Subtle and not so subtle biases shape assessment of Fukushima

As readers of this blog may have figured out, I like to discuss political issues related to science and technology. Although I am personally a bit to the left of the American center, my ideology, if I have one, is that evidence trumps ideology every time. Perhaps the best description, given my willingness to state my views firmly on issues of social and political importance, is that I blog from the radical center.

From that perspective, I can see how biases on both sides of an issue shape people’s assessments of technologies like nuclear power in the wake of events like the triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011. Reviews and discussions of my latest book for young readers, Meltdown coverMeltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, have shown me the extent of those biases and how subtle they can be. I’ll get to them after telling you more about the book.

I begin Meltdown! by describing the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the subsequent reactor failures in considerable detail. I want my readers to understand the failures technologically. But I also want them to recognize that stronger regulations and government policies would probably have prevented the disaster.

Next I compare Fukushima to previous meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in terms of both engineering issues and of human lives lost or disrupted. That leads my readers to this key question: “Why would any government take the risk of using nuclear power?”

The answer is that the world is facing a potentially much greater risk from global warming. Finding a way to an energy future with less fossil fuel is difficult enough with nuclear power in the mix. Will it be possible in the future for renewable energy sources to replace coal, oil, AND nuclear, too?

That critical open question won’t be resolved in the short run. The answer will depend on future technological developments. So I close my book with a discussion of the benefits and limitations of current “green” technologies. My final paragraphs remind my readers that they will be the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and political leaders, and it will be up to them to determine the future role of well-regulated nuclear power plants.

“The decisions you will face as a voter will be complex, difficult, and very important for your country and government,” I write. “But if governments and citizens act wisely, then the world will have the energy it needs. And the nuclear industry will never again see another disaster like Fukushima, no matter how many reactors it builds.”

Is that a pro-nuclear statement? It depends how much weight a reader puts on that little word “if” and the bigger word “wisely.” It certainly leaves the door open for nuclear energy, but it also assumes strict regulations that will affect the economic viability of nuclear energy.

I knew that closing would leave the book open to criticism from both sides of the debate. And now that the book has appeared, I am discovering a lot about how people are responding to the Fukushima disaster one year later. Some of the responses I’m about to describe came from audiences at public appearances and others came from reviewers*.

[*As an occasional science book reviewer myself, I want to assure any reviewers who may be reading this that I appreciate the care you have taken in your reading and assessment. Even when I disagree with specific points–and I am about to do so–I value your opinion and especially appreciate that you have recommended the book in the context of other literature. As I write in the Meltdown author’s note, “Just as I did not rely on only one source in writing this book, readers should go beyond this book to understand the events of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami and the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi.” I want my readers to learn to think critically about all their sources of information, including my own work.]

My first public discussion of the book was at my hometown library, and my audience included people who had spent most of their working lives in the nuclear industry. (I spent three years in the industry in the mid-1970s–pre-Three Mile Island. Despite my management’s strong attempts to indoctrinate me as pro-nuclear, I left with a mind as open as when I was hired.) Some of them objected to my title’s characterization of the event as a “nuclear disaster” or my use of the term “engineering failure.”

Their major argument was that the engineering issues were known, but the failure was that government policy or corporate management did not address the issues. My response was that my book put the engineering failure in the proper context of political and management shortcomings. The central question is not whether the reactors could have been engineered to survive the earthquake and tsunami but rather whether human institutions could enforce sufficient standards so they would have survived.

They also pointed out, quite correctly, that the nuclear contamination from Fukushima has led to no human deaths and will in the final assessment cause serious health issues for only a small number of people. In contrast, many of the firefighters at Chernobyl died within weeks or months from radioactive exposure, and epidemiologists measure the number of subsequent cancer cases and fatalities in Northern Europe in the thousands or tens of thousands.

The real Fukushima disaster, they argued, was caused by the tsunami. I took issue with them on that point. True, the tsunami death toll was about 20,000, but the meltdown was also disastrous in terms of disrupted lives, contaminated agricultural land, and the long-term evacuation of many cities and towns. The disaster is ongoing in that respect.

From the other side, some reviewers indicated that they would have preferred a more urgent tone and a more detailed description of the damage that radiation can cause. To me, that reflects a much more subtle bias than the pro-nuclear attendees had. Immediately after the meltdowns, the news coverage was indeed filled with urgency. One well-known author and professor even described it as “Chernobyl on steroids” in his role as a television expert.

Such reporting no doubt left an impression on many viewers. If they weren’t antinuclear before the news coverage, they were afterwards. For Meltdown!, I choose an less urgent, more factual approach that, I’m pleased to say, was the same approach adopted by Miles O’Brien in a remarkable PBS Frontline documentary called “Nuclear Aftershocks” about the impact of Fukushima on the nuclear industry.

That subtle bias also could have caused a reviewer to overlook the fact that Meltdown! does indeed describe the harm caused by radiation at both Chernobyl and Fukushima. The difference is that the impact of Chernobyl was primarily on human health, while the impact at Fukushima was primarily disrupted lives.

I can’t fault reviewers for subtle biases like that. We all have them. And to the reviewers’ credit, they wrote in such a way that (1) their anti-nuclear views were apparent to me and I think to other readers and (2) they still recommended the book.

Could I have asked for more? Sure–a starred review would be nice. But they would have been less than honest to themselves if they had added that little sweet dollop of praise.

19 thoughts on “Subtle and not so subtle biases shape assessment of Fukushima”

  1. What you want people to understand does show bias on your part.

    The big danger at Fukushima highlights the basic flaw in the way reactor safety is determined.

    The flawed methodology was in fact designed for the sole purpose of convincing the public that nuclear power was saffe.

    I base this assessment on the evidence from the NRC and from expert studies of the risks.

    Nudear power is quite safe in an ideal and impossible world away from humans a d planetary forces.

    Nuclear power is spectacularly inefficient.

    Nuclear power is also a source of global warming. Even fusion if it were 100% efficient would be unusable in the near future due to the energy added to the planet.

    I base this on scientific articles. Maybe you need to drop your bias and do the real research?

    Currently CO2 is the biggest source of global warming and therefore something must be done.

    There is a lot of evidence that there are solutions that fix the real issues without replacing them with problem sources such as nuclear.

  2. A note to Richard and others who want to post comments. Comments here are moderated, which means that they don’t appear until I see them and approve them. I will not edit them.

    I have no problem with comments that disagree with me. In fact, I welcome them as long as they are likely to start a productive discussion. I’m not sure that Richard’s post does that since it is full of generalizations that contain some grains of truth but also a lot of misunderstanding about what is currently possible and what I was trying to do in my book. I was hoping for a more in-depth discussion than that.

    Certainly the politics of nuclear power needs to be part of the discussion, and the history of the AEC/NRC in the US shows how we have attempted to deal with things in the past. There is still plenty of controversy there, like the issue of liability to name one.

    Still if CO2 reduction is an important aim, there is at present no technology other than nuclear that can replace fossil-fuel plants on such a large scale. That situation may be very different when my young readers are in a position to make energy choices, which is precisely why I leave the question open for them.

    Fred Bortz,
    author of Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future

    [An aside: I also did not appreciate Richard’s implicit accusation that I didn’t research this subject just because I come to a different conclusion that he did. My publisher would never have let me get away without solid research.]

    • Hi Fred,

      What worried me was that the first post appeared then dissapeared. Then later was still not there.

      When I reposted the post appeared then when I went back later with the story I had just found the post had dissapeared again. at that point I began to think something was up – and having posted to other similar blogs which never actually posted any replies from anyone I got a little upset.

      When I posted the link and my irate comment the second post of mine reappeared – this seems to be a quirk of the approval process.

      My assertion that you didn’t research was a shot at the implication in your post that bias results in differing views to yours.

      I feel it was reasonable to assert that things are not that simple.

      The facts I had raised in response were intended to provoke thinking and research.

      I should note that my criticism I feel is well directed at just about everyone right now, including me. We have not until recently been seeing the basic physics of the future of our survival.

      Often a professional tends to see their profession and be blind to other views, what is bothering me right now is that the physicists seem to be the ones missing the physics, which is odd, but in that respect the bias is showing.

      I deliberately left the readers and yourself to do some digging, if you would rather the detail then here goes some of it:

      I worked out pretty quickly last year that waste heat is global warming, it still didn’t occur to me that the electricity itself is a source of warming, until I read the research.

      That warming will (using current 2% yearly increase in generation) cause a 3°C increase in temperature by 2300 – without factoring in other warming sources.

      OK that’s 280ish years, but without the other factors, and climate change models do not yet factor this warming in.

      What it definitely means is that Fusion and/or Thorium cannot be the 10,000 years of energy that their proponents claim.

      What it also means is that going Nuclear is a short term option, and even now is a factor in global warming, just one not fully accounted for. The CO2 will amplify the effects of the waste heat and the electricity that becomes heat.

      There needs to be more modelling to see how much short term effect there is/will be if we use Nuclear, or even go on generating with other chemical energy sources.

    • As to the options for an energy future, or for that matter the present:

      I come from a country that has no Nuclear power generation.

      We have a large and extremely energy intensive economy, and have survived without Nuclear very well till now.

      This is a plan for us to go 100% renewable for a cost of $8 per household:

      There are similar plans for the US I believe, but I haven’t looked at them yet so will not make claims.

      In my country it would take 10-20 years to go Nuclear, it would take 10 years to go renewable.

      Certainly the problems with solar are being resolved, I know this from research including the studies being done on the impacts of solar and micro-generation and storage on the grid. I have bothered to go talk to the people involved in the trial.

      The costs of solar are falling rapidly and 2014/2015 is the point at which in my country the solar industry no longer wants subsidies as the price point will make them a no-brainer for households without subsidy.

      There is battery technology available now to solve the issues of nighttime load, the cost has to come down but that is predicted to take 2-3 years. I have discussed the price point issues face to face with one of the battery technology companies, and the time I quote comes from them.

      Meanwhile the batteries are being trialled in real-world housing by the local grid utility. The unit is a self-contained and self managing system that works with or without other sources such as solar, gas fuel cell or wind.

      The battery technology and renewables combination is expected to reduce the cost of electricity from 2025 onwards.

      For almost every country I can see no reason to waste money on a Nuclear plant, as these will always cost, and never drop the price of electricity, then soon have to be decomissioned once the world wakes up.

      If we depend on Nuclear now we will have to go solar and wind later anyway, plus we are adding more to the global warming than the climate models are showing.

      If we go solar and wind now as much as possible then we are having greater effect on reducing global warming than the current climate modelling shows.

  3. I read the New Scientist article. Indeed, any waste heat we produce adds to the problem, but far less than capturing solar energy by increased CO2. I think they intended that article as a way to get people to think about the way humans use energy in the long run, not as a critique of the need to solve the present problem.

    Long term solutions are important, but since we already have built up enough CO2 to cause significant problems in the coming decades, we urgently need short term solutions to reduce CO2 production now. We can’t reject nuclear out of hand without addressing the CO2 issue. But we also need to be much more stringent in regulations for nuclear power and more rational in our political discussions of technology in general.

    That is my middle of the road position, and, as my posting notes, it generates criticism from both sides.

    • Yes, I agree that current CO2 levels are the pressing problem.

      What I am suggesting is that the options are improving rapidly, much of these are predicatable a few years ahead.

      My other posts cover this I think.

      Why can we not reject nuclear, yet many reject the current reality of solar.

      Most of the reasons that people use to reject solar are based on out of date figures, where the energy solutions are 5-10 year projects to solve increases yet to happen.

      As I have posted a link to a plan that can take a country to 100% renewable – why can’t I reject Nuclear?

      Yes you need improved regulation of the plants that already exist. I see no viable way to solve the issues with Nuclear by regulation alone.

    • “We can’t reject nuclear out of hand without addressing the CO2 issue.”

      This is why I argued with you over your bias point.

      This assumes that rejecting nuclear is rejecting it “out of hand”.

      I certainly am rejecting it, yet am doing so after spending quite a bit of time trying to work out how to make it better.

      I am not against making Nuclear better either, in fact I think that needs to be done.

      There are going to be times where we need nuclear power technology, but it has to be redesigned to be much safer.

      I can quite comfortably declare that it is not a viable option for our baseload power needs for any period of time.

      I can quite comfortably declare that there are 100% renewable options to address the needs for growth in power generation and to solve the distribution issues that are also a major part of the infrastructure growth required.

      So I disagree with your assertion of “out of hand”.

    • ” I think they intended that article as a way to get people to think about the way humans use energy in the long run, not as a critique of the need to solve the present problem.”

      Makes the point I am making about what is short term and what is considered to be long term effects.

      That article was linked from the first as a companion piece.

      I suggest you take time to consider the implications, then re-read the first article.

      I have found that it takes time for the implcations to hit people with that article. It did with me, and with the other people I have sent it to.

  4. Besides that opinon, what is really important is that we now consider all factors, inclucing the ones we have until now not found before we get committed to any power source.

    One of the reasons I like solar right now is that the rollout does not over-commit us.

    We have things to learn about solar also. The same physics that says that Nuclear is global warming also says that Solar can be done well or badly.

    Off planet power such as Solar arrays in space would be warming.

    Solar in the wrong place would be warming. Solar panels in the Arctic (not practical) would be warming also.

    We need to tread carefully, and implying bias in the doubters is dangerous.

    Fukushima led me to look into fuel pools as I wanted to understand the news. That investigation led me to the dangers of fuel pools and the see no evil attittude to the problems.

    The report I found said that the dangers of fuel pool inceidents were very bad but the frequency was so low that we could ignore the dangers.

    This stunningly wrong conclusion led me to research the safety assesments used by the Nuclear industry.

    What I found and then spent many hours arguing with pro-nuclear proponents online, was that Fuel Pools have not progressed. All of the arguments for safe new designs were in fact irrelevant to the Fukushima problem.

    I can see why you might think that better regulation would help. The Fukushima tsunami was an expected event, and TEPCO made the mistake of assuming the damage would not be so bad.

    The real problem is what do you use as the design basis that you legislate for? What is the maximum possible EQ? It appears that the previous predictions were way too low.

    Any idea that the earth will only work within any legislation is foolish.

    In any large scale external event the damage can wipe out any combination of redundant systems.

    A Station Blackout is, contrary to what people argue with me, an almost certain meltdown.

    The Tsunami was not the reason for Fukushima failing, it was just one of the causes of multiple failures.

    Nuclear should be re-thought from the ground up, mot be a pile-up of kludges to fudge the safety probability.

    I was considering how to do nuclear better when I found that it is a fools errand as the warming problem makes it a dead-end. Going from 6% fuel burn and 30% thermal efficiency to say 99% fuel burn and 50-70% thermal efficiency should be possible, but still will need to be stopped soon.

  5. Richard has gotten the ball rolling on this discussion. Anyone else care to chime in?

    I’ll just make one comment to clarify my position. I’m certainly not rejecting solar power, and if you read my book you will see that.

    However, if rejecting nuclear means more fossil fuels, I’m for nuclear.

    At this point, no one is predicting that we can replace both fossil fuels AND nuclear with renewables in the near future. If we reach the point that we can do that, then, by all means, it will be time to phase out nuclear as well as fossil fuels.

    • I am not suggesting the US shut down the current nuclear plants overnight.

      I am suggesting that building any new plants is a mistake.

      I am not suggesting that you are rejecting any other technology completely.

      When I talk about Solar, I am using it as the example of the technologies, and the one with the easiest path to implementation. Solar PV has some advantages in that it can be generated at the consumer site, thereby having multiple benefits for the consumer and the grid.

      Solar also is the technology that is reaching it’s financial tipping point now.

      Although in my country wind power has already hit parity with coal.

      Clearly the answer is a technology mix.

      There are people predicting that we can replace fossil fuels and Nuclear with renewables in the near future, I sent you a detailed study on how to do it. I am aware of similar studies for the US – certainly it is being predicted.

      The latest carbon reduction proposal I saw that included Nuclear called for an increase worldwide of 5GW of nuclear – even this would mean only about 5 plants in total worldwide for short term solutions to CO2 output.

      China and India will account for the 5 plants easily.

      You rejected my view and the New Scientist view on the sense of using technology that clearly has a use-by date because we underestimate the time to reach that use-by date.

      In the face of a plan that doesn’t require Nuclear you claim that nobody is predicting not requiring Nuclear.

      I think you need to re-think your position or justify rejecting mine.

      Using CO2 to justify Nuclear is not from my research a reasonable position.

      It seems like a panic response, that doesn’t stack up against the available options unless you use outdated information.

      Nuclear as the CO2 saviour is also the marketing hype used by the nuclear industry to greenwash the technology – and it is working on some people.

  6. Not all reviewers miss the point.

    My latest Google alert pointed me to this Kiss the Book blog review:

    This reviewer says: “The author does a good job of giving readers the whole perspective, allowing them to make their own decisions about energy and what they’d like to see in the future…. Readers who are interested in energy or have to do a pros and cons report will appreciate this book.”

    If you are a teacher who likes pros and cons reports, see the classroom activity in the eSource list at the Lerner webpage for Meltdown!

  7. As a consequence of the Fukushima tsunami and subsequent nuclear accidents, I made it my business to dig up what I could on the topic. My father was a physicist, and consequently I have some familiarity with determining the scientific validity of my information sources. I clearly remember being 6 years old and learning how to zero calibrate and read a pen dosimeter, learning that I could cause the readings to creep upwards if I spent time in the basement (likely due to the low level emissions from the coal or possibly Radon). The topic of nuclear radiation has continued to interest me since.
    Early on I noticed that my newly found information sources had an odd habit of disappearing. I know well enough that one cannot count on news outlets for accurate representations of data sets and one must go instead to .gov and .edu sites to ferret out the truth from among the boring columns of statistics. Having discovered apparently valid assessments on two university sites, I returned less than a week later only to discover they were down. Naturally, I assumed that others had duplicated my investigations and that the servers were overloaded. When I turned up I felt I had hit the jackpot for accurate assessments and perused as much as I could taking notes. After a week or two that site went down as well.
    What I had seen was enough to cause me great concern. Iodine-131 dispersion patterns indicated high levels of exposure all along the North American coast. Xenon-133 clearly enveloped the entire Northern Hemisphere at maximal levels. (The charts I saw were data interpolations rather than comprehensive measurements but seemed to merit further study).
    I then undertook a more comprehensive approach, departing from the internet and turning instead to graduate libraries. Of particular relevance, I found the follow up study on the health consequences of Hiroshima, another follow-up on the health consequences of nuclear testing and the most comprehensive of all, Chernobyl:
    Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, the 24 year follow-up study on Chernobyl.
    What I found consistently was that official assessments from government regulatory agencies and industry spokespersons generally amounted to gross underestimations. Repeatedly, the follow-up studies pointed to poor methodology, fabricated reports and misleading framing of data sets as applied to populations to account for the disparity of assessments by “experts.” Effectively, every follow-up study revealed that consequences of nuclear events were far more extensive than early assessments.
    As regards the consequences of Fukushima, it is likely that we will not know the true consequences for several years. This is due to the stochastic effects of low-dose contaminants. It may take years or even generations to see the results show up as elevated cancer statistics and birth defects. I’ll keep you posted.

  8. <<There is battery technology available now to solve the issues of nighttime load, the cost has to come down but that is predicted to take 2-3 years. I have discussed the price point issues face to face with one of the battery technology companies, and the time I quote comes from them.

    Writing from Australia "Richardw" alleges that the storage problem for non-despatchable renewables has been solved. How? Because a tech company that lives off selling batteries has told him 2-3 years ahead of rollout. You don't say.

    And the LCOE, levelised cost of electricity is what, please?

    To my knowledge, lead-acid batteries invented in 1859 and unimproved since then are what is de facto on offer, which is why a physicist on "The Oil Drum" recently calculated that there is not enough lead in the world to make the batteries to store the requisite electricity.

    • The changes in materials technology may make your physicists calculation on lead acid wrong. Plate efficiency is being improved for most technologies.

      I spoke to the company involved at a home that had an actual final product installed. The technology is readily available now.

      They are selling battey systems for applicatiions including solar backup already.

      The issue is price point which is about manufacturing process and ecenomies of scale.

      My posting did spell this out.

      I did not quote the URL before as I am seeing many systems like this being either at market or in development.

      For instance Panasonic is making battery systems for domestic use also.

      None of the systems are lead acid.

      Many use commercially available battery technology repackaged.

      The story of Panasonic and battery technology is a story of chevron playing around to stop competition with their oil business.

      Panasonic and toyoa teamed up and successfully busted chevron’s block on technology. This is why hybrid cars became viable whilst there was FUD being spread as to it not being possible.

      Thank you for the FUD but it is factually incorrect.

      I think you should ask the physicist why they gave a prediction based on technology that has been outdated for over a decade.

    • As for the cost of electricity. I have taken the CSIRO review of electricity pricing and updated it for new coatings on solar systems.

      Solar is soft competitive with nuclear right now in my country. This is without factoring the risk costs of recovery from a nuclear accident.

      Solar pricing is expected to drop by a factor of 2 to 3 in the next few years.

      Is is all ignoring the solar plants being built right now the do not require battery storage.

      It is also ignoring the trend toward cross continent power grids based on new distribution technologies.

      Any calculation made today about relative current pricing will be wrong at about the time you make it. The change is constantly improving the relative advantage of renewables.

      Better regulation of nuclear can only add to the cost.

  9. Glad to see others adding their thoughts here.

    I’ll respond to Richard’s suggestion that the US should not build new nuclear plants.

    I think the global warming problem is potentially serious enough that we need as many alternatives to coal and oil as possible.

    Currently, there is a boom in natural gas, which is better than coal and oil for greenhouse gas production per unit of energy, but it probably would not be enough. A very smart oil man and investor, T. Boone Pickens, has made a major play in natural gas in his native Texas, seeing it as a bridge to wind power (which he also has invested in).

    Still, it’s not and either/or situation. I think it is a both/and situation. Nuclear technology is greatly improved. There is an unresolved political/technological issue for nuclear, and that’s waste disposal. It’s not one to dismiss easily, but, as I note in Meltdown!, making choices for our energy future will be complex and difficult.

    We need to allow those future decision-makers a broad range of actions, and that includes keeping a viable nuclear energy industry that sells domestically as well as in foreign countries.

    It’s probably time for me to step aside in this discussion, since I think I’m beginning to repeat myself. But I’ll be reading further comments with interest. (I may hop back in if I have something different to add.)

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