Friday, March 18, 2011

Radiation, Relative Risk and Reality

There is a vast amount of cockwaffle being foisted upon an insufficiently informed or sceptical public on the risk to the world at large resulting from the issues at Fukushima.

In particular, the danger here shares a common feature with many other environmental scares: the staggering inability to support vastly unlikely future risk resulting in really actually massively increased present damage to the public. For example....
  • Keeping reservoir levels high in Queensland as a protection against drought, so that it cannot perform its actual task which is to mitigate against floods. (And then on discovering the problem releasing water to protect the dam from overtopping at the peak of the flood water flow levels...)
  • Using corn for ethanol.
  • Making a fuss about new reactors being built, thus ensuring older, less inherently safe, reactors cannot be decommissioned.
  • Crippling Western economies with ludicrous overheads, ensuring that more responsible, less polluting manufacturing work in the West is replaced with vastly less responsible, vastly more polluting manufacturing work in China.
With both of those things in mind, I would echo our diabolical host's direction to Barry Brook. He is doing sterling work reporting what is actually happening at the site and reproduces a short essay at the bottom of today's regular update post from which the following quote is a gem. The context, as if we needed reminding, is that the Pacific coast of Japan has been swept by a massive earthquake and even more catastrophic tsunami which has destroyed vast areas of countryside taking with it all the infrastructure required to support civilisation as we have come to know and love it:
Yet in Japan, you have radiation zealots threatening to order people out of their homes, to wander, homeless and panic-stricken, through the battered countryside, to do what? All to avoid a radiation dose lower than what they would get from a ski trip.


UPDATE: The unparalleled excellence of xkcd puts all this in its proper graphical context.

FURTHER UPDATE: john b takes issue with my mention of the Wivenhoe dam above. The actual sequence of events may be even more - ahem - damning if this report is true.

And Jon Snow apparently needs a thorough kicking for good measure too.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

That site has quite an agenda; it's written by a CAGW proponent. Far from seeing alarmist articles about the Japanese nuclear accident, I'm seeing plenty of articles of the "wrecked nuclear power stations aren't as bad as a 10 meter tsunami" type. Well maybe not but personally I'd rather avoid both. These articles tend to be strong on discussing short-lived isotopes while not mentioning the longer-lived ones, and they focus on the reactor cores where the problems are relatively minor, while not discussing the risk of the spent fuel catching fire, which is what people are really concerned about. The Japanese nuclear industry has a history of dishonesty including a TV public information cartoon aimed at children which suggested that it was OK to drink plutonium-laced water, and a coverup including falsification of evidence following an accident at their fast breeder reactor. I'll believe nuclear power is safe when the industry can obtain insurance cover privately rather than underwritten by the taxpayer.

Anonymous said...

"catastrophictsunami"

disappointing, Mr Pedant

john b said...

Keeping reservoir levels high in Queensland as a protection against drought, so that it cannot perform its actual task which is to mitigate against floods

No, you've got this one arse-about-tit. QLD has had major droughts for nine of the last 10 years, so keeping dams high is a strategy that mitigates against present damage from likely events (water shortage) while increasing future risk from less likely events (massive rainfall leading to heavy floods). The fact that the less likely event is the one that actually happened isn't relevant.

These articles tend to be strong on discussing short-lived isotopes while not mentioning the longer-lived ones

...because the radiation being released into the atmosphere consists of short-lived isotopes. The long-lived ones left in the site will be a massive pain in the arse for TEPCO and the Japanese government, but won't actually do anyone any harm.

The Pedant-General said...

1st Anon:

That site has quite an agenda; it's written by a CAGW proponent.

That's a massive ad hominem fallacy. We wouldn't allow a CAGW proponent to use such an argument against us, and I won't allow it here. Read the article and what he says for what he says. He talks sense ad with clarity on this issue.


"wrecked nuclear power stations aren't as bad as a 10 meter tsunami" type. Well maybe not but personally I'd rather avoid both. "
The "well maybe not" is in fact the whole point. The MSM is all over this as though the "well maybe not" is not a given at all.

The whole point is that in fact this wrecked nuclear reactor is looking very much as though the fatalities due to it being a nuclear power station will be counted on one hand if at all, where the earthquake and tsunami really actually have already killed thousands of people.

"not discussing the risk of the spent fuel catching fire, which is what people are really concerned about."

Even if it does, we are still not going to have Chernobyl or even a Windscale here. There is no graphite to burn, nor an air channel, nor any significant risk that those rods will go critical if they do melt.

I'll believe nuclear power is safe when the industry can obtain insurance cover privately rather than underwritten by the taxpayer.

That's a good point and one with which the contributors to this site would tend to have some sympathy. Problem is that it's the state that has caused this problem in large part.

If I were to nail my colours to the mast, I would MUCH rather live 2 miles downwind of a nuclear power station than 2 miles downwind of a coal fired plant.

The Pedant-General said...

2nd anon,

"disappointing, Mr Pedant"

In the finest tradition of life on the internet, I counter that you have failed to use a capital letter and hence your argument is invalid.

The Pedant-General said...

john b

"No, you've got this one arse-about-tit. QLD has had major droughts for nine of the last 10 years, so keeping dams high is a strategy that mitigates against present damage from likely events (water shortage) while increasing future risk from less likely events (massive rainfall leading to heavy floods). "

I beg to differ. Its primary purpose was flood prevention.

It was being kept artificially high due to the droughts and was not reduced to its correct operating level in advance of the cyclone hitting even though this was forecast in enough time for action to be taken.

The Pedant-General said...

john b,

Let's tackle this another way.

We will, I think, agree that the dam has two purposes: security of water supply during drought, flood prevention during floods.

We may differ about which is the primary purpose, but I hope we can agree that both exist.

Your case, if I may paraphrase, is that the present risk is drought with flooding being a future risk.

My case in this post is that in the week or so leading up to the cyclone, that profile swaps: floods were the immediate danger, with drought being the future danger. The operators discounted the immediate risk in the week leading up to the floods in view of the longer term risk.

Umbongo said...

"The operators discounted the immediate risk in the week leading up to the floods in view of the longer term risk."

I suspect they went to Lord Stern for advice on what discount rate to use.

Kafka said...

Best place for information about Fukushima is mitnse.com

Anonymous said...

The nuclear industry, like the fractional-reserve banking industry, has long been underwritten by government and it could not operate without that. TEPCO has a long history of coverup and misleading publicity. It's only recently they've admitted that units 1 to 3 all melted down. What else have they still to admit to; what's happening to the groundwater for example? The MSM was absolutely right to be concerned about the risks from Fukushima; the shocking thing is that they've stopped covering it. There's now an exclusion zone covering hundreds of square miles which is going to be around for generations. The risks are from hot particle ingestion and inhalation; overall body radiation dose (the "dose lower than what they would get from a ski trip" mentioned in the post) is a straw man.

For a viewpoint from a real nuclear engineer who has specialised in decontamination issues, see http://www.fairewinds.com He thinks Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl and he believes the final cost of cleanup will be around $100bn.