This is a quick post to express my disappointment with recent mainstream press coverage of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. As an example, on the front page of CNN there is an article titled “Radiation in water rushing into sea tests millions of times over the limit.” In my opinion, this article is a prime example of some of the poor mainstream press reporting about Fukushima.
1. Recently, the mainstream press has become fond of using large multipliers when discussing the Fukushima radiation releases. However, saying that something is “a million times” or “5 million times” or “100,000 times” over normal levels or acceptable limits is not very revealing. The normal amount of radiation at a nuclear power plant is very, very tiny. A million times very tiny is still very tiny. Now don’t get me wrong– there are some very significant releases of radiation occurring at Fukushima. But rather than be sensational and say “it’s a million times over the limit,” I think it’s more rational to state: (a.) What is the normal level of radiation and/or the acceptable limit of radiation release, (b.) What is the actual amount of radiation being released now, and (c.) What does this increase in radiation mean? How harmful is this radiation?
Additionally, I think the press should explain radiation releases in simple units that are consistent and which people can understand. Give people baselines (such as how much radiation a person normally obtains in a year) so that they can put the radiation releases into perspective.
2. The article states: “Also, utility and government officials have described conditions recently in the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s reactors and spent nuclear fuel pools as generally stable.”
Perhaps the utility and government officials are saying this, but this is far from the truth. Reactors 5 & 6 are the only reactors (out of 6) which are in cold shutdown with normal cooling systems. In my opinion (which is really the opinion of my nuclear engineer father), these are the only 2 reactors which could be called “stable.” Reactor 4 is also okay because there is no fuel in it– all of the fuel is in the spent fuel pool at reactor number 4.
However, reactors 1-3 (which had explosions in the reactor buildings) do NOT have normal cooling systems restored. The cooling systems are temporary and are still producing steam, which may periodically need to be vented releasing radiation to the environment. Until normal cooling systems can be restored at these three reactors, the situation cannot be called stable. Additionally, there are significant amounts of highly radioactive water being released from these three reactors, filling up turbine halls and being leaked to the ocean from the trench mentioned in the CNN article. Again according to my dad, there are three possible sources of this highly radioactive water: (a.) condensed radioactive steam that was vented, (b.) leaks from reactor containment, and (c.) leaks and/or splashover from spent fuel pools.
Speaking of the spent fuel pools, these (especially number 4) are not all stable either– and there are 7 spent fuel pools at Fukushima.
The article also mentions that the Japanese government has decided to allow TEPCO to release 3 million gallons of less radioactive– but still radioactive– water to the environment to make room for the storage of the more highly radioactive water. While perhaps necessary, this release is far from ideal.
Until normal cooling systems can be restored, highly radioactive water will continue to be generated in large volumes. TEPCO finally announced that restoration of normal cooling at reactors 1-3 will take MONTHS. This means that the situation at Fukushima will not be stable for MONTHS.
There is still radiation being released to the environment EVERY DAY at Fukushima. Until normal cooling systems and monitoring systems are restored at all 6 reactors and 7 spent fuel pools, there is potential for more radiation (possibly significant releases, such as the highly radioactive water being released to the ocean right now) releases to the environment.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t exactly describe the situation at Fukushima as “stable.”
3. My dad– a naval commander with decades of experience in nuclear power– had this to say a couple of days ago in Interview 16:
“We’ve tried to remain calm and rational and not get too excited. So, just because we haven’t raised our voice and started yelling and screaming doesn’t indicate at all that we don’t have concerns. I think from early on, if you go back and listen to some of the early interviews, the lack of transparency from TEPCO– I’ve been saying all along I think before, definitely before, the mainstream press, and I remember in one of the interviews early on I was really happy when finally Anderson Cooper was starting to take them to task for their lack of transparency– we’ve been saying since day one that TEPCO has not been forthcoming. And, in the last interview, and I realize it’s probably been three days, we talked about: hey [TEPCO], two-and-a-half weeks into this, now three weeks into this, how come you can’t get two or three reactor operators or engineers together from some of your other plants [and] interpret for the public what’s going on and produce a comprehensive briefing every day? And their [TEPCO’s] press releases are still not very informative.
The other thing that we’ve commented on is the lack of a website that an average person can go to and have the radiation and contamination readings in plain English so that they can understand where it’s above the limit and where it’s below the limit and where they should and should not be concerned. And the IAEA had at least put some information out there, and we had referenced people to it a few days ago, but still as far as I know, today– now there may be a site in Japanese that I can’t find or read– but to my knowledge there’s still not a website that people can go to that shows them: here’s the radiation and contamination readings for the past twenty-four to forty-eight hours– and here’s where we are above the limit, here’s where we are below the limit. It just doesn’t seem to exist. The information is scattered. Clearly, I think the Japanese government could be doing a better job there. I’m surprised that they’re not.
And the other thing that we pointed out– we had a very long discussion about venting and the fact that the NRC in the US had required plants with the Mark I containment to go back in and put in hardened vent systems and that TEPCO obviously didn’t do that– now they’re not in the United States so they’re not compelled to follow orders from the NRC, but certainly they were aware that this design change had been required in the US, and I think TEPCO as a nuclear operator has a responsibility to do the right thing whether they are required by the government or not. But also– where was the Japanese government in requiring this for the plants in Japan? So, as far as I’m concerned they’re both at fault. And that has to be looked at. The Japanese government has to look at their regulatory agency and say: okay, what else should have been done to our nuclear power plants in Japan that we haven’t required?…
…given the lack of transparency, given the lack of implementation of the design changes, given some of the other shortcomings that we’ve heard of in terms of radiation suits and radiation badges, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to question if TEPCO should be allowed to continue to operate nuclear power plants. Now, I’m not yelling, I’m not screaming, but I don’t think I can be any clearer in saying that I don’t trust TEPCO, and I’m not sure anybody else should either based on what’s happened during this accident. ”
-Cdr. Mark L. Mervine, Nuclear Engineer (USNR, Ret.)
So, personally I am bit skeptical of TEPCO and the Japanese government regarding the information about Fukushima. And, again, I would not call the situation there stable.
A final note: Although I have not been cross-posting these recently on Skepchick, my dad and I have continued to do our regular interview updates over at my geology blog Georneys. We have just announced that we are doing just two more scheduled interviews– a last interview update (the last one in which we answer questions) on Thursday and a final interview in which we summarize a month’s worth of interviews (19 in total plus one special interview with a Japanese citizen) and my dad talks about newer nuclear technologies, including proposed thorium reactors. If you have questions for our last interview update, send them in as soon as possible (georneysblog at gmail). We may do the occasional interview over the next few months to remind people of Fukushima or if there is a really big news story, but we will no longer be doing regular updates.
And now, because the CNN article and Fukushima do not make me happy, here is a happy video of a kitteh that survived the recent Japan tsunami: