If there is a positive note to be found in the devastating earthquake that struck Japan last week it should be this: the aftermath of the disaster suggests that, despite some low-level threats related to radiation, nuclear power is still far safer than its critics have claimed.
You wouldn’t know that from the way that the mainstream media has covered the story, particularly when it comes to the Fukushima Daiichi plant that was hardest hit, but this is undoubtedly the case nonetheless. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) will have an expensive clean up to deal with, but the health risks to the Japanese people remain minimal. While authorities initially warned that radiation levels at the plant had increased, they now say that there are no health dangers posed by the plant.
It’s rather remarkable when you think about it. A huge nuclear power plant suffered the twin blows of a massive earthquake and huge tsunami while three reactors were operating, yet there was no nuclear disaster. Japan will mourn the thousands of dead that Mother Nature took from her for a long time, but it seems likely that no bodies will be traced to the Fukushima plant.
To understand why such bold statements are justified, we must start with a few basics regarding nuclear reactor design and the details of the last week’s events at Fukushima. First of all, the reactors at Fukushima were designed to withstand a massive earthquake. They’re built on bedrock, their primary containment vessels are massive, and there are multiple back-up systems. When the earthquake hit, all of the primary and secondary containment vessels survived undamaged. Water flowing through the vessels keeps the temperature and pressure in the vessels at safe levels. When the earthquake hit, primary power to the water pumps was lost. No problem – back up diesel generators cut in to take up the load and keep water flowing. Then the tsunami hit, a much bigger tsunami than designers anticipated, and this blow knocked out the back-up generators, which effectively shut down the pumps.
TEPCO then took steps to stop nuclear reactions in Units 1, 2 and 3, but you can no more bring a nuclear reaction to an immediate halt than you can instantly stop a car going 60 miles an hour. Thus, all of the frenetic news coming out of Fukushima is really nothing more than coverage of a controlled shut down in abnormal conditions. Disaster is not looming around the corner, but the mainstream media loves to create drama. I have no doubt that the MSM will publish self-serving stories in a week or two that piously describe how disaster was “narrowly averted” at Fukushima.
The explosions that have occurred are a result of what happens when liquid water dissociates at high temperatures, forms hydrogen and oxygen, and those two elements then recombine explosively. It’s spectacular and the explosions have destroyed non-vital parts of structures, but those explosions haven’t resulted in the release of any radiation or damage to the primary containment vessels. When pressures in the vessels did climb too high, TEPCO vented excess gas to ensure that primary containment structural integrity would not be compromised. The small amounts of radiation released were vented through a filter that removed that tiny bit of radioactivity. TEPCO has introduced sea water into Units 1 and 3 (Unit 2 is doing fine) to further cool the fuel rods until the nuclear reactions stop. There is not, and never has been, any danger of a catastrophic fuel rod explosion as happened at Chernobyl. This is rather another “Three Mile Island” moment for the nuclear power industry: a “disaster” in which nobody is killed, nobody gets hurt and nobody is in any real danger. While I can understand the public relations aspect inherent to the Japanese government’s decision to issue an evacuation order around the Fukushima plant, it has no scientific basis for doing so.
Unfortunately, when it comes to environmental issues or any other technical topics, most of the mainstream media takes their cues from “experts” whose most important qualifications involve ideology, not science. And so the situation at Fukushima generated the kind of hysteria in the media that we’ve come to expect. For example, Utah ABC 4 reporter Emily Clark wondered: ”If the reactors melt down, could the reactive material make it to Utah?” The answers are: 1) the reactors aren’t going to “melt down,” 2) “reactive material” isn’t a term that makes any sense in the context of this story, and 3) not only is nobody in Utah going to be in danger from the Fukushima reactors, but the most recent evidence suggests that nobody in Japan is in danger.
A headline in the Vancouver Sun screamed: “Quake ravaged Japan battles against nuclear meltdown.” While he said that he has been a big supporter of nuclear energy in the past, Senator Joe Liebermann said that we should hit the brakes. “I think we’ve got to kind of quietly, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming online,” Liebermann said. The lead of an AFP story on Sunday declared: “Explosion and meltdown fears at Japan’s quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant renewed debate today about the safety of atomic energy and cast doubt over its future as a clean energy source.”
Hyperbole seems to rule the day when it comes to nuclear energy, at least in the way that the media and politicians react. It’s ironic, because few industries can boast the kind of safety record that the nuclear power industry can offer. There has been exactly one real disaster involving nuclear power plants and that only happened because operators took foolish action at a poorly designed plant. In contrast, and like Three Mile Island before it, Fukushima is proof that engineers know how to design nuclear plants to withstand virtually any problem. Far from putting the brakes on renewed development of nuclear power in America as Liebermann suggests, Fukushima should serve as the ultimate reassurance that this technology is mature and as safe as any energy source we have.