Underestimating the ongoing disaster at Fukushima vs Chernobyl?

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Main Question or Discussion Point

It will be a bad thing from different perspectives, to both overestimate or low-ball the severity of the ongoing disaster at Japan.

We know the Japan disaster was recently revised to a level 7 disaster rating on par with the Chernobyl disaster. Naturally we are interested if the current disaster is really on the same severity level as the past disaster and what this means to the health/economy/ecology/environment and so on; especially when the disaster scale is quite arbitrary to begin with.

However I am observing a recent trend by those with technical backgrounds as well as journalists (perhaps paraphrasing them) that loudly proclaim the 'huge' differences of severity between the Fukushima incident and the Chernobyl incident and specifically stating that the severity in the still ongoing Japan disaster is not near as bad as the Chernobyl incident.

What is your opinion on this?

First of all, the disaster is still ongoing. I think it is irresponsible to make positive spins on predicting the likely outcome at this point in time. The talking points people keep raising is that Chernobyl had an explosion and fire that released large amounts of radiation into the environment and that the soviet reactors did not have containment designed in place to begin with. We know of these technical differences. But it seems to be trivializing the current disaster.We also have to look at the human decisions and response to the disaster as well as the difference in geological location and transport mechanisms between the two areas to determine overall human/ecological/environmental impact.

In Japan there are 3 reactors + 1 spent fuel pont with cooling problems - thats four simultaneous disasters. The reactors have primary containment but the extent of damage is unknown as well as the state of the fuel rods. We already know the secondary containment has failed in the reactor buildings and even exploded. There is also problems with a filled spent fuel pond that holds even more quantities of radioactive elements that are of more environmental/health concerns than partially spent fuels from the reactor with lower concentration. We also know there is local and to a degree global contamination already. Then there is the human decision to pour contaminated water into the ocean. There are also numerous aftershocks that will continue for a long period of time which can further cause future unpredictable complications down the road. And I stress again, the situation is ongoing. It is also important to point out the release from Chernobyl is from fuel that is at best partially reacted versus partially reacted fuel + spent fuel in Japan.

If they are unable to contain the ongoing disaster and there is a long term steady but low rates of release, it can soon catch up and maybe even exceed Chernobyl in terms of overall radioactive material released. So overall, isnt it a little questionable and premature to be painting a positive spin on the still ongoing disaster when compared to Chernobyl?
 

Answers and Replies

505
1
Well, I think they are trying to spin every single thing that is merely different between this and Chernobyl as huge benefit.

Consider the containment. Does it contains the fuel - yes. But so does gravity if the fuel is just scattered on the ground, the gravity is amazingly effective at containing things within the site.
Does it contain radioactive volatiles *evaporated* from the hot fuel? No, the venting is unfiltered. Is there a loop circulation - no, the water and steam leave the reactor without being recirculated.
Consider the fuel melt. Does it go down - no, the PV is cooled from outside, and corium lava is not very thermally conductive. Do the radioactive volatiles evaporate from the fuel - yes, they do, are they contained - no, mostly not.
Conclusion: Chernobyl level release is to be expected. Radioactive volatiles are evaporated from a huge quantity of fuel, and are vented into atmosphere (now, some are also dissolved in water).

The media, nuclear so called 'experts', and the like are simply doing this:
Stress and repeat as much as possible the word 'contaiment' which inspires sense of security, and stress the 'uncontained', 'lack of containment', etc in Chernobyl to create perception of difference.
Then the 'meltdown'. Put the stress on the word 'meltdown' and on the fact that it did not go 'down', the situation is not going down so to say.
That inspires hope and distracts the discussion from melting and evaporation to the going down or not.
Put the emphasis put on the melting down and hitting water table and steam explosion, knowing that it probably won't happen.

All in all, just clever wording there, same as in advertising, where each word is carefully chosen by VERY smart people who are professionals at controlling dumber than average people. I see almost no reporting on the situation, just the carefully crafted strings that inspire sense of security bypassing the logical thought.

The particularly clever piece here is the word 'meltdown'. Whoever invented that word, if he did this for nuclear industry, must have been a total super genius. I'm really in awe. Control the minds not by stripping the words, as in 1984, but by adding the word to override other words. Create very strong association - like, if it didn't go down, it didn't melt. All bypassing logical thought or normal scepticism.
 
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vanesch
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The true scale of the disaster should, I think, not be measured in released Bq, or how thick the containment wall was, but rather in the amount of radiation received by the public, and the number of square kilometers of "compulsory natural reserve".

But of course, this IS related to the amount of released material, the way the release (fast or slow, violently or not) took place, and how it affected people.

Although one shouldn't underestimate the scale of the accident, one shouldn't overestimate it either. If we look at the current situation (which can still get much worse), I do think that there are still big differences between Chernobyl and Fukushima, mainly due to the much "softer" release of material, so that people had time to evacuate and the material that got spread out over a much smaller area.

So I have the impression, when looking at the data, that the public (and the workers) got much less exposed, and that contamination is much less widespread in Fukushima (at this moment) than it was in the Chernobyl accident.

On the other hand, if it turns out that the only thing that matters in nuclear accidents, are the volatile components, and that these are in any case hard or impossible to contain, then that might make nuclear power much cheaper, because then most of the containment is useless ornament: when things turn sour, they don't stop the volatile components in any case.
However, TMI showed us that that is not correct. I tend to think that the containment of the Mark-I series is much less efficient than the larger "encompassing" containments of most PWR, because a large part of the primary circuit is outside of solid containment.
 
505
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One big difference vs TMI: TMI had working cooling loop. They were not cooling by pumping water in and letting steam out into atmosphere.
In this respect, Fukushima is far closer to Chernobyl than to TMI. The worker exposure - well, there's not so much fuel laying around in the open, hence no personnel exposure directly to the fuel, plus the containment does contain the radiation itself (but not the radioactivity).

Another ENORMOUS difference - between Fukushima and Chernobyl - geography - wind was blowing to the ocean except for one small whiff towards south then north. That is enormous difference. Chernobyl in such conditions would have barely contaminated any land at all, given that Chernobyl emissions almost entirely stopped after 10 days while Fukushima emissions are still very much ongoing.

If the Chernobyl reactor was put into Fukushima, and blew up on 11th March this year, the exposure to the public would have been absolutely minimal IMO, thanks to the wind direction. Those comparisons are thus really meaningless.
 
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28,530
4,847
I think it is too early to really judge the effects from Fukushima, but I think that scale of Chernobyl is generally extremely exaggerated even today now that we have a couple of decades of data.
 
505
1
I think it is too early to really judge the effects from Fukushima, but I think that scale of Chernobyl is generally extremely exaggerated even today now that we have a couple of decades of data.
Are you from US or from EU ? We have boars in Germany with several KBq/kg of Cs-137. As well as other **** in EU, so common that it doesn't even go into news most of the time unless it is unusually hot, like ash from wood pellets from Lithuania, with 46KBq/kg of Cs-137, which I know of because I live in Lithuania.
http://forestindustries.eu/content/radioactive-wood-pellets-lithuania
The irony is that EU can keep importing food from Japan with same precautions that it has for Belarus and Ukraine. If Fukushima is just like Chernobyl - no big deal, we're used to it.
 
28,530
4,847
How many actual deaths do you suppose Chernobyl has caused to date?
 
10
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How many actual deaths do you suppose Chernobyl has caused to date?
From page 211: http://www.strahlentelex.de/Yablokov%20Chernobyl%20book.pdf" [Broken]
published in the Annals of the NY Academy of Science
There are many findings of increased antenatal, childhood, and general mortality in the highly contaminated territories that are most probably associated with irradiation from the Chernobyl fallout. Significant increases in cancer mortality were observed for all irradiated groups.

A detailed study reveals that some 4% of all deaths from 1990 to 2004 in the contaminated territories of Ukraine and Russia were caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe. The lack of evidence of increased mortality in other affected countries is not proof of the absence of adverse effects of radiation.

The calculations in this chapter suggest that the Chernobyl catastrophe has already killed several hundred thousand human beings in a population of several hundred million that was unfortunate enough to live in territories affected by the Chernobyl fallout. The number of Chernobyl victims will continue to grow in the next several generations.
 
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28,530
4,847
Excellent example IowaNewbie. Models and calculations often estimate the deaths at several thousand. The models vary widely in their estimates, from 4k to 985k. But the actual data suggest otherwise. The number of deaths that can be attributed to Chernobyl to date is about 70.

http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf

The major factor in this discrepancy is the various models suggestion of the increased prevalence of cancer fatalities. Since cancer affects hundreds of millions of people every year who were never exposed to Chernobyl it is very difficult to establish the relationship. It is a very small "signal" in the midst of a very large natural background. Furthermore, as cultures, lifestyles, and technologies change, the very large background signal is systematically varying by very large amounts. This large systematic variation swamps out any small systematic variation due to Chernobyl.

The only cancer which can be clearly linked with Chernobyl is a dramatic increase in thyroid cancers. And the survival rate is very high for thyroid cancer.

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs303/en/index.html
http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/282276-overview#a0199

I personally think that the number of deaths is probably substantially greater than 70, since there are going to be some that were caused by Chernobyl but where the evidence is not strong. But the point is that the evidence is not strong. There are so few deaths and such a small increase in non-thyroid cancers that it is not detectable. While an increase <10k fatalities could certainly hide in the noise, it is clear that models suggesting hundreds of thousands of deaths to date are wrong.
 
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10
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Excellent example IowaNewbie. Models and calculations often estimate the deaths at several thousand. The models vary widely in their estimates, from 4k to 985k. But the actual data suggest otherwise. The number of deaths that can be attributed to Chernobyl to date is about 70.
See, the actual problem is that with car accidents, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc where you can pinpoint the start and end of a disaster, as well as the exact location and cause/effect, and therefore are able to say with almost absolute certainty "the number of casualties is XXX," But with radiation and its effects - there are no absolutes, except for saying when it began. And so, there can never be hard numbers.

Most of the USA takes it as a fact that "Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke" (CDC, Feb 2011). And so the 400,000 figure is used in all literature, etc. Don't you find it strange that even though less and less people in the USA smoke tobacco that the incidents of lung cancer isn't decreasing at a similar rate as smoking? Yes, it is decreasing - but nowhere near as fast - yet, almost everyone attributes almost all lung cancer to smoking/smokers. So there has to be something else that is keeping it from declining as quickly - but for the most part, everyone ignores that. And, I am not saying it is nuclear power or anything of the like - just using this as an example.

The same is pretty much true in reverse for radiation - The study I linked is probably the most comprehensive since Chernobyl. It shows expected rates, actual results, etc, for over 20 years and over 200 pages, with hundreds of citations, etc. And yet you wish to dismiss it because "it is very difficult to establish the relationship."

We will never know, for sure, how many have suffered or died as a result of Chernobyl or Fukushima. Just like we will never truly know how many have suffered or died from smoking. However, at some point there has to be an acknowledgement that, like smoking, nuclear accidents hurt/kill far more than just the hard 'known' numbers and it is not as safe as some would like to purport it is. For those who say nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy production - they are looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses.
 
505
1
IowaNewbie: I think it is hopeless. He sounds like just another of those LNT denialist who'd deny LNT on anything from alphas and asbestos to fuel dust to uniform whole body gammas, with not any base whatsoever other than 'omfg its unproven unproven unproven by direct measurement' as well as some fringe theories on cancer formation.
The worst of the kind are the hormesis people. Those want nonlinear effects on the whole body 'dose' in Sieverts. They're perfectly happy with linearity when it lets them average the dose over entire body, and when it lets them average dose over populations, but very unhappy with linearity when it comes to counting the dead.

The approach always works by trying to make you think as if it was courtroom and you need total absolute proof that the victim was killed by killer, rather than a safety issue where proponent has to prove it is safe. They want innocent-until-proven-guilty approach for Chernobyl deaths, and then they want to use estimate obtained this way for the safety standards.

edit: see, perfect example below, appeal to "innocent until proven guilty" approach to safety. And then they wonder they can't get any public support.
 
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28,530
4,847
The study I linked is probably the most comprehensive since Chernobyl. It shows expected rates, actual results, etc, for over 20 years and over 200 pages, with hundreds of citations, etc. And yet you wish to dismiss it because "it is very difficult to establish the relationship."
No, I wish to dismiss it because the evidence supporting it is very weak. This is basic science, you have a model and then you must see how likely your model is given the data when compared to the null hypothesis. Here, the normal variation is sufficient to make the null hypothesis just as likely as the alternative hypothesis given the data.

For those who say nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy production - they are looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses.
Over last 25 years there have been about 70 confirmed to have died from radiation exposure at Chernobyl. Over the last 20 years coal mining has caused 819 confirmed deaths in the US and over the last 10 years coal mining has caused 52785 confirmed deaths in China. The data seems to support the hypothesis that nuclear energy is safer than coal energy over the null hypothesis that they are equally safe.
 
10
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This is basic science, you have a model and then you must see how likely your model is given the data when compared to the null hypothesis.
Um ... that is what the complete 200+ page comprehensive report does and concludes what I quoted above. You are talking about confirmed deaths - deaths that you can directly see as a result of the incidents (mine cave-ins, falls, structures collapsing). That is living with blinders on. With radiation exposure, coal power emissions, tobacco smoke, etc - there are more than just 'confirmed' deaths. Since they are 'silent' or 'invisible' and the effects of which can take days, months, years to fully be appreciated - what must be done is what the scientists have done in the report.
 
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[sarcaism]
In an unrelated note, using his method of logic, we should point out that the death toll from HIV infection is technically zero because all HIV+ AIDS patients die by other diseases caused by the immunodeficiency.

Furthermore it is important to distinctly point out that those diseases responsible for a patient's demise are also not technically the direct cause of death either, as other more fundamental physiological/pathological mechanisms are likely the direct causes, such as: hypoxia of vital organs due to heart failure, hypoxia of vital organs due to pulmonary edema, etc.

Further, we cannot rule out the possibility of patients catching any such diseases they exhibit during the course of their AIDS status, should they have been perfectly healthy and not have been classified as suffering from AIDS.

We will also end this discussion by mentioning that even the best epidemiological and mechanistic biomedical study in relation to the role of HIV in AIDS is purely statistical in nature and is cirumstantial at best thus it is limited in their application to the real world by the relevence of the particular studies to the real world - that for which is unknown a priori and have not been conclusively determined posteriori down to a physical fact.
[/sarcasm]
 
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28,530
4,847
Um ... that is what the complete 200+ page comprehensive report does and concludes what I quoted above.
And the 179 page comprehensive report I linked to does that also and reaches a vastly different conclusion. Why do you dismiss that data? Because it is also weak data. In the absence of strong data we are each left with our prior probabilities.
 
82
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Should the number of deaths be a factor in calculating the dangers of nuclear bomb testing ?
With that I mean to say that it should probably not be a metric with which to rank the severity of these critical events
 
177
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And the 179 page comprehensive report I linked to does that also and reaches a vastly different conclusion. Why do you dismiss that data? Because it is also weak data. In the absence of strong data we are each left with our prior probabilities.
Regardless of what is and is not true, it is easy to make something appear to be true. You look at the power of the methodology. Power decreases with multiple statistical tests, but bear in mind reasonable conclusions can and have been made concerning smoking and illness.

Increased death rates in the area may not be causally linked, but are more than likely related.
 
vanesch
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From page 211: http://www.strahlentelex.de/Yablokov%20Chernobyl%20book.pdf" [Broken]
published in the Annals of the NY Academy of Science
I would like to point out that this work is NOT by the NY Academy of Sciences ; it is a work published in an open forum by the NY Academy of Science, but the Academy itself distantiates itself from it.

The New York Academy of Sciences believes it has a responsibility to provide an open forum for
discussion of scientific questions. The positions taken by the participants in the reported conferences are
their own and not necessarily those of the Academy. The Academy has no intent to influence legislation
by providing such forums.
The references in that book are almost all local Russian or Ukrainian, or references to Greenpeace reports and the like. It contrasts heavily with the UNSCEAR reports on the matter.

I won't say it is crackpottery, but it is clearly a divergent opinion from the "mainstream" research on the Chernobyl accident.
 
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