Posted by: bmeverett | March 23, 2011

Fukushima, Mon Amour


The press has carried hundreds of stories over the last few weeks about the Japanese Nuclear Disaster. I’d love to be able to call the press coverage thoughtful, factual or informative, but confused and hysterical seem more appropriate. I’m not a scientist or nuclear engineer, and I have no idea what will ultimately happen with the Fukushima nuclear plant. I do, however, have a few observations.

Machines often have two sets of systems: one to control the machine during normal operation and keep it out of trouble and another one to limit the damage if the first system fails. Automobiles, for example, have steering wheels and brakes to control the car. Cars also have seat belts, air bags and “crumple zones” to limit the injuries to passengers if the control mechanisms fail. Nuclear power plants have control rods and cooling systems to keep the reactors temperature within acceptable limits during operation. In addition, nuclear reactors are enclosed in “containment vessels” to limit the release of radioactive materials in case the normal control systems fail.

It was clear rather quickly after the earthquake that the control systems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan had failed. The loss of electric power shut down the pumps that move fresh cooling water through the reactors. Back-up batteries lasted for a while, then ran out of power. At this point, the operators had no choice but to flood the reactors with seawater to try to cool them down. This is a desperate step, rather like immersing your car in salt water. At that point, the reactors were more or less destroyed. That’s an economic loss of several billion dollars, but the Japanese government is suggesting that the total losses from the earthquake/tsunami could be as much as $300 billion. In other words, destruction of the nuclear plants is a small part of the economic loss. Several large coal-fired power plants, such as Tohuku Electric’s Haramachi facility, also suffered earthquake and flood damage.

If you want to know whether the public is in danger of a radiation release, however, you really need to know whether the containment systems have failed. If a car’s brakes fail and the vehicle hits a tree at 20 miles an hour, the car is probably a total loss. If the seat belts and air bags work correctly, however, the occupants of the vehicle will probably survive without serious injury.

It would be very helpful if the press made this distinction in their coverage. Coverage of damaged reactors are intermixed with discussion of radiation dangers. The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, a nuclear energy industry group, has an excellent and timely status chart, available at http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/news_images/pdf/ENGNEWS01_1300882515P.pdf. According to the latest update (March 23 at 21:00 Japanese time), the containment vessels at Units 1, 4, 5 and 6 were assessed as “not damaged.” Unit 2 was listed as “damage suspected” and Unit 3 was categorized as “might be ‘not damaged’”. Containment vessel pressure was listed as “safe” for Unites 4, 5 and 6; “stable” for Units 1 and 2, and “decreasing” for Unit 3. Tracking the status of the containment systems is the key issue affecting public health and safety, and should be the focus of press coverage.

Instead, we are getting lots of “what if?” discussion. Last week, the New York Times published a map showing the lethal effects of radiation at various distances from the Fukushima plants. A small note indicated that the data are based on a model of what would happen if the reactor containment vessels failed. A casual reader could easily have gained the impression that the map showed what is actually happening.

“Worst case scenarios” are a highly questionable method of characterizing problems. Suppose, for example, that an airliner reports loss of an engine at 35,000 feet. What could happen? The most likely outcome is that pilot lands the plane. It’s possible, however, that the other engines will fail and that the plane will crash into an elementary school, killing hundreds of innocent children. Such an outcome is conceivable, but it’s irresponsible to report it unless there is reason to believe it’s likely. Logically, there is no such thing as a “worst case scenario” short of the complete destruction of the universe. The only sensible discussion is about likely outcomes and their consequences. (Climate change advocates please take note.)

The final problem with press coverage of Fukushima is complete confusion over the health effects of radiation on people. The Wall Street Journal had an excellent overview of this problem in the March 23 edition entitled “Radiation Math: How Do We Count the Rays?”. The bottom line is that we don’t know very much about the impact of low doses of radiation on human beings. We do know, however, that the type of radiation (gamma rays, beta rays, alpha particles, etc.), the amount of radiation, the duration of exposure and the barriers in place including walls and clothing, all make a great deal of difference.

People are exposed to radiation every day in the form of cosmic rays, radon and medical procedures. Suppose a nuclear accident causes radiation levels to rise to “twice the normal level”. Is that a lot? Is it enough to take action? The press frequently resorts to the absurd position that no increase in radiation levels is acceptable or that we should evacuate people as a precaution. If we evacuate people, should we evacuate to a radius of 10 miles? 20 miles? 50 miles? Should we evacuate the entire Gulf Coast and mid-Atlantic during hurricane season “just in case”? Some thoughtful discussion of these issues in the press would be welcome. Instead, we get lots of scary headlines.

Perhaps the silliest part of the press coverage has been the discussion about Fukushima radiation coming to the US and the need for people on the West Coast to take potassium iodide tablets. Only slightly elevated levels of radiation have been detected in Japan. The density of radioactive material scattered by the winds will, on average, dissipate as the square of the distance, In other words, the concentration of radioactive dust 200 miles from the reactors will be only one-quarter of the concentration 100 miles from the reactors. The radiation level on the US West Coast resulting from this incident will be effectively zero. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has tried hard to make this point, but the press prefers the scary scenarios.

The press could do a much better job informing the public of what is going on in Japan. Instead we get headline grabbing sensationalism. There has been a great deal of discussion recently about how the internet has debased the flow of information by allowing widespread commentary by average people, without the organization and filtering of professional journalists. Coverage of the Fukushima incident suggests that citizens can do much better surfing the web than reading the New York Times or watching TV news.

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Responses

  1. I am eqully dismayed by the fanatic and frantic search the media is conducting to create a huge nuclear catastrophe. At this stage the Japanese appear to have everything under control. Yes, there has been a serious problem, but just because their was an appearance of BLACK SMOKE at #3 reactor does not foretell a nuclear meltdown. And, radioacivity in LA – WOW! Wonder if it will amount to as much as the radioactive exposure to the California sun?
    Let’s look further – the Gov. of New York shuts down down a nuclear facility because some one told him it was on or near a fault line. Immediately this was thought to be a strong indication of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. What a brilliant deduction by a political scientist under the influence of loonies! No amount of real science will ever overcome the loony toons’ decison making processes. No more oil, gas, coal, or nuclear fuel. Let’s go back to papyrus boats and reed sails – it is the only solutiion.


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