Dangerous Fallout From Japan's Nuclear Panic
With news of Japan’s once-in-300-year earthquake and resulting tsunami, Secretary Clinton announced “We just had our Air Force assets in Japan transport some really important coolant to one of the nuclear plants.” Rep. Ed Markey (D., MA) has warned of “another Chernobyl,” saying “the same thing could happen here.” Amidst the chaos, the media has been reporting on the next “big fear” and CNN has shown their ignorance by presenting schematics of pressurized water reactors, when the Japanese reactors are boiling water reactors.
Because the concept of nuclear power is foreign to most of us, panic is easily created. Senator Lieberman, a long-time nuclear supporter, now wants to “put the brakes on” nuclear power plant construction in the US. Those who really understand nuclear energy usually have advanced degrees in physics. Words like reactors, meltdown, core damage, neutrons, half-life and radioactive, make us susceptible to Hollywood-like, worst-case scenarios.
In fact, the US did not send “coolant” to Japan. Remember, the plants in Japan operate on water-usually de-mineralizd. In this earthquake/tsunami drama, the plants perfectly withstood the first hit of a 9.0-even though that was considerably more intense than the intended design. The redundancy engineered into the system kicked in. Though the reactors shut down as they were supposed to, they do not cool off immediately. The diesel-powered generators pumped the water to continue cooling. Then the wave hit and knocked them out. Even then, batteries kept the pumps working until mobile generators could be brought in. These procedures bought time and allowed for precautions. With the help of the additional generators, seawater (abundant in an island nation) has been used to expedite the cooling-even though its corrosiveness means the reactors will never be usable again. The more time elapsed, the cooler the fuel. The longer this goes on, the greater the likelihood that the only thing overblown is fear.
The Chernobyl comment, once again, plays on a fundamental lack of understanding (or deliberately ignores scientific principles of nuclear energy) and stirs up fear. What happened with the Chernobyl reactor, is not possible with the Japanese or US light water reactors. The designs are fundamentally different and that plant could not have been licensed here or in Japan. Today’s nuclear plants have corrected the flaws with lessons from the Chernobyl incident. Likewise, the failure of the generators that provided electricity to pump the cooling water following the tsunami (Generation II design) have already been fixed in current designs (Generation III).
So what is the fear? Why is the news media all nuclear, all the time?
The concern is the potential exposure to high levels of radiation. This, too, is an overreaction. Bad news sells. As was revealed through a comment made during a hearing in which I participated for proposed uranium mining, the public perception is that there is “no acceptable amount of radiation”-which implies that radiation is a man-made, bad thing, not naturally present in nature. The NY Times reported that “Radiation levels around the plant spiked after the explosion to 8,217 microsieverts an hour…” Which sounds really scary if you do not understand that 8,217 microsieverts an hour is equivalent to 0.8 rem/hour (10 millisieverts = 1 rem). Background radiation (that naturally found in nature) is around 0.3 rem/yr and workers are allowed 5 rem/yr. So this “spike” says that you should avoid being near the plant for more than a few hours. This is a problem because the pool of workers with the needed expertise is limited. Now experts from across the globe are arriving in Japan to help out. If the situation were truly threatening, those from other countries who know better would not voluntarily walk into the plant.
To put “radiation” into perspective, natural radiation comes from cosmic rays and the sun. Those of us who live at a higher altitude receive 2-3 times the radiation of those at sea level. The atmosphere provides some shielding. Mountain dwellers receive more radiation in a year than nuclear power plant workers get at sea level. Flat-landers are often surprised at how quickly they get sun burned when they are at higher elevations. One of the biggest concerns about radiation is cancer-which is why there is such emphasis on sunscreen.
Additionally, radiation comes from minerals found in mountainous places such as the Rockies. The combination of the high altitude and the naturally occurring radioactive minerals gives someone in Denver annual radiation exposure of two to three times the radiation exposure of someone on the East Coast-yet Denver is repeatedly one of America’s healthiest cities. Health studies have found that populations who live and work near uranium facilities have no differences from those who do not. Clearly there is “acceptable” radiation; we live in it all the time. Workers and residents in Japan are being monitored.
Japan has 55 nuclear reactors and 30% of their electricity comes from nuclear power. Thirteen reactors, at three power plants were in the quake zone. Of those, only one has released any increased radiation, They basically let off steam-which contained low levels of radioactivity. Because of seawater being used as “coolant,” the steam is slightly more radioactive due to the salt and other trace minerals in the ocean. The steam was deliberated vented into ancillary buildings to allow the reactor vessels to cool. However, inside the buildings, hydrogen that came out of the steam blew the roof off. This made great television and added fear, but the containment vessels and their systems remained intact. The blast was not a “nuclear explosion” and was a known and accepted risk that successfully allowed the radioactivity to diminish at the site.
Preoccupation with the nuclear plants has diverted attention from the much greater tragedy that has taken place-the likely death of over 10,000 persons from the earthquake and tsunami that has struck Japan. As William Tucker said in the Wall Street Journal, “With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.” The biggest crisis inflicted on Japan would have occurred with, or without, nuclear power.
As humans, we cannot control the earth-though we sure do try, but we feel we can control other eventualities. Hence, the intense focus on the reactors and radiation. We can control them. We should learn from the past, but move into the future.
Instead of offering suggested improvements as a result of the Japan earthquake, Senator Lieberman wants to put the brakes on American nuclear development. Yes, questions should be asked. The biggest one should be about an all-of-the-above energy portfolio: oil, gas coal, nuclear/uranium, hydro, wind and solar-unlike Japan, we are rich in resources. Without nuclear power, America could be facing the same supply-demand gap a post-earthquake Japan is experiencing. Blackouts are causing mass confusion and delays. Consumers are being asked to cut back on energy.
What we can learn from the Japan earthquake is that the forty-year old nuclear power plant design performed better than expected. And, like the Fukushima Daiichi plant is far advanced and a completely different design than Chernobyl. Today’s Generation III and IV reactors are literally generations ahead of their predecessors. In the US we have twenty-one applications for new reactors.
Our energy needs will not go down, but, if we allow the nuclear panic to reign, our energy availability will be reduced. Before nuclear power was embraced in Japan, they relied on imported oil, gas and coal for their energy. Without nuclear power, we, too, will have to be more dependent on fossil fuels.
The most dangerous potential fallout from Japan’s earthquake could be the inability to be energy autonomous in thirty years. America’s future mandates a greater emphasis on energy and nuclear energy is an important part.
Marita Noon is the Executive Director at Energy Makes America Great Inc. the advocacy arm of the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy–working to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom and the American way of life. Find out more at www.EnergyMakesAmericaGreat.org.