Japan's nuclear reactor overreaction

By Phil Plait | March 14, 2011 4:49 pm

[UPDATE: Wow, minutes after I posted this, an explosion is being reported at the third reactor site. I mentioned in this post the third reactor was in trouble, so this may be another hydrogen combustion explosion as happened in the other two. I'll put more updates here as I find them.]

[UPDATE 2: The comments being posted below are contradictory, as I expected; news is coming quickly about the third explosion and speculation is flowing. I'll add that I freely admit things I wrote below may be in error; but they are based on what I've read and heard over the past few days. With news being as spotty as it is, that's inevitable. That's why I made the disclaimer I did in the post.]

[UPDATE 3: Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log has an excellent and calm discussion of what happened, including best and worst case scenarios.]

[UPDATE 4 (20:30 Mountain time): Yikes. The New York Times -- not generally known for breathless overreaction -- is reporting that the explosion from reactor 2 may have damaged the containment vessel of the nuclear core. The exact situation is still maddeningly unclear. Both best and worst case scenarios are being spun, but as usual I will wait for more information before drawing any conclusions. In the meantime, there may be evacuations of personnel from the plant. I hope that's not true; those people are the ones heroically working to keep this matter under control.]

[UPDATE 5 (March 15, 22:00 Mountain Time): I haven't updated today because until now not much news was coming out about the reactors, and some of the news I did see was clearly contradicted by other reports. However, The Associated Press is reporting that all the workers at the plant have been evacuated. This is bad news. Those people have been working heroically to keep things under control, despite some temporary but scary surges in radiation levels around the plant. The AP article itself has contradictory statements by experts -- one saying it's a matter of time now, and another saying there is minimal risk to the population. It was reporting like this that led me to write this article in the first place, and clearly some of the things on which I was basing my conclusions have changed. If there are any major developments, good or bad, I'll update here and most likely write a new post given what we've learned in the past few days.]

After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, things over there are very, very bad. The pictures and video of the devastation are incredible… and before I go any further I will note that science and engineering mitigated this disaster by orders of magnitude. The Japanese have prepared for this type of event for decades, and it’s paid off. At this time, the number of dead is in the thousands… not the hundreds of thousands. I will not downplay the tragedy and loss, but it could’ve been far worse.

Still, there are many problems. One of the biggest* is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which is facing a crisis with its reactors. While this situation is serious, let me be very clear: we are not facing a nuclear explosion, nor are we facing the release of a huge, deadly radioactive cloud (more on both of these below). The fear-mongering and misinformation on the web and in the news is rampant, and the last thing we need is people panicking because of it! The news is bad enough without exaggeration of it.

The best analysis I’ve seen so far is at Slate. An excellent summary is also on The Market Ticker. At reddit, a commenter gave a very short description, and Boing Boing also has a good piece. [Update: My friend Evelyn Mervine, who is a PhD candidate in geology, has a series of interview with her nuclear engineer father on her website.]

This situation is changing all the time, so please be aware that what I write here is based on what I’ve read in those articles, what I’ve seen in the news, and my own knowledge. With things being so fluid, caveat lector.

Here’s what happened: The plant has six reactors. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami severely damaged some of the reactors and hampered attempts to fix them. An explosion rocked the plant on Saturday, and another about a day later. These were not nuclear explosions! That is literally impossible from a fission reactor; the fuel is the wrong kind and doesn’t have sufficient quantities to explode like an atomic bomb. Instead, the explosions were due to hydrogen combustion, created when water came into contact with the extremely hot fuel cells. The cooling system was down, allowing the fuel cells to heat up. Hydrogen was released, and is extremely volatile. It volatilized.

The explosions destroyed the reactor buildings (basically an enclosure around the reactor itself to protect it from the elements), but far more importantly it appears the reactor housings are intact. Engineers are now using seawater to cool the reactors, which will ruin them for future use but should safely cool the fuel rods. This situation isn’t over yet (a third reactor is in trouble as well), but I’m cautiously optimistic this plant will be shut down safely. Ironically, it was two weeks from its scheduled 40 year decommissioning as it was.

That isn’t stopping the rampant speculation fueled by fear and ignorance of the real situation. For example, I’ve seen some people calling that blast a nuclear explosion, but it wasn’t. Again, it was hydrogen exploding when it reacted with air. A huge explosion, but not a nuclear one.

Far worse, in my opinion, is the person who created a map claiming to show the spread of a radiation cloud from fallout. This map is a fraud: totally fabricated and complete garbage. Snopes has the details. A nuclear reactor like this cannot release such a cloud of radioactivity; it’s physically impossible. People remember Chernobyl, of course, but the Japanese reactor is a very different design, and cannot explode the way the Ukranian reactor did in 1986.

Creating this kind of map is a horrible, horrible thing to do. I cannot abide fear-mongering in any form, but with the heightened fears of radiation coupled with the scale of the tragedy in Japan, this map is particularly disgusting.

Having said that, there are reports of some radioactive materials from the reactor having escaped. The amount of radioactivity is not negligible, but reports indicate that sailors on the deck (that is, open to the air) of a US ship a few miles at sea from the plant received an elevated radiation dose — about a month’s worth in an hour. That sounds alarming, but keep in mind the Apollo astronauts traveling through the Earth’s radiation belts received a dose ten times higher than that with no ill effects. The chances of any of this radiation making it to the US coast are essentially zero.

Again, I am not trying to downplay this. It’s serious. However, it’s not the doomsday a lot of people are playing it up to be.

This is a delicate thing to say, given we’re not through this crisis yet, but contrary to public opinion, nuclear power generation is actually vastly safer than other forms of energy production, including coal. As is pointed out at Skeptical Teacher, the world gets, on average, 5 times as much energy from burning coal as it does from nuclear power, but per kilowatt-hour coal burning has a death rate 4000 times higher than nuclear.

Karl Denninger, the author of the Market Ticker summary article, added this to his description:

The reality of our modern life is that we must have energy production if we intend to have a vibrant economy. All forms of energy production come with risk, whether it’s due to the risk of chemical exposure in various forms or radiation. When these systems operate normally they do not harm people, but industrial accidents happen, even without the forcing factor of Mother Nature coming into play.

That’s correct. I’m human, and I’m worried about this situation in Japan as well. But my fears are based on reality, and not the overblown rumors I keep seeing. People have an innate dread of radiation, leading them to think that nuclear power is more dangerous than, say, coal production. But that’s a fallacy.

It’s still too early, by a long shot, to know how this will play out, but in a sense this ironically shows how well those reactors were built. A huge earthquake and a devastating tsunami combined led to a (thus far) contained meltdown (which just means the fuel cells are melting — the dangerous radioactive materials are still contained in the reactor core and don’t escape into the environment). Layer after layer of procedures and protocols were in place for such an event, and apparently have worked as planned.

Of course, nothing is 100% safe. I’d love to see nuclear power plants built to withstand any reasonable disaster… just as I would for any power generation plant! But mind you, coal plants release more radiation than nuclear plants by a long shot, as an example, not to mention the disastrous environmental impact of burning it. How safe is that? Yet we use far more energy from coal than from nuclear plants.

We need to understand the realities of nuclear power: the advantages, the safety issues, and the danger based on the facts. What’s happening in Japan is truly awful, but in the long run we have to make sure we react to it reasonably, accounting for all those factors, and not letting our fears alone (especially magnified by misinformation) hold sway over us.

Image credits: US Navy, Snopes


* The biggest problem right now, in my opinion, is the millions of people without power or food in near-freezing weather. Please send what you can to help.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Debunking, Science

Comments (350)

  1. Excellent piece. Now if only the rolling news would read it.

  2. While things in Japan are worse than initial impressions gave on Friday, mostly simply because of slow-flowing information, it’s a plain fact that almost anywhere else in the world, this would be a calamity of vastly huger proportions. Nuclear plants or not.

    http://www.penmachine.com/2011/03/modern-japan-saved-lives

  3. Excellent, balanced piece, Phil. Well done. But….

    Pedant troll can’t help himself: “But that’s a fallacy”? NO! That’s a falsehood. These are not the same.

  4. frankenstein monster

    Of course, this is an overreaction. But that is completely irrelevant now. There were explosions, partial core meltdown and release of radioisotopes into the environment. No matter how those exaggerations are wrong, this is game over for any peaceful use of nuclear energy. Our species is simply too cowardly and stupid to be capable of using anything nuclear after such a scary event. The only thing nuclear we are going to have are nukes because each nuclear power is too afraid of not having them while the others have.

  5. Zach Singer

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Phil Plait for coming through when the mainstream media failed (as always) in the face of an actual crisis.

  6. sardonic_sob

    You might also add that the reactor buildings on most reactor complexes (I don’t specifically know this about the ones in question but I’d be stunned if it were not true) are *designed* to be easy to blow up (or rather, blow out) in the case of an overpressure, hydrogen explosion, etc. This is so that explosive force can easily escape rather than be directed against the actual containment vessel, which is a quite separate, unimaginably more massive and sturdy enclosure. Much like the frangible couplings that hold jet engines to the wings of airliners, it is specifically designed to be a failure point to minimize the possibility of a much less desirable failure mode.

    (Many people react with horror to the discovery that jet engines are *designed to fall off the wing* if certain Bad Things happen. However, when you find out that this is to prevent them from destroying the wing when they fail and removing the aircraft’s ability to generate lift, it makes perfect sense. Same principle.)

  7. I’ve been watching CNN during this whole thing. Any credibility that they once had has gone out the window with Wolf Blitzers Meltdown-gasms. It’s as if they want the worst to happen.

  8. Brian monson

    Thanks. I’ve already seen a petition drive to get the President to stop funding for new nuclear plant development. The IAEA official website also has excellent coverage if you’re looking for more data.

  9. sardonic_sob

    MichaelL: “It is difficult to make some people understand a certain thing when their financial interest is dependent on their not understanding it.”

    I doubt Wolf & Co. actively want the reactor to fail catastrophically, but if they really understood how remote that possibility is, they’d have no story.

  10. Marley

    I’ve wasted a lot of time typing exactly this, now I can just paste this URL. It will be ignored in the same way, but it will save me a lot of time. Thank you.

  11. KC

    Note:

    As the grim news unfolds in Japan, the Center for Inquiry’s SHARE (Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort) is stepping up to provide assistance to victims of the earthquake/tsunami disaster. Every dollar you give to SHARE will be sent directly to Doctors Without Borders, a wholly secular international organization.

    To donate see: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/share/

  12. Small correction real quick. You wrote “Ironically, it was two weeks from its scheduled 40 year decommissioning as it was.” That is not entirely accurate. Unit 1from the plant was initially scheduled for shutdown in early 2011. In February 2011, Japanese regulators granted an extension of ten years for the continued operation of the reactor. This is significant because in some countries (Germany for example) extensions are used to post-pone a transition to more ecological sources of energy.

  13. Matthew Hintzen

    I understand your scientific proposition, but I can’t help feeling there is a bit of apples to oranges comparison between nuclear and coal, both here and on the Slate article. Basically this is my question, you and Slate are basing your “danger” factor on past performance. And if past performance is a reliable number I would agree with you. (here comes my “but”) BUT, if the Human made backups and failsafes on modern day reactors all fail all the way thru, and we get molten slag over 2200 degrees, melting thru the bottom of the reactor and right on down; in a absolute worst case scenario, would the number of adversely affected organisms be greater then Coal and other power generation systems?

    I am assuming here that you being a Scientist and accepting that Humans made the backups and failsafes you would not be willing to give me 100% certainty under all circumstances that total system failure COULDN’T happen, the question I have to ask is past historical performance is not a good measure.

    It seems to me I need an estimatde number of dead (immediate and long term) and long term cost projections of dealing with the waste, clean up, both locally and on larger regional system generated by the plant, in the event of total catastrophic failure with complete and total meltdown.

    The concern I have with Nuclear power, not bringing into it the stored waste lying around the world that we don’t know what to do with, is that give me hard numbers for total and complete meltdown, and if that number is only slightly greater over 25 years the number of people affected world wide from coal and gas, then maybe I would consider it.

    You see the problem as I see it is that we have lots of oil blow outs, and we loose 2500 people and uncounted birds and fish, in catastrophic events like happened in the gulf recently, yes, but in the event of total nuclear plant failure what are my numbers looking like? 25,000, 250,000. So even if in long run it is safe for nuclear, in short run the impact would be SO much worse that it’s like comparing 6 minor recessions to 1 major depression.

    over all more money was lost in the 6 minor recessions, but the 1 Major depression is MUCH MUCH worse for everyone even if it only happens once and ultimately costs less.

    For your consideration.

  14. Sam H

    @frankenstein: I wouldn’t worry about ‘game over’ for nuclear power – Chernobyl was far worse than this, and Three Mile Island is still above on the hazard scale. Yet people have come to leave it behind, and while there may be protests here and there it won’t stop countries from creating more nuke plants. Nuclear power may never become totally widespread, but it will continue to grow. The main problem i have with it is that uranium is an unsustainable resource, and the costs of extraction, construction, maintenance and the final energy product are still too high. We’ll need big advancements in the technology before it becomes widespread at all.

    But COAL being RADIOACTIVE? WTH? :o
    This sounds interesting :)

  15. invicrow

    “Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor” you mean, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant?

  16. Randor

    Well said. It would be nice to track down the creator of that fallout map. It is definitely disgusting. People need to learn the difference between ‘probability’ and ‘possibility’. Yours was a great explanation of the situation.

  17. @#2:

    BS with a capital Bull%^@. While there will be those that screech and whine that these plants are a disaster of epic proportions, I have confidence that once everything has calmed down and people see that folks aren’t dropping like flies, cooler heads will prevail.

    These reactors have been running for 40 years and it took an 8.9 earthquake and 30 ft. wall of water to damage them in any meaningful way, and they’re still contained.

    Nuclear power certainly hasn’t died out since Chernobyl.

  18. doug baker

    As I understand the news and facts. The quake did little damage to the reactors, and the backup generators were working fine to cool the core for about an hour when the wave of water hit the area.

    so the engineering was great for the threat perceived. just not the one that happens next.

  19. Great post. There are some important new nuclear power technologies on the way, such as thorium. It would be tragic if overreaction to this disaster held them back.

  20. frankenstein monster

    Chernobyl was far worse than this

    It greatly amplified the anti-nuclear movement.
    And this is the final proof the hysterical cowards need that anything nuclear inevitably means meltdowns and radiation catastrophes…

  21. frankenstein monster

    The main problem i have with it is that uranium is an unsustainable resource

    the uranium and thorium dissolved in seawater is enough for millions of years. and is replenished by plate tectonics.

  22. Astrofiend

    Best analysis I’ve seen of the situation and worth a read:

    http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/13/fukushima-simple-explanation/

  23. Jonathan

    The map is not so outrageous. The possibility that the fuel rods might have caught fire after a loss of coolant is real, and that could have resulted in a large airborne release that affected North America. Fortunately, the risk recedes with time (a matter of days) if the reactor can be cooled in some way. But given how out of control things have been, that was not (and is still not) certain.

  24. Vince Pescado

    “A huge detonation, but not a nuclear one.”

    Nope. Hydrogen doesn’t detonate. Perhaps you meant conflagration?

  25. GingerPaul

    Thank-you for your great article. There’s finally a good page where I can send all this people in commercial fear to your brilliant piece. Once again thank-you for your information and I too wish the people of Japan all the best!

  26. Byron

    you lost me when you said nuclear power is safe.

  27. Joe

    Scary map or not, the reality is that if these reactors go into complete meltdown and the molten core melts through the containment, the amount of radiation leaked will be enormous and a large part of Northern Japan will be uninhabitable for a very long time.

  28. Archer

    @3 MichaelL: Of course they want the worst to happen. Its great for ratings!

  29. Godzirra Lives

    All of this banter is irrelevant until the nuclear crisis is over. The situation is still fluid, and I have it from a well trusted source that Godzirra has just left the sea and entered Tokyo. The government will have to assemble a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude to save the city…..

  30. Astrofiend

    OK my comment with link is awaiting moderation, so I’ll just say that Google ‘brave new climate’ and head to the first link. Then scroll down to find his “Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation” article. It is just about the best (and most thorough) analysis of the situation that I’ve seen.

    On another note, this just about kills any prospect of Nuclear power ever for Australia. There has been such an effective scare campaign running for years over here by the bong-smokers – this is their cherry on top.

  31. frankenstein monster

    I have confidence that once everything has calmed down and people see that folks aren’t dropping like flies, cooler heads will prevail.

    Neither at chernobyl people died by hundreds of thousands. Yet the information that the casualties were orders of magitude less than that did not stop the hysteria.
    Neither now will. BOOO! IT EXPLODED ! TEH CORES MELTED ! RADIATION CLOUD ! that is all they will think and that is all that matters for most of the people. Real damage compared to chernobyl, or the quake it self, is not important. they will not even notice while throwing hissy fits.

  32. Chief

    It perhaps should be noted that the Japanese who have a real history of radiation exposure use multiple reactors for the production of their electricity. They understand more than that of the average US citizen the benefits as well as the dangers, and have chosen to use the technology as the benefits over the dirty and expensive (over the long term) use of fossil based fuels to power the generators for electricity. Growing up with the understanding of the technology behind the Candu Reactors I would prefer this medium over the smoke stacks of coal and oil generators. Unfortunately hydroelectric (which is the best way to go for large output installations) has limited locations in North America for the location of the dams or “back” lake locations. I wish the voters wouldn’t just jump on a bandwagon to the yes/no decisions as a lot of the knee jerk reactions against the use of the atom as a lot of the information used to base yes/no is wrong or ballooned out of proportion to gain more support to the NO/yes side

  33. Zach Singer

    Hmm, I wonder what effect a thirty foot wall of water might have on deep water oil extraction, or a processing plant. or maybe the imact an 8.9 magnitude earthquake might have on an underwater oil pipeline. Energy production is risky no matter how you do it.

    I agree with Phil, this shows that the preparations the Japanese have been making over the last thirty years were necessary, and have performed admirably. But as in any disaster the nays will ride the tide as long as the wave will hold them in an effort to squash logic and reason. All told this could have been much worse, I honestly don’t think the situation could have turned out better.

    However, regardless of the fact that this is the result of a natural disaster, I’m sure we’ll find someone to blame for it.

  34. frankenstein monster

    On another note, this just about kills any prospect of Nuclear power ever for Australia. There has been such an effective scare campaign running for years over here by the bong-smokers – this is their cherry on top.

    That is what I mean. It is already happening. and that is going to happen in every democratic country in the whole world.

  35. Tim B

    Good article and overall I agree that there has been a lot of sensationalism and scaremongering in the media. I do take issue with your statement that “procedures and protocols … apparently have worked as planned”. Blatantly there have been failures. When the grid power failed, so did the diesel backup generators and their battery backups were designed only to give 8 hours power. My understanding is this lack of electrical power led to the loss of cooling in the reactors and subsequent explosions. A severe earthquake followed by a tsunami leading to a blackout could have been anticipated and the backup systems should have been more robust. Cooling failing on a reactor is one of the most serious possible problems and systems should have been in place to prevent this at all costs. These systems on this occasion did fail.

  36. Jenna

    Thanks for clearing that up!

  37. Grantman

    Experts have termed the use of seawater to cool the reactor as a “Hail Mary Pass”. If it doesn’t work melt down is very possible. If the core melts, and another Hydrogen explosion occurs the radioactive material will be widely dispersed. It’s a bit too close to doomsday for me.

  38. James

    Some of the comments on this board are bizarre. Do you know how many lifetimes Chernobyl and surrounding areas are ‘out of bounds’ for?

    How about some proper R&D into alternative energy sources?

  39. Paul(_DC2010)

    Nice balanced Article there Phil!!

  40. I’m so glad to see this article. I work for a science center and we’re all worried that this incident will hamper further development of nuclear power. The focus right now should be on helping out the people who are now without homes and livelihoods, not arguing over a non-issue like whether the US should put a hold on building reactors as some politicians would prefer – so they can get more out of their coal and petroleum holdings.

  41. dglas

    So, what, then, is Phil’s take on Michio Kaku’s commentary on the situation?

  42. Aaron

    It is being reported by some online that Reactor #3 contains Mox fuel rods. If this is the case what differences are there in relation to a possible meltdown? Thanks for the article and for getting people to think for themselves and do a litte research rather than just digest what is spoon fed to them. Peace

  43. bill stouffer

    While it is nice that you debunk some of the crazy concerns, the map especially, these are essentially straw men. No one serious is arguing that that a nuclear explosion is likely. However, there is more to worry about than you suggest. Take, for example, the NYT headliner article for most of the day:

    “Operators fear that if they cannot establish control, despite increasingly desperate measures to do so, the reactors could experience full meltdowns, which could release catastrophic amounts of radiation. The two reactors where the explosions occurred are both presumed to have already suffered partial meltdowns — a dangerous situation that, if unchecked, could lead to full meltdowns.”

    “…a nuclear safety expert formerly at the Research Center for Urban Safety and Security at Kobe University, said emergencies at multiple reactors in close proximity posed particular risks. “If an incident were to happen at one reactor that released high amounts radiation, the whole area would become unapproachable,” Mr. Ishibashi said. “Then the other reactors would have to be abandoned, and left to run their disastrous course.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15nuclear.html?hp=&pagewanted=all

    Now, if there is something foolish about these concerns, please do point it out.

    Further, there are a lot a bland pronouncements that we shouldn’t worry because the engineering is so good. For example, this typical boilerplate from the BBC today:

    “Experts say a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl in the 1980s is highly unlikely because the reactors are built to a higher standard and have much more rigorous safety measures.”

    Not reassuring, given the types of events outlined in that article and more pointedly in the NYT article above. And for some context, remember the long well documented history of expert lies about nuclear power and safety. Too cheap to meter?

    Part of the problem with your piece is that you have allowed your deep commitment to nuclear power as a future energy solution to become a lens that selectively downplays real concerns being raised about the current situation, and ignores the discontinuity between the bland reassurances of industry flacks and how out of control the situation has been getting at the plant. Again from the NYT:

    “They’re basically in a full-scale panic” among Japanese power industry managers, said a senior nuclear industry executive. The executive is not involved in managing the response to the reactors’ difficulties but has many contacts in Japan. “They’re in total disarray, they don’t know what to do.”

    There does seem to be cause for alarm.

  44. ChazInMT

    I work in the Nuke industry, and was a Navy trained plant operator on Subs Wayyyyy back in the 80′s. So I have been following this with intense interest and have been posting comments on news reports where I can to try and battle ignorance where I can. It is amazing the lack of even the basic understanding most people appear to have regarding all this. Once you understand it, it is certainly not anything people crack it up to be.

    The other astounding element in all this, is that people seem to believe the only sources of radiation come from Nuke plants…..Nobody appears to get the fact that every day of their lives, since the moment they were conceived, they have been bathed in radiation to the tune of 200 mrem per year. Me working in a Nuke plant, I received about 1,200mrem last year occupationally. I’m only allowed 2,000 mrem. So 200 is really a pretty hefty amount.

    Re: Uranium fuel…….80% of the uranium is still viable in the spent fuel we have sitting idly by at each of the nuclear plant sites around the country. I think we could easily go another 75 years or more on just what is sitting around if we were allowed to reprocess it. But we aren’t, so there it sits, in 50 odd places all around the country, usually in nothing more than a swimming pool covered by a regular old building. If someone wanted to pick a reason to be pissed about something, there you have it.

  45. Fingers McGee

    @frankenstein
    The uranium and thorium you’re talking about is extremely expensive to harvest by comparison to mining it and then chemically processing it.
    Also before you dismiss the future of nuclear power don’t forget about the work being done at ITER. We may have a workable fusion reactor within the next 10-15 years or so and that will be the death knell for nuclear fission plants if the new model tokamak reactors are actually feasible.

    Also I agree with the comment immediately above.

  46. christopher poole

    This article (criticizing overstatements of the matter at hand) is blatantly understating the matter at hand. “Engineers are now using seawater to cool the reactors, which will ruin them for future use but should safely cool the fuel rods.” This method was never safely cooling them. The rods were exposed multiple times and there are several irradiated people and areas. How is that safe at all? NHK and several other reputable sources have reported that this is no longer safely cooling them. “A nuclear reactor like this cannot release such a cloud of radioactivity; it’s physically impossible.” Hey look an exaggeration in a piece about overstatements. “Again, I am not trying to downplay this.” You are, stop it.
    This is a serious situation and its no where near over.

  47. Mycroft

    Unfortunately, in a rush to make your point, you have made some errors:

    1) The plant was not going to be shut down. The #1 reactor, in particular, had just recently had its license renewed for another 10 years.

    2) While it’s not possible for these reactors to explode *exactly* the way Chernobyl did, it’s still quite possible for them to explode and launch a cloud of radioactive goop into the atmosphere in the case of a full meltdown. This is possible because corium will react with the concrete platform of the building and release CO2 very rapidly, and will boil water and create steam very rapidly. If the reactor vessel(s) are breached, both of these problems are extremely likely. And this is ignoring the possibility of corium leaking into the ocean.

    3) It’s nice that sailors “a few miles” away only received a “small” dose, but what does this say about conditions nearer the plant? The reality is that it’s spewing radioactive steam, mixed with heavier fission byproducts, at a substantial rate. Already far more radiation has been released than at TMI. Exactly how much, we’ll have to learn later. Most likely, every worker at the plant is going to die of radiation exposure.

    You’re also pulling a sly trick when you compare safety versus coal plants. Yes, we’re all aware of mining accidents and slurry spills—as well as oil refinery explosions and drilling accidents. However, both wind and solar are far safer than any fossil fuel burning or nuclear. Reducing conspicuous consumption is, of course, even safer.

  48. jennifer lewis

    Your Comment…. (a third reactor is in trouble as well) but I’m cautiously optimistic this plant will be shut down safely

    Well that was wrong!! It blew up

  49. @dglas: Kaku is a crank pure and simple. He may be a good theoretical physicist, but he ought to be ignored on everything else.

  50. He is right on, save the minor correction regarding Japanese NRC granting extension to No. 1 reactor. Sam H is clearly not a geophysicist nor a chemist. Of course coal is radioactive! Did you sleep through science class?! “WTH?” indeed! Go find an average brick building…hold up a Geiger counter next to the wall. What happens? click click click click…much higher than background rate of “clicking”. Coal has two strikes against it. It’s from the ground (most rocks are slightly radioactive, relative to the background count) and coal is carbon, which has a naturally occurring isotope, C13. We all breathe in and otherwise consume from our food C13 at a pretty regular pace. Any of that Carbon 13 dating stuff coming back from your Anthropology classes? The increase in CO2 from fossil fuels has contributed to a steady increase in the background amount of C13 present, so we are absorbing C13 at much higher rate than our ancestors. The more coal we burn, the more C13 and the higher the average lifetime radiation exposure becomes. This absolutely has health consequences, but they would be difficult, if not impossible to quantify.

    Even if a containment vessel is breached, the release of radiation into the environment will be much smaller than Chernobyl, where there was no containment building. At Chernobyl there was a big explosion INSIDE the pile (not the same as a core, but close enough for our purposes), and a long burning graphite fire that was pumping radioactive isotopes, created after decades of operation, into the atmosphere. This went on for days and days (weeks?). In fact, there were “chunks” of nuclear fuel strewn all over the surrounding area up to 300 meters away. Big blast. Shortly, we will know the extent to which radiation has been released, but I suspect it will be quite small. Assuming we do not have a catastrophic containment breach, this event should demonstrate that the engineering designs are suitable for safe power generation, even under the most extreme conditions yet experienced. The gas explosions, while not welcome, are expected…to the extent they are just gas explosions and not a pressure vessel failure.

  51. Tommy Primera

    The government of the United States and the BadAstronomer have confirmed that no one in the United States should take precautions against radiation poisoning. The exploding nuclear reactors in Japan will not throw enough radiation into the jet stream to affect Americans.

  52. Missy

    Thank you so much for this post. I have avoided much of the news since they have the nasty habit of sensationalizing everything to strike fear into you. I always trust your posts since you come from reality instead :) .

  53. Utakata

    I am probably one of the very *few on the hard, hard left that feel nuclear power is safer, cleaner and better than the alternatives of coal and hydro electic. Wind power may have potential, but as any bird and bat can tell you it’s got it’s issues.

    That all being said, I am still greatly concerned over Fukushima Daiichi going toast. I really hope the only meltdown is big medias’ dissappointment that nothing bad, thus newsworthy had happen. Only time will tell. I’ll keep my fingers crossed though.

    *Note: feels a big tar and feathering inement from my comrads incoming. :(

  54. Don’t forget bananas. They contain radioactive potassium-40. Details at Wikipedia. Sample: “Bananas are radioactive enough to regularly cause false alarms on radiation sensors used to detect possible illegal smuggling of nuclear material at US ports.”

  55. corhen

    thanks for this article, my dad has been talking non-stop for the last couple days, im glad to link this article to him so i can get him to stop talking!

  56. Chuck P.

    Well said Phil. I’ve seen this conclusion stated more firmly in the following way; “Nuclear energy need not be perfect to be better than anything else, it simply needs to be better. Happily, it is.”

  57. RAmen Dr. Plait, RAmen.

  58. Astrofiend

    @ bill stouffer

    There has been a tremendous amount of misinformation in almost all of the mainstream press. Even if the reactor goes into full meltdown and melts through its primary containment, there is STILL another level of containment that is designed to catch the nuclear material, disperse it, let it cool, and contain it indefinitely – specifically designed to cater for a full core meltdown. I suggest you read the article that I linked to earlier (comment 22).

  59. George William Herbert

    Just for the record…

    I understand reactor physics and failure mechanisms, and the mechanism for the hydrogen explosions. I know that a hydrogen FAE in the upper building doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the reactor containment structure below that, and has nothing to do with radiation / radioactive materials, etc.

    With that said, these are very big chemical explosions.

    The buildings are (measured from Google Earth) 50m square, and the top 20m of the building is the part that we’re talking about. About 50,000 cubic meters.

    The minimum amount of explosion energy corresponds to the lower explosive limit of hydrogen gas in air – 3%. That’s 1,500 cubic meters of H2 gas. At STP, that’s 133 kilos of Hydrogen, with 141 megajoules/kilogram heat of combustion. It works out to 18,700 Mj, or TNT equivalent of 4,465 kg.

    That’s 4.5 tons of TNT equivalent.

    And that’s at the lower explosion limit – energy generation would be maximized at 28% H2 concentration, with a yield around 41 tons TNT equivalent.

    I don’t know what the actual energy was in any of these blasts; I don’ tknow if there’s any easy way to tell, if there were any instruments to measure percentage, etc. But it’s somewhere in that order of magnitude bound, which is a lot of energy.

    I understand that venting the core in a major incident is necessary – that said, I think that this incident is demonstrating why a vent system venting somewhere else other than into the enclosed building around the reactor itself would be a good idea. The explosion energy in question is significant, and could well damage something else important (though I don’t assert it necessarily has here). It should at least be be moved away from the important radioactive parts and parts with people managing the situation.

  60. Michael Leuchtenburg

    If you haven’t already, read this. https://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

    It discusses the many, many safety features of this nuclear plant (and others) and why, even in the case of a complete meltdown, a large radiation release won’t happen. It also discusses the fact that this nuclear reactor, at least, *was* designed to withstand any reasonable natural disaster – up to an 8.2 earthquake! It took this unreasonable one to cause it to have even this failure, which will ultimately, while expensive, be completely contained.

  61. Zach Singer

    @ChazInMT

    Would it be possible to generate small amounts of electricity as a side effect of cooling this “spent” fuel? I mean it is still putting out heat right? And that heat must be mitigated, if you aren’t really concerned with getting maximum efficiency out of this “spent” fuel, couldn’t you still get minimal energy by channeling the steam from the cooling tanks?

    Also: Why can’t we reprocess it? Does doing so make this residual fissile material into weapons grade material?

    Lastly: I concur, my grandfather was a veteran of the Manhattan project and a member of the IPPu club (I Piss Plutonium). He lived to the ripe age of 85 and he was literally radioactive for a large portion of his life.

  62. Tara

    Thanks so much for explaining the situation to people. I’m currently living in Kitakami city in Iwate prefecture and may friends and family back home (Canada) are freaking out (understandably), but all the news reports that are guessing and exaggerating aren’t helping the situation. Again Thanks.

  63. Sara

    Thanks Phil for putting this out there! The news reports have really blown the nuclear aspect out of proportion. Keep fighting the good fight!

  64. @46: I’m glad someone said it. Kaku has bugged me for a long time now.

  65. Michelle R

    @Jon: …You’re just TRYING to get me to stop eating that banana, right?

    Anyway, thanks for the return to reality, BA. There’s really a lot of overreaction, and I fear this will give nuclear energy a bad vibe. Really, what would Japan produce electricity with anyway? Coal? That’d be worse!

    Of course accidents happen but unfortunately that’s expected with anything… Especially when you’re on the ring of fire.

  66. Mycroft

    @GWH: I can’t verify this, but I’ve seen claims that, after TMI, North American reactor buildings were retrofitted with hydrogen ignition systems to prevent a buildup and explosion like the ones at Fukushima Daiichi. Certainly both the EPR and AP1000 (the latest PWR designs) include such a feature—the advertising materials for both make a big deal of their improved safety systems.

  67. E. Dexter

    I have no scientific credentials on the nuclear stuff, I’m a geologist by trade – but am the son of a nuclear engineer, and have been interested in the science since I was small. A few tidbits to add to this interesting discussion:
    - A breached vessel containment (or two, or three!) would be very messy, but not quite as severe as Chernobyl, I would think. That RMK reactor was large, and was made of graphite bricks, like some of our bomb-making and research reactors (including the first reactor they made at the U of Chicago). Graphite is a mineral that is made nearly entirely of carbon, and burns REALLY WELL if you get it hot enough and let oxygen in. Naturally the plume of smoke took the radioactive materials with it. Also, the thing was just in a concrete industrial building, not a stainless steel shell, as I understand it. (If you want to read about other graphite reactor problems, look up the fire at the Windscale plant in England).
    - Yup, coal often has a little bit of radioactive material in it. Just naturally occuring uranium and thorium mostly, deposited with other minerals when the stuff was a swamp back in the Caboniferous or whenever it was laid down. When you burn the coal, tho, you concentrate the residual metals by a factor of 5 to 10 (because you’ve taken out all the organic matrix that made up the bulk of the coal by converting it to CO2). So there is no more than there was to start with, but it is less dilute. Not a huge risk, but something to be aware of.
    - There are now reactors designed to operate largely without pumps, relying on natural circulation. These are used in the latest nuclear subs, so they can be even quieter by not running pumps except at max power. Not sure that that will matter, based on the public examination of the issue that is likely to follow this disaster.

  68. pauls

    Yes, chances of a nuclear explosion are nil, but as I understand it, right now steam generated by direct contact with partially melted fuel in reactors #1 and #3 is being released directly into the atmosphere. Today’s news is that reactor core #2 was exposed to air for about 140 minutes, i.e. it was NOT cooled at all for more than two hours. This reactor will join #1 and #3 as a third source of dirty steam generated from direct contact of seawater with a partially melted core.

    As you should know, the radioactive isotopes in this steam are NOT the relatively benign tritium released in the hydrogen explosions. Instead the steam contains many of the same long-lived biologically active isotopes that poisoned the land downwind of Chernobyl making it uninhabitable.

    So, IF the radiation exposures are really as limited as claimed by parties who have an interest in preventing panic and just plain covering their asses — an assumption I DON’T make given past veracity of the nuclear industry — it will only have been because the prevailing winds carried the steam out to sea and not inland.

    Let’s all hope that over the next week or so the winds don’t change.

  69. frankenstein monster

    The uranium and thorium you’re talking about is extremely expensive to harvest by comparison to mining it and then chemically processing it.

    the fuel cost is only a small part of the final electricity cost of a nuclear power plant, so even at 10x fuel cost it would be still capable of delivering electricity at a reasonable cost.

  70. Mycroft

    @pauls: Over the next week? This is a problematic assumption made by many people. The fact is, even with a fully functioning cooling system (which TMI had the benefit of), it takes more than a month to fully shut down a large reactor. With this improvised, “stick it in a pot of water and try to refill it fast enough” cooling system, we don’t actually have any idea how long it will take, but it’s a pretty certain bet that it will be even longer. This problem is not going away in a week.

    Meanwhile, the plant will continue spewing radioactive steam because, well, they have no other choice. The most important thing to do at this point to improve the likely outcome is to add redundancy to the seawater pumping so that the fuel rods do not get exposed again and degrade further. This has very obviously not been done yet. Unfortunately, given the probable level of radiation inside the reactor building, this may require someone “taking one for the team.”

  71. Molly

    Thank you. I don’t know much about nuclear reactors and the news has been truly scary. Knowledge is power and I feel (with respect for the horrible situation) better. One fear dealt with…

  72. Zernie

    One thing that I haven’t seen discussed here is that part of the problem is due to a pre-Chernobyl design flaw in the Fukushima reactors. The problem is that the cooling system requires power to continue functioning. As an additional safety feature, modern plants use a gravity-fed cooling system, and there’s at least one design I know of that includes an additional enormous tank of water suspended above the containment vessel for situations like this.

    Source: http://www.boingboing.net/2011/03/12/nuclear-energy-insid.html (and the nuclear engineer who broke my heart, but that’s another story)

    So? The problems currently affecting the Fukushima reactors could not happen to any reactor designed after Chernobyl. And, if we’re going to use the current crisis to debate the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, we should keep that in mind.

  73. As Tim B (35) says, some systems failed, or rather, were not really designed for the contingencies that actually happened. This will make nuclear power more expensive in the future, at least in earthquake zones. They tend to be built by the sea, as a ready source of (tertiary) cooling water, so clearly there’s an issue there.

    So it might be that nuclear power, which has always been economically marginal (once people began to grasp decommissioning costs), may just be abandoned because it’s impossible to make a profit on it.

  74. I just heard someone from the Union of Concerned Scientists state on MSNBC (Lawrence O’Donnell’s show) that *any* exposure to radiation was harmful, and that we (i.e., Americans) should be angry with the Japanese for running their reactors in a way that could cause us any such exposure! He was responding to a statement from someone in the Bush administration allaying fears of exposure for Americans.

    Is that a responsible statement coming from the UCS? I was surprised.

  75. Bob Dole

    My sympathies to Japan. They have aa long hard battle to fight to keep the reactors from further damage.

    But the damage will cause reverse Godzillas!

  76. sardonic_sob

    Grantman:

    Experts in what, exactly?

    Obviously not nuclear engineering, because nobody who actually understood how these reactors are built would say those things, being’s they’re absolutely not true.

    James:

    These reactors literally cannot experience a Chernobyl style event. Can’t. Physically oomposible. Therefore comparisons to Chernobyl are inflammatory nonsense. And, in any event, unless by “out of bounds area” you mean a relatively small area which is dangerous to enter for extended periods, the answer is, “none, unless you are counting in, say, rabbit lifetimes.”

  77. Elmar_M

    To me the issue is simple as that. If you believe in human aggravated global warming, you have to support nuclear power. If you dont, you can keep burning coal and oil nd whatever you feel like burning and believe that god will fix things for you.
    So far nobody has been killed by the nuclear reactors in Japan. In fact people in there were probably saver than those in the surrounding areas, where thousands were killed by the earthquake and Tsunami.

  78. sardonic_sob

    Mr. Herbert:

    Your calculation seems to assume that the hydrogen would be homogeneously dispersed throughout the enclosed volume. Since hydrogen is much, much lighter than air, it would immediately begin to be displaced to the highest point in the enclosure and start to accumulate there until something ignited it. I’m no expert on the matter, but it seems quite possible that the accumulated hydrogen would ignite long before it displaced a significant portion of the air inside the building. If that were the case, the minimum explosive force could be far less than your estimate of 4.5T TNT equivalent, because far less hydrogen would have accumulated before ignition.

    In any event, the reactor buildings are (usually, can’t swear to these but would be very surprised if not) designed not to withstand any significant interior overpressure. Most of the force of the blast would have been directed outward as the walls blew out, minimizing the effect on the reactor containment vessel. The blast would also have been dispersed, as opposed to a point source, further minimizing the stress on any given point of the vessel’s exterior. There’s no denying that extremely energetic reactions are occurring, but the impact on the containment vessel is much less than one might first suppose.

  79. Eamon

    Thanks for turning your sceptical eye to this subject Phil – the family and I live about 100 km northwest of the Daiichi plant and appreciate the reality-based approach you’re taking.

    The latest report here is that 8000 microSieverts are being released per hour from the 3rd reactor. That’s 0.008 Sieverts. Reality check: you need an absorbed dose of around 1 Sievert to cause nausea.

  80. frankrip

    When these reactors were designed and placed, did no one realize they were in a tsunami inundation zone? The fact that they are in a highly seismic area is bad enough! Then and still now, the weakness of nuclear power, and I am pro nuclear, is that politics and faulty human thinking are involved.

    I also think that we in the US are too concerned about how things are going to impact us, and lose sight of the fact that even a moderate release of radioactive material could leave a large area in Fukushima uninhabitable.

  81. Right!

    As Frankies monster said, the shame for Australia is that this incident has given new legs to the anti-nuclear movement. The differences in the geology between Australia and Japan couldn’t be any different. Australia is a geologically stable continent and not located on the edge of an extremely active subduction zone. This incident doesn’t show the dangers of nuclear power but the stupidity of building them in a known earthquake and tsunami zone.

  82. Right!

    As Frankies monster said, the shame for Australia is that this incident has given new legs to the anti-nuclear movement. The differences in the geology between Australia and Japan couldn’t be any different. Australia is a geologically stable continent and not located on the edge of an extremely active subduction zone. This incident doesn’t show the dangers of nuclear power but the stupidity of building them in a known earthquake and tsunami zone.

  83. Elmar_M

    Currently the radiactivity levels per hour at the plant equal an average CT- Scan. So they are not really bad and they are, AFAIK mostly very short lived isotopes that will decay within seconds. So the levels will fall very quickly once the situation has normalized.
    The temperatures at the reactors are falling inverse exponentially. So while it can take a very long time for them to cool down completely, it will take only days for them to reach non critical temperatures. Right now every hour is a victory.

  84. Mycroft

    @Elmar_M: Actually, TEPCO issued a press release that one of the workers died of radiation sickness, and two more are known to be hospitalized. And that’s not counting the 6 injured or dead in the second explosion, or the one killed by a steam vent at another plant (Onagawa, I think?). So it’s definitely not accurate to say “nobody has been killed by the nuclear reactors in Japan.”

    Also, it’s frankly a disingenuous comment. It’s well known that there’s a long tail on radiation-related problems, and upfront deaths are only part of the concern.

  85. DLC

    I keep waiting for the talking heads on the news to yell “Oh! Gorjira! ” and run for it.
    Thanks for keeping a cool head, Phil. more such are needed.

  86. John

    Seems to me that a simple gravity tank could have saved the day.

    Oh and a practice drill to ensure that electrical connections were compatible with emergency mobile backup generators.

  87. I think, based on the two correction/updates posted here, that this post, like the news stories it intends to deflate, suffer the same GIGO defect. At minimum it can be said the containment buildings for the reactors failed to maintain their structural integrity. If the opposite were true, the operators would not now be intentionally releasing radioactive gasses and steam into the atmosphere; which is certainly not a ‘standard’ practice. From my reading of the aftermath of Chernobyl perhaps the most insidious effect is the release of radioactive iodine, which is concentrated into the thyroid and leads to thyroid cancer, especially in children, and other dysfunctions of that gland.

    Since the reactors are not in any way ‘under control’ at this point, it seems premature to even be drawing any broad conclusions since the airborne toxic event is still ongoing. Exposure is additive and cumulative, so you gotta factor that in as well. Ain’t over til it’s over.

  88. Scotty

    I’d like to add that I’ve read “misinformation on the web and in the news” from both sides of the nuclear issue, many of the supporters of nuclear energy being just as biased and close-minded in their support as the fear-mongers are in their opposition. Unfortunately, although I love your website usually, I think you’re jumping too quickly on the pro-nuclear bandwagon yourself. Living on the west coast of North America, I don’t want to have to come to your house this spring, with a bucket of irradiated beach sand to dump in your vegetable garden just to prove you wrong. From what I’ve seen so far, this situation is nowhere near as in control as the authorities have led people to believe; thus the risk of a nuclear disaster has not yet been overruled, and as you’ve noted the situation is constantly changing. I think it’s much too early to make your pro-reactor judgments just to appear “level-headed”.
    I think the “potential” of nuclear fission and fusion is incredible and worth exploring. If one day we find a way to safely deal with all that spent nuclear waste, then great, let’s go for it. In the meantime, we currently have tons of hazardous waste to monitor now for many thousands of years, and I’m sure future generations will consider that a highly unethical thing and extremely selfish on our part. It was just criminal to develop the technology in the first place without adequately dealing with its consequences – but that’s capitalism for ya. Because of its hazardous waste and potential for extreme accidents, nuclear power cannot be called safe by any sane person, and despite the world jumping to build reactors, you’re just as wrong to promote it at this point, and just as liable for all those hurt or killed in this current emergency.

  89. One thing to keep in mind is that most nuclear power plants are OLD the Japanese plants included. The number 1 unit was build before astronauts walked on the moon, when airlines still had some piston driven aircraft in front line passenger service and a computer required an entire room. One of the reactors had reached the end of its design lifetime and had recently had its license to operate extended.

    With modern technology I’m sure we can build safer, more reliable nuclear power plants and take some of these dinosaurs out of service. If you were in a highway accident in a 1968 Ford Fairlane you would come out a lot worse than if you were in a 2010 Ford Taurus. I believe the same would be true for nuclear power plants and earthquakes.

  90. Jeremy H

    A question, if anyone can straighten me out:

    Why is there any risk of meltdown at all? Haven’t control rods been inserted? If not, why not? If so, how can there be risk of an uncontrolled reaction?

  91. Robert M

    It’s even worse than that. It’s a catastrophic failure of “defense in depth”. Because **ALL** of the defense systems had a single point of failure – external power.

    A boiling-water nuke is a Boiler. It has steam pressure which is harnessable energy. That SHOULD be used for basic boiler management, i.e. feedwater pumps. We have 300 years experience building boilers. In 1858, a guy invented a simple pump design called an “injector” which uses the pressure of boiler steam itself to inject feedwater into the pressurized boiler. No moving parts. Just Bernoulli’s Principle. It works and has been a mainstay of steam locomotive operation to this day.

    The whole point is, you have the essential boiler maintenance functions powered by the boiler’s steam, BECAUSE, it’s there when you need it. Every boiler should be able to sustain itself on only its own steam. Otherwise you fail boilermaking forever.

  92. réalta fuar

    First of all, the Japanese record of running their reactors isn’t significantly better than that of the U.S. or France. They’ve had fatal accidents, and some of those fatalities were from radiation poisoning. The firm running the damaged reactors has had some of those accidents and has a documented history of doing coverups. The scale of this disaster is very bad, certainly the second worst in the history of nuclear power. It’s NOT Chernobyl and won’t be, since these reactor cores can’t burn like at Chernobyl. It’s likely to be many times worse than Three Mile Island though since there are 3 reactors that seem likely to have their cores at least partially melted. There’s already been more radiation released that at TMI and that’s certainly going to get worse, perhaps by orders of magnitude if the containment vessels are breached.
    The economic cost of the clean-up is going to be very high, probably several times the value of all the power produced during the history of these reactors.
    A little math relative to nuclear power in the States (courtesy of physicist Greg Benford):
    about 20% of the electricity produced there is from nuclea power, with just over 1oo reactors.
    If consumption were to stay the same, which of course it won’t, that means 400 more would be needed to raise that to 100%. Build one a month and that’s about 33 years (not counting those that are decommissioned in the process). It’s not clear that the U.S. has EVER built nuclear power plants at that rate, and it’s very clear they’re never going to do so again. (and this simple calculation doesn’t factor in the EXPENSE of the reactors, which is very high (and it’s not liability insurance that accounts for that, they’re just labor and capital intensive, always have been). ) Wind and solar thermal seem to be less expensive at this moment in time, and are going to get more economical while that’s never going to happen for nuclear (yes, regardless of what fancy modern design you chose, as any of those need perhaps a decade of R&D before they go into commercial production).Realistically, about the “best” the U.S. could hope for is to more or less maintain the 20% generation rate they have now. The Obama administration is simply trying to cover all bets and win some political capital by throwing some funds at the nuclear industry. Steve Chu is VERY smart and can do these kinds of calcs as well as anyone. The REAL money is being spent on truly green, alternative energy sources for a sustainable future.

  93. Mycroft

    @Jeremy: Meltdown is not caused by an uncontrolled reaction, it’s caused by overheating and physical melting of the fuel rods. This happens because it takes a long time for the nuclear chain reaction to stop, even after the mass has been made subcritical by insertion of the control rods. There are still a lot of neutrons flying around. 4 days into shutdown, the reactor will still be producing more than 80% of the heat it was generating when fully running.

    Meltdown is particularly problematic because it can make cooling of the mass very difficult or impossible, allowing it to melt through the bottom (or possible side) of the reactor vessel, spilling onto the concrete floor, which will furiously degrade, releasing CO2, silicates, etc. In the worst case, this could cause a rupture of the tertiary containment.

    Meltdown also damages the control rods, and can lead to a further elevation in the criticality, generating even more radiation and heat.

  94. Jeremy H

    @Mycroft

    So it’s purely a residual reaction/heat thing? Fair enough, thanks!

  95. George William Herbert

    Sardonic bob writes:
    Your calculation seems to assume that the hydrogen would be homogeneously dispersed throughout the enclosed volume. Since hydrogen is much, much lighter than air, it would immediately begin to be displaced to the highest point in the enclosure and start to accumulate there until something ignited it. I’m no expert on the matter, but it seems quite possible that the accumulated hydrogen would ignite long before it displaced a significant portion of the air inside the building. If that were the case, the minimum explosive force could be far less than your estimate of 4.5T TNT equivalent, because far less hydrogen would have accumulated before ignition.

    Gas is not like a bunch of little balloons; gases of different densities happily intermingle and diffuse into each other. Normal air is 78% nitrogen at 1.25 g/liter, 21% oxygen at 1.43 g/liter, 1% argon at 1.78 g/liter, 0.04% carbon dioxide at 1.98 g/liter.

    Hydrogen mixing with air in quantities up to medium sized balloons full (tens of cubic meters) diffuses and does not separate due to density, including in stacks which are 20 or more meters tall. I can’t conclusively state from experiment that it won’t do that in a 50x50x20m building, but nothing I know about it indicates to me it would do so.

    In any event, the reactor buildings are (usually, can’t swear to these but would be very surprised if not) designed not to withstand any significant interior overpressure. Most of the force of the blast would have been directed outward as the walls blew out, minimizing the effect on the reactor containment vessel. The blast would also have been dispersed, as opposed to a point source, further minimizing the stress on any given point of the vessel’s exterior. There’s no denying that extremely energetic reactions are occurring, but the impact on the containment vessel is much less than one might first suppose.

    That’s correct. The mechanical building on top of the main reactor containment is metal framed and thin sheet metal covered. Having it be able to “blow off” is an intentional design point.

    My concern isn’t with that; it’s with having that level of explosive energy in contact with the top of the containment at all. Yes, most of the energy goes up and out, but for a period of time that is approximated by (distance from point on containment top to nearest roof/wall)/(speed of sound) during the explosion the containment will be subjected to hundreds of PSI pressure. It takes time for the pressure drop at the edge of the explosion to propogate back into the cloud and lower internal pressures.

    For the middle of the containment (right where the reactor is) the closest pressure relief is straight up, and 20 m away, so that’s about 20/330 = 60 milliseconds. That’s moving out of brief and impulsive into overload/overpressure range.

  96. Chris Goodson

    @60 That site is woefully out of date. It talks about pumping in sea water as something that was regrettable, but necessary to solve the problem. Since then, we’ve learned that the seawater hasn’t been covering the fuel in at least one reactor, that the pressure is making it difficult to pump in with firefighting equipment, and that they really don’t know if it’s working because their sensors in the reactors are aren’t working well. I agree we should fight the rumormongering, but it’s looking more serious with every bit of solid news we get.

  97. frankenstein monster

    producing more than 80% of the heat it was generating when fully running.

    [citation needed]

  98. Mycroft

    @Jeremy: “Residual” is sort of the wrong way to look at it. We’re pretty much talking about the very definition of critical vs. subcritical. When a reaction is critical, it’s self-sustaining and will only cool down when the the fuel is used up (causing it to go subcritical). Inserting the control rods makes the reaction subcritical, but that doesn’t mean it immediately stops. To coin a phrase: you can’t stop a nuclear reactor on a dime.

    However, most, but not all, of the energy released at this point will be from the further decay of unstable isotopes caused by earlier fission of the fuel, because the primary reaction of fissioning uranium is caused by neutron bombardment, and that is severely reduced by the control rods absorbing neutrons.

  99. dmbeaster

    Sadly, to go along with the overreaction is the false spinning by the nuclear industry that this isn’t a big deal. Japan’s industry has a history of that.

    This is a very serious and troubling situation. Realize that the nuclear industry in the US receives two rather huge subsidies that make it viable, and it probably would not exist but for those benefits. The first is the liability cap. The second is that the government accepts the waste. If these did not exist, I wonder if private industry would invest in nuclear energy. Probably not since the cost of catastrophic failure is not worth the risk, nor would they want Superfund liability for the wastes.

  100. Jeremy H

    @Mycroft

    This is probably an impossible question to answer without clear parameters, but what kind of time scale are we looking at for a reaction that has been rendered subcritical to slow to a point where meltdown is no longer possible?

  101. ChazInMT

    @Mycroft, where the heck do you get 80% of the full power 4 days after shutdown???? Do not post such outrageous claims without knowing WTH you’re talking about. People might believe you. Google “Decay Heat”, you’ll find a Wiki article right on top the shows 7% heat energy immediately after a scram, and 2% after an hour, and 0.4% in a day. 80% is crazy number.
    @ Jeremy, my calcs show it only takes 20 gallons per minute of water being added to the core to keep in from “Melting Down” proper right now. It will be several months before the decay heat will allow the fuel to be uncovered without seriously overheating.

  102. pauls

    @Mycroft:

    I base my ‘week’ on reading that the residual heat that is the main problem being dealt with now is the heat generated by decay of short-lived fission products which will have subtantially decayed over the course of a few days to a week. Because the fission reaction that replenishes the supply of these short lived species is shut down, presumably the heat management problem becomes much easier if they can prevent total disaster over the next few days.

    Of course, if cores are badly damaged and the fuel has rearranged itself to allow hot spots to remain, then a ‘week’ could stretch into a very long time.

    Anyway, that’s where ‘a week’ comes from. That’s not to say that everyone can breath easy after a week, just that they can probably breath a little easier — through thick filters, of course.

  103. Mycroft

    @Jeremy: There are a lot of parameters, unfortunately, including the type of fuel, how spent the fuel is, whether the control rods are damaged, … But the bad news is that even after full shutdown (>1 month) you can still overheat spent fuel rods if they’re not cooled properly in the storage system. There is a very long tail. (This is typically not an issue.)

  104. One fatality has been due to a crane collapse – not radiation. As far as I know, no-one has exceeded the 5 rem (50,000 microsievert) annual dose allowed.

    However… the pressure(?) explosion near the #2 reactor suppression pool is bad news. An immediate spike to 8270 muSieverts/hr, and down to 960 an hour later. That means time spent in the area must be limited so people keep under the allowable 50,000 muSievert/year safe dose. Looks like we may have a breach of containment on the contaminated water.

  105. Anthony

    The Observatory thread over at Ars Technica’s OpenForum has some great information. It’s at five pages now, but it seems clear to me that there are at least three people posting there that really know what they’re talking about.

    http://arstechnica.com/civis/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=1139141

  106. CJ Nerd

    It’s good to see a bunch of people thinking scientifically rather than hysterically about this.

    Can anyone answer a couple of questions that have been bugging me?

    I understand that the explosions that took the tops off the buildings were chemical explosions involving hydrogen that had vented from inside the reactors. And I understand the point about the buildings being intentionally weak, so that internal explosions would disperse outwards rather than inwards onto the reactors.

    BUT, that being the case…

    Why was hydrogen allowed to accumulate inside the buildings and then explode? Couldn’t it have been vented to the atmosphere, since it was going to end up there anyway?

    Maybe there’s a good reason, but having buildings destroyed in what appear to have been avoidable chemical explosions doesn’t exactly project an image of competence.

    Also… this hydrogen: is it normal common-or-garden one-proton-one-electron hydrogen, or is it deuterium, or tritium?

    And if it’s tritium (beta emitter, 12.3-year half-life) how serious is the risk of tritiated water ending up in people?

  107. Mark

    @Mycroft, I think you need to check your sources. The chain reaction stops within 1-2 seconds of the scram. The residual heat is the result of the decay of the short-lived radionuclides in the fuel that are created while the reactor is running, and is typically 6-7% of the full thermal output right after scram (presuming the reactor had been running at full power for a while) and it falls off rapidly over a period of hours and days.

    80% power after 4 days at the number 1 reactor at that plant would be about 80MW of heat being produced today, right now. That’s a lot. If that were true, and it lost coolant for even a very short time, it’d be a pile of molten slag already.

  108. CJ Nerd

    @ Jeff Albelo #50

    I think your references to Carbon-13 should actually be to Carbon-14.

    Carbon-13 is stable and obscure.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isotopes_of_carbon

    That minor error aside, everything you wrote strikes me as spot-on.

  109. Mark

    @CJ Nerd, the plant apparently had hydrogen igniters installed to burn off small amounts of hydrogen before large amounts could accumulate. Those igniters failed for some reason — possibly the loss of backup power.

    The vast, vast majority of the hydrogen is the garden-variety H-1, as it comes either from the disassociation of the coolant water, or the reduction of the zirconium fuel cladding if water comes into contact with overheated fuel rod assemblies.

  110. George William Herbert

    It’s ordinary hydrogen. Other components in the reactor oxidize (steal oxygen from the steam present) at high enough temperatures; the hydrogen formerly bound to that oxygen is now free.

    There’s undoubtedly a non-zero amount of D and a tiny amount of T in that in addition to normal H / protium. But it’s not hydrogen from atomic reactions / decays. It’s purely a chemical reaction (heat + metal + steam -> metal oxide + hydrogen).

    There’s a bit of neutron activated goo in any primary coolant loop to start with, and a bit of leaching through the zirconium cladding. If you overheat and damage pellets and breach zirconium fuel rod casings, then you get fuel + decay products directly in the gas / water as well.

  111. Randy Hanson

    I’m wondering at what point you retract your position. This accident has gone way beyond Three Mile Island already. The official Japanese positions are full of overreactive understatements: they are clearly confused, racing for straws to draw on what to do next, and at each turn the situation grows worse. The containment dome has been breached. As someone who’s studied nuclear issues for over two decades, I’d run like hell over the debris to get out of that region. Those poor people find out in a decade just how serious it is. Right now, we have only fearful attempts to placate a fearful public. What’s new in the nuclear world? This is what happened at so many points in the nuclear world. You would do everyone a favor to rewrite this based on updated events, which are as serious as anything since Chernobyl, and let’s hope it doesnt go further.

  112. Mycroft

    @CJ: The hydrogen would have come from reaction of the zirconium cladding material on the fuel rods with water—which occurs at high temperature, and by definition inside the reactor vessel. Steam vented from the reactor vessel is generally vented into the reactor building and then through a filter system into the atmosphere, to prevent release of radioactive gases. (Remember that it’s also not supposed to happen very often.)

    Newer reactor designs include a system to detect and automatically burn hydrogen to prevent such an explosion. There’s a lot of marketing material for both EPR (French) and AP1000 (American), and they always mention this. As I said before, I’ve heard that North American plants have already been retrofitted with such systems, and so presumably wouldn’t explode this way.

    Some amount of the gas would certainly contain tritium, but it depends on the life cycle of the water in the cooling system, because under normal operation it accumulates over time. Probably nobody outside TEPCO could even begin to estimate how much. It will also contain nitrogen-16, but that degrades very quickly and isn’t much of a concern.

  113. pauls

    @ChazInMT:

    I assume the numbers you cite for residual heat decay are for military reactors which use highly enriched fuel that civilian reactors don’t. What I read (not that I can find the source again…) was the residual heat energy at shutdown would be around ~6% of the operating energy generation and after shutdown would take several days to decay. The numbers you cite look like it’s essentially all over in less than a day.

    I assume fuel composition U/Th/Pt makes a big difference since fission by products (and half-lifes) are different. So, are your numbers apropos to the civilian reactors?

  114. Tom Anderson

    If anyone is reacting irrationally here, it’s the author of this article. I’ve been reading and watching the news reports and the explosion has been properly explained numerous times for what it was. Furthermore, the author has no grounds to say we are not facing “the release of a huge deadly radioactive cloud”. Clearly that’s a possibility, or the Japanese would not be nearly so frantic to contain the situation. You yourself say that you’re worried about the situation in Japan, so, if you’re not worried about that, what could you possibly be worried about??

    Let’s take a look at some other wrong-headed arguments advanced in this article:

    1) Nuclear power is less dangerous than coal production. In a worse case scenario, that is completely untrue. There is no comparison between the danger posed by a catastrophic failure of a nuclear power plant vs a coal plant. The potential for health and environmental impacts with a nuclear power is orders of magnitude greater in the case of significant failure. Coal may be more polluting and release more radioactive on a day to day basis, but it’s the potential for cataclysmic disaster that makes nuclear power not worth it for so many of us. Twenty or fifty years of accident free use, and the existence of redundant systems and protocols, are absolutely meaningless if one day we find a situation we can’t contain. As you say, nothing is 100% safe, but in the case of nuclear power, the small statistical potential of an accident has to be weighed against the magnitude of destruction that the accident can yield.

    It’s also unfair to compare highly regulated, highly engineered nuclear plants to our relatively unregulated coal plants. If we put anywhere near the amount of thought into our coal plants as we do into our nuclear plants, it’s hard to believe that we couldn’t achieve something on a par with a properly running nuclear power plant in terms of cleanness and day to day safety.

    2) “We must have energy production if we’re to have a vibrant society….” Can we quantify this? How much energy do we really “need” for a vibrant economy, and how much do we simply waste with no purpose whatsoever. It’s interesting that when the price of gas goes up, most people simply use less of it, and their quality of life is barely impacted. I bet with coordinated effort,this country could easily reduce our energy consumption by at least a third and barely even notice. There is a HUGE amount of waste. Of course, that requires political will, so it’s not likely to happen. But nuclear power requires political will too, so perhaps if people stop throwing their will in that direction, we can get somewhere.

    You say that “people have an innate fear of radiation” which is your way of suggesting that those worries are irrational, but you should take a look at your own state of denial on the issue.

    I would venture that those on the pro-nuclear side have an innate need to gamble what they consider to be long odds. “It probably won’t happen” is the mantra, but that’s really not good enough.

  115. Joe

    NY times article says spent fuel pools pose even more long-term danger

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15fuel.html

  116. Frabjus Day

    Phil, do you care to comment on speculation that the earthquake was ’caused’ by a recent solar flare?

  117. Messier Tidy Upper

    Well said BA. Thankyou.

    The scale of the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan is just overpowering and horrendous beyond words. So many people dead and homeless and suffering.

    The nuclear meltdown is bad – but not in the same league and the extreme fears raised over the release of some radiation is almost certainly over-rated and those whipping up hysteria about this are doing no one any favours and making things worse by exacerbating people’s terror which is, simply, disgusting. Shame on them.

    Its probable that someone’s already already mentioned these small points already (haven’t read the comments yet, sorry – I’m currently busy in RL) but :

    At this time, the number of dead is in the thousands… not the hundreds of thousands.

    From what I gather, there will likely be well over ten thousand casualties. Whole towns have been wiped from the map – Minami-Senrikyu* & much of Sendai plus at least one other, a fishing village.

    , coal plants release more radiation than nuclear plants by a long shot, as an example, not to mention the disastrous environmental impact of burning it.

    Plus there’s the death toll and environmental harm caused just by mining coal too. So many miners die from “Black Lung” disease or in coal mine disasters such as the one recently in New Zealand’s Pike River Mine (Nov. 2010.) and the several disasters in West Virginia and China. Open cut coal mining esp. is brutal on the landscape & local ecology.

    —————————–

    * Minami = south so that’s South Senrikyu if I’m recalling my very rusty Nihongo (Japanese) correctly.

  118. Messier Tidy Upper

    See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pike_River_Mine_disaster

    For more on the Pike River disaster.

    See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_lung_disease

    I recently saw the “Working in a coal mine” episode (#301, 3rd Season) of this :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/30_Days_(TV_series)

    reality / documentary show ’30 days’ produced by Morgan Spurlock which was actually very interesting and balanced and something I’d strongly recomend everyone see.
    That dealt with West Virginia coal miners and what they endured at work and some of the surrounding issues of Black Lung, environmental problems, dangers of that industry, etc ..

    The miners need their livelihoods – absolutely and no question about that – but, they and the environment do need to be looked after better too.

  119. Joe

    Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Tuesday that there is a high risk of elevated levels of radiation from a reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power plant where an explosion occurred earlier in the day, and urged people within 30 kilometers of the plant to stay indoors.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703908304576201382455819162.html

  120. pauls

    This just in from: http://www.world-nuclear-news.org

    Loud noises were heard at Fukushima Daiichi 2 at 6.10am this morning. A major component beneath the reactor is confirmed to be damaged. A fire is burning at unit 4 and evacuation to 30 kilometres is being urged.

    Radiation levels on the edge of the plant compound briefly spiked at 8217 microsieverts per hour but later fell to about a third that.

    Ya know, I don’t think that “overreaction” really applies to reports that this is a dire situation …

  121. Messier Tidy Upper

    reports indicate that sailors on the deck (that is, open to the air) of a US ship a few miles at sea from the plant received an elevated radiation dose — about a month’s worth in an hour. That sounds alarming, but keep in mind the Apollo astronauts traveling through the Earth’s radiation belts received a dose ten times higher than that with no ill effects.

    Indeed. Apollo astronauts~wise almost all of the twenty-plus who circled the Moon are still alive today and are in their early 80′s /very late 70′s. A number of them have appeared in interviews and programs such as ‘Shadow of the Moon’ and looked in pretty good physical and mental health.

    Some Apollo astronauts have been quite outspoken on various issues close to their hearts – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan on space policy, Edgar Mitchell on UFO’s and Harrison Schmitt on Global Warming – sadly in those last two examples, sigh.

    Buzz Aldrin visited Australia the other year and all three Apollo 11 astronauts appeared and gave good speeches during a recent Moon-landing anniversary.

    I’ve also visited Hiroshima and it is now a thriving, densely populated city too – albeit one with an unforgettable past.

  122. Are you paying attention? There are now 4 reactors in meltdown.

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/03/14/japan.disaster/index.html?hpt=T1&iref=BN1

    This is a cascading event. As Japan’s power grid fails, so fail the pumping systems that cool the other nuclear cores. The more cores that go critical, the greater the chance of containment vessel failures.

    It is irresponsible of you to shrug this off. You’re an astronomer. Stick with what you know.

  123. LATEST – Fire in #4 – spent fuel rod pool (with REALLY nasty stuff) coolant failed, rods exposed.

    Dose on #3 – 40 Rem/Hr – (400,000 microsieverts/hr) spent fuel rods may be exposed. Steam escaping.
    Dose on #4 – 10 Rem/Hr
    Dose between 2 and 3 – 3 Rem/Hr

    40 Rem/Hr is actually dangerous in the short term – safe exposure would be measured in minutes only. 2 hours exposure may cause symptoms of obvious radiation sickness.

    At the number #2 power plant, some distance away, 5.7 microSieverts/hr have been detected, not from their powerplants, but from the #1 plant, with a momentary peak of 25 microsieverts/hr.

  124. Travis

    Oh boy, CNN is having “experts” saying “Why is the company that runs the nuclear reactors being so quiet?”

    Please don’t turn this into another BP schtick!

  125. Tommy Primera

    As Phil stated in the article above: We are NOT facing the release of a radioactive cloud!

    All these fear-mongering conspiracy theorists need to stop scaring people!

    The Japanese government would have warned us in plenty of time to take personal precautions if we were really in any danger of future thyroid cancer.

    People get hurt when there is panic! I wish people would follow Phil’s advice and ignore the scare mongers.

  126. Joe
  127. Mycroft

    @Messier: Well, two Apollo astronauts (Jack Swigert and Walter Schirra), and a few other astronauts, actually did contract various forms of cancer, so that’s a rather poor straw man.

    @Tommy: Please tell me you’re joking. Between a 30km evacuation and statements that they’re distributing potassium iodide tablets, plus a bunch of people (190 last I read) already known to be exposed to radiation, the Japanese government has certainly indicated there’s some danger.

  128. @119:

    Phil, do you care to comment on speculation that the earthquake was ’caused’ by a recent solar flare?

    I’ll help Phil out by saying it’s completely ridiculous. I can’t think of any mechanism contained within a solar flare that would cause geologic instability.

    That, of course, does not stop the likes of George Noury and Alex Jones spouting off about it. Best thing I can suggest for people right now: Stop listening to any talk radio.

  129. Ummm, why is my “Man Part” glowing?

  130. this site is excellent source for the straight dope. http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/tsunamiupdate01.html

    it is a little slow on updating but it’s directly based on the reports from the japanese atomic energy organization.

  131. I agree with everything Tom Anderson said. I collect minerals in the pegmatites of Topsham, Maine as a hobby. Particularly rare uranium and thorium secondary mineralizations. On occasion, like other collectors, I’ve used a Geiger counter to find areas of concentrated U and Th mineralization. Radiation doesn’t ‘scare’ me but I’m well aware of its deleterious effects and what to do and what not to do. There are some basic, common-sense rules, like don’t eat it. But a commercial-scale nuclear fission reactor is serious business, because as Tom said, it is constructed in a way that even the most unlikely weird serious of accidents and errors can have immense and long-term impacts. And for this reason, even the most outlandish possible accident scenarios must be given credence, because they could happen. A ‘meltdown’ of a coal fired power plant just causes a fire. This is a qualitative difference from the meltdown of a fission reactor core. And expressed mathematically, the possibility of a bad reactor accident increases at least linearly with the number of reactors on-line. Having covered the closure of the Maine Yankee facility in the mid 1990s for several newspapers it is a fact that, except when pressed, reactor operators tend to push the facilities past their recommended age of retirement, for obvious reasons. The owners and investors wish to amortize their sunk cost to the greatest extent possible by extending the life of the facility as as possible beyond its design date. This is not a bug. It’s a feature. In a capitalist, investor-driven decision environment, there will always be an incentive to under-design facilities and try to operate them past their safe operation lifecycle and the regulators will always tend to bend on the fulcrum of evidence towards those goals since they have more significant contact with those they regulate and have little contact with those whom they are supposed to be protecting.

  132. alfaniner

    Geez, CNN used to be the “go to” place for accurate news. Yet we have Anderson Cooper saying “I don’t get it, I flunked Science” and Wolf Blitzer chastizing the nuclear engineer at San Onofre (CA)for not being prepared for a 9.0 earthquake, yet ignoring the science presented about ground movement.

  133. katwagner

    The NY Times is reporting that the 6a.m. explosion at the No. 2 reactor has damaged the containment structure and emergency workers have been taken off the site. Further, the Times said, a catastrophic nuclear accident is a foregone conclusion.

    All the millions of dollars Obama wants to throw at the nuclear industry – well, can’t we just invest more in solar and wind generation? China will be ahead of the US if we don’t do something about that…

  134. pauls

    @Tommy

    > We are NOT facing the release of a radioactive cloud!

    If by ‘we’ you mean the USA, then you are probably right. If by ‘we’ you mean the Japanese people living kinda near the stricken plants, then what do you think the dosage readings cited by Zoe Brain mean? The airborne radiation they represent isn’t just magically stopping at the plant periphery.

    > Japanese government would have warned us …

    Uh… like the US, state and NYC governments warned workers about the health hazards posed by working near ground zero in NYC. Right? (Sorry, I had to let my inner cynic out.)

    Actually, you’re right on this. Notice that the Japanese government has ordered evacuation of the population from a 30-mile radius around the stricken plants. Now, I don’t believe that evacuation of a couple hundred thousand people is something a government does in response to “overblown” reports.

    Sadly, it looks like those taking issue with Phil’s thesis that this is all “overblown” may carry the day.

  135. FrozenGhost

    Good Piece. There is a risk that when the H+ explodes off, that the containment of the rods becomes compromised and the immediate area gets a blast of free radicals… the map is insane as the suspended “particles” would not likely get fully caught in the Westerly flow but would rather suspend and fall some East and some WEST of the reactor, due to the Earth’s rotation… doubtful it would even reach South Korea unless it were never re-encased. They should be doing 70 mile evacuations.

  136. How much sea water has been pumped in to cool the overheating cores and what happens to it afterwards? Does it evaporate as radioactive steam or does it just spill harmlessly back into the sea?

    This article is such a relief. I knew there was nothing to worry about. I wonder what’s on TV?

  137. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 129. Mycroft :

    @Messier: Well, two Apollo astronauts (Jack Swigert and Walter Schirra), and a few other astronauts, actually did contract various forms of cancer, so that’s a rather poor straw man.

    See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lunar_astronauts#People_who_have_walked_on_the_Moon

    Just a dozen men walked on Moon forty odd years ago and of those Moon-walkers – who were exposed to higher radiation levels – *only* three are deceased today in 2011 – Pete Conrad, Alan Shepherd & Jim Irwin.

    Pete Conrad died from injuries he sustained in a motorbike accident aged 69 in 1999.

    Alan Shepherd the oldest of the Moon Walkers died aged 74 in 1998 from leukemia.

    Jim Irwin died aged 61 in 1991 from a heart attack – he experienced some problems on his Apollo15 flight.

    The other 9 out of the twelve Moon-walkers are alive and doing pretty well.

    Another dozen men have flown to the Moon without landing on it -the CM pilots and Apollo 13 crew :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lunar_astronauts#Apollo_astronauts_who_flew_to_the_Moon_without_landing

    Of those 12, only 2 have since died – Jack Swigert of bone cancer in 1982 aged 51 – the youngest of the Apollo astronauts to have passed away.

    Plus Stuart Roosa from pancreatis aged 61 in 1994.

    The other 10 are still alive.

    So twenty-four men in total travelled to the Moon from 1968 to 1973 – five of them have died in the years since and of those five only two died from cancer.

    What was the average male life expectancy for someone born at the time most of the Apollo astronauts were? I’d guess maybe late 60′s or early 70′s? What’s the average lifespan for a test pilot or astronaut specifically? I’d guess that would lower the lifespan expected considerably.

    Now I’m not sure what the background average cancer rate is & what statistics really say about that – I guess probably that its too small a sample size to really judge! ;-)

    Also recall that these men all did a lot else in their lives as well almost all being military test pilots and as such likely exposed to some stressful and, um, interesting conditions.

    However, come on, its hardly like this group have all suffered exceptionally high rates of cancer is it? :roll:

    You gotta admit they’re really doing pretty well – and yes, there is an elevated risk but recall that these folks are all volnteers who know what their odds are.

    Fionally, it wasn’t me that came up with this argument but the Bad Astronomer – although I certainly support and agree with him pointing this out.

    *****************

    PS Walter Schirra flew on Apollo 7 which stayed in Low Earth Orbit. He died in 2007 at the ripe old age of 84 from a heart attack caused by malignant mesothelioma, which occurs mostly from exposure to asbestos.

    PPS. See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiroshima – Hiroshima has a current population of 1,173,980.

  138. Messier Tidy Upper

    Another dozen men have flown to the Moon without landing on it -the CM pilots and Apollo 13 crew :

    CORRECTION : Plus the crews of Apollo 8 and Apollo 10. Sorry.

    Also another clarification correction :

    Jim Irwin died aged 61 in 1991 from a heart attack – he experienced some heart problems during his Apollo 15 flight.

    See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Irwin#Health_problems_on_Apollo_15

    for details on that.

    Anyhow, 19 out of the 24 Apollo astronauts are still alive today and it seems in good health which would appear to indicate the relatively high levels of radiation they were exposed to haven’t been too bad for their health on average. :-)

  139. Nickolay

    I just have one question what will happen to the marine bio-resources in the region and where all the used sea water goes after it has been used? Will it be dangerous and for how long? I am from the area called Sakhalin Island (Russia, right north of Hokkaido). The panic here is overwhelming with people fleeing from the cities located in the south.
    To my best knowledge we are not exposed to the immediate threat, though, I wonder, what are the possible long-term impacts to the nearby islands (Sakhalin and the Kuril islands included)???

  140. ChazInMT

    OK I’m going to bed. I’m worried. Been reading about unit 3 spent fuel pool, it’s not doing well. Fires under shutdown reactors? On top of other details……

    Find my posts, and up to this point I’ve been 97% confident this would all just be fine in a few days. Now I’m down to 40%.

    I just hope there isn’t something I’m misunderstanding about the vessels being in drywell containments. Of all the BWR’s I’ve been in, this Drywell surrounding the primary pressure vessel is built like Ft Knox on steroids. I often marvel at the design of the equipment hatch, which, is a large door/plug 15-22 feet in diameter used to access the drywell and allows things like Recirc pumps & such to be removed. It is impressive how immense and thick the walls are of this Secondary containment structure, they are heavy duty to the extreme. Let’s hope they don’t get put to the test. And if they do get tested, lets hope they do their job and not let the melting fuel reach the environment.

  141. Mycroft

    @robZ: Well, assuming there is no fatal containment breach, right now most of the seawater is being irradiated and boiled off. It’s not being circulated, because the circulating system is dead. What will happen to the contaminated water left in the vessels afterward remains to be seen—at TMI they decontaminated the water (I don’t know what the process was offhand, but they were starting with deionized water) and buried the remaining waste. I certainly wouldn’t expect them to just dump it back into the ocean. But note that the TMI decontamination took a total of 14 years—don’t expect to get all the answers tomorrow.

  142. Nick (Matzke)

    I thank Phil and others for correcting the worst panic-driven overstatements, but there are additional things that I wish had been said. Amongst them are:

    * The crisis at the power plant may not be an absolute catastrophic cataclysm, but it is sure as hell a grade-A frack-up. The words “the outer reactor shell blew up” should NEVER FREAKING HAVE TO BE USED ANYWHERE NEAR A NUCLEAR POWER PLANT, even if the core remains contained, which itself is now being called into question. These ought to be zero-failure systems, and they ought to have been designed for both earthquakes and tsunamis, neither of which is exactly new.

    * Just based on what we’ve seen so far, it is clear that there are a lot of government and industry officials in Japan that are more interested in butt-covering and putting a best-case spin on the situation — without having the actual knowledge necessary to say the situation is under control.

    * There are lots of reports of previous cover-ups of scandals and safety violations in the nuclear industry in Japan. Also not good.

    * Political and industry heads should roll in Japan.

    * Even advocates of fission-based nuclear power ought to admit that all of the above destroys public trust in the nuclear power industry, and, basically, rightly so. None of the above should *ever freaking happen*.

    It is possible to argue that in the case of nuclear power, the upsides (lots of carbon-free power for a long time) outweigh the downsides (radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation, chance of disaster). However, it is *not* possible to make this argument if the industry in a particular country is anything less than squeaky clean, extremely disaster-resistant, and extremely honest and forthright with the public.

  143. “I just have one question what will happen to the marine bio-resources in the region and where all the used sea water goes after it has been used? Will it be dangerous and for how long?”

    If you know anything about ‘marine bio-resources’ you should know that the effects of overfishing and the ‘normal’ intake of coolant water into any power plant, nuclear or conventional, has a far more severe and deleterious effect on marine biota, esp. larval and juvenile fish, than radiation. This is all exhaustively covered in the scientific studies and literature devoted to these topics that can be easily accessed via google scholar, for example. It’s not even close.

    Good luck.

  144. Thameron

    Crikey people. Afraid of radiation? You are a bit late to that party. Let’s just refresh the collective memory shall we?

    Between 16 July 1945 and 23 September 1992, the United States maintained a program of vigorous nuclear testing, with the exception of a moratorium between November 1958 and September 1961. A total of (by official count) 1,054 nuclear tests and two nuclear attacks were conducted, with over 100 of them taking place at sites in the Pacific Ocean, over 900 of them at the Nevada Test Site, and ten on miscellaneous sites in the United States (Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi, and New Mexico).[11] Until November 1962, the vast majority of the U.S. tests were atmospheric (that is, above-ground); after the acceptance of the Partial Test Ban Treaty all testing was regulated underground, in order to prevent the dispersion of nuclear fallout.

    Nuclear wasteland? You’re already soaking in it and ever since the Manhattan Project it has just been a matter of how much real estate you wanted to devote to High Level storage for the next thousand years or so. Horse gone from barn. Genie out of the bottle. Game over. No take-backs. Worst case Japan loses a bit of real estate. They can probably afford it less than the U.S. but still not the end of the world any more than all those atmospheric tests ended the world.

    A little perspective is in order I think -

    360 milliRem/year (3600microsieverts) – what you get (with a little geographic and habit variation) regardless. No escaping it.
    5000 millirem/year (50,000 microsieverts) – The federal limit of what radiation workers are allowed to receive in the US. The squids get less cause they’re special. ;)
    25,000 millirem (250,000 microsieverts) – where doctors can detect blood changes from radiation exposure.
    200,000 millirem (2,000,000 microsieverts) – Radiation sickness. You will likely recover.
    450,000 millirem (4,500,000 microsieverts) – Half die without treatment.
    1,000,000 millirem (10,000,000 microsieverts) – Make out your will and kiss your loved ones goodbye if you recognize them in your delirium.

    As you were.

  145. Hello everyone. The Bad Astronomy blog has long been on my blogroll, but I have not commented here until now. I consider myself a rational skeptic and have long been interested in nuclear technology and its applications. I feel that this nuclear hysteria has gone on far enough. In any case, I have written a write-up on this to explain what I know about the nuclear situation in Japan in order to try and clear up some of the panic.

    http://neurovoresnuclearnetworknews.blogspot.com/2011/03/special-post-on-nuclear-energy.html

  146. Paul in Sweden

    Recommended reading(& listening):
    -http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/default.aspx

    “A Conversation with My Dad, a Nuclear Engineer, about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster in Japan” +Three more
    -http://georneys.blogspot.com/2011/03/conversation-with-my-dad-nuclear.html

  147. Grisha

    @Nick These plants WERE designed for earthquakes and tsunamis. They were not designed to take a 1,000 year-event. You can’t build for a 9.0 earthquake or you will never build anything. Considering these plants were built to take an 8.2 earthquake and they are still standing (albeit badly damaged) after one 8 times larger. I’m absolutely amazed at how well they survived.

    I’ve read that the Golden Gate bridge has been retrofittted to survive a 7.8 earthquake Anything bigger and it’s down. The Richter scale is logarithmic, someone with better math than me can figure how much bigger a quake this plant took than one that would bring the golden gate bridge and most of San Francisco down.

    So I would argue that while the Japanese nuclear industry may not be squeaky clean or forthright, it IS extremely disaster resistant. It took the fourth worst earthquake in history to damage this plant.

  148. Paul in Sweden

    OT: While “Don’t be a dick” – Phil Plait -http://vimeo.com/13704095 is generally good practice…

    …should you find yourself 250 miles south of Tokyo today, you just might be able to be a big dick at the Honen Matsuri fertility festival celebrated March 15 in Japan every year…

    -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C5%8Dnen_Matsuri

    There is a time and a place for everything :)

  149. Ray Jones

    is this the time or place to start defending nuclear reactors and nuclear energy. You are normjally more level headed than that . Coal more radiation again why are your pants on fire Phil
    Dana Christensen, associate lab director for energy and engineering at ORNL, says that health risks from radiation in coal by-products are low. “Other risks like being hit by lightning,” he adds, “are three or four times greater than radiation-induced health effects from coal plants.” And McBride and his co-authors emphasize that other products of coal power, like emissions of acid rain–producing sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrous oxide, pose greater health risks than radiation.

    Above from Sci American article you link

    There is radiation leaking. A 60 mile radius of concern has been declared. What the real facts are we undoubtedly will not be told just yet even if it is to stop public panic.
    Calm down Phil and concentrate on the real tragedy which is not yet lack of faith in the nuclear industry but human lives

  150. Kullat Nunu

    After reading peoples’ comments on nuclear energy for a several days now, I can’t stop thinking that one half (or minority in the case of tech-oriented sites) don’t understand how nuclear plants or radiation works, and the other half doesn’t understand how people work (there are unforeseen events, we don’t have complete information, and most important we *do* mistakes, intentionally or unintentionally, and cover them up… Even an engineer is not infallible).

  151. Given that the key technological problem with a nuclear fission reactor is keeping it from getting too hot, none of this should be surprising. It’s a pretty fragile scientific experiment, especially when the Earth underneath suddenly moves by eight feet.

  152. Kullat Nunu

    Hmm… Seems the fire at reactor 4 was also caused by hydrogen. How could that be? The reactor is off-line.

    BBC:

    The fire at reactor 4 may have been caused by a hydrogen explosion, the IAEA says Japanese authorities have told it.

  153. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Kullat Nunu : Well H20 = dihydrogen monoxide, two parts hydrogen to one of oxygen, there’s combustion (?) going on consuming the oxygen / reactor (partial?) meltdown = high temps dissociating the water into constititent atoms(?) so I can guesss how it might happen. Unsure of whether that’s right tho’.

    @154. Douglas Watts :

    Also, “fourth worst earthquake in history …” That would mean since the existence of modern seismological records, which accounts for about a century and maybe a second by indirect inference.

    I would take that as being “human written history” which goes back over three thousand plus years.

    I think I heard / read something news~wise comparing it with the Great Lisbon earthquake in the 1500/ 1600′s at least? Pretty sure we’ve been able to estimate magnitudes for earthquakes quite a lot further back than a few centuries – but haven’t researched this so can’t confirm it 100%.

    @148. Thameron

    5000 millirem/year (50,000 microsieverts) – The federal limit of what radiation workers are allowed to receive in the US. The squids get less cause they’re special.

    Squids? Who / what are they? Can you clarify that please? [Puzzled.]

  154. Luke

    While I see your points, nuclear power has shown time and time again it is very dangerous. While these events are rare, when they happen, they are devastating. You say there can’t be an explosion like Chernobyl, but in fact that was most just a fire after the meltdown, as nuclear experts have said. And this whole event has been understated from the beginning. Japan lies about nuclear accidents all the time, how can we just trust what they say all of a sudden. The company has a recored of covering up and lieing about accidents, some serious.

    Nuclear power offers alot, but coal is still much safer in the long run. Plus we have tons of it in our back yard. We fight over oil in other countries, we have a good fuel in our back yards… When done proper, all coal does is put off water vapor, carbon-dioxide, which causes global COOLING, not warming. And on top of that, the lie that we are heating up the earth has been proven a myth, as we found out in hacked emails between some of the top scientists in the world.

    We need to stop nuclear power plants before we have a serious problem. We had three mile island, which i live just down stream from, but not a massive disaster yet. We will though, one day, and I think that will be the only way we’ll stop. People can’t look at the facts in this country, and will only learn the hard way in this country.

    Germany is re-looking nuclear power after massive protests the last few days, forcing problems at some plants there, as some did not open on Monday due to the protesting. Germany, the innovators of all our major technology, are saying enough is enough, maybe we should wake up and say stop now while we still can…

  155. Paul in Sweden

    MTU- squids=sailors

  156. Phil: “It’s still too early, by a long shot, to know how this will play out, but in a sense this ironically shows how well those reactors were built.”

    Failure, by definition, is defined by failure. Yours is circular logic at its worst. Logic dictates you don’t build a giant complex of fragile nuclear fission reactors, all cooled by pipes of water, on the most unstable chunk of tectonic terrane on the planet. If it were not for massive, regular earthquakes Japan would not exist. It’s a tectonic island arc.

  157. @ ^ Douglas Watts : Actually, it’s more complicated than that, methinks. There is such a thing as a “heroic failure” (see Apollo 13!) or cases where you have a mix of success and failure. The Space Shuttle failed to do some of the things it was hoped to do and yet succeeded briliantly in doing others. Columbus failed to reach Asia – and failed in calculating his estimate of the Earth’s size but still suceeeded in discovering the New World, frex. :-)

    @ 154. Douglas Watts – see Wikipedia – seismology page :

    One of the first attempts at the scientific study of earthquakes followed the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Other especially notable earthquakes that spurred major developments in the science of seismology include the 1857 Basilicata earthquake, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1964 Alaska earthquake and the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. An extensive list of famous earthquakes can be found on the List of earthquakes page.

    Click on my name for link – & source of that.

    1755 = about two hundred and sixty years ago. :-)

    @157. Paul in Sweden : Thanks. :-)

  158. Messier Tidy Upper

    Or if clicking my name doesn’t work for whatever reason (it should but anyhow) :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seismology

    Plus more links :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_earthquakes

    &

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake

    which is the one I was thinking of – a bit later than 1600′s but still.

    Hope these are handy / interesting for folks. :-)

  159. Marco Langbroek

    @ 50. Jeff Albelo:

    Uhhhmmm…..13C is *not* radioactive. It is a stable isotope…..
    You are confused with 14C – which however is *not* present in industrial CO2 output: so *no*, our intake of this isotope is *not* increasing as a result of increasing industrial CO2 output.

  160. @158. Douglas Watts : If it were not for massive, regular earthquakes Japan would not exist. It’s a tectonic island arc.

    I think the Japanese archepeligo owes its existence to the volcanoes not the quakes actually! ;-)

    I see, Douglas Watts that you’ve done the same thing that I often do and expanded your post on editing too – my initial response #159 was just to this from your original draft comment #158 :

    Failure, by definition, is defined by failure.

    Just to clarify that.

    Phil: “It’s still too early, by a long shot, to know how this will play out, but in a sense this ironically shows how well those reactors were built.”
    Yours is circular logic at its worst. Logic dictates you don’t build a giant complex of fragile nuclear fission reactors, all cooled by pipes of water, on the most unstable chunk of tectonic terrane on the planet.

    I agree with the BA there.

    I think – hope – these reactors have shown they’re not all that “fragile” and that they’ve stood up fairly well against some pretty off the scale forces does speaks well for them & their designers and builders.

    Plus I think you’ll find that you *can* find a few more unstable terrains, technically speaking! Eg., the Great African Rift Valley particlarly at the top (Danakil, Afar region?) and parts of the Sinai Peninsula are very active as are coastal environments experiencing rapid erosian and the active volcanoes on Hawaii and the Kamchatka Peninsula!

    The Japanese have built those nuclear power plants on their home island near their cities because that’s where they’re needed – they don’t have too much choice in that I’d suggest. :-(

    PS. New link in my name should now take you to the Wikipedia page listing historical (pre-20th century) earthquakes.

    PPS. Mycroft – are you going to respond to my comments #140 & 142 here?

  161. Mycroft

    @Douglas: But surely you must recognize that the failure of ALL safety systems at 3 reactors shows us that they were built (and maintained) incredibly well!

    Uh… wait a sec…

    * all generators failed
    * all steam-driven pumps of last resort failed
    * all hydrogen ignition systems (if even present) failed
    * all monitoring systems failed
    * at least one pressure relief valve failed (leading to the probable containment breach in #2)

    This is a testament to good engineering? In that twisted logic, I shudder to think what the “failures” would look like. I guess the standard now is “not as bad as Chernobyl.”

  162. Mycroft

    @Marco: “Industrial” CO2 output certainly *does* contain carbon-14—as do pretty much all sources of carbon. (I’m not arguing that this is a problem, just that you’re factually incorrect.)

  163. jick

    @Mycroft 163: Actually, most conventional industrial CO2 output shouldn’t contain C14 (carbon-14). It has a half-life of 5730 years. Any self-respecting coal or petroleum must be utterly devoid of C14.

  164. Mycroft

    If we’re going strictly on the theory that this was all caused by the tsunami flooding the generators, then this is how it should have played out according to the book:

    * battery power should have been available to run the cooling loop after the generators failed
    * even if the battery power failed, steam-driven pumps should have been able to provide minimal cooling
    * meanwhile, work should have been done to restore the generators and/or grid power (latter probably infeasible) or bring in additional power support
    * cooling system should have become fully operational again
    * shutdown should have been completed normally

    However, as it turns out, nothing worked. The battery systems either didn’t work at all or not as long as they should have, the steam-driven pumps didn’t work, they were unable to get the generators back online or (apparently) bring in additional capacity.

    It’s not some big tsunami that brought the house down—it’s a systematic failure of the entire plant. The tsunami may have triggered the dominoes, but it didn’t stack them.

    So now we appear to have at least one pile of corium being held in by a slab of concrete—the very last line of defense, which even TMI didn’t get to—because nothing else actually worked. Yes, it could be worse, but that’s pretty freaking bad.

  165. Kullat Nunu

    @Messier Tidy Upper: Yes, I understand how the hydrogen explosions occur. The question is why there was fire at reactor 4, which had been closed for maintenance. If those three additional reactors start acting up too, they will be even deeper in stuff…

  166. Greetings and Salutations….
    Let me add a big “thumbs up” to Ms. Mervine’s blog site and interviews with her father about the ongoing situation with the nuke plants in Japan. They are quite rational, calm and accessible explanations of what is going on, and, how serious it is.
    Now…throwing my $0.02 in… Having read over the above postings discussing various viewpoints about nuclear power and this specific situation, it seems to me that this is an issue that, like abortion, same-sex marriage, and, allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores (in some states that do not allow it yet) that is often driven by emotion rather than rational argument and consideration of facts. With some folks, I see a somewhat distressing lack of understanding of probabilities of failure, and what is an acceptable level. While it is all well and good to call for “zero failure design”, the only way to achieve this in the real world is not to build it at all. Murphy is alive and well in today’s technological world, and will find a way to find an idiot to push the wrong buttons in just the way that will cause catastrophic failure.
    Very good points have been made about the amount of radiation that bombards us every day. the fact is that we have evolved to be able to handle the cellular damage from such natural radiation with almost no long term effects. Of course, there is a subset of the population that end up getting cancer from this background radiation…but that is going to happen no matter WHAT we do.
    I am both a left-leaning liberal, and a moderate proponent of nuclear power, as my studies of the situation have convinced me that, of the various forms of power generation, nuclear is quite safe and tends to pollute the environment far less than other alternatives such as gas/diesel, coal, or natural gas. it is also a fact that modern reactor designs have evolved to eliminate most of the issues that are causing the big problems at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex. One cannot reasonably compare the failure rate of 30 year old technology with modern designs. While I also support the use of solar (both heat collection and photovoltaic) and wind/hydro power generation, I do not think that they could produce enough power to feed the growing demand of the world. While America is a huge consumer of power, it is a fact that the other, less developed countries around the world are building demand and that trend will continue.
    Oh yea…just to be a grammar nazi for a second…”lose” means to have something vanish from one’s possession or control. “Loose” means not tightly connected.
    Hopefully the Japanese government is not lying too much about the situation, in order to downplay the seriousness of it…and as it continues to escalate, they will be wise enough to consult the knowledge pool of their allies to help get the situation under control. If, by chance, any of the leaders are reading this (and I REALLY hope that they are wise enough to read every BA blog entry!) please understand that no one loses face over asking for help. Rather we lose face by escalating a bad situation into a true crisis by pretending we can handle it without help.
    Pleasant dreams
    Dave Mundt

  167. Piggs

    Interesting that any mention of resistance to nuclear power, the name calling starts…
    “Bong smokers”, “cowardly and stupid”,”hysterical cowards”.

    Not particularily mature views to take…

  168. MadScientist

    At the moment no clear indication that there *has* been a core breach, but action is being taken assuming that there has been. Latest I’ve seen, it is believed that the largest radioactive release has been due to the fire at reactor 4 (if true, that same fire may have fueled speculation of a core breach) – the reactor was shut down and cooled long before the earthquake for regular maintenance, the fire had been put out, none of the fissile fuel had heated and caught fire, no further problems expected at #4. Unfortunately (for the other reactors) the extensive damage to instrumentation means that core containment can only be implied via ongoing monitoring of radiation near the site. Until the reactors can be sufficiently cooled and actually inspected, there is no way to guarantee that there hasn’t been a breach (nor does current information clearly indicate that there is a breach). That’s not to say that it is a safe environment – it is extremely dangerous for people on site at the moment for a number of reasons.

    Anyway, the nuclear plant issues aside, I suggest making donations to organizations such as the International Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres (although MSF do not tag donations for specific operations). Usually the Japan Red Cross are very active in relief operations around the globe and especially in Asia; this is one of those rare moments when they need all the help they can get for a disaster at home.

    @SamH #14: The fly ash from coal has radioactive potassium among other things. Without the electrostatic precipitators, the dust falling on nearby towns contributes to a significant increase in local radioactivity. Whether or not it was ever a significant public risk I don’t know, but the exhaust of coal burners has been regulated for decades due to numerous other public health issues.

  169. Nigel Depledge

    Matthew Hintzen (13) said:

    if the Human made backups and failsafes on modern day reactors all fail all the way thru

    The whole point about a failsafe is that it fails safe[ly].

    In the case of these reactors, the earthquake took out the power to the cooling systems. The backup diesel generators cut in automatically. These were taken out by the tsunami. The system switched to battery back-up (which is inherently limited). The first reactor building was taken out by a hydrogen explosion, but the reactor core was left intact, because the building was designed to fail in such an occurrence. The failsafes and backups are working.

    Even if everything fails, these reactors won’t fail in the same way that the Chernobyl reactor failed in ’86. Because of their failsafe design.

  170. Elmar_M

    @Mycroft, who wrote:

    @Elmar_M: Actually, TEPCO issued a press release that one of the workers died of radiation sickness, and two more are known to be hospitalized. And that’s not counting the 6 injured or dead in the second explosion, or the one killed by a steam vent at another plant (Onagawa, I think?). So it’s definitely not accurate to say “nobody has been killed by the nuclear reactors in Japan.”

    Also, it’s frankly a disingenuous comment. It’s well known that there’s a long tail on radiation-related problems, and upfront deaths are only part of the concern.

    Citation please!!!!!
    I have not heard anything the like!
    One worker was trapped inside a crane and died of mechanical injuries sustained during the quake, NOT of radiation exposure.
    The highest level of radiation measured at any of the plants was 400 millisievert/hour. That is still even below the 500 millisievert that are the limit for even a small statistical increase in your risk of cancer.
    It is about 4 full body CT- Scans.
    1 full sievert of radiation exposure of the ENTOIRE BODY is almost always survivable (but causes radiation poisoning with nausea, fever and other ill effects). It increases your risk of developing cancer in your lifetime by 5% absolute (so it is 40% instead of the normal 35%). Developing cancer does not equal dieing of cancer, btw.
    It takes a full body exposure to 2 sievert of radiation to cause a 5% chance of death from radiation poisoning.
    Again please take note of the “full body” before the exposure. That means that the entire body needs to be exposed. People usually wear cloths and workers there wear protective clothing and masks. That should reduce the exposure dramatically.
    The radiation released so far has been minimal. There are people that live in areas with higher natural radiation than that.
    Considering the thousands that have died in the quake and Tsunami, the whole nuclear issue has been blown completely out of proportion.
    I personally find the way most media outlets have been treating the situation quite telling.

  171. captain Swoop

    Mycroft, you mention a Tsunami but conveniently forgetthe freakin big Earthquake.

    I am surprised the buildings were still standing.

  172. Elmar_M

    One more word to put things into perspective:
    Some 30,000 people die every year in the US allone as a result of the pollution caused by fossile fuels. The deaths caused by nuclear power accidents do not exceed 4,000 (Chernobyl and aftermath).
    There are some claims for more, but they are on very shaky ground (and by untrustworthy entities like Greenpeace and co).

  173. Nigel Depledge

    Elmar_M (170) said:

    1 full sievert of radiation exposure of the ENTOIRE BODY is almost always survivable (but causes radiation poisoning with nausea, fever and other ill effects). It increases your risk of developing cancer in your lifetime by 5% absolute (so it is 40% instead of the normal 35%). Developing cancer does not equal dieing of cancer, btw.

    To be fair, this does depend on the type of radiation.

    Not only whether it is alpha, beta or gamma (or X-rays), but also on the energy of each particle or photon.

    For example, I would tolerate any amount of external exposure to the radiation from tritium, because this radionuclide poses no external hazard whatever, so no amount of it is going to do you any harm unless it gets inside you first (even then you’d have to be pretty unlucky to take any long-term harm from tritium). The beta particles emitted by tritium have roughly half the energy of the electrons in an old CRT television set.

    Iodine-131, however, would be a different story. Not only is it a far more energetic emitter, but if it gets into the body it gets concentrated in the thyroid gland. Internal exposure to I-131 can, however, be treated with potassium iodide (the non-radioactive iodine gradually displaces the radioactive iodine so it is excreted).

    So, I can see the point that you are trying to make, but it does seem to me that you oversimplify the situation.

  174. Nigel Depledge

    Captain Swoop (171) said:

    I am surprised the buildings were still standing.

    I’m not. IIUC, Japan has the strictest building codes in the world when it comes to designing in earthquake-resistance.

  175. Nigel Depledge

    @ Mycroft (165) -
    Can you supply references for that information?

  176. Elmar_M

    Nigel, a Sievert is already weighted. The unweighted unit for radiation dose would be “gray”.

  177. Nigel Depledge

    Douglas Watts (158) said:

    Logic dictates you don’t build a giant complex of fragile nuclear fission reactors, all cooled by pipes of water, on the most unstable chunk of tectonic terrane on the planet.

    Well, I guess then that it is a good thing that Iceland doesn’t build nuclear reactors. BTW, that seems a bit off-topic, ‘cos I thought we were talking about Japan.

    Did you have a point?

  178. Nigel Depledge

    @ Elmar_M (176) -

    Erm … oh, right. Dammit, I got Grays and Sieverts the wrong way round. My bad.

  179. Nigel Depledge

    Douglas Watts (154) said:

    It’s a pretty fragile scientific experiment, especially when the Earth underneath suddenly moves by eight feet.

    [My emphasis]

    This word you have used (“fragile”) : I do not think it means what you think it means.

  180. Elmar_M

    Uhm, I am pretty sure that a lot of people died in gasline explotions and fires caused by those during and after the earthquake. Strangely enough nobody is talking about these deaths. But nuclear power plants that have not killed anybody are a big huge topic.
    The way I see it, we should all stop using natural gas, since it keeps killing so many people and just use nuclear power instead.
    I know that I have posted this before, but some people obviously still have not seen this yet:
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/deaths-per-twh-for-all-energy-sources.html

  181. MikeS

    ” Ironically, it was two weeks from its scheduled 40 year decommissioning as it was.”

    What is this, a cop movie? That reactor was two weeks from retirement!

  182. WOW! Thank you for this Phil.. as a mere Citizen Scientist, couldn’t have framed my instincts over this incident as well as you just did ;}

  183. The one thing that I don’t get. Monday mid-day US time, CNN was reporting that the fallout could last months. What are they meaning? Fallout that makes it to the US? Or nearby… The area around Chernobyl is still closed.

    Yea, its different in design than Chernobyl, but what’s different? I had thought that our design required water to continue the reaction. Pulling the rods out make them heat up, but a total loss, would cause the reaction to stop. But its not stopping. Or is it and it would have fully exploded if it were like Chernobyl. Of course we are throwing water somewhere. But that is on the outer edge of the reactor just to keep it under control.

    This water has to go somewhere, we are not cooling the water, just dousing it with new cool water. I am guessing its going to be going back to the ocean….. with radiation flowing directly into the sea.

  184. Elmar_M

    Update:
    The international Atomic Energy Agency has reported this in its latest update:

    At 00:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 11.9 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed. Six hours later, at 06:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 0.6 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed.

    These observations indicate that the level of radioactivity has been decreasing at the site.

    As reported earlier, a 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour radiation dose observed at Fukushima Daiichi occurred between units 3 and 4. This is a high dose-level value, but it is a local value at a single location and at a certain point in time. The IAEA continues to confirm the evolution and value of this dose rate.

    This indicates that radiation levels have already gone down again signifficantly. 0.6 millisieverts per hour is a very acceptable value. It is still elevated, but the downward trend is encouraging. Lets just hope that the news keeps getting better from now on.

  185. Ian

    I can’t tell you with any certainty what’s going to happen at Fukushima Daiitsi. My hope is that people, who know a lot more about this than I do, will find a way to get it under control.

    What I can tell you a little bit about is what’s happening in the media. Every network has a go-to scientist, but in most cases that scientist is not an expert in the field of nuclear energy or, more specifically, nuclear energy plants. Anybody who has taken a degree in the sciences, myself included, knows that, at the undergraduate level, areas not within one’s concentration are only touched on very generally – superficially. Often the more education one gets in the sciences, the less one learns about areas outside their specific field of study. When you’re listening to most of these scientists assume that their knowledge of this topic is limited to what they’ve read about it online in the past few days – which is to say, they’ve probably read many of the same articles that you and I have (including this one). In other words, unqualified scientists are reading the works of other unqualified scientists and forming opinions. I don’t mean that as a slam against Mr. Plait, but that’s what’s happening.

    I see the same thing happening in many of the comments above and in other articles. Everybody, especially those with degrees in the science field, feel qualified to respond. Chances are, they’re not.

    What I read in Mr. Plait’s article is not an explanation of what’s currently happening in Japan, but a defense of science in general against an ongoing assault that started long before this disaster. The same can be said of the comments supporting him.

    I guess it’s time for me to make a point. I guess I’m trying to make two points (and not doing a great job of it – for some reason I’m having a hard time articulating my thoughts this morning): 1. If a scientist doesn’t have the proper credentials to talk about this, read what they have to say cautiously and question their sources – whether they’re telling you what you want to hear or not. 2. Realize that knee-jerk, emotional, responses are occurring on both ends of the spectrum.

    There are people who know what’s going on, but they’re going to be careful before releasing information – which means it’s going to be coming out slower.

  186. Quiet Desperation

    The frustrating thing beyond the disaster is that the problems with these old plants will KILL even discussion of new plants based on new technology and designs for Odin how long.

    We can forget about energy independence of this country for at least half a century.

    It’s a shame Japan didn’t have the design of the San Onofre plant here in California. As I understand it, there is an emergency shut down system that does not require power. We also don’t have a subduction zone in the area like Japan (we have the horizontal type slip faults), so 9.0 quakes are unlikely here.

    That being said, bring on the pebble bed reactors.

  187. Ian

    I really don’t think this will kill the discussion of new plants anymore than it already was. We pretend that it’s some grassroots hippie movement that is thwarting our need for energy independence, when in fact it’s big coal and oil. Liberals, in general, are not anti-science. If it makes scientific and economic sense, liberals can and will be swayed, but I’m not sure the same can be said for those who profit off of fossil fuels. There are nuclear plants in many predominantly liberal states along the east coast. This is not a liberal vs. conservative issue – like we like to make many things out to be.

  188. Quiet Desperation

    it seems to me that this is an issue that, like abortion, same-sex marriage, and, allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores (in some states that do not allow it yet) that is often driven by emotion rather than rational argument and consideration of facts.

    Dave, *every* public discussion is like that. ;-) Go look at debates on something as trivial as red light cameras.

    While it is all well and good to call for “zero failure design”, the only way to achieve this in the real world is not to build it at all.

    The Energy Amplifier concept might come close. You use a particle beam (protons) to create a sub-critical reaction in a mass of heavy metal. If anything is amiss, you just shut off the particle beam and the whole thing cools down.

  189. Joseph G

    Thank you, Phil, for shining a spotlight of rationality on this issue. I still can’t believe a headline I saw two days ago, referring to “another nuclear blast.” Are these journalists just plain ignorant, or cynically trying to sell copy?
    Either way, it’s a public nuisance, if not a danger.

  190. Elmar_M

    @Quiet Desperation:
    The emergency shutdown in the Fukushima plants worked just fine, but there are always other fission products in such a plant that keep producing heat, even after the core has been shut down. That is why you have to keep cooling it for a few days after that. Every hour they can keep it cool is abig victory, because the reactions slow down by the hour.
    Anyway, the reason why the cooling failed was due to the power failing all over the region. These cooling pumps need a lot of power. They had a backup system with diesel generators, but the diesel generators were flooded when a ten meter tsunami wave hit the plant. They had another backup system via batteries, but those were only good for 8 hours. Due to the carnage with communications down, roads being impassable and nearby emergency vehicles being hit by the quake and the Tsunami as much as anything else in the emmediate vicinity, it took a long time for the backup power vehicles to finally arrive at the plant. In the chaos, someone must have forgotten the power adapters, or brought the wrong ones, or something like that, but in any case the plugs did not fit. So they had to rigg something and that took time. To long for the batteries and so the cooling stopped and the reactor got to hot.
    It is one thing to sit in a sofa and talk about all the things that people could have done or should have done. It is another thing to be actually there in the face of the actual desaster. The whole matter at the nuclear plant, even if it came to a worst case scenario, pales in comparison to the damage that has already happened from the earthquake and the Tsunami. So far 2.5 thousand have been confirmed dead and that does not take into account the two thousand bodies washed ashore. It is IMHO ridiculous to focus so much on the nuclear power plants, when they have not killed or injured a single person.

  191. mica

    @Kullat Nunu: tepco told this afternoon that the water temperature in the spent fuel pool at reactor 4 had already risen to 84˚C and so eventually the pool water might’ve evaporated and exposed the fuel, leading to the hydrogen explosion.
    the problem is that the fuel is stored in the outer building and not within the containment due to the periodical inspection. apparently, reactors 5 and 6 are pretty much in the same situation.
    so, coupled with the possible damage to the suppression pool at reactor 2, which is part of the containment itself, overall situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant seems quite grave to me.

    they said on the news that radiation levels of ca 400 mSv/hr were recorded around reactor 3 and small amount of iodine and caesium was detected here in Tokyo – 0.8 microSv/hr (ca 20 times more than normal) – which could’ve been caused by the explosion at reactor 4.
    of course, the radiation dose at reactor 3 was high enough to worry about future blood cancer and thyroid cancer incidence amongst children had they been around the reactor with no protective clothing – at that time, but radioactive materials jumping over the pacific? nah… given that radiation level decreases inversely with the square of distance.

    that being said, i believe we should freeze all of the NPPs with boiling water reactors in Japan and replace them with new models that have tsunami-proof supply (cooling) system, starting with Hamaoka NPP in Shizuoka-Pref – which is standing right in the focal region of a very possible Tokai earthquake.

  192. Messier Tidy Upper

    @193. Joseph G :

    I still can’t believe a headline I saw two days ago, referring to “another nuclear blast.” Are these journalists just plain ignorant, or cynically trying to sell copy?

    Quite probably both. :-( :roll:

    I’ve stopped buying the newspaper lately, no time to read it presently and the quality of reporting just stinks.

    Either way, it’s a public nuisance, if not a danger.

    Definitely. More, they’re adding to the (potential & actual) panic and causing more people to be more frightened and upset needlessly. If only such conduct was illegal as well as just ethically “criminal.” :-(

  193. Ian

    @Elmar: “It is IMHO ridiculous to focus so much on the nuclear power plants, when they have not killed or injured a single person.”

    That is not true. The blasts have killed and injured workers (if you’re talking about radiation – it would be foolish to say that it hasn’t had adverse health effects on at least some of the workers in the immediate area). I understand what you’re saying, but it’s still a story even if it’s not THE story – roughly 180,000 people have been evacuated from the area (according to the AP). Japan is obviously taking it seriously, why shouldn’t the media? I’m as upset as you are about false reporting, but it’s hard to deny that it deserves coverage. I really do get your point and it’s sad that people are trying to politicize the tragedy, but the event is real and people are genuinely interested and concerned – as you are, I assume, since you are taking the time to read and post a comment here.

  194. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Ian : Yes, it deserves coverage indeed – but this needs to be responsible coverage NOT the sort of thing that creates more unnecessary & avoidable terror and stress for people who are already suffering.

    @194. Elmar_M :

    So far 2.5 thousand have been confirmed dead and that does not take into account the two thousand bodies washed ashore.

    It seems sadly likely that the death toll will be well over ten thousand – from what I’ve seen there are whole towns – quite large one’s – just wiped off the map with sizeable proportions of their populations gone.

    Estimates of the number of dead and missing exceed 10,000.

    Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Sendai_earthquake_and_tsunami

    (As of just seconds ago.)

    It seems almost certain that many bodies will never be found & the exact toll may never be known. It’s all just overwhelmingly terrible. :-(

  195. Elmar_M

    @ Ian, I can tell you that the media is deliberately manipulating the population to follow a certain political agenda. It is very clear here in Austria, where the media is generally in favor of certain political directions. These directions also happen to be against nuclear power. The media here is acting accordingly.
    E.g. the Kurier had a headline yesterday “Potential Super MCA a 3 reactors!” Of course that is complete bull**** and you DO NOT require a degree in science to know this. All you have to do, is inform yourself about the situation from sources that do know and there are many that would happily inform you. You can always start with the IAEA website.
    Of course the result is now that in Europe nuclear energy is going to be dead for decades now. Thanks to the media. I guess they all want global warming, because that is the other option, unless you are a green party voter of course. They would like us all to return to the stone age and live in caves, I guess. That such a move would kill more than 50% of the general population within 2 years, seems to evade their twisted minds completely, or I guess they call that “acceptable losses”. But hey I guess that is ok as long as we dont use nuclear power…

  196. Kevin Brennan

    Excellent piece; thank you for so eloquently writing down what I’ve been saying these last couple of days. Also, Elmar_M ^ just hit the nail on the head.

  197. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 198. Elmar_M :

    Of course the result is now that in Europe nuclear energy is going to be dead for decades now. Thanks to the media. I guess they all want global warming, because that is the other option, unless you are a green party voter of course. They would like us all to return to the stone age and live in caves, I guess.

    Indeed. Isn’t it ironic (or something) that the people who are going to (indirectly) lead to the worst environmental destruction are those most radical and extreme environmentalists? :-(

    Incidentally, anthropogenic global warming is already happening. There’s a time lag affect and momentum is with the continued warming and will likely accelerate, as I understand things. Hopefully, I’m mistaken about this. Meanwhile, there are still Climate Contrarians going around preaching misinformation and wilful ignorance of the facts and attacking the vast majority of climatologist scientist who have dedicated their lives to trying to actually understand what’s gong on. It’s depressing, it really is.

  198. Elmar_M

    I never thought I would agree with Messier on something one day ;)
    It must be the end of the world, because that day has finally come ;)

  199. Messier Tidy Upper
  200. adriano de moares

    Vamos ser claros e diretos.

    Existe radiação correto?
    Em Chernobil todos os funcionários que trabalhavam na usina e como todos os que ajudaram para lacrar a mesma também morreram por causa da radiação.
    A pergunta que eu gostaria de saber, e os funcionários que estão lá tentando controlar o resfriamento do reator, o estado tem o direito de sacrificar estas pessoas?
    Porque de 1945 até hoje pouco foi investido em energia solar? Apenas na última década que as notícias a este respeito vieram mais forte a público.
    Ao meu ver no fundo, no fundo o estado seja lá qual for e onde for que de todas as maneiras possuir o controle da energia elétrica, além disso é claro, cobrando altas taxas de energia.
    Adriano de Moraes
    Brasil

  201. adriano de moares

    Let’s be clear and direct.

    There is radiation right?
    In Chernobyl all employees who worked at the plant and how all that helped to seal the same also died from the radiation.
    The question I would like to know, and those who are there trying to control the cooling of the reactor, the state has the right to sacrifice these people?
    Because from 1945 until now little has been invested in solar? Only in the last decade that the news in this regard came stronger public.
    In my view the bottom, the bottom status whatever and wherever in any way have control of electric energy in addition of course, charging high rates of energy.
    Adriano Moraes
    Brazil

  202. Joe

    LOL at those blaming the media. The media aren’t the ones leaking radiation. The media will always be predisposed to dramatization and nothing will change that. But those of you keep downplaying the severity of this issue are just as bad as the media but at the other end of the spectrum. It most certainly is possible for these reactors to explode and jettison their radioactive contents into the atmosphere and affect a large swath of the Japanese population. It will not be the spectacular atomic explosion you believe the media is falsely portraying but instead a steam/hydrogen explosion, at least as suggested by Frank von Hippel:

    “It’s way past Three Mile Island already,” said Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor at Princeton. “The biggest risk now is that the core really melts down and you have a steam explosion.”

    It doesn’t matter how the radioactive material reaches the atmosphere. What matters is that it gets there.

  203. Elmar_M

    It most certainly is possible for these reactors to explode and jettison their radioactive contents into the atmosphere and affect a large swath of the Japanese population.

    And that explosion is going to happen exactly how? They are venting the pressure vessels to avoid exactly that. Worst case scenario is that the cores will melt and form a puddle at the bottom of the containment vessel. Big deal! There are tons of graphite there to stop the reaction. Yes the reactor will be a mess and will have to be put into a concrete sarcphagus. No, there wont be a big explosion spreading fuel and radioactive material over a wide area.
    Again, the media is blowing things completely out of proportion. The reason for this is simple: political gain.

  204. katwagner

    @Joe. Thank you. That’s a direct quote from the NY Times website. I’m bummed out at the folks here blaming the messenger, because this is a bad thing happening and it won’t be over in just a few days. Looking at all the photos and seeing all that devastation is a shock. Communities are leveled. Imagine everything you’ve lived with is gone. And on top of that, there’s the danger of something you can’t see, feel, smell… I feel for all of the people of Japan.

    I’m an Army brat and we lived outside Tokyo for three and a half years – high school. We were on the swim team and attended meets all over the place. I loved the pool at Yakota-Johnson Air Force Base; it was huge. So I know all our armed service people over there are helping the best they can and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for everyone.

  205. Elmar_M

    Katwagner, the dangers of radiation are widely exaggerated.

  206. Joe

    @Elmar_M, The explosion would occur due to the steam/pressure created by the melting rods. The steel+concrete containment is sealed and without the ability to vent that pressure adequately the containment would explode. The containment is only rated up to a certain PSI, which is why they’ve been having to vent pressure thus far but with a full meltdown the amount of heat generated would exceed the ability to vent the pressure adequately to prevent a steam explosion.

  207. katwagner

    Yeah Elmar, tell that to the TEPCO president who’s freaking out right now. Nothing else they can do to cool the spent rods in cooling ponds except dump water on them with helicopters or add water from beneath. His words. He said they only have a day or two before all the water boils away – his words. The spent rods are potentially more dangerous than the fuel rods currently in the reactors.

  208. Roger

    Nice article Phil. The difference between the US and Japan is, Japan will try to fix the problem while in the US, people tend to fix the blame. The anti-nuclear folks are a lot like the anti-vax folks. They like disinformation to make their point. I am amazed that an 8.9 earthquake didn’t destroy the plant completely. I think that says a lot about the failsafes in place. I’m also not downplaying the tragedy and I realize it isn’t over yet.

  209. Elmar_M

    @Joe

    @Elmar_M, The explosion would occur due to the steam/pressure created by the melting rods. The steel+concrete containment is sealed and without the ability to vent that pressure adequately the containment would explode. The containment is only rated up to a certain PSI, which is why they’ve been having to vent pressure thus far but with a full meltdown the amount of heat generated would exceed the ability to vent the pressure adequately to prevent a steam explosion.

    Uhm no and no… That is silly to assume that the engineers would have made such a design mistake. Also, as I said the contaiment vessel is designed to stop the fission process. But whatever I say, people are to happy to paint their doom scenarios. I am assuming because they have vested political or fiscal interests with either the coal lobby, or the green party.

    Since reasoning with such kind of people is pointless, I am hereby leaving this thread. Please all have fun dying of lung cancer from your fracking coal plants!

  210. frankenstein monster

    The Energy Amplifier concept might come close. You use a particle beam (protons) to create a sub-critical reaction in a mass of heavy metal.

    which is a safe way to prevent criticality accidents. but the mass of nuclear fuel will still become ordinary spent fuel with all its disadvantages. It will be still capable to melt by the heat produced by the short lived isotopes trapped inside it, and it will be fiendishly radioactive too. So, once you stop the particle beam and lose cooling because of an accident, the same will happen as it is happening now.

  211. Ian

    @Elmar_M

    This is from the IAEA website:

    “After explosions at both Units 1 and 3, the primary containment vessels of both Units are reported to be intact. However, the explosion that occurred at 21:14 UTC on 14 March at the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 may have affected the integrity of its primary containment vessel. All three explosions were due to an accumulation of hydrogen gas.”

    It looks like one of the primary containment vessels may have been breached already. So, no, the worst case scenario isn’t that the cores will melt and form a puddle at the bottom of the containment vessel. That’s not fear mongering for political gain – that’s a very real possibility right now. I hope that is not what happened, but the IAEA has not ruled it out yet.

    Also, the type of steam explosion that von Hippel was talking about is not due to pressure buildup in the vessel, but from molten material coming into contact with groundwater. That may or may not be possible, but that’s what was meant.

    I agree with you that the media is trying to sell this story (go figure – the media NEVER dramatizes anything else), but you have on occasion downplayed what’s being reported by reliable sources. I understand that you are trying to be calm and rational about this, but you also cannot be dismissive of the facts being reported accurately.

    There is a lot to praise about how the Japanese have handled this and their dedication to safety, but it would be foolish not to admit to shortcomings and learn from them instead of pretending nothing went wrong.

    I’ve read stories on the NPR, BBC, FOX News, and NY Times websites and they’re all saying the same things.

  212. Joseph G

    @213 Roger: They like disinformation to make their point. I am amazed that an 8.9 earthquake didn’t destroy the plant completely.

    I heard today that they’ve revised the estimate to 9.0. Wow.
    That does seem to reinforce your point, though.

    @215 frankenstein: I read something about “micro-reactors” using this method. Supposedly, the very small volume of fuel is much easier to cool when it’s deactivated. But you lose a lot of efficiency that way.

  213. Joe

    Updated from NY Times:

    “The atmosphere in the primary containment building, around the reactor vessel and above the suppression pool, is supposed to consist of inert nitrogen, with no oxygen at all. An inert atmosphere is used in the primary containment building to avoid the risk of oxygen explosions with hydrogen if the reactor starts producing much larger quantities of hydrogen gas than usual, which is highly combustible with oxygen.

    The blast on Tuesday morning that broke the suppression pool at reactor No. 2 shows that the reactor vessel is producing hydrogen and that oxygen may have somehow entered the atmosphere above the suppression pool, Mr. Friedlander said. ”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16nuclear.html?_r=1&hp

  214. Tom D

    Another good site for real details:
    http://mitnse.com/

    My favorite (though, NSFW due to language) is oddly enough, Something Awful:
    http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3396817

    I am particularly upset by how this is being portrayed in the main media outlets. If they can take the time to explain that potasium-iodine pills are used to fill the thyroid to prevent retention of irradiated iodine, why cannot they provide minimal of the other repercussions (such as the 15 min half life of irradiated steam)? I mean, giving us the information is what news is supposed to be right? Instead of telling me this is wonderful/horrible why not state what happened and let me decide?

    It is a sad day when I go to SA for more accurate news than from a supposed news source.

  215. DavidB

    Thanks for the links! Here is one more:
    http://mitnse.com/

    One thing I don’t understand yet – if the zirconium casing melts and the uranium pellets fall to the floor of the pressure vessel – aren’t they now away from the boron control rods and now collected altogether in a critical mass, thus meaning a resumption of nuclear fission? This would seem like a very very bad thing. Could the pressure vessel really be expected to contain this?

  216. Joe

    NY Times: Reactor Design in Japan Has Long Been Questioned

    “The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a Mark 1 nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16contain.html?_r=1&hp

  217. Mycroft

    @Tom: Where are you getting this “15 min half life of irradiated steam”? It bears no relation to reality. Nitrogen-16 has a half-life of about 5 minutes and will typically not reach people outside the plant in any significant quantity, but tritium, iodine-133, cesium-137 and strontium-90, among others, all have much longer half-lives and are health risks. Iodine is the most worrisome, because it specifically collects in the thyroid, and it’s already been detected outside the plant.

  218. Chris Winter

    This is one of those events that it’s very hard to keep up with; it just keeps getting worse and worse. The conflicting stories from TEPCO and the Japanese government don’t help. Thanks for this well-balanced post, Phil, and for the links (which I’ll read later.)

    Statements like Frankenstein_monster’s notwithstanding (#4), this is not the death knell of nuclear power. In the U.S. we have 104 nuclear plants, and we’ll have them for some time to come. Our best option is to make them as safe as they can be.

  219. Mycroft

    @Chris: What would make U.S. plants safer is to replace the aging gen-1 plants with modern ones. Retrofitting can only do so much.

  220. Spence

    Thanks for a rational commentary on this, Phil. As usual the ghouls are about making all kinds of ludicrous claims and scaremongering about radiation. Ludicrous claims such as:

    “Most likely, every worker at the plant is going to die of radiation exposure.”

    … are pseudo science. The vast majority of the time, the plant has had radiation levels circa tens to hundreds of microsieverts – not much above the level of radiation you get in the cruise on a plane. So I guess you scaremongerers never fly anywhere then, because by your own analysis everyone who gets on a plane will die of radiation exposure. FFS.

    The more recent developments are not good (with one area of the plant briefly climbing to 400mSv/hr), but the info suggests this was in one part of the plant only, and levels were lower elsewhere. As the public has been evacuated, there is little to no risk to the public, and the workers will be properly monitored for how long they are in areas with higher levels of radiation, ensuring they are not exposed to too much radiation.

    For the person above who claimed all Chernobyl employees died, absolutely not, many are still alive, even some from the control room when the disaster happened.

    Things could deteriorate further, of course it is possible, but the “most likely” radiological effects of this is no measurable risk to the public and perhaps a slight (as in barely measurable) increase in the risk of cancer for some employees. Non-radiological risks are probably far greater, but then we might remember that three trains are missing (presumed swept away by the tsunami). By that token, I suspect more people will be killed travelling on trains that failed to cope with the conditions than by nuclear power. By that token, the west should be thinking of banning train travel before it bans nuclear power.

  221. James

    The Courier Mail, the only newspaper in Brisbane, Queensland has a cover picture of a night time view of the disaster area and in massively big bold typeface:

    “NUCLEAR WINTER”

    I’m like wtf? I know Australian media at the best of times can be totally inane and seem to delight in fear mongering but this is just so over the top it’s not funny! I mean, isn’t a nuclear winter about the after affects of a Nuclear Holocaust caused by Russia and America firing all their nukes? How could the incident in Japan even be remotely described as a Nuclear Winter?

    And now they’re saying “the disaster is only one point away from being another Chernobyl” based on quotes from the French Foreign Minister and France’s Nuclear Safety Authority. The latest reports I’m reading quotes the Japanese Nuclear Safety Authority as saying that the number three reactor has a cracked roof (they are quoting Reuters). But I have no idea if this is part of the containment vessel or not. The ‘quote’ then goes on to say that the authority has said they may dump water on it by helicopter. They are not quoting exactly, more paraphrasing so I again can only infer by their words that there must be a massive gaping hole through which they can just pour water, which to me doesn’t sit right.

    Anyone else have better sources of information?

  222. Joseph G

    I didn’t even look at that map closely. That’s farking ridiculous. I’m betting that the dosages in rads are many orders of magnitude greater then even Chernobyl at the distances indicated (across the friggin pacific).
    Also, I thought the Gray was the preferred SI unit of measurement for radiation exposure? I can see a source in the US using rads (we love stubbornly sticking to non-SI units over here, it’s one of our charmingly nonsensical idiosyncrasies) , but a source from Australia?

  223. Giovanni

    Take the whole containment vessel by helicopter and drop it at the Mariana trench… end story.

  224. Elmar_M

    People have to consider the fact that the US conducted hundreds of above ground nuclear weapons tests during the 1950ies and early 60ies ON US SOIL. The mushroom clouds could easily be seen from Las Vegas.
    Any nuclear reactor accident pales in comparison to a single one of these nuclear tests not only in regards to the amount of radiation that is released into the environment, but also the the distance over which it is spread.
    Here is a map that illustrates the amount of radiation spread by those tests:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/US_fallout_exposure.png
    IMHO this does put things into perspective.

  225. Godzilla

    I’ve never read so many illinformed comments on any blog, face it check yourfacts before you start complaining! This is a massive nuclear disaster…

  226. Edward

    I love your backtracking at the top. Basically, several hours after your know-it-all claims, it turns out that you are completely off track. The danger is real and growing. As for Chernobyl, the health issues continue to this day and the number of defects, cancer, and out right deaths have been high. When do you write an apology? You should read Don Delillo’s White Noise. You are the son in the novel who becomes the “expert” based off of his ability to paraphrase and regurgitate second-hand information. You know nothing so shut up. And you do it for the same reason as CNN, so more people will read your blog.

  227. Joe

    The last 50 workers were ordered to abandon the plant due to high radiation levels. Latest reports say the containment is probably compromised. What an unbelievable tragedy this is.

  228. Ian

    It seems many of you haven’t noticed – the people in Japan are worried about the ongoing problems at Fukushima. Presumably, their fears haven’t been caused by Western news reports. These are people who supported neclear energy. It is the typical American attitude to blame our own media for problems happening in another part of the world – to think that the world revolves around what we say – to forget that the people in Japan are not watching Anderson Cooper right now, but are listening to their own media in their own language. What we say here doesn’t do a damn bit of good or harm to the people in Japan – where this crisis is very real right now. How about you all just get over yourselves.

  229. Pete

    I’m pro-science and pro-nuclear energy, but all my skeptic buttons get pushed when managers report that all is under control while the buildings are exploding.

    I don’t work with this particular technology, but I’ve worked with engineers all my life. Engineers don’t talk that way. Engineers go into “Houson, we have a problem” mode and try to re-calibrate their understanding of the system. Managers go into “all is well” reporting mode.

  230. Joseph G

    @238: It’s worth noting that the situation is ongoing. New developments may indeed be very bad. The original post was written over 24 hours ago and was responding to early coverage that did overstate the severity of what was going on at that time.

  231. Tommy Primera

    As Phil stated in the article above: Nobody is facing the release of radiation!

    All these fear-mongering conspiracy theorists need to stop scaring people.

    The Japanese government would have warned their citizens in plenty of time to take personal precautions if we were really in any danger of future thyroid cancer.

    People get hurt when they evacuate unnecessarily. I wish people would follow Phil’s advice and ignore the scare mongers.

  232. Mycroft

    @Tommy: The Japanese government has been repeatedly warning people to take precautions for days, and has been distributing iodine pills specifically because of the danger of thyroid cancer. Go read the news, not some random badly written blog.

    Also, the only conspiracy theorists I see here are the ones claiming that “the media” is trying to scare them.

    And lastly, *plenty* of people are “facing the release of radiation.” The US Navy has changed positions twice to get further from Fukushima because they were detecting fallout. Russia has now detected fallout. And now that they’ve screwed up and the spent fuel is on fire again, and nobody is on site to try to fix it, there will be a lot more radiation released.

  233. Eamon

    Phil,

    current news from TBS in Japan is that the workers returned to the building after about an hour, and have been there since tackling the problems.

    Mycroft@242 My family and I live 100kms from the Fukushima plants – scaremongering like yours is despicable.

  234. pauls

    @Tommy

    > Nobody is facing the release of radiation!

    There you go again!

    What you say is just plain false. Events of the past two days belie Phil’s sanguine take on the situation as it appeared two days ago.

  235. pauls

    @mycroft

    Where do you get that stored fuel is on fire? I know it’s a possibility, but having looked for definitive reports I haven’t found any. So, if you have a link to a reliable news source which has this kind of detail on the fires, please share.

  236. Mycroft

    @Eamon: I can’t help it if you’re in denial. The fact is, the plant is spewing radiation into the atmosphere, and it’s now been documented by multiple politically disconnected sources (TEPCO, Japanese government, US Navy, Russian government).

  237. pauls

    @Mycroft

    > ‘Spewing radiation’.

    Is there any detail on just what this radiation is? Is it activated water in which the radioactivity is very shortlived? Or are fuel rods really on fire? The last report I read about the number 4 fuel storage pool was that it’s water temperature was 84C. Given that the volume of water in the storage pools above the fuel rods is ~15m x 15m x 10m, that’s a lot of water that has to boil away before the rods are exposed and have a chance to catch fire.

    Reports on fire in #4 have NOT said that this was a fuel fire. So, how about a link to information that states explicitly that fuel is actually on fire. Thanks.

  238. Mycroft

    “Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight. Don’t turn on ventilators. Please hang your laundry indoors.” – Yukio Edano, chief secretary

    “Substantial amounts of radiation are leaking in the area.” – Naoto Kan, prime minister
    “There is still a very high risk of further radioactive material coming out.” – Naoto Kan, prime minister
    “The possibility of further radioactive leakage is heightening.” – Naoto Kan, prime minister

    Is that enough warnings? I’m sure you can find more in less than 5 minutes.

    @pauls: It took a while to find the actual origin of the information, but see update #6 at http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/. The second fire was in the same area as the first, which they believe to be hydrogen in the spent fuel area. Note that this would indicate that part of the fuel was overheating and the zirconium was reacting with water, as in the reactor cores. Also note they have apparently taken no action here, just let it burn out in both cases.

    My phrasing was incorrect in implying that the fuel itself was on fire.

  239. pauls

    @mycroft

    Thanks for the link.

    Be aware that there are other sources for hydrogen at these plants. As I understand it H2 is added to coolant water to limit the corrosivity of activated species. (I think.) So a hydrogen explosion does not guarantee that the H2 was generated by zirconium/water reaction. I believe the temperature for generation of hydrogen by this method is VERY high. (>500C?) which is not consistent with fuel rods covered by still-liquid water.

    Anyway, thanks for the link. I’ll take a look.

  240. Mycroft

    @pauls: See my addition to that post; when I tried to post it separately I got a moderation timeout. Also, where are you getting this claim that the water is over the fuel rods in #4? It was known to be low when the first fire happened, and they stated they were unable at the time to put water in, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think it’s increased. The JAIF summary indicates that it’s low, and the second fire was in the same area (presumably caused by the same problem).

  241. pauls

    @mycroft

    Thanks again for the link. The updates answered something I’ve been wondering about, namely whether sea water was being used to cool the containment or the core directly. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s the core directly. Jeesh!

    Found the article about pools.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16fuel.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=plant%204%20pool&st=cse

    From this I got the impression that storage pools were a future problem which would happen only if neglected. Also, this is where I got the numbers for pool dimensions.

    Since managing the pools should be fairly simple and signs of trouble with these should be easy to see long before there’s an emergency, I find it hard to believe that this could be screwed up. BUT the reports seem to say it is. Let me just say: Jeesh!

    As I understand it the fuel is a ceramic Uranium Oxide. Since this is already oxidized, what chemistry goes on to “burn” the molten fuel or otherwise powder it and then disperse it?

  242. Mycroft

    They’ve been talking about the possibility of “re-criticality” in the spent fuel pools, which certainly raises my eyebrows.

    I’m trying to understand what the end game is here. I think the problem is, unlike the core where any melt would be mixed with melted control rods and steel, melted fuel in the spent fuel pool would be almost pure fuel—which would mean that enough of it could go supercritical. Having that happen outside the containment area would in fact result in another Chernobyl-level accident.

  243. pauls

    @Mycroft

    I missed this in the NY Times link I just sent: “By late Tuesday, the water meant to cool spent fuel rods in the No. 4 reactor was boiling” They go on to say it should take a week for the water to boil off. Since the fuel is exposed already, there must be a leak. I feel the need to again say: Jeesh!

    Well, I live in Seattle, so this isn’t my problem. G’nite.

  244. wallace

    Honestly, the only difference between what will likely happen here and Chernobyl is that they evacuated quicker in Japan, and it’s going to dump the contents of the reactors into the sea and not send them into the air. Which is likely better in the short run but worse in the long run (I doubt anyone will eat a fish from that side of Japan again.)

    The reactor ARE going to utterly melt down (what’s to stop them now that “defense in depth” has been shown to fail pretty much simultaneously?), and so far every assurance of “X can’t happen has been followed by video of X happening. I don’t see the containment vessels holding when every single other system has failed. Number 2 is already breached and firing out radioactive steam…which means it will be out of water soon. Wonder what the fuel-lava will look like as it runs into the sea?

  245. Mycroft

    @pauls: Well, I’ve been of the opinion for a couple days that, if this is properly investigated after the fact, there are likely to be many counts of criminal negligence discovered. There are just too many problems happening that cannot be attributed to either the earthquake or the tsunami; it seems that essentially none of the equipment intended to handle a station blackout or severe accident was operational.

  246. wallace

    Oh, and I forgot…The DaiNi (No.2) plant is experiencing identical problems to what this plant did a few days ago, and is also without power and also run by the company whose disaster plan is to hope a disaster doesn’t happen. The plant will be melting down within a few days as well.

  247. Elmar_M

    Actually the fuel is not exposed. According to my information it is still covered by 2 meters of water. The water level went down to two meters from 2.4 meters though.

  248. Eamon

    Mycroft@246

    “@Eamon: I can’t help it if you’re in denial. The fact is, the plant is spewing radiation into the atmosphere, and it’s now been documented by multiple politically disconnected sources (TEPCO, Japanese government, US Navy, Russian government).”

    First, with a degree in physics I can tell you that your use of the word “spewing” is both incorrect and possibly disingenuous. Radioactive particles have been released.

    I’ll just comment on one of your sources: the US Navy. The radioactive contamination of their helicopter crews was so bad that they had to scrub them down with soap and water. The only spewing is coming from you.

    And now, the damage you and people like you can do. We had the governor of Fukushima Prefecture live on the 7pm NHK News. He complained that aid was not reaching people in evacuation centres because lorry drivers were afraid of entering the prefecture.

    You are not helping the people of Japan one bit, in fact you might as well be here kicking refugees in the head for all the harm you and your ilk are doing. You are contemptible, and need to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you are doing with your puerile and ill-informed posts.

  249. Elmar_M

    It is just amazing how Mycroft is spreading missinformation and other crap. E.g. when he said that a worker had been killed by the radiation. That was clearly wrong. But of course he never adressed that. He also claimed that several workers got severe radiation poisoning. Also wrong.
    The radiation levels are back to non dangerous levels at the plant.
    The evacuation was not because of radiation, but because of a weird noise coming from one of the pressure vessels. The cause of that noise turned out to be harmless and the workers returned shortly after.
    Again, missinformation spread by Mycroft and co.
    It is still nowhere near Chernobyl, though it is admittedly worse than people originally thought.
    Yes, mistakes were definitely made at the plant. But I would nowhere speak of criminal negligence as Mycroft likes to do in his hate- and missinformation spewing attitude.

  250. Elmar_M

    Well the BBC, the most trustworthy newssource at the moment, at least from my POV, says otherwise:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698

    According to the BBC released at 11.45 GMT:

    Tepco, which runs the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, has apologised on its website for an earlier incident in which “an abnormal noise began emanating from [a] pressure suppression chamber”. This led to a temporary evacuation of workers. “We are aware of and sincerely apologize for the great distress and inconvenience this incident has caused to not just those inhabitants residing in the immediate vicinity but also society at large,” Tepco says.

  251. Ian

    @Elmar_M: People in Japan are not afraid because of what’s being said on this blog or in any other American/Western media. People in Japan are afraid because of what their government and their news media is telling them.

    We in the western world think that we have complete and total influence over everything – including the emotions of the Japanese victims of this horrible disaster. The people in Japan are not staying up late reading our blogs and watching our news – they have their very own news and their very own blogs to read – in their very own language. I hope it doesn’t come as a surprise to you that they aren’t completely dependent on us and hanging on at the mercy of our every utterance. I agree that a lot of misinformation is circulating and that you’re upset about that, but blaming people here for “kicking refugees in the head” is ridiculous. The people in Japan are afraid and that’s not our doing – it could be because of the horrible trauma they’ve just endured and the fact that they’ve been told to stay in their homes or evacuated. Have you stopped to think about that?

    I’m so sick of you and others thinking that this debate that’s taking place here is about Japan. If you care about what’s happening in Japan, don’t waste your time here – get on the phone and donate some money. What’s happening here now is a pissing contest. In the scheme of things all that really matters is what the people in Japan, who actually know what’s going on and aren’t just guessing, are doing to try to fix this mess – you know, the ones actually doing something other than trying to look smart on a blog. This whole silly debate does not show how much we care about the people of Japan – it’s about how this tragedy might adversely effect the future of nuclear energy in the Western world – which is apparently all we really care about. And I could care less about your physics degree – I work with four Ph.D. physicists, big whoop. I once stayed at a Holiday Inn Express – now I’m an expert too.

    I’m all for keeping tabs on what’s going on. I’m all for balanced reporting, but let’s stay focused on the people of Japan right now and not make this another political argument. Just because you think the media is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. Didn’t your parents teach you that?

  252. Ian

    Oh, and all of you who know what’s really going on, why don’t you send an email over to Prime Minister Kan:

    “Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan seemed to be speaking for his entire country Tuesday when he met with executives from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. “What the hell is going on?” Kan demanded, according to a report from Japan’s Kyodo news agency.” (Or is Kyodo News in on the conspiracy too?)

    I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear from you (then call Billy Buckner to give him some fielding tips).

  253. Ian

    Last message, I promise.

    If you want to blame somebody for the misinformation being spread, blame Tokyo Electric Power Co. If their PR department/firm was doing a better job informing people about what’s going on, they could have prevented a lot of this speculation. It’s called managing the message. Our 24 hour media outlets are just looking for stories and when no “real” stories exists, they get “experts” to go over a bunch of hypothetical scenarios. The people want information – any information – and if they can’t get “good” information, they settle for what they can get. Tokyo Electric needs to inject itself back into this conversation and become the primary source of information. Until they do that, we’re going to get what we’re getting now – people making best guesses from photos, videos, and secondary sources.

    The media is doing what it always does, which is to make news and maintain their audience. How many times did we watch video of the planes flying into the twin towers? How many theories were spread before the real information got out? How many three story buildings in podunk towns were evacuated for fear it would get hit by the next plane? It’s not always about politics – it’s business and human nature.

  254. Elmar_M

    Ian, you are being silly with your blame game. The media is screwing up and you blame the power company. Their job is to get the reactor back under control. It is not their job to keep the media from speculating.
    Their PR- department has never been involved, as you certainly know.
    I do agree though that the flow of information coming from them has been slow.

  255. Ian

    I’m breaking my promise.

    Elmar, it’s public relations 101. You don’t trust the media to get the message right – that’s why you pay PR firms. It is their responsibility to manage the message. It is their duty to the people who paid for their services and to the people in the potential fallout area to provide them with accurate and timely information – their job doesn’t end with power production. Anybody who knows anything about managing a business will tell you that. It’s completely naive to think otherwise – it is absolutely poor business planning on their part. The handling of public relations goes directly into any good emergency plan.

    The media is doing what it always does (it’s not an unknown) – that’s why PR is important – you know that’s going to happen and you plan ahead of time.

  256. Ian

    One more thing – do you know what the media in JAPAN is telling their people? Do you know that the media in JAPAN is screwing up? Because that’s where the people in JAPAN are getting their information. I do not know that people are being misinformed in JAPAN – do you? I know from sources citing the media in Japan (like the one I quoted earlier) that people in Japan are upset that they are not getting enough information. That’s what’s causing their fear – not a comment by MyCroft on a blog. An information vacuum can also create fear and anxiety.

    How do you think a company gets out emergency information to the people? Through the media, which is why it is vitally important to manage the message.

    Please discern western media from that in Japan. They are not the same thing. They are two different conversations. Stick to one or the other. Our media is scaring some of us who are far away from the problem. I have only a very limited idea of what their media is saying to them and how they feel about. I doubt they’re talking much about whether or not the west will continue to build nuclear power plants – my guess is that they don’t care right now.

  257. DanB

    It seems that it was the tsunami that caused the generators to fail, not the earthquake directly.
    I thought that one of the lessons learned from New Orleans was to make sure that your backup systems are higher off the ground than the expected worse case water level?

    I wonder where the generators in Japan were located?

  258. Elmar_M

    Well so far the BBC has been able to get things pretty much alright, most of the time.
    They invited a real expert to share his oppinion, they provide the actual information, updated frequently in a live stream and so far they have been rather neutral. They are not perfect and at times they also gave some wrong information, or exaggerated things a bit, but generally they are doing a much better job than the other news outlets out there.
    Cudos to the BBC for that.

  259. mike burkhart

    After decades of sci-fi storys about radioactive mutation , movies like The China Syndrome and Silkwood, and accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, every one is so scared in this country of any thing nuclear. Just say the word radiation and everyone freeks out.

  260. Matthew Hintzen

    In this case I REALLY wish I was wrong, I wish I could say I had been over-reacting, I Wish you could’ve pointed to my post at a later date as an example of those hysterical idiots who overestimate the danger of nuclear energy.

    While TECHNICALLY you were correctly I think I am going to have to rate your statement above

    “… People remember Chernobyl, of course, but the Japanese reactor is a very different design, and cannot explode the way the Ukranian reactor did in 1986…”

    As a major fail. The pictures coming out of Japan look a hell of a lot like Chernobyl, even if it didn’t happen in the same way.

    Once again, I really wish I was wrong, and prehaps we may still not have a worst case, and you can go back to calling me an alarmist. If it saves lives and the disaster I’d be glad to be called a crackpot!

  261. Mycroft

    Honestly, if your standard of excellence is to not be as bad as Chernobyl… stay the Hell away from our nuclear plants.

  262. Elmar_M

    Well we will see how things end up. I still am convinced that nobody will die as a result of the problems at the nuclear power plant. Compare that to the 30,000 people that get killed by cancer caused by coal power plants every year in the US allone, or the coal workers that get killed in mine accidents all the time, or the damage done and people killed by oil accidents. I think nuclear is still among the savest energy conversion systems on the planet.

  263. Mycroft

    @roymeo: Unfortunately, that guy is wrong in many ways:

    * It wasn’t the fuel in Chernobyl that burned, it was the graphite moderator. In fact, the fuel itself is more or less the same (aside from geometry, and ignoring the fraction of MOX in #3). A nuclear engineer should certainly know the difference between fuel and moderator. (The fuel is already oxidized; it can’t burn.)

    * Fukushima has already released substantially more radiation than TMI. Also, it really cannot be compared with TMI, because the cooling system didn’t fail at TMI.

    * It’s not a “small portion” of the fuel that was damaged. NISA estimated that (IIRC) 77% of the fuel in #1 was damaged, and around half of the fuel in #2. That cannot be described as “small.”

    * His analogy to a dental X-ray is WAY off base. Various measurements during this incident have included 400 mSv/hr and 1 Sv/hr, numbers which were known at the time he wrote the initial article and he conveniently didn’t mention. If you were standing in the stream, you’d not only get far more than a dental X-ray, you’d get many times the legal limit and be risking radiation sickness.

    * His point 7 is actively misleading. It’s true that you can’t get a high-grade nuclear explosion from a reactor—it’s not loaded with >93% U235—but you can certainly get a supercritical reaction equivalent to a so-called “dirty bomb” under the right conditions. This is the concern with the spent fuel pools.

    * I don’t think it’s much consolation that “no reactor caught fire” when in fact there was a fire in the fuel holding pool, which is outside the containment structure.

    * There is no possibility of “clean everything up and repair it.” The affected reactors are dead. If TMI is a guideline, and keeping in mind that this is already worse than TMI, the cost to clean them up will be astronomical. This is no small part due to the fact that any given worker will only be able to do a small amount of work—reports about TMI cleanup at the time indicated that some people had to be trained to do a single hour of work because that was the limit of the radiation they could take.

    * His analysis of the radioactivity of the coolant is off base. It’s well established that tritium (which has a much longer half-life) builds up in the coolant system of light water reactors; several studies have been done on this, some of which you can even Google. In addition, decay of nitrogen-16 causes other parts of the cooling loop (and in the case of these BWRs, the generation system) to become somewhat radioactive. In addition, a reactor that’s been operating for 40 years has almost certainly seen more than one cracked fuel rod; it’s a secondary function of the suppression pool to trap a lot of the heavier radioisotopes, and so steam boiling off of an uncooled suppression pool is an issue.

    At this point I’m not going to bother reading the rest.

  264. Mycroft

    This is for Elmar and Eamon:

    The top U.S. nuclear regulator told Congress on Wednesday that radiation levels around Japan’s troubled nuclear power plant may give emergency workers “lethal doses” of radiation, preventing them from getting near the plant.

    “We believe that around the reactor site there are high levels of radiation,” said Gregory Jaczko. “It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time.”

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/16/us-nuclear-usa-idUSTRE72C2UW20110316

    “There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures,” U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Congress on Wednesday.

    “Nuclear experts said that if they don’t get water to these spent fuel pools in view of the containment breaches in the other plants the actual radiation releases could approach that category of Chernobyl,” said Victor Gilinsky, who was an NRC commissioner at the time of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, which was the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/16/us-japan-nuclear-pool-idUSTRE72F8VN20110316

  265. Edward

    It seems obvious that Elmar and Eamon may both be forms of Concern Trolls connected to an entity with an interest in Nuclear Energy. They purport to be interested in giving factual information yet even as the reality proves them wrong hour by hour they still keep to their position in the hope of sowing confusion.

  266. Elmar_M

    At Edward, who said:

    It seems obvious that Elmar and Eamon may both be forms of Concern Trolls connected to an entity with an interest in Nuclear Energy.

    This kind of clumsy ad hominem only makes me lol.
    I have been commenting on this blog for years. Some people here certainly know me from some rather heated arguments over the years…
    I do not know you though.
    I might just as well call you an oil and coal mafia troll…

  267. Should the wind swing around to the NNE Tokyo gets screwed. Kiev screwed. The nuclear industry has, over the last fifty years. turned this skeptic into a cynic, at least when it comes to nukes. That goes double for Japanese or Russian nukes. The industry is circling the wagons and saying it can’t happen here. Nuclear energy isn’t about science, it’s about business, and any business will lay off the cost of risk mitigation to their neighbors, given half a chance.

    Tokyo has a good chance of becoming the victim of the Mother of All Dirty Bombs, and there is no historical precedent for that.

  268. Mycroft

    If we assume the NRC analysis is right (they do have 11 people in the area), there are basically two options left for dealing with the fuel holding pools:

    * They might be able to cool them once they have the auxiliary power working.

    * If not, the last resort may just be knocking the top off the building (if it doesn’t explode of its own accord) and dropping sandbags (heavy in boron) from specially armored helicopters. (This is exactly what they did at Chernobyl, BTW.)

    Anyone who still thinks this is part of planned incident response needs to get their head checked.

  269. James

    BBC currently has an interesting article that contains information that has been mentioned here by some, but it appears that people may be cherry picking quotes from news sources to make things sound worse than they are (not saying things are bad).

    Fact’s that I have gathered from the news article are (facts as reported by the article that is):

    * The only source for the report that the fuel rods are exposed to air is from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which has a team of 11 experts in Japan providing advise.
    * The owner of the plant (Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO) has stated that “The possibility of re-criticality is not zero”.
    * The reason for trying to use helicopters to drop water was nothing to do with the reactors (which is what the news stories I read 24 hours ago implied) but to refill the pool.
    * If the fuel rods get hot enough and become critical then “it would lead to the enhanced and sustained release of radioactive materials – though not to a nuclear explosion – with nothing to stop the radioactive particles escaping”. There is no statement to how they’re released and where they can go.
    * The reason why they couldn’t dump water via helicopter is because “had to be scrapped because of concerns about radiation affecting the pilots. Without the water, gamma-rays travel straight up into the air.” I have no knowledge about gamma-rays, but I can infer that this isn’t fallout per say, but direct radiation. And it also explains things a bit clearer.
    * I saw some news article yesterday saying they could use fire trucks. Well the BBC article appears to be a lot more clearer: “There are reports that the authorities have asked US military personnel to bring in water cannon, which would presumably be fired from the ground, aiming to shoot the water in through the broken roof.” I presume this avoids the problem of the gamma-rays that travel straight up into the air.
    * There appears to have been a radiation spike which was cause for an evacuation on Wednesday (British time i presume). They didn’t say if they had returned but the way I read the text was that it was implied.
    * The reference to being worse than Three Mile Island is by the US Energy Secretary who suggested that Fukushima was now more serious than the 1979 Three Mile Island incident. It then goes on to say “if contamination does spread outside the immediate area, that will prove to be the case.”

    So I think that clears things up a bit. Personally I’m not one to trust elected officials when they say things. At the end of the day they live based on people’s opinion not based on facts and as has often been the case, they will use rhetoric and say things that they think is what people wish to hear. Eg. acting tough, demanding things, declaring stuff, etc.

    I also do not trust news publishers, they often focus on the negative, give to much weight to the worst case scenario (often to the point of ignoring all other cases) and always ask loaded questions to get answers that are news worthy. For example, asking “Is there a chance no matter how small that the storage pond could become critical?” I’m saying this as an exercise, not saying it happened. I do this because I see the media doing the very same thing all the time, more often than not you don’t see the question all you hear is the answer. It’s like the media push and push and push on areas just to grab that sound bite or headline that they can run with instead of trying to report the facts.

    That said however I think that the BBC report does appear to be very level headed, far superior to what I can find in Australia and even better than the American sites (which I normally read cause the Aussie ones suck).

    A big thank you to whoever it was that recommended the BBC site.

  270. Elmar_M

    Yes, the BBC news is the best. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to have comparably unbiased news with little sensationalism.

  271. Elmar_M

    So according to the latest live update by the BBC, the radiation levels have fallen again to levels below 1 millisievert per hour:

    The level of radiation detected at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has fallen steadily over the past 12 hours, an official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has said, according to the Reuters news agency. A level of 752 microsieverts per hour was recorded at the plant’s main gate at 1700 on Wednesday (0800 GMT), said Tetsuo Ohmura. The monitoring point was then changed to the plant’s west gate and readings were taken every 30 minutes, he said. At 0500 on Thursday (2000 GMT on Wednesday), the reading was 338 microsieverts per hour. That level is still much higher than it should be, but is not dangerous, Mr Ohmura added.

    Note that these are microsieverts 1000 microsievert = 1 millisievert.

  272. Eamon

    Edward@281

    “It seems obvious that Elmar and Eamon may both be forms of Concern Trolls connected to an entity with an interest in Nuclear Energy. They purport to be interested in giving factual information yet even as the reality proves them wrong hour by hour they still keep to their position in the hope of sowing confusion.”

    I’m a UK ex-pat living in Yamagata Shi, Yamagata Ken in the Tohoku region of Japan. Fukushima is a neighbouring Ken. The factual information I get is from the various Japanese media outlets. The information, as this is an evolving situation, changes hour-by-hour. In fact, it’s the Western Media that’s not keeping up with things. The temporary evacuation of the Fukushima Daiichi plant was over in around an hour – but even reputable sites like BBC News were still reporting this as breaking news three hours later.

    Mata ne Edward-san

  273. Spence

    “It wasn’t the fuel in Chernobyl that burned, it was the graphite moderator.”

    What I think he was trying to say was that the fuel in Chernobyl was rapidly consumed in an accelerating chain reaction far more quickly than it was supposed to. But most people wouldn’t understand this, so he says it burned, which while technically wrong, most people would understand. In Chernobyl, the runaway chain reaction of the nuclear fuel was the root cause of the problem. The moderator fire compounded this by throwing more radioactive material up into the atmosphere.

    What is happening at Fukushima is nothing like Chernobyl, no matter how similar it looks to lay observers. Furthermore, the public were evacuated before there was a problem (unlike Chernobyl, where the public was evacuated – in some cases – 10 days AFTER the explosion).

    Also: I have not seen 1 Sv/hr claimed anywhere. Got a credible cite for that? Otherwise I’m calling BS. The 400mSv/hr was a brief spike in a locallised area of the plant (between two of the reactors). At the same time, most other areas of the plant were reading 1mSv/hr to 10mSv/hr. Since it was monitored, there is no reason to believe anyone was exposed to the highest level for any length of time. I am hearing reports that levels now have returned to less than 1mSv/hr.

    Bear in mind that one of the biggest effects of TMI was the behaviour of the “victims” of radiation – who were basically unaffected by the radiation, but psychologically scarred by fearmongers who told them they were going to die from the event, when that was simply not true. That is why a WHO official issued a statement earlier calling for people to stop spreading such scaremongering BS, and I thank Phil Plait for doing his part in supporting this.

  274. Elmar_M

    Ahhh!
    Ohaio gozaimasu Eamon- san!
    Ogenki desu ka?
    I actually live in Austria, a country without any nuclear power at all. We keep buying it from neighbouring countries with old reactors and dubious standards though, because we can not produce enough power to supply our own demand.
    I am still for nuclear power, because it is pretty clear that there is no way arround it. If you believe that there is something like human aggravated global warming, then you have to be pro nuclear power. There are no viable alternatives at the moment that can provide the energy the world needs.
    Maybe in a few years we will know whether one of the many fusion reactor concepts that people are working on, will work out. But until then, we still have to fill the ever increasing demand for electricity. With more people switching to electric cars and plugin hybrids that demand will only grow even more.
    Domo!

  275. Eamon

    Genki desu.

    We’re coping fine here. Yamagata is an agricultural prefecture, so we can always source food with a bit of patience and lots of queuing. It the poor souls on the Pacific Coast who are really suffering – we’ve had mid winter weather for the past few days.

  276. pauls

    The largest number of casualties from the Chernobyl incident were thyroid cancers. Exposure to Iodine and Cesium was through the food chain. (Largely dairy.)

    The steam coming off of the reactors and #4 fuel pool is generated from water in contact with compromised fuel rods. This means the steam contains radioactive Cs and Iodine which are being deposited as fallout downwind from the reactors.

    So, Eamon, until this blows over and the extent of contamination is clearer, you might want to eat out of a can or be sure your food was grown or produced far far away from the the Daiichi reactors.

  277. Joseph G

    @Elmar M: This kind of clumsy ad hominem only makes me lol.
    I have been commenting on this blog for years. Some people here certainly know me from some rather heated arguments over the years…
    I do not know you though.
    I might just as well call you an oil and coal mafia troll…

    lolz!
    But yeah, I can attest that Elmar’s been here at least 6 months or so (about how long I’ve been a regular)

    @Elmar M: Well so far the BBC has been able to get things pretty much alright, most of the time.
    They invited a real expert to share his oppinion, they provide the actual information, updated frequently in a live stream and so far they have been rather neutral. They are not perfect and at times they also gave some wrong information, or exaggerated things a bit, but generally they are doing a much better job than the other news outlets out there.
    Cudos to the BBC for that.

    That’s good to hear. I’ve been watching CNN (they tend to be a sight better then MSNBC and Fox) and was disappointed by the pro/con nuclear power “debate” they had. It featured what appeared to be a badly aging hippy in a business suit he’d never worn before, and a shill from the Heartland Institute who was clearly in the “global warming is a Liberal hoax” crowd. Both making broad generalizations and given about 20 seconds to talk. It was shameful.

  278. Samwise

    http://blogs.knoxnews.com/munger/2011/03/ex-sandia-engineer-talks-about.html
    This guy a shill too? He used to work at Sandia melting cores to see what would happen. His ideas are not comforting.

  279. Elmar_M

    The largest number of casualties from the Chernobyl incident were thyroid cancers. Exposure to Iodine and Cesium was through the food chain. (Largely dairy.)

    The steam coming off of the reactors and #4 fuel pool is generated from water in contact with compromised fuel rods. This means the steam contains radioactive Cs and Iodine which are being deposited as fallout downwind from the reactors.

    According to a study by the WHO from 2005 so far about 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the Chernobyl desaster.
    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/index.html

    there have been 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children, but that except for nine deaths, all of them have recovered. “Otherwise, the team of international experts found no evidence for any increases in the incidence of leukemia and cancer among affected residents

    Still, about 4000 people are expected to experience a reduced lifetime due to the desaster.
    That is horrible, but if you put it into perspective, it is not that dramatic. Pollution from coal kills way more people every year (about 100 times as many world wide).

    Joseph, I have been an avid follower of Phil since back in the days when this blog did not exist yet and the main action was on the badastronomy.com website and the bulletin board there.
    I never posted that much there, one or two posts, I believe.

  280. Eamon

    Pauls@292

    “So, Eamon, until this blows over and the extent of contamination is clearer, you might want to eat out of a can or be sure your food was grown or produced far far away from the the Daiichi reactors.”

    Pauls, we have regular updates on changes in background radiation, so we have no need to panic. Also, as there has not been a meltdown at the Daiichi site we don’t have to worry about dangerous exposure to large amounts of radionuclides.

    Updates: http://www.pref.yamagata.jp/ou/kenkofukushi/090001/houshasen.html
    https://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?hl=en&key=0AgTaQXwc2PabdDRDZWJHU2pNbWVHTzM1dXJNTmw4bUE&gid=5
    http://www.mext.go.jp/list_001/list_016/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2010/09/08/mext_2010_e.pdf

  281. I’m not sure how worried we should be here in the Kanto region of Japan, but as I explain in my most recent article (Living in a Radioactive Japan), there’s unfortunately a lot to be pessimistic about.
    If there is a meltdown, and the wind heads South again like it did on Tuesday after the last explosion (instead of East) then we will be in a lot more trouble here.

  282. Joseph G

    @Elmar M: Joseph, I have been an avid follower of Phil since back in the days when this blog did not exist yet and the main action was on the badastronomy.com website and the bulletin board there.

    Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that you’d only been around for six months. Just that I had no idea exactly how long you’ve been here, but that I know at least that it’s longer than I.

  283. Elmar_M

    Latest report on casualties among the workers at the Fikushima power plant. It seems like some workers were indeed injured, but the question is how and how badly. This is not quite clear. Only one worker actually got exposed to high levels of radiation. 100 millisievert. That is a lot of radiation, but he should be able to survive without any damage to his health (it is deemed “acceptable in emergency situations” by regulators). He was transferred to a hospital as a precaution anyway.
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/electrical-power-connected-to-fukushima.html#more
    We will see how the situation develops.

  284. Mycroft

    Try this one, a former nuclear engineer from Sandia National Labs who spent 14 years studying this kind of problem:

    http://blogs.knoxnews.com/munger/2011/03/ex-sandia-engineer-talks-about.html

  285. Elmar_M

    I have read his assessment and not all experts agree with him. I also have the feeling that the is thinking about the core of a reactor that has not been turned off. The reactors in japan have all been turned off days ago. Every day they are getting cooler, not hotter.
    Well, we will see what happens. I still think that people are exaggerating. The situation is bad, but not an “apocalypse” as some idiots have called it.

  286. Mycroft

    They’re getting radiologically “cooler.” However, as long as they sit uncooled, they’re getting thermally hotter. The failure modes he talks about are all due to temperature—melting through the reactor and containment vessels, and steam explosions. It’s easy to say “that can’t happen” without having done any actual analysis, but you’d be wrong. And in any case, you’re showing incredible hubris.

    At this point it appears that all of the reactors have at least some water in them, so melt-through isn’t an immediate concern there (although it could still happen if they were left to boil dry), but the possibility that a spent fuel pool with 125 tons of fuel in it may be completely dry is pretty troubling. And I’ve now seen reports of severely elevated radiation levels detected 20 miles from the site.

  287. Elmar_M

    The last official information that I got was, that the spent fuel pool still has water in it, though it was not certain how much.
    Well, the steam explotions are being prevented by venting the reactors. The cooling is done with sea water.

  288. Elmar_M

    So this is now officially a scale 6 event, worse than 3 Mile Island, but not as bad as Chernobyl.
    That really sucks, but lets all hope that they will get things under control again.

  289. Mycroft

    No, if the reactor was dry long enough for a melt-through, the containment venting would NOT be sufficient to prevent a steam explosion that would likely rupture the concrete containment wall. You’re talking about core material over 5189F (less for the MOX) hitting water.

  290. Elmar_M

    Yeah please keep selling your doom. We are all going to die! Oh my god!
    The world will end. Everything is going to be so horrible…
    I still dont believe a word about this being possible. It would contradict the possible failure modes implemented in reactors that are meant to deal with this very situation.

    Oh and according to my information, radiation levels have fallen again, between 2 and 3 millirem per hour (about 20 to 30 microsievert per hour).

  291. Ian

    @Mycroft: There was a very good interview on NPR today with a long-time nuclear engineer/ nuclear power plant employee. During the interview he addressed the “China Syndrome” scenario that you’ve posed above. He was very dismissive of something like that being possible and he gave a very compelling argument of why that is so. Basically, there are just too many barriers that the material would need to melt through. As the material passes through each layer, it loses heat. He didn’t know the specifics of the Japanes plant, but said that it’s likely that even if it makes it through containment it would still need to melt roughly seventeen feet of concrete. As I said, his argument was very compelling. I have to say that he convinced me of its near impossibility.

  292. Mycroft

    @Ian: So you believe a power plant employee over someone who spent a good chunk of his career actually melting reactor cores to see what would happen? Again, incredible hubris.

    If you were talking about a non-radioactive substance, you’d be correct that melting through steel would cool it. But remember that corium continues to generate heat—and it doesn’t stop doing so for a very long time. Also keep in mind that corium reaching the reactor vessel wall is by definition melted, and the temperature of melted corium far exceeds the melting temperature of steel. If you were, say, to just abandon unit #1 right now, there is no question whatsoever that it would melt through.

    @Elmar: Your ad hominem and strawman attacks are childish and indefensible. There’s a good reason for talking about worst cases: it informs planning decisions. If you never admit to a worst case until it’s already happened, you’re going to make a lot of incredibly boneheaded decisions. One of the things that’s been discovered in this incident is that the worst cases that were imagined before actually weren’t bad enough!

  293. Ian

    @Mycroft: Most of the experts agree that it’s nearly impossible AND the fact that it did not happen at TMI is a strong indicator that it won’t happen here. I’m not saying it’s impossible, which is why I qualified my statement with the word “nearly.”

    It takes a lot of hubris to believe one dissenting opinion over a majority of the scientific community. It’s like saying anthropogenic global warming isn’t real because one professor at MIT has been studying it for 14 years or that intelligent design is true because a professor somewhere believes it.

    I’m skeptical too, Mycroft, but I’m trying to stay rational. I found this write-up today:

    http://techyum.com/2011/03/what-the-spent-fuel-pools-mean/

    I find that it addresses issues that some peoplevare dismissive of, but in a very logical/rational way. The author is asking all the right questions and it’s clear that he’ll accept reasonable answers regardless of which side of the debate they’re coming from.

  294. Mycroft

    @Ian: As I’ve said before, you can’t compare this with TMI, because the cooling system didn’t fail at TMI. TMI was ultimately brought under control simply by putting more coolant in a functioning system. It remains to be seen whether the pumps are even still operational in the Fukushima reactors, and they may not even get to testing that for another day or two—at least 7 days into the accident, much longer than TMI and almost certainly with far more damage to the cores during that time.

    And your characterizations of “most of the experts” and “one dissenting opinion” are WAY off the scale. The “experts” you’re referring to are politicians, analysts with no nuclear engineering background, and other people with little actual knowledge. Many people have come forth saying it could melt through. And even more telling, Areva specifically designed the EPR (their latest reactor) with the assumption that a core melt-through is possible—go read their literature if you don’t believe it. (Westinghouse instead chose to add the ability to flood the containment vessel to try to keep the reactor vessel cool—see the AP1000 literature.) If even the reactor designers believe it’s possible… enough said.

  295. Mycroft

    @Ian: That guy is basing his entire “analysis” on the idea that the “spent” fuel in the pools is completely used up and therefore can’t go critical. But that’s a completely fallacious assumption. The fuel from #4, for example, was stated to have been moved to the pool *temporarily* during maintenance of the reactor. We don’t actually know what the status of the fuel packages in these pools is; TEPCO hasn’t been precise about it, but they do seem to be awfully concerned. And in any case, the discussion about overheating and fire is actually somewhat worse with spent fuel, because it contains a large amount of other, worse radioisotopes than U235—in particular Cs137 (which disrupts numerous biological processes by badly mimicking potassium) and I131 (which collects in the thyroid).

  296. Elmar_M

    Ok, so the prior information was wrong. The level of accident at the Fukushima plant is now officially a 5. According to the BBC, that is the rating given to it by the IAEA and the japanese authorities.
    Earlier reports talked about a 6, but those were seemingly inaccurate(assuming that the more current information provided by the BBC is correct).
    Meanwhile cooling operations via spraying water from fire engines and helicopters seems to have had a positive effect. The radiation levels have gone down further in the past hours. They also hope to be restoring power to Unit 2 within the coming hours. We will soon know how that works out.

  297. Ian

    Okay @Elmar_M and @Mycroft:

    Back to your corners. I’m calling the match. You’ve both been disqualified.

    @Mycroft: You are obsessed with the worst case scenario – even though most experts (even the ones who believe that it can happen – like Frank von Hippel of Princeton) have stated that there is a low-probability of it occurring. The problem that I have with you and others, who automatically extrapolate any data coming out as the beginning of the end, is that you don’t seem satisfied that people will admit to the mere probability of it happening. You seem to want to be proven right and, unfortunately, the only way your position will be validated is for the event to occur – which makes it appear that you’re cheering it on.

    Now, before you get all flustered – I am sure that you’re not cheering it on, but I have to ask: how can we validate your opinion? What will you accept? Will you be satisfied if we all tell you that we agree that there is a probability that your worst case scenario could happen? Can we then get back to what is happening? Will anything short of “yup, that’s exactly what’s going to happen MyCroft, you’re right” be enough for you?

    @Elmar: It is disingenuous to insinuate that the situation is improving after the Japanese authorities increased the level of the accident from a 4 to a 5. That would indicate, if anything, that the situation has worsened. As in the preceding example, you have consistently downplayed even the most reliable data.

    What will it take for you to admit that things are happening that were not planned for – that were not expected? To admit that things have not consistently improved over the past days, that, in fact, at times things have actually gotten worse?

    You both seem to be in the same cycle of denial and both of you are trying to use the facts to back up your claim. You are both using deductive reasoning, rather than inductive. Neither of you are content with using the current data to form logical, but tentative, conclusions about what might happen next. Both of you seem to have presupposed conclusions and you’re trying to use the data to prove that your scenario is going to “win out” over others.

    How about we all just take a step back and think of the people in Japan. This is not about winning an argument – the consequences, whatever they are, will be very real to many people and will come about regardless of who wins the debate on this blog.

  298. Elmar_M

    @Ian, I am not downplaying anything. I dont think, I ever have. If stating facts, is downplaying things, then I dont know. I am simply not accepting the notion by some people that some worst case scenario is going to happen with any likelyhood.
    I am not saying that things are looking great by any means. You are of course right and things have turned out much worse than what me and others have predicted.
    So yes, the situation got worse and I even said that earlier.
    In my last post, I simply corrected myself , as I had stated that it would officially be a level 6 accident in a previous post. That was however wrong information on my side and I corrected myself. That is all. Yes, I am very glad that it is not a level 6 accident yet. Stating that and correcting my error is not downplaying the situation.
    The improvement of radiation levels at the plant was reported like that by the BBC. I was simply relaying the information. I am not sure if that is counting as downplaying the situation. Unfortunately the latest report says that they went up again, so not happy about that. They dont give any numbers on the BBC- website, but they say that the levels are not dangerous.
    All, I want is that people put things into perspective:
    A 9.0 earthquake and a Tsunami with a (according to the latest report by the BBC) 23 meter high wave and so far I dont have reports about anybody being killed by the accident this caused at the nuclear power plant. In contrast 300 people died in an explosion and subsequent fire that the same Tsunami caused a petro chemical plant. Of course nobody is talking about those deaths, because they were not killed by the evil nuclear boogie man.
    And that is why I am arguing. There are more than 6000 people confirmed dead and many more missing and all people talk about is a nuclear accident that has not killed anybody (again according to my information) and IMHO that is not quite right.

  299. Ian

    @Elmar_M: Thank you for taking the time to clarify your position. I guess I do have one last question though: if you think that too much attention is being paid to the nuclear accident, why are you devoting so much of your time and attention to discussing it here while concomitantly expecting others to devote more of their attention to the aftermath of the quake and tsunami? Regardless of your position, you are helping to fuel the debate about the nuclear disaster.

    I think, and I could be wrong, that a lot of attention is being paid to the quake and tsunami. I follow NPR and the BBC on Twitter and I have to say that there are more stories about the aftermath of the quake and tsunami than of the nuclear accident. I think it all depends on what you’re looking for. It’s like when you decide you’re going to buy a red BMW 3-Series because you don’t see many in that color and then, suddenly, you start seeing red BMW 3-Series cars everywhere. I’m not saying that there hasn’t been a lot of coverage of the nuclear disaster, but if you switch your focus to the tsunami, I think you’ll find there’s no shortage of coverage there either.

  300. Piggs

    @ Elmar

    317. Elmar_M Says: “I am not downplaying anything. I dont think, I ever have.”

    “210. Elmar_M Says:
    March 15th, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Katwagner, the dangers of radiation are widely exaggerated.”

    I think this really just sums you up Elmar….

  301. Mycroft

    @Ian: Well, I’m not the one arguing that it’s “impossible.” If you want to see who’s drawing one-sided conclusions, perhaps you should look at your own earlier comments, and those of Elmar and Eamon…

    And FWIW, when talking about fallout from fires in the fuel pools, I’m not even projecting the “worst case”—it’s *already happening* to some degree, and fallout has been detected as far as California now. Given that the situation is still not really under control, there is plenty of reason for people to be concerned. Consistently downplaying the risks is part of how we got to this point in the first place.

    BTW, it’s interesting that you keep making references to oil and coal. Nobody here has said that oil or coal are better—in fact, I specifically pointed out in my very first comment that the real win is solar and wind. But if you want to talk about oil, consider for example the BP-Amoco refinery explosion in 2005. Yes, 15 people died immediately, and a bunch more were injured. But in terms of bringing the event under control, the company was prepared and did a very professional job of that.

    Nuclear plant operators are, in general, not at all prepared to deal with major accidents—for the most part they just deny that such incidents can occur at all. The real psychological effect of this incident is not “OMG RADIOACTIVE CLOUD WE ALL DIE!!!”—it’s that people are realizing that they’ve been lied to about the risks for decades.

    Despite that, I’d still vote for nuclear before oil and gas—but only with heavy regulation and inspection requirements.

  302. Elmar_M

    Whatever…
    I am getting slightly annoyed by the ad hominem attacks here. I have an oppinion, it is based on facts and the actual situation right now. Some people here expressed opinions based on projections of worst cases.
    I told them to calm down, inform themselves and put things into the right perspective.
    Why I am continuing the discussion here? Because the panic makers are ruining everything.
    The panic and the resulting political pressure will make sure that no new nuclear reactors will be built in Germany and probably a lot of delays for them in other parts of the world, including the US. That is bad, because in the meantime it will be coal power plants and they are bad on so many levels.
    Newer nuclear power plants would also be saver and they would use the fuel more efficiently. But of course that will be irrelevant now.
    Why? Because people are freaking out.
    What does that mean? It means more coal will be burned. If you believe that there is something like human aggravated globale warming, you have to see this as a huge problem!
    If you think that people should be driving more electrical cars, you have to see this as a huge problem (whats the point of an electrical car, if you have a dirty ass coal plant that makes more damage than the gas powered cars produce the electricity for the car?).
    This is why I am asking people to calm down and get things into perspective. The whole fear mongering and panic is not good for anybodies health (litterally) and definitely not good for mother nature.

  303. Elmar_M

    And if you think that it is not either coal or nuclear and that I am not right when I paint the “brave coal future”, then read this:
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/coal-company-stocks-up-about-10-since.html

  304. Ian

    @Mycroft:

    I don’t think that whole rant was addressed to me, correct? I’ve never mentioned oil or coal being better – ever. Heck, I think I only brought up big oil and big coal in a pejorative manner once or twice – and that was a long while back.

    I guess you don’t understand what the qualifier “nearly” means, that means that I never said that it could never happen under any circumstances. I’ve merely suggested, based on what Dr. Hippel of Princeton and what the people over at MIT are saying, that there’s a low probability that it could happen. That’s not downplaying what’s actually happening – that’s a conversation about the probabilities of hypothetical events occurring. Since it isn’t happening, how can I downplay it?

    You didn’t answer my questions: what will it take for you to feel validated? I’ve said that your scenario is possible, what more do you want? Do you want me to say that it’s absolutely going to happen? I just don’t get what you’re after here.

    Reread my comment – you haven’t even started to address it.

    And you really can’t be serious about this: “Nuclear plant operators are, in general, not at all prepared to deal with major accidents—for the most part they just deny that such incidents can occur at all.”

    Proof please? They may not be prepared to deal with every possible scenario, but they are trained to deal with many. It is because they are trained so well that this situation isn’t worse right now and that the other plants are safe. I don’t know if you’ve ever actually spoken to a scientist in your life, you don’t seem to have any insight into how they think. Of course they don’t pretend they can’t happen, that’s the most ludicrous statement I’ve heard on here. They may not be able to deal with every emergency situation imaginable, but that’s not the same as the blatant generalization you’ve made above.

    You’ve gotten too silly for me to have a serious conversation with. At least Elmar_M, who I also disagree with, takes the time to address my questions and to have an intelligent debate. I may not agree with him, but I respect him. I’ve tried to respond in kind.

  305. Elmar_M

    @Ian, maybe I am wrong when I try to counter the people that induce panic. Maybe you are right and I should just let them talk. But on the other hand, we know that laisser faire does not work with the homeopaths and astrologers either.
    I just dont know anymore…
    The energy situation is dire at the moment. Alternative energy is nowhere even close to making a difference and so we are stuck inbetween nuclear and coal.
    Maybe some of the fusion concepts will work out, but that is still decades away. Until then it will either be nuclear, or coal and oil…
    I know what I prefer. What is it you prefer?

  306. Ian

    @Elmar_M:

    I’m on the fence. I’d like to see more money invested into alternative energy, but I understand that a viable option may indeed be a long time coming. So, the question for me is: what’s the best option in the mean time? IF I could be persuaded that viable alternative energy could be ready in the next 0-50 years, then I’d say stop building nuclear plants and continue with what we have now (keep the existing plants and continue using coal and oil). However, if it’s going to be another 50-100 years, then I’d say go with nuclear.

    Of course, the problem with science is that there could either be a breakthrough tomorrow or something that looks promising today ends up being a dud. So my position, while rational in theory, falls apart in reality and I’m forced to make a choice.

    Here’s where it gets difficult for me. It’s not that I’m anti-corporation or anti-government, but I have a hard time trusting corporations and governments when it comes to insuring regulatory compliance. Governments like to make regulations and then not pay for qualified inspectors to go out and enforce them. Corporations play the cost-benefit game and will often choose to cut cost when faced with a decision to pay for something that, in all probability, will never be needed – until, of course, that one in a million time that it is needed.

    So I still haven’t decided. I guess that means that I, like many others, have to admit that I need more education in order to make an informed decision. And I haven’t said it before, but I do have a science degree, have gone through Radiation Safety Officer training, I am on a radiation committee, I am the Chairman of the Board of Health in my city, and I am the health and safety officer at a university. I am also a few credits away from having both an MBA and an MS in Communication with a concentration in Rhetorical Theory. I’m not trying to brag as many on here probably have better credentials, I’m just proving a point that even those of us who are educated sometimes have to admit when we don’t have all the answers. I’m all about making informed decisions and not letting fear or ignorance influence my choices.

    I welcome a conversation about the future of nuclear energy. I realize that it has been around for a long time and has a pretty good track record for safety. I’ve missed a lot of the debate that I know has taken place up until this incident, frankly, I’m admitting to being ignorant of that. I know that many of my questions have probably been answered many times over. I’m not pretending that my questions are new or have been overlooked. I’m just trying to catch up.

  307. Elmar_M

    @Ian
    I am trying to keep up to date with all sorts of alternative energy developments that are going on right now.
    I frequent several boards that are dealing with nuclear fusion, e.g. and I try to keep up with the developments in regards to photovoltaics. I even read up on some of the way out there stuff like LENR.
    So far, things are soso. Of course if you trust those that are doing research and development, then the revolution in fusion/fission/wind/LENR/solar/etc is just arround the corner.
    All they need is 100 million USD and 5 years…
    Well, call me cynical, but after reading all this for some 15 years or longer, I somewhat dont think that we will see some revolution implemented within the next 15 years. It is fun to keep up with these things and read about it, but it is something completely different, when the lights go out due to a lack of power and the world energy consumption is only going to go up…. BIG TIME and that wont take 15 years to happen. Queue the Indians and the Chinese. Once every Indian and Chinese family will be able to afford a car, what do you think will happen to the oil reserves and oil prices?
    Particularily if you consider that their cars dont really live up to our standards in regards to fuel consuption…
    China is already one of he worlds biggest poluters with much of its energy coming from (very dirty) coal plants, which cause a lot of deaths there (as they do in the US, but to a smaller amount).
    Anyway, the thought of a future where there are half a billion more cars in the world, all fueled by gasoline, is somewhat scary… at least to me.
    And that future will come. India and China are getting wealthier and wealthy people want cars. Ideally they and we would all use electric cars instead of gasoline fueled cars.
    But where is the cheap electricity going to come from that will power the electric cars? If the electricity is not cheap enough, then electric cars can not be competitive with gasoline powered cars… You must not forget that electric cars face many disadvantages over gasoline powered cars. They have to be much cheaper to operate (much cheaper than they are today, actually) in order to be economically competitive. They currently can not compete on a comfort scale (long recharching times and short ranges are not competitive) and the initial cost is high. The batteries also have a limited life time. That means more cost as time goes by.
    It is as all a matter of simple math and the consumers are doing that math. The poorer they are (and the Indians and Chinese are still comparably poor), the more they have to do the math. With the economic crisis, many people here dont have money for the luxury of protecting the environment either.
    So you need cheap electricity, preferably cheaper than it is now. Right now coal is the cheapest, at least in the US and many other countries. Nuclear power is not as cheap, but at least we still have plenty of it (especially if we refurbish the fuel and build more efficient plants). Once the coal reserves go down and demand goes up, the prices for electricity will soar. What do you think will happen then? I know people well enough to know that they wont use electric cars out of the good of their heart. Nope, they will use what is most economical. If gas is cheaper, then gas it will be. So if you believe in human aggravated global warming, then you better start selling your coastal real estate. I heard they dont pay much for land that is under water ;)
    Anyway, stock for coal companies just went up 10% after the nuclear crisis in Japan became evident. I take that as a sign of things to come (10% more demand for coal due to 10% more electricity produced by coal) and it is nowhere said that this trend wont continue.
    With Germany denouncing nuclear power and many other countries doing the same in the wake of the “nuclear panic” caused by the accident in Japan, I cant help but feel resignation and depression about the future.
    And this is why I am a bit preachy at times, probably to preachy, when I talk about nuclear power. I am sorry for that. I dont want to be coming over as a fan of or worse a lobbyist for the nuclear industry.

  308. pauls

    @eamon – 298
    > as there has not been a meltdown at the Daiichi site we don’t have to worry
    > about dangerous exposure to large amounts of radionuclides.

    The links you provide just report radiation levels in the immediate Yamagata area and I agree you do not face a risk from direct radiation. But then I didn’t say or imply this in my post. (I am puzzled though by your third link since it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the current situation.)

    What I did say was in response to your comment that you weren’t worried about food because you live near an agricultural area. Well, if this agricultural area is to the south or east of you which is now being dusted with fallout from the plants, then you do face a risk from your food supply. And this goes doubly for kids.

    What puzzles me is that as a physicist, you should know this, namely that radioactivity levels per se are not the only danger to health in this situation. In fact, you can probably say that, except for those in the immediate vicinity of the plants, raw radiation levels will probably never be the primary concern.

    Instead the concern is the potential for ingestion or inhalation of even minute amounts of the fallout coming from the plants. I.e. fallout that contains Sr90, Cs137, I131 and potentially even Pu from the MOX fuel of reactor #3. These elements are dangerous because they are biologically active; i.e. they are active in the sense that they can be incorporated into body tissues if ingested. Once in living tissue they are very carcinogenic when they decay. This is especially the case for children whose tissues are still growing and whose immune systems are still developing.

    Hence, my suggestion that you be aware of where your food comes from. Try to be sure it comes areas that are far removed from the fallout. If you have kids, do this for them if not for yourself.

  309. Spence

    “The real psychological effect of this incident is not “OMG RADIOACTIVE CLOUD WE ALL DIE!!!”—it’s that people are realizing that they’ve been lied to about the risks for decades.”

    Hmm, we have a magnitude 9 earthquake and a huge tsunami, that already has a death toll of over 5,000 (and will likely go over 10,000).

    But the risks we’ve “been lied to about” has resulted in one worker having an increase in cancer risk of maybe 1% (and a couple with an elevated, but as yet unknown, dose, probably less than 0.1Sv). Despite the media sources focussing on this issue far more than the real problems that Japan is presently facing.

    And on top of this, the reactors in difficulty were designed in the 60s and built in the 70s. Later plants which were also exposed to the worst of the earthquake and tsunami (e.g. Onagawa, Tokai, Hamaoka) have not had any kind of radiation leak. (Alarms sounded at Onagawa, at 21 microsieverts per hour, but no source was traced, and it was assumed this elevated level came from Fukushima; some generators were taken out at Tokai as well but the ECCS worked okay despite this; Hamaoka has two reactors back up and running and generating electricity)

    In summary:

    Nobody is being lied to about the risks. After Chernobyl, how can anyone possibly hide the risks? The real problem is not people underestimating the risks, but people scaremongering and overplaying the risks.

    Radiological risk at present seems to be limited to a few plant employees with perhaps a 1% increase in risk of cancer in later life. Non-radiological effects include perhaps three dead (one from a collapsed crane during the earthquake, and two missing from a turbine hall at the time of an explosion) and twenty odd suffering injuries.

    Far more people were killed or injured doing things like sitting in an office or taking a train journey, both of which carry a greater risk to the general population than nuclear power during a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami.

    pauls, AFAIK the Pu is not soluble in water so will not have been released through steam venting. The other stuff could have been released through venting, but only in tiny amounts. Luckily, most of it was blown out to sea, where it can enjoy the rest of its decaying life turning the entire pacific ocean into a homeopathic remedy for radiation poisoning.

  310. mica

    @Eamon: as a native-born Tokyoite, i suggest you avoid consuming any leafy vegetables and dairy from the affected regions. personally, i would rather not eat any root veggies from the areas for the next 100 years.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/world/asia/20japan.html?_r=1&hp

    sometimes, wishful thinking/selfish motives (our ever incompetent govt & tepco executives) can cause more harm than media hype.

  311. Wzrd1

    Mica, DO enlighten us, why do you pull a century out of the air?
    Iodine-131 has a half life of 8 days.
    Cesium-137 has a half life of 30 years. So, a century would be rather short, were it in significant quantities, which it is NOT. Per the IAEA’s monitoring team ON THE GROUND.

    So far, as I predicted in other forums, this is an issue that released a bit more fission byproducts than two and a quarter mile island.
    Now, as a hint, I LIVE in Pennsylvania. I’ve been to the area around TMI-2 and watched the drama play out in real life. No iodine-131 showed up in the food chain, not even in the milk from cows in the state.
    No cesium-137 showed up in the food chain at all.
    I’m still here, alive and well.
    I’ll eat those veggies, if you don’t want them. I’ll just wash them well first, like I NORMALLY do, as I don’t like E. Coli, it makes me poop bad.
    The root veggies? We’ll see, cesium isn’t the most biologically used element around, ya know? Crazy too reactive, chemically.

    BTW, unit 6 has commercial power connected, unit 5 will be done shortly. The other units will get power tomorrow. Then, they need to check the pumps and electrical equipment for safety.
    THEN, they can turn on pumps. And I fully expect hydrogen releases and steam releases to beat the band when the containment vessels get refilled.

  312. gopher65

    As someone who was on vacation in Tokyo until yesterday, I can safely say that the nuclear crisis was hugely overblown (especially on US cable news channels). Radiation levels in Tokyo were ten times normal background levels, but that’s insignificant. 10 times almost nothing is *still* almost nothing:P. You get more than that on a plane ride, on a beach, or when you’re unlucky enough to have been in enough trouble to need a CT scan (those douse you with serious levels of ionizing radiation. That’s why they try not to give them to kids or pregnant people unless absolutely necessary).

    Even in the event of a full containment loss, the prevailing winds would blow the radiation cloud(s) away from populated areas and out to sea. Would that suck if it happened? Yes. Would anyone who hasn’t already been evacuated be in danger? No. (Those clouds have a tendency to lose potency using the inverse square law, just like EM radiation. So they’d be too weak to cause any harm by the time they crossed the ocean. 750 dollars for anti-radiation pills on e-Bay in the US. Heh. Suckers.)

    The real problems that Japan is facing right now are the fact that 3 of their 5 big oil refineries were disabled or destroyed by the earthquake. There are huge gas shortages there right now, and they will probably last for months. It’s hard to get to work or get food when you have no way to travel (buses and trains are of course overpacked due to the lack of options).

    In fact, during the week we were there, there were basically no vehicles on the road except the occasional emergency vehicle going about their regular jobs, buses (which have gas priority), and a few delivery trucks (which have lower, but still high, gas priority). As anyone who has been in Toyko can tell you, it’s normally a total gridlock across the whole of the metropolis area (30-35 million people). It’s weird seeing it with no cars.

  313. pauls

    @spcence

    That’s a massive amount of speculation you offer. How about walking us through your calculations? Making up numbers to support your arguments may be a common practice, but it doesn’t make what you say true.

    As for my concerns about the food supply, I guess I anticpated this morning’s headlines:

    Japan Finds Tainted Food Up to 90 Miles From Nuclear Sites
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/world/asia/20japan.html?_r=1&hp

    As for taking comfort that background radiation has risen by only a small amount again, raw exposure to radiation is not the biggest problem, although those experiencing the higher background will be experiencing it for the rest of their lives and to a large extent exposure is cumulative. Again, those at greatest risk will be children.

    Also, the increased background is from radionuclides in dust wafting around the environment instead of tightly bound radionuclides in rock or ionizing radiation from cosmic rays. Instead, the radioactive dust will be in the food, water and tracked into homes. There it will be inhaled or ingested; i.e. because it is dust form where it can be readily ingested, this increment of background radiation will have far greater health affects than the equivalent background bound up in rocks or cosmic rays. I.e. the comparison to airplane rides is misleading.

    All that said, I suggest for those living in the area, err on the side of caution for now. In a year or so, after things have settled down and independent (non-TEPCO and non-government) information will be available and better judgments possible.

  314. Spence

    Pauls, oooh, it’s in the NYTimes, it *must* be true!

    The levels of radioactive isotopes found in the food was way below national safety limits. Of course, the NYTimes hint at that in their article, but don’t let the facts get in the way of a scary headline.

    The destruction of food at the moment is purely precautionary, because they are way oversensitive to being sued. Which is another reason not to be concerned about food on the shelf: the authorities will pull stuff from the shelves waaay before there is any risk to human health.

    Once again, the fearmongers fail to differentiate between the presence of radiation (or radioactive isotopes) and any actual hazard to human health (which requires a certain dosage).

  315. Wzrd1

    I found some qualitative measurements, not mentioned by CNN:
    The level of radioactivity found in the spinach would, if consumed for a year, equal the radiation received in a single CAT scan, he said, while that detected in milk would amount to just a fraction of a CAT scan.
    Food safety inspectors said the iodine-131 in the tested milk was up to five times the level the government deems safe, and the spinach had levels more than seven times the safe level. The spinach also contained slightly higher than allowable amounts of cesium-137.
    The milk with the elevated radiation levels was found in Fukushima Prefecture on farms about 19 miles from the nuclear plants. The contaminated spinach was found one prefecture to the south, in Ibaraki Prefecture, on farms 60 to 90 miles south of the plants.
    Not a significant source of exposure. Unless you think that a CAT scan is lethal.

  316. pauls

    @Spence and @Wzrd1

    Once again health effects of radiation from fallout are considered to be the same as just the same levels added to the background. This just isn’t true and I131 in fallout is probably the posterchild element to illustrate this.

    But, I’ve repeated myself enough on this. Those who want to be safe, will take precautions. Those who can’t be bothered with nuance will stick with what they want to understand.

    Fortunately the latter right now are being protected by the Japanese government in its removal of tainted food from the markets.

  317. Eamon

    Paul@327

    The links you provide just report radiation levels in the immediate Yamagata area and I agree you do not face a risk from direct radiation. But then I didn’t say or imply this in my post. (I am puzzled though by your third link since it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the current situation.)

    Sorry, wrong link from the MEXT page. Try http://www.mext.go.jp/english/radioactivity_level/detail/1303986.htm

    What I did say was in response to your comment that you weren’t worried about food because you live near an agricultural area. Well, if this agricultural area is to the south or east of you which is now being dusted with fallout from the plants, then you do face a risk from your food supply. And this goes doubly for kids.

    My prefecture is directly north of Fukushima, and is one of the agricultural breadbaskets of Japan. If there is a large release of radioisotopes and the prevailing winds change then there will be a problem – but at present that hasn’t occurred.

    What puzzles me is that as a physicist, you should know this, namely that radioactivity levels per se are not the only danger to health in this situation. In fact, you can probably say that, except for those in the immediate vicinity of the plants, raw radiation levels will probably never be the primary concern.

    I am aware of that.

    Instead the concern is the potential for ingestion or inhalation of even minute amounts of the fallout coming from the plants. I.e. fallout that contains Sr90, Cs137, I131 and potentially even Pu from the MOX fuel of reactor #3. These elements are dangerous because they are biologically active; i.e. they are active in the sense that they can be incorporated into body tissues if ingested. Once in living tissue they are very carcinogenic when they decay. This is especially the case for children whose tissues are still growing and whose immune systems are still developing.

    Aware of that too.

    Hence, my suggestion that you be aware of where your food comes from. Try to be sure it comes areas that are far removed from the fallout. If you have kids, do this for them if not for yourself.

    All produce in Japan is labelled by prefecture – so we can keep track of where they come from. You can be assured I won’t be eating produce from contaminated areas – In fact the Japanese govt. has just yesterday put a hold on produce from four prefectures: http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/news/20110321p2g00m0dm063000c.html

    Whilst that might seem like the radioisotopes have spread far and wide – the government can’t fine-tune the banning of produce as the lowest level of identification of origin is the prefectural level.

    All that said, thanks for the concern.

  318. pauls

    @Eamon

    Good luck. I wish the best for you and the people of Japan living through such harrowing times. I’m impressed (but not surprised) by the reports of calm and cooperation. I doubt we Americans would handle so much turmoil as gracefully.

  319. mica

    @Wzrd1: i admire your positive attitude but i fail to see how you can meaningfully compare eating contaminated foodstuffs with getting a CT scan. a CT scan – if interpreted accurately by a technician – could detect (or rule out) stage 0 cancer and give you a better prognosis. so, medical benefits of early detection outweigh the potential risk for subsequent cancer. but eating contaminated veggies? no, thanks.

    anyways, please show me one epidemiological study that indicates there is nothing whatsoever to worry about long-term internal exposure to low dose radiation. i’m doing my masters in molecular oncology but i’ve never come across or heard of such papers. there are simply too many possible confounding factors involved in carcinogenesis/sarcomagenesis.

    in any case, all the tepco decision makers should be sent to the moon without spacesuits.

  320. Christopher

    High radiation leak suggests damage to No. 3 reactor vessel: agency

    TOKYO, March 25, Kyodo

    A high-level radiation leak detected Thursday at one of six troubled reactors at the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant indicates possible damage to the reactor’s vessel, pipes or valves, the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Friday.

    Three workers at the No. 3 reactor’s turbine building, connected to the reactor building, were exposed Thursday to water containing radioactive materials 10,000 times the normal level, with two of them taken to hospital due to possible radiation burns to their feet, the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.
    http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/03/80947.html

  321. Roberto

    Folks: I’ve just read the comments on this post, along with the time line…I am left in awe at the human ability to rationalize – nay- willfully ignore the consequences of reality spanking them on the arse…pseudo scientists debating with supercilious intellectuals…15 days into this disaster and we are into the second stage of this slow motion media meltdown…Lemme ask you something…What exactly is heroic about a man dying to fix the results of what will inevitably be judged to be the limited judgment of government and business interests who we falsely assume to be “authorities”? I guess what I am attempting to get at is the folly of humanity. It can be summed up with one fact: The half life of plutonium – the deadliest substance on the planet – is 24,200 years. The first records of human agriculture – and therefore human civilization – appeared 14000 years ago…. Yeah, I know it’s mind boggling, but please try and understand that there are things that the human mind just can’t grasp. Be afraid. It’s served the species well up to this point.

  322. Steve

    No matter what you think about this issue, existing Plants need rigorous inspections. But that is not happening anymore. Problem is “agency capture,” which is a form of corruption. The regulated energy companies make campaign contributions to congress which then cuts funding to the agencies. That means fewer inspections, weaker standards, and less chance of catching a looming disaster. This is a form of corruption. It is not investigated or punished. If left unchecked, like what is happening now, then a major disaster is inevitable. Nuclear power cannot be safe until the corruption of the regulatory scheme is fixed. No one is even talking about this issue. But it is the biggest problem the inductry faces right now.

  323. Joe
  324. Jim

    Where’s Phil’s follow-up to this story? Hasn’t the nuclear disaster been raised to the highest level 7?

  325. William Zuo

    i fell sorry for the people at japan

  326. Chris

    Article in today’s NYT. Seems that the meltdown happened soon after the tsunami. Weeks and weeks of being spoon fed distortions and lies. How are people to be expected to trust in nuclear power when time and time again it is demonstrated that we cannot trust the people who run the plants? Got a “remain calm” answer for that one?

  327. Tommy Primera

    Phil wrote: ” A nuclear reactor like this cannot release such a cloud of radioactivity; it’s physically impossible. ”

    The governments totally have this under control. Phil received education and employment from them for decades, so he should know.

  328. CJ

    That map is blown way out of proportion. The only way you could be exposed to 3,000 rads is if you’re playing Fallout.

  329. CJ

    That map is blown way out of proportion. The only way you could be exposed to 3,000 rads is if you’re playing Fallout.

  330. here in the article you state ” The chances of any of this radiation making it to the US coast are essentially zero.” Yet if you look at California and Washington, they are finding higher amounts of radiation in their milk and water supply. Our government is watching this closely. Yet at the same time without the general population knowing our US government is raising the acceptable levels of radiation so they would be able to say the levels are not much above acceptable levels if at all. Could you comment on this?

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