About the atomic crisis in Japan – background information and reliable news sources

Update:  This post from March 15 have been moved to the top, as Japan’s nuclear crisis continues — and the radiation spreads.  I recommend using the links in section 3 to learn what’s happening.

Summary:  We might be reading much about radiation during the next few days.  Most of these articles will provide little context.  Here’s some useful background information, and links to reliable news sources.  This is a follow-up to News about the earthquake in northeastern Japan.

Contents

  1. About radiation:  units and definitions
  2. Effects of radiation
  3. For more information about the crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactor crisis
  4. For more information about nuclear power
  5. Other articles on the FM website about the future of energy

(1)  About radiation (from the Encyclopedia Britannica)

(a)  Gray (Gy), a unit of absorbed dose of ionizing radiation. 

One gray is equal approximately to the absorbed dose delivered when the energy per unit mass imparted to matter by ionizing radiation is one joule per kilogram. The gray replaced the rad; one gray equals 100 rads.  The gray was defined in 1975, named after Louis Harold Gray (1905–1965). 

(c)  Sievert (Sv), a unit measuring absorption of radiation by tissue (equivalent doses)

The sievert is the … replacement for the rem, the long-standing special unit for measuring biological absorption of radiation. Like the rem, the sievert takes into account the relative biologic effectiveness (RBE) of ionizing radiation, since each form of such radiation — e.g., X rays, gamma rays, neutrons — has a slightly different effect on living tissue. Accordingly, one sievert is generally defined as the amount of radiation roughly equivalent in biologic effectiveness to one gray (or 100 rads) of gamma radiation. … It is named after Rolf Sievert (1896-1966).

(c)  Units

  • Exposures can be expressed as totals, or as flows (units/time, such as gray/hour). 
  • Common prefixes are milliSievert (one-thousand, mSv) and hecot-gray (hGy), using the The International System of Units (SI; see Wikipedia).

(2)  Effects of radiation

(a)  Standard definitions in grays (from the Encyclopedia Britannica)

  • sublethal dose range:  (1–2 Gy):  sore throat, pallor and diarrhea; no fatalities (except for complications)
  • midlethal dose range:  (2.5–5 Gy):  nausea, vomiting, loss of hair, fever, hemorrhages, and emaciation; death for 50% of the population
  • supralethal dose range:  (6–10 Gy):  diarrhea, vomiting, inflammation of throat, and emaciation; death for 100% of the population

(b)  Exposures in Sv, from the World Nuclear Association (via the BBC)

  • 2 mSv/yr:  Typical background radiation experienced by everyone (average 1.5 mSv in Australia, 3 mSv in North America)
  • 9 mSv/yr :  Exposure by airline crew flying New York-Tokyo polar route
  • 20 mSv/yr:  Current limit (averaged) for nuclear industry employees
  • 50 mSv/yr:  Former routine limit for nuclear industry employees. It is also the dose rate which arises from natural background levels in several places in Iran, India and Europe
  • 100 mSv/yr:  Lowest level at which any increase in cancer is clearly evident
  • 350 mSv/lifetime:  Criterion for relocating people after Chernobyl accident
  • 1,000 mSv single dose:  Causes temporary radiation sickness such as nausea and decreased white blood cell count, but not death. Above this, severity of illness increases with dose
  • 5,000 mSv single dose:  Would kill about half those receiving it within a month

 For more detail about exposures in terms of sieverts, see Wikipedia

(c)  “How much radiation is dangerous?“, Reuter’s Factbox article, 15 March 2011 — Excerpt:

  • People are exposed to natural radiation of about 2 mSv a year.
  • Airline crew flying the New York-Tokyo polar route are exposed to 9 mSv a year.
  • Exposure to 100 mSv a year is the lowest level at which any increase in cancer is clearly evident. A cumulative 1,000 mSv would probably cause a fatal cancer many years later in five out of every 100 persons exposed to it.
  • Exposure to 350 mSv was the criterion for relocating people after the Chernobyl accident, according to the World Nuclear Association.
  • A single 1,000 mSv dose causes radiation sickness such as nausea but not death. A single does of 5,000 mSv would kill about half of those exposed to it within a month.

Also see “Chernobyl fallout not as bad as first feared“, The Times,7 September 2005.

(d)  For more information see Acute Radiation Syndrome: A Fact Sheet for Physicians, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(e)  Update:  from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Tsunami Update page:

The Japanese authorities have informed the IAEA that the following radiation dose rates have been observed on site at the main gate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  At 00:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 11.9 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed.  Six hours later, at 06:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 0.6 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed.  These observations indicate that the level of radioactivity has been decreasing at the site.

 As reported earlier, a 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour radiation dose observed at Fukushima Daiichi occurred between units 3 and 4. This is a high dose-level value, but it is a local value at a single location and at a certain point in time.

(f)  Update:  Estimated condition of each reactor in the Fukushima complex,  Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, as of 11:00 local time on 16 March 2011 — Excellent graphic!

(3)  For more information about the crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors, and nuclear power

Status reports

News articles about the crisis in Japan:

  1. Experts pore over contaminants in Japan’s radioactive spill“, Reuters, 22 March 2011
  2. Behind Reactor Battle, a Legion of Grunts“, Wall Street Journal, 24 March 2011
  3. First pictures emerge of the Fukushima Fifty as steam starts pouring from all four reactors at the stricken nuclear power plant“, Daily Mail, 24 March 2011

Articles about nuclear power:

(4)  For more information about nuclear power

From the FM reference page Peak oil and energy – studies and reports:

  1. The Future of Nuclear Power“, MIT, 29 June 2003 — An interdisciplinary MIT study
  2. The Economics of Investment in New Nuclear Power Plants in the US“, Paul L. Joskow (MIT), EIA, 12 April 2005 — PDF, 19 slides
  3. Nuclear Power Reactors: A Study in Technological Lock-in“, Robin Cowan, The Journal of Economic History, Sepember 1990
  4. Nuclear Power’s Role in Generating Electricity“, CBO, May 2008 (46 pages)
  5. Nuclear power will be added faster than wind power“, posted at Next Big Future, 25 August 2008 — List of nukes under construction
  6. Breeder Reactors, Uranium from Phosphate and Near Term Thorium usage“, posted at Next Big Future, 22 September 2008
  7.  ”Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power Study“, MIT, 2009

(5)  Other articles on the FM website about the future of energy

The full archive is listed here.

  1. Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war), 4 May 2008
  2. An urban legend to comfort America: crash programs will solve Peak Oil, 5 September 2008
  3. A long-shot project for fusion power: the Polywell, 30 September 2008
  4. An atomic solution to the energy crisis, 11 November 2008
  5. Eventually we’ll have unlimited cheap clean energy. But that will not help us or our kids., 15 February 2011

6 thoughts on “About the atomic crisis in Japan – background information and reliable news sources

  1. From the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Tsunami Update page:

    15 March 2011, 2:35 UTC (Universale Coordinated Time) — Excerpt:

    Japanese authorities yesterday reported to the IAEA at 20:05 UTC that the reactors Units 1, 2 and 3 of the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant are in cold shutdown status. This means that the pressure of the water coolant is at around atmospheric level and the temperature is below 100 degrees Celsius. Under these conditions, the reactors are considered to be safely under control.

    15 March 2011, 11:25 UTC — Excerpt:

    The Japanese authorities have informed the IAEA that the following radiation dose rates have been observed on site at the main gate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. At 00:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 11.9 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed. Six hours later, at 06:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 0.6 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed. These observations indicate that the level of radioactivity has been decreasing at the site.

    As reported earlier, a 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour radiation dose observed at Fukushima Daiichi occurred between units 3 and 4. This is a high dose-level value, but it is a local value at a single location and at a certain point in time.

  2. Nuclear Hubris: Could Japan’s Disaster Happen Here?“, Christian Parenti, The Nation, 13 March 2011 — Excerpt:

    … I reached former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Peter Bradford by phone at his home in Peru, Vermont. Now an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School, Bradford was a Carter-appointee to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and was on duty for the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.

    “It’s very hard to know what’s going on,” said Bradford with a grim calm. “During Three Mile Island very much of what we believed to be true on day three turned out to be untrue in subsequent days. Even now, we still don’t know how much radiation was actually released. It was less than was later released at Chernobyl, less than could have been released had the containment vessel failed. But how much was released? We don’t actually know.”

    … And what about our reactors? In the United States we have twenty-three reactors of the same General Electric design as Fukushima No. 1. We also have atomic plants built on fault lines. For example, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’s units 1 and 2 not far from Santa Barbara, and outside San Clemente there’s the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which has three reactors, two of which are still running. Environmentalists protested and bitterly opposed the opening of these plants along the California coast in a region of regular and often violent seismic activity. But as in Japan, their concerns were brushed aside with assurances that all contingencies had been taken into account.

    The American fleet of 103 atomic reactors is old and rickety. But more dangerous than the old and brittle equipment, according to Bradford, may be overconfidence among regulators and managers. “The phrase ‘it can’t happen here’ is an invitation to disaster,” said Bradford. Mix technological arrogance with the profit motive, and you get slipshod management, corner-cutting and repeated lying.

    As I’ve detailed in these pages in the past the American discourse around nuclear energy is somewhat schizophrenic. At one level, conservatives and some greens carry on a profoundly out-of-touch discussion about the merits of fourth-generation and miniature nuclear power plants. None of these schemes will be built due to their extremely prohibitive costs.

    But in the meantime, there is an overlooked yet very real campaign by industry to relicense and extend by 50% the operation of our rickety old existing fleet of reactors. And get this — a quarter of our reactors are leaking or have leaked radioactive carcinogenic, tritium-polluted water. (See “Zombie Nuke Plants,” December 7, 2009.)

    Vermont Yankee is one of the nukes up for relicensing, and it also has a tritium leak than no one can seem to find or stop. At first company officials from Entergy of Louisiana just lied about the problem, telling state regulators and lawmakers that the plant did not have the sort of underground pipes that could leak tritium into groundwater. But it does.

    So far more than half of America’s commercial nuclear reactors have received new twenty-year operating licenses. In fact, the NRC has not rejected a single license renewal application. Many of these plants have also received “power-up rates” which allow them to run at up to 120 percent of their originally intended capacity. That means their systems are subjected to unprecedented amounts of heat, pressure, corrosion, stress and embrittling radiation.

    The only thing that could make our nukes safer would be a campaign of constant, careful, rigorous (and expensive) inspection and maintenance. But the NRC does not require that. During his campaign, Obama called the NRC “a moribund agency…captive of the industry that it regulates.” Unfortunately, that has not changed much since Obama took office. And the private companies running the plants—armed with notions of infallibility and motivated by money — are doing all they can to squeeze yet more money from the aging nuke fleet.

  3. Radiation 1,600 times normal level 20 km from Fukushima plant: IAEA, Kyodo News, 22 March 2011

    Radiation 1,600 times higher than normal levels has been detected in an area about 20 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, International Atomic Energy Agency officials said Monday. Data collected by an IAEA team show that radiation levels of 161 microsievert per hour have been detected in the town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, the officials said.

    The government has set an exclusion zone covering areas within a 20-km radius of the plant and has urged people within 20 to 30 km to stay indoors.

    The lowest level at which any increase in cancer is clearly evident is 100 mSv/y (a mSv is thousandths of a sievert). At 161 microsieverts (millionths of a sievert) one picks up this dose in 26 days. That’s not likely, as most of the radioactive materials released have very short half-lives.

  4. Fukushima radioactive fallout nears Chernobyl levels“, New Scientist, 24 March 2011 — Opening:

    Japan’s damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima has been emitting radioactive iodine and caesium at levels approaching those seen in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors – designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests – to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.

Comments are closed.