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USA: Science Bloggers Explain Fukushima

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

UPDATE (March 17): Josef Oehmen's original post (linked below) has been removed by Jason Morgan, apparently at the author's request. The post has been edited significantly and republished at the Nuclear Science and Engineering Blog at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Oehmen's original post reflected the situation at the time – when only one of the Fukushima reactors was experiencing problems. His comments about the potential release of radioactivity have been removed in the revised post. Jason Morgan's original post now conveys a message from Dr. Oehmen directing readers to the MIT blog:

The version on mitnse.com is the most accurate, and as you can tell in many parts different to the version that appeared here on Jason’s blog. This post is not keeping track of or explaining events after Mar 12. Events kept developing, and many people keep sharing their discovery with me that one is always smarter after the fact.

Science bloggers at nature.com's The Great Beyond continue to monitor the situation very closely, including Geoff Brumfiel, who has provided periodic updates on radiation levels both near the damaged reactor and at various distances from it.  His March 17 post includes the following:

NHK also reports elevated radiation levels around Fukushima prefecture. At Fukushima City, 65 km northwest of the plant and well outside the evacuation zone, authorities reported levels as high as 13.9 μSv/hr (0.0139 mSv/hr), according to the broadcaster. That is well above the background, and equivalent to 120 mSv/yr in rough terms, but it will only pose a threat to human health if it continues for a long period of time (see this post for more about the numbers).

There has unquestionably been a high demand for quick and accurate information – both about specific radiation levels and how to put those levels in their appropriate context. On March 16, Brumfiel tried to assess what the levels of radiation meant for the public:

NHK television was reporting .08 mSv/hr at 25 kilometres west-northwest of the site today. A back-of-the-envelope calculations makes that 700 mSv per year (simply: .08 mSv x 24 hours x 365 days).That is a serious dose, but not as bad as it initially sounds. For one thing, the radiation coming from Fukushima seems to be sporadic, so it won't stay at .08 mSv/hr for a long time. Additionally, you would only see the effects of that radiation if you were standing outside for a whole year.

More realistically, people will take cover to the greatest degree possible, reducing their exposure considerably. On top of that, iodine tablets and simple precautions for those outside (such as covering up, and removing clothing when moving indoors) will help a great deal. In this context .08 mSv/hr probably isn't much to worry about, though it may become an issue for rescue workers outside for long periods.

As I mentioned, in Tokyo, Japan's science ministry reported average rates of .000144 mSv/hr yesterday afternoon. That's double the background rate, but should residents of the capital be worried? No.

[original post begins below.]

The horror of Friday 11 March's earthquake and resulting tsunami near the east coast of Honshu, Japan, soon gave way to widespread panic as explosions rocked the Fukushima nuclear power plant. However, one community in the blogosphere seemed to be more measured in response to events unfolding at Fukushima – science bloggers.

Barry Brooks of bravenewclimate republished a lengthy post written by Josef Oehmen, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and originally published by Jason Morgan. Brooks and Morgan are supporters of nuclear power, and consider the mainstream coverage of the nuclear power plant “partial meltdown” to be overblown and full of errors. Oehmen gives his thoughts based only on what he has read in the media, but immediately seeks to put people at ease:

There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.

By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

Comparisons have been drawn between Fukushima and Chernobyl already, although science bloggers have advised restraint. Image by Osakabe Yasuo, copyright Demotix (04/06/2009).

Comparisons have been drawn between Fukushima and Chernobyl already, although science bloggers have advised restraint. Image by Osakabe Yasuo, copyright Demotix (04/06/2009).

Serious, but overhyped

Echoing Dr. Oehmen's concerns that the situation at Fukushima is serious but still overhyped, David Ropeik writes a post at the Scientific American Guest Blog. He notes that the situation at the nuclear plant in Fukushima has been compared in the media not only to Chernobyl (in the Ukraine), but also the World War Two atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan:

We know from studying the survivors of those bombings, who were bathed in horrific doses of high level radiation – far worse than anything that could come from the Daiichi plant (or that came out of Chernobyl) – that ionizing radiation from nuclear energy is a carcinogen, but a relatively weak one.

Ropeik lists nuclear power interests among his clients, and disclosed this fact in the post.

Also at the Scientific American Guest Blog, Rita King provides a valuable primer on what a “nuclear meltdown” really is and explains some of the differences between this incident and Chernobyl.  She also notes the often intractable views between nuclear power's supporters and its critics:

Opinions around nuclear energy tend to be binary, with industry proponents acting as if nothing could possibly go wrong while critics, terrified of nuclear apocalypse, remain convinced that old nuclear plants are time bombs.

Sharon Astyk of ScienceBlogs.com's Causabon's Book notes this attitude and suggests that this incident should have been foreseen and that contingency planning must play a greater role in our decisions:

I keep thinking about the word “inconceivable” in relationship to the terrible events in Japan – the earthquake, now upgraded to a 9, the subsequent tsunami and the nuclear events. As Nicole Foss's work has made clear, the Fukushima nuclear disaster is not a black swan – it follows on the heels of long warnings about the danger of building plants in such seismically sensitive places, and also after safety concerns within the plant itself. We know that the plant was not designed to handle such a major earthquake.

Nuanced conversation

Science bloggers continue to have a nuanced conversation about the merits of nuclear power. Leading the discussion are Scienceblogs.com's Mike the Mad Biologist and James Hrynyshyn. Both bloggers step away from the hyperbole in the current coverage and try to compare the benefits of nuclear power to other steps societies could take to increase energy supply and decrease demand.

Mike the Mad Biologist suggests the nuclear industry move to develop an alternative form of nuclear power that uses thorium instead of uranium -while thorium creates several scientific challenges, it leaves less nuclear waste and is more abundant.  He also notes that people in the United States need to make some radical changes in the way they live their lives to make large-scale energy conservation possible:

One of the best ways to reduce the amount of stuff we have to light on fire is to move from single detached housing in areas with no efficient mass transit to apartments with access to mass transit (keep in mind that residential use and transporation account for about two-thirds of total energy consumption). In other words, we have to massively ‘desuburbanize’ and simultaneously ‘reurbanize.’

Since this scenario seems highly unlikely, Mike the Mad Biologist calls nuclear power “a second best option.”

Hrynyshyn suggests it's more appropriate to compare nuclear power with other “alternative” power options:

I'd rather we compared nuclear's risk and benefits against those of clean renewables. What's the worst-case scenario for a thermal solar power plant? Even a wind farm engineer's most terrifying nightmare seems like a powder compared with nuclear technology.

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

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