Thursday, March 17, 2011

Long after we're gone as a species

The first shutdown of a major US plant was announced by GM today because of the crisis in Japan. This will spread fast as much of what Japan exports are technologies that they hold a monopoly on. It will take time for China to replace this production as Japan will not want to give up the technology on the assumption they will need the trade when (or if) they recover.

An American drone aircraft confirmed with close-up video today that the fuel rod holding tank of the number four reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is dry and producing an ugly looking plume of smoke. This is the real terror of the crisis as the fuel used in this reactor is enriched with plutonium salvaged from nuclear weapons.

There is no question that some part of Japan will become uninhabitable like the area around Chernobyl. The only question is how big the area will be. Tokyo has become a ghost town with empty streets and the local trains empty. Trains heading south however are packed as are international flights. Reports of passengers getting off planes from Tokyo in the US and setting off the radiation detectors are now being denied.

The first plume of radioactivity will reach the US tomorrow and the President came out to reassure the public that there is no danger but the EPA has doubled the number of radiation monitors just the same. The truth is that there is little chance of inhaling a particle of radioactive material at this time. If you do happen to be unlucky and suck a particle in, there is a pretty good chance but by no means a certainty that it will kill you in 20 or 30 years.

This is the way the numbers work, if you live in the US you would be far more likely to significantly increase your lifespan by better bathtub safety. While it is pointless to worry about radiation, some people in the US will die. There is no safe level for the inhalation of radioactive particles. It is not the same as getting chest x-rays, the numbers don’t really translate. On a number scale even an intense x-ray does only minimal cell damage rated about a “one” and at that some people will get cancer from it. A single particle of plutonium will damage cells around it severely being rated at a “seven” on the same scale.

Consider that a nuclear bomb only uses a couple of pounds of radioactive material although the blast irradiates a huge mass of material that comes down as fallout, but much of that material cools to a safe level in a matter of weeks. This disaster if not contained will put hundreds of tons of highly radioactive material into the environment that won’t cool down to a “safe” level for hundreds of years. The more “stable” isotopes of plutonium won’t cool to a safe level for 250,000 years. That’s longer than there have been humans and probably long after we’re gone.


rich said...

That Japan holds a "monopoly" on certain technologies is a testament to the Japanese themselves. If Japanese corporations invest the money in an advanced technolgy, are they obliged to give it away to the US or China as an affirmative action program to ensure equal results between competitors? Expecting Japan to give away technology to, of all places, China (!), is silly.

prairie2 said...

"give up the technology" Japan isn't going to do it to be kind, they need parts too, but if China gets their hands on it they won't respect Japan's patents. The pertinent question here is how badly will this delay affect the world economy, if there is a long time before they can resume production or does China have them over a barrel..