Apologies and updates

In my “Japan Syndrome” post, I provided links to the Union of Concerned Scientists and to mitnse.com, which I believed was run by MIT Nuke-E students. I figured those would be two groups with different biases but factual (i.e., non-hysterical, non-shill) information.

As it turns out, mitnse.com is a total fraud. Go read the whole Ritholtz piece, whose executive summary is “Nemo got had”. I have made some mistakes on this blog, but boy howdy, this was the biggest.

I should not have provided a link to that site, and I apologize. (Another update: Actually, there is a link at the top of the real MIT NSE home page to mitnse.com. So someone in the department was convinced to add a link there. Still, I would treat mitnse.com with extreme skepticism until more information about it is available.)

The rest of my post holds up pretty well, I think, although my tone was perhaps too flippant and too sanguine. But the reporting was and still is awful. Numbers and details do matter and are largely going unreported, even when they are otherwise available.

Now for some updates.

In my opinion, the Japanese government has been quite open and honest with the public throughout this event. But I am increasingly concerned that TEPCO has not been open and honest with anyone, including the government. Yesterday Prime Minister Naoto Kan was heard yelling profanities at TEPCO officials. And this morning, concerning the fuel rods in the spent fuel pool in building No.4, TEPCO said “the possibility of re-criticality is not zero”.

This is a jaw-dropping statement. “Criticality” is the sustained fission you find inside a running nuclear reactor. It should be physically impossible for spent fuel rods to “go critical”. Last night, I wondered aloud why they are trying to get boric acid (as opposed to, say, water) into the spent fuel pool. I ultimately figured it was just because boric acid is a good fire retardant… But now another possibility presents itself: That the fuel rods in the pool may be fresh, not spent.

I am trying to find a source to confirm or deny this. But “the possibility of re-criticality” stands on its own as a horrifying statement.

Chernobyl became such a disaster because it was a live, uncontained nuclear reaction spewing fresh radioactive debris into the air for a week and a half. I continue to believe this is unlikely for the Dai-Ichi reactors since they are specifically designed to prevent such an occurance. The probability of “re-criticality” for a molten core, especially with the control rods inserted, is just not very high… And even if it happened, the containment vessel, even if damaged, should largely contain it.

But the spent fuel pond has no such containment. If “re-criticality” is possible there, then so is a Chernobyl-style outcome.

Reuters reports that the French embassy has urged its nationals to leave Tokyo. Japan has responded in typical Japanese fashion.

The other worrisome news is that the containment vessels in reactors No.2 and No.3 may have been damaged and are leaking radiation. This is primarily a threat to the workers at the plant. But the problem is that as the radiation levels rise, eventually it becomes impossible to work there for hours without being exposed to lethal levels of radiation. At high enough levels, that number drops to minutes.

Again, the numbers matter, and they are not being provided sufficiently often nor with sufficient detail, in my view.

Update

Well, apparently mitnse.com is legitimate (see last paragraph), since it was mentioned by the head of the MIT NSE department. It still looks to me like “Dr. Josef Oehmen” is a bit of a fraud — one that I fell for — but that is a topic for another time.

So mitnse.com is a legitimate source of information. Information with a heavily pro-nuclear bias, but information nonetheless.

I am looking for more confirmation of the “possibility of re-criticality is not zero” quote. I am wondering whether that is a mis-translation. (Updated update: BBC is reporting it; thanks equityval.)

In the reports I am reading, there seems to be some confusion between the threat posed by the nuclear fuel inside the reactors and that posed by… Well, by whatever is in the spent fuel ponds.

The USD/JPY hit 76.36 a couple of hours ago, by the way. “A post-WWII high.”

8 comments to Apologies and updates

  • dcarroll001

    You can find mitnse.com by Googling/Binging MIT, then clicking through to the MIT website, http://web.mit.edu/, then clicking on “In the wake of Japan’s disaster…” under news, then clicking on “Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering blog on the nuclear crisis” under related.

    If it is a fraud, then it is a particularly saavy and extensive one.

    Ritholtz is sensationalistic, which is why I stopped reading him a while ago.

  • equityval

    NHK broadcast says that fuel rods in spent fuel pools in reactors 3 and 4 are partly exposed. I believe the source of this was a NISA official, but I’m not certain.

    The water cannon bank shot is due to be tried some time this morning to get water level up in the pools. The plan is to shoot it into the buildings through a hole in the side of the building.

    Sorry no links.

  • equityval

    Here’s the re-criticality quote from TEPCO:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/science-environment-12762608

    Over the last few days there have been reports suggesting water levels were low and the water “boiling”; and now the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has a team of 11 experts advising in Japan, says the pool is completely dry.

    This means the fuel rods are exposed to the air. Without water, they will get much hotter, allowing radioactive material to escape.

    More remarkably, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the power station, has warned: “The possibility of re-criticality is not zero”.

    If you are in any doubt as to what this means, it is that in the company’s view, it is possible that enough fissile uranium is present in the cooling pond in enough density to form a critical mass – meaning that a nuclear fission chain reaction could start.

  • Nemo

    Thanks for the link, equityval.

    That is an astonishing statement for a company spokesperson to make. I am very surprised it is not being reported more widely.

  • equityval

    This chopper dump is all for show. Using the dimensions posted by ZeroHedge about the pool and assuming that the pool is dry as the US claims, they will need to make just shy of 300 chopper dumps, assuming all the water in the chopper bucket hits the mark, which it won’t.

    The radiation at 300 feet in the choppers was 87 milliseiverts.

    TEPCO reporting a minimal drop in radiation post dump.

    All info from NHK broadcast. You might check Kyodo for a link…they’ve been following pretty closely.

  • domainguy

    FWIW, the mitnse.com was created on March 13, 2011. This is clearly visible in the domain’s whois record (which you can see for any domain name using a “whois lookup” – google it)

    — begin whois record

    Registrant:
    MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
    77 Massachusetts Avenue
    Cambridge
    Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
    United States

    Registered through: Automattic
    Domain Name: MITNSE.COM
    Created on: 13-Mar-11
    Expires on: 13-Mar-12
    Last Updated on: 13-Mar-11

    Administrative Contact:
    Subbiah, Ilavenil subbiah@mit.edu
    MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
    77 Massachusetts Avenue
    Cambridge
    Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
    United States
    617-576-0593 Fax —

    Technical Contact:
    Subbiah, Ilavenil subbiah@mit.edu
    MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
    77 Massachusetts Avenue
    Cambridge
    Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
    United States
    617-576-0593 Fax —

    Domain servers in listed order:
    NS1.WORDPRESS.COM
    NS2.WORDPRESS.COM

    — end whois record

    While the contact info looks “official” enough, with the admin contact even being an address at mit.edu, you can put pretty well whatever you want inside a domain whois record. There are rules for the info being “truthful”, but in practical terms, you could register a domain with the contact details of Dr. Strangelove or Donald Rumsfeld and there is not a lot stopping you aside from a fairly drawn out and ineffectual “whois data compliance” complaint which takes a few months to wind it’s way through ICANN and the domain’s registrar and still results in no action being taken.

    The other thing to note is that while it is usually important to have a domain’s admin email address be an email you can receive email at, it is not necessary. So even there, you could put president@whitehouse.gov in there and still be able to control the domain name.

    So that domain was created the same day as the original Oehmen post (March 13, I believe).

    Since this blog seems to value who has the credentials / background to comment on what, I am the founder and CEO of an ICANN accredited domain registrar.

  • domainguy

    I should also mention that one thing you cannot “fake” in a domain whois record are the domain nameservers, not if you want the domain to actually resolve over the internet and be reachable.

    In this case, the nameservers are wordpress.org nameservers, these are the nameservers a lot of domains who host their blogs on wordpress use, it’s not mandatory, as this blog illustrates (self-evident.org), which uses:

    Name Server:B.NS.BUDDYNS.COM
    Name Server:C.NS.BUDDYNS.COM
    Name Server:NS1.SELF-EVIDENT.ORG
    Name Server:NS2.SELF-EVIDENT.ORG

    Anyhoo….

    mit.edu (the official domain of MIT), uses these nameservers:

    STRAWB.MIT.EDU 18.71.0.151
    W20NS.MIT.EDU 18.70.0.160
    BITSY.MIT.EDU 18.72.0.3

  • Nemo

    domainguy —

    Thanks for the information. You are right that I should have provided a link to the whois record for mitnse.com.

    I actually administer the primary DNS server for self-evident.org myself. (I also administer the system that hosts the blog. I use the WordPress software but not their servers.) As a matter of fact, there is a decent chance I was configuring BIND before you had heard of the Internet. :-)

    Just for the (non-whois) record, I do not really put that much faith in credentials; after all, I am nothing but a pseudonym, myself. What someone says is far more important than who they are. However, nuclear power is one area where a lot of people who know very little have a lot to say, while others who know a lot have powerful financial incentives not to tell the whole truth. So you need to be very careful and highly critical of everything you read. I suppose this is true for most topics that make up our public debate, but nuclear power is particularly bad in my view.

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