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Fukushima: Time Bomb Or Training Device?

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Al Jazeera is a media empire that is owned by the government of Qatar, one of the world’s largest LNG exporters. It recently hired a journalist from Australia, another of the world’s largest LNG exporters to produce a documentary about nuclear energy. The story focuses on the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

During the five years since the accident, Japan has been the world’s largest and most lucrative market for LNG, which it has been burning to produce electricity instead of operating the 50 nuclear power plants that were not damaged by the accident. Recently, some of the companies that signed the long term LNG contracts that were offered in the wake of Japan’s lengthy nuclear energy stand down have been trying to alter restrictions imposed by those contracts.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary tells its audience that fear is the right emotion to have about nuclear energy and that keeping reactors closed is a component of the proper response to the events that began happening more than five years ago.

This morning I received a personal notification from Al Jazerra’s 101 East (@AJ101East) announcing that the documentary, titled Inside Fukushima’s Time Bomb, had been released.

The documentary features narration by Mark Willacy, a journalist and writer who was the North Asia correspondent for the Australian Broadcast Network (ABC) for five years. He and his family experienced the effects of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami; he witnessed much of the devastation and heartbreak first hand. Willacy compiled some of his experiences and interviews in an eBook titled Fukushima.

Here is a quote from the Amazon.com page where the Kindle version of Willacy’s book can be purchased.

On 11 March 2011, Japan was rocked by the most violent earthquake in her history and one of the largest ever recorded. The quake itself was just the start of a chain of disastrous events, creating a massive tsunami that slammed the shores of north eastern Japan. Close to 20,000 people were killed or disappeared under waves that reached more than 40 metres high as they smashed their way several kilometres inland.

Yet the greatest damage was caused when the tsunami surged over the seawall of Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station, resulting in a multiple core meltdown that released vast quantities of radioactivity into the atmosphere and ocean. At one stage it even threatened the evacuation and irradiation of Tokyo itself, which would have spelt the end of Japan as we know it.

Ominous Words Contradicted By Chosen Images

That quote provides a clear hint of the human perspective through which the Al Jazeera-sponsored documentary is told. Though I’m not in favor of encouraging or spreading misinformation, this documentary is a valuable learning opportunity for people with a questioning attitude and critical thinking skills. It would be a good starting point for discussion in classes like Cornell University’s “Nuclear Imagination: Technologies and Worlds (ANTH 1101) taught by Vincent Ialenti.

Despite the ominous tone and words from the narrator, the documentary includes abundant photographic evidence, with scenes from both the disastrous, deadly earthquake and tsunami and the aftermath of the misinformation-induced tragedy caused when people evacuated undamaged homes, communities, farms, schools and factories. The film makers use background footage that shows several people who are confidently living and working in areas that the government has declared to be “no go” zones. Even Willacy belies the fearful words he uses by wandering with one of the few residents on vacant streets in the “no go” zone without wearing any protective clothing.

The areas filmed show what happens to our built infrastructure when it is abandoned. People left their intact homes because people they should have been able to trust had told them — repeatedly — that there was an invisible boogeyman called “radiation” that would somehow cause more damage than the shaking ground and towering wave of salt water.

As shown in the documentary, because decision makers believe that the amount of radioactive material released from the damaged reactors is dangerous, Japan is engaged in a difficult, costly, lengthy and potentially hazardous clean up effort. Willacy interviews people who are working on what will be a career long, heroic effort to achieve the radiation dose standards that have been officially established.

Massive expenditures in time and money have been made in activities like scraping, bagging and stacking topsoil and building tank farms to store virtually pure water that has been treated to remove almost all radioactive isotopes.

Is The Effort Needed To Make No-Go Zones Habitable?

Though radiation and disaster recovery experts from the InternationalAtomic Energy Agency issued a report suggesting that Japanese leaders have overreacted, the diplomatic words used were not aggressively chosen to convince the bosses that the high end of international radiation dose standards are safe enough.

Their aggressive efforts to overachieve and seek lower levels are wasted.

As an example of how diplomacy can obscure useful advice and prevent its implementation, the IAEA report effusively compliments Japan on the enormous effort it is undertaking. Only after the compliments did theteam TISI +% provide the following advice.

Japanese institutions are encouraged to increase efforts to communicate that in remediation situations, any level of individual radiation dose in the range of 1 to 20 mSv per year is acceptable and in line with the international standards and with the recommendations from the relevant international organisations, e.g. ICRP, IAEA, UNSCEAR and WHO.

Cost-conscious decision makers should read that carefully and understand that efforts to reduce annual radiation doses from 20 mSv down to 1 mSv are excessive. They provide no measurable health benefits.

(Note: There are credible radiation experts that believe that 20 mSv/year is excessively low. They don’t even like to use Sieverts as units, preferring the roughly equivalent Gray as being more reliably measured. Some, likeDr. Jerry Cuttler and Dr. Wade Allison, assert it would be safe to allow levels approaching the .2 cGy/day standard that was accepted as the tolerance dose by the International Commission on Radiation Protection in 1934.)

The IAEA team also provided the kind of advice that should appeal to people who are patient and respectful of the way that nature handles challenges.

The Team notes that by taking into consideration the natural processes leading to reduced availability of radiocaesium to crops, there is potential to further optimize the application of remediation measures and still produce safe foods. This will have the added benefit of conserving the nutrients in the soil and reducing the amount of removed soil that needs to be disposed of.

For people who believe in efficient expenditure of human effort and money, “optimized” translates to “minimize.” Of course, that kind of advice is not often welcomed by Type A people, people who are seeking to achieve political success, people who thrive when others fear radiation or people who are interested in obtaining lucrative clean-up contracts.

If credibly explained and implemented, the IAEA’s advice could be used to justify decisions to avoid nearly all of the effort being invested outside the boundaries of the plant.

What About The Tank Farm?

One of the biggest challenges that Willacy notes inside the fence line is the vast and expanding quantity of lightly contaminated water that is being stored in a massive tank farm, even after it has been treated to remove all isotopes other than tritium. According to the US EPA, which has never been known for underestimating the hazards of radiation, “…tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides because it releases very weak radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly.”

The best way to safely dispose of tritiated water is to release it into a much larger body of water. It will naturally dilute and become even weaker. It’s even safer than safe if the diluting body of water is a massive body of salt water, like the Pacific Ocean. Luckily, it is only a few meters away from the Fukushima tank farm. After more than five years of struggling to keep up with the water issue Japan is finally beginning to realize that dilution is the solution to this particular form of “pollution.”

Self-Protecting Politicians

Two of the star interview subjects in Willacy’s documentary are Naoto Kan, the man who was serving as Japan’s Prime Minister during the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and Gregory Jaczko, the former Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

It is worth reminding potential viewers of Willacy’s work that both of those commenters have good reasons to continue misinforming the public. They both made significant errors during the event that dramatically increased the resulting human pain and suffering. Their mistakes did not expose people to harmful radiation because there never was any danger outside of the boundaries of the plant site. Instead their decisions and pronouncements stoked fear, elevated stress and caused economic hardship.

Naoto Kan was the elected leader with no nuclear or radiation training who refused permission for the plant staff to take action to reduce containment pressure and prevent permanent damage to the radiation barriers. Greg Jaczko was the supposedly credible and responsible messenger who transmitted the assessment that the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 spent fuel pool had been drained dry and was burning. Based on that incorrect information, he recommended evacuation for all Americans within 50 miles of the damaged reactors. The resulting confusion slowed the US Navy’s ongoing earthquake and tsunami relief efforts and possibly led to additional casualties who could have been saved.

There was never a substantial risk of a fire. The used fuel in the pool was never uncovered. There was no indication that it was; there was no water level indication available due to inaccessibility and lack of electricity to power instruments. Jaczko assumed the worst without understanding the robust nature of spent fuel pool construction.

The actual conditions in Unit 4′s spent fuel pool during the accident are documented on pages 73-76 of a document from the Nuclear Energy Agency titled Status Report on Spent Fuel Pools under Loss-of-Cooling and Loss-of-Coolant Accident Conditions.

People who carefully review evidence should question why intact structures and livable communities have been abandoned. They should ask why there has not been more attention paid to the fact that bagging vast quantities of lightly contaminated topsoil and building massive tank farms have consumed valuable resources. Those resources have been diverted from the necessary work of cleaning up debris and restoring structures damaged by the combined effects of a massive earthquake and intrusive tsunami that overflowed nearly all of the designed barriers that were supposed to keep people safe.

There are many useful lessons to be learned from Fukushima, but it is nota ticking time bomb. The worst risks have long ago passed and most of the additional costs and negative health effects are being imposed due to misinformation and misunderstanding.

Since nuclear reactor accidents have proven to be extremely rare events, it is important to take the time to study them carefully when they happen. As we continue to study, we should be implementing actions designed to help people respond more effectively the next time there is an accidental release of radiation.

As Marie Curie famously stated:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

That is especially true when the people encouraging others to be afraid have enormous financial motives — like maintaining a lucrative trade in replacement fuel — for propagating their nuclear horror stories.

Correction: The 1934 tolerance dose rate has been corrected from .2 Gy to .2 cGy. 1 CGy = 1 Rad

Forbes



11 Comments on "Fukushima: Time Bomb Or Training Device?"

  1. Kenz300 on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 7:22 am 

    Nuclear energy is too costly and too dangerous……..

    Fukishima and Chernobyl are poisoning the planet……..

    How much will it cost to store nuclear waste FOREVER and who will pay for it?

    Wind and solar are safer, cleaner and cheaper alternatives to nuclear energy and fossil fuels………

  2. joe on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 8:27 am 

    Some studies from around Chernoble have said that the radiation impact has not been as damaging as they thought it would be all those years ago. Many animals with short lifespans thrive there and are largely unaffected, and do well in the void created by man. A long living animal might build up radiation over decades leading to higher cancers yet medicine is providing many solutions to cancers. Given the likelyhood that climate change will destroy much of current coastal humanity, the choice of the possibiblity of more cancers or the certainty of destruction is debateable. Probobly its too late either way now. The choice mignt be just in our heads.

  3. eugene on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 8:40 am 

    I think the Japanese have some personal experience with long term radiation. Anything else is just theories. When I was a kid, a school desk was protection enough. In the current situation, a piece of paper will soon be enough. I’ve watched the documentaries on the Russian research.

    Like “joe on Sun” comment. Just coastal people will be destroyed by climate change. Think you need to learn a bit more “joe”.

  4. makati1 on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 8:58 am 

    Fukushima … a sample of what will happen about 400 times when the SHTF. 100+ of those events will be in the 48 states of poverty. The US.

  5. ghung on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 9:14 am 

    Interesting quote, above, from Marie Curie:

    “…she died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.[46][66] The damaging effects of ionising radiation were not known at the time of her work, which had been carried out without the safety measures later developed.[65] She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket,[67] and she stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark.[68] Curie was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war.[53] Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure.[69]”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Curie#Death

  6. penury on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 10:04 am 

    No one is willing to study the effects of Fuk on sea life. No one is willing to connect the increase in thyroid cancers in people to the radiation. In the U.S and Canada it is a violation of the law to test for radiation in the ocean or the affected sea life. No one will admit what occurred with the fuel rods from the reactors. But trust us all will be well, if you do not believe me ask the survivors of nuclear testing or the people (military and civilian) who are being and have been exposed to the ordinance used in the middle east, check some of the U.N reports on the effect of DU.

  7. diemos on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 11:58 am 

    “In the U.S and Canada it is a violation of the law to test for radiation in the ocean or the affected sea life.”

    Tsk, penury. Would it kill you to do a google search before spreading disinformation?
    http://www.ourradioactiveocean.org
    https://fukushimainform.ca

  8. Jerry McManus on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 12:26 pm 

    I love how they wave around reports from 1934 (!) and then cackle like the three witches from MacBeth about how safe radiation is.

    Brilliant!

    [i]Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn and caldron bubble.
    Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
    Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
    Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.[/i]

    Like a hell-broth indeed!

  9. Jerry McManus on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 12:26 pm 

    test

  10. Jerry McManus on Sun, 28th Aug 2016 12:27 pm 

    I love how they wave around reports from 1934 (!) and then cackle like the three witches from MacBeth about how safe radiation is.

    Brilliant!

    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn and caldron bubble.
    Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
    Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
    Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

    Like a hell-broth indeed!

  11. penury on Mon, 29th Aug 2016 10:40 am 

    diemos, I should have specified “non-government organizations”, Woods Hole does not qualify.

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