the problem at one of the Japanese reactors -- on site, for 60 years after the reactor itself is shut down -- without any environmental review! In issuing the policy, the NRC stunningly found that storing this waste for 60 years at more than 100 plants raised no significant safety or environmental issues.
And how have the media covered here in the U.S. covered the disaster in Japan? It's been a staggering example of the spin-room at work. Those reporters who are actually in Japan, reporting on the situation, have done the best job possible with the inadequate and inaccurate information that they have been able to get. But those doing analysis, particularly analysis on what the disaster means for other nuclear facilities, have simply parroted the nuclear industry's fact sheets -- "nothing to worry about here." First the reactors were not going to melt down. Then, even if they did melt down, no one was going to get hurt. Then, even if people are going to get hurt, it can't happen here. Then, even if it might happen here, it won't be as bad as you think. Media Matters has provided a good snapshot of the right-wing campaign to keep nuclear power's reputation alive and safe.
But in this post I'll leave the last word to Rush Limbaugh, who actually thinks it is funny that the tsunami and nuclear crisis hit Japan -- it's payback for the Prius:
"The Japanese have done so much to save the planet.... They've given us the Prius. Even now, refugees are still recycling their garbage, and yet Gaia levels them [laughs], just wipes them out. Wipes out their nuclear plants, all kinds of radiation. What kind of payback is this?"