Tragedy in wait­ing

Townsville Bulletin - - Voice Of The North - opin­ion Dr Bill Laing BSC PhD Past Con­venor North Queens­land, Sci­en­tists Against Nu­clear Arms ( SANA)

I WANT to pro­vide some im­por­tant facts about the Ja­panese nu­clear tragedy-in-wait­ing.

Our sis­ter city Iwaki is only 50km south of the doomed Fukushima nu­clear power plant, along the coast­line.

Nu­clear power plants are built around a fuel of ura­nium.

This is a ra­dioac­tive el­e­ment which breaks down by nu­clear re­ac­tion, in a re­ac­tor, to daugh­ter el­e­ments, all of which are also ra­dioac­tive.

The ra­dioac­tive prod­ucts’ half-life is be­tween sev­eral weeks and mil­lions of years, at which point they are present at half their orig­i­nal amount.

A nu­clear re­ac­tor is a con­trolled atomic bomb. It con­tains enough ura­nium to make hun­dreds of nu­clear bombs.

It does not ex­plode as a nu­clear bomb dur­ing nor­mal op­er­a­tion be­cause it is con­trolled by two mea­sures: • Keep­ing the fuel rods suf­fi­ciently far apart that their com­bined mass does not be­come ‘‘ crit­i­cal’’ and ex­plode in a nu­clear holo­caust, and • Keep­ing the fuel rods suf­fi­ciently cool that they do not heat to melt­ing point, de­stroy the re­ac­tor and ir­ra­di­ate the re­gion.

Should ei­ther mea­sure fail, con­trol is lost and the re­ac­tor may be­come a bomb, re­leas­ing mon­strous amounts of lethal ra­di­a­tion over a wide area.

A nu­clear re­ac­tor con­tains sev­eral hun­dred tonnes of fuel rods and the same or more ton­nage of spent fuel rods in per­ma­nent cool­ing tanks.

The to­tal lethally ra­dioac­tive mass of roughly 1000 tonnes is suf­fi­cient, if spread around the Earth ( which thank­fully is not re­ally pos­si­ble), to kill all species many times over.

Ura­nium is so ra­dioac­tive it re­quires eter­nal ( not merely con­stant) cool­ing by a large sys­tem of high-pres­sure wa­ter pip­ing.

The Fukushima re­ac­tors are in the cir­cum-Pa­cific earth­quake zone, and Ja­panese earth­quakes are some of the big­gest in the world.

Fukushima was built on sea frontage, with one re­ac­tor 50m from the beach, with­out a pro- tec­tive wall. Fukushima was bro­ken by the earth­quake, then flooded by the tsunami.

The six Fukushima nu­clear re­ac­tors com­prise the 15th largest nu­clear power sta­tion in the world. Its owner TEPCO is the world’s fourth largest en­ergy com­pany with an an­nual rev­enue of $ A70 bil­lion.

In 2002 TEPCO was con­victed of sys­tem­atic ma­jor fraud­u­lent re­port­ing of nu­clear safety in­ci­dents. The chair­man, pres­i­dent and vice-pres­i­dent re­signed.

In 2007 it ad­mit­ted many more un­re­ported nu­clear in­ci­dents but was not forced to iden­tify those re­spon­si­ble.

TEPCO op­er­ated 17 nu­clear re­ac­tors un­til 2008 but has since closed 11 of them be­cause of earth­quake and tsunami dam­age.

One of the Fukushima re­ac­tors con­tains plu­to­nium which is con­sid­er­ably more dan­ger­ous than ura­nium.

I have just watched on CNN News, he­li­copters drop­ping seven tonnes of wa­ter, half of it miss­ing the re­ac­tor, on to 20,000 tonnes of red-hot metal at the power sta­tion.

This is the same as putting a cou­ple of drops of wa­ter on a ket­tle heat­ing el­e­ment and ex­pect­ing it to cool to room tem­per­a­ture.

BBC World News re­ported that the Ja­panese had raised the ra­di­a­tion ‘‘ legal limit al­lowed’’ to emer­gency work­ers in the stricken re­ac­tors.

This is bru­tal spin. Trans­lated, it says ‘‘ We of­fi­cially in­struct these work­ers to die af­ter do­ing their heroic job to save mil­lions of oth­ers, and this change in lev­els al­lows our gov­ern­ment to avoid be­ing sued by their fam­i­lies’’.

It is an irony that the fu­ture of Ja­pan ap­pears to re­main in the hands of na­ture – which way the wind will be blow­ing if and when ex­plo­sions re­lease mas­sive amounts of lethal ra­di­a­tion, into the Pa­cific Ocean or over Ja­pan, China, Korea and/ or Siberia. Or fur­ther.

If this had oc­curred in Aus­tralia, we would have ra­di­a­tion mon­i­tors ev­ery where, we would tell peo­ple what was hap­pen­ing, and we would pre­pare to evac­u­ate whole cities.

The me­dia would hound the prime min­is­ter and the com­pany spin doc­tors un­til they told us the real story.

DAN­GERS: Work­ers in ra­di­a­tion pro­tecti on s ui t s ex­change in­struc­tions be­fore they start ra­di­a­tion screen­ing in Iwaki

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