Future Nuclear Policy

Lessons about nuclear energy from the Japanese quake and tsunami

Below is the second piece published on BNC on the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis. For an earlier perspective, see: Preliminary lessons from Fukushima for future nuclear power plants.

Below is a Guest Post by Dr. William Sacks.

Bill is a highly experienced physicist and radiologist. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Rice University in 1959, a PhD in Harvard in 1966 (cosmology and general relativity), then did a medical degree and  two-year postgraduate training at Connecticut Medical School, finishing in 1979. He followed this up with a residency in nuclear medicine and radiology at George Washington University through to 1985. He subsequently worked for 10 years as a general radiologist at Kaiser Permanente and later as a medical officer in the Office of Device Evaluation in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health for more than 7 years. In that time he worked with statisticians, physicists, other physicians, and many other specialties. He later worked as a clinical radiologist in Tuscon, and recently retired to spend time researching and writing on energy, climate change, evolutionary biology, economics, history, and physics/astronomy/cosmology.



Part 1: The recent events in Japan in context

Early media concentration on the nuclear plant at Fukushima Daiichi created a great sense of fear in people around the world.  Reporting was distorted by both exaggeration and omission, focusing more on the reactors than on the quake and tsunami that killed over 20,000 people according to recent Japanese government estimates.  Media reports still contain phrases like “222 times higher than the legal limit,” “higher than normal,” “radiation found in the water,” all of which are meaningless without comparisons that permit us to evaluate their significance.  The patchwork of “experts” who were interviewed to explain the events, each with her/his own particular knowledge and set of interests, added to the confusion instead of replacing it with a sense of proportion.

An example of omission is the absence of follow-up on the oil refinery fire at Chiba, about 20-30 miles east of Tokyo and over 100 miles south of Fukushima.  In fact, it killed 12 workers and required 10 days to put out the fire, which spewed toxic smoke and chemicals far and wide, as well as CO2 into the atmosphere that adds to global warming, and resulted in unknown numbers of latent cancers, heart attacks, asthma, and deaths.  Yet once TV images of the flames, falsely linked through association with the nuclear reactors, lost their usefulness, they disappeared from sight.

Nor did the media report widely, if at all, on a hydroelectric dam in Fukushima prefecture, burst by the quake, that flooded 1800 homes, with unknown numbers of deaths.  In addition to the estimated 20,000+ tsunami deaths, homelessness and ongoing lack of water and electricity affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Furthermore the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electrical Power Co. (TEPCO), owner of the Daiichi nuclear plant, have their own interests that help determine what they are willing to report or relay to the media.  Indeed an Associated Press investigation yielded the fact that Japanese scientists had warned TEPCO that a quake and tsunami of these proportions was overdue according to the history of disasters in that area over the last 3,000 years, but the company rejected this prediction.

This is reminiscent of the ample warnings to the administration that New Orleans levees would not be able to resist a storm the size of Katrina in 2005 and that hundreds or thousands would die.  Or of the recent BP oil spill in which collaborative malfeasance of both the company and the government regulators caused 11 immediate deaths of oil workers and uncountable deaths due to the toxic pollution of the Gulf Coast, as well as destruction of hundreds of thousands of livelihoods in the area.  Or of the Challenger disaster in which 7 astronauts died in 1986, in an explosion of the rocket, seconds after take-off, in which the engineers had warned the NASA administrators that the O-rings had failed in tests and would fail again with fatal results.  But NASA had a schedule to keep, under orders from the administration, and that was more important to them than the astronauts’ lives.

So in the face of such conflicting self-interests, how do we get a sense of proportion about the nuclear reactors?  One way is to become as knowledgeable as possible about nuclear energy, how these particular reactors are designed, and the progress and design changes that have been made in the 40 years since they began operation.  In fact, there’s no substitute for even a little bit of research on the internet, using sources that are familiar with nuclear technology.

A second way is to become further acquainted with the effects of radiation on health and well-being.  And a third way is to become at least as knowledgeable about the comparative dangers of other sources of energy, particularly fossil fuels, that dwarf the dangers of nuclear energy.  Only in these ways can we protect ourselves against the often misleading claims of self-interested parties.

The Daiichi plant contains old reactors, six of them, and lessons have been learned from every mishap at any nuclear reactor in the world, the same as with automobiles, airplanes, cruise ships, paper clips, and zippers.

Henry Petroski, an engineer who has written popular books about design, points out that the mother of invention is not necessity so much as failure – failure of earlier designs that require improvement.  He counters the illusion that modern versions of technology sprang full blown out of the heads of their many designers, and shows the hundreds, if not thousands, of iterations that were necessary, over many decades, to arrive at current designs.  And even these are being improved all the time, as there will always be room for improvement in function and safety.

Part 2: Comparisons of risks from nuclear energy with other sources of energy

The media recently reported on an air controller at Reagan National Airport who fell asleep on the night shift while two planes were forced to land nearly simultaneously on their own.  But does that stop most of us from flying?  No, we calculate the relative risks of flying and driving, among other considerations, and find that the death rate per mile is more than 250 times greater for driving than for flying.  Any fear of flying in the face of nonchalance about driving is extremely irrational.

A documentary movie called Gasland shows how hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas in the U.S. is contaminating more and more of our fresh water sources with hundreds of cancer-causing and neurotoxic chemicals.  This is equally true of leakage into our water supplies of hundreds of gasoline additives from storage tanks.

The book Lives per Gallon by former head of California’s EPA, Terry Tamminen, documents hundreds of thousands of sufferers of lung disease, heart disease, and tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. alone, from simply breathing oil and coal fumes, amounting to 1 to 2 million deaths world-wide from this same source, each year.  While coal scrubbers could reduce this somewhat, there is absolutely no such thing as clean coal, and profit considerations have largely blocked their deployment in any case.  Coal mining accidents have killed an estimated 100,000 miners in the 20th century in the U.S. alone, and an order of magnitude greater number from black lung disease, with 4,000 new cases each year even now.  This is on the order of 100 times (!) the number of deaths among uranium miners for the same amount of energy produced, and uranium mining has become much safer since the introduction of ventilation.  Meanwhile the Chinese government reports over 100 deaths from coal mining accidents per week, which would equal the U.S. 20th century toll in just 20 years.

Fires, explosions, and toxic leaks at oil refineries, gas storage facilities, oil tankers at sea, and oil trucks on land, are rarely reported outside the immediate area of their occurrence, but they are frequent and they kill.  Even the bursting of hydroelectric dams, the largest source of renewable energy in the U.S., has killed hundreds of thousands of members of the public throughout the world.  Overall, for the same amount of usable energy, the deaths from oil and coal, in all stages of production and use, exceed the deaths from nuclear energy by factors of 1,000 and 4,000, respectively. All this is in addition to the damage that fossil fuels do to the livability of the planet.

Contrast the numbers of deaths from non-nuclear sources of energy with those from nuclear energy production, and we find that fear of nuclear energy is even more irrational than a fear of flying in favor of driving.  While there have been a small number of deaths from experimental or military nuclear reactors, no one in the U.S. has ever been killed from commercial nuclear energy production in its almost 60 years.  Three Mile Island is the only widely known commercial nuclear reactor accident in the U.S.  That event occurred more than 30 years ago and killed, or even harmed, no one.  See, for example, the website for more information on these comparisons.

Ironically, coal fly ash (the smoke stack exhaust) contains about 100 times the radioactive material emitted from nuclear plants, but, even at that level, this is not the source of danger from coal.  Nevertheless, if that is their concern why do anti-nuclear environmentalists not put their efforts toward stopping the construction and running of coal plants?

Living on the edge of a major quake zone with a history of strong tsunamis is extremely hazardous at best.  So is living in hurricane territory, tornado alley, flood plains, or drought-prone regions.  This doesn’t leave much of the earth’s surface for easy habitability.  That is, except for the failure-driven ingenuity of humans who can compensate for these problems, if we can but overcome the conflicting interests that so often overshadow safety considerations.

Understanding the nuclear events in Japan can only be accomplished through comparisons with all the other sources of energy — their advantages and disadvantages, their feasibilities, their dangers, their adequacy and reliability.  Without such comparisons we cannot possibly come to reasonable conclusions.

Part 3: Hormesis, the beneficial effects on health of low levels of radiation

Perhaps the greatest source of fear arises from the general misunderstanding of radiation and its effects.  My earlier article in the March 16 issue of the GV News was criticized in a letter on March 20 for mentioning the hormetic (beneficial) effect of low levels of radiation.  Hormesis, said the letter writer, is controversial and “just a theory.”  The implication that hormesis has not been proven is simply false.  There are more than 2,000 studies from around the world demonstrating its validity and reality, including many Japanese studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs in 1945. 

Low levels of radiation are actually good for you, and insufficient levels are harmful to your health.  But don’t rely on the government regulators in the EPA or FDA to tell you this.  I know, I worked for the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health for almost 8 years before moving to Green Valley in 2004.  While my friends there believe in the hormetic effect, they nevertheless say it would be too complicated to regulate radiation based on this truth.

Instead they use the linear-no-threshold (LNT) approach.  LNT pretends that even the smallest amount of radiation causes deaths from cancer.  LNT further pretends that a particular total dose of radiation energy will cause the same number of cancers, several decades in the future, regardless of the number of people who share that dose.  In other words, it implies that if one person exposed to 2 million mrems (a unit of radiation energy) will get cancer from it, then if 2 million persons are exposed to 1 mrem each, one will still get cancer from it.

LNT deliberately ignores several well known protective mechanisms against radiation damage, including stimulation of repair enzymes to fix damaged DNA, cell suicide to eliminate sick cells before they become cancerous, and stimulation of the immune system to rid the body of cells that are in danger of becoming cancerous.  Low levels of radiation, in fact, act like a vaccine – a small dose of the germ and it stimulates your immune system to protect you against larger doses.  The very word “hormesis,” like the word “hormone,” comes from Greek, meaning “to stimulate.”

In the U.S. on average we each experience about 360 mrems a year due to natural background radiation, with variation over a range of more than ten to one, depending on geography.  This background comes from the sky (cosmic radiation from stars) and from the ground (radioactive elements that have been part of the earth since its formation billions of years ago, including uranium, thorium, radium, radon, polonium, and others).  In fact, it is mainly the heat from radioactivity of these elements that causes volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and even the floating of the tectonic plates, which in turn gives rise to earthquakes and tsunamis.  Our food is already loaded with naturally occurring radioactive potassium (K-40) and carbon (C-14).  Of the 360 mrems each year, about 20 mrems comes from inside of us from the potassium and carbon that we eat and absolutely need in order to live.  That’s right, every one of us already contains radioactive material, round the clock.

Humans and other animals, as well as plants, have evolved in a veritable sea of radiation.  If radiation were harmful at these levels, as LNT maintains, we wouldn’t be here.  Furthermore the levels of background radiation vary not only within the U.S. but around the world, covering a range of about 200 to 1.  The highest levels are found in Ramsar, Iran (26,000 mrem/year), Guarapari Beach in Brazil (7,500 mrem/year), and Kerala, India (7,500 mrem/year).  If LNT were true, Iran, Brazil, India, and the Rocky Mountain states in the U.S. would have higher than average cancer rates and lower than average life expectancy.  Yet the rates of cancer are lower, or at the very least not elevated, in the regions of higher radiation.  Denver, for example, has lower cancer rates than New Orleans, though both the levels of cosmic and ground radiation are higher in Denver.  The greater the altitude the less the shielding from cosmic rays, and the Rockies contain lots of uranium, radium, and radon, and the other radioactive elements.

Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in January 2011 admitted that low levels of radiation are beneficial.  But still the NRC promotes fear by maintaining an admitted fiction in their rules for exposure.  See  So while hormesis may be artificially controversial, there are no studies that confirm LNT and thousands that prove it false.  It would be no more controversial than the causal link between smoking and lung cancer if the government regulatory agencies would finally admit that they have been operating on a false basis.  LNT has been called by Gunnar Walinder, former chair of the Swedish Radiobiology Society, “the greatest scientific scandal of the 20th Century.”

Part 4: Other facts about radiation and concluding remarks about nuclear energy

Imagine if governmental regulators operated as though everything that is toxic in high doses were also toxic in low doses.  They would outlaw things like vitamins, aspirin, zinc, selenium, and so on, while warning people to shield themselves completely from sunlight, oxygen, and water.  That, in fact, is what they are doing with radiation.  Everything in the world is toxic in high enough doses and most are also dangerous at inadequate doses, but many are life-saving in a middle range (called the hormetic range).  Radiation is no different in that respect from things like vitamins, sunlight, oxygen, and water.

If the regulators would instead identify the thresholds for radiation harm versus benefit, as they do for most other substances, we would be far better off.  The LNT fiction contributes to tremendous and harmful fear.  This fear, for example, prevents many women from seeking life-saving mammograms to detect breast cancer early enough to cure it, and fuels the anti-nuclear environmental organizations that have often blocked the construction of needed nuclear reactors to replace coal plants and oil-guzzling vehicles.  These reactors would save millions of lives over short periods of time and would preserve the planet’s livability for future generations.

To combat this fear it would help to realize that radiation doesn’t leak out of nuclear plants.  It is radioactive atoms that may leak, and they give off radiation due to spontaneous emissions of electrons, helium nuclei, or gamma rays (electromagnetic radiation — like light, microwave, TV, radio, etc.).  Plants and water only become radioactive when they have radioactive atoms deposited on or in them, or soak them up through the soil.  Unlike toxic human-made chemicals that last forever, radioactive atoms decrease continually in number, due precisely to their radioactivity, i.e., tendency to emit particles and gamma rays.

The more radioactive the element, the shorter lived is its radiation.  So iodine-131 and cesium-137 found in the Japanese vegetables and water supply are decaying away as we speak.  I-131 has a half life of 8 days, meaning that every 8 days the amount of radiation from it decreases by half.  In one month it is down by a factor of 16 and in two months by a factor of 256, and so on.  Cs-137 is longer lived, with a half life of 30 years, but by the same token, atom for atom, it is far less radioactive, by a factor of almost 1,400.  It is not clear yet that any of this radioactive contamination is at all harmful to anyone.  It may still be within the beneficial hormetic range and below the threshold for harm.  The contamination of truth by fear, however, is most definitely harmful.

Furthermore in addition to the lessening of radioactivity over time, radiation also lessens with distance from the source.  The fear that anyone in the U.S. could be harmed by the radioactive contamination near the Daiichi plant ignores this distance factor.  Just as light and sound are fainter farther from the source, so is all other radiation.  Distance also disperses the number of radioactive atoms in air and/or sea water.

It is not possible yet to say what proportion of the harm to health and lives, following the quake/tsunami, will ultimately be due to the Fukushima reactors.  But several things are certain:  First, the harm from the nuclear plants will be minuscule compared to the harm from the tsunami itself, and it will be localized to very close to the plant.  Two of the plant workers have suffered radiation burns to the skin of their feet from standing with inadequate boots in contaminated water.  They will recover.

Second, the safety of nuclear reactors everywhere will again leap forward from the lessons learned at Daiichi, though the improvement in reactor design over the almost 40 years since Daiichi began has already been vast.  In particular, the integral fast reactor (IFR) designed at the U.S. Argonne National Labs in the 1940s through 1990s is not only passively safe (no requirement for human intervention), but uses more than 100 times the energy in uranium (almost 100% of it, unlike current U.S. reactors that use less than 1%), and is designed to recycle the fuel within the building and make theft of the plutonium and uranium impossible without immediate deaths to the thieves from extreme excesses of radiation from the spent fuel products, in addition to plant security.  They would also render uranium mining unnecessary by recycling spent fuel.  The Daiichi reactors are to modern reactors, IFRs and others, like the Wright brothers’ glider is to a 747.

And finally, any objective and quantitative approach, uncontaminated by fear, would show that nuclear energy can provide the safest, most reliable, cleanest, and most sustainable source to save the planet for our children and grandchildren.  Other so-called renewable sources like wind and solar may be useful to supplement it, particularly locally, but steady round-the-clock baseload electricity for entire nations cannot be provided by such intermittent and dilute sources.  In addition, the U.S. Energy Information Administration continues to calculate that nuclear energy will prove to be the cheapest form, including wind and solar, though cost in human terms should be our most important criterion.  In that sense nuclear is ahead by orders of magnitude.


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

187 replies on “Lessons about nuclear energy from the Japanese quake and tsunami”

Hormesis should work for all organisms, right? So we should see healthier bacteria and fungi in areas with higher background, perhaps greater antibiotic resistance for example? Could that be checked?

Nitpickery on units and cites:

The main post refers to “mrem” ((millirem? microrem? — annual dose?) Is there a conversion between “mrem” and millisievert?

Conversion tables here, but I don’ t know which “mrem” refers to.

Main post says:

> Ramsar … The highest levels are found in
> Ramsar, Iran (26,000 mrem/year)…
> Yet the rates of cancer are lower, or at the very
> least not elevated

Comparison: “millisievert” dose numbers are cited peoplein Ramsar here by a blog commenter and a site Moderator recently, both referencing the same book. Can we get a sanity check/better cite on these numbers from someone knowledgeable?

“”bks, on 4 April 2011 at 11:27 PM said:

There are places in Ramsar that might give a dose of 260 millisieverts/year, but the *population* of Ramsar do not spend there time in these places. The average dose for the population is about 10 millisieverts/year and the modal dose is 1-5 millisieverts/year.
See figure 5, page 22


That book, on p23/24 says dose rates for the ELNRA are up to 135 mSv/yr, and ~25% of the population are >5 mSv.”


Very nice article, Dr. Sacks.

One thing left out is the fact that the Fukushima crisis very likely has caused a number of deaths already- resulting from the evacuation.

It was reported in the news and briefly discussed in threads here that at one point 17 deaths had been attributed directly to the difficulties of living in evacuation facilities, lack of normal and proper medical care, etc.

Like many news articles we’ve seen, that number may or may not be accurate. I have no clue. It would also be difficult to break things down since the majority of evacuations were due to loss of habitat via the Tsunami and many of the “nuclear evacuees” were likely evacuated for either/both reasons.

I point this out because I recently saw a comment in a thread here along the lines of “why don’t they extend the mandatory evacuation out to 30km… it can’t hurt.”

But it can hurt. We will never know how many people died from diseases spread in densely packed shelters, nor will the media care much about that. It is just an example of how people irrationally blind themselves to the fact that all decisions have adverse consequences.

I am not suggesting that the evacuation zone is too small or too large. That is for the experts. I just want to point out that “it can hurt” and should be taken into account along with the LNT type thinking that likely helps set the evac zones.

On the positive side, as far as I know no one died in plane crashes while fleeing Tokyo to take up residence in “radiation free” Denver. Worst case they might just get a little hermetical radiation therapy…


Hank: Hormesis should be much stronger for multicellular organisms. Single-cell life forms and colony life forms remain more vulnerable to the background chatter.


Yes evacuation can kill… but the question is how many would have died without the evacuation and without the nuclear plant due to difficulties in getting food, water, medical attention. In other words aren’t the evacuation centers more than average in food, water, medical attention?

Cosmic rays from airplane travel might be good for you. Its whole body dose (ie external like Chen’s Taiwanese cobal 60 research) and the dose rate isn’t too extreme.


“…a hydroelectric dam in Fukushima prefecture, burst by the quake, that flooded 1800 homes, with unknown numbers of deaths.”

Which dam was that? I only ask because I have tried to follow this story and failed. The only dam break from the quake I could find is the Fujinuma Dam. It was an irrigation dam, and only five homes have been reported as washed away. At least four dead, which is admittedly more than from the nuclear plants.

And really, even mentioning the carbon dioxide from the Chiba refinery, while true, seems a bit silly. The problem is the carbon dioxide created in using oil, not from disasters.


Regarding the units:

rad and gray are biologically absorbed dose units. They refer to how many joules have been absorbed per kilogram of biological tissue.

rem and sievert are dose units where type of radiation is taken into account for biological effect. These are the most relevant.

1 Sievert = 100 rem.

m = milli = 1/1000 (one thousandth)
u = micro = 1/1000000 (one millionth)

Ramsar Iran max possible dose is 260 millisievert = 0.26 sievert = 26 rem.


Statistically speaking, how much more dangerous did nuclear power become due to Fukushima?

No one has yet died of radiation and there does not appear to be anyone with high enough dose for that either. However lets not be too optimistic and consider the worker that fell out of a crane and the two poor young fellows that got stuck in some basement and bled to death, poor folks. That makes 3 dead.

Nuclear deaths per TWh is 0.04 with 2600 TWh/year.

Add 3 dead makes it 0.041 per TWh. Coal is at 161 per TWh. This makes nuclear power 3900 times safer than coal! Even if we get the world average coal down 10x it is still 390 times more deadly than nuclear power!


> hydroelectric dam story

I’ve also been trying to find the source of the death claims made — so far, no luck (been looking for more than a week). Not saying it didn’t happen, just that I can’t find it. A cite would be welcome.

Here’s info — a meta-analysis study of studies — including some on that Chinese area with high levels:

Meta-analysis of non-tumour doses for radiation-induced cancer on the basis of dose-rate
January 21, 2011. (doi:10.3109/09553002.2010.545862)

Hiroshi Tanooka
Radiation Effects Association, 1-9-16 Kaji-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo and National Institute of Radiological Sciences, 4-9-1 Anagawa, Inage-ku, Chiba, Japan

“Purpose: Quantitative analysis of cancer risk of ionising radiation as a function of dose-rate.

Materials and methods: Non-tumour dose, Dnt, defined as the highest dose of radiation at which no statistically significant tumour increase was observed above the control level, was analysed as a function of dose-rate of radiation.

Results: An inverse correlation was found between Dnt and dose-rate of the radiation. Dnt increased 20-fold with decreasing dose-rate from 1–10−8 Gy/min for whole body irradiation with low linear energy transfer (LET) radiation. Partial body radiation also showed a dose-rate dependence with a 5- to 10-fold larger Dnt as dose rate decreased. The dose-rate effect was also found for high LET radiation but at 10-fold lower Dnt levels.

Conclusions: The cancer risk of ionising radiation varies 1000-fold depending on the dose-rate of radiation and exposure conditions. This analysis explains the discrepancy of cancer risk between A-bomb survivors and radium dial painters.”

Read More:


I like this short youtube movie. It makes some key points. Hear what Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore has to say!


Does anyone have information about other thermal plants in the area? Coal/oil/gas fired. Big fires, explosions, pollution, damage? Any ash ponds breaking, natural gas and gasoline storage locations? I can’t find that much.

Professionally I am currently involved in design of a large gasoline storage terminal. We have some quite simple and effective emergency burners, squib plastique energised fire extinguishing lines and overpressure protections. However earthquake and tsunami proof is not a criteria. I can’t imagine these large vertical tanks would stand a 9 moment magnitude quake, and the spill design does not take into account all tanks catastrophically failing at the same time. Millions of liters of gasoline going everywhere.


Hope this is on point: when Dr. Sacks raised Katrina, BP, and Challenger I had hoped to see him address lessons learned that addressed the organizational problems at the root of those disasters.

It wasn’t simply that “the administration” hurried or ignored their engineers. The rot was more subtle and deeper than that.

Feynman’s Challenger Report Appendix:

Rogers Commission — Silent Safety Program:

Nancy Leveson paper discussing the persistence of managerial problems at NASA:

I hope that the operators of the new reactor designs don’t delude themselves into confusing “passively safe” with “fail safe”.


Yeh, the relatively safe designs actually being built now are safe for a specified number of days; after that, they need pumps running to restore the water. Where will the water come from in a worst case drought — and what’s the worst case drought? It’s not simple.

But there aren’t many of those yet.

National Geographic says: (excerpt follows)

“The vast majority of plants under construction around the world, 47 in all, are considered Generation II reactor designs—the same 1970s vintage as Fukushima Daiichi, and without integrated passive safety systems.”


“15 of the 442 nuclear reactors operating in the world are considered Generation III reactors—designs that have begun to integrate some “passive” or “inherent” safety …. the Gen III reactors now in operation date anywhere from 1982 and 2007, according to a list provided by NEI, they aren’t exactly the leading edge in nuclear technology.

That next advance would be the Generation III-plus design, a plant that relies completely on passive safety systems in the case of an accident, as the U.S. Department of Energy categorizes it….

… “These are designs that have fully functional passive safety systems that have the ability to function at least 72 hours without AC [alternating current] electrical power or external cooling water”….
… . The system can provide cooling for up to 72 hours, according to Westinghouse spokesman Scott Shaw.

After that, a small diesel generator is meant to supply power to pump water from an onsite storage container into the reactor core and spent fuel pool at 100 gallons per minute for up to four days.”

So, the arithmetic: at 100 gallons/min., four days is 5760 minutes, so 576000 gallons assuming no waste or spill or leak, just replacing what evaporates. And this has to be clean water since it’s going through the core, assuming the core’s going to be saved and reused.

Has anyone looked at these water tanks? Do they have to also purify the water as it’s drawn out, or is it kept clean enough to pump?

Just curious. The loose ends are the devilish details.


Well, assuming they don’t have to keep it pure in storage (if they pump the cooling water through filters on the way to the plant) they could get dual use out of the tank by letting people swim in it: “About 600000 gallons of water fill an Olympic size pool.”


Looking at the comments I’ve seen all over the internet following Fukushima, it seems very few people have changed their minds on nuclear power as a result. The people who hated it before still do, and the proponent’s minds are unchanged. I haven’t heard of anyone who has switched from pro to anti, and George Monbiot and some others have made the opposite switch.


I’d like much more detail regarding Tepco ignoring tsunami warnings from Japanese scientists as my understanding, up to now, has been that no seismologist had thought an earthquake with a moment magnitude 9.0 was possible in the vicinity of Japan.


I did not understand Dr. Sacks’ transition from the failure of TEPCO to heed legitimate warnings into a study of the risks of nuclear power. He leaped over the big question: If TEPCO can’t manage nuclear reactors properly, who can? How are we going to manage a global network of tens of thousands of reactors? How many Fukushimas will occur? At what frequency? What will be the typical contribution to background radiation, etc.



Dr. Sacks: “Low levels of radiation, in fact, act like a vaccine – a small dose of the germ and it stimulates your immune system to protect you against larger doses.”

I am a molecular biologist, but I cannot think of any mechanistic basis to support this claim. True, cells do have well studied mechanisms to repair DNA damages. However, as far as I know, low dose of radiation does not improve cell’s ability to repair DNA damages.

This is in stark contrast to the case of vaccine and immune system, in which we know very well how prior exposure to antigens generate B cells and T cells bearing specific antigen receptors that will protect you from infections later.

Maybe I’m just ignorant. But I’m not convinced unless I’m presented with a mechanism.


As an answer to Huw Jones,

Does a change of opinion from “indifferent” to “I support nuclear energy” count? I hadn’t really spent a lot of thought on how energy is won before the incident, but seeing how I am already, at least indirectly, affected by what is happening at Fukushima, informing myself about the plant’s state and nuclear power in general has turned into my main activity since being back in Germany (I was on exchange in Sendai when the earthquake and Tsunami hit). Obviously, there’s a strong personal interest involved aswell, since I’m planning to complete my studies abroad starting May, and I want to make sure that my parents understand that me going back won’t mean me dying a slow painful cancer death.
I’ve always felt like there was a lack of context in the way media handled Fukushima. If you don’t know anything, all those numbers seem terribly frightening, so I’m very thankful for sites like BNC that explain the situation in an understandable way. That doesn’t make a savvy on the subject, but it’s been helping me to understand what’s been going and put everything in perspective.


The Economist is hosting a debate with the proposition ‘This house believes that the world would be better off without nuclear power.’ You can join in here.

Further to David B Benson on what was thought seismically possible in the vicinity of Japan, the American Geophysical Union’s Eos magazine carried a piece incorporating this (Scientists Examine Challenges and Lessons
From Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami
, paywalled) a couple of weeks ago. Some quotes give the flavour:

…the inundation area is similar to that of the great Jogan earthquake of 869 C.E., when a large tsunami washed over the Sendai area. The Tohoku earthquake is the largest known quake along the Japan Trench since the Jogan event or earlier…

…eminent seismologist Hiroo Kanamori…said that when the University of Tokyo science department building squeaked and shook hard, he immediately thought it was a large earthquake, perhaps magnitude 8, about 400–500 kilometers distant. “In Japan, to feel some shaking is not surprising,” he said. “But when I was told later that it was a 9, it was a big surprise.” A quake that big had not been anticipated along the rupture zone, Kanamori said. “Even if we were aware of the potential hazards of earthquakes, probably very few people suspected that this kind of really big event could happen there…

But then there’s this:

…scientists have only about a 100-year sample “of quake occurrence
data from instrumental seismology…We shouldn’t be surprised by M = 9 quakes in places where they haven’t yet been known (to us) to have occurred (although probably those areas have had M = 9 quakes in the relatively recent, speaking geologically, that is, past…

(Robert Geller, professor in the Graduate School of Science at the University of Tokyo)

This place had become one of the most studied pieces of subduction zone on the planet in many respects…It was surprising that such a large earthquake happened on this subduction zone, which had been assumed to be capable of having a magnitude 8 earthquake but not a 9.

(Geoffrey Abers, research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

and the bottom line:

…researchers are also learning more about the maximum credible earthquake possible in some subduction zones around the world, noting that scientists had
not widely expected a magnitude 9 quake here, nor had such a major quake been fully anticipated off of Sumatra in 2004. “We are still understanding what subduction zones around the world are capable of producing in terms of large earthquakes,” he said, adding that the Tohoku earthquake is a “wake-up call” for the United States’
Pacific Northwest and other potentially vulnerable regions. “It is likely we should be prepared in parts of the world with very high seismic hazards for larger earthquakes than we had previously thought. It’s a sobering message based on a small data set.

(Richard Aster, president of the Seismological Society of America and professor at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology)



Two were deleted, as you requested, so you could re-post on the correct thread. We do not have the facility to change comments between threads ouselves.
One was deleted because your suggestion as to your personal opinion regarding what other’s should/could do violates BNC commenting rules.


@Huw Jones, I know of a few instances at an independent news site I frequent where a few people have commented that Fukushima had brought them back to an anti-nuclear position. I emphasise the ‘back to’ to make the point that they invariably were recent and/or reluctant adopters of a pro-nuclear stance. However, this was in the very early days of the crisis, and it just goes to show that there are still waverers in the middle who are open to being convinced.


Mark Duffett, on 7 April 2011 at 10:31 AM — Thank you. Perhaps the only safe estiamte one can make about regions prone to great earthquakes is that moment magnitude 9.5–9.6 earthquakes is probably all that mantle rock is capable of forming.


I did re-post it. You deleted that too. You deleted 4 posts of mine. 2 of which I requested.

As for claiming that I suggested what others should do…

I proposed a good way for promoting nuclear energy and reassuring the Japanese people about the current radiation levels. I will try my best to re-word it all though you repeatedly seem to have no problems with other suggestions on your blog.
MODERATOR I did not delete any re-posting – you are mistaken. I did delete 4 of your posts. 2 which you asked me delete so that you could re-post on the appropriate thread and two that I decided were no more than petty attacks on people on the blog, with childish suggestions that we should all go to Japan and take our children with us and “see if you like it”. BNC is not a sounding board for your frustrations (understandable as they may be)and such posts will also be deleted in future.
I would like to point out that it is not your “right” to comment on this personal blog and if you wish to carry on with attacks (many of which had to be deleted) on the blog and the moderators, for perceived personal slights against your posts, which are onlysubject to the same restrictions which apply to all on BNC (when others here react to moderation with courtesy and grace), you will go from being on the moderation list to the banned list. Make your choice.


bks, on 7 April 2011 at 8:09 AM said:

Witnessing some of the fumbling efforts of Tepco many people here wish that an international body be in charge of oversight for nuclear energy plants.



I don’t have the time to carefully read the report that you cited. But it doesn’t seem like it says anything strongly about beneficial effects of radiation, which is I’m specifically questioning.

It is well known that proteins involved in DNA repair are activated when cells are exposed to gamma irradiation or UV or whatever chemicals that cause DNA damages. But activation of these proteins are caused by sensing DNA damages. They can prevent mutations from happening, but it’s hard for me to think that the net effect of radiation is beneficial, however low the level is. Note that the DNA repair mechanisms are not error free. In fact, mutations can be caused by misrepair of DNA. (Alternative pathway is cellular suicide, or apoptosis, when DNA repair fails. In some way, that is a preferable pathway than misrepair of DNA.)

It is not impossible to think of scenarios in which net effect of low levels of radiation is beneficial. And it seems they have been proposed. But it seems that they are controversial and at best the beneficial effects are small.

I am a basic scientist, rather than an epidemiologist. So, I want a strong mechanistic evidence to be convinced.

I think to claim that low levels of radiation is analogous to vaccine as if that is a well established fact is irresponsible, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the rest of what Dr. Sacks wrote.


Very informative post.

I get that the health impact of the incidents at Fukushima pale enormously when placed in appropriate contexts.

I get that the safety record of commercial nuclear energy thus far has been stellar when placed in similar appropriate contexts, i.e., relative to alternative historical power sources.

Two questions and an additional point:

I’m still not convinced that the waste issue has been resolved with local storage, even while I acknowledge that thus far local storage has been relatively safe. My fear is of a risk of the black swan type, a tail risk that is highly improbable but with disproportionate impact should it ever occur. I conceive of compound events, possibly involving ill intent, i.e., smart terrorists. Is there a cogent treatment of this risk in the public domain that an interested reality-based person can read for themselves? Or all they all classified to keep from feeding ideas to would-be terrorists? Can such a risk be ruled out by reason and science, much the same way most popular-media fear-mongering scenarios can be precluded?

My second question is about cost, and is related to my final point. I very much appreciate the reality-based, respectful-of-science posts I’ve read from nuclear energy advocates in the wake of Fukushima, in the context of the physics-bound risk assessments they have offered. But invariably at the end the author makes the point, as if it is accepted fact, that wind and solar cannot possibly supply large fractions (> 50%) of the world’s power cost-effectively, almost always without reference. This is as offensive to me as the anti-nukes fearmongering: it shows a total lack of respect for established technology and manufacturing cost life cycles. That’s my point.

My question is as to the cost of nuclear. I’m not convinced the US (say) could not substitute solar and wind (hundreds of square miles of concentrated solar power–thermal not PV–in the southwest desert and thousands of windmills in the midwest alley, integrated into a grid such that during the course of a day they complimented one another) for coal at a capital cost cheaper than an equivalent substitution of nuclear.


Haru, thanks for the calm sensible comments.

I’m just a longtime reader on this, not a scientist (a family member studied radiation effects on dividing cells at Oak Ridge in the 1950s, so I’ve been reading in the area a long while). Your summary fits the mainstream — if there is an effect it’s small and there are many other forces acting that aren’t well sorted out.
One example (the related paper links lead to many more):


“The more radioactive the element, the shorter lived is its radiation. So iodine-131 and cesium-137 found in the Japanese vegetables and water supply are decaying away as we speak. I-131 has a half life of 8 days, meaning that every 8 days the amount of radiation from it decreases by half. In one month it is down by a factor of 16 and in two months by a factor of 256, and so on. Cs-137 is longer lived, with a half life of 30 years, but by the same token, atom for atom, it is far less radioactive, by a factor of almost 1,400. It is not clear yet that any of this radioactive contamination is at all harmful to anyone. It may still be within the beneficial hormetic range and below the threshold for harm. The contamination of truth by fear, however, is most definitely harmful.”

At this moment I am 120 km away from the nuclear problem. We are unable to buy local vegetables, we have been advised that the water is unsafe unless bottled or from a well, and the fish market has been devastated. Business and cultural livelihoods have been turned into questionmarks in the future of our surroundings.


The source of the miscalculation/misreading on the irrigation dam along the Abukuma River in Fukushima Prefecture is this report from CNN:

It was 1800 homes in total that were destroyed by the tsunami in Fukushima Prefecture. Five homes and 8 people dead from the dam collapse. You can see a photo of the reservoir and dam here.

It seems to me the appropriate lessons to be learned from Fukushima have to do with engineering, disaster response, and risk management. Some industries do it well, others cut corners and have nobody looking over their shoulder. What is the culture of safety at a power plant. This was a major part of the many reforms that came about as a response to TMI, and it is likely a good reason why the industry has been relatively safe for the last 30 years. Fukushima tells us there is a lot more we could be doing. And it also reminds us to be ever vigilant. Using Fukushima as case study to debunk LNT, draw out false equivalencies with other industries, and even put some kind of measure on a loss of human life … I find pretty problematical as a response to this accident. Minimizing risk and over confidence in past performance does not lead to safer and more reliable power plants, but good engineering, tough oversight, and thoughtful management does! Humility too. And we just got a major hormetic dose of it over the last three weeks. From an article appearing in Reuters today, it appears humility has been there all along (and most likely in a productive and thoughtful way). Now it’s time to act on it!!


To Robert Ash

Hi, I don’t often comment because, while I have considerable experience with nuclear operations (I was a Reactor Operator in the US Navy for quite some time), I’m neither as eloquent nor as adept as others here in inserting references… I’m rather clumsy on a computer. However, your comment demonstrates that you are a straight thinking individual, and the concerns you express are both common and natural given the quality of information that dominates those topics. I’ll take a brief stab at your questions.

As to local storage (either in pools or dry casks), the only plausible “threat” from bad characters bent on “ill-intent” is to use the material in combination with an explosive to create a “dirty bomb”. The nature of the material is such that, while this would create a large and expensive clean up, the biggest “threat” would be the blast from the conventional explosives used in the caper. “Spent Fuel” cannot be detonated like a nuclear bomb… physically impossible. It’s possible that a large enough conventional explosion could aerosolize a small portion of the mass, but for the most part we’re talking about material that is heavier than lead… it would not likely get far. Any airborne material that did manage to travel a significant distance would be relatively dilute due to dispersion, and the likelihood of detrimental exposure becomes vanishingly small. As for the rest of the material that was not aerosolized… probably on the order of 99.9% of the original material… well it’s a big, inconvenient, expensive clean up, but not a catastrophe. Can the risk of such an event be ruled out? No. The nature of risk is that it can never be entirely “ruled out”. The only rational way to assess risk is to put it into context of probability and the severity of the outcome. Happily, in this case, the likelihood is low, and the consequences are mild. The only way an event like this could be considered anything but a waste of explosives for any self-respecting terrorist is if it was followed by an unwarranted panic on the part of both the public and the local authorities. As has been observed further upthread, an overly hasty evacuation can be deadly, and in this case, possibly more lethal that the event.

Your other points refer to cost, and a personal skepticism about whether the pro-nuke advocates are being fair and up front about the potential of wind and solar. That’s good. You have a serious interest and you have an open mind… you’ve reached an important milestone. If your curiosity is genuine, and you are serious about untangling the Gordian Knot, you have some homework to do. Fortunately, you came to the right place.

I mentioned before that I rarely comment… I haven’t done so in over a year. But the first comment I made here was to Professor Brook, asking if there was a “threshold” moment for him when he really began to embrace nuclear. I was impressed because it seemed to me (having read every entry up to that point) that he had made a transition from favoring a “renewable”, “techno-solar” dominant energy paradigm, to a practical nucear-centric energy mix (allowing for as much renewable contributions as their specific niches would allow). I’ve decided that my surprise at his change of heart has everything to do with my preconceived notions of what a dedicated climate change scientist/environmentalist was all about.

In retrospect , my question to him seems rather foolish. It is obvious to anyone that has followed this site that Mr. Brooks nuclear advocacy is the product of a remarkable and rigorous effort to understand the problem of energy production, and you will be hard pressed to find a better place to get educated on precisely the questions you have posed.

I find it troubling that you were “offended” that someone would state the fatal limitations of wind and solar “as a matter of fact”. You felt it was “disrespectful”. May I suggest… a more useful response would be to be “challenged”. After all, there are questions of science and engineering, not manners and etiquette. At the end of the day, it’s the numbers, not the feelings, that take precedence in an enlightened understanding.

You strike me as a passionate fellow. That’s good. You will need that energy to plow through the necessary analysis to come to a better understanding as to why the author of this piece (and many others, including myself) can make such “matter of fact” statements about the limitations of solar and wind. There is a lot to learn, but it is a welcome effort considering what is at stake. There is a distinct moral/ethical component to this area of inquiry… the graph showing the deaths/TwH makes that clear enough, but I’d take it one step farther. What is missing from that graph is the death toll associated with insufficient and/or unreliable access to energy. I daresay that if that data was added to the chart, every one of the risk factors shown would fade into complete insignificance. And all that without factoring in climate change…

This is arguably the most important conversation being had on the planet right now. You, and many others, are now engaged in a serious way… perhaps this will be the hidden blessing behind the events at Fukushima. But I tell you with the utmost respect, this is no time to be “offended” when your preconceived notions are challenged! Be energized! Most of all, be positive and proactive! Find out why the author could be so confident in making the statements you object to so vehemently! But I warn you, this won’t be a sound bite educational process… it is comprehensive and arduous.

Since I am a computer klutz, I don’t know how to insert the necessary references. Can anyone provide links for Mr. Ash to some relevant BNC articles where the pros/cons/applicability/costing of wind and solar are broken down so meticulously? Perhaps they will motivate him to take up the search himself.

Happy reading Mr. Ash, and best of luck.

John Rogers
Thank you John.
Here is the link to the posts on BNC covering renewable energy.
the “TCASE” (Thinking critically about sustainable energy) series


bks: ” If TEPCO can’t manage nuclear reactors properly, who can? How are we going to manage a global network of tens of thousands of reactors?”

Could you please expand on this statement for me?

Are you asserting that TEPCO is the best manager of nuclear reactors and if the best can’t do it then no one can?

Or are you asserting that TEPCO is a bad manager of nuclear reactors and that many other better companies will handle those thousands of future reactors better?


[deleted link to 33 page PDF]
Violates citation policy to whit:

Citing literature and other sources — appropriate and interesting citations and links within comments are welcomed, but please DO NOT cite material that you have not yourself read, digested and understood. As a general rule, please introduce any and every link or reference with a short description of the material, your judgement on its quality, and the specific reason you are including it (i.e. how it is relevant to the discussion).


Nor did the media report widely, if at all, on a hydroelectric dam in Fukushima prefecture, burst by the quake, that flooded 1800 homes, with unknown numbers of deaths.

I believe this to be a fabricated story. It was reported in the media but nobody I have asked can find anything to substantiate it. The source appears to be an Australian journalist who wrote a pro nuclear piece. It seems to me to be a lie invented to make nuclear power look good and the media look bad for being biased against nuclear. I would suggest that people don’t quote this story without doing some serious fact checking.


Here is a description, with some citations:

In the early morning of 12 March 2011, the dam failed, reportedly due to the Tōhoku earthquake. Locals reported hearing a loud burst before seeing a flood. The flood washed away five houses while damaging others, disabling a bridge and blocked roads with debris. Eight people were missing and four bodies were discovered after searches began at dawn.[2][3][4] Some locals had apparently attempted to repair leaks in the dam before it completely failed.[5]
On 12 March, 252 dams were inspected and seven dams were found to be damaged. Six embankment dams had shallow cracking on their crests and the reservoir at one concrete gravity dam had a slight slope failure. Four dams, including the Fujinuma, were inaccessible and could not be inspected. When the roads clear, further inspections are expected to take place.

The original news feed is here:

[11:54 a.m. ET, 1:54 a.m. Tokyo] A dam has broken in Fukushima prefecture, washing away scores of homes in the area, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported early Saturday. The Defense Ministry says 1,800 homes have been destroyed in Fukushima.

I cannot of course verify the actuality or otherwise of the events, but this is where it was reported, and it doesn’t seem to come from an Australian pro-nuclear reporter — the source was Kyodo News.


Barry, from the news feed you linked, it’s not clear that 1800 homes destroyed were due to a broken dam. I tried to find how it was reported in Japanese media. Here is a few that I found. Obviously, they are in Japanese. I will try to summarize, but ask a Japanese person to read if you know someone.
Asahi is one of the major news papers in Japan. There are many things reported in this article. Among them are that about 1800 homes in Minamisoma city were destroyed and that a dam in Sukagawa city was broken.
Many short reports are listed here. It reports that “About 1800 homes in Minamisoma city were destroyed according to the Defense Ministry.” It also reports that a dam in Sukagawa city was broken and 8 people are missing. But these are listed as two separate reports.

It seems like these two events happened at two separate locations.


Looking at the building drawings of these older BWRs, it seems there is plenty of space on the top floor section (with the crane) to put a couple of diesel generators to power the pumps, valves and control room. Very high up safe from tsunamis. Little stack for exhaust to the top of the building. This could prevent the entire Fukushima Daiichi sequence from happening. (remember that the diesel generators were running fine after the earthquake and only failed due to the tsunami).


@John Rogers 4/7/11 4:17 PM

John, it is our loss that you “don’t often comment”. There are a lot of BNC readers who do not have experience of electric power engineering, much less nuclear engineering — who are trying to understand the implications of Fukushima. Your contributions are important – not least because we need to be able to help our own circles understand the choices, risks and costs.

So whenever you want to comment I would be happy to assist with formatting, links, etc. Just email your comment to me.

Moderator has already contributed exactly the BNC links I would have proposed for Robert Ash.


Thanks for a great piece William.

I’m still reading the 2011 UNSCEAR report

Annex D and think that it shows that even the 2006 WHO report (which I based my assessment of the Chernobyl toll on) was more than likely a conservative overestimate of the radiation problems.

I’m wondering where the 1,400 ratio comes from
that you mention with regard to Cs-137? Is it because it distributes evenly in the body or because of the way it decays?


Further to Cyril’s comment about the diesel generators, why did they put the auxiliary buildings closest to the sea? If they had been placed a few hundred meters back, or in some kind of shield buildings, or even underground, none of this would have happened. That for me, is the biggest lesson to be learned from Fukushima.


[…] (tho most posters and commenters are pro-nuclear power, so that should be borne in mind), hosts a Guest Post by Dr. William Sacks. His article contains some sobering reminders of how we can be misled by the very media which is […]



you are comparing 30y × 365d/y = 11000 days to 8 hours = 1/3 days
The ratio, therefore, should be 11000/(1/3) = 33000

The lessons to take from this event should also consider the diesel storage tanks that were washed away and the electric switch yard, which was destroyed by the water, preventing the connection of portable generators brought from some off site location.


Hank Roberts, on 7 April 2011 at 6:25 AM said:

. Where will the water come from in a worst case drought — and what’s the worst case drought?

NEI Discussion on Nuclear Power Water Use.

Click to access Water_Consumption_at_Nuclear_Power_Plants_0708_2.pdf

NEI claims an NPP consumes a minimum to 6 gallons per home served of water a day with the average NPP serving 740,000 homes.

6 x 740,000 = 4,440,000 gallons or 16,807 m3

The current water injection rate at Fukushima Daichi #2 is 8m3/hour or 192 m3/day.

So the answer would appear to be that any place that doesn’t have a reliable source of 16,000 m3 of water per day is an unsuitable place to site a NPP.

If a historic drought came along you would have to shut the plant down when available water dropped below 16,000 m3/day.

You would then need to scrape together something on the magnitude of 192 m3 of water a day to keep it in ‘cold shutdown’ mode.



If the worst case drought causes the sea to dry up, I think we’ve got some pretty serious global warming problems! I’m not sure if our skin would stil be attached to our bodies when the sea dries up!

Can you say, “venus”?

Inland plants can use treated waste water or dry cooling, or both – hydrid wet-dry for optimal economics and water reduction. You can then use the dry cooling portion of the plant in an emergency where you can’t get water (decay heat only a fraction of normal cooling as suggested above). There is a plant in the US, Palo Verde, that has very large onsite water reserves in the form of treated waste water. Enough for months, so this isn’t the problem in a station blackout event.


I believe I recall on the GE web site that the ABWR design has a diesel generator on the floor below the SFP’s, probably for just that reason? trying to find the web site were I saw the AWBR layout…


Barry Brook wrote:

“[11:54 a.m. ET, 1:54 a.m. Tokyo] A dam has broken in Fukushima prefecture, washing away scores of homes in the area, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported early Saturday. The Defense Ministry says 1,800 homes have been destroyed in Fukushima.”

I cannot of course verify the actuality or otherwise of the events, but this is where it was reported, and it doesn’t seem to come from an Australian pro-nuclear reporter — the source was Kyodo News.

Lets add some reading comprehension skills to the above news story. “Scores” of homes from a dam break, “1,800” in Fukushima in total from tsunami and after effects. The only confusion regarding this story is coming from pro-nuclear advocates (although it certainly could have been worded better in original account).


Bruce wrote:

Just had what felt like the biggest aftershock so far. Full Tsunami warming .

Japan Meterological Agency says 7.4, and immediate evacuation warnings (with projected 2 meter tsunami). These are just precautionary warnings, let’s hope they are wrong.


This article posts some very interesting points. There is much to learn from what has been happening recently involving nuclear energy consequence, including Japan. I recently saw program in which a panel of experts discussed what we should have learned from the recently nuclear crisis, and what each country can do to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

Here’s the link:

— Carrie


Japanese TV reporting no (additional) problems at Fukushima – seems to me a bit early to be reporting that. Tsunami (1 – 2 meters) was scheduled to hit 15 minutes ago.


Plants are designed for 5-6 meter tsunami. 2 meter no problem. Aftershocks never as strong as initial quake.

Initial tsunami on March 11 was reported over 14 meters, in some locations over 20 meters. Biblical.


> dam break

It’s wrong to keep citing the earliest confused report (and misreading it). The claimed thousand-plus fatalities due to the dam break has been debunked. There’s no evidence for the claim being made.

Let’s please stop this.

Set a good example. Push back to your friends who are speaking in public about nuclear power, get them to correct this story.

This is an example of how people get fooled by poor news reporting and how hard it is to catch up with rumor.

Whatever your policy or position, applaud those who works hard to cite sources and read them carefully.

And when you see someone getting it wrong, even if you’re ‘on their side’ — push them to correct errors.

“Just because you’re on their side doesn’t mean they’re on your side.”


If you are interested in another radiation biologist’s view of the LNT theory here is mine, published in Crikey on 18 March (but actually a re-post from 2010):
Friday, 18 March 2011
Radiation and cancer et al
Michael R. James writes: Re. “Crikey Clarifier: what are the risks of radiation poisoning in Japan?” (yesterday, item 12). On the issue of low doses of radiation here is part of something I wrote in Crikey a while ago:
“There has been a long-running question about cancer risk versus radiation dose. It was assumed that the measurable risks from higher doses would extrapolate to proportional (low but significant) risk from low doses, but it was difficult to get experimental evidence. The “safe” assumption being that there was no safe dose. It turns out the graph is not linear, but actually risk drops off at certain very low doses — i.e. the risks reduce to negative at very low dose.
In biological terms this is not such a surprise (hence the long standing lack of unanimity about it) because we have highly evolved complex repair mechanisms to guard against DNA damage of all kinds (UV light, radiation, chemical, heat) and it now seems the theory was correct: ‘low doses actually trigger these repair mechanisms and reduce the risk to immeasurable; only above certain threshold damage (radiation) levels does unrepaired damage escape and cause long-term effects (cancer).’
An indirect but still intriguing example of this has come from places that have naturally high levels of radiation, such as the Iranian city of Ramsar. The old central part of the city has up to 200 times the background radiation level found in its modern outer suburbs, yet those who live their whole lives in the centre have actually got lower levels of relevant cancers (usually blood types, leukaemia etc).”
In another post I discussed how the role of DNA repair mechanisms protect us against normal environmental radiation is demonstrated by the extremely rare genetic disorder called ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T) in which the primary defect is lack of repair of ionizing radiation DNA damage.
Such unfortunate people usually die in their teens from cancers and were first noticed by clinicians because any attempt at radiotherapy caused rapid death.
MICHAEL R JAMES Posted Friday, 18 March 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
@GEORGECRISP Posted Friday, 18 March 2011 at 5:16 pm

If you read my full posts you would see that I do not deny that this question remains contentious. No one would recommend deliberately exposing oneself to low doses, though of course just living does that (radon in houses, flying in jet airliners, medical & dental, burning coal by the trillion tonnes). And so least of all would we expect official organizations like IRCP to be anything other than ultra-conservative — nevertheless if your read their proclamations on this there is an intrinsic admission to what the actual science says: LNT hasn’t really been tenable for a long time now. These organizations may be informed by the science but they are driven by the politics and public health worries these days combined with liability issues.

That does not stop officialdom remaining in denial for all sorts of reasons — and it could be considered a default position of caution that has no adverse consequence — except it might not. In some important ways it could be counter-productive. For example if you believe in the “no safe dose” argument then it is perfectly logical to insist that population-wide breast screening is dangerous, especially as the trend is for ever-younger women to begin regular screening. There is a minority group who advocate exactly that. With ever more powerful screening/analytical non-invasive medical methods (& security screening) being widely adopted, this issue is not going away anytime soon.

Incidentally I did my PhD on A-T and related topics (those cellular consequences you mentioned — especially inducible phenomena/DNA repair) at the UK Medical Research Council Cell Mutation Unit (U. of Sussex) where some of the basics of these phenomena were defined.


@David Benson re warnings TEPCO ignored

From an interview hosted by PRI The World: Science March 15 2011 The interview subject, Brian Atwater, is a U.S. Geological Survey scientist whose expertise is studying ancient earthquakes and tsunamis.

The introductory question: what is known about the history of tsunamis of this size in Japan?

Atwater: “The leading candidate is from the year 869, specifically July 13. The story deals with a castle town near present Sendai. The town’s name was Tagajo. There are accounts of great destruction there by seawater coming in. The place is about 4 km in from the sea. Some years back, Japanese scientists inspired by that account looked a little bit south at some farmland. They dug trenches below the surface – they could find sand layers. They were able to identify one of those sand layers as the probable traces of this tsunami in 869. They also found earlier sand layers with a record going back about 3,000 years. They inferred that, on average, about a thousand years elapsed between one of these unusually large tsunamis and the next.”

Here is a 2002 paper by Japanese scientists summarizing what was known about events of that size, specifically 869 event and its presumed recurrence interval:

The abstract states that Japanese science “inferred” the 869 tsunami “to be triggered by a magnitude 8.3 earthquake”.

I thought Fukushima Daiichi was designed to withstand an 8.2

As for those who say the idea of magnitude 9 has not been widely accepted as possible, some of the history of scientific discussion centered on the topic of how strong an event the next giant earthquake off the Pacific Northwest coming from the Cascadia subduction zone will be is available online here: This is a chapter in the online book “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 – Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America” by Atwater which is available here:


re: effects of Chernobyl

Dr Robert Gale, Imperial College, London, just returned from Japan after providing direct advice to Japan’s Prime Minister,, was interviewed on Canadian public radio, CBC “As It Happens” April 4 2011. An .mp3 may be available at the show’s website archive.

The subject of how does Fukushima compare to Chernobyl came up.

Host: “Let’s compare it to another disaster, Chernobyl. You were also involved in the medical effort after Chernobyl. How did that situation compare with Fukushima?”

Gale: “There are some striking similarities and some striking differences. At the Chernobyl accident we had about 200 emergency workers who rushed in and got an extraordinarily high dose of radiation, and those are the people we focused on in terms of very intensive intervention to try to rescue them. And we did rescue them, not all of them, but most of them. We don’t have anyone at the Fukushima plant so far that I am aware of so far that has gotten anywhere near the doses of radiation that were received by the Chernobyl workers. And if we look at the population outside the plant, that is the rest of the population – you know there were 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer so far, amongst the people [ exposed at Chernobyl ] mostly young persons, living in the contaminated region, and this was from radioiodine, and it was transmitted by milk and milk products, and also because it was not possible under the circumstances to distribute nonradioactive iodine. Now both of those measures, the restriction of milk products and the distribution of nonradioactive iodine, have happened in Japan. And so we wouldn’t expect very many if any cases of thyroid cancer. And finally we have to deal with other cancers. No one has convincingly observed any increase in any cancer other than thyroid cancer after Chernobyl. We calculate what might have happened. It’s a wide range. It could be 2,000, or as many as 15,000 cancers that might be occurring over 50 years. The release from Fukushima so far is about 10% of Chernobyl. So if this stayed true, you might expect something of the order of 200 to 1,500 cases of cancer over 50 years. And that would be diluted in about 20,000,000 normally occurring cancer deaths in Japan in the same period, so it would be extraordinarily difficult to detect.”

Note how Gale, one of the leading experts in the world on the effect of radiation on human beings, talks about LNT. He does not dispute LNT, or claim that the evidence that exists for hormesis is so conclusive he should now talk about how the Japanese are benefiting from their exposure to the radiation released so far from Fukushima. He’ll say “no one has convincingly observed any increase in any cancer other than thyroid after Chernobyl” then says “we calculate” when talking about what science thinks, and he is careful to use the word “might have happened” when referring to the calculated effect which is based on LNT.


Anyone know how long the earthquake lasted and how many jerks of what intensity during that time? It would be interesting to know the accelerations involved — over the distance the land moved.

From today’s news:

“The Oshika Peninsula, on which the Onagawa plant is located, was also the closest … to the March 11 earthquake, which shifted the whole peninsula 27 feet to the southeast and sunk it 7 feet. The March 11 tsunami reached heights of 42.5 feet, just below the base of the nuclear plant.”


Re: Dr. William Sacks statement “The implication that hormesis has not been proven is simply false”

It is not that simple at all. The Board on Radiation Effects Research of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in the US has put out a series of reports, over many decades, on what the known effects of exposure to radiation are, i.e. the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation series, the latest of which is known as BEIR VII.

The panel members are listed here:

What the National Academy is is described here:

These people dispute what you say about LNT.

You would have us believe that one of the most reputable and prestigious scientific organizations that exists in the world has repeatedly created panels of independent experts who don’t know what “proven” means when it comes to hormesis or LNT. I remain cautious about debating as if what you say is true. I think you are mistaken to advise others to debate as if LNT has been discredited, or as if hormesis has been “proven”, or as if “hormesis” is true.

The BEIR VII summary statement on hormesis starts on page 9 under a headline “Why Has the Committee Not Accepted the View that Low Doses Are Substantially Less Harmful Than Estimated by the Linear No-Threshold Model”

A few exerpts:

“some materials provided to the committee suggest that the LNT model exaggerates the health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation. They say that the risks are lower than predicted by LNT, that they are nonexistent, or that low doses of radiation may even be beneficial. The committee also does not accept this hypothesis.

“Before coming to this conclusion, the committee reviewed articles arguing that a threshold or decrease in effect does exist at low doses. Those reports claimed that at very low doses, ionizing radiation does not harm human health or may even be beneficial. The reports were found either to be based on ecologic studies or to cite findings not representative of the overall body of data.
Ecologic studies assess broad regional associations, and in some cases, such studies have suggested that the incidence of cancer is much higher or lower than the numbers observed with more precise epidemiologic studies. When the complete body of research on this question is considered, a consensus view emerges. This view says that the health risks of ionizing radiation, although small at low doses, are a function of dose”

“the risk at low doses will be small”


P.S., from the above cite:

“… sunk it 7 feet. The March 11 tsunami reached heights of 42.5 feet …”

I wonder if that water height is above sea level, or is related to the elevation of the plant before, or after, the 7-foot change drop.

I’d guess the worst case tsunami assumption ought to include a change in elevation from the worst case earthquake.


Release is not that important, dose rates are. Noble gasses such as Xenon are very radioactive but just fly away into the atmosphere, whereas I-131 may appear a minor contributor in total radioactivity, it is the one of the most dangerous isotopes.

So you look at dose not release.


I like Gale’s talk but calculating from Chernobyl to Fukushima for total cancer is rediculous. First most activity was sent over sea as can be expected from dominant winds that are to sea. Second almost all people in 20 km zone were evacuated. These two critical variables did not occur in Chernobyl!!! Also Chernobyl release was different (several flaws in design caused a large amount of nonvolatiles including plutonium to be released).

Even if you’re going to make linear calculations and agree with LNT you must take into account those factors.


David Lewis, thank you, excellent pointer.

The summary appendix from the National Academies report is here:

“… speculative and not supported by current experimental information…. the weight of the evidence does not lead to the interpretation that low doses of radiation exert what in biological terms is called hormesis.”

It cites all the anecdotes I’ve seen raised by believers and discusses problems with the work, which rather weakens the assertion that they prove something.

As with the IPCC, people will argue with the consensus — but can only do so convincingly if they discuss the consensus first, rather than ignore it.

Argument for different conclusions ought to cite new work not yet read into the consensus.

For example, recent work on sea level change and ocean pH change will inform the next IPCC report.

I was delighted to find the National Academies answers the questions I’ve been asking here about organisms other than humans that nobody had answered: “Much of the historical material on radiation hormesis relates to plants, fungi, algae, protozoans, insects, and nonmammalian vertebrates (Calabrese and Baldwin 2000)”


I would hesitate before telling Dr. Gale what he thought was “ridiculous”.

I thought his interview illustrated an excellent way to talk about LNT and radiation effects in general at Fukushima which I will try to learn from for my own statements. After reading Sacks post I thought I’d post Gale’s words as another example people should consider following.

You should try to get what you know precisely into the few words you are given time to say, time after time, when you are the near the center of world media attention in an incident like this some time and see how well you do.


To Geoff Russell, who said:

“I’m wondering where the 1,400 ratio comes from
that you mention with regard to Cs-137? Is it because it distributes evenly in the body or because of the way it decays?”

While a couple of people have already explained where the 1,400 ratio comes from (namely the ratio of half lives — 30 years to 8 days), I thought I would add some more information. Particularly since Geoff asks a very good question concerning whether the bodily distribution or the way it decays are involved.

While these factors do not affect the relative degrees of radioactivity, which refers only to the frequency of decay events, these factors definitely do affect the biological results from the radiation. However, since Cs-137 and I-131 are both beta (electron) emitters, and furthermore since the energy of the emitted betas is comparable from both isotopes, on the order of half a million electron volts (MeV), and still further since they are produced in approximately equal numbers from the fissioning of uranium and/or plutonium, I felt that the ratio of frequency of decay events was adequate for the relevant comparison.

Cs-137, as it turns out, is also a gamma (photon) emitter, but most gamma photons escape the body without doing any damage. In fact, gamma emitters are common radionuclides used in medical imaging precisely because, once injected into the body, the photons mainly escape and are captured by gamma cameras outside the body. Also for medical imaging they are injected in massive doses compared to their concentrations in food — on the order of millicuries (mCi), whereas the amounts in an ingestible amount of food are on the order of nano- or microcuries.

Neither I-131 nor Cs-137 will do much damage to cells if they are outside the body, since betas lose almost all their energy after traveling only a few feet in air (and only a few millimeters in water), and since they barely penetrate the deeper layers of skin even if they are up against the body. Only if they are ingested or inhaled will beta, or for that matter alpha (only emitted from isotopes heavier than lead), emitters do much damage. And then it takes relatively large doses, since the hormetic effects will be active at lower doses. Where those thresholds lie, I am not sure right now.

As to the distribution in the body, Cs will distribute itself widely while I (iodine) will concentrate in the thyroid gland. This is why the iodine is more dangerous. However, without making light of any cancer, thyroid cancer is very easily prevented with KI tablets that flood the thyroid and prevent it from taking up I-131, and if it develops it is one of the most curable of all cancers, with a better than 95% survival rate after 5 years, or, to put it another way, a death rate only about 4% of the incidence rate. The worst part of I-131 is that it causes thyroid cancer more easily in children.

I want to thank those contributors who set me straight on the bursting dam reports. That’s the problem when we are forced to learn from second, third, or higher hand reports. However, it would not be amiss to point out that bursting dams makes hydroelectric power one of the the deadliest to the public of energy sources, in the immediate sense, and definitely far more deadly to the public than nuclear incidents.

And finally, a note of appreciation to John Rogers, for the exemplary tone of your comments and very useful admonitions to others to avoid ad hominem or emotional statements, as well as for the instructive content of your comments. Your exhortations to others to investigate, study, and learn from their own research is also appreciated, as I also made a similar plea in my original posting.

Bill Sacks


> David Lewis, on 8 April 2011 at 3:56 AM said:

> thought was “ridiculous”.

Where did you see that? (Maybe the MODERATOR deleted what you are refeerring to?)
No – I didn’t delete anything from your post – I don’t think you said that.


Gale’s thoughts are not ridiculous. His inference was ridiculous, but his points are useful, and he seems knowledgeable and has good perspective.

But experts should know not to talk about release and tot talk about dose. This is a Greenpeace level mistake.


Am I the only one that has noticed that the antinuclear zealots are quick to use a government funded source as part of an appeal to authority when it suites them, and reject a government funded source as untrustworthy and obviously corrupted if it doesn’t agree with their position?


Barry – According to the wikipedia article the Fujinuma Dam is not a hydroelectric dam and it’s rupture did not destroy 1800 homes. As such it does not fit the description of a hydroelectric dam collapsing and washing away 1800 homes.

However the news link you offer does seem more likely as the original source than the article I had originally considered as the source. The news article you reference seems written for misinterpretation regarding the number of homes destroyed, but it does not say hydroelectric. The article I read looks like a partial misinterpretation and a partial fabrication. For reference this is the article that I thought was the original source of the reports:-

Either way, whether this mis truth is a lie or casual misinterpretation of events, it should not be propagated. Hydroelectric power is a very safe technology and there is no reliable source suggesting that a hydroelectric dam collapsed and washed away 1800 homes.


By the way DV82XL, I owe you an apology regarding our discussion on EfT. I was wrong and you were right.

I humbly ask your forgiveness.


@Cyril R – an apology is not required from you over that little fracas, although it is nice of you to offer it. At any rate, my time was up over there for several other reasons, and if not that, something else would have prompted me to withdraw.


David Lewis, on 8 April 2011 at 2:17 AM — Thank you. That certainly clarified the situation regarding knowledge of earthquakes in the general Fukushima area of Japan.


Good article and some informative commentary – thanks.

As for issues like hormensis,like mobile phone radiation the pros and cons can be argued ad infinitum without coming to a conclusion.

Minor issues like this pale into insignificance when compared to the effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels at the present rate.


Joao and Cyril R: Thanks for your explanation of the 1400, but I can’t quite believe this is the full story. Other wise concern would be inversely proportional to half-life. Perhaps your explanation is adequate for two isotopes yielding the same decay particles at the same energy and which function the same in humans or other animals when ingested. If not ingested then only the energy of the decay particles matters, yes?


@michael r. james 4/8/11 1:51 AM

Thanks Michael, good posts – I’ve saved for reference. Some other resources: MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering has a new bulletin up today discussing low dose radiation safety limits. And, for reference, the French National Academy commissioned a report on the dose-effect response of low level radiation exposure. The 2005 report is here “Dose-effect relationships and estimation of the carcinogenic effects of low doses of ionizing radiation” [PDF].

Is there any current, credible analysis that speaks to the significance of the radiation monitoring values reported in Japan? Non-professionals like myself do not know whether e.g., when residents of the exclusion zone are likely to be able to safely return home? (today I would guess, if not for risk of future contamination).

Or more importantly, whether TEPCO is running short of particular skills because the workers are nearing their limits and must be replaced?


Geoff, at 8:03 AM you indicate that you must have missed my response to your very good questions. See my comments at 4:38 AM.

Bill Sacks


[comment deleted. Violates citation rule – please re-submit with the link to the article. People must be able to read it in full for themselves.]


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