Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown, one year later: Frontline doc airs tonight on PBS

Airing tonight on PBS Frontline (check your local listings, or watch it online!), a documentary film that provides the definitive inside account of what really happened, moment to moment, during the Fukushima disaster. "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown" features exclusive interviews for the first time with Japan's prime minster and the top executives at TEPCO.

Tomorrow, Frontline is hosting a chat with the film's producer/director, Dan Edge, and Boing Boing science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker will be participating.

There's a terrific interview with Edge on the public radio program Fresh Air.

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. It can't serve that role as long "bury it" is our only means of dealing with nuclear waste. And whether it's a good idea at all depends on how stringent regulatory oversight is willing to be.

At the same time, though, we are dependent on steady, ever-increasing supplies of electricity. Right now, we get 20% of that electricity from nuclear reactors, most of which are reaching the end of their functional lives. The question of what will replace them is a serious one. There are steps we can take to reduce our energy consumption. We can, and should be, adding more wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable resources to our electric generation mix. But there are some very good reasons why we can't, right now, shut down all the coal, all the nuclear, and all the natural gas power plants. All three of those sources of generation come with big safety and health problems. But we are going to continue to use one or more of them for decades to come. Renewables should be our long-term solution. In the short-term, though, we have some nasty and subjective decisions to make about what risks we're willing to live with. I'm not enthusiastic about nuclear. But a new nuclear power plant, in my mind, is better than a new coal power plant. The trouble with making these kind of decisions, though, is that there's lots of room for reasonable people to disagree.

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)

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. A photo gallery of more images from their rescue efforts follows (all images: Reuters).

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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

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.

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.

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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.

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.

The researchers will first focus on the mountains near Minamisoma city, about 25 kilometers/16 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Some 14 monkey colonies are known to inhabit this area. Minamisoma city and its mayor Katsunobo Sakurai became "internet-famous" when the mayor posted a desperate appeal for help on YouTube.

During our reporting trip to Japan, I went with Miles to interview mayor Sakurai, by the way -- the interview didn't make it into our NewsHour piece, but man, he was really a fascinating character. Apparently things have not been easy for him personally or politically since.

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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.

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. A NYT article on the report is here.

VIDEO: Watch Miles O'Brien's PBS NewsHour report inside the Fukushima exclusion zone, about efforts to monitor and share data about radiation levels throughout Japan (I helped shoot and produce). YouTube, PBS.org.

A worker (C) is given a radiation screening as he enters the emergency operation center, November 12. The poster (L) reads "No tobacco and gum on the premises". REUTERS/David Guttenfelder.


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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).

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

[Video Link: YouTube, PBS.org]

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.

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.

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. And in the absence of information, the panicked public began to associate all nuclear power with horror and radiation nightmares. The owner of the Fukushima plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), has only made the situation worse by presenting the Japanese and global public with obfuscations instead of a clear-eyed accounting.

Citing a government investigation, TEPCO has steadfastly refused to make workers available for interviews and is barely answering questions about the accident. By piecing together as best we can the story of what happened during the first 24 hours, when reactor 1 was spiraling toward catastrophe, we hope to facilitate the process of learning-by-disaster.

I'm reading Perrow's Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies right now. I'm not very far into it yet, but it will be interesting to contrast the thesis I see him putting together— i.e., you're never going to account for all those simple-in-retrospect things that could have stopped a disaster and, in fact, trying to solve some of those lapses actually causes others—with Strickland's riveting account of the first day of Fukushima.

Image: Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant_27, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hige2's photostream