Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another note on Fukushima

(original post may be found here)

With today's announcement that the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi will now be provisionally classed as a level 7, the worst possible in nuclear accidents, equal with Chernobyl, again I must insist that the fear-mongering press need a good kick to the head.

Firstly, we need to make sure that this fact is well understood: the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has not worsened. The change in category is based upon what happened at the beginning of the crisis, not what is happening now. As NPR's Eliza Barclay reports:
The decision to bump up the rating from 5 to 7 was prompted by new data on the amount of radiation released at the plant in the early days of the crisis — not by any recent change in the plant's status.
Having just witnessed NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams "explain" the situation without so much as one mention of the rating's meaning, the reasons for the change, or the fact that the alteration is being applied after the fact*, I knew the other "news" stations wouldn't be much different in this gross misrepresentation of facts.

This leads me to my second point: The updated rating (on a scale about as useless as Homeland Security's color-coded terrorism threat levels) doesn't make clear that the release of radioactivity into the environment was ten times worse during the Chernobyl incident than for the Daiichi plant. We know this because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a Nobel-winning establishment which is internationally recognized as being foremost in the science, information and understanding of nuclear reactors and their ilk, said so. Not only that, but the categorization is provisional - which means it might not stick. And let's not forget that the Daiichi reactors suffered the fourth-largest earthquake in the world's recorded history, followed by a thirty-foot tsunami.

Third, reactor designs are updated, just like all engineering projects. To class the reactors themselves as "like Chernobyl" is as misguided as claiming all cars suffer the same weaknesses as a 1972 Ford Pinto. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors are not at all the same engineering design as the failed reactor at Chernobyl (which did not have a containment vessel, something required of all US reactors). They are incapable of failing in the same way. And so far, they have not failed in the same way. New reactor designs (currently referred to as "Generation IV") exist which could prevent completely the possibility of a core meltdown, such as liquid metal or pebble-bed reactors.

Lastly, the Chernobyl nuclear incident is not as bad as everyone seems to think it is. If we're going to compare the situation at the Daiichi plant with what took place outside Prypiat, why don't we care to know what we're talking about? For instance, despite panic on the part of the public and government officials, only 60 people died of acute radiation poisoning (the large majority of them first responders, who were not aware at the time of the inherent danger of entering the destroyed reactor building), and only 3,900 more are expected to develop cancers from it - out of an exposed population of 600,000 (compare this with another industrial, but non-nuclear, accident). When compared to the number of cancers normally expected for a "control group" of that size (ie, a group who are only exposed to natural background radiation), this is an increase of only 3%. As the IAEA explained:
Confusion about the impact has arisen owing to the fact that thousands of people in the affected areas have died of natural causes. Also, widespread expectations of ill health and a tendency to attribute all health problems to radiation exposure have led local residents to assume that Chernobyl related fatalities were much higher than they actually were.
Other effects the public generally blames radiation for, such as birth defects, showed no positive correlation with the exposure from the Chernobyl release. Also according to the IAEA's multitudinous reports, radiation levels in the Exclusion Zone have fallen, many to safe levels. In fact, the radiation levels in the Exclusion Zone are lower than the natural radiation you would get if you lived in certain areas in Brazil, China, India, Australia, the Colorado Plateau (CO, NM, AZ, UT), Finland, Iran, or Washington State, to name a few.

So please, please, please folks! Let's be reasonable. Should we not concentrate on the fact that thousands of tsunami victims are still missing? Or maybe... just maybe... we should actually help, instead of sitting around talking about it?

*and yet somehow keeping myself from throwing something at the TV...perhaps because I was on a treadmill at the time. An amusing note: Brian Williams, as is the case with many other purported "news" anchors, is so self-important that he himself counts as a "news" topic on NBC's website.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Kelly-

    I have to wonder what they were smoking when they did this severity upgrade. Chernobyl was way, way worse. The reactor blew itself up through an uncontrolled chain reaction.

    Your estimate of its damage seems a bit low. There are reputable sources that think the long-term death toll is significantly higher than you cite from the IAEA etc.. Not only is radiation sort of invisible and scary, but its health consequences are subtle and long-term as well. There are significant mental health effects too. I am no expert here, but the estimates vary enormously, and sticking to what can be proven and verified in this kind of setting may seriously undercount real effects. Versus coal, however, it is still a picnic, probably.

    The epidemic of CAT scans has significant health consequences as well, actually.

    But with better reactor designs.. by all means, we need more of them, if they can compete economically with really clean energy. Thanks for the coverage.


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