Japanese Nuclear Meltdown Fears Are Overblown, And We Cannot Afford To Take Nukes Off The Table

Even if there is a meltdown, it won’t be a major catastrophe.  The Chernobyl meltdown, much worse than whatever will happen in Japan, didn’t even cause that much damage.  People think it was a horrendously deadly meltdown, and although it wasn’t a good thing, it wasn’t nearly as bad as you have been led to believe (from Roddy Campbell writing for The Telegraph):

We seemed to have just reached the point where civil nuclear power was acceptable in polite society again, as decades on the fears that accompanied Three Mile Island and Chernobyl abated, CO2 emissions fears placed environmental advocacy groups in a cleft stick of nuclear versus global warming, and increasing demand for energy, and energy security concerns drive government policy.  The UK has plans to replace its ageing fleet of reactors, the US likewise, and China is already building new nuclear power stations, even green Germany has extended the life of its nuclear generating capacity.

Now we have an earthquake in Japan, possibly causing meltdown at a number of nuclear reactors, whose safety systems seem not to be working too well, and we may be back to square one.

So, how dangerous is it, either when there is massive operator error, like Chernobyl, or an exogenous event, like the earthquake in Japan?  We don’t know yet about Japan, although most expert commentary seems reasonably relaxed about the radiation risks in the event of core melt-down.  What do we know about Chernobyl?

Well, aren’t we lucky?  We have an almost perfect test case of the hazards of civil nuclear power, Chernobyl 1986.  25 years on we have an excellent view of the lives lost, environment despoiled, cancer rates, societal impacts, ecosystems, and so on, caused by the worst civil nuclear disaster ever.

We have endless reports from international agencies.  Cover-up?  I doubt it.  Ukraine and Belarus want aid and help, have no interest in covering up, and it’s difficult to believe in an international nuclear industry driven cover-up taking in all those UN agencies.

What did these agencies say? Let me summarise from the WHO/IAEA/UNDP Press Release that accompanied the 600-page September 2005 report, written jointly by 8 UN specialized agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and the World Bank, as well as the governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

Deaths so far?  ‘As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers…..’

Possible deaths in total?  ‘A total of up to 4000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant  …. an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.’

Cancer?  ‘About 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident’s contamination and at least nine children died of thyroid cancer; however the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99%.’

Fertility and malformations?  ‘Most emergency workers and people living in contaminated areas received relatively low whole body radiation doses, comparable to natural background levels. As a consequence, no evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility among the affected population has been found, nor has there been any evidence of increases in congenital malformations….’

General health effects?  ‘ …..the health effects of the accident were potentially horrific, but when you add them up using validated conclusions from good science, the public health effects were not nearly as substantial as had at first been feared.’

How much radiation did people receive?  ‘With the exception of on-site reactor staff and emergency workers exposed on 26 April, most recovery operation workers and those living in contaminated territories received relatively low whole body radiation doses, comparable to background radiation levels and lower than the average doses received by residents in some parts of the world having high natural background radiation levels.’

Why do people assume it was so much worse, in terms of human fatalities and illnesses? ‘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.’

Any more reproductive or natal effects likely?  ‘….. no evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility has been seen among males or females. Also, because the doses were so low, there was no evidence of any effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications or overall health of children.’

Environmental impact?  ‘As for environmental impact, the reports are also reassuring, for the scientific assessments show that, except for the still closed, highly contaminated 30 kilometer area surrounding the reactor, and some closed lakes and restricted forests, radiation levels have mostly returned to acceptable levels.’

Psychological impact – now that’s where the report is really interesting, stating that fear, lack of information, relocation, poverty, and so on had a far greater effect than anything else.  ‘…the report labels the mental health impact of Chernobyl as “the largest public health problem created by the accident” and partially attributes this damaging psychological impact to a lack of accurate information. These problems manifest as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.’, and ‘In most areas the problems are economic and psychological, not health or environmental.’

Don’t get me wrong, Chernobyl was not a Good Thing.  Lots of things aren’t Good Things, like Macondo, floods, earthquakes, coal mining deaths and lung diseases, so we have to try and measure how much of a Bad Thing they are.  Evacuations , resettlement, and agricultural economic impacts seem to have, according to the reports, caused most of the human suffering.  These seem now largely unnecessary, or at least capable of substantial mitigation, and to have been greatly exacerbated by false fear.

Where I get to is that the health and environmental impacts of Chernobyl, while not a Good Thing, are far less bad than people thought and indeed still think.  That’s what the reports say.  And the impacts derive from a really bad disaster; one might exaggerate and say it’s difficult to think of how a civil nuclear disaster could be worse.

And you have to compare nuclear impacts over decades to the deaths, illnesses and environmental impacts caused by other energy generating businesses, which are the natural comparatives – coal mining, oil drilling, gas.

So let’s not exaggerate.  Stick to nuclear.  Overall it is clearly a Good Thing.  As is the invention of the combine harvester, which has ripped a few arms off and caused a few deaths in its time.

The fears about Nuclear power are overblown.  The Japanese plant will release radiation, but probably not enough to kill people. Maybe that doesn’t make you feel any better, but it should.  We can’t afford to take nukes off the table (from Investor’s Business Daily):

Quake-damaged reactors have spawned disaster-movie-scale scenarios. But once again the hype may exceed the reality, and the danger from nukes may be dwarfed by the dangers of doing without.Consider that the earthquake that devastated Japan moved the main island eight feet and shifted our entire planet on its axis by four inches. The energy released by the quake, now measured at 9.0 on the Richter scale, is equivalent to about 336 megatons of TNT. The death toll is in the thousands and may rise into the tens of thousands in a nation that resembles the devastated Japan of 1945.

The quake was bad enough, yet most of the media’s focus is on the crippled Japanese nuclear power plants, where no one has been killed, radiation leakage has been minimal and no breach of the containment buildings has yet been reported.

We do not minimize the danger that remains. We simply want to put it in context as the media breathlessly ponder another Chernobyl.

Ironically, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, caused by a combination of Russian incompetence and shoddy technology, will be upon us in a few weeks. Yet Japan’s personnel and technology have functioned quite well, considering this natural disaster of planetary magnitude.

The Chernobyl plant had no containment structure and was of a design that used graphite instead of water to moderate neutron radiation. The graphite caught fire and burned for four days. With a containment structure, the fire would have been snuffed out and radiation would not have escaped.

Despite the second hydrogen gas explosion in three days at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant’s Unit 3 in Okumamachi and exposed fuel rods at another reactor, Japanese authorities are using seawater to cool down the reactors. Failing that, sand and cement may be poured in to entomb the reactor core.

According to Ron Ballinger, professor of nuclear science at MIT, radiation spiked at about 100 millirems at Fukushima No. 3 before the first explosion. By comparison, you get about 35 millirems on a trans-Atlantic flight. A resident of mile-high Denver gets about 50 millirems a year.

Japan is the world’s third-largest nuclear power user. Its has 53 reactors that provide 34.5% of its electricity, and there were plans to increase that to 50% by 2030.

The U.S. hasn’t built a new plant since 1979, yet nuclear power safely provides about 20% of our electricity, replacing huge amounts of those greenhouse gases environmentalists love to hate.

Experts have spent three decades trying to find any harmful effects from steam released at Three Mile Island in 1979 and have come up empty. Yet the incident doomed the U.S. nuclear power industry,and the Japanese quake may doom its renaissance.

Entire villages have been swept away by the quake, yet we have the likes of Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. — who tried to kill our economy with his cap-and-trade bill — making the most of this tragedy. Markey is warning of “another Chernobyl” and saying that “the same thing could happen here.” Both statements are nonsense.

Markey wants to halt all nuclear plans and suspend the license of the only reactor we’ve been building — a Tennessee Valley authority plant at Watts Bar. Proposals for 20 other reactors to be built over the next two decades are at various points in the regulatory pipeline.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that we should “put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what’s happened in Japan.”

We’ve had the brakes on for 30 years, Joe, depriving our nation and economy of job-creating and, yes, environmentally friendly energy independence.

Despite a once-in-a-century event in Japan, it’s time to put our foot on the accelerator and realize, as someone once put it, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

We need to cool down the heated rhetoric, just like the Japanese need to cool down their reactors.  Writing for Salon.com, a website I despise, William Saletan makes an interesting observation:

Less than a year ago, a drilling rig exploded off the coast of the United States, killing 11 workers and pouring 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. No natural disaster caused this tragedy. It was entirely man-made. President Obama halted deep-water drilling but lifted the moratorium less than six months later. On Friday, while fielding questions about Japan’s nuclear reactors, he proudly noted that his administration, under new, stricter rules, had “approved more than 35 new offshore drilling permits.”

That’s how we deal with tragedies in the oil business. Accidents happen. People die. Pollution spreads. We don’t abandon oil. We study what went wrong, try to fix it, and move on.

Contrast this with the panic over Japan’s reactors. For 40 years, they’ve quietly done their work. Three days ago, they were hit almost simultaneously by Japan’s worst earthquake and one of its worst tsunamis. Not one reactor container has failed. The only employee who has died at a Japanese nuclear facility since the quake was killed by a crane. Despite this, voices are rising in Europe and the United States to abandon nuclear power. Industry analysts predict that the Japan scare, like Chernobyl, will freeze plant construction.

Let’s cool this panic before it becomes a political meltdown.

Saletan also makes a good point by comparing the use of fossil fuels to the use of nuclear power:

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

Even if you count all the deaths plausibly related to Chernobyl—9,000 to 33,000 over a 70-year period—that number is dwarfed by the death rate from burning fossil fuels. The OECD’s 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related. You’d need 500 Chernobyls to match that level of annual carnage. But outside Chernobyl, we’ve had zero fatal nuclear power accidents.

That doesn’t mean we can ignore what has happened in Japan. Precisely because nuclear accidents are so rare, we have to study them intensely. Each one tells us what to fix in the next generation of power plants. The most obvious mistake in Japan was parking the diesel generators in an area low enough to be flooded by a quake-driven tsunami. The batteries that backed up the generators weren’t adequate, either. They lasted only eight hours, and power outage fallback plans at U.S. reactors are even shorter. Moreover, this is the second time an advanced nuclear facility has had to vent radioactive vapor (Three Mile Island was the first). Maybe it’s time to require filtration systems that scrub the vapor before it’s released.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut says we should “put the brakes” on nuclear power plant construction until we figure out what went wrong in Japan. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts wants a moratorium on new reactors in “seismically active areas” while we study the problem. That’s fine. But let’s not block construction indefinitely while we go on mindlessly pumping oil. Because nuclear energy, for all its risks, is safer.


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