Motegi Meltdown: MotoGP Wrestles with Radiation—By Kevin Cameron

DMT Imaging

In March, three nuclear power stations melted down at Fukushima after their cooling systems were knocked out by a tsunami. Radioactive material was released from the plants into the air, groundwater and nearby ocean. Twin Ring Motegi, owned by Honda and site of this year’s delayed but now-upcoming Grand Prix of Japan, is less than 100 air miles from Fukushima.

Some MotoGP riders, notably series points-leader Casey Stoner and reigning world champion Jorge Lorenzo, have said they will not compete at Motegi because they distrust official statements that radiation levels have returned to normal at the circuit.

Some commentators have condescendingly urged these riders to “man up” and accept official statements without question. They have revived the often-used comparison that lying on a sunny beach for eight hours or having a dental x-ray delivers more ionizing radiation than (fill in the blank) four days at Motegi. One of this “man-up” group added weight to his argument by confiding that a friend with a chemistry degree had assured him that all was well in Japan.

History suggests that official statements may serve masters other than the truth.

In my own hometown, the word went around some years ago that the local nuclear plant needed to “burn 400 welders.” This is industry jargon for using up the annual radiation dose of 400 certified nuclear welders. The project was to reinforce the steel torus, a kind of hydraulic damper located beneath the reactor containment vessel. The torus is partially filled with water, and pipes from the containment (sealed by burst diaphragms) terminate below the water’s surface. Any sudden pressure pulse from the reactor would be absorbed by lifting the water in the torus. To allow welding on the torus, its water had to be drained. Unfortunately, according to workmen at the site, there was insufficient tankage on-site to hold it all. One of them asked me to find out where it went.

I phoned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and was referred to a “special agent.” I told him my story and asked where the extra torus water went. He promised to find out.

The next day, he called to say that the water went into on-site tankage. I objected that on-site tankage was too small. He repeated his previous statement. I thanked him.

I next phoned a friend in the industry, who promised to find out. Two days later, he called me back.

“It went in the river.”

“How does that work?” I asked him.

“There are two sets of books in this industry,” he replied. “There’s an industry set, and there’s a public set. In the public set, the water’s in tanks on-site. In the industry set, it went in the river.”

How radioactive would that water be? Radioactive enough that reinforcing the container it came from (the torus) required “burning 400 welders.”

What is a person to believe? Always trust the official version? Or, finding much opinion or evidence differing from the official version, make up your own mind? MotoGP riders must act as they see fit.