Monday, March 12, 2012

Looking back one year later

It's been a year now since the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan, leaving over twenty thousand dead and tens of thousands more homeless and displaced. On top of this was the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility brought about by the tsunami itself.

This blog too is celebrating its anniversary - it began as a trial by fire, attempting to communicate what was going on to the general public in a way free of the sensationalism and wild inaccuracy which was taking hold in much of the mainstream press. Our effort began with a simple note I'd put up on Facebook - "Fukushima in Layman's Terms" - my attempt to break down what was happening in accurate but understandable terms. The note proved surprisingly popular among my friends - so popular that originally I had briefly moved it to its own web page. With the help of my colleagues Alan and Cyrus, we continued to try to update the FAQ as events unfolded but realized that trying to update a static page was proving too overwhelming with the rapid pace of events. Thus, this blog was born.

As I look back, I realize that we didn't get everything perfect, given the incomplete information we had as it was emerging. But by and large our objective was always focused on getting out the most accurate information directly from official sources (including much translation directly from Japanese sources via Alan) as well as trying to explain each of the relevant concepts involved, which I hope at least that we succeeded at. At the time, it was a bit of a Herculean task; information from Western media sources was shoddy at best (I still recall NPR reporting the Air Force making deliveries of "coolant" to the stricken reactors, leaving me puzzled - these reactors are cooled by ordinary water, after all). Most of the time we relied on the hourly updates coming directly from sources like TEPCO (the utility which owned the Fukushima facility), NISA (Japan's NRC), and the JAIF (Japan Atomic Industrial Forum). Trying to follow and distill the crisis as it unfolded in slow motion consumed most of our lives for the few weeks which followed the quake and tsunami - which is of course nothing compared to those who were actually impacted by these events.

One year later, Japan is still picking up the pieces. As we've seen, the crisis became much larger than any of us had originally anticipated, based on the information we had - the damage proved to be far more extensive, with partial fuel melting at the three active reactors at Fukushima Daiichi (Unit 4 was offline, and contrary to some reports, melting of fuel in the spent fuel pools appears to be extremely unlikely). As of now, only two of Japan's fifty-four reactors are online - at great expense to Japan's economy (which is now running its first trade deficit - of $540 billion - in thirty years). Many of those reactors may never be turned on again - regardless of whether or not there exists a realistic chance of the same sequence of events unfolding at these units. (One of the main objections is that these reactors are on a fault line - something which is true for most of Japan itself. It is worthwhile to remember however that it was not the earthquake which resulted in the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, but rather the tsunami which swept away backup power generators, resulting in the "total station blackout" condition which prevented cooling of the still-hot fuel.)

Much of what will determine whether these reactors restart goes beyond the safety and stress tests being conducted - instead, it will depend upon local approval. Yet in the meantime, Japan is down to less than 5% of its existing nuclear generating capacity - which as of 2009, made up about 27% of Japan's electricity sector. The result is a net loss of nearly 47 GW of electricity - made up for with a combination of rolling blackouts and dramatic spikes in fossil fuel imports (natural gas imports alone are reported to have increased by 27% in the last year). Such a shutdown, if made permanent, is projected to increase Japan's annual carbon dioxide output by 60 million tons per year - a more than 5% increase.

Like all big stories today, this one too had global reach - including forcing a politically opportunistic reversal of course in Germany, which is now phasing out nuclear energy entirely. (How they will replace this power and meet carbon-cutting targets remains to be seen). The "nuclear renaissance" has continued in the U.S. - albeit at a much slower pace. In other words, this is just the beginning of what will remain a very long story. On that note, over the next few days, I hope to cover some of the recent media retrospectives on the issue - some accurate, some more of the "vulture journalism" variety - both deserving to be carefully scrutinized.

On a separate note, I was having a conversation recently with the students in a class I teach, emphasizing that part of what needs to come out of Fukushima is, similar to the case of Three-Mile Island, a thorough assessment of the improvements to human factors in planning for emergencies like this one. One attitude which is perhaps still prevalent - even understandable - among the nuclear is that everything possible was done in the case of Fukushima as well as possible. Rod Adams goes further, criticizing the academic prose of the recent report by the ANS, arguing strongly that nuclear professionals need to "get a backbone" in defending the performance of the Fukushima plant and its operators.

To some degree, Rod is right - the plants survived a magnitude 8.9 earthquake (well beyond design basis) and failed not because of structural failure but because of the loss offsite power. Further, Adams is correct in the assertion that not one single individual has died from radiation exposure from the plant.

Without getting into the murky issue of radiation epidemiology (i.e., the relationship between excess cancers and radiation), there is a certain degree of dangerous complacency to this attitude, in my opinion; not only exhibited here but in my students' arguably defensive reaction to the idea that anything was done less than perfectly. Even though Three Mile Island resulted in only tiny levels of radioactive release, it was a watershed moment for evaluating human factors in reactor operation. The way control rooms were designed and operated - and the way operators were trained - changed dramatically as a result of this incident - one in which again, no one died. Indeed, Three Mile Island was so minor that no evacuation was even required - period.

Yet as a result this incident, a great deal of study has been committed to factors such as looking at the complexity of instrumentation within control rooms and training operators to respond correctly to abnormal circumstances. And as a result, the U.S. nuclear industry has one of the safest track records of any industry - bar none. But these kind of improvements can only come about through critical self-reflection in the face of events such as these. In my mind - and what I tried to convey to my students - the onus is upon nuclear professionals to demonstrate their commitment to learning how we can improve our ability to respond to conditions such as natural disasters and worst-case conditions such as total station blackout.

There are many who complain this burden is unfair - after all, smaller-scale disasters which do result in fatalities never seem to put entire industries in jeopardy - one need look no further than the natural gas industry for this. And even enormous-scale environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill don't seem to bring these industries to a halt - while the expansion of off-shore drilling is on temporary hiatus, we are still pumping oil from off-shore rigs. Even when industrial accidents are of unthinkable magnitude - think of the Bhopal disaster in India, which killed nearly four thousand people - we still don't talk of shutting down entire industries. So why the special scrutiny for nuclear?

This of course isn't a question that can be answered in this space alone; but the main takeaway is that it also does not matter. Like it or not, this is the environment nuclear professionals must work under - the nuclear industry as a whole essentially serves at the pleasure of the public (with all of its attendant consequences for the risk put up for capital-intensive projects). Until that factor changes, it is the obligation of the nuclear professional to constantly maintain that public trust. Rightly or wrongly, it means being held to a higher standard; it means constantly learning how to better respond to (extremely rare) crisis events like Fukushima.

Meanwhile, I take is as a personal obligation to continue to provide accurate, objective information about developments in nuclear technology and the nuclear fuel cycle. I will never deny having a personal preference for nuclear technology - namely given its enormous potential to solve social ills including global warming and energy poverty - but ultimately it is the job of nuclear professionals like myself to provide accurate, understandable information such that the public can make informed assessments of energy choices - especially given the fact that other agenda-driven groups are not as beholden to the truth. For me, this began with attempting to relay timely and accurate information as the events unfolded during last year's crisis, but it is a continuing obligation that I hope to diligently maintain.