Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. His previous post on BNC was: Chernobyl and Fukushima – measuring our monsters in the midday sun.
The biggest problem for people who support nuclear power as a vital part of avoiding dangerous climate events is the general public’s fear of things they don’t understand. This is particularly true when that fear is fanned by journalists who combine fear with ignorance and influence. Long time British anti-nuclear campaigner, journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot has finally worked out that official sources are more reliable than Helen Caldicott. His subsequent devastating hatchet jobs on her in the UK Guardian (also on his website here, here, here and here) should be read by all who have one or more books by Dr Caldicott that need recycling into something useful.
Even less trustworthy than Helen or a hyena is Crikey journalist Guy Rundle. Here he is going ape over Fukushima on 18th of March.
As I write, the Japanese are conducting direct overflies to try and control the continuing damage — most likely a suicide mission for the pilots and crew. The Soviets resorted to this earlier, during the Chernobyl crisis by the simple expedient of ordering airforce crews to do it. No one knows how many died, but they died outside of the glare of publicity. The Japanese crews will slough their skin and muscles, and bleed out internally under the full glare of the world’s media. It may well be the reason why this step in dealing with the crisis was delayed for so long — because it would demonstrate that dealing with nuclear accidents will frequently involve the painful certain death of emergency workers.
Has anybody seen Japanese helicopter crews sloughing skin and muscles? Two workers with burned feet graced every TV channel in the known universe but how did those air crews escape the paparazzi after their suicide mission? Where are the wikileaks tapes?
This is sheer drivel, fantasy, fiction, balderdash, ignorance and sloppy, unprofessional, incompetent journalism.
Rundle’s ignorant ranting is all the more effective because he’s generally reliable. This is a potent and dangerous mix.
First, we need some basic scientific background that will make the truth about the Chernobyl helicopter pilots unremarkable. When you water bomb a forest fire you fly through a haze of carcinogenic and generally toxic compounds but you will have no idea of how much you are breathing in. Likewise when you watch some firefighters at a local house fire or when you sit before a romantic log fire in a Swiss Chalet sipping your favourite poison. You may see some of the smoke but measuring its toxicity is tough.
Radiation is different. You can’t see it, but you do much, much, better … you can measure it! People can measure it and measure it with astonishing accuracy. A banana is radioactive and will generate about 15 particle emissions per second. When people can’t measure radiation because of broken or missing instruments, they can usually calculate it with pretty good accuracy. And when people have been subjected to unknown doses, you can look at cellular effects in their bodies to determine the dose with reasonable accuracy. A piece of Guatemala green marble on a benchtop in that Swiss chalet might pulse at over a thousand radioactive decay emissions per second per kilogram of marble.
As it happens, the international scientific community was heavily involved in the Chernobyl aftermath. US expert Dr Robert Gale coordinated medical relief at the request of the Soviets and was just one of many specialists from around the world who got involved. The stream of United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reports is extensive. UNSCEAR knows exactly how many pilots died dealing with Chernobyl … none (see the 2000 report for details). No pilots died, none sloughed their skin. Zip. Zero. The null set.
There were 1,125 helicopter pilots involved in 1,800 flights over the Chernobyl reactor over some months. The first flights hovered over the damaged reactor to drop material on the core, but this was soon discontinued because measured radiation levels were too high. Sound familiar? Subsequent material drops were done in passing rather than while hovering and were consequently less accurate but less risky. Had the evil Soviet empire wanted suicide missions it would have ordered pilots to hover. As it was, much of the material intended to blanket the core missed … precisely because no-one wanted to kill pilots and nobody did. Pilots involved in the early flights received on average 260 milli Sieverts of radiation which definitely elevates their cancer risk, not as much as in the people puffing near fire-escapes on city offices these days, but still a significant increase. Pilots flying later in the cleanup received a dose of about half this and none suffered acute radiation sickness.
[Update: One pilot is known to have died of leukemia 4 years after the accident. The lifetime risk to men of leukemia in Australia is about 1 in 93. So some cases of leukemia would be expected among any group of a thousand men in the decades after helicopter missions. The radiation exposure can be expected to have added a few cases. ]
Over the past 25 years since Chernobyl, about 12 million Russians have been diagnosed with cancer and that doesn’t even include Ukraine and Belarus. As of the 2000 UNSCEAR report, the Chernobyl helicopter pilots were still doing whatever they were doing … there wasn’t any report of “certain painful death” as described by Cold War Warrior Rundle. Gale has published the details (free pdf) on treatment and outcomes of the more seriously affected of the 500 people who were hospitalised, including the 35 with huge radiation doses, 13 of whom had bone marrow transplants and 6 of whom had fetal liver cell transplants. Why would he cover-up what happened to the helicopter pilots? … He didn’t because it didn’t happen.
The contrasts between Rundle and Caldicott and real nuclear radiation experts were shown to good effect when Gale visited to Fukushima. Gale is a real expert with a hand in 800 scientific papers and 20 books. When he visited Fukushima in March, he wandered around the plant with no protective clothing and no radiation dosimeter. This is precisely because he is an expert, a real one who bases actions on a clear understanding of what radiation measurements mean and not on fantasy journalism. Gale’s also a marathon runner with a healthy interest in staying fit. He’s been face to face with the worst that Chernobyl dished up and knows exactly when care is and isn’t needed.
Dr Caldicott has, as far as I can ascertain, not a single scientific research paper to her name. She qualified as a doctor in 1961, practiced medicine and taught pediatrics briefly at Harvard in the late 1970s and then gave it up to write books which have scared the living daylights out of many who have read them.
Chernobyl demonstrated what engineers already knew. That building nuclear reactors without containment buildings was unbelievably stupid. Three Mile Island demonstrated that containment buildings work, even in the face of serious equipment malfunction. Fukushima Daiichi showed that they work pretty well, but not perfectly, even when you hit them with a huge earthquake and massive tsunami. Had Fukushima Daiichi had a modern cooling system, backup power wouldn’t have been necessary and its loss wouldn’t have caused a problem, and there would have been a zero radiation leak to go with the zero death toll.
The latest polls on public approval of nuclear power reflect what the public has been told. I don’t expect everybody to read the UNSCEAR reports, but is it asking too much of a professional journalist that they do their bloody homework? The polls are a reflection of the ignorance and sloppiness that has graced the Australian media on the issue over the past few decades. Rundle has had plenty of company over the years.
Anti-nuclear campaigners are clearly delighted at the latest polls. Public support for nuclear power has indeed taken a hit following the events at Fukushima and I’d put it down to large chunks of fantasy journalism like Rundle’s. In my first article on Fukushima, at the end of March, I pointed out that the death toll due to the problems at the reactor was zero. During the following weeks, this toll hasn’t budged. Similarly, the number of cancers that might result from worker exposure during the next 3 decades is also most likely zero. Fortunately for the surrounding human communities, a significant chunk of the radiation leak has gone into the ocean where it will cause infinitely less pain and suffering than the millions of Japanese who eat octopus, squid, …, eel, salmon or tuna, let alone the tiny minority of Japanese with a penchant for hacking marine mammals to death or sticking them with exploding harpoons. And if your only concern for the oceans is via risks to people who slowly suffocate and eat its wildlife, what is their risk? The radiation dose for people eating fish from these contaminated waters every day for a year is calculated at? … 0.6 milli Sieverts. What the hell is that? About 1/5 of the 3 milli Sieverts received in a screening mammogram.
During the next 3 decades, cancer deaths from the striken reactors at Fukushima Daiichi will be zero or few, nevertheless 18 million Japanese will still get cancer, mostly from things that don’t frighten Guy Rundle or his readers.