Two new nuclear reactors to be built in Georgia

Yesterday, the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of the first two nuclear reactors to be built in this country since 1978. They're both part of the same power plant complex, near Augusta, Georgia.

As David Biello points out in an excellent analysis of this news over at Scientific American, these reactors are not part of a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. That's simply not happening. But they represent some important shifts in technology. These reactors employ passive cooling systems. Basically, in the event of an emergency, you don't need to rely external pumps or generators to keep the reactor cores cool.

You'll recall, of course, that this was the key problem at Fukushima. The tsunami damaged the generators that powered the pumps, so when the reactors began to heat up, there was no way to get cooling water into them. In Georgia, the new reactors will, instead, rely on gravity. If one of these reactors gets too hot, a heat-sensitive valve will automatically open, releasing cooling water that's stored directly above the reactor core.

Obviously, this doesn't make the reactors fail-proof. If you support nuclear energy, you're going to see this (and the fact that the NRC approval is conditional on utility Southern Company demonstrating that they have learned from the lessons of Fukushima) as a step in the right direction. If you're absolutely against nuclear energy, you're going to be deeply disturbed by this project no matter what happens.

I sit somewhere in the middle. I'm uncomfortable with nuclear energy—as it currently exists—being presented as a long-term energy solution. Read the rest

Inside the Fukushima exclusion zone: the photography of Satoru Niwa

Among the recent projects of London/Tokyo-based photojournalist Satoru Niwa is this stunning series of images captured near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, just days after the March 11, 2011 quake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear disaster.

Above: a policeman wearing protective gear to guard against radiation, 15 miles from the plant, on March 25, 2011. Below, a family's photograph found in the tsunami mud, 5km from the plant in the now-abandoned town of Futaba.

Link to photo gallery: SILENCE/Fukushima.

Related works on his site include this equally powerful series of moonlit photos taken in the tsunami-devastated town of Miyagi, just two weeks after the disaster.

You can follow him on Twitter.

(via Miles O'Brien)

Read the rest

After nuclear disaster, a harsh winter for Fukushima's abandoned pets (big photo gallery)

Members of UKC Japan care for dogs rescued from inside the exclusion zone, a 20km radius around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (REUTERS)

As regular Boing Boing readers will recall, I traveled to Japan some months back with PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien to produce a series of stories about the aftermath of the March 11 quake/tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed.

In the course of reporting our story about Safecast's crowdsourced efforts to monitor radiation, we encountered abandoned pets inside the evacuation zone.

Reuters today published an article about new efforts to save animals abandoned by families forced to flee their homes after the nuclear disaster.

"If left alone, tens of them will die everyday. Unlike well-fed animals that can keep themselves warm with their own body fat, starving ones will just shrivel up and die," said Yasunori Hoso, who runs a shelter for about 350 dogs and cats rescued from the 20-km evacuation zone around the crippled nuclear plant.

The government let animal welfare groups enter the evacuation zone temporarily in December to rescue surviving pets before the severe winter weather set in, but Hoso said there were still many more dogs and cats left in the area.

"If we cannot go in to take them out, I hope the government will at least let us go there and leave food for them," he said.

Inset: Mr. Hoso, who is also director of the United Kennel Club Japan (UKC Japan), speaks in front of a destroyed house in Namie town, inside the 20km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, January 28, 2012. Read the rest

A view inside a nuclear reactor

This is not a metaphorical view inside a nuclear reactor. This is for real-real.

This month, the good folks at TEPCO sent a remote-controlled endoscope and thermometer into the containment vessel of Fukishima's crippled reactor #2, hoping to learn something about the level of cooling water, the state of the fuel rods, and the temperature in the reactor. The view is obscured by steam, the effects of radiation, and (are you sitting down) actual goddam gamma rays just whizzing by. According to the PBS Frontline blog, those are the little streaks and flashes that you see in this video.

The probe revealed corroded piping and dripping humidity, but did not reveal the water’s surface level, which TEPCO had expected to be as high as four meters. The containment vessel was flooded with seawater during the reactor meltdown when other attempts to cool it failed. Current water levels inside the reactor remain unknown.

The probe’s thermometer function proved more revealing; it recorded the interior temperature at 44.7 degrees centigrade (112 degrees Farenheit), demonstrating that the unit’s own thermometer, thought to be off by as many as 20 degrees, is still functioning accurately.

Video Link Read the rest

Frontline post-Fukushima documentary "Nuclear Aftershocks" airs tonight

[Video Link]

"Nuclear Aftershocks," the PBS Frontline documentary which Maggie described in a Boing Boing review as "brilliant," airs tonight online and on local PBS stations at 10pm. I've seen an advance copy, and I agree that it's excellent—though I'm admittedly biased, since I love everything Miles O'Brien does, and collaborate with him creatively from time to time. A preview of the documentary is above. They have some cool web extras up at the Frontline site, including a map of how much nuclear power each US state relies on. Read the rest

Truth and consequences: FRONTLINE's brilliant documentary on Fukushima

Nuclear Aftershocks is a new FRONTLINE documentary, airing tomorrow, January 17, at 10:00 pm Eastern. I watched an advance screener yesterday.

About halfway through Nuclear Aftershocks, a new FRONTLINE documentary about the physical and social fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it becomes clear that correspondent Miles O'Brien and his production team are really going to piss some people off. In the best possible way.

The first part of the program is a pretty straightforward timeline, walking you through the earthquake and tsunami that led to meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant. It's a gripping story, and includes some particularly heart-wrenching details—Fukushima plant workers scavenging car batteries in a last-ditch attempt to restore backup power, the Japanese paleontologist who spent 20 years trying to warn the government and industry that tsunamis of this magnitude had happened before and would happen again. At the same time, though, it's pretty straightforward stuff. You might have heard the information elsewhere, it's just better explained here.

What makes Nuclear Aftershocks different is the point when the documentary shifts gears, and begins to talk about what happens next. What does Fukushima mean for the future of nuclear energy? What happens if places like Germany and Japan shut down their nuclear power plants? How does the fear of nuclear meltdown stack up against the consequences of a world with no nuclear energy? This is where Nuclear Aftershocks really gets good, and it starts with one fact.

Japanese officials evacuated areas around the crippled nuclear plant where humans would receive a radiation dose of 20 millisieverts per year. Read the rest

Japan premier declares Fukushima nuclear plant "stable"

Of course, just because Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl is over doesn't mean it's entirely over. Read the rest

Wild monkeys and boars enlisted to help measure Fukushima radiation in Japan

Many challenges remain in measuring radiation leaked from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, after a devastating quake and tsunami 9 months ago left that site crippled. The crowdsourced efforts of a DIY tech group called Safecast were the subject of a report I produced with Miles O'Brien for NewsHour; other projects to capture this badly-needed data have been led by young mothers.

Today, a story is circulating about a group of researchers from Japan's Fukushima University who plan to enlist the help of wild monkeys, and maybe wild boars, to monitor radiation starting in Spring of 2012.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Researchers from Fukushima University plan to kit wild monkeys out with radiation-measuring collars to track the contamination levels deep in the forests, where it’s difficult for humans to go. (...) The monkey collars are geared with a small radiation-measuring device, a GPS system and an instrument that can detect the monkey’s distance from the ground as the radiation level is being tallied. Mr. Takahashi said more contraptions may be added, but these will be the three main ones.

So, it sounds like they'll capture the critters, tranquilize them, attach the devices, then free them again back in the wild to roam around and passively gather/transmit readings.

CNN reports that veterinarian Toshio Mizoguchi of the Fukushima Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (run by the regional government) came up with the idea. He wanted to find a way to observe the effect of radiation on the wild animals near Fukushima. Read the rest

Japan to declare Fukushima nuclear plant stable, but problems aren't over

Surely this will end well! Japan is expected to soon declare the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant "virtually stable" nine months after a quake and tsunami led to a nuclear disaster there. The plant still leaks radiation, is vulnerable to earthquakes, and no one can figure out how to clean it up, or how many decades that will take. Read the rest

Inside Fukushima: 8 months after disaster, foreign journalists get first look at crippled nuclear plant

The crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's upper part of the No.3 reactor building is seen from a bus window, November 12, 2011. REUTERS/Kyodo.

On Saturday, Japanese government representatives and TEPCO officials escorted a group of Japanese and foreign journalists inside the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for the first time since March 11. This was the first time media were allowed in after a tsunami and earthquake eight months ago triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

TEPCO and government officials hoped to show the world that the situation inside Fukushima is under control, eight months later. Visiting reporters had to wear protective gear, and undergo radiation screening. They saw crumbling reactor structures, huge piles of rubble, twisted metal fences, dented water tanks, and trucks overturned by the massive tsunami wave. Smaller administrative buildings nearby remain just as they were when office workers fled the oncoming wave, on March 11.

Authorities said they are hoping to reach full cold shutdown, but the reactor at Fukushima is not yet fully under control. It may take decades to safely close this site.

Reports from today's tour: Reuters, Associated Press, and the New York Times, with more here. AP also has a report today on conditions for workers. Related: The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations has released a detailed, minute-by-minute timeline of the events that unfolded at Fukushima Daiichi on March 11. The report was delivered on Nov. 11 to U.S. industry executives, the NRC, and of Congress. Read the rest

What's the fallout for pets abandoned in Japan's Fukushima hot zone?

PBS NewsHour's Jenny Marder wrote a really interesting feature about the abandoned pets inside the Fukushima evacuation zone in Japan. I encountered some of them when I traveled to the area with Safecast and PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien (our resulting PBS NewsHour report video is here).

Jenny digs into what happened with the volunteer effort to rescue and adopt the abandoned pets, and talks to scientists about the effect of fallout on animals (including intergenerational and genetic changes, like what the world saw within bird and wild animal populations after Chernobyl). Snip:

At the tail end of Miles O'Brien's latest NewsHour report on radiation in Japan, a golden dog with a thick red collar trots into the street of the abandoned town, Katsurao, and weaves along the center divider.

Miles asks, off camera: "Do we have anything to feed him?"

The piece, which airs tonight, reports on the group Safecast, which has measured, mapped and crowdsourced data on radiation levels in locations throughout Japan, particularly in the hot spots near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The dog was one of several scrawny, undernourished dogs and cats they encountered, most likely abandoned by their owners during rapid evacuation.

Read more: What's the Fallout for Dogs Near Fukushima? (The Rundown News Blog | PBS NewsHour)

(Photos in this post by Sean Bonner: all iPhone snapshots of abandoned pets we encountered in the evacuation zone, shot during our drive from Tokyo to Fukushima in August, 2011)

  Hacking geigers: Safecast crowdsources radiation data in Japan ... Read the rest

Safecast draws on power of the crowd to map Japan's radiation

[Video Link: YouTube,]

I traveled to Japan with PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien to help shoot and produce a series of NewsHour stories about the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. One of these just aired, and is above. It's the story of how a group of hackers and internet folks are working with Japanese volunteers to harness DIY technology to record and share data about radiation hotspots.

We traveled with Safecast on a radiation-data-gathering drive from Tokyo to inside the voluntary evacuation zone, close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. We monitored readings on the ground and in the air with the Safecast team all along the way. You'll see what those contamination levels were, and what and whom we encountered, in this video.

Some of the voices in this piece are familiar names to regular Boing Boing readers: Joi Ito, Sean Bonner, and others. One DIY/Maker/hacker culture hero we interviewed whose work you see is Bunnie Huang (I was thrilled that this project allowed me to meet Bunnie in person for the first time).

In the NewsHour story, airing exactly eight months to the day after the March 11 disaster, you'll see the geiger counters the Safecast team have developed with Sebastopol, California-based Dan Sythe and International Medcom. The successor to the "B-Geigie" Safecast is using now will be a device Bunnie designed (which looks really elegant, by the way). Oh, and these geiger kits were assembled in the very cool Tokyo Hacker Space, a central site for the Safecast movement. Read the rest

Hacking geigers: Safecast crowdsources radiation data in Japan after Fukushima disaster

Watch Online "Hacker" Group Crowdsources Radiation Data for Japanese Public on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.

On PBS NewsHour tonight, a report I helped the program's science correspondent Miles O'Brien produce about the challenge people in Japan face of finding and sharing reliable data about radiation contamination, after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Embedded above, a conversation between Miles and NewsHour host Hari Sreenivasan about our report, which focuses on a grassroots group called Safecast that measures, maps, and publishes data on radiation contamination levels throughout the country.

While in Tokyo, Miles spoke to Hari Sreenivasan about his trip with Safecast workers into the voluntary exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where they detected levels reaching the equivalent of six X-rays per day.

He also filled us in on his conversations with Japanese officials working in evacuated areas and Japanese residents eager for more information about the consequences of the nuclear accident.

I'll post the video for the full feature when it's available online.

 Earthquake Prediction: Could We Ever Forecast the Next Big One ... Firsthand from Fukushima: Xeni on The Madeleine Brand Show ... Read the rest

Fukushima: The first 24 hours

IEEE Spectrum has a big special feature online now about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its after-effects. It includes an interactive map showing the impact that Fukushima has had on evacuation of residents, contamination of soil, and contamination of food and water supplies.

It also includes a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the first 24-hours of the disaster. This solid investigative reporting by Eliza Strickland highlights several key points where simple changes could have lead to a very different outcome than the one we got.

True, the antinuclear forces will find plenty in the Fukushima saga to bolster their arguments. The interlocked and cascading chain of mishaps seems to be a textbook validation of the "normal accidents" hypothesis developed by Charles Perrow after Three Mile Island. Perrow, a Yale University sociologist, identified the nuclear power plant as the canonical tightly coupled system, in which the occasional catastrophic failure is inevitable.

On the other hand, close study of the disaster's first 24 hours, before the cascade of failures carried reactor 1 beyond any hope of salvation, reveals clear inflection points where minor differences would have prevented events from spiraling out of control. Some of these are astonishingly simple: If the emergency generators had been installed on upper floors rather than in basements, for example, the disaster would have stopped before it began. And if workers had been able to vent gases in reactor 1 sooner, the rest of the plant's destruction might well have been averted.

The world's three major nuclear accidents had very different causes, but they have one important thing in common: In each case, the company or government agency in charge withheld critical information from the public.

Read the rest

Japan: High radioactive cesium concentrations found in plankton off Fukushima shores

From multiple news sources in Japan today:

"Researchers from Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology collected plankton in waters up to 60 kilometers from the coast of Iwaki City in July. They found 669 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium in animal plankton from waters 3 kilometers offshore."

Details and video at NHK WORLD English.

This is worrisome for many reasons, one of which is that plankton is a primary food for many fish that people in Japan consume. There is concern that this contamination will travel up the food chain. Read the rest

What Fukushima can teach us about coal pollution

Earlier this week, I told you about a new study tracking radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

It started with a team of researchers in California, who had been monitoring radioactive sulfur in the atmosphere since 2009. Last spring, after an earthquake and tsunami critically damaged several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, those researchers watched the levels of radioactive sulfur skyrocket, relatively speaking. The amounts of radioactive sulfur that reached the California coast weren't high enough to be a threat to humans, but they made a big impact on extremely sensitive monitoring equipment.

Using that data, the researchers were able to figure out where the radioactive sulfur came from and back-calculate how much would have been produced at the site of the disaster—information that can tell us something about how dangerous the disaster really was to people living nearby.

But these researchers weren't the first to collect radioactive isotopes from Fukushima on American shores. And they weren't the first to offer up improved estimations of how much radiation leaked from the damaged power plant in the early days of the disaster. I thought this study was interesting. But, like a lot of you, I was left wondering why it was important.

Then yesterday, I interviewed Antra Priyadarshi, the lead author on the peer-reviewed paper that was published about this study. And I realized I'd gotten the story all wrong. This paper is about radioactive sulfur from the Fukushima disaster. But it isn't about the Fukushima disaster. Read the rest

What sulfur particles in California can tell us about Fukushima

During the early weeks of the Japan 3/11 crisis, after a tsunami critically damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, we talked on Boing Boing about why Americans on the West Coast didn't need to worry about exposure to radioactive fallout. Shorter version: The levels of radiation that made it across the Pacific were far too low to cause a serious health concern.

Now here's something really interesting: The levels of fallout that made it across, while too low to pose a risk to humans, were detectable by extremely sensitive scientific equipment. And those measurements are now being used to document what happened at the site of the disaster.

In the process of trying to cool down the overheating reactors, officials in Japan dumped sea water and reaction-slowing boric acid into the reactor cores. The resulting chemical reaction—chloride ions in salt water combining with fast-moving neutrons from the reactor—produced a form of radioactive sulfur. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, were already measuring sulfur particles in the air as part of climate research. Days after the crisis began, their instruments picked up the radioactive sulfur that had crossed the ocean.

Now, using modeling and some basic knowledge about how particles behave, they've been able to use the information they gathered in California to estimate how high radiation levels were in Fukushima in the early days of the crisis. A couple of things they've found: Further evidence that at least one of the reactor cores suffered a meltdown, and evidence suggesting that the damaged reactors didn't re-start after the emergency began—a possibility that has been pointed out by other scientists. Read the rest

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