Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How Strong was the Christchurch Earthquake?


I had to go to Timaru over the weekend to spend time with my elderly mum. Stopped in at Christchurch on the way, and had time to jump on a bike and pedal around exploring... This is the Merivale Shopping Centre in Papanui Road. Looks quite normal from a distance...


But shops on both sides of the road are fenced off. You can see in this Deli window: buns, rolls and other delicacies - laid out exactly as they were on the day of the earthquake. And it's a no-go shop. Behind wire fences. And if you look in the reflection of the window, you can see across the street...


Across the street this whole frontage has gone. The bricks have been tidied away now. Cars drive past. So do pedestrians. And the sign insists "We Are Open..."


The insides of the shops and office spaces are open to the elements exactly as they were on the day of the earthquake....

These are boxes of shoes all stacked on shelves - many of them - but the whole brick frontage has gone.


And next door another office. Open to View. The force of the earthquake was huge. Walls and materials that were massive (dense and weighty), like brick and stone were literally tossed to one side - while the rest of the building (made of wood, lighter and more resilient material) shook back into place. More or less anyway.

I cycled along the avenues until I came more to the Eastern side of the city, by the Avon. The streets were dusty and deserted. Still a lot of dry sand piled in the streets, blowing. Nobody about. Many red-stickered homes. Few cars. Almost expected a tumble-weed to blow down the street. And yet the sun was out and it was a brilliant day.


I came along the street because I saw workers up to their eyeballs in sewage repairs. I can't keep away from sewage systems. In the background is a heritage pumping station. The classic brick shithouse. The orange box is a powerful pump. It's taking all the wastewater from a manhole, and pumping it direct into the Avon flowing behind the trees. Residents may be able to flush their loos - and here I could see where it was actully going. The workers were fixing the manhole, and three broken sewer mains.


Here's another view of the site. What is interesting is the angle that the pump station is on. It's actually leaning about 10 degrees toward the river....

Here it is close up. Heritage for sure. In one piece. But knocked right off its foundations. You can get an idea of how much the ground has moved and dipped from where the pump station building has ended up. Underneath it is a 20 foot deep sump into which wastewater used to flow, and then was pumped to other trunk sewers, and hence to Bromley wastewater treatment plant. Now, some sewers run uphill. Others are not existant. and others fractured. You really wonder about the wisdom of repairing a system which is at so much risk of liquifaction, and ground movement next time...


The NZ Herald headline after the Japan earthquake shouted: "Japan's earthquake 8000 times more powerful than Christchurch". (That's what you get when compare a 6.3 magnitude earthquake with an 8.9 one. Richter scale.) But this simple sum ignores what happens on land. That calculation is energy/hectare. And that comes down to ground acceleration. At Fukushima, ground acceleration was .35 gravity. Christchurch CDB it was 1.1 gravity. In Heathcote Valley it got up to 2.1 gravity. In the CBD the Christchurch earthquake was 3 times more powerful and destructive than on land in Japan. This is because the Chch epicentre was 4km from the CBD and 5km deep, whereas in Japan the epicentre was 130km offshore and 32 km deep. No Tsunami in Chch of course.

Further along the road the scale of the ground movement is evident with this damage to the road and verge.

Concrete gutter sections and road seal tossed around and swallowed up in cracks as the ground heaved... cracks carved through the ground....

...and into this adjacent graveyard. A sad sight by the road. Likely to be one of the last parts of the garden city to be fixed. As one person said to me, "they're already dead...."

But it is poignant. This granite memorial has stood proudly here for the best part of a century. You can see the cast iron retaining post that was there to stop the column from moving. But the force of the earthquake - particularly the upward acceleration, followed by rapid downward and sideways acceleration would have literally thrown this column skywards, then pulled the base down, away from the column, which then toppled sideways, and broke into pieces. And then, adding insult to that injury, the ground shook further liquifying the sand beneath, which oozed up around the pieces....

And in this part of the cemetery, you can see the marble pages of a memorial, almost as if the winds of time have turned the whole place into a landscape like a beach. Full of memories. But memories which will be erased and covered by the passage of time. Leaving only sand, rippling in the wind....

Does Auckland Really Need to be Unleashed?

I went along to Auckland Unleashed last week. Big crowd there. I thought the workshops were good. I attended the infrastructure one (there were 5 workshops: can't recall what their names all were now - Infrastructure; Community; Funding & Implementation....) What was good about the infrastructure workshop was the strong thread from most tables about the need for resilience. This partly was driven by Christchurch earthquake, but was also informed by concerns about other global forces like fossil fuel prices and such-like. The upshot was that there was strong support for a poly-centric approach to Auckland's development. ie not put all our eggs in one basket called the Auckland CBD. There was a strong call for "contained communities", "complete communities" (like the Vancouver strategy), and with this was a majority call for distributed and de-centralised networks. One of the issues raised here was the need to reduce the need to travel long distances to work, school, play and essential services.


This runs counter to the Dr Arthur Grimes vision of a major effort at building Auckland CBD - almost at the exclusion of the rest of the region (let alone the rest of the country). So. I felt good about that expression from that workshop. Gave me some optimism. Hope it survives the process.


Which will be a challenge I think. You don't have to look further than the title of the plan, and its widely criticised economic growth aspirations which are right outside the direct influence of Auckland Council. No matter how super. Auckland Unleashed. Gives me the heebie jeebies, because I think the root cause of Auckland's current disfunction is the fact that developers and development has been unleashed and rampant as a mad dog for two decades now. The light-handed approach to Auckland's development over that time has led to the mess that we are in now. Very inefficient transport systems because land use has not been well planned. It's been ad hoc. The market has ruled. Why would you want to unleash it more? Surely Auckland development needs to be better contained and managed - in the best interests of public and commercial interests.


You only need to do a couple of word counts of the 226 page Auckland Unleashed document to see where it's coming from....





Quality + International + Vision = 352


Implementation + Delivery + Funding = 134


With that sort of word count, you can see the emphasis of the document. Long on aspiration - as often the most fluffy Council plans are - and short on implementation. And then there is this comparison. It's where the rubber hits the road in my opinion, because while Auckland might have an economic problem or two (which are not directly within Council control), it has a massive housing affordability problem, a growing carbon/fossil fuel dependency problem, and increasing stress on local ecologies (all of which are core business for Council)...




Development+Economy+World = 421


Affordable Housing+Carbon+Ecosystems = 23

That word count gives a good impression of what Auckland Unleashed is really about. It is so far off the mark of what Auckland needs from Auckland Council right now.


Precautionary Principle Vs Erring for “Economic Wellbeing”

Thinking about cumulative effects, and the duties to avoid these in terms of the RMA. Here is the relevant bit of the RMA:


...the term effect includes … any cumulative effect which arises over time or in combination with other effects — regardless of the scale, intensity, duration, or frequency of the effect…

So I guess what that means, in terms of the purpose of the RMA, is that the general duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse effects on the environment, includes a general duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse cumulative effects on the environment.


The RMA definition relating to “cumulative effects” is “irrespective of scale and duration…”. I read – “irrespective of scale” – as meaning it doesn’t matter if the effect is “less than minor”, “minor”, “de-minimus”. When plugged into the RMA’s purpose, the word “adverse” is added. So that makes it a bit tricky.


However, it is acknowledged by all parties it appears – that there will be effects from the disposal of fill that contains contaminants not already associated with what was in the quarry at Three Kings. Natural basalt and scoria.


Got me thinking about Auckland’s underground rivers.


What do we know for sure. Undisputed facts:



  • We know that many rivers in New Zealand have been badly damaged because of the cumulative effects of farming in their catchments. The root cause of this damage is a mix of agricultural chemicals and farm animal effluent (almost wrote farmer affluent).

  • The responsible regulatory authority in every case is a Regional Council. (Or Unitary Authority where that has replaced the Regional Council).

  • Regional Council responsibilities include: monitoring the state of rivers; granting consents that affect rivers; monitoring the effects of consented activities and compliance with conditions and carrying out enforcement.

  • The legislation which is there to protect rivers from adverse effects, and which prescribes the activities of both farmers and Regional Councils is the Resource Management Act.

So where is the systemic failure? Why are rivers getting worse and not better, or even staying the same (intrinsic values, ecosystems, etc etc). There are various other opinions and processes which are worth summarising:



  • Even if farming as we know it was stopped in its tracks, leachate already in the ground would maintain the contaminant flow into rivers for a decade or two.

  • There are hopes in a few minds that some sort of water allocation scheme will sort out the problem – ie that some sort of organised market will be the stone that kills the two birds of river pollution and getting the best use out of river water.

  • There is huge pressure to convert more relatively low impact sheep farms to dairy farms – irrigated by takes from rivers that many claim are under stress already.

I think the systemic failure fundamentally arises because the regulators either don’t or can’t do their job in accordance with the environmental and ecological protection principles that are written into the Resource Management Act.


What I see in the Environment Court – time after time, when legal action is provoked – are the applicant’s technical experts strenuously and scientifically trying to “prove” that the adverse effects from the applicant’s proposed activity will be less than minor. And yet as even the most rudimentary knowledge of science will tell you, the problems that are at issue (pollution of commons like rivers, lakes, estuaries, seas, atmospheres…) are not described perfectly and analytically by any known scientific methods. At best science suggests probabilities that are riddled with uncertainties and gaps in assumptions, and at worst expert scientific evidence is sophistry designed to support the applicant’s project.


It appears that Environment Court Judges are generally keenly aware of this. Because they are aware, it appears to me that they really have only one option open to them. The Environment Court needs to:


Place great focus on Regional Council evidence relating to the ability of the commons at issue to handle the “less than minor” effects of the application; AND, use the hearing to fully explore the regulator’s processes and track-record in regard to the effects and resource at issue (by using the Court’s powers to obtain independent advice); AND, where there is a question-mark over whether granting the application will potentially damage the resource’s ability to meet the needs of future generations, then decline it by citing the precautionary principle.


I think this sort of Environment Court process would begin to deliver the “cumulative effects” aspiration of the Resource Management Act. The duty to avoid cumulative effects, is actually down to the Environment Court.


The Fletcher/Winstone “cleanfill” application is a classic example.


In my opinion the ARC/Auckland Council has paid very little attention to the state of Auckland’s underground rivers. Its evidence and related reporting did not provide information about other sources of contaminants that either are affecting, or have the potential to affect the quality of that resource. (Including road runoff, stormwater systems, leaking sewer systems, leachate from contaminated soils – residential and commercial, saline intrusion). ARC contaminant monitoring information appeared limited. Contaminants listed in relevant schedules appear out of date. This regulatory environment is an open-door policy for further cumulative effects.


I hold that where there is the potential for cumulative effects, then it is the Environment Court’s duty to scrutinise the combined effects of the activity applied for and the regulatory environment. And then – if necessary – impose a moratorium on future new activities until the relevant regulatory environment has caught up with its duties.


What the F--- is happening in Fukushima? (3)

This blog is an attempt to provide explanation of radiation sources, levels and health risks associated with Fukushima.


Much of the media has continued with sensational and unhelpful reporting of “facts” without useful interpretation, and opinion that is not supported by facts. For example TV New Zealand News showed a picture of the sea off Fukushima on around the 24th of March as a leading news item with a huge caption emblazoned across the image which read: “Iodine 131 levels 127 times normal”.


TV News and NZ Herald also ran news stories about contamined spinach and milk from farms in the vicinity of Fukushima, and also about contaminated water supplies, again without useful contextual explanation which would give viewers a perspective whether those incidents represented a significant health risk.


I re-iterate, I vigorously oppose nuclear power for a variety of reasons. However, I strongly object to the hysterical tone of much of New Zealand’s reporting of events that are unfolding in Japan because of the earthquake on Fukushima.


So, this blog look at four topics:



  • what are the sources of radiation at Fukushima;

  • how does radiation get into the environment?

  • how does radiation reach people?

  • what are the levels of radiation that present health risks?

(For this blog I have drawn on my previous blogs and knowledge, plus World Nuclear News Regulation & Safety, Washington’s Blog, Badger Lake Observer Blog.)


Sources of radiation at Fukushima


The nuclear fuel in the reactors is uranium oxide (containing Uranium 235). Uranium oxide is a ceramic with a very high melting point of about 3000 °C. The fuel is manufactured in pellets (think little cylinders the size of Lego bricks). Those pieces are then put into a long tube made of Zircaloy with a melting point of 2200 °C, and sealed tight. The assembly is called a fuel rod. These fuel rods are then put together to form larger packages, and a number of these packages are then put into the reactor. All these packages together are referred to as “the core”. (See Fukushima 2 Blog for pictures of fuel rods.)


The Zircaloy casing is the first containment. It separates the radioactive fuel from the rest of the world.


The core is then placed in the “pressure vessel”. This is like a pressure cooker. The pressure vessel is the second containment. This is one sturdy piece of a pot, designed to safely contain the core for temperatures up to several hundred °C. It is where superheated hot water is pumped, gets heated by the nuclear reaction that happens in there, and is forced out through pipes to turn the turbines and make electricity.


The entire “hardware” of the nuclear reactor – the pressure vessel and all pipes, pumps, coolant (water) reserves, are then encased in the third containment. The third containment is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick bubble of the strongest steel. The third containment is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown.


This third containment is then surrounded by the reactor building itself. The reactor building is that square outer shell you see in the news photos that is supposed to keep the weather out. (This is the part that was damaged in the explosions that happened soon after the tsunami).


So, looking at sources of radiation. The first “type” of radioactive material is the Uranium in the fuel rods, plus the intermediate radioactive elements that the Uranium splits into, also inside the fuel rod, during the nuclear reaction. These elements are mainly Caesium and Iodine.


Once formed Iodine 131 very quickly breaks down into natural Iodine. The time it takes to do this is termed “half-life”. For Iodine 131 it is 8 days. That means if you make a gram of Iodine 131, then 8 days later you only have ½ a gram of Iodine 131, and ½ a gram of natural Iodine. And so on. Iodine 131 decays very quickly. What this means is that Iodine is very radioactive (because it decays fast), but it also means it reverts to its natural form very quickly. Caesium 137 has a half life of about 30 years. This means it is much less radioactive, but it stays around for much longer.


This nuclear reaction is the heart of the science of a nuclear reactor. It is called fission. Uranium atoms split into smaller atoms, giving off heat energy, radiation and neutrons. These neutrons hit other Uranium atoms that are nearby, causing them to split, release energy, and so on. A chain reaction occurs. Just like Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, but in a nuclear reactor the speed of the reaction is controlled so it doesn’t turn into a nuclear bomb. But it does need to be carefully controlled, and cooled.


There is a second type of radioactive material created, outside the fuel rods. Those radioactive elements are Nitrogen-16, which is a radioactive isotope (or version) of natural Nitrogen. The others are gases such as Xenon. But where do they come from? When the uranium splits inside the fuel rod, it generates a neutron (see above). Most of these neutrons will hit other Uranium atoms and keep the nuclear chain reaction going. But some will leave the fuel rod and hit the water molecules (that are circulating as steam carrying the heat away), or the air that is dissolved in the water. Then, a non-radioactive element can “capture” the neutron. And it becomes radioactive. These radioactive materials have a very short half-life, that means that they decay very fast and split into non-radioactive materials. By fast I mean seconds. So if these radioactive materials are released into the environment, radioactivity is released, but within seconds these materials will be harmless, because they will have split into non radioactive elements.


It appears that Reactor 3 at Fukushima is powered differntly from the others. Instead of Uranium it uses Plutonium. Like Uranium, this is a very heavy metal. I understand from media reports that traces of Plutonium have been detected in soils on the site of the Power plant.


How does radiation get into the environment?


Straight after the earthquake the Fukushima power plant operators needed to manage each reactor core while it was heating up, and ensure that the first containment (the Zircaloy tubes that contains the nuclear fuel), as well as the second containment (our pressure cooker) remained intact and operational for as long as possible, to give the engineers time to fix the cooling systems.


Because cooling the core is such a big deal, the reactor has a number of cooling systems, each in multiple versions (the reactor water cleanup system, the decay heat removal, the reactor core isolating cooling, the standby liquid cooling system, and the emergency core cooling system). Clearly one or all of these failed for a time.


So imagine our pressure cooker on the stove, heat on low, but on. The operators use whatever cooling system capacity they have to get rid of as much heat as possible, but the pressure starts building up. The priority now is to maintain integrity of the first containment (keep temperature of the fuel rods below 2200°C), as well as the second containment, the pressure cooker. In order to maintain integrity of the pressure cooker (the second containment), the pressure has to be released from time to time. Because the ability to do that in an emergency is so important, the reactor has several pressure release valves. The operators now started venting steam from time to time to control the pressure. The temperature at this stage was probably about 550°C.


This is when the reports about “radiation leakage” starting coming in. The explanation above suggests that venting the steam is theoretically the same as releasing radiation into the environment. Because some radioactive substances were expelled with the steam. But radioactive Nitrogen aloms as well as atoms of gases like Xenon that could be expelled with the vented steam very quickly lose their radioactivity and revert to being ‘natural’ atoms.


So the pressure was brought under control, as steam was vented. But, if you keep boiling your pot, the problem is that the water level will keep falling and falling. The core is covered by several meters of water in order to allow for some time to pass (hours, days) before it gets exposed. Once the rods start to be exposed at the top, the exposed parts could reach the critical temperature of 2200 °C - after about 45 minutes it appears. This is when the first containment, the Zircaloy tube, would fail because it would melt.


And this started to happen it seems. The cooling could not be restored before there was some damage to the casing of some of the fuel rods. The nuclear material itself (the fuel pellets) were still intact, but the surrounding Zircaloy shell started melting on some fuel rods.


What seems to have happened then is that some of the byproducts of the uranium decay – radioactive Caesium and Iodine – started to mix with the steam (because some Zircaloy casings had melted). The uranium was still under control, because the Uranium oxide rods were good until 3000 °C. But reports confirm that small amounts of radioactive Caesium and Iodine were measured in the steam that was released into the atmosphere.


So. Some radiation was released when pressure vessels were vented. All radioactive isotopes from the activated steam will have disappeared (decayed) quickly, but would have been measured escaping.


Small amounts of radioactive Caesium must have been released, as well as Iodine. Some of this went into the air carried by steam.


Some of radioactive Caesium and Iodine isotopes were carried out to the sea when sea water was used for cooling. I understand no Uranium will have been released because the Uranium oxide does not “dissolve” in the water.


Because the control rods that slow/speed the nuclear reaction were fully inserted into the cores automatically when the earthquake occurred, the Uranium chain reaction was stopped. That means the “main” nuclear reaction is not happening, thus no new Iodine 131 or Caesium 137 is being produced. However there is a considerable amount of this material in the “spent” fuel rods that have been stored at Fukushima for years. It is unlikely that these would get hot enough to melt the zircaloy containment and release Caesium/Iodine, but if they were washed out of their cooling tanks (by water dumped from helicopters for example), some may have been broken.


It is unclear how Plutonium got into soil, but this power station has been there for 40 years, so it would be unsurprising to find traces of radioactive materials in the soils around the plant. Fuel rods need to be moved around etc...


How does radiation reach people?


It is obvious from the above how Iodine 131 would get into seawater off Fukushima. What is important to note however that Iodine 131 does not occur in nature. So, when TVNZ reported that there was “127 x normal levels in the seawater”, this information, by itself, is not helpful. This is because you would not expect to find ANY Iodine 131 in seawater normally.


One factor in the rise in detections of radioactivity in Tokyo may be recent rainfall, which would have brought airborne radiation by-products to ground and washed them into reservoirs. These would be small amounts of Iodine 131 and Caesium 137. It is unclear yet what amounts have escaped in this way. Iodine 131 is most dangerous near an accident (eg Chernobyl, because people were evacuated after large amounts of Iodine 131 had escaped), but decays quickly over time. Caesium 137 lasts much longer.


There is an exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plant for people, but the land is currently heavily used for agriculture – for growing vegetables and milk produced from dairy farming. A range of vegetables are now controlled in Japan due to the possibility of elevated levels of iodine-131. "At the moment these vegetables are not harmful to people's health," said chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano. However, the current situation could continue for a time, he said, and that was the reasoning behind a warning not to distribute or consume some goods from Fukushima prefecture. Again, it is important to note that Iodine 131 decays very rapidly.


Prime minister Naoto Kan has asked the governor of Fukushima prefecture to restrict distribution and consumption of any leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, cabbage) or any flowerhead brassicas (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower) for the time being. In Ibaraki prefecture the governor has been asked to restrict distribution of milk and parsley.


Edano said that if someone were to eat the vegetables for ten days then they would be exposed to about half of one year's background radiation. This was no risk to future health, he said….


Regarding Plutonium - this is highly unlikely to have moved from the oil at the site. This is because Plutonium is extremely dense and relatively inert.


This brings us to…..


What Radiation Levels present health risks?


This is a very contentious subject because it can come down to luck (statistical probability) whether a particular cancer may have been triggered by a very low level of radiation in the wrong part of the body at the wrong time. Some will say there is no safe level of radiation, and that any increase in radiation – however small – brings with it an increased risk of adverse health effects.


The US EPA provides this information about health effects, which you see vary depending on the intensity of the dose a person receives:

Short-term, high-level exposure is referred to as 'acute' exposure. Unlike cancer, health effects from 'acute' exposure to radiation usually appear quickly. Acute health effects include burns and radiation sickness. Radiation sickness is also called 'radiation poisoning.' It can cause premature aging or even death. If the dose is fatal, death usually occurs within two months. The symptoms of radiation sickness include: nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns or diminished organ function. (Medical patients receiving radiation treatments often experience acute effects, because they are receiving relatively high "bursts" of radiation during treatment.)

Different health effects are associated with long-term, low-level (chronic) exposure to radiation. Increased levels of exposure make these health effects more likely to occur, but do not influence the type or severity of the effect.... Cancer is considered by most people the primary health effect from radiation exposure. Simply put, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. Ordinarily, natural processes control the rate at which cells grow and replace themselves. They also control the body's processes for repairing or replacing damaged tissue. Damage occurring at the cellular or molecular level, can disrupt the control processes, permitting the uncontrolled growth of cells--cancer. This is why ionizing radiation's ability to break chemical bonds in atoms and molecules makes it such a potent carcinogen.

All people receive “background radiation”. This is from a variety of sources: gamma rays from the sun; radiation from naturally occuring radioactive minerals in the ground; radiation from TV and computer screens; X-rays. The major proportion is from natural sources.


On average this amounts to 3.5 millisieverts / year.


So what the hell is a Sievert? There are different measures of radiation, because there are different types of radiation and different effects from each type. The Sievert measure is used commonly in newspapers and news reports because it is an agreed measure of the human health effects of the mixture of radiation types from a nuclear reactor accident like Fukushima.


According to Wikipaedia, the single dose of radiation that would lead to the death of 50% of people is 5000 millisieverts, or 5 Sieverts. That’s a single dose. Received in a short time. Like a minute. Would lead to the deaths of about 50% of people exposed to such a dose.


So this is why radiation health effects are tricky to compare and to measure and to predict.


It is not just the intensity of the radiation that causes health problems, it is the length of time that you are exposed to the radiation. That is why you read of the workers at Fukushima being exposed – apparently safely - to radiation leaks for 30 minutes. And then another team takes over.



Safe Level for Adult: 50 Millisieverts The current federal occupational limit of exposure per year for an adult (the limit for a worker using radiation) is "as low as reasonably achievable; however, not to exceed 50 millisieverts" above the 3+ millisieverts of natural sources of radiation and any medical radiation. Radiation workers wear badges made of photographic film which indicate the exposure to radiation. Readings typically are taken monthly. A federal advisory committee recommends that the lifetime exposure be limited to a person's age multiplied by 10 millisieverts (example: for a 65-year-old person, 650 millisieverts).


Safe level for Minor: 5 Millisieverts The maximum permissible exposure for a person under 18 working with radiation is one-tenth the adult limit or not to exceed 5 millisieverts per year above the 3+ millisieverts of natural sources, plus medical radiation. This was established in 1957 and reviewed as recently as 1990.


There have been reports about the workers at Fukushima: “The International Atomic Energy Agency said that 17 personnel have now received radiation doses of over 100 millisieverts. This level remains below an international standard of 500 millisieverts for emergencies, as well as a temporary limit of 250 millisieverts allowed by authorities in the current situation….” (Not sure how to reconcile these numbers with what the Feds were saying in their 1990n review above...)


You can see that if those 17 workers had received 100 millisieverts over a two week period – say – then that would be almost 30 times what they would have received in a year due to background radiation. On the other hand a dose of 100 millisieverts over a two week period would be about a millionth of a fatal dose.


Last few days: Tokyo Electric Power Company has been criticised over exposure to workers operating in ankle-deep water … it is thought that contractors ignored alarms from their dosimeters, while ankle-deep in contaminated water for about three hours. They received doses of 170-180 millisieverts and seem to have suffered shallow burns to their skin from beta radiation….


These workers received almost 200 millisieverts in just three hours. That’s about one three-thousandth of a fatal dose. According to the US Federal guidelines above, it is equivalent to 1/3 of a lifetime’s maximum “safe” dose. These guys should be given a permanent rest from any further work where there are elevated radiation levels.


“Parents in Tokyo have been recommended to avoid giving tap water to infants under one year of age, although no health effect would be expected. Restrictions on food have also been expanded….”


An infant could receive a radiation dose of about 10 microsieverts (that’s 1 hundredth of a millisievert) from drinking one litre of the tap water, meaning an infant would have to drink a litre per day for a year to receive a dose of between 1 and 10 millisieverts in that year from water (noting that “background” radiation is 3.5 millsieverts a year). It appears that the main worry in Japan at the moment is the spread of Iodine 131 in various places. The levels are low – and remember that the half-life is just 8 days - and the risk is reduced through ingestion of small amounts of natural Iodine.


However the spread of Caesium 137 is more of a concern because it lasts much longer in the environment, and can contaminate milk and generally enter the food chain and affect people through what they eat.


When radiation is released with gas, as it was at the Japanese reactors, the particles are carried by prevailing winds, and some will settle on the earth. Rain will knock more of the suspended particles to the ground. “There is an extremely complex interaction between the type of radionuclide and the weather and the type of vegetation,” Dr. Whicker said. “There can be hot spots far away from an accident, and places in between that are fine.”


Initially, some plants will collect more radiation than others: those with big leaves like lettuce, spinach and other greens will naturally collect more radiation than apples, oranges or potatoes, he said. Foods like rice and corn whose edible portion is protected by husks or leaves are relatively safe in this early stage.


Almost 15 years after the Chernobyl accident in what is now Ukraine, studies found that cesium 137 was still detectable in wild boar in Croatia and reindeer in Norway, with the levels high enough in some areas to pose a potential danger to people who consume a great deal of the meat.


Plutonium presents an extremely low health risk away from Fukushima because of its density, and low reactivity, meaning it is unlikely to leave the site. It would need to be absorbed by a person to cause health damage.


It is essential that authorities monitor food and water sources across Japan, checking and reporting Caesium 137 levels in particular. It is also essential that further releases into the air of steam from Fukushima (containing Caesium 137) are prevented. What is happening now is not good because radioactive materials that are dangerous to health are escaping into the environment. These has the potential to at the very least increase the level of background radiation across a very wide area - but this should not present a significant health risk. At worst there may be hot spots which - if not monitored and neutralised - could lead to increased cancers in the population affected.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What the F... is happening at Fukushima (2)

(NB: I have written two later blogs on Fukushima: Youtube-explanation-of-Fukushima and: Fukushima Health Risk Assessments....)

I just about wore myself out researching this blog on Fukushima....
So much to read. So many points of view.
I was so grumpy this morning (Thursday) about NZ media coverage of what was happening I wrote a letter to Granny Herald.

Dear Editor

I am not a big fan of nuclear power, but I believe your paper's coverage of what is happening in Fukushima Japan verges on the hysterical. My daughter is in Hokaido now (500 kms north of Fukushima) and she tells me that the New Zealand parents of her friends are in a state of panic, while life carries on as normal there. There are low levels of radiation in parts of the main island of Honshu, but these are not health threatening outside the evacuation zone. Fukushima reactor containment vessels are designed to contain total meltdown. Tokyo Electric has a crisis on its hands. But it does not present a health threat like Chernobyl. Not according to almost all international reporting. New Zealand might be nuclear-free, but it does not need to be nuclear-ignorant.


Dr Joel Cayford


As I re-read it I find myself saying: "famous last words."
I was surprised to get a letter back almost straight away...

Dear Joel


Thanks for your letter
But I'm mystified as to how you could take it that we have been 'verging on hysterical' -- we have been reporting solely from the Associated Press based out of Japan and have never , once, said this crisis would end up like Chernobyl. Saying that Fukushima is not a health threat like Chernobyl does not mean there is no health threat at all, however. There seems a concerted desire to actually downplay the direct effects on these Japanese people at risk, as if to say the rest of the world and rest of Japan is okay, so why worry? We have never said it is irradiating Hokkaido -- which is significantly north as you say and no surprise at all that life goes on as normal (like Wellington after the Christchurch quake, but that doesn't make reporting of the crisis in Christchurch irrelevant) -- or even lower Honshu outside the evacuation zone. No one thinks or even assumes that. But the evacuation zone is not small-- many many people are directly affected. Our headline saying 'Nuclear Panic' was entirely correct in the areas concerned and among some even in Tokyo. It did not suggest people on the northern island, or their parents, or those in southern Honshu or even Kyushu were panicking or ought to be. And I do dispute that 'almost all international reporting' limits the implications of this event to a power company having a crisis on its hands. I am reading very widely and there is no doubt that this is regarded a serious national and international nuclear incident.

Yours sincerely
Tim Murphy
Editor


So I've been looking further into it all..... Here's a few pics and images of interest...


Here's a rough map of Japan. The island of Hokaido to the North, and the main island of Honshu. The red blob is where Fukushima Power Plant is located.

This Google Aerial shows the landscape in the vicinity. The power station is in the middle of the image...

Here it is closer....

And here it is as we know it on TV. The oblong enclosure of water is the seawater intake for the 6 reactors. They are heavily reliant on seawater for cooling, and huge electric motors to run these pumps. This picture shows 4 of the reactors. The other two are just to the north...

Here's those four power stations. The tall square buildings each contain a nuclear reactor. My guess is that the steam turbines turned by the steam that comes from each of the reactors are in the low rectangular buildings nearer the coastline.

Here's a happy picture in the sun. After the earthquake and Tsunami You've seen plenty of pictures of the buildings with tops off and steam/smoke coming out....


So now there's an exclusion zone set by Japan's Govt. I understand today - causing some consternation - the US declared its own evacuation zone at about twice the size of the Japan zone.

BTW, I found these three local Japan news services extremely useful:


http://www.newsonjapan.com/


http://www.japantoday.com/


http://english.kyodonews.jp/




This image helps explain a little more of the site layout. A significant issue that has arisen in the Tsunami accident is what happened to the old fuel rods. These are withdrawn from nuclear reactors when they have given off most of their nuclear energy. They are said to be "spent" fuel rods. My guess is that the "Shared pool" is where these "spent" reactor fuel rods are placed to cool while their radioactivity reduces further. But I wanted to find out more.

Cooler, or less radioactive fuel rods will then be taken to the "dry storage facility" because they need to be cooled. Who knows what happened to these facilities when the Tsunami swept through....

This graphic gives an account of what has been happening at each of the six reactors at the Fukushima Power Plant.

It appears to be dated in the last 24 hours or so....

BTW - this pro-nuclear power blog is very interesting. It contains considerable detail about what is happening at Fukushima:http://bravenewclimate.com/
These are specific blogs from that site which give lots of information:
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/14/japan-nuclear-updates/
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/14/fukushima-more-technical-info/
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/15/fukushima-15-march-summary/
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/16/fukushima-16-march-summary/


This image contains an analysis - not sure if it's right or not, but several sources confirm it - of the damage that occurred inside one of the reactor buildings.

The central vessel shown is the reactor pressure vessel. It is what gets extremely hot in normal operation causing the water to boil. (All of the 6 reactors at Fukushima are of the Boiling Water Reactor type.) The water boils, turns to steam, and this turns the turbines that generate electricity.

The reactor pressure vessel is positioned inside the reactor containment vessel. A detailed description of a Reactor Containment Vessel is in my earlier blog about this issue. It appears that what is damaged in this reactor is that outer ring which is designed to absorb pressure from very rapid changes inside the containment vessel of that reactor.

From what I understand, the containment vessels for all of the reactors are intact. Problems have arisen because the whole facility lost electricity, and so the cooling pumps could not be operated. (This was after back up batteries ran out, and it appears that diesel backup generators were damaged by the Tsunami/earthquake.)

The problem now is cooling. Hence the helicopters dropping water and fire engines hosing things down. I understand authorities are racing to sling a temporary power line to the electricity grid in the centre of Honshu. But wait - there's more....


This is a more complete and to scale graphic of a Boiling Water Reactor - such as you would find inside each of those square reactor buildings at Fukushima.

What is interesting about this picture is that it shows where the spent fuel rods are stored, immediately after they've been withdrawn from the reactor vessel.

These pools are right at the top of the building, and would be visible or exposed, if the roof blew off. I think that explains what the helicopters are doing. If it is believed that these spent fuel pools are emptying of water - through the heat still given off by these partially spent fuel rods - then they will want to add more cooling water.

It's a very different problem than if the reactor vessel blew, or containment vessel blew. This is not a Chernobyl, but it is still very dangerous. In a different way.


This is a photo of a spent fuel rod pool. It is used to store spent fuel rods as they lose nuclear energy, and heat. The water serves to keep the rods cool.

So what does a reactor fuel rod look like?


Not sure if you could really hold the pellets in your hand, especially fresh pellets. Perhaps its a lead-lined glove. The pellets slide into the metal rods, and these rods go into casings that fit inside the reactor vessel.



The actual fuel is Uranium Oxide. It is "enriched" Uranium. It contains a high proportion of Uranium 235 - which is very radioactive. (Uranium 238 occurs naturally and while it is radioactive, it decays very slowly). Uranium 235 decays quickly - releasing heat energy - especially when fuel rods are placed near each other, increasing the chain reaction known as "fission".

Nuclear fission is the name given to the process of radioactive decay in a reactor. The Uranium 235 nuclei splits into smaller atoms and gives off energy.



Fuel rod assemblies are placed inside the reactor vessel. You get the picture. They get hot. Water and steam is forced around them, and that steam is piped out of the reactor vessel, to turn turbines...

So what happens to the Uranium 235 when it splits? The nucleus splits into two parts typically - each about half the weight of a Uranium 235 nucleus. Often the split is into Iodine, Caesium or Strontium - elements which occur naturally. But these fission nuclei have different numbers of neutrons to natural Iodine, Caesium, and Strontium making these fission by-products radioactive themselves.

And dangerous to human health. The most common nuclear fission by-products are I 131, Cs 137, Sr 90. (The number gives the total number of protons & neutrons in the nucleus - you'll by a qualified nuclear scientist after reading this!)

These by-products, which are what the U-235 fuel pellets contain after being "used", are the "waste" from a nuclear power station and are a major concern of those opposed to nuclear power stations (like me). They stay radioactive and are dangerous to human health for centuries. That is why they need to be stored, buried etc. The big risk is if the fuel rods get burned or otherwise damaged so these nuclear by-products get released into the environment - as dust, smoke particles etc. Otherwise they will be handled as spent fuel rods have been for the past 50 years. Bloody dangerous, but not human health threatening if managed appropriately.

That is why the workers at Fukushima are concentrating on ensuring there are no fires where there are spent fuel rods. I need to work more on this - but my intuition is that spent fuel rods (even without being in water) - will not melt under their own radiation. This is another major difference from Chernobyl.

(And just a little end note here: what's the talk of Iodine tablets? Well - the human body absorbs natural Iodine in the thyroid gland. If a person breathes air that has radioactive iodine in it, the body can't distinguish between natural iodine and radioactive iodine. It absorbs the iodine - if it's short of it - and concentrates it in the thyroid. This concentration of radioactive iodine can lead to living cell damage. But if you "eat" natural iodine, the body will not absorb any radioactive iodine. That's the theory.

Strontium 90 gets into milk - because it acts like Calcium.)



This graphic shows the whole thing. Reactor. Water heated. Piped. To the turbine building. Turns the turbines. Makes electricity. You can also appreciate that the water used the make steam serves a major role in keeping the reactor vessel at an operating temperature. Not too hot. And of course the generator makes the electricity that the whole plant needs for its cooling pumps, and to keep water circulating through the spent rod cooling/holding tanks.

The Evidence For/Against Three Kings Quarry "Cleanfill"

Today's Thursday 17th March. If all goes according to plan legal counsel for Fletchers Infrastructure/Winstone Aggregates will complete the two week Environment Court hearing of its application to use Three Kings Quarry as a cleanfill/managed fill, by delivering the right of reply. I will report later on further developments.

But for now, I thought I would provide you with copies of evidence that has been provided to the Environment Court by various experts and parties to the hearing. Links to selected evidence files are later on below in this blog.

In a hearing of this size, complexity and challenge - there is vast amounts of paper, and it is beyond my resources to make all of it available here. Or even a small proportion of it. Every affidavit is rebutted by those who disagree with it for example. All of this material is available to the Court. The Judge and Commissioners indicate they have either read it all, or they have heard it. And of course witnesses have been cross-examined in Court.

My main interest in this matter has been its potential effect on Auckland's Underground water resources and aquifers. There are other issues of significance including traffic effects, dust effects and so on. However I have concentrated on groundwater effects. So, here's some written evidence that is primarily around that issue. There are many documents other than these....

For Fletchers Infrastructure/Winstone Aggregates

Bernie Chote (General Manager)
Mr Burden (Geo Chemist, expert in environmental effects of landfills)
Mr Harding (Hydrogeologist and computer modeller of groundwater effects)

For Envirowaste Services

Mr Parker (Engineer, expert on Australian landfill policy and management)
Mr Mitchell (Engineer and Planner, expert in environmental effects and RMA)
Mr Northcott (Chemist, NIWA experience, expert in organochlorines in environment)

For Auckland Council

Mr Stapleton (GeoEnvironmental Engineer, expert in soil and landfill processes)

Local Submissions for South Epsom Planning Group

Pip Mules (Local resident)
Garry Law (Engineer and Manager Water systems, expert in water resource management)
Mr Triggs (Professor of Statistics at Auckland University)

Watercare Services Ltd

Mr Widdowson (GeoScientist at BECAs, expert in groundwater monitoring & risk assessment)

These are my selection. They are indicative. Happy reading.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What the F... is Happening at Fukushima?

As a retired physicist (long time ago), but with a PhD in Computational Atomic Physics, and a daughter living in Sapporo (400kms north of the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant), I run this blog to help explain a few things....
BBC News this morning:

The crisis at the Fukushima plant - which contains six nuclear reactors - has mounted since Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake knocked out the cooling systems.

Explosions rocked the buildings housing reactors one and three on Saturday and Monday.

On Tuesday morning a third blast hit reactor two's building.

A fire also broke out at a spent fuel storage pond at the power plant's reactor four. Reactor four had been shut down before the quake for maintenance, but its spent nuclear fuel rods were still stored on the site. Officials said the explosions were caused by a buildup of hydrogen.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said they were closely watching the remaining two reactors at the plant, five and six, as they had begun overheating slightly.

He said cooling seawater was being pumped into reactors one and three - which were returning to normal - and into reactor two, which remained nstable.

So what's a containment vessel anyway? Well, I explored Patents on line (All the inventions of mankind).
There is a patent there 3,258,403.
The brief for the patent goes like this:
A nuclear containment vessel houses an inner reactor housing structure whose outer wall is closely spaced from the inner wall of the containment vessel..... The inner reactor housing structure is divided by an intermediate floor providing an upper chamber for housing the reactor and associated steam generators and a lower chamber directly therebeneath containing a pressure suppression pool.... The inner reactor housing structure is preferably constructed of reinforced concrete and the intermediate floor and the outer wall thereof surrounding the lower chamber are preferably faced with a continuous steel lining so as to be substantially gas-tight....

The associated six page document then goes on to describe the design, function and structure of this invention. I have extracted helpful bits here...



These text extracts and the diagram below are from the reactor container vessel patent documents.

This explanation gives a sense of why the invention was needed. But it also conveys the matter-of-fact approach of the US nuclear reactor designer.

It also introduces the economics of design and location. It doesn't speak of the usefulness of co-locating six of these in one place, but you can imagine the economies of scale and savings....



Here we are introduced to the patent number and to the inventor, part of Westinghouse Electric.

In fact the reactors for Units 1, 2, and 6 at Fukushima were supplied by General Electric, those for Units 3 and 5 by Toshiba, and Unit 4 by Hitachi. All six reactors were designed by General Electric. Containment vessels are not all the same - but they deal with the same challenges.

Westinghouse and General Electric have competed for years to supply nuclear reactors around the world.

Now for a diagram:





Before we explain the diagram, note that one of these containment structures is inside each of the large square box like buildings you have seen on TV at the Fukushima facility.

This one is designed to be 170 feet high, with an inside diameter of 150 feet. For you metric types the containment structure is more than 50 metres high. The inner container (10 in the diagram) is made from 3/8 inch stainless steel - ie steel plate 1 cm thick.


The actual reactor vessel - where the nuclear reaction takes place and where the heat is generated is in that bottle like structure (20) in the diagram. Quite small compared with the containment structure. Which itself is inside a building.

The reactor vessel is where the radioactive rods are placed, along with control rods which moderate the speed of the nuclear reaction. The vessel is very hot and heats - in this case - water to steam, which is piped outside the containment vessel and is used to turn the turbines to generate electricity.


Continuing with this particular invention, we have seen that the inner container (a cylinder about 50 metres high and 40 metres diameter) is made of 1 cm thick stainless steel.

Then outside this are several other layers. If you look back at the diagram, you will see that the outer layer (36) is reinforced concrete, 6 feet thick (2 metres thick).

My recollection of Chernobyl is that there was no outer concrete container.


You can see in this invention claim, that essentially what this inventor's container was intended to achieve is reduced pressure in the space between steel container 10, and the next container (which I think is 22). And the whole operation critically depends upon pumps and compressors of enormous power, and which require vast amounts of electricity.

Just think what was happening in the control room at Fukushima. You could not make this up. Magnitude 8.9 earthquake.

There may have been automatic shut down plans for all 6 reactors in this event. Which may have got started. Perhaps some control rods were being withdrawn. But there may not have been any time.

A few minutes later a 10 metre Tsunami hits the facility broadside on.

All 6 reactors are located together right on the coast, close to sea water for coolant. Everything outside the reactor buildings is washed away. It appears that backup power supplies were damaged. Employees inside have no idea what has happened to their families. Their job now is to manage an event which only time will tell was foreseen and planned for.

And just in case you were wondering - I am not a supporter of nuclear power. When I went to university I thought it was fantastic. The mass of a sausage to take the Queen Mary round the world. Fantastic. It wasn't until I spent time in London that I took off those rose-tinted spectacles. But that's for another blog.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How can a Blogger avoid Contempt of Court?

So there I was in the Environment Court this morning. Tuesday 15th March. And the Court was halfway through cross-examination of Mr Dolan who is an Envirowaste Services Ltd (ESL) expert witness. The day started with no house-keeping matters. Straight into cross examination of Dolan by Matheson – who is Fletcher’s/Winstone Aggregates legal counsel.

I took heaps of notes because the questions and answers were really interesting. But because I had missed some of the day before, I hadn’t totally caught up with the fact that the court room seemed rather empty. Nor why.

Then it dawned. The other ESL expert witnesses had been ordered from the Court by Judge Smith. They were not allowed to hear the questions being asked of the witnesses, nor their answers. And they were ordered not to talk among themselves at other times.

“What if they read my blog?” - I thought. Quite a few do, there’s a lot pf public interest, and I have set up a FaceBook page....

"What if I report the questions and answers – because I think it is in the public interest?"

"There has been no guidance from the Judge. I am a sort of informal reporter...."

There has been no ruling that media be excluded from the Court.

So here's a taste. WA’s lawyer cross examined Dolan:
Q: Who instructed you?
A: It was verbal. Mr Lobb.
Q: Not in writing?
A: No.
Q: What did he say to you, and when?…
Judge Smith got interested then:
Q: How did you report to Mr Lobb?
A: …
Q: You said you would look in your files.
A: I drafted a submission for Mr Lobb.
Q: Did you sign it?
A: No. Someone else signed it….
Judge Smith wanted to know why specific emails were not to hand, and persisted:

Q: You were asked – I know I didn’t order you – you said you would – I didn’t think I had to - to bring all ESL files with you today. What have you brought and not brought?
A: Sorry your honour...
And later, after Dolan spoke of mediation meetings with Watercare and with South Epsom Planning Group, Judge Smith asked:

Q: …..were you aware that were statutorily barred from getting involved with a Third Party…?
At this point Kirkpatrick, legal counsel for ESL stood up and submitted: “there is no basis for that question…”.

Judge Smith then reminded Dolan, “you are Person ‘A’. Person ‘A’ must not talk with Person ‘C’. (BTW – you can see a little more about this part of the RMA – s.308 - in a recent blog below.)

Kirkpatrick again got to his feet and submitted, “....this does not stop communications between parties…”

I will stop there. Just wanted to give you a flavour.
Who says the Environment Court's not adversarial?

"Why is Envirowaste Here?"

This question was posed by Judge Smith several times on Monday. He asked David Kirkpatrick – legal counsel for Envirowaste Services Ltd – “I want to know why you are here….”

He went on, “these are dangerous waters for a trade competitor….”

First, a little legislative background. The Resource Management Act was changed a year and a half ago by an unusual provision of the Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Amendment Act 2009. This provision was put in to deal with what has been known as “SuperMarket Wars”. Parliament did not want the RMA (or the Environment Court) to be the place where trade competition wars were fought.

The bits of the new RMA that are of interest go like this:


308A Identification of trade competitors and surrogates
In this Part,—
(a) person A means a person who is a trade competitor of person B:
(b) person B means the person of whom person A is a trade competitor:
(c) person C means a person who has knowingly received, is knowingly receiving, or may knowingly receive direct or indirect help from person A to bring an appeal or be a party to an appeal against a decision under this Act in favour of person B.

So. You get the picture. In this situation, we might say that Person B is Fletchers/Winstone Aggregates, Person A might be Envirowaste Services Ltd (ESL), and Person C might be anyone else who might appeal or be a s.274 party to the appeal (like Watercare). The law goes on….


308 B Limit on making submissions
(1) Subsection (2) applies when person A wants to make a submission under section 96 about an application by person B.
(2) Person A may make the submission only if directly affected by an effect of the activity to which the application relates, that—
(a) adversely affects the environment; and
(b) does not relate to trade competition or the effects of trade competition.
(3) Failure to comply with the limits on submissions set in section 149E or 149O or clause 6(4) or 29(1B) of Schedule 1 is a contravention of this Part.

This is where it gets interesting and intriguing. And this is what Judge Smith was concerned about, as David Kirkpatrick swung into action for ESL. What makes this intriguing is that there are three related applications at issue for the Environment Court – two were applied for before August 2009, and the application to discharge contaminants to water was made after August 2009 (ie after s.308 came into force), and was referred directly to the Environment Court.

So ESL cannot fall foul of this new law in regard to part of the hearing, but it could, potentially, in regard to the part that deals with discharges to water. The rest of the RMA law relating to s.308 (Act not to be used to oppose trade competitors), is fairly draconian. Costs can be sought in the High Court if the Environment Court declares Person A contravened the Act, and matters can be brought to court up to 6 years after the alleged contravention. All a bit of worry for an organisation like ESL, or anyone else caught by these provisions for that matter.

In its legal submissions ESL said this on Monday morning:


7.1 ESL is a large national waste management company. Serving the Auckland region it operates the Hampton Downs Sanitary landfill and the Greenmount Closed landfill at which it is soon to complete final cover works through the placement of fill. ESL acknowledges (and has done so from the start), that as a consequence of these particular commercial activities it is a trade competitor of WA, who operates the cleanfill and fill operations at Wiri North and Puketutu Island (former quarries)….

7.3 ….ESL denies that its participation in these proceedings raises issues of trade competition…. ESL is concerned trhat consents for “cleanfill” should not be granted where what is to occur is not a cleanfill…

7.6 ….ESL is concerned: to ensure the integrity of the regional planning framework for the management of landfills, and in particular cleanfills. In doing so, it simply wishes to maintain the level of the “playing field” being used by solid waste disposers in the Auckland region….

7.7 ….if, due to locational advantages or technical superiority, a more profitable landfill can be set up, then that is the market at work. But, this has to be on the proviso that they can also maintain the accepted level of environmental protection for such activities….

I will stop this blog about here – so it is manageable. But before I do so, I will record other related events that occurred at the hearing.

As Mr Kirkpatrick came to the end of his opening submissions for ESL, Judge Smith intervened. He appeared concerned that ESL’s expert witnesses might not be independent. Kirkpatrick noted that that issue or concern could be levelled at almost any expert witness in an Environment Court hearing. (I note here that someone pays the bills of all expert witnesses, and there is always the cynical view, but understandeable view, that he who pays the bill calls the tune…).

Judge Smith agreed with Kirkpatrick's comment saying, “yes, and it’s an issue the Court is not happy with…”

Judge Smith continued that he believed it appropriate to exclude ESL’s witnesses from the court, so they could not hear what was being said, or what questions were asked of other ESL expert witnesses cross examined before it was their turn.

Judge Smith also ruled that ESL witnesses should not discuss the matter with each other outside Court.

This was a dramatic day.

Judicial Report on Three Kings Site Visit

On Friday 11th March Judge Smith and his two Commissioners (Gollop and Howie) went on a site visit. So the hearing on Friday was cut short. Judge Smith gave a comprehensive verbal report about the site visit to the Environment Court on Monday morning, 14th March. I took notes and summarise the report here:

They started at Meola Reef, and were shown Meola Creek (he noted there were signs of sewage ingress there). Thye were advised that Meola Creek is is fed from underground gulleys and rivers, some of which start up round Three Kings. He observed that the catchment for those underground waters is many and varied – St Lukes, Sandringham Road, homes, businesses (some of which will have long gone). They were shown Bore Hole 7 – which is some 500 metres from the bottom of the Three Kings Quarry – and he noted they had been shown Bore Hole 6 which was accessible and which appeared to be much closer to the quarry itself.

Judge Smith expressed concern over their findings that at or close to Big King Reserve appeared to be contaminants stored on site by Auckland Council, at a small excavated area. (Discussion later revealed that this was leased land used previously by Parks Staff of Auckland City Council. Judge Smith was concerned to have noted what appeared to be leachates at that site, and that the floor of scoria would be permeable.

The site visit was shown the de-watering bore. The Judge noted that this was at RL –5. He asserted that he did not accept there was low permeability in the scoria around this bore. He expressed interest in the adjacent water treatment plant which appears to be unused. In his opinion it could be used to clean up the water, before returning it to the aquifer….

He noted that there were several quarry faces – some basalt, some scoria. He also noted that the Three Kings Quarry appears to have a dust supression systme in place – he noted the presence of sprinkler. He reported that he and commissioners did visit some local properties. Saw some dust.

They also went to Puketutu where they observed typical fill loads being received and processed. They saw an XRF test (this is a form of XRay and subsequent fluoresence test for various contaminants), the Judge noted that up to 30 truck loads appeared to be dumped on a skid pad. These were then mixed by the operator who scooped the results onto various parts of the landfill face. They noted the waste was mixed – concrete, asphalt, clay, soil. He noted that Puketutu was different from Three Kings – in that it is being rehabilitated for “rural pastoral purposes”.


That seemed a fairly comprehensive visit. Gives a flavour of where Judge Smith is coming from. Interesting that he takes it upon himself to advocate using a water treatment plant he finds along the way - to treat water from de-watering. And recharge the aquifer.

What Have They Done to the RMA?

I guess you could say there was quite a lot of idealism around when the Resource Management Act was enacted way back in 1991. It was the unlikely fruit of an unholy alliance between New Right thinking (about economic efficiency and devolved decision-making) and Environmental thinking (about saving the planet and encouraging local decision-making). You can see this reflected in the words used in the Act....


This is Clause 5, the highly debated and argued Purpose of the RMA. The enabling red bit came from the New Right, and the planet saving green bit came from the Environmentalists. Linked by the word "while".

But how much planet saving is really going on with the RMA? I've put the "green" words in a smaller font. Because I don't think the two ideas are given equal weight at all in the RMA. I think we all can see what cumulative damage is being done to rivers, soil and ecosystems through consents obtained through RMA processes.

So how should that purpose of the RMA really be visualised? If we were being honest about the RMA. I think it is much more like this....




I think this is Clause 5, as she is enacted in the street today.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fear for the Future of Auckland’s Commons

If Fletcher Construction Ltd were operating in Europe it would not be permitted to run the “managed fill” they propose for Three Kings Quarry in Auckland. This is due to the European Landfill Directive:

The Landfill Directive (99/31/EC) seeks to prevent or reduce the negative effects of landfill waste on the environment, including groundwater. Like the IPPC Directive the directive establishes provisions for issuing permits based on a range of conditions including impact assessment studies. For each site the groundwater, geological, and hydrogeological conditions in the area must be identified. The sites must be designed so as to prevent groundwater from entering landfill waste, collect and treat contaminated water and leachate, and prevent the pollution of soils, groundwater or surface water by using the appropriate technical precautions such as geological barriers and bottom liners. The directive establishes criteria for waste testing and acceptance taking into consideration the protection of the surrounding environment, including groundwater.

Looking further into this directive, I find no provision for “cleanfill” but there is provision for “inert waste”, see this scan.



Also the Directive has very strong guidance for those planning to establish a landfill of any kind. “…the location of a landfill must take into consideration requirements relating to…the existence of groundwater… the geological and hydrogeological conditions in the area…." And goes on to stipulate: “…the landfill can only be authorised if the characteristics of the site with respect to the above mentioned (location) requirements, or the corrective measures to be taken, indicate that the landfill does not pose a serious environmental risk…”

The Directive goes on to stipulate requirements for liners to prevent leachate from percolating into groundwaters and so on and these only do not apply if: “…the landfill poses no potential hazard to the environment…”

Not de minimus, not less than adverse, not minor – no potential hazard.

Here in NZ we were blessed with the Resource Management Act. In 1991 environmentalists thought it was great. So did its New Right supporters. But over time it has been shown to be ineffective when it comes to cumulative pollution. That is pollution from non-point sources.

We see this problem manifest in New Zealand at its most intense in the dairy industry. But somehow all concerned sit like the proverbial frog in heating water. All the evidence points to this problem growing. The sources of this pollution of rivers is in the ground now, from dairy effluent, and it will flow steadily into the rivers and lakes for decades – even if diary farming stopped. We know this. But still it goes on. And it appears to be impossible for Councils to stop themselves granting farmers even more permits.

New Zealand is a very young country. We have a large and extended commons. National Parkland, beaches, oceans, rivers, mountains, rivers, and aquifers. A degree of exploitation has been permitted and the consequences are becoming more or less visible to us all. But there are no national standards (like the EC Directive on landfills), there are no standards for water allocation and use (though there is now some work happening on this front – but it’s little and it’s late), there are no bottom lines (so organisations like Fletcher Construction can think of running a “managed fill” which permits them to pollute), and there is no long term view. Even the much vaunted EPA Environmental Protection Agency looks like a joke.

The preoccupation with red-tape cutting and short cutting to get consent – all in the interests of short term economic activity – will have dramatic long term consequences. We cannot continue to shit in our own nest and leave it to the next generation. That is not a legacy to be proud of.

New Zealand is no longer 100% pure, and hasn’t been for a long time. The way we are going now with our environment – and with our aquifers and groundwaters – is the same as the path we took with our rivers. When will we learn?

Fletcher’s/Winstone Aggregates History of Denial

The thing about Environment Court hearings is there’s lots of time to chat. You gather before a hearing day, morning tea, lunchtime. And you get the gossip. It has been an opportunity for me hear Dick Bellamy’s side of the Three Kings Quarry story – which goes back a long way. Over thirty years.

The first story he told me about was dust. When the quarry was fairly shallow, he says he could regularly see from his house a D9 bulldozer sitting on top of a pile of scoria. Not sure what it was doing there. And then scoria would be tipped into a stone crusher and plumes of scoria dust would blow into the air, and with a reasonable wind, it would blow over houses in the neighbourhood. So that was a big issue for the locals. Dr Bellamy tried to do something about it. Winstone’s denied that the dust coating the good painted weatherboard homes of Mt Eden was from its operation.

So Dr bellamy carefull took samples of the dust from the houses, and – presumably late at night – scampered down to the quarry and scraped some scoria dust off the stone crusher – and took the samples into his mates at Auckland University. They tested both samples and confirmed they were from the same source.

And when confronted with this evidence, Winstone’s claimed that because the roads on the vicinity had been re-surfaced (good old chip seal I guess) with scoria from its quarry (it claimed), then the motorists using the roads had caused the dust.

Man oh man.

Then, Dr Bellamy explained, came the de-watering. Residents had hoped that when the quarry got down to the water table, quarrying would stop. But Winstone’s applied to de-water the quarry so it could dig deeper. It wanted to dig down much further and get out more scoria. By now residents had succeeded in preventing Winstones from mining basalt – very hard and tough – needed explosives, caused vibration and ground shaking. Dr Bellamy was among the residents who took Winstone’s to task over this. They were concerned about the effects of subsidence. When land is de-watered, certain geologies will shrink, causing subsidence. He explained to me this was because there are old river valleys underneath Auckland’s recent volcanic rocks. These are sedimentary and prone to shrink when de-watered. However it appears that Winstone’s again denied such things would happen. Would never happen.

But there has been subsidence Dr Bellamy confirmed. Not a lot, but it has occurred, in contradiction to Winstone’s firm view. Presumably supported by it experts.

So now we have another denial. This denial is that the contaminants from permitted contaminated fill, will not get into the groundwaters, and will not get into Auckland’s aquifers.

Man oh man.

Thinking about Air Composition

As someone with a background in physics, I tend to look at what's happening around me from first principles. Or basic principles.

Today there is a lot of discussion about climate change. Thinking about the conservation of matter - ie that basically the earth contains the same materials now as it did billions of years ago - I have often wondered how the earth's atmosphere has changed over millenia. I was curious because there are lots of references to the "primeval soup" that was around when the earth "started". So I had a hunt - as you do - on Google and here's the results of that "research". Interesting....

This graph gives a picture of the composition of earth's atmosphere over the last 4.5 billion years.

The important thing to notice is that there was a lot of carbon dioxide (25%) and water vapour (25%) a long time ago in the eary's atmosphere. There was a little bit of methane and the rest was nitrogen.

We only got oxygen in our atmosphere 2 billion years ago, and as I understand it this was because the carbon dioxide in the air, combined with water, lightning and - literally - God knows what else, to form rudimentary plant life in water. That life photosynthesized carbon dioxide and produced oxygen in the air, and deposited carbon into water and the ground as by-products (plant litter, soil.... these later metamorphosed into coal and oil).

The other thing that happened was carbon dioxide dissolved in water (mostly seawater), reacted with calcium that was dissolved in seawater, and formed calcium carbonate. As the scientists put it: "Calcium carbonate exists in several forms with different levels of stability. The first stage is noncrystalline, amorphous calcium carbonate. It forms when carbon dioxide mixes with calcium dissolved in water, either in the soil or in the oceans. Animals such as sea urchins and shellfish also make amorphous calcium carbonate and use it as a first step to build their spines and shells....". When these animals die, their shells go to to the bottom as sediment. We see a lot of this material in limestone (as in Oamaru Stone), and when it is metamorphosed by heat and pressure, we see it in Marble. So I guess that carbon dioxide is fairly "locked in"...

This chart shows the same sort of thing in a different way. Though it seems to assume that there would be a lot less nitrogen in the "standard atmosphere of a terrestrial planet".

The presence of water is what allows the process of photosynthesis, and the production of oxygen, and the conversion of carbon into solid stuff. Plants that decay and keep carbon out of the air. Forming coal and oil over millenia. Underground. Not in air.

This one looks into oxygen in more detail, where it came from, where it went. Again, the emphasis is on photosynthesis. And gradually we got an atmosphere with enough oxygen to support life on land.


And this one brings some of those ideas together, raising the question about what happens to all that carbon that went to forming coal, lignite, oil and peat - if we continue digging it up and burning it, will we end up with a similar sort of atmosphere that the earth had before photosynthesis took the carbon out of it?

Back into the Primeval Soup.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How Strong was the Christchurch Earthquake?


I had to go to Timaru over the weekend to spend time with my elderly mum. Stopped in at Christchurch on the way, and had time to jump on a bike and pedal around exploring... This is the Merivale Shopping Centre in Papanui Road. Looks quite normal from a distance...


But shops on both sides of the road are fenced off. You can see in this Deli window: buns, rolls and other delicacies - laid out exactly as they were on the day of the earthquake. And it's a no-go shop. Behind wire fences. And if you look in the reflection of the window, you can see across the street...


Across the street this whole frontage has gone. The bricks have been tidied away now. Cars drive past. So do pedestrians. And the sign insists "We Are Open..."


The insides of the shops and office spaces are open to the elements exactly as they were on the day of the earthquake....

These are boxes of shoes all stacked on shelves - many of them - but the whole brick frontage has gone.


And next door another office. Open to View. The force of the earthquake was huge. Walls and materials that were massive (dense and weighty), like brick and stone were literally tossed to one side - while the rest of the building (made of wood, lighter and more resilient material) shook back into place. More or less anyway.

I cycled along the avenues until I came more to the Eastern side of the city, by the Avon. The streets were dusty and deserted. Still a lot of dry sand piled in the streets, blowing. Nobody about. Many red-stickered homes. Few cars. Almost expected a tumble-weed to blow down the street. And yet the sun was out and it was a brilliant day.


I came along the street because I saw workers up to their eyeballs in sewage repairs. I can't keep away from sewage systems. In the background is a heritage pumping station. The classic brick shithouse. The orange box is a powerful pump. It's taking all the wastewater from a manhole, and pumping it direct into the Avon flowing behind the trees. Residents may be able to flush their loos - and here I could see where it was actully going. The workers were fixing the manhole, and three broken sewer mains.


Here's another view of the site. What is interesting is the angle that the pump station is on. It's actually leaning about 10 degrees toward the river....

Here it is close up. Heritage for sure. In one piece. But knocked right off its foundations. You can get an idea of how much the ground has moved and dipped from where the pump station building has ended up. Underneath it is a 20 foot deep sump into which wastewater used to flow, and then was pumped to other trunk sewers, and hence to Bromley wastewater treatment plant. Now, some sewers run uphill. Others are not existant. and others fractured. You really wonder about the wisdom of repairing a system which is at so much risk of liquifaction, and ground movement next time...


The NZ Herald headline after the Japan earthquake shouted: "Japan's earthquake 8000 times more powerful than Christchurch". (That's what you get when compare a 6.3 magnitude earthquake with an 8.9 one. Richter scale.) But this simple sum ignores what happens on land. That calculation is energy/hectare. And that comes down to ground acceleration. At Fukushima, ground acceleration was .35 gravity. Christchurch CDB it was 1.1 gravity. In Heathcote Valley it got up to 2.1 gravity. In the CBD the Christchurch earthquake was 3 times more powerful and destructive than on land in Japan. This is because the Chch epicentre was 4km from the CBD and 5km deep, whereas in Japan the epicentre was 130km offshore and 32 km deep. No Tsunami in Chch of course.

Further along the road the scale of the ground movement is evident with this damage to the road and verge.

Concrete gutter sections and road seal tossed around and swallowed up in cracks as the ground heaved... cracks carved through the ground....

...and into this adjacent graveyard. A sad sight by the road. Likely to be one of the last parts of the garden city to be fixed. As one person said to me, "they're already dead...."

But it is poignant. This granite memorial has stood proudly here for the best part of a century. You can see the cast iron retaining post that was there to stop the column from moving. But the force of the earthquake - particularly the upward acceleration, followed by rapid downward and sideways acceleration would have literally thrown this column skywards, then pulled the base down, away from the column, which then toppled sideways, and broke into pieces. And then, adding insult to that injury, the ground shook further liquifying the sand beneath, which oozed up around the pieces....

And in this part of the cemetery, you can see the marble pages of a memorial, almost as if the winds of time have turned the whole place into a landscape like a beach. Full of memories. But memories which will be erased and covered by the passage of time. Leaving only sand, rippling in the wind....

Does Auckland Really Need to be Unleashed?

I went along to Auckland Unleashed last week. Big crowd there. I thought the workshops were good. I attended the infrastructure one (there were 5 workshops: can't recall what their names all were now - Infrastructure; Community; Funding & Implementation....) What was good about the infrastructure workshop was the strong thread from most tables about the need for resilience. This partly was driven by Christchurch earthquake, but was also informed by concerns about other global forces like fossil fuel prices and such-like. The upshot was that there was strong support for a poly-centric approach to Auckland's development. ie not put all our eggs in one basket called the Auckland CBD. There was a strong call for "contained communities", "complete communities" (like the Vancouver strategy), and with this was a majority call for distributed and de-centralised networks. One of the issues raised here was the need to reduce the need to travel long distances to work, school, play and essential services.


This runs counter to the Dr Arthur Grimes vision of a major effort at building Auckland CBD - almost at the exclusion of the rest of the region (let alone the rest of the country). So. I felt good about that expression from that workshop. Gave me some optimism. Hope it survives the process.


Which will be a challenge I think. You don't have to look further than the title of the plan, and its widely criticised economic growth aspirations which are right outside the direct influence of Auckland Council. No matter how super. Auckland Unleashed. Gives me the heebie jeebies, because I think the root cause of Auckland's current disfunction is the fact that developers and development has been unleashed and rampant as a mad dog for two decades now. The light-handed approach to Auckland's development over that time has led to the mess that we are in now. Very inefficient transport systems because land use has not been well planned. It's been ad hoc. The market has ruled. Why would you want to unleash it more? Surely Auckland development needs to be better contained and managed - in the best interests of public and commercial interests.


You only need to do a couple of word counts of the 226 page Auckland Unleashed document to see where it's coming from....





Quality + International + Vision = 352


Implementation + Delivery + Funding = 134


With that sort of word count, you can see the emphasis of the document. Long on aspiration - as often the most fluffy Council plans are - and short on implementation. And then there is this comparison. It's where the rubber hits the road in my opinion, because while Auckland might have an economic problem or two (which are not directly within Council control), it has a massive housing affordability problem, a growing carbon/fossil fuel dependency problem, and increasing stress on local ecologies (all of which are core business for Council)...




Development+Economy+World = 421


Affordable Housing+Carbon+Ecosystems = 23

That word count gives a good impression of what Auckland Unleashed is really about. It is so far off the mark of what Auckland needs from Auckland Council right now.


Precautionary Principle Vs Erring for “Economic Wellbeing”

Thinking about cumulative effects, and the duties to avoid these in terms of the RMA. Here is the relevant bit of the RMA:


...the term effect includes … any cumulative effect which arises over time or in combination with other effects — regardless of the scale, intensity, duration, or frequency of the effect…

So I guess what that means, in terms of the purpose of the RMA, is that the general duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse effects on the environment, includes a general duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse cumulative effects on the environment.


The RMA definition relating to “cumulative effects” is “irrespective of scale and duration…”. I read – “irrespective of scale” – as meaning it doesn’t matter if the effect is “less than minor”, “minor”, “de-minimus”. When plugged into the RMA’s purpose, the word “adverse” is added. So that makes it a bit tricky.


However, it is acknowledged by all parties it appears – that there will be effects from the disposal of fill that contains contaminants not already associated with what was in the quarry at Three Kings. Natural basalt and scoria.


Got me thinking about Auckland’s underground rivers.


What do we know for sure. Undisputed facts:



  • We know that many rivers in New Zealand have been badly damaged because of the cumulative effects of farming in their catchments. The root cause of this damage is a mix of agricultural chemicals and farm animal effluent (almost wrote farmer affluent).

  • The responsible regulatory authority in every case is a Regional Council. (Or Unitary Authority where that has replaced the Regional Council).

  • Regional Council responsibilities include: monitoring the state of rivers; granting consents that affect rivers; monitoring the effects of consented activities and compliance with conditions and carrying out enforcement.

  • The legislation which is there to protect rivers from adverse effects, and which prescribes the activities of both farmers and Regional Councils is the Resource Management Act.

So where is the systemic failure? Why are rivers getting worse and not better, or even staying the same (intrinsic values, ecosystems, etc etc). There are various other opinions and processes which are worth summarising:



  • Even if farming as we know it was stopped in its tracks, leachate already in the ground would maintain the contaminant flow into rivers for a decade or two.

  • There are hopes in a few minds that some sort of water allocation scheme will sort out the problem – ie that some sort of organised market will be the stone that kills the two birds of river pollution and getting the best use out of river water.

  • There is huge pressure to convert more relatively low impact sheep farms to dairy farms – irrigated by takes from rivers that many claim are under stress already.

I think the systemic failure fundamentally arises because the regulators either don’t or can’t do their job in accordance with the environmental and ecological protection principles that are written into the Resource Management Act.


What I see in the Environment Court – time after time, when legal action is provoked – are the applicant’s technical experts strenuously and scientifically trying to “prove” that the adverse effects from the applicant’s proposed activity will be less than minor. And yet as even the most rudimentary knowledge of science will tell you, the problems that are at issue (pollution of commons like rivers, lakes, estuaries, seas, atmospheres…) are not described perfectly and analytically by any known scientific methods. At best science suggests probabilities that are riddled with uncertainties and gaps in assumptions, and at worst expert scientific evidence is sophistry designed to support the applicant’s project.


It appears that Environment Court Judges are generally keenly aware of this. Because they are aware, it appears to me that they really have only one option open to them. The Environment Court needs to:


Place great focus on Regional Council evidence relating to the ability of the commons at issue to handle the “less than minor” effects of the application; AND, use the hearing to fully explore the regulator’s processes and track-record in regard to the effects and resource at issue (by using the Court’s powers to obtain independent advice); AND, where there is a question-mark over whether granting the application will potentially damage the resource’s ability to meet the needs of future generations, then decline it by citing the precautionary principle.


I think this sort of Environment Court process would begin to deliver the “cumulative effects” aspiration of the Resource Management Act. The duty to avoid cumulative effects, is actually down to the Environment Court.


The Fletcher/Winstone “cleanfill” application is a classic example.


In my opinion the ARC/Auckland Council has paid very little attention to the state of Auckland’s underground rivers. Its evidence and related reporting did not provide information about other sources of contaminants that either are affecting, or have the potential to affect the quality of that resource. (Including road runoff, stormwater systems, leaking sewer systems, leachate from contaminated soils – residential and commercial, saline intrusion). ARC contaminant monitoring information appeared limited. Contaminants listed in relevant schedules appear out of date. This regulatory environment is an open-door policy for further cumulative effects.


I hold that where there is the potential for cumulative effects, then it is the Environment Court’s duty to scrutinise the combined effects of the activity applied for and the regulatory environment. And then – if necessary – impose a moratorium on future new activities until the relevant regulatory environment has caught up with its duties.


What the F--- is happening in Fukushima? (3)

This blog is an attempt to provide explanation of radiation sources, levels and health risks associated with Fukushima.


Much of the media has continued with sensational and unhelpful reporting of “facts” without useful interpretation, and opinion that is not supported by facts. For example TV New Zealand News showed a picture of the sea off Fukushima on around the 24th of March as a leading news item with a huge caption emblazoned across the image which read: “Iodine 131 levels 127 times normal”.


TV News and NZ Herald also ran news stories about contamined spinach and milk from farms in the vicinity of Fukushima, and also about contaminated water supplies, again without useful contextual explanation which would give viewers a perspective whether those incidents represented a significant health risk.


I re-iterate, I vigorously oppose nuclear power for a variety of reasons. However, I strongly object to the hysterical tone of much of New Zealand’s reporting of events that are unfolding in Japan because of the earthquake on Fukushima.


So, this blog look at four topics:



  • what are the sources of radiation at Fukushima;

  • how does radiation get into the environment?

  • how does radiation reach people?

  • what are the levels of radiation that present health risks?

(For this blog I have drawn on my previous blogs and knowledge, plus World Nuclear News Regulation & Safety, Washington’s Blog, Badger Lake Observer Blog.)


Sources of radiation at Fukushima


The nuclear fuel in the reactors is uranium oxide (containing Uranium 235). Uranium oxide is a ceramic with a very high melting point of about 3000 °C. The fuel is manufactured in pellets (think little cylinders the size of Lego bricks). Those pieces are then put into a long tube made of Zircaloy with a melting point of 2200 °C, and sealed tight. The assembly is called a fuel rod. These fuel rods are then put together to form larger packages, and a number of these packages are then put into the reactor. All these packages together are referred to as “the core”. (See Fukushima 2 Blog for pictures of fuel rods.)


The Zircaloy casing is the first containment. It separates the radioactive fuel from the rest of the world.


The core is then placed in the “pressure vessel”. This is like a pressure cooker. The pressure vessel is the second containment. This is one sturdy piece of a pot, designed to safely contain the core for temperatures up to several hundred °C. It is where superheated hot water is pumped, gets heated by the nuclear reaction that happens in there, and is forced out through pipes to turn the turbines and make electricity.


The entire “hardware” of the nuclear reactor – the pressure vessel and all pipes, pumps, coolant (water) reserves, are then encased in the third containment. The third containment is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick bubble of the strongest steel. The third containment is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown.


This third containment is then surrounded by the reactor building itself. The reactor building is that square outer shell you see in the news photos that is supposed to keep the weather out. (This is the part that was damaged in the explosions that happened soon after the tsunami).


So, looking at sources of radiation. The first “type” of radioactive material is the Uranium in the fuel rods, plus the intermediate radioactive elements that the Uranium splits into, also inside the fuel rod, during the nuclear reaction. These elements are mainly Caesium and Iodine.


Once formed Iodine 131 very quickly breaks down into natural Iodine. The time it takes to do this is termed “half-life”. For Iodine 131 it is 8 days. That means if you make a gram of Iodine 131, then 8 days later you only have ½ a gram of Iodine 131, and ½ a gram of natural Iodine. And so on. Iodine 131 decays very quickly. What this means is that Iodine is very radioactive (because it decays fast), but it also means it reverts to its natural form very quickly. Caesium 137 has a half life of about 30 years. This means it is much less radioactive, but it stays around for much longer.


This nuclear reaction is the heart of the science of a nuclear reactor. It is called fission. Uranium atoms split into smaller atoms, giving off heat energy, radiation and neutrons. These neutrons hit other Uranium atoms that are nearby, causing them to split, release energy, and so on. A chain reaction occurs. Just like Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, but in a nuclear reactor the speed of the reaction is controlled so it doesn’t turn into a nuclear bomb. But it does need to be carefully controlled, and cooled.


There is a second type of radioactive material created, outside the fuel rods. Those radioactive elements are Nitrogen-16, which is a radioactive isotope (or version) of natural Nitrogen. The others are gases such as Xenon. But where do they come from? When the uranium splits inside the fuel rod, it generates a neutron (see above). Most of these neutrons will hit other Uranium atoms and keep the nuclear chain reaction going. But some will leave the fuel rod and hit the water molecules (that are circulating as steam carrying the heat away), or the air that is dissolved in the water. Then, a non-radioactive element can “capture” the neutron. And it becomes radioactive. These radioactive materials have a very short half-life, that means that they decay very fast and split into non-radioactive materials. By fast I mean seconds. So if these radioactive materials are released into the environment, radioactivity is released, but within seconds these materials will be harmless, because they will have split into non radioactive elements.


It appears that Reactor 3 at Fukushima is powered differntly from the others. Instead of Uranium it uses Plutonium. Like Uranium, this is a very heavy metal. I understand from media reports that traces of Plutonium have been detected in soils on the site of the Power plant.


How does radiation get into the environment?


Straight after the earthquake the Fukushima power plant operators needed to manage each reactor core while it was heating up, and ensure that the first containment (the Zircaloy tubes that contains the nuclear fuel), as well as the second containment (our pressure cooker) remained intact and operational for as long as possible, to give the engineers time to fix the cooling systems.


Because cooling the core is such a big deal, the reactor has a number of cooling systems, each in multiple versions (the reactor water cleanup system, the decay heat removal, the reactor core isolating cooling, the standby liquid cooling system, and the emergency core cooling system). Clearly one or all of these failed for a time.


So imagine our pressure cooker on the stove, heat on low, but on. The operators use whatever cooling system capacity they have to get rid of as much heat as possible, but the pressure starts building up. The priority now is to maintain integrity of the first containment (keep temperature of the fuel rods below 2200°C), as well as the second containment, the pressure cooker. In order to maintain integrity of the pressure cooker (the second containment), the pressure has to be released from time to time. Because the ability to do that in an emergency is so important, the reactor has several pressure release valves. The operators now started venting steam from time to time to control the pressure. The temperature at this stage was probably about 550°C.


This is when the reports about “radiation leakage” starting coming in. The explanation above suggests that venting the steam is theoretically the same as releasing radiation into the environment. Because some radioactive substances were expelled with the steam. But radioactive Nitrogen aloms as well as atoms of gases like Xenon that could be expelled with the vented steam very quickly lose their radioactivity and revert to being ‘natural’ atoms.


So the pressure was brought under control, as steam was vented. But, if you keep boiling your pot, the problem is that the water level will keep falling and falling. The core is covered by several meters of water in order to allow for some time to pass (hours, days) before it gets exposed. Once the rods start to be exposed at the top, the exposed parts could reach the critical temperature of 2200 °C - after about 45 minutes it appears. This is when the first containment, the Zircaloy tube, would fail because it would melt.


And this started to happen it seems. The cooling could not be restored before there was some damage to the casing of some of the fuel rods. The nuclear material itself (the fuel pellets) were still intact, but the surrounding Zircaloy shell started melting on some fuel rods.


What seems to have happened then is that some of the byproducts of the uranium decay – radioactive Caesium and Iodine – started to mix with the steam (because some Zircaloy casings had melted). The uranium was still under control, because the Uranium oxide rods were good until 3000 °C. But reports confirm that small amounts of radioactive Caesium and Iodine were measured in the steam that was released into the atmosphere.


So. Some radiation was released when pressure vessels were vented. All radioactive isotopes from the activated steam will have disappeared (decayed) quickly, but would have been measured escaping.


Small amounts of radioactive Caesium must have been released, as well as Iodine. Some of this went into the air carried by steam.


Some of radioactive Caesium and Iodine isotopes were carried out to the sea when sea water was used for cooling. I understand no Uranium will have been released because the Uranium oxide does not “dissolve” in the water.


Because the control rods that slow/speed the nuclear reaction were fully inserted into the cores automatically when the earthquake occurred, the Uranium chain reaction was stopped. That means the “main” nuclear reaction is not happening, thus no new Iodine 131 or Caesium 137 is being produced. However there is a considerable amount of this material in the “spent” fuel rods that have been stored at Fukushima for years. It is unlikely that these would get hot enough to melt the zircaloy containment and release Caesium/Iodine, but if they were washed out of their cooling tanks (by water dumped from helicopters for example), some may have been broken.


It is unclear how Plutonium got into soil, but this power station has been there for 40 years, so it would be unsurprising to find traces of radioactive materials in the soils around the plant. Fuel rods need to be moved around etc...


How does radiation reach people?


It is obvious from the above how Iodine 131 would get into seawater off Fukushima. What is important to note however that Iodine 131 does not occur in nature. So, when TVNZ reported that there was “127 x normal levels in the seawater”, this information, by itself, is not helpful. This is because you would not expect to find ANY Iodine 131 in seawater normally.


One factor in the rise in detections of radioactivity in Tokyo may be recent rainfall, which would have brought airborne radiation by-products to ground and washed them into reservoirs. These would be small amounts of Iodine 131 and Caesium 137. It is unclear yet what amounts have escaped in this way. Iodine 131 is most dangerous near an accident (eg Chernobyl, because people were evacuated after large amounts of Iodine 131 had escaped), but decays quickly over time. Caesium 137 lasts much longer.


There is an exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plant for people, but the land is currently heavily used for agriculture – for growing vegetables and milk produced from dairy farming. A range of vegetables are now controlled in Japan due to the possibility of elevated levels of iodine-131. "At the moment these vegetables are not harmful to people's health," said chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano. However, the current situation could continue for a time, he said, and that was the reasoning behind a warning not to distribute or consume some goods from Fukushima prefecture. Again, it is important to note that Iodine 131 decays very rapidly.


Prime minister Naoto Kan has asked the governor of Fukushima prefecture to restrict distribution and consumption of any leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, cabbage) or any flowerhead brassicas (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower) for the time being. In Ibaraki prefecture the governor has been asked to restrict distribution of milk and parsley.


Edano said that if someone were to eat the vegetables for ten days then they would be exposed to about half of one year's background radiation. This was no risk to future health, he said….


Regarding Plutonium - this is highly unlikely to have moved from the oil at the site. This is because Plutonium is extremely dense and relatively inert.


This brings us to…..


What Radiation Levels present health risks?


This is a very contentious subject because it can come down to luck (statistical probability) whether a particular cancer may have been triggered by a very low level of radiation in the wrong part of the body at the wrong time. Some will say there is no safe level of radiation, and that any increase in radiation – however small – brings with it an increased risk of adverse health effects.


The US EPA provides this information about health effects, which you see vary depending on the intensity of the dose a person receives:

Short-term, high-level exposure is referred to as 'acute' exposure. Unlike cancer, health effects from 'acute' exposure to radiation usually appear quickly. Acute health effects include burns and radiation sickness. Radiation sickness is also called 'radiation poisoning.' It can cause premature aging or even death. If the dose is fatal, death usually occurs within two months. The symptoms of radiation sickness include: nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns or diminished organ function. (Medical patients receiving radiation treatments often experience acute effects, because they are receiving relatively high "bursts" of radiation during treatment.)

Different health effects are associated with long-term, low-level (chronic) exposure to radiation. Increased levels of exposure make these health effects more likely to occur, but do not influence the type or severity of the effect.... Cancer is considered by most people the primary health effect from radiation exposure. Simply put, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. Ordinarily, natural processes control the rate at which cells grow and replace themselves. They also control the body's processes for repairing or replacing damaged tissue. Damage occurring at the cellular or molecular level, can disrupt the control processes, permitting the uncontrolled growth of cells--cancer. This is why ionizing radiation's ability to break chemical bonds in atoms and molecules makes it such a potent carcinogen.

All people receive “background radiation”. This is from a variety of sources: gamma rays from the sun; radiation from naturally occuring radioactive minerals in the ground; radiation from TV and computer screens; X-rays. The major proportion is from natural sources.


On average this amounts to 3.5 millisieverts / year.


So what the hell is a Sievert? There are different measures of radiation, because there are different types of radiation and different effects from each type. The Sievert measure is used commonly in newspapers and news reports because it is an agreed measure of the human health effects of the mixture of radiation types from a nuclear reactor accident like Fukushima.


According to Wikipaedia, the single dose of radiation that would lead to the death of 50% of people is 5000 millisieverts, or 5 Sieverts. That’s a single dose. Received in a short time. Like a minute. Would lead to the deaths of about 50% of people exposed to such a dose.


So this is why radiation health effects are tricky to compare and to measure and to predict.


It is not just the intensity of the radiation that causes health problems, it is the length of time that you are exposed to the radiation. That is why you read of the workers at Fukushima being exposed – apparently safely - to radiation leaks for 30 minutes. And then another team takes over.



Safe Level for Adult: 50 Millisieverts The current federal occupational limit of exposure per year for an adult (the limit for a worker using radiation) is "as low as reasonably achievable; however, not to exceed 50 millisieverts" above the 3+ millisieverts of natural sources of radiation and any medical radiation. Radiation workers wear badges made of photographic film which indicate the exposure to radiation. Readings typically are taken monthly. A federal advisory committee recommends that the lifetime exposure be limited to a person's age multiplied by 10 millisieverts (example: for a 65-year-old person, 650 millisieverts).


Safe level for Minor: 5 Millisieverts The maximum permissible exposure for a person under 18 working with radiation is one-tenth the adult limit or not to exceed 5 millisieverts per year above the 3+ millisieverts of natural sources, plus medical radiation. This was established in 1957 and reviewed as recently as 1990.


There have been reports about the workers at Fukushima: “The International Atomic Energy Agency said that 17 personnel have now received radiation doses of over 100 millisieverts. This level remains below an international standard of 500 millisieverts for emergencies, as well as a temporary limit of 250 millisieverts allowed by authorities in the current situation….” (Not sure how to reconcile these numbers with what the Feds were saying in their 1990n review above...)


You can see that if those 17 workers had received 100 millisieverts over a two week period – say – then that would be almost 30 times what they would have received in a year due to background radiation. On the other hand a dose of 100 millisieverts over a two week period would be about a millionth of a fatal dose.


Last few days: Tokyo Electric Power Company has been criticised over exposure to workers operating in ankle-deep water … it is thought that contractors ignored alarms from their dosimeters, while ankle-deep in contaminated water for about three hours. They received doses of 170-180 millisieverts and seem to have suffered shallow burns to their skin from beta radiation….


These workers received almost 200 millisieverts in just three hours. That’s about one three-thousandth of a fatal dose. According to the US Federal guidelines above, it is equivalent to 1/3 of a lifetime’s maximum “safe” dose. These guys should be given a permanent rest from any further work where there are elevated radiation levels.


“Parents in Tokyo have been recommended to avoid giving tap water to infants under one year of age, although no health effect would be expected. Restrictions on food have also been expanded….”


An infant could receive a radiation dose of about 10 microsieverts (that’s 1 hundredth of a millisievert) from drinking one litre of the tap water, meaning an infant would have to drink a litre per day for a year to receive a dose of between 1 and 10 millisieverts in that year from water (noting that “background” radiation is 3.5 millsieverts a year). It appears that the main worry in Japan at the moment is the spread of Iodine 131 in various places. The levels are low – and remember that the half-life is just 8 days - and the risk is reduced through ingestion of small amounts of natural Iodine.


However the spread of Caesium 137 is more of a concern because it lasts much longer in the environment, and can contaminate milk and generally enter the food chain and affect people through what they eat.


When radiation is released with gas, as it was at the Japanese reactors, the particles are carried by prevailing winds, and some will settle on the earth. Rain will knock more of the suspended particles to the ground. “There is an extremely complex interaction between the type of radionuclide and the weather and the type of vegetation,” Dr. Whicker said. “There can be hot spots far away from an accident, and places in between that are fine.”


Initially, some plants will collect more radiation than others: those with big leaves like lettuce, spinach and other greens will naturally collect more radiation than apples, oranges or potatoes, he said. Foods like rice and corn whose edible portion is protected by husks or leaves are relatively safe in this early stage.


Almost 15 years after the Chernobyl accident in what is now Ukraine, studies found that cesium 137 was still detectable in wild boar in Croatia and reindeer in Norway, with the levels high enough in some areas to pose a potential danger to people who consume a great deal of the meat.


Plutonium presents an extremely low health risk away from Fukushima because of its density, and low reactivity, meaning it is unlikely to leave the site. It would need to be absorbed by a person to cause health damage.


It is essential that authorities monitor food and water sources across Japan, checking and reporting Caesium 137 levels in particular. It is also essential that further releases into the air of steam from Fukushima (containing Caesium 137) are prevented. What is happening now is not good because radioactive materials that are dangerous to health are escaping into the environment. These has the potential to at the very least increase the level of background radiation across a very wide area - but this should not present a significant health risk. At worst there may be hot spots which - if not monitored and neutralised - could lead to increased cancers in the population affected.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What the F... is happening at Fukushima (2)

(NB: I have written two later blogs on Fukushima: Youtube-explanation-of-Fukushima and: Fukushima Health Risk Assessments....)

I just about wore myself out researching this blog on Fukushima....
So much to read. So many points of view.
I was so grumpy this morning (Thursday) about NZ media coverage of what was happening I wrote a letter to Granny Herald.

Dear Editor

I am not a big fan of nuclear power, but I believe your paper's coverage of what is happening in Fukushima Japan verges on the hysterical. My daughter is in Hokaido now (500 kms north of Fukushima) and she tells me that the New Zealand parents of her friends are in a state of panic, while life carries on as normal there. There are low levels of radiation in parts of the main island of Honshu, but these are not health threatening outside the evacuation zone. Fukushima reactor containment vessels are designed to contain total meltdown. Tokyo Electric has a crisis on its hands. But it does not present a health threat like Chernobyl. Not according to almost all international reporting. New Zealand might be nuclear-free, but it does not need to be nuclear-ignorant.


Dr Joel Cayford


As I re-read it I find myself saying: "famous last words."
I was surprised to get a letter back almost straight away...

Dear Joel


Thanks for your letter
But I'm mystified as to how you could take it that we have been 'verging on hysterical' -- we have been reporting solely from the Associated Press based out of Japan and have never , once, said this crisis would end up like Chernobyl. Saying that Fukushima is not a health threat like Chernobyl does not mean there is no health threat at all, however. There seems a concerted desire to actually downplay the direct effects on these Japanese people at risk, as if to say the rest of the world and rest of Japan is okay, so why worry? We have never said it is irradiating Hokkaido -- which is significantly north as you say and no surprise at all that life goes on as normal (like Wellington after the Christchurch quake, but that doesn't make reporting of the crisis in Christchurch irrelevant) -- or even lower Honshu outside the evacuation zone. No one thinks or even assumes that. But the evacuation zone is not small-- many many people are directly affected. Our headline saying 'Nuclear Panic' was entirely correct in the areas concerned and among some even in Tokyo. It did not suggest people on the northern island, or their parents, or those in southern Honshu or even Kyushu were panicking or ought to be. And I do dispute that 'almost all international reporting' limits the implications of this event to a power company having a crisis on its hands. I am reading very widely and there is no doubt that this is regarded a serious national and international nuclear incident.

Yours sincerely
Tim Murphy
Editor


So I've been looking further into it all..... Here's a few pics and images of interest...


Here's a rough map of Japan. The island of Hokaido to the North, and the main island of Honshu. The red blob is where Fukushima Power Plant is located.

This Google Aerial shows the landscape in the vicinity. The power station is in the middle of the image...

Here it is closer....

And here it is as we know it on TV. The oblong enclosure of water is the seawater intake for the 6 reactors. They are heavily reliant on seawater for cooling, and huge electric motors to run these pumps. This picture shows 4 of the reactors. The other two are just to the north...

Here's those four power stations. The tall square buildings each contain a nuclear reactor. My guess is that the steam turbines turned by the steam that comes from each of the reactors are in the low rectangular buildings nearer the coastline.

Here's a happy picture in the sun. After the earthquake and Tsunami You've seen plenty of pictures of the buildings with tops off and steam/smoke coming out....


So now there's an exclusion zone set by Japan's Govt. I understand today - causing some consternation - the US declared its own evacuation zone at about twice the size of the Japan zone.

BTW, I found these three local Japan news services extremely useful:


http://www.newsonjapan.com/


http://www.japantoday.com/


http://english.kyodonews.jp/




This image helps explain a little more of the site layout. A significant issue that has arisen in the Tsunami accident is what happened to the old fuel rods. These are withdrawn from nuclear reactors when they have given off most of their nuclear energy. They are said to be "spent" fuel rods. My guess is that the "Shared pool" is where these "spent" reactor fuel rods are placed to cool while their radioactivity reduces further. But I wanted to find out more.

Cooler, or less radioactive fuel rods will then be taken to the "dry storage facility" because they need to be cooled. Who knows what happened to these facilities when the Tsunami swept through....

This graphic gives an account of what has been happening at each of the six reactors at the Fukushima Power Plant.

It appears to be dated in the last 24 hours or so....

BTW - this pro-nuclear power blog is very interesting. It contains considerable detail about what is happening at Fukushima:http://bravenewclimate.com/
These are specific blogs from that site which give lots of information:
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/14/japan-nuclear-updates/
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/14/fukushima-more-technical-info/
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/15/fukushima-15-march-summary/
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/16/fukushima-16-march-summary/


This image contains an analysis - not sure if it's right or not, but several sources confirm it - of the damage that occurred inside one of the reactor buildings.

The central vessel shown is the reactor pressure vessel. It is what gets extremely hot in normal operation causing the water to boil. (All of the 6 reactors at Fukushima are of the Boiling Water Reactor type.) The water boils, turns to steam, and this turns the turbines that generate electricity.

The reactor pressure vessel is positioned inside the reactor containment vessel. A detailed description of a Reactor Containment Vessel is in my earlier blog about this issue. It appears that what is damaged in this reactor is that outer ring which is designed to absorb pressure from very rapid changes inside the containment vessel of that reactor.

From what I understand, the containment vessels for all of the reactors are intact. Problems have arisen because the whole facility lost electricity, and so the cooling pumps could not be operated. (This was after back up batteries ran out, and it appears that diesel backup generators were damaged by the Tsunami/earthquake.)

The problem now is cooling. Hence the helicopters dropping water and fire engines hosing things down. I understand authorities are racing to sling a temporary power line to the electricity grid in the centre of Honshu. But wait - there's more....


This is a more complete and to scale graphic of a Boiling Water Reactor - such as you would find inside each of those square reactor buildings at Fukushima.

What is interesting about this picture is that it shows where the spent fuel rods are stored, immediately after they've been withdrawn from the reactor vessel.

These pools are right at the top of the building, and would be visible or exposed, if the roof blew off. I think that explains what the helicopters are doing. If it is believed that these spent fuel pools are emptying of water - through the heat still given off by these partially spent fuel rods - then they will want to add more cooling water.

It's a very different problem than if the reactor vessel blew, or containment vessel blew. This is not a Chernobyl, but it is still very dangerous. In a different way.


This is a photo of a spent fuel rod pool. It is used to store spent fuel rods as they lose nuclear energy, and heat. The water serves to keep the rods cool.

So what does a reactor fuel rod look like?


Not sure if you could really hold the pellets in your hand, especially fresh pellets. Perhaps its a lead-lined glove. The pellets slide into the metal rods, and these rods go into casings that fit inside the reactor vessel.



The actual fuel is Uranium Oxide. It is "enriched" Uranium. It contains a high proportion of Uranium 235 - which is very radioactive. (Uranium 238 occurs naturally and while it is radioactive, it decays very slowly). Uranium 235 decays quickly - releasing heat energy - especially when fuel rods are placed near each other, increasing the chain reaction known as "fission".

Nuclear fission is the name given to the process of radioactive decay in a reactor. The Uranium 235 nuclei splits into smaller atoms and gives off energy.



Fuel rod assemblies are placed inside the reactor vessel. You get the picture. They get hot. Water and steam is forced around them, and that steam is piped out of the reactor vessel, to turn turbines...

So what happens to the Uranium 235 when it splits? The nucleus splits into two parts typically - each about half the weight of a Uranium 235 nucleus. Often the split is into Iodine, Caesium or Strontium - elements which occur naturally. But these fission nuclei have different numbers of neutrons to natural Iodine, Caesium, and Strontium making these fission by-products radioactive themselves.

And dangerous to human health. The most common nuclear fission by-products are I 131, Cs 137, Sr 90. (The number gives the total number of protons & neutrons in the nucleus - you'll by a qualified nuclear scientist after reading this!)

These by-products, which are what the U-235 fuel pellets contain after being "used", are the "waste" from a nuclear power station and are a major concern of those opposed to nuclear power stations (like me). They stay radioactive and are dangerous to human health for centuries. That is why they need to be stored, buried etc. The big risk is if the fuel rods get burned or otherwise damaged so these nuclear by-products get released into the environment - as dust, smoke particles etc. Otherwise they will be handled as spent fuel rods have been for the past 50 years. Bloody dangerous, but not human health threatening if managed appropriately.

That is why the workers at Fukushima are concentrating on ensuring there are no fires where there are spent fuel rods. I need to work more on this - but my intuition is that spent fuel rods (even without being in water) - will not melt under their own radiation. This is another major difference from Chernobyl.

(And just a little end note here: what's the talk of Iodine tablets? Well - the human body absorbs natural Iodine in the thyroid gland. If a person breathes air that has radioactive iodine in it, the body can't distinguish between natural iodine and radioactive iodine. It absorbs the iodine - if it's short of it - and concentrates it in the thyroid. This concentration of radioactive iodine can lead to living cell damage. But if you "eat" natural iodine, the body will not absorb any radioactive iodine. That's the theory.

Strontium 90 gets into milk - because it acts like Calcium.)



This graphic shows the whole thing. Reactor. Water heated. Piped. To the turbine building. Turns the turbines. Makes electricity. You can also appreciate that the water used the make steam serves a major role in keeping the reactor vessel at an operating temperature. Not too hot. And of course the generator makes the electricity that the whole plant needs for its cooling pumps, and to keep water circulating through the spent rod cooling/holding tanks.

The Evidence For/Against Three Kings Quarry "Cleanfill"

Today's Thursday 17th March. If all goes according to plan legal counsel for Fletchers Infrastructure/Winstone Aggregates will complete the two week Environment Court hearing of its application to use Three Kings Quarry as a cleanfill/managed fill, by delivering the right of reply. I will report later on further developments.

But for now, I thought I would provide you with copies of evidence that has been provided to the Environment Court by various experts and parties to the hearing. Links to selected evidence files are later on below in this blog.

In a hearing of this size, complexity and challenge - there is vast amounts of paper, and it is beyond my resources to make all of it available here. Or even a small proportion of it. Every affidavit is rebutted by those who disagree with it for example. All of this material is available to the Court. The Judge and Commissioners indicate they have either read it all, or they have heard it. And of course witnesses have been cross-examined in Court.

My main interest in this matter has been its potential effect on Auckland's Underground water resources and aquifers. There are other issues of significance including traffic effects, dust effects and so on. However I have concentrated on groundwater effects. So, here's some written evidence that is primarily around that issue. There are many documents other than these....

For Fletchers Infrastructure/Winstone Aggregates

Bernie Chote (General Manager)
Mr Burden (Geo Chemist, expert in environmental effects of landfills)
Mr Harding (Hydrogeologist and computer modeller of groundwater effects)

For Envirowaste Services

Mr Parker (Engineer, expert on Australian landfill policy and management)
Mr Mitchell (Engineer and Planner, expert in environmental effects and RMA)
Mr Northcott (Chemist, NIWA experience, expert in organochlorines in environment)

For Auckland Council

Mr Stapleton (GeoEnvironmental Engineer, expert in soil and landfill processes)

Local Submissions for South Epsom Planning Group

Pip Mules (Local resident)
Garry Law (Engineer and Manager Water systems, expert in water resource management)
Mr Triggs (Professor of Statistics at Auckland University)

Watercare Services Ltd

Mr Widdowson (GeoScientist at BECAs, expert in groundwater monitoring & risk assessment)

These are my selection. They are indicative. Happy reading.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What the F... is Happening at Fukushima?

As a retired physicist (long time ago), but with a PhD in Computational Atomic Physics, and a daughter living in Sapporo (400kms north of the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant), I run this blog to help explain a few things....
BBC News this morning:

The crisis at the Fukushima plant - which contains six nuclear reactors - has mounted since Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake knocked out the cooling systems.

Explosions rocked the buildings housing reactors one and three on Saturday and Monday.

On Tuesday morning a third blast hit reactor two's building.

A fire also broke out at a spent fuel storage pond at the power plant's reactor four. Reactor four had been shut down before the quake for maintenance, but its spent nuclear fuel rods were still stored on the site. Officials said the explosions were caused by a buildup of hydrogen.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said they were closely watching the remaining two reactors at the plant, five and six, as they had begun overheating slightly.

He said cooling seawater was being pumped into reactors one and three - which were returning to normal - and into reactor two, which remained nstable.

So what's a containment vessel anyway? Well, I explored Patents on line (All the inventions of mankind).
There is a patent there 3,258,403.
The brief for the patent goes like this:
A nuclear containment vessel houses an inner reactor housing structure whose outer wall is closely spaced from the inner wall of the containment vessel..... The inner reactor housing structure is divided by an intermediate floor providing an upper chamber for housing the reactor and associated steam generators and a lower chamber directly therebeneath containing a pressure suppression pool.... The inner reactor housing structure is preferably constructed of reinforced concrete and the intermediate floor and the outer wall thereof surrounding the lower chamber are preferably faced with a continuous steel lining so as to be substantially gas-tight....

The associated six page document then goes on to describe the design, function and structure of this invention. I have extracted helpful bits here...



These text extracts and the diagram below are from the reactor container vessel patent documents.

This explanation gives a sense of why the invention was needed. But it also conveys the matter-of-fact approach of the US nuclear reactor designer.

It also introduces the economics of design and location. It doesn't speak of the usefulness of co-locating six of these in one place, but you can imagine the economies of scale and savings....



Here we are introduced to the patent number and to the inventor, part of Westinghouse Electric.

In fact the reactors for Units 1, 2, and 6 at Fukushima were supplied by General Electric, those for Units 3 and 5 by Toshiba, and Unit 4 by Hitachi. All six reactors were designed by General Electric. Containment vessels are not all the same - but they deal with the same challenges.

Westinghouse and General Electric have competed for years to supply nuclear reactors around the world.

Now for a diagram:





Before we explain the diagram, note that one of these containment structures is inside each of the large square box like buildings you have seen on TV at the Fukushima facility.

This one is designed to be 170 feet high, with an inside diameter of 150 feet. For you metric types the containment structure is more than 50 metres high. The inner container (10 in the diagram) is made from 3/8 inch stainless steel - ie steel plate 1 cm thick.


The actual reactor vessel - where the nuclear reaction takes place and where the heat is generated is in that bottle like structure (20) in the diagram. Quite small compared with the containment structure. Which itself is inside a building.

The reactor vessel is where the radioactive rods are placed, along with control rods which moderate the speed of the nuclear reaction. The vessel is very hot and heats - in this case - water to steam, which is piped outside the containment vessel and is used to turn the turbines to generate electricity.


Continuing with this particular invention, we have seen that the inner container (a cylinder about 50 metres high and 40 metres diameter) is made of 1 cm thick stainless steel.

Then outside this are several other layers. If you look back at the diagram, you will see that the outer layer (36) is reinforced concrete, 6 feet thick (2 metres thick).

My recollection of Chernobyl is that there was no outer concrete container.


You can see in this invention claim, that essentially what this inventor's container was intended to achieve is reduced pressure in the space between steel container 10, and the next container (which I think is 22). And the whole operation critically depends upon pumps and compressors of enormous power, and which require vast amounts of electricity.

Just think what was happening in the control room at Fukushima. You could not make this up. Magnitude 8.9 earthquake.

There may have been automatic shut down plans for all 6 reactors in this event. Which may have got started. Perhaps some control rods were being withdrawn. But there may not have been any time.

A few minutes later a 10 metre Tsunami hits the facility broadside on.

All 6 reactors are located together right on the coast, close to sea water for coolant. Everything outside the reactor buildings is washed away. It appears that backup power supplies were damaged. Employees inside have no idea what has happened to their families. Their job now is to manage an event which only time will tell was foreseen and planned for.

And just in case you were wondering - I am not a supporter of nuclear power. When I went to university I thought it was fantastic. The mass of a sausage to take the Queen Mary round the world. Fantastic. It wasn't until I spent time in London that I took off those rose-tinted spectacles. But that's for another blog.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How can a Blogger avoid Contempt of Court?

So there I was in the Environment Court this morning. Tuesday 15th March. And the Court was halfway through cross-examination of Mr Dolan who is an Envirowaste Services Ltd (ESL) expert witness. The day started with no house-keeping matters. Straight into cross examination of Dolan by Matheson – who is Fletcher’s/Winstone Aggregates legal counsel.

I took heaps of notes because the questions and answers were really interesting. But because I had missed some of the day before, I hadn’t totally caught up with the fact that the court room seemed rather empty. Nor why.

Then it dawned. The other ESL expert witnesses had been ordered from the Court by Judge Smith. They were not allowed to hear the questions being asked of the witnesses, nor their answers. And they were ordered not to talk among themselves at other times.

“What if they read my blog?” - I thought. Quite a few do, there’s a lot pf public interest, and I have set up a FaceBook page....

"What if I report the questions and answers – because I think it is in the public interest?"

"There has been no guidance from the Judge. I am a sort of informal reporter...."

There has been no ruling that media be excluded from the Court.

So here's a taste. WA’s lawyer cross examined Dolan:
Q: Who instructed you?
A: It was verbal. Mr Lobb.
Q: Not in writing?
A: No.
Q: What did he say to you, and when?…
Judge Smith got interested then:
Q: How did you report to Mr Lobb?
A: …
Q: You said you would look in your files.
A: I drafted a submission for Mr Lobb.
Q: Did you sign it?
A: No. Someone else signed it….
Judge Smith wanted to know why specific emails were not to hand, and persisted:

Q: You were asked – I know I didn’t order you – you said you would – I didn’t think I had to - to bring all ESL files with you today. What have you brought and not brought?
A: Sorry your honour...
And later, after Dolan spoke of mediation meetings with Watercare and with South Epsom Planning Group, Judge Smith asked:

Q: …..were you aware that were statutorily barred from getting involved with a Third Party…?
At this point Kirkpatrick, legal counsel for ESL stood up and submitted: “there is no basis for that question…”.

Judge Smith then reminded Dolan, “you are Person ‘A’. Person ‘A’ must not talk with Person ‘C’. (BTW – you can see a little more about this part of the RMA – s.308 - in a recent blog below.)

Kirkpatrick again got to his feet and submitted, “....this does not stop communications between parties…”

I will stop there. Just wanted to give you a flavour.
Who says the Environment Court's not adversarial?

"Why is Envirowaste Here?"

This question was posed by Judge Smith several times on Monday. He asked David Kirkpatrick – legal counsel for Envirowaste Services Ltd – “I want to know why you are here….”

He went on, “these are dangerous waters for a trade competitor….”

First, a little legislative background. The Resource Management Act was changed a year and a half ago by an unusual provision of the Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Amendment Act 2009. This provision was put in to deal with what has been known as “SuperMarket Wars”. Parliament did not want the RMA (or the Environment Court) to be the place where trade competition wars were fought.

The bits of the new RMA that are of interest go like this:


308A Identification of trade competitors and surrogates
In this Part,—
(a) person A means a person who is a trade competitor of person B:
(b) person B means the person of whom person A is a trade competitor:
(c) person C means a person who has knowingly received, is knowingly receiving, or may knowingly receive direct or indirect help from person A to bring an appeal or be a party to an appeal against a decision under this Act in favour of person B.

So. You get the picture. In this situation, we might say that Person B is Fletchers/Winstone Aggregates, Person A might be Envirowaste Services Ltd (ESL), and Person C might be anyone else who might appeal or be a s.274 party to the appeal (like Watercare). The law goes on….


308 B Limit on making submissions
(1) Subsection (2) applies when person A wants to make a submission under section 96 about an application by person B.
(2) Person A may make the submission only if directly affected by an effect of the activity to which the application relates, that—
(a) adversely affects the environment; and
(b) does not relate to trade competition or the effects of trade competition.
(3) Failure to comply with the limits on submissions set in section 149E or 149O or clause 6(4) or 29(1B) of Schedule 1 is a contravention of this Part.

This is where it gets interesting and intriguing. And this is what Judge Smith was concerned about, as David Kirkpatrick swung into action for ESL. What makes this intriguing is that there are three related applications at issue for the Environment Court – two were applied for before August 2009, and the application to discharge contaminants to water was made after August 2009 (ie after s.308 came into force), and was referred directly to the Environment Court.

So ESL cannot fall foul of this new law in regard to part of the hearing, but it could, potentially, in regard to the part that deals with discharges to water. The rest of the RMA law relating to s.308 (Act not to be used to oppose trade competitors), is fairly draconian. Costs can be sought in the High Court if the Environment Court declares Person A contravened the Act, and matters can be brought to court up to 6 years after the alleged contravention. All a bit of worry for an organisation like ESL, or anyone else caught by these provisions for that matter.

In its legal submissions ESL said this on Monday morning:


7.1 ESL is a large national waste management company. Serving the Auckland region it operates the Hampton Downs Sanitary landfill and the Greenmount Closed landfill at which it is soon to complete final cover works through the placement of fill. ESL acknowledges (and has done so from the start), that as a consequence of these particular commercial activities it is a trade competitor of WA, who operates the cleanfill and fill operations at Wiri North and Puketutu Island (former quarries)….

7.3 ….ESL denies that its participation in these proceedings raises issues of trade competition…. ESL is concerned trhat consents for “cleanfill” should not be granted where what is to occur is not a cleanfill…

7.6 ….ESL is concerned: to ensure the integrity of the regional planning framework for the management of landfills, and in particular cleanfills. In doing so, it simply wishes to maintain the level of the “playing field” being used by solid waste disposers in the Auckland region….

7.7 ….if, due to locational advantages or technical superiority, a more profitable landfill can be set up, then that is the market at work. But, this has to be on the proviso that they can also maintain the accepted level of environmental protection for such activities….

I will stop this blog about here – so it is manageable. But before I do so, I will record other related events that occurred at the hearing.

As Mr Kirkpatrick came to the end of his opening submissions for ESL, Judge Smith intervened. He appeared concerned that ESL’s expert witnesses might not be independent. Kirkpatrick noted that that issue or concern could be levelled at almost any expert witness in an Environment Court hearing. (I note here that someone pays the bills of all expert witnesses, and there is always the cynical view, but understandeable view, that he who pays the bill calls the tune…).

Judge Smith agreed with Kirkpatrick's comment saying, “yes, and it’s an issue the Court is not happy with…”

Judge Smith continued that he believed it appropriate to exclude ESL’s witnesses from the court, so they could not hear what was being said, or what questions were asked of other ESL expert witnesses cross examined before it was their turn.

Judge Smith also ruled that ESL witnesses should not discuss the matter with each other outside Court.

This was a dramatic day.

Judicial Report on Three Kings Site Visit

On Friday 11th March Judge Smith and his two Commissioners (Gollop and Howie) went on a site visit. So the hearing on Friday was cut short. Judge Smith gave a comprehensive verbal report about the site visit to the Environment Court on Monday morning, 14th March. I took notes and summarise the report here:

They started at Meola Reef, and were shown Meola Creek (he noted there were signs of sewage ingress there). Thye were advised that Meola Creek is is fed from underground gulleys and rivers, some of which start up round Three Kings. He observed that the catchment for those underground waters is many and varied – St Lukes, Sandringham Road, homes, businesses (some of which will have long gone). They were shown Bore Hole 7 – which is some 500 metres from the bottom of the Three Kings Quarry – and he noted they had been shown Bore Hole 6 which was accessible and which appeared to be much closer to the quarry itself.

Judge Smith expressed concern over their findings that at or close to Big King Reserve appeared to be contaminants stored on site by Auckland Council, at a small excavated area. (Discussion later revealed that this was leased land used previously by Parks Staff of Auckland City Council. Judge Smith was concerned to have noted what appeared to be leachates at that site, and that the floor of scoria would be permeable.

The site visit was shown the de-watering bore. The Judge noted that this was at RL –5. He asserted that he did not accept there was low permeability in the scoria around this bore. He expressed interest in the adjacent water treatment plant which appears to be unused. In his opinion it could be used to clean up the water, before returning it to the aquifer….

He noted that there were several quarry faces – some basalt, some scoria. He also noted that the Three Kings Quarry appears to have a dust supression systme in place – he noted the presence of sprinkler. He reported that he and commissioners did visit some local properties. Saw some dust.

They also went to Puketutu where they observed typical fill loads being received and processed. They saw an XRF test (this is a form of XRay and subsequent fluoresence test for various contaminants), the Judge noted that up to 30 truck loads appeared to be dumped on a skid pad. These were then mixed by the operator who scooped the results onto various parts of the landfill face. They noted the waste was mixed – concrete, asphalt, clay, soil. He noted that Puketutu was different from Three Kings – in that it is being rehabilitated for “rural pastoral purposes”.


That seemed a fairly comprehensive visit. Gives a flavour of where Judge Smith is coming from. Interesting that he takes it upon himself to advocate using a water treatment plant he finds along the way - to treat water from de-watering. And recharge the aquifer.

What Have They Done to the RMA?

I guess you could say there was quite a lot of idealism around when the Resource Management Act was enacted way back in 1991. It was the unlikely fruit of an unholy alliance between New Right thinking (about economic efficiency and devolved decision-making) and Environmental thinking (about saving the planet and encouraging local decision-making). You can see this reflected in the words used in the Act....


This is Clause 5, the highly debated and argued Purpose of the RMA. The enabling red bit came from the New Right, and the planet saving green bit came from the Environmentalists. Linked by the word "while".

But how much planet saving is really going on with the RMA? I've put the "green" words in a smaller font. Because I don't think the two ideas are given equal weight at all in the RMA. I think we all can see what cumulative damage is being done to rivers, soil and ecosystems through consents obtained through RMA processes.

So how should that purpose of the RMA really be visualised? If we were being honest about the RMA. I think it is much more like this....




I think this is Clause 5, as she is enacted in the street today.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fear for the Future of Auckland’s Commons

If Fletcher Construction Ltd were operating in Europe it would not be permitted to run the “managed fill” they propose for Three Kings Quarry in Auckland. This is due to the European Landfill Directive:

The Landfill Directive (99/31/EC) seeks to prevent or reduce the negative effects of landfill waste on the environment, including groundwater. Like the IPPC Directive the directive establishes provisions for issuing permits based on a range of conditions including impact assessment studies. For each site the groundwater, geological, and hydrogeological conditions in the area must be identified. The sites must be designed so as to prevent groundwater from entering landfill waste, collect and treat contaminated water and leachate, and prevent the pollution of soils, groundwater or surface water by using the appropriate technical precautions such as geological barriers and bottom liners. The directive establishes criteria for waste testing and acceptance taking into consideration the protection of the surrounding environment, including groundwater.

Looking further into this directive, I find no provision for “cleanfill” but there is provision for “inert waste”, see this scan.



Also the Directive has very strong guidance for those planning to establish a landfill of any kind. “…the location of a landfill must take into consideration requirements relating to…the existence of groundwater… the geological and hydrogeological conditions in the area…." And goes on to stipulate: “…the landfill can only be authorised if the characteristics of the site with respect to the above mentioned (location) requirements, or the corrective measures to be taken, indicate that the landfill does not pose a serious environmental risk…”

The Directive goes on to stipulate requirements for liners to prevent leachate from percolating into groundwaters and so on and these only do not apply if: “…the landfill poses no potential hazard to the environment…”

Not de minimus, not less than adverse, not minor – no potential hazard.

Here in NZ we were blessed with the Resource Management Act. In 1991 environmentalists thought it was great. So did its New Right supporters. But over time it has been shown to be ineffective when it comes to cumulative pollution. That is pollution from non-point sources.

We see this problem manifest in New Zealand at its most intense in the dairy industry. But somehow all concerned sit like the proverbial frog in heating water. All the evidence points to this problem growing. The sources of this pollution of rivers is in the ground now, from dairy effluent, and it will flow steadily into the rivers and lakes for decades – even if diary farming stopped. We know this. But still it goes on. And it appears to be impossible for Councils to stop themselves granting farmers even more permits.

New Zealand is a very young country. We have a large and extended commons. National Parkland, beaches, oceans, rivers, mountains, rivers, and aquifers. A degree of exploitation has been permitted and the consequences are becoming more or less visible to us all. But there are no national standards (like the EC Directive on landfills), there are no standards for water allocation and use (though there is now some work happening on this front – but it’s little and it’s late), there are no bottom lines (so organisations like Fletcher Construction can think of running a “managed fill” which permits them to pollute), and there is no long term view. Even the much vaunted EPA Environmental Protection Agency looks like a joke.

The preoccupation with red-tape cutting and short cutting to get consent – all in the interests of short term economic activity – will have dramatic long term consequences. We cannot continue to shit in our own nest and leave it to the next generation. That is not a legacy to be proud of.

New Zealand is no longer 100% pure, and hasn’t been for a long time. The way we are going now with our environment – and with our aquifers and groundwaters – is the same as the path we took with our rivers. When will we learn?

Fletcher’s/Winstone Aggregates History of Denial

The thing about Environment Court hearings is there’s lots of time to chat. You gather before a hearing day, morning tea, lunchtime. And you get the gossip. It has been an opportunity for me hear Dick Bellamy’s side of the Three Kings Quarry story – which goes back a long way. Over thirty years.

The first story he told me about was dust. When the quarry was fairly shallow, he says he could regularly see from his house a D9 bulldozer sitting on top of a pile of scoria. Not sure what it was doing there. And then scoria would be tipped into a stone crusher and plumes of scoria dust would blow into the air, and with a reasonable wind, it would blow over houses in the neighbourhood. So that was a big issue for the locals. Dr Bellamy tried to do something about it. Winstone’s denied that the dust coating the good painted weatherboard homes of Mt Eden was from its operation.

So Dr bellamy carefull took samples of the dust from the houses, and – presumably late at night – scampered down to the quarry and scraped some scoria dust off the stone crusher – and took the samples into his mates at Auckland University. They tested both samples and confirmed they were from the same source.

And when confronted with this evidence, Winstone’s claimed that because the roads on the vicinity had been re-surfaced (good old chip seal I guess) with scoria from its quarry (it claimed), then the motorists using the roads had caused the dust.

Man oh man.

Then, Dr Bellamy explained, came the de-watering. Residents had hoped that when the quarry got down to the water table, quarrying would stop. But Winstone’s applied to de-water the quarry so it could dig deeper. It wanted to dig down much further and get out more scoria. By now residents had succeeded in preventing Winstones from mining basalt – very hard and tough – needed explosives, caused vibration and ground shaking. Dr Bellamy was among the residents who took Winstone’s to task over this. They were concerned about the effects of subsidence. When land is de-watered, certain geologies will shrink, causing subsidence. He explained to me this was because there are old river valleys underneath Auckland’s recent volcanic rocks. These are sedimentary and prone to shrink when de-watered. However it appears that Winstone’s again denied such things would happen. Would never happen.

But there has been subsidence Dr Bellamy confirmed. Not a lot, but it has occurred, in contradiction to Winstone’s firm view. Presumably supported by it experts.

So now we have another denial. This denial is that the contaminants from permitted contaminated fill, will not get into the groundwaters, and will not get into Auckland’s aquifers.

Man oh man.

Thinking about Air Composition

As someone with a background in physics, I tend to look at what's happening around me from first principles. Or basic principles.

Today there is a lot of discussion about climate change. Thinking about the conservation of matter - ie that basically the earth contains the same materials now as it did billions of years ago - I have often wondered how the earth's atmosphere has changed over millenia. I was curious because there are lots of references to the "primeval soup" that was around when the earth "started". So I had a hunt - as you do - on Google and here's the results of that "research". Interesting....

This graph gives a picture of the composition of earth's atmosphere over the last 4.5 billion years.

The important thing to notice is that there was a lot of carbon dioxide (25%) and water vapour (25%) a long time ago in the eary's atmosphere. There was a little bit of methane and the rest was nitrogen.

We only got oxygen in our atmosphere 2 billion years ago, and as I understand it this was because the carbon dioxide in the air, combined with water, lightning and - literally - God knows what else, to form rudimentary plant life in water. That life photosynthesized carbon dioxide and produced oxygen in the air, and deposited carbon into water and the ground as by-products (plant litter, soil.... these later metamorphosed into coal and oil).

The other thing that happened was carbon dioxide dissolved in water (mostly seawater), reacted with calcium that was dissolved in seawater, and formed calcium carbonate. As the scientists put it: "Calcium carbonate exists in several forms with different levels of stability. The first stage is noncrystalline, amorphous calcium carbonate. It forms when carbon dioxide mixes with calcium dissolved in water, either in the soil or in the oceans. Animals such as sea urchins and shellfish also make amorphous calcium carbonate and use it as a first step to build their spines and shells....". When these animals die, their shells go to to the bottom as sediment. We see a lot of this material in limestone (as in Oamaru Stone), and when it is metamorphosed by heat and pressure, we see it in Marble. So I guess that carbon dioxide is fairly "locked in"...

This chart shows the same sort of thing in a different way. Though it seems to assume that there would be a lot less nitrogen in the "standard atmosphere of a terrestrial planet".

The presence of water is what allows the process of photosynthesis, and the production of oxygen, and the conversion of carbon into solid stuff. Plants that decay and keep carbon out of the air. Forming coal and oil over millenia. Underground. Not in air.

This one looks into oxygen in more detail, where it came from, where it went. Again, the emphasis is on photosynthesis. And gradually we got an atmosphere with enough oxygen to support life on land.


And this one brings some of those ideas together, raising the question about what happens to all that carbon that went to forming coal, lignite, oil and peat - if we continue digging it up and burning it, will we end up with a similar sort of atmosphere that the earth had before photosynthesis took the carbon out of it?

Back into the Primeval Soup.