Gauging the Nuclear Risk to Japan

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An aerial view shows the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in the Japanese town of Futaba, Fukushima prefecture on March 12, 2011. (STR/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

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.


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Comments [17]

shame on you
U.S. Calls Radiation ‘Extremely High’ and Urges Deeper Caution in Japan

To whom does WNYC answer?

Mar. 16 2011 05:12 PM
Louis from Bayside

Thank you Brian and WNYC for this great piece. It is refreshing to have someone admit that there is no safe amount of radiation. It is obviously an untruth to make blanket reassurances when our own nuclear scientists don't have enough data to understand the situation fully. The people issuing blanket reassurances are only destroying their own credibility.

Mar. 16 2011 01:27 PM
Joan from Queens

The World Health Organization's mandate is to look after the health on our planet, while the International Atomic Energy Agengy's is to promote nuclear energy. YET on May 28, 1959 at the 12th World Health Assembly, these two signed an agreement. The agreement states:
“Whenever either organization proposes to initiate a programme or activity on a subject in which the other organization has or may have a substantial interest, the first party shall consult the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement,” and continues: The IAEA and the WHO “recognize that they may find it necessary to apply certain limitations for the safeguarding of confidential information furnished to them. They therefore agree that nothing in this agreement shall be construed as requiring either of them to furnish such information as would, in the judgment of the other party possessing the information to interfere wit the orderly conduct of its operation.”

So WHO is in collusion with the

Mar. 16 2011 11:56 AM

I give up asking questions.

Mar. 16 2011 11:47 AM
Freddy from UES

What people are not talking about is the fact that there could be MORE earthquakes, aftershocks, storms and tsunamis at this site. It will not end anytime soon. It is a call to action.

Mar. 16 2011 11:45 AM
Betty Anne from LES

What is the worst case scenario? If Japan walks away from this site what can we expect to happen?

Mar. 16 2011 11:42 AM

What is radiation?
How is it transmitted?

Mar. 16 2011 11:40 AM
Smokey from LES

Isn't this experience in Japan a good argument to move to thorium reactors?

Mar. 16 2011 11:40 AM

What's the difference between rem, sieverts, rads, and bequerels? These units are being used as if everyone knows what they mean.

Mar. 16 2011 11:40 AM
Cristie in Tarrytown

So what does NRDC want? They don't like fossil fuels, they don't like nuclear power-- so what are we supposed to do? Live in caves?

Mar. 16 2011 11:38 AM

Candles Kill Many More Than Nuclear Power

Mar. 16 2011 11:00 AM
Tony Bruguier

I think we don't have any information about what is happening, and so we should wait in order to analyze what is happening.

Also, renewable energy has killed more people:

And oil has contaminated areas too:

Once again, we do NOT know what is happening there, it will take time.

Mar. 16 2011 10:42 AM

Yesterday, a scientist on the Takeaway said that another big quake could be expected -- perhaps in the same area of Japan -- as the earth settles into its new position. If this were to happen, and another tsunami were to follow and engulf those damaged reactors, what would happen with the contaminated seawater that washes away? Would it be diluted enough by the rest of the ocean to be a non-issue? Or would we be left with radioactive currents in the Pacific?
A worst-case scenario, sure, but we didn't expect what's going on now, either.

Mar. 16 2011 10:38 AM
Peg from Ithaca, NY

Please address nuclear waste, spent fuel rods, delivery of water supplies to nukes, who pays for all the various aspects of plant construction, protection, demolition, disasters, waste fuel storage, and HOW LONG we're supposed to guard all the waste once(if) we figure out where to store it.

Mar. 16 2011 09:45 AM

Will radiation make items permanently unusable because of contamination?

Mar. 16 2011 09:11 AM

How does each single reactor in the troubled plant compare with Chernobyl , specifically in potential danger?

How many reactors were involved in the Chernobyl plant?

Were other Japanese nuclear plants effected?

Mar. 16 2011 09:09 AM

"what lessons the U.S. industry should learn "

that nuclear is never safe & the government always pays the bill.
oh and the waste never goes away

Mar. 16 2011 07:16 AM

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