James Howard Kunstler, in his Monday, January 6 column (weekly at http://kunstler.com/), gave his opinion on the future of Japan. In part, he said: “Japan’s ultimate destination is to “go medieval.” They’re never going to recover from Fukushima, their economy is unraveling, they have no fossil fuels of their own and have to import everything, and their balance of payments is completely out of whack. The best course for them will be to just throw in the towel on modernity.” Earlier, he referred to the “mystical horrors of Fukushima,” a striking and accurate turn of phrase.

There’s one big problem with Japan going medieval. The mystical horrors of Fukushima are the result of 3 nuclear reactor meltdowns. Japan has a total of 54 nuclear reactors, of which “only” 3 have melted down so far. The only thing that keeps the other 51 from similarly melting down is, in nuclear industry parlance, “station power.” That is, each reactor and spent fuel pool needs a supply of electricity to run pumps which circulate cooling water to prevent a meltdown.

This is true even at Fukushima reactor #4, which did not have fuel in the reactor at the time of the tsunami. It had fuel rods in the cooling pool, and that cooling pool has pumps to circulate cooling water to prevent a meltdown. It’s true that a cooling pool meltdown in the absence of circulating water might take longer to get started. This is a matter of something like a month for a cooling pool as opposed to a day or less for an operating reactor core.

However, when a cooling pool does melt down, much more highly radioactive material gets released than with a reactor core meltdown. A reactor is typically loaded with several years’ worth of fuel. A cooling pool typically accumulates several decades’ worth.

As bad as the radioactive release of Fukushima is today, 51 more meltdowns, all of which would eventually involve spent fuel as well as reactor cores, would be worse. Most of these other Japanese reactors are not located on the coast, so that runoff goes into the ocean, either. Many are located upwind and upstream of major population centers.

If going medieval means complete collapse of the electrical grid, then Japan is in for a 54-reactor meltdown which will leave the entire country uninhabitable. The same is true for the United States, which has over a hundred reactors. It seems to me that most of the United States would be uninhabitable for this reason. So would Europe; particularly France, which uses nuclear reactors for over 75% of its electrical power.

There is no easy solution for this problem. The best we can do would be to get as much fuel as possible out of cooling pools and into hardened dry cask storage, as fast as possible. this is not anything like a satisfactory solution to the spent fuel issue, but it is much better than continued storage in pools. Of course, we should shut down existing reactors, to avoid making more new and spent fuel rods. Finally, we should certainly not build any new nuclear reactors.

In the longer term, spent fuel stored in casks could be vitrified on site before it is moved anywhere. “Vitrified” means the radioactive elements would be used as a component in making glass pellets. The other ingredients – mostly sand – would both dilute the fuel so that meltdown is no longer possible and encapsulate the radioactive isotopes, keeping them out of our air, water and soil. It is again, not a perfect solution, but it is better than trying to leave the fuel rods permanently in dry cask storage.

Whether, even further down the road, there is some suitable final repository such as Yucca Mountain was intended to be, or if the landscape will forever be burdened with numerous “exclusion zones” zones around the site of every former reactor is unknown. What is known is that if, as a society, we do not take the steps we can take to minimize the danger, it won’t matter. The entire continent will become an exclusion zone.

This topic may seem far from the usual concerns of the Transition movement. However, it will not do us much good to encourage local gardens and other elements of a resilient community, if that community will be destroyed by radioactive fallout. It’s certain we can’t put the nuclear genie back in the bottle (or glass pellets, in this case) if we don’t even try.

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Art Myatt