Is Fukushima a teachable moment for nuclear educators?

By Rod Adams

There are many facets of my chosen avocation as a pro-nuclear blogger and podcaster, but one aspect that has been prominent during the 25 days since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear nightmare at Fukushima has been that of atomic educator. Following the role model of my favorite teachers, I have worked hard to maintain a two-way flow of information—successful educators have to be open-minded learners. There is no doubt that I know a lot more about the design and operation of boiling water reactors with MK I containment vessels now than I knew four weeks ago.

Arial view of units 1-4 Fukushima Dai-ichi March 30, 2011Some nuclear energy advocates might cringe at my use of of the alliterative phrase of “nuclear nightmare at Fukushima,” but I hope they will think hard about all of the implications of that choice of words.

It is hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario than having a multi-unit nuclear power plant installation hit with a massive earthquake, a subsiding coast line, and a massive tidal wave that wiped out a significant portion of the local grid, the emergency diesel generators, and the electrical components required to enable even moderately difficult power restoration. Even the most ardent antinuclear activists with whom I have butted heads would have had to work hard to imagine that kind of initiating event.

Fukushima was truly a nightmare for those of us who favor the increasing use of nuclear energy as a way to reduce our rapid depletion of the earth’s valuable store of hydrocarbons. It was pretty easy to recognize very early in the accident that it had the potential to be the story that the opposition to nuclear energy has been eagerly anticipating for many years.

Even the timing added to the bad dream quality of the event—there was already a steadily increasing drumbeat of reminders from organized antinuclear groups that an explosion and fire at a nuclear power plant had once killed people—25 years ago this month.

It is hard to imagine a worse situation than the one we faced on March 11, 2011. Not only were there vast areas of devastation and thousands of human casualties caused by the natural disasters, but there was also a highly visible nuclear power plant event. That nuclear event was occurring at the same time that hundreds of eager antinuclear Lilliputians had their updated media contact lists in hand. They were primed and ready to add as many more threads as possible to hold down the atomic Gulliver that they want us all to fear. The confluence of an event with an anniversary brought flashbacks of the incredible coincidence of a nuclear plant event occurring in Pennsylvania within weeks of the theater release of a movie about a core meltdown that actually included a line about causing damage to an area “the size of Pennsylvania.”

The one thing that the professional opposition to nuclear energy had not counted on was the fact that information sharing today is on a completely different plane than it was the last time there was significant damage at a nuclear power plant. In April 1986, as in 1979, there was no Internet and no world wide web. Cable television was only available in very limited markets; CNN had finally broken into the public consciousness, but only a few months before Chernobyl when it was the only television news organization with live coverage of the Challenger disaster.

Within just a few hours of the earthquake and tsunami, informal networks of nuclear energy experts began exchanging information using the wide range of tools that modern communications technology has delivered. Though the initial headlines were breathlessly scary, there were alternative paths through which the real story could be gathered and shared. There was plenty of reason for concern among professionals, but it soon became clear that the many layers of protection and procedural backups were having a positive effect on the net outcome.

There will be lessons learned and additional protective measures implemented, but the fact remains that the loss of life at Fukushima Dai-ichi has been limited to two workers who were killed by the tsunami while performing rounds. One other worker was killed when a crane fell at the separate Fukushima Daini nuclear power station. In contrast to that very limited human toll, the natural disaster has killed in excess of 20,000 people.

As one of my favorite nuclear experts likes to point out, nuclear energy systems are designed to provide many opportunities to respond. Bad things can and do happen, but the basic engineering choices made from the earliest days of the technology were aimed at making sure that they happen as slowly as possible. Slow motion disasters might not be optimal from a public relations point of view, but they are often very beneficial from a public health point of view. It saves lives and property when there is time to take preventive action.

Though there have been many bad moments and plenty of negative press coverage, the accurate information that nuclear energy experts have shared using modern communications paths that include the web and social networks have begun to sink in. Despite all of the gloom and doom scenarios, each day brings us one step closer to stability and each report of injuries brings a growing recognition among the public that their carefully stoked fears regarding a nuclear catastrophe have been misplaced. Professional journalists have begun to recognize that the scary stories they told at the beginning were fictional instead of factual.

On Sunday, April 2, 2011, there was a front page story in the Washington Post titled Nuclear power is the safest way to make electricity, according to study. Similar stories are beginning to pop up in other unexpected locations, including The Guardian, The Australian, the New York Times, and even Treehugger.com.

I chose to enter the nuclear energy profession just two years after the Three Mile Island accident. It has not been the easiest choice I could have made. Young nuclear professionals who harbor a little concern about their future employment prospects can rest assured that Fukushima will not result in another three decade slumber. That is largely due to the efforts of people with real nuclear knowledge and the means, motive, and opportunity to share it widely.

Adams

Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

8 responses to “Is Fukushima a teachable moment for nuclear educators?

  1. Ramtanu Maitra

    The reason such anti-nuclear power misinformation gathers speed and momentum is simply not because of the Facebook and twitters. Long before internet came into existence, had created an anti-nuclear power environment.
    Just consider this: Between 1955 and 1979, this country had built 90 percent of its highways, landed many astronauts on the Moon and built almost 80 nuclear power plants. The last licensing was done in the late 1970s. During the last thrity years, this country sat on its haunches and lived on what the ose 20 years sowed. Now, it is a bankrupt nation.
    What happened is that a generation that came up were devoid of science studies. Most of them have no background in physics and do not how this physical world works. It is a dumbed-down generation who lives on fear and not understanding.

  2. It is not just the nuclear opposition that were unprepared for the internet during an emergency. The slow and misleading release of information by TEPCO and others did nothing to help the case for nuclear power, or those living in the area affected by the incident. The very limited access to trustworthy radiation level information did not help. Be very sure, the opposition will be right on top of this (again) in the future. Officialdom has a lot of catching up to do.

    • I disagree with the assertion that people who are against nuclear power do not understand physics and do not know how the real world works.

      Pro-nuclear groups do themselves a disservice by thinking they are somehow smarter or better informed.

      Most anti-nuclear groups are just as smart and informed as the pro-nuclear groups BUT they have different priorities. They view nuclear power as a polluting technology due to the long term radioactive waste.

      They view nuclear power as a short term alternative to fossil fuels. I am sure that once coal, gas, wood, and oil are eliminated they would be full force on eliminating nukes.

      • Brian Mays

        I disagree with the assertion that people who are against nuclear power do not understand physics and do not know how the real world works.

        But some of them really do not understand physics. Take this example. This guy, a prominent European anti-nuclear activist, not only doesn’t understand physics, but he seems rather bitter about it, writing, “Make no mistake, physicists are stupid.”

        You can read the rest of his ranting and decide for yourself whether he knows how the real world works.

        Pro-nuclear groups do themselves a disservice by thinking they are somehow smarter or better informed.

        I think that you have that backwards. Pro-nuclear groups just want to get out the facts about nuclear science and technology. Nuclear professionals and workers just want to get their jobs done.

        It is the anti-nuclear groups who think that they are smarter and better informed. This is why they appoint themselves as “watchdogs,” even though nobody asked them to do this job. They think that they are so much smarter and better informed that they feel obligated to second-guess every decision ever made by the nuclear industry and its regulators, and they make a big stink when they disagree, even when it turns out that they are wrong.

        Tell me: why should someone from the Union of Concerned “Scientists” be called in to testify in congressional hearings on nuclear power? If you look at the resumes of the employees that they send, you can’t help but notice that they are far from being the most qualified individuals to speak on the topics at hand. Yet the UCS and other groups insist on having their say, and they have sufficient political clout to ensure that they are included.

  3. @BrianSJ – I am not as disappointed as some in TEPCO’s performance. They were managing a very challenging situation and having the entire world looking over their shoulder did not help.

    With regard to their slow release of information, there is also a risk in trying to release information too quickly. For example, the most recent misstep was releasing a suspicion that a certain short lived fission product had been discovered. That mistake was caused by hasty evaluation of sample results and led to a number of very strange and scientifically questionable claims of “criticality”.

    http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/2011/04/recritical-thinking.html

    Crime dramas in the movies and on television have given people the mistaken belief producing accurate results when measuring minute traces of contaminants is something that can be done quickly.

    It’s not.

  4. One of the greatest lessons learned from TMI was about the importance of communications. In this regard TEPCO and the Japanese government failed badly.
    The industry, indeed anyone involved with emergency responses of any kind, needs to learn from this. Folks are hungary for information after any type of incident and they will turn to any source. The folks in Japan were getting info from CNN worldwide which contradicted what was being “officially released.”

  5. Bill Mullins

    Thank you Rod for taking some longer perspective – it has been in short supply these past few weeks.
    There is a tragic irony at work here – many observers in the US, including ANS members, continue to believe that their personal perception of these powerful events at the interface between the constructed environment and raw nature is more deserving of attention than the reality on the ground of the 500,000+ persons in Japan whose lives have been devastated.
    We’ve some distance to go before we be able to commit to the needed renewal & reinforcement of our own vulnerable national energy infrastructure.
    A good start would be to tone down the talk of radiation dose in relation to the actual coping challenges unfolding across Japan. A benchmark figure that could serve as a trigger for more in-depth reporting might be the number of individuals exposed to more than 60% of the emergency response limit.

    • There is a list of the fallout and water supply contamination figures on MEXT in English.

      I wonder if This has any bearing….

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