Ever since the horrific earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear accidents hit north-eastern Japan in March of 2011, the world has been keeping an eye on Fukushima, where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered extraordinary amounts of damage. Initially the news out of the power plant, operated by the company TEPCO, was awful, but gradually the situation seemed to be increasingly under some control. But that control has not been convincingly secured, and has even perhaps been slipping of late. And the worries about a variety of possible risks from the plant have been growing, especially because the clean-up at the plant is still run by TEPCO, which has engaged in repeated cover-ups and poor decisions… not to mention the fact that it’s a power company, not a nuclear accident site cleanup company. I find it extraordinary that the situation hasn’t been put into the hands of a blue-ribbon international panel of nuclear scientists and engineers, with full power to make decisions and with full transparency for all to see as to what is going on. It’s taken the Japanese government far too long to step in.
I’m bringing this topic up now because TEPCO is finally ready to address one of the major issues that they face in the clean-up. In addition to finding ways to deal with the melted-down nuclear fuel at Reactors 1, 2 and 3, which will take years, they have to deal with the stored and mostly undamaged fuel rods that are sitting outside of Reactor 4, in a water-filled pool. The water keeps the fuel cool, and right now there’s nothing wrong with the pool or the cooling. The problem is that this pool is on the 3rd floor of the Reactor 4 building, which was damaged in a (chemical, not nuclear) hydrogen explosion shortly after the earthquake… and it would be better to get the fuel rods into a safer pool, at ground level, outside of the compromised building. This is not easy for many reasons, and apparently there is some risk involved — not risk of a nuclear explosion, which is physically impossible in these circumstances, but of some amount of radioactive gas being produced and released into the atmosphere if the fuel rods are not kept submerged in water or are otherwise damaged. However, I’m not precisely clear on the nature of this risk.
Just the same as anyone else who might be affected if fish from the Pacific become unsafe to eat (which, as far as I can tell so far, remains the main risk to areas outside Japan), I want to know what is happening at Fukushima and what exactly the risks are. But I’m not an expert on this subject. Just because I’m a scientist doesn’t mean that it’s that much easier for me to figure out what’s really going on. It’s just perhaps easier for me, compared to the general reader, to recognize misinformation for what it is. And when I look around the web, I am seeing huge amounts of it. (For instance, starfish on U.S. coastlines are being afflicted by some sort of disease; around the web you will see suggestions that this has something to do with Fukushima, which, given that the amount of Fukushima-related radioactivity currently in the Pacific is small, is manifestly ridiculous.)
There are good reasons to be concerned that things are at risk of getting out of hand on many different fronts, both in terms of actions on the ground and in terms of public understanding. On the one hand, I’m reading more and more scare-mongering: irresponsible statements made by non-experts, such as the ones about starfish, that are starting to frighten my friends and neighbors unnecessarily, especially on the west coast of the United States. (Here’s a response by a deep-sea biologist to one of the most egregious; I can’t directly verify all of the points he makes, but many of them were obvious to me even before I found his website.) On the other hand, I’m not at all convinced, given their terrible track record, that TEPCO is capable of dealing with the extreme technical difficulty and considerable danger of putting their nuclear plant back into a safe condition without there being additional significant releases of radioactive material. And meanwhile, media reporting is just not sufficiently reliable; the journalists aren’t experts and often don’t understand the issues well enough to get it all straight or put it in proper context.
If there were ever a time when level-headed scientific discussion, careful calculation and thoughtful consideration were needed in a public setting, this would be it.
I haven’t yet found a sensible, trust-inspiring blog that does for nuclear engineering and radiation safety what I try to do for particle physics (though this one looks somewhat promising.) Consequently, I don’t really have a way to understand the whole story and to gauge it properly. So I’d like to find a way to use my website and its readers, some of whom surely know more about nuclear engineering and radioactivity risks than I do, and some of whom are perhaps getting more information than I am, to assemble a clearer understanding of what the risks and dangers really are and are not.
Fair warning: In contrast to my usual policy, I am going to be strictly editing the comments on this post, and all similar posts on Fukushima. I will accept thoughtful scientifically-based discussion, and links to such discussion, only. I want neither my own mind nor my readers’ cluttered with unscientific chatter from non-experts. Polemical diatribes will be deleted; activism for or against nuclear power is inappropriate here [I happen to oppose nuclear power in its current form, but that's beside the point right now]; and unscientific assertions without any support from replicated studies will be marked as such, and if sufficiently egregious, deleted. My goal is the same as that of most people: to get a better grasp of the situation, and to get a clearer sense of what to worry about and what not to worry about, both for now and looking into the future.
So: do I have any readers with expertise in this area? If you’re one of them, can you help us establish a baseline of solid science that we can build on? Does anyone know of particularly even-handed and sensible blogs by experts that we can draw on? Websites with data or resources that are run by people without an obvious big axe to grind? One of the big problems I find is that there are plenty of scientific studies quoted on blogs, but few guides to the non-expert reader to help us put the results in precise perspective.
By the way, here’s one site that shows the radioactivity levels in and around Berkeley, California; as far as I can see, nothing above normal levels has been measured for well over a year, and never were levels high even in 2011. http://www.nuc.berkeley.edu/UCBAirSampling