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Beat The Heat But Don't Melt Down

Kristi McCracken, July 26, 2011

Fukushima’s reactors exploded and are melting down, Los Alamos’s nuclear waste narrowly escaped burning fires, and Nebraska’s plants are drowning in flood waters. Summer heat passes and sweating isn’t deadly, but these nuclear issues will affect generations to come.

Triple digit temperatures across America signaled not only the arrival of the heat of summer, but the death of my air conditioning unit. After sweating through a day of 86 degree temperatures indoors, I broke down and called the repairman. In the short duration of this little lapse in climate control, greater empathy emerged for those who deal with this inescapable heat on a daily basis all across the world but especially in Japan.

I don’t envy the Japanese employees whose companies have raised the temperature of their work environment, because my sluggish brain wasn’t processing very well. Due to the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima and a decision by the government of Japan to shut down other nuclear reactors until they can be made safe from natural disaster, the Japanese are facing energy shortages.

With less electricity available, companies wanted to avoid blackouts, so offices are setting their thermostats to 82 F. Some businesses have encouraged employees to take longer summer vacations and to wear Hawaiian shirts as well as flip flops rather than three piece suits.

Fukushima’s reactors are in meltdown with temperatures reported at over 5000 degrees which is high enough to melt the stainless steel containment structures putting the ground water at risk. Trace levels of radiation in whales and fish off the coast near the plant are being reported. Local hospitals are finding trace levels of radiation in patient’s urine as well. Not only has containment not been reached, but radioactive poisoning has already begun to show up in humans and animals not only in the water but the air as well.

Nuclear fears heightened here in the U.S. when 12,000 residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico were evacuated because fires raged out of control near their nuclear plant during July.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the world's first atomic bomb was developed, no longer stores nuclear warheads, but it does house approximately 30,000 barrels of plutonium contaminated waste. These 55 gallon drums contain gloves, clothing and spent fuel rods that have been exposed to plutonium.

Plutonium is one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. According to physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, if fire had engulfed these drums, they would likely have popped open and spread a low level cloud of plutonium dust within a 10 mile radius. One microscopic speck in your lungs could cause cancer.

The fear in nuclear situations is that circumstances are worse than they seem, and that those in charge don't know the full extent of the damage or aren’t telling the public because they’re not sure how to cope with it.

In Nebraska, the flooding Missouri River surrounded the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant, 20 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska when a protective aqua-berm collapsed. Floodwater two feet deep surround the containment buildings and power transformers at the plant which are reported to be waterproof.

This has forced workers to use elevated catwalks to access the facility. Employees use life jackets, waders and boats to check flood barriers, build scaffolding and move equipment around.

The plant manager claims that the areas containing radioactive material have remained mostly dry using flood barriers and pumps, but one wonders when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman comes to investigate if perhaps things aren’t worse than they’re letting on.

One of the biggest threats to the safety of any nuclear power plant is a prolonged loss of electrical power because the plant needs to be able to keep the radioactive fuel cooling by pumping water over it.

Fort Calhoun has several backup power sources in place, including different power lines and extra diesel generators. The reactor has been shut down since April which helps make the plant safer because the radioactive fuel has been cooling off since then.

Officials continue to assert the safety of nuclear plants because they have numerous backup systems. The problem is that their test model scenarios did not factor in the combination of complications resulting from natural disasters. It’s time to openly address the issues of hazardous nuclear waste.

Kristi McCracken is a journalist in the Central Valley of California