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.
LESSONS ABOUT NUCLEAR ENERGY FROM THE JAPANESE QUAKE AND TSUNAMI
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 http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html 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 http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/bio-effects-radiation.html. 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.