Thursday, March 17, 2011

Last Post on Fukushima for a while...

I've had a few, genuine comments from people in the area of the reactors, looking for advice and thanking me for providing some clear insight.   I was writing a response back to one of them when I just decided to make this my (possibly nearly final) post on the Fukushima reactors.

"one cup of coffee" asked,

If you don't mind me asking, I'd like to know what you think? If, as they are saying, they are able to get power to the plants and restore the cooling system will they have saved the plant from dumping more radiation into the environment? At that point will the situation be "under control?" What exactly would it take to get the situation under control? It seems like the foreign press is obsessed with worst case scenarios, what about a reasonable set of most likely scenarios? And lastly, what about the plutonium? Is this significantly more dangerous than the uranium?
and it spawned a whole host of emotions.  Here's my response.

I'd give it another WEEK before we can safely say that we're "out of the woods" and that there will be no more flare-ups.  A recent report I read said that some of the concrete wall surrounding the spent fuel pool of reactor #4 has fallen away, but that the steel liner remains.  If the pool crumbles, my guess is that it would make cleanup considerably messier, but *shouldn't* provide any additional risk to the general public.

Getting reliable power to the site will help tremendously: they may be able to turn on some of the pumps and ensure good water circulation, and they should be able to get a more reliable flow of water to the core.  But even then, the road ahead is a lot of (boring) circulation of water as the core cools down to a point where they can safely inspect it with cameras and robots.

And the plutonium: I've enjoyed looking at what other sites link to mine (thanks Google Analytics!), but some of the sites out there are just absurd.  My jaw dropped at the rampant mis-representation of the facts, and heralding the fact that "Mox fuel is two million times worse than uranium."  Baloney.  Yes, plutonium has a higher toxicity and a lower melting point than uranium, so it's not quite as robust.  It might result in a slightly higher dose to those at the plant (who have tools and equipment to deal with it appropriately), but in no way will it lead to any additional dose to the general public.

Earlier in the comment, "one cup of tea" noted that people have a very visceral response to radiation.  And sadly, that's very true.  Radiation is all around us, and I think people are ignorant of that.  The background radiation you get from the Colorado Plateau is five times higher as on the eastern seaboard, and yet you don't see people fleeing Colorado for the coasts.  And as I noted in a previous post, people are exposed to small amounts of toxic chemicals all the time due to spills and accidents, and yet humanity moves on.  Remember the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal?  A hideous, gruesome release of methyl isocyanate killed thousands and injured tens of thousands, and yet the industry goes on.  I wish the public could put radiation in the same context that almost everything else is, and I guess that starts with education.

Lastly, a comment on frustration: I have read reports from scores of "experts" proclaiming that the Fukushima "crisis" will be worse than Chernobyl and that lives are at risk all around the world.  Where is the accountability?  Where are the apologies when these people are shown to be wrong?  Where is the public excoriation when the "expert opinions" turn out to be nothing more than fear-mongering, playing on the deep-rooted fears of the general public?  When does the loss of credibility set in?

Sadly, it won't.  The nuclear "debate" will continue, fueled more by emotion than by fact when no one in the general public is affected by this event.  And the nuclear "experts" will continue pressing the panic button and gleefully watching the response.  And most of the mainstream media will follow them doggedly because it sells newspapers and it generates interest.

The solution, I think, starts with education.  Patient, careful, instructive education.  I hope I've been able to provide some of that here.

I'll leave with the most recent update from JAIF on the status of the reactors (click for bigger):


  1. Thanks for the helpful information and insight!

  2. "Lastly, a comment on frustration: I have read reports from scores of "experts" proclaiming that the Fukushima "crisis" will be worse than Chernobyl and that lives are at risk all around the world."

    I haven't heard anyone from any credible news source say anything like that. And I've been following this news story very closely.

    I think that many authorities & media outlets in the population quickly divided into two biased groups: 1) the embarrassingly panicked media, and 2) the "no big deal" experts. The "no big deal" experts, of which you seem to be one, are dangerous in that you fail to acknowledge the hysteria as legitimate, you proclaim that history will prove that this was not a big deal and that the media should be sorry for what they did.

    The media only sells the topics that people want to hear about, in a way that makes them listen. What this indicates is that the public perception of nuclear energy is an uneducated one. While the public tends to believe that clean coal exists (it does not), they also believe that nuclear energy is generally high-risk (it is not). How did this come to be? That a good product can't get sold, and a bad (i.e. imaginary) product can? The nuclear energy industry has failed to brand itself properly. Shame on our nuclear energy industry for allowing such poorly educated views to persist.

    At the same time, the American public is more sophisticated than the "no big deal" experts give them credit. It sounds like a handful of people might die of radiation sickness - a grotesque and inspirational story of plant workers facing almost certain death from an invisible force in order to save the people around them. Their deaths are not insignificant. For Japan, this is a bonafide crisis, no need for the " ". It's especially significant in the context of a destructive earthquake/tsunami that wiped out cities, people, infrastructure. Additionally, we're not actually worried about nuclear fallout hitting the US or anywhere else. We know that "radiation is all around us" and we have put this in the context of other chemical spills. Unlike the Union Carbide plant, the technical capacity of one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world cannot turn off/contain this plant. Even if it's only leaking a little bit, it's an intriguing, inspirational, scary, unfortunate story. On the scale of human life, the 30 or so Chilean miners didn't deserve to captivate the world for as long as they did, but I felt good inside when they got out. I hope the whole world cheers when the Japanese cool Fukushima, in a symbol that the agonizing totality of disaster that this earthquake inflicted on their country is finally taking a turn for the better.

    In the meantime, the "no big deal" experts may be right and I hope you are, but please acknowledge your biases. The true nuclear experts, and the industry as a whole, need to learn how to speak to a population that is more sophisticated than we acknowledge. A lot of good public policy has gotten tanked for sound bites because the decision makers don't think the commoners can handle nuanced ideas. If everyone-media, experts, elected officials- raised their level of discourse, more decision makers could take courageous steps and stop pandering.

  3. Anonymous, first of all, an apology -- Google treated your comment as spam, and I'm not sure why. I have no control over the Google spam filter.

    To your assertion that you haven't heard any credible news source say anything outlandish, I didn’t quote the outlandish claims in the post because I didn’t want to give them credit.

    Here’s Arnie Gunderson extolling that the situation is "Chernobyl on steroids," both in a video interview and in the Washington Post.

    This NYT article
    inappropriately quotes a 1997 Brookhaven study. The article does not mention the basic assumption that the entire spent fuel population is aerosolized instantaneously (not possible in this scenario), but trumpets the dollar value and loss of life impact. That's stacking the deck.

    Or how about this interview with Harvey Wasserman where he claims that the nuclear leak could bring about an apocalypse?

    And while the headlines are no longer around to quote, what disturbed me at the time was the willingness that tied the tragedy to the nuclear incident. Unfortunately, those headlines aren’t around anymore and I didn’t grab them when they were up.

    As for failing to acknowledge the hysteria, I'd say it's more misplaced than failing to acknowledge it. The news stories we see now are (appropriately) turning to the tragedy that the rest of the island is experiencing.

    We both agree that more education is needed - and I'm glad for that. The trouble is getting the message right. If you're claiming that my arguments and statements on this blog are too simplified and not nuanced enough for the general public, then you're entitled to your opinion. But I interpet the pile of "thank you" emails, comments, and phone calls as a sign that I'm hitting the mark pretty well.

  4. First off, thanks for providing a measured and considered response and account of the events Fukushima.

    I work in the Canadian Nuclear industry, and like you have been filtering the mis-information, hype, and exploitation of the tragedy to figure out what is really happening. WANO, NISA, WNN, IAEA are some sources who seem to be reporting facts rather than opinion.

    The irresponsibility of the media (in my eyes) has been stunning. On the false belief that CNN was a "news" station, I was disheartened at the manipulation of the story to make things seem catastrophic and drive up viewer-ship. Seriously, many people there (and at other news outlets) deserve to be fired for what they have done to the public misunderstanding of the facts.

    But, a part of the problem is that nuclear is a complex beast, and the the general public expects black and white simple answers to questions which are inherently gray and complex. And because there is a distrust of experts, the public does not recognize when they are being told the truth (or to be fair, a close representation of the truth).

    Based on my own professional experience in the industry, I see that the crises appears to be winding down. However, I freely acknowledge that I may be wrong. I neither have the "complete" training to determine this absolutely, or access to the complete information needed to assess. But I know enough to offer an educated opinion. They have some definite challenges, and there is still a chance that things could go wrong, but the worst is probably over.

    But, I will be considered biased. And a reporter, with no understanding of nuclear, let alone basic science, will spout doom and be given credibility. The news outlets will not correct their errors, or publish a story which looks back and provides some context. Lets assume that the accident is over, and there are no new developments. Will the story EVER be "40 year old Nuclear plant survives 5th worst earthquake ever, negligible loss of life, small risk of cancer expected"... or "loss of life at nuclear plant 100 times less than just one train derailment"

    As you both say, education is the answer. Unfortunately, this will be very difficult. It would take a focused effort in the education system and some means to make the media accountable again for what they say. I predict that with these challenges, and the added static created by the anti-nuclear groups, that Nuclear will be misunderstood for a long time.

  5. I can't explain away the WaPo article, but the video interviews with Arnie Gunderson and Harvey Wasserman come from RT English. First, I'm not at all surprised to see an advocate for the solar industry (Wasserman wrote the book "Solartopia") decry the dangers and instability of nuclear power.

    I'm sure you're aware that RT stands for Russia Today, and that the outlet is paid for by the Russian state. If you've ever watched RT, it's probably the most biased and least legitimate media outlet available on cable in the United States so I'm not surprised they found a crazy pundit. I don't think it is a coincidence that the local government in the Russian Far East is encouraging residents to cover their bodies in iodine cream. See this NYT article:

    Also, I believe NYT was a victim of bad journalism, and I wouldn't be surprised if contacts with vested interests in competing green technologies were pushing some of these stories & reports to journalists who they know are writing on extremely tight deadlines - sometimes a matter of hours or minutes - or who are of poor quality (i.e. CNN)

    When I said that we need to recognize the hysteria as legitimate, I mean that people are legitimately afraid, and they're buying into the mainstream media's authority on this topic, as they do on other topics where the reporting quality is quite high. Again, shame on the nuclear industry for not pushing competing, accurate information to debunk the pundits and the vested interests!

    I'm a huge proponent of nuclear technology. It is incumbent on the industry to debunk these myths of global, catastrophic risk. There is lots of money involved on the side of green technology producers, and the NEI and private industry should be more forceful in their approach. Sec. Chu's defense of the power source by simply saying "the President's budget is what it is" is not adequate defense of such a pragmatic power source, and no one is telling him so!

    I thank you as well for presenting an opinion from the other side, but it has also seemed to be agenda-driven. I'd like to see a comprehensive and pragmatic report on the long term PR effects and how the industry has been working to mitigate them...where oh where can I get that?

  6. Someone inside DC yelling about accountability strikes me as more than just a little hypocritical. I hope you are as adamant demanding accountability for the financial mess the coutry is in and the 2 failed wars in the middle east.

    On the plus side, I agree that the answer lies in better edutation.

    Nevertheless, I think you'll fit right in with the DC crowd.