back to article Good news: A meltdown would kill fewer than we thought

Even if the worst happens, the death and destruction from a nuclear power station meltdown won’t be as bad as previously modeled, according to America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In a draft report given to the New York Times, the NRC has decided that a meltdown would release far less caesium 137 than previously …

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Richard Chirgwin..

..how is that an anagram of Lewis Page?!?

Just saying.

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Alert

The evil that one man does

Of course.

Because the whole nuclear industry is a conspiracy of evil men intent on destroying the planet – nothing else! – all led by Lewis Page.

And surely we all know nuclear technology is inherently Evil(TM), therefore any and all reports purporting to demonstrate it's any less than a total, utter, irreparable disaster waiting to happen were no doubt forged by said conspirators.

Good thing we have the Eco-Fighters(C) to save us from the harms of nuclear energy, and lead us to our true, windmill-powered future!

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Mushroom

"I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed.

But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks."

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Anonymous Coward

I too can pluck 'expert' figures from the air...

I say maximum of two deaths - one will be the dude who plugs the power back in and the other will be the misinformed former news of the world arts correspondent causing a panic through bad journalism and a smattering of sensationalism.

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Yes, great, but...

So much for the reactor and the containment... what about the bloody fuel pool? That's where most of the nasties are. The one Really Bad Thing that *didn't* happen at Fukushima was a fire in the unit 4 fuel pool. Nearly, it got hot, it wasn't good, but no fire.

A burning fuel pool would release much more than a meltdown and breached containment.

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Boffin

Spent fuel pools - disaster waiting to happen

The biggest common problem by far of all current commercial nuclear plants is the treatment of their "spent" fuel pools.

0. It takes a long time for fuel to reach safe levels of radiation output. Until then, the fuel must be actively kept cool. Also, spent fuel pools are normally kept in secondary containment which can be of greatly varying quality, as Fukushima perfectly demonstrated.

1. In the meantime, accidents or disasters can cause fuel rod pools to drain, or fuel rods to fall on each other and initiate re-criticality.

2. In addition, often, particularly in older designs, spent fuel pools are used for scheduled maintenance to temporarily store active fuel unloaded from the live reactors. This means it becomes absolutely critical to keep the fuel cooled, covered (due to moderation) and contained.

3. The amount of fuel in spent fuel pools is ever increasing because it is highly expensive to re-process and even more expensive (or impossible these days) to just dump fuel under a mountain. In the US, for example, the largest nuclear fuel waste repository which is Yucca mountain has been closed to further waste storage from the commercial industry.

I can actually believe this NRC study in isolation in light of modern standards of primary vessel containment, cooling and even power loss. However, I do not believe ANY nuclear agency in the world has done a thorough analysis of the real risk of spent fuel pools.

In addition, I hold responsible the NRC and other nuclear agencies worldwide for their complete lack of encouraging technological innovation in both overall safety standards and new generator technologies. For the former issue, the agencies are too close to whom they regulate (a bit like the financial industry where its even worse) since the incumbent companies have financial incentives to change as slowly as possible. For the latter issue, they have been too slow to reduce the regulatory burden for *small* innovative reactor design construction, especially the new Gen IV designs.

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Devil

Why not just build a better reactor?

Oh wait, they have.

How old was the Fukushima reactor? Its design is probably older than most if not all of the posters here. Since that time, reactor design has improved, reducing the risks of a meltdown.

Also note that Fukushima wasn't just the result of a poor design. TEPCO (I believe thats the company that built and ran the reactor, modified the landscape by taking down natural barriers to the sea so that the reactor would be built on hard ground. While at the time of construction, this was the practice, however to reduce costs they took out a natural barrier so that they could easily offload supplies from ships. (Per WSJ report.)

They also didn't plan for the size of the Tsunami and while its deficiencies were pointed out, they were not yet fixed.

Looking at the nuclear reactors of the same generation in the US, they would not face the same level of risk that the reactors in Japan faced. And note that in the US only a percentage of the reactors are of the same generation as the one in Japan.

The sad thing is that we need Nuclear power until we can actually get fusion reactors working.

Of course we could kill off a large percentage of the world's population to reduce our bio mass and food requirements so that we can use those crop lands for bio fuel....

Soylent Green is made from people!

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FAIL

So their current guess

is 1 or 2 percent Cs-137 release, when their previous guess is 60%. That's 30-60 fold difference! What caused them to change their tune?

Anyone besides me think that their guesses are wild?

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Mushroom

Chemistry

If there is any water around, the Cesium will react to form CsOH plus hydrogen gas. Melt-downs from slow uncovering of the fuel (e.g. TMI and Fukushima) still leave copious amounts of water in the reactor vessel to react with the cesium. The earlier estimates for 60% did not take water into account.

The experience with TMI was that six orders of magnitude less radioactive iodine was released compared to what had been expected.

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WTF?

re: Chemistry

Sounds very convincing, is that based on some wondrous new discoveries in chemistry I haven't heard of? They didn't know this before?? Did not take water into account??? Is this supposed to be more or less comforting than when they mixed metric and imperial and a space shuttle blew up???? Lessons learned, now it's actually really safe for real this time, honest!!

So what are the "unkown unknowns" now?????

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Pirate

What caused them to change their tune?

I'm sure it's nothing to do with them being a vested interest in the nuclear power industry and there being a significant accident/string of accidents in Japan that have dented public confidence in the whole creating-radioactive-shit-for-future-generations-to-worry-about industry...

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@ VeganVegan

I have been much involved in calculating and assessing nuclear accident scenarios. Also with railway safety, which uses similar methods.

The reason this sort of re-evaluation can arise is that when a plant is designed, and some design data is needed but cannot easily be obtained, particularly material behaviour in extreme conditions, a very pessimistic assumption is made. You might call it a "wild guess" but it is a a >pessimistic< one, for example for the purposes of deciding how much reserve fire-fighting water should be available on site.

But, in the nuclear industry at least, these calculations are often re-checked (re-visited we call it), typically on a 5 yearly basis, to see if any new data has become available that could change the conclusions. What can then happen is that someone has meanwhile done some tests (for example how much Cs would "plate out" on nearby surfaces rather than escape from the pipework and building) which give a much more realistic figure than the original very pessimistic estimate.

What we are really concerned about is to check that the design basis remains pessimistic. In the time I worked in the industry I have never known it otherwise. It is not the object to downgrade the plant by removing safety features. I notice that this particular thing came to light because outsiders asked about it, not because it was the intent of the plant management to take advantage of it.

Some of you guys seem to make the ridiculous assumtion that these nuclear plants are in the hands of cavaliers and clowns. I find that somewhat insulting. The guys I have worked with in the UK nuclear industry are about the most capable and conscientious engineers, scientists and mathemeticians I have ever met. I found the level and detail of thought and precautions that goes into the work astonishing when I first joined, even coming from the railway industry - which is itself an industry with an extremely high safety ethic.

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Boffin

Mixing metric blew up the space shuttle?

Hmmm.

That's a funny one.

I wish you would get your facts straight.

In the two shuttle disasters neither had to do with a mixup of measurements.

One was a deficiency in the O ring. The other was due to an ice formation knocking lose some of the protecting tiles during liftoff and then during reentry... boom. (no tiles, no heat protection...)

So if you're going to go 'WTF' please get your rant in order.

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Metric confusion

Whilst neither shuttle was lost due to a mix up between metric and imperial measurements, another infamous NASA disaster was caused by exactly that. The Mars Climate Orbiter was destroyed thanks to the ground crew entering data in Imperial measurements (Pound-force) instead of metric (Newtons).

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Holmes

@Jerome

No shit.

But that wasn't what the poster said now is it?

I don't mind a mini rant, but at least when you rant, you should get your facts straight....

You know like when the Germans bombed Perl Harbor? :-)

(That's an Animal House reference to those too young to get it....)

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Boffin

@What caused them to change their tune?

It takes time to digest the data. I mean you wouldn't want us to make snap decisions based on FUD now would you?

Seriously in terms of the aftermath, the data and analysis seems to suggest that Japanese (TEPCO) response to the problems exacerbated the situation.

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Jerome

Ian,

I remember Perl Harbor( Around here it's spelling is Harbour).

Those Huns are almost a bad as the Japs bombing Coventry .

.

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Facepalm

I sit corrected, thank you

"you should get your facts straight...."

Which was kind of the point of my posting!!

Shoulda woulda coulda fired a quick question at The Google before posting about my vague recollection of NASA history, but the steam pressure between my ears was red lining!

Revising safety margins in light of new information is all well and good, and in this case safe is actually even safer than we thought, but we are talking about highly radioactive substances that will melt your face of if you look at them funny, when we are assured that it is absolutely safe then it's very uncomfortable to find out that there was actually something left to learn about it, even if in this case the missing information was in our favour.

*8-)

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Anonymous Coward

Computer Modelling

"In fact, if the report’s computer modeling [...] is correct"

I though that wasn't "real science" according to most people here.

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Anonymous Coward

Modelling

While not "real science" in this case, as the results can't be proven false, there's nothing inherantly wrong with computer modelling. Computer modelling is a great way to test new theories. You generate a model that complies with the theory you wish to test and then compare the results to reliable real world data that someone collected. If the results match up, then you've found some support for your theory.

In this case, the computer model is only being used to make a prediction. Now, as long as the underlying processes are well established and accepted, then the computer model just performs the heavy lifting of running all the calculations required for a given scenario, thus showing the expected result given the current state of the science involved. Problems begin to crop up when the systems being modelled are not well understood or not generally agreed upon.

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WTF?

Computer models depend on the model, and the information unputted

Most people here are sysadmins, or used to be before moving up in the world. (Though there is an increasing pollution of users on el reg)

That means that most people are well aware of the term GIGO, when it comes to data modelling. If the model and the information put into it is good then most people here would accept it. Conversely, if the information or the computer model is not good then most of the IT people won't consider it valid, unlike the users who tend to accept *anything* coming from a computer as gospel.

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Facepalm

Re : Computer Modelling

: I though that wasn't "real science" according to most people here.

Well the real science would of course to unplug a few reactors (of different designs of course) and measure the resulting radiation output. Probably best try in different weather conditions too so every factor is considered.

You may find that some people (myself included) may object to the "real science" option so modelling is all we have. Yes there have been a comple of disasters but since the likes of 3 mile weren't under labarory conditions I don't think they count

<sarcasm off>

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Anonymous Coward

Sarcasm On

And when it comes to climate science, you'ld rather plug and unplug the sun?

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Trollface

GIGO is ...

.... a bunch of sysadmins belittling climate science, despite having no formal training in any of the natural sciences beyond A-level, and then spouting hopelessly ill-informed rubbish about "expert science" (http://forums.theregister.co.uk/post/1122325).

Sysadmins are failed programmers. I do not expect them to understand the first thing about computer modelling, let alone modelling complex physical processes.

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GIGO

GIGO means Garbage in, Garbage out. It's a reference to the fact that if you put garbage data into a computer program, funnily enough you get garbage data out.

Not that we expect a sixth rate troll to understand that, but hey. The term has been used for about as long as computers have, long before climate change could be modelled on a computer.

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FAIL

1 in 4000

That ratio still ends up with a sh*t load of people and how much can you trust the new figure?

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1 in 4000

Compared with the "natural" occurrence of cancer (which is something like 1 in 5), 1 in 4000 seems negligible. My problem with these numbers is that in principle, they cannot be measured (there are hundreds of other things that affect cancer occurrence to much greater degree), so pretending that we know anything about the matter seems a bit pointless.

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FAIL

Not really

Imagine a reactor in a moderately built up area, with maybe 100,000 living within 10 miles of it.

1 in 4000 in this scenario equals 25 people.

Add an order of magnitude so that 1 million live in the zone, and its 250. this is a city size really, not sure how many reactors are next to cities? (seriously, I don't know. Sounds a bit irresponsible to me)

This would be tragic for those who got it, but it doesn't equal a shit load of people.

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Fatalities?

A damn sight less than the fossil fuel industry kills each and every year.

According to WHO estimates (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/index.html), air pollution kills around 2 million people a year, and around 300,000 of those deaths can be attributed to pollution caused by electricity generation. Yes folks, Caesium is nasty stuff, but then, so is carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon particulates, aromatic hydrocarbons, mercury, etc. etc.

Nuclear power? Despite Fukushima, it's still a no brainer.

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Anonymous Coward

1 in 4000 of people within 10 miles

That's 1 of every 4000 people within 10 miles of the reactor that had a meltdown. And nuclear reactors aren't exactly the sort of thing that usually gets plopped right in the middle of a subburb.

The US's Eastern seaboard, where most of out nuclear reactors are sited, has a population density of >250 people per square mile. New Jersey, which does have a nuclear reactor, claims a population density of about 1200 people per square mile. If evenly distributed, that would put about 377,000 people within 10 miles of the reactor (314.15926.. sq. miles.) Even with that many people, you'd only expect an additional 95 cases of cancer. And places with high population densities also tend to have better means of communication with the residents, enabling them to get out of harm's way faster.

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Unhappy

quite a few

Several reactors right in the middle of Plymouth on old nuclear subs. The only city in the UK to still have an active nuclear disaster action plan.

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FTFY

Nuclear power is a no-brainer, only reinforced by the recent story of Fukushima.

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Boffin

You think 1 in 4000 is bad?

On December 2nd 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India suffered a leak from a containment tank, and a large amount of methyl isocyanate was released into the atmosphere. This resulted in 2,259 immediate deaths, and a further 1,528 deaths shortly afterwards. 558,125 people were injured, 3,900 of whom suffered permanent disabling injuries.

The population of Bhopal is currently given as a little shy of 3 million people, in 1984 it would probably have been around half of this. Most of those people would not be living within ten miles, so I think it is fair to say that the risk of death to those living within ten miles would be far greater than 1 in 4000 (by at least two orders of magnitude). Note also that the background rate of death by isocyanate poisoning is zero, as oppsoed to the background rate of cancer, which is about 1 in 2 (death from cancer is approximately 1 in 4).

What this 1 in 4000 rate actually means then, is that a person's risk of developing cancer over their lifetime is increased by approximately 0.05% if a nuclear power plant within ten miles melts down and they aren't evacuated in time.

Now, it is important to note that the Bhopal plant was a chemical plant, not a nuclear one, but my point is to illustrate that the worst-case scenario for a nuclear plant is orders of magnitude less bad than the worst case scenario from a simple old chemical plant, albeit one handling large amounts of very poisonous reagents.

I'm not suggesting that a meltdown is not a bad thing, but at the same time, it's not a 'scorched earth' disaster either. If you read the Wikipedia article about the Bhopal tragedy, you'll see that this very much was.

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Re: Plymouth

The old nuclear sub's reactors are all cold having been shut down in the weeks after they were decommissioned so there is no chance they'll do a Fukushima/Chernobyl etc. The main reason they're still there is that technically the hulls are classified as low level nuclear waste and no one's really figured a way of disposing of them, it's a very pessimistic assessment incidentally.

The nuclear disaster plan is in place because of the *operational* nuclear submarines there, although as it now allows for the fact the reactor is inside a steel tube designed to dive deep under the sea I believe it's less pessimistic than it used to be.

Obviously once they all move to Faslane Plymouth's only problem is all the radiation leaking across from Cornwall...

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Chemical plants, dams, and all the other things deadlier than nuclear plants.

And don't forget the Banqiao Reservoir Dam. When that one cut loose, it killed the better part of two hundred thousand people.

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Coat

as quoted from "The world according to Garp"

"But honey, the odds of another airplane crashing into this house are beyond astronomical... now..."

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Big Brother

Move along, citizens.

You have nothing to fear.

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Coat

Oh good-

That means we have nothing to hide. So stop watching us.

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Well, that's all right then

Time to start building a nuke next to every school and hospital in the land.

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Eh? You mean the Japan Earthquake didn't ...

... actually kill anyone from radiation release? And probably won't?

Aw, man ... I'm wringing my hands over nothing?

One of these days I'll have to get enough of an education to make up my own mind about scientific matters instead of listening to RedTops ...

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The NZ perspective

As a New Zealander I am actually offended by the coverage nuclear safety gets.

At the start of this year 34 people died in a coal mine explosion here. Yeah, there were problems with the mine and the Australians say it wouldn't have been safe enough there. But NZ is still a first world country with safety standards and all that.

How many people died at Fukushima? One. And he died because something fell on the crane he was in, absolutely nothing to do with nuclear power.

Does anybody call for the end of coal mining, not to mention processing or pollution, because of safety? No.

On safety grounds I say NZ should shut the coal mines and start building reactors.

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Little known fact

New Zealand actually had a reactor up until 1981. A very little one at one of the universities, used for research and training purposes. It also has several large areas of land purchased convenient to the significant cities on (relatively) geologically stable sites, in preparation for when public perceptions change enough to actually allow some form of power generation.

An example is a section reserved adjacent to the Kaipara, because there is a distinct lack of power generation on the northern side of Auckland and this limits the capacity to deliver electricity to the northern parts of the city and Northland. A small nuclear plant located there would provide significant benefits, while still being nicely isolated from anything considered particularly important.

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Boffin

Also worth noting

That coal fired power stations release radioactive material into the atmosphere during normal use, and the ash produced is also mildly radioactive, whereas nuclear powered ones don't unless something has gone wrong. This is because coal contains trace amounts of uranium and thorium, which are concentrated by the combustion of the main constituents of coal (mostly carbon, hydrocarbons, and sulphur compounds), which produces gaseous oxides. The phosphorus and metal oxides left in the ash are solids.

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Holmes

Little known fact

Mayhem,

That "Reactor " was a Van DeGraff Generator at the DSIR.,

A rather different thing, that I passed every day for about 6 years when I lived there.

It was not a risk to anything or anybody.

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coal power plant

How do these numbers compare to a coal fired power station, or a wind mill / PV cells breaking down ?

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Re: coal power plant

Depends on the "comparison". Deaths over the lifetime of the plant, lost in the roundings of a coal plant. Radioactive release, also lost in the roundings of a coal plant. There is also an xkcd about radioactive doses I think.

Windmills are not all that radiaoactive, but don't actually generate electricity all that well either, so they are difficult to compare.

This is a nice graph about deaths per TWh - http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/visualizations/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-sources

I have not verified the source data in any way - it could be junk.

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The solar bits of that calculation are questionable...

The data comes from here: http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

But even discounting rooftop solar, it's an interesting comparison. Even for wide-reaching disasters like Chernobyl, the amount of power produced vs. the number of deaths *still* comes out in favor of nuclear energy.

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Childcatcher

In other words..

.. the risk of getting a cancer caused by your next door nuclear meltdown is less the risk from other causes. Why aren't we shouting about this.

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Ru
Facepalm

Because people don't understand or care about real risk

Stop smoking, stop tanning, cut down on your barbequeues and friend food and processed meat. There; your lifetime chance of cancer has probably decreased by a measurable amount. Might do you good to move out of urban areas, too. Oh, and learn about restricted calorie diets and other hair-shirt means of longevity. But who is going to bother with all that, if they aren't already some sort of vegan?

Or alternatively, to increase your life expectancy, don't drive.

Anyway, you're missing the point. People get cancer; if you're not on course for a case of fatal heart disease this is what you get to look forward to. Nuclear power's health impact is pretty negligible at this point.

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Happy

@ Ru

>>cut down on your barbequeues and friend food

Sounds like there's an easy way for you to improve the life-expectancy of both yourself and your mates here....

The only problem is that the extra year of life you gain from going without bacon is another year longer, when you can't have bacon... [sobs pathetically at the thought]

In the same way, I quite like electricity too. It's really useful. Even if there's a miniscule chance it might lose me a year or two. Then it's just a question of which kills you faster, nuclear or fossil fuel.

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