Lessons From Fukushima

Here are some of the lessons I learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident:

  1. The world is in serious trouble with carbon emissions. We need to be deploying every form of clean power we can as fast as we can. A few deaths at Fukushima shouldn't alter that goal or strategy one bit.

  • We now can update our statistics on public deaths due to nuclear power over the last 50 years by adding 0 deaths affecting the general public at large. As we expected, nuclear is still by far the safest way to generate power (fewest deaths per MwH generated). It is important that we tell the world that they should be shutting down the most dangerous forms of power generation first. It makes no sense whatsoever to be shutting down the safest form of power generation first.
  • We learned it is a bad idea to put generators in the basement of a plant near a large body of water subject to tsunamis. But their design spec was a smaller tsunami. So we learned that sometimes, accidents happen that are beyond our design center and people will get killed. Does that mean we should spend huge additional sums to over-design everything we build to account for the worst possible disaster? Probably not. I think Haiti is a good example of setting your standards too low. But I don't think that is the case here. I think the lesson of Fukushima is that natural disasters cause deaths that we can't always avoid.
  • We learned that 40 years ago, people didn't design reactors as safely as we do today.
  • We learned that if the reactor closest to the epicenter sustains no damage, the press and public will completely ignore it when they should be telling people that this proves that the technology itself is inherently safe even in disasters beyond the design specification.
  • We've always known that having a reactor shutdown process that is dependent upon electricity is a bad idea. Having waste lying around is a bad idea. Not being able to reprocess that waste is a bad idea. Cancelling the IFR project that could have reprocessed the waste was a bad idea.
  • It shows that 40-year-old designs are not perfect, yet nuclear is still the safest form of power. But we should be still aggressively even safer designs by building these designs and learning from our mistakes. In particular, the IFR design avoid such problems since it doesn't require any operator intervention or electrical power to shut down safely. Is it perfect? No, but it is statistically better than non-nuclear alternatives.
  • We've learned, once again, that people are irrational. When 8 members of the public died in a natural gas explosion in a town near where I live (San Bruno), there was not a single editorial or protest calling for the end of natural gas. When any single plane crash kills more people than nuclear has in its entire 50-year history, do we hear about anyone calling for banning air travel and shutting down the travel by air? Absolutely not! When 115 people die in car crashes every day, do we hear cries for banning automobiles? Nope. Yet when no member of the public dies due to the disaster in Japan, instead of people talking about how, even in the roughest cases, nobody in the public was killed, we talk about the end of nuclear power in countries around the world. If a 40-year-old car exploded, killing its occupant, do you think there would calls to end the manufacture of cars worldwide? Or do we learn what we did wrong and not repeat that mistake next time?
  • No member of the public died from nuclear radiation in the Japan quake. Unsafe buildings caused untold thousands of deaths in the same disaster. Why isn't the priority on making safer buildings that can withstand tsunamis? Why aren't countries closing down all buildings because building technology has proven time and time again to kill people when an accident occurs? Buildings are an unsafe technology.
  • We learned that politicians don't think clearly during and after disasters. The head (or former head) of the radiation protection division of U.S.-NRC once stated (jokingly) at an IAEA reception in Vienna:
  • There are three types of photons, namely 'green' ones, 'yellow' ones and 'red' ones. The 'green' ones are plentiful and of natural origin. We are not concerned about them and we don't regulate them. The 'yellow' ones come from medical applications. They are usually less plentiful, but we are a bit concerned about them and thus we regulate them somewhat. The 'red' ones are very rare, they find their origin in nuclear energy applications. We are very concerned about them and consequently we regulate the hell out of them.

    In Fukushima, the evacuation zone criteria is >=20 mSv/yr. The problem with that choice is that large areas of France have natural radiation more than three times higher than that. Therefore, people were forced to leave their homes without a credible justification. In fact, there are many people (me included) who have concluded that there is a good scientific basis to believe that radiation levels of around 100 mSv/yr are beneficial to health and actually save lives. The one thing we know for sure: forcing people out of their homes cost lives due to suicides. Without a doubt, more people died from a bad political decisions in the Fukushima disaster than died from nuclear radiation. Maybe it is time to ban politicians worldwide first before we ban nuclear power? (This section has been added as an update to the post.)

  • As far as I know, the death toll at Fukushima was 4 people. Two were outside when the tsunami hit, one man fell from a crane and there was one heart attack death.
  • The major point is that people need to be reminded of the concept of "acceptable risk." 115 people die in car accidents in the US alone every single day, but we like cars, so killing 42,000 people a year from this unsafe technology is an acceptable risk. No problem. No protests. Non-issue.

    If we look at the public death toll from nuclear power worldwide, it's about 1 member of the public per year over the entire 50 years of nuclear operation. If you remove Chernobyl, it is 0.02 people per year. If I just gave you the statistics on deaths per year in the US between these two technologies (42,000 vs. 0.02), but didn't mention the technology by name and asked you which technology should be eliminated, everyone would say cars, no question. But once I use the "n" word, it's completely the reverse. Cars are totally safe, nuclear is super dangerous.

    Today, we will spend arbitrarily large sums of money in order to reduce the nuclear death count per year; 0.02 deaths per year is simply not good enough. That is "unsafe."

    Go figure.

    This post has been revised from a earlier version.