The disaster at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, is still unfolding. It is still not ensured that the reactors will stay under the partial control achieved. The media keep downplaying the problems, focusing on any good news it can make up: That electricity has been brought to all six reactors is “news” every day again for over a week now. The electricity, although brought in, is still neither connected to most of the reactor blocks, nor do you hear anybody asking what electricity is supposed to do with the broken equipment in those blocks.
Actually, the problems are getting worse; no spin can hide that anymore. Ever more radioactive material leaks out, now even plutonium. There is as yet no solution to the catastrophe even suggested. They keep pouring water on the problem areas and hope for the best, literally. The run-off carries radioactive material into the nearby ocean and ground water. There is no end in sight.
Almost every day, officials are forced to admit more mistakes, violations of safety codes, downplaying risks, not reporting radiation levels, not reporting whole explosions, evacuating too little too late, distribution of potassium iodide only three days after it was necessary even according to official sources, loading storage facilities beyond capacity, and so forth.
What are the most important lessons we could learn these few weeks? The top insights may be the following three.
1) The Main Problem is Conventional not Nuclear
Nuclear reactors cannot actually be switched off. All six reactor blocks at the plant experienced trouble. Some started to do so as much as several days after the earthquake, although half of them were off-line during the earthquake – they were already “switched off” all along! It was not only the reactors that gave rise to the current problems. Equally important are the so called “spent” fuel rod storage facilities. This strongly reminds us: one cannot switch the reaction off even if the fuel is supposedly “spent”.
The difficulties with nuclear emergencies are the usual bunching of failures with entirely conventional technology (!) when trying to keep the nuclear reaction under control in unusual circumstances. (Please note that this summary cannot go into the details; plenty of relevant background information is provided in four previous articles, especially here, here, and here)
The present failures occurred in the technologically most advanced society of Japan. One can only expect worse from similar emergencies in the US or say China, which currently builds many new nuclear power plants.
Usual routine operation leads to emergencies more often than natural disasters. This further stresses that the main problem is not the nuclear technology as such. The main problem is the necessity of humans being involved and all that this implies, the pressures of human society, including economical and political constraints during as well as long before any breaking emergency.
With the main problems being mostly conventional, there is no reason to expect the failure rate to decrease. Without exiting nuclear energy, we will have such nuclear disasters at about the now empirically established rate.
Block 3 of the Fukushima nuclear plant –the one with MOX fuel rods which contain large amounts of extremely poisonous plutonium that now leaks out. It is still not under control at the time of this posting. Workers keep spraying it with water, pumping water were they can, and hope for the best.
2) The Media have Changed, But in Questionable Ways
That the media largely downplays the dangers of established big business is nothing unexpected, but there is one fresh issue: The internet does little to balance corporate media. It merely adds what defenders of traditional newspapers always claimed: Lots more of unreliable, undigested misinformation. The worst aspect is: It was precisely many so called science sites and blogs that let themselves be fed and actively contribute to biased misinformation. (Again, details have been discussed before.)
Old school journalists are correct in that one problem with the new media is their amateurish dealing with raw information. Information must always be interpreted with regard to its source. The shallowness of much of the online world is disconcerting. The new media claim to be better at covering the relevant science than traditional media care to do. What actually results is that the disaster is often reduced to a “we know how to convert milliSievert into microSievert” issue without any of the deeper background questioning that good journalism is all about.
The main science involved is not sexy nuclear physics, but messy sociology, ugly psychology, and ever repeating history. Industrial disasters are never a from sociological considerations divorced “hard science” issue about nuclear radiation or engineering. Admitting that a certain species of long nosed ape is the most important factor is not a conspiracy theory, fear mongering, anti-nuclear industry politics or anything remotely like that.
3) The Public has Perhaps Become a Little Wiser
Downplaying by officials, the media, the involved industry and so on are no news. Leaks, whether they are oil leaks or radioactive ones, are invariably kept secret for too long, radiation monitors are taken off-line when they are most needed, and the information that gets through is heavily framed and distorted. The public is only “informed” with the aim of avoiding the appearance of those in power not being in control.
Contrary to all the derogatory snobbishness displayed by elitists who chide the stupid, uneducated rubble, the public is largely aware of their dependence and how it is exploited. You do not need a science education or to remember exact data in order to remember that you have been taken advantage of before.
Taking simple precautions like staying indoors in case of a leak is often all that is needed, if you could rely on being informed about a leak. You cannot make informed decisions if bad news is withheld. Being the ones who pay the price with their families’ health, the public of course fears the “nothing to see here” type news. At least some people do learn once in a while. Dishonesty and lack of transparency is what gives rise to healthy skepticism and precaution.
On grounds of this analysis, there is almost no difference between the Windscale reactor fire in the UK in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, or Fukushima in 2011, to just list the most well known nuclear disasters. Human society has largely not learned from the previous lessons and there is no indication of that this will be different this time around.
Large earthquakes are not bad luck, as they do happen with certainty – we just cannot predict when. Not having had a complete core meltdown without really knowing why – that is luck. Experts know that we have been very lucky in Three Mile Island and that we have been also quite lucky up to now in Fukushima.
Nevertheless, the number of radioactive no-go zones that next generations will have to properly deal with is increasing. We do not know where to finally store the radioactive products and “spent” fuel safely for thousands of years. With new data and insights coming in, we must learn and at times throw out our pet assumptions - such is true science. We thought we may be able to control nuclear power, but we now know that we are too silly to handle that dragon.