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Fukushima nuclear disaster: looking for objectivity

Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Facility Damage. Image Collected March 13, 2011. Photo: Digital Globe

Moment by moment the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan seems to widen. As I began to write this post last night (Monday March 14, 2011), a third explosion had just been reported, one that had perhaps compromised the metal containment casing of one of the reactors.

Yet as I delve more carefully into the information about what is really going on at Fukushima Nuclear Plant, there seems to be some comfort. At Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history, the reactor didn’t have a containment vessel and it also exploded from inside adding to the radioactive toxins released into the atmosphere.

In contrast, the Fukushima reactor has a containment vessel and as soon as the earthquake hit, it shutdown, so the amount of energy being released immediately dropped to a very small fraction of what it was.

Nuclear power supplies 25-30% of Japan’s power. Eleven nuclear reactors there automatically shutdown when the Sendai earthquake struck.

I phoned a dear friend: Professor Emeritus, M.I.T. and Nobel Laureate in physics Jerome (Jerry) Friedman, to see what more I could learn. Jerry travels to Japan regularly as he is co-founder of a University in Okinawa. He’s been in contact with friends and colleagues in Tokyo since the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. “They’re experiencing water shortages,” Friedman says, “and they’re rationing electricity.”

Friedman was my grandfather Enrico’s last graduate student. Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954) was one of the most important quantum physicists of the 20th century and a pivotal figure in the development of atomic energy and the atomic bomb.  My grandmother Laura Fermi  (1907 – 1977) was a pioneer in the environmental movement starting in 1959. She taught me to be an environmentalist. What was passed down to me from my grandfather is to be a logical thinker.

I told Jerry I was finding discrepancies among the many articles from various news sources about Fukushima. Could he help me find some objectivity about the crisis in Japan? Jerome said I needed to talk to his colleague Richard Wilson, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, (emeritus) at Harvard University.

According to Wilson “public health is unlikely to affected by the Japanese reactor situation.” That statement (and the article it links to) are from a man, who starting ten years ago, has been saying the best way to help people in the developing world is to educate women and girls.

Professor Wilson agreed to speak with me tonight (Tuesday, March 15, 2011).

I start by asking him to respond to Robert Alvarez’s recent Huffpost raising concerns spent fuel rods at Fukushima could release radiation far greater than Chernobyl. Wilson stated, “Can’t be worse than Chernobyl. It’s virtually physically impossible. Alvarez is an alarmist on nuclear questions.”

Wilson acknowledges, “Yes Alvarez is right that there is more long lived radioactivity in the spent fuel storage.” And then repeats his reassurances: there is no driving force in the spent fuel rods.

He reiterates what I’ve read and seen on the BBC. “The spent fuel pit is just beside the reactor. It’s best if it’s cooled with fresh water because then the rods can later be put into dry storage.” As a last resort the Japanese are using seawater to cool the spent rods. Wilson continues, “The cladding will start falling apart, but it will not melt.”

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