Adequate Design?

Looking back more than a year after the event, it is clear that the Fukushima reactor complex, though nowhere close to state-of-the-art, was adequately designed to contain radiation.”                   
- Dr. Richard Muller, physicist, University of California Berkeley, August 2012.

Take your time. Go back and read that again: “The Fukushima reactor complexwas adequately designed to contain radiation.”
While a recent official Japanese report on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster confirms the view that it was a tragedy with enormous environmental, social and economic effects, there is still commentary appearing in the media claiming that the real danger was minor, while all the harm it did was caused by irrational panic. Sadly, the event is said to have needlessly caused nuclear power to fall out of favor at a time when we need it as an alternative to carbon-based energy. This week, The Wall Street Journal published The Panic Over Fukushima, the latest example of such an essay, by University of California Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.
While Dr. Muller is chosen to speak on this issue in the mass media because of his expertise as a physicist, his opinion piece has an unfortunately narrow view of the issue from the viewpoint of medicine, engineering and ethics. Most of what he writes is correct, but his conclusions are doubtful if what he omits is taken into consideration.
All scientists who have tried to downplay the seriousness of nuclear accidents choose to discuss only cancer and external radiation exposures. However, people who are concerned about environmental contamination in Fukushima are mostly worried about the effects of particles that will get into their bodies, and other ailments that are not as frightening as cancer but a serious concern. The earliest studies of the health effects of radiation were focused on internal contamination, and the hazards were well known before there was a nuclear power industry that preferred not to talk about them. Every health physicist knows that cesium in living organisms is absorbed in the same way as potassium, and strontium fills the role of calcium. The former goes to muscles and the latter goes to bones. Dr. Muller’s argument doesn’t mention internal contamination, but it seems to rest on the assumption that the levels of these toxins in the environment around Fukushima will have a negligible impact, whether they are inside or outside living things. Yet considering the complexity of the problem, how could anyone know with any certainty what the health effects will be?
Other omissions are the topic of non-cancerous health effects, and the greater vulnerability of fetuses and children. These are conveniently not discussed. One reason might be the common assertion that no official support has ever been given to the claim that radiation causes non-cancerous health effects. Indeed it is difficult to find any government compensation or any legal decision that has favored claimants who said they suffered non-cancerous health effects from exposure to radiation. But there is one little-known precedent from a forgotten corner of nuclear history. The U.S. government has awarded Marshall Islanders, who were exposed to nuclear weapons test fallout, with compensation for several non-cancerous diseases and benign tumors, among them non-malignant nodular thyroid disease, hypothyroidism, autoimmune thyroiditis, severe mental retardation, and unexplained bone marrow failure. Internal exposure is implicitly admitted in the recognition of these conditions.
One quarter of the 36 conditions listed for compensation are non-cancerous or include benign tumors. It was not easy to get these conditions recognized, but when they were added to the list they were described as being “medical conditions which are irrebuttably presumed to be the result of the Nuclear Testing Program.” Skeptics would probably say that it was all just sympathy money, politicking and liberal guilt caving in to pressure from victims. There is no convincing some people.
Many of the admitted conditions are related to thyroid malfunction, which can be a primary cause of other health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and hypertension. Furthermore, research by Bandazhevskaya et al has shown that heart disease later in life can be caused by the absorption of the radioisotope cesium 134 and 137 by heart muscle during embryonic development and during childhood. The Marshall Islands has some very poor statistics in world rankings for death caused by ailments related to heart disease (listed in the table below.) If they have never been recognized as effects of radiation it is because the world authorities in health physics (WHO, UNSCEAR, IAEA, ICRP) refuse to acknowledge Bandazhevskaya’s work on heart muscle absorption of cesium, even though they also seem reluctant to conduct research that would settle the matter. Also, the diseases in the table are all secondary effects of thyroid malfunction, and they are parts of a single condition known as metabolic syndrome which is caused by a combination of environmental, dietary and cultural factors. It would be impossible to determine precisely how much nuclear weapons testing contributed to the present health condition of Marshall Islanders, but undoubtedly it is a factor in the dismal statistics of a place that should be a tropical paradise full of healthy people. The list below shows world ranking for rate of death for various diseases, along with the rate of death within the Marshall Islands. Since these five causes of death are problematically inter-related, they could be totaled as one cause labeled metabolic disease. In this way, we can say that 52.35% of Marshall Islanders are dying from this preventable condition, with radiation exposure being a highly probable contributing factor.

cause of death
world ranking
% of deaths in the Marshall Islands
endocrine disorders
heart disease


But this is medicine, not physics. Perhaps it is too much to expect a physicist to learn this information that is outside his area of expertise. This is a job that can only be done, apparently, by amateurs who take the time to read research papers from various fields in their free time.
Dr. Muller wrote in his conclusion, “Looking back more than a year after the event, it is clear that the Fukushima reactor complex, though nowhere close to state-of-the-art, was adequately designed to contain radiation.” I doubt there are many nuclear engineers who would agree with this statement because most of them, even ones who are still staunchly pro-nuclear, must be ashamed and appalled by how badly this complex was maintained and how badly it failed to contain radiation. To take just one example of inadequate design, TEPCO workers on the site found it impossible to vent the pressure that caused the explosions and led to the catastrophic release of radiation. It is peculiar that anyone could call this “adequately designed to contain radiation.”
Of course, if you believe there are no serious environmental or health consequences from the massive releases of radiation that occurred, then the complex was adequately designed. There will be no problems if other reactors of the same design fail in the same way because there are no health effects. Don't worry. Be happy.
Furthermore, this statement about “adequate design” shows no awareness of the ongoing dangers posed by the melted cores and the spent fuel pools – the main reasons people are reluctant to re-inhabit the area.
In his discussion of the risks of nuclear power, Dr. Muller declares the obvious in stating, “Nothing can be made absolutely safe.” Then he asks a question that actually gives his opponents a clear reason to not change their minds. He asks, Must we design nuclear reactors to withstand everything imaginable? What about an asteroid or comet impact? Or a nuclear war? No, of course not; the damage from the asteroid or the war would far exceed the tiny added damage from the radioactivity released by a damaged nuclear power plant.” Well, actually, these are good reasons not to build nuclear power plants in the first place. There are other crises less severe than nuclear war that could be worsened by the involvement of nuclear power plants and spent fuel pools. If nuclear power plants had existed at the time of WWII, their destruction by conventional bombing would have left Europe uninhabitable. A small war or terrorist attack with non-nuclear explosives aimed at nuclear power plants would be enough to cause widespread damage.
Most of Dr. Muller’s essay is devoted to a discussion of how the risks of cancer are calculated for a radiological emergency, and how these risks compare with natural sources of radiation and other risks we face from nature or from other man-made threats. The long mathematical explanation becomes a condescending lecture to the non-specialist who, it is presumed, is too dimwitted to understand the simple point that radiation exposure produces relatively few additional cancers compared to all the cancers that occur in a population. We get it, but those who dwell on this point fail to address the ethical issues of the discussion.
If the extra cancer cases caused by a radiological accident amount to only a 1% increase, the crime of imposing this burden on people is the same no matter what the risk is. If, in addition to the cancers that will be caused by radiation from Fukushima, there are 99 known carcinogens sold legally and scattered throughout the environment, the producer of each one can say that his product contributes only an additional 1% lifetime risk of getting cancer. And he’ll say that this is, of course, an acceptable trade-off considering the benefits the product brings to society (sterile toilet bowls, perhaps). But, of course, the net result of everyone using this rationale is a 100% chance for everyone of an untimely death by cancer.
For some reason, the moral outrage is easier to perceive if you consider the risk of harm by criminal activity. If a sociopathic killer is paroled, the murder rate will increase only incrementally, while there is a benefit to society in the saved cost of incarceration. My overall risk of dying by violence hasn’t changed too much by the release of this one criminal. High-income people, such as university professors, choose to not live in neighborhoods with higher crime rates, even if living there would only increase their lifetime risk of dying by violence by less than 1%. Their “irrational” fear and discomfort with living with the uncertainty would be the deciding factor, and most people find this to be natural value system. Psychological comfort matters.
To take another example, if a real estate agent knowingly sells someone a house that was used as a methamphetamine lab, he can rationalize his action in the same way the criminal rationalized making the drug. He can say that there is only a small increase in the risk to the health of the sucker who buys the house. If he already has poor health and some bad habits, so much the better. In these cases, the answer to the moral question seems clear: risks can only be imposed with informed consent, and individuals have the right to decline risks for reasons that may seem irrational to others. This will all become much clearer to you when it is the radionuclides falling on your property and not on the homes of abstract strangers on the other side of the world. In my neighborhood, soil deposition of cesium went from a few hundred Bq/m2 to about 20,000, but this, we are told, is nothing to worry about because in the exclusion zone 200 kilometers away the figure is 500,000 ~ 1,000,000, or more. And the optimists say even that will have a negligible impact. I didn’t panic and I haven’t evacuated because the doctor is right, lifetime risks of cancer haven’t increased much at all, and quitting my job at the age of 53 would have a serious downside. But I still claim my right to be rationally outraged.
Furthermore, it does not matter whether the person declining the risk agrees with others about how dangerous it is. If my wife has a phobia about butterflies, it would be sadistic of me to mount framed specimens of them on the wall and tell her to just get over it. In contrast, the fear of radiation is not completely irrational. It is a known poison. Radioactive particles should not be in the human body, but to some degree people are, admittedly, irrational about the risks, sometimes. But so what? If they choose not to live on land contaminated with 500,000 Bq/m2, that’s their prerogative. If the land becomes economically depressed and depopulated, too bad. If the electorate no longer wants nuclear power, that’s democracy in action. If the insurance liabilities of nuclear power make it too expensive to finance with private money, again, too bad. The market has spoken. This is the consequence of badly managing nuclear safety, not of the general population’s panic and irrationality.
In spite of these moral arguments, I regret to say that Dr. Muller is probably right about the numbers and the long-term effects of Fukushima. It amounts to just an incremental addition to the health disasters that have been unfolding for a long time, and, as a civilization, we appear to be too dumb to understand why people are dropping all around us. Rates of metabolic diseases and cancer have been increasing steadily, and the increase in cancer is not occurring just because life expectancy has increased. According to Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., the chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition,

 [Since 1971] … childhood cancers have increased by 26% overall, while the incidence of particular cancers has increased still more: acute lymphocytic leukemia, 62%; brain cancer, 50%; and bone cancer, 40%. The federal National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the charitable American Cancer Society (ACS), the cancer establishment, have failed to inform the public, let alone Congress and regulatory agencies, of this alarming information. As importantly, they have failed to publicize well-documented scientific information on avoidable causes responsible for the increased incidence of childhood cancer.

If society doesn’t wake up to the causes of cancer and start preventing it, then nuclear accidents like Fukushima, occurring amid all the other causes of disease, will continue to be wrongly perceived as inconsequential.
Dr. Muller makes a couple additional assertions that are worthy of attention. Invited to write for a major media company as an expert, he is allowed to make assertions that don’t need to be supported by as much as a hyperlink to a credible source. Nor does he have to admit that his assertions are controversial within the scientific community.
He claims that nuclear power is an abundant resource, but doesn’t explain that there are many uncertainties about the world supply of uranium. Specialists who have looked into the question admit that the supply of uranium depends on many factors that can’t be predicted. The World Nuclear Association is optimistic about a technological solution in a post-carbon world in which nuclear energy produces hydrogen fuel which powers the heavy machinery to mine and transport uranium. This presumption conveniently avoids the fact that global warming will do catastrophic damage before carbon energy supplies are depleted. Other experts are not so sure, regardless of the recently exploited deposits in Kazakhstan that have temporarily dampened talk of  a shortage of uranium. An article in Live Science described the situation this way:

Now it seems that mining uranium, which nuclear power depends on, could be even less environmentally friendly and more costly than critics say, according to a new analysis led by Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer at Monash University in Australia.
On average, supplies of high-quality uranium ore have been steadily declining worldwide for the past 50 years, and will likely to continue to wane in the mid-to long-term, Mudd said. Any new uranium deposit is likely to be deeper and harder to extract, and getting uranium from lower-quality deposits involves digging up and refining more ore, according to their analysis of government and industry reports.
"I have often found that the numbers used by many in industry, government or green groups are guesses rather than extensive, measured data sets," Mudd said. "The main thing is to understand the environmental costs of mineral production in terms of land disturbance, energy and water inputs, greenhouse outputs and that this will gradually climb up over time."

Another questionable claim of Dr. Muller is in his reference to the gold standard of radiation studies – the studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims – to make conclusions that may be flawed. Critics of the official studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have pointed out for a long time that their basis is questionable. For one thing, a very important group of radiation victims died in the instant the bombs detonated, or shortly afterward from burns. That takes about 200,000 people out of the studies from the start. Another problem is that the official studies left out people who were living at a distance of more than 2.5 kilometers, and people who entered the cities after the detonations. These groups received significant internal doses and low-level external doses. Another physicist, Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake, studied these groups and said in a recent interview, “What I found was that the death rate from leukemia and respiratory and gastrointestinal cancers was above the national average, and that the incidence of thyroid cancer, leukemia, and breast cancer among women were 1.5 times to 4.1 times higher.” That’s a higher rate than just a few cancers added to the millions that occur “naturally,” but Dr. Schmitz-Feuerhake is just a member of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), a group accused by the nuclear establishment (the IAEA, ICRP, UNSCEAR and industry organizations) of being politically motivated and fringe – not to be taken seriously. It is interesting that these groups of scientists and engineers always see these traits in those who disagree with them, but view themselves as rational, neutral Dr. Spocks who have no skin in the game.
Dr. Schmitz-Feuerhake goes on to say,

Meanwhile, in the past several decades, various studies on nuclear accidents, nuclear facility workers, medical x-rays, and natural radiation have shown the effects of low-level radiation exposure on health. However, the research has been largely ignored, primarily because they contradict data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ICRP's risk assessment, in particular, underestimates the effects of long-term low-level radiation exposure, and also lacks awareness of its effects on illnesses other than cancer… Similar things [official denial of the effects of internal exposure] are happening in many other countries. It's because once a public organization acknowledges internal radiation exposure, they would be forced to acknowledge their responsibility for the risks to the health of nuclear plant workers. Nuclear plant workers are burdened with the same problems as the people of Fukushima who have been exposed to radiation.

I hope that Dr. Schmitz-Feuerhake and others in the ECRR might find that the above-mentioned recognition of Marshall Islanders constitutes a rare official acknowledgement of non-cancerous diseases and internal exposure. As for commentators such as Dr. Muller, I am reminded of something I was told by a friend who took the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1989. A few times he saw graffiti on dilapidated buildings that screamed out, “Eat here, Gorbachev.” This is food for thought for anyone who thinks the exclusion zone in Fukushima is fit for human habitation.

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