Fukushima Retro | Contrasting Nuclear Cultures

» Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the nuclear reactor meltdown(s) at Fukushima in Japan. By the way, Peter Kim sent me a link to the following 2-minute animated video he assembled, titled » Japan: One Year Later (.. looking for feedback). You might enjoy it. I was impressed. Surprisingly artistic.

Having spent much of my adult life working 'round REACTORS of one type or another [ .. both military & civilian reactors, both boiling-water reactors (yuk) & pressurized-water reactors (sweet) .. both Westinghouse & General Electric reactor plant designs ] ..

International Radiation Warning Sign.. at a handful of nuclear plants on both the East & West coasts ..

.. as a migrant nuclear worker of sorts (.. selling my body's federally allowed radiation exposure as a Rad-Whore for Rad dollars) ..

.. in positions both technical & supervisory .. both staff & line ..

.. I posted (you might recall) 4 entries, commenting on the disaster:

  1. Nuclear Reactor Meltdown at Fukushima in Japan (13.March.2011)
  2. Nuclear Spent Fuel Pools DRY at Fukushima (17.March.2011)
  3. Nuclear Grade Sushi from Fukushima (09.April.2011)
  4. Radiation Exposure & Biological Damage (10.April.2011)

.. where I tried to take you INSIDE a reactor plant (.. the way the Godfather takes you inside the Mafia).

These 4 entries are contained and grouped together in their own category, titled » Fukushima. I received lots of mail about those entries, so I know how much you guys enjoyed them.

I have been following developments since .. including results of recent reports published by various agencies .. and the thing I am most struck by ..

.. is how SCREWED UP everybody was. I mean, Japan is normally known for having its technical shit together. Meticulous attention to detail.

The word "chaos" was used to describe all involved parties. This includes not only plant operators at TEPCo (.. which we already knew about).

Nuclear reactor spent fuel cell being moved in a spent fuel pool (of water)But also Japan's nuclear regulatory agency. And even up to and including their Highest Levels of Government. All were freaked out of their minds.

In the 3rd entry that I posted, the one titled » Nuclear Grade Sushi from Fukushima, I made the following comment (.. yeah, a year ago, a month into the crisis):

"It says bad things about management at Tokyo Electric (TEPCo) and reveals a loss of control. I see confusion, disorientation. Bad decisions.

I was kinda kidding before when I said the nuclear motto was » "dilution is the solution to pollution." TEPCo apparently takes that seriously."

I remember writing that .. because is was so FOREIGN to my own nuclear experience. I remember feeling sad for them. For the whole nuclear industry, in general. Could see back then they were (obviously) making bad decisions .. I just didnt know WHY.

See .. my experience is .. the military trains you well .. so well (.. too well, one could argue) .. by running countless DRILLS on your ass .. night and day .. to the point that you eventually become like a MACHINE.

I'm talking about AFTER you finish all your OTHER training, both classroom & prototype, where they train you on a real live reactor plant, and AFTER you arrive at the Fleet .. reporting for duty aboard an actual nuclear-powered weapon of mass destruction.

Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River in New York» Automatic Machine-like Response Mode

As a result, responses to emergencies take you (.. in a finger-snap) into a sort of AUTOMATIC response mode. Difficult to describe, but the feeling is deeply ingrained. (Still.)

If you've watched any of the Bourne series of movies (.. starring Matt Damon) .. Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum .. you have an idea of how this works. In the movie, Bourne (Damon) is surprised himself .. at/by his own responses.

A guy touches him on the shoulder .. next thing you know, bodies are laying all over the ground around him .. moaning and writhing in pain. At the same time, he doesnt even know who he is .. doesnt even know his own name .. cant recall his past. So how is he able (he must be wondering) to kick so much ass?

The link/thread shared in common between Jason Bourne & your friendly neighborhood Nuclear Warrior » intense, focused long-term military training.

I am certainly no Kung-Fu master .. but that automatic-response conditioning .. is very familiar .. such that you DONT EVEN HAVE TO THINK. It's like you become "one with" the the reactor plant. (Zen-like.) You can "feel" it .. intuitively.

And let me tell you, while they are running all these freaking DRILLS on your ass .. you get so damn tired of them. They become so BORING. Drills .. day after day after day .. after day.

And you KNOW that these drills are not real emergencies. So you have to IMAGINE .. that the reactor is really melting down (.. or whatever happens to be blowing up today).

And this makes everything so .. fake. And all these "monitors" are standing around you (.. with their clipboards) .. and writing down every time you scratch your butt. They take everything so seriously .. as if the reactor really were melting.

••• today's entry continues here below •••

So "drill simulation" becomes something of an art form. The better they are at simulating the drill (.. the bad things that are supposed to be happening, but really arent) .. the better and more easily / readily you can respond to them. More naturally.

Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine» Drill, Drill, Drill

They watch your every move. It's like they crawl up your butt with a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and a pair of tweezers. Heck, they even watch where your eyes go.

And they follow you everywhere, at uncomfortably close proximity. ( "Your cigarette breath smells awful, Sir." )

Once a year the BIG boys from Washington (ORSE) come to run drills on your ass. This is ALL these people do. Nothing but visiting different operating Naval reactor plants for a week of fun-n-games. And they run some doozies.

But those drills are more like putting on a show for them. [ "Let me show you boys how we roll up in here. Might wanna step back, dawg." ] You perform for them. Which is actually fun (.. cuz you are good and you KNOW it).

Now dont get me wrong, but in a way, people who are good at drills .. are good ACTORS. You are pretending that imaginary things are real .. and responding appropriately. But just because somebody is not good at drills, does not necessarily mean they will fail when the shit hits the fan for real.

But for DRILLs you need to shift over into this alternate mode of thinking .. which involves the use of your imagination, which can be difficult for some.

It takes 10 guys, 10 'Nukes' to run a single-reactor plant on a nuclear submarine. 10 more relieve these 10 every 6 hours. Six-on, twelve-off. Repeat .. for long as you're at sea (.. and the reactor is operating). Only 1 of these guys is an officer. So they (the officers) depend on you.

One of these guys is also a Chief, a non-commissioned officer. The rest are just young kids like yourself .. in their early 20's .. 21, 22, 23 years of age. (I got out when I was 24. So at 24, you're already an "old salt".)

Quick thinkers. Very bright. From all over the country. Competence being the only thing that matters .. that really matters .. when the shit hits the fan.

The two things they drill HARDEST into your head are:

  1. follow the procedure, "verbatim compliance" (.. copies of the Reactor Plant Manuals are mounted in all the engineering spaces). You dont take a krap without following a procedure. (I shit you not.)

  2. believe your indications (.. your gages, even when they are telling you unbelievable shit .. ESPECIALLY when they are telling you unbelievable shit).

    the boys at Three Mile Island are (in)famous for saying, "Uh .. that gage cant possibly be right." [ It was. ]

Spent Fuel Pool Floor at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, Alabama» Three possible ORSE grades:

  1. Average [ .. means » "you need work". ]
  2. Above Average [ .. means you can breathe easy .. until they return next year. ]
  3. Below Average [ .. means you might as well shoot yourself now, cuz you can forget about sleep for the next year, and your Commanding Officer can forget about advancing up the ranks. ]

Fortunately, we never got anything but Above Averages, but like I said, we drilled constantly.

My First ORSE

During my first ORSE board, which came only a few months after I reported about a Ballistic Missile submarine, the ORSE team wanted to watch me draw and analyze a primary reactor coolant sample, which takes an hour or so.

Afterward, my Commanding Officer (the Captain, a Rhodes Scholar) stopped by the lab, where I was wrapping things up.

"How'd I do?" I asked, wiping down the counter top.

"They said you were a hotshot chemist," he said, standing right outside, sticking his head in. "I think they were impressed."

I smiled with relief and said, "I put on a little show for him. I didnt want them to be able to say that I didnt know what I was doing."

A month earlier, as we were preparing for the ORSE, my Engineer (the "Eng"), speaking about the ORSE team, took me aside and said, "They always, always, always want to see the new ELT draw and analyze a primary sample. So expect it."

So .. in other words, I was expecting it. =) 


The Commercial version of the Navy's ORSE boards is » INPO.

In Commercial Nuclear power, bad INPO scores are not so bad, cuz .. well, they pay by the hour. =) [ Overtime. ]

In the military, it is clear that you are there to be used and abused. Long as everybody gets used & abused equally, it suks a little less worse. (But it still sucks pretty bad.)

Both ORSE & INPO are good at drill simulation (.. since that's all they do).

Anyway, the RESULT of all this training & drilling is that » when there's a REAL problem .. you go into action. Automatically. Yes, you certainly feel a heightened sense of awareness, but not anywhere close to what I would call "panic." No.

The boys at Fukushima Daiichi were ass-deep in a swamp full of toothy gators. But the feeling I get was not simply that they had panicked (.. who wouldnt?), but that their competence had been called into question. I do not know for a fact about their competence / qualifications .. nor would/could I, not being there myself.

And if I am wrong, then sincere professional apologies. But they dumped all that unprocessed / raw highly radioactive waste water into the ocean. And that (to me) is inexcusable.

You CALL for barges, or whatever type retention tanks you prefer. And if they dont arrive snappily enough, you start calling up the chain (of command). They will get the message .. that this is import and start shitting them out to you. "Dont make me call the President," can be powerful motivation. =)

You'll never see it written anywhere, but you'll rarely (never say never) see a supervisor DENY a request for something a subordinate says he needs in order to do his job safely.

Cuz if something DOES go wrong, the guy is gonna say, "I told Mr. Dumbshit that I needed these .. and he said to go ahead and do the job without them." Much easier just to call YOUR boss, and say, "Cry-baby employee says he needs..." and put the responsibility on your boss. =)

Because nobody OWNs the oceans, and fish can live nowhere else, Plant Operators need to do every reasonable thing within their power to avoid polluting them. Even if you happen to claim territorial waters out to 12 miles from your shores, radioactivity knows no such boundary. This makes dumping radioactive waste into the ocean doubly-bad, seeing you already dusted the local crops with a shitload of curies.

[ I'm not sure of the half-life profile particulars, but a weighting of long half-life isotopes would affect generations to come. You may have just trashed the whole island for the foreseeable future, and cranked up the cancer statistics for untold innocents. ]

Cuz now we are talking about you taking a giant krap in your NEIGHBOR's yard. And I can guarantee that he aint gonna like that. But maybe you DID make the call. I dunno. Again, I apologize if I am wrong, and you genuinely tried to avoid krapping all over your entire country and shitting millions of gallons of unprocessed rad-waste that came from a reactor with a failed core into international waters. WTF?!!!

» Competence & Complacency

Much of nuclear power is what we call "steady-state steaming" .. where the gages never change. Day after day after day. So easy to get lulled into complacency. I mean, a reactor plant, once you start it up .. is designed to run itself. "Inherently stable," they call it.

Nuclear Grade Sushi from FukushimaI had a buddy who was famous for saying, "Anybody can steam steady-state." The implication being that true Thermonuclear Warriors distinguish themselves .. when the shit hits the fan. (To which I would agree.)

And if you cant respond when the plant really NEEDS you (.. to respond to an emergency) .. then, what good are you?

Might as well send in a squad of trained monkeys. "Pull the rope attached to a banana when the bell rings, or the light turns red."

99% of normal reactor operations is boring shit. But the plant really needs you when things get very excited. And some people are just not good at handling a shit load of excitement .. dumped on them from the shoot of a turbo-charged cement mixer.

Especially not after they just got used to the pace of life there at Boringsville .. after months of conditions that never change .. not even a little. It's very understandable. Almost expected.

But if a crew of reactor plant operators is not able to effectively respond to an emergency -- ANY emergency (yes, even a 9.0 earthquake & its ensuing tsunami) -- they are just an accident waiting to happen.

Now, Commercial nuclear plants do indeed get exciting .. when they shut down .. to refuel .. about once every 18 months or 2 years .. for a few months. But a few months every few years .. is not much.

» FOCUS of the Nuclear Warrior

Most prominent (.. when you shift over into "auto-response" mode) is the sense of » FOCUS. Really a remarkable experience. Especially when you consider how you're not the only plant operator that has shifted into this mode. No, sir. Everybody goes into this automatic-focused state when there's a real problem.

And you have TRUST for these other 9 guys who are operating the reactor plant with you. You know they know their shit, too. Cuz the Navy is ruthless about weeding out those who might not be up to it (.. and even many who are).

If somebody told me that the Military had implanted a microchip in my brain when I was 19, and programmed it to operate a nuclear plant .. I would be giving them a hard look .. rather than a quick dismissal. =)

And remember that you literally LIVE WITH this reactor plant (.. on a nuclear submarine) .. so you naturally become intimately acquainted with it. (Go live at a ski resort for a few years and watch how your skiing improves. Or your golf game after living at a country club like Pebble Beach.)

Nuclear Fuel Pellets» Props Where Props Due

Naturally, everybody has their own area of expertise (.. Mechanical, Electrical, Reactor, Chemistry, Radiological, Supervisory).

Let me INTERJECT here a moment, and say that .. during my entire 6 years enlistment .. I never once (.. that's right) .. saw an Officer try to shun responsibility by blaming an enlisted person for anything that fell in his bailiwick (.. which is pretty much the whole plant). Not once. Ever.

And this gives you RESPECT for your superiors .. for the officers. So .. props where props are due.

I mean, sometimes, in Commercial nuclear power .. I've had to bite my tongue .. when I see gross incompetence in action .. on display. I have developed calluses on my tongue from time to time.

But I've also CONFRONTED people (.. very close to their face) that I probably shouldnt have confronted .. and spoken far too "plainly." (Tho I'm not as bad as the Dog.)

But it's only because I sometimes cant help myself .. when I see such bullshit, ignorance, incompetence .. when the stench reaches a certain offensive point.

I've had my boss call me into his office and say, "I'm supposed to talk to you, so here's the talk. Next time that guy tries to give you shit, call me. I'll call his boss and his ass is jelly."

The implication there (.. and yes, I got it) .. was that .. no matter how hard it might be to resist .. I shouldnt toe up with supervisors from other departments .. no matter how fucked up they might be .. that I should "call for back-up" ..

.. and they would send the Cavalry .. or an Enforcer .. who would bring a nuclear-grade ass-thumper to the party .. to handle the situation properly. Doing things the right way works best, and would be far easier (.. for me). "Use the chain of command," as they say in the military.

Lots of EGOs in nuclear power. Jesus. Gargantuan egos. Monsters. I have a pretty healthy ego myself, and I cant hold a candle to a lot of these guys. Heck, the entire universe is not big enough for their egos.

And it doesnt take long to figure out who knows their shit .. and who is dangerous.

Anyway I did not see this same assuming of responsibility in other branches of service .. such as at Abu Ghraib, where officers pointed the finger of blame at lowly enlisted folk.

You cannot imagine how badly this frosts my ass, and the feelings I have for these .. (.. these .. dont make me say what I'm thinking).

Anyway, this is why I was so surprised to see how the operators at Fukushima responded. Very much foreign to my own thermonuclear experience. Unbelievable, almost.

Hot Ceramic Nuclear Fuel Pellet (small) The Military is definitely more machine-like than Commercial power plants. Neither one however, operates anything like what we witnessed at Fukushima (.. seeing operators at many U.S. Commercial nuclear plants come directly from the Military, from the Navy).

I should mention that 99.9% of your time spent stationed aboard an operating nuclear-powered submarine is actually mind-numbingly BORING. You dont want excitement. Excitement and reactors dont mix well. A boring reactor is a happy reactor.

My whole 6-year enlistment contained 4 instances of what I would call 'emergencies'. And only 2 of them occurred while we were underway .. while the reactor was operating. The other 2 occurred while we were tied up in port .. with the reactor shutdown.

Whenever there IS a problem .. you have to go "talk to the black box" .. where they record a discussion of what happened .. which is then sent off to Washington .. where the Gestapo, uh, I mean, Naval Reactors (NR) reviews it .. in great detail.

And it is THESE REAL-LIFE "INCIDENTS" that become the basis for your "imaginary" drills of the future.

From my whole 6 years .. I have ONE really good, kick-ass story. A hair-raiser .. which began with a call that said, "Machinery 2 lower level, Manuvering, start #2 main feed pump, secure #1 main feed pump."

My only perfect storm, and we survived .. tho it was close. Seconds, close. I came |*this*| close to letting it kick my ass. It was like I thought of a million things at once.

I could feel myself pulling tricks out of my pocket (.. so to speak) .. one after the other .. fighting the problem the whole way down .. until one finally worked. Whew!

Fukushima Nuclear Plant in JapanAnother quote from that same entry, the one titled Nuclear Grade Sushi is:

» "Cant believe the boys at Fukushima (TEPCo) pumped more than three million gallons of unprocessed highly radioactive water directly into the ocean.

That blows my mind. That's like taking a gigantic krap in your front yard .. every day for a year."

[ I crack myself up, sometimes. ]

I seasoned today's text with a dash of profanity .. to add a touch of realism to the entry. Cuz everybody knows how sailors swear. It's true, tho used more lovingly than you're probably used to. [ "Gimme a hug you piece of shit." ] Knew you'd appreciate the extra effort. Profanity as realist art. =)

Most of my problems in the Navy stemmed from a lack of emotional maturity. I mean, what do they expect from a 19-year-old punk? .. fresh out of mom's kitchen. The Navy cuts you slack in the maturity department .. long as you are technically competent. But even that has its limits.

They DONT however, have any sympathy (whatsoever) for technical incompetence .. no matter how mature, congenial, or pretty you might be. (At least, none that I saw.) The axe came down mercilessly & often.

Commercial nuclear power appears, in a way, to be the exact OPPOSITE, in that personal relationships factor much higher, even where competence applies. Maybe this is why your hear the word 'nepotism' mentioned at some nuclear sites.

Not all. Some more than others. Where it's WHO you know that counts. As is the case, I would imagine, in MOST organizations.

I always tried to be smart enough to see WHO was running the show, where the decisions were being made, and offer my professional insights, in private, so my boss came out smelling like roses. Not long until they want you in their inner circle (.. where the power lies) .. before they start ASKING for your opinion.

Danger: Radiation AreaI was never one of those glory-hogs .. long as I could help steer the ship (.. which I was pretty good at).

I've normally found that .. the closer you get down to the guy actually twisting the nuts & bolts .. the more accurate the information you get.

Sitting in a meeting with a bunch of mucky-mucks, you hear all kinds of conflicting notions, such as, "My guy assures me that everything is good to go." 

But when you speak up and say, "Uh, I was just down there 20 minutes ago, and the guy holding the wrench showed it to me, and the calibration is definitely out-of-date," .. it becomes hard to argue with the guy holding the wrench. So I always like to talk to the guys actually DOING the work.

The 'Rad' in Radified comes from the word » Radiation. (Long story .. on how I selected the domain name.) I just renewed, btw, our domain name for another 2 years. So we are good to 2014. $24.

I've shared a little more about how thoroughly the Navy trains you .. in a recent entry, titled » Reflections on the Hitchcock Economy | The Missing Trillion-Dollar Lollipops, particularly the section labeled » Systems Integration.

PS - Dont miss the gorgeous Venus/Jupiter pairing this week. The planets are in alignment. If you turn around, you'll see Mars, the Red planet, which means the planets, at least 4 of them, all in a row, are in alignment. ■

For more along these lines, here's a Google search preconfigured for the query » fukushima daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown disaster japan tsunami earthquake

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This page contains a single entry by Rad published on March 11, 2012 3:11 AM.

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