Japanese Nuclear Crisis: TMI, Chernobyl, or In-between

My favorite chapter from my 1995 book Catastrophe! coverCatastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success is the one where I discuss two very different nuclear reactor accidents, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It is my favorite because of the way I ended it. That ending applies to the current situation at the reactors in Fukushima, Japan.

…sometime in your lifetime, the question of nuclear power is likely to arise again. The designs will be safer, the plans for waste disposal will be better, and the concerns about other sources of electric power will arise again.

Both sides will argue that we have learned the lessons of TMI and Chernobyl. One side will say that the lessons teach us that nuclear power plant technology will always be too risky to try. The other side will say that the we have learned the lessons of failure and that we can succeed in spite of the risks.

Coming to the right decision then will be no easier than it is now, nor will it be any less important. TMI and Chernobyl are two spectacular failures from which we will be learning for a long time.

As I follow the unfolding story, I am struck by the different views being expressed by experts in the media. On ABC’s Nightline last night, a Japanese professor compared the situation to Chernobyl, when a non-nuclear explosion (there is no risk of a nuclear explosion because reactors are very different from nuclear bombs) spewed huge amounts of radioactive material into the environment. To hear him speak, you would have thought that a similar explosion at the Fukushima Daiishi reactors was inevitable.

This morning, the reporting on NPR’s Morning Edition was less sensational without understating the problem. At present, the situation is closer to TMI times 4 (the number of reactors in trouble). Despite a partial meltdown, TMI’s environmental impact was restricted to the immediate vicinity of the plant, and retrospective health studies show no measurable increases in cancer more than 30 years later.

The brave Japanese workers who are still in the plant will not be so lucky. They will face serious cancer risks, even if they can avoid the immediate effects of radiation sickness. Still, beyond the plants themselves, the increase in radiation exposure is not likely to impact many people very much. The amount of radioactive material released so far is clearly greater than TMI, but it is, at present, nowhere near the devastating scale of Chernobyl.

Listening to the NPR report, it was also clear that a much greater problem may still lie ahead. The question is, can the current emergency measures cool the fuel enough to prevent a massive explosion until power is restored to the cooling pumps. The answer to that is unknown, so the evacuations are prudent.

Assuming the cooling is restored in time, and the people can return to their homes, the world will still be faced with the same difficult political choices I outlined in Catastrophe!. We will need to evaluate whether today’s vastly safer reactor designs are robust enough to withstand future geologic events or terrorist attacks.

We will need to compare the risks of nuclear power to the steady damage from coal-powered plant emissions and greenhouse gases produced by all fossil fuels. We will need to face the difficulties of disposing of spent fuel and nuclear proliferation.

The political decisions will be difficult and compounded by a fog of information, much of which is clever propaganda or media accounts that are over-stated or sensationalized to get readers or viewers.

More than ever, critical thinking will be needed in a world where sound-bite and YouTube clip mentality rules. I urge all my readers to arm themselves with solid information and a realistic but skeptical mindset, rejecting oversimplification and conspiracy theories and seeking careful, detailed, and accurate accounts instead.

9 thoughts on “Japanese Nuclear Crisis: TMI, Chernobyl, or In-between”

  1. My concerns are more about the ever-shrinking stocks of uranium and the fact that we still don’t know how to safely store radioactive waste. If it was any other mooted fuel source, those issues alone would entirely nix the project.

  2. The last paragraph asking the readers to make informed decisions is so optimistic. There is so much political capital to be made out of scaremongering, tribalism, sound-bites and uninformed emotional reactions that we will make stupid and dangerous reasons on any vital issue. Be it global climate destabilisation, global government, international cooperation or war, we will be thick.

  3. I just saw the same prof on CNN. He pushing a book. Now he’s saying that the stage 5 emergency should be higher since it involves four reactors. The stage measures the level of threat, not the number of reactors involved. As a physicist, I’m annoyed that he is acting objective while clearly enjoying the attention (and fawning adulation from Elliott Spitzer).

  4. Well written, balanced article. Agree that Japan Reactor accident cause concern, but media made it in to blowing proportion. Risks are there. But as the demand for power is increasing exponentially, naturally one has to go for nuclear power. The more review and more precautionary measures required.

  5. Because the powers that be don’t want the issue of radioactive fuel-rod storage to become a public issue, the real problem of this crisis isn’t being discussed. The real problem is that when the partially depleted nuclear reactive fuel rods have become economically inefficient for fuel, the Japanese, like the Americans, store these used fuel rods in cold-water pools. They are still quite active though and produced the nuclear reaction in the reactor when removed. The general public believes the used (not spent) rods are buried inside a mountain where they’ll be safe forever. Not so; in the U.S. and Japan, these rods are stored in 39 foot deep pools that require rapid replacement of the water to prevent it from boiling away, exposing the rods, and the subsequent resumption of the nuclear reaction of uranium or plutonium pellets, which are housed within these zirconium clad rods. Operators who use this method must continue to maintain the fuel-rod cooling process by pumping water indefinitely. If cold water is not continuously circulated through the pools the rods will overheat, and within a day or so, the zirconium cladding that houses the nuclear fuel pellets, will reach 3300 degrees at which temperature the zirconium cladding melts. A byproduct of this uncontrolled process is hydrogen gas, which usually leads to a hydrogen explosion. Do you remember the successive hydrogen explosions?

    The next step in the meltdown process, if the cooling process isn’t resumed, is the exposed pellets will reach 5500 degrees and will melt together. Since the sites in Japan have all of the used rods going back 40 years, some of the pools may have more than 500,000 pounds of pellets each, for a total of 3.5 million pounds on site. When the contents of each pool melt together, they will be molten masses weighing up to 500,000 pounds.
    Let’s define the problem like this: You must permanently dispose of up to six molten masses, each weighing up to 500,000 pounds. Each is at a temperature of 5500 degrees Fahrenheit; a temperature more than double the melting point of steel. If that isn’t enough, it is so radioactive that if anyone gets within a few feet of it without protective suits, they will die in 16 seconds. How is it humanly possible to solve this problem permanently?
    If the Japanese scientists successfully resume cooling these radioactive masses, they are now exposed and will continuously poison the biosphere until the release of radioactive material is contained. Chernobyl was miniscule compared to Daiichi.
    Could this be the reason one scientist said, “If number four’s pool melts down, it’s Armageddon?”

  6. This may come off as a rather “stupid” question, but I’ll ask it anyways. As far as nuclear waste is concerned, could we dispose of it in a volcano? What are the risks?

    • Ray,

      A volcano would probably rate as one of the worst places since it spews material out.

      The idea of Yucca Mountain was that it was geologically stable and provided a place where the waste could be deep underground.

      Fred Bortz

  7. Well, now that it is a year later, we know that hydrogen explosions came very close to occurring inside the reactor vessels. This was stopped by the sacrifice of the Fukushima 50 who would run in, turn a valve for 15-30 seconds, then run out, to be replaced by another. The valves, once opened, allowed the highly radioactive hydrogen gas to escape the reactor vessel. If the Fukushima 50 had left when the rest of the staff left, as TEPCO, had ordered, the reactors would have exploded, spewing radiation rather like Chernobyl, several times over.

    The Prime Minister came close to ordering the evacuation of Tokyo, home to 35 million people. What would that have been like? What would have become of the Japanese economy with Tokyo out of business?

    What is the purpose of nuclear energy? If it is only energy, and not the plutonium produced, is there not a simpler and lest risky way to organize our lives? Do we really need that much electricity? Nuclear power is like any industry, it is maturing slowly. Along the way accidents will happen. People will die. What is different about nuclear though is the size of the accidents, the long term nature of the effects, the fear engendered by the potential for such calamities. Considering the cost of these power plants and the degree of governmental and capital cooperation required, do societies have the ability to ability to operate these plants safely? In San Francisco, Pacific Gas and Electric has shown itself incompetent in running a natural gas pipeline distribution system. It has been breaking the rules for decades and the regulatory agencies knew nothing because they didn’t investigate. Do we want that kind of regulation of nuclear power?

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