Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.
The following article was sent to ABC’s “Drum” website about a month ago. They rejected it. I have asked why, but they refuse to give a reason. I would have thought that when a journalist so publicly associated with the ABC as Mark Willacy, makes serious factual errors in a book, that the ABC would publish a reasoned critique. Apparently not.
ABC journalist Mark Willacy recently launched a book: “Fukushima: Japan’s tsunami and the inside story of the nuclear meltdowns”. The ABC is giving the book plenty of exposure and gave Willacy time off to write it.
Back in March this year I wrote an article on poll results exposing deep nuclear ignorance in Australia. Only 10 percent of Australians understood clearly that a nuclear explosion was impossible in a nuclear reactor. The other 90 percent occupied various positions along a spectrum between certainty of the facts and being equally certain that the impossible was possible.
Willacy doesn’t just believe that the impossible is possible, but that it’s already happened. His book reveals similar knowledge deficits not only in the Japanese public, but in many of those who oversaw Japan’s Fukushima meltdown response, including nuclear industry workers.
Willacy states clearly (p.128) that the Chernobyl reactor underwent a nuclear explosion in 1986. Not true or even possible. Power reactor fuel is simply wrong stuff. It’s as different from bomb material as potting soil is from gun powder. And even if you loaded a reactor with bomb grade enriched uranium, there’s no detonation mechanism. Designing and building the latter is one the hardest design jobs in building a nuclear bomb.
Confusion about categories of explosions may seem a small thing, but we’ll see that it extends to a more general ignorance about the nature and scale of radiation risks.
Explosion types, no small matter
Here’s a couple of pictures illustrating the difference between what Willacy claimed happened at Chernobyl and what actually happened … a steam explosion. The image on the left is of a nuclear explosion (the World War II Hiroshima bombing) which flattened about 700 hectares of buildings and killed about 60,000 people with its blast heat and pressure waves. An additional similar number died in the following weeks from various injuries, including radiation received from the blast. The image on the right is the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion … a steam explosion which blew the top off the reactor, killed two workers and mangled a building. But, as you can see, it didn’t even have enough power to knock over a tower a few metres away from the blast.
The above two images are at very different scales, but the difference is clear…
A steam explosion, together with a larger radiation release could definitely have happened at Fukushima if workers at the plant hadn’t succeeded in releasing steam (including radioactive material) from the reactors. This was definitely worth avoiding, but it could never have been a nuclear explosion. Nor could it have possibly killed any workers in the anti-seismic command bunker hundreds of meters away. The worker death fears described by Willacy were clearly very real to them, but they weren’t at any risk of death other than when out of the bunker and close to the reactor. As at Chernobyl and at the recent fertiliser explosion at West near Waco in the US, it’s usually the firefighters taking the big risks. The West explosion left a 93-foot crater and killed 14 people, mostly the firies … this was a much, much bigger bang than Chernobyl. The 1947 Texas fertiliser explosion was a very much bigger bang again, it levelled 1,000 buildings, killed 581 people and even knocked a couple of planes out of the sky.