Fallout from Fukushima

Hugh Pennington

The media are giving as much attention to the Fukushima I nuclear power plant as they are to the impact of the tsunami, even though the likelihood of measurable health effects from the former is small, and the number of deaths caused by the latter is certain to be very large. This isn’t surprising: nuclear fear, founded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reinforced by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, is not irrational, though it’s worth noting that many more people have been saved by X-rays and radiotherapy than have been killed by radiation of any kind.

What’s happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi Units 1 and 2 is similar to what happened at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in 1979. The Three Mile Island light water reactor scrammed eight seconds after a pump failure. (SCRAM stands for 'Safety Control Rod Axe Man': Norman Hilberry stood with an axe on top of the first nuclear reactor, at the University of Chicago in 1942, ready to cut the rope holding the control rod if radioactivity ran amok.) The Fukushima light water reactors 1, 2 and 3 scrammed automatically in response to the earthquake (reactors 4, 5 and 6 were already shut down for maintenance). Scramming reduces a reactor’s heat production by more than 92 per cent, but heat from radioactive decay means that cooling is still needed.

At Three Mile Island, valves failed; at Fukushima, the problem was with diesel-powered cooling water pumps. At Three Mile Island, the massive onslaught of alarms overwhelmed the operators, measurements were misinterpreted and half the reactor core melted. Water reacted with hot fuel casings to produce hydrogen, which escaped into the containment building and ignited. But the reinforced concrete building, which was designed to withstand a plane crash, was unbreached. At Fukushima, each of the sturdy containment buildings is surrounded by a much flimsier structure. The explosions were probably caused by plant operators releasing hydrogen from the containment buildings to relieve the pressure.

Most studies have found that the negative health effects of Three Mile Island approach zero. But the accident did lasting damage to nuclear power’s reputation, already low – in 1973, E.F. Schumacher wrote that nuclear power is 'the most serious agent of pollution of the environment and the greatest threat to man's survival on earth' – and Fukushima has dented it even further. The hard task for politicians is to square nuclear fear with anxiety about the imminent threat of climate change.


  • 14 March 2011 at 11:32am
    Joe Morison says:
    It's difficult for a lot of us on the greenish left because once opposition to nuclear power seemed like a no-brainer, almost a matter of principle instead of science. But now, with climate change plausibly threatening global catastrophe, we have to honestly rethink. I'm completely won over to the need for nuclear but incidents like this make it harder to persuade the sceptics, so it was good to read HP's post. One thing is clear, tho': nuclear facilities should never be built in areas of frequent seismic activity.

  • 14 March 2011 at 7:23pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I'm not sure I can agree with your relation between nuclear energy and its dangers and the beneficial results of X-rays and radiology. The official position on the use of nuclear energy to produce electricity has always been that the risks of an explosion or release of radiation was 'minimal' or that there was a minimal risk that could be calculated and pre-empted. It seems to me that the events in Japan, but also in Chernobyl show that there is such a thing as a 'Metamurphy's Law'. What can go wrong does go wrong on a gigantic scale. I don't think that a majority in Britain (or France for that matter) will be ready to accept that all nuclear power stations are safe enough to be kept on line.
    The other point I would make is that the owners of nuclear power plants are very quick to suppress any reports of the incidence of radiation diseases in the neighbourhood of power stations. Can we justify risking the health of people who happen to live in the neighbourhood?
    I won't even start on the question of what to do with the nuclear waste, or who pays for the scrapping of old power stations. There's a dump near Wolfenbüttel in Germany in which thousands of rusting, rotting canisters containing 'weak' radioactive substances' which will have to be put somewhere else at a cost of Billions. Some system!

  • 15 March 2011 at 7:05pm
    cigar says:
    What most news articles fail to mention (even the Flash animations in the NYT and videos in Al Jazeera and the BBC) is that the depleted fuel rods are kept on a pool above the reactor, and that they both share the same water. And most of the reporters and the experts they consult do not emphasize enough the fact that the depleted fuel isn't really so: it is still decaying and so producing heat, and can cause as much damage in a meltdown as one in the reactor itself. Also rarely mentioned is the fuel rods' xyrconium casing. When exposed to air it burns together with the overheating uranium fuel, accelerating the meltdown.*

    I can't help thinking about Adam Curtis' documentary on nuclear power, part of his "Pandora's Box" series, made in the 90's. The nuclear scientists and engineers interviewed made it pretty clear that it was politicians' and corporations' obsession with size and economies of scale that led to the building of monster nuclear power plants that simply can't be made as safe as, say a gas fueled one. The complexity of the systems involved is such, that no amount of redundancy can ensure that a serious accident will not happen.

    But more than one engineer said that small reactors of the kind used in submarines (up to 60 MW, I think) are pretty safe. The French , British and US navies have been using them for close to half a century in hundreds of vessels without having to face a crisis comparable to Three Mile Island, let alone a Chernobyl.

    Yet the problem of what to do with the depleted uranium remains, and as long as it isn't solved, then it is difficult to see nuke power becoming acceptable to the masses in the near future.

    * Here's a detailed but pretty accessibly discussion of what happened (and could happen) in Fukushima:

    • 15 March 2011 at 9:14pm
      Joe Morison says: @ cigar
      The trouble is that the arguments surrounding the issue are so emotion driven. Here Der Spiegel is saying that because of Fukushima nuclear power is finished in Germany; but the conditions that led to this disaster, the insanity of building in area prone to earthquakes, don't apply to Germany.

      I like the idea of lots of small stations; but would they, for political reasons, have to be grouped together in a small number of places? And would that matter?

      I think that most of us arguing for nuclear power don't want it in itself, it's just that the prospect of global warming makes us a lot more frightened.

  • 16 March 2011 at 11:22am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    To say that: a) what's happening at Fukushima 1 & 3 is similar to what happened at Three Mile Island, and b) since there was probably little health damage at TMI, therefore not many will die as a result of the meltdowns at Fukushima, is faulty logic. Another thing TMI and Fukushima have in common is that they're very close to enormous conurbations. What should have been learned from TMI is that the outcome of any meltdown or explosion shouldn't endanger millions of people, but that is an impossible assurance to give.

    It is also faulty logic to say that nuclear power is going to save us from global warming, that it's the best alternative to burning fossil fuels. Nuclear power only prevents the earth from being uninhabitable until enough accidentally-released radiation has accumulated. It looks more promising to some people, maybe, because the rate of accumulation isn't predictable and a huge catastrophe hasn't happened yet. Yet nobody can guarantee it won't happen. The best way to reduce global warming is to reduce the amount of energy consumed.

    Joe, bear in mind that there's no authority that can tell Japan not to build nuclear power plants because they live in an earthquake zone. The greater insanity for the Japanese government has always been having an economy that's completely reliant on foreign oil. This is the paradox that needs to be resolved.

    • 16 March 2011 at 3:06pm
      Joe Morison says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      I don't like the term 'tipping point' because the idea that most things develop throu' punctuated equilibria has been around for at least fifty years. Geological evidence shows that this is true of the planet's climate, and there are powerful arguments that show that we are in the process of pushing the planet into a sudden change which will have catastrophic effects on our species. James Lovelock reckons we've passed the point of no return and that as the UK will be one of the few places that will be habitable, we should be preparing homes for the untold number of refugees that will seek asylum here. Instead, i fear, we will line our coasts with defences and watch death on a scale that will make what we're seeing on our screens now seem like a tea party.

      I'm not as pessimistic as Lovelock; my hope is that after a few more extreme weather incidents ('Nature' on 16/2/11 published two papers suggesting the UK floods in 2000 were caused by warming - i can't link to it because their site's having problems but here's a summary), we will realize what we're facing and do something.

      There are many downsides to nuclear but we are nowhere near making the planet uninhabitable throu' accidentally released radiation; in fact, hardly anyone has been harmed by it when compared to those who have died and are dying to bring us our energy today. Nuclear energy can't save us on its own, but it may very well be part of our only hope. I'm reminded of the moment when T. E. Lawrence, having just crossed the 'uncrossable' part of the Sahara, was supposedly told by an NCO that he couldn't drink from that well because it was contaminated, and he replied 'The last water i drank had a dead sheep in it'. If things are as desperate as most climatologists seem to think, we are in no position to quibble about things that might go wrong.

    • 17 March 2011 at 9:17am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Joe Morison
      hardly anyone has been harmed by it
      Joe, I don't understand why someone who's as concerned about global warming as you wouldn't be worried by the headlines in today's Guardian:
      Attempts to cool down reactor suffer early setback
      • Head of US nuclear regulator calls for wider exclusion zone
      • European Union energy chief says Fukushima plant 'out of control'
      * Britain joins countries urging their citizens to leave Tokyo
      * US and Europe voice fears of Japan mishandling crisis

      Without providing any evidence Hugh Pennington says the likelihood of measurable health effects from Fukushima is small. Let's hope he's right, then we'll be safe until next time something unexpected happens.

    • 17 March 2011 at 2:09pm
      Joe Morison says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      I'm horrified by what's happening in Japan, and until a few years ago i was firmly anti-nuclear. Nechaev, below, talks of the 'hubristic arrogance of western scientific thought'; but scientific thought now tells us, most humbly, that we are on the verge of making the world largely uninhabitable for people. It's not in my nature to think this, i'm an optimist; and i'm alright (Jack) because i'm 50 and live high on the side of London's river valley.

      I'm all for thinking again, as Geoff urges below, and if anyone has got a solution to climate change that doesn't involve nuclear energy and has any chance of being realized in a world addicted to energy, i'd love to hear it and if persuaded will shout its merits from the rooftops.

      In this article by Murray Sayle in the LRB 2001 he describes the earth before the carbon that we are now putting back into the atmosphere was taken out "Both Poles were denuded of ice; the climate, perfect for giant swamp ferns, would have been unbearably hot and humid for humans, the atmosphere unbreathably contaminated with methane and carbon dioxide."

      As i've said, i don't like idea of nuclear energy; but i like the idea of the above a lot less.

    • 17 March 2011 at 3:00pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Joe Morison
      You (and Pennington) are too resigned to the current state of the world. It shouldn't be "feed your addiction by either global warming or nuclear energy", both of those choices lead to a sticky end. If scientific thought is telling us anything most humbly this week it's that we aren't capable of controlling nuclear power.

    • 17 March 2011 at 3:07pm
      Joe Morison says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      If, as a species, we behaved rationally, i'd agree with you - and we'd tackle our addiction. But like so many addicts, i think humanity will kill itself before it quits. If that's right, what other options are there?

    • 17 March 2011 at 3:46pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Joe Morison
      Nuclear requires enormous expenditure, and it's money that's taken from other options like wind & solar. So I'd rather put the money there than some place where I know it's doing damage.

    • 17 March 2011 at 8:28pm
      Joe Morison says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      If George Monboit, who really didn't want to, has concluded that the other options can't do it, that's good enough for me. I really hope a better solution is found, nuclear is a grim prospect.

  • 16 March 2011 at 11:40am
    James Alexander says:
    And BTW does Iran do earthquakes? I think so.

  • 17 March 2011 at 7:49am
    nechaev says:
    "The media are giving as much attention to the Fukushima I nuclear power plant as they are to the impact of the tsunami even though the likelihood of measurable health effects from the former is small"

    of course by now the stunning hubristic arrogance of the opening sentence of this blog entry could perhaps be excused due to unfortunate timing and sheer bad luck. But isn't that exactly the point? Nobody knows, least of all the 'authorities', scientific, political or otherwise, touted by the elites. On Sunday the Japanese variant of these august authorities was assuring its populace that everything was under control, and that any minimal radiation risk can be avoided by placing a wet towel over your nose. A classic black swan. Or is it? Perhaps it was after all entirely forseeable that a short-term energy fix that involved such risks (to say nothing of the hazards of storing its waste for hundreds if not thousands of years) was a museum-quality illustration of the hubristic arrogance of western scientific thought in general. Think again, o wise men....

    • 17 March 2011 at 3:56pm
      orlp says: @ nechaev
      "Hubristic arrogance"? On the contrary, he has merely not given in to the current hysteria.

      A quote from the BBC today:
      Professor Gerry Thomas, the director of the Chernobyl tissue bank from Imperial College London, says too much emphasis is being put on the nuclear issue. "I think we're getting an accurate picture as far as the radiological alarm is concerned. What concerns me most is that we're actually focusing on the wrong disaster. The real disaster is the tsunami and the number of people who've lost their lives that way. We're focusing on a disaster that isn't a disaster."

    • 17 March 2011 at 4:45pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ orlp
      There have been three explosions and two fires so far at the Fukushima plant. They are currently losing the battle to contain the radiation. So when he says it isn't a disaster, does he mean he's waiting for more people to die, or what?

      It isn't EITHER focus on the tsunami ("and if you don't you're a heartless bastard" is the implication) OR focus on the nuclear meltdown, it's possible to do both if you want to. For my part, rather than watch bodies being recovered, I prefer drawing attention to the fact that nobody can contain a meltdown in a nuclear power plant.

    • 17 March 2011 at 5:32pm
      Joe Morison says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      I've just been listening to Prof. Geraldine Thomas, an oncologist and Chair in Molecular Pathology at Imperial College, on 'Material World' on Radio 4: she worked on the population surrounding Chernobyl after the disaster there and said that they expected massive consequences but there were very little, and those that there were (thyroid cancer in children young when exposed) should be largely prevented this time because the Japanese government has been distributing iodine to the effected areas.

    • 12 May 2011 at 2:01pm
      luminous_dong says: @ Joe Morison
      BBC programming has featured Professor Thomas many times since the Fukushima disaster. They regard her as an expert on radiation and health but, in Nick Ross' programme, Fallout The Legacy of Chernobyl she denies that Britain was affected by Chernobyl. In fact the average land contamination in the United Kingdom was 1,400 Becquerels per square metre radioactive Caesium 137 (data from UNESCO and UNSCEAR). Sheep on some 300 farms are still subject to tests.
      Professor Thomas has some expertise on thyroid cancer so she might be expected to know about a paper in the European Journal of Cancer (May 2001) showing a significant increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl accident. In Cumbria, the area receiving the heaviest fallout in the UK reported up to 40 kBq/sq.metre, the increase in incidence was much greater (more than 12-fold). The fact that Cumbria had some contamination levels at 40 kBq/sq.metre means that it was within Nick Ross's questionable definition of where the radioactivity settled.

  • 17 March 2011 at 9:31am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Hugh Pennington has given us useful, reliable information in the past, but it seems to me that he is off course with his assessment of the situation in Japan. Clearly, the situation is out of control and the consequences are completely unpredictable. That is what the opponents to nuclear energy have always said. The technology can go wrong and a disaster is always possible. Here is the disaster. Now think again.

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