Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/31/fukushima_panic_breaks_completely_free_of_facts/

Fukushima fearmongers are stealing our Jetsons future

Hysteria now completely disconnected from reality

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 31st March 2011 11:35 GMT

As the situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant slowly winds down, the salient facts remain the same as they have been throughout: nobody has suffered or will suffer any radiological health consequences. Economic damage and inconvenience resulting from the quake's effects on nuclear power have been significant, but tiny in comparison to all other human activities – the nuclear power plants in the stricken region have suffered less damage and caused less trouble to local residents than anything else that was there.

Despite this background, the details of which are now largely uncontested, hysteria continues to grip large sections of the news media and the internet.

The latest events at the plant itself:

Three workers who suffered noticeable but not dangerous radiation doses from standing ankle-deep in radioactive water – and possible minor burns equivalent to a mild case of sunburn – have been confirmed to have suffered no ill effects. Their "hospitalisation with radiation burns" was widely reported: the fact that they are – as was to be expected – perfectly fine was not.

More radioactive water has been found in a deep trench containing pipework and cabling adjacent to the No 2 reactor. This was measured as being noticeably radioactive four days ago, enough that a person could only be immersed in it for a quarter of an hour before sustaining a radiation dose sufficient to merit withdrawal from operations at the site – though not enough to cause any measurable health consequences.

Analysis indicates that some of the water in the trench by No 2 has been in contact with heat-damaged fuel in the reactor core. This is unsurprising as government and power-company officials had assessed as long ago as early last week that there had probably been damage to the No 2 suppression chamber, a doughnut-shaped vessel surrounding the central core vessel into which steam from the core has been released continually during the incident.

Normally water in the suppression chamber cools the steam and it is held there to allow short-lived isotopes to dissipate before being vented onward to atmosphere, so minimising radiation levels at the plant. But with the suppression chamber damaged as has long seemed likely, some steam from the core could have become water and exited below the building. The trench in question has 16m-deep shafts at each end and connects to a tunnel running below the No 2 complex.

Alternatively, radioactive steam from the suppression chamber could be condensing elsewhere in the building to trickle down and out and pool on top of otherwise harmless water already in the trench as a result of the tsunami, rain and snowfall since, massive pumping operations to cool spent-fuel pools etc. The trench, shafts etc contain many thousands of tonnes of water, only very small amounts of which could possibly have come via the core. Plant workers have built a sandbag barrier to prevent water spreading in the event of the trench overflowing.

Similar trenches and shafts exist at units 1 and 3, which also have damaged cores. Only tiny levels of radiation have been found at No 1, whose suppression chamber is thought to be intact; at No 3, thought likely to have suffered damage similar to that at No 2 (this too was announced last week), the trench is too clogged with tsunami debris to take readings.

As the situation has stabilised, workers at the plant have tried to minimise corrosion damage to the worst-hit reactors by switching from emergency seawater cooling of the cores and spent-fuel pools to the use of fresh water – in some cases delivered via the normal cooling equipment, restored to service with new electric power supplies to replace those wrecked by the tsunami. It had been hoped until recently that the expensive reactors might be restored to service in future.

Plant owner TEPCO has now decided to cut its losses, however, stating that it now considers that reactors 1 to 4 at the site will have to be written off: being near the end of their planned lives anyway, it makes no sense to spend much money on fixing them. The other two Daiichi reactors, Nos 5 and 6, were brought safely into a cold shutdown condition early on and TEPCO still expects to continue operations with these (as would be quite normal: both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island continued in operation as nuclear power stations following the incidents there).

The Japanese government, under tremendous pressure from the media-pumped hysteria over the issue, has said that it thinks the 5 and 6 reactors should also be shut down permanently. Rumours that the government might nationalise TEPCO are circulating widely, though denied both by the company and the state. TEPCO's 11 other reactors seem certain to continue in service, as will the 40-odd owned by other Japanese power companies. The company seems to be coping well with the temporary loss of many of its power stations: it cancelled planned rolling blackouts today and has announced that tomorrow's planned blackouts will not take place either.

PLUTONIUM FOUND AT FUKUSHIMA!! Probably from old weapons tests thousands of miles away, but hey, let's wet ourselves anyway

There has also been heavy reporting in the press regarding the discovery of very small amounts of plutonium isotopes at the site – producing less than one Becquerel of radioactivity per kilo of soil. (For context the human body naturally emits radiation around 50 Bq/kg). This is utterly insignificant in a health context but is possibly indicative of fuel damage in the cores – if the isotopes did in fact come from the cores. The levels in three of the five samples are so low, and of such isotopes, that it is quite possible they result from long-ago nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. Two other samples contain some plutonium-238, a clue that they may be from the no 3 reactor which had plutonium in its fuel.

"[Those two samples] could possibly come from the accident," TEPCO spokespersons told World Nuclear News.

Often these facts have been reported in such a way as to suggest that the Fukushima events have led to contamination levels similar to those following nuclear weapons tests, which is utterly untrue.

Elsewhere, emissions of radioisotopes into the sea are well above normal regulatory limits, though not such as to cause any health concerns. The main health concern is radioactive iodine-131, the isotope which caused the only perceptible public health effects following Chernobyl when millions of children consumed it in contaminated milk, leading to very slightly increased chances of thyroid cancer later in life. As thyroid cancer can almost always be cured successfully, this has resulted only 15 deaths: fewer than one in a million of the affected children and youngsters died.

According to Japan's nuclear safety authorities, the seaborne levels of radio-iodine near Fukushima Daiichi are not such as to necessitate any bans on fish or similar, though all food products from the region (and across Japan) are being radiologically sampled and monitored in case the situation changes. Some bans on produce from the area around the plant have already been instituted, though these are likely to be of brief duration as iodine-131 has a half-life of only eight days – it will all be gone within weeks no matter where it has reached.

Another concern is radioactive caesium. This didn't cause any measurable health consequences following Chernobyl, but it did result in areas of farmland being abandoned for long periods as it has a lengthy half-life. Consequences on this scale seem unlikely in Japan, however, as releases of material from the reactor cores at Fukushima have been tiny compared to that from Chernobyl. In one spot 25 miles from the plant an IAEA team has reportedly measured activity as high as 3.7 megabecquerels from caesium: if you remained within a metre of that spot constantly for 22 years you could acquire a radiation dose sufficient to raise your chances of cancer by a tiny fraction of a percentage point (actually it would take longer, as nearly half of the caesium would have decayed away by then: call it 30 years without breaks. You would also need to ensure that nothing dispersed or washed away the caesium. Your chance of getting cancer would then rise from say 25 per cent or whatever it was to 25.0001 per cent, or similar.)

Having that caesium in your house, in short, would be hugely less dangerous to you than having your bath - you might very easily slip and break your neck in the bath, or accidentally drown yourself. Nonetheless various international "experts" - often anti-nuclear campaigners, in fact - suggest that this means the Japanese evacuation zone should be extended.

Media hysterics continue, with reports that the No 2 core has "melted through the bottom of its containment vessel" published by normally reputable outlets. In fact the IAEA confirms that the temperature at the bottom of the No 2 reactor vessel is just 88 °C.

Some much-needed perspective was offered by the UK's top scientist, who pointed out on Tuesday afternoon that nuclear power is far and away the safest form of energy generation and remains so in the wake of Fukushima.

"Not one person has died from radiation," Sir David King told the Guardian. "Let me put that in context – in the same week, 30 coal miners died. Generating electricity from coal is far more dangerous."

Sir David also made the point that one would subject oneself to more radiation dose by taking a jet flight than by taking a walk around Fukushima Daiichi in its current condition. He was speaking at, and endorsing, the launch of new analysis from Oxford university which urges the UK to reform its current nuclear industry policy of generally not recycling spent nuclear fuel.

So you want to know why the Jetsons, Futurama, Dan Dare, Thunderbirds future never happened? Blame the nuke-fear mongers

Analysis

Spent fuel recycling would enormously improve the economics of nuclear power. Not only would it mean getting much more energy from a given amount of uranium (this is relatively unimportant, as the cost of uranium fuel is a tiny proportion of the cost of having a nuclear powerplant), reprocessing would cut the amount of waste that had to be managed to a few per cent of present levels. Waste management is one of the major costs of nuclear power, so this would make nuclear electricity hugely cheaper.

Anti-nuclear activists, despite their dislike of waste, generally campaign against reprocessing – both to worsen nuclear economics and because it involves creating isotopes that can then be used to make nuclear weapons. The idea is that these might then somehow be stolen by inimical persons who would then somehow be able to make atomic weapons with them, or something. Such isotopes are of course already created routinely in national weapons programmes but the peaceniks have lost that political battle so they prefer to ignore this.

Meanwhile followers of internet debate have been intrigued by the case of Josef Oehnen, an engineering prof at MIT who wrote an email to a relative in Japan explaining that there was no need to flee in panic due to the Fukushima situation following the quake.

This relative posted the email on a blog and it was subsequently viewed by millions, spreading the sensible, properly informed reassurance that was so lacking in the days following the quake. (We should remember that even in the case of Chernobyl – far less Fukushima – it is now well known that needless fear and stress caused far and away more health and economic damage than radiation possibly could).

Some minor details in the email subsequently turned out to be mistaken, but its broad thrust – that there was no need to worry – turned out to be entirely correct. The technical description of boiling water reactors, radioisotopes emitted from them etc, was very sound.

Nonetheless Oehnen was subsequently persecuted mercilessly by fearmongers, environmental zealots etc. Various journalists "discovered" that he is not a nuclear engineer, and took issue with his private statement to his cousin that "there was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors".

In fact Oehnen is not a nuclear engineer. He is something much better for the purposes of analysing disaster consequences, an expert on industrial risk. And in the atmosphere of hysterical fear amid which he wrote, his assertion that there would not be any significant radiation release looks very sound indeed – given that nobody at all, not even any worker at the plant, has yet suffered any measurable health consequences from radiation released at the site.

We here at the Reg are still glad we linked to his assessment in the first days of the crisis, and that we early on reported the truth about Fukushima – that on the facts of the case it has been a triumph for nuclear power, not a disaster. We took a lot of flak for that, too – but unlike Dr Oehnen we're used to it.

We'd also recommend the excellent analysis offered by Wade Allison of Oxford university (an expert in both nuclear technology and risk) belatedly published by the Beeb, though sadly buried among scores of webpages and broadcasts of Fukushima scaremongering. Allison points out that at least half the problem in situations like these is the underlying principle of nuclear safety risk management. This is As Low As Reasonably Possible (ALARP) or Achievable (ALARA).

Thus such things as radiation dose limits or permissible levels of iodine-131 are not set rationally, they are set to be as low as they can possibly be. For instance, absolutely no measurable health consequences at all result from radiation doses of 100 millisievert a year: if everyone in the UK were subjected to such doses for ever, nothing – no extra cases of cancer, nothing – would happen.

And yet even nuclear workers in small numbers are only permitted to sustain doses of 20 millisievert annually – they can only go to 100 or 250 in emergency situations. Large populations are only allowed to sustain 1 millisievert/yr above normal background (itself already 2 or 3).

These mad, fear-driven, irrationally-low safety levels - multiplied in the case of food or water limits by regulations framed in terms of a year's consumption by high-risk individuals etc etc - mean that even quite minor situations like Fukushima produce "radiation levels x thousands of times the maximum permitted". Even the unfeasibly low amounts of plutonium now found at Fukushima – remember that this plutonium is causing the soil there to be about 2 per cent as radioactive as human bodies are – gets reported under headlines beginning with "URGENT". Even the insignificant levels of caesium so far found are such that many nuclear regulators would advise people to abandon their property because of them: the IAEA has said that Japan should extend the Fukushima evacuation zone, in fact, though sanity appears to be prevailing in Japanese government circles for now.

These crazy "safety" limits are the reason why nuclear electricity never became too cheap to meter; why we don't heat our homes and industry electrically and perhaps drive electric cars too, emitting no carbon at all (and funnelling no huge fossil-fuel payments to unsavoury tyrannies); why we don't today have nuclear-powered rocket ships able to fly to orbit cheaply without throwing most of themselves away, and nuclear plasma-drive cruisers capable of reaching Mars in weeks. In short, irrational fear of nuclear technology is what has stolen away the brilliant Jetsons-style future that was envisioned for us 50 years ago – and may yet steal it from our children.

If humanity can't rid itself of its primitive, hysterical fears – if people can't learn to cope mentally with actual powerful modern technologies more capable than fire and windmills and social networking – then we face a bleak, troublesome, mundane future indeed, one which will probably mean an end to human civilisation down the road rather than its long-term survival. ®

Bootnote

Some of you aren't going to believe this, but the comments on this story are not disabled intentionally - we are working to get them turned back on but are having technical difficulties. You can drop back into the previous Fukushima stories in the meantime if you like.