Friday, May 27, 2011


Yet again, I must apologize for neglecting this blog. I've been quite preoccupied with my research. I finished up my time in Washington a few weeks ago and have now moved to Kiev for the summer to study in the archives here. I've tracked down some very interesting documents about Chernobyl that I will be using as part of my dissertation. I really wish I could photograph these things and post them on the blog, but unfortunately the archive they are in doesn't allow photography. For instance, the include reports made for the Communist Party about the radiation level in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities after the accident.

I've also been hesitant to comment on the still-developing situation in Japan, in large measure because detailed, accurate information seems so hard to come by. Until the accident sequence is nailed down, trying to draw concrete "lessons" from the events there will be a fool's game. At the moment TEPCO is claiming that the earthquake was not the cause of the failures at Fukushima Daiichi units 1-3, and that the tsunami alone resulted in the deplorable outcome there. This is hotly contested by some, however, who claim that the emergency core cooling system in unit 1 failed prior to the tsunami. Even if this were the case, the availability of auxiliary power in the absence of the tsunami would presumably have allowed the operation of the standby gas treatment system and prevented the hydrogen explosion as well as captured most of the volatile radioisotopes, so the end result would probably have been far less dire.

The great mystery to me is what happened in unit 4, which experienced damage to the refueling floor blow-out panels. Back in March it appeared that somehow the water level in the spent fuel storage pool in unit 4 had grown so low as to expose the fuel, resulting in the zirconium-steam reaction and the creation of large amounts of hydrogen. But TEPCO images of the unit 4 pool show that the fuel is basically intact. It's supposedly implausible that radiolytic alone hydrogen production could have had the observed result; one possibility is that hydrogen from unit 3, which apparently shared a ventilation stack with unit 4, backed up into unit 4. Presumably what actually happened will become clear as efforts to stabilize the plants continue.

In July I'm planning on a return trip to Chernobyl, which should hopefully include some sites I missed out on last time. I'm also trying to arrange a visit to an operating VVER plant here in Ukraine, but no definite word on that yet. Hopefully I'll have interesting things to say about it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi: Learning From Chernobyl

I must apologize for my long respite from blogging. I've felt compelled to concentrate on my dissertation and several academic articles I've been working on. This effort has produced results--my article about Soviet civil defense has been accepted for publication, and I was interviewed for a TV documentary. As one might imagine, however, today I was distracted by the events in Japan.

My dissertation research is about nuclear disaster. I actually do basically sit around all day long reading about it, thinking about it, and writing about it. I have dreams about it. So of course, recent events have distracted me from getting my work done.

First and foremost, we should keep in mind the enormous human tragedy that has occurred due to this earthquake. The death toll keeps rising, and I'm sure there will be no definitive estimate anytime soon. But in the American media, at least, concerns about the nuclear plant problems have completely overshadowed the immense suffering millions of Japanese are facing right now. This is a national embarrassment. At the same time, I must admit I'm absolutely guilty of it myself.

Commentators began making comparisons to Chernobyl even before there was any real indication of problems at the plants in Japan. Such comparisons have grown increasingly common as the past two days have progressed. Usually, however, the focus is on the plants themselves and potential of actual radiation releases, and not on the emergency response to the reactor problems. On this score, I believe that the Japanese deserve our praise. Clearly, they have learned the lessons of Chernobyl and are applying them in practice.

By taking the steps of evacuating the region around the damaged plants and distributing potassium iodine tablets, the authorities have likely avoided the most dire human effects of any possible radiation release. Although I cannot find any sources at the moment stating if the evacuation effort is yet complete, once all residents have left the area the human effects of even a very large radiation release should be reduced to negligible levels. This is in contrast to Chernobyl, where authorities chose to pretend the situation was not serious, and left the residents of Pripiat in place well after the explosion.

Similarly, the Japanese government has decided to assume the worst in managing the stricken reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. As of this moment Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has stated that even though it has not been confirmed, officials are presuming partial meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi units 1 and 3. In the case of unit 1, the decision had already been made to use seawater to cool the containment, effectively destroying any hope of repairing the reactor. By presuming the worst, officials will escape the error of their Soviet forebears of allowing wishful thinking to prevent taking decisive action to prevent a wider catastrophe. Are these officials being overly pessimistic? Possibly. But they have a responsibility to prevent this accident from becoming another Chernobyl, and they appear to be taking those steps.

If the Japanese government is indeed "assuming the worst," then they are almost certainly readying plans for reducing the amount of radiation released by a possible containment failure at these reactors. Whereas the Soviet Union had to plan and carry out the construction of the sarcophagus over Chernobyl unit 4 in incredibly hostile and uncertain conditions, the Japanese have the ability to plan ahead. In this task they enjoy further advantages. While the BWRs suffering major faults have, frankly, not performed satisfactorily under the circumstances, they are still FAR superior to the RBMK design--even if the containment ruptures, the fact that the design includes a containment would make the task of "entombing" these reactors far easier. Furthermore, the plants are far more structurally intact than Chernobyl unit 4 was after it exploded--even
Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, which suffered the dramatic hydrogen explosion.

Therefore, even if the worst-case scenario unfolds, there is reason to believe that proactive measures on the part of the Japanese can forestall a catastrophic radiation release. And it appears that they have the foresight to be thinking ahead. Unlike the Soviets, who hid behind a veil of secrecy and buried themselves in denial, the Japanese government has been forthright with its concerns and willing to face the possibility that things will not work out as hoped. I pray that their concerns will not be borne out, and that emergency measures at the plants will prevent further core damage. Still, they are absolutely right to approach the situation as they are.