Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Radioactive Cloud of the Times

This NY Times headline (see footnote below -- story disappeared) for March 15 is breathlessly sensationalizing the alleged radiation spike of 400milli-Sieverts per hour from the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis in Japan:
Japan Faces Potential Nuclear Disaster as Radiation Levels Rise
...Radiation measurements reported on Tuesday showed a spike of radioactivity around the plant that made the leakage significantly worse than it had been, with levels measured at one point as high as 400 millisieverts an hour. Even 7 minutes of exposure at that level will reach the maximum annual dose that a worker at an American nuclear plant is allowed. And exposure for 75 minutes would likely lead to acute radiation sickness...
But if you read this story in the next link below,
Radiation levels fall at stricken Japan nuclear plant
TOKYO Tue Mar 15, 2011 3:36am EDT (Reuters) - Radiation levels fell at Japan's quake-stricken nuclear power plant on the northeast coast, the Japanese government said on Tuesday, after an earlier spike in radiation.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that radiation levels at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, more than 200 km north of Tokyo, had fallen dramatically to 596.4 microsieverts per hour as of 0630 GMT.
That level is almost 700 times less than the levels reported in the morning, after two fresh blasts at the complex.
The Japanese government here is saying radiation levels are "currently" 596.4 micro-sieverts per hour, "700 times less than the levels reported in the morning."  You will note that 596.4 x 700  = 417milli-Sieverts/hr. You will also note that the "morning" in Japan was about 5 hours before the second story came out:

Now, I think it's fair to say that if the reactor had breached containment, radiation levels would not have declined since "the morning". How long did the high radiation levels last?  Take a look at the graphic I've included here, which is a radiation reading taken from Tokyo after the hydrogen gas explosion blew apart the reactor building surrounding the nuclear containment vessel. (That is, it blew apart the structure that keeps the rain off.)

Apparently the spike in radiation only lasted a couple hours and then went away.  This graph suggests to me it's the source of the "400milli-Sievert/hr" figure -- I suspect someone extrapolated from a geiger measurement in Tokyo.  Just a guess.   But at best this figure refers to the area around the plant, not in Tokyo.  If the plant radiation levels were measured, say, 1000 feet from the source, the levels in Tokyo (150 miles away) would have to be at least 500,000 times lower, if we are talking about direct radiation.

Of course, note that the levels returned to essentially background levels very quickly. This wouldn't happen from direct radiation. So my other guess is that when the hydrogen explosion occurred, the wind carried aloft a dust cloud filled with various short lived isotopes of debris in the seawater (think of whatever is in seawater ... minerals, seaweed, whatever) they'd been pumping through the reactor, and it drifted over Tokyo. That wouldn't be a lot of radioactive material. Then the wind changed.  Problem solved.

I also read that the Japanese government has ordered all radiation measurements to now be given in micro-sieverts to avoid "ambiguity".  That sounds to me like someone screwed up and translated "micro" to "milli" when the Japanese Prime minister made his morning announcement (confusing "micro" with "milli" is very common with non-technical people) and they didn't want it to happen again.

The Reuters story came out about the time NY Times went to press, but it hasn't stopped the NY Times from running their front page lead story about the radiation levels of 400milli-sieverts.

FYI, 1 milli-Sievert per hour = 0.1rem.  600micro-Sieverts (present levels at the Fukushima plant, at the time this is written, 4AM MDT) are about 0.06rem.  Almost exactly a chest x-ray.  1-3rem  is about the average annual dose someone will get at sea level. See http://www.ornl.gov/sci/env_rpt/aser95/tb-a-2.pdf   This will go up about 30-40 times if you fly a lot. That is, you gain about 1mrem per year for every 200 feet in altitude.  At my house, I suffer about 40mrems exposure per year.

Footnote 6 hours later:  The front-page link changed and the original story disappeared, so I've attached a copy below, but I note that if you google the headline (in quotes) you now get 14,700 hits for this article -- everyone on the the planet has linked it. It's spreading like the toxic cloud after a nuclear explosion.  The Times is continuing to spin this story, though, with front-page "info-videos" suggesting the inner containment building was breached, though it hasn't been according to other accounts I've seen so far.  We live in an age where journalism is more like a "dirty" bomb spreading radioactive debris of half-truths, mis-truths, rumor, innuendo, propaganda and outright lies.


Japan Faces Potential Nuclear Disaster as Radiation Levels Rise

TOKYO — Japan’s nuclear crisis verged toward catastrophe on Tuesday after an explosion damaged the vessel containing the nuclear core at one reactor and a fire at another spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the air, according to the statements of Japanese government and industry officials.

In a brief address to the nation at 11 a.m. Tokyo time, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pleaded for calm, but warned that radiation had already spread from the crippled reactors and there was “a very high risk” of further leakage. Fortunately, the prevailing winds were sweeping most of the plume of radioactivity out into the Pacific Ocean, rather than over populated areas.

The sudden turn of events, after an explosion Monday at one reactor and then an early-morning explosion Tuesday at yet another — the third in four days at the plant — already made the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl reactor disaster a quarter century ago.

It diminished hopes earlier in the day that engineers at the plant, working at tremendous personal risk, might yet succeed in cooling down the most damaged of the reactors, No. 2, by pumping in sea water. According to government statements, most of the 800 workers at the plant had been withdrawn, leaving 50 or so workers in a desperate effort to keep the cores of three stricken reactors cooled with seawater pumped by firefighting equipment, while the same crews battled to put out the fire at the No. 4 reactor, which they claimed to have done just after noon on Tuesday.

That fourth reactor had been turned off and was under refurbishment for months before the earthquake and tsunami hit the plant on Friday. But the plant contains spent fuel rods that were removed from the reactor, and experts guessed that the pool containing those rods had run dry, allowing the rods to overheat and catch fire. That is almost as dangerous as the fuel in working reactors melting down, because the spent fuel can also spew radioactivity into the atmosphere.

After an emergency cabinet meeting, the Japanese government told people living with 30 kilometers, about 18 miles, of the Daiichi plant to stay indoors, keep their windows closed and stop using air conditioning.

Mr. Kan, whose government was extraordinarily weak before the sequence of calamities struck the nation, told the Japanese people that “although this incident is of great concern, I ask you to react very calmly.” And in fact, there seemed to be little panic, but huge apprehension in a country where the drift of radioactivity brings up memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the haunting images of post-war Japan.

The two critical questions over the next day or so are how much radioactive material is spewed into the atmosphere, and where the winds carry it. Readings reported on Tuesday showed a spike of radioactivity around the plant that made the leakage categorically worse than in had been, with radiation levels measured at one point as high as 400 millisieverts an hour. Even 7 minutes of exposure at that level will reach the maximum annual dose that a worker at an American nuclear plant is allowed. And exposure for 75 minutes would likely lead to acute radiation sickness.

The extent of the public health risk depends on how long such elevated levels persist — they may have declined after the fire at No. 4 reactor was extinguished — as well as how far and fast the radioactive materials spread, and whether the limited evacuation plan announced by the government proves sufficient.
The succession of problems at Daiichi was initially difficult to interpret — with confusion compounded by incomplete and inconsistent information provided by government officials and executives of the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power.

But industry executives in close contact with officials in Japan expressed extreme concern that the authorities were close to losing control over the fuel melting that has been ongoing in three reactors at Daiichi, especially at the crippled No. 2 reactor where the containment has been damaged.

Tokyo Electric Power said Tuesday that after the explosion at the No. 2 reactor, pressure had dropped in the “suppression pool” — a section at the bottom of the reactor that converts steam to water and is part of the critical function of keeping the nuclear fuel protected. After that occurred, radiation levels outside No. 2 were reported to have risen sharply.

“We are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario,” said Hiroaki Koide, a senior reactor engineering specialist at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University. “We can assume that the containment vessel at Reactor No. 2 is already breached. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released.”

Another executive said the chain of events at Daiichi suggested that it would be difficult to maintain emergency seawater cooling operations for an extended period if the containment vessel at one reactor had been compromised because radiation levels could threaten the health of workers nearby.
If all workers do in fact leave the plant, the nuclear fuel in all three reactors is likely to melt down, which would lead to wholesale releases of radioactive material — by far the largest accident of its kind since the Chernobyl.

Even if a full meltdown is averted, Japanese officials have been facing unpalatable options. One was to continue flooding the reactors and venting the resulting steam, while hoping that the prevailing winds did not turn south toward Tokyo or west, across northern Japan to the Korean Peninsula. The other was to hope that the worst of the overheating was over, and that with the passage of a few more days the nuclear cores would cool enough to essentially entomb the radioactivity inside the plants, which clearly will never be used again. Both approaches carried huge risks.

While Japanese officials made no comparisons to past accidents, the release of an unknown quantity of radioactive gases and particles — all signs that the reactor cores were damaged from at least partial melting of fuel — added considerable tension to the effort to cool the reactors.

“It’s way past Three Mile Island already,” said Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor at Princeton. “The biggest risk now is that the core really melts down and you have a steam explosion.”

The sharp deterioration came after a frantic day and night of rescue efforts focused largely on the No. 2 reactor. There, a malfunctioning valve prevented workers from manually venting the containment vessel to release pressure and allow fresh seawater to be injected into it. That meant that the extraordinary remedy emergency workers had jury-rigged to keep the nuclear fuel from overheating no longer worked.

As a result, the nuclear fuel in that reactor was exposed for many hours, increasing the risk of a breach of the container vessel and more dangerous emissions of radioactive particles.

By Tuesday morning, Tokyo Electric Power said that it had fixed the valve and resumed seawater injections, but that it had detected possible leaks in the containment vessel that prevented water from fully covering the fuel rods.

Then an explosion hit that reactor. After a series of conflicting reports about what level of damage was inflicted on the reactor after that blast, Mr. Edano said, “there is a very high probability that a portion of the container vessel was damaged.”

The steel container vessels that protect nuclear fuel in reactors are considered crucial to maintain the integrity of the reactor and the safety of the fuel.

Mr. Edano, however, said that the level of leaking at the No. 2 reactor remained small, raising the prospect that the container was sufficiently intact to protect the nuclear fuel inside.


  1. Robb,

    Do you think that all of this doom and gloom surrounding the Japanese nuclear plant story is part of the Left's anti-nuclear stance? Its as if the Left and their minions in the media immediately picked up on the nuclear power story to stress the dangers of nuclear power. Leiberman has already come out with proposed legislation (I believe) to delay any new American power plants (are we even building any?). Talk about "never let a crisis go to waste". Every report I have seen on the news media has been about the potential radiation dangers from Japan's reactors. Our media really is like Pravda. The Left really has dominion over our institutions. Its scary.

  2. I think there's no question whatsoever that this crisis is going to be used to shut down nukes all over the world. I'm already seeing it. As I noted, the Times pulled their original story citing 400millirems, and are even now being very cagey and avoiding providing actual radiation levels, which would leave them open to criticism later on, but that *first* story after being on-line for only 6 or 8 hours got linked to 14,700 websites. True or not, the information or misinformation of catastrophic radiation will be quoted again and again and again for years to come. It will take a *very* vocal opposition to counter it.


Comments must be polite and well-reasoned, but passion is allowed when directed at the subject matter and not someone who posts -- violate this, and your comment doesn't get posted. Comments may not post immediately -- I'm pretty busy and don't live on the web.