How does the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown disaster show the enormous risk potential for the continued operation of the Diablo Canyon atomic reactor?

Filmed by Ecological Options Network (EON) at Point Reyes Station in California, Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen presents A World in Danger.

This presentation from the 2015 California speaking tour precedes a panel discussion “Tell All” between chief engineer Arnie Gundersen, Fairewinds founder and president Maggie Gundersen, and EON co-directors Jim Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan. The follow-up conversation can be found here. 

EMCEE: (:47) I want to begin with a quote by that celebrated and famous American philosopher, W. C. Fields, who once said, “There comes a time in human events when we must seize the bull by the tail and stare the situation squarely in the face.” And that’s what we’re going to do tonight. So Arnie Gundersen, please take it away. (applause)

AG: The thing I’d like to talk about, and Tim alluded to it, is how the nuclear industry has so successfully framed this argument on nuclear. There’s a book Don’t Think of an Elephant. What’s the first thing you think of – it’s an elephant. And the person who frames the argument usually wins the argument. We wind up being labeled as anti-nuclear this’s or that’s. We never call them pro-nuclear zealots. They’ve been able to frame the argument.

Here’s an example. What’s wrong with this sentence – The Fukushima accident happened on March 11, 2011. (F: Accident) Accident. That’s one – there’s actually three, but the first – (F: It’s still happening) Yes. It’s still happening.

When the nuclear industry talks about Fukushima in the past tense, the fact of the matter is that it’s still bleeding into the Pacific and it will take 100 years and a half a trillion dollars to clean up but they want you to think it’s over. So (1) is it’s still happening; (2) is the world accident.

An accident is when you’re driving down the road and an owl flies in front of you and hits your window and takes you out. That’s an accident. You couldn’t foresee it. But the DIET commission – DIET is their parliament – has said this is not an accident. This was man-made. This was profoundly man-made. Engineers knew it for 40 years. So the wick on this time bomb was lit in 1967 when they started building it. And it happened to have exploded in 2011, but the accident was not an accident. It was a man-made disaster.

So I try to remove that from my vocabulary but it’s so ingrained because I was an engineer and I would bet everybody would call it an accident. It’s ingrained. It’s not an accident; it’s a disaster. And the last one is – I said the Fukushima accident.

Fukushima is a wonderful prefecture and they would much rather we call it Fukushima Daiichi, which stands for the first nuclear site at Fukushima, and then down the road about 6 miles is Fukushima Daini. It’s sort of like having the California accident. It means something to the people in Fukushima Prefecture that the disaster be properly phrased as the Daiichi accident.

Anyway, let’s get on with the show here. There’s four points I’d like to talk about.

The first is that nuclear accidents happen a lot more frequently than our regulators – (F: Nuclear events) – nuclear disasters – okay, there we go. Nuclear events happen a lot more frequently than our regulators would like you to know and that our politicians would like you to know and the nuclear industry would like you to know.

The second is that as time goes by, these disasters have been getting worse, not less worse.

The third one is, as bad as Fukushima Daiichi was, we’re lucky because it could have been much, much worse.

And the fourth, and it really hits here in California and the West Coast, is that radiation knows no borders.

So in my lifetime – here’s what I looked like right out of college – look at that tie, looks like I had a rug on or something – so that guy was brighter than the one who’s standing here, but probably was a little less wise. So I’d like to say that my wisdom might have increased but perhaps my intellect decayed a little bit. But over our joint career of 40-some-odd years, here’s what’s happened.

We’ve had a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. We’ve had a complete meltdown at Chernobyl. We’ve had a complete meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, a complete meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi unit 2, and a complete meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi unit 3.

So in those 35 years from TMI to today, we’ve had 5 meltdowns. So if you take 35 and divide by 5, this is not rocket science – you get 7. About once every 7 years, about once a decade, you’re going to have a meltdown. That’s what history shows.

But yet, the regulators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry have been telling the political leaders that the chance of an accident is one in a million.

So if you take a million and divide that by 400 nuclear reactors, you get an accident – you get a disaster occurring about once every 2,500 years.

Well, history is telling us it’s once in 7 and yet regulators are basing their decision-making process on once in 2,500 years.

So this is an example how the argument has been distorted by the nuclear industry and, unfortunately, dramatically affects our Congressmen. Who in Congress would allow Diablo to run if they thought it was going to melt down in 7 years?

So the first point here is that policymakers are in one world and the real world data is in another. So the second issue is that accidents have become worse – disasters have become worse – I caught myself.

The first one is TMI. It was a partial meltdown, sort of like being partially pregnant. The team that took this picture – it’s an interesting story to talk about the mindset of nuclear power – they ran it about a year after the accident – the disaster – by the time I’m done here I’ll get this right. About a year after the disaster, they put a camera in from the top of the reactor. This is a true story from the people that were on that crew. They went down however many meters until where the reactor core should have been and they didn’t see it. So they pulled the camera up and said something’s wrong with our measurement. And they re-measured the wire and they put it back in a second time. And they didn’t see it. And they still pulled it back out again and said something’s wrong with our measurement. The core’s got to be there. They put it down a third time and they didn’t see it. And it was the third time that the person in charge of that said oh, my God, we have a meltdown.

Two years after with huge radiation releases and the psyche of the nuclear industry was such that they wouldn’t admit to themselves they had a meltdown until this picture came out.

So the consequences are not just in meltdowns. They’re also in casualties. If you go up on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website, no one was hurt at Three Mile Island. And of course, the industry says that, too. This is Dr. Steve Wing. And the white line that runs diagonally through that from the – from here to there – that’s the Susquehanna River. This is Three Mile Island. And what Steve was able to do was look at the demographic data of lung cancer deaths 10 years after the accident. And he showed clearly that lung cancers in the river valley were awful compared to lung cancers on the hillsides. Why is that? When the accident happened, when the disaster happened, when the meltdown happened, there was a temperature inversion that day and it kept the radiation in the valley. Now the nuclear industry won’t admit this and Steve’s taken a lot of flack over it, but in fact this is what the data says. People did die after TMI.

This is a picture of the remnants of the nuclear core at Chernobyl. It’s called the elephant’s foot. It was taken by a robot about a year after the accident and – after the disaster, after the meltdown – and this elephant’s foot is so radioactive that if it were up here, we’d all be dead in about 2 minutes. That’s how much radiation is coming off that elephant’s foot right now. But we had a picture of what Three Mile Island looked like and we had a picture of what Chernobyl looked like within two years of the accident – disaster.

The next slide – first we all know that Europe was highly contaminated as a result of the meltdown at Chernobyl. Dr. Alexey Yablokov calculated that over a million people died from the radiation releases. The International Atomic Energy Agency says about 40 died. There’s a big difference there. (10:54)

So now let’s move on to Fukushima Daiichi. Where’s the cores? Nobody knows. We’re five years into this process and we don’t even have a picture of where those nuclear cores are. So the trend has been from a partial meltdown to a complete meltdown to three complete meltdowns and we don’t – the radiation levels are so high in that building that we can’t find those nuclear cores yet.

Next slide. This is a real quick sequence. This is from left to right, this is Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 – it’s already exploded – 2, 3, 4. I want you to keep an eye on 3 – that’s this one right here. Next slide. This can’t happen. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, you can’t have a hydrogen explosion and you can’t have a detonation shockwave at a nuclear power plant. So don’t worry. What you see here didn’t happen.

And the example is – Diablo Canyon can’t withstand this. And so what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says is that this event cannot happen. So therefore, Diablo Canyon can continue to operate. Well, that little slide here shows the initial burst of the explosion – the detonation shockwave. And the rest after that is ballistic. It just takes the roof off the building. But don’t worry, this can’t happen at Diablo Canyon.

I’m going to click it 21 times. (12:36 to 13:04) That’s not a detonation shockwave. There’s not a containment in the world that can withstand a detonation shockwave. So the regulator’s solution is to assume that a detonation shockwave can’t happen.

The next slide is another problem that the regulators have managed to corral. And that’s that containments don’t leak. That’s the dome at both Diablo and at San Onofre – that thing that looks like a half a hemisphere. That’s the containment dome. And I was discussing this – I was invited to talk to the advisory committee on reactor safeguards – the 17 wise men that guide the Nuclear Regulatory Commission back in 2010, four months before Fukushima Daiichi. And I was arguing that containments do leak and that they need to change their regulations, especially on a new reactor.

After that, the next month, NRC staff – 4,000 staff members wrote a position paper to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and they said we assume the containment leak rate is zero.

So what happens here, this is an infrared picture of Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 and it’s almost a month after the nuclear accident. The disaster. The big blob is the fuel pool which is boiling and mixing with air and you can see – there’s only a couple words on here that are in English – but it’s about 62 degrees centigrade, but that means it was about 130 degrees in the gases that are coming off. That was a big deal and it was also doing the same thing at unit 4 and in every other one. The fuel pools were boiling. But that’s not the key here. See that little dot right there? It says 128 degrees centigrade. What that means is that’s about 250 degrees. Remember, water boils at 212 at atmospheric conditions. What that tells me is that the containment was leaking like a sieve. There’s no containment integrity at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3.

This is another one of those issues that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission pushed aside. There’s a telecoms between NRC and people in Tokyo and they estimate the containment was leaking at 300 percent per day.

If that number was applied to Diablo Canyon it would have to shut down immediately because the accident analysis – I can use it because it’s an NRC term – this says that they only assume a tenth of a percent per day. So this is another example of how the industry pushes the argument.

The next piece is a piece of nuclear fuel. This is in a scanning electron microscope and it was done by Marco Kaltofen at Worcester Polytechnic. The fascinating part of this was this was found 300 miles away from Fukushima Daiichi. So an accident/disaster doesn’t end at the site boundary. This is 300 miles away and if it’s on the – this was picked up in a vacuum cleaner bag. If it’s on the vacuum cleaner bags, it’s in your lungs because you’re breathing in whatever winds up on the floor. Next slide – these are car air filters. Each one of those black dots is a hot particle. If you look really carefully, we had a great slide projector – actually, we have one hot particle on a car air filter in Seattle – but the Fukushima City ones are obviously the worst. And a car breathes in just about what a person breathes in. So that the – God help us when these people get out 10 or 15 years and we start to see an increased incidence of lung cancer like Steve Wing discovered at TMI. But according to the NRC, TMI didn’t happen, either.

Okay. The last one in this series – Fairewinds asked for children’s shoes. And we got 7 pairs of shoes from Fukushima Daiichi and we compared them with 7 pairs of shoes in the United States. And basically, the shoes on the right are – that’s the lower limit of detection – that’s the best the instrument can do. The shoes of the U.S. kids are squeaky clean. And the shoes of the Japanese kids are loaded with cesium. Well, what do kids do? They tie their shoes, put their hands in their mouth and it’s all over the place in Japan.

So the second conclusion is that we went from a partial meltdown to a complete meltdown to three complete meltdowns. And the consequences are getting worse and the accident frequency is shortening. That’s not a good trend. And it’s actually going to get worse as these plants get older.

Diablo is now 30-plus years old in operating years, but it actually was designed in the 60’s and they built the reactor backward and things like that, that slowed down the construction. But we’re looking at a 1960’s technology with 1960’s concrete and as things get old, they all break down. My body keeps telling me. So conclusion number two is that disaster frequency – I’m sorry – disaster severity is increasing.

So the third piece of this revolves around the key piece of nuclear power that no one wants you to know about. Now we all know that when an uranium atom splits in half, it gives off lots of energy. That’s what makes nuclear power so cool and that’s what makes nuclear bombs explode. Take uranium, split it in half and you get lots of energy. If it stopped there, we wouldn’t have problem at Daiichi. But it doesn’t stop there, and this is what they don’t tell you about. That the explosion in the middle – the nuclear chain reaction in the middle – only gives off 93 percent of the heat. The other 7 percent comes from these pieces that are left over – that piece and that piece. They remain physically hot and radioactively hot for hundreds of years. (19:41)

So when Fukushima Daiichi had been safely shut down, it stopped the chain reaction. There were no new uranium atoms splitting. But the pieces left behind were still churning out 7 percent of the problem. 7 percent doesn’t sound like a whole heck of a lot except that – let’s look at Daiichi unit 2 – that was 4 million horsepower. 7 percent of 4 million is 270,000 horsepower of heat that it had to get rid of, and the nuclear core is only 12 x 12 x 12. So think about 270,000 horses in a space 12 x 12 x 12 and you’ve got to get rid of that heat and you can’t.

What happened at Daiichi was that – you all heard that the wave came in and knocked out the diesels and because the diesels couldn’t run there wasn’t cooling water. That’s true, but even if the diesels were on top of the Empire State Building, Daiichi still would have had a meltdown, and this is why.

Right along the water is a pile or rubble, and those are the cooling pumps that were designed to take away that quarter of a million horsepower from each reactor. The wave destroyed the cooling pumps. We call that the loss of the ultimate heat sink – LOUHS. So it doesn’t matter – and people will say well, at Diablo the reactor building is at 80 or 90 feet. Cooling pumps are at the water. So if a tsunami were to come, it’s not going to hit the building but it’s going to knock out the pumps along the water.

And the nuclear industry has phrased the problem as we don’t have a problem with Diablo because we’re way up on the cliff. The pumps aren’t up on the cliff because if they were, they couldn’t pump the water. The pumps are down at the water, and that’s a critical problem that was never addressed.

So on this issue, Fukushima could have been much worse. When the tsunami hit, it knocked out almost all the pumps. One pump survived at Daiichi, a couple down the road at Daini. But there were 14 nuclear power plants that lost their cooling water. 14 nuclear power plants lost their cooling water, which meant that – and of the diesels, there were 37 diesels – 24 failed to start. They only had 12 diesels to cool 14 nuclear power plants. And had it been just a hair worse, we would not have had 3 meltdowns like at Daiichi; we would have had 14. And that’s not a problem that can take out Japan. That’s the kind of problem that takes out the northern hemisphere. So the issue of luck plays an important piece of this.

So Daiichi could have been much worse. It was a complete technical failure. Every single system that was designed to work didn’t. And we owe our life in this hemisphere to the courage of a couple hundred Japanese workers on the site. And so courage is critical to this. The plant manager was highly respected by the people and when he stayed, they stayed. So I always dedicate my speeches to these couple hundred people – we call them the Fukushima Fifty. There was probably more than 50 but less than 200 people that stayed behind and now are getting leukemia as a results.

So that’s number one. The other piece is luck. When this accident happened – when this disaster happened, the wind was blowing out to sea about 80 percent of the time. Now had the wind been going the other way, as it does during some seasons in Japan, Japan would have been cut in half by the radiation releases just from those three nuclear reactors. You would have had northern Japan, southern Japan and this uninhabited belt in the middle.

So luck is that the wind was blowing in the right direction. The other piece of luck was that it happened during the day. There was 1,000 people at Daiichi on that Friday, including all the key managers. If it had happened 12 hours later in the middle of the night, there was 100 people there and no key managers. And the infrastructure for them to get into work was gone. It’s not like they could hop in the car and drive in to rescue the place. They could not have gotten there because the infrastructure had been destroyed. So were it not for a couple hundred courageous people and the luck of a 12-hour difference of when that earthquake and tsunami hit, this disaster at Daiichi would have taken out the country of Japan and highly contaminated the northern hemisphere as well.

This is Naoto Kan’s comment about the accident. Kan was the prime minister at the time of the accident, and he said “Our existence as a sovereign nation was at stake.” This parallels what Gorbachev said in his memoires. Gorbachev claims that the Soviet Union collapsed not because of Perestroika, but because of Chernobyl. So the two prime ministers who lived through this – one democratically elected, and one a communist leader – both came to the same conclusion, that this is a technology that is capable of destroying a country overnight. Unlike all the other things we live with, nuclear power can destroy the fabric of a country overnight.

So next slide – is nuclear power too big to fail? That would be the image I think you get when you look at this robust structure. But in fact, we’ve seen now three times, at Daiichi 1, Daiichi 2 and Daiichi 3 that that’s false. I like to say it this way. Sooner or later in any foolproof system, the fools are going to exceed the proofs.

So now last piece here is what does this mean for California and the west coast? It does mean that radiation knows no borders. It doesn’t stop at – it’s a Japanese accident and the radiation says oops, I’ve got to go back over the line and return to Japan. No. We’re all in this together. Radiation knows no borders.

What I was able to do is put together this little piece here that sort of explains the impact on California better than anything else I’ve seen. The meltdown at Daiichi caused 400 tons of water per day to be released into the Pacific. TEPCO’s frantically catching it in all these tanks. Those blue things and silver things. They weren’t there when the plant was built but they were building about a tank every two or three days trying to frantically catch this water, yet 400 tons a day was going into the Pacific. What does that mean? That’s the equivalent of 25,000 tractor loads of radioactive liquid being pumped into the Pacific. And it hasn’t stopped. That’s just in the first four years. Well, let’s talk about what that means. Should you be worried living in California?

And I’ll use this block as an example. The block is 10 x 10 x 10. So 10 x 10 x 10 – there’s 1,000 pieces in that block. Well, when I went to school, we were told dilution is the solution to pollution. And I think that the Daiichi issue is showing that we all live in a world that’s awfully small to dilute.

So let’s take a look at that first big block that’s 10 by 10 by 10. So let’s say each piece of that means a rem. A REM is a unit – Roentgen equivalent man – it’s a unit of radiation. You can think in Sieverts – 1,000 rem is 10 Sieverts. I grew up with REM so we’ll deal with REM. A thousand REM – if I gave you a block – here’s your block of a thousand REM – you’re dead in an hour. So now let’s take a tenth of that. Let’s split the block into 100. So now this is 10 by 10 by 1. So this is a block of 100 REM. So if I gave out 100 REM, 100 REM to the first 10 people here, one of the 10 of you would die of cancer. And we call this the linear no-threshold radiation theory. And what it means is, I keep cutting that block. I never get to the point where there’s some de minimus dose that we don’t have to worry about. Someone will get cancer from that radiation. So we’ve gone to 100 REM. One out of ten people exposed to 100 REM will die of cancer. So let’s go down – now we’re 10 – so 1 by 1 – so this is 10 REM. And if I spread that out to everybody in the room, there would be an increase of – one of you would get a cancer from that radiation. But what’s happening here, and I think you can see what the public policy people are counting on, is that statistically, about 40 percent of Americans die of cancer anyway. So to pick up that one extra person out of the 40 is epidemiologically really difficult. So the more it gets diluted, the less likely you are to know who’s going to die of cancer. But you can be sure that someone will.

And the last slide goes the same way. So as radiation gets diluted, it doesn’t mean that it hits some de minimus level and everybody’s safe. So when they talk about the fish in the Pacific are safe, really that’s not true. But what’s happening is there’s about 2 billion people in the Pacific and there’s a whole heck of a lot of these 10 by 10 by 10 cubes being thrown into the Pacific. So what you’re doing is you’ve got the cancer incidence down so it’s extraordinarily difficult for an epidemiologist to detect it in a population. But that there’ll be thousands and tens of thousands of cancers, you can count on. We just don’t know who. But is Fukushima causing cancers in the Pacific Basin? Absolutely.

So when I hear public health officials saying well, that fish only has 10 Becquerels so therefore, it’s safe to eat, it’s really not what they should be saying. That fish has 10 Becquerels so if you get cancer we won’t be able to prove it came from Fukushima. That’s the real way the statement should be made. So should you be worried? Personally, I’ve made the decision not to eat fish from the Pacific until my regulators measure the fish and tell me what’s in it. That’s a personal decision and there are people who are eating the fish.

There’s an issue called bioaccumulation which dilution is not related to. So as this radiation moves out into the environment, it gets picked up by the seaweed. We’ve already seen concentrations in the seaweed. Then the critters that eat the seaweed get even more. It’s almost like mercury and tuna – you know how it works its way up the food chain. And we will see over time increased concentrations of radiation at the top of the food chain – the salmon, the shark, the tuna, etc. So this issue of dilution is the solution to pollution only assumes that it’s in the water and it’s not bioaccumulating, which makes the problem even worse.

All right, well, thank you. As we say on our little button here: Radiation knows no borders. (32:33 Request to go back to a slide) What’s happening there is the concentration of radiation near Daiichi was large, but then as it moves out into the Pacific over time, it dilutes. But the same number of atoms are at play. So what you’re seeing in the Pacific now is the center of the Pacific is relatively uncontaminated compared to the Aleutian Islands down to Vancouver and down the California coast. And that will continue to move south until it gets to about the equator and starts to spin around again. But the source is not decaying. Ken Buesseler (33:18) and I have disagreements but one of the things I absolutely agree with Ken on is that the concentrations in the Pacific clearly show that the plant is continuing to bleed into the Pacific. If it had been a one-shot deal – if it happened in the first month and then was solved, we wouldn’t see this problem right now. So the fact Fukushima is continuing to bleed into the Pacific is I think one of the key issues at Woods Hole – who was very first to identify it – my hat’s off to them.