Category Archives: nuclear power

Monbiot’s strange spin on Fukushima

“You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power.” So begins eco-warrior George Monbiot’s article from Monday’s Guardian (March 21st). He then continues: “You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.”

With two explosions, three reactor meltdowns, fires throughout the compound, and radioactivity now spilling out across wide areas of Japan, we are in the midst of the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. One that we must all hope does not become the biggest environmental disaster ever. But Monbiot takes a different view: “A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.”

Well I suppose it is easy to be relaxed if you’re lucky enough to be living in mid Wales, and approximately 6,000 miles outside the evacuation zone . But what’s the bit about “poor design and corner-cutting”? Are we being asked to believe that the latent problems at Fukushima were somehow exceptional? I’d always been under the impression that Japan was especially advanced and world-renowned for its technical expertise and excellence. But then perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps the reactors in Armenia, Argentina, Bulgaria, China, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, South Africa, Ukraine, along with those in France, USA and back home really are all designed and built to far higher standards.1

Or is Monbiot simply saying that the reactors being built today will be much safer? For no doubt this is true, with newer technologies in general, making improvements on older designs. But then what do we do with all the unsafe old reactors? And, much more importantly, how safe is safe enough? Because there is no reactor, indeed no technology, that can ever be guaranteed to function without failure. Of course when most of our old technologies fail… well, you know, the lights go out perhaps. Whereas if a nuclear reactor fails, the effects tend to be a little more catastrophic — just ask any of the 50,000 people who once lived in the now abandoned city of Pripyat.

Monbiot rounds his article off saying: “But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power.” Sorry — did I get that right? Fossil fuels are 100 times worse than nuclear power even when it comes to radioactive discharges! What’s that old saying about lies and damned lies?

The article, entitled “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power”, plays on Kubrick’s subtitle to his masterpiece of nuclear madness, Dr Strangelove. And I cannot help feeling that Monbiot’s new love is also rather strange.

1For a full list of operating nuclear power plants worldwide click here.

Leave a comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, Japan, nuclear power, Uncategorized

the real dangers of radiation

With the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, questions are inevitably being raised more generally about the safety of nuclear power. Meanwhile, on the news, we are frequently hearing reports of how the levels of radiation are measured in terms of milli-Sieverts, and reassured that certain levels of milli-Sieverts are “safe”, but what does this all actually mean?

The Sievert is the SI derived unit of “dose equivalent radiation”. This means that it is not simply a measure of how much radiation has been absorbed, but an attempt to qualitatively evaluate the resulting biological damage to anyone who is unlucky enough to have been exposed. The idea is simple enough. Each tissue type in the human body absorbs different amounts of ionising radiation. Think about X-rays (which are a kind of lower energy version of gamma rays): the bones absorb most of the X-rays and so show up on the photograph as shadows, whereas softer tissues absorb far less and are nearly transparent. Knowing the precise level of absorption for each tissue type means we can therefore calculate the amount of radiation absorbed throughout the whole body. So far so easy. There is, however, another difficulty, which arises because ionising radiation exists in a variety of different forms. Anyone who has studied physics, even at the most foundational level, will probably be aware that radioactive materials emit three different kinds of radiation. The reality is a little more complicated (as reality generally is), though for purposes of explanation let’s stick with these three most familiar types.

Each of the three different kinds of radiation causes damage in different ways. At one extreme there are gamma rays, a type of very high-energy “light”. It happens that gamma rays are the least absorbed and therefore the least damaging (although dangerous enough). At the opposite extreme, there are alpha particles, heavy and relatively slow-moving, easily stopped and thus easily absorbed. Alpha particles are the most highly damaging of the three, but as fortune would have it, they are generally stopped before they ever reach us — giving up the ghost after travelling just a few centimetres through air and stopped almost entirely by something like the thickness and density of a cigarette paper. Between these extremes there are the beta particles. These are very high energy electrons that penetrate further than alpha particles but not as far as gamma rays. Their middling penetration means they are also middling in terms of the damage they cause, which is not coincidence, but a direct consequence of damage being dependant (to great extent) simply upon levels of energy absorbed — any particles or rays that passed through you without interaction, and thus losing no energy, couldn’t do any harm.

In measuring the biological effects of radiation, all of this has to be taken into account, and so it is, with Sieverts calculated on the basis of different weighting factors (based on measurements) applied to different kinds of radiation. There is however one huge problem with this whole analysis, which is that it works on the presumption that all of the sources of radiation are on the outside coming in. So what about the damage being caused by radioactive sources that have entered the body? The dust in the air that gets inside our lungs. The isotopes we have unavoidably swallowed and pass through our gut, or worse, are absorbed into parts of our own tissue. The recognised measure of “dose equivalence”, the Sievert, takes no account of these secondary effects; effects that may, especially in the case of alpha emitting sources like Uranium and Plutonium, actually lead to more significant and lasting damage.

Some experts, such as Christopher Busby1, are saying it’s time we changed the way we measure the risks associated with radioactivity. They argue that the current methodology underplays the dangers, especially in the case of alpha-emitting isotopes when absorbed internally. This has important consequences not only for assessing the dangers of radioactive waste and leaks from the nuclear industry, but also in underestimating the harm caused by the use of so-called depleted uranium (DU) in the weapons deployed both in Afghanistan and Iraq (click here for link to Uranium Weapons: why all the fuss?).

With regards to the current crisis in Japan, Busby and his colleagues at the Low Level Radiation Campaign, have also been highly critical of “official attempts to play down the radiological impact of this disaster”, saying on their website, “There appears to be no monitoring of alpha emitting radionuclides.” This is in part because ordinary Geiger Counters do not in fact measure levels from pure alpha sources at all (the alpha particles being unable to penetrate the window of the counters). Click here for further analysis and information.

Professor Christopher Busby, Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, also spoke to BBC News about serious potential dangers following the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

1 Christopher Busby (born 1945) is a British scientist and activist known for his work on the health effects of ionising radiation. Busby obtained a BSc in Chemistry from the University of London, and then did research for the Wellcome Foundation (applying spectroscopic and analytical methods to chemical pharmacology and molecular drug interactions). He later gained a PhD at the University of Kent, researching Raman spectro-electrochemistry. He was elected a Fellow of the University of Liverpool in the Faculty of Medicine (Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology) in February 2003, and is also a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Life and Health Sciences in the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland.

In addition to his academic appointments he is the director of Green Audit, an environmental consultancy agency, and scientific advisor to the Low Level Radiation Campaign which he set up in 1995. Busby was also the National Speaker on Science and Technology for the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, based in Brussels. For fuller biography click here.

Leave a comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, depleted uranium, Japan, nuclear power, Uncategorized

an accident waiting to happen?

Greg Palast is an occasional reporter for Newsnight on BBC2. Back in 1988, however, he was directing a U.S. investigation into the nuclear power plant builder Long Island Lightning Company (LILCO). In an article posted today on his own website, Palast says the failure of the emergency systems on the Japanese reactors came as no surprise to him:

“Here are the facts about Tokyo Electric and the industry you haven’t heard on CNN:
The failure of emergency systems at Japan’s nuclear plants comes as no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field.
Nuclear plants the world over must be certified for what is called “SQ” or “Seismic Qualification.”  That is, the owners swear that all components are designed for the maximum conceivable shaking event, be it from an earthquake or an exploding Christmas card from Al Qaeda.
The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ is to lie.  The industry does it all the time. The government team I worked with caught them once, in 1988, at the Shoreham plant in New York.  Correcting the SQ problem at Shoreham would have cost a cool billion, so engineers were told to change the tests from ‘failed’ to ‘passed.'”

Read the full article here: http://www.gregpalast.com/no-bs-info-on-japan-nuclearobama-invites-tokyo-electric-to-build-us-nukes-with-taxpayer-funds/

Leave a comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, Greg Palast, Japan, nuclear power, Uncategorized, USA