Friday, March 25, 2011

The China Syndrome

Last night my wife Rachel and I watched the 70's movie "The China Syndrome".  The movie's producer & actor, Michael Douglas, described it as a "classic monster movie" with the role of the monster being replaced by a dangerously malfunctioning nuclear power plant.  The movie is famous for bringing awareness about the dangers of nuclear power to the US audience.   Critics claiming the movie was overblown were silenced when, 12 days after its release, the US experienced its worst civilian nuclear disaster.  The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, unfolded almost exactly as portrayed in the movie: faulty gauges led reactor workers to believe the reactor had too much coolant, when in fact it had not enough, causing the radioactive fuel rods to heat up and melt down.

Seeing the movie for the first time,  I was surprised how much of it was about the media, and how the societal role of journalists is being diminished by TV execs clamoring to boost ratings to please their corporate advertisers.   (I was also stunned at how new, clean, uncrowded  LA's freeways looked in the 70s!) The movie is full of cinematic drama, but none of that can compare to a story I just read about workers inside the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan.

As this NYT article describes, workers inside the plant survived the largest quake in Japanese history, only to be choked by smoke in the darkness.  With a deadly tsunami approaching at over 100 mph, they were actually trapped behind automatically locking doors by their TEPCO supervisors!!

"I felt things shaking, and then it went crazy," Nishi recalled in an interview. "I was shouting, Stop! Stop!" Then the lights went out, leaving about 200 workers inside the reactor in near-darkness since the structure has no windows.
A small red emergency light started blinking. "Then some kind of white smoke or steam appeared and everyone started choking," Nishi said. "We all covered our mouths and ran for the door." But the door leading outside was locked, shut down automatically during the temblor to contain any leakage... "Everyone was screaming." ... with workers shouting and pleading to be allowed out, supervisory TEPCO employees appealed for calm, saying that each worker must be tested for radiation exposure...
 Nishi recalled angry shouts from among the workers including expletives from a couple of Canadians. "We were shouting that the reactor structure was going to collapse or that a tsunami might come,"...Eventually, TEPCO workers tested about 20 people before giving up and throwing open the doors.

Today's developments:

  • In a situation eerily similar to one scene in the movie, a puddle of highly radioactive water accumulated on the floor of Reactor #3, and three workers stepped into it.  They received radiation burns on their legs, and were hospitalized.  They got a dose of 2-6 Seiverts...not milliSeiverts.  I sure hope only their ankles were exposed, because this dose in general can cause "hemorrhaging, diarrhea, peeling skin, sterility and death if  left untreated", according to the NIH.   There are sketchy reports they have internal effects as well.
  • We now have likely breaches the containment vessels for units #1, #2, and #3, which are leaking radioactive water.    One of the reasons "this is nothing like Chernobyl" is that Chernobyl didn't have a containment vessel.  Now, effectively, neither does Fukushima #1,2,3.  The seawater that was sprayed in has evaporated and left thousands of pounds of salt behind.   This may clog things up but isn't inherently dangerous.  
  • The amount of Cesium-137 released by Fukushima Daiichi is now HALF that released by Chernobyl...and things are not getting any better.  People should stop saying "this is nothing like Chernobyl" and start saying: "this is the worst nuclear accident in history except Chernobyl." This report has comprehensive details.  
  • The toxicity in Tokyo & Chiba's drinking water has moved to Hitachi and Tokaimura and has been found in 6 prefectures.  If levels stay down in Tokyo, at least means that fewer infants will be exposed to radioactive tap water above the safe levels.
While most media sources are willing to say "workers struggle to bring reactors under control", they don't seem to be willing to say what is clearly implied by this statement: These reactors are out of control.    The longer this goes on, the more likely it seems to me that they will not be able to be brought under control unless and until an unknown number of people sacrifice their lives.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home