By Michael Steinberg
For those of an apocalyptic bent, the beginning of the final half of 2012 was near perfect.
True, the walls didn’t all come tumbling down, though those retaining the spent nuclear fuel pool atop Fukushima Unit 4 were bulging. But the signs seemed to be everywhere, from the eastern shores of Japan to the west coast of California.
The most widely reported such event was the July 1 restart of a Japanese commercial nuclear power reactor at the Ohi nuclear plant. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed for this restart, despite a massive protest in front of his office in Tokyo only days before. Digital Journal reported that 200,000 protested there on June 29
Noda claimed that Japan would suffer an electrical power crisis without the nation’s nuke plants contribution over the summer. And besides, Noda asserted, the nation could no longer afford to buy foreign oil and natural gas to keep the lights on.
In the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, and the public trauma that followed, all the remaining reactors were subjected to “stress tests,” and all 50 some were no longer operating by the end of May. This was the first time the nation had been without nuclear power since 1970, Digital Journal reported.
Nan wants another Ohi reactor to be fired up in mid July. In so doing, however, he is “ignoring safety lessons of last year’s Fukushima crisis,” Reuters reported on June 28. In this report prominent Japanese seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi told reporters at Kobe University, “The stress tests new guidelines for restarting nuclear plants allow for accidents to occur. Instead of making standards more strict, they represent a setback in safety standards.”
Ishibashi also said that last year’s magnitude 9 quake made it more likely that “devastating ones would follow.”
Meanwhile, also days before Ohi reactor 3 went critical, an even more frightening development occurred at Fukushima itself. This was also ignored by not only Prime Minister Nan, but by most of the media in the US. Market Watch, to its credit, did report, also on June 28, that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPKO), Fukushima’s owner and operator, had found lethal levels of radiation in basement water at Fukushima Unit 1. The levels were as high as 10,300 millisieverts per hour, “ a dose that will kill humans within a short time after making them sick within a minute. The annual dose for workers at the site would be reached within 20 seconds.”
TEPCO reported that these radioactive levels were ten times higher than those at units 2 and 3.
TEPCO also stated, Workers cannot enter the site and we need to use robots for the demolition.” TEPCO also said that the demolition of Unit 1, as well as the other ruined Fukushima units, would take 40 years, and “will need the use of new technologies.” In other words, there isn’t any way to do it now. And if that wasn’t enough, on June 30 the cooling system at Fukushima unit 4’s spent fuel pool, the one with the bulging walls, shut down “for unknown reasons,” The Japanese Times reported on July 2.
Spent fuel pools typically hold large amounts of high level nuclear waste. The waste needs constant cooling. If the water loses cooling it will soon boil off and the waste will catch fire, potentially creating the release of catastrophic amounts of radiation. In this incident, the temperature in the pool rose to over 120 degrees—more than half way to the boiling point. Cooling power was restored on July 1, the same day Ohi 3 went critical.
Meanwhile, On the Other Side of the Pacific
Not all the signs of nuclear degradation were in Japan. On the Pacific’s eastern shores, specifically those of Southern California, the San Onofre nuclear power plant continued to show disturbing symptoms of premature aging.
Both of this nuke plant’s 1100 Megawatt reactors, comprising the largest electrical plant in the Southland, have been shut down for over five months. A third unit has been permanently shut down since the early ‘90s.
The San Onofre nuke sits on cliffs above the beach between Los Angeles and San Diego. The beach there is sung of in the Beach Boys classic “Surfin’ USA.”
The current problems began when radiation leaked out of one of the units into the environment, forcing its shutdown. The other unit was already shutdown for maintenance and to change out some of its nuclear fuel. Subsequent investigations by Southern California Edison, its owner and operator, revealed that hundreds of tubes in massive pieces of equipment called steam generators were worn and damaged.
On July 14 The Los Angeles Times reported that the NRC found 3401 of the 38908 tubes in San Onofre’s steam generators were worn. Of that number, 387 are so worn they will have to be replaced. Each unit has two steam generators. They had all been replaced just a few years ago, to the tune of $680 million. The steam generators are supposed to last decades.
Followup investigations by independent nuclear watchdog Arne Gundersen (an industry veteran) and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission strongly suggest that the damage to the tubes resulted from design changes to the replacement steam generators that caused them to vibrate and rub against one another, creating damage to a significant number of thousands of such tubes in each generator.
Southern California Edison says it agrees this is the most plausible explanation for the damage to date. The company was supposed to inform the NRC of any design changes in the replacement steam generators. But it didn’t. And by concealing this information, SC Ed s escaped NRC scrutiny of the replacement process that otherwise would have been mandatory.
A June 19 Associated Press report revealed that the company admits that the new steam generators each “weighed 24 tons more than the originals” and that it “decided to add 400 tubes to each generator.”
At a public meeting in San Juan Capistrano, CA, the NRC’s Elmo Collins “didn’t rule out that one or more generator might have to be replaced, “ but said ‘it was too early to tell.”
Despite these incredible reports of malfeasance, and lack of definitive answers as to what really happened at San Onofre, SCE wants to file a proposal with the NRC as early as August to restart the two shutdown San Onofre reactors. Environmental group Friends of the Earth is fighting this move.
Seven million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre. What might happen to them if San Onofre is allowed to start operating again is contained in a report released earlier this year by the Radiation and Public Health Project, indicating that almost 22,000 “excess” deaths occurred in the US after the Fukushima disaster.
The Radiation and Public Health Project (radiation.org) studies the effects of radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants on human health.
In a February report this year, the RPHP found that “in the 14 weeks after Fukushima fallout” first reached the US, “it is now estimated there were 21,851 deaths greater than expected …in 122 US cities.
“All age groups had excess numbers of deaths. The highest percentage of deaths was for infants under one. There was a very large increase in pneumonia and influenza deaths after Fukushima.”
The RPHP reached these conclusions after analyzing data from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Center For Disease Control.
Michael Steinberg is a veteran activist and writer currently based in San Francisco.