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UPDATED: “Level-Headed” Nuclear Crisis Thread

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I still don’t know much about nuclear engineering (though thanks to informed commenters on my earlier thread my knowledge is now greater than zero). And now that I’m in transit to the International Studies Association Conference instead of home juggling kid activities, I’ve had time to hunt for information from more people who understand nuclear reactors. [In between flights that is: disclaimer – this post may not reflect the most recent news coverage as I am now in Canada without constant internet access.]

Let me first get off my chest how disappointed I am, though unsurprised, by most of the media coverage (news outlets seem to be covering fear as much as facts, though see this BBC report. And therefore, justifiably, I’m watching not a few people I know and respect freaking out as they watch the “nuclear crisis” nuclear crisis unfold. A relative of mine is even telling me I should be feeding my little nuggets iodine pills in anticipation of a massive radioactive cloud sure to hit the US in a few days.

But now, a colleague of mine who is based in Japan just posted this link by University of Adelaide’s Barry Brook on FB, describing it as an alternative to the hype, so I’ll pass it along for starters. Brook begins:

Along with reliable sources such as the IAEA and WNN updates, there is an incredible amount of misinformation and hyperbole flying around the internet and media right now about the Fukushima nuclear reactor situation. In the BNC post Discussion Thread – Japanese nuclear reactors and the 11 March 2011 earthquake (and in the many comments that attend the top post), a lot of technical detail is provided, as well as regular updates. But what about a layman’s summary?

Brook then reposts a useful analysis by MIT scientist Research Scientist Josef Oehmen, which also begins by describing what in his view is a media environment saturated by misinformation:

I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control.

There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity. By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are built and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.

Oehmen then goes on to provide what Brooks calls a “layman’s” explanation of what is actually happening inside the reactor. (Personally I still find it a bit technical, and it’s noteworthy that many of these more “level-headed” analyses are coming from individuals who also identify themselves as sympathetic to the use of nuclear energy, so make of that what it you will. But these individuals also tend to be scientific experts, not journalists.) I strongly encourage readers to read the whole thing, which provides a concise and clear story of what happened and why, plus the comments thread, but if nothing else let me just paste the bullet points the author uses at the end to sum up the situation as of March 12. Updates are here.

• The plant is safe now and will stay safe.
• Japan is looking at an INES Level 4 Accident: Nuclear accident with local consequences. That is bad for the company that owns the plant, but not for anyone else.
• Some radiation was released when the pressure vessel was vented. All radioactive isotopes from the activated steam have gone (decayed). A very small amount of Cesium was released, as well as Iodine. If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy. The Cesium and Iodine isotopes were carried out to the sea and will never be seen again.
• There was some limited damage to the first containment. That means that some amounts of radioactive Cesium and Iodine will also be released into the cooling water, but no Uranium or other nasty stuff (the Uranium oxide does not “dissolve” in the water). There are facilities for treating the cooling water inside the third containment. The radioactive Cesium and Iodine will be removed there and eventually stored as radioactive waste in terminal storage.
• The seawater used as cooling water will be activated to some degree. Because the control rods are fully inserted, the Uranium chain reaction is not happening. That means the “main” nuclear reaction is not happening, thus not contributing to the activation. The intermediate radioactive materials (Cesium and Iodine) are also almost gone at this stage, because the Uranium decay was stopped a long time ago. This further reduces the activation. The bottom line is that there will be some low level of activation of the seawater, which will also be removed by the treatment facilities.
• The seawater will then be replaced over time with the “normal” cooling water
• The reactor core will then be dismantled and transported to a processing facility, just like during a regular fuel change.
• Fuel rods and the entire plant will be checked for potential damage. This will take about 4-5 years.
• The safety systems on all Japanese plants will be upgraded to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami (or worse)
• I believe the most significant problem will be a prolonged power shortage. About half of Japan’s nuclear reactors will probably have to be inspected, reducing the nation’s power generating capacity by 15%. This will probably be covered by running gas power plants that are usually only used for peak loads to cover some of the base load as well. That will increase your electricity bill, as well as lead to potential power shortages during peak demand, in Japan.

If you want to stay informed, please forget the usual media outlets and consult the following websites:
• http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_Battle_to_stabilise_earthquake_reactors_1203111.html
• http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/12/japan-nuclear-earthquake/
• http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2011/03/11/media-updates-on-nuclear-power-stations-in-japan/

There’s a lot more there, but I’m heading to a conference panel. Here are another couple of links I found quite helpful in understanding how nuclear power plants are designed and what different kinds of nuclear accidents refer to (there’s actually a scale much like the Richter scale).

I’m really delighted to see these comment threads used as a means to crowd-source informed thinking on the subject rather than hype. I look forward to continuing to learn about the nuclear angle from readers’ reactions, as I don’t really know much more than this and in some cases much less than readers who have an engineering background.

Here’s what I do know as someone who studies human security risks: I have not seen any documentation of injuries or casualties due to radiation, or any credible source claiming that there is a significant risk of widespread, life-threatening doses of radiation in the future even in a worst case scenario situation.

However, tens of thousands are already dead, injured, or at risk as a result of the non-Fukushima-related aspects of the March 11 quake and tsunami. These include direct injuries from and deaths from the event, but in the next few days we are likely to see additional massive casualties from air and water-borne disease, malnutrition and sepsis. All of these problems, and medical relief efforts, will be compounded by the power shortage created by the shut-down of the reactors: in other words, the biggest health risk for actual people is not the presence of the nuclear reactors but the absence of the energy they were providing.

Anyway, I’d like to urge readers to join me in supporting organizations engaged in wider relief and protection efforts, while we give technicians in Fukushima and at other reactors a chance to complete the work of maintaining the cooling process already underway. And I hope we can all urge the media and pundits to keep things in perspective as well.

UPDATES:

Brave New Climate is being and has been updated repeatedly as events unfold. Here is the March 14 Update. Here is More Technical Information on Reactors. Here is the March 15 Update.

MORE UPDATES (4:07 a.m. EST March 16, 2011)

I want to apologize if this update seems overdue. I posted the original on a short layover en route to Montreal and am now attending a professional conference rwithout ready internet access (at least in the room I was in today). During today’s workshop and throughout the evening I was able to submit quick replies to commenters using my Iphone, but I was not able to follow the developing news closely. I also will not be able to sustain commenting either throughout the week as roaming fees here are prohibitive and my agenda is frankly quite packed. I ask that no one will take the lack of posting as a sign of disinterest or disengagement.

First, a couple of updates that are clearly needed after going through the comments and reading updated news coverage: I have removed the quotation marks from “nuclear crisis.” There is no longer any doubt that it is. I remain concerned about how the media framing is affecting our understanding of the possible health risks, but it also seems the media coverage is getting more nuanced over the last two days.

Update #2: Joseph Oehmen’s actual title is “Research Scientist.” As I had hoped the links to his publications would make clear to any reader who assumed that by “MIT scientist” I meant “nuclear scientist,” his training and research is in risk management not nuclear science. (I apologize for mucking up the link to his original article.) Events since Monday suggest his risk predictions appear to have been off in this case – how much we still don’t know.

Update #3: I have added quote marks to the term “Level-Headed” in the title. If by level-headed we mean “possessing healthy skepticism” (and I do) Oehmen appears to have had it with respect to the media narrative, but not with respect to his own predictions. So I erred in presenting him among my list of examples of level-headedness. (I continue to believe we should be aiming at level-headedness as we interpret coverage of this event.)

But, to be fair to Oehmen, it has also turned out that this essay was not written in his capacity as a professional risk analyst, rather it was apparently a personal communication to his family in Japan that was posted online by a cousin. So I’m inclined to interpret the confidence of his predictions as reassurances to friends and family and expect that he is neither stupid nor arrogant nor “non-level-headed” but simply that he would have used more careful wording if he were writing as an expert for a wider audience. I apologize for not catching this faster than the commenter (Antonio Conselheiro) who did, to whom I’m grateful. In hindsight I also regret I excerpted the portions of his post that turned out to be the least technically helpful and are now the most out-of-date. It’s no surprise to me that Oehman has since removed it from the original site.

Since a lot of commenters seem to be assuming that all this means everything he wrote was bunk, I want to point out that large portions of his post are now online (minus the failed predictions) at a site hosted by the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. The site authors state:

“The original article was adopted as the authors believed it provided a good starting point to provide a summary background on the events at the Fukushima plant.”

I continue to think we have at least something to learn from analysts like these, rather than from simply reposting media reports framed to appeal to our fears- the phenomenon that motivated my post. In that vein, I am finding additional updates at this newly established blog to be pretty useful complement to news coverage as well, in addition to the Union of Concerned Scientists , the International Atomic Energy Commission, and posters/commenters at ArmsControlWonk.

Now note the authors of the MIT blog are MIT students, “with the support of their faculty.” (So make of that what you will – do they count as ‘experts’ or not? What I make of it is that they probably know a lot more about nuclear reactors than I do and than many journalists. If you think that’s crazy, feel free to let me know why, but please be respectful to these young people or I may delete your comments.) From their “about” page:

The purpose of this blog is not to provide up-to-date information about the ongoing situation at the nuclear facilities in Fukushima, Japan, nor is it to promote to a pro-nuclear political agenda. Rather, we are trying to provide non-sensationalized, factual data from engineers in a manner that the general public can understand. We are fighting to decipher conflicting news reports and manage the frustrating lack of clarity to provide this information. Also, please understand that we are full time students, busy writing theses, going to classes, and completing homework assignments, so these updates may be somewhat behind those of the media outlets.

The authors of MITNSE recommend this site and this site for up-to-date, reliable information. That’s kind of interesting because Barry Brook gets his information from similar sources, but some commenters have discredited Brook’s sources and analysis in ways that I can neither refute nor agree with having not read all his sources exhaustively. However I guess, not knowing the identity or professional expertise of most of my commenters, that I’ll go with what the MIT nuclear engineering students tell me are reliable sources to the extent that I keep following this over the next few days. (Which honestly won’t be much due to my current professional obligations.)

In fact, as the more “level-headed” commenters have repeatedly reminded us all, right now it’s very hard to know how this will pan out. So I’m thinking one of the best uses of my energy is probably to stop trying to follow it for a bit, and see how things look in a few days. Plus continue to donate to the wider relief effort. I hope some of you will do the same. Cheers.

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