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Uneven risks and the search for a better world–a brief nuclear disaster review

Whenever they occur outside my immediate presence, disasters always bring out two tendencies in me. First, I ask to what extent, and why, the disaster will affect those least powerful and equipped to help themselves, and who had little to no voice in whatever processes caused, or could have prevented, said disasters. Then, I wonder about how accurately we can measure risks and who should be doing that measuring. Part of that second concern is directed towards those who might unwittingly (or cynically) exaggerate a risk. Another part of it is directed towards wanting to democratize our epistemology–forcing governments to be completely transparent in their description of risks, and involving as many affected parties as possible in assessment and planning. I hope those are the kinds of concerns that motivate progressives when considering disasters—and that we always start with an understanding that there’s no such thing as a purely “natural” disaster—that they always contain socioeconomic components, and political components, that determine whether they happen at all, and furthermore whether when they do happen, damages be repaired, mitigated, and minimized as much as possible, in fair and rational ways. 

Fairly new information from New York Times suggests the disaster in Japan (which I’ll attempt to explain a teeny bit down a few paragraphs) is as bad as can rationally and modestly be expected. It’s not going to crack the earth or make it rain isotopes, but it’s pretty bad for the immediate area. 

The sudden turn of events, after an explosion Monday at one reactor and then an early-morning explosion Tuesday at yet another — the third in four days at the plant — already made the crisis at the plant the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl reactor disaster a quarter century ago. . .
Earlier Tuesday the Japanese government told people living within about 20 miles of the Daiichi plant to stay indoors, keep their windows closed and stop using air conditioning. More than 100,000 people are believed to be in that area.
In Tokyo, 170 miles south of the plant, the metropolitan government said Tuesday it had detected radiation levels 20 times above normal over the city, though it stressed that such a level posed no immediate health threat and that readings had dropped since then. The explosion in reactor No. 2, a little after 6 a.m. on Tuesday, particularly alarmed Japanese officials and nuclear power experts around the world because it was the first detonation at the plant that appeared to occur inside one of the primary containment buildings. 

Japanese residents have been warned to “stay inside.” I wonder how much this is like the instructions Americans were given to avoid the fallout of a terrorist “dirty bomb.” And therein lies one problem: We have no idea how to assess the dangers, because, as analogous history has shown time and again, we have no way of knowing how much we’re being lied to, but we can be certain we’re being lied to at some level.

Mike Head has two good reports at wsws.org. The first concerns the immediate facts concerning the emergency. The second, in true socialist form, analyzes the economic impact by describing the interrelatedness of production between Japan and the rest of the world.

Because of the closely intertwined character of global production, the shutdowns in Japan will have knock-on effects throughout Asia and the world. Japan remains a critical part of the Asian and global economy despite recently losing its place as the world’s second largest economy after the US to China. It is the biggest source of foreign direct investment for some parts of Asia and a major purchaser of the iron ore, coal, natural gas and other commodities produced in Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere.
[…] The economies of China and Japan are interconnected in numerous industries, including automobile and electronics manufacturing.
China has increasingly become a final-assembly hub for Japanese electronics in recent years, as Japanese firms have sought cheaper manufacturing operations. . .
Global financial and energy markets could be severely affected. […] Japan is also the world’s No. 3 oil importer, after the US and China. Disruptions in production may limit Japan’s short-term demand for energy, but over time the shut nuclear plants could lead to increased imports of oil, natural gas and coal. Analysts estimate that replacing all of Japan’s nuclear capacity with oil would mean importing 375,000 more barrels a day on top of the current demand of about 4.25 million barrels. 

But the quote of the day belongs to Head’s first report, and it accurately describes the antecedents of the current disaster:

Despite Japan being the most earthquake-prone island chain in the world, its ruling elite has over the past four decades turned to nuclear power plants, run by profit-seeking conglomerates, to generate a third of its electricity.  

I received two interesting links this morning from the Institute for Public Accuracy, a generous and on-point media source for progressives.  First, Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research released a paper yesterday, March 14, on the information so far concerning the Fukushima Daiichi and the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plants, hit by an earthquake and a tsunami on March 11. The Daiichi plant experienced the worst problems, with unit 1 suffering a partial meltdown.  The report, to my non-scientist eyes, emphasizes the effects of the intense heat of fuel rods, which is responsible for the release of highly radioactive fission gases, the source of radiation impacts.  A worst case scenario would be more long-term than Chernobyl–this suggests that the actual impacts, particularly global, will be harder to predict. The long term policy implications, however, are obvious. Nuclear power may be the technological panacea its proponents insist it is, but the infrastructure of nuclear power seems dangerously imperfect–perhaps intrinsically so. 

The mechanisms of the accident would be very different than Chernobyl, where there was also a fire, and the mix of radionuclides would be very different. While the quantity of short-lived radionuclides, notably iodine-131, would be much smaller, the consequences for the long term could be more dire due to long-lived radionuclides such as cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-129, and plutonium-239. These radionuclides are generally present in much larger quantities in spent fuel pools than in the reactor itself. In light of that, it is remarkable how little has been said by the Japanese authorities about this problem.
The tragedy in Japan is also a reminder that making plutonium and fission products just to boil water (which is what a nuclear reactor does) is not a prudent approach to electricity generation. While existing reactors will be needed to maintain the stability of electricity supply for some time (as is also evident from the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe in Japan), new reactor projects should be halted and existing reactors should be phased out along with coal and oil. It is possible to do so economically in the next few decades, while maintaining the reliability of the electricity system and greatly improving its security… 

But it’s one particular descriptive passage that has haunted me about Makhijani’s paper–an objective description of the pools that store the spent fuel, and why it must be kept underwater for years. 

A special feature of the Mark 1 design is that the used fuel, also called spent fuel, is stored within the reactor building in a swimming pool-like concrete structure near the top of the reactor vessel. When the reactor is refueled, the spent fuel is taken from the reactor by a large crane, transferred to the pool, and kept underwater for a few years. This spent fuel must be kept underwater to prevent severe releases of radioactivity, among other reasons. A meltdown or even a fire could occur if there is a loss of coolant from the spent fuel pool. The water in the spent fuel pool and the roof of the reactor building are the main barriers to release of radioactivity from the spent fuel pool. 

Every source of energy has negative externalities. This just seems to be a particularly chilling externality. This paper tells us a lot about what we don’t know–whether radiation in the plant has been vented, whether the pool has been damaged and is leaking–and, between the lines, tells us that the Japanese government isn’t telling the public everything (it’s outrageous, and maybe somewhat pathological, that people anywhere tolerate government secrecy).

The second source I received from the Institute for Public Accuracy was Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of Green Action, a Japanese environmental group. Smith has been translating Japanese governmental and other reports into english and posting them on her blog. Some highlights: 

This Japanese blog has some radiation monitoring readings fifty kilometers from the Fukushima plant. (The readings were taken by magazine DAYS JAPAN’s editor-in-chief Hirokawa Ryuichi, one of the 6 journalists who undertook independent monitoring in the evacuated zone March 13th-14th.)
On the evening of March 14, Officials of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said, “The nuclear fuel has not been damaged.” 

So based on what we know: The Japanese government, and other governments, and the nuclear power industry, is probably lying, and much of that lying is probably in the direction of unwarrantedly minimizing the threat. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nevertheless, we also know this is a serious nuclear disaster. People will be exposed to radiation, and some of them will die. Chernobyl is alleged to have killed a million people, all consolidated, over the years following the disaster in Kiev. This one might be as bad, worse, or not as bad.

But it’s unclear to me what the threat is in the United States—not that it should matter in terms of assessing the overall significance of the disaster, but it should matter in getting my somewhat alarmist progressive friends to focus on the right questions, rather than believe the sky is almost literally falling. For the ambitious, the EPA has downloadable calculation software–several different programs, actually–for assessing radiation risks. A well-credentialed scientist friend of mine told me a few minutes ago that a person in the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. will get more radiation from an airplane ride than from Japan, and that potassium iodide only protects against thyroid cancer and would only be helpful to those directly in the plume of a nuclear accident. I think what this disaster tells us about the risks of nuclear power are more important than people in the U.S. trying to speculate on the long-term effects of an event quite different than Chernobyl and therefore pretty unpredictable. At the same time, disasters like this bring out the paranoid and alarmist elements in us. “Potassium iodide pills, which prevent against radiation poisoning of the thyroid gland, are reportedly flying off the shelves at drug stores in at least three West Coast states — Oregon, California and Hawaii.” I also personally know people buying them in states further east. I’m not sure this is warranted, but I’m willing to listen to reasons, and read links. Use our comment section below to discuss how we ought to assess risks in situations like these. In the meantime, my take is: Our energies ought to be directed toward criticizing the Japanese government for their lack of transparency, and having a long-term discussion about the risks of nuclear power. Immediate relief is important too, of course. Rescue personnel, including U.S. military crews, have been exposed to “low levels” of radiation requiring decontamination–again locally of concern, but not suggestive of any serious long-distance scenario. In a way, excessive worry about fallout on the other side of the world is a distraction from the site of the disaster and the seriousness of people’s conditions there. 

So at the end of the day, I’m left with two questions: (1) How can we change the structural conditions and check the ruling economic interests that sustain these high-risk energy sources? I am probably more open than most people I know on the nuclear power question itself, but even its staunchest defenders have to admit that it’s dangerous. How can we satisfy our needs without that risk? If there’s no way to reduce the risks associated with widespread energy consumption, then how can we “democratize” those risks politically? (2) In the short term, how much of our risk assessment is authentic and how much of it is a construct of the same systems (of production, and of thought) that make nuclear fallout possible? Are we conditioned to downplay, or overplay, certain “apocalyptic” risks?

Our thoughts are with the people of Japan, and with all those affected by the tsunami, and with everyone in  the world condemned to suffer for the elites’ choices concerning infrastructure, risk calculation and risk distribution. We can make a better world.

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One Response “Uneven risks and the search for a better world–a brief nuclear disaster review”

  1. Quaker Dave
    March 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    The thing about risk is that you can’t look at it in a vacuum. The risk posed by nuclear power needs to be considered along with the risks and benefits of any alternatives. I have to confess to a certain ambivalence toward nuclear power. I recognize the risk posed both in the generation of nuclear power and the long-term storage of the waste it produces. But my grandfather was a geologist very active in uranium exploration and mining. As a result, I was never raised to see radiation as an all-killing boogeyman.

    The New Yorker had a great piece in September on uranium mining in western Colorado. It discussed the (at times irrational) fear Americans have toward radiation. I’d highly recommended reading it. One of the points it made was that the impact of disasters at nuclear power sites is often the result of mismanagement and lax oversight, more than it is inherent in the process. One of the first failures of containment happened at the Windscale reactor in Great Britain in 1957. The resulting release of radiation had a rather minimal impact. A contributing factor was the British reaction (they destroyed a massive amount of milk produced by cows in the area, something which seems bizarre but apparently would have prevented much of the cancer which developed in Ukraine post-Chernoybl).

    There’s a part of me that even wonders at the moral consequences of opposing nuclear power. The result of opposing nuclear power is to further entrench fossil fuel. We trade the (actually, rather rare) risk of localized nuclear contamination for the certainty of global climate disaster. As a comparatively-privileged American, I don’t have a great deal of worry about climate-change induced crop failures impacting my food security or expanding tropical zones increasing the range of malaria. So have I bargained away the survival of the developing world because I don’t want to risk a nuclear disaster in my backyard?

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.