Category Archives: nuclear

Japan’s nuclear dilemma

Six months since the Fukushima disaster and Japan is still in the midst of a nuclear crisis. After the earthquake and tsunami, and resulting problems at the Fukushima plant, Japan has shut down the majority of its nuclear power stations. For a country that relies heavily on nuclear power for its electricity this is nothing short of an economic disaster. The Japanese government will not re-activate the power plants until all have been cleared. For a while, rumors were that Japan may be shutting down nuclear power stations permanently, but that is not yet clear.

To compensate for the reduction in output, Japan is forced to import oil-fuel and natural gas. The increased fossil fuel demands seem to be mostly met by Qatar, Australia and the Arab states.

To avoid paying huge sums for imported fossil fuels, the Japanese government is working hard to reduce demand in the country. Industry has already cut its energy use by 20%. This is an astonishing drop. Naturally, companies are looking at alternative energy generation and/or movement of their operations overseas. For an economy already fragile, the latter is very disconcerting. Although there is a strong push to build renewable plants now, it will be some time before they could replace nuclear plants.

Japan is not the only country that is re-considering nuclear energy. Germany has moved to close its nuclear plants permanently. It is rather interesting because it is not yet clear from where Germany will get its replacement power. Ironically, the two main options are electricity from coal-fired power plants in, for example, Poland, and electricity generated by nuclear power in France.
Other large users of nuclear power have not as yet changed their views. India, China and Russia will not revise their nuclear programs. I wonder if France will, but I do not think that even today’s nuclear accident will make a difference.

In the meantime, Japan is in dire straits.

The Atlantic has posted a special report on energy

The Atlantic has been posting a variety of stories and videos in a wide-ranging special report called “The Future of Energy.” Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, started the discussion each week by discussing an episode or question from the past that might help us frame our thoughts about what the future holds for our energy systems. Energy experts from a variety of disciplines were then invited to explore the topic and discuss the big ideas.

There are 3 topics posted in the collection: Part 1 – The Electric Car Solution, Part 2 – The New Nuclear Reality, and Part 3 – Big Solar vs. Environmentalists. The fantastic stories related to these topics offer a wide-ranging look at something that affects us all.

You can read the stories here.

Radiation dose chart

With all the talk of radiation poisoning in the news last week, we were glad to see this radiation dose chart by Randall Munroe at the comic blog XKCD. He visually compares radiation dosage levels from a variety of things in our daily lives to help clarify how they compare with the measurements that have been discussed in Japan.

You can read his full blog post here.

Radiation dose chart, by Randall Munroe of XKCD

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world…

This week was very unusual with the strong focus on the Japanese nuclear crisis and the reactions to it in the US and abroad. I thought it would be nice to go on a little trip around the world and look at what’s been happening lately elsewhere in the world of energy, and in particular renewable energy. Come along on a wee tour!

What's happening in A. China, B. India, C. Romania, D. Scotland and E. South Africa

China. Driven by great concerns about pollution and associated health costs, as well as the urgent need to grow energy production domestically to still its ever growing hunger for fuel and electricity, China is boosting renewable energy and moving from coal to gas. It hopes to double gas consumption in the next 4 years. Gas will be supplied primarily by Russia, Turkmenistan and also Australia. By 2015 gas should account for 8% of total energy. In the meantime, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear will grow from the current 8 percent of total energy to 11 percent. These numbers seem relatively low, but they are not. For nuclear energy it means building 40GW of new power, tripling current capacity. New hydropower will add 120GW to the mix.

Romania. Romania, not particularly known for wind energy production, has started the construction of what will be the largest land-based wind farm in Europe. The 600MW plant in the town of Fantanele will have 120 turbines rated each at 2.5MW. Fantanele does not consider wind a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). On the contrary: each turbine in the backyard brings 400o US dollars in the back pocket of the landowner. A windfall indeed for most people there who typically receive little more than 1000 US dollar in income per year.

Scotland. Islay is better known for its (very tasty) whiskeys, but has received some attention recently as the site of a large new tidal energy project. The Scottish government approved the installation of ten turbines that will supply power to around 500o homes (and perhaps a few distilleries?).

South Africa. South Africa’s government just approved a plan to increase both renewable and nuclear energy. South Africa relies strongly on coal, like China, but it wants over 40 percent of new energy production to come from renewables. Energy is a charged issue in South Africa after the huge blackouts the country experienced in its summer of 2008.




What went wrong and what went right in Fukushima

A quick link to a good overview/opinion piece in the Economist

The real disaster in Japan: tsunami wreaking death and destruction

today about Fukushima. Nearly a week after the start of this nuclear nail-biter, it looks like the severe catastrophe people feared early on will not happen. At this stage, there is not a large scale health crisis. Local radiation levels (very near the plant) spiked and no doubt a group of people has been or will be affected by the exposure. This is very regrettable and sad. But, thank goodness, Fukushima is not a second Chernobyl.


There is fear still amongst the general population, here as well as in Japan. With the conditions as they are, we do not run any risks. Even if radio-active gases are blown in our direction, by the time any of them reaches our shores, the radio-active levels will be so low that it won’t affect anyone. Remember that we are exposed to radiation every day: the earth is radio-active. We also happily submit ourselves to X-rays and CT-scans. Whatever can reach us at this stage, will add just a tad, if anything, to our normal background radiation exposure. So, you can fully relax about it. Also in Japan, outside the safety zone, there is currently no need for concern. Radiation levels measured in Tokyo are a bit above normal, again not posing any threats at this stage.

Many people find nuclear energy scary. You cannot see it, cannot smell it, the science behind is is hard to understand and perhaps too closely related to nuclear weapons, and the radiation exposure can lead to cancer, which is also a very scary illness. But put all the dramatic news coverage about Fukushima in some perspective. This is an industrial disaster, not a large scale health crisis. The real crisis at the moment is with the people who suffered the tsunami, the high death toll, the displaced and those without sufficient food and water who try to survive in the shelters.


US experts think Japanese officials are underestimating radiation risks

An excellent article in the New York Times today about the perceived radiation risks in Fukushima. US experts believe that those risks are quite a bit higher than estimated in Japan.

As shown in the New York Times article today: Fukushima location and evacuation zone

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), so states the article, gives a significantly bleaker appraisal of the threat posed by Fukushima, saying that the damage at one of the reactors was much more serious than acknowledged in Japan. Americans are advised to evacuate from an area much larger than the safety zone established by the Japanese.

Japan started its fifth day in the fight for control of the reactors in Fukushima after their cooling systems were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami. I’ve been impressed by the efforts of the Japanese, although Japanese officials are criticized for not seeking outside support early enough and supplying insufficient information about the situation. The new statement by the NRC adds a bit more fuel to this fire.



Fukushima Radiation: A grim 25th Anniversary of Chernobyl

My brother’s birthday is April 26. He turned 21 on Chernobyl day and I must admit that I forgot all about it because of the nuclear disaster. Before that, I had never been concerned about nuclear energy risks. I grew up not too far from a nuclear reactor in the South-West of the Netherlands and its cooling tower was a familiar sight during bike rides in the country. Chernobyl was a rough reminder that there are risks involved with nuclear energy. Admittedly, many of us in the West shrugged off the inherent danger of nuclear power generation pretty quickly. In contrast to our reactors, so we reasoned, Chernobyl had not been designed nor operated safely. The explosions in these early 1986 morning hours were devastating particularly because the reactor did not have a containment vessel. Large quantities of nuclear fuel and core materials were released into the atmosphere.

Chernobyl after the explosions and fires

Fukushima Daiichi is a different story. An earthquake/tsunami mix caused the initial problems, not human errors during a scheduled experiment to test a safety cooling feature as in the case of Chernobyl. The Fukushima plant is a second generation plant with decent containment vessels around its reactors. And, of all operators in the world, the Japanese are perhaps the most diligent and careful. Still. Accidents happen. And big ones at that.

    How bad is it? The phones were ringing this morning with reporters asking colleagues and myself about the radiation and explosion dangers. So, here are  some facts and thoughts on radiation.

    To compare and contrast, we first need to have a unit that measures absorption by our body tissues. For radiation is it the sievert.  We all are exposed to radiation, some 0.002-0.003 sieverts (2-3 millisieverts) per year. We quite happily expose ourselves to elevated radiation levels. In a CT scan, for example, the target area receives a dose of 15-30 millisieverts. X-rays are very much lower than that. Overexposure is dangerous as it has been shown to increase the risk of cancer. It is still difficult to give accurate risk numbers, but exposure to 0.1 sieverts a year (50 times the base radiation levels we all experience) is already considered a cancer risk. Indeed there is some evidence (particularly for children) that an accumulated dose of 0.09 sieverts from two or three CT scans leads to an increased risk of cancer. My colleagues in the school of medicine tell me that if 100 people were exposed to a total of 1 sievert, five of them would develop a fatal cancer over a number of years. If two people were exposed to a dose of 5 sieverts, one of them would probably succumb within a month. It still all sounds a bit vague, but that’s about the level of our understanding right now. Apart from cancer, there is a risk of compromising the immune system as radiation can damage red and white blood cells.

    So, how much exposure was there in Chernobyl, and how much is there now in Fukushima? Estimated numbers for Chernobyl range from 300 sieverts per hour in the vicinity of the reaction core, to 0.03-0.05 sievert per hour in the control room and 0.1 sievert per hour in a nearby unit. Clearly, anyone near the reactor at that time was in grave danger. The reactor crew chief, Alixander Akimov, died from radiation exposure within weeks. In the aftermath, nearly 240 people suffered from acute radiation sickness and 31 died within three months. During Chernobyl, a total exposure of 0.35 sieverts (350 millisieverts) was used as the relocation threshold. More than 100,000 people were indeed evacuated.

    In the first few months after the accident in Chernobyl there was anxiety about contamination of river and reservoir waters. Levels were too high, but after a few months they decreased to acceptable levels. Another concern was the contamination of fish. Groundwater was not badly affected. The reaction to the outfall in Europe was strange, to say the least. Some foods were banned. I remember being advised not to eat any Scottish beef. In France, however, officials decreed that all was safe.

    The total amount of radioactive material released by Chernobyl was a few hundred times more, as estimated, than Hiroshima. Fallout was detected over most of Europe. It is believed that half of the particles landed outside the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and that over one million people were affected by radiation. It is however very difficult to get any numbers of radiation exposure, and it is still unclear how many people died as a result of radiation exposure in the 25 years since Chernobyl. It takes some 10 years or more for cancer to be exposed and the World Health Organization report written about it was within that latency period. UNSCEAR, the United States Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, conducted over 20 years of research on the effects of Chernobyl. Initially, UNSCEAR feared someo 4000 additional cancer cases would be due to the accident, but later that number was shown to be too high. Thyroid cancer cases did go up, says UNSCEAR, particularly in children and adolescents explosed at the time of the accident. Thankfully, thyroid cancer is generally treatable. UNSCEAR further stated that it could find  no further evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates. However, other organizations and individual researchers, report much more devastating impacts of the radiation, with one (New York Academy of Sciences report in 2010) apparently claiming 985,000 deaths as a result of the radioactivity released. I say apparently, because I have not read this report myself. Clearly, there is still a lot of debate and controversy surrounding Chernobyl, caused also by lack of reliable accounting in the former USSR.

    What about Fukushima? Yesterday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that they recorded as much as 0.4 sieverts an hour near the plant. 70,000 people have been evacuated from the area directly surrounding the plant. 140,000 people in  areas further removed have been asked to stay indoors and seal their homes as best they can. In Tokyo, slightly higher than normal radiation levels have been detected, but nothing to worry about, thus far. Excellent current information about radiation levels and other updates can be found at MIT’s Nuclear Information Hub:

    Fukushima is still in a very dangerous stage. Keep your fingers crossed and your eyes on the sieverts.