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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.

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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"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Two nuclear bombs, slightly dented

Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.

Mike Anderson sent in this photo from the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, NM. The museum is home to two (now de-weaponized) nuclear bombs. In 1966—back when these bombs were actually capable of exploding—the United States Air Force accidentally dropped them on Spain.

The accident happened when the plane carrying four of these Mk28 type hydrogen bombs collided with another plane during a mid-air fueling. One bomb fell into the ocean and was eventually recovered. The other three landed near the village of Palomares in southern Spain. Two of the bombs actually detonated—sort of. Only the non-nuclear explosives went off, turning them into what we'd call "dirty bombs" today. Some 650 acres, a little more than a square mile of farmland and rural communities, were contaminated. The U.S. military ended up excavating 1,400 tons of soil from this area and shipping it to the United States for disposal.

You can read an oral history of the cleanup effort. The Brookings Institution has more detail on exactly what happened during the accident and its aftermath.

Previously in this series:


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.

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.

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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.

How much radiation are you exposed to on a plane?

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, you've probably heard me and other people talk about the radiation exposure we experience in everyday life.

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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.

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What's it take to get off nuclear power?

To get off nuclear power, Germany plans to make its electricity system 80% renewable by 2050. That's not going to be easy. Just to reach the first milestone of that goal—35% renewable capacity by 2020—the country will have to build 2,800 miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines. Although, one significant thing missing from this story: How many miles of transmission lines Germany would have normally built during that time. Even so, watch this space for financing debates, NIMBY wars, and what promises to be some really fascinating problem solving. (Via Michael Noble and thanks to Chris Baker!)

Incubot shiroi "voltron + shiroi nekobot USB" Japan tsunami relief

Greetings from Tokyo! Sean Bonner, who I'll be meeting in a few days along with the Safecast crew, shares word of a nifty, limited-edition USB gadget to benefit Japan tsunami relief.
The tsunami and earthquake have faded from the headlines, but the need for aid is still real. Incubot, in conjunction with partners World Events Productions and CustomUSB, have created a line of Japan Relief customs 2G USB drives: limited edition, fully licensed, and in colors honoring the japanese flag. Packaged in "Ganbari Japan!" custom boxes. 100% of profits go to Japanese Red Cross Society and to Safecast radiation monitoring efforts.

Japan: angry Fukushima citizens confront government (video)

The video above documents what I am told is a meeting between Fukushima residents and government officials from Tokyo, said to have taken place on 19 July 2011. The citizens are demanding their government evacuate people from a broader area around the Fukushima nuclear plant, because of ever-increasing fears about the still-spreading radiation. They are demanding that their government provide financial and logistical support to get out. In the video above, you can see that some participants actually brought samples of their children's urine to the meeting, and they demanded that the government test it for radioactivity. When asked by one person at the meeting about citizens' right to live a healthy and radioactive-free life, Local Nuclear Emergency Response Team Director Akira Satoh replies "I don't know if they have that right." Boing Boing reader Rob Pongi spotted this online and sent this in to us. I asked him for more info.
The current evacuation zone in Fukushima is only 20-30 kilometers. The Japanese government has compensated the evacuees from inside that zone and has financially supported them in moving out of it. However, as more and more high levels of radiation are being discovered outside of the evacuation zone, many more Fukushima residents (and many others located nearby Fukushima) want the government to also help them logistically and financially so that they can move out further away from the nuclear plants. Especially since many children are now being exposed. But the government does not want to do this at all and many people are getting very upset. This video was filmed in Fukushima at the Corasse Fukushima Building on July 19, 2011. The meeting was entitled "Japanese Government Discussion - Demands for Evacuation Authority". This meeting was attended by residents of Fukushima and some Representatives for the Nuclear Safety Commission Of Japan. It was filmed by some anonymous members of the "Save Child" website. This site includes Japanese news about the Fukushima Nuclear disaster, advice on how to avoid contamination, and many, many related videos. This site is much like enenews.com on steroids! I checked domaintools.com and the name of the registration is private. You can see the original Japanese videos of this meeting on the Save Child website here (English), and on Youtube here. This video was translated by pejorativeglut. And, for sure, the English subtitles are correct. I was not involved in the production of this video.