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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)

  • Mark Thomas - On a point of accuracy the Sizewell B reactor is a PWR and the planned new build stations will also be PWRs.

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  • Dr Miller,
    Are you trained in radio chemistry? What you have said above makes no sense. I assume that you mean a whole body burden of 1400 Becquerels of Cesium 137 rather than 1400 Becquerels/kg. As your body already contains more than 4000 Becquerels of naturally occurring Potassium 40, some of which will be displaced by the Cesium the impact at this level is not that great.

    Best regards


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  • This is a comment concerning the ice wall idea from a civil engineering student who uses the monikker pol ka, from the NYTimes article yesterday on the doubts that TEPCO and the Japanese can handle this nuclear engineering leakage Pacific Ocean poisoning mess: 'Studying on my master degree in soil mechanics as civil engineer, I learned about the serious problems created by freezing grounds. It may seem attractive but freezing grounds increases lateral groundwater flow (it sucks all the surroundings water) leaving empty spaces between soil grains. This increases soil stress and settling. Settling of fundations will produce large cracks and eventually collapse of the building. This is basic 1-year of master class in soil mechanics, but with Tepco doing quick fixes without thinking, I wonder if they just thought about it, and even care.'

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  • Yes, whole body burden of 1400 becquerels. Typing up and sending out without the third eye of the editor/proofreader. Thank You, Roger.

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  • Clearly, "what we have here is a “failure to communicate".
    I suggest that those interested in radiation and the effects on the body consider Paracelus who said the "Dose makes the poison" while high doses of a substance can threaten the life of the organism, Low doses of the same substance can help the organism. This is called Hormesis. The work of Dr. Luckey determined that doses of radiation below 50 Rem produced no harmful effect. This is because the human organism needs the stressor of radiation to kick the immune system into functioning properly.
    The teaching and beliefs of the past that any radiation is harmful are in error and are part of the 1950’s “On The Beach” generation. The Fuku personnel are permitted to reach a total accumulated dose limit set at 50Rem before having to leave the site. The 50Rem has a basis and is not just pulled out thin air.
    We need to open our minds to the possibility that this disaster will generate new views of old beliefs and thus the beliefs will likely be changed. I suggest that if you are interested enough to comment that you look up on the web the following article. I am sure it will generate fruitful debate.
    Radiation: The No-Safe-Level Myth
    Leslie Corrice - "Assuming the worst can be hazardous to your health"

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  • Mark Thomas. - Point of clarity. The new UK reactors will be ABWR built by GE/Hitachi and B&W in concert with Rolls Royce.

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  • Thank you for an excellent article and fascinating feedback. I am a layman regarding nuclear and health issues, but the correspondence does show how the emotive people tend to dominate the arguments.
    The problem we have as engineers is to get the voice of reason listened to and this article and discussion could help.
    The fanatical advocates seems to be dominating decision-making in all matters of nuclear, environmental and health science: anti-fracking and global warming alarmism are becoming religious beliefs despite all the facts, we need more articles like this and to get them into the popular media.

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  • For some reason I don't think a civil engineer (and a student at that!) would know a single thing about nuclear energy or even the principles of heat transfer. He or she could be the best civil engineering student in the world but his or her major really doesn't cover either of those concepts in the detail needed to fully understand them. In fact, most engineers don't know a thing about nuclear energy (and only certain kinds of engineers will understand heat transfer - chemical engineering curriculums cover this in the most detail but some other engineering disciplines, civil not being one of them, also look at it).

    It is erroneous to assume that engineers know what they're talking about because they are studying engineering and therefore must be smart. Just as erroneous as it is to blindly trust an MD who specializes in pediatrics on the treatment of Alzheimer's disease (or even something non-medical), for example.

    As I'm sure you know, Dr. Miller, lots of engineers make off-the-wall claims about diet and health and use their status to claim they are scientifically-minded enough to make those claims. They are also a profession notorious for harassing math departments claiming that they've found a proof for a long-unsolved problem (when their proof is actually incorrect for reasons they don't have the education to understand).

    The engineer's area of study and competencies (gained through experience) must be considered before taking his or her remarks on a subject seriously...and I'm saying this as a chemical engineer from personal experience.

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  • Dear Anonymous, but what about the substance of what he said about the soil and the ice wall? Just because he is 'only' a civil engineer doesn't mean he is not making a very valid point. You didn't address this, just his status as a non-nuclear engineer. And his point actually is not about nuclear energy, but soil and water movement. A big problem today is many 'educated' people do not respect the insight and wisdom of intelligent people who can see what a 'specialist' cannot always see in his/her monopia. Like "I am a nuclear engineer. You are just a layman. What do you know about anything pertaining to nuclear power or cancer or nuclear radionuclides causing cancer, when I am a nuclear engineer and I say that there will be no deaths from Fukushima from radiation, and that a 'little' [up to 50 rems] radiation is GOOD for you! [Hormesis]" when the practical person knows that is sick hogwash. The latest is that the Guardian reported 2 days ago that 'On Wednesday the country's [Japan's] nuclear regulation authority said radiation readings near water storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have increased to a new high, with emissions above the ground near one group of tanks were as high as 2,200 millisieverts [mSv] per hour – a rise of 20% from the previous high.' [10 msv = 1 rem so 2200 msv = 220 rems] [500 rems is a fatal dose causing radiation sickness and death within 2 weeks]. We know that radiation exposure is cumulative in its effect on our bodies, our cells, our DNA, causing mutations that often cause birth defects in newborns, and cancers too. There is no safe dose, as affirmed in BEIR VII and the committee that created that document. The dose is essentially linear, as the dose goes up, the likelihood of ill effects and cancers increases in basically a straight ~45 degree diagonal ascending line. Also according to both the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to 100 millirems of radiation or 0.1 rems per year for a lifetime would result in 1 out of every 123 people exposed to this dose of radiation getting cancer above their 'normal' risk for cancer. And lifetime exposure to 2000 millirems per year or 2 rems would result in ONE out of every 6 people exposed, getting a cancer above and beyond their normal cancer risk. Sometimes a specialist medical doctor sees a patient and focuses so much on his specialty that he misses the forest for the trees. He finds a kidney infection when the patient is sick and weak from a lung cancer. And I hope you all know that amongst the dead so far from the Fukushima accident is 'the chief manager of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Masao Yoshida, who died of cancer on July 9th aged 58. Yoshida [is the man who] disobeyed Tepco's orders and inundated the three reactors with sea water to provide cooling. Tepco hesitated, as doing so would guarantee the reactors would never be usable again due to salt water corrosion. Yoshida even affirmed the carrying out of Tepco's orders to NOT use sea water, verbally over the phone, while hand writing a note to his assistant to go right ahead and order sea water cooling. Tepco only learned of this at a later date.' Some will deny he contracted his cancer from performing his dangerous heroic duties amidst all the radiation he was exposed to, but what is the obvious answer? Other workers have also been exposed, as have other citizens, but a real death toll from the radiation does not seem to be available yet. But you can bet that it is not zero, and will be much much higher as the years roll by due to the severe long-lived radioactive environmental contamination, and the cancers induced by the radionuclides spewed about the countryside and in the precious water.

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  • Well done Stuart
    The Luddites and anti-nuclear fanatics seem to want to take us back to living in a medieval slum.

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