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Reentry into unit two

Because of the high humidity inside the unit two building an attempt by a robot to enter the building did not work. The humidity (water vapour) clouded the robots vision and prevented it from going inside.

A team of four workers entered the building to check the radiation levels and other things inside. TEPCO have explained how they are planning by June to start to reuse cooling water. The idea is that cooling water will be injected into the plant; the used water will be cleaned up using a zeolite column. I think that the idea is a reasonable idea which will help with the clean up.

I suspect that the use of a zeolite to clean the water will minimize the volume of radioactive waste water which needs to be processed off site. Also the zeolite will absorb much of the radioactivity. It will concentrate the radioactivity into a small volume which will be cheaper and safer to dispose of.

At the same time the fishing and farming cooperatives have started to bring civil claims against TEPCO. As I am not a combination of the judge and jury I will not try to usurp the court and say how much the compensation should be. I am sure that this accident will result in a series of court cases, but I have no idea of how they will turn out.

I would like to pose the question of “what should TEPCO / MEXT do about the accident ?”

I hold the view that rather than paying farmers and fishermen to do nothing, that TEPCO / MEXT should strongly consider the creation of worthwhile alternative economic activities which will prevent unemployment within the fishing and farming communities.

One scenario would be for TEPCO to provide training to a team of farmers who would then be paid to perform dose reduction actions on farmland. I suspect that the farmers may already have some of the equipment needed for the work. For example deep ploughing and potassium fertilizers are method for reducing the transfer of cesium from grass to cows.

Another would be for the farmers to plant vast fields of sunflowers or other fast growing plants which will absorb cesium from the soil. As long as the Japanese society has devised a disposal method for the fully grown sunflowers then this crop could be of some use to the farmers. I reason that a typical Japanese farmer will be unhappy about now being able to earn a living the way he used to.

Even if a farmer was given the same amount of money as he earned in a year from farming and was told to sit on his bottom then I think that many farmers would be unhappy. I think that being able to farm an alternative crop or to farm in an alternative way of farming would be good for the mental and social wellbeing of the farming community.

One idea which I have seen before is for the farmers to change from growing food crops to growing plants which can be harvested for oil. The oil from sunflowers or rape could be used in industry or for making fuel oil. According to one book which I have read on the topic, the part of the plant where the oil is harvested from has very little radioactivity while the other parts of the plant contain plenty of radioactivity.

Maybe a contaminated farm could be changed from a food farm into a vegetable oil farm; if the oil is not suitable for food use then it could be converted into biodiesel. The biodiesel could be used for cars, trucks and buses as a replacement for normal diesel. The more radioactive parts of the plants could then be disposed on in a special way to avoid returning the radioactivity to the top soil.

If you are interested in the way that vegetable oil is converted into diesel then I can tell you something about it. Normal vegetable oil has the wrong mechanical and physical properties for use in a diesel engine. Also it is very hard to use sunflower oil in an oil lamp; instead the very large molecules in the vegetable oil need to be shortened to make them suitable for use.

One classic method is to make the FAME type of diesel fuel; this is the Fatty Acid Methyl Ester type of diesel. In common with diesel fuel production the formation of the methyl esters is often done in chemical labs when we want to analyse cooking oil. For analytical purposes my normal method is to shake a hexane solution of the cooking oil with potassium hydroxide in methanol. Then after allowing it to stand for a moment, I remove the glycerol rich bottom layer with a pipette and then I wash the mixture with brine, remove the brine, dry the hexane layer with sodium sulphate. Then I dilute it and inject it into my divining stick (opps I mean GC machine)

For making biodiesel the easy way is to boil methanol with cooking oil with some sodium hydroxide added. After boiling it for an hour, I let it cool. I then remove the bottom layer, then I wash the upper layer with dilute acetic acid, then with water and then I tend to dry it with sodium sulphate. This reaction works in the following way, methoxide acts as a nucelophile on the glycerol trimester to form a methyl ester. This is a classic bit of organic chemistry.

The alternative method uses more modern chemistry, a fancy catalyst is used to hydrogenate the oil and also do a hydrodeoxygenation reaction, this forms a mixture of propane and long chain alkanes (parafins).


Rather than the farmers having to work out their recovery plan on their own, I think that TEPCO and/or the Japanese government should provide guidance to the farmers, and financial and material assistance to help them change the way they earn a living from the land.


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