Monday, March 28, 2011

All Clear for Clean Nuclear Power

Japan was recently struck by a natural disaster of unprecedented scale. A one-two punch of an 8.9 strength earthquake, followed minutes later by a massive tsunami wave.

But the worlds great powers are worried about the impact of the disaster, not for the Japanese, but for its possible nuclear risks. Instead of the usual concerns for citizens whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed in this terrible disaster, all we hear are calls in imperious tones for the Japanese to surrender to international inspections of their nuclear facilities.

Wait, when did the USA start treating Japan like it was North Korea? What the hell is going on here?

With images like the ones above coming from Japan after the disaster, aren't the "International Community" right to be concerned?

Well they would be if the above was an image of the nuclear power stations burning - but that report is of a Japanese Oil Refinery.

Fires burn, smoke from industrial and other fires roil across the stricken landscape of Japan. As we know from the disaster of the Twin Tower on 9/11 the miasma of debris fields creates a toxic and tainted atmosphere all around. The stink of death and destruction all rise from the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Beside this the steam releases from Fukushima are immeasurably tiny.

Look at the reporting from the New York Times: "On Monday, an explosion blew the roof off the second reactor, not damaging the core, officials said, but presumably leaking more radiation."

Presumably? No - there was no radiation leak, and no mention of the fact that the 'explosion' was actually steam, and not a 'nuclear explosion' as they definitely intend readers to think. The steam that was escaping is radioactive but breaks down after leaving the reactor before it can cause any damage. The big concern would be if harmful "dirty bomb" type contaminants such as nuclear material, or worse plutonium, were escaping but there is nothing of the sort happening here.

And this (from the same article): "But Pentagon officials reported Sunday that helicopters flying 60 miles from the plant picked up small amounts of radioactive particulates — still being analyzed, but presumed to include cesium-137 and iodine-121 — suggesting widening environmental contamination".

Update: (noon, Mar 29th) The ABC are reporting that TEPCO has announced discovery of plutonium outside the containment vessel of reactor 2 at Fukushima. This is bad news for their continued efforts in cleaning up after the earthquake and tsunami damage. However it does seem to put paid to claims that TEPCO are hiding information. In the chaos that is the disaster cleanup reports come in as information is to hand, and the suggestion that somehow the Japanese are complicit in hiding information about the plant is my main point here. This is the first report of any kind of actual environmental contamination and it has not come from circling pentagon helicopters - it has come from the Japanese themselves.

Coal plants put out radioactive isotopes from their smokestacks at levels above trace. There is no scientific analysis of these particulates either linking them to Fukushima, or stating that they are at levels above normal pollution out put for an industrial area. Whose helicopters are these? What scientific bodies are carrying out the analysis?

No facts of actual harm - just speculation and fear-mongering. And of course because the USA is saying it, news reports worldwide are regurgitating this same story.
Image from Wikipedia of the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Disaster
The truth is that Fukushima is a ringing endorsement of the safety of nuclear power. Especially when compared to the massive real health and environmental impacts of other energy related disasters.

The image at left is of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico where smoke, and flame and tons and tons of oil - actual real harmful contaminants poured by the super-tanker load right into the shared environment of us all. This, in the USA's own backyard.

Did the "International Community" demand oversight of the safety precautions taken by the USA?

What about the chilling revelations that safety measures came second to the operational realities of profits? What judgements flowed from that toward tighter controls on energy production on US soil?

None, of course - because that would be an outrageous challenge to the sovereignty of a first world nation with an advanced level of technological expertise and engineering whom we must trust to manage its national affairs.

Lets get this in perspective. Compare the images above of flaming oil refineries and platforms to the steam released at Fukushima. How much airborne cancer causing agents is in that thick black oil smoke pouring out of those burning oil refineries? That is real damage, not speculative fear-mongering and wild talk of nuclear possibilities.

Also look at the radiation from a coal plant as shown in this diagram:

Radiation dose comparison from by Randall MunroeThe largest of the blue dose measures in the top left segment of the chart represents the radiation dose from just one airplane flight from LA to New York. The flying I did last year would have been enough to expose me to the dose received by Fukushima power workers.

Other of the blue squares represent the amounts flowing from the smoke stacks of coal burning electric power plants. We are frantic about tiny amounts of radiation exposure, that we are already receiving without being near any reactors.

We are panicking and frothing at the mouth about amounts of nuclear exposure that are tiny in their harmful effects compared to the smoke, and flames and environmental pollution that the rest of the tsunami and earthquake have produced.

If I had to choose between my family living downwind of a coal plant, oil refinery or nuclear plant it would be the nuke every time. If there is a forecast of a tidal wave or an earthquake - safest place to go? Your local nuclear plant.

If you dredge through the hype on Fukushima you don't see any actual figures on who was exposed to what. I have yet to see an actual report of anyone actually being harmed. Where are the workers whose rad-badges show them receiving an actual fatal or semi-fatal dose of radiation? Not one, and yet the death toll from the quake, the fires and other conditions flowing from the rest of the quake and tsunami are over 18,000 people.

What if you knew there was a power generation technology which killed in OECD countries between 1969 and 2000 a total of 14 people? Is the risk of that technology too great?

Do you say yes, 14 dead is 14 too many? Then you have consigned Hydro electric power generation to the scrap heap.

The same statistic for Nuclear power generation is zero.

For coal it is 2259 deaths.

So how has the international media got this so wrong? Apart from the hysteria and headline grabbing power of anything nuclear, the problem comes also from misunderstandings about the nature of radiation dose measurement.

There are reports of levels being measured at various locations, and spike rates being quoted as though they were constant - no actual figures of the workers (who wear dosimeters) of what they actually got exposed to.

I cannot believe how incredibly paternalistic our government and the USA are being. These demands to oversight what is happening in Japan verge on US Imperialism. And Kevin Rudd making demands on behalf of the "international community" to examine the reactors is just an outright challenge to a 1st world sovereign nation that would be warlike if it wasn't laughable.

This sort of thing happens all too often - you suddenly out of the blue hear Australian politicians and US politicians both spontaneously start singing off the same song sheet - its the intelligence briefings that they are all taking as gospel truth, even though military hawks with an eye on their budget are behind it. Same thing happened with Haneef.

In an article on this blog previously I wrote about how the same "think tanks" that denied the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer are now working to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about climate change.

In Australia where there is no nuclear energy industry, its easy to forget how prevalent nuclear power is already. This represents competition, for the players in the energy sector - but what has kept nuclear down as a competitor to coal has been the cost of nuclear. Building a plant takes longer, and its approvals process is full of risks - especially for the investors in the plant. Once its built the operators of the plant must arrange to dispose of the waste - sequestration if you like - where as currently coal plant operators just spew their toxic waste directly into the air.

So what is interesting about this is that with climate change on the agenda, coal and oil industry executives are scared of a future where market dominance of their products is eroded by nuclear plants. The USA has a lot of Nuclear plants already, as shown in the map above - so does Europe, Japan and many other countries. It would be very easy to scale up nuclear plant building and scale down coal plant building & oil fired home heating (big in the north-eastern USA) if cap-and-trade or other anti-carbon measures made it economic. If coal plants were required to sequester their waste product like the nuclear industry has to, then their profits would be seriously eroded.

As a result these industry figures are cranking up their lobbying machine, and getting their PR executives and spin merchants on the job to peddle the anti-nuclear story to anyone that will listen. They're especially scared of advanced clean and safe reactor technology gaining a foothold since then their dirty and dangerous energy production will be unsaleable.

Here's a good analysis of the Fukushima situation by a British tech journalist. Summary - a 30 year old reactor, due for decommissioning, hit first by an earthquake at 9 on the Richter scale (when it was designed to cope with up to 8), and then hit by a tsunami - result no fatalities.

There are reports in the press of "people showing symptoms" but there is no science in any of this. If you have a population of thousands of scared people and ask them if they have symptoms X, Y and Z you will get a handful saying "Oh, I have that". There are zero medically or scientifically confirmed cases of serious harm radiation exposure to anyone outside the plant.

Its hard to find good data. Wikipedia has a lot of "data" on their Fukushima page but when you look at their sources, again all of the danger danger red showing on their tables is sourced from such august scientific sources as the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, who are using words like "presumably" in their reporting

Compare all of this to the Gulf of Mexico and the BP Oil Disaster - that happened without an earthquake or a tsunami. Or Exxon Valdez.

Nuclear reactors are not killing or harming people. Just scaring them - or at least the newspapers are.

What is killing and harming people? Coal.

Coal pollutant contamination is what some people who do live near the dirty and dangerous coal plants already fear.

Thousands of people have died over the last 10 years from Athsma - and it is known that air pollution is a strong risk factor for those with athsma. Nuclear plants don't have any affect on athsmatics at all. If we replaced all of our coal plants with nuclear reactors tomorrow my bet is that those athsma deaths would drop significantly. Similar story with lung cancer and other health problems.

I believe we need to urgently act to stop the pollution from our current industrial and domestic activities. We only have one climate, we only have one environment. The worst offenders are coal plants, but the transport sector with its motor vehicles are up there too.

However our livelihood, our hospitals, schools and industries depend on energy - particularly electricity. If we are to clean up transport by switching to electric vehicles, that electricity has to be clean and sustainable. The base load power has to come from nuclear - nothing else is both clean and plentiful - wind and solar have their place, but you cannot run an aluminium smelter or a hospital or a data centre off wind and solar alone.

By fostering a safe and efficient nuclear industry now, the advances desperately needed in nuclear power generation technology can come from innovation. Thorium based reactors which we have known about for decades are now being built in China, and hold the promise of much safer, ubiquitous nuclear power with a tiny fraction of the waste.

If we falter on nuclear now, coal plants will continue and our climate and our health, and the world we leave to our children will suffer.

The writing is on the wall here - energy is dangerous. To be the safest we can be, nuclear energy is the answer.