Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #16 – Fukushima is Not Chernobyl

Predictably, reaction to the ongoing events at Fukushima is bipolar. On the one hand, severe impact on nuclear industry plans is causing denial and lashing out from apologists, like this claim of “nuclear hysteria”: RealClearPolitics – Nuclear Hysteria

On the other hand, we see a resurgence of magical thinking associated with invisible radiation fears, causing unhelpful references to Chernobyl to magnify, and causing runs on potassium iodide in Europe and California where the pills will do no good.
These reactions feed each other and should likewise be combatted by rational thinking.
As I’ve tried to make clear, there are few helpful comparisons to Chernobyl in regard to fallout effects. At Chernobyl, the burning graphite reactor cores were exposed to open air by the initial explosion. This led to massive plumes of radioiodine and Cesium-137, ultimately leaving a permanent evacuation zone the size of Switzerland.
At Fukushima there is no such core exposure. The radionuclides escaping are leaking out through broken or melted pipes. There is no burning graphite.  It is not yet clear how much exposure of spent fuel rods occurred but if there was some, it appears to have been halted. The predominant nuclides released were light gasses that will dissipate quickly, leaving little long-term contamination.  Continued comparison to Chernobyl will make Fukushima look small and insignificant.
This is why radiation levels in Tokyo and elsewhere outside the immediate area are rising and falling rapidly — that’s good news. A tap-water hazard for infants in Tokyo was reported and has led to the government providing bottled water for households with infants: Japan issues radiation warning on 11 vegetables – The Washington Post. A later report suggests the Tokyo levels have gone back down. Produce from the affected region is problematic but being controlled. The USA has banned importation of produce and dairy from four prefectures near Fukushima.
To be perfectly clear: these kinds of transient radiation levels are not due to long-lived contamination by cesium or plutonium and are not a major concern. The iodine problem is limited to milk and dairy from nearby.
So to repeat prior advice: If in Japan, avoid fresh fish, use bottled water if available, or tap water that has been stored on the shelf. Continue to store as much tap water as possible for emergency use and keep shelved so contamination decays away. But do not avoid drinking water as it cleanses the body. Use alternatives to breast-feeding for the duration of the crisis.
If outside Japan there is no cause for health concern at present. The detectable levels reaching California are negligible and should be ignored.  If you live near the Diablo Canyon or San Onofre reactors, get the places shut down. Have your doctor write a prescription for that.
On-site problems at Fukushima will be worse, maybe much worse than Chernobyl in terms of total contamination, and that is another reason to avoid comparisons.  Never have six reactors and six spent fuel pools been involved in a single accident.
Little attention has been given to the fact that US military has now been assigned to the reactor complex, and is performing much or most of the hazardous work. Japanese military is also involved. We hear much about some alleged “50 heroes” who stayed to do work at the site – Behind Reactor Battle, a Legion of Grunts – WSJ.com. My guess is that those workers were mostly sent away after maximum exposures, replaced by the military. The advantage of using military personnel for TEPCO and the industry will be that those soldiers can be ordered to perform suicide missions, and can be barred at least temporarily from talking to the media.
But it’s with those workers and soldiers that the real story lies. It may be, as reports suggest, that workers are mainly standing clear of the hot zones, which has, of course, made the situation harder to bring under control. Martyrdom and liability lawyers do not mix well.
There is also now conspiracy-theory talk about entombment.  I think everyone knows that entombment is coming. However, it is in everyone’s best interest not to rush to that solution, because the bigger the mess inside the sarcophagus, the more of a problem we create for future generations. Ultimately the sarcophagus will have to be opened, or it will erode away. There’s also the question of how large it will need to be and how isolated.
Therefore it is best to salvage as much as possible before pouring in sand and concrete. Ideally the spent fuel rods stored in pools can be extracted and carted away before entombment of the reactor cores. Also there is a question about the three reactors that were not operating. They would like to be able to entomb only the three units where meltdowns had started, but salvage the three other units, even if they never operate, to minimize the size of the sarcophagus.
It is in the public interest to keep the sarcophagus as small and as cool inside as possible.
— Geoffrey Sea

Geoffrey Sea holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Science from Harvard. He did graduate work in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and in radiological health physics at San Jose State University. He is co-founder of Southern Ohio Neighbors Group, which successfully defeated plans for the centralized storage of spent nuclear fuel at Piketon, Ohio. He has published in the American Scholar, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and many newspapers. He can be contacted via email at SargentsPigeon@aol.com