You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

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.

My view
Greg Palast
Robert Alvarez
Mark Mervine
Arnie Gunderson

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.

Posted at March 15, 2011 11:06 PM

I also was in Pa many times during the early 70's and went to see TMI from across the river a while after the release, a couple of months later IIRC. I worked in carnivals for Inners Amusments at the time and WE played Hershey Pa at the Italian Club. Back then folks on the show talked about Stronium 90 in the milk being used in the chocolate Hershey Bars which seemed to be known to many I talked to in the area at that time. I gave up Hershey's candy for a few years but have since gone back to them. (NOW I'm hoping I didn't ding YOUR family for the rent back then as I worked in some racket games)

I completely AGREE with what YOU're saying about INGESTION as opposed to proximity as the REAL danger.

What truely entertains me is the "old saw" "its about what ya git from an xray". What such folks DON'T mention is an xray at a radiologist's is a flash dose whereas one doesn't stand around getting xrayed 24/7. Ergs/sec isn't much but when its in YOUR environment or inside YOU, well---???

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 16, 2011 12:24 AM

This paragraph here:

"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."

I just wanted to check my understanding: Everything she saw had a blue tint to it after a nuclear accident? Or that there was a big blue cloud outside?

If either one is an accurate recollection, that's absolutely insane.

Posted by: James Cape at March 16, 2011 12:26 AM

You don't seem to be aware of radiation hormesis -- the discovery that small increases in nuclear radiation can be beneficial. In other words, if your starting dose is small enough, increasing your radiation exposure can improve your health. Radiation hormesis isn't mysterious. We have repair systems inside our cells. The right amount of radiation, by causing damage, will activate these repair systems and cause them to do a better repair job than when less activated.

Posted by: Seth Roberts at March 16, 2011 02:19 AM

You don't seem to be aware of radiation hormesis -- the discovery that small increases in nuclear radiation can be beneficial. In other words, if your starting dose is small enough, increasing your radiation exposure can improve your health. Radiation hormesis isn't mysterious. We have repair systems inside our cells. The right amount of radiation, by causing damage, will activate these repair systems and cause them to do a better repair job than when less activated.

Posted by: Seth Roberts at March 16, 2011 02:20 AM

from the BBC is perhaps the worst news I've read in fifteen years of uniformly horrible news :

"Mr Edano also said that the radiation levels were now falling from 1,000 millisieverts on Wednesday morning to 600-800."

One sievert.

Posted by: joel hanes at March 16, 2011 02:37 AM

This article completely debunks the radiation hormesis thesis, as well as explaining away other myths: Nuclear propagandists lies exposed and debunked.

The IAEA 25 year report on Chernobyl, despite attempting to put the best face possible on the data is still chilling:

While the number of casualties caused by Chernobyl might be a cause for debate, the following consequences, as detailed by the ÍAEA report entitled "Chernobyl's Legacy" are incontrovertible:

* Contaminated area somewhat larger than the Netherlands, equal to the combined areas of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
* 100 year minimum exclusion zone the size of Utrecht or Rhode Island.
* 5 million people reside in contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
* 336,000 people were relocated.
* Many food sources contaminated for at least 60 - 100 years.
* Continued budget expenditures of 6% after 25 years while still not providing meaningful payments to those affected.

Of course, anything by Helen Caldicott is excellent on this topic.

Posted by: Malooga at March 16, 2011 02:55 AM

What does "400 millisieverts of radiation were detected" mean? There's no time unit. You could say an x-ray, for example, gives you 1 millisievert, but that's the total over the period of the x-ray. But for radiation in the environment, I think the only meaningful quantity is sieverts per unit time. Is it 400 millisieverts per second, per hour, per year? Without the time unit, it is meaningless.


The BBC article now says "Levels of radiation outside the plant have now fallen from 1,000 microsieverts an hour to 600-800 - about the equivalent of two chest X-rays, say officials."

Hopefully, what you read was a mistake (although it didn't have a time unit either - it was evidently supposed to be hours).

Posted by: Mike B. at March 16, 2011 08:11 AM

To answer my own question, evidently the 400 mSv referred to is per hour, as is the TMI number quoted. However, the TMI number was measured a third of a mile from TMI, whereas the 400 mSv value is "around the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s No. 3 reactor," which might be a lot closer than that at TMI.

Posted by: Mike B. at March 16, 2011 09:00 AM

Americans ought to eat better and exercise more

also -

stop smoking

drink alcohol only moderately, if at all (and moderation is having only one or two drinks at a sitting - NOT a six-pack once a week)

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at March 16, 2011 09:42 AM

@James Cape - it's more insane than you think. There was a blue cloud EVERYWHERE, even inside. I had to think about this but it's very explainable. I will write a post about it tonight.

(HINT: it's the same thing as the blue color in irradiated gemstones in the previous post.)

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 16, 2011 09:57 AM

Yes, the blue color is easily explained and not a good sign at all. I'll let Aaron explain.

Posted by: Malooga at March 16, 2011 11:57 AM

Mike :

I assumed that the millisievert numbers were the levels encountered by the remaining cadre of reactor operators at the time they were evacuated, and thus were measured at some place near one of the reactors at which we would wish those operators to be working.

If the facility is getting so hot that the operators cannot enter, then regaining any sort of control of the situation becomes problematic.

Posted by: joel hanes at March 16, 2011 12:35 PM

Aaron, thank you for being on this topic. It's making ATR a must-read these days.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at March 16, 2011 12:38 PM

Excellent post, obviously.

But it got me back to thinking and googling about the news reports I read when I was living in Taipei, that a bunch of buildings in the city had been built using radioactive steel from a nuclear power plant. Anyway, here's something new I learned about it from Wikipedia: "Some researchers from Taiwan claimed that the gamma rays from the cobalt-60 had a beneficial effect upon the health of the tenants."

Posted by: godoggo at March 16, 2011 12:59 PM

Ah, found a better source, and one which makes me think that the BBC reporter confused units when both milliseiverts and microsieverts were used in different parts of the same official statement. If this is the case, Mike B. is right and I've been too alarmed.

This is the World Nuclear News take on Edano's statement, (which in the BBC account says "millisieverts")

Earlier in the morning readings had ranged between 600-800 microsieverts per hour, but at 10am readings rose to 1000 microsieverts per hour.

Here's an article from somewhat later :

Radiation levels on the edge of the plant compound briefly spiked at 8217 microsieverts per hour but later fell to about a third that.
Japanese authorities told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that radiation levels at the plant site between units 3 and 4 reached a peak of some 400 millisieverts per hour. "This is a high dose-level value," said the body, "but it is a local value at a single location and at a certain point in time."

Later readings were 11.9 millisieverts per hour, followed six hours later by 0.6 millisieverts, which the IAEA said "indicate the level of radioactivity has been decreasing."

Posted by: joel hanes at March 16, 2011 01:20 PM

Remember when cigarette companies used to tout the Beneficial Health Effects of Tobacco Smoking? How regular smoking would improve the voice (and they had a real live opera singer giving a testimonial to prove it, too), soothe the nerves, etc?

Remember when being exposed directly to "radium" was touted as a miracle cure for just about anything?

Magical thinking never dies, but unfortunately cancer patients often do.

Posted by: De Clarke at March 16, 2011 01:20 PM

"Most Vulnerable U.S. Nuclear Plants"



Posted by: Rupa Shah at March 16, 2011 01:31 PM

And the article in "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" is, to say the least, disappointing.....


Posted by: Rupa Shah at March 16, 2011 01:35 PM

Joel Hanes, Mike B -

When I posted this, I was concerned that the numbers didn't mesh, but it was late (for me), so I put off checking. Thanks for doing the research on my behalf.

The Japanese article almost certainly should say "400 uSv", not milliSieverts, which sort of reinforces my point about its uselessness. This also meshes with the comment by Arnie Gunderson that the plant workers are receiving their yearly dose in seven minutes. I calculate the 5 rem yearly dose to correspond to an average of 119 uSv/hr.

So, by the very rude metric I present (and it's not the most sensible one - I think the total activity present in Bq is the sensible metric of how bad this disaster could be), this accident is only TEN TIMES worse than TMI.

In case it's not clear, though, my principal point is that the effects are dispersed and rather broadly distributed in depleted health and shortened lives. Fixing this error of 1000 actually doesn't change that conclusion at all.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 16, 2011 02:58 PM

i for one look forward to reading the explanation for the blueness

Posted by: N E at March 16, 2011 04:19 PM

I hope the blueness we're talking about is not this blueness:

Posted by: artguy at March 16, 2011 04:55 PM

TEPCO's latest status chart claims about 2 millisieverts/hour measured at the facility boundary.

Posted by: joel hanes at March 16, 2011 05:48 PM

As a biologist radiation hormesis sounds like a load of horseshit to me. Sure, low levels of radiation might activate repair pathways - but most repair pathways are activated by sensing DNA damage, which leaves little actual room for a mechanism for improvement in health. That is, without the radiation, there is no damage, and no repair pathway activated. With the radiation, there IS damage, and the repair pathway gets activated to fix it - maybe. But in any case, you're just adding to your risk. And that repair machinery isn't then going to go into overtime and run around repairing every other broken thing in the cell. That's not how it works; it has to respond to the actual damage it detects. DNA is a big molecule, and proteins are dumb machines. They can only fix what is in front of them.

Posted by: saurabh at March 16, 2011 07:09 PM

This is not good.

Nishiyama added that radiation levels of 250 millisievert an hour had been detected 30 metres above the plant. On Tuesday Japan's health ministry raised the cumulative maximum level for nuclear workers from 100 millisievert to 250 millisievert. The US said it was using U-2 spy planes and a Global Hawk drone and using infrared cameras to assess the temperatures of reactors and storage pools.

"One of the problems with the ponds is that the water, as well as providing cooling, also provides shielding so workers can come up to the edge of the pool and see what state the fuel is in," said Richard Wakeford, an expert in epidemiology and radiation at the Dalton nuclear institute of Manchester University. "If the water goes you've got no shielding and it's like having a great gamma-ray searchlight shining into the sky and that is presumably what the helicopters are seeing. That makes life extremely difficult for those trying to deal with this.

Posted by: joe hanes at March 17, 2011 04:29 PM