The Fukushima disaster (part 2)

Posted in Environment on March 19, 2011 by max

I ended part one of this story by describing the destruction caused by the hydrogen explosions in the reactor buildings, and how this must complicate efforts to get the cooling systems operational. I just found this status report on the BBC News site:

  • Reactor 1: Was first to be rocked by an explosion on Saturday; fuel rods reportedly 70% damaged
  • Reactor 2: There are fears a blast on Tuesday breached a containment system; fuel rods reportedly 33% damaged
  • Reactor 3: Explosion on Monday; smoke or steam seen rising on Wednesday; damage to roof and possibly also to a containment system
  • Reactor 4: Hit by a major blaze (possible blast) on Tuesday and another fire on Wednesday

According to the BBC, all four reactor buildings have experienced explosions or fires or both. There are two more reactor buildings on site (total of six), but the other two were offline at the time of the earthquake. These two are also reported to have elevated fuel rod temperatures, but like many of the reports, this is difficult to evaluate — who is measuring these temperatures, and with what instruments?

Desperate measures

Most of us have seen the video of the helicopters attempting to dump water into the spent fuel rod storage pool, located on the upper level of a reactor building. This brings up another dangerous situation, which I haven’t addressed yet. The Fukushima plant stores ”spent” fuel rods in water tanks on the upper floors of the reactor buildings, as well as some in a common pool. The number of these rods dwarfs the number of rods in the actual reactors — over 600,000 rods are stored on site. Each rod consists of around 5kg of uranium oxide pellets, sealed in a zirconium tube — that’s about 3 million kilograms of hot radioactive material outside of the reactor vessels, that must also be submerged in continuously circulating water. Needless to say, the pumps responsible for this circulation are not functioning, either. One of the serious flaws in this reactor design, that has been heavily criticized in the past, is the fact that these storage pools and their support systems are not nearly as robust as the main reactor systems. They are not “hardened” against natural disasters or protected by multiple redundancies. In the case of  Fukushima 1 through 4, it is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that some or all of these systems were irreparably damaged by the hydrogen explosions. The fact that you have a hole in the roof of the containment building large enough to attempt a helicopter water drop is a pretty good indication that the interior is seriously messed up. And when the official spokesman is reduced to expressing hope that there might possibly be some water left in the storage pool, I think we can assume that if it is not dry now, it is going to be very soon.

What prompted the managers to attempt such low-probability stunts as helicopter drops and water cannons (which would seem to have the same chance of success as trying to fill your neighbor’s backyard pool by blindly tossing water balloons over the fence)? Well, they probably felt they had to do something, considering the alternative. Left to themselves, the spent rods would eventually boil off the remaining water, becoming exposed to air, at which time the temperature would increase enormously. The zirconium casings might even catch on fire (it was speculated that this may have been the source of the fire in building 4); eventually the fuel would melt through the tank and drop through to the lower levels of the building (where it would continue to do damage), all the while releasing high levels of radioactivity, preventing workers from approaching the area and essentially forestalling any mitigation measures. All things considered, squirting water from a distance may have been the only viable option.

What happens next?

The latest reports state that TEPCO workers have succeeded in bringing grid power to Building 2. This is great news, but it is not in itself a solution. The suppression chamber at reactor 2 is reported to have been breached; if true, this will need to be repaired before water flow can be restored to the reactor. Then there is the question of the building utilities — considering all the various types of damage that have been inflicted, starting the pumps is not going to be a simple matter of flipping a switch or resetting breakers. Circuits and pipelines will need to be tested for integrity, computers will need to be rebooted, safety systems reset or even overridden. In the other buildings, which have gross visible structural damage, this task will be even more difficult. One encouraging sign is that the situation has not become obviously worse over the last two days — there have been no new explosions or columns of smoke, or sudden spikes in radiation (although the effective capacity for monitoring radiation at the site has been questioned). My guess is that right now the outcome is still in the balance — they may be starting to get a grip on events, but there is still potential for matters to spiral out of control on several fronts.

Meanwhile, I would like to send a deep bow in the direction of the heroic workers.

Related stories:

Japan steps up moves to cool stricken nuclear reactors

Fukushima Coverup: 40 Years of Spent Nuclear Rods Blown Sky High

Nuclear fuel (Wikipedia)

The Fukushima disaster (part 1)

Posted in Environment on March 18, 2011 by max

Like many people, I have been absorbed in the news reports about the horrifying triple-tragedy in Japan — first, an enormous earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami, and now this continuing crisis with the damaged nuclear power plant. The available information on this latter topic has been sketchy, at best. Some people are blaming the Japanese government or the power company for a “lack of transparency”. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be pointing fingers, considering the overwhelming problems they are facing, but for my own satisfaction I have been trying to piece together a clearer picture of what went wrong, and how these incidents might be prevented in future. After all, the nearest nuclear plant to my location is also situated on the edge of the ocean, near an active fault, so the question is all too germane.

Keeping cool

All the issues at the Fukushima Daiichi plant can be related to a single factor: cooling, or rather, lack of same. A fission plant generates electricity in pretty much the same way as a natural gas or coal plant — it boils water, and the steam is used to turn a turbine, which spins a generator. The difference is,  in the fossil fuel plants, if you shut off the gas valve, or stop shoveling coal, the fire goes out, the water cools down, and you can pretty much walk away. But nuclear fuel rods generate heat via their natural radioactivity — you can dampen the reactor core to shut down the chain reaction, but the fuel stays hot. In the reactors used at Fukushima, the core will be boiling off 60 gallons of water per minute one week after shutdown. So it is imperative that a continuous supply of cool water is circulated through the reactor in order to draw off this heat, for more-or-less the entire life of the plant. In the absence of cooling water, bad things start to happen (can you say meltdown?), which I will get into later. For now, let’s examine this idea that the cooling system cannot be allowed to fail, ever.

Redundancy and more redundancy

First, we have to realize that the power for running the cooling pumps cannot come from the reactor itself. If it did, and you had to shut down the reactor, the turbine, or the generator for either maintenance or an emergency, then you’d immediately be into meltdown mode (no coolant circulation). So that doesn’t work. In our example, the power for the pumps comes from the national electrical grid. Unsurprisingly, highly-developed countries such as Japan or the US consider the grid to be a reliable source of power — except, of course, in the case of a major natural disaster. But TEPCO thought they had that covered, with sufficient diesel-powered generator capacity to run the pumps on all the reactors (and presumably the plant lighting and control functions). To back up the back-up, they also had battery capacity for 8 hours of operation. So far, so good.

An unanticipated sequence of events

It is unclear whether the earthquake itself knocked out power to the plant. Assuming it did, the pumps would have been running on power from the diesel generators when the tsunami hit. Leaving the tsunami aside, the “by the book” scenario would have had TEPCO emergency workers restoring power to the plant as a matter of priority. Given the scale of this particular earthquake, that may have taken days, but in the meantime trucks could deliver diesel fuel to keep the generators running. Potentially there could have been some delays involved with clearing the roads, but there was a certain amount of fuel storage on-site (I haven’t seen a figure for this, yet), and, in the worst case, they could go to batteries overnight. But, as we know, the earthquake was followed within an hour by a massive tsunami which not only drowned the diesel generators but probably severely damaged or destroyed the related infrastructure (power lines, control systems, fuel pipelines and storage tanks). By the following morning the battery power was exhausted, and the water in the reactors began to boil away.

Bad things start to happen

So, what are the adverse consequences of failing to circulate water through the reactor core? The first thing is the water starts to boil, creating steam. But the steam isn’t going anywhere (for instance, to power the turbine) because you can’t afford to let it flow out, since you don’t have any way of replacing the water (since the pumps are down). But that creates pressure, and eventually you have to release some of it to avoid blowing up the reactor vessel. So you are forced to vent some steam into the secondary containment structure. There are a few problems with this. One is that the steam contains traces of radioactive elements, but it’s not like you’re releasing it into the environment (not yet). The second is that the steam also contains hydrogen gas (the heat of the nuclear fuel breaks water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen; apparently this process is catalyzed or otherwise exacerbated by the zirconium casings on the fuel rods). Hydrogen gas is explosive (think Hindenburg disaster). Now the secondary containment is designed to deal with this situation — it is equipped with air pumps, filters and scrubbers that can capture the radioactive trace elements and the hydrogen gas — except for the fact that the power is out and none of this equipment is operational. Oops. The monitoring instruments that would inform the operators of a hydrogen build-up are also off-line.

Out of control

Up to this point nothing irreversible has occurred. If the power suddenly came back up, we’d soon be back to normal, with no permanent harm done. But unfortunately, events at Fukushima took a different turn. The first clue that something was seriously wrong at the complex occurred when one of the reactor buildings suffered a hydrogen explosion. The news reports stressed that this was not a nuclear explosion, and that the reactor containment was not breached. But what had happened was bad enough. The images clearly showed severe damage to the upper portion of the reactor building — gaping holes in the walls and roof, piles of twisted metal debris, and an ominous cloud of smoke. In my opinion, this was the critical event in the sequence of failures.

Prior to the explosion, full plant operation could have been restored by the flick of a switch. Now, it is impossible to say — it is conceivable that nothing can be done to prevent a full meltdown. This is a more pessimistic position than we have been hearing in the media, but I am finding it difficult to imagine how the situation can be quickly turned around. Look at the wreckage of the reactor building — even if TEPCO manages to hook up grid power, as they are attempting today, it seems unlikely that many of the building utility systems could remain functional. Lighting, control, monitoring and plumbing have all been massively damaged, at least insofar as the secondary containment and spent fuel storage functions are concerned (the reactor vessel and its systems can’t be seen). Debris removal, damage control, structural repair and systems replacement will have to be performed before full function can be restored, and all of this will necessarily be attempted in the dark (no lighting), in a structurally unstable environment choked with debris and subject to radiation leaks and further explosions, by exhausted workers hampered by rad suits and the absence of heavy equipment and power tools. My understanding is that this description applies to three of the reactor buildings as of Friday morning.

The situation of the plant workers is equivalent to that of a smoke jumper whose pumper has just been overrun by a fast-moving forest fire, leaving him standing downwind with a shovel and a bucket. He’s game, and he knows his business, but he doesn’t have anything to work with.

(to be continued)

Let’s stop believing

Posted in Society on February 23, 2011 by max

I saw a billboard on 880 today… “Judgment Day – May 21, 2011”. Uh huh. What is it with these people? Do they enjoy being dead wrong in public?

It made me think, “I wish these guys would get raptured — maybe then we could get back to running this country in the interest of human beings, instead of according to the whimsical notions of a bearded tyrant in the sky, as interpreted by a bunch of  angry misogynist crackpots…”

The annoying thing is, May 21 will come and go without the apocalypse, but these nitwits will just continue swallowing the same nonsense, because you can’t sway Believers with mere evidence. Even evidence of gross misrepresentation by their own alleged leaders.

“Crossover” — dumbest vehicle ever?

Posted in Cars on December 16, 2010 by max

The car makers have been pushing this market segment for a couple of years now, and I am still bewildered that anyone actually buys into it. Filtering out the manufacturers’ marketing-speak, the term “crossover” or “crossover SUV” appears to refer to a vehicle with the bulk of an SUV, but with the stylish lines (allegedly) of a sports coupe or sedan. They are generally built on a sedan platform (as opposed to being based on a truck), and are equipped with all wheel drive. Someone seems to think that this combines the best features of both categories; my assessment is quite the opposite.

Taken as an SUV, we find that the raked windshield, extreme tumblehome, and sloped rear glass (or “fastback”) severely constrain the interior space. Combined with the large wheel wells  (for the oversized wheels and tires), the interior accommodations are much more cramped than one would expect for a vehicle with these outside dimensions; while the sedan-based suspension makes it totally unsuitable for off-road use.

Considered as a sedan, we have a package that is much taller and heavier than necessary for the number of occupants it can carry, with the consequences of grossly inferior fuel economy, poor handling, and reduced performance (or alternately, a massive engine — see: fuel economy). Not to mention the inconveniences of high stepover and liftover, poor rear vision, difficulty of parking (necessitating gimmicks like sonar, rear-view video, and robotic auto-parking), and complete absence of a trunk.

Either way, innocent onlookers are affronted by the sight of a desperately over-styled, malproportioned, clumsy, bulky mashup of a vehicle.

Please stop this madness.

Bette Noir

Posted in Cats on December 8, 2010 by max
black cat

Our mama cat. This is more than most people will ever see of her.

Obligatory cat content.

Strange places in my head

Posted in Psychology on December 6, 2010 by max

I had an eerily vivid and compelling dream last night, that left me feeling very discombobulated when I awoke. In this dream I was somehow involved with a group of unremarkable people, all of them strangers to me,and all of whom who shared a belief in parallel universes. These enthusiasts (who reminded me of the sort of people who might believe in dowsing or the less spectacular types of paranormal manifestations) were quietly convinced that they had information about the next “conjunction” — the time and place when the universes would align in such a way that travel to alternative realities would become possible. They had managed to rent some vacant office space at this location, at which we were meeting to plan for this event. My attitude toward this process was rather peculiar — instead of my usual skepticism, I had more of detached, wait-and-see reaction.

As the projected time grew closer, the members spent more and more time hanging around in this room. One fellow, who I thought of as “Bob” (about my age, but looked older, with thinning, receding hair) announced he was going to start sleeping in a cot in the space, so as not to miss the conjunction (apparently the timing was a little uncertain). I pointed out that this might not be safe: “What if you transition into the middle of a freeway?” “Oh yeah,” he replied, “the floor level might be different, too. Maybe you should duct tape me to the wall? On the diagonal, of course.” [The explanation for this last remark is that these folks had a theory (or maybe it was just a metaphor) that one only had to find the line that was diagonal to the four orthogonals of normal space-time, in order to “slip through the crack” into an alternate universe.]

“Um, Bob, the wall probably won’t be there, either.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I guess I’m getting rattled.”

Eventually all of the members were crowded into this office, many of them armed with props. These consisted of right triangles cut out of foamboard or plexiglass that they held in either hand, apparently to help them “find the diagonal” (I  thought this was pretty loony, myself). One younger guy was brandishing a pair of very shiny knives, with peculiarly angled blades. Suddenly, a woman that I did not recall having seen before spoke up in an authoritative voice: “The conjunction is drifting. We need to go outside, now.” So we all followed her out of the building and into the street.

One the other side of the street was a suburban neighborhood; actually, it was more like one of those “new urbanist” developments. The houses were obviously new, but in various traditional styles, and there were sidewalks and young street trees, all the same species, perfectly evenly spaced. It occurred to me that this parade of misfits was going to look very odd in this context, and I started looking around, when I realized that a lot of other people had joined us (including my wife). Some of these people seemed to know what they were doing — they hustled us along in a certain direction. All of a sudden I had this weird feeling — it was as if I had crossed my eyes and was seeing double images of the view down the street, superimposed but not correctly aligned. Then the view got blurry, and everything seemed to dissolve. I saw a women nearby drop one of her triangles. It seemed to fall a long long way, then she started falling after it. Her companion released hold of both of her props and fell away, too. It was the last I saw of them. I grasped my wife’s hand.

The next thing I knew, a crowd of us were standing in a wide, dimly-it but otherwise perfectly normal corridor, facing a metal door. The door opened with a push, and we descended a short flight of steps into a large space that looked like the intersection of two tunnels, with high ceilings, curved stainless steel walls, and fluorescent lighting. A fair number of people were briskly moving through the tunnels. It reminded me of an urban subway station — it could have been Barcelona. But on the walls above the tunnel entrances, where one would expect to see signs, were unintelligible hieroglyphs. The people looked normal, but their clothes seemed a trifle off — a little too tailored, with unusual materials. I began to feel a growing sense of panic. After all, this was the equivalent of being instantly transported to, say, Tokyo, with no guidebook, no maps, no knowledge of the language (and no hope of an interpreter!), no luggage, and no money — and not even an inkling whether this was a benevolent democracy or a xenophobic police state.

I felt an urgent need to find out if we could get back. Pulling my wife along, I retraced our path up the stairs, out the corridor, until we found ourselves back on the suburban street. Taking a deep breath, we then decided to take one more peek at this strange new world.

This time, on entering the “subway station”, I bumped into a man who seemed to be reading a large sheet of paper, like a newspaper, but covered in the hieroglyphs. Without saying a word, he peeled off a long strip of the paper and handed it to me. I stared at the mysterious scrawls, until suddenly a word seemed to pop out at me. I looked for it, but it just as instantly disappeared. Then, slowly, the scrawls changed into recognizable words and phrases, as if the knowledge of their meaning had been transferred directly to my brain. Then I could see that the broadsheet was not a newspaper, it was more like a printer’s font book, with the same short paragraph repeated over and over in different styles of characters. While this was occurring, I overheard what I assumed was the same man speaking quietly to some one else behind me, “…this alphabet was developed by a culture that arose in the rain forests…”

Looking around, I found I could now read the signs above the tunnels. I was filled with a sense of elation, even joy. I was certain that we were not the first travelers that had come into this place, but I was glad that we had. I felt a strong sense of belonging, and I think… I think… I had decided to stay. Then I woke up.

• • •

Apologies to my friend and fellow blogger Scott for copying his shtick. He has posted fantastic dream stories on his site Backstage Scene. Here’s a link.

It’s not about marriage

Posted in Society on December 4, 2010 by max

I’m speaking, of course, about the “gay marriage” issue currently in front of the 9th Circuit. The proponents of California’s Proposition 8 would have us think that the issue is about the “sanctity of marriage”, procreation, and child-rearing. This is nonsense, legally speaking. The state has no interest in defining what is or is not “sacred.” The real issue here is equal rights.

As currently implemented, the state-sanctioned concept of legal marriage (we are not talking about sacraments here) conveys certain special rights; including tax breaks, rights of visitation, inheritance, and child custody. The denial of these rights to couples based solely on their gender is clearly unconstitutional. It’s really as simple as that. All the moaning about “traditional concepts” and “welfare of the children” is a smokescreen, that one, in many cases, suspects of covering up plain old bigotry.

It may be easier to understand the essential point if we remove all the loaded language. Let’s try it this way: If the state is going to sponsor a “special status”, and allow persons to qualify for this status on a voluntary basis, then the state needs to be non-discriminatory in how it grants this status.

On the other side of the coin, my argument implies that if the state eliminated all the special “perks” associated with a marriage license, then there would no longer be a legal basis for challenging the discrimination against same-sex couples. I’m not sure if that is true — there may be another type of argument based on the public recognition aspect — but I am not prepared to discuss that at this time. In any case, I don’t think this circumstance is likely to arise.

I suppose my attitude may be disappointing to those who are focused on the romantic and religious aspects of marriage, same-sex or otherwise; but in my opinion, these have nothing to do with the state. People who feel a need to have the state validate the “sanctity” of their vows are already over the line on the whole church/state separation question. But that’s a rant for another day…

Watching the Watchmen

Posted in Media on December 3, 2010 by max

We hear plenty of chatter about how the mass media is biased, one way or another. But I think the main problem is that the media just plain isn’t doing its job. Whether out of laziness, time pressure, or low staffing levels due to cost-cutting, it seems that for most purposes, news outlets function purely as repeaters of stories generated and written by primary sources, which they promote and distribute without any kind of analysis or even verification.

Example: the main Republican talking point regarding the issue of extending the Bush tax cuts is that eliminating the tax break for incomes over $250,000 would “hurt small business.” This meme is repeated unquestioned. But if you look at it for a second, you realize it’s nonsense. Individuals receiving income of a quarter-million dollars per annum are not what the average American thinks of as a “small businessperson”.

When you say “small business”, people think of the local dry cleaner, or Fro Yo franchise, or muffler shop. And these are the types of small business that are suffering in this economy. But you and I both know that the proprietor of Speedy’s Muffler Service is not in a position to pay himself 250 grand. And if he was, he could still avoid a “tax increase” by just diverting more of his profits back into the business.

The people who are really making mid-six-figure incomes are corporate executives, consultants, lawyers, and other specialist professionals. Frankly, if they are taking home that much, they don’t need tax relief in my book. They can talk to me after selling off the second home or the spare Escalade.

So, this Republican talking point is sheer bull-puckey (one of many, of course). But the only “media entity” to call them on it is The Daily Show.

Traitor to the planet!

Posted in Environment on December 2, 2010 by max

That sounds pretty melodramatic, but I think it’s actually a pretty good description of Bjorn Lomborg. If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s the fellow responsible for the current feature film “Cool It”, which purports to be a scientific rebuttal to Al Gore’s allegedly overstated “An Inconvenient Truth”. This new film has been getting reviewed along the lines of “OK, that’s seems reasonable, or at least it’s a plausible alternative viewpoint.” I’m here to say, emphatically, “No!”

Without quibbling about details (including whether I have I seen the film or read his book), I am going to summarize his position on the issue as follows: Yes, there is scientific evidence for human-caused climate change. But it’s not as bad as this Gore fellow makes out. In fact, there’s no reason to panic, or even to change anything at all. Let’s just see how this thing plays out. Maybe it will be a blessing in disguise. At any rate, human technology can deal with it when the time comes.

Sound reasonable? That’s what he’s counting on. In fact, what he is doing is providing a fig leaf of “scientific” skepticism (as opposed to  clearly anti-scientific denial), that in effect entirely justifies the policies of the most fervent climate change deniers (you know who they are — oil company execs, coal state senators, Republican congressmen). Basically, he is leveraging whatever scientific credibility he might have in order to become the darling of the status quo. There are always those who are willing to sell out their professional integrity for fame, wealth, or power, and this might be merely a particularly egregious example, except for the fact that the stakes are so high, and the consequences so serious.

Look at it this way: suppose Lomborg is right, but we ignore him, and do everything we can to reduce carbon emissions. We wind up (eventually, hopefully) with a carbon-neutral economy, and we’re set for the next few centuries, at the cost of some corporate profits in the short term (and those mostly associated with old-line energy companies; while at the same time, entrepeneurial alternative energy companies are booming). No big harm done, and the petroleum economy was already on its way out (see: peak oil).

Now suppose we listen to him, but it turns out Al Gore was right (or even half right). We’re totally f**ked. Crops fail. Millions are displaced by rising sea levels. Taxes go through the roof to pay for massive infrastructure projects (seawalls, dams, macroengineering mitigation schemes). The economy collapses as oil runs out. Will Lomborg (or James Inhofe) step up and take responsibility for this mess? Ha.

One more point I would like to make, that I think is generally overlooked in this discussion: it isn’t all about us humans. As a species, we have the capability to mitigate the effects of climate — we have been doing it since the last ice age, and it is what has enabled us to spread out across the planet like so many ADD cockroaches. The effects of climate change are already being felt by other denizens of this planet; among the more significantly affected are corals, conifers, and amphibians. The Lomborgs of this world are apparently unconcerned about the fate of the odd cuttlefish or wolverine — after all, that can’t possibly affect their comfortable urban lifestyles. But of course, they are entirely missing the big picture.

Human civilization is made possible by “free” ecosystem services, providing both the water we drink and the air we breathe (among other things). The ecosystems that provide these services (upland forests, rain forests, oceanic plankton populations, to name a few) are not immutable or permanent; they have changed many times over the long history of the planet. But here’s the catch: the global human population is adapted to the specific conditions that have existed over the last twenty thousand years or so, and civilized humanity to an even more recent set of conditions. In the long term, if prairies become deserts, and tundra becomes prairie, species will migrate and adapt. But in the span of a human lifetime, this kind of change would be enormously disruptive, both for humans and wildlife. It’s not like you could just uproot the entire agricultural infrastructure of the American great plains and teleport it to the Yukon. And vegetation cannot migrate tens of miles per year to track a changing climate.

The mere change from winter snowstorms to winter rains in the Sierra Nevada would severely impact the carrying capacity of the state of California. Massive winter flooding would displace millions; summer droughts would devastate agriculture and cause water rationing in the cities. A similar change in the Himalayas would be even more catastrophic, affecting billions of people. How would Lomborg propose to “mitigate” disruption on this scale? The fact is, he is prepared to accept billions of starving Asians in the near future, in order to protect his lifestyle over the next ten or twenty years (and good luck with that).

In other words, he’s a total douchebag.

Let’s get this thing started

Posted in Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 by max

I meant to start this blog when we wound up inadvertently adopting a litter of feral kittens last year. But guess what? Kittens have a way of eating up all your free time. So here we are 17 months later…

Not that this is supposed to be all about kittens. The ‘net has plenty of that. Heh. Mainly, I wanted an outlet for the elaborate rants I compose in my head when I should be thinking about something else. Like work. Or driving. Or sleeping. Of course, now that I am supposed to be thinking about a rant, nothing comes to mind (predictably enough).

Well, you can’t force it — you have to wait for the muse to unveil her charms. So to speak.