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Some hard truths...

In a situation worthy of the Chinese, it seems that every time Yukio Edano (he isn't the TEPCO man, he is actually the Chief Cabinet Secretary) gave a reassurance, things get worse.
"Don't worry, there's no risk of explosion.".
Oh really?

Also, in a situation worthy of the Chinese, it took Japan a long time to figure out the "oh crap" level of what is going on at the Fukushima plant. Several days later Naoto Kan (Prime Minister) asked "what the hell?" as it was so obvious the situation was spiralling out of control that foreign countries were sending planes to evacuate their citizens. This evacuation, I'm sure, has disurbed the historic calmness of the Japanese people. There's a guy on telly saying "it's all good" and there is a mass exodus of everybody who isn't a native. Somehow the two just don't add up. Neither does the slow scattered response of the government. This is not how we like to think of the Japanese, we like to think of them on top of the problem, even if that means facing up to the reality staring them in the face.

Perhaps it is this that is hurting Japan in the eyes of the world. Man up, put aside the idea of "losing face" and admit nobody knows what is going on. To a degree this has happened, though there is still beaurocratic madness as a British rescue team was turned away and sent home due to not having the correct paperwork. Stupid British government for screwing that up, but also stupid Japanese immigration for not realising that those people were there to help.

Thankfully Emperor Akihito made a television appearance. I did not know who he was at first (the caption was in Kanji), but it was a refreshing change to see an official-looking person who seemed properly concerned.


We're all gonna dieeee!

Radiation is a lot like witchcraft. In this world where everything grinds to an immediate halt the moment somebody screams anti-semitism, it is still acceptable to persecute people who believe in witchcraft. Cheap budget horror movies are full of stuff like pentagrams and people with weird powers using them for evil. Why? Because we, as a species, are conditioned to fear that which we do not understand. One could argue that American politics in recent times has relied on this a little too heavily. We don't understand Wicca, therefore it is bad. We don't understand Islam, therefore it is bad. We don't understand Communism, therefore it is bad. We don't understand radiation, therefore it is bad.
[subnote: we understand money, therefore it is good - capitalism 101]

So increased levels of radiation have been detected in Saitama. Okay, how about quantifying this? We know that around 200-500mSv [mSv = millisievert, a measure of radiation; the natural average is around 2.4mSv/year] has been detected in the vicinity of the reactors themselves (exposure of duration of 100mSv can sterilise, 400mSv is when we're looking at cancerous cell damage). What was the reading in Saitama? 1222 nanosievert/hour. This is "40 times higher than usual". That is about 9mSv/year, pretty much what you would expect from a place built on granite that has issues with radon... like, say, Cornwall. In this case, the additional radiation is likely to be fairly short lived, so it need not be a great cause for concern. It might just be the same as eating a banana a day (I'm not kidding, bananas are loaded up with potassium-40 and are the most naturally radioactive fruit you can get).
But that isn't the end of the story. No, it gets better. I have already mentioned Cornwall. Well, rest assured, there will be no nuclear power stations built in Cornwall. Natural radiation levels are so high that if a place was zoned for being turned into a nuclear power station, under current regulations for such things, all of the shifted topsoil and rock would need to be disposed of as low grade nuclear waste. And when built, it would fail its contamination test before any radioactive fuel even arrives. Remember that, if you live in Bodmin, and you're planting daffodils in your garden. That stuff between your fingers? Ooooh, nasty! ☺

Are you starting to get the point? Some things are just naturally more radioactive. I trust the British government, having chosen to tell its citizens to get the hell out of Dodge, will follow this up with a complete evacuation of much of Cornwall, plus order Scotland to evacuate Aberdeenshire.
No? You think that is ridiculous?
It is. Indeed.

This brings us to the wonderfully knee-jerk reaction of the German government who have shut down some of their older reactors and are planning a withdrawal from nuclear.

The world needs nuclear power. Before the environmentalists start, let me say that our best method of creating electricity is by spinning a magnet inside a coil of wire. This is why most solar capture projects are pretty lame. This is why wave power generation is a joke. And the wind turbines popping up all over the world are designed to ease the load on traditional methods. They work well, being a spinning magnet, but their capacities are low. You simply can't run a city on a bunch of wind turbines.

Think to the future. We want to minimise our costs in terms of oil and gas. We want to do this because most of our resources come from screwed up countries with corrupt and greedy madmen in charge, who do deals with corrupt and greedy businessmen who can post obscene profits. Frankly, they can charge what they like for petrol (etc) as the world knows there aren't a lot of choices. Either we cough up, or we do without.
Coal, also a fossil fuel, is used in electricity generation. This is not the easiest thing to obtain.
We, in the world, want our mod-cons. We want our TVs, our PVRs, our mobile phones, game consoles, microwave ovens, and a light in every room.
We can do without oil, oil furnaces are messy and expensive to maintain anyway. We can do without gas. We can do without wood-burning fires. In some countries (such as the UK), new houses are built without chimneys, being entirely dependent upon electric. We cannot do without electricity. Too much of our modern way of life is based upon it. Think of the future car - it is electric, right? Well, you gotta plug it in somewhere!
Nuclear, for is good points and its bad, offers a reliable and fairly low risk means of producing large amounts of electricity. Enough, indeed, to run a city like Tokyo (and the surrounding areas).
Oh, and would it be considered kicking a dead donkey if I point out the mass of lovely carcinogens in the smoke from this fire? Yes, people, there is no such thing as clean electricity. We must weigh up the convenience with the consequences.

Oil refinery fire, epic smoke.
[image from Flick, probably from some news broadcast...]

It is ludicrous to think that nuclear power is "clean" and "risk free". It is, when operating correctly and maintained correctly, clean. A correctly operating power plant is one of the safer places around due to the stringent regulations. The only downside, really, is when it goes wrong, it can be epic.
However, do some research. Go Google. You might find some interesting things. I shall list a summary:

  • Fossil fuel power plants are responsible for more deaths (directly and indirectly) than nuclear - this includes Chernobyl. Recall all those times we hear about mine explosions. Chances are they're down there pulling coal for power generation.
  • In terms of damage to the environment, the recent 'BP' oil gush is seen as being more or less the same as Chernobyl. Its effects are less, but it covers a greater area. And this, I might point out, doesn't account for all of the other oil disasters (here in France, barely a week goes by that the regional newspaper does not mention the "Erika").
  • Coal fired power stations without ash capture technology emit more radiation into the environment than mad-made nuclear (this is counting nuclear waste, nuclear accidents, and weapons testing). In fact, those fossil fuel burners are mankind's single greatest release of radioactivity into our environment.
  • Following Three Mile Island, diary milk from nearby farms was found to have slightly elevated levels of irradiated iodine. Half a pint (UK, 12 fl oz US, about 350ml) of this slightly radioactive milk is... equivalent to less than a single normal banana.
And if you think I'm picking on bananas, you want to check out Brazil nuts. The single most naturally radioactive food around. Why do you think you don't get many in the bag? It's easy. Pockets are warm. Put a bag of Brazil nuts in your pocket, jiggle them around (like if you're jogging or something) and you risk starting a fission event. In your pocket. Holy crap.


I trust readers of my b.log are not daft enough to fall for that, but hey - try it on people you don't like, maybe we can get this to go viral - Brazil nuts, just like little uranium pebbles in your pocket, ho-yay!
There is truth here, Brazil nuts are radioactive. And bananas have messed up airport radiation scanners due to their inherent radioactivity. But nobody thinks twice about eating a banana. Should we panic if we're in Saitama? Yes, we should, because we don't understand radioactivity, therefore... we fear it. Fear equals panic. Well, unless you're Japanese, but they are probably brought up to understand that running around screaming only makes you look like a bit of a wally.

I must point out a factual error by some governments advising their citizens in Tokyo to leave or go further south. I think you meant west... ☺


What could possibly go wrong?

It is easy to point fingers. It is easy to be Angela Merkel and shriek about how nuclear power is evil evil evil.
But we must have a lot of consideration for the people that designed and built the Fukushima plant. For it was not in its design spec to withstand an earthquake of this power - it has been quoted as being eight thousand times stronger than the one that shook Christchurch (New Zealand). And this was back when we thought it was an 8.6, not a 9.0. Remember, the scale is logarythmic. This means each number is twice as powerful as the number before. So roughly speaking, the difference between an 8.6 and a 9.0 could be more or less the same as the difference between zero and eight. Recently there was an animé series that depicted the destruction of Tokyo - it was called Tokyo: Magnitude 8.0. Actually, Tokyo just survived a more powerful earthquake with relatively little damage considering. I have not been able to find an authorative source for the actual strength, I've seen it quoted from 8.2 to 8.6.

This brings us to Fukushima. In the severe zone, it would have been shaken more than Tokyo, more than its design parameters. The violence took out the power grid, which took out the primary cooling systems.
No problem, the secondary cooling systems are diesel pumps. This might have been a workable idea, had the subsequent tsunami not interfered with the plant.
The third line of cooling systems were battery pumps. But these only run for eight hours, and it took closer to eight days to get power restored.

Given what actually happened, I think things have gone pretty well so far. Okay, we have a possibly cracked reactor core, spent rods about to restart nuclear fission, and hydrogen blasts wrecking the outer shell of, what, three of the four reactors? But remember, this was not a power station some dummy was playing around with, it was actually a station older than Chernobyl that suffered what might be the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history, and the, what, fourth most powerful recorded on the planet? French Wikipedia suggests the main island (Honshu) has moved 2.4 metres. I would agree perhaps the east coast, but the whole land mass? Well, you'll all need to update your GPSs!
At any rate, it is a feat of engineering that the whole place didn't blow up Chernobyl-style in the middle of the lengthy violent earthquake.
Could the Japanese have handled this better? Perhaps. But given the scale of what actually happened, there seems to be a sense of inevitability about it. Speaking of which, I'd be crapping myself if I lived in Alaska or LA - the west side of the Pacific Ring Of Fire has taken a battering in recent years, for how much longer will the east side be calm?

I like that the Americans are setting up radiation detection equipment. Funny, I don't recall anybody getting that freaked out about airbourne radiation in the days of above-ground nuclear weapons testing.

It might also be useful for the media to take a little bit of time to explain what a "meltdown" actually means. For meltdowns in various forms happened both at the Three Mile Island incident, and at Chernobyl. At Three Mile, a partial meltdown (that means the stuff sort-of melted a little) took place in one of the reactor cores, but this was contained in the structure. There was some leakage of radiation, but as I mentioned earlier the "radioactive milk" was less than an average banana. The main risk, in any case, is in children as the radioactive isotope (iodine) can mess with the thyroid gland.
Chernobyl, on the other hand, suffered a complete meltdown followed by an explosion. Wonderful Soviet engineering meant there was essentially no containment. There are reports of bystanders on a bridge in Pripryat who saw a bright blue glow. They are very privileged to have actually witnessed this, it is called Cherenkov radiation. These people were looking directly into the reactor core, seeing actual nuclear fission. And receiving a dose estimated at 10,000300,000 mSv/hour. The fact that they all died within days explains why most of us never see this sort of thing.


The sad thing is...

...we're so hung up on the radiation scare that we are missing something even worse.

The Japanese have a whole different set of gestures, which can seem strange until you've watched enough animé to recognise them. But some things are universal...

Natori, a woman alone in the wreckage, crying.
[image from, originally Reuters/Kyodo, edited for size]

Here is Neena Sasaki. One tough cookie, she is only five and is carrying some belongings salvaged from her home.

Neena Sasaki, carrying salvaged things from what was left of her family's home.
[image from The Washington Post, originally by Paula Bronstein (Getty)]

Here is a heartbreaking story from near Natori. In a nutshell, a mother, her mother, and her children took their car a few hundred metres down the road. To their cousin's house, which was made of steel. The children were literally thrown inside by the mother, Izumi Suzuki who was then washed away like much of their little town.

A much more tragic story is unfolding at Kama Elementary School, Ishinomaki. That is the place where 10,000 people are missing. In a quiet corner of the school, thirty pupils sit. In silence. Aged between eight and twelve, they have been there since the tsunami hit the town. They are patiently waiting for their parents to come and collect them.

It is for reasons like this that I have made a donation (to the French Red Cross). Not to help me feel better, but in the hope that it will help them. It's a ridiculously small amount in the scale of things, but for now... if we all donated only €10 or €20, the numbers could soon add up. Because, I fear, once we have stepped away from the obsession of deadly evil cruel menacing dangerous deathly lethal murderous savage toxic killer radiation, stories such as these last few are not the exception, there are many more. News reports are suggesting that, for some, life has just stopped. There are levels of shock, but this just busts the scale. Like the woman in the picture above, I bet her mind was completely blank at that moment. It is all too much. Too much to comprehend. Too much to contemplate...

Judging by the number of "celebrity goes to Japan" television programmes, we are supposed to like Japan, the Japanese, and their interesting clash of ancient and ultra-modern. Well, let's show some of that love at a time when they need it. If nothing else, I can close my eyes and hope that the crying woman above receives at least a coffee and a hug on my behalf. God knows, she looks like she needs it.


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Rick, 21st March 2011, 00:34
Some extra food for thought... 
Done some light research. The worst disaster of nuclear power is, without a doubt, Chernobyl. 336,000 people needed to be resettled, after a 30km exclusion zone was put in place. The number of deaths attributable to the disaster ranges from 4000 to a million, though it is known that around 4000 people contracted thyroid cancer. Even so, the mortality rate is only a little above the norm. Essentially, there was a problem and its effects on the populace (from Pripyat to the rest of Europe) are not clearly understood. I do not believe the "million" quote, for Chernobyl's release of radiation was considerably less than nuclear weapons testing in the 50s and 60s. Given this, an accurate figure will be hard to place. 
On the other hand, the worst disaster of a "renewable" energy source is going to be the Banqiao Dam disaster. Generating a massive amount of power (three of them could meet the United Kingdom's power needs), during Typoon Nina, it failed, wiping out an area 55km long and 15km wide. It is estimated as many as 230,000 people were killed (26K from flooding, the rest from after-effects such as famine and disease), and nearly six million buildings collapsed, affecting 11,000,000 people. 
If anybody wishes to argue these findings, feel free to - the comment form is just below. ;-)
anon, 24th March 2011, 14:08
So you're stance is pro nuclear? Are you aware of how many could be killed if one of those things blows?
Rick, 24th March 2011, 20:49
My stance is neither pro nor anti nuclear. I am more anti-bull and this screaming about how terrible nuclear is compared to other methods is....bull. 
Nuclear is one of the safer methods of power generation (esp. in terms of deaths-per-terawatt) and it answers how to produce fairly large amounts of power for modern life. It is not perfect, but then show me a viable method that has capacity and is fail-proof... that sort of thing just doesn't exist.
Rick, 25th March 2011, 00:33
Further to what I said earlier, I notice you said "could". You are falling into the trap of western media by talking of all the "could"s. 
I am writing this in the car on the way home (no, I'm not the driver!). In the sky in front of me is a plane. Judging by the strobes, some sort of jumbo. That plane COULD malfunction, crash to the ground, killing hundreds. There is enough evidence to show that planes crash. But given the number of planes against the number of crashes, it suggests that this isn't an everyday event. It COULD crash, but it probably won't. So every passenger weighs up the risk against the convenience. Then they get on board... 
It is the same with nuclear power. It is not risk free, but neither is it earth shattering. We ALL need to understand a little more what is actually happening, and pay a little less attention to two-bit hacks that want you to believe Tokyo glows in the dark because they have papers to sell, and nothing sells like the goriest, scariest story on the newsstand...

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