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Fukushima alarmism is a bigger risk than radiation

It’s been almost two and a half years since the Tohoku earthquake, which triggered the tsunami that swept across Japan, causing massive loss of life and destroying towns and villages. The best-known, but perhaps least serious, consequence of the tsunami is back in the news: the continuing efforts to contain radioactivity from the nuclear reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power station.

Some readers might be wondering how I could describe what’s officially the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl as the least serious consequence of the tsunami. I’m not implying that the incident wasn’t serious. But the way it was — and continues to be — covered is out of all proportion. Over 18,500 people lost their lives as a result of the tsunami. Of those, the number attributable to Fukushima is zero, despite the meltdowns continually being described as ‘deadly’ and radiation levels as ‘lethal’. It all adds to the continuing demonisation of nuclear power, which is — to say the least — unhelpful.

The latest developments concern the containment of water which has been used to cool the molten remains of the plant’s affected reactors. This is being stored in tanks by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), which maintains the plant. Some of these tanks have been discovered to be leaking, leading to radioactive elements reaching the ocean. The latest attempt to contain these leaks, led by the Japanese government rather than TEPCO, is a proposal to create a ‘freeze-wall’ by burying coolant pipes in the soil surrounding the plant to a depth of around 30m, then pumping in salted water at -40°C to freeze the groundwater. This effectively creates a permafrost zone which, the engineers claim, will be able to stop contaminated water from leaking out of the protected zone, and equally stop clean water from leaching in and becoming contaminated.

Despite breathless coverage descibing this as a ‘desperate attempt’ and a ‘crazy plan’ this is actually a well-established technique, used to stabilise loose ground for excavations, for example. It’s been used in London (on the excavation of the new Jubilee Line stations) and at CERN, in the construction of the huge caverns that house the Large Hadron Collider’s detectors. It also has a pedigree in the nuclear sector: it’s used in uranium mining, and has been used to contain nuclear waste at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US. Ice is an effective radiation shield against alpha and beta radiation, and it’s the latter which is believed to be the major problem with the Fukushima water.

It’s certainly ambitious — the Fukushima freeze wall will be the largest ever created, and will have to last for much longer than they are generally used for — and expensive, because the coolant needs to keep flowing to keep the ground frozen; costs are estimated at over £300m, which includes equipment to remove contaminants from the water. But ‘desperate’? ‘Crazy’? Hardly.

As Neil Hyatt, professor of nuclear waste management at Sheffield University points out, the major challenge at Fukushima is to decontaminate the water by removing the radioactive isotopes and stabilising them into a form suitable for long-term storage and disposal — there is significant expertise in this in the UK, based around vitrification techniques developed at Sellafield. The ice-wall will have to be thoroughly tested to minimise porosity; it’s unlikely to be a completely impervious barrier, but should be able to keep the flow of isotopes down to a level which will not lead to dangerous radiation dosages.

As for the effect on the nuclear sector outside Japan, the lessons seem to be the same ones drawn from the Fukushima incident itself. Ensure that regulators are not too close to the companies maintaining and operating nuclear facilities; use the best possible techniques for containing radioactivity (if TEPCO’s storage tanks had been welded, rather than riveted and sealed with rubber, it’s likely that the leaks would have been much less severe, or might not have occurred at all). Overall, it’s a salutory lesson in planning for the worst, because if you don’t, it’ll cost you more to clean up the mess than it would have cost to put the safeguards in originally.

But it shouldn’t be an argument against the deployment of nuclear. Once again, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were old, scheduled for shutdown; their newer neighbours at Fukushima Daiini worked perfectly. The nuclear incident was never more than a sideshow to the natural disaster of the tsunami. It was a tragedy of the intersection of human settlements and plate tectonics, not of the nuclear industry.

Readers' comments (35)

  • This is a great comment article - and I hope it does help stop the demonisation of nuclear which has often cynically been used by those who forget the real tragedy of the tsunami on those who died.

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  • Alarmism worse than radiation? No, Stuart, you are entirely wrong. This is a full-scale real disaster whose effects will be felt for many years. It is entirely normal to see delayed effects from exposure to radiation. The plan to replace the rust & duct-tape tanks and freeze the ground will take at least 2 years and has not yet started. Let's not add more complacency to the tragedy of Fukushima

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  • World Health Organisation is still saying that predicted health effects are minimal to none. Hopefully they're correct.

  • Joe - I don't understand your comment 'It is entirely normal to see delayed effects from exposure to radiation.' in the context of this incident. The WHO doesn't expect this. Could you please provide references?

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  • I've said it before but I'll say it again. If the Design is done Properly i the First Place there should NOT be a problem.
    Of the THREE MAJOR accidents to date, namely, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and
    Fukushima ALL of them were PWR's which are Smaller and Cheaper than AGR's. In this country, UK, we only use AGR's for Power Stations PWR's are only used for Naval Vessels for obvious reasons.
    You CANNOT get a Hydrogen Bubble in am AGR!! and that is what went wrong with ALL THREE PWR's. Enough Said?

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  • Oooh Joe Serious, are you entirely sure you read the article? Full scale real disasters normally involve loss of life of more than none. Rational people look sideways at emotive phrases like your "rust & duct tape" effort. It usually means there are no facts involved.
    Fukushima was old, and hit by an earthquake then a tsunami. Nobody dead?
    A small miracle, likely to stay that way according to the W.H.O.

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  • How to get rid of 1000s of tons of contaminated water? I have an idea which sounds odd at the beginning. If one would enrich the water with salt, cool it down to +4° and pump it through a long pipe into the deep ocean at 3 or 4km water depth it would stay there for hundreds if not thousends of years. It would be extremely thinned out if it ever comes back to the surface.

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  • I was distraught, like many millions of people at the scale of devastation after the tsunami disaster. Not a day goes by without me thinking of the poor lost souls. However the side issue then was the forthcoming tragedy of Fukushima and what death and mayhem it could/would also bring. Whilst we cannot be complacent it seems the effect on both humans and the environment could be very small. I think this is one positive out of the disaster. The world will need increasing amounts of energy in the coming years and nuclear can deliver in larger quantities than most current options.

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  • Yes Paul. There are a large number of fuel rods on the site, of which only about one quarter are accessible with current technology. That leaves 3,000+ rods to dissolve in the sea-water being deliberately pumped into the complex plus the new, uncontrolled ground water exposure. A few miles to the North of this site is Sendai Bay, one of Japan's biggest fishing areas & with a predominantly clockwise tidal flow, it is fairly obvious where contamination will go. This fishing area has now been reopened after a period of closure after the tsunami. Can you say the WHO is correct?

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  • The WHO issued a report in MAY 2012 based on data as of SEP 2011, concluding no discernible increase in health risks OUTSIDE Japan, but an increased lifetime risk for some cancers in certain age & sex groups in the areas most affected. This was before the radioactive water leaks were discovered. They highlight the importance of continued monitoring of food & the environment to allow their risk assessment to be refined. For anyone who does eventually develop a cancer as a result of this disaster, the fact that it was an extremely small risk will be of no comfort.

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  • Freezing the leakage appears to be a reasonable approach to stem the tide of contaminated water at Fuku. These are the types of steps that should have been in place shortly after the incident. Unfortunately, the seeking of a consensus opinion in the middle of an immerging disaster, wastes valuable time and permits the situation to worsen along a log scale. Early on, the most experienced from the world-wide nuclear industry should have been brought into the Frey and what they got were too MBA's and accountants determining financial impacts and incompetent national politicians looking for a CYA. This combined with ingrained social and institutional indecision exacerbated the problem into a crisis. I am glad to see that efforts are now coming forth to address the underlying causes and to mitigate the impact. This event needs to be viewed as a great opportunity to learn what not to do and used to address future events. Nuclear power is the only technology that makes sense for long term high volume power production. The bright light of knowledge needs to be brought to bear on the fears some people and Fuku can be an excellent training ground.

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  • Just to be accurate, it isn't the waste that will be frozen: it's the ground in an area surrounding the waste.

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