Ben Heard at DecarboniseSA posted an article titled The Silent Fire that describes a fire in a worked-out portion of a coal mine just outside of Morwell, Victoria, Australia. That fire has been burning since Feb 9.
The town near the mine has been blanketed by the ash and smoke produced by the fire. The current (as of Feb 24, 2014 9:00-10:00 pm local time) air quality index reading for the town of Morwell ranges from 220 to 400 on a scale where any reading above 150 qualifies as “very poor.”
Officials have considered evacuating the town, but decided that measured levels of contaminants were not high enough to take such a drastic measure. Instead, they have been issuing warnings to the elderly, people with respiratory difficulty, small children and pregnant women to restrict outside activity. In some cases, people have been counseled to leave town for the weekend to get a break from the smoke, but that advice includes the presumption that people should return home at the end of the weekend and continue as normal even if the fire has not be put out.
The fire and its effects on the local town have been well covered in local media, but there has been little or no attention paid to the situation outside of Australia. Though smoke and fine particles, especially those that are less than 2.5 micometers in size, cause immediate symptoms that are familiar to most of us – burning eyes, difficulty breathing, headaches, coughing – and are known to have long term health implications, fires are not subjects for sustained international media attention.
They are simply too familiar to be news. Though the gases produced get distributed on exactly the same air currents as those that have been blamed for distributing small amounts of radioactive materials from Fukushima all the way to the west coast of the United States, there is nothing distinctive about the material that would allow it to be measured and traced back to its source.
The health effects from the fire are becoming a bit of a political controversy, with the Greens calling for a declaration of a state of emergency and the sitting Health Minister issuing statements aimed at calming people and discouraging overreaction.
It will be great for the people of Morwell when the hard-working, frustrated firefighters complete their task of extinguishing the source of the town’s irritating air. Morwell’s residents will be able to get back to their normal way of life and will not spend much time worrying about the impact to their health from several weeks worth of continuous exposure to a potentially dangerous level of fine particles and other trace contaminants.
This event illustrates one of the many differences in public communications challenges between burning fossil fuels and using nuclear fission energy sources.
When burning fossil fuels, we must constantly release combustion reaction products into the environment, usually through a smokestack and perhaps some filters and other pollution control devices. Without dilution, the routine waste product discharges are immediately hazardous. The dangers and immediate effects of uncontrolled releases, even at lower concentrations, are visible and easily sensed. They are common enough to be well understood and grudgingly accepted. Everyone knows what it feels like to breathe smoke, though not everyone knows what it would be like to have to do so continuously for weeks at a time.
When using nuclear fission, we design our systems to contain reaction products. We tell the public and the regulatory bodies that we will not release any material. Uncontrolled releases of reaction products are uncommon enough to be newsworthy. The reaction products can, at certain levels, cause immediate harm. The materials are unique and give off distinctive signatures that can be detected at levels far below the levels that cause any visible effects.
In both cases, reaction products can cause negative health effects, some of which take many years to become evident and some of which will affect a small portion of the exposed population.
We have built our modern society around the power provided by fire and combustible fuels. Most well-informed people understand that we cannot eliminate their associated hazards; we can work to minimize them, but avoidance is not a viable option because we like the benefits that come from using fossil fuel-enabled power. We do not have an equivalent level of dependence on nuclear energy, so some people believe that we can turn away from it to eliminate the hazard.
The problem with that idea, however, is that eliminating all hazards related to radiation and nuclear energy means forgoing any of the potential benefits associated with an inexhaustible fuel source that does not require routine waste product releases to our common environment.
It also puts populations who avoid fission at a disadvantage compared to those who have properly evaluated the risk versus the reward and decided to move forward with appropriate levels of control and caution.