Archive » April 28, 2011
BUSINESSMAN SEES FIX TO MELTDOWN
By Isaiah Brookshire, Staff Writer
Desperate times call for creative measures and, according to one local man, he has just that.
Meet David Baskett, a businessman from Santa Maria who made headlines last year with a vivid demonstration of an amphibious firefighting tanker aircraft at the Santa Maria Airport.
Now, he thinks that same aircraft might be the solution to the troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The March 11, magnitude 9.0 earthquake in that country was followed by a devastating tsunami that swept across northern Japan, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands. But in the aftermath, another disaster overshadowed the quake.
The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant went into automatic shutdown following the shaking. This was standard procedure and the reactors were kept cool by emergency generators, but when the tsunami reached land some 30 minutes later, the reactors were swamped with seawater and stopped pumping the essential coolant.
What followed was, and continues to be, one of the worst nuclear energy disasters ever.
Efforts to bring the pumps back into operation failed, gas buildups caused explosions and evidence of a nuclear meltdown became too much to overlook.
On April 13, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency upgraded the disaster to the maximum level on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. The level-7 rating put Fukushima Dai-ichi in the same category as the devastating 1986 Chernobyl explosion in Russia.
The Japanese government recently instituted a mandatory evacuation order for everyone within 13 miles of the plant and planned to kill all remaining livestock in the area.
The Japan Times reports that this week, the government would let some residents back in to collect belongings but only allow one person from each household to return for a limited time.
Even as those who once lived near the plant attempted to pick up pieces of their life emergency crews at the disaster site worked to bring the melting reactors under control.
Using massive pumps and air drops, workers poured sea water on the reactors in an effort to cool them down. While the emergency measures appear to have some effect, they present major problems. As the reactors were doused with water, some of it boiled and created steam clouds laden with radioactive material.
Water that did not evaporate began to pool at the bottom of the reactors and mix with material from the nuclear fuel. The water that pooled will have to be removed but is highly radioactive. Some of the water escaped to the ocean where it could potentially affect the environment around the plant for years and threaten Japan’s vital fishing economy. Faced with the choice between allowing the reactors to completely meltdown or creating a lake of radioactive water, workers at Fukushima Dai-ichi chose to press forward with their efforts.
Baskett sees that as a false choice. He says a third option – foam dropped first from his aircraft and then pumped in – would cool the reactors and prevent an environmental catastrophe.
“We believe we can react very quickly, should we get a request,” he said. But securing that request has been a challenge. Baskett said one of his associates was working with the Bank of Japan, presenting a combination of aircraft and foam as a viable alternative to water.
However, there has been resistance. Japanese officials have already been embarrassed by their failure to contain the radiation leaks early on.
Because they live in a culture concerned with saving face, the officials would be further embarrassed if a foreigner were to swoop in and take over. Baskett thinks he has a fix for this problem, too. “The last thing you need in a disaster is another box of stuff,” he says.
Instead of sending more aid to Japan, he is developing a product that Japanese officials can purchase to help them continue the fight against the core heat that could take up to nine months to win.
By letting them decide, purchase and manage his product, Baskett thinks he has found a solution that is both culturally appropriate and more effective than the current water application. This isn’t the first time Baskett has worked on problems that seem insurmountable. His company, TTE International has been involved with major projects in Russia and Eurasia for more than 20 years. Some of TTE’s more incredible projects included building a NHL-quality hockey stadium in the middle of Siberia and moving massive mining equipment into remote mountainous areas.
Baskett says he specializes in “turn-key” solutions and that is exactly what he is hoping to supply in Japan. Though world-wide connections, his core cooling package includes Russian made BE-200 amphibious tanker aircraft and German-made firefighting foam known as Polyfoam, along with crews to support the entire operation.
“It’s not really helpful to show up and say, ‘Here’s a tool.’ It’s much easier for a disaster manager to have a turn-key service delivered.”
The BE-200 is being marketed in the United States and California to replace the current generation of firefighting aircraft that are beginning to show their age. With its top-mounted jet engines, the BE-200 can land on lakes or oceans and scoop up more than 3,000 gallons of water in fewer than 18 seconds. That water can then be mixed with a foam concentrate and delivered onto the reactor.
The Polyfoam itself was used at the disaster in Chernobyl and to extinguish oil fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War.
It works by creating a foamy layer over the fire or nuclear fuel and cutting off oxygen supplies from the atmosphere. Without oxygen to burn, the fire or in this case nuclear reaction begins to slow down and cool.
The foam has an added benefit of creating less steam and radioactive clouds than water. Because less of the foam is required to bring the reactor under control, there is less contaminated liquid to clean up.
“I know the history of the product, and I know the Russians credited it for the cool down at Chernobyl,” said Baskett. While moving the systems to Japan could take time, he believes once applied the foam could begin to work very quickly but needs the permission from the government to move forward.
Even if the Japanese bureaucracy is slow in selecting Baskett’s solution it could likely prove useful for some time. The United Kingdom’s Independent reports that a recently announced nine-month timeline for plugging the leaks at Fukushima Dai-Ichi triples the previous estimate for the work.
After that, estimates for cleanup operations vary from a few years to three decades.
The sooner Japanese authorities can find a way around creating thousands of gallons of contaminated water, the less time clean-up will take.
Whether the solution is the same one Baskett is presenting remains undecided.Until that decision is made, Baskett says he remains on the ready and will continue to market his solution to the Japanese government. “We’re working thorough the Bank of Japan with what we think is a good solution – hopefully, they will push it through.”