We must cooperate to overcome fear of radiation and nuclear energy

By Rod Adams

On Friday, September 30, the Japanese government cancelled evacuation advisories for areas located more than 20 km (12 miles) from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The evacuation advisories initially affected 59,000 people, but 30,000 had already returned because radiation measurements showed them that there was no longer any reason to stay away from their homes. That indicates that irrational fear has begun to fade away.

Part of the basis for the government’s decision was the report issued by Tepco late last week that the temperature in all three of the affected reactors was less than 100 degrees Celcius, an important milestone for achieving a stable, cold shutdown condition.

Sadly, the Japanese government is not being given sufficient credit for taking a careful, methodical approach to recovering from an unprecedented condition. Instead of seeing the progress as good news that offers an opportunity for tens of thousands of displaced people to start living normal lives again, some reporters are taking the approach of trying to stir up controversy or implant doubts in their readers’ minds.

Two of the world’s premier financial news sources, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, published stories on October 2, 2011, that, instead of focusing on the steady progress of recovery efforts, breathlessly reported that “trace amounts of plutonium” were found in the soil in certain locations in Japan that happen to be located within a few tens of miles of the destroyed reactors at Fukushima Daiichi.

In the Wall Street Journal report, you have to read to the thirteenth paragraph in a fifteen paragraph article to find the following statement:

Plutonium had previously been detected in Japan after atmospheric nuclear tests, sometimes at higher levels than were found from the June-July samples, a science ministry official said.

There is no similar statement in the Financial Times report.

Before ever getting to a statement indicating that it is not unusual to find plutonium in the soil in Japan and that even higher levels have been detected, readers are treated to ill-informed paragraphs like the following that seem to be calculated to cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Still, the latest discovery is a potentially disturbing turn, as it shows that people relatively far from the plant could be exposed to more dangerous elements than had been previously disclosed.

While neither plutonium nor strontium emit powerful gamma rays like cesium and iodine, both deposit in the body—strontium in the bones, plutonium in the bones and lungs—and can cause cancer of leukemia once inhaled or ingested.

Both isotopes also have long half lives: it takes about 29 years for some forms of strontium to reduce by half, while plutonium isotopes have half-lives ranging from 88 years to over 24,000 years.

That makes them highly toxic in the body as they continue to emit alpha rays, and immensely difficult to get rid of in the environment.

It is true that it is immensely difficult to get rid of trace quantities of plutonium once they are widely dispersed. That is why it is possible to occasionally find tiny quantities of plutonium remaining from the open atmosphere weapons testing in the soil almost anywhere in the world if you look hard enough.

It is not true that quantities measuring between 0.55 and 4.0 becquerels per square meter in a few random locations are anything to worry about. It is emphatically not true that measuring such minuscule quantities is evidence that there was more damage to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors than has been reported. Long half lives do not indicate that isotopes are highly toxic—in fact, long half lives indicate that specific activity is quite low and results in fewer interactions with living tissue per unit time.

The science that allows measurement and identification of isotopes at concentrations in the single digits of becquerels is impressive, but it is akin to seeing the scary creatures that can be found in random samples of household dust under an extremely powerful microscope.

When I read articles like those published in premier press sources like the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal, and the Financial Times, I realize just how hard we must work to spread knowledge that can lead to understanding about radiation and radioactive materials.

As evidence of the scale of our information dissemination challenge, there was a flurry of excitement on the Social Media e-mail list yesterday (October 3, 2011) when one of the contributors pointed to John Boice’s rational testimony on the subject of nuclear energy risk management to a congressional committee.

Dr. Boice is a radiation epidemiologist who has spent his career studying human populations exposed to radiation. His testimony is fact-filled, easy to read, and sharply focused. Several contributors to the e-mail list, all of whom are actively working to share nuclear knowledge, were impressed and made favorable comments highly recommending that the work be more widely shared. I decided after reading the testimonials and the testimony to make it a subject of my monthly post for ANS Nuclear Cafe.

I was somewhat dismayed to realize that the testimony was given on May 13, 2011, nearly five months ago. I am left wondering why it took us so long to find and promote it.

It is not too late to start. Steve Aplin at Canadian Energy Issues has made a contribution to the necessary sharing effort with his post titled Wondering why still no radiation casualties at Fukushima? A prominent radiation epidemiologist explains.

If you have a blog, are active on Twitter, have circle of friends on Google Plus, or share news with friends and family on Facebook, please help us spread Dr. Boice’s rational words to overcome the efforts of those who want us to remain confused and afraid instead of informed and confident.

________

Adams

Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blogAtomic Insights.

11 thoughts on “We must cooperate to overcome fear of radiation and nuclear energy

  1. Luke

    I have to say, I appreciate the time you’ve taken with my points, all of it makes for really interesting reading, I didn’t know that about the I-talians history. Your hatpin quote actually made me laugh out loud :)

    I did mean apparati like solar panels, small roof mounted windmills, and (don’t laugh, cause this is my idea) a turbo kind of set up to catch energy from waste water to charge a battery in your house. You could get rid of water restricting shower heads and place my turbo idea instead to catch energy from it coming in, and, when you flush the toilet.. :) ah? what do you think? lots of small stuff together working like ants. We have these ant mounds in the Outback, they’re massive, 5m +. And not crumbly, the stuff is like concrete with all sorts of complexity within. Nurseries, convoluted passageways, conference rooms.. Anyway, I didn’t mean little internal combustion engines. I know an economy of scale is observed when you get a 1000 ton armature spinning with a fossil fire from hell beneath it. The resulting pollutants are also terrible though and we must stop producing them.

    I’m sure there are plenty of diligent nuclear power operators out there. If they all were, I would feel less squeemish about it. I’ve just read too much stuff about corners being cut and governments covering things up, that I could never endorse it. It’s a shame because of the incredible energy density and I was just really interested in nuclear originally – it’s a fascinating thing, what with that Cherenkov effect and all – that’s why I followed Fukushima so closely. Time and time again officials said everything was ok, then a week later “highest radiation readings yet”. You must admit it was bordering on farsicle. Then the new PM got in and the coverage dropped to almost zero. Those assnecks really have ruined it. Them and the assnecks that hold back the newer generation plants (the plutonium does worry me in those), have plant licences extended on 40+ year old reactors, it goes on and on. It’s all so money hungry. I don’t think you can take that out of it, it’s human nature and with nuclear -> so little room for mistakes/negligence/malpractice.

    Peace

    Hopefully sounding less like a fringe lunatic..

  2. radams

    Walter – that is an excellent question. I would imagine that it might take several months worth of surveying to find out the answer. My hope is that the Japanese will continue to conduct routine surveys on the areas that they consider to be contaminated and take reasonable action to relax any evacuation orders as areas prove to be less contaminated than the standards currently set.

    Of course, my real hope is that they will reevaluate the current standards as being far too strict in light of all of the studies that have shown the levels to be low risk – especially compared to all of the other risks associated with living on Earth.

  3. Walter Sobchak

    Mr. Adams:

    I heard on the news that the Fukushima area had been hit by a Typhoon (either Roke or Sonca) . Has this produced a change in the amount of cesium found in Fukushima province? Cesium and its compounds should be highly soluble, and very heavy rains should wash them away or drive them into the subsurface.

  4. Brian Mays

    We need lots of small personal power generating apparati scattered over the globe (minimise transmission losses over distance), …

    Luke – We already have plenty of these “apparati” … they’re called automobiles, which are, by far, the most common form of distributed generation all over the world. This distributed generation neither is efficient nor is it clean.

    If you want a small personal power generating apparatus to provide your electricity, such devices are available today. Just purchase a diesel generator, stick it beside your house, and you can generate your own electricity for yourself. You should realize, however, that this electricity will also generate more pollution, more noise, and more cost for you than just getting your electricity from the grid.

    … supplemented by relatively clean big stuff, like hydro, geothermal, solar thermal, tidal, off-shore wind …

    According to the statistics published by the International Energy Agency, nuclear provides almost 6% of the worlds primary energy supply. Hydro provides a little over 2%, and geothermal, solar thermal, tidal, off-shore wind, etc., together provide less than 1%.

    … and maybe some gas for industry while the alternatives mature.

    Natural gas provides over 21% worldwide. That’s quite more than just “some gas,” and this amount has been increasing as more “renewable” energy systems have been built (especially in the areas where the “renewables” are being built), out-pacing the energy produced by these so-called “renewables” by a substantial amount.

    I read about a battery in Japan the other day that is the size of a large building with an output of 80,000Kw. Good for those days when the wind isn’t blowing etc.

    What you neglect to think about is that on the days when the wind is blowing, over two thirds of the energy that the wind turbines do produce will need to go to charging those batteries. We’re not talking about charging your cellphone here. These batteries have to hold an enormous amount of energy, and that energy has to come from somewhere.

    Italy is a good sample group, … Don’t know the numbers in Germany (heavy manufacturing nation) but I m sure you guys are all shaking in your boots about their future energy plans.

    Not really. Germany has clearly indicated that they plan to build new coal plants and purchase carbon “offsets” to make their collective conscious feel better. They will continue to import coal from as far away as South Africa.

    Italy’s energy policies over the last 25 years have been a disaster. They still burn a substantial amount of oil to generate electricity (about 10% of their electricity generated in 2009 came from burning oil). Nobody with any sense at all still does that! This is one reason why Italy is the largest net importer of electricity in the world. Ironically, most of this imported electricity is generated by French nuclear power plants.

    Italy has some of the highest prices for electricity in Europe, while nuclear-heavy France has the lowest. The (pre-tax) cost of electricity in Rome is over twice the cost of electricity in Paris. If taxes are included, Italy has the second most expensive electricity in Europe, with only wind-heavy Denmark having more expensive prices.

    Other policy decisions by Italy are not much better. Italy’s economy is suffering, and the high debt carried by the country has caused both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to downgrade Italy’s bond ratings in the past two months. This is a country whose fiscal situation is getting out of control.

    All of this means that I don’t think that I’ll be taking Italy’s advice on policy, particularly energy policy, any time soon. If anyone should be “shaking in their boots” it is the Europeans who are wondering what the Italian government’s mismanagement will ultimately do to the greater European economy.

    Apparently a pound of plutonium, evenly distributed throughout the population would take most of us out.

    “So would tomorrow’s production of hatpins kill everyone on earth, if carefully placed in each individual heart,” as the late Petr Beckmann​ once so cleverly pointed out.

    The Italians are new to nuclear, …

    No they’re not. Italy first decided to pursue nuclear power in 1946. It started to build its first nuclear power plant in 1958. By the time that the Italians decided to shut down their nuclear reactors in the mid-eighties, there were many talented professionals working in the commercial nuclear power sector. Afterward, many of these professionals went across the border to work in the highly successful nuclear power sector in France. And so many of these professionals continued to work to bring electricity to Italy, but it is generated in French nuclear reactors.

  5. Luke

    Simon,
    My figures read gas ~50% of coal emissions?
    It seems you are living in the past, comparing two old evils? The proliferation of fission activity now, when our alternative technologies have come so far, is ludicrous. Much more is also known now about the harmful effects of nuclear waste (the entire nuclear fuel cycle in actuallity), which we must face in place of the huge amounts of fossil fuel related waste you describe as being spared by fission.
    The numbers are impressive, but, if we are at 13.5% nuclear global power output now and it’s been increasing to this point since inception, as a percentage, fission has saved us a relatively small amount of fossil fuel related wastes from entering the environment. That’s scarey because your quantities, if accurate, are just the tip of the iceberg.
    The arguement that we must have fission or fossil gets wheeled out again, yawn. We need lots of small personal power generating apparati scattered over the globe (minimise transmission losses over distance), supplemented by relatively clean big stuff, like hydro, geothermal, solar thermal, tidal, off-shore wind and maybe some gas for industry while the alternatives mature. It could be tailored for the region. I see energy storage becoming a big growth industry. I read about a battery in Japan the other day that is the size of a large building with an output of 80,000Kw. Good for those days when the wind isn’t blowing etc.
    For the time being, I recognise there has to be some environmental compromise when trying to supply the ridicu-watts of power humans demand. Bummer, huh? I think people prefer the idea of a few birds getting minced by wind-mills and the odd habitat being flooded through dam construction to the creation of lethal, impossible to deal with waste and the notion of living next to a nuke.
    Italy is a good sample group, the result of the referendum they had was a resounding NO from 96% of respondents (I think 50 or 60% of the populace has to engage in the referendum there for the result to stick). Don’t know the numbers in Germany (heavy manufacturing nation) but I’m sure you guys are all shaking in your boots about their future energy plans.
    As you point out, nothing else we have compares to the energy density of fissile material and that translates to $. Unfortunately, the energy density seems directly proportional to the problems assosciated with the waste, as well as the volatility of the process and $ has very little compassion for people or the environment. This explains why the nuclear industry exists in the presence of public opposition. That and the military industrial complex.
    Can anyone tell me the tonnage of fuel (including spent) at Fukushima Daiichi? Apparently a pound of plutonium, evenly distributed throughout the population would take most of us out. Comforting..
    The story of the frog in the pot springs to mind. The Italians are new to nuclear, so they look from the outside at the small bubbles forming at the base of the pan, “Mmm, you want me to get in there!? No thanks.” The Germans are smart buggers, a step or two beyond the frog (french haha, areva), they could feel the water temperature rising and are hopping out.

  6. turnages

    Luke, if you say No to nuclear, you are saying Yes to coal and gas. Wind and solar simply haven’t got the lifting power.

    The nuclear waste problem is hugely overblown, it’s *far* less than the waste from coal. Take Connecticut Yankee nuclear power station, now shut down. Then look at the picture at http://www.connyankee.com/html/fuel_storage.html . Contained in those dry casks is the entire waste stream produced by this 619MW nuclear station over 28 years. Over this period, it produced 110 billion kWh = 12.5 GW-years. If that had been a coal station, it would have produced:
    – 5.7 tons of mercury,
    – 38 tons of cadmium,
    – 61 tons of beryllium,
    – 130 tons of selenium,
    – 462 tons of chromium.

    What are the half lives of these poisonous metals? INFINITE.

    Also, and get this: the coal station would have emitted 70 tons of uranium and 170 tons of thorium, admittedly barely radioactive, but still more tons than spent nuclear fuel from a modern nuclear station.

    And, of course, we mustn’t overlook 150 MILLION tons of CO2 gas.

    Now that’s what I’d call burdening the world with waste.

    Gas of course is a bit cleaner but it would still produce about 100 million tons of CO2 in the above example and a similar amount of global warming (when we include CH4 losses).

    I could go on about the actual versus the hyped dangers of atomic radiation, but this post is already long enough.

    Please reconsider your opposition. As an engineer who deals in real numbers, spin and exaggeration is anathema to me. I’m not interested in twisting facts or deceiving anyone.

    Regards, Simon

  7. luke

    Do your buddies call you Fuel Rod? I really can’t stand the way you all think you know what’s best for everyone.
    Please reconsider your trade. Nuclear physicists are smart, you’d be great at developing new technology in this field and you would benefitting mankind massively as opposed to burdening the world with waste generated by a process that should have been left in the 20th century.

  8. Michele Kearney

    This is just an excellent article. I too am going to endeavor to get it wide circulation. And Dr. Boice’s piece is perhaps the finest I have read thus far on the health effects issue. Finally the social media is beginning to post the relevant articles that get missed in the mainstream media.

  9. Will Davis

    Fabulous job, Rod! I commend you and the ANS for getting this piece out. I am going to do what I can to get this piece as much coverage as possible. No one could have summed up the present situation any better.