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  1. I’m going to offer my view on why we use the LNT. No one argues that the model is “correct”, but more accurately, there is no true potential for correctness in this manner. I want to offer my take I wrote for a comment that I realized I like a lot.

    —-My LNT take—-
    The LNT model is what it is. Some people believe that higher background radiation levels, in fact, should be avoided. This frankly boils down to a value judgment. Again, this is based on the precautionary principle. Even if the analysis right up to the LNT assumption is completely perfect, I’m not saying that those people were actually killed. Instead, I’m saying that for the purposes of the civic discussion about energy we should make decisions assuming that number to be a reasonable estimate. Note that the only way to dethrone this approach is to have an alternative model with broad acceptance. We do not have that.

    I’m simply happy that people aren’t using the hyper-linear models, which have an upward bump up in the low-dose range, presumably to make nuclear look worse.

    I’ve estimated 300 long term cancer deaths in members of the public from this accident. I also estimate 360 deaths would have been caused in a single year if the same capacity had been provided by coal power. So you can draw your own conclusions from that.

  2. I’ve been quietly listening, and watching the news, and just reflecting a lot on what’s happening in Japan. This post seems a good lead in to some of the questions I’ve been pondering on lately.

    I wonder if cancers and deaths are really the only metric that matters?

    Let me start with a question addressed to Rod – in this article, you acknowledge that at least some of your judgements/beliefs at the start of these events, about what would and could go wrong, were not entirely correct. I wonder – do you still stand by the assertion that the evacuation order was unnecessary and unhelpful?

    I agree that it was unhelpful – when there are already thousands of people who are displaced because they’ve lost homes, it’s not helpful to displace thousands of more people who *do* still have homes. But, in hindsight, do you feel that the evacuation was actually the correct call?

    I do think the actual number of cancers and deaths from this accident is and will be low. But I wonder if that’s really the important consideration here? I do understand that, in light of people like Helen Caldicott saying that there will be thousands or millions of deaths, it is certainly necessary to rebut those very public proclamations.

    But it looks to me like, in this case, nuclear has had non-fatal, but very real consequences. It’s true that the real source of most suffering in Japan right now is the result of the earthquake and tsunami. It also seems that the need for an exclusion zone around the plant has made it hard for safety workers to assist survivors, others to get in and clear rubble, repair powerlines, water mains, etc, and contamination has made a lot of food and water which survived the eq/tsn, unfit for human consumption, further compounding the problems facing Japan while trying to recover from the natural disaster.

    The natural disaster would have been expensive to recover from in any case (I would imagine it might well cost over a Trillion dollars – certainly many Billion at least), but doesn’t the problems at the nuclear reactors add Billions more to the cleanup price tag?

    It remains to be seen, but some or all of that exclusion zone may be unfit for human use for a few years or decades?

    Even if there are no deaths, are those not serious consequences, that warrant serious consideration as we ponder the future of nuclear power?

    1. @Jeff S, I appreciate the tone of your post. These are good questions that merit consideration by all who wish to thoughtfully discuss the future of nuclear power. Thank you.

  3. Frankly these INES levels are next to useless in my opinion, they are a poor reflexion of conditions on the ground and they are ripe for misinterpretation.

    I still believe that despite the attempts to spin this as a disaster, the general public will see through the hype, and in fact the antinuclear message is going to be harder to sell because of it. That is because the only metric that will count in the public mind is deaths, and clearly there have been few. As well this has provided an opportunity to remind everyone that the body counts at the other two “disasters” never lived up to the hype.

    Development of nuclear energy will continue because for those countries actively engaged in building more units, there is no other choice. This includes Japan, that cannot give up on this technology without facing dire economic setbacks.

    1. “I still believe that despite the attempts to spin this as a disaster, the general public will see through the hype, and in fact the antinuclear message is going to be harder to sell because of it.”–DV82XL

      Fukushima wasn’t a disaster? Really? What would you call it instead, an opportunity to decontaminate 700 square miles? I think you have more than enough spin for everyone.

  4. Rod,
    I believe your only error in your initial analysis is that you did not have a clear understanding of the challenges that an extended loss of AC power would have for any nuclear plant, PWR or BWR. It was very clear within about 24 hrs that AC power would not be restored and I believe that those of us who have done the analysis for this event recognized that it was clear that Fukushima was in very serious trouble once the AC power was irretrievably lost.

    My biggest problem with your article is your statement about containment designs being a major issue. This seems to me to perpetuate the received wisdom that the Mark I is somehow deficient and/or defective. It has been about 13 years since I’ve been involved with PWRs, however, I don’t really think the end result would have been that much different.

    Once power was irretrievably lost, the only decay heat removal mechanism at a PWR would have been the turbine driven aux feed pump, hopefully with a water supply from the condensate storage tank. If the condensate storage tank were unavailable the situation at a PWR would be worse or at least equal to that at a BWR. Assuming the condensate storage tank is available; I expect that the amount of heat removal capability and water supply would be approximately the same at a PWR or a BWR since requirements do not differ that widely. The major difference would be that the Mark I BWR has an additional 600,000 gals in the torus which is a major source of initial heat absorption not available in the typical Westinghouse PWR. Only ice containments have a capability even close to this. I believe that the accident would have been slower at a PWR but the end result would not have been that much different.

    PWRs have a larger containment which would tend to mitigate the pressure and temperature transient in the initial phases but I believe this is somewhat balanced by the large heat sink available in the Mark I torus. Heat removal would be somewhat more efficient at a PWR, initially, since the turbine exhaust would not be recycled to the containment. The only major long-term difference, I believe, would be hydrogen concentration in the containment but even this would tend to be balanced by the inerted containment design of the BWR.

    Once the turbine driven aux feed pump is no longer capable of removing heat from a steam generator the accident scenario will be essentially the same with similar challenges to the containment integrity. The decay heat has to go somewhere and it doesn’t magically disappear just because the containment volume is larger.

    1. I cannot speak for Rod, but I was guilty (privately) of many of the same errors that Rod had the courage to make publicly. And I can assure you that, in my case, it was not because I “did not have a clear understanding of the challenges that an extended loss of AC power would have for any nuclear plant, PWR or BWR.” I do clearly understand the long-term challenges of an extended loss of power, and that first weekend after the earthquake and tsunami, I was absolutely confident that Fukushima Daiichi would not end up as a INES Class 7 event.

      I was confident of that because I knew that all the TEPCo employees of the plant, the regulators of the plant, and the key principals they reported to in the government also understood the consequences of a long-term loss of power. I was confident that, in their understanding, they would allow nothing would to stand in the way of restoring power quickly, and setting up a long term cooling mechanism, through delivery of undamaged diesel generator sets, diesel fuel, batteries and power cables.

      I was wrong, and it is too early for me to understand why or how I was wrong. But I’ve read enough to know that the on-site employees did everything witin their control to try to establish temporary power. I grieve for them, and they have my support and prayers.

      I know they must deal with the ongoing emergency. In the months to come there will be an investigation into the events of that first week, and lessons learned for all to benefit from. I look forward to that report, or those report(s), but in the meantime, I will not fault their reactions to an event where I have insufficient information.

      I look forward to learning more. The people and nuclear workers of Japan have my support, and I’m proud of what they were able to accomplish under horrendous circumstances.

  5. It seems anything nuclear makes people want to be dramatic. Some use that drama for personal or industrial gain. It’s possible that the estimated $850 billion TEPCO will be out is more likely to be forgiven if TEPCO responds as passionately safety conscious.

    The Toronto news had to point out that trace amounts of iodine isotopes had been detected and could only have come from Japan. They added that there was no need to be concerned about the extremely low levels but left it to be one of the last items in the news.

    I also heard that an investigation into natural gas fracking methods has produced significant evidence that the effects of gathering natural gas could be just as bad or worse than coal because of the methane that escapes collection. A good example of an industry that needs a scale that demonstrates the severity of impact on human lives. I recommend a new energy production scale that has a range of 1 to 7 and is applied to all forms of energy for their contribution to human loss of life. How such a scale could be fair or even possible is beyond me.

    I agree with DV82XL that the meaning of the INES scale seems to be pretty useless when the same value can show two vastly different scenarios as Chernobyl and Fukushima having some kind of equal status.

    1. $850 billion or perhaps a trillion? This is going to be the next angle of anti-nuclear groups: to claim that nuclear is “uninsurable” and accidents cost trillions (or quadrillions?) which collapse the whole economy. Same story again. Chernobyl costs were estimated by the Soviets around $8 billion

  6. “That is because the only metric that will count in the public mind is deaths, and clearly there have been few. ”

    Not few. None.

    1. @Don,

      Weren’t there 2 or 3 people who died as a result of the hydrogen explosions at the plant? I know, that’s not a death due to radiation exposure, but we can’t say that this incident at the nuclear plant has been without *any* deaths. Still, it’s an amazing testimony about the real risks of a nuclear plant, that only 2 or 3 people have died so far, and only plant employees, in what is clearly close to a worst-case scenario for a nuclear plant.

      1. AFAIK no-one was killed by anything which happened to the reactors. Two workers at Fukushima Daiichi were killed directly by the tsunami, while a crane driver at Fukushima Daini was crushed to death during the initial earthquake.

  7. Rick, where in the world did that $850 Billion come from? Is that an error in not converting yen to dollar$?

    My very initial, pulled-out-of-the-air estimate is that the cleanup of the Fukushima site and surrounding area will cost somewhere in the $15-25 Billion range.

  8. “we need reliable energy that is as gentle on the planetary systems that sustain us as possible”

    “so far not a single worker or member of the public has suffered more than a skin burn from radiation at the plant or radioactive materials leaked to the environment.”

    Using the ‘no one was killed’ argument is disingenuous. There are long term consequences from this event that I would not characterize as gentle.

    How many years must the reactor be isolated until we can start to dismantle it? [I am guessing special robots will be required to do the earliest evaluations of the reactor cores and spent fuel pools.]

    How how acres or sq miles will be the exclusion zone be?

    How many people will never be able to return to their homes?

    Obviously there are some who will never support Nuclear Power and I understand that those of you writing in these blogs have been working for many years to bring balance to the public debates.

    But those of us on the fence are willing to listen with a critical ear [perfected by years of following other social/political/technical debates] and we would appreciate a more balanced discussion that recognizes that this plant failed and its failure will have major consequences beyond the boundaries of the power plant.

    Early Nuclear Power Generation seems to have scaled up in MWs for economic reasons and that decision had consequences in the Japanese nuclear accident.

    Thanks again for all of the excellent articles on your sites and in your blogs. I have learned a great deal in the last month.

    Tom Murphy

    1. I want to know what the concerns are, too, but I also want to know what people who are against nuclear consider bad, how to quantify it, and how even they can determine if X is bad.

      Is it bad that there’s an exclusion zone? Yes, inasmuch as people are displaced from their homes, perhaps permanently. Is this unique to nuclear for an industrial accident? Not really. Try Centralia, PA (hundreds of years of coal fire burning), or Hinckley, CA (of Erin Brockovich) … In these cases, the health effects are *real*, really bad and in real time, and are demonstrably related to the poisoning of the city. There isn’t necessarily an exclusion zone, per se, but you don’t want to live there.

      I see these things about “What about all the people who will die 10,000 years later from this?” And I think … how will you be able to tell? The concern of “nobody really knows, do they? hmm?” is a plea to emotion, but when it comes down to it, I just want to know how to calculate what people consider “bad” and be able to have side-by-side comparisons with things I know kill people in real time. What it comes down for me is that, if someone dies at 65 due to cancer, that may be sad, but at least they didn’t get killed by anything else that’s more likely to kill them throughout that life.

      As other people have stated: At least the people have lived long enough to have a slightly increased chance of getting cancer. And if hormesis actually is valid (such that lots of Tylenol can kill you, but some can help a fever/headache) it is possible that *some* people will live longer still.

    2. Tom – based on the reality in the Chernobyl exclusion area, I can say that it is only humans who have been excluded, and only humans that tend to follow government issued orders.

      Flora and fauna have returned and now thrive. Some stubborn people never left and appear to be in excellent health. My source for those statements is a book tiled “Wormwood Forest” by Mary Mycio. She is a Ukrainian-American writer and biologist who covered the accident and has returned on numerous occasions ever since. The perception of a dead zone is simply not true.

      That is part of the reason I used the phrase “gentle on planetary systems”. Human decisions can add an almost infinite level of cost, fear and stress, no matter what the reality is.

  9. As I understand 2 workers of TEPCO where in the building at Fukushima, surprised by the water and where found dead. But even these two workers killed by the Tsunami and not by the reactor, is a miracle and thank God no more deads have occured until now.

  10. A long time nuclear industry practitioner involved in commercial nuclear power operations both in the US and in France, I have a few unconventional thoughts about the events at Fukushima that I wanted to share.

    I believe the NRC won’t be able to ask the right questions in this case to protect the US public and the environment. It is in the same situation than NASA after Challenger, when Dr. Friedman went back to Physics 101 in a complex system. We, as the nuclear community of a free country, should know that “Fukushima can happen here, and we work hard every day for it not to happen!”

    Beyond nuclear safety regulators reinforcing the operating designs, I believe the States and Federal governments should focus on planning and preparing the resources –humans and equipments- needed to cope with and limit the impact of uncontrolled radioactive products in the environment with 2 ultimate “beyond design” scenarios in mind:

    (1) Uncontrolled nuclear explosion of one source term

    (2) Prolonged Loss of Heat Sink at a nuclear site

    The first reason is that these situations already happened, and both situations are and will always be beyond the design basis of any nuclear plant in the world. The worst so far is man made –Chernobyl- and one –Fukushima- is nature made and man saved.

    What can go wrong? Uncontrolled nuclear explosion of a commercial reactor

    How likely is it? It happened on April, 26th 1986

    What are the consequences? MAJOR (INES scale 7)

    Chernobyl is a blind spot in the US nuclear industry. Refusing to acknowledge its existence won’t prevent a criticality event from happening in America.

    The second reason is because a “nuclear safety continuity and recovery” process/procedure is more appropriate than a “piecemeal” of “event based” procedures when disaster strikes. The continuous facts based assessment of the state of the defense in depth of each source term is the only response:

    1-The knowledge of the actual/potential radioactive source terms: each “reactor”, each “spent fuel pool” .
    2-The knowledge of the status of the barriers for each reactor AND each spent fuel pool: Fuel rods cladding, Reactor pressure vessel and/or pool, Containment vessel

    3-A strong understanding of Nuclear Safety principles: NO uncontrolled criticality, Cooling at all costs, Controlling as much as possible the radioactive releases

    4- A strong nuclear safety culture of the licensee employees to engage the correct critical actions needed to prevent or limit the release of radioactive products from each source term in the environment

    5. A strong coordination of the affected site/sites with the local and state authorities to protect the population and the environment without panic.

    What can go wrong? Prolonged Loss of Heat Sink on a 6 units nuclear site

    How likely is it? It happened on March, 11th 2011

    What are the consequences? SERIOUS (INES scale 6)

    Can we regulate the power of the next earthquake on America’s West Coast?

    The NRC will not regulate the size of the waves, the location and power of the next earthquake or tsunami, global warming, and nuclear safety culture.
    The Engineering blind arrogance, even when coming from the NRC after its ridiculous “50 miles” in Japan, will not make the cut this time.

    But we can be humble, acknowledge that “Engineering is human”. We can work to have robust designs and robust operating systems with a healthy nuclear safety culture in place, preparing relentlessly for the “beyond design events” with the governments and local authorities.

    1. I don’t think anyone is ignoring Chernobyl, but if you’re going to say that, because it happened, it can happen again, in spite of all the advancement that happened in design, etc., since Chernobyl, I can’t agree. What happened at Chernobyl, specifically, cannot happen again. (Specific circumstances. Graphite cooling rods on fire, no containment, poor design…) What are the consequences? Well, if we’re going to just say, “INES scale x”, then, yeah, ok. But that doesn’t translate into anything that’s usable except for a scary number that won’t go higher than 7.

      There’s a Category 5 Hurricane in the middle of the ocean. It dissipated before it made landfall. Was it dangerous? maybe.

      If you say that the consequences are that the INES scale was implemented, that’s not useful enough information. It still remains that any natural event that will cause concern as big as Fukushima would likely be more devastating than the problems relating to the reactor(s). That point may be up for debate, but so far, it’s true.

      1. I agree that the accident as it happened at Chernobyl cannot happen here. But don’t be fooled about graphite rods being on fire or misleading statements about a containment. Zirconium burns much more energetically than nuclear grade graphite, and graphite doesn’t make hydrogen or hydrogen explosions. Also, the RBMK has a containment system. Not that it was sufficient to stop a Chernobyl-style steam explosion, but the LWR type containments wouldn’t have been able to either. Chernobyl is different because it was a reactivity-initiated accident, something that is unlikely here.

  11. > …
    > (1) Uncontrolled nuclear explosion of one source term
    > … Chernobyl …

    Uncontrolled nuclear explosion? I thought the explosions at Chernobyl were steam explosions. Same same?

  12. Same, same. Chernobyl had an uncontrolled positive reactivity event, known as a prompt criticality, the effect of which was an instantaneous spike in reactor power, several magnitudes higher than operating power levels. The heat generated from the power spike caused the steam explosion(s).

    I’m sure the nuclear engineers in the group can make significant improvements or corrections to my oversimplified explanation (and you are welcome to do, by the way).

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