Gauging the Nuclear Risk to Japan

An aerial view shows the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in the Japanese town of Futaba, Fukushima prefecture on March 12, 2011.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowMatthew McKinzie, a senior scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council's (NRDC) nuclear program, discusses the future of nuclear power and what lessons the U.S. industry should learn from Japan.

As the nuclear crisis plays out in Japan, people on the west coast of the United States are buying up potassium iodide, a chemical that can help prevent radiation accumulation in the event of exposure. On both sides of the Pacific Ocean, they're preparing for the worst.

But the Associated Press has reported that radiation levels, which have been detected dozens of miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant, are still low enough that it would take three years of exposure to raise a person's risk for cancer. That's somewhat comforting, but Matthew McKinzie said that evaluating risk in this scenario is a little more complex than that.

I take issue with that blanket reassurance. Basically, the safety guidelines in the U.S. are an acronym, the ALARA principle: radiation exposure should be maintained "as low as reasonably achievable." That's because radiation doses of any magnitude can produce some level of detrimental effects.

At the reported levels, chances of serious injury or death are small, McKinzie noted. However, he said that when you consider the number of people potentially affected by a radiation leak in Japan, we should be prepared to see some casualties. 

The bottom line is, 57 cancer deaths are anticipated for every 100,000 [people exposed.] Very low doses of radiation would not produce radiation sickness; it would produce a very tiny elevated risk of cancer death, but that low probability multiplied by the 13 million people who live in Tokyo does represent a statistical prediction that some cancer deaths would occur.

McKinzie said it was also disconcerting how little the Japanese government has said about the situation. In the absence of official, detailed statements, the number of competing reports has made it difficult for McKinzie to piece together exactly what's going on.

I find myself struggling to make sense of sometimes contradictory information. By contrast, during the Three Mile Island accident, the federal government had daily briefings with substantive content and hard technical details. But Japan is also dealing with a wider crisis brought on by earthquake and tsunami, so there's so much going on.

Here's what McKinzie does know:

  • "There's no chance of a runaway supercritical fission reaction. That's only achieved through technology of nuclear weapons."
  • "This particular incident relates more to the fundamental design of the reactor and ability to withstand one two punch of earthquake and tsunami, not operator malfunction."
  • "There are about two dozen or so similar reactors in the United States, so this is really going to be an issue for our government to address. Studies dating back decades said there was a 90 percent likelihood that the primary containment structure around the reactor would rupture in event of fuel melting."

The question this disaster has posed to the United States government is, should we continue to invest in nuclear energy? Do the risks, of which Japan has reminded us, outweigh the rewards?

McKinzie said it remains to be seen what happens at Fukushima, but safety concerns are actually second fiddle to the economic factors that make nuclear power unattractive. Even if the situation in Japan ended safely, that wouldn't make atomic energy any more viable in the U.S.

It's difficult to make judgments like that in light of the evolving disaster in Japan. We don't know the full extent of how it will play out. There are a lot of choices that go into how a country produces its electricity; there are economic choices, environmental choices. Right now, the economics really don't favor nuclear power. It requires massive government subsidies to even get some lukewarm interest in starting up few reactor projects.