Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sensational Disaster Coverage Harms U.S. Interests


With all of the sensational news coverage surrounding Japan’s nuclear crisis, I thought it was time that someone begin a rational discussion.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and unprecedented tsunami that followed has caused mass devastation and enormous human suffering in Japan. Thousands are dead and authorities are struggling to deliver essential services to prevent further loss of life. The facts on the ground are horrific by any standard and recovery will take considerable time.

As a result of the nuclear emergency, the crisis is ongoing and it is important for U.S. nuclear safety officials and public health agencies to closely monitor the situation. Americans are rightly concerned and deserve a factual reporting of the crisis. Unfortunately, we are instead being bombarded by sensational headlines and commentary that stretches the bounds of scientific reality to the point of utter fiction. Based on media reporting, one might reasonably assume that the embattled Japanese reactors were soon to engulf the island nation in a nuclear explosion – sending radioactive debris akin to Chernobyl into the atmosphere. But this is not a scientific possibility; it will not happen.

While the news accounts we are witnessing are highly troubling and downright frightening, there is no threat to the West Coast of the United States nor is there a threat to the lives of the Japanese people who have been evacuated to safe distances during the crisis. Let me briefly outline why:
  • All of the reactors that are in a state of nuclear emergency have been shut down. They automatically shut down when a seismic event occurs.
  • The crisis is resulting from the loss of primary power due to the earthquake, as well as the loss of backup generators due to the tsunami. Reactor cooling was not functioning properly, resulting in the threat of a meltdown at several reactors.
  • If the reactors experience a core meltdown because they cannot be adequately cooled, the containment system will protect the human population. When Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown in 1979, the containment system was almost entirely undamaged with less than 5/8 of an inch of shielding impacted.
  • Assuming the containment system partially fails (or fails entirely) the resulting radiation will not consume Japan and will not expose the West Coast of the United States. At this point, some reports indicate there could be damage to one of the reactors containment structures.
  • The radiation levels currently reported are not lethal. They have spiked within close range of the reactors but have also quickly dissipated. 
  • The containment system, composed of steel and concrete, has not been destroyed despite the magnitude of the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami. 
  • Steam is being vented from the reactor core to reduce pressure but that steam does not carry lethal radiation and it is quickly dissipated. 
  • Fires and explosions at the plant are serious but they were not nuclear explosions, nuclear fires, or radioactive explosions. They were the result of hydrogen buildup – which is a byproduct of emergency cooling efforts.
Clearly the situation remains fluid and in the final analysis there will be important lessons learned from the crisis. However, our long-term economic growth and the goal of energy independence will require large scale deployment of state-of-the-art nuclear energy facilities. That is what I propose in A Roadmap for America’s Energy Future – the all of the above solution to U.S. energy needs.

You can follow updates on the crisis in Japan via the International Atomic Energy Agencies website

You can also monitor the U.S. energy policy debate on my new Facebook page.