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Fukushima's toxic legacy: Ignorance and fear

Hysteria rages unchecked as minor incident winds down

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Nuclear 'stress tests'? What, like hitting an obsolete plant with a massive disaster far beyond what it's meant to take, you mean?

The cores at Fukushima have remained sealed inside thick metal and concrete barriers, and while they have suffered some heat damage they have not melted down, far less been on fire, melted down and laid open to the sky as with the case of the core at Chernobyl. Tiny amounts of iodine-131 have escaped carried by cooling steam.

According to the Japanese health-ministry calculations, one would need to consume food containing iodine-131 in the levels so far seen for 14 years before you had even the tiniest increased chance of cancer. You couldn't possibly do that, as iodine-131 has not been generated at Fukushima for eight days – since the cores scrammed as the quake hit – and it only has a half-life of eight days. It will have declined to negligible levels within weeks no matter where it is – in a cow, on a spinach leaf, in your body, wherever. (One should also note that the spent fuel rods in the pools, not having undergone fission for months, don't have significant amounts of iodine in them.)

Against this background the initial Japanese decision to do nothing at all about food shipments looks like the correct one. Unfortunately public hysteria has been fanned by ridiculous statements from overseas and UN officials, forcing the present limited climbdown.

Barring some new and unforeseen event at the powerplant, it seems clear that there will be no measurable radiological effects on anybody as a result of the quake and tsunami. Unfortunately the psychological consequences – almost entirely a result of fearmongering and bad reporting in the media worldwide – seem set to be measurable. Mainstream media finally have some decent analysis here and there, but every minor development in the case is still reported on breathlessly, in a panic-stricken tone. Even those who seek to give a calmer view are still, a week after the quake, writing things like this:

Those at real risk now are the truly brave technicians inside the plant trying to cool it down: the Fukushima 50.

They will almost certainly receive fatal doses of radiation as they work around the clock.

No, they won't: nor even such doses as to measurably affect their health. Nobody else looks to be affected either. But the hysteria seems set to go on and on, even among relatively impartial and calm-minded observers – who remain rare. Asinine talk of an "apocalypse" and a "situation out of control" by the EU Energy Commissioner has drawn condemnation even from the French – who themselves have been guilty of inflating the seriousness of the Fukushima situation over recent days. (One can't help noticing that Japan is perhaps the main competition facing France in the export market for new reactors, potentially enormous in coming decades.)

We hear now that Europe is to "stress test" its reactors, and moratoria and safety reviews are to begin in nuclear-powered nations around the world. But any rational observer would have to conclude that reactor technology has just suffered the most severe stress test imaginable, and come through with flying colours in the worst possible situation: aged reactors hit by a natural disaster of unprecedented, colossal scale. The situation really calls for a reduction in nuclear safety bureaucracy, not an increase.

That would be worth doing, too. Suppose that nuclear power were allowed to be merely, say, 100 or 1,000 times safer than coal or oil (or wind: wind power has already caused scores of deaths in a brief period while at the same time generating very little energy). In that case nuclear would become so cheap as to wipe out carbon emissions and other pollution from electricity production in the advanced nations – and it might also start to make serious cuts into emissions from other sectors such as transport, heating etc, as electrical heat became cheaper than that from gas or oil and cheap juice drove down the expense of EV charging infrastructure.

Even some really hard-green commentators are starting to realise this, as they look into the reality of Fukushima. Meanwhile, even committed carbon sceptics often to be found at the opposite end of the political spectrum (or maybe off at the side somewhere) might yet relish a future in which the free world cared nothing for the price of oil or gas, nor for the opinion of sometimes unsavoury foreign governments on whose territory the supplies are mostly found.

Everyone might prefer a future in which less was spent on energy overall, and in which the money so spent shifted heavily towards well-paid skilled jobs at home and out of big profit margins for otherwise unimportant tyrannies around the world.

The possibility remains there for the developed world to move to a vastly superior future which would please almost everybody: greens; energy-security hawks; those primarily concerned about economic health; and those who worry about social justice and wealth distribution and provision of good well-paid jobs (the unions, unsurprisingly, love nuclear).

But that better future seems set to be denied to us by the effects of fear and ignorance, driven irresistibly forward by standard-format journalism. ®

Bootnote

Normally we here on the Reg science desk would have dropped this story days ago – it refers to a very minor aspect of the quake and tsunami disaster, with zero human consequences in and of itself. But the accompanying panic has become a story in its own right, threatening to harm millions and shift government policies disastrously.

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