Fukushima: What Sort Of Crisis?

The media plays on nuclear contamination fears, drowning out far more lethal consequences of Japan’s tsunami while exaggerating the dangers of nuclear power.
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    Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor complex, severely damaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, was back in the news this week with stories of an apparently massive and uncontrollable leak of dangerously contaminated water into the ocean. Or maybe not, since World Nuclear News, an industry source, claimed four days later that the leak was repaired.

    General news organizations often garble technical stories, and they are particularly bad at technical stories that are evolving and contain significant uncertainty. This crisis had much that was unknown, and much that TEPCO, the utility operating the reactors, seemed to fail to disclose.

    The crisis has become the third item in the trinity of nuclear disasters that is now a set phrase: “Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.” It is taken as proof that nuclear power is not just expensive or difficult, but that it is actively risking the contamination of the planet.  Greenpeace is typical in claiming  that nuclear power has a high probability of resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries and massive contamination.

    Yet, it could just as easily be argued that nuclear power has a 30-year record of near perfect safety.

    The truth is between those claims. A better picture is obtained by focusing on aspects of the Fukushima crisis that have been ignored or underplayed in mainstream media.


    The wave

    On March 11th, 2011, an earthquake rated at magnitude 9.0 occurred the Japanese coast.  This was the fourth biggest earthquake in the last 100 years, and was just slightly less powerful than the December 2004 quake off Sumatra that killed a quarter of a million people. It released more than 40 times the energy of the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. The Japanese earthquake was a consequence of the movement of tectonic plates that reportedly caused the entire country of Japan to move more than a meter.

    The reason for emphasizing the massive scale of this earthquake is to point out what didn’t happen: the vast majority of Japan’s more than 50 nuclear reactors were not impacted by this event at all.

    The focus has been on the six reactors properly named Fukushima Daiichi. Just seven miles away, and crucially, seven miles farther from the epicenter of the quake, are the two reactors named Fukushima Daini.

    All of the Daiichi and Daini reactors survived the earthquake and automatically started shut-down procedures. This is notable, since the quake was actually larger than the design limits for the plants.

    Forty minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami hit the coast. Daiichi was surrounded by a 16 foot sea wall that was helpless against a 46 foot wave. The water flooded the plant, including both on-site diesel power generators and switchgear for battery backup systems.

    At Daini the tsunami was between 30 and 40 feet high and also caused flooding and damage to backup power equipment. However, the smaller impact of the wave on plants built a few years after Daiichi left plant operators with more options, and after a brief struggle, largely outside of media attention, they achieved cold shutdown and their plants were safe.


    What it took

    In order to cause the disaster, it required one of the largest earthquakes in history, a reactor located near the quake, a massive tsunami and old reactor designs. Change any of those factors and there is no crisis. Add an underground waterproof external power supply to Daiichi’s reactors and there is no crisis.

    So this hardly seems a testimony to the ongoing risks of nuclear power. It could have just as easily been seen as a freak set of conditions.


    A big disaster – but what kind?

    There is no doubt however, that the ensuing troubles at Fukushima Daiichi constitute a major disaster. One reactor melted down, with molten radioactive fuel breaking out of the reactor pressure vessel and burying itself a couple of feet deep in the containment structure. Two other reactors suffered partial meltdowns that were contained by the reactor vessel. All three reactors are write-offs and will never produce power again.

    Those meltdowns caused the visual spectacle of explosions from hydrogen gas and the release of invisible radiation. It is the radiation release, and the fear of what it can do, that is drawing so much attention and anguish these days.

    There was a published study claiming that 14,000 Americans died from the accident in the months after the explosion. This is highly unlikely. People can be quickly killed by massive levels of radiation, but that would be visible in their bodies and no such epidemic was observed nor can anyone claim that massive exposure took place in the United States. Lower level radiation levels take years to show effects.

    Another study claimed a 16% increase in congenital hypothyroid cases in western states in the months after the radioactive plume from the disaster reached the west coast of the U.S. The authors are cautious in drawing conclusions and point out some of the other factors that could be involved.

    Fear of Fukushima’s effects has been significantly enhanced by an apparent and repeated policy of TEPCO and Japanese officials to downplay the seriousness of the crisis and hold data from the public. That can only mean, it is assumed, that the truth is much worse than publicly reported.


    What happened before?

    One way to get a grip on Fukushima’s effects is to compare it to other accidents. So, how many people died because of Three Mile Island? There are claims of massive numbers of deaths, government cover-ups extending down to doctored death certificates and epidemics of cancers that somehow have escaped all official record-keeping. Peer-reviewed studies, such as one done by Columbia University researchers and later reviews, found little or no health effects.  Defenders of nuclear power will say that “no one died at Three Mile Island”  and this claim is actually quite difficult to refute.

    Perhaps no one has died from Fukushima either. At least not from the reactors.

    The tsunami did give us the “North Pacific Garbage Patch” a massive debris field in the middle of the Pacific that probably won’t, in fact, wash up on the U.S. coast. It also wiped out the Kashima industrial zone with many petrochemical plants, including a PVC plant. The death toll from these pollutants might be a more serious problem than the radiation from Fukushima.


    Back to the leak

    But what about all that “contaminated” water? Just how radioactive is it? And how long will it be radioactive? Most news stories do not say. National Geographic manages to put some numbers on it. The major radioactive isotopes in the water are cesium-134 and cesium-137. These compounds have half-lives of 2 and 30 years respectively, so they are of concern.

    Cesium-137 is chemically active and it is contamination from this product that has produced the ‘dead zone’ around the Chernobyl site.

    Radiation is a problem only if something living is exposed to it, either directly or indirectly by eating food that has been exposed. And the rate of exposure matters crucially.

    High rates of contamination of certain fish observed at Fukushima are mostly among species that stay near the plant and were exposed to the initial burst of radiation.

    Again our fears enter the picture. Diluting the polluted water by a factor of 10 or 20 and releasing it deep in the middle of the ocean would probably ensure that its effects were minimal; a plan both technically possible and politically impossible.


    Back to the real crisis

    There is much uncertainty about the radiation release and its impacts. But the understandable focus on this obscures the real impact of the disaster. Serious estimates of the cost of the disaster at the plants range from $60 billion to $250 billion. Clean up of the plants will take years, if not decades. That loss is going to wipe out any conceivable profit from the use of the plants in the first place.

    The true size of the disaster, or even just the proper measure of the amount of radiation released, will take years to sort out. Media don’t understand that and want instant answers. They don’t know how to treat real uncertainty either and can assume it means a cover-up. They want a crisis, so reports of massive deaths, debris hitting the west coast and explosions will get immediate coverage. Plants that have problems that are overcome before disaster occurs, such as at Daini, will be ignored. And the scare around anything “nuclear” will always drive out reporting on sewage or petrochemical pollution, even if that’s a problem that kills more people.

    Nor can the media make distinctions. Chernobyl’s many undeniable deaths and ongoing contamination were produced by a plant with a design so unsafe it would never have been conceived let alone approved or built in almost any other country. Other nuclear “disasters” (consult any online list) include various events with death counts of zero, one or two. In other words, far less than many non-nuclear industrial accidents. And despite the confusion, misleading statements and technical mistakes surrounding Three Mile Island, and the added hysteria produced by the concurrent release of the nuclear disaster movie “The China Syndrome,” little media attention is given to the cost impact of the accident; all the attention goes to the almost non-existent health effects.


    Discussing policy

    It is often the case that the media treat corporations gently and tries to convince us that everything is under control. Nuclear power is one area where they do not do that. But by playing up certain fears, they disregard more important issues.

    Nuclear power, then, is yet one more area where we are not well served by our media.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

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    • vallehombre

      An interesting apologia for the nuke industry from a man who openly professes “faith” in a mystical sky daddy. Clearly the voice of Reason and science.

      The uses of nuclear power are obvious. Equally obvious is the unsuitability for use of nuclear power on a habitable planet.

      If the mystical sky daddy had wanted us to use nuke power he would not have given us sun, water, wind and things that grow. Now there’s an argument citizens with outlooks grounded in a medieval death cult can get with.

    • macmarine

      To quote the famous health-physicist and co-discoverer of Plutonium (at the Manhattan Project), Dr. John W. Gofman (1982): »Licensing a Nuclear Power Plant is in my view, licensing premeditated murder. First of all, when you license a plant, you know what you’re doing — so it’s premeditated. You can’t say, “I didn’t know.” Second, evidence on radiation-producing cancer is beyond doubt. I’ve worked 15 years on it. It’s not a question any more: radiation produces cancer … all the way down to the lowest doses!«

      That statement came from a real expert on these issues, not a hobbyist-lobbyist for the Nuclear Industry. Also, the statement that better protected backup diesel generators would have prevented this disaster is utterly false: the tidal wave took out all of the plant’s service water pumps that were located near the shore. So even if all of those diesels had been left intact the four meltdowns could still not have been prevented.

      Lastly, the claim that only 70+ fatalities resulted from the Chernobyl disaster and none from Three Mile Island is such a gross misrepresentation of known facts that it doesn’t even merit an answer. The true number of deaths from Chernobyl is in the region of 1 MILLION. Add to that an even bigger number of horrifying congenital birth defects that continue to fill poorly equipped and understaffed special care facilities and you might begin to understand the true scale of those disasters.

      The real and present danger in Fukushima is if there is another earthquake. The building is already structurally damaged and if the damaged spent fuel pool were to drain from an earthquake, then all bets are off. There is no way to cool the pool and the heat source is astronomical. The fuel in the pool would catch fire, and the uranium that is then encased in the zircaloy, would go airborne.

      Brookhaven National Labs did a study back in 1998 about this and they estimate that over 180,000 cancers would result from one fuel pool fire and that an area of about 40 mile radius would have to be permanently evacuated (yes, forever). Now the Brookhaven study had less uranium in it than the Fukushima fuel pool. So the odds are that if a fuel pool fire were to occur at Fukushima-Daiichi Unit 4, it would, in fact, be worse than the Brookhaven study.

      Regardless of what the nuclear industry claims, a fuel pool fire is possible if the water were to drain from a seismic event. Now this is not just a Fukushima-Daiichi problem. There are 23 GE Mark I reactors in the USofA and they have even more nuclear fuel in them than Unit 4 at Fukushima-Daiichi. This is an international problem, especially in the United States, because we have the most of these Mark I reactors with their rotten design-flaws.

      Source: fairewinds•org

      • mrz80

        The real problem with Fukushima Daichi is that it was poorly sited. As for the poor design of the GE Mark 1 reactor, a similar argument can be made for early examples of almost any technology. I still have kicking around somewhere an issue of the journal Science that was devoted to the ins and outs of nuclear power, and which discussed several design approaches for passive-fail-safe fission reactors that would be considerably safer and more survivable than most of what’s online and running today. Aside from the admitedly thorny issue of spent-fuel processing and waste storage (largely the realm of politics and not engineering (Yucca Mountain anyone?)), it is entirely within the realm of practical possibility from a technical standpoint to design and build much safer, more maintainable, more survivable fission reactors.

    • BEN

      Japanese officials lie about history, lie about reality, lie about the future.

      • Jed Maitland-Carter

        What is missing is japanese expediency: at the briefing to officers before pearl harbour, when there was dissent about the mission, yamamoto said: “the decision to attack pearl harbour has been made, we are hear to decide how best to carry it out.”

        We know there is a problem, we need to decide how best to solve it.
        I suggest we go to manhatten project mode and beat this thing.

    • windship

      As Helen Caldicott has said many a time – “dilution of pollution is not a solution”, especially in reference to how the oceanic food chain works by reconcentrating deadly radionucleides as the bigger fish eat the little ones. Humans, like whales, are at the pinnacle of the food chain, at the end of the reconcentration process in seafood consumption. So keep prodding all our governments to test all fish for nuclear and chemical contamination, at least for the next century.

    • itzman

      Chernobyl’s many undeniable deaths?

      run at IIRC 73, plus 3000 non fatal thyroid cancers.

      Why not get the facts straight. The most notable thing about Chernobyl, is not how many people died, but how few.

      A very large reactor without proper secondary containment is left on fire spewing its guts out. It simply doesn’t get worse than that – it CANT get any worse than that. Even blowing it up would have released less radiation.

      And only 73 people – mainly fire-fighters right up close without proper safety gear – die. The only statistically significant cancer effects are from highly radioactive iodine, gone in 60 days or less and those would have been preventable if they had issued iodine pills.

      The real news from Chernobyl was that there was something very very wrong about the assumptions of the effects of low dose radiation on health. It was the first time statistically significant samples of people and wildlife had been exposed to chronic mildly elevated levels of radiation. Up till then scientists had drawn up guidelines based on guesses.

      Chernobyl, and increasing amounts of evidence from medical uses of radioactivity and even direct cell experiments using laboratory induced radiation, showed that in fact radiation at low levels was somewhere between 100 and 1000 times less dangerous than was implied by the nuclear regulatory mechanism.

      This was is and should have been trumpeted as the real news.

      But its been silently ignored and covered up. The real conspiracy is not covering up the deaths at Chernobyl, but covering up the LACK of deaths at Chernobyl. And indeed Fukushima.

      • phrasing

        UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, attributes 43 deaths to the Chernobyl accident, 28 from acute radiation poisoning and 15 excess deaths from thyroid cancer. The later could have been avoided altogether if the Soviet regime had acted on the accident sooner.

        So, obviously it was a very serious incident, although fortunately the casualty figure was lower than the 76 people killed by the Sayano–Shushenskaya Dam failure in 2009 or the thousands killed mining coal every year.

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    • Tubularsock

      ” . . . would probably ensure . . .” Mr. Nordin, what does this mean to you? Your article must have been funded by the nuclear industry which then makes what you say worth money to you. But if you read your article from an informed point of view, well sir, you are tool of the industry! A pollyanna view of the dangers of nuclear energy is not helpful.

    • Eric SF

      Yes, only 3 of 50 Japanese nuclear plants melted down. This is like saying that only 3 of 50 drunk drivers ever kill another person in a car crash.

      Mr. Nordin’s uninformed comments reminds me of this:
      “Japanese Medical Scientist says that smiling and laughing will save people from radiation”
      Mr. Syunichi Yamashita stated: ‘’To tell you the truth, radiation doesn’t affect those who are smiling, but those who are worried.”

      Unfortunately, the amount of radiation in those 3 plants and in the
      fuel pools is enough to kill everybody on the planet 10 times over.

      Denial is not a river in Egypt. This crisis is not over.

    • RC

      Well, dear John Nordin, thank you for your article. Between your specialisation in Greek politics and Lutheran pastorship, where exactly do you get the qualifications to judge the extent and consequences of nuclear fall-out, or any matter involving nuclear physics, public health and medical science.