Monday, March 14, 2011

nuclear nervousness

13 months ago I traveled through what I would call the northern part of Japan's main island but which the Japanese call the east, including through Sendai, the coastal capital of Miyagi Prefecture. Westerners are rarely found around here, at least at this time of year. Sendai has known destruction before, as the "Sendai City War Reconstruction Memorial Hall" explains in its review of the American bombing of the city in July 1945. I then took a break from the February snow in Japan's north to fly down to tropical Okinawa, where I stayed at a capsule hotel for about $30 a night until I found a different place which was more like $20. I was woken up early in the morning by the sensation that a gigantic dog had taken my capsule in its teeth and was shaking it. Since the hotel's WiFi was still working and I had my smartphone with me, after some minutes I learned from the US Geological Survey website that the epicentre of this earthquake was just 80 km away.

What astounded me was that the Japanese literally won't get out of bed for anything less than a 7.0 earthquake. Tremors are a regular fact of life for the Japanese, and it accordingly did not surprise me to see Japanese supermarket workers being more concerned about bottles breaking than about building integrity on YouTube. It was only after the intensity of the tremors rose and lasted for an unusual long duration that locals would have become especially concerned.

I've been to Japan twice now and I've come to really love the country. It has endured a disaster but of the many individual catastrophes that occurred in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, a particular disaster is receiving far more attention than a proportionate and rational perspective would provide.

I'm talking nuclear, of course. Noo-klee-ur! The very word that sends a chill down some spines.

Now I'll grant that the situation at the Fukushima I power plant has deteriorated substantially, as the amount of radiation released on March 15 was non-trivial and it has been acknowledged that containment integrity at Unit 2 has been partly damaged. I could make some observations here about the situation at Fukushima, such as calling attention to the fact the station apparently kept humming despite a massive earthquake (it was the tsunami that has caused its problems), the fact that newer plants are not as dependent upon external power sources to maintain their cooling systems, whether from the grid or portable backup, the fact most experts contend that - especially after several days have passed - a full meltdown remains highly unlikely, or the fact that the problems are essentially problems of the sort an oil refinery could face in a no power situation (explosions from flammable but otherwise non-toxic gases, short-lived fire at a unit with waste material that released some environmentally harmful toxins). At issue is not the facts on the ground in Fukushima, but the reasonableness of the popular reaction to them. As one authority (among many) has observed, people "don't have a particularly good grasp of the science of radiation and tend to over-exaggerate the risks."

Consider the history of nuclear accidents.

The number of people who ultimately became sick because of the Three Mile Island accident? Zero.

In 1987 in GoiĆ¢nia, Brazil, a radiation scare resulting from an old nuclear medicine source being scavenged from an abandoned hospital caused more than 130 000 people to overwhelm hospital emergency rooms. Ultimately just 250 were found to be contaminated through the use of Geiger counters and just 20 showed signs of radiation sickness and needed treatment.

In 2005 a team of 100 scientists produced a 600 page report for a consortium of UN agencies on the legacy of Chernobyl. Although an accident on Chernobyl's scale is not conceivable in a developed democracy (where all reactors have containment vessels) the team found that even in Chernobyl's case,
By and large... we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, within a few exceptional, restricted areas.

More importantly, however, is the finding that "the largest public health problem created by the accident” is the psychological impact. This is partially attributed to a lack of accurate information. 20 years after the accident, the greatest problems are identified as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.

The hysteria over nuclear power, in other words, didn't just aggravate the health problem, it practically constituted the whole health problem in and of itself!


The Washington Post cites a radiation expert who notes that of more than 80 000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, about 9000 subsequently died of some form of cancer. But only about 500 of those cases could be attributed to the radiation exposure the people experienced.
The average amount of radiation that victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were exposed to would increase the risk of dying from lung cancer by about 40 percent, [the expert] said. Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day increases the risk of dying of lung cancer by about 400 percent.

Meanwhile, this Slate column makes the same argument I do but with a better turn of phrase and some more facts. Charlie Martin at PJM has more in this general vein.

EPA guidelines for workers in emergency situations are radiation doses of 10 rem (100 mSv) when protecting "valuable property" and 25 rem (250 mSv) when protecting populations. What does a 25 rem dose mean? According to the EPA, it means one's lifetime risk of cancer would increase by 1% on average (from 20% to 21%). Compare this 1% increased risk for workers at the Fukushima site to the reality of worker fatalities on the Deepwater Horizon rig last year, and keep in mind that no Fukushima worker in Japan has yet reportedly received a dose even this high, never mind the general public. Although there was a reading of 400 mSv/hr at one location in the plant at one particular point in time, at the same point in time the level was more than 10 times lower just 50 meters away.