Sunday, October 6, 2013

Radioactive Flow in Fukushima

The nuclear power station at Fukushima is not under control. Most of the reports to that effect along the way were exaggerations or wishful thinking. Perhaps the reactors are under control in the sense that the main masses of nuclear metals can be expected to stay generally where they are now, but at the same time, traces of radioactive materials, which add up to tons over time, are getting away from the plant and into the surrounding area, especially the ocean.

Japan officially describes this problem as a “leak,” but with only very limited containment for the reactors in their current state, it is more accurately understood as a “flow,” a continuous movement of materials under the influence of geological and hydrological forces. It is a flow we may have to live with for another 20 or 30 years, as no one seems to know a way to stop ground water from getting into the ocean, and it may take that long for the reactors to stabilize enough that they can be disassembled, cleaned up, and shipped out. In the meantime, forces such as mechanical failure, rust, and radioactive decay will eat at away at what containment there is, so that over time, there will be less containment and more flow.

It is a frustrating situation to manage. The cultural inclination is to pick up the mess, put it in the garbage, and haul it away. For many years it will remain too dangerous to get close enough to attempt that. Japan is asking for help in controlling the radioactive “leaks.” The question authorities should be asking is where it might be practical to intercede to influence the radioactive flow.