Meltdowns and Misinformation

What do we actually know about Japan's nuclear crisis?


To state the obvious, the nuclear crisis in Japan is bad and will get worse. Despite the heroic efforts of the remaining workers at the nuclear complex, it seems likely that two reactor cores will melt down and two spent fuel ponds will ignite, spewing radioactivity into the ground, air, and water. But beyond concern for the workers and those in the surrounding region, the international public has reacted to the unfolding disaster with understandable — but nonetheless irrational — fear for their own safety. Potassium iodide pills have been flying off the shelves in California over fears that the radiation will cross the Pacific. Hoax text messages have spread fears of contamination across Asia from the Philippines to India. In China, stores are selling out of iodized salt, as people frantically hoard it in the mistaken belief that it will counteract radiation.

It might be tempting to blame hysterical media coverage for this reaction, but in this case, most coverage I’ve seen has actually been fairly sober and cautious. The bigger problem has been the overly optimistic scenarios and conflicting information released by Japanese authorities. The public, not only in Japan but worldwide, simply no longer believes those in authority who tell them they are not in danger. This will make it difficult to manage the public response to the crisis going forward and may pose a grave risk for the future of the nuclear industry.

As of day eight of the crisis, here is a brief roundup of what we actually know about the situation unfolding in Fukushima.

A small group of workers, at one point as few as 50, are racing to do what 800 workers failed to do: cool the nuclear fuel inside three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The latest available data shows that water levels inside reactors 1, 2, and 3 have fallen to cover only about half then length the fuel rods, allowing them to overheat and begin to crack. Reactor 4 does not have fuel in its core.

These three reactors contain about 200 metric tons of lightly enriched uranium; reactor 3 also contains plutonium fuel. The cores are beginning to melt. In a full meltdown, this molten fuel could drip down, burning through the steel reactor vessel and possibly breaching the concrete containment vessel — the last line of defense before a large radioactive release. Based on radiation detection by monitors deployed by the Comprehensive-Test-Ban-Treaty Organization, it does not appear that this has yet occurred. Detection of large amounts of zirconium and barium inside the reactors would signal that a large meltdown had taken place.

Photos of the plant show that a series of hydrogen gas explosions has blown off the sides and roofs and compromised the integrity of several structures. The containment walls at reactors 2 and 3 were damaged and may have been breached. Primary and backup cooling systems are not working at reactors 1, 2, and 3. Radioactive steam appears to be leaking from these buildings. These reactor buildings also store spent fuel rods in large pools — containing several times as much radioactive material as the reactors themselves. Two of these pools have been damaged, and the vital water that was cooling the spent fuel has drained. Without water, these fuel rods will begin to overheat, and the rods’ coverings could catch fire. There are 1,760 metric tons of spent fuel in these ponds (with an additional 1,000 tons in the nearby reactor 5 and 6 complex).

The ponds contain many billions of curies of radiation that could easily exceed those associated with the reactor cores by a factor of five to 10. They have no containment structures, and radioactive smoke from these fires would spew directly into the atmosphere. Efforts by Japanese military and police to refill the ponds with water dropped from helicopters or by water cannons appear to have failed.

The biggest worry is that a spent fuel fire could contaminate the immediate area so badly that reactor workers would no longer be able to keep working to cool the overheating reactors. Then two scenarios will unfold, both far worse than authorities imagined just seven days ago.

The best worst-case scenario is that only two spent fuel ponds — at reactors 3 and 4 — catch fire and that the meltdowns at reactors 1, 2, and 3 are largely contained by the concrete walls surrounding the reactors. Toxic smoke would still spread massive amounts of radioactive contamination over the surrounding environment.

The worst worst-case scenario is that all three reactors with fuel in their core and all four fuel pools overheat and two or more reactors breach the concrete containment structures, burning through into the broader environment.

In either case, severe amounts of radioactive contamination will spread over tens, hundreds, or even thousands of square miles. In either case, radioactive contamination will spread over land and water, posing serious health hazards to life within 50 miles of the complex.

In an effort, perhaps, to keep the public calm, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which owns the reactors, and the Japanese government which regulates them have limited the information released and constantly portrayed the situation as under control. The facts have spoken otherwise. The widening gap has now triggered a collapse of confidence on the part of the Japanese public and, it appears, the U.S. government. Brookings Institution scholar Daniel Kaufmann notes that TEPCO "infuriated Japan’s prime minister, who learned of the first plant explosion at reactor 1 on Saturday from watching TV." In the early days of the crisis, TEPCO officials denied that water levels had fallen in reactors and fuel storage pools, but hours later announced extraordinary measures to pump new water in.

On March 16, Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), went out of his way to rebut Japanese claims that a fuel pool at the Fukushima site still had water in it. "There is no water in the spent fuel pool, and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high," he said, citing U.S. intelligence over Japanese statements. The conflicting information has hurt authorities’ credibility in Japan and also contributed to an atmosphere in which the public is simply unsure what to believe. As one resident fleeing the reactors said, "We have small children, and we don’t want to take any chances about them getting radiation sickness. We cannot trust this government. Can you?" And Americans have hardly been immune to this skepticism.

Traveling to California this week, I met a number of reasonable people who were in a veritable panic about radioactive clouds washing across the United States. Some Americans have reacted to this tragedy by hoarding potassium iodide pills (which can help block the body’s absorption of radioactive iodine). The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a plea for restraint, saying "The people of Japan should be given priority access to potassium iodide pills."

Newspaper headlines like the Los Angeles Times"Small amounts of radiation headed for California, but no health risk seen," didn’t help. Despite caveats in the stories, readers — and I mean very smart, highly educated readers — think that they are in danger from radioactive clouds. They simply do not believe the claims that there is no risk.

Just this morning, March 18, after I explained in detail over breakfast to a friend why any radiation from Japan would be greatly diluted by the time it traveled 5,000 miles across the Pacific, my friend — a successful businesswomen and breast cancer survivor — told me, "I don’t have a margin of error here. I do not want to be part of anyone’s science experiment. I don’t want to be a nuclear lab rat." She has turned strongly anti-nuclear power overnight.

The electronic and print coverage of the crisis has actually been impressively balanced and sober. I have seen firsthand the extraordinary editorial efforts of a major network to make sure that its reporters were getting it right, neither buying the spin nor hyping the threat.

This fear, then, springs from a deeper source than the media. From the beginning, nuclear weapons and reactors have both fascinated and terrified us. Their power filled us with awe; their risks scared us to death. In the 1950s there were brisk sales of backyard fallout shelters and films featuring giant mutant ants rising from the Nevada atomic test site. Radiation is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the bombs and reactors. For the workers battling in the dark hulks of the Fukushima reactors, radiation is the horror film monster: invisible, untouchable, and deadly. The American public may be thousands of miles away, but the fear is the same.

The only antidote to this panic is accurate, complete information. We have gotten neither from TEPCO. The Japanese government must distance itself from the now discredited power company and speak directly and regularly to the Japanese public. Officials should release all the latest information on the crisis, including radiation and water levels, worker casualties, and progress on containing the fires or — and this is key — the lack of progress. They must be as frank about the failures as they have tried to be reassuring about the successes. If not, more citizens will come to the same conclusion as Tokyo resident Masako Kitajima, who told Reuters, "This government is useless."

U.S. officials must speak just as clearly in the days ahead to calm American fears. President Barack Obama made a good start on March 17. He assured the public — twice — that "We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska, or U.S. territories in the Pacific." He also promised that the NRC will do "a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan." The first statement will have to be repeated many times more by officials over the next few days, the latter followed by real action over the next few months.

If the U.S. nuclear industry has any chance of surviving the Fukushima disaster, there must be frank talk about safety and risks. Bland statements about how safe U.S. reactors are will simply trigger the same mistrust in Americans that false assurances did among the Japanese. There will need to be a thorough, independent reassessment of the safety of all U.S. reactors, existing and planned, if the American public is to be convinced to keep them in their backyards.

For our part, policy and security experts must make sure that we don’t overplay the dangers or understate the risks. I have made my own mistakes in the past few days of media commentary. I have said that the radiation could contaminate hundreds or thousands of square kilometers (which is true) and render them uninhabitable basically forever (which is not true). Some contaminated areas could be reoccupied in months, others in decades, and others in centuries. Accuracy is as important for analysts as it is for governments.

At moments as serious as the nuclear crisis in Japan, we all — experts, journalists, officials, and corporate executives — have a duty to fully inform the public. And to trust them with the simple truth.

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