Update: Sorry that it took me so long to post this interview, which was recorded last night. I had trouble converting the video file at first, but I think I’ve sorted it out now.
You can listen to all the interviews on the new vimeo channel Brandon and I created. You can also listen to most of the interviews on Brad Go’s YouTube channel.
Here’s the vimeo channel:
This evening my dad and I recorded our 12th interview on the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Please see the rest of the blog (sidebar) for previous interviews. Please keep sending questions and comments to [email protected] You can also follow me on twitter @GeoEvelyn but please do not send questions via twitter.
In today’s interview:
1. My dad gives his usual update
2. We discuss:
a) why salt might be a problem for nuclear reactors
b) Fukushima has dropped off the front page of the news, and the mainstream media is not doing the best job of reporting about Fukushima in recent days (on a soapbox again)
c) monitoring of radiation by the Japanese government and radiation in the environment
d) why reports about radiation levels need to be in units people can understand and need to be in consistent units
Hope to have an audio link soon. Here is the interview on vimeo:
Please see the announcement page for more information about these interviews:
If you have time and interest, please transcribe this interview. Our next interview will be on Saturday, March 26th. Thanks to Kenyon, a transcript is now available after the jump.
Transcript for Interview 12:
EVELYN: My name is Evelyn Mervine, and this is going to be an interview with my dad, Mark Mervine, who is a nuclear engineer. This is actually the twelfth in a series of interviews that I’m doing with my dad about the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. If you would like to listen—or read, many of them have transcripts–many of the previous interviews, you can find them on my geology blog ‘georneys’ which is G-E-O-R-N-E-Y-S, georneys.blogspot.com. And because we have done many of these interviews at this point, I’ll just state quickly that it is currently the 25th of March, and it is currently 8:10pm (EDT). And tonight, actually, we are just going to do a somewhat shorter interview, my dad is just going to give an update and talk about some of the things he’s seen in the news. Many people have been asking about modern design, [unclear] reactors, and things, and we are actually planning to do a separate interview dedicated to those topics; so we will return to some of your more technical questions, and some of your questions about future and current designs, so with that said, dad, why don’t you give us an update.
MARK: Alright, well, as a reminder, we’ve been interested in the Fukushima One nuclear power plant, also referred to as Fukushima Diachi. And there are actually six reactors at this site, and for the last few updates I’ll talk about—or I should say ‘as I have in the last few updates’—I’ll talk about units five and six first. Units five and six were the least impacted by the earthquake and tsunami, and were the first to get some electrical power back. Originally they were able to get one diesel generator at unit six, and run the equivalent of a long extension cord over to unit five from that; and they got a second diesel generator back at unit six. And then, in the past few days they’ve been able to get power from the grid to units five and six.
Yesterday I reported that when they restored power they had lost cooling in one of those units, but I’m happy to report that that was a short-term event, and they were able to get cooling back at both of those plants. Temperatures did rise when they flipped over and they lost cooling, but it came back down again once they restored cooling. Both of those plants are considered in cold shutdown. They also have outside power available to the common spent fuel pool—again, as a reminder, there are actually seven spent fuel pools at this site: one for each reactor, and then a common one where the older fuel assemblies are stored. They have power from the grid and cooling for that spent fuel pool, so that one is in relatively good shape and has not been too much of a concern for this entire event.
Again, we turn our attention to units one through four. There have been some developments since we talked yesterday evening. One of the significant developments is they are now able to get fresh water from barges supplied by the United States. They hooked that up to units one and three, so instead of injecting sea water into those units, they are injecting fresh water.
EVELYN: So they are a fresh water source? What would the fresh water source normally be in a nuclear power plant? Would it have been pipes that maybe were damaged, or water towers? They can’t actually get the freshwater source they usually use, right?
MARK: Exactly where they would get the majority of their fresh water source, I don’t know. I would assume it would come from a public water source. I would assume they would take that and do some additional purification on it because for use in a reactor you want to make sure that all—I shouldn’t say all—but that as many of the impurities are removed as possible. Even in tap water there’s things like iron, magnesium, stuff that can [inaudible]. But you’re probably correct that that normal source hasn’t been restored, and we don’t know where the damage is—whether it’s in the plant, or whether it’s in the city, but in any event the US government has supplied barges with fresh water, and they are now using fresh water for reactors for units one and three.
MARK: Why is that significant? Well, we are in uncharted territory here. I think in a [inaudible] way, we should not indicate that by no means the situation is under control for us being out of the woods, what we’ve said for the past few updates is that at least it hasn’t gotten worse everyday. This is good news.
The plant that I work at, we’re close to an inland body of water. So had we had to resort to something like this, the water would—although not being ideal—would have been a lot better than water coming from the ocean which has a lot of salt in it. The concern obviously is that it is very corrosive, but also because of what’s been going on in these plants where they are pumping water in and it’s heating up, and they are having to release pressure by venting the steam off, the salt would be left behind. You’re probably getting a fair amount of salt build up on surfaces within these reactor [inaudible].
It’s not a concern because we know that we are never going to use these plants again—that it would be making them unusable—it’s more of the fact that we don’t know what additional problems that’s going to cause in terms of blocking flow through the fuel channels of the reactors. They did what they had to do which was get any kind of water in there, but obviously it’s better if you can use fresh water. They are now using fresh water for units one and three, and hopefully they will be able to switch that over to fresh water for unit two as well.
EVELYN: Is unit two harder to access; is there a particular reason they haven’t started yet…?
MARK: I don’t know—I don’t know why. It’s not in the report as to why they originally did unit three, then they did unity one…it may be just the proximity to the barges, the piping they have to run…those type of things. My guess is by this time tomorrow probably all three will have fresh water supplies. It’s good news from the point of view, then, that there won’t be any more salt put in these reactors.
The other, I think important, developments are: that they now have lighting in all the control rooms at units one through four. For most of the duration of the time that we’ve been speaking—so almost two weeks now! They haven’t had proper lighting in these control rooms which, of course, makes it even more difficult to do the work that they’ve had to do. They now have lights in all four of the control rooms, and are proceeding to try and restore instrumentation and some of the pumping systems that will allow them to switch to …umm,
EVELYN: somewhat more normal operations?
MARK: The more normal cooling systems.
EVELYN: So it sounds as if they’ve managed to get lighting in there, that…I know over the past few days the radiation levels—particularly…I guess in the vicinity of spent fuel pool number four have been high enough that they haven’t been able to get people in there at all, and it sounds like now they are able to get people into these plants. I know there was an incident yesterday where some workers stepped—I believe it was in reactor number three—they stepped into some radioactive water and had to be treated. Are the conditions such—you know, it sounds like they are going to be letting them go, that people are actually able to work in there (at least for brief periods of time) because the levels of radiation have dropped? Is that a true statement?
MARK: Well, let me get to that in a minute. Getting back to the update: they also have been able to add water to some of the spent fuel pools. If you remember from yesterday they were using a concrete pumping truck—not using concrete, but water—to put water into the number four spent fuel pool? That was allowing them to get a little bit closer, and be a little bit more accurate with that…
EVELYN: As opposed to the helicopters and the police water cannon, which is what they had been using prior to that.
MARK: Correct, correct. And for a couple of the spent fuel pools they’ve been able to inject water through some of the normal piping systems—so that’s also good news. They’re using a combination of getting water flowing through some of the normal pipes; and obviously for reactor four they are continuing to use the concrete pumping truck to supply water to that one.
EVELYN: Is that because they just can’t get close enough to it? There is still high radiation around number four?
MARK: I honestly don’t know what the reason is. I think it’s probably a combination of the damage—which from the pictures there is a significant amount of damage up on the refueling floor where the spent fuel pool is—and because of the radiation levels.
EVELYN: And remember, we said this a few days ago, but one of the sides of that pool actually collapsed—the concrete side. There is a steel liner that is intact, but there has been significant damage to that spent fuel pool from the explosion that happened there.
MARK: Ok, and I’m looking at a bunch of different reports. As Evelyn has indicated a couple of times, we have day jobs, and I’ve had a particularly busy week and I’m looking at a couple of reports as I speak to you this evening. I only had about 45 minutes or so after getting home from work this evening to take a look at these. As I indicated, units one through four now have lights in the control room. Unit one, they have restored some of the instrumentation—power to some of the indicators. Unit three does not have power restored to any of the instrumentation. What instrumentation they have in some of the units, in particular units two and three they say the readings—in particular for pressure in the reactor [inaudible]—are unreliable. There are a number of reasons why that could become unreliable; honestly, [inaudible] it could be a fault from the salt water injection. There is definitely progress over the last 24 hours. It is obviously slow, and I had said last night—we were able to get a look at some of the first pictures from inside the plant—and the damage was, I think, more significant than I expected certainly.
We expected that there was a lot of damage from some of the explosions that took place, but in fact there was a lot more damage from the earthquake and the tsunami than I think we had postulated. So that’s why it’s slow going in terms of restoring power, and instrumentation, and systems.
Let’s talk about what I guess was the big news story today, and we had talked about it a little bit yesterday, which is: they had three workers get excess levels of radiation contamination in unit three [while] trying to restore electrical power. The big concern is—and the source of this was highly contaminated water that was in one of the basement areas in the plant—and the question is, what is the source of this highly contaminated water?
I briefly saw a news report earlier today, around lunch time, that…you know, people were postulating that meant that there must be a crack or a breach of some type in the containment building.
EVELYN: I saw that on a couple of different mainstream news sites myself, and I wanted to ask you about that.
MARK: And the answer that I have this evening is that that has not been confirmed, however ‘comma’, it’s also not clear what the source of this contamination is. For it to be this high it would certainly be reflective of materials that would have come out of the reactor core, but whether it actually came from the reactor building—maybe through venting, and some of it washed down—OR whether it came from the water they ‘ve been pouring on the building and—you know—washed the material out of the spent fuel pools. We do suspect that certainly in unit four—and potentially in some of these other units—that some of the the fuel in these spent fuel pools has been damaged, and that’s why the radiation levels have been so high around these units. So, it’s one of these things that obviously made a good news story today, but in and of its-self is not a cause for any panic.
EVELYN: I was actually…on the sites that I read this morning, I was disappointed by a couple of things. First of all—they made it sound as if it was 100% certainty that there had been a containment breach at reactor three. That is a possibility, but it has not been confirmed by any sort of data really, at this point, and I think they need to investigate that further. The second thing that I was very disappointed to see–and we’ve discussed this a couple times—and for a couple days the news was doing better about this, but in several articles I saw on that I saw on mainstream news sites they said “…and this is extremely worrisome because of this MOX (sp?) fuel.” We’ve discussed how—you can talk about that more, dad, but the media for a while really blew that out of proportion. I was happy to see it fade away for a couple days. Unfortunately I don’t know if they’re recycling material, but it came back today—at least in the news articles I read.
MARK: Let me comment again on MOX fuels, which stands for Mixed Oxide Fuel. Normally the fuel in a reactor is Uranium. It’s what we call enriched Uranium, to about 3 or 4%. Naturally occurring Uranium is Uranium 238, and usually less than 1% Uranium 235, but Uranium 235 is the kind that can fission in a nuclear reactor. So we slightly enrich the Uranium so that we have enough Uranium 235 to have enough material to fission to produce energy. What does happen with Uranium 238 is it will absorb a neutron in the reactor, and it will go through a couple decay cycles, and form Plutonium 235. Plutonium 235 is also a fuel that can fission in a thermal reactor and produce energy—and in fact, when one of these plants is operating a good 30-40% of the energy generated is actually coming from the fissioning of Plutonium.
EVELYN: In any normal Uranium fuel plant.
MARK: So any fuel rod that’s been in a reactor for any period of time is going to have some Plutonium in it, that’s just the way it works. The mixed-oxide fuel normally would come from one of two sources.
Either we were taking a weapon, a nuclear bomb that we’re eliminating from the arsenal—there’s been a number of treaty reductions so that both the Soviets and the US military have reduced the number of warheads—and some of that Plutonium can be taken and fabricated with Uranium to form a mixed-oxide fuel rod, and there are some power plants that have used them to deplete the Plutonium. The other way that it comes, and the more common way, is that old fuel rods are recycled. The good materials are saved and reused and made into a new—for lack of a better word– fuel rods.
There is a difference, though I haven’t really pointed out the difference until now—but the mixed oxide fuel rods do contain more Plutonium than would be in a used fuel rod, but also these reactors normally only can use up to about a third of their fuel as mixed-oxide. So for reactor three, though it had mixed-oxide fuels, it was only about a third of the core of the core that had it. On balance, there’s a little bit more Plutonium in that reactor, but not that much more than would be—in terms of order of magnitude—it’s not like 10 times as much, or 100 times as much as would be in a reactor core anyway.
EVELYN: Well, I think the point you made before, too, is that *all* fuel rods are dangerous. The MOX fuel rods are not especially more dangerous than any of the other ones. If we had a containment leak at any of these reactors whether they contained MOX fuel or not, it would be a serious problem. That’s something that shouldn’t be exaggerated, but really…you can’t feel relieved just because it’s not MOX fuel.
MARK: There is no good fuel rod if it’s been melted and released to the environment. Period. It’s a lot of bad and nasty stuff in there. We’ve all seen the news—there’s Plutonium, there’s Uranium, there’s radioactive iodine, Cesium, Strontium, all bad stuff. That’s why you take such great pains to first have it in a fuel reactor vessel, then inside a containment building, and all the safety systems to try and keep water and cooling to these reactors. But at any rate, getting back to this—the other thing was the folks that got contaminated—this is actually two day old news and it was only today that it became a big deal in the press. And I’m not saying that it’s not necessarily a big deal, but it was kind of interesting to me that it made it appear that this was real time when, in fact, this exposure happened yesterday. It will take some time to determine what the source of these high levels of contamination are, but at this point they are still within the plant. There isn’t so much of a concern with these contamination levels getting out into the environment beyond the concerns we already have.
Also, after they found it in unit three, I guess they did a little more detailed survey in the last 24 hours and found fairly high contamination levels in the building in unit 1 as well.
EVELYN: The other thing I saw in the news is that…I guess news stories, they spin it different ways. One spin I saw is that this is terrible—and I think everyone can agree that this is terrible that there are these high levels, and that people were exposed; but another spin I saw was to downplay it and that it was really no worse than getting a sunburn, what exposure they had. Do you agree with that statement?
MARK: As it was described, they got this exposure by stepping in a pool of radioactive water, and I guess it was deep enough that it covered their boots and it seeped in over top of their boots. The good news is the limits to how much radiation somebody should get is different for the main portion of your body where all your organs and everything are than for your extremities. Normally your extremities like your hand and your feet can be exposed to more radiation without the same impact to the body. The good news is although they got a fairly large exposure of radiation, it was below what the Japanese have now set for nuclear power plant workers during this accident, and it was to their extremities as opposed to the main portion of the body. I would hope that the three folks are going to be ok, I think two of them went to the hospital initially; and the third one later one when they realized that although it didn’t go over his boots, that he was potentially exposed as well to the high levels as well. I think only one of those persons had to stay in the hospital. I think it would be a little worse than a bad sunburn, but it’s much better that it was to their legs, not ingested or to the torso where all the vital organs are.
In terms of how it’s played in the press, I think the important thing here is the situation kind of faded off of the front page here in the US. There’s been a lot of coverage obviously of what’s going on in Libya, a bit more-so coverage of the general situation in Japan—but not so much news about what’s going on at Fukushima. It’s back in the news today because of this incident. The key is that this is a long-term situation. The situation at these plants is still very severe. As we’ve indicated for the last few days at least the news hasn’t gotten any worse. We’ve got some good news in terms of power restoration, we’ve got good news in terms of now getting some fresh water to these units, we’ve got good news that units five and six and the combined spent-fuel pool are stable; and hopefully we’ll continue to get some good news in that maybe in one of these units they can restore normal cooling. I think we’ve got good news in that they’ve come up with a good way to get water into the number four spent fuel pool.
But…there’s a long way to go in this, and these plants are by no means yet in a safe condition…
EVELYN: And this is completely uncharted, as you’ve said before…
MARK: We’re definitely in uncharted territory…
EVELYN: This is not something that any nuclear power plant has prepared for—they’re having to really improvise as they go, and when you’re working with nuclear power that is not a situation you want to be in. Hopefully…it sounds like the Japanese have many people working on this, and they’re getting some assistance from other people, like the US government getting water…
MARK: They’re getting a lot of assistance from the US government, they’re getting a lot of assistance from the international community, we know that the international atomic energy agency has got monitoring teams and they’re gearing up more monitoring teams.
I’ll answer maybe a couple more questions you might have, then I want to talk a little bit about the environmental impact, because I think a lot of people are interested in the environmental impact.
EVELYN: I just want to comment on one other thing that I’ve noticed in the mainstream news. First of all I want to say that although my dad and I are tired of doing these updates, I think we will continue to do them at least for a while longer just because there is still basic, factual information that as long as we can get access to it, we would like to convey. I think the mainstream media—they did a better job for awhile I think, and now it’s a little bit of sensation returning. The other thing I’ve seen quite a bit of on some mainstream news sites—and I won’t mention which ones—is I’ve seen a lot of very strong opinion pieces, either pro- or anti-nuke. And that’s fine, and on this issue that’s likely to happen, but I think that if you have that. If you have a piece that’s spun to much one way or the other, that can cloud the basic information; and if there isn’t an accompanying article accompanying article that is telling you what happened at Fukushima that day, and all you have is that very strong opinion piece—that’s not providing you the information that you need so that you can make up your mind—you’re getting sort of a very spun version of what’s happening. I think that to the best of our ability we are going to continue to try and provide these somewhat neutral updates that focus on what’s happening and explain things, and sort of try and focus on some of the facts and the science because I think it’s important for people to know what’s going on. As this drops of the front page it will be harder for us to do it, but it will be harder for the general public to understand things, too.
With that, I think that’s all I have. I don’t know if you want to comment on that, dad?
MARK: Well, I think some of it is the nature of the news. When we started this, we started it because there was no cohesive source of information, it was really hard to pull things together. The news was coming in sound bites and not in a comprehensive way that people could understand. We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve tried to provide as comprehensive of updates as we can. It’s been a little bit difficult this week because of travel and work and those type of things. We were a little bit opinionated the other day, but not so much for or against nuclear power—but I think we’ve tried to be a moderate voice.
EVELYN: I guess I’m mostly opinionated that the media should be doing a better job, and the nuclear organizations should be doing a better job, so in that sense I guess I’m being political, but…
MARK: And I think that we have pointed out that more recently a better job has been done, and I didn’t…like I said, I only caught a little bit of a news report today, but it did seem that it was a little bit sensationalized when it was 48 hours already.
But in any event, let’s talk about the environmental impact. I’m sure…you know, in most of our updates we’ve focused on the Fukushima plant, and that sort of thing, and we’ve talked a little bit about environmental impact, but not a lot. I wish I was in a position to give a comprehensive overview of the environmental impact, and what I’m going to try and do tomorrow is take a little bit of time and see if I can glean a little bit more information from the various different websites that are out there, and be able to talk to the environmental impact a little bit in some of our remaining updates.
EVELYN: Ok, so maybe we’ll do that interview…maybe tomorrow night, or perhaps Sunday night?
MARK: Yeah, like I said, I’ll have a little more time over the weekend, I’ll try to spend some time looking at different websites, there is some information out there, but I tried this evening to pull some things together. It’s very difficult because different measures and standards are being used between what’s reported as the levels, and then the standards that are set. Trying to interpret what the reading was, versus was that above or below the requirement is a little bit difficult right now.
But anyways, let me say this: Japan’s ministry of health, labor, and welfare put out a document with what they consider the safe limits for food and water, milk and dairy products for the various different radio-nucleides of concern. So basically guidelines for radioactive iodine, radioactive Cesium, Uranium, and Plutonium, and some of the other trans-Uranic elements.
EVELYN: What’s trans-Uranic mean?
MARK: Let’s not get into that tonight!
EVELYN: [Giggling] I’m asking the questions, dad!
MARK: I hesitate to even say that, because now I have to go and give an explanation of…let’s just say Plutonium and other alpha emitting particles that make up a reactor.
EVELYN: OK. You’re using words I don’t know, so if I don’t know, then…
MARK: I apologize, but…it’s not even worth going into…it’s…. We’ve talked about some of the alpha emitting particles being a concern if they’re ingested, right? We said the skin would stop it, but you breath it in or ingest it, it can cause a lot more impact on your body. Basically, they put the other alpha emitting particles in there with the Plutonium ones.
EVELYN: I’m going to translate it as ‘bad stuff’.
MARK: It’s bad stuff, yes. So those are published out there for people to go read. Here’s the problem: the reports of the levels of contamination that are out there are not in the same units as the standards. So that is why I’m going to try and do a little bit of work over the weekend to try and correlate some of the readings with the limits.
EVELYN: In that document that the Japanese government has released.
MARK: Right.To give you an example, there is really good information today on the International Atomic Energy Agency website as to what some of the radiation and radioactivity levels were at some of the sample points that they’ve done around Japan. But those don’t directly correlate to the standards, so…
EVELYN: Are they just in different units, basically? Do you just have to do a units conversion? Is that the problem?
MARK: It’s a little more complicated than that. The standards have been set on a per-kilogram basis, so for instance they set a limit per kilogram of drinking water…well, people don’t normally drink water by the kilogram. They drink it by the liter, or fraction of a liter—or if you’re in the US we use the English system instead of the International System, so we would drink it in pints. But like I said, I’m going to try to translate some of this information and see if I can make some correlations that will be more helpful to people.
But in any event, there was a lot of talk about some spinach that first came up that exceeded the safe limits. So now that we know what those limits are—like I said, they’re based on per-kilogram, which is a little over two pounds for people here in the US. The limits that they set are, you know, good safe limits. This spinach that was first cause for concern actually had 27 times what they said was the safe limit.
EVELYN: Wow, that’s much more than I thought.
MARK: Now to put that into perspective, had somebody eaten that, it really wouldn’t have had any impact on them. Had they eaten some of that spinach they might have gotten a dosage that would have been equal to as much as half of what a person would normally get for radiation exposure for the year, but certainly nothing that would have been dangerous. The problem with this is the impact is cumulative, so if you were to eat some of these contaminated foods on an ongoing basis,it would have a cumulative effect, and your cumulative dose would go up.
We talked yesterday about how the iodine levels in the drinking water in Tokyo had gone above the limits for children and infants. The limit for children and infants is lower than for adults; that is because [in] children and infants your body is growing, your cells are more active and growing and dividing than they are in an adult, so the impact of some of this radioactivity is more significant on children and infants. The other factor is that children and infants are smaller, so if you’re setting a limit in a volume basis, obviously you want the volume to be lower for somebody who has less body mass.
In general, talking about the impact, it’s been a little bit interesting in that it was kind of surprising that we had drinking water that was over the limit as far as away as Tokyo.
EVELYN: And as a reminder, that’s coming from streams that are joining with other streams, and actually coming to whatever the source of Tokyo water is, so it’s being carried in the water.
MARK: And then also, of course, some of these particles could have been carried in the air and then carried down with rain. What’s interesting is when you—and again, I’m going to see how comprehensive of a picture I can put together for tomorrow—but, as would be expected in the general vicinity of the plant you’re getting higher levels than the farther away you get, but what’s interesting is that there is also some spottiness. In other words, at some places at a much farther distance from the plant there is more radioactivity or contamination than others. That just shows the nature of how this sort of happens—where it just goes up in the atmosphere and depending on the winds, you might have more of it deposited in one place than another, you might have a heavier concentration around the plant; and then for some intermediate distance not such a high level, and then a spot where you get a high level. So it is very interesting, but it is very hard to interpret.
We’re going to see what we can do to interpret some of this, maybe we won’t be able to provide a lot of information but we’ll do our best.
EVELYN: At least, maybe we can give some examples. For instance, with the drinking water—put it in some tangible unit that people can understand: how many glasses of water can they drink before there’s harm, how much spinach can they eat, that sort of thing, maybe.
Mark: Right. So in any event, according the International Atomic Energy Agency, radioactivity is being monitored daily in 47 prefectures of Japan, and they’re saying that there’s considerable variation being observed. Some of their readings for Iodine went from a level of 42, to 16,000 in the units they were measuring. But they measured that per square meter, so…like a surface measurement, which doesn’t help us translate to the food safety standard, so that’s why we’re going to try and see if we can interpret those a little bit.
They also have begun measuring radioactivity in the water—in the ocean. They’ve made measurements as far as 30 km away from the plants to as close as 300 meters. They’re in the process of analyzing those and providing the data.
EVELYN: Now, these measurements. We talked yesterday about the half-life of, I believe it was…Iodine…, I looked it up, it’s about 7 or 8 days, like you thought. Some of this radiation, hopefully, if they can get things under control at Fukushima should dissipate. The half life…
MARK: Though with Iodine, if there’s no additional release, then every 7 or 8 days the amount of it will be half as much. So if, say, you were over the limit today, in a few days you would be under the limit just from the natural decay. But some of the other materials, like Cesium—Cesium has a 30 year half life. So what can happen in a week with Iodine in terms of reducing levels through natural decay will take 30 years with Cesium.
EVELYN: Well, that’s what I was wondering—and perhaps we could speak more about this tomorrow. I’m wondering, especially closer to the vicinity of the plant, where there’s been damage, are there places where they won’t be able to grow new crops? I mean, is this something that’s going to get into the soil and water and be a problem for many years?
MARK: It’s going to depend on what—when it’s all said and done—and we’re not…
EVELYN: We’re not done yet!
MARK: Right, when we hope that we reach the point where we releases to the environment we’ll have to see where we’re at in terms of what some of those contamination levels are. There are different possibilities. My guess is some of the places very close to the plant will be off limits to farming for some period of time. There will be other places where they’re able to do some remediation efforts. And then, of course, as we talked about, if it’s primarily Iodine, in a few weeks it’s not going to be there anymore. We’re just going to have to wait and see. We have had, as we talked about, good fortune in that—for the most part—the winds carried most of out over the ocean, or there would be a lot more contamination.
But anyways, where I want to go with this is a lot of [inaudible] is getting done. We talked about…yesterday, that it looked like the government was trying to be as transparent as possible. They implemented limitations on the distribution of milk from a couple of the…what would be, I guess be the equivalent of counties in the US? What they call prefectures. And vegetables—there’s two of them you can’t distribute milk from, and four of them you can’t distribute any vegetables from them. This is to prevent any of this food or milk from getting into the food chain. And they’ve stepped up monitoring in six more areas.
What people have to do in Japan is follow the guidance that they were given—so two days ago they were told “Hey, don’t have your children or infants drink the tapwater.” We know, and we reported yesterday that the levels had gone back down below the safe limits, so people were told it’s ok again to drink the tap water in Tokyo.
And like I said…
EVELYN: And you have to trust them—because I imagine there must be many people who are still afraid, I mean, even if they were told it’s ok to drink. Probably there are many people who won’t drink it anyway, just because they maybe don’t understand about half-lives or something. It must be very scary to be told that one day, and then a couple days later be told it’s ok again. You do have to trust the government and their monitoring, and it sounds like they are doing a good job about being on top of that.
MARK: Well, I know in general radiation is something that is a concern for people because it’s invisible, and the impacts are not well understood. But it’s not uncommon for public water systems to have issues—even here occasionally will have water systems where they might have some kind of contamination in them, and they’ll issue boil water notices.
EVELYN: I had that just this past summer actually, here on the Cape. Something happened with the water source and we had to boil our water for…actually, it was for a couple of weeks.
MARK: And then once it’s clear and they’ve done the samples, and they’ve done consecutive samples they’ll tell people: ‘Ok, you can take a drink of water again’. And we generally follow that guidance from the government, and we have to have some trust in the government. They’ve done the samples, they’re doing the samples every day. They said “Hey, don’t drink the water”, and then they said “OK, All clear”. And everyday they’re monitoring it. Again, the levels of contamination that have been reported are low, when you take into account that what you’re worried about is the cumulative impact. Had somebody even drank the water for that one day it was over the limit there would be no impact. It would just be—if it was over the limit for multiple days in a row, and you continued to consume it, the cumulative dose would be the problem.
Now, why it’s important that people pay attention to what the authorities are telling them is what I was trying to describe is…the contamination is spotty. You can’t just draw a circle and say ‘Anything inside this area is bad, anything outside that area is good’ because of the fact that with the wind and the rain and that kind of stuff…
EVELYN: It really depends on what the weather is doing for a particular day.
MARK: It…you know, what was happening at the time the radiation was released, where it was carried, and where it was deposited. Or where it got washed and got concentrated. So it’s important that—again—people follow the guidance they are given, not to panic or over react. If they’re told that in a particular town you should drink bottled water, you should drink bottled water. If you’re told that the water’s safe, then I would believe what’s being told because to the best of people’s abilities they’re doing as much sampling and as much monitoring as possible; and they’ve taken steps to ensure that in the areas where there is a potential that you could get food that would exceed the limits, that they are essentially quarantining the food and not allowing it to go into the food chain.
In the example that we gave where water systems do get corrupted or contaminated and we’re told “Hey, boil water until you’re given the all clear”. We follow that advice and we’re less concerned about it because it’s not some serious [inaudible] of radiation. Again, I would encourage people to follow the advice they’re given.
We will try to see—and it will be hard, I’ll have to spend some time—see if I can put together a little bit more comprehensive picture. What I wanted to do is talk about the impact which is…: in the area around the plant, there are probably going to be some areas where they are going to be off limits for a while; there are going to be other areas where we’re going to be able to remediate. Either remove some of the soil, or one of the other techniques—depending on the crop is grown is you just plow it under. If you plow it under far enough, the roots of the plants don’t get to some of this material, and then it would just naturally decay and you don’t have to worry about it. So there are very different techniques that could be used depending on what the contamination is, what the levels are, what’s being grown there…but I certainly wouldn’t—today, with what I know–say there are going to be massive sections of Japan that aren’t going to be able to grow crops.
Let’s get everything under control, let’s get to the point where we know these plants are in a safe, cold shutdown condition and no additional significant releases of radiation or radioactivity are going to occur; and then work backwards and try to determine what’s going to be required for remediation.
EVELYN: Is there still radiation being released today from the plant? In significant quantities, I guess?
MARK: We currently have reason to believe that there is. Obviously to a lesser extent than was going on a week or ten days ago, but they’re still not completely cooled down, they’re still occasionally having to vent steam. Certainly we do see steam occur when we pour water on some of the spent fuel pools. In some cases, the water may be washing down that we’re spraying in there that has some contamination in it—that would more likely be reaching the ocean (as opposed to going out into the countryside).
But certainly, some of the steam will go up in the atmosphere, and where it lands really depends on the wind and the rain and other things. We are still by no means out of the woods here, and I think we’ve emphasized that.
EVELYN: And I think that’s maybe something that not everyone is aware of. Things are not under control, and before we can even…obviously, they’re worried about this, they’re doing monitoring—but before we can think about the long term consequences, we have to first insure there isn’t going to be more radiation—a major radiation release. And that the radiation that’s being released basically on a daily basis it sounds like from the steam—that needs to get under control, and they need to stop that as soon as they can.
MARK: So there is one more thing that came up today that seemed [inaudible: ‘to have mixed reports on it’?], so hopefully tomorrow we can get a little clarity on it. So we’ve had for some period of time now the recommendation that everyone within 20 km should evacuate…
EVELYN: From Japan, er, from the Japanese government that one, right?
MARK: Right, 20 km from Fukushima should evacuate and—that’s about twelve miles for people in the US—and that everyone between 20 and 30 km should shelter in place. There was some mixed information today about recommendations for people in that 20-30 km zone as to whether they should evacuate. Like I said, I have mixed reports, so it’s not clear. One report said it was not a mandatory evacuation, but they were encouraging people to do so. It said that the real reason was it was getting hard to be able to get food and water to those people if they are supposed to stay in their house and never leave.
EVELYN: I wouldn’t want to just stay and never leave, I’d want to leave–personally. I mean, to just stay in your house for days? That doesn’t sound like fun!
MARK: Like I said, hopefully we’ll get some clarity on that and be able to talk about that tomorrow.
Some people were trying to tie it in with the radiation exposure that the workers had; that all of a sudden the situation was getting worse and they wanted people to evacuate farther. Again, I read a couple different reports and the other one that makes more sense to me given what we know, which is the radiation levels at the boundary have stayed approximately the same, somewhere between one and three millirems. And that we haven’t had any massive leaks of radiation in the awareness—that we’re aware of—it would make more sense that they’re recommending people evacuate just because for this length of time obviously it’s very difficult to have food and water.
EVELYN: We’re approaching two weeks now, really.
MARK: We’ll see if we can get any additional information on that tomorrow.
MARK: But again, I would go back and I would–whatever people are asking me to do, I would follow that advice. If you’re told ‘your’re fine, and you’re safe where you’re at’, I think you have to have a little faith that people are doing the best that they can to monitor the situation, to analyze the results, and to make recommendations.
EVELYN: Alright, do you have anything else before we end the interview for tonight?
MARK: I don’t. I hope this helps, and I’ll put in some time—hopefully tomorrow—and for tomorrow’s update we can paint as good a picture of some of the impact as we can. Like I said, it’s extremely difficult because the limits are in one measure, the readings are in another and we might have to just interpret some of those results to the best of our abilities.
EVELYN: Ok, so we’ll do another update tomorrow evening, then. Does that sound good?
EVELYN: Goodnight, dad!
Thank you guys so much for taking the time to put these together. Even with all my google alerts and a fairly solid lay knowledge of nuclear technology it's very hard to keep track of everything and sort through the conflicting reports. It's really great to get regular updates from someone who knows what he's talking about (and Evelyn, you're a great interviewer).
Transcription in progress by Kenyon. Will post soon!
Sorry the transcript runs together with no breaks…. I went through and added spaces, but blogger ignored them. I think the compose-to-HMTL interface on blogger is less-than-perfect. If I have time later on, I'll try to go back in the HTML and add spaces.