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Morbid fascination with catastrophe

March 15, 2011

What is it with the media? Is nothing safe from overwrought sensationalism?

Coverage of the Queensland floods, the Christchurch earthquake and now the Japanese tsunami has been nothing short of disgraceful. These have all been dreadful events but in my most uncharitable moments all I see are network executives and prominent talking heads rubbing their hands with glee at another opportunity to ‘score’. If you thought La Guillotine’s recent emotional outpourings were suspect, most media commentators leave her for dead.

Specific case in point is the reporting of the Japanese tragedy. Watching any news bulletin would have you believe that the most significant problem the nation faces is at least 6 out of control nuclear reactors (possibly more!) and the prospect of a large scale nuclear explosion barely being contained. The coverage plays over and over the one explosion in the one tower of the one plant that has occurred together with frequent references to Chernobyl. The audience is left to draw their own conclusion.

The reality of the situation is, unfortunately for the breathless catastrophists, quite different. Any number of informed and expert bodies have issued statements, released reports, and provide updates which suggest the situation, while serious, is absolutely in hand (International Atomic Energy Agency, World Nuclear News). Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, Boston despairs at the blatant errors in mainstream reporting.

I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. And this text is long! But you will know more about nuclear power plants after reading it than all journalists on this planet put together.

There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.

By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.

In fact Dr Oehman’s post, which originally appeared on Morgsatlarge, has been considered such an important piece of work that it is now being hosted by the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering site (with some modifications). Read the full post here – it is reasonably technical but perfectly understandable by a lay person and well worth the effort. The site is also giving updates on the situation in Japan as it unfolds and new information comes to light.

Another sane analysis of the relatively minor nuclear danger posed by the power plants in Japan has come from our own nuclear expert, Ziggy Switkowski, writing in The Australian.

In Australia, opponents of nuclear power already point to the situation in Japan as evidence of the dangers of nuclear reactors. They conveniently sidestep the loss of life and damage caused by exploding oil tanks, burst gas mains, electrical fires: hazards that come with living in a tectonically active region.

Japan has 55 reactors that generate about 30 per cent of its electricity. Half of these reactors are in eight power plants in the Sendai region. When the magnitude 8.9 earthquake hit, 20 reactors were operating. Eleven shut down as sensors reacted to the shifting earth and the remaining nine continued to operate safely. As they were designed for a geologically active region, the shutdown of the reactors went according to plan.

… Controlled venting of excess and mildly radioactive gases is happening, will result in some community exposure to radiation, but is very unlikely to have an effect on community health. At this time, only workers on site are likely to have had elevated radiation exposures. In the context of the general devastation from the earthquake and tsunami, any health or property damage arising from the affected reactors is likely to be small.

If core cooling can be satisfactorily restored, then in the best case local residents could return to their homes in days.

What is most upsetting is that the real human suffering that is taking place in Japan right now is being glossed over in the rush to imply an almost certain nuclear catastrophe.

We will learn from the tragic Japanese experience how to build more robust reactors, how to ensure multiple layers of protection work properly, how to better contain radioactive gases. But when the grisly causes of fatalities, injuries and asset damage are eventually itemised nuclear facilities may not even feature.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Umfazi permalink
    March 15, 2011 4:16 pm

    The four Japanese nuclear reactors of immediate concern here are about 40 years old and have recently had their life extended another 20 years. Nuclear reactors constructed nowadays have a different design and are considered a great deal safer. The recent Japanese nuclear “explosions” are very different to the ones that occurred at Chernobyl (Did you know the Russians are apparently considering opening up Chernobyl as a tourist site?!!).


  1. Where’s the nuclear Armageddon we were promised? « politichix

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