Mon, Jul 04, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Dealing with nuclear terror means plants and weapons

While the Fukushima disaster has led to a reconsideration of nuclear power, its implications for nuclear weapons remain largely unremarked, even though they could cause an equally grave disaster

By Malcolm Fraser

Illustration: Yusha

Months after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the ongoing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi compounds the humanitarian tragedy and impedes recovery. The damaged reactors and spent-fuel ponds contain about 10 times as much nuclear fuel as did the Chernobyl reactor that exploded in 1986. In three reactors, the fuel has melted, almost certainly through the reactor vessels; primary containment structures have been breached; explosions have torn away the secondary containment (the buildings); radioactive releases continue; and closed-loop cooling has not been re-established.

More than 100,000 tonnes of highly radioactive wastewater now flood the facility to capacity, as water continues to be poured in to prevent further massive radioactive emissions. The spent fuel in pools adjacent to each reactor, containing more radioactivity than the reactors themselves, has also been severely damaged, has leaked radioactivity, and is still without needed stable cooling. The spent fuel at the Reactor 4 caused a hydrogen explosion and fire on March 15.

As a result, large amounts of radiation, on a scale comparable to Chernobyl, have already been released into the air, earth, and ocean. Further releases will continue, probably for years.

And yet, while the Fukushima disaster is attracting overdue global attention to nuclear safety and security, and provoking a reconsideration of nuclear power, its implications for nuclear weapons remain largely unremarked. The nuclear reactions that drive reactors and weapons are the same, as are the radioactive products that are dispersed by wind, rain, and water if released, with the same lack of respect for borders and the same indiscriminate long-term cancer and genetic hazards.

At Fukushima, a perfect storm — a massive earthquake and tsunami, multiple vulnerable coastal reactors with spent-fuel ponds in the same buildings, inadequate barriers, loss of power, and back-up generators situated too low — may have seemed a remote possibility. But was it really? Problems had occurred at similar reactors before. Fukushima Dai-ichi’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), had a poor safety culture and a long history of falsifying and covering up inspection and safety data.

No nuclear reactors are designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.0. Yet there were 11 earthquakes greater than 8.5 last century, and only 11 years into this century, there have been five. Almost all were followed by tsunamis. The seawall at Fukushima was designed for a tsunami no higher than 5.7m. Yet the same coast was devastated by a 38m tsunami in 1896, and again by a 29m tsunami in 1933.

Moreover, no nuclear reactors are built to withstand an attack like that of Sept. 11, 2001 — which was also unforeseen. The aircraft that crashed in a Pennsylvania field was, it should be recalled, less than 10 minutes away from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.

Fukushima has highlighted how vulnerable spent-fuel ponds are to direct damage or disruption of power, water, or pumps for cooling. These pools contain vast amounts of long-lived radioactivity, typically in a simple building, without multiple engineered layers of containment. Each of the world’s 437 nuclear power reactors and associated spent-fuel ponds are effectively enormous pre-positioned radiological weapons, or “dirty bombs.”

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