Monday, March 28, 2011

Japan activist warns another 'nuclear quake' looms - The nuclear safety crisis entering its third week in Japan was not exactly the disaster that long-term activist and author Takashi Hirose foresaw in his book last summer, "Nuclear Reactor Time Bomb". But except for the location - he had predicted an imminent megaquake and nuclear accident at the Hamaoka plant 200 km southwest of Tokyo - the scenario depicted in his book has proved eerily prescient.
As Hirose watches what he believes is a bungled response by the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company , his fears are as strong as ever that A REPEAT IS SET TO HIT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE JAPANESE CAPITAL. "I think it will definitely occur soon." Research on earthquake cycles suggests that a massive quake may be imminent in the Tokai region near the Hamaoka nuclear plant. "I've looked at the entire country, and THERE'S NOT A SINGLE REACTOR THAT'S SAFE."
Japan, at the crossroads of four tectonic plates, is the site of one-fifth of the world's earthquakes of magnitude 6 or more. The possibility of an imminent magnitude 8-plus earthquake in the Tokai region near the Hamaoka plant was brought to the public's attention by a geologist in the 1970s and a government report has estimated there is an 87 percent chance of such an earthquake within the next 30 years. "The Pacific plate is moving, and we shouldn't be expecting that the other plates are just sitting quietly."
Japan nuclear crisis: Radiation spike report 'mistaken' - The operators of a stricken Japanese nuclear plant have apologised for a "mistake" in reporting a radiation spike 10 million times above normal. Tokyo Electric Power Company said it got the readings wrong. Because the level was so high the worker taking the reading had to evacuate before confirming it with a second reading. Despite the mistake, the radiation spike at reactor 2 was still very high and enough to evacuate workers. "The number is not credible. We are very sorry." The level of radiation in puddles near reactor 2 was confirmed at 1,000 millisieverts an hour. "It is an extremely high figure." [ 100,000 times the radioactivity of normal background levels - THE HIGHEST RADIATION READINGS YET.] The radiation levels are so high, that emergency workers near the contaminated water would have received four times their maximum annual dose of radiation in just one hour. A dose of 4,000 to 5,000 millisieverts absorbed fairly rapidly will eventually kill about half of those exposed.
The erroneous report has created more confusion around a crisis that is already causing widespread unease in the country. On Sunday, anti-nuclear protesters held a large rally in Tokyo, calling for change in Japan's nuclear industry. Meanwhile, efforts are continuing to locate the exact source of the radioactive water leak, amid concerns that the water is leaking directly from the reactor itself. The government in Tokyo has said that airborne radiation around the plant is decreasing, so there is no need to extend the evacuation zone. (map)
Officials acknowledged there was radioactive water in all four of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex's most troubled reactors, and airborne radiation in Unit 2 measured 1000 millisieverts per hour - four times the limit deemed safe by the government. Officials say they still did not know where the radioactive water was coming from, although a government spokesman has said some was "almost certainly" seeping from a cracked reactor core in one of the units. "We have somewhat prevented the situation from turning worse. But the prospects are not improving in a straight line and we've expected twists and turns. The contaminated water is one of them and we'll continue to repair the damage." The discovery over the last three days of radioactive water has been a major setback in the mission to get the plant's crucial cooling systems operating more than two weeks after the massive earthquake and tsunami. Each unit could have hundreds of tonnes of radioactive water.
Unlike in newer reactor designs, the older boiling-water reactors at Daiichi are pierced by dozens of holes in the bottoms of their reactor vessels. Each hole allows one control rod — made of a neutron-absorbing material that quickly stops nuclear fission inside the reactor — to slide into the reactor from below, as happened when the earthquake shook the plant March 11. During normal operations, a graphite stopper covers each hole, sealing in highly radioactive primary cooling water. But at temperatures above 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the graphite stoppers begin to melt.
“Since it is likely that rubble from the broken fuel rods is collecting at the bottom of the reactor, the seals are being damaged by high temperature or high radiation." As the graphite seals fail, water in the reactor will leak into a network of pipes in the containment buildings surrounding each reactor — the very buildings that have been heavily damaged by explosions. This piping is probably compromised, leaving highly radioactive water to seep from the reactor vessels into broken pipes — and from there into the turbine buildings and beyond. To stabilize the facility, workers are trying to repair the elaborate cooling system, necessary to keep the reactor cores and spent fuel pools from overheating. For now, they are conducting this work in dark, steamy conditions. Nuclear safety experts say they must shift out of the most dangerous areas every 30 minutes to an hour, to prevent radiation overexposure.
One subcontracted worker who laid cables for new electrical lines March 19 described chaotic conditions and lax supervision that made him nervous. Neither he nor any of the workers around him was given a dosimeter, a device used to measure one’s exposure to radiation. He was surprised that workers were not given special shoes; rather, they were told to put plastic bags over their street shoes. [Saw in a photo that some are wearing flip-flops! With plastic bags over them and no socks.] When he was trying on the gas mask for the first time, he said, the supervisor told him and other subcontractors, “Listen carefully, I’m only going to say this one time,” while explaining how to use it.
A sample of Massachusetts rainwater has registered very low concentrations of radiation, most likely from the Japanese nuclear power plant. The radioactive isotope iodine-131 found in the sample - one of more than 100 that have been taken around the country - has a short life of only eight days. The drinking water supply in the state was unaffected and officials do not expect any health concerns. Nevada, California, Hawaii, Colorado and Washington state have also reported tiny amounts of radiation from the Japan accident. Officials have said those levels presented no health risks. Scientists say they weren't surprised that radioactive isotopes from Japan were detected in the Western states. "They get caught up in the right wind pattern and they'll move across the ocean."

Current Status of Each of the Nuclear Reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. (photos & timeline.)

**To forget one's purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.**
Friedrich Nietzsche

This morning -

Yesterday -
3/27/11 -


Major Temblors Can Set Off Small Eruptions but Not Big Ones, Researchers Say - Seismologists have revived a longstanding question in the wake of recent earthquakes: Can a giant temblor in one location trigger another large one thousands of miles away? A new study provides the first compelling evidence that such big, distant events - which may appear to be linked when they occur within months of each other - are likely not connected at all. "A big quake rings the earth like a bell and can trigger little quakes" halfway across the planel. But apparently it doesn't trigger other big quakes over such great distances.
Geophysicists have long known that major quakes unleash bursts of energy that travel around the globe in uncertain ways. But now some scientists speculate that only sustained pressure can significantly move fault lines and thus trigger other large temblors. In addition, energy dissipates as it travels, so quakes pack a much weaker punch by the time their shockwaves reach a fault line far away. The issue has become more pressing in the aftermath of several large, destructive earthquakes that have taken a deadly toll in the past 15 months, striking China, Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and now Japan. On Thursday a 6.8-magnitude toll struck Myanmar, killing at least 70 people. But long-term data reveal no large increase in global seismic activity, even for big quakes. Since consistent record-keeping began in 1964, the number of big temblors seen globally has stayed fairly constant: An average of 17 quakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher has been recorded each year.
In 1992, a 7.3-magnitude temblor in Landers, California, "lit up the whole western U.S. with quakes over the next few hours and days." The event altered the eruption cycle of geysers at Yellowstone National Park, some 680 miles away. Similarly, a big Alaska temblor in 2002 led to a swarm of smaller quakes in Yellowstone, knocked houseboats off their moorings in Seattle and even sloshed the water of a lake in Louisiana. The 8.8-magnitude event that rocked Chile in 2010 also led to an increase in micro-earthquakes in central California, a few hours after the main shock. The huge 2004 temblor in Indonesia led to more frequent "repeating earthquakes" in a section of the San Andreas fault in California, and may even have weakened that fault. But due to the type of sustained energy needed to trigger a large quake, residents of California don't face a higher seismic risk because of the Indonesia, Chile or Japan quakes, researchers said. A team studied a 30-year seismographic record of all possible quakes larger than magnitude 5 that might have been triggered by every quake of magnitude 7 or larger. Their conclusion: "There is not evidence for very large earthquakes promoting other very large earthquakes at a global scale," although big aftershocks can occur around the original rupture.

BURMA / MYANMAR - Earthquake toll rises. At least 75 people are nnow eported to have been killed and many more injured after the powerful 6.8 earthquake struck north-eastern Burma on Thursday. The quake struck near the Lao and Thai borders, and was felt as far away as the Thai capital Bangkok, and in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. The town of Tachileik and surrounding villages in Shan state appear to have borne the brunt of the earthquake. There are fears the casualties could be much higher.
Burma is ill prepared to deal with natural disasters. Communication systems and infrastructure are poor and the military government, still in charge until the handover to a new civilian-led administration, tends to limit the flow of information. It is likely to take some time before a clear picture of the disaster emerges.
Several hundred buildings collapsed north of the town of Tachileik, in mountains near the border with Thailand. Roads and bridges have been damaged making affected areas hard to reach. "We are trying to reach the remote areas. The military, police and local authorities are trying to find some people injured in those affected areas but the roads are still closed." One woman was killed in the border town of Mae Sai in Thailand and slight damage has been reported to some buildings but major towns and cities appear to have escaped relatively unscathed.
In neighbouring Laos, no casualties have been reported. Earlier reports suggested there had been two strong earthquakes moments apart in the same area, but the USGS later clarified that there had been just one quake. On 11 March, a 5.4-magnitude earthquake struck just north of the area, 225km (140 miles) southwest of Dali in Yunnan, southern China. That was the same day as the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami hit Japan; however, Japan is on a different tectonic plate. (map)


HAWAII - Lava returns to Pu'u 'O'o crater. Lava is once again visible in the Pu'u 'O'o crater. Scientists said the lava's return follows a 17-day pause in the eruption's activity on Kilauea Volcano's east rift zone.
Lava was spotted shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday. HVO Webcam images showed lava slowly filling the deepest parts of the crater. An abrupt deflation occurred about the same time that lava appeared in the crater, but the deflation then switched to inflation by 11 a.m. The eruption of lava was accompanied by a brief seismic tremor burst. "Lava is currently confined to the Pu'u 'O'o crater and, so far, poses no threat to structures within Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park or outside Park boundaries." The crater floor collapsed March 5. A few hours later, a fissure opened southwest of Pu'u 'O'o and began erupting fountains of lava. The lava erupted from what became known as the Kamoamoa fissure until March 9, when all activity on the east rift zone paused until Saturday.


Japanese Rules for Nuclear Plants Relied on Old Science - In the country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of the walls of water. The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants — including the Fukushima Daiichi facility that firefighters are still struggling to get under control — began dotting the Japanese coastline.
The lack of attention may help explain how, on an island nation surrounded by clashing tectonic plates that commonly produce tsunamis, the protections were so tragically minuscule compared with the nearly 46-foot tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima plant on March 11. Offshore breakwaters, designed to guard against typhoons but not tsunamis, succumbed quickly as a first line of defense. The wave grew three times as tall as the bluff on which the plant had been built.
Japanese government and utility officials have repeatedly said that engineers could never have anticipated the magnitude 9.0 earthquake — by far the largest in Japanese history — that caused the sea bottom to shudder and generated the huge tsunami. Even so, seismologists and tsunami experts say that according to readily available data, an earthquake with a magnitude as low as 7.5 - almost garden variety around the Pacific Rim - could have created a tsunami large enough to top the bluff at Fukushima.
After an advisory group issued nonbinding recommendations in 2002, Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant owner and Japan’s biggest utility, raised its maximum projected tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi to between 17.7 and 18.7 feet — considerably higher than the 13-foot-high bluff. Yet the company appeared to respond only by raising the level of an electric pump near the coast by 8 inches, presumably to protect it from high water. “We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent. When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”
The intensity with which the earthquake shook the ground at Fukushima also exceeded the criteria used in the plant’s design, though by a less significant factor than the tsunami. Based on what is known now, the tsunami set off the nuclear crisis by flooding the backup generators needed to power the reactor cooling system.
For some experts, the underestimate of the tsunami threat at Fukushima is frustratingly reminiscent of the earthquake — this time with no tsunami — in July 2007 that struck Kashiwazaki, a Tokyo Electric nuclear plant on Japan’s western coast. The ground at Kashiwazaki shook as much as two and a half times the maximum intensity envisioned in the plant’s design, prompting upgrades at the plant. “They had years to prepare at that point, after Kashiwazaki, and I am seeing the same thing at Fukushima." When Fukushima was designed, seismology and its intersection with the structural engineering of nuclear power plants was in its infancy. Engineers employed a lot of guesswork, adopting a standard that structures inside nuclear plants should have three times the quake resistance of general buildings. “There was no basis in deciding on three times." Seawalls were erected higher than the highest tsunamis on record. At Fukushima Daiichi, officials at Tokyo Electric used a contemporary tsunami — a 10.5-foot-high wave caused by a 9.5-magnitude earthquake in Chile in 1960 — as a reference point. The 13-foot-high cliff on which the plant was built would serve as a natural seawall. Eighteen-foot-high offshore breakwaters were built as part of the company’s anti-tsunami strategy. But regulators said the breakwaters — mainly intended to shelter boats — offered some resistance against typhoons, but not tsunamis.
Over the decades, preparedness against tsunamis never became a priority for Japan’s power companies or nuclear regulators. Even though tsunami simulations offered new ways to assess the risks of tsunamis, plant operators made few changes at their aging facilities, and nuclear regulators did not press them. Although the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission has come under severe criticism for not taking the adoption of new techniques far enough, the agency did use many of them in new, plant-by-plant reviews. For whatever reasons — whether cultural, historical or simply financial — Japanese engineers working on nuclear plants continued to predict what they believed were maximum earthquakes based on records. Those methods, however, did not take into account serious uncertainties like faults that had not been discovered or earthquakes that were gigantic but rare.
The science of tsunamis advanced through the years, with far better measurements of their size, vastly expanded statistics as more occurred, and computer calculations that help predict what kinds of tsunamis are produced by earthquakes of various sizes. Earthquakes of a magnitude down to about 7.5 can create tsunamis large enough to go over the 13-foot bluff protecting the Fukushima plant. Japan’s underestimation of the tsunami risk was called a “cascade of stupid errors that led to the disaster” and that relevant data was virtually impossible to overlook by anyone in the field.
Perhaps the saddest observation by scientists outside Japan is that, even through the narrow lens of recorded tsunamis, the potential for easily overtopping the anti-tsunami safeguards at Fukushima should have been recognized. In 1993 a magnitude 7.8 quake produced tsunamis with heights greater than 30 feet off Japan’s western coast, spreading wide devastation. Two decades after Fukushima Daiichi came online, researchers poring through old records estimated that a quake known as Jogan had actually produced a tsunami that reached nearly one mile inland in an area just north of the plant. That tsunami struck in 869.


Tropical Cyclone Bune is making its way down to New Zealand and is expected to pass to the east of the country from Wednesday. The eye of the storm is expected to pass directly over Raoul Island in the Kermadec group tonight.


THAILAND - Serious floods in the south of Thailand have killed three people and affected tens of thousands more, causing about $9.2 million of damage.
Emergency disaster zones have been declared in 34 districts across five provinces since heavy downpours began on Wednesday. "Since rains began on March 23, there have been floods, strong winds and landslide in several areas," said the governor of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, which has been hardest hit. "There are about 30,000 families or 80,000 people affected by these floods." Devastating flooding across Thailand late last year left more than 220 people dead, damaging the homes or livelihoods of an estimated 8.6 million people in 51 of the kingdom's 76 provinces.