The Japan Syndrome

The coverage of events in Japan, especially concerning the nuclear facilities, is starting to piss me off.

No matter how low my expectations are for journalists, they still manage to fall short. I do not expect them to know everything — far from it — but do they have to know absolutely nothing?

These folks do not even know enough to ask the very simplest relevant questions. And they seem unable to find a guest “expert” who is not either a shill for the nuclear power industry or a member of Greenpeace. (Er, no offense to shills. Or to Greenpeace.)

My advice is simple: Do not listen to anybody on this topic unless you know who they are, what their credentials are, and who signs their paycheck. Which means you should stop reading me right now because I am not going to reveal any of those things.

I really am gobsmacked at the errors I am seeing. So here are some things I am pretty sure are facts, most of which have been contradicted in public by some idiot or other.

First, these reactors run on nuclear fission, not nuclear fusion, dammit. The only self-sustaining fusion reactions ever created by humanity have been measured in megatons (Pons and Fleischmann notwithstanding).

Next, the probability of a runaway chain reaction is zero. Atomic bombs are very, very hard to build. If you could make one just by shaking up a nuclear power plant, Iran would have one already. The fission reactions stopped shortly after the earthquake, when automated systems successfully shut down the reactors.

Thus far, the containment mechanisms at all of these plants are working, in the sense that nothing has escaped except the steam the operators have released. Even in the event of a “meltdown” — a weasel word with no definition, by the way — the passive containment (i.e. very thick concrete) is expected to prevent any large-scale release of radioactive material into the environment. Assuming those containment systems survived the earthquake, floods, and explosions, that is.

A Chernobyl-style failure is not possible with these reactor designs. If there is a similar outcome, it will be via a very different, and far more low-probability, mechanism.

All that said… Something nasty is entering the environment, because the zirconium-encased fuel rods are melting, releasing fission byproducts into the steam.

Definition: Two atoms are called isotopes if a physicist can tell them apart but a chemist can’t.

Definition: The half-life of a radioactive substance is how long it takes for half of a chunk of it to decay. Radioactive substances do their damage by decaying, so a short half-life implies a substance that is very dangerous but will not last long (unless there is a lot of it); a long half-life implies it will be around for a long time but is not very dangerous in the short run (unless there is a lot of it).

The isotopes to worry about are iodine-131 and cesium-137. The former has a half-life of 8 days, making it very dangerous in the near term. If you think you are going to be exposed to radioactive iodine, you take potassium iodide, because your cells — being mostly chemists — cannot distinguish radioactive iodine from non-radioactive iodine. So you saturate your cells with one to block the absorption of the other.

Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. This is the sort of stuff that seeps into the groundwater and increases the rate of cancer in your community by a fraction of a percent for a few decades.

10 micro-Sieverts = 1 milli-rem. Radiation poisoning is measured in Sieverts (as opposed to milli- or micro-Sieverts). Average background radiation on this planet exposes you to 2400 micro-Sieverts (= 240 milli-rem) per year. A chest x-ray exposes you to 80-100 micro-Sieverts (= 8-10 milli-rem). So if you read that radiation was measured at “1000 micro-Sieverts per hour”, you can think of that as “1000 hours’ exposure before symptoms appear” or as “10-12 x-rays per hour” or as “4000 times normal background radiation”. Which you pick will depend on which story you are trying to sell.

When purified water is exposed to radiation, it does not become dangerous; at least, not for long. So normal venting of steam from a nuclear reactor is no threat to anybody.

On the other hand, when sea water is exposed to radiation… Well, I suppose it depends what is in the sea water.

Here are some examples of good questions:

“Which isotopes are being released? Where? In what quantities?”
“Why are they pumping sea water instead of pure water into the reactors? Is that sea water turning into steam and being released?”
“How many micro-Sieverts per hour were measured, at what places, and for how long?”
“Are the containment vessels still intact? How do we know?”

Here are some examples of stupid questions:

“What is the worst-case scenario?”
“Could something like this happen in the U.S.?”

The only things I have read that I like:

Nuclear Accident ABCs by the Union of Concerned Scientists

MIT Course 22 (Update 2011-03-16: Whoops!)

One more thing. The question is not whether to build nuclear power plants. The question is what kind of power plants to build. If you can visualize and accept a monthly electricity bill 20 times higher than you pay today, then and only then are you allowed to answer “solar and wind”.

The realistic choices are fossil fuels and nuclear power, period. Whatever the result of this nuclear disaster, would the people of Japan have been better off with coal plants pumping CO2 and toxins into the air for the past 30 years? I do not know the answer. But I do know it is the right question, and I am pretty sure nobody is going to ask it.

Update 2011-03-15 01:40 EDT

On the other hand, when they start talking in hundreds of milli-Sieverts per hour… I wonder what the mechanism for that is (was?), and how long it will last.

The point is that all of these reports are meaningless without numbers. And not numbers like “1000 times normal background radiation”, which sounds bad but is actually trivial.

Stories about radiation measurements should always include when, where, how much, and for how long. Is that so much to ask?

12 comments to The Japan Syndrome

  • sixounces

    Great comments. I concur with your assessment of the general ignorance of the media, but what more could you expect from JOURNALISM majors? I don’t think any of them have even spent an hour on Wikipedia learning about reactors.

    It’s apparent to me that the media WANTS to sensationalize this story, so they’re going to do or say or interview whomever it takes to keep people glued to their televisions. Of all the problems that the people of Japan have to face, the nuclear reactors is among the least of them. The greatest danger from the reactors now is hydrogen explosions.

    BWRs are safe reactors, but not the safest. It’s regrettable that our nation gave up on the IFRs in the 1990s.

    One must put all this into perspective. A continental plate just slid under another one. It’s a miracle that any structure built by man could withstand that.

    I think you DO have an answer regarding the amount of pollutants from coal vs. the nuclear plant. People like us ARE asking that question. The trouble is that the people we elected aren’t asking that question. I doubt there are many politicians brave enough to stand up AT THIS MOMENT and declare that nuclear energy is still the last, best hope for energy independence.

    The only things that have prevented the complete development of safe, efficient, and clean nuclear reactors to supply almost all our energy needs is propaganda, and the fear it engenders.

    We abandoned Integral Fast Reactors in 1994 – 17 years ago. Imagine how much of our energy could be produced today with those reactors had we given the new Congress just two more weeks to consider what they were doing before they cut they funding. While the main proponents of abandoning this type of reactor were Bill Clinton and John Kerry, a large majority of Republicans in the Senate joined them in voting for the cut. I still don’t know what they were all thinking! Was it merely budget cuts or was John Kerry that persuasive?

    Or were there other interests, such as the coal and oil lobby that ended the IFR?

  • so Nemo, are you saying “BUY THE F*CKIN’ DIP” ??? That the market reaction is much ado about nothing? That there will not be a nuclear fallout cloud that hovers over japan for years and floats toward the Western U.S. seaboard? (and I’m not being snide here)

  • Kmicic

    I couldn’t agree more. Watching static is more enlightening about current events in Japan.
    MIT thing is more than decent, what’s more it’s human readable.

  • lurker

    Here’s something I found a little more interesting than news anchors gone wild in Japan:

    A banana equivalent dose (BED) is a concept[1][2] to place in scale the dangers of radiation by comparing exposures to the radiation generated by a common banana.

    Many foods are naturally radioactive, and bananas are particularly so, due to the radioactive potassium-40 they contain. The banana equivalent dose is the radiation exposure received by eating a single banana. By comparing the exposure from these events to a banana equivalent dose, a more intuitive assessment of the actual risk can sometimes be obtained.

    The average radioactivity is 130 Bq/kg (3 520 pCi/kg), or roughly 19.2 Bq (520 pCi) per 150 g banana.[3] The equivalent dose for 365 bananas (one per day for a year) is 36 μSv (3.6 mrems).[citation needed]
    Bananas are radioactive enough to regularly cause false alarms on radiation sensors used to detect possible illegal smuggling of nuclear material at US ports.[4]

    Another way to consider the concept is by comparing the risk from radiation-induced cancer to that from cancer from other sources. For instance, a radiation exposure of 0.1 mSv (10 mrem) increases your risk of death by about one in one million—the same risk as eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter, or of smoking 1.4 cigarettes.[5]

    The amount of radiation has spiked from about 30 bananas per day in Japan and is retracing to elevated levels of about 2 bananas per day. High, but not extremely toxic (although, who wouldn’t get sick after eating that many bananas that quickly), unless of course we’re talking about cesium bananas.

  • Nemo

    @KidDynamite —

    I do not give investment advice. (Based on my personal track record, you wouldn’t want me to.) That said, I do think that people are panicking irrationally. That is not the same as a “buying opportunity” because (a) the market was not necessarily a bargain in the first place and (b) even irrational panic can have real-world effects.

    I do not think this is “nothing”. In particular, when they started talking about milli-Sieverts instead of micro-Sieverts, that was a big deal. As I understand it, that was caused by a fire in the spent fuel (i.e., a new mechanism at work), and it was suppressed after a couple of hours. But I am still looking for details.

  • jesse

    Good comments and analysis. The BBC had a reasonably decent FAQ on the situation. Here’s an interesting question — why does the power plant have 4 reactors? Because they run for 18 months and are replenished over 6 months. So 3 of 4 are running at any one time.

    The other thing to note is that, from my understanding, most of the heat is being generated by decay of waste material, not uranium fission. The bulk of the heat of the rods will be dissipated over a few days so the name of the game is to control the heat generation until the fission by-products settle down to more stable isotopes. The problem with using electrolytic water (i.e. salt water) is that the salt will become radioactive, will be difficult to deal with, and can be expelled as particulate during steam vents. Apparently their deionized water supply was cut out.

    This is a great exercise in reviewing risk management. It sounds like the containment is holding (though that is being questioned) but due to significant heating they need to vent more than they planned. Their “backup” water circulation systems were wiped clean by a tsunami: given the reactor is right on the exposed coastline it’s a bit odd provisions weren’t made. Without knowing more it’s hard to say but that sounds like an oversight to me, or maybe what they’re doing now is part of their fault tree analysis and was deemed “acceptable” under risk analysis. When they state there “may” be a breach of containment, they are talking about postulates, brainstorming, and scenario management. Immediately people run to the catastrophic scenario without looking at the other more plausible scenarios. It may well be a containment breach, in which case we can analyze why it didn’t hold given it was supposed to under severe heat. These reactors were designed in the ’70s.

    I’m from Canada. There are the two American style reactors, however Canada has one called CANDU, used mostly in Ontario and eastern Europe. When comparing reactor designs there are more than just two. Just saying… :)

  • jesse

    My dad spent 15 years working as a scientist at a nuclear research facility. Being a scientist to the core he finds the current situation “fascinating”. But he also calls it a “big frigging mess”. Still, to date, everything you see being done is based on existing procedures, and that includes asking for help from everyone around the world who might be able to help. That may look like the government is losing control of the situation but I commend them for being humble enough to seek advice at their darkest hour in over a decade. I think North Americans can learn something from that.

  • jesse

    “clean nuclear reactors”

    The handling of the waste material is something for consideration. The best way is to find the most geologically stable region on the planet, dig a deep hole, encase the waste in something hard and inert, and lower it down the hole. Then put up all sorts of universally understood signs and jagged spikes around it. If nuclear is to be the panacea for our energy generation, a society needs the wherewithal and stability to handle this properly for centuries to come. I’m convinced carbon ain’t the answer. Overpopulation, arguably, should be up for debate too. Solving how best to accommodate increasing energy demands misses the obvious.

  • equityval

    I agree with your criticism of the media, the coverage has been horrible. On the other hand, TEPCO has been very sparse with details as to what they know and what has occurred. The truth seems to be the first casualty in every nuclear incident.

    This is the best articulation that I’ve seen of what has transpired to date, along with informed commentary on the risks going forward:

    While a Chernobyl style failure, narrowly defined, is not possible, last night’s fire showed that it is possible to have high levels of radiation released into the atmosphere from these facilities as a result of the vulnerabilities of the spent fuel pools. The fire that occurred last night occurred in the spent fuel pool in reactor 4, which was shut down at the time of the quake. There is now a hole in the roof of that building. There are two more reactors, 5 and 6, with spent fuel pools, which pools were experiencing rising temperatures as of this morning (what temps and how fast they were rising were not disclosed by TEPCO). Presumably the temps are rising because they can’t circulate and cool the water in the pools adequately. The fire in building 4 was put out last night with fire hoses from the ground.

    There were news reports today of a plan to dump water into building 4 from helicopters through the 8 square meter hole in the roof. This was later deemed unfeasible. The fact that they would consider a plan like this suggests that either they don’t have enough pumping capacity in the facility to manage all six reactors (and suggests going forward that the notion of putting six reactors in one place is probably not a good idea) or that the place is becoming or expected to become sufficiently hot, in radioactive terms, that it will be hard to continue to have people on the ground to do the job.

    There also seems to be a developing consensus, among scientists who seem to know something, that there has been damage to the reactor vessel in unit 2, as suggested by the inability to keep the water level up there. However, no one seems to have conclusive knowledge of what transpired with the “explosion” heard inside that reactor.

    While I agree that the radiation release to date has posed no risk to anyone except for a few workers at the plant, it doesn’t take a Hollywood imagination to expand from last night’s fire in building 4 to something that is truly catastrophic. I’m less dismissive of the risk from Cesium fallout than you are. If you had some kind of uncontrolled event in the 3 spent fuel pools, you would have a much higher quantity of the stuff thrown into atmosphere. It would eventually get into the food chain and the potential for problems in that case would be manifold. I have a friend who has worked with orphan kids born with birth defects in the Chernobyl region and the effects were not minor. You can see examples of some of the more minor cases of deformity here: I’m not a no nukes type, and realize that everything in life has risks along with benefits. But I’ve concluded that they are still a long distance from being “out of the woods” with these plants, and that the potential for economic as well human loss from any high level of Cesium release is quite big, especially in a place as densely populated and developed as Japan. I hope the media steps up its game, but in the meantime I’m paying attention, the tail risk here is still huge.

  • equityval

    Update: Dow Jones is reporting another fire in No. 4 reactor, that has broken out in the same place as last night. Also, NHK is reporting that efforts to cool the water in the spent fuel pool in building 4 were being hampered by the fact that workers couldn’t approach the pool due to high levels of radioactivity.

    Like I said, not out of the woods.

  • Nemo

    equityval —

    Yes, the burning spent fuel definitely adds a new threat to the mix.

    The other “worst case” scenarios, involving a breach of the containment, are really not very likely. The whole point of those structures is to contain the core even if it melts completely. That is what they are designed to do.

    But the spent fuel is obviously a lot more vulnerable than it ought to be. Apparently, it’s a bunch of radioactive crap with minimal containment just sitting there trying to catch fire.

    As I said in an earlier comment, when the news shifted from talking micro-Sieverts to milli-Sieverts, obviously something has changed in a major way. If that stuff manages to burn for days… Awful to think about.

  • You say “No matter how low my expectations are for journalists, they still manage to fall short. I do not expect them to know everything — far from it — but do they have to know absolutely nothing?”

    In my opinion, that is a job requirement. I make fun of the fact that journalists seem to know nothing here:

    A taste of the section in question:

    A group of T.V. news people arrive with cameras. They are led by Dick Jockman. When they arrive, the animal rights activists group together and gesture about, clearly planning their media strategy.

    Dick: Let’s set the cameras up right over here.
    I don’t want to obscure a camera’s shot.

    Ranger Peter: Excuse me, but you cannot set them up
    Right there. That is protected habitat.

    Dick: Protected habitat? For what? What’s here?

    Ranger Peter: You don’t know why you’re here?

    Dick: I cultivate
    My ignorance with care so there’s no danger
    That I will bias my report. I do
    Not know a thing and I am proud of it.

    Ranger Rick: And yet I know you went to school . . .

    Dick: Of course.
    A football scholarship to major in
    Communications. I avoided sports
    Reporting for the reason that I knew
    Too much about the area to do
    The kind of job that I’d been taught to do.

    Ranger Rick: A regular Lou Dobbs of reporting
    On the environment, I see. How splendid.

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