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Trust, reason and Japan's nuclear emergency

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caraher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-27-11 09:09 PM
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Trust, reason and Japan's nuclear emergency
The past two weeks have been maddening for me as the nuclear disaster in Japan unfolds. There has been a catastrophe of the highest order in Japan between the earthquake and tsunami, taking thousands of lives and causing vast economic damage, and there's no serious doubt that the multiple failures at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power station constitute an extremely serious nuclear emergency. My personal frustration - which is of no consequence in the grand scheme of things, of course, next to the suffering of the people of Japan - is with the difficulty in learning and communicating effectively just what is happening in Japan.

Ultimately, I lay most of the blame on the nuclear industry itself. A week before the quake hit, I attended a conference on the physics of sustainable energy, and the final speaker was Bob Budnitz, a physicist with extensive nuclear industry experience from Lawrence Berkeley Lab, who addressed the safety of the current fleet of reactors. The thrust of his talk was that in recent decades the US nuclear power industry has a vastly improved safety culture, with much better training all around (every reactor now has an on-site simulator for ongoing training, compared with the '70s when each manufacturer had one), retrofits to remedy design flaws, etc. Slides showed data reflecting orders-of-magnitude reductions in the frequency and significance of operational events that could be precursors of serious accidents.

Asked a fairly direct question about trust, however, the speaker conceded that it's a serious problem. He characterized the '50s and '60s in particular (he entered the field in 1961) as an era when the industry, frankly, behaved badly, and did a lot of things it should not have done. Obviously, critics of nuclear power will say they're still irresponsible, but the concession is still telling. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and if first impressions are lasting impressions the industry faces a long uphill struggle in rehabilitating its image that Fukushima just made a lot steeper.

(One unintentionally ironic remark Budnitz made came in response to a question about proposals for smaller mass-produced reactors. He commented that these designs don't come from fly-by-night operations but from companies "we trust like GE and Westinghouse." I think for many those are precisely the companies they do NOT trust!)

And it's not merely the fact that the disaster happened - it's also the way things unfolded, and the fact that even if US nuclear operators are indeed as "reformed" as Budnitz says, there's also every reason to view TEPCO as a holdover from the "bad old days." While trying to bring the situation under control is the most important challenge Japanese authorities face, it's also vital that they communicate honestly regarding the situation. It's hard to believe that they have consistently done so.

In assessing the situation, we in the general public - even those with a modicum of relevant expertise - are in a real bind. What little hard data exists regarding what's happening on-site comes from official sources that have a track record of lies or obfuscation. So it's largely a matter of guesswork - *if* such-and-such is true than it's likely that the reactor is in condition X and releases of radioactive materials into the environment will probably be around Y level. But it could be worse (repeat with a more pessimistic estimate of the true conditions inside the reactors).

It doesn't help at all that most media reports are data-poor and frequently include huge mistakes regarding units (especially the distinction between milli- and micro-). They also generally confuse critical distinctions between concepts like radioactivity and radiation dose, introduce scientifically questionable notions like implicit threshold doses for harm from radiation, etc.

At the same time, there's a strong tendency among many here to react as if this emergency will inevitably render all of Japan an uninhabitable radioactive hellscape and kill thousands of people in other parts of the world. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen a science-based assessment of health risk responded to with a flip "just keep telling yourself that" - the implication being that anyone who actually tries to estimate the actual likely scope of the harm caused by radiation is just drinking the kool aid provided by the nuclear industry. I do appreciate that there exists controversy regarding how to model the effects of low-dose radiation (where by "low dose" I mean too low to result in acute radiation sickness), and while I disagree with analysis behind some of the higher assessments of, say, the number of deaths due to radiation from Chernobyl, I'm fine in principle with having that discussion, provided it doesn't devolve (as it too often does in the E/E forum) into ad hominem attacks or accusations of being scientifically ignorant or a "shill" for the nuclear/fossil fuel industry simply because one has a different position on the wisest course for our energy future.

But the problem is that, beyond legitimate disagreements about risk assessment, there's a pervasive know-nothingism at work. There are, believe it or not, certain facts about nuclear fission, biological hazards of radiation exposure, how particles (radioactive or not) diffuse through the environment, accumulate (or not) in ecosystems and organisms, units of measurement for radiation exposure and radioactivity, etc. that can actually give insight into what's going on. Unless and until you have educated yourself enough to understand these things and can apply that understanding in a quantitative way (e.g. to be able to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the likely number of thyroid cancers one might expect from a given amount of I-131 in drinking water) you have no business making forecasts of huge spikes in thyroid cancer rates. If you don't know the difference between a Sievert, Becquerel and a rem please do not tell us that every worker trying to fix this mess is doomed.

Exposure to ionizing radiation is an emotionally charged subject, and it's especially tricky to deal with because its effects are largely invisible. But not understanding something is a poor basis for concluding that it's going to kill you. And just because the industry involved has a lengthy track record of lies doesn't mean that it's completely impossible to make realistic estimates of harm. Many of us here who do have a technical background readily acknowledge that TEPCO probably isn't being completely honest, but that doesn't mean that a few Bq/liter of I-131 detected in rainwater means we should all lock ourselves indoors, hoard bottled water and start popping potassium iodide tablets.

I like to think one thing that distinguishes us from our right-wing counterparts is our respect for the facts, whatever they may be. Uninformed alarmism here deserves no more respect than denial of climate change or evolution (or for that matter, blind cheerleading for nuclear power and offshore drilling) does when it comes from the right.


1. Don't automatically discount as "happy talk" every risk assessment that comes in below what you fear.

2. Recognize that assessments of the dangers of radiation do vary, and be aware of which estimates are "mainstream" and which represent dissident views accepted by comparatively few scientists (on one extreme, the threshold (no harm below a certain exposure) or even hormesis (a little radiation is healthy) theories; on the other extreme, those who put the Chernobyl death toll close to a million or who say Three Mile Island was much more serious than we've been told). The fact that those views are minority views does not, of course, make them false; but you should be aware that they are definitely outside the mainstream consensus.

(P.S. For what little it's worth, regarding Chernobyl, I think the TORCH report is probably the most reasonable assessment of the radiation effects of that disaster on human health. Note that estimates range from lowball figures of under 100 deaths to nearly a million; a good back-of-the-envelope figure assuming that on average 2000 person-rem of exposure results in one cancer death combined with "mainstream" exposure estimates would predict about 30,000 excess cancer deaths, the low end of the TORCH report estimate. At the same time, none of this takes account indirect effects of the disaster, such as the psychological stress and the economic and physical dislocations that accompanied the disaster. Looking at direct biological effects of radiation surely underestimates the severity of Chernobyl, and probably will underestimate the effects of Fukushima as well. I'm hopeful that the radiation effects in Japan will fall well below the Chernobyl toll (not to mention the already horrific earthquake/tsunami death count), while recognizing that, especially given Japan's population density, there's the potential for it to be far worse even if less radioactive material escapes.)
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