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Japan Power Stats Hardware

The Panic Over Fukushima 536

Posted by Soulskill
from the people-enjoy-being-scared-more-than-they-enjoy-math dept.
An anonymous reader points out an article in the Wall Street Journal about how irrational fear of nuclear reactors made people worry much more about last year's incident at Fukushima than they should have. Quoting: "Denver has particularly high natural radioactivity. It comes primarily from radioactive radon gas, emitted from tiny concentrations of uranium found in local granite. If you live there, you get, on average, an extra dose of .3 rem of radiation per year (on top of the .62 rem that the average American absorbs annually from various sources). A rem is the unit of measure used to gauge radiation damage to human tissue. ... Now consider the most famous victim of the March 2011 tsunami in Japan: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Two workers at the reactor were killed by the tsunami, which is believed to have been 50 feet high at the site. But over the following weeks and months, the fear grew that the ultimate victims of this damaged nuke would number in the thousands or tens of thousands. The 'hot spots' in Japan that frightened many people showed radiation at the level of .1 rem, a number quite small compared with the average excess dose that people happily live with in Denver. What explains the disparity? Why this enormous difference in what is considered an acceptable level of exposure to radiation?"
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The Panic Over Fukushima

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  • I'm still blown away (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:59PM (#41039747)

    Not by the Fukushima thing - but by the fact that the tsunami was 50 feet high at the plant. I understand how it can happen; but that is truly awesome (in the literal sense of the word).

  • Wrong scare (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pe1rxq (141710) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @06:07PM (#41039817) Homepage Journal

    Fukushima wasn't scary because of what happened. It was scary because one of the most developped countries in the world had absolutly no control over what happened.
    Untill now everybody was reassured that these things only happened to old sovjet reactors.
    Fukushima learnt the ignorant masses that when nuclear shit hits the fan it doesn't matter much which country the fan is located in.

  • Re:Wrong scare (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jbolden (176878) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @06:13PM (#41039869) Homepage

    I think it makes a rather huge difference. Things went far worse at Fukushima than they did at Chernobyl. However the government was able to evacuate effectively, maintain health levels, control the situation.... I'd say the lessen is more or less the opposite.

  • Contradictions (Score:2, Interesting)

    by paleo2002 (1079697) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @06:21PM (#41039963)
    I always find it funny that the generations of people who grew up living in absolute terror of all things nuclear are the same generations that believed hiding under a piece of furniture would protect them from all things nuclear.
  • FUD (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @06:31PM (#41040079)

    This is just crap. Nuclear power is a silly remainder of the cold war: the power output was just too big for one faction not to have it. In a world where one as to balance reasonable risk against reasonable gain, nuclear power is just a no go. Get over it.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:24PM (#41040595) Journal

    Where things get hairy is when dealing with various isotopes and how they do(or don't) get picked up by biological systems or absorbed by humans.

    It is certainly possible to be injured or killed(horribly) by direct, penetrating exposure to a source of ionizing radiation; but that's pretty rare. The Therac-25 cases, that physicist who accidentally stuck his head in a particle accelerator, shoe salesmen from the good old days [orau.org], the occasional poor bastard who gets caught in a criticality accident, that sort of thing.

    Much more dangerous, at a population level, is absorbing a zesty isotope that, although too scarce in the environment, or not sufficient to penetrate skin(as with alpha emitters), can build up in specific tissues and irradiate them over time.

    The trouble is that the risk presented by these sorts of sources depends a lot on biochemistry, lifestyle factors, and other annoying-to-measure stuff.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:32PM (#41040649)

    It's worse than that. Coal plants on average emit more radiation per kWh than nuclear plants. Including all the disasters of the past few decades.

    This has already been debunked [slashdot.org]. Due to nuclear accidents coal can never catch up to the radiation emissions from nuclear plants, even if all of the coal in the world was burned.

  • by symbolset (646467) * on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:40PM (#41040715) Journal

    This is actually the huge issue that is completely missed - probably deliberately - in the article. Radioactive iodine is absorbed by plants and fish, and bioconcentrates in humans in the thyroid gland where it causes thyroid cancer. Over 30% of Fukushima schoolchildren show thyroid irregularities already. Cesium isotopes are likewise bioactive, being taken up as if they were calcium in bones. This leads to Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Myeloma. Cesium is particularly pernicious because it is retained by the body permanently.

    The article pooh-poohs radiation exposure as not as threatening as people think, without considering these quite serious contaminant issues.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:43PM (#41040735)

    I wonder if the mutated insects around Fukushima know that the radiation is only increased by 0.1 rem ...
    Especialy if you consider that insects can stand roughly 100 times the radiation a human can ...

    You must have missed this in TFA:

    A recent study of butterflies near Fukushima confirms the well-known fact that radiation leads to mutations in insects and other simple life-forms. Research on those exposed to the atomic bombs shows, however, no similar mutations in higher species such as humans.

  • Re:Wrong scare (Score:4, Interesting)

    by angel'o'sphere (80593) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:00PM (#41040855) Homepage Journal

    Sorry, I would suggest you talk to some japaneese guyes.
    Your perception is completely wrong.
    I was on a kenjutsu seminar last week in germany. The japanese instructors, about 15, where totaly ashamed about the incompetence of their government regarding fukushima. They where completely upset about the inability of anyone to act on that emergency.
    Sorry, if you want to talk about global matters, you should stop listening to US media and inform your self from global news sources.

  • Re:Propaganda (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nbauman (624611) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:04PM (#41040881) Homepage Journal

    That goes to his credit. He reviewed the research, came to conclusions, and bit the hand that feeds him.

    There's a big difference between

    (1) a scientist who is a contrarian who tries to debunk the conventional wisdom and pick fights (and is maybe a pain in the ass sometimes) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_A._Muller [wikipedia.org] and

    (2) a scientist who is a hired gun and makes a case for whoever is paying the bill. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Milloy#Links_to_tobacco_industry [wikipedia.org]

  • by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:20PM (#41041035)

    You choose this post, which reveals your bias

    Actually it reflects my understanding, which is backed by scientific evidence, that particulates spewed into the air by coal plants as far away as mainland China are more likely to end up in my body than emissions from the damaged containment structures at Fukushima or Chernobyl.

    Do you have evidence to the contrary that you'd like to share with the class?

  • by epyT-R (613989) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:21PM (#41041039)

    The official tallies still only count the firemen and control room staff.. The 600,000 'liquidators' are not. With this kind of behavior, the IAEA does a better job of toppling public trust in nuclear power than greenpeace.

  • by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:34PM (#41041185)

    ... don't undersell the very real risk of idiots in charge of large dangerous equipment.

    Indeed, no argument there.

    But at least the potentially-dangerous incidents you mention were documented by someone, even if they ended up buried in an obscure NRC report. These reports don't always make the five o'clock news, but they are certainly useful to the regulators, engineers, and environmental scientists involved with designing the next generation of nuclear power plants.

    On the other hand, nobody is documenting what happens when you and I inhale radionuclides that were released into the atmosphere by fossil-fuel combustion, potentially thousands of miles away from us. We can draw general conclusions about pollution levels and trends, but at the point where the damage is actually done, it always goes unnoticed. The prevailing attitude in the media is, "Hey, nobody saw it. It must not be a problem, right?"

    That's the point that has to be made in threads like this one, over and over, to keep everyone honest.

  • by jamstar7 (694492) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:40PM (#41041233)
    Never been to Denver, eh? They not only use those radioactive blocks for foundations and basements, they also build walls out of them. So, when you spend 8 hours a night in bed trying to get some sleep, you're breathing in that lovely radon gas. And air, as you might know, goes readily into the bloodstream in your lungs. Biology 101. When I was a teenager on the Western Slope of Colorado back in the lat e60's, the hype was that those radioactive cinderblocks would cause cancer, mutations, and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Didn't happen. You get a much higher dose from cosmic radiation in Denver every year due to the thin air.

    As far as mutations go, it usually takes a few years for them to show up. Most mutations are not viable, so they die shortly after birth and don't reproduce. End of problem.

    Ignore the hype from places like rt.com which claims that Fukishima 'has nuked Kalamazoo, MI' and 'thousands of Russian troops have died trying to cover Chernobyl'. Even Greenpeace admits the radiation is only 70 times background level, at 5.7 becquerels and they have a vested interest in hyping everything out of proportion, so take their numbers with a grain of salt until you see a peer-reviewed report by a PhD. . When it's all said and done, though, even at Greepeace's probably highly inflated numbers, it's still about 1/50th of what's allowed for a nuclear reactor worker in the US to recieve per year. The radiation absorbed from a week at Chernobyl was less than a chest CT scan. A 2 week stay in the Fukishima exclusion zone would give you a quarter of the average yearly background radiation exposure. At the Fukishima town hall, you'd get about a quarter of the radiation you'd get from your yearly potassium decay in your own body, in a two week period, roughly equivilent to 20 dental xrays over 2 weeks.
  • by repapetilto (1219852) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:23PM (#41041553)

    Thank you. I really don't mean to sound like a dick but if you are worried about this I just want to ask these questions rather than spending the time to seek out the data myself. I have no opinion either way on nuclear power. Once again I completely realize repeatedly asking these questions is making me seem hostile, but I am not trying to be like that.

    It is common for definitions of vague concepts like "irregular" to change over time. Has that occurred in this case? Why have the researchers failed to use a parametric approach (ie quantify "how irregular")? Why is the term used "irregular" rather than one that more strongly implies damaging to health?

    How does the sampling strategy of children's thyroid glands differ between before fukushima and after?

  • by dbIII (701233) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @10:32PM (#41042077)
    Near me a sand mining company got in a bit of trouble after they donated some of the waste sand at the end of their process (simple gravity separation) to parks for children's sandpits. It turns out that by removing all the saleable material in the mineral sands they had unknowingly concentrated radioactive sand to a point where it could expose the children in the sandpits to about thirty times normal background radiation.
    A lot of that mildly radioactive granite eventually ends up as sand and just water and gravity is enough to concentrate it a lot, so some of that beach sand might be irradiating people more than in Denver.
  • Re:1500 deaths (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jamstar7 (694492) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @10:50PM (#41042197)

    While the author concedes that 1500 deaths will be the long term impact of this accident, I love that he maintains that Nuclear power is safe and clean.

    3000 died in the Twin Towers. Something like 50000 die every year in the US due to auto accidents. There are 7 BILLION people on Earth. 1600 people of a pool of 7 billion really isn't statistically significant. Hell, you take your life in your own hands when you get out of bed in the morning. You DO get out of bed in the morning, don't you?? Do you know how many people die in bed every year???

  • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @11:39PM (#41042535)
    No there's not.
  • Re:Radon (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MtViewGuy (197597) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @06:01AM (#41044103)

    Actually, during the 1960's Oak Ridge National Laboratory built a small 5 MW reactor based on what we call molten-salt reactor (MSR) design, using thorium-232 dissolved in molten sodium fluoride salts as fuel. The design actually worked quite well, but was discontinued because it didn't produce uranium-235 and plutonium-239, the two main fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

    But now, they're dusting off the old research and studying the idea of scaling up this MSR design (best known today by the name Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, or LFTR) for a new generation of extremely safe nuclear reactors that offer these advantages of conventional uranium-fueled reactors:

    1. Uses a cheaply-made form of nuclear fuel, and thorium-232 is widely more abundant than uranium.
    2. Doesn't need an expensive pressurized reactor vessel.
    3. Reactor shutdown happens in only a few minutes just by dumping the fuel from the reactor.
    4. By using closed-loop Brayton turbines, eliminates the need for expensive cooling towers or locating the reactor near a big source of cooling water such as a lake, fast-flowing river or ocean.
    5. Can even use spent uranium fuel rods or plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons dissolved in molten sodium fluoride salts as reactor fuel.
    6. The amount of radioactive waste generated is tiny compared to a uranium-fueled reactor, and more importantly, the radioactive half-life is under 300 years, which means very cheap waste disposal (it can be dumped into any disused salt mine or salt dome). Mind you, the nuclear medicine industry wants that "waste," since the byproduct of an MSR has enormous medical uses.

  • by AmiMoJo (196126) <mojo@@@world3...net> on Sunday August 19, 2012 @06:39AM (#41044261) Homepage

    At Fukushima, it looks like they had a dozen or so backup generators on the theory that if one has a (say) 1 in 10 chance of failing, then the chance of all of them failing is 1 in 10^12. But nearly all of them were located in the same place, so a single event (a tsunami) which took out one generator took out all of them. Having multiple generators situated this way did not provide redundancy because they weren't vulnerable to independent events. They were vulnerable to the same event.

    What they needed to do was put the generators in different locations, with different fuel sources, probably even different manufacturers and fuel types. That way an event which affected one would not affect the others, making their vulnerabilities independent events. The generators at reactors 5-6 were located further uphill, and thus survived the tsunami intact and were able to keep the fuel storage tanks there cooled.

    They did actually do that. TEPCO had plenty of reserve equipment stored at a location about 50KM from the plant, so it would cover both Fukushima Daiichi and Daini. Unfortunately infrastructure damage prevented them getting the equipment to Daiichi, even by helicopter. The plant itself was damaged so that even if the spare generators had been located up on a hill it wouldn't really have helped much anyway because there was no quick way of attaching them to the cooling system. The entire plant design was flawed in that respect.

    The cooling system was also damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. Valves failed and even though they had power available (taking car batteries out of staff vehicles) they couldn't operate them.

    This is only now coming to light and data is analysed, CCTV footage released and the wrecked plant explored. The initial assumption that there was a single point of failure and that the tsunami caused all the damage has turned out to be wrong.

  • by Gibbs-Duhem (1058152) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @07:13AM (#41044363)

    This seems from the reports I've read to be pretty spot on. I would add an addendum to an earlier comment about this being why no nuclear plants will ever be built in the US again though; the current designs are generally "passive fail", meaning that unless electricity is supplied to the control systems, the plant will just... stop being just sub-critical and will go non-critical very quickly. For instance the pebble bed designs. My (somewhat, I'm probably giving myself a little too little credit) understanding is that these plants use nuclear fuel that just... can't react on it's own due to the sheathing materials. I think those are pyrolytic carbon still though, so of course there will still be problems with burning if they are exposed to air, the accompanying release of hydrogen, etc (I think).

    This seems very honestly to be the entire focus of the nuclear industry -- designing plants which are safe to operate no matter what, which maintain reasonable cost-effectiveness. It's basically the holy grail.

    I think the current problem is:
    1. Natural gas is cheap, coal is cheap, they are cheaper to build and easier to maintain.
    2. The regulatory process and validation work to get a new plant design is intimidating. Probably even intimidating as compared to the design of fighter jets.
    3. Nuclear *is* scary to the vast majority of people. This is residual in large part from Long Island, and based in concerns over running reactors commissioned in the 60s still being operated. *That* part I am scared of. But as a scientist and engineer, I think that these are solvable problems so long as safety and the concepts of "fail safe" systems engineering based on the Therac-25 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therac-25) which seem to have very permanently changed the way that people fundamentally think about how to do system engineering. These problems had not arisen and become understood when those plants went into operation. A current plant definitely would do a far better job of that.

    Heck, it even effects me on a daily basis (at this point in my career I would classify myself as a systems engineer); I think all the time "What happens if all this equipment just stops working" and the answer is always "go to a safe operational mode". The are different ways to do that. You have the F-16 style of doing that, which includes crazy amounts of unstable control algorithms. But by *far* the preferred mechanism is physical. For instance, if I have a furnace I expect to go to 2000C, and monitor the temperature with one thermocouple while I use a single additional thermocouple as a safety, is not really enough. I would *far* rather have a thermal fuse that blows hard when a temperature exceeds some set ultimate super failure limit and shuts everything off immediately. I don't trust thermocouples to be reliable, and I don't trust the controls equipment to respond properly in an emergency.

    But in one of these pebble beds, the sorts of controls they are integrating are way beyond "having power", by far the best safety integration is to design it such that electricity failing causes large physical things to happen. Dumping the pebble bed entirely, or dumping immediately a mediator into the reactor that is only prevented from triggering by constant electricity. Some of the designs I've seen literally place the reactor under a ridiculously large tank of water held closed by electricity. I don't know in what way that would fail, but it would be far superior to what happened in fukoshima.

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