Perfect Storms: Meteorological, Now Nuclear

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A masters thesis in radionuclide (zinc-65) tissue distribution and elimination in amphibians doesn’t qualify me as an expert in the biology of radioactive substances, but it sure does lower my threshold of interest in what’s going on–in Japan, now, and possibly around the world, should this problem not find a solution in the next day or two.

Keep an eye on what is happening in the storage pools (versus the reactor core) of the two (or more) afflicated nuclear reactors in Japan and also pay attention to levels of cesium-137.

Cesium has a half-life of 30 years and is treated in the body like potassium. It is incorporated into living tissues and food chains for long stretches of time, with high potential to cause cancer.

“In addition to the reactor cores, the storage pool for highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel is also at risk. The pool cooling water must be continuously circulated. Without circulation, the still thermally hot irradiated nuclear fuel in the storage pools will begin to boil off the cooling water. Within a day or two, the pool’s water could completely boil away. Without cooling water, the irradiated nuclear fuel could spontaneously combust in an exothermic reaction. Since the storage pools are not located within containment, a catastrophic radioactivity release to the environment could occur. Up to 100 percent of the volatile radioactive Cesium-137 content of the pools could go up in flames and smoke, to blow downwind over large distances. Given the large quantity of irradiated nuclear fuel in the pool, the radioactivity release could be worse than the Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe of 25 years ago.” Forbes blog 11 March

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan were uncontrollable acts of nature. The nuclear chaos that resulted is the consequence of a choice we’ve made. I wish there was a reasonable and sustainable role for nuclear power in our future, but this chapter must give us pause, even as the Gulf oil spill in recent memory should have made us think about the costs of our oil dependence. Maybe we can use this horrible experience in Japan to consider where we go from here, and how we chose to get there. Read Japans’s Unnecessary Nuclear Disaster for thoughts on this choice.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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