The continuing efforts at Fukushima

As with everyone outside of the Middle East (where people are dealing with the continuation of the Libyan civil war and the invasion of Bahrain by foreign troops), I’ve been watching the events at the Fukushima I nuclear power plant.

Earthquake and Tsunami damage-Dai Ichi Power Plant, Japan
Earthquake and Tsunami damage-Dai Ichi Power Plant, Japan

Firstly, the on-going heroic effort to contain or reduce the damage at the plant is incredible. Unlike Chernobyl, where the disaster was complete in just seconds (a massive explosion) and the rest of the effort was to contain the damage already inflicted, the cascading disaster at Fukushima is about trying to stop further damage. In my mind, it is more like Apollo 13, where one issue was resolved just in time for a new issue to arise. At Fukushima, the loss of power, then the loss of backup power led to overheating, which required steam releases, which caused hydrogen explosions, which damaged the other cooling apparatus for other parts of the plant, which was impacted by an oil fire, and so forth. The three reactors that were operating at the time of the earthquake are possibly damaged, but to what extent no one seems to know for certain. Now the cooling pools that I mentioned yesterday are overheating. In one report, the pool has boiled dry, a very bad situation.

There is so much conflicting information about what is really happening there. In that respect, I have to say it is eerily similar to the lack of good information during the early days of the Chernobyl disaster. Timely information about Chernobyl was not freely available as that event happened near the end of the cold war and the communist control of the country did not allow a free press.

Secondly, I am surprised at how many people have offered their own definitive opinion on the issue, which is often formed without little hard data.

MIT professor Dr Josef Oehmen posted a blog message entitled “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors” (which has since been modified). He made the claim that “there was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors.” It was a stunning act of hubris considering the lack of reliable, available information. It turns out that he is not a nuclear specialist, but rather a risk management specialist. In my opinion, no one can predict what new fault will occur. Predicting that nothing more will happen when there is not enough information at present seems like a poor risk assessment technique to me.

Others in the US and Europe have also chimed in on their opinions. France’s ASN nuclear safety authority said that the incident should be classified as Level 6 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). Some have speculated that the situation is both worse and better than is being reported. It seems few are being honest that they do not have enough information.

Lewis Page at The Register posted today that “Still No Cause for Alarm” where he claimed that “there remain no grounds for anyone to fear for their health.” The New Scientist published, “Why Fukushima Daiichi won’t be another Chernobyl” while Scientific American published “Fukushima Will Be [a] Wasteland” which has the statement “This is going to be like Chernobyl.”

On CBC Radio this morning, during the 9:00am hourly news, the newsreader claimed that 5 workers at Fukushima had died, at least one of them from radiation. I believe that was a mistake by CBC or the reader.

In Japan, reports over the past few days indicate that radiation levels are up to 400 or 800 times higher than the legal limit, depending on the day and source of the report. Helicopters were being used to dump water on the plant, but had to stop because the radiation levels were too high. Some airline passengers arriving from Japan have been found with low levels of radiation.

According to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko is saying the cooling pool is completely dry, without giving any details on how he came to this conclusion. Tokyo Electric Power, which owns and runs the plant, is saying it is not empty. The difference in opinions is itself newsworthy.

There is unexplained white smoke coming from one of the reactor buildings. There was an explained “loud noise” at the plant. How can anyone truly feel they can predict that everything will be fine (Dr Oehman, Lewis Page) if all the current facts are not even available?

I just don’t understand how there can be so many opinions when there are just not enough facts.

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