I have spent the past few hours sifting through conflicting news reports and commentary trying to find out if there is any reason at all to rethink my original prediction from Saturday, March 12 regarding the ultimate effect of damage to Japanese nuclear plants caused by an enormously powerful earthquake followed by a higher than expected tsunami. Based on the way that both the media and many of their invited experts are talking, I get the feeling that we are all supposed to be panicking. If we have loved ones anywhere near the area, we are supposed to fear that they are going to be harmed by radiation before we worry about whether or not they have food, shelter or clean water.
There have even been some “guests” who have entered the comment section here on Atomic Insights with almost gleeful reports of each challenge facing the plant operators and pointedly asking me if it is safe to panic yet. On almost every media site that I visit, I have to sift through reports about the explosions, fires, injuries and “many times above normal” radiation levels before I can find the reports about the lack of water, lack of food, lack of shelter, and the thousands of dead bodies. Some sites almost give the impression that those more pressing issues are somehow a result of the nuclear plant issues. Instead, what they should be making clear to their readers and viewers is that the challenges all share the same root cause, a very powerful movement of the tectonic plates.
I have not found any cause for alarm associated with the effects at the nuclear power plants. Even if my own son-in-law (a nuclear trained submarine officer) was at the plant, or even if my own daughter was on one of the ships providing assistance, I would not be worried about their health. I empathize with the difficult working conditions for the plant operators; I have spent a few hours (maybe it was days) in the dark, wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatuses in my time. They do not have an easy job, and their safety is not automatic. It appears to me, however, that they are doing a great job in creatively responding to the unexpected and taking care of protecting the plant.
Though many of my colleagues will disagree, I am reserving judgement on the ultimate, long term fate of the affected plants. I spent way too many years working with people who honestly believe that they can “fix anything” and having them prove it to me to feel comfortable in claiming any piece of machinery as being “beyond repair”.
For example, though it cost more than initially expected, and took more time that some predicted, I know that the Navy was able to repair the USS San Francisco, a submarine that suffered a high speed collision with a sea mountain a few years back. I also know a bit about the recovery and repair efforts that put the USS Cole back to sea. (One classmate of my was the CO at the time of the attack and another was the project manager at the shipyard that did the restoration.)
Panic is not a useful response in the face of any calamity. Those who seem bent on inflaming it are causing real harm and negative health effects that are completely unjustified based on the facts in the case. Yes, there have been confusing reports. Yes, there has been some damage to things that we would have hoped would remain undamaged. Yes, there have been reports of detectable levels of radioactive materials. Yes, public officials, acting on the basis of unscientific advice or checklists have ordered unnecessary evacuations. However, there is no evidence that suggests that the quantities of radioactive releases have been sufficient to cause doses to any individuals in the public that are distinguishable from normal background variations. (Note: There are substantial and medically important differences among the terms dose, dose rate, and contamination.)
Some of the people who have come to my site for a visit have been quite insulting and have accused me of being arrogant because I refuse to express doubts and uncertainty about the long term effects of the incidents at the nuclear plants on human health and because I continue to tell people that nuclear related worries should fall to the very bottom of their priority list.
Aside: I do add a caveat to that advice for people that happen to be employed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. If you are there and reading this – you are doing a fine job. Now, stop reading, get a nice cold glass of water, have a snack, and then get back to work. End Aside.
It is not arrogance, however, to calmly share knowledge accumulated over many years that helps people to understand and prioritize. It is not arrogance to take the time to check with esteemed colleagues to verify facts and then share those facts widely and confidently.
Let me say it one more time. There is no need to worry about getting exposed to an unhealthy amount of radiation if you are outside of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station fence. If you are inside the fence, there are probably areas where you need to carefully apply the concept of “time, distance and shielding” to keep your total dose at a safe level. In the fullness of time, the plant owners will make some reasonable determinations on whether or not they should invest in an immediate clean-up and restoration effort, invest in a near term clean-up and decommissioning effort, or invest in a stabilization and entombment effort.
I suspect that the oldest and lowest capacity plants will not operate again. However, the calculus is complicated and best left to a calmer, more reflective time.
There is one more thing I can say without any qualms or doubts – the nuclear plants have once again proven that there is value in having a very dense energy source that can be surrounded by multiple layers of protection and provided with well trained, well paid, dedicated operators. There is no reason at all to delay or suspend world wide efforts to build and operate more nuclear fission power plants in order to enable modern, industrial society to reduce its consumption of coal, oil and natural gas.
Update: (March 15, 2011 0439) Apparently there are now “experts” who are trying to get people up in a tizzy about used fuel pools. I have exchanged private email with some friends who have operational experience at similar types of plants as those at Fukushima Daiichi. In their opinion, it is possible to keep used fuel pools cool enough by simply refilling them with water every once in a while. We talked about using fire hoses and one more numerically inclined contributor to the discussion said that a typical garden hose would provide a sufficient quantity of water in just a couple of hours each day.
The New York Times article titled In Stricken Fuel-Cooling Pools, a Danger for the Longer Term quoted some scary numbers from a 1987 Brookhaven National Laboratory study. I have read that paper; it began with an assumption that all of the fuel in a pool suddenly managed to turn into an airborne suspension (cloud) that then drifted over various populated areas. It never described any proposed mechanism for achieving that initial instantaneous vaporization of 30 feet of water plus a few hundred tons of solid material that is mostly uranium dioxide.
This NPR story puts concerns about nuclear plant issues into a reasonable perspective. They are mentioned only in passing and more in terms of the way that worries are affecting stock prices. (There is little doubt that the nuclear plant issues will have an economic consequence, even though they will not have a negative health consequence.) >Stunned Japan Struggles To Bind Its Wounds
Evelyn Mervine is currently a 5th-year PhD student in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program. She will obtain her doctorate in Marine Geology & Geophysics (with a Geochemistry focus) sometime in 2011. She recently posted A Conversation with My Dad, a Nuclear Engineer, about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster in Japan. (It turns out that Evelyn’s dad and I are USNA classmates. As you will hear in the interviews, he knows a thing or two about nuclear power plants.)