Japanese disaster exposes serious problems with nuclear fuel
By Andrew McKillop
21st Century Wire
March 16, 2011
As alternatives to fossil fuel go, nuclear power has long been held in high regard by green prophets and policy makers throughout the developed world. Still though, its loyal proponents, including James Lovelock, have been stumped for years by the double entendre that has dominated this discussion for the best part of a half century: is it cost-effective? And more importantly, is it safe?
The recent crisis in Japan has forced the latter to the very top of our global agenda.
Japan’s nuclear crisis began with an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that rocked the country’s northern region on Friday (Japan’s Meteorological Agency has since upgraded the earthquake to 9.0 on the Richter scale). As a result of the quake, the fuel rods in Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s unit 2 reactor were fully exposed, despite attempts to pump water into the chamber, according to Japanese media reports. The prefectural (regional) nuclear safety department said Tuesday that sharp rises in radiation were detected in the Ibaraki prefecture, south of Fukushima. Radiation monitored in Hitachiota City rose to 100 times normal levels, according to officials from the safety department, and radiation was also recorded at 10 times the normal level in Naka City and Hitachi City in the same prefecture, Xinhua reported.
Infowars.com reported yesterday that in addition to under reporting the fires at Fukushima, Japanese government officials have not told the people about the ominous fact that the nuclear plant site is a hellish repository where a staggering number of spent fuel rods have accumulated for 40 years.
Pentagon officials also reported this past Sunday that helicopters flying 60 miles away from the Daiichi plant picked up small amounts of radioactive material, which suggests there could also be more widespread environmental contamination than was previously expected.
The proliferation of nuclear plants since 1960 was somewhat of a global phenomenon and is no stranger to controversy. Hollywood first chimed in with its 1979 thriller The China Syndrome.
Then real life happened- Americans will tell you about the cooling malfunction that caused part of the Unit 2 core to melt at Three Mile Island, and then- Eastern Europeans will tell you about the employees, who in violation of safety regulations, had switched off important control systems causing a nuclear explosion at the doomed Chernobyl facility in the Ukraine.
Human error and equipment failures aside, it’s also not uncommon that reactors have been built near major continental fault lines. This is how the present discussion surrounding Japan’s nuclear incident has initially been framed. Beyond these obvious risks exist a set of even deeper, perhaps more dangerous aspects to the nuclear power game: its dirty, radioactive shopsoiled products. And as any good consumer knows, any shop keeper who pushes shopsoiled goods over his counter is a business man who has little regard for the health and safety of his patrons, despite his repeated assurances that everything he sells is, “of the highest quality”.
Nuclear power companies will always advertize that theirs is “a solution for competitive and safe electricity production”, and the solution to “Zero-emission energy”. It’s “green” and it’s “clean”. Consumers should be warned though, believe this slick public relations campaign at your own risk- and the risk of future generations.
THE JAPANESE DID
Shopsoiled nuclear goods in the shape of reactor uranium fuel contaminated with plutonium and other high level radioactive wastes from the (not-so-friendly) atom are called second-time fuel by France’s Areva Corporation, a semi-public State-owned nuclear company. Mixed with fresh uranium, the reprocessed and recycled wastes produce “MOX”, or mixed oxide fuels. These same MOX fuels are also sometimes involved in the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.
Since 1995, its Melox plant in the southern Gard department has been making MOX fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants in a small, select number of countries, particularly for Japan and the United States. This fuel is made from uranium and plutonium oxides and is extracted from “spent” fuel rods in conventional reactors. MOX fuel is being promoted heavily by Areva as the world’s key solution for recycling plutonium generated in fuel rods. In spite of all its safety objections, Areva claims this process can stretch world nuclear fuel supplies, which also happen to be heavily limited by the massive under supply of fresh-mined uranium relative to annual uranium needs (another major problem with the nuclear option).
With more than 1,500 tons of MOX fuel produced to date, Areva’s Melox plant is the world’s leading producer. In France, more than 10 percent of the electricity produced from nuclear energy comes from reactors running on MOX fuel, and 21 of its 58 present operating reactors are claimed by Areva as able to use MOX fuel.
Up until the March 2011 disaster, Japan was heavily promoted by the French nuclear industry as moving up and coming along fine as the potential second-largest user in the world of this highly risky Doomsday Fuel. With the Japanese market in their crosshairs, Areva’s plans for MOX were the meat of boardroom exuberance.
TOO MUCH PLUTONIUM
Down in the real world, far away from the Areva boardroom – located in a sealed building with armed guards on every entrance in a discreet Paris suburb – things are different. The key part of Areva’s evil euphoria: plutonium. The MOX theory is that plutonium, used as fuel, is like something out of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – it can just grow and grow – but we are such great guys, with such marvelous technology we can and will control this proliferation.
The desperate problem is this concerns plutonium, not pails of water. Finding out how much plutonium is produced by the world’s 440-odd civil nuclear reactors, excluding what is produced in the 200-odd military and research reactors of larger size, is however not easy.
Knowing what plutonium can do is a lot easier: the complete detonation of 1 kilogram of plutonium produces an explosion equal to about 20,000 tons of a chemical explosive like TNT. Lethal doses of plutonium oxide, when inhaled, start from as low as a half-milligram.
Estimates are variable on how much is produced by the world’s civil reactors, but the minimum is about 25 tons per year. Apart from the extreme, almost unlimited danger of plutonium, its production inside the fuel rods of conventional reactors makes them hard to operate, and can make them dangerous due to the quirks of plutonium as an engineering metal, as well as chemical and radioactive agent.
When fuel rods contain even the smallest few-percent amounts of plutonium, they have to be removed, cooled, and transported to reprocessing centres. The plutonium is removed – and given Melox treatment to recycle cash for the very few industrial ‘players’ like Areva who like playing around with this ersatz fuel and seem to care little and less about generating permanent danger for anything living that their pet plutonium can contact.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
The temptation on the part of the nuclear industrial complex to flog its wears to anyone and everyone is something of a grim reality, encapsulated by France’s recent courtship of its dodgy neighbour across the Mediterranean. Germany’s Der Spiegel Magazine reported on July 27, 2007:
“French President Nicolas Sarkozy went to Tripoli on Wednesday and struck a number of deals with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, including promises to build a nuclear reactor. Critics in Germany and France are crying foul, accusing him of going it alone and potentially endangering Europe.”
Der Spiegel rightly described this typical Sarkozy go-for-it, lunge-for-anything which features Big Dosh (in this case the billions of petrodollars Gadhafi has been collecting for the last 40 years), as nothing less than a European disgrace. But we can ask another question: Would you buy anything from Areva’s unofficial international sales agent Sarko ? In this case, Gadhafi did not.
GETTING TO KNOW THINGS
Areva and its small number of partners-in-crime covering the major nuclear technology supplying countries, notably Japan, are at this moment in March 2011 under heavy stress: the Japan disaster is real. Worldwide media is focused on Japan, and especially the crippled, probably long-term defective and aged reactors which have suffered massive damage – and perhaps total meltdown.
What the nuclear elite really fear are two things: scrutiny and open information, like those garden insects and arthropods that run for it when you lift a big stone that has been in place for so long. The nuclear elite’s system of lies, distortion, bribery and propaganda is suddenly exposed for what it is – creating a time of terrible danger for the pushers of defective and dangerous, expensive and unnecessary nuclear razzle dazzle that cost lives.
Gimmicks that kill and shopsoiled goods are the meat of nuclear business turnover: unlike previous and exposed industries like asbestos, government and corporate complicity to ram nuclear power down our throats, with the goal of universal acceptance for this Doomsday Tech has been massive. Only disaster can shake it.
Throughout the government-friendly media outlets, rearguard action is underway- the nuclear elite are using all channels to swamp the public with confusing information, to reassure the public that Japan’s nuclear authorities are in control. But these same elite have already gone cap in hand to US nuclear experts, begging for help.
Tragedy aside, this singular example in Japan shows almost in real-time how the lies of the nuclear elite are critically damaged by truth… any truth. And this truth is only allowed out when there are disasters and catastrophes – another thing which we will remember when nuclear shills and boomers are peddling their talk about clean, safe and cheap nuclear power. This time their game could be over.
COPYRIGHT ANDREW MCKILLOP 2011
Andrew McKillop is guest writer and energy markets analyst for 21st Century Wire. He has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has extensive experience in energy policy, project administration, including the development and financing of alternate energy.
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