This is a letter from my friend and mentor, Ted Rockwell, with some thoughts about the events at Fukushima Daiichi in the context of the incredible destruction on the northeast coast of Japan.
FUKUSHIMA: IT’S NOT ABOUT RADIATION, IT’S ABOUT TSUNAMIS
A lot of wrong lessons are being pushed on us, about the tragedy now unfolding in Japan. All the scare-talk about radiation is irrelevant. There is no radiation danger, there will be no radiation danger, regardless of how much reactor melting may occur. Radiation? Yes. Danger? No. Life evolved on, and adapted to, a much more radioactive planet, Our current natural radiation levels—worldwide—are below optimum. Statements that there is no safe level of radiation are an affront to science and to common sense. The radiation situation should be no worse than from the Three Mile Island (TMI) incident, where ten to twenty tons of the nuclear reactor melted down, slumped to the bottom of the reactor vessel, and initiated the dreaded China Syndrome, where the reactor core melts and burns its way into the earth. On the computers and movie screens of people who make a living “predicting” disasters, TMI is an unprecedented catastrophe. In the real world, the molten mass froze when it hit the colder reactor vessel, and stopped its downward journey at five-eights of an inch through the five-inch thick vessel wall. And there was no harm to people or the environment. None.
Yet in Japan, you have radiation zealots threatening to order people out of their homes, to wander, homeless and panic-stricken, through the battered countryside, to do what? All to avoid a radiation dose lower than what they would get from a ski trip.
The important point for nuclear power is that some of the nuclear plants were swept with a wall of seawater that may have instantly converted a multi-billion dollar asset into a multi-billion dollar problem. That’s bad news. But it’s not unique to nuclear power. If Fukushima were a computer chip factory, would we consider abandoning the electronic industry because it was not tsunami-proof? It would be ironic if American nuclear power were phased out as unsafe, without having ever killed or injured a single member of the public, to be replaced by coal, gas and oil, proven killers of tens of thousands each year.
Moreover, the extent and nature of the damage from seawater may be less than first implied. Rod Adams, a former nuclear submarine officer, who operated a nuclear power plant at sea for many years, says that inadvertent flooding of certain equipment with seawater was not uncommon. He includes electronics-laden missile tubes. “We flushed them out with fresh water,” he said. “Sometimes we had to replace insulation and other parts. But we could ultimately bring them back on line, working satisfactorily.”
The lessons from Japan involve tsunamis, not radiation.
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Dr. Rockwell’s classic 1956 handbook, The Reactor Shielding Design Manual, was recently made available on-line and as a DVD, by the U.S. Department of Energy.