TEPCO admits Fukushima is leaking into the ocean

Experts have long suspected that the Fukushima nuclear power plant site is leaking contaminated water into the nearby ocean. Today, TEPCO, the Japanese energy company that owns the site, admitted this is, in fact, the case.

Fishbowl bras offer alternative cooling in Japan's summer heat, now that all nuclear power plants are shut down

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Models present lingerie maker Triumph's new concept bra, the "Super Cool Bra", during its unveiling in Tokyo on May 9, 2012. The bra, modeled after a miniature fishbowl, contains a gel material designed to draw excess heat out of the body in its cups. It was created to help women "feel refreshed" during summer by wearing it, the lingerie maker said. Japan is headed for a power shortage this summer following the shutdown of all nuclear power reactors. I don't really get what's up with the pipe.

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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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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

Science Saturday: Nuclear energy, melting ice caps, and human adaptation

I was on Bloggingheads.tv Science Saturday this week, talking with Jessa Gamble, a science journalist and the author of Siesta and the Midnight Sun, a book about how culture and biology effect the way we experience time.

Jessa was in Japan in 1999, when an accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility in the prefecture just south of Fukushima killed two workers. We started off our conversation talking about the industry lapses that led to that accident, and how government and the media responded to it.