Radiation at Fukushima is killing robots (What about us?)

The news from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant seems to get worse day-by-day, more than a year after the calamitous earthquake, tsunami and subsequent multiple meltdowns at the site.  Because levels of radioactivity have reached 73 sieverts per hour in the reactor 2 containment structure, it is no longer safe for human beings to enter the wreckage.  According to the Tokyo Electric Power Company, owners of the plant, "People exposed to such high levels of radiation in just a minute would become nauseous and could die within a month."  Uh oh.....

Earlier reports about efforts to contain the disaster waxed enthusiastic about wonderful new robots that could withstand levels of radiation far in excess of what humans can endure. Yes, we have the technology!  Here's one such account from last November.

Unique video sequences, authorized by Tokyo Electrical Company (TEPCO), have been published by Japanese Robonable showing U.S. military robots operating inside Unite 3 reactor building at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The iRobot PackBots  are preparing for the establishment of a system to reduce gas pressure in the reactor containment vessel. A similar system had been installed in Unit 1 and Unit 2 of the damaged nuclear reactor leading to reduction of emissions of radioactive material.

Alas, hopes of this kind have been dashed.  Current levels of radioactivity at Fukushima quickly destroy the smart, durable military robots sent in to hoist the plant's simmering trash.  In a report from The Epoch Times:

Even robots, endoscopes, and other devices cannot be deployed inside of the containment chamber, because the high radiation would render them useless, the company said. Radiation can damage computer chips and alter images taken via cameras.

The radiation levels are the highest discovered by the company since the plant was crippled during the earthquake and tsunami a year ago. 

Like many of the actual and brewing disasters of our times, the predicament could prove to be a godsend for research and "innovation." "TEPCO spokesperson Junichi Matsumoto noted that the company needs to develop devices and robots that are resistant to high levels of radiation." 

So get  those grant proposals written, folks!  Think of it as boost for the great "Singularity" and its contributions to the "Next Generation of Nuclear Power" just around the corner (or is it "coroner"?).
                                       TEPCO officials surveying the situation at Fukushima

Fukushima radiation -- free at your doorstep from TEPCO

                                     Cartoon  of "Our Friend the Atom" from the 1950s  
                                           Disneyland television show

I don't know if anyone has ever done the math, but it's an interesting question whether or not nuclear power would ever have paid its way as a domestic energy source if one had counted all of the costs involved in its creation including research & development, construction, liability insurance, accident clean ups, radioactive waste disposal, decommissioning aged reactors, etc.  And as Helen Caldicott has argued over the years, one also needs to count the enormous burden of human costs in illness, disability and death, along with the economic burdens of caring for people stricken with diseases caused by radioactivity emitted by the plants and their malfunctions.  

Of course the genius of modern capitalism is to avoid all costs of this kind.  Privatize the profits, pass the bills on to someone else, "externalities" as those amusing economists call these things.  In the wake of the ongoing calamities of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) now argues that radioactive isotopes released from plant are no longer its property.  Evidently, they're giving away the deadly particles, free of charge, to anyone (mis)fortunate enough to have them arrive on their property or in their bodies.  In the spirit of the holidays, think of them as gifts that keep on giving.  

One of the earliest victims of this insidious policy is a Japanese golf course.  Here's a report from The Australian newspaper.

In defending a lawsuit from a Fukushima Prefecture golf club, lawyers said the radioactive cesium that had blighted the Sunfield Nihonmatsu golf course's fairways and greens was the club's problem. The utility has taken a similarly hard line defending claims from ryokan (inn) and onsen (spa) owners.

TEPCO's lawyers used the arcane legal principle of res nullius to argue the emissions that escaped after the tsunami and earthquake triggered a meltdown were no longer its responsibility. "Radioactive materials (such as cesium) that scattered and fell from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant belong to individual landowners, not TEPCO," the utility told Tokyo District Court.
The chief operating officer of the prestigious golf course, Tsutomo Yamane, told The Australian that he and his staff were stunned: "I couldn't believe my ears. I told my employees, 'TEPCO is saying the radiation doesn't belong to them', and they said 'I beg your pardon'."

The court rejected TEPCO's argument, but ruled it was the responsibility of local, prefectural and national governments to clean it up.

The case - and the club's bid for $160 million in clean-up costs - has proceeded to the High Court amid fears the ruling could result in some local governments being bankrupted.

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By the way, I'm wondering who will pay for the damages to the world's seafood industry from the radioactive debris now floating away from the shores of Fukushima and into the Pacific Ocean.  Certainly, it won't be TEPCO.  Will shoppers and restaurants need to take geiger counters to seafood markets?   How much do those things cost?

Is nuclear power in its death throes? Seems likely

Fukushima nuclear power plant, March 2011
 "Clean, safe, too cheap to meter"

Well, it couldn't happen to a nicer industry.  After all the years of enormous government subsidies, of misrepresentation of its true costs, of blatant lying about safety and dangers to public health, of negligible progress in storage of its radioactive wastes, of small, medium and catastrophic accidents, of attempts to stiff others with its debts (e.g., poor Vermont), etc., it now seems that nuclear power may be be collapsing under its own ponderous weight and mendacity. 

Siemens, one of the world's leading producers of nuclear power plants, has announced that it is quitting the business altogether.  The primary reason given for its decision is the ongoing Fukushima nuclear meltdown/melt through and its consequences for the firm's business prospects.  Here are excerpts from the BBC story:

Chief executive Peter Loescher "told Spiegel magazine it was the firm's answer to "the clear positioning of German society and politics for a pullout from nuclear energy".

"The chapter for us is closed," he said, announcing that the firm will no longer build nuclear power stations.

A long-planned joint venture with Russian nuclear firm Rosatom will also be cancelled, although Mr Loescher said he would still seek to work with their partner "in other fields".

Siemens was responsible for building all 17 of Germany's existing nuclear power plants.
But more recently, the firm has limited itself to providing the non-nuclear parts of plants being built by other firms, including current projects in China and Finland.

The latest decision appears to imply a step back from building "conventional islands" - the non-nuclear plant in nuclear power stations - an area in which Siemens has remained active.

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For news on the State of Vermont's attempt to shut down the leaky Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and the state government's battle with "Entergy Corp." -- a debt and responsibility avoiding dummy corporation -- see this and this.   The issue is here not only the safety of the plant, but also whether or not the citizens of Vermont will get stuck with the costs of decommissioning this notorious techno-turkey.

It seems that both governments and the world's leading engineering firms are bailing out while they still can.