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.
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.
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.