Monday Reads: Interesting (and scary) timesPosted: March 14, 2011
Good Morning! We sure do live in interesting times. There is so much happening in the news today that there is no way I could cover all of it. As I see it, the most disturbing news is that world events are spiraling out of control, while the U.S. President dithers and does as little as possible–fiddling while the world burns.
CRISES IN JAPAN
Japan is struggling with an overwhelming natural disaster and a massive humanitarian crisis, and at the same time they–and the rest of us–face a nuclear emergency. No one knows for sure yet how bad it is, but I can’t help but suspect that we are not getting the whole story.
Officials confirmed on Sunday that three nuclear reactors north of Tokyo were at risk of overheating, raising fears of an uncontrolled radiation leak.
Engineers worked desperately to cool the fuel rods in the damaged reactors. If they fail, the containers that house the core could melt, or even explode, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
How bad could it get? Here’s what nuclear experts told Scientific American:
“Reactor analysts like to categorize potential reactor accidents into groups,” said Bergeron, who did research on nuclear reactor accident simulation at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. “And the type of accident that is occurring in Japan is known as a station blackout. It means loss of offsite AC power—power lines are down—and then a subsequent failure of emergency power on site—the diesel generators. It is considered to be extremely unlikely, but the station blackout has been one of the great concerns for decades.
Bergeron explained the basics of overheating at a nuclear fission plant. “The fuel rods are long uranium rods clad in a [zirconium alloy casing]. They’re held in a cylindrical-shaped array. And the water covers all of that. If the water descends below the level of the fuel, then the temperature starts going up and the cladding bursts, releasing a lot of fission products. And eventually the core just starts slumping and melting. Quite a bit of this happened in TMI [Three Mile Island], but the pressure vessel did not fail.”
So what if the worst happens and there is a meltdown?
“They’re venting in order to keep the containment vessel from failing. But if a core melts, it will slump to the bottom of the reactor vessel, probably melt through the reactor vessel onto the containment floor. It’s likely to spread as a molten pool—like lava—to the edge of the steel shell, and melt through. That would result in a containment failure in a matter of less than a day. It’s good that it’s got a better containment system than Chernobyl, but it’s not as strong as most of the reactors in this country.”
Basically, we’re talking about The China Syndrome. Except if a Japanese nuclear plant melts down, the core won’t be headed for China.
By the way, Japanese authorities are already pretty sure that there have been at least partial meltdowns in at least two of the three problematic reactors.
The operators of the reactors, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), resorted to pumping seawater into the reactors, which to many in the industry sounds very much like a last-ditch, worrisome effort. Reuters reported that 140,000 people have been evacuated from the area as a safety precaution and iodine is being readied to distributed to people in the area to protect them from radioactive exposure. We’ll soon see if the disaster will get worse or better.
What we do know is that the incident could have far reaching repercussions on the nuclear policies of the governments of the U.S., European countries, China and India, and will likely do significant damage to public opinion in general of nuclear energy. As the Guardian put it succinctly: “When experts decide it is necessary to flood reactors in the world’s most technologically advanced nation with an improvised flow of marine muck, people will ask whether the industry’s contingency planning for disaster is really as good as we are always being promised.”
Another nuclear expert told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that the U.S. could be effected by the radiation released in Japan.
Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, told Fox News’ Chris Wallace Japan’s nuclear crisis is unprecedented.
“One reactor has had half the core exposed already,” he explained. “This is the one they’re flooding with sea water in a desperate effort to prevent it from a complete meltdown. They lost control of a second reactor next to it, a partial meltdown, and there is actually a third reactor at a related site 20-kilometers away they have also lost control over. We have never had a situation like this before.”
“The worst case scenario is that the fuel rods fuse together, the temperatures get so hot that they melt together in a radioactive molten mass that bursts through the containment mechmisms and is exposed to the outside. So they spew radioactivity in the ground, into the air, into the water. Some of the radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the United States.”
“Really?” a surprised Wallace asked. “I mean, thousands of miles across the Pacific?”
“Oh, abosolutely. Chernobyl, which happened about 25 years ago, the radioactivity spread around the entire northern hemisphere. It depends how many of these cores melt down and how successful they are on containing it once this disaster happens,” Cirincione replied.
The detection of the highly radioactive elements cesium-137 and iodine-131 outside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant heralds the beginning of an ecological and human tragedy. The open question is whether it will be limited, serious or catastrophic.
The two radioactive isotopes can mean only one thing: One or more of the reactor cores is badly damaged and at least partially melted down.
In the best case, operators will pump enough seawater and other coolants into the stricken reactor cores to squelch overheating. Such a success would prevent further releases of radiation beyond the unknown amount spewed into the air by controlled venting and the explosion of a reactor containment building Saturday.
In such a hoped-for scenario, the only casualties would probably be the handful of plant workers reported Sunday to be suffering from acute radiation sickness. But there’s also the immense anxiety triggered by the incident and the toll of the subsequent evacuation on nearby residents.
The consequences of the most dire scenarios are much harder to estimate. They include the loss of the facility, an expensive local cleanup – a foregone conclusion – and a wide-scale disaster that renders the countryside around the plant uninhabitable for decades.
The WaPo also reports that radioactive releases from the plants could continue for months.
Finally, here’s a 60 Minutes report on Chernobyl to give you an idea of how bad it can get.
As I reported late last night, there has been a second explosion at the damaged nuclear power plant in Japan. The news is breaking so fast, I can’t keep up with it.
I’ll just say this. I think President Obama wants Gaddafi to stay in power. And yes, I am serious. That is the only explanation I can come up with to explain his non-action in the face of the terrible slaughter that is going on. I will try to write more about this later today, but for now here are the latest events in Libya as of late last night.
Gaddafi’s forces have driven the rebels out of city after city, leaving them with few options except to prepare for a futile last stand in Bengazi.
A fierce attack by troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi forced poorly armed rebels to flee the eastern town of Brega Sunday, as the Arab League pushed the United Nations to support a no-fly zone over the country.
Gaddafi troops used rocket launchers and artillery to force the rebels to flee the key oil town, which has been a source of fuel for their vehicles, the Guardian reports.
“They shot 40 to 60 rockets at the same time,” Suliman Refadi, a doctor fleeing Brega hospital, told the Guardian. “The sky was raining with rockets, with shrapnel. There was heavy artillery. Then they advanced.”
Muammar Gaddafi’s army won control of a strategic rebel-held Libyan town and laid siege to another as the revolutionary administration in Benghazi again appealed for foreign military help to prevent what it said would be the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people if the insurgents were to lose.
The rebels admitted retreating from the oil town of Ras Lanuf – captured a week ago – after two days of intense fighting and that the nearby town of Brega was now threatened.
The revolutionary army, in large part made up of inexperienced young volunteers, has been forced back by a sustained artillery, tank and air bombardment about 20 miles along the road to the rebel capital of Benghazi.
The head of Libya’s revolutionary council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, claimed that if Gaddafi’s forces were to reach the country’s second-largest city it would result in “the death of half a million” people.
Patrick Cockburn: Arab League call for a no-fly zone may be too little, too late
For the first time, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is beginning to look as if he may survive and even crush the rebellion against him that seemed close to victory two weeks ago. A no-fly zone, even if was imposed, would be unlikely at this stage to stop his counter-attacks, which depend more on tanks and artillery than airpower.
Such a no-fly zone is, in any case, far from being inevitable since the US may not support such a resolution at the Security Council. When the idea was first mooted, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said setting up such a zone would in practice be the opening act of a war because the US would have to attack Libyan air defences. To turn the tide in the fighting, the US and its allies would probably have to do a lot more, such as using its planes to prevent the pro-Gaddafi units advancing on Benghazi.
The Libyan government has also had some luck in that the Japanese earthquake has shifted international media attention away from Libya for the first time in three weeks. Political pressure against Gaddafi and in favour of the rebels is likely to subside once it is no longer in the spotlight. If, however, his forces engage in well-publicised massacres in recaptured towns, then he might, once again, risk international intervention.
There have been huge crowds of protesters in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend, but very little press coverage of these events. Raw Story has this: Wisconsin protests larger than any Tea Party rally
Police estimated that more than 100,000 people flooded the streets around the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison Saturday, making the turnout larger than any of the fledgling Tea Party’s rallies. The largest turnout for a Tea Party rally is the estimated crowd of 60,000 to 70,000 people who marked in Washington, D.C. during the group’s September 12, 2009 demonstration.
The 2009 Tea Party rally’s crowd size is also notable for the controversy that surrounded it. ABC News published a piece claiming conservative activists had told them that 1 million to 1.5 million people turned out at the rally, when the corrected number was only a fraction of that size.
Farmers join Wisconsin protests (Video)
Clogging the Wisconsin Capitol grounds and screaming angry chants, tens of thousands of undaunted pro-labor protesters descended on Madison again Saturday and vowed to focus on future elections now that contentious cuts to public worker union rights have become law.
Protests have rocked the Capitol almost every day since Gov. Scott Walker proposed taking nearly all collective bargaining rights away from public workers, but the largest came a day after the governor signed the measure into law. Madison Police estimated the crowd at 85,000 to 100,000 people — along with 50 tractors and one donkey — by late afternoon. No one was arrested.
Speakers delivered angry diatribes while the crowd carried signs comparing Walker to dictators and yelled thunderous chants of “this is what democracy looks like.”
“This is so not the end,” said protester Judy Gump, a 45-year-old English teacher at Madison Memorial High School. “This is what makes people more determined and makes them dig in.”
That’s it for me. What are you reading and blogging about today. Please share!