Fukushima nuclear disaster: looking for objectivity
Moment by moment the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan seems to widen. As I began to write this post last night (Monday March 14, 2011), a third explosion had just been reported, one that had perhaps compromised the metal containment casing of one of the reactors.
Yet as I delve more carefully into the information about what is really going on at Fukushima Nuclear Plant, there seems to be some comfort. At Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history, the reactor didn’t have a containment vessel and it also exploded from inside adding to the radioactive toxins released into the atmosphere.
In contrast, the Fukushima reactor has a containment vessel and as soon as the earthquake hit, it shutdown, so the amount of energy being released immediately dropped to a very small fraction of what it was.
Nuclear power supplies 25-30% of Japan’s power. Eleven nuclear reactors there automatically shutdown when the Sendai earthquake struck.
I phoned a dear friend: Professor Emeritus, M.I.T. and Nobel Laureate in physics Jerome (Jerry) Friedman, to see what more I could learn. Jerry travels to Japan regularly as he is co-founder of a University in Okinawa. He’s been in contact with friends and colleagues in Tokyo since the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. “They’re experiencing water shortages,” Friedman says, “and they’re rationing electricity.”
Friedman was my grandfather Enrico’s last graduate student. Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954) was one of the most important quantum physicists of the 20th century and a pivotal figure in the development of atomic energy and the atomic bomb. My grandmother Laura Fermi (1907 – 1977) was a pioneer in the environmental movement starting in 1959. She taught me to be an environmentalist. What was passed down to me from my grandfather is to be a logical thinker.
I told Jerry I was finding discrepancies among the many articles from various news sources about Fukushima. Could he help me find some objectivity about the crisis in Japan? Jerome said I needed to talk to his colleague Richard Wilson, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, (emeritus) at Harvard University.
According to Wilson “public health is unlikely to affected by the Japanese reactor situation.” That statement (and the article it links to) are from a man, who starting ten years ago, has been saying the best way to help people in the developing world is to educate women and girls.
Professor Wilson agreed to speak with me tonight (Tuesday, March 15, 2011).
I start by asking him to respond to Robert Alvarez’s recent Huffpost raising concerns spent fuel rods at Fukushima could release radiation far greater than Chernobyl. Wilson stated, “Can’t be worse than Chernobyl. It’s virtually physically impossible. Alvarez is an alarmist on nuclear questions.”
Wilson acknowledges, “Yes Alvarez is right that there is more long lived radioactivity in the spent fuel storage.” And then repeats his reassurances: there is no driving force in the spent fuel rods.
He reiterates what I’ve read and seen on the BBC. “The spent fuel pit is just beside the reactor. It’s best if it’s cooled with fresh water because then the rods can later be put into dry storage.” As a last resort the Japanese are using seawater to cool the spent rods. Wilson continues, “The cladding will start falling apart, but it will not melt.”
Wilson has experience with talking to the public about nuclear accidents. After Three Mile Island he helped disseminate accurate information to the media. He tells me after Chernobyl he was on the phone all day for a month giving interviews. After Chernobyl, Wilson says he could not find one single newspaper that got the information right. He compares it to confusing miles with miles per hour.
“I started out in high energy physics,” says Wilson, stimulated by some of your grandfather’s work.” But then the professor became fascinated with how to quantify various dangers and risks of life.
“I was born in London next to a coal-fired power plant. My grandmother died of lung cancer from the pollution and I’m very sensitive to it.” Years later he used his physics training in statistical analysis and probability to calculate the risks of coal versus the risks of nuclear power. “Atomic energy comes out very favorably, even with accidents factored in,” he says.
When I turn the interview back to the situation in Fukushima, Wilson says, “It’s clearly not like Chernobyl.”
The professor had colleagues in Russia. One was Gorbachev’s science advisor. “He immediately went to Chernobyl and climbed on top of the reactor and looked in. As soon as he got to maximum dose he stopped and got down.” Wilson continues, “He was like your grandfather. He wanted to be there on the scene to really see what was going on and to figure out how to proceed.”
Wilson then startles me with some sobering perspective. For the past ten years Wilson’s been visiting Bangladesh, studying the effects of arsenic there; and educating women and men about those risks.
“The problem in Bangladesh is far worse than Chernobyl. It makes Chernobyl look like a Sunday school picnic, but it’s not reported,” states Wilson.
Up to 50,000,000 people there drank water from wells contaminated by arsenic. Wilson tells me half a million people will get cancer from the poisoned wells. It is a tragedy that could have been prevented: had WHO and UNICEF taught the populace to check for arsenic, when they instructed them to dig wells for water before instead of after ten million wells had been dug.
I ask Professor Wilson whether or not he thinks nuclear power is a necessity at this point for humanity?
Again Wilson’s thoughts go to the poorest in the world. “If we don’t have it, it’s going to be very hard for the developing world. Access to cheap energy is vital to developing countries.” For the world to continue and develop as oil and coal reserves diminish, he thinks nuclear energy is desirable and necessary.
The professor of physics seems to have insight into human nature. He says, “The big problem is people are equating nuclear power to nuclear bombs.”
Wilson is passionate that governments need to find political solutions to their differences. Nuclear bombs and anti-ballistic missile systems are deceiving the public. “It’s not scientifically possible to make an effective anti-ballistic missile. It’s nonsense, he says, “and very dangerous.” Wilson’s logical, if not immediately intuitive, message in the face of the crisis in Fukushima is we need nuclear power and we have to deal with the risks that come with it.
My prayers go to the Japanese people at this time and especially to the fifty brave workers at Fukushima and their families.
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Olivia Fermi, M.A.A.B.S. is on the Neutron Trail, a multi-disciplinary inquiry into our shared nuclear legacy and where we might go next. She is a photographer, writer and integral coach. Wed, March 23, 2011 Olivia Fermi will be speaking on the Neutron Trail, at Montclair State University outside of New York City, followed by a workshop the next day.