Skip to content

Putting the clear in nuclear

March 27, 2011

Geoff Russell has written a terrific article on the Fukushima situation. He brings to the discussion what precious few journalists and commentators have managed – perspective.

Residents living in the vicinity of the Fukushima nuclear plant face some considerable cancer risks during coming decades. They will come primarily from cigarettes, red meat, alcohol and salty foods. These should hardly be called risks, since each will definitely cause tens of thousands of new cancer cases every single year throughout Japan.

An additional possibility, a potential risk, hardly visible in comparison, may come from radiation as a result of the quake and tsunami damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

After the unrelenting horror of the biggest earthquake and tsunamis ever to hit Japan, you’d think the world’s journalists would jump on the biggest good news story to emerge from the carnage. This good news story is the performance of Japan’s nuclear reactors.

While the media focuses on the serious problems in a single cluster of older reactors, the more modern reactors shut down gracefully. Of 54 reactors in Japan with a combined capacity of 48 gigawatts, five clusters were affected by the quake with four shutting down successfully despite sometimes significant damage.

The cluster closest to the epicenter of the quake was Onagawa. It experienced significant damage, including a fire, but shut down without problems. Fukushima Daiichi isn’t far from its slightly newer sister plant, Fukushima Dainii. The four reactors at Dainii shutdown successfully despite significant damage caused by the quake.

The two plants were designed to withstand a 5.7 metre tsunami, but the tsunami that hit these two plants was 14 metres high.

The reactors didn’t buckle like some bridges and even the explosions at the reactors were trifling compared to the deadly conflagration at the Chiba oil refinery. The reactors stood up substantially better than the tsunami sea walls which turned back the waves of the massive 1960 Chilean earthquake but which failed this time with catastrophic consequences.

Despite this good news, the top 12 stories on Yahoo News that came up on the Sunday after the event included the following headlines; “Japan’s nuclear crisis deepens”,  “Japan quake evacuees scanned for radiation”, “Nuclear meltdown new threat for Japan”, “Japan grapples with nuclear crisis”.

There were only three other earthquake stories and five stories unrelated to the quake. While it was reasonable to talk about a Fukushima nuclear crisis there was never a national crisis.

Sunday’s nuclear focus was followed by a relentless week of fear mongering with every event related to the plants, regardless of magnitude or import, being painted as a harbinger of national, if not global, doom. This relentless fear mongering wained a little during the second week when the crisis in Libya finally shifted to lead story.

Nevertheless, the smallest puff of smoke from the reactors managed to reignite echos of the previous week’s panic.

Radiation facts missing in action

Most journalists showed an ignorance of radiation basics that could have, and should have, been rectified by 10 minutes with Wikipedia. Why didn’t they bother? SMH on March 16 reported that 100 millisieverts of radiation in a year would elevate cancer risks and followed it with:

Measurements at the damaged plants are now well below the lethal levels of 400 millisieverts an hour measured yesterday.

Lethal? 400 millisieverts per hour? Such levels are definitely to be avoided, but lethal? A key question is to ask what “elevate” means.

Two and a half hours spent receiving 400 millisieverts per hour is 1,000 millisieverts. According to Kelly Classic, a radiation physicist at the Mayo Clinic, if you exposed 125 people to such a dose, you would expect one of them to get cancer sometime in their life. How many of 125 people would normally get cancer? About 40.

In Australia, roughly 1 in 17 men get bowel cancer with another 1 in 22 getting lung cancer. About half of those bowel cancer cases are due to eating more than one red meat meal per week. It’s a safe bet that cigarettes, sake and even Aussie beef will cause far more cancers in Japan than the Fukushima reactors. There are about 60,000 new cases of both bowel cancer and lung cancer each year in Japan.

Lastly, it isn’t just that the risk of cancer from radiation is low, the most likely cancer from a reactor problem is probably thyroid cancer. If you had to choose a cancer, thyroid is better than most. According to Professor Kirk Smith of Berkeley University in the US, less than one per cent of thyroid cases caused by Chernobyl were fatal.

The workers at Fukushima know these things. It’s their job. Their bravery in getting on and fixing the damage was just that, bravery. It was exactly the same kind of heroism shown by emergency workers around the world in the recent earth quakes and floods. Fires, explosions, debris, and contaminants. All pose risks.

The radiation risk can at least be measured and managed with some precision.

The one media exception I saw to the ill-informed radiation fear mongering drivel during the first week was a report by Stan Grant on Friday 18th which put radiation risks in some perspective. But, two days later, Channel 7 was back to form showing a clearly terrified expat Australian in Tokyo who had overdosed on fallout fear and was mortified at not being able to afford to fly out of Tokyo and back to the bosom of safety in Australia.

Whipping up such terror should be a sackable offence.

Basic Questions

Journalists should have asked and answered some basic questions.

How many people died due to radiation releases or leaks in the nuclear plants? None reported so far. Probably none ever.

What exactly is a meltdown? Why was the word thrown around like a prescription for global doom? There have been six meltdowns in US reactors over the years. The worst killed three workers. This is a personal tragedy, but more like a bad weekend on Adelaide roads than a global catastrophe.

If a meltdown did or has already occurred, how many people would die? Usually none. A meltdown is a nuclear plant operator’s worst financial nightmare … your investment is trashed and you are in for a long running stabilisation bill … but it isn’t necessarily life threatening.

At Three Mile Island the molten core ate less than 1 inch into the 8-inch reactor vessel and if it had gone through that, there were further barriers to absorb the energy. The worst case risk of an explosion is certainly real, and has been admitted by the UK Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington. But he pointed out that it could be nothing like Chernobyl and that any significant radiation impacts from this unlikely event would be limited to within 30 kilometers. Hence the evacuation.

As each day passes, this unlikely event becomes even less likely.

The desperation at the nuclear plants is three fold. The financial and safety incentives are obvious. But more importantly, Japan has lost about 18 giga watts worth of generating power as a result of quake damage. This is evenly split between the thermal plants (gas, coal and oil), and nuclear plants.

All of the operators are desperate to fix the damage and return power to their customers. Vital machinery and equipment (frequently medical equipment like machines to X-ray limbs broken by the tsunami) needs power. Without refrigeration, food poisoning rates will rise.

What about the explosions? Yes, there have been explosions but without the horrific afterburn of the oil refinery fires. The Chiba refinery fire was finally extinguished on 21st of March. For 10 days this fire spewed out toxic fumes, the refinery was offline and workers couldn’t enter the complex. The fires at Fukushima were relative wimps that didn’t even manage to melt the light metal frame. The explosions didn’t damage the reactor pressure vessel and were very unlikely to.

While I saw the huge dangerous fumes of the Chiba refinery fire once on the night it started, the relatively minor explosions at the nuclear plant were repeated by the TV media ad-nauseum.

Nuclear designers don’t aim to prevent all explosions, just the ones that matter. I hesitate to make light of a serious matter, but do you care if your dunny explodes? Absolutely, if you are on it. But you don’t necessarily make dunny explosion prevention top of your design specification.

The reactors that have caused such concern were designed to prevent catastrophic failure and have done just that. These are 1970s reactors and don’t have the bells and whistles of later models but are from an era when people were sent to and from the moon. There is nothing dodgy about the engineering. It wasn’t perfect and lessons will be learned. But nobody died.
It’s worth repeating the last sentence. Nobody died. They died in the quake and the tsunami and the fires, but not due to the reactor failures. Nobody died at Three Mile Island. Not due to the meltdown and not due to any radiation leaks. Nobody died.

People in the quake area are facing a large range of bacterial and viral agents that will, with certainty, be hospitalising and killing people right now. The amputations will be many and horrible. They are happening now while your TV news is showing you people in Tokyo buying bottled water. The health care logistical challenges remain enormous. Next to these certainties, radiation risks are trifling.

I don’t know what the TV news is and was reporting in Japan, but I fervently hope that Japanese children aren’t having nightmares fuelled by reporting similar to the shock-jock rubbish which predominated in Australia.

The performance of the nuclear power plants in the face of the largest quake ever to hit the region has been a spectacular success and one of the biggest unreported good news stories of the decade. But it wasn’t Hollywood or Bollywood. There were some serious problems that will inform future designs. Particularly as concerns spent fuel ponds. “Keep covered with water” … how hard can that be?

If you wanted to test a reactor design against this kind of event, you could never stage anything even close to being this bad. While the nuclear plant workers were and are being both heroic and vigilant, solid engineering design work has already done the major job in protecting lives.

Lastly, just one parting thought. The much hyped Andasol I solar thermal power station in Spain is a 50 mega-watt unit. This is about 20 times smaller than most of the Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors. Andasol has a tank of molten salt which is 14 metres high and 38 meters in diameter.

This molten salt acts as a battery to store energy when the sun isn’t shining. To replace a single nuclear plant, you will need a tank 20 times as big, holding about half a million tonnes of molten salt at 400 degrees centigrade. If you were living on a fault line in Japan, which would you prefer to live next door to … the ocean, the molten salt, an oil refinery or a nuclear plant? How would you farm land after a half million tonne salt spill?

The main game is climate change and there is no free lunch. If there is a solution, it will involve nuclear power.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: