Ted Rockwell – Fukushima: It's Not About Radiation, It's About Tsunamis
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.
Mr. Rockwell hit the nail squarely on the head, with that. Good for him.
I have a couple questions. I understand that very low level radiation leaks are not a risk – but what about reports I saw the other day of radiation levels near the plant reaching a point where people would get like a years’ worth of radiation in an hour?
Second question: I’ve heard the argument that radiation levels which are benign for adults might be quite a bit more harmful to fetuses (ok, not sure how to properly pluralize “fetus”, sorry if I messed it up)? At what level does the radiation become a hazard to a fetus, and what level of radiation was released into the evacuation zone around the plant? Rod keeps saying that the evacuation was unnecessary, but are we taking fetuses and infants into account? Where there are adults, there are pregnant women and babies, pretty much always.
@Jeff – Time, distance, shielding. Radiation falls with the inverse square of the distance from the source. If dose rate is 40 REM/Hr at 10 feet, it is 10 REM/hr at 20 feet and just 2.5 REM/Hr at 40 feet. Put some shielding between you and the source and it drops far faster – 4 inches of steel would reduce it by a factor of 10, as would 2 inches of lead or 24 inches of water.
A far better response than evacuation would be a few radiacs in the hands of a few firefighters, policemen, and other trained responders. They could let people know if there was a real problem.
I was appalled to see an item on CBC news world on people, particularly pregnant woman. attempting to leave Tokyo, because of fears of radiation, and shortages of water and food. It strikes me that lack of food and water would be of more concern than potential radiation exposure from these reactor, yet this was minimized in the report.
I would like to thank you and others for rational thoughts and actual facts on the situation in Japan, I only wish the world at large would see this instead of what the mass media presents them with. I am in a profession where we are frequently the target of sensationalism and misquotes from the media, and I have very, very little respect for them and what they try to do. It seems the majority of the media has gone from stories on exposing injustices and dishonest dealings to simply worrying about ratings and controlling the population at large through fear and propoganda. CNN jumped the gun the other day by broadcasting that a “Meltdown May Have Happened”, although they admitted there was no sign that it actually had, likely a niggly little detail lost on the average viewer.
It is terrible that the tragedy that has unfolded in Japan in recent days has been all but buried by fears over what they perceive could happen with the nuclear power plant situation and how it would affect <inserty country of your choice (other than Japan) here>. Mr. Rockwell is a breath of fresh air indeed.
Keep up the good work!
The BBC is reporting that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has warned: “The possibility of re-criticality is not zero”. Apparently in a cooling pond.
Please could someone knowledgeable comment on the probability and potential seriousness of such an event?
A fuel assembly that is ‘critical’ in the reactor vessel produces 3,000 MWt/ hour.
Once a fuel assembly becomes ‘sub critical’ it drops in a matter of days or weeks to about 6 MWt/hour and stays there for a long time. But it still requires some cooling.
One KWh will boil about .4 gallons of water. So 1 MWh will boil 400 gallons and 6 MWh would boil 2,400 gallons per hour. A 3/4 garden hose will deliver about 1,200 gallons per hour. The pumps on a small firetruck will deliver about 500 gallons per minute.
In the unlikely event the fuel assemblies in the cooling pond became ‘critical’ due to lack of cooling water and melting then there would be a big fire with a lot of radioactive smoke.
@harrywr2 – you make a reasonable start, but you have some unit errors that make it hard to follow.
Entire cores for 1000 MWe reactors might produce 3000 MWth, but not individual assemblies. The lpower level at 4 days is about 0.6%. For a reactor the size of Daiichi Unit 1 that gives .006 x 1500 = 9 MWth.
(I am not sure what a MWt/hour is.)
I did the “jrandomwinner” entries. I didn’t take the time to fix up the login from Google to show my real name until now.
The NAS study “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage” http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11263#toc was done to assess if the concern about terrorist attack on a spent fuel pool was credible, and to consider what could happen to such a pool. As I understand it, parts of the full report remain classified.
The thing is, spent fuel pools aren’t in containments – they don’t have much of a cover. So after 9/11 it became a big political issue in New York that Indian Point had a spent fuel pool. I did a post on this for The Energy Collective http://theenergycollective.com/david-lewis/47657/indian-point-my-bislightly-differerentbi-take-it
The NAS panel dismissed concern about the rods going critical: “The committee could probably design configurations in which fuel might be deformed or relocated to enable its recriticality, but the committee judges such an event to be unlikely”.
The most disturbing scenario the panel did not dismiss was a “propagating zirconium fire”. One of these is “a runaway oxidation reaction…. Beginning with the cladding rupture, these events would result in the release of radioactive fission gases and some of the fuel’s radioactive material in the form of aerosols into the building that houses the spent fuel pool and possibly into the environment. If the heat from one burning assembly is not dissipated, the fire could spread to other spent fuel assemblies in the pool, producing a propagating zirconium cladding fire.”
They added “Additional analyses are needed to understand more fully the vulnerabilities and consequences of events that could lead to propagating zirconium cladding fires”. They could not “dismiss” the possibilty.
They noted clearly that they were not asked to rank any threat terrorists could present to these pools compared to the rest of the targets that are so plentiful in industrialized civilization in the US. They recommended doing what was cheap that could make a good system better: rearranging spent rods in the pools and adding water spray systems that could cool the rods even if “the pool or overlying building were severely damaged”, by terrorist attack.”
Pool storage is part of the fuel cycle the Ralph Nader anti nukes of this world vowed they would “constipate” as their idea of a good thing to do, to force the rest of us to be so unable to deal with the relatively tiny problem nuclear waste presents we’d end up agreeing with them that we should no longer use nuclear power. Nader et al do not want us to use the cheapest, lowest CO2 emitting most highly scalable source of baseload power that is currently proven and available even as they tell us we are killing the planet if we do not stop emitting CO2. So at the time the NAS studied this issue, the pools tended to be full beyond what the designers originally had in mind, because the waste issue is a political football that hasn’t been dealt with.
Have you noticed all (most) of the problems are with the Spent Fuel Pool(s)? By the time each US nuclear power plant takes the necessary measures to correct the “Lessons Learned” from this event Nuclear Power will be too expensive to sell! When is the USA going to wise up and send the fuel to Yucca MT?
U.S. CALLS RADIATION ‘EXTREMELY HIGH’
AND URGES DEEPER CAUTION IN JAPAN
My “brilliant insight” on this one is to counsel everyone to be very careful about putting too much faith in the words of a guy who did his PhD dissertation on “An effective theory of baryons and mesons”, then spent the next two years as a congressional fellow in Ed Markey’s office, did a few months as a staffer for Environment and Public Works and then did 4 years as appropriations director and Science Policy Advisor for Harry Reid. After that amazingly diverse career, he was selected to the NRC and appointed Chairman. At the time of his appointment, he was only 39 years old and had essentially no industrial, engineering, or operational experience.
There is a very good possibility that the NRC does not have any on the ground insights in this case. The spent fuel pool for unit 4 was reported to be at 183 degrees and full on March 15. Where did 23 feet of water above the 14 foot long fuel assemblies go?
The earthquake an tsunami have killed approximately ten thousand members of the public. Radiation has killed approximately zero. It is very much not about the radiation.
I had studied Rod’s interviews with Dr. Rockwell in The Atomic Show archive, as well as the 2002 paper in Science he coauthored, i.e. Nuclear Power Plants and Their Fuel as Terrorist Targets https://atomicinsights.com/pdf_files/SciencePaper-9.02.pdf I was struck by Rockwell’s categorical statement that at TMI, “even if the containment had been severely breached, little radioactivity would have excaped. Few if any persons would have been harmed”, especially when I thought about, if Rockwell is right, can only be described as the mass hysteria happening around us.
I wanted to know what he’d say now.
Dr. Rockwell replied quickly to my emailed questions. Although he started out by writing that “things are still changing over there, and I think the time is better spent listening than talking for the next few days or weeks”, he then wrote:
“I must admit that our Science articles did not give much attention to the small-volume containment plants, [ my note: the GE BWR Mark 1 containment structure in use at Fukushima ] and we should do so after the information on Fukushima has come in. Our focus was on getting past the proving that scenarios that led to intolerable situations were tolerably improbable. This traditional approach is an essential but not sufficient part of plant design. My approach was to come in from the other side: To assume that the worst situation was one that led to some molten fuel, coupled with loss of containment integrity, and ask: what then? Does radioactivity get out in great enough quantities, into enough lungs? That
Are you aware of the fact that the whole “hydrogen bubble” hysteria at TMI was caused by an NRC “engineer” (in headquarters, not at the site) that used the conversion factor for English/metric backwards? He was “checked,” etc., by other NRC engineers and thus they firmly believed in their conclusion. Meanwhile, we at TMI spent three days trying to convince the NRC that something was wrong with their calculations. We finally came up with the simple equation PxV=PxV (any basic chemistry student understands that) and after a series of pressure changes we provided the proof that the “bubble” in the core was of no concern. By then, evacuation orders were issued, people panicked, etc, etc, etc. Of course, the responsible NRC engineer was promoted, and now you know the rest of the story. How much of that is going on now? (I know – I was there and have the T-shirt to prove it)
Thank goodness the Japanese use only metric. 😉
I have heard of irrational decisions based on the LNT being made, such as foreign airlines possibly refusing to fly to Tokyo or to Japan just at a time when the lines of communication need to be the most open possible.
I think it is really time to abandon the LNT and do extensive work on integrating the research results that indicate hormesis effects at doses of around 100-250 mSv/year.
That being said, it appears that at times the levels near the plants are way beyond that so I can see the point of a local evacuation. However, it is stupid to panic in distant places like Tokyo where the possible dose is conceivably over an LNT-based regulatory limit but is far below a harmful amount.
The misapplication of the LNT has the consequences of bad official decisions in humanitarian matters such as food and shelter provision.
Asahi Japan Watch Senior Staff Writer Keiji Takeuchi has posted http://www.facebook.com/AJW.Asahi
Commentary: Time for Decisive Action at Fukushima:
Japan new faces a question that has been taboo since the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, namely, who has to step up and do the work to mitigate a high-radiation nuclear accident. He notes that debate about this came up after the Japanese realized what had to be done at Chernobyl but faded “because it would have involved the fundamental social issue of whether a democratic state can order people to do work harmful to their health. There was also the myth that major accidents just do not happen in Japan.
Now, however, we face an emergency situation. A quick decision and response is required.
By the way, has anybody heard anything more about the reactors at Onagawa, Higashidori, Tokai, and the Rokkasho reprocessing center?
Also, I heard that there have been two missing workers, ten injured employees/contractors, and one death in a crane accident. Have the missing employees been found?
I wouldn’t presume to add anything to what you or Dr. Rockwell have to say and I want to thank him for a very clear letter, except this:
At the Register, Lewis Page just wrote something like, “look it surpassed it’s design constraints of maximum earthquake and maximum tsunami so all is good”. He is really missing the point.
Whatever engineers and scientists figured out the height of the maximum tsunami really totally blew it. What other mistakes are inherent in the design?
And certainly after 2004, it should’ve been a no brainer to place the backup power on a tall building, and to even include ways to get water into the pools without power (by adding in places for a firetruck to pump into.) As Rockwell says, a multi B asset just became a multi B liability, and that IS because of a design flaw that would have been downright cheap (compared to multi Billions of dollars) to fix.
However, what I am really curious about is why there weren’t webcams and rad hard Packbots all over the place?
This isn’t 1971 when the reactor was built, or 1979 TMI, or 1986 when the robots failed and biobots had to be used. It’s 2011 where webcams are literally available for $20. Are there technical reasons why there are no webcams everywhere, or packbots either?
Are there failsafe reactor designs that can safely calm themselves the hell down (gratuitous reference to Star Trek IV) in a total power blackout such as occurred at Fukushima?
Jay: “Are there failsafe reactor designs that can safely calm themselves … in a total power blackout such as occurred at Fukushima?”
Yes there are. They were being actively developed and built in Germany 25 years ago, but ironically, this work was stopped in the wake of the Chernobyl accident.
@Brian – yep. There was also some guy in Tarpon Springs. FL who worked pretty hard with a small team for a number of years to build upon the AVR and THTR research. Last I heard, the company was in a deep sleep and the founder had moved to Lynchburg, VA., by way of Annapolis, MD.
I think his name was/is Adams. 🙂
Radiation contamination causes birth defects even in minuscule amounts. And summoning up Darwin to support your self interests is pathetic. Darwin’s theory does not imply survival of the fittest merely natural selection, so you are promoting the fact that ordinary people should put up with radiation contamination. The legacy of this event will be with the local community for generations.
Which is convenient for the nuclear establishment because they have already demonstrated how manipulation of the radiation measurements surrounding the plant will be carried out. Comparing hourly units to yearly exposure is irrelevant at this stage and nothing short of mathematical PR.
No worst that three mile Island ? Did you miss the part where reactor three Exploded? take another look at the footage, the reactor buildings are rather tall are they not? and yet the explosive debris was thrown hundreds of ft higher, at least 8 times by a cursory visual assessment.
The damage is still totally unclear how are they going to inspect it? if the rad is to high they cant even get in the building. And they don’t just have one building to inspect they have at least 4! If the core was blown out at any one of the reactors then this is already beyond Three mile island. And yet you seem to imply all is well with the containment, even Tepco isn’t displaying that level of confidence.
All the media outlets and the various heads of the hydra that is the Nuclear industry are expecting a magic wand to be waved and the whole incident to be resolved over night. That is not going to happen. This will take months to even contain, spraying water is not going to do anything in the long term radiation doesn’t just wash away because you spray a hose at it, it has to be contained.
Even if the radiation release is not comparable to Chernobyl then clean up operation is. It cost them a billion dollars in 86 and its still costing them. Uranium isotopes left a nuclear legacy of at least 30 years in Pripyat. we Know now that Fukishima was burning Mox Fuel in its cores, that’s Plutonium the Half life of plutonium might as well be considered eternal on our time scale.
The fate of Japan is quite literally blowing in wind.
@Anthony – You are wrong about the heath effects of low level radiation. See, for example http://www.hps.org/documents/clarke_controllabledose.pdf
You are wrong about birth defects. See, for example, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(05)67042-0/fulltext
This blog is certainly NOT part of the nuclear establishment, though I now am employed in the nuclear industry as a engineer/analyst. My views often conflict mightily with the establishment, which often profits by the increased work caused by overreaction to minor risks.
Buried by all of the attention being paid to the hyped, but relatively inconsequential events at Fukushima is the fact that the Chiba oil refinery is STILL burning and still dumping thousands of tons of potentially toxic materials into the atmosphere every day – without any containment at all.
Notice the source I had to use to find out much at all – it is not ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WSJ, NY Times, Washington Post. None of those advertiser supported outlets are remotely interested in capturing continuing footage of burning LNG tanks where the operators still cannot approach close enough to do anything but let it burn itself out. I guess that the facility will eventually stop burning and dumping its waste products once it runs out of fuel. Of course, those waste products are not radioactive, instead of decaying away, they will be part of the common environment FOREVER, in unmeasured, but certainly real concentrations.
You are right that the fate of Japan is blowing in the wind. Survey have shown that there is very little radioactive material up there. How much smoke and other junk has been reported by the companies that collect hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year telling us how wonderful hydrocarbons are?
Heh, if it had been an offshore oil rig, instead of a more pedestrian refinery, I suppose that we would have heard about it. 😉
The usual media outlets are pathetic. The country really needs a “science for journalists” curriculum to be implemented in journalism schools.
Wow, I wasn’t aware that the fire was still burning a week later.
@Brian – why would you be aware? The advertiser supported media probably received phone calls telling them to lay off. The problem that the nuclear industry has is that none of the companies advertise much and have no pull with the media company owners. Except, of course, for that one “nuclear” company that actually owns a number of media properties that are some of the worst offenders at hyping the issues. Perhaps they just make more money on wind turbines, gas turbines, CFLs and smart grid controllers.
“Perhaps they just make more money on wind turbines, gas turbines, CFLs and smart grid controllers.”
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