IN MY VIEW: Blown out of proportion? by Bill Sacks

by Admin on March 16, 2011

Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:41 pm | Updated: 10:44 pm, Tue Mar 15, 2011.

The March 11 earthquake off the eastern shore of Japan was the strongest ever in Japan and the fifth-strongest since measurements began over 100 years ago.

There is a so-called “ring of fire” surrounding the Pacific Ocean that sees 90 percent of the earthquakes in the world, as, in this case, the Pacific tectonic plate slides westward, slipping under the plates that support the Asian continent.

For the first few days, the media hardly mentioned the horrors experienced by survivors of the quake and the resulting tsunami. The latest estimates at this writing are more than 10,000 dead, mostly from drowning as the tsunami swept away entire villages along the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s biggest island. And the lack of water, food, homes, and heat are bound to result in many thousands more deaths over the next few days and weeks.

Instead TV, radio and newspapers have turned the uncertainty about the immediate future of Japan’s nuclear reactors into their cash cow. TV shows pictures of massive oil refinery fires while verbally describing the nuclear plants, linking the two and never mentioning the disasters that will arise as those refinery fires spread and possibly explode, not to mention the massive death-dealing pollution from those fires.

There are indeed some uncertainties about the nuclear plants, as there must be in any disaster of this magnitude. But certain things are known. First, there have been explosions in the three working reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. At least two of these explosions were the result of deliberate and sensible venting of steam used to cool the reactor fuel from the concrete containment building into a flimsy outer building that was never meant to withstand much damage. These were not nuclear explosions, such as nuclear weapons would produce. Such nuclear explosions are physically impossible in any nuclear power plant.

Why the explosions

In order for a nuclear explosion to take place, the uranium and/or plutonium would have to be purified far beyond what is necessary to generate electricity. The explosions were in part the result of superheated steam containing small amounts of separated hydrogen and oxygen that again combined with the usual violent outcome. In the explosions two of the outer buildings were breached, but the reinforced concrete inner containments were not damaged, as they are built to withstand jet crashes and earthquakes, and so far have held in reactors 1 and 3, despite the strength of the quake. It is uncertain what has happened with reactor 2. As the steam escaped the buildings, at first at least it carried with it trivial amounts of radioactive elements from the reactor core. We live in a sea of natural radiation from the sky and from the ground, and the amount involved has to be compared to the amounts we experience every day in order to be intelligible. Unfortunately, some of the reported readings are fluctuating quite wildly at the reactor sites, so it is difficult to be definitive about it this early in the event.

The reactors successfully shut down automatically, as per their design, but the residual spent fuel is very radioactive and continues to produce heat that has to be continually cooled. No further production of spent fuel is occurring, however. The cooling requires circulation of water, that now is being done with portable diesel pumps and using sea water. This, it is hoped, will prevent melting of the fuel rods, but it is too soon to tell to what degree this has succeeded.

Above all, it is important to know that low levels of radiation are actually good for us and protect us against cancer, as well as prolong our lives. There are literally thousands of studies proving this, including many surveys of survivors of the two U.S.-dropped atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This beneficial effect of low levels of radiation is called the hormetic effect (or hormesis), and is characteristic of almost everything in our environment, from sunlight, temperature, water, altitude, and oxygen to vitamins, alcohol, medicines, and most if not all chemicals. If we have inadequate levels of each of these, we are not as healthy as we would be with somewhat higher levels, and with many of them inadequate amounts would kill us. Similarly, if we have excessive levels of each of these we will sicken and perhaps die. In between, there is a hormetic zone that makes for the greatest health. The phrase, “All things in moderation,” sums it up.

The reality of radiation hormesis is completely ignored by the media and by government regulators, who rationalize, at least in the U.S., that regulatory rules would be too complicated if they told the truth. They push the demonstrably false idea that there is no safety threshold and that no matter how low the level of radiation, it is bad for us. This contributes to the general fear of the unknown about nuclear energy. Added is the deliberately sown confusion, by various environmental groups, between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. They tell any story to prevent the spread of nuclear power and seem uninterested in learning anything about it.

Furthermore, contrary to the implications in the news, people cannot become radioactive if exposed to radiation. All that can happen is that dust containing radioactive particles may get in our hair, on our skin, and in our clothes, and it is easily washed off.

As global warming continues from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, and as literally millions around the world die each year from the resulting lung diseases and heart attacks, only nuclear power can replace coal for electricity. Wind and solar are not particularly harmful, but they are simply unable to provide steady electricity 24/7, since the sun doesn’t always shine and wind doesn’t always blow. Nuclear power provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity, while wind and solar together provide less than 1 percent.

The Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan are likely to be more like the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 but have no chance of being like the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986. Chernobyl was designed to produce nuclear weapons. Unlike all other reactors in today’s world, it had no containment building and by design would continue to heat up rather than shut off if cooling fluid failed. And no one was hurt at Three Mile Island, except the investors in the utility company.

While surveys show that most people do not trust the government to protect us, it is a testament to the safe design of modern nuclear reactors that there have been no fatalities from commercial nuclear plants for the last 25 years, and none outside of Chernobyl for over 50 years – at least until now. Only nuclear power can provide the cleanest, most reliable, and safest energy possible, but, as has been happening for many decades, lessons must be learned from all unexpected events at nuclear plants.

Bill Sacks is a retired physicist and radiologist. He lives in Green Valley. The views expressed above are the writer’ sown and do not necessarily reflect those of this newspaper.

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