Puncturing Japan's Steel Curtain: Dealing With Nuclear Disasters

Puncturing Japan's Steel Curtain: Dealing With Nuclear Disasters

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While grieving for the dead from the Tohoku quake-tsunami disaster, we should also praise the Japanese print and television news media who have hammered at and finally punctured the steel curtain of official secrecy. 

Thanks to the unflinching reportage and persistence of Japanese reporters, editors and news producers, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has started to realize that panic is not caused by disclosing the hard facts but instead arises from public distrust of half-truths and attempts at cover ups.  

Following the decision on the second day of the crisis to vet regulatory agency reports to the media, the government has shifted to quickly conveying the facts to the world.

As it turns out, nuclear power company TEPCO was holding back information from regulatory officials, as disclosed in this morning's edition of Yomiuri Shimbun.

"Although the explosion was being covered on TV networks, it wasn't reported to the Prime Minister's Office for about an hour. What's going on here?" Kan reportedly rebuked TEPCO senior officials and employees after he hastily visited TEPCO's headquarters in Tokyo, early Tuesday. Kan reportedly told them: "You're the only ones [to deal with this problem]. Retreating [from the power plant's problems] is simply not an option. Be ready for anything. If you pull out now, that'll be the end of TEPCO, period."

Now this sounds more like the proper application of Article 15 of the Constitution, which demands accountability from public servants. 

The government has forced TEPCO to join a new Nuclear Headquarters, or N-HQ, that will run a nonstop planning, monitoring and response operation for damaged nuclear facilities and provide timely information to the press.

With the veil of censorship, news coverage is to be found at the English-language websites of these Japanese newspapers: The Japan Times, Yomiuri Daily and Daily Mainichi. 

An Ostrich POV

The other steel curtain – the protective shields of partially melted core reactors – is thankfully still holding back the scenario of total meltdown despite external explosions, fires, venting of radiation and limited leaks. 

The present situation is not cause for either exaggerated pessimism or false optimism. We should hope for the best and prepare for the worst.  

Yet while the nuclear workers fighting to contain damage are being hailed as heroes, the Japanese government shows proper sobriety, and the Japanese media demonstrate their commitment to the public interest, one begins to wonder why foreign media are rolling out apologists for the global nuclear industry. Al Jazeera interviewed an academic "expert" from London's Imperial College who categorically stated that the reactors are safe from meltdown. The Wall Street Journal trotted out an opinion piece from "green energy" nuclear proponent William Tucker titled, "Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl." This atrocity of a headline is right in an unintended way: Fukushima could very well turn out to be worse than the nightmare in Kiev.

The Japanese government now openly accepts the possibility of a core meltdown of Unit 2, which completely lost all of its water content for a short time yesterday when a portable generator ran out of diesel fuel. Human error is becoming an understandable problem with the high casualty toll among plant workers, exhaustion and lack of equipment on the tsunami-swept site. 

The meltdown of a single core reactor would make any human presence impossible on site. Without the maintenance work of water injection, the other reactors would sooner than later also undergo meltdown. When one goes, the others will soon follow. 

Entombment of the reactors cannot proceed quickly due to tsunami damage to local docks and to Sendai Airport, where concrete mixers and cargos of cement will have to be unloaded and helicopters landed. Therefore, besides the rescue and relocation effort, a massive logistical operation must be organized for eventual containment of radiation. 

Stay Cool

This journalist has some hands-on experience with steel from his younger days. Before its shutdown, I worked at the South Chicago steel mill as a millwright, fixing bearings that weigh more than a car and otherwise repairing the failing machinery and furnaces inside the 90-year-old the U.S. Steel plate mill, known to union members as "ambulance city." I also worked at Republic Steel's seamless tube (pipe) mill in Gary, Indiana. Before that I was a licensed welder, and during my off-duty hours, my hobby was blacksmithing. For a few very macho years, I was really into heavy metal.

From what I learned then, tempered steel degrades in two ways under the stresses of extreme temperature and hard impacts: first, its crystal structure fractures in weaker areas, and cracks gradually spread; and second, the surface blisters and becomes pitted at points of "burning" or oxidation.

As every blacksmith knows from incorrect tempering of overheated steel in cold water, the metal can crack or even shatter in a sudden shift from expansion to contraction. 

These types of shocks are what's battering the core reactor shields at Fukushima 1.

Therefore, to minimize or forestall a fatal rupture, it becomes necessary to quicken the pace of venting of explosive gases (hydrogen and oxygen). Whatever the dangers of external blasts and radiation released into the atmosphere, these are less risky than permitting internal combustion inside containment chambers to damage the core reactor shells. We're going to have to get used to repeated blasts outside the reactors and not become overly alarmed by loud bangs and smoke. These steps are necessary until an effective water-cooling mechanism can be installed or the reactors are entombed under a permanent barrier of concrete and neutron-absorbing materials.

Under all circumstances, “Stay cool" as a suggestion seems to apply to both reactors and all of those in charge.