In the weeks leading to the one year anniversary of the demise of the Fukushima Daiichi power station, there have been a number of articles from the usual suspects that seek use the word “Fukushima” as a hypnotic code word that is supposed to result in fear and trembling. Individuals like Karl Grossman, Helen Caldicott and Arnie Gundersen have released documents or given talks implying that Fukushima should turn people away from the beneficial use of nuclear energy. Professional antinuclear organizations like Greenpeace have released lengthy reports aimed at the same purpose.
In contrast, some astute observers of the world like George Monbiot and Mark Lynas have dug deeply into the events and consequences and reached an aha moment. They found out that the dire predictions they have heard repeated about nuclear reactor accidents were simply not true. They recognized that Fukushima proved that even when reactors are hammered by the worst that nature can dish up and even when the people working to respond behave like real, imperfect people, reasonably well designed nuclear plants do not pose a danger to the public.
Just a few weeks ago, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission released the final draft report of a project they have been working on for about half a dozen years called the State of the Art Reactor Consequences Analysis (SOARCA). That detailed study uses knowledge and data gathered over the fifty years tUhat people have been operating large nuclear power stations and puts them into some realistic models.
The end result of the model provides the same answer as the inadvertent theory to practice exercise at Fukushima. In every scenario, no matter what initiating event occurred and no matter how poorly the response actions were implemented, the predicted damage from a reactor accident was limited to the plant and its immediate surroundings. The chance of hurting a member of the general public was calculated to be something like 1 in 10E-14. I will take those odds any day.
The lesson that the world needs to take away from Fukushima is that it is okay to build hundreds or thousands of new nuclear power stations and to place them quite close to the backyards of millions of people. Sure, the plants are not absolutely safe and may be subject to damage from various events. They will not be manned by perfectly competent individuals who know exactly what to do at all times. However the layers of defense enabled by an incredibly dense energy source are sufficiently robust to ensure that the public will be protected from physical harm no matter what happens to the plant. People living close to the plants have nothing to worry about.
For me, that is the definition of an acceptable neighbor, especially when it is a neighbor that can produce massive quantities of clean, reliable, valuable electricity with little impact outside of the gates since its fuel deliveries can fit onto a few trucks that only need to deliver every 18 months.
However, nuclear advocates have a lot of work to do to spread that message. Getting back to the headline of this post, I ran across one of the least informed pieces about Fukushima and nuclear energy I have found yet. The op-ed is titled Japan’s Nuclear Mobsters Escape Tsunami Pain: William Pesek. The general thrust of the commentary is that there should be criminal prosecutions of the people who built the reactor, the people who operated the power station and the politicians that allowed the power station to be built. Pesek refers to the entire population of the nuclear industry as a “mob” that is dangerous to the Earth. Here is a quote:
Noda made life safe again for the nuclear mob. He’s giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card that ensures Japan will learn little from 3/11. It’s funny, really. The world fixates on Japan’s organized crime groups. Even the Obama administration is freezing assets of Japan’s largest yakuza network, the Yamaguchi-gumi. What about the nuclear mob? Its members might not have full-body tattoos and missing fingers, but they’re far more dangerous to our planet.
Noda says the entire Japanese establishment had been taken in by the “myth of safety” and it’s all a do-over. At the same time, that establishment also propagated the now laughable argument that nuclear power is clean, safe and cheap.
Clean? Ask Japanese school kids who are afraid of the vegetables on their plates. Safe? Not unless we build reactors out of rubber and elevate them on huge shock absorbers. Cheap? Japan will spend hundreds of billions of dollars cleaning up Tepco’s mess.
Pesek claims that prime minister Kan was a hero because he allegedly ordered Tepco to keep its workers at the station to avoid an imaginary scenario where damage at Fukushima would somehow cause damage at all of the other nuclear power stations within a few hundred miles of that plant. Tepco has denied that it ever considered a complete evacuation of the plant.
I left a comment on the article that is in moderation (as of 6:10 am on March 7, 2012), so I thought I would share it here.
This is probably the least informed piece I have read yet about the events that transpired at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
Please recall that the event that led to the damage to the reactors was a twin natural disaster that also severely damaged an enormous swath of all of the infrastructure along Japan’s north east coast. Somewhere very close to 20,000 people were killed by the effects of a very large series of salt water waves washing as far as six miles inland. Not one single person has even been injured by the tiny quantity of radioactive material that was released by the damaged reactors through the multiple physical layers that protect the public from the negative health effects that can be caused if they are exposed to substantial quantities of radioactive material.
To be specific, there were approximately 100 kilograms of long lived radioactive isotopes released during the entire incident. The radioactive material that is still venting into the atmosphere around the plant is measured in units that are almost too tiny for human imagination – hundreds of becquerels. A becquerel equals one atom decaying per second. There are 6.02 x 10^23 atoms in every mole of any element. For cesium 137, the element that people are most worried about, it takes 137 grams to make up a mole.
Bottom line, 1 gram of Cs-137 is equal to 3.7 terabecquerels – the “tera” prefix means 10^12 or 10 BILLION times more than one hundred. I know eyes may be rolling here, but my point is that one hundred becquerels of Cs-137 is an incredibly tiny quantity of cesium that cannot harm anyone if it is even modestly spread around.
There NEVER was any danger to anyone who resides more than about 10 miles from the plant, and the only time that there was any danger of even getting a minor dose that might cause some amount of physical harm was during the period several days after the tsunami when the plant had to release some of the coolant containing I-131. That isotope is intensely radioactive; half of any quantity of it will decay to a stable element in just 8 days. After 80 days, any quantity of it will essentially be completely decayed and stable.
The workers at the plant, including the plant manager, did what industrial workers do everywhere. They used their training and understanding of how physical systems work to improvise and adapt to difficult challenges. They put their plant into a safe condition despite having to work around the handicap of having NO electricity for several days and no ability to plug in any emergency generators. The physical damage caused by the tsunami to the basic infrastructure of roads, power lines, etc just added to the challenge.
If they had left the scene, the damage at the plant would have been worse, but it would not have caused any measurable harm outside of the plant gates. There was simply no driving force to move the radioactive materials through all of the designed barriers to cause them to reach public spaces in concentrations high enough to cause harm.
The notion of a “demonic chain reaction” exists only in the wild imaginations of people who have no flipping idea how nuclear materials, pipes, valves, containment buildings and pressure vessels function.
Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights
Sadly, the population of people who have no flipping idea how nuclear materials, pipes, valves, containment buildings and pressure vessels function is very large and even includes some people who are associated with the nuclear energy industry but spend most of their professional lives in office buildings and in meetings.
The physical world is far more resilient than most people think. Machinery and physical barriers operate with well known, predictable, behavior. People who live in that real world gain an incredible amount of confidence that they can learn to respond to almost any contingency. When it comes to nuclear reactors that are built with large margins of safety, that confidence in the physical world is well placed.
ANS Nuclear Cafe – (March 7, 2012) Can we repeat facts about Fukushima often enough to overcome fears?
Atomic Power Review – Reactor Pressure Vessels: Metallurgy and Fabrication (Great information about one of those physical barriers that I mention above.)