Michael Hanlon, science editor for the Daily Mail, says that what’s happened in Japan should be an endorsement of nuclear power:
Think about it: despite being faced with a Magnitude 9 Great Earthquake which knocked the whole island of Honshu several feet to the west, a 35ft tsunami and the complete breakdown of the infrastructure, a handful of rather ancient atomic reactors have remained largely intact and have released only tiny amounts of radiation.
There have been some dramatic explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but casualties have been light; maybe a dozen blast-injuries and a handful of cases of suspected radiation sickness. And remember: thousands were killed by the tsunami.
We could be looking at another Three Mile Island, and that would be terrible, right?
Well, not really. The accident at the eponymous nuclear plant in Pennsylvania took place on 29 March 1978. That day, a partial core meltdown in Reactor Core No 2 led to local then national panic. There was talk of a China Syndrome, the title of a schlock disaster movie released coincidentally that year which dealt with a reactor meltdown leading to a blob of molten nuclear fuel burning its way through the Earth to emerge on the other side (i.e, from the US to China).
In the end the meltdown was contained, and there was no breach of the reactor containment vessel and certainly no China Syndrome (which turns out to be a myth in any case).
As with Japan today, a small amount of radioactivity was released but this resulted in zero deaths and no measureable increase in illness. In fact, one epidemiological study concluded that the net effect of the world’s second-worst nuclear accident was to give everyone living within 15 miles of the plant a radiation dose equivalent to one chest x-ray.
What if Fukushima does a Chernobyl?
The thing is, even Chernobyl did not do a Chernobyl. This was, by far, the worst nuclear accident in history (a Category 7) and yet the most astonishing thing about Chernobyl is just how uncatastrophic even this mega-disaster turned out to be.
After the explosion, the world waited. For the cancers, for the gruesome birth defects, terrible radiation burns. Up until the mid-1990s, the generally accepted death toll (including that quoted by the Ukrainian Health Ministry) was in the region or 125,000. As time wore on, these figures plummeted.
In fact, 31 people were killed when the reactor blew — 28 from radiation exposure and three scalded to death by escaping steam. In addition, 134 people received high radiation doses and several dozen of these have subsequently died, although several of unrelated causes. A few hundred people, maybe a few thousand, may die prematurely in years to come, mostly from untreated thyroid cancers, but it is becoming clear that the original assessment was wildly pessimistic.
He goes on to cite Britain’s “excellent” Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington:
If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get the dramatic word ‘meltdown’. But what does that actually mean? What a meltdown involves is [that] the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials. That is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen.
‘In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area. It’s not serious for elsewhere … if you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down – do we have a problem?
‘The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue. The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet. It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres.
‘And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health.’
(Hat tip to an anonymous Slovenian guest.)