The Fukushima Disaster, Hyperbole, Credibility, Skepticism, and the Future of Nuclear Power

I honestly think that it is too early to have this conversation, but alas, the conversation has been forced.

I have yet to express my opinion about the efficacy or safety of the future use of nuclear power, or any way in which that opinion may be affected by the current tragic events in Japan. I did report (link to, really) with little comment on the current failings of the Fukushima nuclear plants (very much underway at this time), and when commenters took the opportunity to explain how nuclear power is totally safe and that this was demonstrated by how nicely things are working out at the Fukushima plant, I pointed out to them that I didn't quite buy their arguments. I also made the specific assertion, that I don't intend to back up with evidence because it is merely an opinion I hold from personal experience (I have worked for the nuke industry and I was active in the subject during the Seabrook and Three Mile Island dramas), that I do not trust the nuclear power industry. I also don't trust the coal industry, or any power industry, or big pharm or big ag or a lot of other major industries to be totally open and honest about what they do and what they know about the effects of what they do. Do you?

An interesting response emerged, and it is one that I was not expecting. I'm being scolded for not having a certain opinion about nuclear power. Apparently skeptics have a certain opinion about nuclear power. Rational people have this opinion. I'm not a good skeptic or a rational person if I don't, it would seem. I am supposed to agree that most things being said which suggest that nuclear power is unsafe are falsehoods. I am being told that I've not understood the correct opinion held by the rest of the skeptical community that nuclear power is a technology that is safe and that disagreeing with that is nothing more than so much woo.

Yet I have not expressed an opinion. Not to anyone. I haven't even expressed my opinion on nuclear power to my personal and political confidants. Nobody knows what I think about this. Nor is it possible that my opinion about nuclear power could possibly modulate my reaction to the tragedy unfolding in Japan. But this did not stop a handful of people from assuming that an expression of concern over nuclear power plants blowing up, experiencing "partial meltdowns" (which is a bit of a vague term) and releasing radioactive material and/or radiation is an explicit statement against nuclear power.

The funny thing is, as these comments have come in on my blog (and at JREF and other fora) specifically explaining how Greg Laden Haz It Rong!!! the news from Japan has worsened. At some point it is possible, even quite reasonable, to say "Hey, look. The Fukushima plants got all messed up and this is not good, but considering what could have happened, and considering the size of the quake and the tsunami, it went pretty well. The nuke industry has their acts pretty much together, it turns out." Then there is a point where it is possible, possibly even vitally necessary, to say something different. Something like "The Fukushima plants met the best possible targets for safety demanded by a cautious society and was produced by outstanding engineers using the best possible resources. And this wasn't good enough."

Not only do I not know what that point is, a priori, but neither do you, and if you try to tell me you do I'll call bullshit. More immediately, however, the following is simply true: Those commenters on my blog and elsewhere who felt it necessary to declare nuclear power safe because what happened at Fukushima was acceptable were wrong to do so while the crisis is still underway. Their willingness to declare an event that was (and still is) clearly not over in order to make what is essentially a political point disqualifies them from being considered as fair, rational, unbiased, skeptical discussants. Once again, the JREF forum has produced something other than thoughtful deliberation. Once again I and others are being told to shut up or worse, to say specific things and not say other things, or risk being labeled as pariah in the skeptical community.

A closely integrated subtext is the "It's not Chernobyl stop saying that it is!!!!11!!" rant. I actually have not seen a single individual or press outlet compare the current situation to Chernobyl. But I've seen and heard Chernobyl mentioned dozens of times, and every time as part of some missive telling us all to stop talking about Chernobyl. Like this blog post: Know Nukes: The Japanese Earthquake & Anti-Nuclear Hysteria. While I appreciate the efforts of this pseudonymous blogger who I will presume, but can not know, is not a shill for the Nuclear Power Industry to dispel myths about what may be happening in Japan, I do not appreciate labeling people's concern over the health and well being of those at the site, and the potential environmental effects of a half dozen nuclear accidents of varying degrees of severity happening all at once, as hysteria, and describing it as a series of absurd statements that no one has actually made. That site starts off with dispelling the idea that this is "another Chernobyl disaster" without giving a single reference to anyone saying that it might be. This and other claims are stated complete with exclamation-pointed Glenbeckesque language and breathlessness, and then summarily, even snarkily, dispelled. Not one bit of related hyperbole can be found on my blog regarding these ongoing and very serious problems yet that blogger chose to come on over and tell me to stop it.

In the mean time, we have this little item reported by James Hrynyshyn at Class:M ...

Robin Grimes ... says that he believes the [Fukushima] event actually proves the safety of nuclear power plants. ... the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have ... largely contained their dangerous radioactive fuel. " ... it's a success," Grimes says, then adds: "Although do I think the general public will be able to see that? I think the answer is, sadly, no."

Robin Grimes is an insensitive moron. In the long run he may be right. Or he may be wrong. Most likely, the pro-nuclear lobby has simply decided to declare the events at Fukushima as controlled and contained and exemplary o nuclear safety regardless of what happens there. Quite likely, we will see arguments that he was right coming from pro-nukers and arguments that he was wrong coming from anti-nukers. But right now, I'm sitting here with millions of other people still waiting to hear from loved ones and colleagues in Japan, watching the news as one reactor building after another explodes or catches fire, as new reports of radiation exposure and/or leakage, and melting of reacter components, or exposure of people at the scene to radiation come from the disaster site every six hours or so, with no sign at this time that the downward spiral of events at Fukushima is slowing, and he chooses this time to declare this ongoing tragedy over, done with, and very meaningful with respect to a post-game assessment of the safety of nuclear power. I'm sorry, Robin Grimes ... you might be a great guy and all and Imma let you keep being the director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London and all ... but for now, you can kiss my ass.

This disaster ... and it is not hyperbole to call this a disaster ... is not over, and it is not going to be over for a while. In the meantime, self-declared skeptics who come over to my crib to declare my mere pointing to news of events (including a series of running headlines intended to show the march through time of what the press says about both the reactors and the death toll) to be hyperbole and scientifically inaccurate woo can line up behind Robin. The people erecting web sites and blog posts pointing out falsehoods and fallacies that are really out there and that people are actually engaging in are being helpful, and I appreciate that. But those erecting straw men to burn with your witty snark for the main purpose of demonstrating how much nuclear power makes you cream in your jeans can line up behind the aforementioned pseudo-skeptics. And you can all ... kiss my ass.

That is all.

Oh wait, no, there is one more thing ... about my opinion of future use of nuclear energy.

I say, go for it.

Just solve a couple of problems first. We don't want a risk of a major earthquake happening in a place where major earthquakes happen causing disastrous damage to nuke plants. We don't want radioactive waste that will be hanging around in need of constant care for thousands of years. That sort of thing. It may be possible for a nuclear technology to be developed that has very low risk and reasonable efficiency. The largest problem that I have right now in knowing if this is possible, or what such technology might look like, is that the whole nuclear engineering and energy field is full of bullshit artists and accompanied by lamprey-like self described skeptics who will make up whatever they feel they need to make up to make nuclear look good. Smoke and mirrors. It is impossible to see the real potential and the real possibilities. The nuclear industry, for most of us my age who have seen most of the history of this technology for use as energy in the public realm unfold, is pretty much credibility-free. And as long as that is the case, I say no-nukes. Which is too bad, because I think it may really be possible to make this work.

Oh, and just as I finish writing this thing that I really wish I did not have to write, we have this at CNN:

Official: Japan's nuclear situation nearing severity of Chernobyl

...The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale -- or INES -- goes from Level 1, which indicates very little danger to the general population, to Level 7, a "major accident" in which there's been a large release of radioactive material and there will be widespread health and environmental effects.

"It's clear we are at Level 6, that's to say we're at a level in between what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl," Andre-Claude Lacoste, president of France's nuclear safety authority, told reporters Tuesday....


More like this

... continuing from earlier news News, blog, and other items: Singaporeans in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures told to evacuate Language used to describe atomic meltdown borders on reckless hyperbole Know Nukes: The Japanese Earthquake & Anti-Nuclear Hysteria: Explaining how the Japan Nuke…
The worker's death was probably unrelated to the nuclear disaster, but it can't help moral much at the crippled site. Fission and cooling still remain issues at the Fukushima plant. Although fission is not happening to any large degree, or possibly at all, there has been fission more recently…
It has been Just over six months since a magnitude 9 earthquake and ensuing tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In the hours following that incident, nuclear power protagonists filled the blogosphere, the news outlets, and other media with assurances that little could go…
Perhaps the most interesting single thing on the table in today's update is the revelation that at least one of Fukushima's reactors suffered sufficient damage from the earthquake that hit the region ... prior to the tsunami ... to have likely gone out of control or melted down. This is hard to…

I have actually heard a few commentaries suggest that it might get to be a "Chernobyl" level accident, though I don't have cites as they were mostly sound bites I heard on the radio or TV in passing.

And from all the information I've seen about the design of the reactors, I don't think the disaster will have the same signature or the same geographic impact. Fortunately, I'm just a schmuck on the internet and don't have to make edumacated decisions affecting millions of people based on my knowledge, so I have a slightly higher comfort level with not knowing the exact details.

However, Greg's right, it's still a disaster. It still shows that there are significant risks associated with nuclear power. Will/Have the benefits of nuclear power outweighed the risks? I honestly don't know. I haven't examined the issue in any depth. I don't know how to do the statistical analysis to determine if the amount of deaths per capita caused by nuclear power production are greater or lower than other forms of energy production.

There's a great book called "To Engineer is Human", I believe, and it's all about how failure is an integral part to the engineering process. This disaster shows us first hand how risks can be mitigated and how risk mitigation can be successful and also be a failure. Life is a series of risk mitigation efforts, from buckling our seat belts to engineering a skyscraper. Lessons will be learned, hopefully with the minimal amount of environmental impact and loss of life as possible. Success and failure are often greatly dependent upon one's point of view (just like determining if Obi Wan lied to Luke about his father).

Anyway, I may or may not have had a point. FWIW

Well said. Despite what anyone is saying, I don't think anyone really know how it is going to end at Fukushima at this point. Not even those brave heroes who stayed behind to keep things contained.

What is certain though is that whatever happens, people will be coming out of the woodwork in hindsight claiming that they have been saying Nuclear Power is safe/not safe (depending on if we are through the worst of it now or not) for years.

Well, I think the point of the Chernobyl reference is this: From the beginning we were seeing "don't call it Chernobyl, it's not Chernobyl" when no one was really doing that (other than to note early yesterday in a few news outlets that it is twixt tmi and chernobyl, which is not equating it to either). Subsequently, the disaster itself has worsened and now nuky experts are starting to claim that it is getting close to that particular level of disaster, though, noting that it remains below it on some supposedly accepted scale.

Just like we heard "there's no release of radiation ... the litmus test of safety is no radiation gets out .... no radiation is out .. stop saying there's radiation getting out" and now there's all these people, it is claimed, who have been dosed with worrisome levels of radiation.

And so on and so forth.

Greg, the other view point you didn't canvas (that I hold) is that this is not the time for a nuclear debate, bit that the media has by and large been ridiculous about this

How can you say no-one invoked chernobyl. They have on the news from the start. One news service has been talking about nuclear explosions for gods sake. One major website started talking in nano sieverts so the could make it sound like big numbers

The potential to freak out people who are behaving amazingly well in a disaster zone is real too. Imagine what would happen now if there was a panic

The idea you seem to have - that people have been arguing "this is not a disaster yet because no significant radiation has escaped" are invalidated by the later development of a leak -is not right. They were right at the time, and they were fighting a huge amount of fear mongering

The idea that you cannot call for sanity during a disaster without trying to open a debate on energy is a huge strawman

In the United States, it seems to me that there ought to be a way to generate nuclear power relatively safely (I'm just a Guy on the Internet) maybe with a standardized design using thorium. I dunno.

It also seems to me that the only way to do it properly is through a government program which sells the electricity to the utilities, or uses it for national consumption on military bases, etc (effectively lessening the demand on the grid). I don't trust Big Government, but I trust Big Industry still less. In the end, the taxpayer is going to be holding the bag when Something Bad happens. May as well get the profits as well.

By Randomfactor (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Soulman, there has been mention of Chernobyl as I mentioned. Now, go to the site I cite and give that blogger a citation or two that would fit that post ... make sure it dates to prior to the post having been written. I have not seen those links. Don't tell me that I can't say I've not seen them. Just produce them.

What you say about what I say people said is not at all accurate. People were not saying anything conditional about leaks. They were saying that there were no leaks, and that this demonstrated that we had nothing to worry about.

So no, you're giving me straw. Piles of straw. I don't need no stinking straw.

Randomfactor: Why do you think nuclear power would be profitable? Historically the power it generates is high above the price for most other electricity generation. Thus it really only exists in places where government has decided to subsidize it. Nuclear power plants have very high fixed costs (all of these complex safety mechanisms aren't cheap), low fuel costs, and tend to have shorter-than-projected lifetimes, making them highly risky investments, even if the government [read: taxpayers] is covering your insurance.

The "nuclear debate" seems to always bring out the knee-jerk reactionaries on both sides of the issue, which, unsurprisingly, often does more harm than good.

There have been several very interesting projects pointing to new designs that have great potential to make nuclear plants much safer, produce waste that is less dangerous, and operate more efficiently. This sounds like a reasonable thing to pursue, yet I've seen too many pro-nukers fight against this since it would appear to admit that nuclear power isn't currently as safe as needed.

The anti-nukers seem to also immediately attack any such plans since that would be an admission that nuclear power may someday be less dangerous than the US Interstate Highway system.

I suspect that the industry doesn't mind as long as they are getting government subsidies to guarantee profitability of using old designs. The coal and gas industry sure wouldn't mind if nuclear power remains dangerous and expensive since it means their products will remain competitively priced.

In the meantime, we are ramping up use of coal-fired power plants, and relaxing efforts to use cleaner coal. In Illinois there seems to be a new coal mining boom which had almost been killed off because the Illinois coal is so dirty to burn. Not any more!

Nuclear power should be made safer, as you would normally expect in such an industry. When comparing the costs and risks of nuclear, we also need to consider the costs and risks of continuing to rely so much on coal and other fossil fuels (including public health).

Once again many people are reacting on an emotional level instead of allowing for good, thorough discussion and research. In the middle of it all, others get rich off of the ambiguity and status quo.

I don't think nuclear generation of electricity is necessarily any more profitable than defense spending is. As fossil-fueled plants become (inevitably) more expensive nuclear may be more attractive (and the entire fuel cycle including mining deaths has to be considered). Taking it out of the private sector entirely removes the DRIVE for profits, and I think that's necessary. Yes, I know the reactors and the plants themselves would STILL be built by contractors, just as nuclear subs are.

If the taxpayer takes the risks, any benefits should accrue to them as well.

By Randomfactor (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

It is the nature of complex systems to break down periodically, with a small percentage of those breakdowns being cascading catastrophes. This is an inherent property of complex systems. Stored energy concentrations want to escape and distribute themselves. That's thermodynamics.
In risk vs. reward calculations, you do yourself no favors by denial of either. We're bad enough at those calculations even without denial.
There are always risks involved in moving energy around. Either we calculate those risks honestly (which requires understanding them)and decide what is acceptable, or we bang rocks together and hope for the best.

It turns out that the MIT scientist, Josef Oehman, whose pooh-poohing appeared on scienceblogs has been outed as a non-nuclear specialist who got many facts wrong. Oehman told everyone that there was absolutely "no chance" of a "significant radiation release" from the Japanese reactor. Hah. He's a "Risk Management" researcher who does human resource management in China. We have been "managed."…

By D Reynolds (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Greg - I wasn't attacking your whole post. I like most of it, and I was in no way defending the commenters on the previous post. Idiots invade any debate.

I was, however, pointing out the few errors I saw.

1. Yes, chernobyl has been invoked. Mainly on TV, where you cant do citations, but a simple google search shows……………

just a few examples, I could trawl out hundreds more, and like I say, most of it came from TV. The idea that this wasn't happening is super duper fraudulent. Like you say yourself, it is not enough to just say "well, I didnt see it" if you assert this on a blog.

2. Even in your response "People were not saying anything conditional about leaks. They were saying that there were no leaks, and that this demonstrated that we had nothing to worry about" I think is flawed. If there were no leaks, there was nothing to worry about.
If people were claiming future knowledge then clearly they were out of line, but the statement above is factually correct. And was in clear opposition to a lot of conjecture from the "oh my god, chernobyl!" crowd (see above).

3. My third point was about the other approach to take. Perhaps, to be fair, I will admit you did mention this in the body. You did try to focus just on the nuts who want this to be about nuclear power. But the above points also detract from that. I think the flow of my first comment also revealed a logical progression, even if it ended on a point you didnt 'explicitly' make. You should be able to see how I could get there from your post.

Maybe there needs to be a rule of the internet - if both people claim the other is making strawmen, they both are!

By the way, if you want a good source that is up to date with latest info and just gives the facts with almost no conjecture there is someone who has put together a great summary here (and updates it a lot)…

The appropriate "standard" is not "zero radioactivity" got out.

A coal fired power plant doesn't meet that "standard".

Coal has a couple ppm uranium, when the coal is burned, that uranium and all its daughter products are released. Some if them get trapped (the uranium gets trapped in the fly ash), some don't (the radon goes up the stack).

Living near a coal fired power plant increases your exposure to radiation.

âThese studies concluded that the maximum radiation dose to an individual living within 1 km of a modern power plant is equivalent to a minor, perhaps 1 to 5 percent, increase above the radiation from the natural environment.â

A thousand MW power plant burns about 500 tons of coal per hour. An 8,000 hour year is then 4 million tons. At 2 ppm, that is 8 tons of uranium. For a 740 MW equivalent power plant (the size of the BWRs in Japan) that is ~6 tons of uranium.

The 740 MW reactor that is damaged uses about 25 tons a year of uranium fuel a year. If you look at the figure in the link above, there are coals that have enough uranium so they process more uranium through them than does a nuclear power plant of the same capacity.

If the âstandardâ is to be zero, then all coal fired power plants need to be shut down too. The gas fired plants too.

Oh, and feralboy, if you want to bang rocks together, make sure you use basalt and not granite or shale and certainly not phosphate rock.

@Stephanie Z
"I'm actually pretty good with coal going away too."

Has anyone got real stats showing operations of coal fired power plants over the past 50 years? I have the impression that they have actually SPED UP construction of new coal fired plants, with no real slowing down even in sight.

By Bob O`Bob (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Coal fired power plants are poisonous, gradually fouling the soil and water across broad downwind swaths of the land. All fish in all waters of Pennsylvania carry a consumption warning due primarily to high levels of mercury stemming from these power plants. Communities downwind from these power plants experience higher rates of death from a variety of ailments, as documented in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's series of articles last month. In some places the statistics are exceedingly grim, but those are cumulative numbers which, if they were concentrated in one year would draw major media hue and cry.
So far, in some five decades on line, nuclear power is responsible for no deaths in the US, and worldwide, including Chernobyl (actually, pretty much only Chernobyl) and applying the worst-case scenario long-term accounting perhaps a few thousand (again, that's worse case).
Of course, nuclear power carries the very long term concern of the wastes, whereas coal, hell, those wastes go out the smokestack or pile up in ash dumps, no biggie. Sure, the mining itself is a killer, couple of handfuls of fatalities a year unless, you know, you include China and Russia and stuff with their thousands of mine fatalities. Every year.
I guess what I'm saying is there are a couple of devils out there, one pervasive bastard that we know and smell every day and have been coughing and dying from and complaining about for a couple of centuries. The other devil haunts our dreams with mushroom clouds and mutants and Godzilla and damn, the worst could happen, though so far, relatively, barely a scratch. That devil cries out for closer examination, and reasoned discourse.
On the other hand I have a haunt of my own device, wherein the Aliens finally arrive in huge spacecraft, which they park along the Ohio Valley, and demand coal and water. What, we say, you navigate between the stars on steam power? Well, sure, they say, though it does take a lot of coal. Keep loading. Here's some rum. And some missionaries and merchants. And some soldiers to protect them. Keep mining, we'll be back.

Daedalus2u: the danger from the nuclear fuel isn't the uranium, which after all is quite mildly radioactive as such things go. It's from the fission products, which are millions of times more radioactive and which are isotopes of elements much easier to biologically assimilate such as iodine and cesium. So your comparison doesn't quite work.

An important lesson from Japan is that nuclear plants need power when they're shut down. I've heard no discussion on how to accomplish this. An obvious method would be generators and fuel tanks that could be helicoptered in (avoiding disrupted transportation.) Unfortunately I have no concept of magnitudes and feasibility. Could the Japanese plants have been saved this easily?

idlemind, except for every ton of uranium put through a coal fired power plant, you release 2.3 micrograms of radon. That doesn't sound like much, but it puts 1/3 of a Curie of radon plus daughter products into the atmosphere, and the radon and the 3 polonium daughter products are alpha emitters.

My point was that if you want a "zero emission of radioactive stuff", you have to shut down coal plants too.

Zero emission is not a realistic goal. If anyone advocates zero emission as the âstandardâ, it demonstrates that they are either ignorant or trying to shut down nuclear power by disingenuously making an impossible standard.

In my opinion, people who are ignorant and/or disingenuous should not be in charge of anything that they are ignorant and/or disingenuous about. It is letting trolls run things.

Les, they had emergency generators on site. When the earthquake hit, the reactors shut down, the emergency generators turned on, and everything was working as planned until the tsunami hit an hour later. That flooded the generators shutting them down. It also flooded the electrical connection facility so connecting emergency power was more challenging.

Greg, you're absolutely right that the reaction to your non-comments has been strange and excessive.

On the policy points raised to salience by these events: I would think that discarding any actual impacts on human or environmental health to this point, the need for an evacuation of this scope is in itself disastrous and expensive (I'm not familiar with the geography, is this a densely populated area?).

Maintaining preparedness to deal with incidents of this kind (or even much less serious incidents) constitutes a fairly considerable subsidy to nuclear power in comparison with other technologies, and a fuzzy one which poses a serious accounting problem.

By Douglas McClean (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Stephanie Z, there's no arguing. Coal wins. If you live in the traditional coal belt or in Wyoming, Montana, or Illinois, it is evident and eminent and the industry is unabashed and unashamed. Oil? Oh, it's evil, foreign, undependable, you know, and Gas, shit, who's building gas-fired power plants? It'll be a century catching up. And all that drilling is dirty. Nukes? Hoo boy, how many flip-flops you want in your family?
In fact, compared to coal, all of the alternatives are whole-grain blueberry bread baked in a Solar oven. And that's free range berries.
But it doesn't signify. The financial interest in coal is so vast, so profitable, so deeply vested and bought into by the states that you could throw endless statistics about deaths and illness and pollution at it for fifty years or more without making a dent. For proof, see the last fifty years.
Coal needs no sponsors, no protectors, though it finances them in every legislative body that might have an impact on it. In terms of influence at the State level, the Oil Lobby is a weak-sister compared to Coal. The employment it generates, both direct and ancillary is sufficient to ensure general blue-collar support. People like me can whine and argue and generally exhaust our reserves of vitriol to no avail. No American electorate will look much past its paycheck in the voting, or past distractive issues like gun control, gay marriage, sharia law, what have you, to usher in some serious support for any alternative. It was easier to eradicate chattel slavery than it will be to shut down coal.
The Aliens may not get here for centuries; we'll have a steady stream of coal available.
Not to be pessismistic. Just saying.

Thanks for this post. We won't know the full story until it's over (and maybe not even then) but it's clear that this event is being used as supporting evidence by those with strong preexisting opinions. I think the biggest concern remains emissions themselves (not a maybe risk but a near certainty), not nuclear versus renewables as I believe both will be needed. But we are going to go another round and as it does the real winners will be fossil fuels as commitment to either and both are delayed.

As long as nuclear is as-well-as and not in-place-of fossil fuels, the fossil fuel interests are content to appear tolerant - even favourable - towards it but in the end I believe they will prove to be far more implacable and better resourced opponents of mass use of nuclear energy than green environmentalists. It's in their longer term interests that anti-nuclear sentiment continues to simmer (and occaisionally boil over) as I think they see nuclear as more directly able to slip into the existing energy paradigm and they continue to believe renewables simply won't be able to rise to meet the challenge. So far they have not had to show their true anti-nuclear hand and IMO are content to look to the long term benefits to them of an ongoing, loud and unreasoning nukes versus renewables dust up that has no apparent links to them.

By Ken Fabos (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

Actually people have compared this to Chernobyl. I had a conversation about it with a couple of people.

The word I got so far is that Chernobyl created a huge short-term problem but long term it is relatively ok. (This has to do with the nature of the accident). The Japanese plants are better at the short-term stuff, in the sense that they aren't generating huge plumes of radioactive material lofted in part by burning graphite. But they will, if things go badly, create a worse long-term problem because of the kinds of radionuclides generated and again, the nature of the disaster. The area around Fukushima is also way more densely populated, but the prevailing winds will take the nasty stuff over the ocean if we're lucky.

So it's a bit of a wash in that sense.

Other than that, I see a massive false dichotomy. Saying that the nuclear industry has a credibility and safety problem is not the same as saying coal is wonderful. It's like saying that people who advocate quitting smoking are all in favor of cocaine addiction. Is the latter worse? Yup. Is that relevant to the safety of smoking? No.

Yes, we should reduce coal use. The environmental costs is too high. The same might end up being true of nuclear, once you figure in the whole cycle (mining to production and the refining that has to be done). We're already getting to the point where the amount of energy that goes into getting a barrel of oil is getting close to what the oil produces. If the same happens to uranium then it becomes less worth it.

The safety issue is also something the industry seems loath to talk about. For example, one problem is that the containment vessels are fine-- they can take a lot of punishment. But in the US the storage for spent fuel is in an elevated pool of water that needs to be cycled out to keep it from melting down. Well, if it's elevated, you need pumps. You need the concrete swimming pool the spent fuel is in to stay intact. You need a rather disconcerting number of things to go right.

A far simpler and safer way to do it is a passive system (the AP1000 design has something like that IIRC). But either way, a solution that makes perfect sense from an efficiency of engineering perspective makes less sense when you start thinking about what could go wrong.

One of the biggest issues, in a larger sense, is the real cost of energy. We've been subsidizing it directly or indirectly for a while now. But at least the TVA was initially a semi-public body. PG&E isn't, so when I (as a taxpayer) hand them 10 billion dollars to get a nuclear plant, I don't see as much of the benefit (for instance, I get no equity in the company, no rep on the board, any of that good stuff I would get in the private sector). It isn't like when power companies get bigger subsidies my bill drops.

Anyhow, the point is that we've been living with energy that is sold essentially below real price for almost 100 years. A whole lot of our basic daily lives are predicated on it. But that is a deeper economic and cultural problem. Subsidies aren't automatically bad, but we have to start thinking about what we want to subsidize.

I wanted to do a wait and see before making an opinion, but the more I have seen, the more concerned/alarmed I get...

Yay, Greg! It might be sensible to wait and see what actually happened and what will happen before claiming that this event "proves" that nuclear power is perfectly safe or that it is intolerably risky. Unless we have a catastrophe in the near future, it is simply going to take a while to figure out how close they came to losing containment.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

I feel sensible in stating that this event has proved that nuclear power is not safe. No definition of containment that I'm familiar with allows exceptions for 8 meter wide holes.

Thanks for this post, Greg! I recently got some flack for noting which way the wind blows, cuz, you know, wind is inherently anti-nuke!!

For what it's worth, here's my twopenn'orth:

I think it's quite likely things at Fukushima are going to go as badly as it's possible for them, to go. As Greg says, things hardly look as though they are calming down, and they continue to go from bad to worse. However, even with them going completely Pete Tong, the 30 Km evac zone should be sufficient.

The British Embassy released the minutes of a meeting yesterday where they discussed the worst possible scenarios, including huge explosions, containment breaches and plumes of radioactive smoke and it seems 30 Km is far enough away to be safe even for all of those happening at once and with the wind blowing hard in your direction. 30 Km would have been sufficient at Chernobyl too, where the huge health toll wasn't caused by the initial leak, it was caused by the long-term consumption of contaminated food and drink in the months following.

I wouldn't call that a "win" for the safety record of the nuclear industry, personally, but things aren't as immediately dangerous as the hyperbolic and vitriolic press would have us believe.

Some detectable levels of radiation reached Tokyo yesterday and again today, here's some perspective:

Levels at the campus at which I would usually be working reached 2 uSv at their peak yesterday morning. This is an alarming 40 times normal background levels, but even overestimating the duration of this spike to three hours, this amount of radiation only gives you 1/30th the dose you would receive on a long-haul flight. So anyone who got on a plane to escape the contamination has given themselves a much higher dose than they would have received staying put.

There are many very good arguments against nuclear power, and I don't particularly trust the industry either, but a lot of independent experts have come forward now to back up this analysis and I don't believe they are lying in this instance.

That said, I am no longer on campus, because I hopped on a Shinkansen down to Osaka this morning and I'm flying out to London from here on Saturday. I'm flying out because I think absenting my personal burden from Japan's over-taxed resources for a couple of weeks is probably a good thing, and because I have a collaborator with lab space who can keep me working. I also have worried family who would like me where they can keep an eye on me for the time being.

I moved my initial plans to leave Tokyo for Osaka forward by 48 hours in part because I wanted to avoid the rush if people really did start to panic, because the risk from aftershocks is lower in here and in part because the talk of radiation was starting to get to me. It doesn't help that the reports we got at first had confused uSv with mSv and told us we'd all received a dose 1000 more than we had. A dose that was still utterly safe, even with a 1000 fold over estimation! It's just as well I didn't head South for my health, because all the non-smoking hotel rooms were fully booked, so I'm sitting here sucking up someone else's stale carcinogens.

All in all, I wouldn't personally use the disaster at Fukushima as an argument against nuclear power; it hasn't seriously harmed any civillians yet and all power generation carries risks when an earthquake of this size hits - hydroelectric dams rupturing could sweep away whole towns. But, I really really wouldn't be calling it a win if I were in the industry either!

Ellie: I'd ask you to post your source on how this disaster "hasn't seriously harmed any civilians," because anything even approximating that statement would be welcome, joyful news, but sadly I've been keeping count and know better.

And then there are the continual disruptions to the rescue and recovery effort (every time the wind blows) - I'm pretty sure those desperate survivors are feeling pretty serious about things too. Right now there are thousands of people between 20 and 30km radius distance from the failing power plant who are trapped in their homes begging for someone to deliver them needed supplies. But it is too dangerous to help them. And not near over yet.

(Info on conditions in the 20-30km zone from NHK evening broadcast, March 15)

daedalus2u: that's an unfair comparison for another reason, too. Only a very small fraction of naturally occurring uranium is fissionable isotopes - the vast majority of it is non-radioactive. Nuclear fuel is specifically enriched for fissionables, so a tonne of reactor-grade uranium is far, far more radioactive than a tonne of "average" uranium.

By tristan.croll (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink


My source is the same of yours, I've been watching NHK too.

I've seen reports of iodine tablets being distributed to shelters as a precaution and I've seen reports that a few people have been exposed to levels of radiation too low to do them any harm, but that's all. If you have solid evidence of more serious harm, I'd be grateful if you could post the link. I'm not trying to play down the harm or be an apologist for the industry here, I'm just trying to ensure that the debate is based on facts and not fear mongering.

I take your point that radiation on the wind is hampering rescue efforts, but I'm dubious about your numbers given the total numbers missing elsewhere. But I really really don't want to get into a stupid debate on this particular stupid subject, so whatever, I take your point.

"The appropriate "standard" is not "zero radioactivity" got out. A coal fired power plant doesn't meet that "standard". Coal has a couple ppm uranium"

Crock and backward lies, uranium is everywhere there is rocks and dirt. The reason uranium ore is scarce isn't because uranium is scarce it's because geological processes do not concentrate it. Thus it's mostly everywhere. A coal power plant emits a known and invariant amount depending on fuel it being fed with.

It's like anytime anyone in the nuclear power industry talks about radiation, they shift the conversation deftly to external exposure to alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Again lies, because the background radiation levels don't matter, what matters is the radio-isotope contamination that goes with it and the danger of ingestion. That danger is a thousand times higher than just being exposed to external radiation.

Thanks, Ellie - I don't wanna go on and on about it either. The governor of Fukushima was pretty upset about things - I've looked for a link to his statements but can't find full text or video. I only get it in the replay at NHK. Sorry. And thanks. And have a safe flight out.

What I did come back to mention was this development on foreign firms moving out:

And also, quick, that the steam seen rising (for hours and hours now) over Daiichi reactor no.3 is radioactive (these are the MOX rods). It is presumed that the containment vessel has cracked. SDF had prepared to dump water from helicopter through the blown-off roof of the larger structure, but conditions were too unsafe for them to do so.

Thanks for those links Ana. Here's the full transcript of the meeting I mentioned above, it seems to say that 20 km is probably enough (only 500 - 600 people were still inside that area as of yesterday and they shouldn't have received a dangerous dose of radiation from the fires) and the extra 10 Km is a sensible precaution.

In particular, this para:

"The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet. It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from."

Correction: Did you wonder how dumping water from helicopter would have any kind of significant effect on the contents of a cracked containment vessel? Me too. It seems the real mission was aimed to dump water on exposed spent fuel rods that are stored in the top part of the roofless container. The container vessel is thought to have "no serious damage."
-kyodo news

JB[17], there are people who would disagree with you about coal waste, or at least, about how it has been handled (look it up). But I agree basically that the contrasts you make are the key issue, but I'd put much more empahsis on ocean acidification as a very important problem with coal, and the leftover waste problem with nuclear, the way it is done now, is a much much bigger problem, I think, than most people realize.

The future of nuclear power as a viable energy source is, to me, far less important than figuring out what kind of morons build nuclear power plants- or anything else that requires absolute structural integrity, smack dab in the middle of some of the most unstable real estate on the globe.

By IgnatiusJReilly (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

I've been a long time reader of ScienceBlogs, but this is the first time I have ever felt compelled to comment on a blog. I am a resident of Ota-city in Gunma prefecture, about 200 km southwest from the Fukushima reactor and about 80km north of Tokyo. We really felt the quake on Friday, but we are far enough away and inland to have had virtually no damage. The only thing that has been a constant concern, in this part of Japan, has been the looming threat of nuclear disaster. So despite having believed that nuclear power is a safe source of energy, right now my slightly irrational side is rearing its ugly face and I am worried. Despite reading from several sources that at 200km any radiation leakage will be so dispersed as to be harmless, I am worried. Had this been an air-polluting coal plant or a clean wind farm, I'd obviously not be worried right now. What I'd like to know is: Are my fears truly irrational? Then I can relax and be happy only casually worry about what the big aftershock is going to hit (we are still getting regular minor aftershocks- in the tem minutes before I started writing we had two: one big, one small). Or if my fears are not so irrational what can I do? Should I flee to the south? How far is far enough?
If anyone knows a specialist that can give a direct answer, not filtered through a journalist's desire to tell a compelling / fear-mongering / reassuring story, this is one guy who'd love to hear it.
Oh, and just as I was about to hit post there was another tiny aftershock. So can anyone say what will happen to the reactor if there is another quake of significant magnitude?

Here's a link from the day of the quake warning of "worse than Chernobyl":…

Here's another (I apologize for linking to Fox News):…

And another, the next day (is Pravda better or worse than Fox?):…

Unfortunately, Google News doesn't index your dinner table conversations. Yet. But it's clear that there were people, early in the disaster, who were equating this to Chernobyl. Whether they were right or wrong, we have yet to see. But don't say they didn't exist.

I certainly don't mean to come across as insensitive. There are people in Japan who have been and are being affected by this, and more who will be affected by this for a long time to come. They have my sympathy. But at least for my part, and the part of folks like M and Daedalus, we've been having a conversation about putting the consequences and risks in perspective. Even if this does turn out to be comparable to Chernobyl, it would still be a relatively small fraction of the disaster. The latest count I've seen is 4,164 dead total. Estimates top 10,000. NPR says hundreds of thousands of people have little food, water, or heat, in near-freezing temperatures. I think we've done so in a respectful way, and I think you're doing the conversation (including your role in it) a disservice by dismissing it as "Greg Laden Haz It Rong!!!" and "It's not Chernobyl stop saying that it is!!!!11!!", or implying that a group of people are merely shills for the nuclear industry.

Then there is a point where it is possible, possibly even vitally necessary, to say something different. Something like "The Fukushima plants met the best possible targets for safety demanded by a cautious society and was produced by outstanding engineers using the best possible resources. And this wasn't good enough."

Well, we already know that we won't get to a point where this must be said, because the Fukushima Daiishi plants didn't "meet the best possible targets for safety," and we already know that.

But I hear ya, especially about declaring the scope of the disaster "acceptable" while it is still unfolding. I must confess to doing something similar; when the initial evacuations were ordered, before there were any explosions and when we were just looking at a (presumably temporary) cooling system malfunction in one reactor, I made comments on Facebook to the effect of, "This is no big deal, just a precaution, and anyway, you've get petrochemical plants and oil refineries in Japan that have BLOWN UP already, so nuclear don't look so bad, does it?" I realize now in retrospect that was mighty premature, and I won't be making that mistake again. We just don't know how bad this might get (well, we know crap like this is a fiction -- which on a side note I think does justify applying the word "hysteria" to at least some of what is being said about Fukushima Daiichi), and given that it's already gone off the rails a hell of a lot more than most people (including me!) ever expected... Caution would be urged.

The one thing I will comment on even before the disaster is over is that this probably torpedoes our last best hope at short-term mitigation of global warming. I see three ways global warming could be reduced: 1) By the unexpected invention of a whole new technology that magically meets our energy needs without significant carbon emissions (don't bet on it); 2) by democracies all over the world voting to self-impose restrictions that would mean a pretty serious reduction in (perceived) standard of living, and doing so before we start suffering many of the real consequences of climate change (bet against this one!); or 3) by using the only technology we have right now that has the potential to meet our energy demands while drastically reducing carbon emissions: nuclear (supplemented with wind and solar when feasible, of course).

Option 1 is a pipe dream. Option 2 is politically untenable. And I think option 3 just became politically untenable too, even if everything else after this point at the Fukushima Daiichi plants starts coming up roses. So basically, we're fucked. And I'm pretty depressed about it...

A lot of this it really is too early for.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

How many of the people saying that there's no point in trying for anything but nuclear or fossil energy have gotten on Obama's case for giving everything away before the negotiations even start?

FWIW add me to the list of people not equating this to Chernobyl for several reasons.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

"But don't say they didn't exist." I didn't say they didn't exist, Tom.

"we've been having a conversation about putting the consequences and risks in perspective. "

I agree with that, and I'm saying that you were not doing that. I know you were trying, though, and I agree that one must always keep risk in perspective. (there are of course different ways to do that).

Have you seen my current facebook status and the comments on it?

I must also add that I find it odd that Greg is finding that pro-nuke is part of the "skeptic orthodoxy" for many people. Perhaps that is true for some, but I have found that this is one issue where I see quite a bit of diversity in the skeptical community. Virtually all True Scotsmen, er uh, Skeptics, are in agreement when it comes to evolution, alternative health claims, mythology, climate change, and even for the most part when it comes to liberal/progressive values -- certainly in regards at least to being nominally anti-misogyny, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, etc. (Though we all know that many skeptics fall down on those issues from time to time, especially the misogyny issue -- but the vast majority of skeptics at least agree in principle that gender equality is desirable, even if some of us sometimes say some rather bone-headed things about it)

But despite all that, it seems to me that opinions on the desirability of nuclear power are far from uniform. I think skeptics are probably somewhat more likely to unreservedly approve of nuclear power than the average person, but not by a huge margin.

FWIW, when I discuss the issue with other skeptics who oppose nuclear power (in case it's not clear by now, I'm a supporter) I feel they often make some excellent points, some of which would need to be seriously addressed before nuclear energy would really do that much to solve our impending climate change crisis anyway. In contrast, when I discuss it with my wife's cousin from Utah... not so much. :) What I'm saying is, I think anti-nuke skeptics bring some very important things to the table, and I don't in any way feel that it is a deviation from their usual skepticism -- even if my conclusions are ultimately different.

"I must also add that I find it odd that Greg is finding that pro-nuke is part of the "skeptic orthodoxy" for many people."

I found it odd too! Am I wrong?

"I have found that this is one issue where I see quite a bit of diversity in the skeptical community. "

I know there is diversity out there, but I'm not sure what the real distribution is. I'm hoping this conversation will eventually approach asking that question.

I am, of course, digging at JREF and related cabals to a larger extent than the broader skeptics community. Or at least the part of JREF that comes over to my place and screams at me about how they are not really racists and how global warming denialists are anti nuclear (or whatever their strange logic is).

(There may also be a generational thing here ... it really is true that the younger folks don't remember that dogs and firehoses ... real ones, not figurative ones ... were set on anti-nuke protesters, etc.)

James, the statement wasn't that all skeptics were pro-nuke. The statement was that Greg was being told that if he wasn't being demonstrably pro-nuke in all his statements and citations, he wasn't being rational or a good skeptic. Very different proposition.

Greg Laden: I actually have not seen a single individual or press outlet compare the current situation to Chernobyl.

You might check out some of the comments on for a bit; there have been a few individual idiots of that type. Granted, they are outnumbered by those who are saying "NO, you ignorant ass; it's a lot harder to get a water moderator to catch on fire...." There also seem to be a few induhviduals over at making comparisons.

Additionally, Ira Flatow (sigh) of Science Friday has made the comparison as well on his blog. =(

That said, Chernobyl is a lousy comparison; it's far more kin to a worse version of TMI - which, incidentally, was the same vintage, but a PWR rather than a BWR.

I do think we have a combination of me saying it wrong and our language being tricky: Saying that "Fukushima is between TMI and Chernobyl" is not what I'm talking about, though that's a comparison. I really should use the term "equate" because that is what the above cited trying-to-be-helpful blog post is addressing.

Also, at the time that comment was discussed, much less was going on at Fukushima. But time has passed, and Ira's statement "Thatâs what makes Fukushima so scary and so different. Right now, itâs probably closer to a TMI type disaster. But if it continues to melt, catch fire and spread, we might be looking like a Chernobyl affair â a million times more radiation than TMI. (Another April, another year.)" may well be accurate.

If one or more storage facilities or reactors really is on fire and the workers have fled and its just stitting there burning, then the comparison starts to become valid even though there are differences.

Sorry, Greg, I don't follow you on FB. Just checked, though - are you referring to the question about whether you'd keep potassium iodide on hand if you were within 20 miles of a nuclear plant? For $10 for a two week supply that never goes bad, and next to no storage costs, sure. From a strict cost-benefit analysis, maybe that doesn't make sense, but it certainly wouldn't be the worst thing I've spent $10 on, and I'm not accountable to anyone other than my wife for responsible spending. The nearest nuclear plant to me is about 100 miles away. When I was at the University of Florida, there was a small operating reactor on campus (only 20 lb of fuel). It was never particularly publicized, but I got to take a tour in an Intro to Engineering class. It never occurred to me to take any sort of precaution, even though it was across the street from my dorm.

@Tom: I happen to work just a few miles from a nuclear power plant, and in the wake of 9/11 and all that, they decided to keep potassium iodide on hand to administer to everyone in case of an emergency at the plant. It's kinda weird; the location is a secret, some cabinet somewhere, and there are designated people in each building who know where it is and have the key. Go figure.

Anyway, for whatever that adds...

Greg, When you say âstarts to look like Chernobylâ, what do you mean? Do you mean radiation levels at the plant will start to look like the Chernobyl levels? Levels of hundreds of Seiverts?

In TMI, how much radioactivity was released from the core? I have seen estimates of ~13 MegaCuries (wikipedia) of inert gases. In discharge fuel, there are 178 MC of xenon isotopes, and 85 MC of krypton out of a total of 3,760 MC of total radioactivity (for a 1000 Mwe PWR table 8.1 Benedict, Pigford, Levi, Nuclear Chemical Engineering 1981). A million times more radioactivity than was released at TMI would be 13 trillion Curies, or about the total core inventories of ~3,000 power plants. I am pretty sure that you don't think that this plant in Japan can release hundreds of times more radioactivity than is present.

I am not picking on you to be picky, but you are someone who usually tries to be precise and accurate in their language. Yet in this instance you are not being precise and accurate. I don't know why you are not being precise and accurate. Usually being non-precise and non-accurate is a sign of ignorance and/or being disingenuous. I know that you are usually not ignorant, and that you are usually not disingenuous.

James, yes. Being a skeptic (wanting to base decisions on facts and logic) in the nuclear power debate gets you labeled as âpro-nukeâ because you are not knee-jerk anti-nuke. Just like not wanting to invade Iraq to deal with Saddam's WMD made you "for the terrorists".

Just as it is too early to say âall systems were A-OKâ (which no credible or knowledgeable person has been saying) it is also too early to say âthis proves nuclear power can never be safe everâ (which many people have been saying).

Many of the things that went wrong are trivial to fix with our now 20-20 hindsight and cost essentially nothing to do so. Put electrical systems above where they can be flooded. A pipe that fire engines can hook to to supply water, like what all buildings with fire sprinklers have. A bigger emergency water supply. Better radiation shielding of the control room so operators can stay longer. Better radiation shielding throughout the plant so operators can stay longer. Radiation shielding in the spent fuel pools that will not evaporate. Better natural convection cooling of the spent fuel pools. More reliable and redundant venting capability through filtration devices. Move spent fuel off site to a safer place sooner rather than later.

The few days of containment have made a very big difference. The heat release from the fission products in the fuel now (~5 days later) is ~ 6% of what it was when the reactors first shut down.


Iâve been frustrated (now verging on enraged) at the insistence in news reports and âanalysisâ to minimize the severity of the situation in Fukushima.

For example:

âBefore Tuesday's fire, some scientists said that a worst-case outcome was unlikely and that the Japanese would probably have enough time to act before too much water boiled away. Firefighters with hoses can pour in water, they said, or helicopters could drop tons of water.
âIâm still hopeful that they can contain all this,â Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington, said in an interview. âYouâve got time to put fire hoses up there and get it filled if itâs not leaking,â he said of the pool.â (New York Times, 3.15.11)
This has been pretty typical of the coverage Iâve followed. Each time the situation has clearly deteriorated further, weâre reminded that the situation is still contained, and efforts are underway to prevent the âworst caseâ. (Iâm not sure how we werenât at the worst case already, and have been.)
Headlines to the effect of âworkers struggle to maintain controlâ, or âheading towards catastropheâ fall under this category of obfuscating how severe the situation is, since they imply control of the situation has not already be lost. Any objective observer would conclude that there has been no effective control of the reactor cores or the spent rod cooling tanks since immediately following the tsunami.
The progression of events since Sunday are simply what would be expected when every effort to re-establish control (in this case, cooling the reactor cores and maintaining the water levels in the cooling ponds) has simply failed. The hydrogen explosions, the fires in the containment ponds, the melting of rods, and most recently, containment breach, are not unexpectedâtheyâre in fact predictable, if we first dispense with the notion that the situation was under any semblance of control in the beginning.
The closest weâve come, that Iâve seen at least, to an honest appraisal:
In the coming hours there could be further catastrophic events, which could pose a threat to the lives of people on the island," Guenther Oettinger told the European Parliament.
"There is as yet no panic, but Tokyo with 35 million people, is the largest metropolis in the world," he said.
When asked, his spokeswoman said his prediction of a catastrophe in the hours ahead was not based on any specific privileged information.
He said the nuclear site was "effectively out of controlâ
"The cooling systems did not work, and as a result we are somewhere between a disaster and a major disaster," he said. (newsdaily, 3.16.11)
For nuclear power advocates dispensing mature sounding advice not to allow this isolated incident, or irrational fears, serve as an indictment of the nuclear industry âas a wholeâ, the ongoing downward spiral is somewhat embarrassing, to be sure. Itâs getting harder to be dismissive of the questions and concerns raised each time new threshold of âcanât get worse than thisâ is crossed.

My suspicion is that long-time supporters of nuclear power generation have to hold onto the fundamental tenet that nuclear reactors are basically safe, manageable, and well-run. To give up this view (that nuclear is a safe and reliable option) would be more cognitive dissonance than they could contain, if they are unwilling to also give up some basic notions about the world, and their own reasonableness and clear-headedness.

That is, I suspect they are unable to let go of cherished beliefs about themselves
âeven in the face of an utter catastrophe that belies those cherished beliefs.

By PhillyDoug (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

Thank you for addressing this problem. I am with you in maintaining skepticism about the terrible crisis at Fukushima, though my companions lean towards the anti-nuke camp. Without criticizing their passions for a clean environment and sustainable prosperity, we lose our opportunity to learn from our environment when we observe these events through an ideological lens. I don't believe anyone suggested a nuclear plant would pass through a major earthquake without problems, so why presume that this disaster proves your opponents were sniffing glue?

D: "âstarts to look like Chernobylâ, what do you mean? Do you mean radiation levels at the plant will start to look like the Chernobyl levels? Levels of hundreds of Seiverts? "

Exactly. It would be hard to say what that means. However, the nuclear power industry does have a series of defined standard levels of badosity, and IIRC Chernobyl is a 6 and at th emoment fukushima is approaching a four or five according to various unnamed radio and TV experts.

But really, as this crisis is very much in process it is impossible to make that kind of assessment at this time.

One benchmark spotted on Fark: when they stop talking about having iodine tablets ready for distribution, and start telling people to take them, THAT'S when it's really serious; I'd suggest that's the point at which equating Chernobyl will be plausible.

While we're not there yet, it's not out of the question.

"I don't believe anyone suggested a nuclear plant would pass through a major earthquake without problems,"

Not really ok. Cite what you think they said instead. Do you have records of what Japan Power said about this plant when they built it?

By Questioner (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

Abb3w"While we're not there yet, it's not out of the question."

What do they call it when someone equates a nuclear situation with Chernobyl? As in to equate something with the Nazi's or Holocaust (or Hitler) is "to Godwin"

Mac: "I don't believe anyone suggested a nuclear plant would pass through a major earthquake without problems, so why presume that this disaster proves your opponents were sniffing glue?"

I'm suggesting that cherished beliefs die hard, and sometimes no amount of evidence to the contrary-- painfully manifest evidence, right before our eyes-- can overcome them.

Mostly, I'm focused on the near mantra-like invocation of those things "we know won't or can't happen" in an event like this; that line appears to keep shifting, as each new threshhold of 'really really bad' is crossed-- and then the amnesia that only yesterday, or a few hours ago, it was abundantly clear that the next bad thing wouldn't happen. For example:

"The situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has become extremely unnerving. The Tokyo Electric Power Company has now admitted that the spent fuel rods could go critical - that is, a nuclear chain reaction could restart... "The possibility of recriticality is not zero," TEPCO said as it announced the envisaged step against a possible fall in water levels in a pool storing the rods that would leave them exposed... This is a real surprise. These ponds are a standard feature of nuclear reactors, and are typically designed to ensure that nuclear reactions cannot restart in the fuel rods." (shortsharpscience 3.16.11)…

Note the observation that the ponds are a 'standard feature of nuclear reactors... typically designed to ensure that nuclear reactions cannot restart'

I think that's the kind of thing I was getting at-- a confidence in long held beliefs, and even as these assumptions fall one by one, the determination to hold on to the basic premises underlying the commercial use of nuclear power (fundamental safety and reliability) are somehow immune to reconsideration.

That just strikes me as stubborness, and a need not to relinquish one's long held views, including the basic sense of 'my perspective is the reasonable one, based on evidence'.

By PhillyDoug (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

I second Questioners question: No sense in pretending to be a rational thinker, skeptic, or some other sort of smart-ass... what did they say?

I think someone said something about the level of quake these plants were designed for. I'm not sure what level of quake they experienced (taht there was a 9.0 x km away is not the ponit ... what were the forces on site). I also recall some one suggesting that they were surprised by the tsunami and the quake, the latter taking down the main grid, thus no power, the former taking out part of or all of the local backup.

But I don't know these things for sure. Anybody got any primary info on this?

This could be more of a regulatory than engineering fail. Not that these things are unconnected.

Greg- you are right about ocean acidification, as well as the very, very serious long-term problems with nuclear waste. And Stephanie is right that there are alternatives to coal.
Perhaps I was speaking too viscerally; I have lived around Pittsburgh most of my life and I wanted to convey the despair I feel when people talk about nuclear power, wind farms, solar and bio-fuels as if they were a few years away from closing down the coal fired plants. Coal is embedded in the power grid and the halls of power;it is immune to the market forces that brush other obsolete technologies aside, as without decisive political action it will remain cheaper and more profitable than alternatives that require enormous capital investments from the get-go. I have no faith in our electorate to support the action required to change this.
This I know: if somehow all the coal fired plants of the Ohio Valley and the surrounding region were to be replaced with nukes tomorrow, my life expectancy would be substantially increased. More to the point the lives of the children running around outside would be longer, healthier and just maybe they'd get to eat the fish again. And the cruel truth is that it ain't gonna happen.

For what it's worth, I have found the majority of 'news' sites and stations to be woefully lacking in science and failing to present the news unbiased. I've had to rely on reading the statements of the IAEA, NISA, TEPCO and other sources. The best explanations I've seen (of the facts - pretty dry with minimal emotion or pro/anti nuke stances shown) to come from MIT and also from someone on Something Awful.

However, for the first few hours, before I'd latched onto these for my information about the reactor (as well as my ongoing reading about other aspects of the disaster such as relief, what areas were hit hardest by the tsunami and more) I have repeatedly seen comparisons drawn between Chernobyl and this. I have personally been upset by these comparisons because to me, until yesterday or today, it seems that it would have been more apt (to American audiences at least) to compare with TMI first and only scale up to Chernobyl once known radiation has leaked beyond controlled releases.

But honestly, what has upset me most is that while the news can present the laymen medical version of what preventative potassium-iodine pills will do, they were unable to explain jack-all about reactor design and what the failures were causing. While I never have been in the industry, I was able to find this within about 2 hours of searching. Apparently, news writers cannot perform this search (or won't in favor of the hyperbolic statements they were using such as the ever so specific 'meltdown' which states not at all what melted and what the ramification really is).

Also, taking the nuclear reactor out of the equation, I must say, science and engineering have already saved thousands of lives in this disaster thus far. I do not mean to make levity of the loss, only to point out a hopeful spot in mankind's ability to resolve this ongoing crisis as well as hopefully come up with better, cleaner, more disaster-proof (etc) methods of power creation in teh future.

Greg, you asked for a rundown of events. While neither of these has the specific information (about the actual ratings) the two best rundowns I've seen are:
(Something Awful - NSFW language present)
MIT Nuke school blog

And finally, checking TEPCO's press releases from the time of the earthquake and again for the tsunami do show some of this info.
iirc the plant was rated to handle about a 7.9. Unfortunately, I can find nothing posted anywhere about what it felt like there considering I have no details on the elasticity of Japan's ground in general much less that region in specific. Also, I do note the aftershocks have been pounding other nuclear facilities (thankfully, none of which appears to be having a problem that lasts more than an hour).

To Questioner's question, an MIT professor who actually IS an expert in nuclear, wrote an opinion in the NY Times. He led a study for the Tokyo Electric Power Company which concluded that "any earthquake strong enough to damage the reactor, and thus expose the public to harmful radiation, would be much more dangerous to the public in its direct effects, and that it would be more beneficial to devote efforts and resources to general preparedness."…

It's not a direct answer, nor a complete answer, but it indicates that they had an idea what level of earthquake the plant could withstand. For what it's worth, I think that conclusion was valid. But I'd like to see the report itself, and I note that events continue to unfold.

The problem with "just a blip in the general damage" analyses is that they're bullshit. There is nothing discrete about the potential of nuclear disaster in the middle of any other disaster. Disasters don't just happen--now--and then be done.

Yes, there are about 13,000 dead at latest estimate. That means that there are how many left affected by the earthquake and tsunami? Anyone who doesn't think that the attempts at containment, the evacuations, etc. aren't affecting the relief efforts for those remaining isn't thinking about this very hard. What kind of willingness to throw up one's hands does it take to say, "Oh, well, if we're screwed, what does it matter if we're more screwed"?

Stephanie, that is not what the analysis is about. The analysis is about trying to minimize the harm from all aspects of an earthquake by rationally allocating resources to deal with each one.

Risks need to be evaluated rationally, with facts and logic, or we run the risks of demagogues exaggerating some ârisksâ that are not risks at all to further their other agendas. This is why the US is spending 2+ trillion on non-existent WMD in Iraq. That 2+ trillion would have saved a lot more lives if spent on health care, energy infrastructure, US bridges, or just about anything else. But to the GOP, money spent killing brown people is better spent (i.e. they make more profit from it) than money spent saving the lives of brown people.

It is the process of evaluating risk and allocating resources that is the problem. This is why nothing is being spent to reduce AGW. Making decisions on what risks are, how much should be spent to mitigate which risks need to be done logically, rationally using facts and logic. Anyone who does otherwise on either side is being a demagogue. Demagogues are not helping.

The problems that they are having now would be trivial to design fixes for. I presume that the Japanese will retrofit those fixes to their other plants and will require them of future plants. Simply putting piping in place that could be used to direct water from off site to where it might be needed would cost very little and would trivialize replenishing the water in the spent fuel pools.

"Risks need to be evaluated rationally, with facts and logic, or we run the risks of demagogues exaggerating some ârisksâ that are not risks at all to further their other agendas. "

That's a good point, but so far the evidence that demagogues are actually minimizing risks to further their other agendas is overwhelming. Don't you think?

daedalus2u, I understand that that isn't what that analysis is about. That's part of the problem. A cost-benefit analysis that doesn't incorporate a good understanding of the way these things intersect, however, will always understate the costs. And much of the argument that's gone on around the idea that, well, you know, they did cost-benefit analyses about what kind of earthquake the things could withstand, appears grossly uninformed about even the idea that evacuating people around the plant requires resources that are then not going to those who have immediate needs from the earthquake and tsunami.

Traditionally the Nuclear Industry in the US and Japan (and probably elsewhere) avoids evacuation plans at all costs. An evacuation plan mixed in with the rhetoric of "nothing can go wrong" makes you look like you are making up the "nothing can go wrong" part.

Stephanie, here's your evacuation plan:…

I think they send you to coon rapids, but the roads and road signs and directives to police etc. are ... well, they're still being discussed. I recommend the bus.

"The problems that they are having now would be trivial to design fixes for. I presume that the Japanese will retrofit those fixes to their other plants and will require them of future plants. Simply putting piping in place that could be used to direct water from off site to where it might be needed would cost very little and would trivialize replenishing the water in the spent fuel pools."


This is precisely the kind of thinking that concerns me.

The dangers of commercial nuclear power can always be viewed as 'trivial', and ultimately solvable, if one has complete faith that planning for every scenario we can imagine, and enough engineering, can reduce the likelihood of catastrophic failures to an 'acceptable' level. I assume that you agree what is occurring in Fukushima is not an acceptable outcome.

I challenge the premise that the likelihood of catastrophic failures can be reduced to an acceptable level. It is not a matter of 'now we know we need back-ups to our back-up cooling equipment'. We need to recognize that even the most advanced fission reactors will always carry the possibility of an uncontrolled reaction-- placing enough enriched unranium in a small enough area ensures uncontrolled fission, unless it is mechanically constrained. It is inherently unstable, and self-perpetuating. That is the very nature of the process. The safe operation of the entire process hinges upon limiting the acceleration/escalation of the chain reaction, once it has been initiated.

The mechanisms at Fukushima for slowing and arresting fission are what failed first, inevitably followed by failure of the mechanisms for containment of the radioactive byproducts.

No matter how many 'kill switches' and redundancies we build into the system, it is always possible that 'just the right sequence' of human error, naturally occuring events, and mechanical breakdowns will happen that will overwhelm the redundant protections.

Why might one conclude this with a high degree of confidence? One way of conceiving of this is to think of the world as a 'random event generator', continuously spinning through combinations of variables in every possible sequence. Eventually, like a random number generator, the precise sequence of events of sufficient severity to completely disable cooling will occur, at every reactor. This will then produce uncontrolled reactions, loss of containment, and lethal exposures to radiation.

If you take comfort from the assumption that this won't happen at any given reactor for an indefinite, but presumptively very long, period of time, or assume that we can in fact 'engineer away' this risk, I think your confidence is misplaced.

What I see being trivialized is the human suffering and loss of life than will necessarily follow.

By PhillyDoug (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

PhillyDoug, you can apply your same logic to living in a region prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, or just living in general. Eventually, the Big One is going to hit. Therefore, since we cannot reduce risk to zero, we just shouldn't try.

We drive cars. We fly planes. We build nuclear reactors. When something goes wrong, humans suffer and die, and the people that design those things learn from and improve their designs. We derive lots of benefits from each of these activities, and we judge that those benefits outweigh the costs and risks. That's not trivializing, that's the nature of a technological society.

I'll add that we're much better at evaluating benefits than we are costs and risks. We're also not very good at being dispassionate about events as they're occurring. Nor are we very good about separating our own interests from those of others.

I think the key issue at hand is this: Do we fix things, in advance, piecemeal, one problem at a time, or do we make generalized fixes. the obvious perfect generalized fix for nuke plants is to not build them. A less severe version is what was done with the first full scale reactor, the one that melted down in Detroit some years ago: You assume there will be a meltdown, and you build a giant inverted cone of steel underneath the reactor so when there is a meltdown the fissionable material is spread out (buy falling on the cone) into a circular catchment.

IN that case, apparently, the cone warped on contact with the radioactive material and ended up concentrating the fissionable material instead of spreading it out. But that situation was contained in other ways.

The piecemeal version is as suggested by Daedelus2U. We think of everything that can happen and plan for it. Pessimistically, one could say that each such plan is just another thing that can go wrong, but still, one must do it.

The containment building built over these reactors, by the way is one of those more generalized plans. Many different things can lead to a need for an overarching building. Unfortunately, in this case, they got all blowed up.

Greg, how can you say there are no demagogues exaggerating risks? That is what MSM is doing to sell ads. That is what environmental groups are doing to demonize nuclear power. That is what oil industry shills are doing to reduce competition from nuclear power. I saw a hoax map that showed lethal levels of radiation covering much of the US west.

PhillyDoug, if you are not arguing from facts and logic then you are demagoguing. You may not feel like you are demagoguing, but that is how the most effective demagogues always feel.

We don't know what all the facts are right now. I do know that some of what you think are âfactsâ are not.

There has been no indication that fission has resumed. Every indication is that fission stopped exactly as it was supposed to do and has not resumed. There have been claims that there have been criticality events, but nothing that I consider to be credible. Criticality events are easy to prevent. You simply put enough boron in with the fuel that the neutron level can't build up. Borosilicate glass has ~13% B2O3. Putting borosilicate glass in with the spent fuel would completely prevent the possibility of a criticality event, even in the event of a melt-down which would simply incorporate the glass into the melt.

If you are âchallenging the premise that the likelihood of catastrophic failure can be reduced to an acceptable levelâ, then you need to define each term and tell us what you mean by each of the terms in that statement. If you can't define the terms and tell us what you mean, then you are not making an argument from facts and logic, you are demagoguing.

There is lots of demagoguing on both sides. I am not denying that. There is demagoguing over what it would take to reduce AGW.

I am not minimizing the adverse things that have happened. They are very bad. So there has not been much data on release of radioactivity other than inert gases. There have been indications of high radiation levels. That high radiation could be due to the uncovering of spent fuel, it could be due to radioactive inert gases in the atmosphere. If it is due to radioactive inert gases in the atmosphere, they will be carried away by the wind and dispersed. If it is due to uncovered spent fuel, when the fuel is covered up again that radiation will be shielded. If it is due to spent fuel vaporized and spread around the facility, that would be a different matter. So far there are not indications that that has happened.

Demagogues can't help. The only thing that will help is a rational analysis of problems and a rational analysis of ways to fix those problems. When demagogues are in charge (as they are in the US now), good solutions cannot be achieved.

We will never have a perfect solution for anything. Do we do nothing about AGW until Greenland has melted? Do we continue to let spent fuel sit in cooling ponds at nuclear reactors until we have a perfect long term storage facility that will last for 100,000 years?

I posted a version of this at Casaubon's book.

This is an apocryphal story, but my understanding is that when electric starters for cars first came out, many cars still kept the connection for crank starting the car. The presence of a âback-upâ connection for a crank became a mark that the manufacturer considered that their electric starter was not reliable enough to dispense with the crank altogether.

The cost to keep the crank there was very small. The fitting was used to start the engine for the first time on the assembly line, so eliminating it didn't really save anything. It was a marketing gimmick used by salesmen to convince customers how confident the company was of the reliability of their electric starters. Of course the decision to leave the crank or take it out had nothing to do with the actual reliability of the electric starter.

That was the âreasoningâ used by the bureaucrats running the Soviet nuclear power system from their dacha in Moscow. They were so confident of the safety of their reactors that they didn't need a containment building. Of course any engineer who disputed that was disloyal and at fault for not making the system safe enough to not need a containment building and so got to go and work in Siberia.

There are lots of cheap fixes that would do a lot to make a plant easier to control in the event of what has happened in Japan. Pipes to the various places that need cooling from remote places where cooling could be safely delivered would be a tiny cost. I suspect that such safety features were not considered because those proposing them would be asked âwhy do you think such things are needed? Isn't the plant safe without these?â The plant would be âsafeâ without them, but in the event of a massive failure, the plant would be even safer with them.

Shortly after the Iraq war started, Bush's treasury secretary was fired because he had the audacity to suggest that the Iraq war might cost more than $50 billion, perhaps even as much as $200 billion. As costs escalated all that the Bush administration said was âno one could have predictedâ.

When large engineering projects, such as The Big Dig in Boston are costed and budgeted, the budget is approved before any work is done, and so is before it is know how much it is actually going to cost. Much of the work involved putting stuff deep underground. But there was no knowledge of the soil conditions underground. Was it mud, clay, sand, or rock? Those have a gigantic impact on the cost, but until there are test borings no one has any idea what is there.

What the engineering firms did, was assume the easiest conditions, budget based on that, bid based on that, do design work based on that and then when the test borings come back throw up their hands and say âno one could have predictedâ and then throw out all the design work (for which they had been paid) based on the nonexistent conditions and get paid to do new design work for the actual conditions. They made money doing the bogus engineering and also for doing the real engineering.

The problem is the process. You can't know how much something is going to cost before you know what it is you are going to do. The engineers know that. The politicians should know it too. The company managers negotiating with the politicians know that. But a different process wouldn't be as susceptible to being âgamedâ, and it is in âgamingâ the system that the highest profits can be made.

The politicians can get low bids and pass a low budget. Later when there are cost escalations, that is future politicians who have to deal with that. Politicians get low budgets, engineering firms get 2x the engineering work. Win-win.

I had a vehicle made in the 1970s, that I drove in he 1980s (in Africa) that had the hand crank backup. Ths was a farm/field vechile and the crank made a lot of sense as a backup (it was not just to start the car on the assembly line, but to start the car because you lived in a country with no spare parts or mechanics~!)

Greg, how can you say there are no demagogues exaggerating risks?

I didn't say that, but I assure you that it is not necessary for me to say that there are because for every case of someone seemingly exaggerating risk there are twenty cases of someone screaming at them for doing it, and five cases of a different model of demagogue telling us how there have been no problems, are no problems, and will be no problems at this nuclear plant.

Please lets' stop now with the false equivalence arguments. And, when complaining about demagogues exaggerating risk, please cite them so that the argument that they are doing so is supported instead of just assumed.

There has been no indication that fission has resumed. Every indication is that fission stopped exactly as it was supposed to do and has not resumed.

Radioactive material is by definition "fissioning."

There is lots of demagoguing on both sides. I am not denying that. There is demagoguing over what it would take to reduce AGW.

Not really. There is demagoguing on both sides but the vast majority if what I've encountered (and I'm looking closely) is on the side that says that there is not really a problem in Japan with their nuclear plants at Fukushima.

It is very clear to me that the radioactivity, especially the spikes, is not from uncovering fuel and picking up resulting radiation, but rather, from dispersed material (gases, etc.). This is because a) the spikes are at least sometimes associated with visible events (shit spewing out of the plants) and because the fuel rods have remained uncovered. There is no one in there uncovering them and recovering them. But when water does get on them and is immediately blasted off as steam, there's a spike.


The upper half of the visible portions of those buildings (the parts that "got all blowed up") are not part of the primary containment. The lower half of the building holds the primary containment. The upper portion is a storage/utility area that is more like typical building construction, whereas the lower portion is built to be far, far stronger. The destruction of the upper level in several of the buildings is a bit misleading as it really is not indicative of the reactor sections of the buildings. Probably a good comparison for you is the Metrodome: the badly damaged roof is not an indication that the Metrodome was destroyed (other than the roof, the rest of the Metrodome is virtually untouched). I think the current belief is that only building 3 has sustained damage to primary containment.

That only bodes well for the reactors, though, since the storage pools are in the upper part, not in the lower, primary containment section of the building....

Greg, "fissioning" and "radioactive decay" are not synonyms. If you think they are, then you really need to refresh your understanding of nuclear science.


That's not what I'm talking about. But it is a good example of demagoging on the side of "nothing wrong here, everything is just fine"!

Your suggestion that everything is fine inside the buildings would have a tiny bit of credibility if it were not for the fact that the engineers on site can't get near the buildings because the radiation levels are way too high. Then, they could actually go in there and look and say what you seem to be saying: "Hey, look, everything is fine!

The main problem is the storage pool at reactor buildings 3 and 4. One of the special problems is that the stored fuel rods at building 3 use plutonium. At the storage pond at reactor 4, there seems to be no water in the pool. The storage pools at reactors 5 and 6 are leaking.

The primary containment facility (not the building you suggest has no significance in your comment, but the box the reactor is kept in) for reactor 3 seems to have been damaged. The engineers can't get to the reactor to check it out or repar it because of the high radiation levels coming from the nearby storage pool. One recent estimate is that an unprotected person in that immeidate area would receive a fatal dose of radiation in under 20 seconds.

That, not the upper buildings, is what we are talking about. The phrase "bodes well" is a bit out of place, don't you think!?

Radioactive material is by definition "fissioning."

No, that is not true. Fission is when the nucleus splits apart, possibly into many smaller pieces. In a reactor or atomic weapon, this mainly occurs when the nucleus is struck by a neutron.

While radioactive materials technically include those that undergo spontaneous fission (i.e. without being induced by a collision with a neutron), most radioactive materials spontaneously decay by emitting alpha (helium nucleus), beta (electron), gamma, proton, or neutron particles.

Currently, only radioactive decay is occurring, not a fission reaction. A fission reaction is bad because, not only does it make more heat, but it creates more radioactive isotopes, which will also decay and continue to create more heat.

Daedelus2U, you are partially correct and I stand partially corrected.

But you are starting to get on my nerves. I just hope you understand why.

Maybe you ought to try ungluing that monkey from your hand.

While radioactive materials technically include those that undergo spontaneous fission

Such as ... wait for it ... Plutonium.

You need to unglue that monkey from your and as well.

Greg, you seem to read into my comments the same way you are complaining that everyone is reading into yours. You are the one who said the "containment building[s]...all got blowed up." I was trying to correct you -- none of the primary containment areas are "blowed up", though one may have lost pressure containment. That last case is not good, but not as bad as being "blowed up".

your suggestion that everything is fine inside the buildings...

Didn't you just write a long post complaining about how others are attributing to you things you never said? Re-read my post. I never once said everything is fine inside the buildings. It most certainly isn't. I am merely trying to point out that the destruction of the upper parts of these buildings does not mean the reactor and primary containment are also heavily damaged, which would mean a complete meltdown and a large release of radiation is almost certainly inevitable. That is not the case. The situation in the reactors are about the same as they were before the explosions: the cores are partially melted and the water level is low but being mainly maintained.

Since I have a feeling you will read the previous sentence as me suggesting that "everything is fine," let me be clear. That the reactors themselves have not become significantly worse over the last few days does not mean the situation is not tenuous. They could lose more coolant and still have a meltdown. Radiation may be escaping from Unit 3.

I also already realize the pools are a problem. I thought that would be evident in my post, when I point out they are not within primary containment.

Greg, don't take this the wrong way, but I think you should try taking your own advice: don't read into people's position on the subject when they haven't given it. You seem to be jumping on people who counter alarmist claims as if they are suggesting everything is fine. That I might refute alarmist claims or factually-lacking speculations, does not mean I don't think the situation is fucking bad. Any claim that "everything is just fine" should also rightly be swatted down. There are absurd claims and speculation from both sides; while some of us are in the middle.

Such as ... wait for it ... Plutonium.
The dominant decay mode of the lighter plutonium isotopes is alpha decay, and beta decay for heavier isotopes, not spontaneous fission. Even if it was, how does that imply that radioactive material is by definition "fissioning"? I am telling you that is not at all the definition of radioactive material.

I am not sure what you mean by "unglue that monkey from your hand," but I suppose it means you weren't happy with my post. You had a misunderstanding of terminology: I wasn't trying to be a dick, I was just trying to explain what these terms were. If you thought I was being a dick or condescending, I apologize.

CS: I appreciate the information. Can you clarify your position further: You are certain there is no fission going on? Will there be (until the plants go back on line, that is) or not?

CS, I was refering to the buildings built over the reactors, not the containment vessels. THere is no "containment building".

We do not know that status of the reactor containments themselves because they have not been seen.

I am merely trying to point out that the destruction of the upper parts of these buildings does not mean the reactor and primary containment are also heavily damaged, which would mean a complete meltdown and a large release of radiation is almost certainly inevitable.

Everyone is pretty clear on the fact that the upper structures blew up and that this was not the reactors. Nobody is getting that wrong.

You don't know any more about the status of the primary containment areas than the Japanese do, though it is reasonable to assume that there has not been a complete meltdown. They probably are damaged and it has been stated that two are partially "melted down." I'm not sure why you would not think this is serious.

Finally, and this is where the monkey comes in, saying again and again what everyone knows about what didn't happen really isn't helpful when the real and immediate problem is related to the spent fuel rod storage areas. there is concern that "criticality" is or will be reached (I won't use the word fission) and one of them (though there is some confusion in my mind as to which one) appears to contain rods that include Plutonium, something that should cause the apologists to at least rewrite their arguments that nothing can go wrong.

Since I have a feeling you will read the previous sentence as me suggesting that "everything is fine," let me be clear. That the reactors themselves have not become significantly worse over the last few days does not mean the situation is not tenuous.

I didn't and I agree.

Greg, don't take this the wrong way, but I think you should try taking your own advice: don't read into people's position on the subject when they haven't given it.

Sorry if I did that it has been a stressful disaster and you looked like may be you had a monkey in your hand.

"you can apply your same logic to living in a region prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, or just living in general. Eventually, the Big One is going to hit. Therefore, since we cannot reduce risk to zero, we just shouldn't try.
We drive cars. We fly planes. We build nuclear reactors. When something goes wrong, humans suffer and die, and the people that design those things learn from and improve their designs. We derive lots of benefits from each of these activities, and we judge that those benefits outweigh the costs and risks. That's not trivializing, that's the nature of a technological society."


Except there are differences between the choice to drive a car, or build a house on a fault line, and choosing to build a fission reactor.

One difference is who, primarily, bears the brunt of the risk I'm taking. When it's a fission reactor, the number of people who suffer and die from a catastrophic accident is considerably higher than when I drive my car off the road-- even if I drive it into a crowd. That is, the stakes are different.

Also, with the fission reactor, most of those who suffer the consequences got no choice to decline the assumption of risk. That choice was made for me.

With the examples you give (even flying in a plane), I have a much greater range of options when it comes to deciding how much risk I'm willing to assume. The residents around Fukushima Daiichi can hardly be said to have knowingly assumed the risks in the same way.

In other words, you've made some false equivalencies here.

There's also some assumptions lurking as well: 1) that the costs of nuclear power have been honestly disclosed; 2) risks and costs have been fairly distributed (neither claim bears much scrutiny); 3) absent full disclosure of true costs and risks, that the public at large was able to make informed decisions about the 'costs and benefits'; 4) and my personal favorite canard, that the energy needs of a our modern technological society require nuclear power.

Finally, as I alluded to in the post you responded to, the faith that we can reduce the likelihood of catastrophe because "the people that design those things learn from and improve their designs" simply ignores history-- our best estimates, designs and plans in engineering (structural and nuclear) have been shown always vulnerable to the next cascading series of unforeseen adverse events. When that happens with a fission reactor, many people are sickened and die.

Perhaps if that doesn't include you personally, or a loved one, you find that cost-benefit ratio reasonable. I don't.

By phillydoug (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

Tom (and Daedelus, and CS),

I'm not sure sure you'll find the following much of an explanation, or convincing, but at least I figured I'd give some examples that are representative of some of the information that informs my thinking:

"The design of the reactors at the stricken Fukushima power plant has been called into question for almost 40 years.
As far back as 1972, experts said the Mark 1 should be discontinued because its containment vessel was not as robust as alternatives.
One report said such reactors had a 90 per cent probability of bursting should the fuel rods overheat and melt in an accident.
A clutch of engineers also resigned their posts rather than carry on with a project they deemed to be unsafe.
In a nuclear reactor the containment vessel is considered the last line of defence to stop a meltdown.
It is usually a steel and cement âtombâ and is designed to stop the melting fuel rods sending lethal radiation into the atmosphere.
The cheaper Mark 1s, however, are less robust, smaller, and have long been thought to be more likely to fail in an emergency.
They were designed in the U.S. in the 1960s by the utility giant General Electric.Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima plant are Mark 1s.
In 1972, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission said the design should be discontinued because it was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a build-up in hydrogen â which may have happened at Fukushima. In 1975 engineer Dale Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric quit work on a Mark 1 because they did not feel comfortable about safety."

Read more:…

"On March 14, the Wall Street Journal carried an opinion piece from author William Tucker condemning those who were expressing concern about nuclear safety when there was the full devastation from the earthquake and tsunami to focus on.
"With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor," said Tucker, whose 2008 book "Terrestrial Energy" is an argument for nuclear power.
On Thursday, Tucker told Reuters the situation had changed since his article.
"I think that story probably has to be revised, we seem to be in deeper water now than we were originally," he said. "I think we are facing another Chernobyl now or something on that order."…

"the fundamental question is whether the global nuclear industry designs reactors to withstand a âperfect stormâ situation, in which multiple calamities and human error conspire together to create what the industry calls a âlow-probability, high-consequence event.â

Former nuclear regulator Linda Keen said the industry is often inadequately prepared.

âIn my experience, I found the nuclear engineers extremely optimistic,â said Ms. Keen, former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

âTheyâre optimistic about everything: how fast theyâre going to do things, the cost, the idea of whether you are going to have an accident or not.â

Ms. Keen â who chaired an international safety panel during her tenure â said that the industry can be too fixated on individual threats and unprepared to cope with the multiple disasters that are unlikely but can occur.

the fundamental question is whether the global nuclear industry designs reactors to withstand a âperfect stormâ situation, in which multiple calamities and human error conspire together to create what the industry calls a âlow-probability, high-consequence event.â

Former nuclear regulator Linda Keen said the industry is often inadequately prepared.
âIn my experience, I found the nuclear engineers extremely optimistic,â said Ms. Keen, former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

âTheyâre optimistic about everything: how fast theyâre going to do things, the cost, the idea of whether you are going to have an accident or not.â

Ms. Keen â who chaired an international safety panel during her tenure â said that the industry can be too fixated on individual threats and unprepared to cope with the multiple disasters that are unlikely but can occur.

By phillydoug (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

CS: I appreciate the information. Can you clarify your position further: You are certain there is no fission going on? Will there be (until the plants go back on line, that is) or not?

Greg: I don't really know your level of knowledge on this topic, so apologies if this is overly simplistic or comes across as condescending (maybe you already know most of this).

Sustained fission reactions, where neutrons induce fission creating more neutrons to induce more fissioning creating more neutrons..., are not occurring. Once the control rods are put in (which block too many of the neutrons to sustain the reaction), the fission rate falls off exponentially fast. Trace amounts of spontaneous fission in plutonium are occurring (as you pointed out), but this is a negligible amount and is not related to the sustained fission reaction that would be the real issue. A rearrangement of the uranium/plutonium fuel (by e.g. a meltdown) could potentially put it into a configuration where fission could be sustained (the "criticality" you mentioned). That is not so likely as it might seem: just arbitrarily throwing a bunch of uranium together will not lead to sustained fission (unless it contains much more highly refined U-235 than used in reactors). Still, as you know, it is a possibility that they are watching out for.

In the case of the reactors (even with the partially melted fuel rods), the presence of the control rods and the added boron all prevent this type of sustained reaction by interfering with the neutrons. The boron really poisons the reactions because it absorbs neutrons very well, which is why you might have heard about them seemingly putting boron into everything.

If the reactors go into (full) meltdown, there is a possibility of "criticality" where the molten mass of uranium/cladding/etc. happens to get in a shape where a fission reaction can be sustained, but I think most experts (even those leaning to the anti-nuclear side) would agree this is very unlikely.

I have heard some of those concerns over the fuel rods in the storage pools that you seem to have heard. If they stay in place (with some spacing between them), there is no way to sustain a reaction because too many of the neutrons disperse before they can collide with a uranium/plutonium nucleus and induce more fission. The speculation is that, if the fuel rod assemblies get knocked around and pile up or lean against each other, a fission reaction might become sustainable. I have only seen speculation that this might be a possibility; I have no idea if it is a reasonable possibility or not (well outside of my league). I do know that they are storing more rods in those pools than originally designed for. Again, though, if they keep boron in the water, the likelihood of a criticality event here should also be drastically reduced.

Aside (for anyone who doesn't know the basic physics underlying the problems at the reactor): The fission only accounts for 90-95% of the heat generated in the reactor; the rest of the heat is coming from the decay of radioactive elements created in the fission process. These decays cannot be turned off; those elements will continue to decay and emit heat even after the fission process has been halted. It is these decays that are the main issue at the nuclear plants right now, not the fission reaction. That heat needs to be shed until most of those elements have decayed away and the heat gets down to a manageable level. There is a good plot on the wiki article for decay heat that shows how much heat these decays generate over the hours, days, and weeks after the reactor is turned off. If that heat is not carried away, things can get very hot, leading to melting, undesired chemical reactions (like the creation of explosive hydrogen), and other things that make it difficult to contain all this radioactive material within the nuclear plant, away from the environment and the public.

CS, I was refering to the buildings built over the reactors, not the containment vessels. THere is no "containment building".

When you used the term "containment building" and then said they got "blowed up" in one of your posts, I thought you might have been mistaking the tops of those buildings for part of the primary containment. If that was not your intent then ignore my post (although you must admit "containment" has a special meaning when referring to nuclear plant structures).

They probably are damaged and it has been stated that two are partially "melted down." I'm not sure why you would not think this is serious.

I am not thinking that. It is serious and I am not implying otherwise. I was simply trying to point out that the destruction of the upper portions of the building was not necessarily a significant impact on what was occurring in the reactors below. I was not saying that the reactors are OK or were definitely not impacted by the explosions, only that you simply should not make assumptions on what is going on in the reactors or with their containment based upon what happened above. Don't read anything more into that.

This is probably a moot point anyways since my post was based on a misunderstanding of one of yours.

It might be different in where you live, but here in Finland, the question "Is this like Chernobyl?" was pretty much the first question everyone asked. Experts were called in to news-studios, and that was on of the first things they were asked.

It was close by, affected us and the rest of Europe quickly, and not too long ago, and people remember it and it is brought up every time there is a discussion about nuclear power and whether or not it's safe.

CS: "The speculation is that, if the fuel rod assemblies get knocked around and pile up or lean against each other, a fission reaction might become sustainable. I have only seen speculation that this might be a possibility; I have no idea if it is a reasonable possibility or not (well outside of my league). I do know that they are storing more rods in those pools than originally designed for. Again, though, if they keep boron in the water, the likelihood of a criticality event here should also be drastically reduced."
âMore remarkably, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the power station, has warned: "The possibility of re-criticality is not zero".
If you are in any doubt as to what this means, it is that in the company's view, it is possible that enough fissile uranium is present in the cooling pond in enough density to form a critical mass - meaning that a nuclear fission chain reaction could start.â…
âbecause there is a large inventory of radioactivity with half lives from 1 to 30 years, including the hard gamma emitting isotopes Co-60 and Cs-137, spent fuel packed into the spent fuel pool will not cool down as quickly. Note that heat production drops very slowly after 3 months of cooling. Another important factor after 3 months is that some of the very short lived radionuclides that decayed away in the first 3 months are neutron adsorbers which tend to poison nuclear reactions. Once those isotopes have decayed away it is easier to achieve re-criticality.â

At what point do these events begin to shake your confidence in what 'should happen'? That's really been the upshot of what I've been trying to say (poorly, inartfully, unclearly perhaps). At what point do the assumptions, the premises, of how things proceed when control and containment of fission reactions is lost, become subject to revision?

By phillydoug (not verified) on 18 Mar 2011 #permalink

Phillydoug, I don't see that it's a false equivalence. The facility produced 4.7 GW of power. Even assuming it operates at an average of 50% of capacity, it's serving 2 million people. (The Japanese consume something like 8 MWh/year).

This plant lasted 40 years without previous incident; there are 15 other nuclear facilities in Japan. I think it's very conservative to estimate the failure rate as 1 failure per 16*40 years of operation, but let's go with that. Let's say that the number of dead approaches the UN's Chernobyl estimate of 4000. That's 4000/640 = 6.25 deaths per year expected due to nuclear power generation

Now, what risk do those 2 million people assume from driving? Let's say they drive an average of 10,000 miles a year. That's 20 billion miles. In the US, there are 1.13 fatalities per hundred million miles driven; I assume Japan is similar, or at least in the ballpark. That's 226 deaths per year. More than an order of magnitude more risk.

Now, what about choice? Well, first of all, (again in the US), 17% of fatalities are pedestrians and cyclists - people who chose not to drive. That's 38 people per year of our 2 million. More are people not at fault in the accident (although I don't have a figure handy); they didn't choose to drive unsafely.

Secondly, you do have a choice about whether to live near a nuclear plant. In Japan, there are 16 nuclear facilities. Japan has an area of 146,000 mi^2. If you figure there's a 30 mile hazard radius around each plant, that leaves a minimum of 2/3 of the country where you're not in danger. Since most of the facilities are near the coast, a good chunk of that hazard area is over the water, so that increases the amount of the country that is not in danger. Additionally, as a society, you have a choice about whether to employ nuclear power. Japan is nominally a monarchy, but is effectively a democratic republic, just like the US. Japan, of all societies, would take a long, hard look at whether it was acceptable, and they chose in favor.

So, where is the false equivalency, exactly?

As for your assumptions: 1) that the costs of nuclear power have been honestly (I would add accurately) disclosed. I agree that this is not a good assumption. But although the nuclear industry does an imperfect job of evaluating life cycle costs and risks, I'd say it's very good, much better than competing energy sources. The nuclear industry is under much more scrutiny, and they essentially invented the field of risk analysis. Ask any engineer - they are the gold standard. NASA uses their methods. Auto manufacturers use their methods. Airplane manufacturers use their methods. The people that build your microwave and your lawn mower probably use their methods.

2) risks and costs have been fairly distributed (neither claim bears much scrutiny). I agree with you that this is incorrect. Most of the 2 million people who benefit from the Fukushima power plant are not at much risk from even a Chernobyl scale disaster. But that doesn't mean the risk is not acceptable, and there is no realistic way to distribute risk evenly, short of everybody producing their own power, which is simply not feasible.

3) absent full disclosure of true costs and risks, that the public at large was able to make informed decisions about the 'costs and benefits'. The public at large doesn't make informed decisions about the costs and benefits. The issues are too complex for John Q. Public to understand. Even allowing that the Japanese are better at math and science than we are, it's still too complex for the non-expert. Do you perform a risk analysis before you get on a plane, or do you just need to get somewhere, and rely on the fact that airplane accidents are relatively uncommon, trusting that someone else has done their job? I'm almost certain it's the latter. That's one of the reasons we have governments and regulatory agencies - to concentrate decision-making in the hands of the (hopefully) well-informed. That's not to say that the nuclear industry shouldn't be more transparent with the public.

4) and my personal favorite canard, that the energy needs of a our modern technological society require nuclear power. I agree that this is an incorrect assumption. We have the technology to replace existing nuclear facilities with any one of coal, gas, wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal. We don't "need" nuclear. But it is practical, scalable, compact (that's important in densely populated Japan), and competitive.

I'll also agree with you that I value my family more highly than I value other people in the world. But that's not rational in the larger context of a society, and I recognize that, and hopefully account for it. My parents have a weekend home on Hutchinson Island in Florida, 5 miles from the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant. I'm not uncomfortable with that at all. They're in more danger driving 2 hours there and back then they are from the plant itself. The place is for sale now, and I'd be perfectly happy living there myself.

Risk is part of life. I'm perfectly happy for you to weigh things in your personal calculus differently than I do. But you will not eliminate all risk, and statements like "When that [cascade of unforeseen events] happens with a fission reactor, many people are sickened and die" and "Eventually, like a random number generator, the precise sequence of events of sufficient severity to completely disable cooling will occur, at every reactor" seem to indicate that you require zero risk to make nuclear power worthwhile. And that is simply not rational.

If you give me a choice between driving and fission I'll give you a choice between medication and in-patient treatment, with a strong recommendation for the latter.

By Dr. Crazy (not verified) on 18 Mar 2011 #permalink

Dr. Crazy, really? 33,000 people died in the US last year in traffic accidents. As far as I'm aware, 0 died from nuclear power generation in 2010. And in 2009. And in 2008. Et cetera. Nobody died at TMI. At most, one or two additional cases of cancer. As ridiculous as it is to present that choice, the choice seems pretty clear, at least in terms of risk.

Tom, that isn't a case where you get to choose. You can make transportation choices, and you can make power generation choices. Suggesting that you can trade one for the other is what gets Dr. Crazy's attention.

I'm not suggesting that you can trade one for the other. That's why I said it's ridiculous to present that choice. I am trying to put the risks of nuclear power in perspective, and I'm also trying to emphasize that we accept risk all the time, and there's nothing magical about nuclear power that means we can only accept no risk, as it seems Phillydoug (most recently) is advocating.

Nope, he's not saying any such thing. He's talking about confidence in an industry when that industry is our source of information about the risk it poses and when the decision to accept that risk is a one-time event that can't be undone. And you've been told several times that this is what several people are talking about.

Tom, Daedelus, and CS: Since you guys are all expert and stuff, I wonder if you can answer a question that has been bothering me for a few days.

Workers can't get into the reactor buildings because it is too radioactive. This is a two part question:

1) Is it really the case that having a couple of feet of water on top of the fuel rods is enough to make these buildings not too radioactive? and

2) Why are there no suits they can wear to protect them so at least a couple of guys (wearing the suits) can drag a hose in there or something?

Anything with lots of hydrogen, like water or plastic, is good at stopping neutrons since a neutron loses a lot of speed when colliding with a lone proton (which is about the same mass). Heavy, dense materials like lead are good at stopping x-rays and gamma rays, but are actually not good at at shielding for neutrons since the neutrons mainly just bounce off of heavy nuclei without losing much speed.

Many feet of water is sufficient shielding for neutrons (although I can't really recall exactly what "many" should be). I think the storage pools usually keep the rods 20 feet or more below the surface of the water. That number probably includes an extra large safety margin. Still, it is pretty hard to to wrap a few feet or water around a person. While lead vests can somewhat protect against gamma (and alpha/beta) radiation to allow access to areas with that type of radiation, you really cannot send a person anywhere where there are lots of neutrons.

A container to hold 20 feet of water on top of fuel rods was built on the roof? There's supposed to be 20 feet of water on top of them and it's all/mostly gone?

That does put it in a somewhat different perspective, just in terms of scale.

Now, next question: Where are the damn robots! Japan is loaded with robots!

Stephanie, go back and read his comments. "No matter how many 'kill switches' and redundancies we build into the system, it is always possible that 'just the right sequence' of human error, naturally occuring events, and mechanical breakdowns will happen that will overwhelm the redundant protections." He really seems to be saying that when it comes to nuclear power, no level of risk is acceptable. But risk is risk. As for whether the nuclear industry has been honest with the public about risk, the fact is, we've got a significant number of nuclear plants in the world, that have been operating for a pretty long time. Setting aside for the moment the problem of long term waste storage, it's pretty fair to say that we can evaluate risk fairly confidently from that, and that risk is low. Much lower than activities you do every day without thinking about them.

For long term waste storage, it's not so easy - we don't have a large data set of what happens to a waste disposal site over 100,000 years.

Who says that accepting the risk can't be undone? Personally, you're free to move away from the nuclear power plant. As a society, you're free to decide to decommission them. Petition your elected representatives. That's not instantaneous, but neither is it impossible.

Greg, I'm not an expert (I do know something about safety in the aerospace industry, though). My inexpert view on the suits is that they probably do have suits that offer as much protection as is feasible to wear while still allowing effective movement. Presumably, that is not sufficient to allow someone time to get in, do an appreciable amount of work, and get out. You know that lead smock you wear when you get an X-ray? It's heavy. As for your first question, your guess is as good as mine.

As for whether the nuclear industry has been honest with the public about risk, the fact is, we've got a significant number of nuclear plants in the world, that have been operating for a pretty long time.

Is there a comparative study of nuclear vs coal vs other types of plants that compares catastrophic failure (as in the plant or major part of the plant can no longer be used) and cost of failure (the cleanup costs, etc) as rates? I.e, data that would put meaning to that sort of assertion?

There are a "lot" of nuke plants. But on the other hand, there's really only a few hundred. That's acually not a lot. If you count reactors, we may have just doubled the number of catastrophically failed reactors with this one accident in Japan. When that kind of thing can happen statistically, it is a sign that the base statistics are not very stable or predictable.

Until the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, all the statistical data we had said highway bridges were very safe. Collapse was unthinkable based on the numbers. The problem with those statistics is that they were looking at a bunch of bridges that were built around the same time. The data also couldn't account for the pattern of neglect that U.S. infrastructure had undergone for a couple of decades. Once we looked at actual bridges instead of historical data, we discovered that many bridges were downright dangerous, on or near the point of serious failure. Without repair and replacement, bridge safety statistics were about to become obsolete in a big way.

We're at a very similar point with what we know nuclear power production. We have an aging infrastructure, with plants nearing (or past) life expectancy. In order to determine what effect that's likely to have on safety, we need honest evaluation of the current situation, not just the assumption that things will continue as they always have. We are currently reliant on the industry for that evaluation. The question of how much we trust the industry is highly relevant.

It will take time and analysis to be sure, but many of the details to come out of Fukushima suggest that TEPCO wasn't keeping up with the times in maintaining safety systems. Early statements from TEPCO suggest they weren't accurately assessing the risk of the situation. Neither were many others who were speaking for the industry.

That, not historical figures, is what future risk looks like, unless we rebuild the aging infrastructure. Then it might be reasonable to rely on history again. Now, there's a very large question mark that can't be filled in by saying, "Oh, it's always been this way."

Numbers are nice and reassuring, but you need to know what's behind them too.

It takes a lot of shielding to drop the radiation levels from spent fuel. In the spent fuel pools, that shielding is from the water above the fuel. That is many feet of water. 30 feet of water is ~ 15 psi. You would need about 2.7 feet of lead to get about the same shielding. You would need about the same mass of any material for effective shielding. Higher atomic number materials are more effective per unit mass but the difference isn't that much.

It is too much to carry. It is probably too much for even something like a tank to carry. Tanks are probably not configured to have the armor in the right locations to act as shielding.

The radiation doesn't travel âline of sightâ. It scatters off of the shielding and off of everything else, the air, the ground, other stuff around, so you need pretty isotropic shielding, that is shielding all around between you and everything that radiation could scatter off of.

You could have movable shielding, stack 55 gallon drums full of something or concrete blocks and build a tunnel, but you would need walls the equivalent of feet of lead. Plastic containers that get filled with water could do a lot. If there was a clear path, you could lay supersacks filled with something like sand, then cover them to make a tunnel. Building a tunnel big enough for the equipment needed to carry the supersacks and then deposit them at the end to extend the tunnel would be tricky. It is probably too dangerous to try. If you only have a minute or so to put the load in exactly the right place before getting too high a dose, you need to have hundreds or thousands of different operators doing it exactly right many times in a row. It would be easy to mess up, damage the equipment, get stuck and then get overexposed and have to start over.

In hindsight, it would be a good idea to put non-water shielding in the pools. If you put steel plates, ¼ inch thick one inch apart and 10 feet deep, that would be equal to about a foot of lead but would not impede flow of water at all. If the steel was corrugated it would block any line of sight radiation. You would have to pull that shielding out when you transfer the fuel, and it would make visual observation of the fuel difficult. The way it is now, you can see the blue glow from the fuel.

Greg, I don't know if that study exists, but I'd be surprised if it didn't. I'd also be surprised if the cost of a catastrophic coal disaster approaches that of a catastrophic nuclear disaster. But remember, it's not just the cost of catastrophe, it's the full life-cycle cost.

I agree that there's not enough data to know the probability of failure *precisely*. But we can certainly bound it. In something like 14,000 reactor-years of operation there have been three disasters. Maybe the actual rate is 1 in 1,000 years, maybe it's 1 in 10,000 years. It's not 1 in 100 years.

Most of the uncertainty, I think, is probably in the consequences of failure. There, we've got very few data points.

Stephanie, you're right that as reactors get older, we have less confidence in using historical data. But we also have the ability to continuously improve. As one reactor develops age-related problems, we identify and correct those problems in other plants. I expect that the "fleet leaders" are be subject to very rigorous inspections to catch those problems, just as they are with airplanes. We did it with bridges. We'll do it with the lessons learned in this disaster.

Tom (in successive posts):"I am trying to put the risks of nuclear power in perspective, and I'm also trying to emphasize that we accept risk all the time, and there's nothing magical about nuclear power that means we can only accept no risk, as it seems Phillydoug (most recently) is advocating."

"He really seems to be saying that when it comes to nuclear power, no level of risk is acceptable."

Stephanie: "Nope, he's not saying any such thing. He's talking about confidence in an industry when that industry is our source of information about the risk it poses and when the decision to accept that risk is a one-time event that can't be undone."


My view, I think, is much closer to how Stephanie characterizes it than you (I absolutely have no confidence in the judgments and good intentions of the nuclear industry); however I think you arrive at a conclusion -- what you see as my ultimate conclusion-- that is consonant with how I think-- if I express it a little differently.

Let me try and be clear (I'll plagerize Stephanie a bit): no fission reactor currently in existence fits my notion of 'acceptable risk', when accepting that risk is a one time event that can't be undone (thanks, Stephanie, for that felicitous phrasing).

Two aspects of risk are important here-- the likelihood of something happening, and the severity of an event. Both of these aspects of risk are implicated in this discussion, and both historically have been downplayed by the nuclear industry, and it's proponents.

This is the narrative in the coverage of Fukushima Daiichi that I was initially responding to, objecting to: 1)the series of events leading to the multiple failures at Fukushima were so extraordinary that they have little or no bearing on nuclear reactors generally (so don't worry about the one in your home state), and 2)'don't get all hysterical overstating how bad things are at Daiichi, and what the health implications are'.

These themes (low likelihood, less impact than you might think) represent understatements of how likely catastrophic failures at reactors actually are, and how severe the health effects will ultimately be. I see these understatements as endemic to the industry-- and the industry has a strong profit motive to minimize both elements of risk.

I think 'adverse events' happen at reactors with a greater regularity than is widely reported, and that truly serious events have occurred more often than TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima, but discussions of how each event in isolation is of low probability serves to obscure this (and raises the question of whether the assumptions that probability estimates are based upon need reconsideration).

The downplaying of known health effects of exposure to radioactive by-products (and how much has been released into the environment over the past sixty years) obscures the 'severity' aspect of risk.

By phillydoug (not verified) on 18 Mar 2011 #permalink

phillydoug what knowledge base of reactors are you working from?

Can you describe the hypothetical characteristics of a reactor you would be comfortable with?

Stepanie, I was actually asking Tom, he seemed to have a thing in mind that he may not have said out loud.

In the US since the USDOT started funding intersates, looking mainly at the interstate type bridges, excluding those that fell becasue they were hit by a boat or burned, most bridges fell because the footings were undermined by current. For twenty years bridges kept falling down for this reason. One of the first was the Green Island bridge. I heard that one fall in the middle of the night (no one was near it). Over ten years later the Schohari Creek bridge fell. A friend of mine was in the first car to not drive into the canyon, but did get to watch other cars that passed him drive in. For a very long time we failed at stopping bridges from falling down for the same exact cause.

And, I should add for completeness, that some of those bridges that went down because they were hit by a barge or a boat may have gone down because of current-undercut footing making it more vulnerable.

The Minneapolis-Pawlenty Bridge Collapse is actually one of the worst ones in the US in terms of death and mayhem. It is interesting to note that a whole string of bridges with similar problems (structural weakness in the superstructure of one kind or anotother) were quickly identified and closed, some repaired, some being replaced as we speak. So, again, there was no in place plan to keep bridges safe that was working, a disaster happened, then stuff was done.

It is very easy to extend this argument to nuclear plants. There are a LOT more bridges than nuke plants, and on a day to day basis bridges are probably more vulnerable to the kinds of things that damage them and nuke plants were certainly built with more backups than most (but not all) bridges. In a way, this may exacerbate the problem.

daedalus2u : Your point about coal is correct, but now that you've brought miners into the picture, we can't ignore uranium mines and all that goes with it.

Which is cool because then I can bring in human rights, genocide, rape, and war because of the Congo. From which no appreciable coal is mined.

Greg, we never should have ignored those issues in the first place.

The difference with nuclear plants is that they are operating and ongoing sources of revenue. They are operated by people who are paid to keep them running, and who are able to tell when bad shit is going on (mostly). Those are big and gigantically valuable assets. The owners of those assets want those assets to stay in good condition and to remain valuable. That means taking good care of them.

If there was complete transparency in the operation of the nuke plant, that is if all communication channels between workers and between workers and management were completely public and in real time, stuff couldn't be done in secret. When bad shit is found, the public would know as soon as the plant managers and the plant owners would know.

The cost to do that kind of transparency would be pretty cheap. I have a hard time imagining any insurmountable down-sides to a nuclear power plant doing this, other than a paranoid culture of secrecy and competitive advantage. Trying to âgameâ the stock market and energy prices would be the biggest thing to watch out for, but with all that data online and recorded, the âgamersâ could be gone after at leisure.

If it were made a condition of an operating license, the utility would have to do it. Homeland Security probably wouldn't allow it because of their paranoia, but as we all know, obscurity is no solution to security. Obscurity is a way for wrong doing and incompetence to be covered up.

Good idea. A web site with cams and real-time replicas of dials and indicators. Showing everything, all the time.

Except, of course, for whatever is going on in Sector 7-G

I think for the utility that wants to project that it is doing the right thing, complete transparency is a way to show that.

I wouldn't use data feeds and dials, I would use web cams. It is cheaper, there is no hard-wired interface and it isn't subject to non-obvious censorship as easily.

They could put up ads and get paid for clicks. That might even cover the cost of it.

A good place to implement this first might be in Germany. Germany is scheduled to shut down their nuclear plants anyway, making their operation completely transparent won't have an effect on that other than to let the public know how they are being run. Germans know what a pernicious thing secrecy can be, making their nukes open might change public opinion.

Nicely written Greg. I seem to have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about an Australian newspaper blogger who decided to write an article entitled...Not An Apocalypse...which was basically a different version of ....Not another Chernobyl... and just plain rude to anyone sitting in the cold without food and water and getting remmed.

Any argument where you begin with "This is not a...." tends to be blowing straw.

So here we are, Japan is in the middle of a large scale disaster and there are all these 'experts' offering 'un-definitions'. It isn't this/it isn't that...and looking to restore some feeling of control over an unresolved situation is quite normal.

Am I anti or pro nuclear energy? Here's how I see it. Australia has a lot of coal. It also has a lot of uranium. Japan buys the uranium. The coal is more expensive. Japan needs the cheaper option due to a downturn in its economy. Banning the selling of uranium has that profiteering slant to it..and it would be tacky to give a nation hit by a tsunami another economic punch in the guts. Of course we also have a lot of Sony and Japanese technology as we are trading partners...are we profiteering at the expense risk of another nation?

Being against something isn't a real position/action stance. It's always made of straw...because it is an inactive position and incomplete. We call this logical fallacy: failure to state.
I really don't want to have a massive electricity bill and I support alternative energy. It's still an inactive position...I'm perfectly aware that we don't have a solar battery that will fly a passenger jet on international flights or launch a rocket.

Therefore I support coal and nuclear energy,where alternative tech cannot replace it, but prefer mixed energy sources for where alternatives are available and efficient.
I mean if alternative energy sources were such a great idea (cheap, easy to obtain etc) then it would be a nobrainer.
I don't think about the technology I use in my everyday life in my home and workplace...because what else would I do...get my solar garden lights and try to plug them into the power grid or stick my coffee pot out in the sun and hope it will solar charge? I may have some qualms and try to reduce my appliances' energy star rating because coal is a fossil fuel. But I'm not really going to give up my fridge and washing machine.
So that's the current get less common forms of energy to the no-brainer stage.

Is nuclear energy safe? Well you know...any form of energy concentrated in massive amounts isn't safe when things go wrong. I'd hate for anything to go wrong with the sun for example. So I guess we always just end up spreading the problem around...the problem isn't the energy source its the amount of energy.

If we want to get rid of the potential for waste pollution (accidental wate pollution included) perhaps we need an energy form that is 'symbiotic?'

Okay I'm not a scientist. Being unscientific is actually a normative statistic for my sample group. Just saying.

By notascientist (not verified) on 18 Mar 2011 #permalink

Would you accept a world in which the power turned off every day at 1 and went back on at 3, in the afternoon, and went off again at midnigth and on again at 5AM? Lots of places do something like this and people adapt. Perhaps in an urban setting you would leave the power on all day (elevators and climate control).

Another think I like to mention now and the but haven't had a chance lately is this: When people say "wind is nice but it is too variable" they are cheating. If you want to say that, then you must also say "Nuclear is too nice but it is too variable" because any given reactor a) has to be shut down now and then and b) could always .. ah ... melt down or otherwise go wrong and then it becomes ... unavailable in a very unpredictable way.

Wind, on the other hand, is increasignly used with these semi-truck sized sodium whatchamacallit batteries that significantly smooth out the variation. Wind is actually very steady in many parts of the world, very predictable to be available certain days, certain times of the day, at a certain minimum. But even where it is less predictable, it is everywhere, and with these batteries can be used very effectively.

The earth is a flaming hot ball covered with a dried up crust. Why anyone would build a structure without geothermal from this point forward (this point being a few years ago) I have no clue. It should be required where it works.

Ionized air is common and has a huge amount of energy stored in it. I know of no research pursuing that source.

I guess I want to throw away the word "alternate" and start using the word "costly" and apply "costly" to coal and nuclear.

Daedalus: "what knowledge base of reactors are you working from?

Can you describe the hypothetical characteristics of a reactor you would be comfortable with?"

My knowledge base, to be sure, is rudimentary, but I'll take a stab at it. I'm confident, with your expertise, that you'll correct my obvious errors and misstatements.

Of the 436+/- reactors, the majority are pressurized water reactors, followed by boiling water and pressurized heavy water. These account for over 400 of the total. Gas reactors use CO2 as coolant, fast neutron reactors use liquid sodium as coolant. Most reactors use enriched plutonium for fuel, a few might use natural uranium, some add plutonium to the mix. Most use water as the 'moderator', facilitating the desired rsate of fission; a few use graphite; the two liquid sodium fast neutron reactors don't use a moderator.

These differences are actually not relevant to the concerns I'm trying to raise. The relative differences in safety, aside from age of the reactor itself, are incremental (over time, corrosion and radioactive degradation of concrete and steel also become greater concerns).

My focus is on the basic elements of the process. The core, composed of rods of zirconium clad uranium pellets, stacked in precise arrangements, at specific distances to otpimize reaction rates; control rods to separate the rods and stop the sustained chain reaction when desired (or necessary, in an emergency); the cooling process; containment; and the storage of spent rods. These elements are present in all reactors.

All are mechanical processes, except containment in the general sense, which is a structural feature (materials, design, engineering).

The outcome I find unacceptable is the release of radioactive materials into the environment, or the emission of high energy radiation outside the containment structure (I would include radiation exposure that produce health effects--radiation sickness, cancer, birth defects, etc.-- in plant workers as unacceptable).

Both the mechanical processes and structural features are subject to failure (being rendered inoperative) through multiple routes; human error, materials failure, natural events (meteorological, seismic) is the main one that seems to have caused catastrophic failures repeatedly in the last 30 years (not including the deliberate disregard for safety that characterized Hanford and Oak Ridge).

The mechanical processes that maintain stable fission, and arrest it in an emergency, depend upon properly functioning equipment, utilized in the way intended, with no substandard materials, and according to specific protcols (which is where the human operator variable comes in).

Let's take control rods as an example. When a reactor is 'scrammed', the first line of defense is the control rods performing as expected. However, even with redundant switches to activate them, it is possible that the control rods don't perform as anticipated (or the operator doesn't activate them, or the controls are damaged, etc.) Now fission continues. By itself, not a major problem. Unless cooling fails. Not a problem, unless containment fails (meltdown, explosion, containment materials ripped apart by earthquake or plane flying into them).

I've read any number of times (including in these comments, that each of these events, seperately, is highly unlikely; further; a squence of multiple failures is even more unlikely. This is defintiely true if we look at each reactor in isolation. However, each possible route of failure can be viewed as a roulette wheel being spun throughout the day every day, at all operating reactors.

That's all abstract probability stuff, except catastrophic failures have now occurred on the order of once every ten years for the past thirty, and serious events happening several times a year. That's why I think the 'likelihood' esytimates of nuclear proponents, their assumptions, need revisiting.

Is there a reactor that can rely solely on passive mechanisms for arresting fission, and mainatain containment?

By phillydoug (not verified) on 19 Mar 2011 #permalink

Few are old enough to remember how Nukes were sold from the get go. Too cheap meter is the part of the joke we do remember. We will have this little issue of waste storage worked out before you know it, in a jiffy. That part will be a cinch and so on. It was don't worry, we are the experts, be happy, we know more then you type salesmanship from the start. And like the Finance industry so interested in getting others to pay for their mistakes the nuke pushers are frauds and parasites.

Now that the Japanese government has decided to dump much of their wastewater into the sea, even when this is "contained" we will never know if the situation was as bad as Chernobyl because the Japanese government is choosing to dilute the local effect into the global ocean, thereby rendering the local effects, if there were no ocean present, impossible to compare with Chernobyl. But this predicament has a long way to go before it is over and we don't know how bad or how much worse it will get.