EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Nuclear panic: the first casualty is truth
, April 2, 2011
In the week since one of Japan’s 31 nuclear reactors was seriously damaged by the Sendai earthquake and subsequent tsunami, hours of TV news and current affairs, acres of newspaper and gallons of printers’ ink have been used to warn of the imminent catastrophe in the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
In fact, the reactor, despite taking a direct hit from the tsunami which devastated everything around it, was immediately shut down, preventing the danger of a Chernobyl-style explosion.
Days after the tsunami, several smaller explosions occurred as a result of the failure of pumps which are needed to keep the enriched uranium fuel rods under water, as the plant cools down. The pumps were either damaged in the tsunami or were unable to operate due to an electrical failure, and the backup diesel-powered generator also failed.
Additionally, there was a fire in a spent fuel storage pond at the reactor site.
There were releases of radiation from the plant, and the Japanese government immediately ordered a 10-km, then a 20-km, evacuation zone, to protect its citizens from airborne radioactive particles.
At the time of writing, it was uncertain whether the radiation release came from overheating of the reactor core, or the fire in the spent fuel rods, or both.
Any release of radiation from a nuclear reactor is a serious health and safety issue, and the failure of back-up systems must be the subject of urgent examination.
However, it is important to note that the radiation releases were closely monitored, and did not endanger workers on the site. The reported radiation level at the gates of the Fukushima plant is around 0.6 millisieverts per hour. (A sievert is a measure of radiation exposure, used to protect people exposed to radiation.)
For comparative purposes, a person who has a chest X-ray has about 6 millisieverts of radiation, which is equivalent to 10 hours at the gates of the Fukushima plant.
Critics of the nuclear industry often repeat the mantra that no radiation exposure is safe. However, human beings are exposed to radiation all the time. We are subject to measurable levels of cosmic radiation from space and from radioactive gases such as radon. Additionally, there is terrestrial radiation from the ground, buildings, etc., and there is natural radiation from within the human body. The average of all these different forms of radiation exposure in Australia is about 6 millisieverts per year.
The average limit of exposure for people who work in the nuclear industry is set at 20 millisieverts per year, but there are parts of India and Europe where the natural radiation exposure level is up to 50 millisieverts per year.
From all this, it is clear that the levels of radiation from the failed Fukushima plant are worrying, but certainly nothing compared to the devastating effects of the tsunami which have taken tens of thousands of lives.
Yet the response of media and many politicians to the Fukushima reactor failure has been hysterical. Gunther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissioner, warned that a third explosion and fire at the Fukushima plant heralded the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
“There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen,” he said. The German Foreign Minister, Herr Westerwelle, also referred to it as “an apocalypse”, and said that it would sour the world’s view of nuclear power.
If that happens, it will be the result of inflammatory and uninformed comments by these politicians and the media.
A glance at Australia’s print media shows how the matter has been reported here. The Australian’s five-page special report was headed: “Reactor rocked by blasts — Tokyo air contaminated — Radioactive cloud spreading”, over a large photo of a baby being tested for radiation exposure by a man in a yellow protective suit and a face mask.
The Melbourne Herald Sun’s front-page coverage was headed, “Japan’s nuclear nightmare”, over the banner headline, “MELTDOWN”. At least inside the paper, columnist Andrew Bolt had a feature article headed, “Time to stop nuke hysteria”, which served as a corrective to the alarming front-page story (Herald Sun, March 16, 2011).
The London Telegraph observed, “The Japanese people have coped with the catastrophic events of the past five days with humbling stoicism. It is a pity that others have failed to demonstrate similar forbearance.”
It added, “It is, of course, conceivable that there could yet be a disastrous failure at Fukushima that leads to high loss of life, but as things stand, this incident shows that even 40-year-old reactors can emerge intact from an unimaginably powerful earthquake and tsunami. That should enhance our faith in nuclear energy, not diminish it.” (The Telegraph, March 15, 2011).
For many countries in the developed world, nuclear energy is a key component of their base-load power generation, with an outstanding record of safe, reliable operation.
Instead of learning from what has happened in Japan, the tragedy in that country is now being used as a political lever — to scare people into believing that nuclear energy is far too risky, and that nuclear power stations should be shut down.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.