“What’s the worst-case scenario?”

I continue to hear people asking this, including some who should know better. I say again: This is a stupid question.

You really want to know the answer? OK. Space aliens land near the nuclear plant. One of them, being inhumanly sensitive to radiation, gets sick and dies. Her comrades interpret this as an attack and exterminate humanity. There, that is the worst-case scenario.

Oh, is that not what you meant? Then you need to say what you do mean. And do not just add a word like “realistic” because then my answer will involve a meteor hitting the facility or a second massive earthquake or something.

The question is ill-defined, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s stupid. (I suppose I should mention: My definition of “stupid question” is not “the answer is obvious”. My definition of “stupid question” is that the question is stupid.)

Look, we are talking about a large quantity of fissionable material and fission byproducts in a small space. Of course the “worst case” is very very bad. It is also very very unlikely. Do you ask “what is the worst-case scenario” before you board an airplane? I mean, is that really the first thing you want to know? If not, why not?

Since the question is ill-defined, you will get a different answer depending on the politics of whomever you ask. An anti-nuclear activist is going to give a very different answer than a lobbyist for the nuclear industry, and they could both be telling the truth because you asked a stupid question.

We do not need to know “worst-case scenarios”. We need to know details about what is happening at the plant. And we are not getting them, in part because TEPCO is a bunch of lying liars who lie and in part because journalists are morons.

6 comments to “What’s the worst-case scenario?”

  • Nemo –

    The problem is that 99% of people, myself included, are way out of their element here. So, we read pieces like the Oehmen post, and other that are very much like it, that say that even if things go very very very wrong, it doesn’t mean that the population of japan will be annihilated, or even harmed in any real way. Even if radiation escapes, and even if it escapes in large doses, it doesn’t mean that all of Tokyo gets fried with radiation poisoning. (according to some, I mean)

    So, when I ask “what’s the worst case?” I mean “if they can’t cool the reactor, if they just walk away, what could possibly happen?” I’ve read different answers from 1) you do not get a mushroom cloud explosion NO MATTER WHAT – ie, that CANNOT possibly happen, to 2) the reactors are designed to contain the bad stuff no matter what happens.

    look – I have no f’n clue – but I do believe it’s possible that the worst case is definable – ie, that mushroom cloud nuclear explosion is not on the table under any circumstances.

    if that IS a possibility, I’d love to know the series of steps that would have to lead to it.

  • scone

    Hey there Nemo. It’s thankless and hazardous defending journalists, but anywho. (1) Journos are mostly English majors, not physics majors. They probably don’t have enough technical know-how to frame a “smart” question in this context. (2) They are trained to ask the questions they think are on their readers’ minds, not their own, so the dumbness is partly a reflection of their perceptions of their audience (3) Asking “dumb questions” has less chance of getting you fired, because that’s SOP, and journos jobs are in peril. OTOH, asking smart questions suggesting you are a PITA, could be trouble on multiple levels. A job is worth more than a Pulitzer right now. I’m not saying let journos off the hook, but I don’t think they’re morons, just garden variety CYA corporate Borgs who are rational actors from the narrow POV of their own self-interest.

  • Nemo

    KD —

    But this is my point. Do you ask “What could possibly happen?” when you board a plane? The question is not what could “possibly” happen. The question is what is going on.

    Put another way, what you are really asking is, “What should I worry about, and why?” I mean, that is effectively the same question. But at least phrasing it that way makes it clear that you are relying on the judgement (not just the knowledge) of the person you are asking. The judgement being some combination of how bad an outcome is and how likely it is to occur.

    I agree that there will be no “mushroom cloud” no matter what. People really underestimate how hard it is to make an atomic bomb.

    But there are so many different levels of possible “badness” here. The core materials have clearly melted, which means even in the best case there will be some release of radioisotopes into the atmosphere. But the amounts could well be minuscule; low enough to pose literally no threat to health. In my view, the biggest threat is not what is inside the containment vessels, but what is outside the containment vessels; i.e. the material in the storage pools.

  • Nemo

    scone —

    You are right, of course. In a similar vein, you could respond to any criticism of politicians by saying they are just doing what people want. And therefore the problem is with us, the voters. There is certainly some truth to that.

    But I also expect my politicians to care about more than votes, companies to care about more than profits, journalists to care about more than ratings, and individuals to care about more than narrow self-interest. Naïve of me, to be sure… But there it is.

    Also, perhaps I am guilty of starry-eyed nostalgia, but I honestly think the likes of Murrow and Cronkite were just better than the A&F models performing similar jobs today.

  • A. Lewis

    Well, I’ll just put myself out on a limb here, for the purpose of giving people information about the worst-case scenario. My credentials are a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. This means I have taken enough math and physics to read and easily understand the descriptions of radiation, nuclear reactor technology, and most other aspects of the crisis in Japan. I have no special knowledge of the facts on the ground, and I am not a nuclear engineer.

    I am not sure what’s going to happen at Fukushima. I hope very much they can gain control of the situation. They have one basic need: keep things cool. They have two types of items to cool: reactor cores inside steel containment vessels, and spent fuel pools, which are lined with steel, but not significantly contained on top (as far as I know). I think there are many ways for them to succeed, at least partially, to keep things cool, and let’s hope they do.

    Presuming a well-posed question about outcomes, I will confidently say that even in the worst-case scenario, there will be no nuclear explosion (mushroom cloud).

    What we’re really afraid of is a special fire/fires and related events after that. A very nasty fire, in fact, when the fuel rods themselves catch fire (which they do spontaneously if left uncooled). Other things catching fire at the plant are not especially bad – what they are working to avoid is the fuel rods catching fire. Trust me on the physics when I say that a pile of nuclear fuel rods can catch fire and burn without ever coming close to making a nuclear explosion. It’s extremely hard to make a nuclear chain reaction – just don’t worry about that here.

    The problem is this nasty chemical fire – you have fuel rod chemicals burning at 2,000-3,000 degrees C, and the ‘smoke’ contains many cancer causing agents. If this was burning out in the open, this smoke is nasty stuff, and the wind carries it, potentially a long way. No mushroom cloud – just nasty smoke that can make you sick. I won’t speculate about how sick, how fast, or how long it lasts – those are details I can’t get. But an openly burning, super-hot fire of nasty chemicals is bad. Once it starts in earnest, it’s also very hard to put out, so you get that much more smoke from the duration of the fire. If big fires of the fuel rod materials start, you should be hoping the wind carries it over the Pacific, and not over Japan. If it goes over land, they would have to evacuate areas getting the smoke, and then have clean-up and contamination issues (again, I’m not going to guess how big or how bad).

    If it all goes horribly wrong (and I think this is pessimistic), they’ll lose control of the situation, and just have to let all the fuel rods overheat and burn, because no one can get close enough to put them out without dying. In this case, some fires will be open, some will be contained in a reactor. It might burn a long time (days, weeks?), and there might be a lot of deadly smoke.

    You could also get some secondary explosions if molten fuel melts through things and gets into places you don’t want it (a fuel tank, or a pool of ground water). These would ‘just’ be chemical or steam explosions, (not a nuclear explosion), and they would then throw all this nasty material around. That would be spectacular and bad, too. But the range of that event is in hundreds/thousands of feet of a probably-evacuated area (the power plant installation). And a big explosion will have a kind of benefit – all this nasty fuel rod material will get spread out, and spread out it is much less of a fire problem (and more of a contamination problem, of course).

    No mushroom cloud ever, but this is an awfully bad scenario – with widespread contamination (I don’t know how wide).

    That’s as much ‘worst-case’ as I see happening. And I would guess that many brave firefighters will be willing to suffer high exposures, or even give their lives up to keep things cool or put fires out before they would let all this happen. Let us hope it does not come to the point where someone must ask them to.

  • sixounces

    The funny thing is that, using your airplane analogy, pilots are taught NOT to tell passengers when there are potentially catastrophic conditions. Flight attendants are kept intentionally ignorant and are trained to remain calm regardless of what’s going on.

    A burning engine on a four engine plane is potentially catastrophic, but with the right procedures the pilots can put the fire out and land the plane safely. In fact, if the fire were put out the plane could probably, with reasonable safety,continue on to its destination. They would land the plane, however, out of an abundance of caution.

    The reason for intentionally withholding information is obvious – panic doesn’t help the situation and could make it far worse. No passenger is going to stand up and say, “I’m an aeronautical engineer and I know how to fix this!” The passengers can’t be issued parachutes.

    Returning from analogy to reality, panic would certainly make things far more difficult for Japan. But there is another motive for secrecy that you’ve made quite plain: avoiding responsibility for improper engineering, operation, monitoring, preparation, and response.

    Any ensuing investigation will involve subterfuge, scapegoating, recriminations, finger pointing, shredding parties, and feeble excuses.

    In defense of the indefensible, we did have a continental plate plunging under another continental plate. Billions of gallons of water surged onto a coastline which had already been lowered two feet by the geologic movement. There’s not much made by man that can withstand that must destructive energy. It could have been much worse. If the entire nation of Japan had been inundated by the not-so Pacific Ocean, we’d hardly be worrying about nuclear contamination. Does that worst-case scenario put things into perspective?

    Japan will do what it thinks it must do. Bad things will happen to good people. People will be angry. And in 20 years this whole tragedy will be, for most people, nothing but a Wikipedia entry someone looks up after the next catastrophe. And we will likely STILL be burning coal and oil because ignorant people are such whining ninnies about potential hazards they don’t understand. People understand plane crashes.

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