Can we repeat facts about Fukushima often enough to overcome fears?

by Rod Adams

We are within one week of the one year anniversary of the Great North East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. That powerful punch from nature slowly destroyed four out of six of the nuclear units at Fukushima Daiichi while the world watched with rapt attention.

However, as many nuclear experts predicted at the time of the accident, the defense-in-depth strategy worked well. The end results have been far better than were predicted using some of the fantasy-inspired “worst case scenarios” propagated by antinuclear activists and by researchers working several decades ago – before much data had been gathered and digested.

The painstakingly-gathered empirical data from this unfortunate theory-to-practice exercise have validated the recently released State of the Art Reactor Consequences Analysis, which computed a one in a billion chance that an accident at typical licensed nuclear reactors would harm anyone in the general public.

The total quantity of long-lived radioactive isotopes released from all three of the melted cores was approximately 11 kilograms. None of the material stored in the spent fuel pools was released. There has not been, and never will be, any injuries more serious than a mild sunburn to two workers, from the radiation released into the environment from the melted nuclear fuel inside the plant pressure vessels and containment structures.

Despite the lack of any negative radiation health effects, there are people who relish in stimulating as much fear, uncertainty, doubt and stress about radiation and nuclear energy as they possibly can. They are working overtime to obscure any good news and to label the people who share truthful information as nuclear industry PR hacks, apologists, or even worse.

While participating in discussion threads associated with recent reports published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time magazine and Scientific American, I have seen nuclear supporters accused of killing babies, being mere industry shills, and of being completely insensitive to the continued suffering of the Japanese people.

Unlike people who have been trained in nuclear sciences and engineering, facts do not matter as much to antinuclear activists as repeatedly telling the tale they want people to hear. Greenpeace has released a report titled Lessons from Fukushima featuring a chapter by Arnie Gundersen that claims that the nuclear industry is a prime example of regulatory capture, despite being one of the most tightly regulated industries in the US, Europe and Japan.

Karl Grossman, a man who has been making a living on the antinuclear lecture and book circuit since the Three Mile Island accident, continues to claim that Fukushima will be worse than Chernobyl. He also claims that Chernobyl has already killed nearly a million people, instead of the less than 100 reported by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation report as having died in the 25 years since the accident.

Like Helen Caldicott, Grossman continues to spout the belief that Yablokov’s thoroughly discredited book titled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment is the definitive work on the 1986 accident. In the imaginary world where Caldicott and Grossman spend their time, the thousands of other researchers who studied the accident and came to completely different conclusions were either misinformed, bought by the powerful nuclear industry, or just plain lying.

The antinuclear opposition also spreads fear by describing effects using unfamiliar, frightening units. Instead of saying that a total of 11 kilograms of material (out of approximately 60,000 kilograms of fuel per unit) escaped from the reactor pressure vessels, people who discourage the beneficial use of nuclear energy say that the plants “spewed” 36,000 terabecquerels of radioactivity. (A terabecquerel of Cs-137 has a mass of 3.2 grams.)

If that number does not scare people thoroughly enough, some nuclear opponents compare the cesium emissions from Fukushima to the cesium emissions from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Hiroshima bomb produced its explosive power fissioning about 1 kilogram of U-235. The 6.3% fission yield for Cs-137 means that Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb, produced a little less than 30 grams of Cs-137. (89 terabecquerels at 3.2 gms/terabecquerel).

In the eyes of people who hate nuclear energy, that means that the melted Fukushima reactors did not release a mass of radioactive cesium that is about half the weight of the backpack I routinely carry when I spend a weekend on the Appalachian Trail. Instead, those reactors released 400 times as much radioactive cesium as was released by The Bomb!

That is a great piece of propaganda. It sounds really bad while using very few words. Contradicting the scary statement with logical reasoning requires too detailed of an explanation to be useful to a newspaper or television show.

There is, however, reason to be hopeful that the end result of the Fukushima accident on nuclear energy will be less damaging to the ultimate success of the technology than the end result of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents.

Unlike the period following the Three Mile Island accident, the public conversation has broadened considerably. Discourse is no longer dominated by broadcast television networks or major printed newspapers. It is not dominated by the people who have been able to spend years working their way to the front of journalist contact lists by always being ready with pithy, if often false, quotes.

Instead, people who understand nuclear technology are supporting each other, using a wider variety of media access points and are participating in active public outreach campaigns.

On March 8 at 10AM EST, the American Nuclear Society, a professional society with 11,000 members, will be holding a news conference at the National Press Club to announce the release of its long awaited report on the lessons learned from the accident.

I am looking forward to reading that report and then cooperating with other nuclear professionals to ensure that its factual material is repeated as often as the tripe that emanates from the mouths and keyboards of Caldicott, Grossman, Wasserman, Gunter, Lovins, and so many other professional opponents of nuclear energy.

Like many of my colleagues, I feel a sense of personal responsibility to do something to alleviate the suffering of the victims who have a far greater probability of negative health effects from irrational radiation fears than they do from radiation itself. Spending some of my spare time to ease their fears, reduce their stress and enable their safe return to their ancestral homes is an investment worth making.

There has been one result from the accident that I never would have predicted. A year ago, I could not imagine that two countries (Germany and Japan) that were famous for their technological skills and rational decision making would have decided to shut down undamaged reactors in favor of spending a growing share of their national income to make the fossil fuel industry increasingly richer. If anyone can think of ways to influence the decision process in those two key countries, I am listening.

 

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 blog, Atomic Insights.

 

15 thoughts on “Can we repeat facts about Fukushima often enough to overcome fears?

  1. Rod Adams

    Pointing to the ways that the layers of defense were damaged is roughly equivalent to listing all of the mangled parts on a NASCAR vehicle after a spectacular wreck in which all of the drivers walked away.

    The key in mechanical engineering is to understand how materials function and to recognize how to use that functioning to absorb energy to protect the vital parts of the system – the human beings.

    Sure, a fifty foot wave of salt water washing over an industrial facility will cause a LOT of damage. Sure, nuclear power plants contain massive quantities of isotopes that are not currently found on earth because they are so unstable that they long ago decayed away in those places where they were initially formed. Sure, some of those isotopes, primarily I-131, Cs-134 and Cs-137 are volatile and water soluble at the temperatures of a reactor core and they can escape with whatever water is released from that core.

    However, virtually ALL of the really dangerous isotopes that are produced by atomic fission are not volatile and not water soluble, so they remain inside the multiple barriers even after an accident that causes massive damage to the facility.

    The I-131 is the most potent of those released isotopes, but it is also the shortest lived; it is GONE after 80 days (ten half-lives).

    Releasing larger than ever quantities of radioactive material into the ocean still does NOTHING to increase its naturally occurring concentrations of radioactive material because the ocean is a VERY large place full of enormous quantities of uranium, thorium and their daughter products at low concentrations.

    Sure, the amount can be measured, but that is because radioactivity can be measured almost down to the single atom level.

    Finally, I will take your challenge, but why would I have to be stupid enough to NOT use a sufficient level of shielding and why can’t I have a few friends help do the lifting? I have not run the numbers, but I am pretty sure that the amount of shielding required to provide adequate protection against 11 kg of Cs-137 would be within the lifting capacity of a handful of people. If you do not want me to use shielding, I could simply move a kilometer or so away from the ingot, taking advantage of the spherical spreading to reduce dose rates to a safe level. I certainly would not need to be much farther away than that. Having spent quite a bit of time on the AT, I can tell you that there is a LOT of empty space out there.

    BTW – you have confused “radiation” with radioactive material. OF COURSE radiation levels decreased when the water shielding was replaced in the used fuel pools. Every 2 feet of water reduces the intensity of the measured radiation by an order of magnitude (factor of 10).

  2. Brian Mays

    I leave a small exercise in toxicology for anonymouser to solve:

    Based on recent sales figures, Starbucks sells about 4 billion cups of coffee each year. A typical “tall” coffee sold by Starbucks contains about 260 mg of caffeine. Thus, it’s reasonable to suppose that Starbucks distributes about 1150 tons of caffeine to customers each year (plus or minus 500 tons).

    The LD50 (lethal dose 50%) of caffeine for a typical 80 kg adult American is about 15 grams. So, how many customers does Starbucks kill each year?

    Using anonymouser’s logic, we must conclude that Starbucks kills 35 million customers each year through caffeine poisoning.

    Obviously, anonymouser doesn’t understand the most basic concepts of toxicology, and that is my solution to anonymouser’s posed exercise.

  3. Albert Rogers

    The future of human civilization, IMHO, is going to depend upon the shedding of two superstitions:
    On the left,
    the idea that the devil will get you if you use nuclear power, that plutonium is more toxic than anything else– radium? radon?? botulinus??!
    And bananas contain radioactive potassium.
    On the right,
    the belief that private commercial ownership is always better than government projects — nuclear powered ships, anyone?
    France’s nuclear power, privatised in response to the inability of EU’s power companies to compete with the borrowing power of France’s government.

  4. Albert Rogers

    It is my observation that a high school student only needs to know the rudiments of the first few lines of the periodic table to know that 12 million tons of carbon require 32 million tons of oxygen to burn, and produce 44 million tons of carbon dioxide. There are grown men in Congress who seem to imagine that burying such quantities is better than the few hundreds of tons of spent nuclear fuel that is erroneously called “nuclear waste”. By my estimates, based upon EIA’s figure of about 50 million poundsof uranium annually required to produce about 20% of our electricity, the actual fission products amount to somewhat less than 100 tons a year.

  5. anonymouser

    I have taken the trouble to re-formulate your title for you:
    “Can we in the nuke industry use propaganda to protect our livelihood?”.

    Youopen with a howler – “the defense-in-depth strategy worked well. “ which is patently untrue, as the defense failed on multiple levels – redundant power lines turned out to be not so redundant, gensets and switchboards were flooded, emergency cooling options all failed, venting through the SGTS was not even attempted and so on and so forth.

    The biggest release of radioactive materials into the ocean, ever? Fukushima. Biggest nuclear accident in Japan, ever? Fukushima. Costliest nuclear accident to date? Yep, you guessed it and the tally isn’t in yet, what with a projected 30 years of work until fuel removal and plant dismantlement is finally completed, as well as myriad knock-on costs.

    You say “None of the material stored in the spent fuel pools was released.”(when in fact TEPCO measurements show radiation doses decreasing markedly on and off-site once SFP #4 was re-filled).

    You go as low as to make such statements as “There has not been, and never will be, any injuries more serious than a mild sunburn to two workers, from the radiation released into the environment from the melted nuclear fuel inside the plant pressure vessels and containment structures.”
    Of course the melted fuel is not going to harm anyone anymore. How is that relevant?

    You say that 36 PBq of “radioactivity” have been released and that this is equivalent to “only” 11 kg of Cesium-137. I find this disingenuous to the extreme, as Cesium-137 was not the only released nuclide

    I leave a small exercise in radiation safety for the readers of this fine blog to solve:

    How many steps would Rod Adams be able to take along the Appalachian Trail if someone suddenly switched half the contents of his backpack with an ingot of Cs-137 weighing 11 kg? Conversely, how small needs the ingot to be for Rod to be able to complete the Appalachian trail hike before keeling over?

    Assume the backpack is unshielded and Rod Adams is not Superman.

  6. Rod Adams

    @Raj – the levels of contamination are low enough so that it would be virtually impossible to prove that anyone would be harmed by living in the area – without any special precautions. In other words, the evacuation is unnecessary and counter productive.

    One of the greatest features of atomic energy is that the waste products tell us exactly where they are by sending out little emanations of energy with great predictability. We can detect those waste products at levels many orders of magnitude below the level at which they will harm anyone.

    However, the people who dislike nuclear energy for various reasons – including commercial reasons – have convinced many people that the only acceptable level is “zero”. That is not a level that is even possible to reach here on Earth; it is a radioactive place and always has been.

  7. Rod Adams

    @Luke

    You are wrong. We can measure the levels of “contamination” with great precision. We can compare those levels to the many decades worth of studies about the health effects of low level radiation that we have accumulated. We can say for sure that the probability of harm from exposure to the known levels is so darned close to zero that no one can tell the difference.

    The dose makes the poison. If the doses are below the level at which something becomes harmful, then it is below concern.

    I do not have to prove that the radiation releases did not harm anyone. In order to justify concern, there has to be a way to prove that it did harm someone. I can assuredly prove that lack of power has harmed a large number of people and I can assuredly prove that worrying about incredibly tiny quantities of radiation has resulted in numerous early deaths of people and animals that would otherwise still be alive today.

    (Dozens of elderly and infirm people died during the evacuations of places that were never contaminated to levels that could have caused any measurable harm.)

    Sure, there is a well funded and loosely organized effort working overtime to contradict my statements. There is a HUGE sum of money at stake. The global fossil fuel supply industry has seen an increase in revenue directly related to irrationally closing undamaged nuclear energy facilities in the period since March 11, 2011 in excess of $50 billion due to increased sales of LNG, pipeline gas, coal, and diesel fuel. Do you think they will readily forgo those additional sales?

    They will keep the pressure on because they know that people like you will keep working to improve their sales figures even more.

  8. James Greenidge

    Poor Luke is a prime example of what happens when science education from K-12 concentrate more on the mating habits of sea turtles and how to make friends with a planet than giving them the rudiments of how nuclear reactors — which help power their very lifestyles and life — operate. It’s sobering how many high schoolers don’t know how and where the juice comes from when they flip the switch to their bedrooms and guitars and electric cars. It’s like that urban chestnut of asking an inner city kid where does milk come from and they answer “from the store”. It doesn’t help when commercials from breakfast cereals to insurance often feature solar farms and windmills in the background but no hide nor hair of a nuclear plant to appear as a normal part of the world. It’s worsened by the deplorable quality and slants of so-called “science shows” on cable which “report” on nuclear power through darkly filtered lenses and deep ominous music while catering to anti-nuke media darlings given frequent and ample exposure and a podium to air their “views” without challenge — shame on your hypocrite journalistic ethics CNN and MSNBC and company!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

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  10. Bruce Behrhorst

    “A stable energy supply is the basic premise of our national economy and, in Japan where energy resources are scarce, the necessity of a stable power supply provided by nuclear power stations will not change at all in the future.
    We think that the most overriding priority for the nuclear power industry is to calmly analyze the cause of the accident by returning to its origin, taking as many lessons as possible from the analysis. It must then use those lessons to improve the safety of Japanese nuclear
    power stations and, by doing so, make the efforts of the industry known to society.”
    [Examination of Accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc.’s Fukushima
    Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and Proposal of countermeasures]
    Japan Nuclear Technology Institute (JANTI)

    I think the above report is what’s needed.

    I also think gov’t and industry authorities can minimize citizen displacement by periodically allowing residential citizens in the exclusion zone the option to return to their property. 400mSv max dose within 20 km exclusion is still tolerable within reason very low background dose level.

    I think everyone in the worldwide nuclear industry needs calm down and analyze the best way forward just like JANTI recommends.

  11. Gary Curtis

    Fear coupled with an absence of knowledge and understanding are life long partners. This partnership drives people to think and react in an irrational manner. Facts and scientific analysis/conclusions are more difficult to embrace and impossible for the fearful. After Fukushima happened, all the cameras were on the damaged reactors that did not kill a single person while the earthquake and tsunami had killed ten of thousands. I told friends, family, and colleagues that the continuing debate on the value of nuclear power to society is and will be between the fearful and the informed. Luke is a fearful person. Thank God for informed people like Rod Adams.

  12. Raj Harnal

    My only regret is that quite a bit of land has been contaminated and people cannot return to their homes, unlike TMI but similar to Chernobyl. This is especially key to Japan which does not have a lot of land to spare!

  13. Meredith Angwin

    Rod.

    I agree that the existence of the Internet and the blogosphere have made a huge difference in communications about technical matters. I am proud to be part of that.

    When debating nuclear opponents, I often wish I didn’t have to be factual. They don’t bother. I sometimes feel I sound wimpy, trying to get a complex message across, while Gundersen answers with an absurd but memorable statement. If you remember, he said that, due to Vermont Yankee, there are only 16 shad left in the Connecticut River. Absurd but memorable.

    Germany and Japan will either reverse themselves about nuclear before they lose their ability to be players in the world marketplace…or they will reverse themselves afterwards. I think Japan will reverse itself more quickly than Germany. Japan has seen terrible things happen (A-bombs, tsunami, evacuations due to nuclear melt-downs) and has to decide what to do next. Germany, on the other hand, has extremists who lie down in front of trains carrying nuclear material.

    My bet: Japan starts up most reactors within two years. Germany loses its manufacturing base before it changes direction (if it ever does).

  14. Luke

    1/3 of Japan is covered in toxic pollution from Fukushima 1 and you don’t think anyone is going to be harmed? I think you mean no one can prove it harmed anyone.

    I believe it is the nuclear industry that is working overtime to hide it’s sins as demonstrated by the now publicly acknowledged ‘public discussion’ scams that has seen the fall of executives and ministers alike. Is it any wonder people are sceptical.