After working for 68 continuous, full-time years in nuclear technology, mostly in nuclear radiation and safety. I find people asking my opinion as to the degree of danger posed the radiation and radioactivity from the battered nuclear reactors in Japan. This is what I've been telling them. Next post will explore the specifics of this in more detail. The numbers are all-important.
A lot of wrong lessons are being pushed on us, about the tragedy now unfolding in Japan. The scare-talk about radiation is not helpful. There will be no radiation public health catastrophe, regardless of how much reactor melting may occur. Radiation? Yes. Radiation catastrophe? No. Life evolved on, and adapted to, a much more radioactive planet, Thus today, a bit more radiation is generally beneficial, not harmful. Statements that there is no safe level of radiation are an affront to science and to common sense. The radiation from Fukushima is expected to be about like that from the Three Mile Island (TMI) incident, where ten to twenty tons of the nuclear fuel melted and slumped to the bottom of the reactor vessel. This is the scenario that initiates the mythical China Syndrome, that postulates that the molten fuel burns its way into the earth. On the computers and movie screens of people who make a living “predicting” disasters, TMI is an unprecedented catastrophe. In the real world of TMI, the molten mass froze when it hit the colder reactor vessel, and stopped its downward journey at five-eights of an inch through the five-inch thick vessel wall. And there was no harm to people or the environment. None.
Yet today, we have radiation protection zealots in Europe and America telling their citizens near Fukushima to defy Japanese instructions and leave their shuttered homes, to wander, homeless and panic-stricken, through the battered countryside—to do what? All to avoid a radiation dose lower than what we get from a ski weekend in Colorado (a low cancer area, incidentally.)
Everyone involved with nuclear power anywhere has design and operating lessons to learn from Fukushima. For investors, the important point is that some of the nuclear plants were swept with a wall of seawater that may have instantly converted a multi-billion dollar asset into a multi-billion dollar liability. That’s bad news. But it’s not unique to nuclear power. If Fukushima were a computer chip factory, would we consider abandoning the entire computer industry because it was not tsunami-proof? It would be ironic if American nuclear power were phased out as unsafe, without having ever killed or injured a single member of the public, to be replaced by coal, gas and oil, each proven killers of tens of thousands each year.
UPDATE AS OF 09:00 P.M. EDT, FRIDAY, MARCH 18:
A World Health Organization spokesman said that radiation levels outside the 20-kilometer (12-mile) evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan are not harmful for human health. He said the WHO finds no public health reason to avoid travel to unaffected areas in Japan or to recommend that foreign nationals leave the country. He also said there is no risk that exported Japanese foods are contaminated with radiation.
The lessons from Japan involve tsunamis, not radiation.
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Dr. Rockwell’s classical 1956 handbook, The Reactor Shielding Design Manual, was recently made available on-line and as a DVD, by the U.S. Department of Energy.