Gregg Easterbrook

Japan’s real disaster

March 15, 2011


The situation in Japan is horrific — but because of the earthquake and tsunami, not because of the malfunctioning atomic reactor station. The earthquake and its awful aftermath killed at least thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands. That is an unspeakable tragedy. The damaged reactors at Fukushima haven’t killed anyone, and while posing a clear danger, especially to workers heroically fighting the malfunction, the odds are that any harm to public health will be minor, if public health is harmed at all.

Yet in the United States and European Union, what’s happening at the power plant is receiving more attention, and generating more anxiety, than thousands of innocents crushed or drowned.

Japan is the sole place nuclear weapons have been used: to see the Japanese suffer, again, from fear of the atom is heartrending. But the reaction to the power plant in Japan shows lack of perspective. Today’s Washington Post front page proclaims, in large type, a “FULL- BLOWN NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE.” The earthquake and tsunami were catastrophes; the power plant leaks may cause little harm, let alone represent a “catastrophe.”

And in all the words and pictures being devoted to the Fukushima reactors, the most important concern raised is being missed. But first consider:

Atomic reactors are not particularly dangerous.
They cannot cause a nuclear blast — this is a common misconception. They can leak radiation, but this has happened only a couple times, and except at Chernobyl, radiation leaks from power reactors have had only slight impact on public health.

The sort of radiation you would experience standing close to an exposed atomic reactor is deadly, which is why being a reactor-station worker is a perilous occupation. But the kind of radiation that extends more than a few hundred yards away is less dangerous than a medical X-ray. Everyone’s terrified of the word “radiation.” Most types of radiation — you are being exposed to several forms right now, from the sun, the stars, radio broadcasting and some types of rocks — have mild if any health consequences.

The worst U.S. atomic accident, at Three Mile Island in 1979, was spooky and scary but caused no public health harm. Many studies, including this one from the Columbia University School of Public Health, found a slight increase in cancers near Three Mile Island in the years afterward, but also found radiation “did not account for the observed increase.” The Columbia researchers theorized that people who lived  near Three Mile Island went to doctors to get checked, and physicians found cancers that were already incipient before the accident.

Studies found people who lived near Three Mile Island experienced stress and anxiety, and stress is bad for you. But it’s nothing like the panic-in-the-streets threat being suggested by coverage of the Japan reactors. Here, the Washington Post details the relatively mild nature of most forms of radiation from power generation, and recounts studies showing fear is a greater hazard than cancer. This story appeared on page 9.

Atomic power causes significantly less harm than fossil fuel.
In 2010, 11 people were killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling explosion while 29 people died in a coal mine in West Virginia. Nothing so bad has ever happened at an atomic power plant in the United States or European Union. Annually, coal mining and oil refining accidents kill several hundred people: annual worker deaths at atomic power plants, and in uranium mining, are much lower. Fossil fuel generates greenhouse gases that are causing climate change: atomic power production is just shy of zero-emission for greenhouse gases. Smog from coal burning in the developing world causes respiratory diseases and tens of thousands of premature deaths each year: no similar problem is associated with atomic power.

This morning, Reuters said the Fukushima situation is “the world’s most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine in 1986”. That statement surely is true, but think what it means — a quarter century of atomic power did no harm at all, and now the major problem in Japan may be resolved with only minor public harm. In the same 25 years, oil and coal use worldwide have killed many thousands of people while triggering global warming.


If the Japan accident increases political opposition to nuclear power, climate change will get worse.
So if you don’t like nuclear power, be careful what you wish for.

But won’t the radiation come after us?
Greenhouse gases are invisible: a  reactor station venting smoke is a cinematic image. That you can take dramatic pictures of one, but cannot photograph the other, causes many to obsess about atomic power while shrugging about greenhouse gases.

Science illiteracy — of which the media, not just voters, may be guilty — causes many to fear that clouds of deadly radiation will drift from Japan around the world. There is a tiny chance this could occur, if the elaborate “containment” structure at Fukushima should fail. (Chernobyl had no containment structure, which is why Chernobyl was a true catastrophe.) But the odds anyone outside Japan ever will be harmed by the reactor malfunction there are far lower than the odds you will be killed in a car crash today — and you’re not afraid to get into your car.

And now the issue everyone’s missing:

Antiquated reactors like Fukushima should be replaced with new nuclear designs.
The Japanese station uses a half-century-old engineering concept called “boiling water” reactors. The devices are obsolete plumber’s nightmares: they need to be torn down and replaced with modern reactors. Broadly across the world, old reactors designed in the 1950s and 1960s, when far less was known about controlling atomic power, need to be taken out of service and replaced with modern designs that do not have the problems experienced at Fukushima.

All 104 nuclear power reactors in use in the United States are 30 or more years old, based on obsolete engineering. They need to be demolished and replaced with improved designs. Modern reactors require fewer moving parts than reactors of the 1950s and 1960s, and employ a new idea, “passive” safety. Passive safety means failures are not emergencies — if the cooling pumps fail, as happened at Fukushima, the atomic reaction simply stops. Hit by the same earthquake, a modern reactor would not have gone haywire.

Yet political opposition to construction of new atomic power plants is preventing the spread of improved modern reactors. Yesterday, Germany and Switzerland said they would postpone plans to tear down obsolete reactors and replace them with modern designs. Attempts in the U.S. to obtain political permission to demolish obsolete reactors, in favor of new systems, are likely to be set back.

This is exactly the wrong conclusion. If the Japan accidents produce a new wave of opposition to new reactor construction, the result will be to lock into place a profusion of obsolete reactors with antiquated engineering. Japan should have replaced the Fukushima reactors with a modern station years ago. Will other nations refuse to act, and wait till the next obsolete reactor fails?

Photos: Top; A family photograph is half buried in the mud in Rikuzentakata after it was a destroyed by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, in Iwate prefecture, northeast Japan March 13, 2011. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won; Bottom; A man looks at the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato town, in Iwate Prefecture March 13, 2011. State broadcaster NHK said more than 10,000 people may have been killed as the wall of water hit, reducing whole towns to rubble. REUTERS/KYODO

52 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Those who express such faith in engineering and in Japanese engineers especially, seem to have forgotten the recent Toyota recall.

And the more it costs to build the “safest possible” nuclear reactors also means those reactors may no longer be producing cheap electrical power. They may not be cost effective anymore.

None of the reactors will last forever and the final disposal bill may well come when none of the countries who have them can afford to dismantle them safely. Those waste disposal sites will have to be every bit as safe and “fool proof” as the reactors themselves and they will have to devise a way of doing so that can effectively “last forever”. And all that care and expense will be spent producing nothing of practical use to the consumer. But those costs will also be passed onto the consumer or taxpayer. If the utility company that built them goes bankrupt – the bills will have to be paid by the governments. That is, if they are in any condition to pay them.

If population growth alone were enough to ensure a happy and prosperous future, countries like India and China would have been the most magnificent and wealthiest countries on the planet for the last 1000 years. Instead they are developing countries with enormous numbers of extremely poor people. They both have deplorable environmental protections. There is no guarantee that the wealthier countries of today will remain that way, even 100 years from now.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Some of the comments to this article show just how deep the American, and even worldwide, lack of understanding about radiation goes. I guess it’s a mix of leftover cold war paranoid and the fact that fear sells and a lot of people are buying in.

Just for a little perspective, Denver is sitting at about 35 CPM right now with a tendency to go up over 50 from time to time. No city in Japan has reported over 19 CPM and radiation levels are [b]going down[/b].

here’s an informative article about what radiation is and how it’s meanured for those interested

http://www.hps.org/publicinformation/ate  /faqs/radiation.html

note the table that shows the various sources of exposure in mrem

the Fukushima plant is reported to be leaking about 1 mrem an hour [b]at the epicenter[/b]. That’s about the same rate as commercial air travel. Let’s not forget that the radiation levels are at a small fraction of that at the edge of the evacuated zone. Also, let’s not forget that radiation does not travel, contaminated materials travel, and as irradiated dust travels it disperses in three dimensions. While detectable the dust cloud from the reactors was hundreds of times lower in radiation than the 10 mrem EPA deems as safe for air in US cities.

Posted by Diplowski | Report as abusive

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