…but not from the radiation released from Fukushima.
About a year or so ago a friend of mine posted this graphic on FB with a title claiming it represented the spread of radiation from the Fukushima release. This was only one of a great many alarmist and inaccurate posts all over the internet raising concerns about the long term effect of radiation all over the world from the Fukushima nuclear power plant failures.
In fact, the graphic above is an estimate of the wave height generated by the Fukushima tsunami from modelling done by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has nothing whatsoever to do with radiation. Doesn’t matter though, you will still find it on the net, with lurid write-ups about how we will all die from eating contaminated tuna.
Of course, we all ‘know’ that all radiation is deadly and that the consequences of the Fukushima release were catastrophic and a huge risk to all life on Earth. Right?
The biggest problem with radiation, as my brother (a Physics Professor at the University of San Diego) said once, is that we can measure it in the most miniscule amounts. Any bog standard radiation meter like mine, is fully capable of measuring the radioactive decay of a single atom. We can measure radiation right down to the point where it simply isn’t there anymore. And that would be pretty unusual since our universe is filled with radiation. In fact, by some theories, the universe is made up of nothing BUT radiation.
Here is a chart that got wide circulation shortly after Fukushima. It was prepared by some nuclear reactor operators (who seemed to know what they were talking about) to clarify the potential health effects of radiation exposure and to put them into perspective.
The point is that we live in a sea of radiation and at small doses it is probably beneficial and certainly has no health impacts on the general population.
If you take nothing else away from this chart, look at the average yearly dose received from all sources at 4 mSv (lower left of the green portion of the chart) and compare that to the lowest yearly dose clearly associated with increased risk of cancer at 100 mSv (upper right of the brown portion of the chart). This dose BTW does not produce cancer. It means that in a statistically significant human population exposed to 100 mSv over a year, there will be a statistically measurable increase in cancer rates.
It takes about 400 mSv to cause symptoms of radiation poisoning (usually treatable) and 2000 mSv to cause severe radiation poisoning which may be fatal in some cases. The LD 50/30 dose (defined as the dose expected to cause death within 30 days to 50% of those exposed in a short period of time) is 4000 mSv, 1000 times the average annual exposure and 40 times the annual exposure at which increased cancer rates start to show up on actuary tables.
There is no question that radiation released from Fukushima is showing up across the Pacific. In this New Yorker Article the writer discusses an ambitious ‘citizen scientist’ programme that has analysed water samples taken all up and down the West coast starting in 2014.
The first sample discussed in the article, taken in Burrard Inlet near Vancouver in 2014 and sent to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts was tested with a radiation level of 0.4 becquerels per cubic metre or about 2000 times less than the average banana, caused by cesium 137 (which has a half-life of 30 years), most of which is a leftover from the atmospheric nuclear tests of the 50s and 60s.
Early in 2015, cesium 134 (with a much lower half life of 2 years and therefore likely originating at Fukushima) showed up at Ucluelet, British Columbia, where a dockside sample registered 1.4 becquerels per cubic metre of cesium-134 and about fifteen times the cesium-137 levels of the Burrard Inlet test.
Predictably, the media started screaming and the internet went nuts:
‘Stay out of the water! We’re all gonna die!! Catastrophe!!!’
The lead scientist for the Woods Hole project Dr. Ken Buesseler, has calculated that you would have to swim 6 hours a day for a thousand years at Ucluelet to get the same exposure as a single dental X-Ray. Go and look at the chart above again.
Radiation is a very complex technical subject and I don’t pretend to understand it. Here is a good primer which explains the different types of ionizing radiation and the different ways to measure it.
In general terms, Becquerels measure the actual amount of radioactivity in disintegrations per second. Other units, including Rems, Grays and Sieverts (µSv = micro Sievert, mSv = milli Sievert) are used to measure absorbed dose in tissue and thus are related to health effects).
For practical purposes, radiation exposure is sometimes expressed in BEDs, or ‘banana equivalent doses’, an informal unit taken as the radiation exposure obtained from eating one 150 gm banana.
Bananas are amongst the most naturally radioactive foods, containing radioactive Potassium – 40. Eating one banana creates an exposure of about 0.1 µSv (see the chart above – the very top left of the green portion). Truckloads of bananas occasionally trigger radiation monitoring equipment designed to detect smuggling of illicit nuclear material.
The radiation exposure from consuming a banana is approximately 1% of the average daily exposure to radiation, which is about 100 banana equivalent doses (BED). Probably more for my Physics Prof brother who eats a lot of bananas.
The maximum permitted radiation leakage for a nuclear power plant is equivalent to 2,500 BED (250 μSv) per year, while a chest CT scan delivers 70,000 BED (7 mSv). The LD 50/30 dose of radiation is approximately 40,000,000 BED (4000 mSv). A person living 10 miles from the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor received an average of 800 BED of exposure to radiation. You would need to eat 20 good sized tuna steaks from one of the ‘contaminated’ tuna caught off of Japan to get about the same dose of radiation as you would from eating a single banana.
Here’s a nice article from Forbes with more background on eating ‘contaminated’ tuna.
But I digress. I was sounding off about the wrongfully placed fears brought on by the Fukushima ‘catastrophe’.
The Oxford dictionary defines ‘catastrophe’ as
An event causing great and usually sudden damage or suffering; a disaster
Fukushima was indeed a catastrophe, but it seems to me, especially writing 5 years on, that the fears were largely misplaced.
The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused (according to a Japanese police report quoted on Wikipedia shortly after the event) 15,889 deaths, 6,152 injured, with 2,609 people missing across twenty prefectures, and over a million buildings totally collapsed or partially damaged. The earthquake and tsunami certainly seem to fit the definition.
However, it seems to me to be an over-reaction to call the Japanese reactor situation ‘a catastrophe’.
As of 16 March 2011 the number of people confirmed killed due to the reactor problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was precisely zero. Two employees were missing and later confirmed drowned and about two dozen TEPCO employees and civil defence workers had been injured.
Updating this piece five years on, Wikipedia reports no deaths due to the reactor accident (other than the two drowned workers), 37 workers with physical injuries sustained during the emergency and 2 emergency workers hospitalised with radiation injuries. Approximately 100 emergency workers received higher than statutory limit doses of radiation.
The Fukushima plant issue is, in contrast to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, a technological problem with potentially significant impact on human healthy and safety, which appears to have been largely brought under control. The main catastrophe that has occurred at Fukushima so far, is financial. The owners and insurers will be writing off billions of dollars from these ruined power plants. And it has no doubt been personally catastrophic for the 160,000 people who were moved out of the 20 km exclusion zone.
Arguably, they were evacuated and have been kept away for no good reason, since except for local and generally short lived hot spots the background levels in the evacuation zone are generally far less than natural radiation levels in places like Ramsar, Iran, where scientists can find no measurable adverse health effects from levels ten times higher than accepted international health standards.
Lets look at some of the facts as regard the Fukushima reactors.
The facts are that when the earthquake hit, the 50 year old systems did what they were supposed to do – they ‘Scrammed’ and shut down the reactors. The auxiliary power came on line and cooling pumps operated to keep water flowing to cool heat from secondary decay. It is worth noting that the earthquake was approximately ten times more powerful than the design (Magnitude 9 versus a design magnitude of about 8), nonetheless the 40 year old structures and containments held up.
The facts are that the auxiliary cooling systems were taken out by the tsunami an hour or so after the quake. The tsunami that hit the plant, like the earthquake, was much larger than the design height of 22 feet.
Either of these events could be classified as ‘black swan’ events – “An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict”. To have two such events occur within an hour of each other would be many times more difficult to predict and it is a tribute to the designers of the plant that the systems held up as well as they have in the face of these two extraordinary occurrences.
The facts are that some of the brave workers at the site may have been exposed to radiation levels that could have health impacts to them at some time in the future. No members of the public have received any significant radiation exposure.
The primary containments have held. So far the release of radiation has generally been short-lived and limited. So far, there is no evidence of a wider release that could have a broader impact on human health and safety and the environment. There seems to be an ongoing groundwater release of radiation that has been difficult to control but has so far not posed any human health or wide ranging environmental issues.
Just before I first heard of the Japan earthquake, I was reading an article about the impacts of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico BP well blowout and oil spill.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that this unfortunate event would turn out to be one of the greatest environmental tragedies in history, that it would cause an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportion and that the clean up operations were mismanaged and haphazard.
In retrospect, what we saw appears to be a typical human reaction to serious environmental (or any) mishap. That reaction included media errors and disinformation, political posturing, interference and grandstanding by those with an agenda to push. Meanwhile science and the facts took a back seat, those who were dealing with the nuts and bolts of the problem were often either ignored or reviled while politicians made far-reaching, expensive and ill-thought out decisions based on who shouted loudest on CNN.
In 2011, a year later, those dire predictions of disaster were not born out by the facts. The ongoing scientific investigations show that oil damage to the sensitive ecologies around the Gulf had been very limited and the clean-up operations appear to have been very effective. Much of the oil appears to have simply disappeared in the Gulf – perhaps consumed by natural biological processes. Approximately 25 miles of coastline (out of the total 1600 miles of the Gulf coast) was affected by heavy oiling. The spill killed an estimated 5600 birds, a tragedy indeed, but compare that to the estimates of as many as 400,000 birds killed annually by industrial wind turbines in the United States.
Even now, in 2016, while researchers are still monitoring the effects in the Gulf, while there is no question that serious impacts occurred and are continuing:
The spill was certainly dramatic, but the long-term toll on wildlife has been mixed; some species in the Gulf are struggling while others are doing fine. Instead of a dramatic collapse of life, researchers are finding subtle effects — some that only emerged three or four years after the spill — that they are still trying to sort out.
I found it an astonishing coincidence that the 2011 article appeared just before the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami. We certainly saw all of the same reactions in the media coverage of the problems at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.
Never mind that in face of this unprecedented double ‘black swan’ event, the 1970s containment systems appear to have done their job. Never mind that the heroic workers on site appear to have managed to bring the reactors under control and that to date the radiation leakage has been very limited and short-lived. While the radiation data is difficult to come by, so far, most of the local residents outside of the exclusion zone appear to have been exposed to about the same radiation from the plant that they would get by eating a dozen bananas and far less than a single chest CT scan.
Meanwhile all that most of the media has done is bray about ‘meltdowns’ and ‘radiation disasters’ and ‘another Chernobyl’.
Meanwhile, many of the politicians have also played their part by responding to the freshly invigorated anti-nuclear brigade and promising to shut down nuclear power programs all over the globe.
Let’s look at a few more facts from credible on-line sources:
As of February 04, 2016 there are 442 nuclear power plant units in operation in 31 countries with an installed net electric capacity of about 384 GW and 66 plants with an installed capacity of 65 GW under construction in 16 countries.
Total number of catastrophic containment ruptures in over 16,000 logged years of reactor operation (World Nuclear Organisation) – zero. (Chernobyl doesn’t count as it had no containment).
Total number of people killed as a result of accidents at nuclear power plants between 1952 and 2012: 66 (including 56 at Chernobyl and possibly as many as 4000 subsequent indirect cancer deaths as a result of Chernobyl).
Total number of people killed IN CHINA ALONE as a result of coal mining accidents since 1949 – about 750,000.
Total number of people killed in the United States as a result of coal mining accidents since 1900 – about 100,000.
Total number of annual road deaths in the United States – over 40,000.
Total number of annual deaths globally from air pollution related to fossil fuel use – about 2 to 3 million (Source WHO).
All technologies have risks and nuclear power generation is no exception. Clearly the nuclear power industry, for all of its much ballyhooed problems has a much better safety record than many other technologies, particularly fossil fueled power generation.
At about 0100 hours on April 26, 1986, the operators at the Chernobyl power plant were running an unauthorised shutdown test on reactor number 4, in violation of their official operating protocols after disconnecting automatic safety systems.
At 0126 hours, the obsolete and unsafe graphite moderated RBMK reactor suffered a power surge which led to a steam explosion blowing the 1000 ton concrete lid off of the reactor core. The graphite ignited. There was no containment structure.
(BTW, you will find lots of photos on the Internet showing mushroom clouds supposedly rising from Chernobyl, misshapen mutants and two headed calves. As far as I can discern these are pretty much photo-shopped bullshit. The photos above came from this website. The photographer who took those pictures reportedly received about 1/3 of an LD 50/30 dose, suffered radiation sickness, recovered and died in a car accident in 2015 at age 78. The photo website wrongly reports his death in 2010 as being from cancer.)
It took ten days to put out the fire and the plume of radioactivity spread over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and into Western Europe and beyond. The Soviet authorities at first tried to keep it secret and the population of the city of Pripyat only a few kilometres from the plant were not evacuated until 36 hours after the initial explosion. There are reports of people watching lurid purple flames from only a few kilometers away as the reactor core burned.
The Chernobyl disaster released more than five times as much total radioactivity as Fukushima, contaminated about 250,000 sq km in Belarus, the Ukraine and the Russian Federation. In contrast, most of the Fukushima release was blown out to sea, where (as set out above) it has caused measurable but mostly insignificant contamination.
In the almost thirty years since Chernobyl there have been many studies of the health effects on the hundreds of thousands of people who were exposed to higher than ‘acceptable’ levels of radiation. It has been very hard to identify long term health impacts actually attributable to radiation.
From the Final Report on Chernobyl by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation:
“The predicted lifetime excess cancer and leukaemia deaths for 200,000 liquidators, 135,000 evacuees from the 30 km zone, 270,000 residents of the SCZs [‘strict control zones’] were 2200 for liquidators, 160 for evacuees,and 1600 among residents of the SCZs. This total, about 4000 deaths projected over the lifetimes of the some 600,000 persons most affected by the accident, is a small proportion of the total cancer deaths from all causes that can be expected to occur in this population. It must be stressed that this estimate is bounded by large uncertainties.”
One percent increase for liquidators and about 0.1 % for evacuees. In other words, pretty much lost in the noise. Compare those to the figures related to coal mining and air pollution posted above.
As set out in the UNSCEAR study report linked above, by far the most serious human health consequences have been psychological – people who grimly accepted their ‘inevitable’ grisly deaths from radiation exposure and gave themselves up to drink – tens of thousands of mothers who aborted fetuses in fear of mutagenic effects on their unborn babies – suicides by despondent people resigned to their imagined horrible demise.
One of the largest actual health effects was an increase in thyroid cancers in children exposed to foodstuffs contaminated with radioactive iodine – 131. These cancers. mostly treatable, could have been prevented through the simple expedient of providing iodine pills, which was not done for ‘political reasons’.
And what about the devastation on the natural environment in the areas worst affected by Chernobyl? Here is a good article from the Guardian. Clearly nature prefers radioactive contamination to the effects of human development.
HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI
At about 0245 hours on 6 August 1945, the specially modified B-29 Stratofortress ‘Enola Gay’, named by the pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets after his mother, took off from Tinian airbase in the Marianas Islands for Hiroshima on Honshu Island in Japan. At 0815 hours, 44 seconds after Enola Gay released the U-235 ‘gun-type’ nuclear fission bomb, codenamed ‘Little Boy’, the bomb detonated at about 600 m altitude, about 250 m from the aiming point. It realised an explosive power of about 16 kilotons and resulted (the figures are uncertain) in about 90,000 to 140,000 casualties and deaths from burns, shockwaves and radiation.
Three days later, on 9 August 1945, the B-29 ‘BocksCar’ released a plutonium-239 fueled ‘implosion type’ nuclear device over Nagasaki (not the primary target) killing approximately 60,000 to 80,000 people immediately and over the next few months.
In 1947, studies funded by the US commenced to track the long term health effects on the hundreds of thousands who survived the bombings and the immediate heat, shock and acute radiation injuries.
Those studies continue to this day carried out by the joint USA-Japan Radiation Effects Research Foundation.
Here is a transparent summary of their ongoing work from Columbia University.
The most deadly long term health effects on the survivors began to show up with an increase in leukemia starting about 2 years after the bombings which peaked about 4 to 6 years later. Solid cancers started showing up at the ten year mark.
Long term studies showed that on average for all exposed survivors (and the dose rates varied dramatically right up to people who recovered from LD 50/30 acute radiation sickness) their risk of contracting leukemia was about 50% higher than unexposed populations and the risk of solid cancers about 10% higher than unexposed.
The studies showed that even for the very highest exposure levels, even if someone is exposed to a barely survivable whole-body radiation dose, the solid cancer risk will not be more than five times greater than the risk of an unexposed individual.
The studies also showed that health effects have not been seen in the children of survivors conceived after the bombings.
I am not writing to downplay the terrible suffering endured by the victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the awful consequences of the long term health impacts on the survivors. I am writing to set out the evidence and refute the prevailing public mind set that all radiation exposure is unacceptable. Exposure to ionising radiation is NOT an automatic death sentence. You are more like to get mercury poisoning from eating tuna than suffer radiation injury.
BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT NUCLEAR WASTE?
High level nuclear waste is a political problem not a technical one.All of the high level nuclear waste on the planet would fit comfortably within a medium sized football stadium.
Technically we could get rid of it forever by sealing it in containers and dropping it into the subduction zones. It’ll pop back up in volcanoes in a hundred million years or so but that won’t be our problem.
But we don’t want to throw it away… its too valuable. All that high level waste sitting around in swimming pools at reactors, or in dry cask storage in the parking lots behind the plants – that will be the fuel for the next generation of reactors – fail safe liquid sodium cooled Integral Fast Reactors.
The US had one operating at Argonne National Lab and ready for the technology to be rolled out. Bill Clinton cancelled it in 1994 amidst rumours of influence from fossil fuel interests.
A larger catastrophe may be looming, but I submit it is not really related to any serious release of radiation from Fukushima. Arguably, the most important global environmental problem that humanity faces is ongoing climate change. France generates 75% of their electrical needs by nuclear power. Consequently they have the lowest carbon footprint in Europe and amongst the lowest in the world. Denmark has the highest penetration of Industrial Wind in Europe. Also amongst the highest electricity costs and per capita carbon footprint (I’ll be pontificating about Industrial Wind in a future post).
If we are to have any hope whatsoever of effectively combating anthropogenic climate change, nuclear power is needed for ‘base load’ purposes that cannot be supplied by most renewables.
Shutting down nuclear power stations due to misplaced fears driven by media hype will mean that they have to be replaced by fossil fuel based power supplies. In my view, that will be the true catastrophe of Fukushima.
Update 21 May 2016
To celebrate having yet another featured letter in the South China Morning Post, I am adding a little update to my rant on the misplaced fears over radiation.
I fired that off in response to this SCMP lead editorial earlier this month and in response to the editorial writer propagating some of the more egregious myths about the risks of radiation.
It is I admit, rather irksome to see that the editor’s choice of headline for my letter kind of misses the point. It should have more accurately read ‘Health effects of radiation drowned out in the statistical noise,’ but as Robert A. Heinlein once said ‘editors always like the taste better when they pee in it themselves.’
Nonetheless, his main theme, as I stated in my letter was correct. We do need to be building nukes as fast as possible if we want to avoid the worst predicted impacts of Climate change.
My letter above got some nice comments from friends, including one from an old mate now living in the Middle East.
He told me that I was making many of the same points as this award winning documentary.
He was right, and I heartily recommend this important film for anyone with an interest in Climate Change and especially in trying to curb its effects.
You can watch it on Netflix if you have it or at this link if you don’t, although you will have to put up with Spanish subtitles. And if you want another endorsement, here is an excellent review of it.