“The key to success is not how many people we put in, but how many we keep from coming back."
The crisis the world faces at Fukushima is devastatingly simple: Neither the utility (Tepco) nor the government (Japan) can handle a situation that threatens us all.
It's not clear that a task force of the world's best scientists and engineers can do the job either. But we cannot settle for less.
It is time for the United Nations to assemble the best team humankind can muster and use it to take command of the Fukushima site.
Here are some basic facts:
1) There are some 1,300 intensely radioactive fuel rods weighing some 400 tons stuck in a spent fuel pool 100 feet in the air at Fukushima 4. They are brittle to the point of crumbling. Debris of unknown composition has been seen through remote cameras in the pool.
2) The structural integrity of the pool itself is uncertain. The building is tipping and sinking. It could fall on its own or be knocked down by another earthquake.
3) The rods are clad in zirconium alloy, which will ignite when exposed to air. If coolant is lost, the resulting conflagration could release 15,000 times more radiation than came from the bombing of Hiroshima. Fukushima is less than 200 miles from Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics.
4) According to nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, the job of somehow removing those rods to safety has been vastly complicated by warping and decay of the rods, and by the uncertainties surrounding the integrity of the pool and the supporting structure. A single mishap along the way could be catastrophic. Tepco has said it intends to begin removing rods within two months.
5) A common spent fuel pool some 50 meters from the shaky Unit Four superstructure contains more than 6,000 spent rods which would be severely compromised should the building crash into the pool or disrupt its cooling system.
6) Overall, some 11,000 spent fuel rods are scattered around the Fukushima site. A human being standing near a single exposed rod would die in minutes. Should enough of the rods become exposed, the site could be irradiated to the point of forcing all personnel to leave. The radiation could also render critical electronic equipment inoperable.
7) Steam eruptions at the site indicate one or more of the melted cores from Units One, Two, and Three may still be fissioning. Nobody knows exactly where they are or how far they've burned into the ground or whether they've yet hit the aquifer beneath the site.
8) Tepco has been pouring in thousands of tons of water to try to keep the missing cores cool. The company has attempted to store the irradiated water in hundreds of huge but flimsy tanks on site, which are now leaking. Tepco has just admitted to dumping another thousand tons of contaminated water into the Pacific.
9) A natural aquifer flows through the site, now carrying untold quantities of contaminated water into the ocean. Tepco has talked of building an ice wall to somehow divert or stop the flow. But the technology is dubious at best, as is the electric supply that would be needed to keep it going. At best the wall could possibly be activated in two years. What it might actually accomplish is debatable.
10) Tuna contaminated by Fukushima have been caught off the coast of California.
11) There are preliminary indications of a possible rise in thyroid abnormalities among children in the region.
12) Initial radioactive fallout from the first Fukushima explosions was detected in California in less than a week.
13) The US Food and Drug Administration has ceased testing Pacific fish for radioactivity.
The removal of the Fukushima 4 fuel rods could mark the most dangerous moment in human history since the era of atmospheric atomic testing and the nuclear confrontations between the US and USSR.
A mishap that compromises those rods or some of the thousands of others sitting nearby could release clouds of fallout that would affect the entire planet.
It's clear that the upcoming operation at Unit 4 is beyond the reliable abilities of Tepco or the Japanese government.
It's long past time for the United Nations and the global scientific and engineering communities to take charge of this situation.
If the United States and others were prepared to go to war to control chemical warfare in Syria, then all the nations of the world should be ready to somehow bring this worsening disaster at Fukushima under control.
This crisis began more than 32 months ago. The situation deteriorates by the day. Another earthquake or tsunami could take the site beyond all conceivable salvation. The dangers to all of us, wherever we might be on this planet, are incalculable.
Among other things, we are circulating a petition to the United Nations and President Obama, pleading for intervention as soon as possible.
Whatever else you can do to move the global community into full focus on somehow bringing Fukushima to safety will be worthwhile.