Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Japanese nuclear reactors: Still no need for panic

I've been very irritated to read the irresponsible guff put out by most US news media about the nuclear reactor problems in Japan (about which I wrote a couple of days ago). They continue to make mountains out of molehills, and consult 'experts' who are, in all too many cases, anti-nuclear campaigners, out to score points for their side of the nuclear power debate. It's nothing more or less than a deliberate deception being foisted on the American public.

Dr. Jerry Pournelle, who has scientific credentials out the wazoo (and who was blogging before blogs were invented), has an excellent summary of the situation.

The important lesson from Japan is that we took obsolete reactors with old designs and safety features, and subjected them to a 9.0 quake and a very large tsunami, and the damage to the planet is an unfortunate but hardly decisive event. It is now time to stop worrying about this mess until things settle and we can see precisely what we have learned, and factor that into the next generation designs. Note that almost everywhere in the world we are building reactors with much better design and far better safety features than those being destroyed now. Concentration on how awful is the nuclear mess takes our attention off the economic and human disasters from the earthquake and tsunami.

. . .

As I go to bed, most of the plant workers have exceeded their annual badge limits and are being sent home. There will be a circulation of atomjacks over the next few weeks as these heroes continue to make sure that the amount of radiation emitted is minimized. It is clear from the numbers which I finally got that what is being emitted is fission products, not actinide oxides. The inventory is not going up the flu[e]. The scenario for that to happen requires that the reactors be intact, and temperatures of live steam in the order of 500 C; that will dissolve a lot of stuff, and as water dissociates you get a pretty corrosive situation. The solution to this is to keep pumping in water. Boric acid is also pumped in to further damp out reactions. The reactors are well below critical reaction rate but there can be some interaction, so absorbing neutrons helps the cooling process. Cooling out will take time, and should be monitored, but it doesn't take the large crew of normal operations to do that, so of course as many workers as possible are being sent home. The main injuries, now that the quake and tsunami are over, will be exceeding dosage limits. The remedy is to be sent home. That is happening but of course since they will need workers over time they send home all that aren't immediately needed.

I am getting weary of the breathless panic in the media including Fox News. For some it's ignorance. For others it's simply trying to keep the story going. But the truth here is that the situation is not good because it is not going away fast, and given the tsunami devastation around the power plant -- including the houses of a number of the plant workers, I would wager -- evacuation is difficult. Plant periphery emissions have been high at peak but haven't been sustained. They will probably spike again. There may be some exposure of people off site, but so far to the best I can get from the numbers, no one off site has received any dosage that would have caused them to be sent home if they worked in the plants.

That ain't good, but it isn't being run over by a freight train, and since most of those people live in a devastated flood plain they have a lot more to worry about than radiation exposure. The situation isn't good, and there will be some more setbacks simply because it is so hard to get into there now, but neither the world nor the Japanese people are in any great danger. Godzilla isn't going to rise up out of the Godzilla Springs resort...

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading.

Ann Coulter points out, tongue in cheek, that there may even be an unexpected good side to the release of radiation.

With the terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami that have devastated Japan, the only good news is that anyone exposed to excess radiation from the nuclear power plants is now probably much less likely to get cancer.

This only seems counterintuitive because of media hysteria for the past 20 years trying to convince Americans that radiation at any dose is bad. There is, however, burgeoning evidence that excess radiation operates as a sort of cancer vaccine.

As The New York Times science section reported in 2001, an increasing number of scientists believe that at some level -- much higher than the minimums set by the U.S. government -- radiation is good for you. "They theorize," the Times said, that "these doses protect against cancer by activating cells' natural defense mechanisms."

Again, more at the link.

Finally, the Mistress of Snark puts the news media in their place with her usual masterful (or should that be mistressful?) style. Go read.



Anonymous said...

I get the unpleasant feeling that the media would like nothing better than to be on scene when the entire plant complex turns into a giant mushroom cloud that dissolves and reforms into Gojira, or Mothra, or a Great Old One that sets about destroying whatever is left while flinging bits of rubble in the general direction of the cameras.

Folks, there's a heck of a lot more that is going on i the world just now. Can we see some of it on the news, please?

Noons said...

and while we are at it:

is it possible for the images shown to be DIFFERENT?
I'm sure there is plenty of material for the tv cameras to go through in an event like this without having to repeat the same images, on-and-on, ad-nauseum!

Will Brown said...

I think it worth pointing out, Peter, that Jerry Pournelle's Ph.D. is in psychiatry. This makes him no less a big-brain in his own right, and he commonly hangs out with an impressive list of alternatively credentialed other big-brains, but his expertise derives from the education he never practiced professionally and his involvement in political campaigning and spokes-person activities. If he has a science question that exceeds his '40's era high school science classes, he has reasonably immediate access to those who's own expertise frequently dances on the cutting edge of the discipline involved.

I expect it helps - a lot - that he also writes a cracking good story. Most people don't mind lending a hand (a thesis precis?) to something like that. :)

Tam said...


That's one of the things I like about Pournelle; unlike too many academics I've known or read, he doesn't think that his degree in X makes him an expert in Y. (But he'll be glad to dig up someone who is...)

Tamara Kelly said...

Sigh...I cringed to see "Nuclear Winter" irresponsibly emblazoned across Brisbane's Courier Mail on Thursday.

Every 15 or 20 years some part of Japan is flattened and as they have done for thousands of years, they will just pick themselves up, fix everything and continue.

In spite of this they have the best quality of life, a great economy and an enormous population crammed onto the fringes of their natural-resource-poor country.

During this disaster they have had no looting, runs on the bank or crazed shopping.

The western media need to talk to the Japanese themselves. There really isn't much shock and horror. They know exactly what is happening and how to fix it.

With regard to the nuclear problem, post war, I am sure they are well versed in response to radioactivity and they, of all people, are particularly aware of the risks.

BTW your comment about radiation overdose is partially true with regard to common cancers. A friend of mine worked at Maralinga in the bad old days and he eventually DID die of a very unusual cancer. But he was not the only one, they all died - EVENTUALLY and frequently of cancers but not the common cancers like leukemia, prostate etc...many of them died of rare cancers.

A little light: