Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The inconvenience of Fukushima

You have to admire the politeness and reserve of the Japanese. On a tour of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant last week – or what’s left of it – the manager, Takeshi Takahashi, apologised to visiting journalists for the inconvenience of the disaster that took place there two years ago this week.
Some inconvenience.
One BBC report of the visit suggested that fuel rods with “the potential to wipe out the northern hemisphere” were teetering at the top of an unstable 100ft tower.
Not the most reassuring report I’ve ever taken in with my breakfast. And not, perhaps, quite the most balanced.
But even the calmest assessments of the situation are troubling, to put it mildy.
That “teetering tower” is the plant’s reactor building four, where more than 1,500 highly radioactive spent fuel rods sit in a cooling pool three storeys up. They are outside the reactor's steel and concrete containment vessel.
The complicated operation to remove the rods to a place of relative safety will take more than two years to complete. And it won’t start until the end of this year, after a separate building has been completed around the outside of the existing one.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the plant, says the building is safe. But then it would undoubtedly have said the same thing the day before the tsunami struck in 2011.
If another big earthquake hits the region any time soon, who knows what will happen?
And then there’s reactor building three. Unvisited – unvisitable – by journalists, managers or safety crews because its twisted, rusting steel and concrete hulk remains too radioactive.
Remote-control cranes peck at the rubble, under which lie more spent ruel rods.
Meanwhile, water leaking into the basements around the reactors is too contaminated to be flushed out to sea. Instead it is pumped into huge storage tanks for “safe” keeping.
There are already hundreds of the specially-built 1,000-tonne tanks. A new one has to be built every two or three days. What happens in a couple of years when there is no room on the site for more tanks is an open question.
For now, the clean-up operation is employing 3,000 workers. I can only begin to imagine how stressful their job must be.
“We need to remove the broken and damaged fuel and safely isolate it,” Mr Takahashi explains.
“This work will take 30 to 40 years. Even during the process we should never release any radioactive material into the surrounding environment.”
That should safely see out Mr Takahashi’s career, and probably that of his successor’s successor.
Well, maybe not that safely.
Who can say what further shocks the earth’s itchy crust may have in store within that sort of timescale?


One of the first questions posed about Fukushima – even while the devastated people were fleeing their homes, or the place their homes had been – was: Who pays?
And the answer, quick as a nuclear flash, came back from the insurance companies of the world: Not us.
It was said in a way that was obviously meant to be reassuring. Even if Japan is totally engulfed by the sea, it won’t mean meltdown for the rest of the world’s economy. Or at least for its insurance companies.
Two years on, it’s clear that the companies that built and serviced the disaster-hit plant – the American firm General Electric and the Japanese Toshiba and Hitachi – have got away scot-free too.
And that despite the fact that the official review ordered by the Japanese government found that faulty, outdated equipment played a major role in the catastrophe.
Most of the enormous cost of trying to clear up the environmental damage has fallen on the Japanese taxpayer.
None of the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes, their livelihoods, their communities, their loved ones have received enough compensation to rebuild their lives.
Early on in the aftermath, it was reported that the disaster would make many countries look again at their laws governing liability for such events.
So far just one country has actually enacted a law to make the suppliers of nuclear equipment liable in case of disaster. India.

Stand up for the fox


Statistics that float around the internet, especially in forums such as Facebook, are notoriously unreliable. And they can be very difficult to check.
But even if the figures are imprecise, a very clear case is made here: “Four fox attacks on children reported in last 10 years, leading to a call for a cull on foxes; 6,000 dog attacks on children requiring hospital treatment each year, not leading to a call for a cull on dogs.”
Frankly, I’m extremely sceptical about even those four reported fox attacks.
Of course, I’m not calling for a cull on dogs (though a case might be made for some of their owners). Just for a little balance and sanity.

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