Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Power in Japan: The Ocean of Light above the Ocean of Darkness

The Ocean of Light above the Ocean of Darkness

“…there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” (George Fox, An Autobiography)

Grief was our first reaction when a civilized nation so prepared for earthquakes was devastated. Those of us who live in earthquake country found it hard to tamp down the fear that we can’t protect ourselves from nature. Japan, so much better prepared than the West Coast, actually did quite well with the once-in-a-millennium earthquake (the previous largest in that area was M8.3, in 869 CE), but the tsunami killed thousands, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and may have a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Street1The city of Sendai after the earthquake. Cleanup from the tsunami is expected to take years, and this will delay rebuilding. Less than one fifth of tsunami rubble had been removed by the beginning of June.

Added to our grief, fear was triggered. Something was happening with the nuclear reactors, especially at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The reactors appeared to have survived the earthquake, but they were not prepared for a 15-meter tsunami. It was hard for anyone, expert or not, to follow the news, with six reactors to track and unfamiliar terms (what did “partial fuel meltdown” mean?), while relying on insufficient and contradictory information from the Japanese (some of it was mistranslation and preoccupation with other matters, some was lack of information, but initially some was an inadequate understanding of the importance of keeping everyone informed).

In general, Western media coverage of Fukushima ignored the arguably greater stories of the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, and how well prepared other countries are for natural disasters; context was uneven at best. According to BBC criticism, journalists were provided with experts on a variety of topics, but far too many rejected the explanations of experts in nuclear power, whom they saw as biased. As a result, their coverage tended to be both alarmist and error-ridden. Media reports continue to change and are sometimes contradictory, and for many of us, the lack of consistent information, along with a very reasonable perception that the event was out of control, fed into worst-case scenarios.

Worst-case scenarios reflect a natural desire to figure out what might happen next, and they can be useful guides to what we need to prepare for, but only if they bear some relation to reality and probability. Poor policy decisions can follow if we fail to differentiate between internal fears and external reality.

Street2Damage at Fukushima Daiichi

Currently (as of late May), the situation is not yet stable; three Japanese nuclear reactors in use at this time will likely leak radioactivity for weeks. (The total leakage of cesium and iodine is so far equivalent to 10 percent of Chernobyl, and this may rise a bit.) Three others are in cold shutdown and remain unlikely to constitute a danger. There are still concerns about four of the six spent fuel pools. In particular, risks remain in the form of the threat of aftershocks to stressed containment structures filled with water. The radiation outside the plant boundaries is fairly low, except in a couple of sites, and radioactivity levels continue to fall everywhere outside the plant. Tokyo Electric Power Company hopes to reinforce buildings, clean away the rubble, install proper cooling systems to bring temperatures down below boiling, and deal with the contaminated water. This will take months; full decommissioning will take years.

What often gets lost in the coverage of these developments is that, from what we know now, all the reactors appear to have survived the once-in-a-millennium earthquake (future analysis will show whether this is true), but three, shutting down as planned in response to intense acceleration, did not survive the accompanying tsunamis. This is in part because of design decisions (placement of diesel generators, and inadequate redundancy —extra generators in case some failed, and extra solutions if the generators failed) and design flaws in the current Generation II reactors that have been fixed in the new Gen III+. (U.S. construction of Gen III+ will begin in a few months at the Vogtle plant.) Older reactors rely too much on pumps and valves, whilenew reactors depend more on gravity and hot material expanding.

Although the threat to human health is smaller than what is widely believed, there may be a public health effect from the damage to the Japanese reactors. As of late May, the 21 most exposed workers have each seen an increase of 0.4–1 percent in their chance of contracting a fatal cancer (Update: Tepco has now examined all 3,700 workers; 107 workers have from 0.4 – 0.8% chance of a fatal cancer, and another 17 have higher exposures, with chances of fatal cancer as high as 5%.) Exposure levels for other workers and the public are much lower, but one can assume that the sheer volume of exposure will produce statistical cancers, cancers predicted by the model, but occurring at a much lower rate than year-to-year variations, with vanishingly small chances of any one cancer being caused by this event. On the other hand, if the nuclear reactors were replaced with coal, in much less than a year, deaths from coal power would clearly exceed total health threats from the Daiichi disaster.

The clean-up cost will surely be in the billions, and the cost to the energy infrastructure will be enormous: Japan will have insufficient electricity for industry for years, because of the damage to the grid and to sources of electricity (both nuclear and not), and will pay higher costs for rapidly acquired sources, like coal and natural gas. The cleanup will take months, and its cost will add to the wider effects of the earthquakes and tsunamis: high death tolls (today 23,000 are dead or still missing), years of cleaning up tsunami debris, tens of thousands homeless, and damages in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The cost of the meltdown will also include compensating residents in the evacuation zone for the disruption of their lives.

Although the public health effect from the damaged reactors appears small, and although, as the Washington Post says, “Barring a major release of toxic elements from the stabilizing Daiichi plant, radiation experts predict no long-term health impact on residents in the region,” the fear of health consequences remains large. People tell me they expect deaths within a year and then a large number of deaths over decades, simply because of the extent of media coverage. Likewise, alarmist actions, such as the Swiss government moving its embassy out of Tokyo, caused some evacuees to assume there was a risk to their health, which made returning home stressful. The greatest health consequence of Daiichi, by far, will be on all whose lives are affected by future energy policy decisions influenced by public overreaction, such as Germany’s decision to replace nuclear power with fossil fuels.

Such misplaced fear continues to be fed by the powerful reaction to Chernobyl. Some popular estimates, such as those by Greenpeace, magnify the tragedy many fold. Chernobyl has actually killed 50–60 to date, and may kill 4,000 more over seven decades following that initial exposure. Four thousand is the number who die worldwide from air pollution every year by noon on January 1, according to World Health Organization. WHO says that at least this number died from climate change worldwide over a typical ten-day period in 2000. There would have to be several Chernobyls every month to yield the damage routinely done by fossil fuels.

Of course, fears about all things nuclear are not without foundation. Nuclear weapons produce a much larger explosion per weight than conventional bombs, allowing the United States to carry a single, enormously destructive bomb in an airplane, and drop it —twice —with horrifying consequences. The world learned nothing new from Chernobyl; the Soviets learned in 1986 what everyone else knew from day one: that you don’t build power plants using an extraordinarily bad design and then hire a director who is not trained in nuclear power, didn’t follow procedure, and didn’t notify anyone or order evacuations. Radioactivity can kill, but it can also save people’s lives, such as in cancer treatments, though even medically it is dangerous and can be misused: radiation treatment for acne is a bad idea, and we’ve learned to protect X-ray patients and technicians with lead aprons.

For many, however, sensible fear of radioactivity has become over-generalized, spilling over, for instance, to the essentially negligible radiation (not radioactivity) from cell phones. If we generalized our fear of radioactivity any further, we couldn’t fly, or visit cities with naturally high background rates of radioactivity, and we’d definitely have to do something about that radon in our basement. We would avoid a number of foods, stay out of brick buildings, and avoid extended contact with other people. There is radioactivity all around us, the largest non-medical source being radon, which EPA estimates kills 21,000 people in the United States each year, yet only suggests mildly that we check our houses and get something done.

Since we couldn’t live with such a generalized fear of radioactivity, we focus on the sources of greatest threat, as we see them. Without checking for or understanding relative levels of exposure, we may fall for alarmist claims and for remedies for dangers that do not exist. For example, there were a number of reports of people outside Japan entering poison control centers for treatment for unhealthy doses of potassium iodide, use of which was not called for in the circumstances. Like everything else in the air, including coal pollution, radioactive isotopes from Fukushima did indeed spread to other countries, but outside Japan, exposure from Daiichi nowhere exceeded radioactivity levels from the ordinary activities listed above.

Such a state of fear can trap us, shaping our responses and blinding us to actual problems we might otherwise address. It is especially hard to put things in perspective when we limit ourselves to like-minded acquaintances who invite us to see the world in terms of us versus them. A surprising number of people seem never to tire of confirmation that we are good, they are bad. Others act and believe differently because they are rapacious and callous, while we act out of intelligence and loving kindness.

Fear of other can obscure and distort our perceptions of actual risks. For better or worse, one doesn’t have to seek sources of risk in one’s own behavior when there is a convenient other to blame for untoward outcomes, such as callous scientists and industry, inadequately regulated by government. When we see a government such as that of Japan, a technologically advanced country, dealing with a crisis in which everything seems out of control, we lose faith in our own government’s ability to prepare for and deal with unpredictable events like nuclear meltdowns. Oddly, we find we prefer far greater dangers that we have come to expect (like the numbers of deaths from coal and hydro power) to the sense that something may happen that we can’t see coming. So, after 33 years of safe use of nuclear power in the West after Three Mile Island, the riveting imagethat dominates our nightmares remains Chernobyl, multiplied many times over in our press though it bears no relation to what happened in Japan —in cause, handling, severity, risk, and outcome. (TMI is another pivotal image for many, and events in Japan are, in fact, scarier than TMI, a reactor with core meltdown but far fewer complications.) Nuclear power plays a pivotal role in the we-good, they-bad fights among many Friends.

While we steep ourselves in fears of what might happen at a nuclear plant this month or next, the climate continues to change at a frightening rate. International Energy Agency says that infrastructure now in place and under construction has almost locked us into atmospheric greenhouse gas levels exceeding 450 parts per million. The newest climate model includes feedback, and concludes that temperature increase at 450 ppm, if it were achievable, will be a higher-than-expected 2.3°C. Unfortunately, it is more realistic to expect temperature increases of 3–4°C, with even our best efforts unable to avert serious consequences. For example, a 4°C (7°F) increase in temperature could make the hottest day of the year 18–22°F warmer in eastern North America, and have equally dramatic effects on water supplies; the UK’s Met Office warns that this could occur as early as 2060. In northern California, it’s expected that the San Francisco Bay level will rise 16 inches by mid-century and 55 inches by the end of the century; this assumption is not worst-case.

An unquestioned allegiance to any particular solution to climate change, without critically checking our understanding, throws us back into we-good, they-bad gamesmanship. No one can assure us that the next set of mistakes at a nuclear reactor, with or without a precipitating act of nature, will not end in death. Insisting that the nuclear industry be perfect allows us to ignore all the ways we are failing to address climate change, indeed colluding —out of ignorance, illusion, or indifference —with the many forces that threaten life as we know it.

Having a world that simplifies to black and white —feeling sure we are right, thinking we know who’s wrong —appeals to all of us. When our minds are rooted in fear, and when so many share our fears, it is easy to believe those fears are well-founded. The consequences of this assumption for ourselves and the Earth can be serious.

All forms of energy have risk. To compare relative risks of various energy sources, we use the unit: deaths/Terawatt hours (TWh =1 billion kWh). For perspective, world electricity production was 20,200 TWh in 2008 (8,300 TWh coal, 4,300 TWh natural gas, 1,100 TWh oil, 2,700 TWh nuclear, and 3,300 TWh hydro). The U.S. produced 4,300 TWh i n 2007 (2,100 TWh coal, 910 TWh natural gas, 60 TWh oil, 840 TWh nuclear, and 280 TWh hydro).

Over the past 50 years, nuclear power has suffered three significant accidents. In this case it is instructive to compare the number of deaths so far attributable to nuclear power (in the past, present and future), from events occurring in the past 50 years. To calculate deaths/TWh for nuclear power worldwide, divide 4,000 deaths from Chernobyl by 63,000 TWh since 1970. Fukushima will not substantially change that number —the estimate of deaths from Fukushima over seven decades, not yet released, will surely be small, most likely less than the number of deaths caused by a day or two of U.S. coal use. No one has died from U.S. nuclear power in the same time frame. This computes as 0.06 deaths/TWh in the world, including 0 deaths/TWh in the United States.

Air pollution and miner deaths from coal are estimated at 14,000/year in the U.S., and more than 110,000 worldwide. (An additional 200,000 die from direct coal use such as cooking and heating.) In contrast to nuclear’s 0/TWh, coal power produces more than 6 deaths/TWh in the United States (this will decline with new EPA regulations), and a perhaps conservative estimate of 13 deaths/TWh worldwide, not counting climate change. (As of 2000, deaths from climate change had reached 150,000/year.)

Many have told me that the numbers in the prior paragraphs are irrelevant, that their eyes glaze over. This concerns me. When someone tells me it’s not just the number of deaths, real or potential, that concerns them, I ask them what feels more important. People give various responses, most quite heated: the arrogance of pro-nuclear people, or that radioactivity can travel around the world, or that nuclear power is an industry and so cannot be trusted. Somehow, finding a radioactive isotope from Japan as far away as Boston is worse than air pollution from Asia killing Americans or U.S. air pollution killing people east of us. Somehow, the fact that the radioactivity in groundwater near nuclear waste repositories, which at its peak (e.g., Yucca Mt 300,000 years from now) will offer levels of exposure equivalent to moving from New Mexico to Washington State, is more feared than the pollution of all groundwater, everywhere on Earth, by 20th-century toxic chemical waste, spreading from its source to even the remotest places. Somehow, the long-term aspect of nuclear waste, even though it has a minimal impact, is more important than the permanent changes (until long after our species has gone extinct) we are imposing on the atmosphere and biosphere through fossil fuel use. Somehow it doesn’t matter that expert analysis (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) shows that opposition to nuclear energy means more fossil fuels. (Germany will have to add coal and natural gas if it permanently shutters its nuclear power plants.) Somehow nuclear power is still scarier and the numbers don’t matter.

Some who hate to compare numbers prefer to distance themselves from any pollution source, asserting they support only clean energy sources, like solar, and tending to paint alternatives in elevated terms, as natural, pure, sustainable, and risk-free. Solar, wind, and living with less are all seen as answers to nuclear power’s perceived risks. Some may even convince themselves that solar and wind are cheaper than nuclear. Numerous concerns exist about renewables, including wind causing climate change, according to analysis in recent years (also see David McKay’s Sustainable Energy —without the hot air). A major problem with intermittents, including solar, is that they achieve less than 80% of those expected greenhouse gas reductions, because the backup fossil fuel they require runs inefficiently, just as cars in city driving get fewer miles to a gallon. NOx reductions are even lower. And while solar manufacture is no worse than other industries, and solar energy is considerably cleaner than coal and other fossil fuels, it is not pure. (Brookhaven provides a more complete list of toxins associated with solar power manufacture.) In short, the numbers are essential to compare the actual impact of different sources on human health and the environment.

Real people are dying from air and water pollution. They tend to be the very young, the very old, and those with other health problems. They are frequently people who have other disadvantages in life. The 150,000 who died from climate change in 2000 (from disease, floods, landslides, and starvation) are also real people. I’ve never heard anyone get as angry about those 150,000 (presumably more this year, and the numbers are expected to increase rapidly beginning this decade) as some Friends get about the thought of even one death from nuclear energy. Perhaps the problem is not that the explanation includes numbers that are numbing to some readers. The problem might be that today, the effects of climate change are small among people we know and care about (which will not be true in 20 years). Perhaps air pollution is just part of the air we breathe.

Everyone knows how difficult it is to process the overwhelming amount of information bombarding us when we try to understand a complex and long-term challenge like climate change. It is even harder to figure out how to respond. We can look with some compassion on our sense of helplessness, our tendency to take refuge in distractions, or look for the little things in life we can control. However, some of us really do need to stay focused on the large issues surrounding climate change and pay attention to the numbers, if society is to stop resisting meaningful solutions and move towards meaningful change.

A fear that says, “Well, nuclear power may end up killing someone” is, in this way of thinking, allowed to take precedence over far greater dangers to human beings. Any fear that says, “My fear is more important than the facts,” a fear based on “what ifs,” blinds us to steps that would address real and present dangers. No one can promise us that we will never be afraid. I carry great fear of both the likely and possible consequences of climate change. Part of me wants to cry, and part of me wants to act out of that fear; only the former sometimes helps. As long as I live in this world, I will move at times into the ocean of darkness created by my fear. I can only hope to find a way back to the ocean of light. We can all work more consciously to rise above our private and shared fears to seek the light of understanding and good works.


An explanation of units (includes likely health effects) Stewart Brand says in Is obfuscation deliberate?, “With its babble of measurements, the nuclear power industry has guaranteed that all of its communications with the public are maddeningly confusing and frightening.

“It is such conspicuously incompetent social engineering that observers understandably suspect that the nuclear engineering behind it is equally incompetent, and that nuclear engineers must hate people.” This is an attempt to provide help translating the babble.

A number of units have been used by the media, and per usual, there is more than one set of units. The material in this section draws heavily on David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy, 2nd Edition, chapters 3, 4, and 15.

The media commonly use two types of units. The first is decay rate: 1 becquerel (Bq) = 1 decay/second, but Geiger counters often use counts per minute (1 cpm = 1/60 Bq). Another unit for decay rate is the curie: 1 Ci = 3.7 x 1010 Bq. Common prefixes are milli (m), micro ( µ), and pico (p), and indicate one thousandth, one millionth, and one trillionth.

The unit for absorbed dose, gray, is often used for cancer treatments, and tells us the amount of energy released per kg of tissue. The damage done by alpha particles is significantly more than the damage from beta particles, so the media use instead dose equivalent, sievert (Sv), damage done by a dose. Dose equivalent in sieverts is obtained by multiplying dose, gray, by a weighting factor between 1 and 20; 1 Gy = 1 to 20 Sv (1 for beta particles and gamma rays, 20 for alpha particles). 1 Sv = 100 rem (older unit)

Dose equivalent is the bottom line unit for understanding health risk.

For high doses, dose equivalent is ignored. High doses kill within days to months, although the dose at which half die depends on health and treatment. Half of Hiroshima victims receiving a 3 Gy dose died, while 7 of 23 Chernobyl firemen died at doses between 4 and 6 Gy, and 21 of 22 died at doses above 6 Gy. Radiation sickness —clinical symptoms include nausea and depressed white blood cell count —occurs at doses from 1 – 4 Gy.

The bible for biological effects of ionizing radiation for lower doses, below 1 Sv or 1 Gy, is produced every few years by the US National Academy of Sciences, Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII – Phase 2. NAS uses the linear no-threshold (LNT) model (you may have heard some of the controversy about this model). The basic assumption is that a 9 Sv collective dose produces one cancer, and a 17 Sv collective dose (say 100 mSv = 0.1 Sv for 170 individuals) produces one fatal cancer in the group beyond what would normally occur, and the same collective dose always kills one person no matter how small the individual dose and no matter whether the dose occurred over a short period or years. So 1,700 people each exposed to 10 mSv, 17,000 each exposed to 1 mSv, etc —in each case, one person will die from a cancer from this exposure. This number was obtained by studying cancer fatalities among atomic bomb survivors: detailed analyses of the 7,827 cancer fatalities from 1950 to 1990 deemed 421 “excess”, attributed to extra exposure from the bombs. Because workers tend to be healthier than the general population and are neither young nor old, their risk coefficient is less. In practice BEIR divides estimates of purported effects by 1.5 at the low exposures of the workers and public from Fukushima Daiichi, other groups divide estimates for low exposures by 2, still others ignore exposures below some level. I will use the BEIR tables: here for single dose vs age including children and here for exposures over time.

For those suffering from acute radiation syndrome, the isotope is irrelevant, and only total dose matters. In considering chronic health effects, iodine is more effective at causing cancer, particularly in children —iodine targets the tiny thyroid gland (less than 1 ounce, about 10 – 15 grams), so the dose equivalent (effective dose per kilogram of tissue) from a small amount of radioactivity can be enormous. Radiation damage to thyroids was exacerbated in areas where soil was iodine deficient. So iodine, 90% of the radioactivity released from Chernobyl (not counting xenon, which doesn’t interact with our bodies), caused thousands of thyroid cancers from an exposure that occurred in the few weeks before it decayed away. Since thyroid cancer is very easy to treat, it rarely results in death, however unhappy and scared its victims might be. Juvenile thyroid cancer is a fast acting cancer, along with leukemia.

Tepco examined 3,700 workers for radiation exposure and found 124 received dose equivalents in excess of 100 mSv. Of these, 107 exposures were between 100 and 200 mSv, so BEIR estimates each has less than 0.4 – 0.8% chance of dying from cancer from their exposure. Another 8 had exposures up to 250 mSv (up to 1% chance of a fatal cancer from the exposure), and another 9 had exposures above 250 mSv. BEIR estimates that for higher single doses, men aged 30 have a 5% chance of dying from each 1 Sv, 1000 mSv, dose equivalent, and this declines with age. Cumulative exposures leads to a prediction that up to one of the most exposed workers will die of cancer from that exposure.

The larger Japanese population received a higher collective dose —each person received much smaller doses, but enough were exposed so that statistical cancers are predicted —if you get cancer, the chances are overwhelming that you did not get cancer from this incident, yet the model predicts that several people will get cancer. This contrasts with Chernobyl, where several thousand cancers were clearly caused by that accident (cancers requiring a short time to develop, primarily juvenile thyroid cancer), along with 15 cancer deaths as of 2002. The 2,000 deaths expected among Chernobyl workers, and almost 2,000 deaths expected in the general population over the next few decades are statistical —if you die, chances are extremely good that it wasn’t the radioactivity that killed you, but the model predicts some will die earlier.


Figure 1 This map was created by the U.S. Department of Energy; divide by 100 to get to mSv. The sections in red show areas where people exposed to 20 mSv have 0.08% chance of contracting a fatal cancer sometime in their life from that one year of exposure. The yellow area, with the same assumptions, puts people at half the risk, 0.04%, and the blue area, with the same assumptions, puts people at one tenth the risk, 0.008%. Presumably evacuation plans were made after an assessment of actual exposure, since most people appear to have stayed indoors as directed, at least initially. UNSCEAR ignores cumulative exposures of <10 mSv.

Figure 2.img_assist_custom

Figure 2 From Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (pdf) Clearly radioactivity is decreasing in the areas around the nuclear plant. Half of iodine-131, the great majority of radioactivity deposited, decays every 8 days. After 40 days (iodine levels down 97%), most of the remaining radioactivity comes from approximately equal amounts of cesium-134, which decays at the rate of 30%/year (half life 2 years), and cesium-137, which decays at 2%/year (half life 30 years).

Table 1 shows some sources of radioactivity in our daily life from a number of activities, as well as background exposure from cosmic rays, the soil, even internal radioactivity. Daily background dose equivalent is typically around 7 µSv.

Radiation sources US (NCRP) _(mSv) World (UNSCEAR) (mSv)
Natural sources
Inhalation (radon) 2.0 1.26
Terrestrial radiation 0.28 0.48
Radionuclides in body (e.g. K-40) 0.39 0.29
Cosmic rays 0.27 0.38
Cosmogenic (eg, C-14) 0.01 0.01
Total for natural sources 3.0 2.4
Consumer products 0.1
Nuclear weapons testing <0.01 0.005
Nuclear fuel cycle 0.000 5 0.000 2
Chernobyl accident 0.002
Medical 3.1
Total 6.2 2.4 + medical
TMI, greatest exposure offsite (pdf) <0.01

Table 1 Average radiation exposures for the U.S. and world: effective dose in mSv/year (from table 3.5 in David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy, 2nd Edition, except as otherwise noted). U.S. information from National Council of Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP). World information from United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Ionizing Radiation (UNSCEAR).

Background radiation varies widely by country, primarily because of different rock and soil composition:


Figure 3 Average yearly background levels vary widely by country in places where people live, from < 2 mSv to almost 8 mSv. In many places where people live, annual dose equivalents can exceed 10 mSv, as inDenver. The highest exposure, up to 260 mSv, is in a resort town, Ramsar, Iran.


Figure 4 U.S. Sources of Exposure, from National Council of Radiation Protection and Measurements Thoron is an isotope of radon. Divide mrem by 100 to get units in mSv.

For people who live at low altitudes, our largest exposure from natural sources comes from radon. Exposures vary across the U.S. Radon is more of a problem indoors, in unvented uranium mines or basements, because it can accumulate. For people at high altitudes, cosmic rays can be a more important source of radioactivity than radon.

Medical diagnosis exposures range from as little as 0.001 mSv dose equivalents (dental X-ray) to 19 mSv (CT scan for lumbar spine). Americans average about 3.1 mSv in medical procedures per year, but for half of Americans, the dose equivalent is ≤0.1 mSv. About 4 million non-elderly Americans receive dose equivalents >20 mSv each year.

There are other sources of small doses:

  • Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant: 0.09 µSv
  • Eating one banana: 0.1 µSv
  • Living within 50 miles of a coal power plant: 0.3 µSv
  • Using a CRT monitor for 1 year: 1 µSv
  • Dental or hand X-ray: 5 µSv
  • Flying: 3-5 µSv/hour
  • Sleeping next to someone, 8 hours/night for a year: 20 µSv
  • Living in stone, brick, or concrete house, one year: 70 µSv
  • Working in Grand Central Station for 1 year: 1.2 mSv = 1,200 µSv
  • Astronaut/month: 15 mSv

The linear no threshold model and public health

The LNT model says there is no safe level of radioactivity. However, there is no major public health push to protect the public from even very large collective doses outside of nuclear power and nuclear medicine.

Even confirming the LNT model by comparing exposures is problematic. Only 70,000 live in Ramsar, so any increase in cancer due their exposures, higher for some than the most exposed worker at the Daiichi plant, is unlikely to be seen. Denver has a high level of cosmic radiation, and higher natural background than most of the United States, and lower cancer rates. However, radioactivity is a small contributor to the cancer rate and other factors may influence more where cancer rates are high or low. The linear no threshold relationship was obtained for high doses in a short time, and corroboration for lower doses or longer time periods is more challenging. A number of cancer specialists, physicists, and others disagree that the relationship holds at low doses or over longer periods of time. The evidence is considered “clear cut” for dose equivalents above 200 mSv with weaker evidence down to 50 mSv.

Most use the IAEA calculation of about 4,000 deaths from Chernobyl over seven decades*, but if even tiny doses well below 1 mSv are included, far below variations between different parts of the U.S., then the model predicts 30,000 deaths over 70 years. If the model is correct, it presents major public policy challenges, because the LNT model predicts 30 million deaths worldwide from radon over the same period, as the collective exposure to indoor radon is about 1,000 times the collective dose from Chernobyl (Bodansky pp 112-3). EPA assumes 21,000 Americans die of lung cancer each year from indoor radon, 1.5 million deaths over 7 decades.

There are other inconsistencies: EPA regulations limit radioactivity release from nuclear power plants, and ignore coal power releases that are 100 times larger/kWh. The logic is that it is not cost effective to regulate coal power plants, but why then are nuclear plants required to meet a far more rigorous standard? Safety levels for water and produce vary by country, so tap water in Tokyo at two times Japanese regulatory standards was one-fifth of the European standard. Two pounds of banned Japanese spinach/day for a year would expose the consumer to about the same radioactivity as one fifth of a CT scan, and spinach was banned when it already appeared as if all large releases were over. Health Physics Society, for one, is on record (pdf) disagreeing with the LNT model, pointing to, “(1) 100 to 1000 fold discrepancies in permissible exposure levels among various regulations, all allegedly based on the same scientific risk assessment data, and (2) proposed expenditures of billions of federal and private dollars to clean up radioactively contaminated federal and commercial sites without careful consideration of the actual public health benefits to be achieved.”

It appears governments focus public health concerns about radioactivity on a limited number of activities. EPA does not set a uniform standard for radioactivity release from all power plants, and no attempt is made regulate comparable health danger from all types of power sources —it would be interesting to see health effects compared for regulatory standards for radioactivity and air pollution.

Disputes about estimates from Chernobyl: importance of sources

The most frequent response to my earlier articles in Friends Journal was to attack the legitimacy of IAEA as a source on the health effects of Chernobyl, numbers seen as scientific consensus (complaints about IAEA data and analysis would be well covered in Science and other journals), and this attack has been repeatedly frequently by anti-nuclear people in recent weeks. The argument is that independent researchers, such as Greenpeace, have provided purportedly more accurate estimates of one million already dead from Chernobyl. The basic argument includes an assumption of conspiracy including two United Nations agencies, both IAEA and World Health Organization, and thousands of scientists worldwide. Scientists have a different take on why estimates between the scientific and anti-nuclear communities differ so much, in addition to the assumption that there is no result, no matter how improbably high, that Greenpeace (pdf) would reject:

• Scientists find a cause more likely if increased mortality and morbidity correlate with increased exposure.

• Scientists look at and sort among a number of explanations for increased mortality (including anxiety about Chernobyl and generally since the fall of the Soviet Union, and high consumption rates for alcohol and cigarettes).

• Scientists assume that cancers take at least 10 – 15 years to develop, excepting leukemia (can appear within 2 – 5 years) and juvenile thyroid cancer (can appear within 5 years —childhood thyroid cancer in the areas around Chernobyl peaked in 1995, and adolescent thyroid cancer peaked in 2001), while others include cancers from day one. (IAEA, pdf)

• Scientists assume that health data in the Ukraine and surrounding areas, pre-Chernobyl, are unreliable.

• Scientists do a literature search, and compare the results for other known exposures. For example, no increase in birth defects was observed at Hiroshima/Nagasaki even with much higher exposures (except for women pregnant at the time of the bombings, and this does not appear to have been passed on to succeeding generations), according to Radiation Effects Research Foundation. Since higher exposure from Chernobyl also does not correlate with increased birth defects, the data and the studies agree.

Health statistics for the Ukraine and Russia may correlate better with high alcohol and cigarette consumption, and less well with high rates of radioactivity-induced cancer. IAEA’s The Chernobyl Report (pdf) sees anxiety as the single largest public health factor.

*The estimate of 4,000 eventual deaths from the Chernobyl accident comes from the IAEA/WHO report: One Decade After Chernobyl: Summing Up the Consequences of the Accident

I find it easier to read in David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy 2nd Edition table 15.3

Among 200,000 liquidators, 2,000 excess cancer deaths are expected from solid cancers, and 200 from leukemia (this represents a 25% increase in leukemia rate). Average dose equivalent is 100 mSv. Among the more than 100 liquidators who survived acute radiation syndrome, exposure from 1 to more than 6 Sv, the chances of a fatal cancer from the accident are considered to be 5% or more, with higher exposure associated with greater risk. (An increase (pdf) in leukemia has been seen in liquidators with more than 150 mSv exposure).

Among 135,000 evacuees from 30 km zone, 150 solid cancers and 10 leukemia deaths are expected (a 5% increase for leukemia). Average dose over a lifetime: 10 mSv.

Among 270,000 residents in the strict control zone, 1,500 solid cancer and 100 leukemia deaths are expected (a 10% increase for leukemia). Average dose over a lifetime: 50 mSv.

Of the 4,000 fatal cancers expected from Chernobyl, more than half are expected among the 200,000 liquidators (1% chance of dying from cancer as a result of Chernobyl). Among the 400,000 most exposed members of the public, the chances of getting a fatal cancer from Chernobyl are less than 0.5%. Assumptions include a somewhat longer life expectancy than is now seen in Ukraine.

Some reports also consider that among 6.8 M in other areas, 4,600 deaths solid cancer and 370 leukemia deaths are expected. Average dose 7 mSv. UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (pdf) ignores this group.

Outside of thyroid cancer, the LNT model predicts about one death for every two cancers. Except for thyroid cancer and leukemia (liquidators with more than 150 mSv exposure have seen an increase (pdf) in leukemia), cancers typically occur decades after exposure.

Timeline and General Coverage

International Atomic Energy Agency has a Facebook site.

World Nuclear Association provides very readable coverage of most major aspects of the events, including a Fukushima Accident Information Paper and a list of reports on their blog. WNA is easier to read than IAEA.

• The US nuclear lobby, Nuclear Energy Institute, provides a Fukushima page, also focuses on events in Japan, and needed responses to the information out of Japan, and describes how the U.S. does it differently.

• U.S. Department of Energy has several slide showsAtomic Power Review provides readable day-by-day explanations with details that appeal to the nerd in us all.

Bloomberg provides a readable description of the first day.   Follow Up

• U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, their blog, the Japan Task Force report, and a brief write-up from theWorld Nuclear Association • A number of discussions have begun on mistakes and remedies.

International Atomic Energy Agency and World Association of Nuclear Operators (created in Moscow after the Chernobyl accident) are two organizations that communicate rapidly and thoroughly what is learned. U.S. NRC will also be influential.

• Updates go on all the time even without accidents. For example, a list of major improvements NRC has ordered since 1979 for the kind of reactors at Fukushima can be seen here.   Media Coverage:


Columbia School of Journalism

• the wiki Journalist Wall of Shame

• Guardian coverage, including that provided by their environmental editor, is under attack by George Monbiot and Mark Lynas.

• There are numerous examples of over-the-top coverage. Michio Kaku, a PhD physicist (which does not mean that he is necessarily knowledgeable about nuclear engineering), seemed to be describing a different event.

• Add coverage of problems we know about because of anti-nuclear power folks protest, such as this NY Times article on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission phasing out safety methods (“They weren’t needed for design basis accidents and they didn’t help with severe accidents”.)


Fukyshima, nuclear power’s risk, and fear driven politics

On August 2nd, 2011 Howard Shaffer says:

This article hit the nail on the head. I have been meeting face to face with the opponents of the Vermont Yankee plant for ten years, to try to understand their position. We have polite dialogues, but in the end, as the author found, it comes down to “my fear is more important than the facts.”

Great article

On August 6th, 2011 Guest says:

Great article, I haven’t read it all yet but definitely will. I have a similar blog at and if its OK with you I will link this page. I thought I was the only one 🙂 Cheers

fears and facts

On September 26th, 2011 Muriel Strand says:

there are many things to be afraid of, but really the choice of energy sources is a value judgment. how important is this addiction?…

Fear and statistics in nuclear power (October 2011 Forum)

On November 1st, 2011 Donna Williams says:

My father-in-law retired after decades of employment with Anaconda. On a trip out to visit us in Montana, he stopped in Butte to stand on the brink of the Berkley Pit looking out over one of the largest toxic waste sites in America. With some chagrin he said, “We thought we were doing such a good thing.” So did we all! We humans make mistakes. It’s what we do best.

My heart goes out to Karen Street for her frustration with our inability to grasp her point, but if she cites a “fact” such as, “No one has died from U.S. nuclear power [since 1970]” then she will have an uphill struggle proving to me that such a figure is more reliable than the statistics we got out of the Tobacco Institute in the ‘70s. To admit that such a calculation would be difficult, if not impossible, would seem more truthful to me. To ask us to dismiss the motion of the Spirit as irrational fear and to accept such calculations as Truth seems unwise.

Don’t get me wrong—I do not doubt her sincerity, but I wonder if Karen Street is headed toward the brink of her own personal Berkley Pit. Wouldn’t it be fine if the mistake turns out to be mine? Then these aging nuclear facilities we must decommission would pose little difficulty and catastrophic climate change would be averted.

In the meantime, I’ve unplugged my drier to hang my laundry in the sunshine which is plentiful, cheap, local, and adds nothing to the carbon footprint of my backyard. Has anyone died of sunshine? Of course they have, but I have no statistics on that. I trust in the light.

Donna Williams
Great Falls, Mont.

I thank Karen Street for her contribution (October 2011 Forum)

On November 1st, 2011 Paul C. Mangelsdorf, Jr. says:

I have just been reading the August issue of the Friends Journal with no less than 3 contributions on the general topic of nuclear energy. Our Friend, John Warner of Mullica Hill, N.J., seems pleased to learn that his reading of the IPCC bulletin seems to mean that there is no “statistically significant change in the natural variability that is attributable to human economic activity.” Would that it were so!

There is a nice argument by Karen Street that supplies a number of useful ratios, but seems to fall afoul of her definition of “climate change.” She appears to identify “climate change” as the simple total of deaths due to disease, floods, landslides, and starvation. A constant baseline seems to have disappeared. Something is missing from this argument. What has happened to the people who happened to die without any assistance from climate change?

Finally, there is that minute from the QEW Steering Committee out in Chicago, April 8. I don’t know who they are but they are evidently Street’s opposition on all points. I don’t see that I agree with anything they say. Meanwhile, I thank Karen Street for her contribution to my further education.

Paul C. Mangelsdorf, Jr.
Newtown Square, Pa.

I am baffled by the discrepancies (October 2011 Forum)

On November 1st, 2011 Pinayur Rajagopal says:

Karen Street, in her article in the August, 2011 issue of the Friends Journal says:

“Chernobyl has actually killed 50-60 to date, and may kill 4,000 more over seven decades following that initial exposure.”

Louis Cox (Quaker Earthcare Witness) has drawn my attention to the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment by Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko and Alexey V. Nesterenko (John Wiley and Sons, 2010). They claim that the Chernobyl death toll is 1,000,000 and not 4,000.

Karen Street is usually thorough in her citations and I learnt much from her articles in Friends Journal, October 2008 and July 2009. But in the August 2011 article she does not mention the New York Academy of Sciences Annals or the Wiley 2010 book.

I am baffled at the discrepancy between 1,000,000 and 4,000 more over seven decades. Would it be possible to get a response from Karen Street?

Pinayur Rajagopal
Toronto, Ont.

How do we decide what is true? (November 2011 Forum)

On November 1st, 2011 Marilyn Dell Brady says:

In Friends Journal of August 2011, Karen Street provided us a needed reminder of the human cost of the continuing reliance on coal and petroleum products. Her rosy account of the Fukushima disaster and the safety of nuclear energy, however, is full of highly questionable claims.

Evidence uncovered by scientists, not disaster-seeking journalists, has established that the radiation releases were much larger, more widespread, and more dangerous than the Japanese government or the officials of the plant initially revealed. The reactors were damaged by the quake itself, not merely from the tsunami. Their cores experienced meltdown and fuel pools were damaged. Bits of plutonium were found 45 miles from Fukushima. Radiation rates were far above acceptable levels miles beyond the 12-mile evacuation zone. Children outside the evacuation zone have received dosages above those acceptable for nuclear workers. Food and water are contaminated. Ocean radiation is triple what we were told. Even if workers are able to cool the reactors by next January, as the owners hope, the cost of the disaster will be astronomical.

Quite simply, I challenge the factual validity of Street’s account of the nuclear disaster. Why do I trust the data I have collected and not hers? In a world with competing claims, how do we know what to believe what is true? Quakers have a long tradition of caring about truth and honesty, and I believe we need to address the question of how we decide what is true.

Friends have always considered truth as experiential, to be known as individuals and to be considered in community. Today many of the facts of the world come from outside our individual or community experience. When we turn to experts, we find they disagree. Rejecting all experts and depending only on our own emotional inclinations only cuts us off from any reality beyond ourselves. Like many people today, we become boxed in by our own prejudices and misguided anger.

Truth exists and we lose sight of it at our peril, but we need to find ways to chose between the conflicting accounts we are given.

As a first step we need to consider the sources and the evidence of those who ask us to believe their claims of factual truths. We do not need to “demonize” someone to decide their version of events is wrong. We do need to realize that corporations and governments have a stake in minimizing risks rather than acknowledging they occur. Their power depends on our believing we are safe. Knowing their stake in their downplaying risk, we should be aware of their possible bias and be skeptical of them. We have a need and a right to question them and to know the worst case scenarios, not simply the best, that may occur.

In the case of Fukushima, press reports and the statements from authorities responsible for dealing with the disaster were not our only options for information. Not all nuclear experts work for nuclear corporations. Some scientists who have worked in nuclear industry in the past have left and now work for organizations seeking to end our reliance on nuclear energy or to minimize its risks. Yes, they have their own biases, but they give us a point of view and evidence with which we can evaluate statements for the nuclear industry.

When I compare what independent scientists say about Fukushima with the information given by plant representatives, I am first struck by how official statements are often vague and contradictory. In contrast, independent scientists present evidence and explain what it means in precise terms. They explain why they disagree with official versions. The officials usually brush this evidence aside rather than give credible explanations or evidence for their position.

The same pattern is true for the nuclear industry as a whole. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other industry speakers just tell us to trust them. Those who challenge them give detailed evidence for their positions. The critics of nuclear energy would like to end reliance on nuclear energy, but they usually focus on specific risks which they believe are not being adequately addressed. The questions they raise make sense. Why haven’t nuclear power plants been assessed regularly for their vulnerability to earthquakes as other types of buildings are? Why aren’t plants inspected more regularly and thoroughly, and why aren’t the problems which are found resolved? Why do we assume normal traffic flows would continue if a plant on the outskirts of New York City were to melt down?

Life was easier when we had authorities we could trust. But today we simply don’t. One of the lessons of Fukushima is that accurate knowledge is sometimes hard to establish. We have to learn to critically examine issues and choose carefully which accounts to believe. At the same time we must not let ourselves be caught by the false choice of nuclear power versus costly energy from petroleum and coal.

Information for this article was taken from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Beyond Nuclear, and Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds.

Marilyn Dell Brady
Alpine, Tex.

More deaths from Chernobyl (November 2011 Forum)

On November 1st, 2011 Louis Cox says:

In her article on nuclear power in the July 2011 Friends Journal Karen Street claimed that only 50 to 60 people died as a direct result of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, while only a few thousand cases of cancer could be attributable to residual radiation exposures. Her unnamed source may have been a 2006 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that was immediately challenged by a number of Russian scientists led by Alexey V. Yablokov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

The Russian scientists said that the IAEA/WHO report had grossly underreported the damage from the Chernobyl accident, largely because it reflected the interests of the nuclear industry, who understandably did not want the public to know the full extent of the damage from the Chernobyl accident, which contaminated about 40 percent of the Northern Hemisphere and subjected several million people to unsafe levels of radiation in their food, air, and water.

The Russian scientists focused on three major flaws in the IAEA/WHO report:

1) It includes little or no information about illness and mortality in the general public due to the Chernobyl accident from 1986 through 1989.

2) Those who directed the IAEA/WHO study applied unreasonably restrictive standards of evidence, rejecting all reports of deaths, illnesses, deformities, etc. that could not be linked unambiguously to measured doses of radiation from the accident—ignoring the documented widespread damage and suffering that was occurring over the affected region for which there was no other likely explanation.

3) The IAEA/WHO study includes little or no health information about the hundreds of thousands of residents of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia who were evacuated or who emigrated from that region shortly after the accident, or the workers who were ordered into the accident zone to help contain the radioactive releases, often without adequate protective equipment.

In 2006, the Russian scientists published their own analysis of the long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident, based on thousands of public documents from 20 years of extensive longitudinal human- and environmental -health records from all regions affected by the Chernobyl accident. Systematically comparing health statistics for similar populations within heavily and lightly contaminated regions, they calculated that from 1990 to 2004 many hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, including some 200,000 from Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, had died as a direct result of radionuclide releases from the Chernobyl catastrophe. They also concluded that an even greater number of radiation-related deformities, disabilities, and illnesses, as well as pervasive and long-lasting environmental degradation and disruption, had resulted from the accident. Similar effects are to be expected for many generations to come, given the long half-lives of many of the released radionuclides and their dispersal and bioaccumulation throughout the environment.

The latest results of the ongoing and expanding Russian study were published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009 under the title of Chernobyl—Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, by Alexey V. Yablokov et al. According to this report, the number of deaths worldwide attributable to date to the 1986 Chernobyl accident could be as high as 980,000.

Louis Cox
Charlotte, Vt.

Looking for the ocean of light (December 2011 Forum)

On November 1st, 2011 Muriel Strand says:

I am still looking for the “ocean of light” after reading the items about nuclear power in the August Friends Journal. Science and numbers may be part of the darkness if the light of faith is hidden.

One Friend’s fears of deaths from coal use and climate change exceed her fears of deaths from nuclear power; other Friends’ worries about fossil fuels, including nuclear, outweigh the uncertainties arising from our inevitable return to only using renewable energy, whenever that may happen.

Although I am an engineer and scientist, all the numbers about various risks do end up making my eyes glaze over too. As with Bjorn Lomborg’s arguments based solely on the parameter of deaths that are likely to happen sooner than otherwise, debates about numbers sidestep the real basis for decisions—feelings and values.

I would like to thresh, with Friends, more about the quality of lives and less about the inevitability of deaths. My own attempt to discern the light of faith in the nuclear power debate can be found at:

But to return to the looming darkness of climate change, there really aren’t any ready solutions or easy paths left. It is not a fear but a fact that we can’t really protect ourselves from nature, whether earthquake, lightning, hurricanes, or ourselves. Ancient Greece’s warnings about hubris are echoed in the story of the Tower of Babel, a widely ignored bit of liturgy.

Sociobiology offers a larger perspective than statistics or engineering. E.O. Wilson has described two approaches to fruitfulness and reproduction, opportunistic vs. stable. In reality, these are not mutually exclusive; however, opportunistic strategies of numerous offspring and minimal parental input are especially suited to conditions of chaos and the emptiness that appears after sudden upsets. Nature abhors a vacuum, and many opportunistic species and strategies stand ready to fill any wide open spaces that appear.

And the appearance of intensive fossil fuel use in the U.S., Europe, and increasingly elsewhere is a sudden upset on the geological and evolutionary time scales, if rather less on the scale of one human lifetime. Possession of these powerful energy sources has caused an opportunistic and chaotic increase in human populations and in energy use, rather like the algae bloom that grows near agricultural run-off and soon dies from lack of oxygen. Possession of these substances has led us into an addictive trap. Let us not underestimate the power of this addiction, which has reduced human power to the value of a few pennies at best, when competing directly with $4 per gallon of gasoline.

Threats to this addiction, such as climate change or the depletion of our energy slaves, bring back the threat of class war, whose battles include the Civil War and the New Deal. Cheap fossil fuels have allowed a temporary truce. But all growth confronts diminishing marginal returns. Threats to this addiction are also an opportunity to notice that intensive fossil fuel use has warped our lifestyles as much as our use of them has warped nature. The list only grows of our discomfits and diseases, caused by living in very different ways than we have been evolved to live. Now almost everyone lives in a speedy city rather than a stable village, and people are more or less stressed, overweight, malnourished, sedentary, lonely, etc., leading to a lifestyle of attention deficit, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. Some say there are fates worse than death. How unhealthy or unhappy must our lifestyles be to qualify?

At Pacific Yearly Meeting last summer, I humbly joined the daily 12-step group and confessed for the first time my fossil fuel addiction. In truth, I really don’t know how to actually stop using. Except to keep giving up more bits and pieces of my lifestyle that use these fuels. Do I need to drive to meeting today, or can I ride my bike today? Do I need to (let my landscaper) use machines with engines or motors to cheaply manicure my yard and keep my property values up? Do I need air conditioning? Do I need to stop driving rather than use bio-fuels to drive my car so that a bug can eat that corn instead?

How much space do other species need to have so that the web of nature can afford to support me? How can I find my share of clean air, water, and of healthy food in the lightest and least selfish way? What if I must lose my life in order to find it? Are these questions of science or of values? I would rather talk about the values, because while science may inform a decision it cannot make one.

But cheap fossil fuels—and even expensive ones—are very addictive, very toxic. Can we find the ocean of light while we are afraid of losing these fuels’ power? Can we only quit cold turkey? Can we choose nonviolence in the face of nature’s backlash? Can we choose healthy pleasure? One day at a time?

Muriel Strand
Sacramento, Calif.

The wish for safe solutions (December 2011 Forum)

On November 1st, 2011 Mary Gilbert says:

I read with interest and misgiving Karen Street’s article “Ocean of Light” in the August issue of Friends Journal, promoting nuclear power.

Karen says, “Far too many (journalists) rejected the explanations of experts in nuclear power, whom they saw as biased.” When I look at the behavior of multinational corporations in general I see that the Business-As-Usual (BAU) drive for profit seems to have replaced a sense of community, and works against seeing the world as a partnership of living systems that interact to enable life and health. Should experts from within the field of nuclear power be trusted more than experts in other areas of the corporate world? The same profit motive operates in the nuclear industry as in other polluting industries (chemical, fossil fuel).

I quote Karen again: “Design flaws in the current Generation II reactors that have been fixed in the new Gen III+ US construction of BGen III+ will begin . . . at the Vogtle plant.” Assurances of safety and problems solved are just as unreliable from the nuclear power industry as from other polluters.

I will resist the temptation to argue about the ongoing dangers of the Fukushima tragedy, except to say that it has been “upgraded” to a level 7 nuclear accident, a status previously held only by Chernoble. The plant has released 15,000 terabecquerels of cancer-causing Cesium, equivalent to about 168 times the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The radioactive core in one of the reactors has melted through the floor of the reactor, and I have seen photos of radioactive steam pouring out of the ground nearby. This means there is radioactive pollution of the groundwater. Emissions from Fukushima have lessened but are ongoing, and no-one knows how to clean it up.

I want to raise instead the question of the impacts of building these nuclear power plants and getting them on line.

• Huge cost overruns are standard. The old reactor at Vogtle (mentioned above) cost more than 400 times the original estimate. I have read that high cost will be the factor that stops the growth of nuclear power.

• Commercial insurance companies will not underwrite them. All accident costs are absorbed by the public, namely us.

• The plants are very slow to get on-line, along the lines of 10 to 15 years.

• Huge amounts of energy are needed, both to extract materials used to build them, and to do the building itself.

• The financial and environmental costs of mining uranium to fuel the plants continues as long as the plants run.

• Once we have committed to building them we are locked into a very expensive infrastructure, yielding profit for the few.

• Money diverted to these plants is not available for other uses.

Any money intended for solving our energy problems should instead be directed in two ways. First, it should support research and development, including subsidies to companies that are involved and to ordinary power users, on genuinely sustainable energy sources, like wind, small hydro, solar, and geothermal. There are many advantages to having multiple, decentralized sources of energy. Second, it should support widespread conversion to energy efficiency. Replacing, retrofitting, new green energy buildings, public transportation, and so on can reduce energy use significantly. I agree with Karen that strong, fear-based wishes are not reliable guides. I think the wish for a safe solution makes it hard for some of us to resist arguments that nuclear power is safe. It’s not.

Mary Gilbert
Friends Meeting at Cambridge
Quaker Earthcare Witness representative to the UN

Karen Street responds

On November 10th, 2011 Karen Street says:

This is a longer version of the December 2011 Forum. It began as an answer to Pinayur Rajagopal, and grew. Some additional information has been added to the main text. An appendix addresses a number of points raised in letters. I apologize for the length, but as I have learned over the years, among those who oppose nuclear power, there is disagreement about what is important, and letter writers present very different concerns. Much thanks to Martin Kelley for putting all of these on one (very long) web page.

The information that surprised me most is the answer to this question: How does the danger from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors compare to other health dangers, such as Tokyo pollution?

****************************** There were a number of responses to Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Power in Japan. The majority of the article, and all links, were posted online. Check it out!

It is long past time for Friends to begin a conversation on nuclear power and the much larger issue of how we know what to believe. Many among us insist that what is overwhelmingly the safest of the large sources of electricity should meet standards that no other energy source meets. Many Friends insist that the scientific community is lying about the safety of nuclear power. And overwhelmingly, we as a community insist that solutions to climate change be only the ones we like, even when scientists and policy experts find these solutions partial or even counterproductive.

Our simplicity testimony calls for removing obstacles to walking joyfully with God. At the best of times, this is a challenge. Today, there can be little joy in the most optimistic scenarios for climate change. Additionally, our integrity queries don’t seem to raise some vital questions: everyone’s wrong, a lot. When am I wrong? How would I learn that I am wrong, that like-minded people are wrong? A single standard of truth does not mean checking on the web to confirm our hopes and fears.

Several letters comment on information sources. As Marilyn Dell Brady points out, “truth exists…but we need to find ways to choose between conflicting accounts.” Since many sources seem to disagree, she selects those she identifies as independent of the nuclear industry, which has “a stake in minimizing risks.” Unfortunately, these sources ignore peer review, e.g., Union of Concerned Scientists, Beyond Nuclear, and Arnie Gundersen. She complains that “official statements are often vague and contradictory,” implying that her sources are clear and in agreement, a hard case to make, in my view. Louis Cox cites a report published in the NY Academy of Sciences Annals (NYAS), and identified there as not peer reviewed, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”, which Pinayur Rajagopal also wants addressed. Donna Williams compares the integrity of my sources with tobacco industry sources. When Big Tobacco suppressed their research to protect their interests, the public was protected by academic scientists, who published in sources like the ones I choose.

There is a mainstream academic scientific community with rigorous traditions for discernment and restrictive standards of evidence. The work of this community is essential for governments and industry to perform well. Advocacy groups may or may not rely on mainstream science, depending on how well it supports the dominant view of the group. Such groups, from Sierra Club to Fox News, may turn instead to a larger community of scientists, researchers and analysts, citing work which has not been submitted to or vetted by mainstream scientists, including the sources cited in the letters above.

I get my information from the community of scientists who begin with peer review, a necessary but not sufficient condition. I usually skip early stages of discernment and rely instead on major reports based on information and models that have survived challenge. Errors in these reports are discussed in journals likeScience—major errors of understanding such as the attack on the National Academy of Sciences report on protecting salmon, or smaller errors, such as one place in a several hundred page report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said “very likely” instead of the more accurate “likely”. Disagreements among experts in this community are laid out clearly, e.g., predictions about sea level rise this century. Experts in the peer review community disagree far less than many in the public believe. The disagreement many in the public perceive around controversial science issues generally comes from self-styled experts who share directly with the public information that has not undergone scientific discernment. No one argues that science proves Truth, but it removes a number of possibilities from the list, for instance, the idea that somehow, without expanding nuclear power, catastrophic climate change can be averted.

If the mainstream scientific community disagreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)report on Chernobyl, Science or/and other major journals would have provided a forum for the discussion. They do not routinely do this for lower level reports and almost never address non-peer-reviewed reports. The lack of discussion in Science, etc., makes it clear that scientists don’t take seriously the NYAS report. NYAS is not unique in making embarrassing mistakes—Lancet took 12 years to apologize for an article on MMR vaccines which should never have been published.

We have heard many Friends accuse two United Nations organizations of lying (IAEA and World Health Organization, WHO), as well as many thousands of mainstream scientists who failed to criticize the IAEA report on Chernobyl. The appendix in the article, Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Power in Japan, devotes quite a bit of space to contrasting how scientists, versus those like Greenpeace, calculate the effects of Chernobyl on health, and I invite you to read more there. Peer review of either the Greenpeace or NYAS report would have caught deaths attributed to radioactivity which are not linked in any other study.

It is very hard to hear how serious climate change is today, very hard to listen, in part because the most optimistic scenario is awful. Some of us, perhaps those who fly or drive a lot, may have feelings of guilt which interfere with listening. I suspect that most eyes glaze over when reading what is happening and likely to happen due to climate change, such as dustbowls on every inhabited continent, or that flooding is likely to increase dramatically, killing many thousands each year, making hundreds of thousands homeless, and leading to mass starvation.

Even when Friends grasp the seriousness of climate change, even when we accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that its causes include human activity and its effects include widespread illness, death and social disorder, as well as species extinction, some cling to preferred solutions, rejecting nuclear power based on incomplete information, unreliable reports, and long-held convictions. This response is only human, but climate change requires us to reach beyond.

It is time to hold ourselves in the light, to lovingly examine why so much of Friends discussion is counter to scientific understanding, and to the solutions so vital to addressing climate change.

Appendix—Other concerns raised in responses to the articleFirst, a correction to the appendix in the article:

Physical half-life of cesium is 2 years for Cs-134 and 30 years for Cs-137. However, even in the absence of remediation, ecological half-life is less. In real ecosystems, cesium disappears more rapidly, at a rate that depends on soil characteristics. A recent report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found, “a relatively fast decrease with a half-life of between 0.7 and 1.8 years (this dominated for the first 4–6 years after the [Chernobyl] accident, and led to a reduction of concentrations in plants by about an order of magnitude compared with 1987); and (b) a slower decrease with a half-life of between 7 and 60 years.” In some areas, no decline was found after the first 4–6 years. (pp 76-7) At the end of one year, from 37 – 65% of the cesium remains. After 4 – 6 years, from 3 – 20% of the cesium remains.

Now to the letters.

On the non-peer reviewed report published for a while by NY Academy of Sciences

New York Academy of Sciences has posted a highly critical review by M. I. Balonov; his sources are primarily United Nations organizations. According to Balonov, two of the three authors of the original report, V.B. Nesterenko and A.V. Nesterenko, encouraged the use of pectin to reduce radionuclide content in children, although there is no evidence that this works.

Neither Alexey V. Yablokov, the first-listed author of the NYAS report, nor his organization Center for Russian Environmental Policy, can be found at Wikipedia. Sourcewatch says that Yablokov was a member of the USSR parliament, and environmental advisor to Yeltsin, and that “he pioneered the application of ‘phenetic’ marks (the smallest differences in anatomical structures such as the difference in ear shape on the two sides of a person) to the detection of animal population structure and environmental stress.” Yablokov has published as well on the effects of pesticides, showing perhaps an astounding breadth of scientific expertise, but more likely, a willingness to publish outside his field of expertise.

We don’t know that the Sourcewatch accusation is accurate, nor is it easy to find information in English to establish Yablokov or other authors as particularly trustworthy. While those invited to join the U.S. National Academy of Sciences are highly respected, in the former Soviet Union, entire fields of research ranked from among the most respected in the world (in some fields of geology) to not taken seriously outside the highly politicized Soviet hierarchy (much of biology). None of the authors is well known to us in the West, and it is a poor assumption that a small group of who avoid peer review is more trustworthy than the scientific establishment.

Dangers of Climate Change

• Paul Manglgesdorf, Jr, in a letter that I otherwise agree with, says that I “identify “climate change” as the simple total of deaths due to disease, floods, landslides, and starvation” and ignore a constant baseline.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 2 addresses the effects of climate change. Inchapter 8, section they discuss the World Health Organization report I mention:

“The World Health Organization conducted a regional and global comparative risk assessment to quantify the amount of premature morbidity and mortality due to a range of risk factors, including climate change, and to estimate the benefit of interventions to remove or reduce these risk factors. In the year 2000, climate change is estimated to have caused the loss of over 150,000 lives and 5,500,000 [disability adjusted life years] (0.3% of deaths and 0.4% of DALYs, respectively). The assessment also addressed how much of the future burden of climate change could be avoided by stabilising greenhouse gas emissions. The health outcomes included were chosen based on known sensitivity to climate variation, predicted future importance, and availability of quantitative global models (or the feasibility of constructing them):

• episodes of diarrhoeal disease,

• cases of Plasmodium falciparum malaria,

• fatal accidental injuries in coastal floods and inland floods/landslides,

• the non-availability of recommended daily calorie intake (as an indicator for the prevalence of malnutrition)

Limited adjustments for adaptation were included in the estimates.”

Climate change is responsible for <1% of deaths and DALYs from these causes in 2000. For example, some 600,000 deaths occur yearly due to weather-related natural disasters, 95% in poor countries. You can link directly to the study from the WHO site, which includes a map of increased deaths per million. These range from 0 – 2 in much of the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, to 60 – 120 in parts of Africa.

Many believe that we in the rich world will really hear that climate change is killing people when it becomes a more important cause of death, and closer to home. Perhaps. After 2000, climate events have occurred in areas we pay more attention to, such as the European heat wave of 2003, “likely linked to climate change”, which killed 35,000 (IPCC WG2, Box 8.1). The extreme heat wave in Moscow in 2010, which killed thousands, is given an 80% chance of being caused by global warming.

Deaths due to climate change will continue to increase. By 2020, rice productivity in parts of Asia may decline 10% due to higher nighttime temperatures (rice is the single most important source of calories worldwide), and food productivity in parts of Africa that depend on rain-fed agriculture may decline 50% (IPCC Working Group 2). Temperature and precipitation extremes, such as drought leading to a 99% decline in rice production in Australia, a major rice exporter, are expected to become increasingly important.

Cost of nuclear power, and cost of the Fukushima accident

• Brady says that “the cost of the disaster will be astronomical.”

The following information comes from the World Nuclear Association, Fukushima Accident 2011 page. The numbers they provide are mainstream thinking, all on one page, and easier to follow than IAEA. WNA updates their information regularly—this information was posted November 1, 2011.

The cost of the accident is expected to be many tens of billions, including compensation to those who evacuated. Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) will borrow $62 billion, and repay it over 10 – 13 years; other nuclear utilities will help a little. Tepco expects the cost of electricity to increase $13 billion/year over the next decade due to greater use of fossil fuels. (Other utilities must bear an increased cost for electricity production as well, due to reluctance to restart reactors shut down during the earthquake; the increased cost of electricity appears to be the majority of the accident costs.) Additionally, Japan has committed to spending $1.2 billion over 30+ years, primarily to provide health care to the 2 million residents of Fukushima prefecture, but also to conduct a long-term epidemiological study.

• Mary Gilbert makes a number of economic assertions. “Huge cost overruns are standard. The old reactor at Vogtle… cost more than 400 times the original estimate. I have read that high cost will be the factor that stops the growth of nuclear power.” Yes, the old method of separately approving construction and licensing stretched out the process during the time Vogtle Units 1 and 2 were built; reactors of that era suffered delays from protests, and even longer delays as Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) improved regulations after Three Mile Island. The cost of money was high during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the price of many plants was much more than projected. Additional costs were added over the years as NRC required new concerns to be addressed. Overall, NRC’s focus on safety led to nuclear reactors operating much more of the time, and industry profited from regulations imposed for safety. I assume by 400 times, Gilbert means 400% (4 times). The final cost for Units 1 and 2 was $8.87 billion, and an initial estimate of $10 million each is doubtful, even accounting for high inflation rates which doubled or tripled apparent costs between proposal and completion.

It is true that if nuclear reactors cost significantly more or take longer to produce than manufacturers predict, or if quality is poor, demand for new nuclear will fall. Yet even in the well-publicized case of the Areva Generation III+ reactor being built in Finland, with very public discussions of cost overruns and delays for Unit 3, Finland in 2010 approved Areva for Unit 4.

• Gilbert says, “Commercial insurance companies will not underwrite [nuclear reactors]. All accident costs are absorbed by the public, namely us.” I assume she is referring to the Price-Anderson Act, which was addressed in some detail in a previous article, A Friends Path to Nuclear Power. Basically, companies must buy maximum insurance on their reactors (in 2011, this is $375 million per reactor). After that, all companies are responsible for a nuclear accident anywhere; in 2011, Price-Anderson liability for the utilities in event of any U.S. accident anywhere is $12.6 billion (up to $111.9 million per reactor). After that, government is responsible, or Congress can retroactively increase the nuclear industry’s liability. To date, the public has contributed no money.

• Gilbert says, “The plants are very slow to get on-line, along the lines of 10 to 15 years.” If this turns out to be true, the cost of new nuclear power will be much higher and it will not be an attractive option. Construction is expected to begin for the new Vogtle plants in early 2012, and commercial operation is expected in 2016 (Unit 3) and 2017 (Unit 4). (They are the first Gen III+ plants built in the U.S. and delays may occur.) Southern Company began with an application, submitted in 2004. (The paper-shuffling portion of the process will definitely speed up after NRC gains confidence and experience with Gen III+, and utilities gain experience.) In August 2009, excavation began after Southern received a limited work authorization. Technically, Vogtle Units 3 and 4 will be under construction for 4+ years (from 2012 to 2016 for Unit 3); perhaps the 2 years of safety and excavation work could be included as well. Counting the paper work may be unfair.

• She also says, “Huge amounts of energy are needed, both to extract materials used to build them, and to do the building itself. The financial and environmental costs of mining uranium to fuel the plants continues as long as the plants run. Once we have committed to building them we are locked into a very expensive infrastructure, yielding profit for the few.”

All three statements are correct. However, the life cycle costs of energy, greenhouse gas emissions/kWh, and the environmental impacts of the mining are comparable to or smaller than the GHG and other environmental impacts of other sources of energy. (Life cycle costs are calculated from mining to decay, hundreds of thousands of years from now.) There was a long discussion of these points in another Friends Journal article, The Nuclear Energy Debate Among Friends: Another Round. Readers may also wish to listen to Per Peterson’s talk comparing inputs needed for nuclear, coal, natural gas, and wind, or link to the data summary on my blog post.

The final statement contains two truths. First, nuclear has very expensive infrastructure (not nearly as expensive /kWh as wind and solar, however). Second, investors expect to make a profit. Customers’ bills are lower with nuclear power compared to natural gas, so we can perhaps say that while only a few make a profit, many profit from the use of nuclear power.

• Gilbert finishes by saying, “Money diverted to these plants is not available for other uses,” and then advocates that the money for nuclear power instead fund research and development for, and subsidies of, various renewable energy sources, and replacing and retrofitting buildings, and funding public transportation. I am puzzled by the idea that unsubsidized nuclear is too expensive, but subsidized renewables are not. Renewables are also part of the climate change solution; some of their costs and limitations are discussed in other articles such as The Nuclear Energy Debate Among Friends: Another Round. Bottom line—enormous amounts of low-greenhouse gas electricity are needed in the U.S. and the world, even if efficiency is introduced at the high pace policy experts recommend, and neither nuclear nor more expensive renewables will be sufficient, alone or together.

New reactors in the U.S.

Along with the cost question I often hear confusion about whether new U.S. nuclear power is planned. Nuclear build seems to be occurring below the public radar. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finished Unit 1 in Browns Ferry in 2007 at a cost of $1.9 billion, and saved $800 million the first year. TVA began construction in 2007 on Watts Bar 2, which had been abandoned in 1988 as demand for electric power increased more slowly than expected. When construction is complete, likely in 2012, TVA plans to begin construction on Bellefonte 1, where construction was also abandoned. These two plants never operated, so are considered new reactors. All three reactors are the same generation as other U.S. nuclear power plants, generation II. Vogtle Units 3 and 4, the first two Gen III+ reactors in the U.S., are expected to begin construction in 2012, and to begin operation in 2016 and 2017, although there may be delays for first of a kind. Construction of Gen III+ reactors for Virgil C. Summer Units 2 and 3 are expected to begin next year as well, with commercial operation expected in 2016 and 2019. Because these reactors are Westinghouse AP1000, more of the work is done at the factory, and delays are likely to be fewer. While these are first-of-a-kind reactors for NRC, they are not for Westinghouse, which has already shipped units to China.

Many wondering whether to go with nuclear power will be watching to see whether a high-quality reactor is produced close to the cost and time Westinghouse announced.

The AP1000 has a number of advantages over Gen II reactors. By doing so much of the construction at the factory, costs are expected to be lower and quality higher. New reactors use more passive safety mechanisms. For example, if the reactor becomes too hot, cooling begins automatically, and can continue 72 hours without operator control.

Living lighter on the planet

Williams “unplugged [her] drier to hang [her] laundry in the sunshine which is plentiful, cheap, local, and adds nothing to the carbon footprint”. Muriel Strand is looking at her “fossil fuel addiction”, trying to live more consciously, and reconsidering choices. Good!!! to both, and to all attempting to live in a manner consistent with our values. I, too, never use a dryer. I don’t fly, and I am in a car about 200 miles/year. I do this for myself—I want my life to testify to my values, and believe climate change is important.

Unfortunately, people in energy policy say that behavior change will be as important a solution to climate change as voluntary smog checks were to cleaning up Los Angeles air. This is because few are motivated to sacrifice much for the common good. (Luckily, many of us don’t see our choices as sacrifices, but reflections of our values, and we often see our choices lead to greater health and happiness, independent of any benefit to the environment.) Also, the details are confusing (is fish better than meat? How much of a difference will this flight make?) and the flesh may be weak. Many want solutions to be what they want solutions to be, but how important to climate change is eating organic? Locavore? Buying green?

Looking at our own behavior is an important unit in my classes and workshops, but I see no reason to doubt policy experts on their pessimism that this will help much. For every person I know who no longer flies, I know several who fly long distances for short vacations. And as much as I have reduced my own greenhouse gas emissions, it isn’t enough—the goal is to reduce by 2050 per capita emissions worldwide below 5% of current U.S. levels.

What happened at Fukushima? How dangerous was it?

We should know more soon about actual exposures to the public—Japan is examining the thyroids of all residents of Fukushima Prefecture under 18 at the time of the accident (360,000), and testing all residents of Fukushima Prefecture (2 million) for exposure dose. Additionally, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) plans a report in late 2012 on how much radioactivity was released to the atmosphere and ocean, and exposures to both workers and the public.

• Brady says, “The reactors were damaged by the quake itself, not merely from the tsunami. Their cores experienced meltdown and fuel pools were damaged. Bits of plutonium were found 45 miles from Fukushima.” Gilbert says, “The plant has released 15,000 terabecquerels of cancer-causing Cesium, equivalent to about 168 times the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The radioactive core in one of the reactors has melted through the floor of the reactor, and I have seen photos of radioactive steam pouring out of the ground nearby. This means there is radioactive pollution of the groundwater. Emissions from Fukushima have lessened but are ongoing, and no-one knows how to clean it up.”

According to Fukushima Accident 2011, and other sources I have read, the reactors appear to have survived the earthquake (a postmortem in a decade+ may show this is not true). The cores of all three operating reactors did melt, and much of the gases (volatile fission products) escaped; the rest was contained. Significant radioactivity was released. Radioactivity can cause cancer, as can air pollution. Unit 4 fuel pool experienced damage to both building structure and plumbing during the earthquake. Some fuel rods may have been damaged. Radiation release from the spent fuel pools was small. (One team found evidence of extensive radiation release from Unit 4 fuel pool, but other evidence, such as the appearance of the fuel rods, appears to contradict this conclusion.) Most of the melted corium (fuel and control rods) is assumed to be at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessels, although in Unit 1, melted corium may have reached containment drywall. Small amounts of strontium and plutonium were also released, though most plutonium at all sites comes from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

It is not clear how Gilbert knows that the groundwater has been polluted or that the steam is radioactive. One challenge of writing on a current event is that information is out of date almost as soon as it is typed. As of November 2, “Temperatures and pressures at all the damaged reactors at Fukushima have been stable and declining for several months, and all are now far below the target temperature of 100ºC: units 1, 2 and 3 are at 59.4ºC, 76.3ºC and 71ºC respectively. Airborne radioactive emissions from the site have dropped to within normal operating limits.” In April, a roadmap was created for the first 6-9 months of cleanup; with revisions, of course, the expectation is that the first stage of cleanup will be completed this year. Many of the details of the long-term cleanup will be a challenge, but “no-one knows how to clean it up” may overstate the case.

• Brady says, “radiation releases were much larger, more widespread, and more dangerous than the Japanese government or the officials of the plant initially revealed… Food and water are contaminated. Ocean radiation is triple what we were told.”

There is no question that the release of radiation was larger, more widespread, and more dangerous than the Japanese government or Tepco initially announced. Some of this was the challenge of learning what is happening in a confusing situation when the government has other concerns (>20,000 dead and >100,000 homeless), mistranslations (“white smoke” is the Japanese term for “steam”, “undeniable” means “can’t prove one way of the other”), and slower reporting of data than we are used to.

How radioactive is the area near the Daiichi reactors? How dangerous is it? How does the danger compare to other health dangers, such as air pollution?

There are still disagreements about the total amount of radiation released. One team produced an estimate twice that of the Japanese government for Cs-137, explaining that the Japanese paid less attention to the radioactivity blown into the ocean (if they are correct, radioactivity released into the ocean may be more than triple early estimates). Yet, “[t]he differences between the two studies may seem large, notes Yukio Hayakawa, a volcanologist at Gunma University who has also modelled the accident, but uncertainties in the models mean that the estimates are actually quite similar.” The xenon-133 release mentioned by the team makes sense; according to one author at a UC, Berkeley discussion page, 100% of noble gaseswere likely released. (The Xe-133 numbers were ignored in media accounts because they have no biological effect.) No matter how large the total release, the only sites with important levels of radioactivity are within a few miles of the Daiichi reactors.

Radiation in and near the Evacuation Zone

Map from; go here for a bigger map. For more data, go here. To convert from microsievert (µSv)/hour to millisievert (mSv)/year, multiply by 8766 hours/year; divide by 1,000 to change µSv to mSv. (See appendix in the article for an explanation of units and radioactivity; sievert is a measure of dose equivalent.) Then, take half-life into account. Since half of the cesium is Cs-134, the ecological half-life should be short. If it is one year, half will be gone at the end of the year, so multiply by 72% (0.72) for cumulative exposure for the year. For example, Namie town, 24 km (14.5 miles) northwest of the reactor, had the highest reading outside the 20 km exclusion zone, 33 µSv/hour. If this rate remained constant, a person would receive a dose equivalent of 290 mSv/year. The actual dose equivalent will be closer to 200 mSv. This is clearly too high. At this level, 1% of victims of Hiroshima/Nagasaki ended up dying from cancer (see article appendix for the controversy about low dose rate).

Discussions of contamination danger are challenging because motivations for standards vary. Sometimes there is a health standard—EPA reduced allowed levels of arsenic in drinking water so that in the population drinking that water, fewer than 0.1% (1 in 1,000) die from cancer as a result. Some standards are As Low as Reasonably Achievable: radioactivity from nuclear power plants is regulated because it is cheap. EPA does not regulate coal power plants, which produce 100 x as much radioactivity/kWh, because of cost. No health effects have been detected at these levels. (If EPA did regulate radioactivity release from fossil fuels, the main effect would be reducing emissions of much more serious pollutants.)

So action levels depend on a number of factors, including cost, but also public concern. Japan is cleaning up areas far less radioactive than Denver and much of Finland which have above average but not particularly high levels of radioactivity (>10 mSv/year). Japan had planned to reduce the extra radioactivity from Fukushima to as little as 1 mSv/year (to a total of about 4 mSv); IAEA suggests instead “realistic and credible limits”. See appendix to the original article for more on natural background radiation around the world.

Tokyo water reached 210 becquerel/liter, and children drank bottled water for a few days. The European standard is 1,000 Bq/liter. In Tavistock, UK, drinking water can be as much as 6,500 Bq/liter. (Becquerel is a measure of decay rate, see appendix to article.)

I don’t know how Japanese standards compare on food, although, as the appendix to the original article notes, it would require quite a bit of banned spinach to get to CAT scan levels. For those wishing to read more, the Japanese government has provided information on drinking water, seafood, milk, and meat and eggs. There is a summary here; in Fukushima prefecture, 12,375 food samples were tested and 472 rejected due to radioactivity. Nationwide, 48,773 food samples were tested and 862 rejected. More information can be found here.

• Brady says, “Radiation rates were far above acceptable levels miles beyond the 12-mile evacuation zone. Children outside the evacuation zone have received dosages above those acceptable for nuclear workers.”

The numbers affected are high; tens of thousands have returned home, tens of thousands won’t be allowed home until the end of 2011 (when the reactors will be in cold shutdown), and thousands live in areas proposed for long-term evacuation. Since the Japanese limit to members of the public is 20 mSv, I’m not sure why Brady believes anyone has already received dose equivalents above 50 mSv, except perhaps farmers near the plant who refused to evacuate. We will know more after the Japanese survey.

How does the 20 mSv limit compare to living in Tokyo air pollution?

Here I will ignore fear of radioactivity, which IAEA deems more of a danger to public health than the radioactivity itself. When Chinese, who live in one of the most polluted nations on Earth, search for protection from tiny amounts of radioactivity, when people across the Pacific Ocean do the same, it is important to find ways to communicate actual numbers and their importance.

Iodine is in a category by itself, as discussed in the appendix to the original article. The largest radioactivity release that has a biological effect is I-131. It targets the thyroid, which weighs less than 1 ounce—the dose equivalent to many thyroids after Chernobyl was enormous.

People in public health use a number of very different units to describe health dangers. Fortunately, a 2007 report in BMC Public Health, Are passive smoking, air pollution and obesity a greater mortality risk than major radiation incidents?, uses similar metrics, allowing us to compare health risks. Most of the information that follows comes from that report.

We are exposed to radioactivity all the time. The model used in Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII predicts that natural background radioactivity worldwide has a 1% mortality rate (230 out of 1,000 Americans die from cancer, and 10 of those die from natural radioactivity). Note: all attempts to find a higher cancer rate in areas with high background radioactivity have been unsuccessful to date; for example, the 2.7 million in Denver receive a dose equivalent of >10 mSv/year, >700 mSv over 70 years. Using Table 1 from the BMC report, cancer mortality would be predicted to be 2.5% higher in the Denver area (cancer deaths would be about 255 out of 1,000) than in areas where background is closer to 3 mSv/year, 210 mSv over 70 years. But both cancer rate and mortality are lower in the Denver area. The increase in Denver, about 500 mSv over 70 years, is double the exposure of those who evacuated from the Chernobyl exclusion zone and then returned. The discrepancy between prediction and observation occurs because the risk from low doses or low dose rates are overstated or/and because other factors, such as the number of smokers, are more important.

The BMC report looks at effects of air pollution, particularly PM2.5, particulates smaller than 2.5 microns (one millionth of a meter). (Other important pollutants, such as ozone, are ignored; a recent study shows that decreasing U.S. ozone levels 35% would save 4,000 lives each year.) Central London (12.9 microgram/m3 air) is more polluted than Inverness (6 µg/ m3), and, according to Table 2, an estimated 2.8%, 28 more out of every 1000 people, die from air pollution in Central London. In Los Angeles(population 13 million), PM2.5 levels vary from 5.2 to 26.9 ?g/m3, with a mean of 20.3. In Tokyo, the PM2.5 level is 23 µg/ m3, so 4% more of the population, 40 more out of every thousand, die from air pollution in Tokyo than in Central London, 68 more than in Inverness. This means that if a person receives a dose high enough to get acute radiation syndrome, 1,000 mSv in one burst, and doesn’t die from it, the increased risk of dying from the exposure is less than from Tokyo air pollution. This is an apples and oranges comparison, a one-time accident and a lifetime of living in a polluted city.

To compare apples and apples, a year in Tokyo air pollution (PM2.5 only) is predicted to have the same effect on human health as 24 mSv dose equivalent (assuming that low dose rates are dangerous at this level; it is known that PM2.5 has important health effects well below levels found in Central London). The most polluted areas of LA, compared to the least polluted, have a health effect similar to 31 mSv/year.Large swaths of the world have PM2.5 levels between 50 and 80 µg/m3; compared to Inverness, one year in such an area is predicted to have an effect on human health equivalent to 65 – 110 mSv/year.

The BMC report conclusion: “The increased mortality rate of the populations most affected by the Chernobyl accident may be comparable to (and possibly lower than) risks from elevated exposure to air pollution or environmental tobacco smoke. It is probably surprising to many (not least the affected populations themselves) that people still living unofficially in the abandoned lands around Chernobyl may actually have a lower health risk from radiation than they would have if they were exposed to the air pollution health risk in a large city such as nearby Kiev.”

Since Japan has laws to reduce Tokyo air pollution, clearly the 20 mSv standard does make sense. The most radioactive areas in the 20 or so miles outside the Daiichi plant may take a few years, in the absence of remediation, to become as safe as Tokyo. The great majority of the evacuated zone is already less dangerous. Since 36 million live in Tokyo, the effects of Tokyo pollution are far greater.

Disasters such as we are seeing at the Daiichi plant create temporary dangers, and we feel particularly unhappy when human failings are partly or wholly responsible. However, the intense focus on nuclear dangers distracts us from attending to other dangers, and can help us feel safe with our other choices, from fossil fuel to hydropower.

And then there is climate change. Besides the cost of coal and natural gas, a coal power plant requires one metric ton coal /2,700 kWh, and produces about 3 metric tons carbon dioxide. If the 6 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, 4,700 MW, assuming a capacity factor 80%, were replaced with coal power, 12 million metric tons of coal would be burned each year, and >35 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released. Liquefied natural gas kills fewer members of the public and workers from direct pollution and accidents, and produces about half as much carbon dioxide, but it is much more costly.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

• Brady asks, “Why haven’t nuclear power plants been assessed regularly for their vulnerability to earthquakes as other types of buildings are? Why aren’t plants inspected more regularly and thoroughly and why aren’t the problems which are found resolved?” Asked differently, how often does Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) update its regulations on nuclear power plants? How effective is NRC?

NRC updates regulations periodically— in response to new information (such as Three Mile Island and Fukushima), problems that appear in nuclear reactors over time, and concerns that arise from ongoing analysis. For example, NRC “began assessing the safety implications of increased plant earthquake hazards in 2005 when the staff recommended examining the new CEUS earthquake hazard information under the Generic Issues Program (GIP). The NRC staff identified the issue as GI-199 and completed a limited scope screening analysis for the seismic issue in December 2007, to decide whether additional review is needed. The screening compared the new seismic data with earlier seismic evaluations conducted by the NRC staff. This analysis confirmed that operating nuclear power plants remain safe with no need for immediate action. The assessment also found that, although overall seismic risk remains low, some seismic hazard estimates have increased and warrant further attention. In September 2010, NRC issued a Safety/Risk Assessment report and an Information Notice ( to inform stakeholders of the assessment results.” (Bold from NRC)

North Anna’s two reactors in Virginia shut down during the earthquake August 23. All reactors are designed for worst-case scenarios in their local area, and then overdesigned. (In recent years, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, awareness has increased that in some areas, maximum shaking might be worse than expected.) NRC responded to its own question in a blog post, How Long Will the NRC Keep North Anna Shut Down?, “The short answer is: The North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia will remain shut down until the NRC is satisfied the plant’s operator, Dominion, has proven the plant’s two reactors can operate safely.” This behavior is typical. Because North Anna is the first U.S. operating nuclear reactor to experience shaking exceeding design specifications, NRC is doing a thorough review although there is no evidence of problems.

In a recent example in another area, flood production, NRC directed Omaha Public Power District in 2010 to provide written procedures for worst-case flood protection, and OPPD improved flood protection, after protesting that it was unnecessary, in time for the longest duration flood ever of a U.S. nuclear power plant.

All three reactors at the Browns Ferry plant were closed by NRC in 1985 for a variety of non-compliance issues. It took 6 years before TVA was allowed to restart Unit 2, another 4 years to restart Unit 3. The decision to rebuild Unit 1 was made in 2002, and it began operating in 2007.

Similarly, Millstone units 1 and 2 were closed in 1996 because of a leaking valve. NRC conducted a thorough study and found a number of other problems.

NRC mandated a number of upgrades to the Mark 1 containment system well before Fukushima, some after Three Mile Island and some because ongoing analysis showed potential problems. Etc.

Sometimes I hear concerns that NRC doesn’t implement new regulations yesterday. Here a nuclear criticcomplains that NRC cuts back on solutions that don’t work (and replaces them with solutions that do work). Others of us like NRC’s style: enough analysis to make sure of proposed solutions.

Nuclear power can and will be made safer

Nuclear power is not perfectly safe, and cannot be made perfectly safe. The Fukushima meltdowns revealed a number of flaws that will be addressed, and nuclear power will be safer. Some solutions have been long understood, such as the need for a strong, independent regulatory agency, like NRC. Newer concerns include a need to space reactors so that an explosion in one doesn’t create problems in another. Japan’s initial insistence on dealing with the problem on its own has led to calls for an international emergency response team “with pre-staged equipment that is interoperable both domestically and internationally”. For more suggestions, see the article appendix (the section called Follow Up), the September 16, 2011 Science, Preventing the Next Fukushima, and the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

The U.S., like other countries with strong regulatory agencies, will implement most/all recommendations. Additional international solutions that help with governance are also needed. As Bunn and Heinonen say, “Some nuclear countries, or countries now planning their first plant, struggle with regulatory ineffectiveness, corruption, and political instability. The IAEA, states and companies selling nuclear power facilities, and nongovernmental organizations must work together to help these countries put in place and sustain effective safety and security measures.” Since nuclear power is so much cheaper than alternatives (except hydro and coal in countries with those resources), the use of nuclear power will expand independent of climate change, and effective national and international structures promoting safety are needed.

However, if critics of nuclear power succeed in stalling expansion of the industry in the U.S. where it is well regulated and safer than our other major sources of energy, they will cause great harm. Currently, the path we are on is likely to lead to a 6°C increase.

Further Response to Karen Street

On December 2nd, 2011 wcandler1 says:


1. Thank you very much for prompting this debate!

2. I want to advance one data issue, that I am amazed has not previously been noted. Karen says that sea level in San Francisco (and presumably world wide) will have risen by 55 inches by 2100. James Hansen and Makiko Sato, have recently published a refereed paper that estimates that by 2100:

(a) Sea level will have risen by 5 meters, and

(b) Will be rising at the rate of a meter per decade (sic).

3. I do not want to imply that this recent estimate is correct, merely that the range of credible unpleasant outcomes from fossil fuel use has widened enormously. The general acceptance of the 55 inch estimate (terrifying as that itself is) may help explain a certain Quakerly lack of urgency in the discussion.

4. As is sometimes the case when biblical guidance is not entirely clear, it is useful to consult Pooh: He has immediately applicable advice, as when asked by Rabbit if he wanted sweetened condensed milk or honey on his bread, replied “Both!” For those of us who take our experience of global warming seriously “Both!” is the answer. More explicitly, we need to:

(a) Stop construction of all new fossil fuel power plants,

(b) Build both nuclear and other fossil-free power plants as fast as we can until the last fossil fueled power plant has been decommissioned, and then

(c) Build fossil-free power plants until the last nuclear power plant has been decommissioned.

5. Once it is recognized that some nuclear plants would be doomed to a life of only a few years, every effort would be made to build other fossil-free plants in preference. But there is the problem of base load, and even a ten-year life to a nuclear plant that replaced fossil plants would likely be profitable if the full (and unknown) cost of fossil fuels was used.

6. Obviously power generation is not the only investment we will need to move off fossil fuels, high-speed inter-city rail, and intra-city light rail come to mind. That we have high unemployment when there is so much work that needs doing, suggests that we have been wrong to rely on “the market” to put people to work: Maybe Government is not always the problem.

7. Finally, we should remember that the whole argument for the “magic of the marketplace” rests on the assumption that the market is given the right prices. This in turn implies that a substantial carbon tax is required to point consumers (and thus producers, and “the market”) in the right direction. But I digress, for more see “Global Warming: The Answer”, available from Amazon ($15) of free (as a pdf file) from me at .

Continuing problems at Fukushima

On December 5th, 2011 Warrne Hoskins says:

The article at this link points to significantly more contamination, and more persistent problems, than implicit in Karen Street’s articles and postings.… She may post explicit data and links to more precise and complete sources, but these disappear into her pro-nuclear verbiage.

As I read this, and considering other articles I’ve read, I’m led to conclude that Chernobyl was a horrifying disaster whose health effects have still not fully played out, although the reactor itself is bottled up, probably effectively – and Fukushima is on the same level, plus events there are still unfolding, at more than one reactor, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that there will be some further serious releases of radioactive materials. Consider this from ABC News, May 29, 2011: “Heavy rains and strong winds battered the northeast coast of Japan Monday as Tropical Storm Songda touched down on a region still reeling from a massive earthquake and tsunami, triggering mudslides and widespread flooding that forced the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor to suspend outdoor work.” That was a storm, not a major cyclone [think hurricane, if you are not familiar with cyclones]. That was early in the season; in September, Tropical Storm Roke threatened the same area, although it ultimately appears to have “skirted it.”

The aftermath of Chernobyl included dramatic impact on a minority community in another country, little understood or noted:…

Respectfully, the aftermath harms to health and the long-term impacts on cultures and societies – the full effects of the meltdowns and reactor troubles at Fukushima – may require a generation or longer to fully assess. At what point would it have been cost-effective for Japan to have found other ways to provide itself sufficient electricity – ways that do not pollute with radiation nor with particulate matter nor with massive releases of greenhouse gases.

Karen Street

Karen Street, a member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting, continues to work on climate change. Her new work is exploring cultural theory of risk: how our worldview makes changing our minds so difficult, by shaping where we see risk, determining who we see as experts, and locking us into we-good, they-bad perceptions of those who disagree.

2 thoughts on “Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Power in Japan: The Ocean of Light above the Ocean of Darkness

  1. No where in this massive flow of words do I find the name of the author or any biographical info….how am I to seriously evaluate any of it, therefore?

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