Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

Japan’s real disaster

March 15, 2011

JAPAN-QUAKE/

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.

JAPAN-QUAKE/

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

Comments
52 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I understand your concern about the United States not paying much attention to the massive loss of life that has occurred in Japan. It is a horrific situation for anyone to be in and something that no one should wish upon their worst enemy.

However, I completely disagree with the blind comments you have made regarding the nuclear power plant issues. Loss of life or complications resulting from radiation exposure are mainly seen several years after impact. No one will really know the true implications of such a disaster “at the moment”.

So with that being said I would appreciate the fact that you understand…….just because someone hasn’t been snuffed out this exact moment from being subjected to radiation doesn’t mean that they will not die from this direct issue a little down the road and quite possibly suffer longer.

Your words are heart felt and understood. I feel I can speak for many Americans that we are extremely concerned for their well being and the huge loss that they have suffered. However, ignorantly playing down the radiological exposure that was even picked up by the SS George Bush stationed 160 miles away from Japan should not and isn’t going to be ignored.

Posted by wstrange | Report as abusive
 

Sir
“Japan’s Real Disaster” is the suffering, the never-ending heartache of lost loved one’s the physical pain and the long term costs in human terms. To bring Japan’s suffering to debate the global implications of planned and future nuclear industry interests is shameful. Saying that nuclear power generation is not particularly dangerous is perpetuating an ignorance of the true nature of the technology. When we continue to praise the safety record of an industry that hides the true costs both in lives and money we delude ourselves. Ignorance is the root of evil. We can’t build machines that essentially must perform without error. Dealing with materials of the most toxic and long lived nature requires that we must.
Yet we cannot safely store the waste by-products of their continued operation. You sir are just plain wrong.

Posted by TheDawDude | Report as abusive
 

The real tragedy is that we do not build cities, towns and villages that can and do function given the dynamics of our world.

The only thing more tragic than this will be rebuilding ‘and wishing’ for different outcomes, next event.

Posted by warren_currier | Report as abusive
 

I want to thank Gregg for putting things in perspective. In particular the reference to the loss of lives in fossil fuel use was very important AND THE IMPACT OF GREENHOUSE GASES. People do seem to be misled by images rather than reasoning.

Posted by drmarathe | Report as abusive
 

“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.”

That’s easy to say but let’s see a project plan! Let’s see who is actually going to do the work, what the costs are going to be, what part of it will come from ratepayers and what part from taxpayers, what will be done with the fuel and waste from those 104 reactors, how the facilities will be protected from sabotage during the process, and so forth.

For what it’s worth, I agree with you. But engineering economics is a complex subject, especially concerning the development of large fission-powered generating stations. I haven’t seen the numbers. I don’t know that the analyses have even been done!

Given the prevailing debates over just how bad carbon dioxide really is, the evidence on how bad fracking and strip mining are for the environment, and the worry over how far behind China we are in solar, I’d guess that fission power just isn’t on anyone’s agenda right now. You’re right – the media needs to take the lead here, but you need to be working with sources that actually know what they’re talking about.

Posted by znmeb | Report as abusive
 

Ok, I guess we can see which side of the fence you are on.

Posted by limapie | Report as abusive
 

Of all the millions and millions of dollars the government spends you would think that demolishing the old reactor and creating new, safer industrilized reactors would be at the top of somebody’s list. Doesn’t make good sense does it?

Posted by Greg33 | Report as abusive
 

“a quarter century of atomic power did no harm at all”

This false statement sums up this hack opinion piece quite well.

Posted by AstroBoi | Report as abusive
 

Sir
“Japan’s Real Disaster” is the suffering, the never-ending heartache of lost loved one’s the physical pain and the long term costs in human terms. To bring Japan’s suffering to debate the global implications of planned and future nuclear industry interests is shameful. Saying that nuclear power generation is not particularly dangerous is perpetuating an ignorance of the true nature of the technology. When we continue to praise the safety record of an industry that hides the true costs both in lives and money we delude ourselves. The perpetuation of ignorance is the root of evil. We can’t build machines that essentially must perform without error. Dealing with materials of the most toxic and long lived nature requires that we must.
Yet we still cannot safely store the waste by-products of their continued operation. You sir are just plain wrong.

Posted by TheDawDude | Report as abusive
 

The points are well taken, but unfortunately you delve into Global Warming fantasy as part of your “proof” about the dangers of other energy sources. Upstate New York is shoveling out ten feet of Global Warming as we speak.

If you have to rely on disproven hypotheses and appeals to groupthink, then you’ve already lost the argument.

Instead, let’s just stick with the facts. Mining accidents, oil spills, REAL pollution, etc, etc. No need to invoke the boogey man.

Posted by RationalSkeptic | Report as abusive
 

While it is true that the nuclear reactor story is being blown out of proportion, it is clearly the major story NOW. It is ongoing, whereas the earthquake/tsunami is over. Beginning Japan’s long-term recovery effort is critical, but not “news”.
Also, I think you are minimizing the inherent difference between the two disasters. There is nothing humans can currently do to stop an earthquake or palliate the immediate effects of such a large one. But we are in control of our human-made nuclear reactors.
What object lesson will we take from the earthquake/tsunami? Only that nature is stronger than we are. But we can learn valuable lessons about nuclear safety from the Fukushima disaster. Therefore it is more “newsworthy.”

Posted by nadie | Report as abusive
 

Clearly most of this article is copied from a BNFL propaganda leaflet.

The impact of nuclear power generation has many barely quantifiable risks and costs.

The production, storage and ultimately disposal (for which no one has yet come up with an adequate solution too – the UK’s storage facilities are in a ‘highly hazardous’ state according to a recent report) of the fuel itself is hugely expensive and far outweighs the benefits of the so-called ‘cheap’ and ‘clean’ electricity.

Your optimism in saying that Japan should build new safer power stations, but Fukushima I and II were the new and safe reactors once. They were designed to withstand certain environmental and geological impacts, but they are clearly failing in that capacity as they are overheating and highly unstable. I am amazed anyone is lauding nuclear power whilst two power stations have been on fire for days and are popping their reactor casings like champagne corks.

Here are some reassuring pictures of how ‘safe’ nuclear power can be:

http://villageofjoy.com/chernobyl-today- a-creepy-story-told-in-pictures/

Or better, take time to see the photos and story at kidofspeed.com

You are correct in saying that perhaps the media interest in the reactors has overwhelmed the news coverage on the immense humanitarian efforts needed to bring order back to parts of Japan, and the tragic stories we are hearing that do filter through.

However, You seem to be glossing over the fact that 6 reactors in two power stations are currently overheating uncontrollably. We’ve just heard that a helicopter attempting to drop water onto the reactor was unable to because the radiation levels were too high for it to get close enough.

Two of the 6 reactors are officially described as in ‘partial meltdown’. This means they are melting through the protective casing and sinking through the bottom of the power station. If that continues, one of the effects will be that they leak into the water table making that radioactive and undrinkable.

It hasn’t happened, and we surely all hope it does not, but this is the spectre of nuclear power and its consequences when things go wrong – which clearly, they do. There is not much ‘green’, or ‘clean’, or ‘safe’ about it.

Posted by blitz | Report as abusive
 

Finally one article with facts, opposed to common panic creation by media (bad news are good news, so lets reate bad news). Although in article like this I would like to see analysis regarding nuclear waste (spent fuel as well as demolished reactors) management. Current costs and all future costs, since radioactive waste will be radioactive for many thousands and tens (hundreds?) of thousand years.

Posted by VVertuls | Report as abusive
 

Well said. The recovery from the true earthquake and tsunami impact will take years, personal tragedy is enormous and all some people seem to be concerned about is ‘will radiation reach us’ or ‘can this happen here’. This may be the first rational analysis of the multiple disasters in Japan I have seen (in the US). The nuclear damage and radiation issues are not unimportant and the situation may change, but knee jerk anti nuclear energy doomsday predictions by ‘experts’ has been dominant so far, so this balance is needed. Lessons will no doubt be learnt in Japan no matter the end resolution of this crisis and those lessons may help to make nuclear energy design and operation safer.

Posted by WithRespect | Report as abusive
 

It is a great pity that people are getting so frightened. They have come to the conclusion thst this reactor mess is going to cause another Hiroshima. No way! Hiroshima did not fall because of some leaking radiation. The atomic bomb dropped onto that unfortunate city 66 years ago was a horrible weapon of war, designed by a group of brilliant scientists for maximum destructive power. Even a leak of ordinary natural gas would likely pose a greater danger to the public than this nuclear accident.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive
 

“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.”

Close, but some workers have died in the reactor crisis – but you’re right; the scope of the reactor crisis versus the scope of the earthquake itself is miniscule.

Posted by Fordi | Report as abusive
 

I feel it must be pointed out, while we’re on the subject of scientific illiteracy, that Human influenced CO2 emmisions did not CAUSE global warming. That is a natural part of the earth cycles, as are the seasons.

We were always going to face temperature rises and increasing seismic activity, building up to the next ice age, yes the rate of temperature has increased since the industrial revolution, but again, no we did not CAUSE global warming.

The world would have “ended” with or without us

Posted by Triggernator | Report as abusive
 

Thanks for putting things into perspective.

Posted by theotherpercy | Report as abusive
 

This is a sobering reminder or how easily mass media loses site of the value of human life in its never-ending quest for profit.

Posted by daneellaw | Report as abusive
 

Small correction:
“Yesterday, Germany and Switzerland said they would postpone plans to tear down obsolete reactors and replace them with modern designs.”
This is not true. In Germany, there haven’t been any plans to build new reactors for decades. The German government decided nine years ago to phase out nuclear power completely. Obsolete German reactors will be torn down and replaced with renewable energy sources.
Last year the (new) government decided to extend run times of existing plants for a few years, but the long term plan was still to phase out nuclear power. There haven’t been any plans to build new nuclear power plants since the early 80s.
What was called into question in light of the recent events in Japan is this extension for the existing plants. In Germany, no old power plant will run longer due to the events in Japan, but some will be shut down earlier. In fact, seven old nuclear plants will be shut down immediately for three months, some or maybe all of them permanently.

Posted by Kranki | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Easterbrook – you should spend some time on Google earth and examine Japan from the bird’s eye view. They really don’t have the luxury of a 30km dead zone like Chernobyl. If they have massive leakage as they fear – there is a possibility of extensive contamination of large areas of dense urban and suburban development.

And those old reactors may be in need of replacement but all that material has to be disposed of safely somewhere – where? Even the recently killed Yucca Mountain. site had fierce opponents within the state itself.

I live in a rural town that over 20 years ago – just before I moved here – refused to allow a nuclear waste site to be built in it’s bedrock granite for fear that it could contaminate the ground water. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear. There is also the possibility of an accident during the trucking of the material to the site. There are possibilities of accidents during the trucking or movement by rail to any centralized storage facility as well. That waste site would have required trucking tens of thousands of contaminate fuel and also the water of the containment vessels and anything else that has had long term exposure to radiation.

When so many of these early plants were built – little or no thought was given to the waste issue. Few communities even want a solid waste facility near them let alone something that must be kept safe for hundreds (or thousands?) of years. The madness and stupidity of nuclear energy rests in that need for such long-term disposal that the Government itself can’t guarantee that it will be in existence several hundred years from now. It is becoming more and more unusual for businesses to live even a century. And nuclear power plants are owned and operated by private for profit corporations. They can’t guarantee their own existence even a few decades forward. The tendency of world business has always been to exploit and abandon.

The pattern of land use in the USA has changed a great deal in the past three decades. You and many others may only use aerial photography sites to look up your own house. Spend some time with it and look at how densely built up the urban and suburban areas of this country are now.

Wakeup and smell the zoning. Massachusetts was much more sparsely developed when I moved there in the mid 60′s Today it in one continuous suburban sprawl radiating from Boston and even extending past Worcester at the center of the state and then sending a swath of development southwest toward Springfield. Planners don’t call the Northeast corridor BosWash for nothing. Now I think dense urban development covers the entire northeast coast from Miami to Portland Maine and a little higher.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

please ignore my earlier comment – there were some corrections I needed to make.

Mr. Easterbrook – you should spend some time on Google earth and examine Japan from the bird’s eye view. They really don’t have the luxury of a 30km radius dead zone like Chernobyl. If the Japanese have massive leakage as they fear – there is a possibility of extensive contamination of large areas of dense urban and suburban development.

And those old reactors may be in need of replacement but all that material has to be disposed of safely somewhere – where? Even the recently killed Yucca Mountain site had fierce opponents within the state itself.

I live in a rural town that over 20 years ago – just before I moved here – refused to allow a nuclear waste site to be built in it’s bedrock granite for fear that it could contaminate the ground water. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear. There is also the possibility of an accident during the trucking of the material to the site. There are possibilities of accidents during the trucking or movement by rail to any centralized storage facility as well. That waste site would have required trucking tens of thousands of barrels of contaminate fuel and also the water of the containment vessels and anything else that has had long term exposure to radiation.

When so many of these early plants were built – little or no thought was given to the waste issue. Few communities even want a solid waste facility near them let alone something that must be kept safe for hundreds (or thousands?) of years. The madness and stupidity of nuclear energy rests in that need for such long-term disposal that the Government itself can’t guarantee that it will be in existence several hundred years from now. It is becoming more and more unusual for businesses to live even a century. And nuclear power plants are owned and operated by private for profit corporations. They can’t guarantee their own existence even a few decades forward. The tendency of world business has always been to exploit and abandon.

The pattern of land use in the USA has changed a great deal in the past three decades. You and many others may only use aerial photography sites to look up your own house. Spend some time with it and look at how densely built up the urban and suburban areas of this country are now.

Wakeup and smell the zoning. Massachusetts was much more sparsely developed when I moved there in the mid 60′s Today it in one continuous suburban sprawl radiating from Boston and even extending past Worcester at the center of the state and then sending a swath of development southwest toward Springfield. Planners don’t call the Northeast corridor BosWash for nothing. Now I think dense urban development covers the entire northeast coast from Miami to Portland Maine and a little higher.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

While I agree with most of your column, we differ in two areas: the accident in Chernobyl likely had a higher human toll than what has been caused in all the coal mine/powerplant accidents since. Second, uranium mining has been quite dangerous to both miners and the environment.

Ironically, since most uranium mines are small holes in remote areas that lead to deep shafts, which in turn leads to contaminated groundwater that an average person also can’t see, perception of this danger is also relatively low. There is measureable uranium in municpal water supplies in parts of rural New Mexico to this very day. For more see:

http://www.sric.org/mining/docs/Umills.h tml

New reactors are better than old reactors, for the reasons you describe as well as many others. Mining of uranium has also become less dangerous, but it’s all relative. There are ~14,500 active coal mines in the United States and about 10 active uranium mines. It’s not hard to guess which type of mine has a higher gross quantity of accidents.

Seemingly every type of energy we pursue has unwanted side effects, from rare earth metals in solar panels and wind turbine magnets, to global warming from natural gas and coal, to periodic nuclear accidents. Are the reactors in North Korea and Iran new designs that are operated in the safest possible manner? My guess is not likely.

Where does it all end? I think we know, but prefer not to think about it.

Posted by kmandu37 | Report as abusive
 

At this early stage of Japan’s nuclear discomfort, I wouldn’t try to prematurely refute all the points made above. But as to a few, the 40 years of cheap power is presenting an awesome balloon payment to Japan. How many weeks of lost productivity will the festering leaks cause their, and the world’s, economies? How much real estate on the finite island might be compromised for centuries? And since “Greenhouse gases are invisible…” is a concept also applicable to radiation, how many lives were actually affected over how large an area bordering the USSR?

Posted by auger | Report as abusive
 

Unfortunately, Mr. Easterbrook is mistaken in suggesting that modern nuclear facilities are somehow not dangerous. Modern nuclear generating stations may be different from their predecessors, however,there are new threats which did not exist in the past. In addition to terrorism (a cargo plane filled with explosives crashing into a nuclear reactor), there is now the threat of computer worms targeting nuclear industrial software and equipment (remember the recent Stuxnet malware and what it did to Iran’s nuclear centrifuges). The threat of industrial control malware is new, and has so far received little attention in the nuclear debate. There have been cases in the past where a disgruntled employee has damaged his or her employer’s non-nuclear software systems. Because these systems in the past have been non-nuclear the fallout has been limited. Now, with the advent of industrial control malware, a single disgruntled employee at a nuclear facility can trigger a nuclear catastrophe. This is one more reason why nuclear energy should have no future.

Posted by DanToronto | Report as abusive
 

A pound of uranium has 3 million times the embedded pound as a kilo of coal. This fact of physics is what has had engineers and politicians salivating over nuclear power for decades. But you conveniently omitted the part of the equation dealing with the disposal of nuclear waste, which needs to be safely stored for tens of thousands of years. Given the geologic changes that have taken place in North America over the last 10,000 years, how can anybody engineer a safe solution for such a long period of time?

The Native Americans arrived at critical community decisions only after considering what the outcomes held in store for the next seven generations. What kind of society are we which presumes to saddle our children and the next many hundreds of generations with the legacy of our wasteful and selfish under-engineered “solutions”. We have mortgaged our children’s futures.

Posted by Duke_Budfester | Report as abusive
 

Erm… an X-ray goes on for a second. If “the kind of radiation that extends more than a few hundred yards away is less dangerous than a medical X-ray” that is not a good thing when it is going on every second of every day. A person is not even supposed to have many X-rays per year due to the danger long-term exposure causes. To suggest that these levels are harmless is a lie.

I remember Chernobyl very well. I remember the cloud of radioactivity that passed over my house after that accident. I don’t care how fricken safe a mild dose of radiation from a nuclear accident is – it’s not as safe as NOT having that mild dose of radiation!

Yes, historically, nuclear accidents have been rare and not too damaging in the grand scheme of things. However, if you think it’s nothing to get all bent out of shape about, you go and live in the nuclear ghost town that is Pripyat. Put your life on the line for your beliefs. Yeah, I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to do it.

Nuclear power has been around for fifty years and we’ve already had four major nuclear accidents (that we know about) including one meltdown (Chernobyl) that was only prevented from being a ‘China Syndrome’ (where the ground water was permanently irradiated) by pure chance.

Fuel extraction workers sign up for their jobs accepting the risk. They get paid the big bucks because it’s risky. Nuclear power poses a significant risk to people who never sign up for hazard pay and who should not be exposed to the risk involved. That is the difference and that is why nuclear power is too dangerous.

Posted by Beery | Report as abusive
 

Can the author of this article tell us what the world will do with the nuclear waste?

Can the author also go inform himself about the world’s uranium reserves? If all energy humanity is using was produced by nuclear plants and with the current increase of energy demand, the world’s uranium reserves would last less than 60 years. Great investment for future generations.

Posted by grnik | Report as abusive
 

Unfortunately, Mr. Eastbrook makes the same mistake as many other bloggers and misses the point on some things. Let me explain myself.

Nobody has enough information on what exactly is going on. The IAEA is unhappy with the quality of the communication. Even the japanese Prime minister Kan can’t get information on time. What is left for us and the japanese citizens? That’s right – assumptions.
That kills any statement saying that the situation is under control.

From here we come to where Mr. Eastbrook misses the point. Fear of radiation is probably to some extent irrational, but what really is happening is that the fear of the unknown is added. There is nothing worse. Then you have those downplaying the situation and those overreacting. But one thing is for sure – in a potentially life and/or health-threatening situation (or perceived as such) where you do not have enough information or it is contradicting, the best strategy is to prepare for the worst.

Now I am going to address some points from the article:

The earthquake and the tsunami, as bad as they were, are over. The situation is known, measures are taken. That is not the case for the nuclear plant, so obviously it gets more attention.

“Atomic reactors are not particularly dangerous.”
Until it hits the fan for whatever reason. Then they become nightmare. Add to that how to dispose of used nuclear material, which is always the point left out of this kind of conversations.

“Atomic power causes significantly less harm than fossil fuel.”
I won’t even pretend to understand that point. For me this sound like saying to someone that is scared of a car crash that airplane crashes are worse. So what?

“Science illiteracy.”
The “elaborate” containment structure apparently already failed to some extent as per what TEPCO said.

How awful it will be if we have leakage at one reactor and a hydrogen explosion at another to bring everything up, and some “favorable” wind? Quite probably this won’t be another Chernobyl, but it doesn’t even need to be. There are 13 million people less than 300km from there.

Posted by Atkins | Report as abusive
 

I agree entirely with the premise of this article, and think that overblown media reactions to the actual physical danger of this disaster are reactionary and shortsighted.

At some point, the United States will have to begin building new reactors. It is economically and politically unfeasible to be dependent upon the exports of a few oil rich nations indefinitely. Also, it seems apparent that if we continue to use fossil fuels, we will suffer irrevocable changes in the delicate balance of the earths climate.

Finally, nuclear waste is not a problem. All of the used fissile material in the United States would cover a paltry parcel the size of a football field to a depth of 1 m. Cover it in 15 ft of cement, wrap the cement in whatever the hell you want at whatever cost you want, have it under armed guard for 5,000 years, and the cost will still be a fraction that for the continued usage of fossil fuels.

Posted by jott0519 | Report as abusive
 

My earlier comment in this thread was not intended to suggest tha nuclear power is harmless. I just wanted to contribute some near-term reassurance to those who live near the damaged reactors: this is nothing like nuclear war. The military use of nuclear energy to blow up cities is something that never should have happened, and should never happen again.

Should we panic when contemplating an accident at a nuclear power station? Certainly not. Should we panic if we expect to be hit by a nuclear weapon? Absolutely. You and everyone you know will very soon be dead. If panic suits your temperament, I can’t think of a better time to break down..

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive
 

Erm… an X-ray goes on for a second. If “the kind of radiation that extends more than a few hundred yards away is less dangerous than a medical X-ray” that is not a good thing when it is going on every second of every day. A person is not even supposed to have many X-rays per year due to the danger long-term exposure causes. To suggest that these levels are harmless is a lie.

I remember Chernobyl very well. I remember the cloud of radioactivity that passed over my house after that accident. I don’t care how fricken safe a mild dose of radiation from a nuclear accident is – it’s not as safe as NOT having that mild dose of radiation!

Yes, historically, nuclear accidents have been rare and not too damaging in the grand scheme of things. However, if you think it’s nothing to get all bent out of shape about, you go and live in the nuclear ghost town that is Pripyat. Put your life on the line for your beliefs. Yeah, I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to do it.

Nuclear power has been around for fifty years and we’ve already had four major nuclear accidents (that we know about) including one meltdown (Chernobyl) that was only prevented from being a ‘China Syndrome’ (where the ground water was permanently irradiated) by pure chance.

Fuel extraction workers sign up for their jobs accepting the risk. They get paid the big bucks because it’s risky. Nuclear power poses a significant risk to people who never sign up for hazard pay and who should not be exposed to the risk involved. That is the difference and that is why nuclear power is too dangerous.

Posted by Beery | Report as abusive
 

It is absolutely incorrect to down play the current situation by referencing the minimal public impacts at TMI. The combined earthquake-tsunami event in Japan appears to lie outside of plant failure mode design contingencies. Regulators and industry engineers need to re-evaluate existing nuclear power plants (and future designs awaiting approval) in light of Japan’s experience.

Posted by specsalot | Report as abusive
 

Everybody is blowing this whole nuclear “meltdown” out of proportion. What is happening to that facility is a worst case problem or even worse than a worst case scenerio. You have a nuclear facility that was hit by the biggest earthquake in recorded history in that area and all of the after shocks that follwed. It was hit by a minimum of a 20 to 30 foot wall of water at an excessive speed. It is wonder the dang thing just didn’t melt down right then and there but it didn’t. It reacted just like they had planned for. Only problem is that they are now having problems keeping things cool enough but they have managed to keep it from completely melting down so far, so that tells you that there were procedures and policies in place for all of this.

Now everyone over here is harping about how dangerous nuclear energy is and how we shouldn’t build any. Well let’s use some common sense. How about we start by not building one on a major fault line along the ocean so it doesn’t get a double wammy. Let’s build it strong enough to withstand greater than an F5 Tornoado and all the possible “terrorist” attack threats that I am told are already built in to most of them and we build them with new technology. How about using some older technology as back up for when the computer goes down. Why does everything have to be solely ran by a computer? We ran things for years with out computers, surely new technology will let us have non computer run backups. Remember, this one in Japan is over 30 years old and it has stood up reasonably well given all that has been thrown at it.

The nuclear plant that just sits 60 miles from where I type was just re certified for another 20 years. Sounds like it was quite the process to do that from what I have read about it and been told by the people who I know who work there.

Sorry boys and girls, but it is going to take all of the known and unknown technologies we have to produce power for us in the future. The great thing about electricity, you can transport it easily enough long distances on a few wires.

Posted by wilman | Report as abusive
 

I think what this accident demonstrates is that it is not nuclear reactors which kill people, it’s people who kill people. It is possible, in an op-ed column, to design a perfectly safe power plant, but unsafe plants still get built. The commonest mistake anybody makes is to draw the boundaries of the system they are considering in the wrong place: at Fukushima, this seems also to be the likely explanation, as it appears that nobody considered that the emergency generators needed to be designed (or more likely QA’ed, given that other plants did not fail in this way) to the same standard as the reactor, as Fukushima was in one country where there was a risk that the plant might be disconnected from the grid for an extended period. Pointing that fact out would appear not to have been in anybody’s job description.

A second point is the “engineering wheel of re-incarnation”. I understand that in the cold winter of 1963, one of the UK’s Magnox reactors got disconnected from the grid, and needed to be shut down, but the diesel fuel for the emergency generators had gelled in the cold. Magnox reactors are slow enough to anger that the site staff had time to get out their blowlamps and start the generators the hard way. Magnox reactors were replaced by PWRs as the latter were “more efficient” – despite being less safe in these particular circumstances. The wheel of reincarnation says that over time, ugly, safe, over-engineered designs get replaced by leaner, more efficient, more highly optimised designs – until a major accident (the Tay Bridge, the deHavilland Comet and so on) happens, after which the world returns to more conservative designs. For a while. The wheel of reincarnation means that at any given date, there will always be some more safe and some less safe reactors in the world.

And, of course, not all reactors, even today, are built by people with a Japanese attachment to engineering excellence.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive
 

What a breath of fresh air. Thank you Mr Easterbrook. The sheer reporting hysteria that has greeted the Japanese nuclear emergency is unbelievable. Surrounded by a sea of destruction and death we see a serious nuclear problem being billed as a catastophe while the real catastophe surrounding it goes virtually unnoticed.

If you want to read about a real power generation catastophe –
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banqiao_Dam . Where a hydroelectric scheme failed in China in 1975 killing 250,000 (some say more like 850,000) yet (quite rightly) we don’t close down out hydro stations “just in case”. But hopefully, we do learn the lessons and build better.

The hysterical and ill informed comments simpy show a lack of appreciation that ANY form of power generation carries a risk.

Compared to other generation methods, nuclear (by far) carries the lowest body count per MW. Fashionable or not, if you want to generate significant amounts of reliable energy without the CO2 then nuclear is the only option.

Posted by billothewisp | Report as abusive
 

So, Mr. Gregg, you would’nt mind living 50 miles from the nuclear power station, your family included?

Posted by ruypereira | Report as abusive
 

GREAT article Gregg! Wow! Thanks for helping science illiterate people putting things in perspective. This media frenzy risks once again to compromise safety and push for use of more “dirty energy” by putting the public opinion against the nuclear industry. This will again jeopardise the real priority – getting rid of the obsolete “plumber’s nightmares” reactors and build new ones…
How are you lot going to produce the energy you take of the grid and that nuclear power stations produce? Will you abandon materialism and turn like the Amish – God bless you :) ?
Will you cover the planet with windmills and solar panels… burn more coal?… Personally, I am 100 times more worried about cars or planes going around everywhere; and aspartame or cell phones – where studies on the radiation effects are cautiously hidden contrarily to those on nuclear particle radiations.

Thanks Gregg

Posted by limpeza | Report as abusive
 

This shill Easterbrook vainly continues in the long line of those who stand athwart history and plead “Who’re you gonna believe? Me or your own lyin’eyes?”

She will go silent over the course of the next few weeks as the vapid claims in this post are proven wrong over and over again.

(And she really needs some kind of makeover. The sidebar picture makes her look rather manly–not good.)

Posted by lauradeen | Report as abusive
 

Thanks for the article Gregg. I was somewhat disheartened by some of the comments made afterwards, some of which, while arguing against your points, actually help to prove them. Nevertheless, the facts are there for all to see who choose to do so. Nuclear power is relatively safe and the hysteria surrounding the problems in Japan say much much more about our society and how we view ourselves, than it does about the actual problems in Japan.
Keep up the good work.

Posted by paulcgil | Report as abusive
 

Nuclear power is the least safe form of energy for the simple reason that nuclear power plants must always be maintained. With other forms of energy production, leaving them alone merely shuts down power. With nuclear, if maintenance stops, even if the reactors get shut down, the coolant fails, it overheats, explodes or melts down and IRRADIATES THOUSANDS OF SQUARE MILES!

That’s why we have to stop using it. Because we can never ensure constant and permanent maintenance.

Posted by Beery | Report as abusive
 

Tens of thousands of deaths is horrific, but pales in comparison to loss of ability to reproduce as a species, and permanent genetic alteration and damage. Harvey stated on CNN the other day there are six reactors in trouble, if they continue to melt down we are in for an ugly ride, maybe worse than Hiroshima/Nagasaki combined, in terms of overall deaths.

Posted by mossy | Report as abusive
 

“…demolished and replaced with improved designs”? It has been reported that Nuclear reactors in the US, have been built to withstand earthquakes…what a crock! Now it comes out that the ones in Japan were “built to withstand 7.5 earthquakes…bigger than that and we see what happens!…According to a researched article in Mother Jones Magazine awhile back…ALL THE REACTORS BUILT IN AMERICA ARE ON KNOWN EARTHQUAKE FAULTS BECAUSE THE LAND WAS THE CHEAPEST! And now we see that the Tsunami caused the failure of the reactors, not the earthquake! In America, Nuclear waste is still being driven around the in long distance trucks, 24 hours a day…just waiting for an accident to happen! Why have an industry where the waste has to be turned into ammunition that has to be used to get it off the shelves where the military workers are exposed to its radiation? This simply means having to have more wars…and that only moves it off the shelves and into the bodies, soil and water of the “enemies” country where it makes the land unlivable for billions of years…talk about genocide! There are no “enemies” we are all one family, and the sooner that dawns on us all the sooner we will stop playing with disaster and turn to SOLAR POWER. All this article is saying is that it is alright for our brothers and sisters to die so some fat cat investor can make more profit without the expense of having to switch industries…PEOPLE FIRST! PROFITS LAST! SOLAR POWER NOW!

Posted by Timeswimmer | Report as abusive
 

@ duke_budfester; I agreed with most of your comments but really – how difficult was it for the indigenous inhabitants of this country to plan for seven generations? They all tended to live in a timeless state without change (until the white man came) What tests or questions did they ask themselves to prove their assumptions about their future? What questions or proofs did they accept if their assumptions proved wrong? It could have been very easy to make assumptions to seven generations because every generation lived like all previous generations.
And why would they settle for seven generations except that it is a convenient number? Why not five, ten or even one hundred? The one-hundredth generation would not have looked vastly different that the first.

I could never understand what those memory tress mentioned in the movie Avatar actually had to recall? It would have been a very repetitive recall

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

The eartquake and tsunami could not be avoided. The “nuclear tragedy” was largely avoidable. TEPCO failed to seek outside help early. They made some bad decisions that made the situation at the plants much worse. The gravest errors were caused by improper venting of the hydrogen from units 1 and 3 that resulted in the explosions. It is easier to see from across the Pacific where we are not also dealing with the earthquake and tsunami. That is precisely the reason that TEPCO should have asked for help.

Posted by TheBWRexpert | Report as abusive
 

The nuclear units at Fukushima site 1 survived the 9.0 earthquake very well. The tsunami took out the back-up diesel generators. That could have been avoided by placing them on the hill behind the plant. Unit 1 is 40 years old yet that “old technology” using isolation condensers was best-suited for this type of emergency. I do not know if the isolation condensers survived the the earthquake and tsunami. If not, they should have been designed stronger are/or place in a better location. Adding sea water to the isolation condensers within the first 20 hours would have saved unit 1. At that time about 20 gpm would have been enough (i.e., swimming pool pump) or the very low-tech bucket brigade.

Posted by TheBWRexpert | Report as abusive
 

RationalSkeptic sez: “The points are well taken, but unfortunately you delve into Global Warming fantasy as part of your “proof” about the dangers of other energy sources. Upstate New York is shoveling out ten feet of Global Warming as we speak.”

The increase in average global temperature results in increased evaporation from the oceans and increased energy in the atmosphere. And whatever goes up must come down. Global warming means more storms (hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards, snowstorms, rainfall) of greater magnitude and duration.

RationalSkeptic, you are unlikely to notice an increase average global temperature of a few degrees. But you are likely to notice the resulting climate changes, such as the record snowfall in upstate New York that you cite.

The scientists who are concerned about the effects of increasing CO2 in our atmosphere have been predicting adverse changes in climate for decades. Global warming does NOT mean more sunny days.

Posted by RonaldHughes | Report as abusive
 

While I was hoping to find more coverage on the victims of the tsunami and earthquake, it’s gone back again to the nuclear issue.

People, if immediate relief to help those stranded in Northern Japan aren’t going to happen soon, you will be seeing way more dead bodies in the coming months due to starvation. Something that can be entirely preventable if the mass media would stop focusing so much on the nuclear threat and their hypotheses.

BBC is perhaps the only place that minutely posts the pleas for help in the city of Minamisoma, where 71,000 are cut off from supplies (no food, no clean water, and no heat). Do your part and urge the mass media to bring more focus back to the victims at hand.

Posted by Dahlia | Report as abusive
 

This is a very good article. It is time the US accepted that the Japanese scientists indeed are experts, and quite capable of handling even severe disasters. After all, USA was first to expose Japan to nuclear disaster, so the CNN hypocrisy and provocative attitude towards Japan is shameful. Please let Japan keep their pride and honour and recognize their efforts to deal with the horrible earthquake/tsunami-disasters. Provide help, not insults.

Posted by bhans | Report as abusive
 

Those who express such faith in engineering and in Japanese engineers especially, seem to have forgotten the recent Toyota recall. Or was that a lie to boost domestic production?

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
 

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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