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March 16th, 2011


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11:58 am - No cause for concern
I do not know very much, but I feel uneasy when I read articles saying that there is little risk of anything bad happening at Fukushima. I get the same feeling when I read articles saying there is 'no chance' of a double-dip recession. It reminds me of that expression - gosh where did I read it? - 'Of course our armies are always successful, but I can't help noticing their victories are getting closer to the home planet' (was it Orson Scott Card).

It's just that each time it's a more serious development which is 'no cause for alarm'. And then when the worst happens it's always described as a 'surprise', even though it's exactly what people have been worrying about all along.

Of course just because experts deny there is anything wrong, that doesn't prove the opposite. If I were to say 'the moon is about to explode' experts would say 'no it isn't' and they'd be right. But there is something about the denials that makes me uneasy. It's just an uneasy feeling really, nothing I can support better than that.

My guess is that the experts don't really know, and feel it is better to say soothing things. Let us hope that events work out that way.

(21 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:tehomet
Date:March 16th, 2011 12:10 pm (UTC)
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'Of course our armies are always successful, but I can't help noticing their victories are getting closer to the home planet.'

:D

Did you see that the Emperor has addressed his people? Bad sign in itself.

Fukushima's situation just keeps getting worse. It's upsetting.
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From:communicator
Date:March 16th, 2011 12:21 pm (UTC)
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It is upsetting and over the last few days I have been getting more and more worried, but I didn't know what to say because it's just a worried feeling.
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From:azdak
Date:March 16th, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC)
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My data point of comparison is the Austria press, who have headlines like "Death cloud over Tokyo", and are doing their best to give you the impression the reactors are on the verge of blowing up. It sells more papers than "Things aren't as bad as you think". Of the two options - understating the danger or overstating the danger - I think the former is infinitely preferable. There's no point at all in encouraging people to panic - they're deeply scared anyway, and there's nothing they can do. It's like being a pilot on a plane where the engines have cut out - you keep being reassuring if there's any chance at all of a safe landing, because what good will it do to say "We're probably all going to die"?

I don't think there is a third option - to state the actual level of danger - because no one really knows how dangerous things actually are. The staff at the power plant seem to be making up solutions as they go along. Maybe they'll work, maybe they won't, but until we know they won't - and maybe even then - it's better to try to calm people down than make them panic.
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From:communicator
Date:March 16th, 2011 12:19 pm (UTC)
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I see your point. I haven't really seen any of that type of coverage, perhaps because I have got into habits of avoiding it, so all I have been seeing are the 'nothing to see here' articles like the one I linked to.

I do take on what you have said but I think there is a danger in raising false hopes because we will survive this, and every time this happens it reduces people's faith in expert opinion.
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From:azdak
Date:March 16th, 2011 12:24 pm (UTC)
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and every time this happens it reduces people's faith in expert opinion.

I really really hope that something like this isn't going to happen very often.

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From:executrix
Date:March 16th, 2011 12:54 pm (UTC)
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If things like this keep happening we'll have nothing to worry about.
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From:azdak
Date:March 16th, 2011 01:08 pm (UTC)
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Ouch!
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From:executrix
Date:March 16th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
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2012: Mayan codex typo for 2011.
From:abigail_n
Date:March 16th, 2011 12:39 pm (UTC)
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I think when so many experts all over the world are saying more or less the same thing - that the incident is serious but controllable, and unlikely to have effects outside of Japan - it's probably safe to believe them. And the press, both at home and abroad, is so disgustingly eager for this to be another Chernobyl (because apparently a natural disaster that claims the lives of tens of thousands of people isn't a big enough story) that I'm more inclined to trust the experts than not.
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From:watervole
Date:March 16th, 2011 05:41 pm (UTC)
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Agreed. There is a real danger of more radioactive material escaping, but there's no danger of an atomic explosion as this kind of reactor can't fail that way. (the explosions to date have been hydrogen gas, not nuclear explosions)

ie. bad, but not as bad as Chernobyl.
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From:espresso_addict
Date:March 16th, 2011 01:17 pm (UTC)
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At least in this case talking about there being no chance of bad outcomes doesn't actively promote negative outcomes in the way that saying there is 'no chance' of a double-dip recession actually does.
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From:communicator
Date:March 16th, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I think that's true. Though everyone seems to have an agenda about power choices over the next few years.
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From:cdybedahl
Date:March 16th, 2011 03:31 pm (UTC)
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Actually, it may make you feel better to spend some time to read up on the consequences of Chernobyl.

Short version:

* It's pretty much guaranteed that Fukushima can't be as bad as Chernobyl was, if nothing else so because where the Chernobyl reactor had coal (well, graphite) the Fukushima reactors have water. Water burns rather a lot less readily than coal.

* The main health effect from Chernobyl twenty years after the disaster was roughly 4000 cases of cancer. The vast majority of those cancers were thyroid, which when treated has a 30-year survival rate of over 90%.

* The second largest effect was a 50% rise in the number of children born with Down Syndrome in Germany, Ukraine and Belorussia in the two years after the disaster.

Then go read up on the consequences so far of Deepwater Horizon (200 square kilometers of seabed rendered lifeless and ~400 endangered species gone extinct, to begin with). After that, decide which energy source you actually have a reason to find scary.
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From:espresso_addict
Date:March 16th, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
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I was quite surprised by this UN report which states that the short-term loss of life in Chernobyl workers attributed directly to radiation exposure was as low as 28.
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From:watervole
Date:March 16th, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC)
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Absolutely. If you look at the long term consequences of oil and coal (ironically, coal power also produces radioactivity, more than a nuclear plant under normal operation) - http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste), then the death toll is much higher.

People tend to be spooked by short term spectacular events and ignore long, slow build-up ones. Climate change kills up to 300,000 people a year, but they aren't news-headline deaths. - http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm -
I say 'up to' simply because I haven't studied the figures closely. The article says 300,000 a year, but I don't know where the data comes from.
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From:communicator
Date:March 16th, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
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Thank you. I must just say, I am not doing a comparison. It doesn't matter which energy source I find more scary. Oil is going to run out anyway, as far as that goes, but whether it's better or worse, something will happen or not in this case, is my only point.
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From:toft_froggy
Date:March 16th, 2011 03:38 pm (UTC)
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Yes, they're making me uneasy too - they keep making me think of the movies where the experts say things like, "If we panic the populace it will only make things worse!" and then the world explodes.
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From:ajr
Date:March 16th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
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Part of the problem, such that it is, is that in order for rolling news channels to justify their existence, they tend to hype everything up and make situations sound more 'gripping' (ie: dangerous) than they actually are.

Another part of the problem is fear of the unknown. Something like coal or oil, people can see that substance, they can see the effect of it, so to them it's a 'known' substance. Compared to nuclear power, which is invisible and has 'magic' effects. Automatically nuclear power then becomes a lot scarier, and the reporting of it (see above) doesn't exactly help matters.

The situation is serious, there's no denying that. On the nuclear badness scale (I forget its exact name, sorry), where Four Mile Island was a 4 (small disaster, local effects), and Chernobyl was a 7 (big disaster, global effects), the troubles at Fukushima Daiichi were a 4 until the fires, now they're a 5 or a 6, depending on who's speaking.

I don't believe that so many nuclear experts would lie to the public, so when they say that the general public aren't likely to be affected, I'm inclined to believe them. From what I can tell reading coverage, the people most at risk are those people actually working at the plant, and that the exclusion zone is enough to protect the wider public.

There is a risk of bad things happening, but not at anything near a Chernobyl scale. Chernobyl was in operation when it blew, it had no containment, and (as already mentioned) a graphite core. Fukushima Daiichi, on the other hand, was shut down the moment the earthquake started, the operational reactors have three levels of containment, and there's no graphite core.

At Chernobyl, the explosion sent radioactive debris high into the atmosphere causing it to spread around the globe. It's impossible for that to happen in Fukushima Daiichi.

The problems at Fukushima Daiichi keep changing all the time, but my understanding is that the big problem at the moment is the spent fuel pools. There's no containment for these as under normal operation, the water in the pools is enough. If all the water boils off and exposes the spent fuel in the pools, then that radiation will be going straight into the atmosphere. After that the next big problem is the one reactor using a specific fuel mix, MOX, which is more dangerous than normal fuel.

I think some years down the line someone might write a book about Fukushima Daiichi, and how events developed from start to end. But for now, a lot of reports have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

[I've been reading a lot about this, can you tell? Sorry if I've rabbited on far more than I needed to.]
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From:communicator
Date:March 16th, 2011 06:34 pm (UTC)
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Not at all; it's good to read all these opinions on this thread. I don't think I fear nuclear power as such, for quasi-superstitious reasons, but nowadays I mistrust assurances.
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From:espresso_addict
Date:March 16th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for this, AJR -- it's useful to be handfed a relatively informed viewpoint.
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From:happytune
Date:March 16th, 2011 08:55 pm (UTC)
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Nothing to see here...move along...

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