Fukushima: the disaster that wasn’t

Paul Raven @ 06-05-2011

Via Charlie Stross, a piece at The Economist looking at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis two months on. Long story short: a very nasty accident, but not the disaster it could have been, which is pretty impressive considering it was caused multiple major natural disasters far in excess of even reasonable modern design specs happening in a ludicrously tight timeframe.

And here we see the downside of the 24-hour news cycle: by the time the facts are out and the dust has settled, the media vortex has moved on, leaving a dim memory in the public mind of “the Japanese nuke plant that went Chernobyl”. And because “that Japanese nuke plant didn’t actually go Chernobyl”isn’t newsworthy enough to bubble through the latest batch of panic and FUD and gory triumphalism, that’s how it’ll be remembered; good news doesn’t sell newspapers (or attract clickthrough). End result: the gradual rehabilitation of nuclear power has been set back more than two decades.

For the record: I don’t like nuclear power, and I remain to be convinced it has anywhere near the longevity suggested by its more boosterist advocates. Thorium reactors and other variants could address both the safety issues and the Peak Uranium problem, but neither offer the ready supply of weapons-grade materials that encouraged the initial rash of investment in nuclear power. But as an alternative to coal and oil, and a stop-gap on the way to truly renewable solutions, it’s a no-brainer. I wish I had the time and resources to do a money-trail on the strongest Fukushima FUD emitters, because I fully expect some familiar names would crop up.

FUDushima continued

Paul Raven @ 21-03-2011

I appear to have lost my original source for the tweet that pointed me to this piece at Talking Points Memo, so my apologies for the lack of attribution; I think it’s been doing the rounds, and – if there’s any justice on the intertubes – it should continue doing so (preferably at high volume), in the hope that it might counteract even a small part of the underinformed lipflapping about the Fukushima reactor. So: excerpts from a letter to TPM from a Japanese student who was in the country for the quake and its aftermath:

… the Japanese news coverage has been largely calm, rational, informed, and critical. Some of this is naturally to avoid creating panic, but it has been able to do that because as a whole it has answered many of the questions people have and thus gained a certain level of trust. As a media scholar, I can pick this coverage apart for its problems, and of course point to information that is still not getting out there, but on the whole it is functioning as journalism should.

It also just looks good because there is something so ugly beside it: the non-Japanese coverage. That, I am afraid, has been full of factual errors and other problems. This has not been just Fox News, but also CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and even the New York Times to differing degrees. They get the reactors mixed up or report information that is simply wrong (e.g., writing that the TEPCO workers had fully abandoned the effort to control the plant because of radiation levels when TEPCO had only withdrawn some non-essential personnel). They are perpetually late, continuing to report things the Japanese media had shown to be wrong or different the day before.


There are results to this irresponsible journalism. Many foreigners in Japan who do not have the language capabilities to access Japanese media or who are used to foreign media are in a state of panic, when around them Japanese are largely calm. People in California start searching for iodide pills on the internet and there are already people voicing worries about whether Japanese cars are now all going to be radioactive. But worst of all, the inordinate and sensationalist attention given to the reactors by American and other media has taken attention away from where it should be: on the likely nearly 20,000 people who died in the quake and tsunamis, on the nearly 400,000 homeless people, and on the immense suffering this has caused for Japan as a whole.


Japanese people and government officials will have to spend many years investigating all that went wrong in this accident. I feel it is likely that many at TEPCO and in the government will be found at fault for inadequate preparation, overly optimistic projections, willful ignorance, and just plain lying to the public. This will be an investigation in which the Japanese media will play an important part. But the non-Japanese media should also look at itself and see where it went wrong―so that it can better prepare for a similar accident which, unfortunately, is not altogether impossible in the United States as well.

I don’t think I need to add anything to that, really. But as a side-dish, here’s Tim Maly on the half-life of information in the 24-hour newschurn:

At this moment, the current status of the nuclear plants in Japan matters for about 200,000 people in the world. This is the number of people who can do anything about it. Most of those 200,000 people can only decide whether or not to flee further away. They need information at the 15-minute scale probably. A very tiny minority of the people need information at the moment to moment scale. This is the team of people tasked with bringing the reactors under control. For the rest of us, we need information at the daily scale or less. Because the ramifications of Japan reactor situation IF THEY MATTER AT ALL matter in regard to decisions made at the scale of decades and centuries.

It is completely insane that countries are announcing that they are scaling back or cancelling nuclear programs based on Japan’s troubles. If those programs were a good idea two weeks ago they are still a good idea now. And if they might have been converted from a good idea to a bad idea based on evidence coming out of Japan then smart decision makers need to wait until the information has the stability and solidity of data that will support a decade/century scale decision.

As a number of people have said to me over the last week or so, there surely needs to be new debate and research into nuclear safety.However, it needs to be done by experts in the field in question, with as much verifiable information as possible, as opposed to being done by uninformed television anchors with a five-minute Physics 101 briefing tucked in their suit pocket.

We have access to an utterly unprecedented volume and rate of information flow. Unless we learn to filter for the truth, we’ll drown in lies.

[ And yeah, I make mistakes from time to time; I’m making no claims to perfection here, and I learn a lot from sharp people in the comment threads, for which I’m grateful. It’s a collaborative effort, really… which is another thing we’d do well to remember as we look at problems overseas and worry about how they’ll effect us. ]

Moar liek FUDushima, AMIRITES?

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2011

I’ve assiduously avoided talking about the nuclear situation in Japan at the moment, partly because I know little more about nuclear reactors than the average layman-with-a-science-education, and partly because there’s more than enough opinion and information – informed or otherwise – floating around the intertubes already without me adding more. (Plus I’m finding the what-about-meeeeee flavour of much of the opinion pieces a bit galling; yeah, you might get some fallout drifting over your neighbourhood if things go badly, but hey – you still have a neighbourhood, so suck it up.)

However, I feel fairly safe talking about the reaction to the nuclear situation, because I’m just about old enough to remember the Chernobyl panic here in the UK and Europe. The Chernobyl disaster (coupled with the last gasps of Cold War existentialism and my unhealthy interest in science text books from the grown-up section of the local library) contributed to making me stridently anti-nuclear for most of my life. Over the last five years or so, however, I found myself making peace with nuclear power (though I’m still totally opposed to nuclear weapons); sure, it has its downsides, but when measured against the downsides of fossil fuels as our primary energy source, nuclear look like a pretty decent option… especially when considered as the central support pole of a renewable energy wigwam.

I suspect others have reached a similar rapprochement in recent times, but the Fukushima flap is about the worst sort of PR that nuclear power could get, and plenty of folk have seen the sun shining and set out for the fields with their hay-making equipment; at this crucial time in global energy policy development, the last thing we need are distortions of the truth. (There are enough of those floating around already, after all, and the nuclear FUD-flood has already started in comment threads worldwide; when you’ve got an ideology to peddle, everything looks like a sales-pitch factoid.) But as Brian Wang points out at Next Big Future, if you’re going to suggest banning nuclear power for killing people, you should suggest the same for fossil fuels first… and even solar has a higher fatality rate per terawatt-hour.

Yes, this is a tragedy for the people of Japan and for the world as a whole, but tragedies are opportunities to learn and develop. To turn our backs on the lessons we’re learning here would be a far greater tragedy, and the greatest disservice to the hard work and sacrifice going on in Japan right now. As I said the other day, seeing Fukushima as someone else’s problem that might just blow back on you is not just myopic, it’s symptomatic of the biggest barrier to progress we face. Nothing that happens on this planet is someone else’s problem. Japan’s tragedy is a human tragedy. Whether we like it or not, we all stand shoulder to shoulder; the sooner we face up to that, the sooner we can start fixing things properly.

I don’t know that one more person’s best wishes and hopes for a successful fix will make any difference, but the folk trying to forestall disaster at Fukushima have mine nonetheless – they’re pretty much the epitome of bravery in the modern age, so far as I’m concerned.. I hope they have yours, too.

Destroying malaria… with frickin’ LASERS

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2010

Malaria remains one of the great unsolved health problems of the developing world, with the disease stubbornly resisting all attempts at eradication. So why not focus on the vector instead: the blood-hungry mosquitoes that spread malaria around? And why not use an idea straight from the science fictional supervillain-hideout playbook: a photonic fence made of devices that detect mosquitoes by the frequency of their wing oscillations, and then blasts them with lasers? [via Hack A Day]

Why not indeed – Bill Gates obviously likes the angle, as he’s funding Intellectual Ventures Lab’s research efforts (though some of that will presumably be supporting the company’s other idea, namely a way of zapping the malaria parasite in situ within the human body, scrambling its DNA without harming its host). Observe the destruction of a much-hated pest in close-up high-def slo-mo video:

Shazam! (Compare and contrast with the (as yet) non-lethal anti-papparazzi defence screens found on the yachts of shady billionaires…)

Think what you like of his software empire, Ol’ Bill sure likes investing in potentially worldchanging ideas; he’s currently looking into throwing his weight behind a new design for small-scale nuclear reactors, suitable for use in cities or low-demand nations [via SlashDot]. But even that pales beside the blue-sky glory [also via SlashDot] of a fusion-fission hybrid that will safely burn up existing nuclear waste by bombarding it with neutrons

Peak Uranium? Our nuclear future might be shorter than we thought

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2009

Billet of highly-enriched uraniumWe’ve all heard of Peak Oil (even if there’s some doubt about whether we’ve heard the truth over when it’s going to actually kick in), but there’s no need to worry – nuclear power will step in to fill the gap, right? [image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Well, not for long, perhaps, at least according to Dr Michael Dittmar and his new analysis of the global nuclear industry:

the most worrying problem is the misconception that uranium is plentiful. The world’s nuclear plants today eat through some 65,000 tons of uranium each year. Of this, the mining industry supplies about 40,000 tons. The rest comes from secondary sources such as civilian and military stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium. “But without access to the military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013, concludes Dittmar.

It’s not clear how the shortfall can be made up since nobody seems to know where the mining industry can look for more.

That means countries that rely on uranium imports such as Japan and many western countries will face uranium shortages, possibly as soon as 2013. Far from being the secure source of energy that many governments are basing their future energy needs on, nuclear power looks decidedly rickety.

But what of new technologies such as fission breeder reactors which generate fuel and nuclear fusion? Dittmar is pessimistic about fission breeders. “Their huge construction costs, their poor safety records and their inefficient performance give little reason to believe that they will ever become commercially significant,” he says.

The upswing of Dittmar’s research is that it provides a good reason for the nuclear powers of the world to continue using their military weapons-grade stock for civilian purposes… I can’t find the link, but I read somewhere recently that something like 10% of the US energy grid is powered by decommissioned warhead material already. Swords to ploughshares, indeed.

Of course, as with any matter pertaining to energy generation these days, there are disagreements as to the validity of Dittmar’s research; a commenter at the Technology review piece linked above points to this response in the Wall Street Journal:

Worries about long-term uranium supplies surface every so often; talk of a global nuclear revival fans the flames. So what’s the score?

The International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency figure there’s enough uranium to power existing plants for 100 years. Granted, there are some supply-side issues. About 40% of current uranium supplies come from stockpiles and old weapons—not from uranium mines—so new sources need to be developed soon to avoid “uranium supply shortfalls,” they say.

Nuclear power’s growth will nearly double the world’s appetite for uranium by 2030, says the IAEA/NEA “Red Book,” but there should be enough in the ground to go around…

So, once again, the problem for a layman like myself (in the absence of access to the evidence, plus the time and expertise to do the research) is deciding whose version to believe. I rather suspect this issue will increase in visibility in the coming years, so I’m going to withhold any judgement for now… though I will note that both Peak Oil and Peak Uranium are being downplayed by those non-governmental organisations whose power and influence will wane and disappear in sympathy with the availability of the resource which they manage. Cui bono, and all that.

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