Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nuclear: too hot to handle

Bloomberg reported last week that the Fukushima meltdown continues to set new radiation records - Tepco Says Highest Radiation Yet Is Detected at Fukushima Dai-Ichi.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, said it detected the highest radiation to date at the site.

Geiger counters, used to detect radioactivity, registered more than 10 sieverts an hour, the highest reading the devices are able to record, Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager at the utility, said today. The measurements were taken at the base of the main ventilation stack for reactors No. 1 and No. 2.

The Fukushima plant, about 220 kilometers (137 miles) north of Tokyo, had three reactor meltdowns after the March 11 magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and backup generators. Radiation leaks displaced 160,000 people and contaminated marine life and agricultural products.

The Times Union reports that the Japanese are growing suspicious of offical claims and are starting to measure radiation levels themselves - Japanese monitor radiation on their own.
Kiyoko Okoshi had a simple goal when she spent about $625 for a dosimeter: She missed her daughter and grandsons and wanted them to come home.

Local officials kept telling her that their remote village was safe, even though it was less than 20 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But her daughter remained dubious.

So starting in April, Okoshi began using her dosimeter to check nearby forest roads and rice paddies. What she found was startling. Near one sewage ditch, the meter beeped wildly, and the screen read 67 microsieverts per hour, a potentially harmful level. Okoshi and a cousin who lives nearby worked up the courage to confront elected officials, who did not respond, confirming their worry that the government was not doing its job.

With her simple yet bold act, Okoshi joined the small but growing number of Japanese who have decided to step in as the government fumbles its reaction to the widespread contamination, which leaders acknowledge is much worse than originally announced. Some mothers as far away as Tokyo have begun testing for radioactive materials.

Crikey has some choice words to say about the disaster - Fukushima disaster: worse than Hiroshima.
More gravely serious truths about the severity of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11 have emerged.

Two things are now clear and they justify the following charges: the nuclear experts that the Australian media relied upon should never be trusted again; and social media real-time raw and unfiltered audio and video reports are providing a more truthful and relevant coverage of the aftermath of the continuing nuclear crisis than the selective and filtered copy being carried by print and wire agencies.

While the Bloomberg news report overnight of two extremely high radiation readings being recorded at the Fukushima complex of nuclear plants on August 1 and August 2 are alarming, other significant disclosures are also made in this story.

* The reading of 10 sieverts of radiation per hour outside the damaged reactor buildings was the highest level the equipment used could have detected, meaning the lethality of the contamination was off the scale; and

* For the first time a tenured nuclear expert Tetsuo Ito, the head of the Atomic Energy Research Institute at Kinki University concedes that the melted cores of one or more reactors may have melted through the supposedly failure proof containment vessel floor, sinking deeper into the subsoil and given the nature of the radioactive material concerned, into a position where it can spread a very long distance directly through the subsoil water table.

It took TEPCO and nuclear apologists until last month to even concede that “partial meltdowns” had occurred in up to three of the reactors, even though the only plausible explanation for the caesium contamination detected outside the reactors within 48 hours was the rupturing of the caesium sheaths surrounding the uranium rods upon their exposure to air following the draining of coolant fluid, setting up the requirements for a melt down to occur.

In what would be consistent with a deliberate policy of gradually revealing the truth some months after the event, the Japanese nuclear authorities and government are also now routinely referring to the fact that contamination levels outside the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi complex include hot spots that are as highly affected as they were around the Chernobyl reactor that exploded in the former Soviet Union 25 years ago.

Which is where social media in Japan is making itself felt.

In a series of widely viewed and replicated YouTube videos a Japan nuclear expert, Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, has told Japan’s lower house Diet that the nation has failed miserably to make a timely evacuation of the at risk population worst affected by Fukushima radioactive fallout compared to the massive relocation that occurred in the Ukraine in the two weeks after the Chernobyl disaster.

In the English language transcripts of these videos, notably on the Penn-Olsen Asia tech blog, Kodama says he is shaking with anger at the incompetence and dishonesty of the government and nuclear authorities and the TEPCO power company in the aftermath of the accident. He attacks the use of simplistic readings that ignore for example the accumulation of deadly isotopes at the foot of slippery slides in children’s playgrounds in favour of readings at the top from which rain has washed away the contamination.

The readings, like the children, are being cooked, either by ignorance or intent.

Kodama says the uranium equivalent of the contamination released by the three affected reactor cores and four cooling ponds at Fukushima was that of 20 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs:
“What is more frightening is that whereas the radiation from a nuclear bomb will decrease to one-thousandth in one year, the radiation from a nuclear power plant will only decrease to one-tenth.

“In other words, we should recognise from the start that just like Chernobyl, Fukushima I Nuclear Plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount to tens of nuclear bombs, and the resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb.”

Kodama’s testimony, poorly reported in the established Japan media, is circulating in social media in tandem with raw videos of government officials telling a meeting of Fukushima residents demanding urgent help in evacuating to other parts of the country that they should stay put and trust them to reduce radiation. The meeting becomes increasingly angry after one official tells the residents they could evacuate at “their own risk”, while they shout at them for telling them to stay put and die.

The bigger context to these reports from Japan is that the guidance given by nuclear scientists and apologists alike to the media in Australia was disgracefully inaccurate and patronising. The reality of the caesium contamination was ignored, and the quoting of initial radiation readings in the wrong metric was ignored (and later found to be fictitious as well as mischievous, when TEPCO confirmed that it didn’t actually have any capability of measuring contamination within key parts of the complex).

The constant refrain that Fukushima would never be a level-seven disaster such as Chernobyl contained longer in the Australian media than anywhere else, even after the nuclear authorities in France and US broke with the usual protocol of not commenting on other national agencies, and said that it could reach level six or level seven and expressed a lack of confidence in their Japan counterparts.

One thing that is becoming apparent after this disaster is that the truth, like the fallout, is going to force itself on the authorities no matter how much the business, political and scientific establishments try to play it down.

The Climate Spectator has a look at the elevated level of skepticism about nuclear power - Nuclear: too hot to handle.
Recent reports about the potential of BHP Billiton to delay uranium production from its massive Olympic Dam project, and Resource Minister Martin Ferguson’s urging of the NSW coalition government to overturn the state’s ban on uranium mining, suggests differing views about the outlook for the nuclear industry.

That the much anticipated “nuclear renaissance” has been stalled – at least in western democracies – appears to be beyond doubt, at least in the short term. But the medium- to long-term outlook is subject to much conjecture, and seems to depend on how you answer two questions: Who is going to want it? And who is going to pay for it?

In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, we noted that the nuclear industry was unique among energy sources in that it relied on the indulgence of public opinion – unless, of course, you live in a country like China – to be built. This has been borne out by events in Germany and Italy, and the continuing angst in Japan.

But it’s not the only problem – even in those countries where nuclear is supported by the government, the question remains, who is going to pay for them? And it seems clear that the private sector is not.

Advocates for nuclear power in this country like to present the industry as the lowest-cost clean energy alternative to fossil fuels. But this ignores the fact that nuclear plants are massively expensive and involve huge up-front costs, invested well in advance of a commercial return because of the long lead times.

And it is completely dependent on government support. As Citigroup analysts pointed out in a 2009 analysis on the economics of the nuclear industry, there hasn’t been a plant in the world built without the relevant government assuming much of the construction, operating and financing risk. There is not a single insurer, banker or construction company in the world that is willing to assume that risk.

France is often cited as the glowing example of low cost nuclear energy, but the French government effectively wrote off the capital investment of its nuclear fleet, meaning that the operating companies such as EdF and GDF Suez have been able to book what the International Energy Agency described as billions of dollars in “nuclear rent."

Now, the assumption that nuclear will be cheaper than competing “clean” technologies such as coal with carbon capture and storage is being questioned again, particularly in light of the extra costs that will become an inevitable consequence of post-Fukushima safety reviews.

Nomura Securities analyst Kyoichiro Yokoyama last week released a detailed assessment of competing clean baseload technologies, in which he concluded that the cost of nuclear was considerably higher than that of even coal with carbon carbon and storage.

Yokoyama noted that low costs had been a key selling point for nuclear power, underpinned by an analysis from the IEA and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency last year that suggested that the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) for coal-fired plants with CCS comes out 25-40 per cent higher than that for nuclear plants, with or without a carbon price. But Yokoyama said that, since the Fukushima Daiichi incident, an increasing number of people have been questioning the real cost of nuclear power generation.

“Some observers have noted that the cost of the various subsidies paid when nuclear plants are constructed is not factored in and it has also been pointed out that the estimation of costs associated with spent fuel has tended to be overly optimistic,” he wrote. “In many cases, the details of these amounts are unclear or unspecified, which makes calculating the actual cost of nuclear power generation somewhat problematic.”

He drew on research from MIT that noted how the cost of disposing of spent fuel and numerous regulatory and political risks associated with operating licences, including gaining the approval of residents, meant the capital costs were considerably higher (around 2-3 percentage points) than for thermal generation. MIT suggested that this translated into a LCOE for nuclear power generation of $US60-$US65/MWh for the US and Germany and $90/MWh for the Czech Republic. These costs are roughly the same as for coal-fired generation with CCS.

The question of costs and the ability of the private sector to come to the party has been raised on several occasions in recent weeks in the UK, which is keen on pressing ahead with its nuclear rollout. A joint venture between France’s EDF and the listed UK utility Centrica plans to roll out of three or four nuclear plants by the end of the decade.

Last week, Lakis Athanasiou, the utilities analyst with London-based investment bank Evolution Securities, warned that Centrica should "not touch (the new nuclear venture) with a barge pole," particularly if the UK government is unwilling to take construction risk.

The Evolution Securities view reinforces renewed concerns expressed by other investment specialists such as Citigroup, which a week earlier said new nuclear was not an investable option for public equity markets and listed companies such as Centrica or Germany’s RWE.

“The cost of capital based on those risks would be way too high to give you an electricity price which is affordable,” Citigroup’s utilities analysts told reporters at a briefing in London. "You would be looking at a project cost of capital of at least 15 per cent. That would require a power price of about 150-200 pounds per megawatt hour (based on 2017 money) to make that project work," he said, noting it is three to four times as much as current UK spot power prices.

"We think (nuclear energy) is uninvestable for public equity markets. EDF may be willing to take on the construction risks but none of the other (big utilities) are willing to do that." EDF, he noted, is an exception because it is majority-owned by the French government.
In that 2009 report, Atherton noted that three of the risks faced by developers – construction, power price, and operational – are “so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially. This makes new nuclear a unique investment proposition for utility companies.” He noted that UK government policy remains that the private sector takes full exposure to the three main risks. “Nowhere in the world have nuclear power stations been built on this basis,” he said.

Further delays and cost overruns at new generation nuclear plants being developed in Europe by French companies have also raised questions about the cost factor, particularly with the extra safety measures that would appear to be an inevitable consequence of the Fukushima incident. EDF said the new generation European pressurised reactor (EPR) at Flamanville, in north-western France, has been further delayed and is now expected to open in 2016 (rather than 2014), and its budget has now jumped out to €6 billion ($8 billion). It was originally to be built by 2012 at a cost of €3.3 billion.

Another French company, Areva, is experiencing similar problems at its EPR plant in Finland.

And in weirder nuclear news, the ABC has a report on some Swedish dude who had a "meltdown" occur on his stovetop - Man tries to build nuke reactor in kitchen.
A Swedish man who tried to build a nuclear reactor in his kitchen says he started the experiment "just for fun".

Richard Handl, 31, from Aengelholm municipality in south-western Sweden, was detained by police two weeks ago and says he started the project as a hobby. "I have always been interested in nuclear physics and particle physics," he said.

In May, he launched an English-language blog, Richard's Reactor, in which he charted his progress in the project, complete with pictures.

His plan was "to build a working nuclear reactor. Not to gain electricity, just for fun and to see if it's possible to split atoms at home." ...

Mr Handl's blog can be found at

Cross posted from Peak Energy.

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