Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Of Earthquakes and Nuclear Plants: learning from the Japanese Experience

Keywords or Terms: Earthquakes; Nuclear Radiation Contamination; Secondary Emergency Plan; Radio-Active Waste; Burning Nuclear Plants; Japan; Germany; Switzerland; Finland; Russia; Chernobyl; Three-man Island; Northwest, USA; Epidemiological damage; Public policy

In response to the recent earthquakes in Japan, many countries have begun to look over their plans regarding their nuclear plants. Because residents close to a nuclear plant may be exposed to radiation in the event of an earthquake and the failure of a nuclear plant's secondary emergency plan to activate, residents living in proximity of a nuclear plant may be exposed to nuclear radiation contamination.

Radiation contamination has been associated with health issues, including cancer and radioactive iodide poisoning. Although there are variations in the extent of epidemiological damage to the body chemistry and surface, people who have encountered radioactive poisoning have been determined to show initial disorders and in some cases long-term disorders that may impact health status, or result in early deaths.

For example, during the large Chernobyl radiation leaks in Russia, it was documented that twenty-eight workers of the plant died within twenty eight days of the disaster, while children who were exposed to radioactive iodide poisoning in their milk, suffered from health issues that lasted a life time. The anomalies that may arise from radioactive ingestion can lead to bronchus parenchyma that may descend towards the heart, and this is probably why many residents of the Northwest have been caught loading up on iodine or potassium iodide, in case the wind blows those dysfunctional nuclear radiators' waste from Japan our way. The potential and associated impacts of ingesting radioactive wastes have been associated with cardiac bronchus and this is probably the reason, why many countries in Europe are re-evaluating their plans for the use of nuclear energy. For those panicky residents of the Northwest, the Surgeon-General has stood up to reassure the public that things will not get that bad; or, it is unlikely that the doomsday scenario is anyway close by, considering the efforts being made by the authority in Japan to address potential radiation migration from the burning nuclear plants on their shores.

Three days ago, it was announced that Germany is holding off its plans to prolong the lifespan of its aging seventeen year-old nuclear power plants; and, similar re-evaluation has been announced in Switzerland, Finland and Britain. Today, Germany suspended electricity generation form seven of its plants and intend to keep them shut probably forever. Should America be concerned about the recent developments? If you were talking to men in the energy industry, you’ll probably hear, probably not! The plants we have here are relatively safer and our management are probably better than what obtains anywhere in the world.

When the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory Jaczko was asked repeatedly by CBS-News about the safety of U.S. nuclear power plant, his response was not only unconvincing, it was close to bewildering! Mr. Jaczko responded: "NRC is always focused on the safety and security of nuclear power plants in this country." Is this being politically correct or disingenuous? People want to know if America is prepared for a potential disaster in the magnitude of what has just happened in Japan and all we get, is: we are always working on safety and security of nuclear power plant? Yesterday, in further questioning from a Congressional Committee, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, clarified some of the assertions credited to him; however, he did not back off from the reassurance that all is well with all the existing plants in the US.

After hearing the response of the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I became very apprehensive to the extent that I determined it was time to say something. My question to the Chairman of NRC, in case he missed something about the question from CBS-News or the US Congressional Committee is: If we get an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 occurred right this moment in the Northwest, are we prepared as a nation to evacuate American citizens to safety? What are our plans towards that? Please list for us, the steps you are recommending and tell us, if any nuclear plant in the region may be dislocated due to its age status or other natural factors from an earthquake? Can the failure of the cooling system from the truncation of electricity generating source hamper safety that may put a huge population in jeopardy?

What are the systems in place to manage a potential radiation leak after an earthquake? Can we rely on advancements in nuclear technology to address unexpected challenges of radiation levels that may directly impact human health and safety? Are we better prepared than the Japanese, who by all known accounts have been adjudged to be the number one emergency ready nation in the world, regarding disasters as earthquakes, tsunamis and floods? These looks like too many questions; however, it is better one is late than sorry, it is better one ask questions when in doubt rather than keep a sealed lips and end up dying an avoidable death. The public, especially those living close to Nuclear reactors, will like answers to these questions in simple and understandable language without any spin. The public will take answers to these questions in simple direct English understandable even to a first grader! That is how important the response from authorities in this nation regarding the running of nuclear plants.

The convoluted and somewhat bizarre experience in Japan shows that a nation cannot be ready enough, when the big one strikes; and, any precautionary arrangements to keep the public safe may fall into disrepair during events of multiple explosions and unexplained secondary accidents that can degenerate to more than one explosion at a nuclear plant. In the Northwest, there are at least three functional reactors and close to ten known ones scattered around California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. There are speculations that there is a likelihood that the Northwest may suffer an earthquake similar to the one that just occurred in Japan. There are even historical data and information that points to the likelihood of a big one coming through the Northwest very soon, considering that the last one that was documented in this area was somehow dated for about 300 years ago. If geologists and scientists are correct in their speculations, the northwest is about due for the big one. What must Northwest residents be aware of? What will be done to ensure that fewer or no one dies or that we do not have a nuclear energy explosion in some reactors and containment vessels in our nuclear plants? Can we have a meltdown similar to the three mile Island? Is the experience at the Chernobyl Plant in Russia possible here in America? These questions may appear too inquisitive or demanding, however, don't we have a right to know?

To help us understand our chances, in case we had an earthquake similar in scale to what happened in Japan and we suffer nuclear emergencies that may lead to radiation releases from our nuclear plants, what are potential emergency plans that are in place right now and what must the citizens expect in case all the assumptions on the emergency plans fail? Would energy companies operating nuclear plants be forthcoming and not tight-lipped regarding developments regarding the accidents? If there is an issue of contamination, can we be sure of statements of credibility coming out of the government officials, operators of nuclear plants and site directors or engineers? What are the risks of nuclear radiation releases and what should the public know as the precautions for cooling down potentially exposed rods in the nuclear reactors?

It is known that respectable nuclear scientists exist in America and we probably hold the best advancements in nuclear technology compared to the rest of the world. However, we cannot expect the Nuclear industry to provide us with overall protection when the odds in an accident from natural causes may not be totally within our control; or the risk involved quantifiable; and or our nuclear scientists, who though are versatile may not be able to manage the gamut of data pouring in from an accident underway. The direction worldwide today is for governments to ask themselves real cogent questions regarding sourcing electricity or heat energy from nuclear technology. Many countries operating nuclear reactors within their shores, have in place some strategic plans and intend to facilitate internal and external communication within and without the establishment, in case an unforeseen act of nature like an earthquake destabilizes the operations of one of their reactors. Even at that, there could be other issues that are not readily foreseen in a double whammy of an earthquake and tsunami, as we have here! This is why many governments with nuclear plants are very pensive and looking forward to learning from the experience in Japan

When Japan experienced the big one, it probably never contemplated that a Tsunami was going to follow immediately; neither did it expect an inoperative nuclear plant to be the one that will first engender an explosion and nuclear radiation? With their experience, the Japanese operators of the nuclear plants probably expected that an accidental explosion can be centrally managed by workers on site without the public second guessing their pronouncements regarding the explosion. Today, we have had the government of United States and some nuclear scientists and technologists around the globe question the pronouncements of those on the ground in Japan, even as they attempt to dump sea water into the radioactive reactors that have gone kaput. The Japanese Scientists and operators of the nuclear plants probably did not expect some criticisms from outsiders, of their assessments or control over the radiation escaping from the crater of some of their nuclear plants. They probably felt that there is going to be a convergence of understanding regarding what was happening in the four reactors after the initial explosion and what other scientists in other countries listening to their pronouncements regarding what was happening on the accident site. However, their imagination and estimation is now out of whack with what experienced nuclear scientists believe is taking place on the ground with the nuclear plants and reactors. The managers of the subsequent explosions on the multiple nuclear reactors, hardly contemplated any differences of opinion regarding their radiation explosion readings and that of independent nuclear scientists assessments; many of whom have deeper knowledge of the science of nuclear technology and reactor plants operation.

Under normal circumstance and event, scientists and technologists who operate nuclear plants are expected to know their salt; however, in the event of an horrific accident, what is expected and may be happening may be at variance. That's why its difficult to cover all grounds during an accident. Further, absolute critical reasoning that drives management of disaster ameliorating technologies, may just fail, not because the thinkers are deficient or deceitful in their assessments but rather, the circumstance in which they find themselves, for example managing multiple disasters at once at an accident site, may be overwhelming or, hamper part of their critical thinking and assessments of events surrounding the accident. The latter is probably what is going on now in the damaged and compromised nuclear plants in North of Japan.

As you read this blog, I know you will have other questions or find inspiration in asking questions that seem simple but rather important to ask, in case of an earthquake that leads to a dislocation of a nuclear reactor and potential radiation leaks or meltdown. You might also discover some literature that point to how to better manage a damaged reactor and or, what not to do, when the source of electricity from a nuclear plant is out and it seems the source of water for cooling radiated rods are out of commission. These are trying times that need everyone to put on his or her thinking cap, whether he or she lives in Japan or not; and, whether he is compassionate with citizens in Japan who have suffered from this horrific accident, or not. Accidents do happen and sometimes we have no control over the accident; however, we may ameliorate the repercussions of the accident by looking very hard around the events taking place and asking questions about what are assumed to be given.

NB: Readers of this blog are asked to respond to this blog today. Write all you know about nuclear radiation safety and what not to do in an accident of this nature. Provide us with critical information that can help us understand what is going on with the damaged nuclear reactors at this time and what is probably being omitted by the numerous heroes and heroines managing the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan. Please attempt to be a brother's keeper at this time, as we all ache from this nightmare! Donate to a charity of your choice. I love the Red Cross.

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