Monday, April 23, 2012
Ron Wyden's nuclear field trip
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's recent daylong field trip from Tokyo to the zone of Japan's nuclear devastation is worth at least a week in the telling. Bunny-suited with a breathing device for protection against radiation exposure, Wyden walked through the ruined Fukushima Dai-ichi complex and saw what few from the West have seen: another bomb waiting to go off.
The senator is not typically alarmist. But his field notes, followed by letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, signal alarm. They paint a picture of extreme nuclear vulnerability, especially in Reactor No. 4, inactive at the time of the quake and tsunami but wrecked by explosion. The reactor now warehouses Fukushima's hottest inventory of radioactive fuel rods in a seismically jittery part of the world.
Wyden completed his tour by asking Japan, with written urgings for help from Clinton and Chu, to sharply speed up a cleanup expected to take 10 more years. His fear is that another big seismic event will trigger another disaster before the cleanup is completed -- exposing Oregon and the West Coast to potentially lethal risk.
"What we learned the first time is that radioactivity leaks out quickly," he told The Oregonian Friday. "If (No. 4) ruptures now, it gets into the air, and that's very troubling to us in Oregon. This must not happen."
Prevailing winds pushed insignificant quantities of radioactive iodine-131 from Japan across the Pacific to the United States following the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami. The delivery capacities of the ocean have been efficient as well, as The Oregonian's Charles Pope reported a California researcher discovering radioactive iodine in sea kelp reaching the U.S. coast after the incident.
Neither Wyden nor U.S. officials can tell Japan what to do. But they can urge Japan's leaders to consider not only the welfare of their own citizens -- thousands of whom were endangered by official deceits in the first weeks of the disaster -- but also their international neighbors.
Wisely, Wyden also addressed his letter to Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and inquired about the kinds of technical assistance we might provide the Japanese to get things right at Fukushima more quickly.
Meanwhile nuclear power, with more than 100 operating facilities in the United States, is not dead. The NRC in December approved a reactor of radically new design that employs gravity and natural heat convection more than pumps and valves -- and thought to be less accident-prone for it. Yet Japan's experience was a setback for nuclear power, forcing its full reconsideration as a safe way to generate electricity.
The Fukushima cleanup could help address that concern -- for the better if the cleanup is swift and without incident. And Wyden's field trip may help, by documenting a radiation risk 5,145 miles away in Oregon to be real until such time as the cleanup is verifiably done.