How Bad Is Fukushima Crisis?
Image Credit: Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport

How Bad Is Fukushima Crisis?


The Japanese government has raised the severity level of the nuclear crisis at its Fukushima nuclear plant to a level 7. The Diplomat asked nuclear researcher Alexander Sich for his take on the decision and what exactly it means.


I believe they were premature to do this: most of the month since the accident we have been starved of hard numbers, and speculation has run rampant because of this. Now, everyone is focused not on data but on one, single, solitary number (7 on the INES) and the press is employing phrases like ‘on a par with Chernobyl,’ or ‘equal to that of Chernobyl.’ It's like defining the entirety of a person based on a single number, like their weight or their age. I think people can see the absurdity of that.

My understanding is TEPCO has reported a number of 10,000 terabecquerels has been released over the course of the past month.

First, how many people understand that one Bequerel is one disintegration per second? What kind of a response would people have if they were told this is equivalent to 0.027 nanoCuries of activity? They'd probably — and correctly — yawn.

Look at the facts:

(1) The Japanese have called this latest assessment ‘provisional’ and further qualified that it focuses on the total released, not on health effects — which they maintain, correctly, I believe, is minimal.

(2) 10,000 terabecquerels. How much is that? Well, that's 270,000 Curies. On par with Chernobyl? Really?! Let's see: Chernobyl, even if you accept the official Soviet total release estimate of 50 million Curies, that's 185 times less than Chernobyl. (Lennart Devell of Studsvik Eco in Sweden in 1994 confirmed what most experts in the West suspected: in a metastudy of release estimates, Devell came to a range of 1.5 to 2.5 times was released by Chernobyl than the Soviets reported.) What if I asserted I just ran an incredibly long road race of 42,000 tera nanometers? Would most people understand I ran a marathon? Would I be responsible in portraying a marathon in such a manner? Would you not conclude I'm trying to mislead and that I have a hyperfixation on numbers?

(3) The releases at Chernobyl occurred over a period of about 9.5 days. The releases at Fukushima were estimated from 30 days of releases and from four reactors and Unit-4's spent fuel pool. The releases from Chernobyl were completely out of control. At Fukushima, the Japanese are employing a number of means to contain contaminated water and reduce the potential for hydrogen detonation.

(4) The comparison is also spurious (and, in my estimation, irresponsible) because the two accidents are very different in their release mechanisms: at Chernobyl the releases resulted from the core being completely exposed to the environment during the entire period (remember I noted in my last interview that the helicopter dumping was a myth in the sense that the core itself wasn’t covered). This means that isotopes across the chemical and mechanical volatility range had a wide range of transport mechanisms for release — from gaseous escape to mechanical ejection. At Fukushima, we just don't know exactly to what extent the reactor pressure vessels, containment structures, and lower pressure suppression pools are damaged. I've read various assessments, and they are all preliminary. I stress: if so many barriers are between the core and the environment, the release pathways and mechanisms will be very different and severely limited, which is borne out by the numbers provided. At Fukushima, some chemically and mechanically volatile isotopes have been released: I-131, some Cs-137, some Xe-133, and the rest I'm not sure about. I'm still waiting for hard numbers on the alleged detection of Cs-137 about 40 kilometres northwest of the plant: do we know how much (in Curies), how widespread, and why it hasn't apparently been detected in other areas? I would also make very sure I would be carefully distinguishing between potential releases from the spent fuel pool and the reactors.

I've seen some other numbers, but ones that only present a partial picture. According to a Reuters piece quoting the Japanese, perhaps about 500,000 terabecquerels of I-131 have been released ‘to the atmosphere.’ It also seems to me apples and oranges are being compared when the Japanese claim Chernobyl released such-and-such numbers: are these total releases being compared to one isotope at Fukushima? It's not clear from the reports I've seen.

Release estimates also depend on interpretations of isotope half-lives in the calculations. Many of the isotopes produced in an operating nuclear reactor are very short-lived and decay quite quickly. Therefore, one can provide release figures that incorporate these, but if they're decayed away in a short period of time, were the releases of any significant consequence? Even I-131 (half-life 8 days) is down to 1/1024th of it's release amount after 80 days. I'm not suggesting there's no impact, but I am urging sobre and cautious assessments as well as prudent and correct presentations of releases. More than three half-lives of I-131 have passed since the accident, which means roughly 1/10 remains. Is it correct and prudent to provide total release figures based on total amount of I-131 present at the time of the accident? I don't think so.

Now, let's ask: how much Pu-239 or U-235 was released? Because both of these are in the form of something called refractory oxides (ceramics), they melt at incredibly high temperatures (thousands of degrees), so they need mechanical transport mechanisms to escape, i.e., they don't escape as gases. How much was released? My guess? Very, very little…and certainly I could, if I followed the lead of the sensationalist headlines, express this in terabecquerels rather than Curies to make a bigger impact with ‘big’ numbers. The comparisons to Chernobyl are speculating on ignorance. I stand firm on this position. First, let's get all the verified numbers, structural assessments, and transport mechanisms understood, then let whoever wants to assign single numbers to a very complex situation do so.

This is grist for the sensationalist mill, and I'm not sure it was prudent of the Japanese to announce this reassessment — qualifications of ‘provisional’ and limitations to releases rather than health effects notwithstanding. It seems it would have made more sense to wait until a correct assessment has been made of the structural damage to the main components of the reactor buildings, and to wait for a solid radiometric survey of releases. I expect Michio Kaku, Congressman Edward Markey, and other panic mongers will ride this to the maximum sensationalist extent possible.

I would counsel the Japanese to reconsider raising the scale of the accident until more is known. Please don't misunderstand me: this is a major accident, but the repeated comparisons to Chernobyl are sensationalist and self-serving.

Alexander Sich is an associate professor of physics at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Sich was the first American researcher to investigate the Chernobyl reactor meltdown on site. The views expressed are his own.

April 15, 2012 at 16:54

I’m curious, coming at this again after finding renewed reports of possible new fission activity at the plant’s #2 Reactor and having a general distrust of the public announcements made by TEPCO and the Japanese government (I question competence here, rather than some giant black-spider-like conspiracy, necessarily) I’m wondering where I can/should go for reliable information on the science of the issue. I find the big absence of news on this at major western news sites (Reuters, CNN, BBC, etc) to be odd, but hardly conclusive of anything. Reports over the weekend of 4/14-4/15/2012 of new fission activity in #2 and big concerns over the stability and possible much larger ‘threat’ of #4 and especially the spent fuel rod storage seem something that ‘should’ make big news?

I live in the Eastern USA and like many my angle on this is entirely personal. While I find the science fascinating, I know all too little to either confirm or reasonably abate my fears. Of course, this scenario is perfectly designed to foster fear and uncertainty. Ultimately, I find myself very (very) concerned about this story and its impact on my 6 year old daughter, going forward. I have no idea if this is a reasonable concern – is this event likely to impact her life dramatically in the near future or more likely to increase her chance of cancer in future decades? While the latter is of course a big deal, it’s significantly lesser than the former. Are these questions simply unanswerable in the shorter term?

I read reports from some in places like eastern and central Canada who claim to see consistently very high radiation levels for the past 6 months or more but I don’t really know what this means. I understand there is a variable background radiation level, naturally. I’ve considered investing in a Geiger counter or other measuring device to get accurate readings where I live so I know I have at least a small handle on truth but I’m not sure what is reliable.

I’m curious as to how people with more scientific knowledge but without a political/environmental/internet-stupidity axe to grind would respond to this.

May 1, 2011 at 04:07

LOL I am so glad… all those nice elites protecting humanity like that… what a heart warming idea!

April 25, 2011 at 16:21

This is another unsolvable problem. If society removed nuclear power from the world, it would be a tipping point that would collapse the socio-economic system. Unfortunately, the system sustains the lives of 7 billion people. An amazingly high, and artificially enabled level of population that, if any of the many major enabling factors are removed, the result will be a collapse of the whole system. If society removed such an important element, it would weaken or disable other elements of the economy, resulting in a domino style total collapse.

I believe some of the world’s governments have planned for this event (not specifically for ending nuclear power, but for myriad other scenarios), in which the collapse will be so sudden and complete that no store of value except the essentials of survival will have any inducement to drive economic activity — not even silver or gold.

The governments have stored enough food and supplies to sustain the elites, and enough of the military to protect them, during a mass die-down of the population.

Our leaders must make many difficult decisions to ensure the survival of humankind. If not, the inevitable collapse could reduce humanity to as few as 100 to 200 million hunter-gatherers, who have no written language, and fear and suspicion separates into small tribal groups. Aren’t you glad we have such capable people to make decisions during these times?

April 25, 2011 at 15:26

The problem developed because the reactors were unattended for a period of days after the tsunami. When the redundant cooling systems all failed, which occurred within hours of the tsunami, the engineers knew a meltdown was inevitable unless cooling was restored. I believe they panicked and fled the plant. Why Tepco was unable to acquire the necessary equipment to restore cooling to all of the fuel stocks is unknown. It seems like a simple enough task for a company with such resources.

I suspect the Japanese culture of protecting the ones they serve and their assets could have contributed to multiple levels of indecision, and the sequence of events that led to the complete meltdowns in at least three reactors and the fuel pools of number 4.

The disturbing thing now is the fact that the media is acting as though the crisis is over when in truth, there is uncontrolled fission continuing to spew a full spectrum of fission material into the environment. There are various maps available on the net that monitor the fission emissions from Fukushima. One of the emissions is xenon-133 gas. Xe-133 gas has a radioactive half life of less than 5 1/2 days. If it is in the environment, it hasn’t been there any longer than that. Moreover, if the emissions of radioisotopes with short half-lives are entering the environment, in commensurate amounts, so will the long lasting radioisotopes such as strontium 89 and 90, and Cesium 134,136 and 137. When these isotopes enter the environment they don’t decay out of it in days, they stay with us for 30 and 28 thousand years, accumulating as long as the source emits them.

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