Scientists predict unprecedented disaster should an earthquake hit Japan and further damage the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The facility was crippled in March 2011 when the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake triggered violent tsunami waves, claiming almost 16,000 lives and injuring or displacing thousands of others in a catastrophe the Japanese prime minister called the “toughest and most difficult crisis” for his country since World War II.
TEPCO is still cleaning up the damage at the six Fukushima reactors, a project some say will be far more devastating than the natural disaster should anything go awry. The object of concern is spent fuel rods stored in damaged cooling stations at the plant. The rods must remain submerged in water; otherwise, they could ignite and discharge radioactive materials into the environment. Fears run rampant that another high-magnitude earthquake will drain the cooling pools completely, expose the fuel, demolish Japan, and spew lethal nuclear radiation across the globe.
“I have seen a paper which says that if, in fact, the fourth plant goes under an earthquake, and those rods are exposed, it’s ‘Bye, bye Japan,’ and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate,” environmentalist David Suzuki told his audience at an October 2013 University of Alberta symposium. “Now, if that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.”
Some of his terrified colleagues agree and urge Northern Hemisphere evacuation in the event of further seismic damage. “If there’s another earthquake and Building 4 collapses,” said author and physician Helen Caldicott, “I’m going to evacuate my family from Boston.” She made the remark during an address sponsored by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear organization she co-founded in the 1970s. Caldicott named her native Australia a safe haven.
“It would certainly destroy Japan as a functioning country,” claimed former nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen in a 2012 KGO Radio interview. “Move south of the equator if that ever happened. I think that’s probably the lesson there.”
Are these warnings realistic? Should governments be making evacuation plans for the Northern Hemisphere? Are nuclear bombs mere firecrackers in comparison to exposed fuel rods? Must we revert to the 1950s, build fallout shelters, and dust off old Duck and Cover filmstrips? Or are these predictions simply rantings of anti-nuclear agitators promoting a decades-old propaganda campaign touting a no-nuke-is-good-nuke party line and preying on the ignorance of the public about the benefits, safety, economics, and efficiency of nuclear power?
Accident or Armageddon?
The oft-quoted Gundersen is considered an expert in the field of atomic energy, with more than 40 years experience as a nuclear engineer and industry executive. Believing he is now blacklisted by the industry, he claims he was fired in 1990 for exposing safety violations at his company. Gundersen now serves as chief engineer for his non-profit Fairewinds Energy Education, and he is a self-proclaimed nuclear whistleblower.
During an interview following Japan’s 2011 accident, Gundersen told Peak Prosperity’s Chris Martenson that according to calculations in a 1997 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) report, “If a fuel pool went dry and caught on fire, it could cause 187,000 fatalities.” The NRC report, Severe Accidents in Spent Fuel Pools in Support of Generic Safety, actually published in 1987, investigated the risks and consequences of a complete draining of spent fuel storage pools. It is unclear where Gundersen gleaned “187,000 fatalities” since that number appears nowhere in the 137-page paper. In fact, the authors repeatedly stressed substantial uncertainties in their calculations “beyond those characteristic of traditional risk assessment studies,” because of the large number of variables at play. Moreover, they based forecasts strictly on mathematical formulae and computer models because there was “no case on record of a significant loss of water inventory” from a spent fuel storage pool, a testimony to the safety of nuclear power in its then 30-year history in the United States. (The spent fuel safety record remains unvarnished in its now 55-year history.)
However, researchers made one precise calculation. In their discussion of off-site radiological consequences, they wrote, “It is important to note that no ‘prompt fatalities’ were predicted and the risk of injury was also negligible,” even in worst-case scenarios. Additionally, investigators saw fit to calculate environmental effects to distances of at most 500 miles. This is certainly a sizable area. But it does not even reach from Fukushima to Hiroshima, and certainly not to mainland Asia, the North American west coast, or the entire Northern Hemisphere. Perhaps we won’t have to vacate this half of the globe after all.
Fuel Rods Exposed
For an idea of what might actually happen if another earthquake hits and exposes the fuel rods to air, let’s look at what did happen when the 2011 earthquake partially exposed them. Josef Oehmen, Ph.D., of Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered a “layman’s summary” of the event.
Oehmen explained that when Tohoku hit, the Fukushima plant lost all power, including its tsunami-flooded backup diesel generators, and all nuclear chain reactions came to a halt. But the handicapped cooling system couldn’t maintain a water level above the tops of the fuel rods. They therefore heated up, converting some of the water to steam, which reacted with the melting rods to produce hydrogen, a highly combustible gas. Sheltered from outside air, the hydrogen was safe in the containment structure. But when workers vented the gas to release pressure within the containment structure and preserve its integrity, the hydrogen reacted with outside air causing explosions that damaged outer buildings surrounding the containment structure. (It is important to note the outer buildings protect the reactor from Mother Nature and not Mother Nature from the reactor.) The inner containment structures remained intact, despite the violent earthquake, devastating tsunami, and subsequent hydrogen explosions.
Meanwhile, reactor workers began pumping in sea water to compensate for coolant losses. Within four days TEPCO reported stable water levels and temperatures, and offsite power restored. Bravo to the quick-witted, clear-thinking plant employees working under such extremely adverse conditions, and to the ingenious architects and builders of a structure hit by an earthquake of far greater magnitude than it is rated to withstand!
But the important questions are: How much radioactive gas did the explosions release, and how many people died? Writing for The New American after the incident, Jane Orient, M.D., executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, explained, “If you stood at the gate of the plant for 10 hours at the highest dose-rate, you’d get as much radiation as from [a] total-body CT scan.” And since the intensity of electromagnetic radiation varies with the inverse square of distance, the dose-rate fell off dramatically at locations farther away than the gate.
As to deaths, then-NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko admitted during an October 2011 roundtable discussion in Washington, “There have been no fatalities that we’re aware of that are directly related to radiation exposure.” He said power plant workers received abnormally high doses from airborne radiation and contaminated water, but “nothing that is going to lead to an immediate loss of life.”
Regrettably, there was loss of life at the Fukushima plant. Six people died from drowning or other storm-related accidents. In May 2012, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) announced that none of them were “attributed to exposure to ionizing radiation.”
What about long-term effects on the living? In workers who received the highest radiation doses, “no clinically observable effects were reported.” UNSCEAR also found “no health effects attributable to radiation” in children or “any other member of the population.” Thyroid monitoring of children near Fukushima revealed none received a hazardous dose.