Saturday, 19 April 2014
Advanced search

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)

  • 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.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Dear Stuart,
    Your comment seems to come from a salesman of the nuclear industry.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Not at all, just from someone who's concerned that the deaths of 18,500 people in a natural disaster seem to be overshadowed by a manageable engineering challenge.

  • "the number attributable to Fukushima is zero,"

    Assuming an actual situation to imply a future one is an old (Very old) retorical technique, but, as other tragedies of this tipe teach us, the deaths, unfortunately, will come.

    "But it shouldn’t be an argument against the deployment of nuclear"

    What? Risk of human lives or food chain contamination shouldn't be an argument against the deplyment of nuclear? So what should be? Poor aestetics of the nuclear sites?

    "the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were old"

    About 70% of current active reactors are old....

    "It was a tragedy of the intersection of human settlements and plate tectonics, not of the nuclear industry"

    Wow! So placing a nuclear site in a high-risk area isn't a human error, it's just that nature had put danger phenomena where humans would have build a reactor!

    Really not a great article Mr Stuart...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • -yup, no problem, all is ok

    Fukushima Radioactive Iodine Emergency
    Posted by STAFF - Matheus on September 4, 2013

    U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials calculated an annual thyroid dose of 40,000 microsieverts (or 4 REM) for infants under one year of age in California. Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services division of Radiation Emergency Medical Management division (REMM), a child’s dose of 5 REM is immediate grounds for evacuation and prophylactic measures. (REM does not specifically reference an infant dose) Thus, the projected government dose of 4 REM was 80% of the suggested evacuation rate.

    Iodine-131, a radioactive isotope, is primarily taken up by the thyroid gland. It is a bio-mimicker. The thyroid gland requires iodine to function. In a nuclear accident large amounts of radioactive iodine-131 are released and this was certainly the case for Fukushima, especially in the early days. The thyroid gland is unable to differentiate between regular iodine and radioactive iodine and will uptake whatever chemical form it is presented with especially when one is already iodine deficient.

    The negative health consequences of iodine-131 target the sensitive populations of the pregnant, unborn, babies and children up to 10 years of age most aggressively. ..

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • In the interests of accuracy, Joe Serious (ly) you should provide references. Tut Tut.

    Nasty longer term effects HAVE been noted around Chernobyl. .... "The National report of Belarus shows contaminated regions suffering elevated levels in children of anaemia, lung disease, hypertension, stomach and duodenal ulcers, ischaemic heart disease and immune disorders. By 1992 infant mortality in Gomel a heavily contaminated area, compared with relatively clean Grodno showed more than double the infant mortality despite almost identical provision of health care. Between 1988-1996 across Belarus child cancers have multiplied 2.4 times, malignant tumours 13 times, endocrine system diseases 4.5, nervous and sense organs 3.5, blood circulation 4. Mortality under the age of 14 from respiratory disease multiplied by 2.5." (1)

    Some (alarmist?) statisticians have correlated large numbers of excess mortality in the US after Chernobyl (2), but like the clusters of leukaemia around Sellafield,other UK facilities etc etc ad nauseum, correlation does not prove causation.

    The same source cites Weapons Testing as having big effects on mortality in the US and Germany.

    A summary of the the mortality stats for the UK 1901 to 2000 is online (3), and there is a slight rise in age adjusted mortality from Endocrine system problems when testing was happening and arguably a loss in the rate of decline in overall mortality in the same period. But NO big dramatic effects in the UK from Chernobyl in 1987. (though there was a bit of a bump in 1981 - 1991 explanation?)

    (1) CHERNOBYL ACCIDENT: RADIATION PROTECTION OF POPULATION. Nesterenko V B. Limited Liability Publishing Company "Pravo i economika" Minsk 1997 ISBN 985-442-011-6



    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Stuart Nathan is so wrong.
    The people in the station trying to control the disaster are dying. The first one died just the other day. Expect to hear more.
    On an engineering front it was a disaster.
    On an environmental view point it is a disaster.
    Ask those that got moved out of the area and it is a humanitarian disaster.
    The whole station is out of action and that means it is now a generating disaster
    And lastly it is now a financial disaster. Billions are being pumped in to what is widely perceived to be a bottomless money pit. And who is paying.... The people not the company. The people paid the generating company for the diligent production of energy and they got this nightmare.
    The conclusion. The same as other countries have already concluded. New nuclear generation is to be avoided at all cost on every level. I just hope Britain has the guts to say no to nuclear even if the government pushes it down the throats of its people.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Joe Serious, what do you mean by “It is entirely normal to see delayed effects from exposure to radiation”?
    There is a statistically significant increase of the risk of cancer from a short term dose of more than 100 mSv. For lower doses and dose rates no increase in risk has been confirmed.

    “That leaves 3,000+ rods to dissolve in the sea-water being deliberately pumped into the complex” Simply not true. Although sea water was used for cooling in the early stages all the systems are now being cooled using recycled fresh water. There is an influx of groundwater into certain areas of the complex and this excess water is being stored in the above ground storage tanks until it can be treated.

    Best regards


    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • It's interesting reading the comments on this article, it is not so interesting listening to 5Live radio's Energy Day this morning - they keep talking about generating energy when they mean generating electricity. The whole broadcast is a complete fiasco.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • This is like to say getting a suntan is not harmful since after a day exposure the number of deaths on the beach is zero.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • This is an incredibly ignorant article re biology written by an engineer. These radionuclides produced by fissioning uranium to boil water to produce steam to turn a turbine to produce electricity, are very long-lived and will produce many cancers and deaths over their half lives and 'hazardous lives' which equal 10-20 half lives. You know that cesium-137 has a half life of 30 years and a hazardous life of 300-600 years. The body takes it in as if it were potassium so it gets into all our cells, where potassium is the most abundant electrolyte, but now we have radioactive cesium there. You may know this, but do you know that if you ingest food that is contaminated with 10 becquerels of cesium per kg and you take in 10 becquerels per day, as in contaminated areas of Russia, Ukraine, Byelorus, studies have shown that this contaminated daily ingestion adds up so that after 3 years or less the body now has a level of 1400 becquerels/kg. If you are a child who weighs 30 kg this will put you up near 50 bq/kg, which has been found to produce IRREVERSIBLE cardiac pathology; and 10-30 bq/kg also can cause cardiac pathology. The cesium also affects and damages the kidney and bladder, impairing function and filtration, further impeding the main avenue of its excretion. It has also been found to cause neural tube damage. This is the tube that develops as the spinal cord and brain in the developing fetus, resulting in multiple deformities in newborn infants from anencephaly (no brain inside the skull) to microcephaly (small brain) which is correlated with mental retardation and lower intelligence, to spina bifida, which is gaps forming in the spinal column, often affecting ability to walk, control urine, etc. Studies were done in Polossia, a special area west of Chernobyl, where the radiation pollution/contamination is worse than it is in Chernobyl in many areas, due to soil, water ecology, isolation, etc. Dr. Vladimir Wertelecki did these studies. Strontium you know is also produced and this is taken into the body as if it were Calcium, then collecting in the bones of our children where it can then radiate the marrow and the developing blood cells causing leukemia and bone cancer. The list goes on and on as there are actually 100's of radionuclides produced by fissioning uranium. 300 tons of water is running under the plant every day, as Harvey Wasserman reports that the plant was built on an aquifer. This water is contaminated by the vast leakage, contaminating the surrounding groundwaters which run into the rivers which run into the Pacific Ocean. Fish around northeast Japan are being found to contain 1000 bq/kg of cesium as an average and this is not dropping, so the Japanese ban these from being sold or eaten, as Japan's limit for radiation in food is 100 bq/kg. The 2012 WHO report you mention is based on the fatally flawed Hiroshima/Nagasaki lifespan studies which did not START until 1950, after the a-bombs were dropped in 1945, and did not start counting cancers until 1958. The WHO did admit there will be a 70% increase in thyroid cancers in children, if you didn't notice that. But, of course, it is understated due to basing their risk estimates on the Hiroshima/Nagasaki lifespan studies. Remember, according to Alexey Yablokov et al approximately one MILLION people have died prematurely from the Chernobyl accident so far. Many more than the media understands due to fallacious reporting, will die from the Fukushima accident as the years go by, similar to what happened from the one steam exploded reactor and graphite fire that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986. Fukushima has three melted down reactors that are leaking vast amounts of contaminated water, that, yes, is running into the Pacific Ocean, adding up in the food chain as each day goes by.
    The reporting is not alarmist, it is under reported as the truth trickles out. I have posted several videos condensing the facts and studies presented at the NYC March 2013 Fukushima Disaster, Symposium, which are available at youtube on the conradmillermd channel. Also, to see the complete videos of each lecture, you can go to
    Please inform yourself so you don't look like one of the TEPCO apologists or the lying Japanese politicians who minimize this growing poisoning toxic tragedy that you are erroneously ignorantly minimizing. One last question: how many biology courses did you take in your educational years en route to receiving your engineering degree? Just curious.
    Hopefully helping,
    Conrad Miller M.D.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

View results 10 per page | 20 per page | 50 per page

Have your say


My saved stories (Empty)

You have no saved stories

Save this article

Digital Edition

The Engineer March Digital Issue


The roundtable feature in our current issue looks at issues surrounding graduate recruitment into engineering. Which of the solutions proposed in the feature would make the biggest contribution to boosting the number of graduates finding jobs in engineering and remaining there?

Previous Poll

Europe's largest tidal array in the Pentand Firth off Orkney will eventually generate up to 86MW of power. What will it take for tidal energy to make an appreciable contribution to the UK's energy needs?

Read and comment on the results here