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March 15, 2011
What TMI Might Mean for Japan
By: Aaron Datesman
I was born in 1971 and grew up in a rural community in Lehigh County in eastern Pennsylvania, about 80 miles as the wind blows from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. I suppose I must have been in third grade when the accident occurred there. I don’t remember it directly.
This link is the NY Times front page from the day after the TMI accident on March 28, 1979. This is what the contemporary account from that front-page article has to say about that event:
In a 5 P.M. statement, however, the commission said its maximum confirmed measurement, at a site a third of a mile from the plant, was three millirems, or thousandths of a rem.
Radiation health physics is a complicated and tricky field. (In my opinion, its scientific basis is fundamentally flawed, about which I have a bit more to say below.) In any event, let’s work within the existing framework of understanding and note the conversion that 3 mrem = 30 microSieverts (uSv). Both units, rem (the acronym stands for “Radiation Equivalent in Man”) and Sievert, relate the health effects due to radiation exposure to the energy of the dose received.
This understanding provides a framework of comparison for this article from Japan:
On Tuesday morning, 400 millisieverts of radiation were detected around the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s No. 3 reactor, a level high enough to pose a health risk. The government expanded the scope of evacuations around the facility to a 30km radius from 20km.
The density of radioactive substances will drop precipitously as they move farther away from the source. At 1km, the density will be reduced to around one-millionth.
The Ministry of Science and Technology began publishing radiation levels twice daily for each prefecture from Tuesday. It said 0.001318 millisieverts of radiation an hour was detected in Tochigi Prefecture and 0.000809 millisieverts in Tokyo.
This is such poor reporting that it belongs in an American newspaper. It is absolutely useless to the layman, contains an application of basic physics so outlandish that it hurts my eyes to see it, and in the third paragraph embraces a profound conceptual flaw which, in the final analysis, will be responsible for thousands and thousands of early deaths. I think that’s pretty good work for three short paragraphs. Point by point:
1. 400 mSv = 400,000 uSv. This is more than 10,000 times larger than the highest radiation level measured at an early point during the TMI catastrophe! Continue reading to discover what you might wish to think about that.
2. The second paragraph was clearly written by a tenth grader who just learned about gravity; the author is grievously misapplying the inverse-square law. It would be a sensible assertion to make of the energy flux from a fixed radioactive point source compared to a reference distance of one meter, but when the radioactive sources are themselves dispersed in the water, environment, and atmosphere it is nearly THE DUMBEST THING I HAVE EVER READ. Tragically, a lot of people are going to die because of idiotic statements like this one.
3. The third paragraph is also totally useless. Putting lots of zeros in front of a measurement makes it seem small, whether it is or not. The radiation level in Tokyo is 0.8 uSv/hr. In 125 days, this corresponds to the dose an average person receives in a year due to background sources. Cosmic rays and the decay of naturally-occurring radioactive elements in the soil, air, and water make up most of the background, but this includes the legacy of fallout from human activities as well. This number sounds reasonably benign, but that belief is based upon a basic conceptual flaw.
About the second point, one should understand that many radioactive fission products are gases; and furthermore that many of the materials inside a reactor are brittle ceramics, small pieces of which can be carried into the atmosphere as dust when the reactor is vented. In terms of fallout, then, right at the reactor site might be the safest place to be. (The direct flux of gamma radiation is a separate issue.)
Radioactive materials exhausted into the atmosphere probably travel a significant distance before settling to earth. Arnie Gunderson, a whistle-blowing nuclear engineer, made that point today on Democracy Now!:
You have to remember, with the explosions, most of the radiation detectors have been destroyed. So, the New York Times is reporting that workers are picking up in seven minutes their yearly exposure in certain areas within the plant. I studied Three Mile Island extensively, and it’s very difficult to chase one of these radioactive clouds to determine exactly where it’s touching down. So, numbers in the vicinity of the plant are probably too low. It’s very difficult to be right at the spot where the worst exposures are occurring. So, I take with almost no credence any of the numbers in the vicinity of the plant. But my experience shows that they’re probably too low.
Understanding why the conceptual framework underlying the third point is flawed requires us to untangle, just a little bit, why the health physics model might not be correct. The basic insight would seem to be rather simple: we are living, breathing organisms, and we continuously incorporate elements from the environment into our bodies. The health physics effects we encounter due to radioactive fallout inherently depend on exactly what sorts of emitters (alpha, beta, or gamma, with a range of decay energies and daughter products) are absorbed. Radiation detectors, on the other hand, simply measure the incident flux of energy present at their location at a given time. Many of them do not even differentiate between alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, although the physiological effects are entirely different.
Therefore, the low values of energy dose stated in the third paragraph obscure the reality that the citizens of Tokyo and Tochigi Prefecture are, right now, busily building many varieties of aerosolized radioactive gases and debris from a destroyed nuclear reactor into their lungs, kidneys, bones, and bodies. Furthermore, as a biological process, this is almost entirely different from the response to background radiation. The extent to which this is occurring depends very strongly on complicated factors including the precise elemental composition of the fallout, the size scale of the debris emitted by the reactor, and even the diet of the affected population. It is scarcely possible to know this information at a sufficient level of granularity to make an informed judgment of safety.
Because this is an impossible biological, medical, and epidemiological web to untangle, health physicists throw up their hands and make the simplifying assumption that the health effects of radiation exposure are directly related to the absorbed energy dose. While the simplifying assumption sounds scientific, I have a hard time viewing it as justified in general. For this reason, I hope everyone who reads statements of radiation levels will make a huge fuss over what they really mean for actual biological organisms. The existing research is based on ludicrous simplifying assumptions.
About the first point, it’s the accepted wisdom that the health effects from the accident at Three Mile Island were small or negligible. It is also very nearly the accepted wisdom in this country that Ronald Reagan was the best president ever.
I first began to think about this issue a few years ago when I read Norman Solomon’s outstanding Killing Our Own. It’s available on the web here. The chapter on TMI is short and worth reading, but it led me to other, even more interesting discoveries. This article was compiled by a Japanese author who interviewed residents of the community surrounding TMI in 1989:
After the TMI accident, Marie was treated for thyroid problems. She was subsequently diagnosed for cancer and has since had several operations and is currently receiving chemotherapy. She lives with her two sisters and brother. The Holowka’s have had many animal problems on their farm since the time TMI began operation in 1974. Here Marie talks about the morning of the accident.
I went to the barn around four, four-thirty [in the morning]. We were milking cows. And the barn started to shake. And I heard a rumble like underground. Well, I wouldn’t say an earthquake. But it was going like “brrup, brrup, brrup". And then it shook and shook and we didn’t hear the big rumbles. But every now and then you could hear a rumbling in the ground. And Paul, my brother, was with me and he says, “That’s an earthquake.” I said, “Paul, it don’t sound like earthquake. Earthquake, it just rattles. But you don’t hear the noise, the brrup, brrup.” It just [was] like there was boiling water coming underground. And I said, “l think something happened at Three Mile Island.” Then we kept on milking. . . .
We stayed in the house. It was blue. You couldn’t see anything or nothing. And we were scared. Everything was blue. Everywhere was blue. Couldn’t see the buildings or anything. It was just heavy blue all that time. We closed up our doors. We stuffed rags underneath the door so this wouldn’t come in. But I think it was all the way in.
And we stayed there. It was a warm day. It was a hot day. It was so hot. We shut all the windows and all the doors and we stayed inside. And about nine [a.m.] we listened to the local radios. But they wouldn’t say anything. They were only playing Dolly Parton’s music.
It is worth your time to look over the entire archive. It’s horrifying. Then multiply that by a factor of 10,000, and you have some idea about what might happen in Japan.
To bring this whole story back around to the beginning, by poking around I came to the conclusion that my own country detonated an enormous dirty bomb in the middle of my state when I was still spending my afternoons playing in a sandbox, and has lied about what happened ever since. Now, thirty years on, when I discuss with my family the litany of cancers and autoimmune diseases which afflict the members of the community where I grew up, my first thought is no longer that Americans ought to eat better and exercise more.
My first thought is that there are poisons which kill quickly, and poisons which kill slowly, painfully, and which rob us of health long before they rob us of life. I fear that this will be the path in Japan as well. It breaks my heart and fills me with a profound sense of shame for all of us.
- Aaron Datesman
This is a list of links which I have found to be informative. The top one is to a post I wrote last year about why I’m opposed to nuclear power.
UPDATE: I agree with a couple of comments that there is an error in the article's statement of the radiation level: it should be 400 microSieverts/hour, not 400 milliSieverts. This is ten times the radiation level detected at Three Mile Island, not 10,000x. I suppose this correction is more comforting in some way, but it doesn't change any of the conclusions expressed in the post.