After 3117 days, the nuclear situation in Japan has not produced a single radiation casualty
In the early afternoon of March 11—3117 days ago—just hours after the first reports of a nuclear emergency in Japan in the aftermath of the violent earthquake and tsunami, a reporter called me asking if there was any possibility of a meltdown.
Before hearing the news about a stricken nuclear plant in Japan I had never heard of Fukushima Daiichi; in the few hours after the first news reports I had looked it up in several nuclear energy information sites and learned it is a station with six generating reactors, all of the boiling water type (BWR).
On this basis, I had already concluded that the reported cooling problems at the plant could lead to a fuel melt, and that if that happened the consequences to people and the environment would be slight. This was based on a Science magazine article I had read previously. The article authors—led by Ted Rockwell, who is an engineer with more than 65 years experience in the nuclear industry—reviewed the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) accident. TMI involved the melting of some 10 to 15 tons of nuclear fuel in a pressurized water reactor (PWR). The Science article shows pretty conclusively that the actual dangers posed by melted fuel were small.
When I told the reporter I did not expect big consequences from a meltdown, she sounded very surprised. The word meltdown has become synonymous with ultimate disaster. What could possibly be worse than a meltdown?
Actually, lots of things are much worse. Take the tsunami that knocked out Fukushima’s cooling system. Yes, it caused three reactors to melt down to varying degrees. But it also killed tens of thousands of people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. The Fukushima meltdown has not killed anybody, or made anybody sick. The real disaster in Japan was the human casualties, not the wrecked diesel backup generators at the nuclear plant.
Another nuclear blogger, Rod Adams, who publishes the excellent Atomic Insights, made exactly that point, very early into the Japanese crisis. In an article entitled “Nuclear plant issues in Japan are the least of their worries,” published not even a day after the tsunami, Rod wrote
What is incredible to me, however, is that there are many people who are focusing on the wrong thing and worrying about low consequence details of the damage that should only be a major concern for the people who are directly involved in accident response. I know it is hopelessly rational of me, but when faced with a confusing array of dangers, I have been trained to handle the ones most likely to hurt me or my loved ones first. Prioritization and triage are important tools in damage control; wasting resources on those aspects that are being well handled means you have less time and tools available to respond to the really pressing details.
In North America, we appear to have drawn exactly the wrong lesson from the Japanese disaster. Instead of asking what could be done to protect coastal communities from tsunamis and storms, the focus has been on what more we can do to make nuclear plants safer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of making things as safe as reasonably possible. But we are not doing ourselves any favours by ignoring what actually killed people on March 11: a 14-meter wave barreling in from the ocean. We are 3117 days into a meltdown at a 1970s vintage nuclear plant, and that hasn’t killed anybody.
Harry Shearer, who plays Monty Burns on The Simpsons, has directed a documentary on the failure of levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Maybe this will help to focus the North American eye on coastal defenses on the west coast of this continent: a massive earthquake could strike at any time, and unleash a similar tsunami.
I wonder if, 3117 days after the meltdown in the reactors at Fukushima, many people who formerly equated nuclear meltdown with total disaster have started to look more critically at that equation. I must repeat:
After 3117 days, the nuclear situation in Japan has not produced a single radiation casualty.
I originally published this article eleven days before the 66th anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. I had no doubt then that plenty of people would attempt to conflate Hiroshima with Fukushima, and that this conflation would feature prominently in some media stories, especially ones from the Associated Press. And why not—they’re both in Japan, they both involve nuclear fission, and they both end in “shima.”
It was just as true in late July as it is now that the fact that those are the only three similarities won’t stop outlets like AP from publishing column-inch after hypercaffeinated column-inch of pop culture blather in an attempt to make these irrelevant similarities relevant and scare us into abandoning nuclear power in favour of natural gas, a far deadlier form of power generation. Maybe next they’ll turn their attention to the far-more-demonstrable link between the Green Revolution and terrorism. (Hint: a huge commonality between the two is something called ammonium nitrate.)
My first reply would be to point out that in the Hiroshima-Fukushima duel, Fukushima, for all the hype, has been a big fat disappointment on the casualty front.