Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/12/fukushima_ffs/

Mummy, mummy, there's a nuclear monster!

Go back to BED! No more stories from Auntie Fear for you

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 12th April 2011 13:53 GMT

The total non-story of the Fukushima nuclear powerplant "disaster" – which has seen and will see no deaths or measurable health consequences for anyone anywhere – has received a shot in the arm today with the news that Japanese authorities have upgraded the incident to a Level 7 on the nuclear accident scale.

This was reported in some mainstream media outlets like this:

"Radiation in Japan is as bad as Chernobyl ... level is raised to 7 for only the second time in history ... spread of radioactive particles is out of control ... Lasting horror: Ukrainian children suffering from cancer caused by radiation from the Chernobyl disaster"

The facts are that the incident at Fukushima Daiichi remains far and away the most minor of the various consequences which have followed the initial, devastating magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami which struck northeastern Japan nearly a month ago. It has caused less human consequences than a moderate road-traffic accident. The nuclear reactors in the stricken provinces came through mostly unscathed (even at the Daiichi site two are expected to return to service, and at other nuclear powerplants in the region no significant damage at all was seen). One nuclear worker, in a crane cab at the time, was killed by the quake strike at the Daini plant: two were killed by the tsunami wave at Daiichi. A handful have been injured by the quake and following hydrogen explosions.

Almost all other infrastructure hit by the natural disaster failed catastrophically. Housing, transport and industry across the region collapsed with deadly consequences, killing people by the tens of thousands. Oil plants, chemical factories, storage facilities and tankers of every type ruptured and burned, spilling megatonnes of pollution and carcinogens into the environment. But almost nothing is heard of all this, except as a footnote to the supposed radiological hazards resulting from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1 to 4.

So what's happening in and around the Daiichi plant?

Residual heating in the cores at reactors 1 to 3 has now decayed down to less than 0.37 per cent of normal output power. It is this heating which has previously driven emissions of core material from the cores, and which plant personnel struggled to control in the hours and days after the tsunami knocked out backup cooling power and backup-backup batteries were exhausted. During that time heating levels, though falling fast, were initially 20 times what they are now.

Steam vented from the hot cores was and is not dangerous in itself, but some material from the fuel rods themselves was naturally carried out along with vented steam. Some of this was carried off by the wind to be deposited in the area around, where it is detectable in minuscule amounts.

Most media have chosen to report Japanese government calculations indicating (three-page PDF/56.7 KB) that perhaps 10,000 terabecquerels per hour of iodine-131 may have been emitted from the Daiichi cores in the hours following the initial decision to vent them. This is assessed as around 10 per cent of the emission levels seen at Chernobyl.

That's largely meaningless, however. If all the iodine emitted in one hour had been sitting still at a single point (no) and that had been the only radio-isotope present (no again) you could have stood 100 metres from that point for three hours and suffered zero health consequences. Becquerels of a given isotope don't relate closely or directly to health consequences: we need to look at dose rates instead.

At times, close to reactor buildings on the Daiichi site, radiation dose rates as high as 1,000 millisievert/hour have been recorded by remote instruments. That is serious radiation: after an hour exposed to it you'd be likely to suffer actual radiation sickness, though you'd be just about certain to recover. Two hours, and you might die: four hours, a fatal result would become likely. If millions of people were exposed to such levels for say a quarter of an hour, decades later you'd be able to point to increased cancer rates among them (though the risk to any individual would be negligible).

But these were in fact very brief spikes right next to a damaged core, resulting mostly from very short-lived isotopes that were decaying before they could drift beyond the plant fence. Nobody at all has been exposed to such levels.

Thus far the worst exposure was suffered by three workers who stood in ankle-deep radioactive water for several hours and sustained doses above 100 millisievert from doing so, indicating local levels of 20-odd millisievert/hour. They have suffered zero health consequences as a result. As of the latest reports, as many as four other workers (of all the many hundreds present at the site) have gone above 100 millisievert: the maximum level allowed is 250 before being withdrawn from the operation altogether, but as is common in the nuclear industry intense caution is being exercised.

Danger beyond the plant fence has remained effectively nil. As of yesterday, according to nuclear experts at MIT in the States (reviewing data from Japanese and international monitoring teams on the ground) the highest dose rates seen within 30km of the plant have been 0.0016 millisievert/hour.

For context, you could live permanently under radiation levels of 0.0016 mS/hr and you would never achieve even half the annual dose levels permitted by airline crew.

The only actual health menace of any kind beyond the plant fence from Fukushima (and indeed following Chernobyl) has been presented by ingestion of radioisotopes in food: specifically of radioisotopic iodine. For adults this appears to have almost no effect, but in the case of children radio-iodine is taken up and concentrated in the thyroid gland very efficiently. Even though it decays away completely in a matter of weeks (iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days), if a child ingests even quite small amounts of radio-iodine he or she will have a tiny extra risk of thyroid cancer in future – about 0.02 per cent, based on Chernobyl.

Fortunately, thyroid cancer – unusually among cancers – is almost always curable without ill effects (this is done, counterintuitively, using much larger amounts of iodine-131) and so the chance of such a child actually dying as a result of such exposure is unfeasibly tiny: less than one chance in a million.

But these people are frightened! It's cruel to tell them not to be! Eh?

It is a total certainty that no child has or will suffer any such exposure. Occasionally, radio-iodine levels in water have been sampled at a rate which, if babies drank such water constantly for a year, they might achieve that one-in-a-million chance of dying decades down the road. No baby will be able to do so for a year, as radio-iodine stopped being produced at Fukushima when the cores scrammed a month back. Already, more than 95 per cent of what was there has decayed away into inoffensive xenon: in another month this figure will be well above 99 per cent.

As this is written, even these minuscule, barely-measurable health effects are disappearing. In only one village in Fukushima province does the tapwater remain above the can-a-baby-drink-it-for-a-year benchmark.

That's it – that really is it. You can forget all the rest of it – "radioactive water released into the sea" etc. None of that offers any measurable possibilities of harm – though of course, nearby nations are seizing the chance for a bit of fisheries protectionism and baseless consumer panic worldwide will surely hit Japan's fishing industry hard.

So why have the Japanese authorities raised the incident to a 7? After all, my god, this is the highest possible rating for a nuclear accident. Surely this must be serious?

Well, the Japanese government says it has done this purely on account of the calculated airborne emissions figure, an order of magnitude less than Chernobyl – or if you like, within an order of magnitude of Chernobyl.

In reality, the rise to Level 7 is a result of the constant badgering both from inside and outside Japan to the effect that the Japanese government is not taking this seriously. By calling it Level 7, the authorities are saying that yes, they assess the Daiichi situation as extremely serious. They really do care.

This is the problem that everyone faces, who describes nuclear incidents as they really are – that is, insignificant. You are accused of being heartless, of failing to care about or empathise with people who are terribly frightened. You have committed the same sin as bracingly telling a toddler that there is no monster under his bed and that he should go back to sleep.

Part of the problem here is that in the case of nuclear dangers it is rather as though the toddler had a mentally troubled aunt or uncle who, in addition to telling the kid fairytales at story time, insists that the monsters in the stories are real.

The people in charge of story time here are the media, and like many of us finding ourselves troubled by bizarro in-laws, the media fails – seldom really even tries, often enough – to prevent the mad aunt telling the kids rubbish.

The good old Beeb, for instance – Auntie Storytime herself – briefly denied the monster's existence a little while back: but then felt compelled to allow "the other side of the story" from crazy Uncle Greenpeace:

The accepted wisdom has been that the consequences of a catastrophic nuclear accident may be large, but that the frequency is low ... Given that only a few decades, rather than millennia separate the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island it is clear that nuclear operators and/or regulators are significantly underestimating the inherent risks ... in the EU, renewables installations provided the majority of new capacity in 2008 and 2009 ... the ongoing disaster at Fukushima has highlighted the environmental, societal and economic impact that nuclear power can have in extreme conditions.

Actually as we have seen the consequences of a "catastrophic" nuclear accident are either zero (Fukushima, Three Mile Island) or minuscule (Chernobyl actually killed fewer than 60 people). Nuclear is far and away the safest means of generating power, with deaths per terawatt-hour a tiny fraction of those resulting from low-tech means such as coal and wind.

Renewables plants did indeed provide most new capacity in the EU – but in fact most production came from new gas, as renewable "capacity" is a largely meaningless figure.

Indeed, Fukushima has highlighted the impacts nuclear power can have under extreme conditions, but not in the way that uncle Froggatt says: environmental (nil impact), economic (slim to none impact – some 40-year-old plant written off a few years early, rolling blackouts mostly didn't occur and ended altogether yesterday) and societal (cretinous panic impact only).

Even the Guardian's famous treehugger George Monbiot rebelled in the face of the global idiocy, joining many another well-known Green before him in suddenly noticing a strong smell of coffee. But the Graun couldn't bear to tell the toddlers the truth straight: again, mad Auntie Fear was invited in so as to present a "balanced view".

Nobody dares to be so heartless as to tell the frightened toddler outright to go back to sleep. Baseless fear is coddled, tolerated, treated as understandable and reasonable – and often enough, wantonly pumped up in pursuit of fringe agendas or readership figures.

As for the INES nuclear incident scale and Fukushima's new 7 rating – the highest possible – you could draw various lessons from that.

But the only rational conclusion to draw is that an industry which can have an accident at the extreme top of its possible internationally agreed accident scale without killing a single person is already so safe that it probably deserves to relax its costly precautions quite a lot – rather than having them cranked up yet further, as seems all too likely.

If nuclear were allowed to be as dangerous as gas – that is, perhaps somewhere in the region of 400 times as dangerous in terms of deaths per terawatt-hour – there can be little doubt that electricity would become extremely cheap, maybe indeed too cheap to bother metering it for most users. Waste could be dealt with and supplies extended by many times by simply reprocessing fuel, something which the fearmongers have already managed to ban in many countries.

That would not only mean realistic prospects of low-to-zero carbon emissions: it would also mean no need to much care about the opinions of various unsavoury regimes around the world, or to funnel revenue to them to spend on weapons. Cheap nuclear energy would hugely boost economic performance. It would also offer effectively unlimited fresh water supplies, and realistic options for space travel beyond low Earth orbit.

Some of us at least are getting a bit sick of the idea that you simply aren't allowed to tell frightened people quite bluntly to act their age – and we're getting more than just a bit sick of irrational or unscrupulous fairytale-spinners making them frightened in the first place. ®