Posts Tagged ‘accidents’

“Possible” Radiation Burns On 2 Fukushima Workers

March 24th, 2011 No comments

Kyodo News March 23, 2011 photo of Fukushima I, from security gate of #1 and #2 reactors.

In what appears to be the first report of possible acute injuries received directly from radiation at Fukushima, three Tepco employees were reportedly exposed to “high” levels of radiation — approximately 173-180 millisieverts — while laying electrical cables in the first floor and basement of Fukushima I’s #3 reactor. Two of the three were taken to the hospital with “possible” radiation burns on their feet.

Kyodo News reported that the injuries are from beta radiation, one of four types of radiation at Fukushima (gamma, neutron, alpha and beta). Beta particles are high-energy, high-speed electrons emitted by some radioactive materials that can in some cases cause cancer and death. However, the amount they received appears to be well below the threshold for causing radiation sickness. The amounts reported are markedly above the technical minimum established potentially carcinogenic dose, in practical terms, from what’s being reported now, the workers are likely not to be at significant risk for cancer. From what I can tell, they are unlikely to even have actually received burns — meaning the trip to the hospital is probably precautionary.

Alpha and beta radiation does not penetrate material the way that gamma and neutron radiation does; alpha and beta are only really a problem when they’re ingested or absorbed through the skin. A whole lot of variables determine how serious or dangerous the exposure was, so it’s impossible to tell whether this is a serious incident. Nonetheless, it clearly doesn’t represent anything like an overall escalation of the crisis.

Kyodo News reports that the three workers had stepped in a puddle with about six inches of radioactive water. According to Tepco, they had not tested the radiation at the puddle before they stepped in it, and their protective boots may have leaked, exposing the employees’ feet to beta radiation severe enough to cause, in two of the three cases, burns severe enough to require a trip to the hospital (which may have been precautionary).

As I understand it, the potential for beta burns would be measured in grays, which is an absorbed radiation dose equal to a Sievert per kilogram of tissue (1 Sievert to 1 kg of tissue = 1 gray). That would make 173-180 mSv well below the level where any clinical effect would be seen — but there are many other variables to consider. Since beta radiation is a non-penetrating radiation, skin burns would come from the contact of radioactive material (in this case, in the puddle water) with the skin. The acute danger is dependent on how long the water was in contact with the skin, and whether any of it was in contact long enough to be absorbed. If I’m reading the US Army’s information right, it takes something like 6 grays to cause a burn, so my guess is that either the trip to the hospital was entirely precautionary, or a very small amount of skin on each worker received that 173-180 mSv. That is above the minimum established carcinogenic dose, but again, beta radiation doesn’t penetrate like gamma or neutron. While it’s also above the usual safe dose for Japanese workers (100 mSv), the level was raised by the government to 250 mSv during the crisis. In the U.S., workers have an automatic exposure limit of 250 mSv in emergency situations, and 100 mSv otherwise.

Kyodo reports the radiation at the surface of the puddle was 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour, and 200 mSv per hour in teh air around the puddle. However, Tepco later denied there was a puddle. It’s unclear from the Kyodo report if that’s ’cause it evaporated (puddles do that sort of thing) or if the original Tepco report had been in some way erroneous.

A kind of weird headline at Kyodo News that appears to be subscribers-only proclaimed that the radiation in the water where the workers were exposed was “10,000 times normal,” which, like most reports of radiation amounts in the press, is not really a meaningful or helpful assertion but sure sounds scary.

The Fukushima 50 and the Meaning of “Sacrifice”

March 22nd, 2011 No comments

Image from Pattaya Daily.

Though workers were evacuated again from Fukushima I about 20 hours ago following reports of white smoke, I am troubled by the quickness with which commentators, hungry for heroes in this whole situation, have written the Fukushima workers off as soon-to-be-dead zombies.

Before you get hopped up, let me say this: In no way am I going to argue that these people are in any way not engaged in making great sacrifices. I’m not even arguing that they’re not fully deserving of the cult of the nuclear samurai that has grown up around them.

But I have heard no credible reports that the workers at Fukushima “sacrificed” themselves…with the implication that they are certain to soon be dead, which implies that they are in the “walking ghost” phase of acute radiation sickness. I’m not going to play pro-nuclear-roulette and claim that won’t happen. I’m just going to say that I’ve seen no credible reports of it, and yet I hear that claim repeated and repeated and repeated.

It may be an appealing myth — and it may even be true. But to my mind, it has not been established credibly. To pretend that it has is to misunderstand radiation. It’s also to cast aspersions on the workers’ real sacrifice. What happens “if” they all live? Is that a “miracle”? Or is it proof that the Japanese safety procedures were not as bad as we thought they were? Maybe it could even be taken as proof that the cult was fraudulent from the beginning — which it is not, or at least it shouldn’t be. The fact is, the real sacrifice comes from a shared sacrifice of establishing and evaluating risk, and very brave people taking individual risks when things go wrong.

But if the rest of us think we’re asking the Fukushima 50 to crawl into a melting-down core to save our asses, we’re grossly mis-evaluating the value of infrastructure. Building credible and defensible infrastructure is not about cheering cannon fodder. It’s about respecting the people who make sacrifices to keep the world running.

Japan, as an IAEA state, would be obligated to have already reported acute radiation sickness cases, and based on their own guidelines the workers still cannot be exposed to anything more than 250 mSv, or millisieverts — which is a LOT of radiation, and not a party. It places one at a definite and clearly established elevated risk for cancer. But it sure as hell does not indicate instant death.

The Fukushima 50 were selected from older workers not because they have “less time to lose,” but because the effects of ionizing radiation too low to cause acute radiation sickness are still high enough to cause an established increase in cancer and birth defects. Older workers have less time ot live — which means they are less likely to develop those cancers before they would die otherwise. They’re also past their childbearing years, limiting the likelihood of birth defects. Current limits on workers’ exposure are too low to cause radiation sickness. Are the government and Tepco lying about how exposed the current workers are? I have no idea either way, but if you would like to manufacture scenarios, feel free. But that’s what you’re doing. There’ve been no reports of radiation sickness.

Nonetheless, the talk of the workers’ “sacrifice” continues, to my mind — and I hope you’ll meet me halfway here — turning the workers’ real sacrifice into a soundbite because we love soundbites. The implication is that the older workers are being placed in harm’s way so that the younger workers can live on into the brave future. It might be appealing (though I, personally, find such a proposal ghoulish — and those who take pleasure in it more so). This is a soundbite that is being grabbed by those who love drama, and the lack of credibility in the “sources” won’t change the fact that plenty of people will believe it to be true. For how long will the older workers be said to have been selected because they have less ot lose?

The 31 workers who died of radiation poisoning at Chernobyl did sacrifice themselves. They placed themselves in the path of certain death, as did those at Chernobyl who did not die. Chernobyl was a different plant, a different country, a different decade.

The Fukushima 50 are to be admired. These workers have balls of brass. They are brave as hell. They are heroes to the Japanese nation, and should be considered heroes to the world. But claiming they “sacrificed” themselves is slamming the coffin door shut before any of the real information is out there. It’s disrespectful to them, and disrespectful to the man, many firefighters and rescue workers who sacrifice themselves every day all over the world because that’s their jobs.

Just because radiation is shiny and battling a meltdown seems more ghoulish to us, that doesn’t mean it needs to be dramatized any more than it already is. The situation is dramatic enough, and the workers are doing a tough enough job. They are taking enormous risk to benefit the rest of us, like the American rescue workers who were sacrificed on 9/11. But speaking of “greater” and “lesser” sacrifices misses the point of any kind of service. These workers are brave, brave, brave, and they are to be admired. You should tell their kids about them and hold them up at examples of what it means to agree to do a thing, and then actually do it even when it turns out to be a real bitch.

But we should let them be heroes without writing them off as corpses.

The statement about “sacrifice” was made repeatedly in the media, but tended not to show up in print. Then it was repeated again and again, primarily in online forums, like UFO/Conspiracy site GodLikeProductions, which is coming up in the top three on numerous Google searches related to Fukushima. Those cats have some serious Google mojo.

Also showing up at the very top of the Google searches for “fukushima sacrifice” are, which uses the observation that “officials denied the workers are on a kamikaze mission” to create a sort of confirm-by-denying flavor of not-quite-a-lie. It also strikes me as mildly racist to equate the kamikazes of World War II, who were “sacrifices” to a desperate collision of Imperial constructs, with trained workers in a highly developed and complex society. These people are trained professionals, and they are to be admired without being turned into martyrs before their time.

With all of these, writers used the “officials deny” claim as a cover for making their own assertions, which are not then supported by the evidence.

Even worse were the opportunistic squatters at ExplosionJapan, which was registered on 12 March 2011. They used explicit descriptions of acute radiation sickness to terrify and delight, and as a result they ended up at the very top of relevant Google searches.

In this and other cases, the implication or explicit statement is that the workers have acute radiation sickness. Do they? I don’t know. But there is no credible information to indicate it.

Based on the emergency provisions approved by the Japanese, the workers’ exposure was still, even given the emergency situation, limited to 250 mSv, or millisieverts, which is markedly less than the 1,000 mSv that causes acute radiation poisoning. It is higher than the 100 mSv dose that is the lowest established carcinogenic dose.

However, that does not mean they workers will be dying of cancer any time soon. They might, but we don’t know for sure. There are too few test cases to be sure.

These workers agreed to assume a very large risk, and frankly that should be enough. If drama queens the world over want to bump them off because it’s more intoxicating to have brave martyrs than live heroes, fine. But it’s not supported by evidence currently available. Please prove me wrong in the comments if you wish — links are appreciated.

In the meanwhile, I wish everyone would quit slamming the coffin lid.

How Much Spent Fuel Is At Fukushima?

March 22nd, 2011 No comments

From the Union of Concerned Scientists.

With the spent fuel pools reportedly heating up again, the claims are flying fast and furious (again) about how much spent fuel is at Fukushima. It’s deja vu all over again.

At online forums like, where they never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t feel like massaging into a panic, the claim is that we’re talking about a few thousand tons. That, of course, is complete and utter conspiracy-theory nonsense, unless you plan to believe those whacked-out hollow-earth weirdos at fringe journals like Scientific American or the “experts” at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who say it’s…a few thousand tons.

So let’s do some math, shall we? This is not my subject, but then, neither is nuclear engineering. Or chemistry. Or physics. Or graphs. I do sometimes read XKCD, however, so I feel sort of like a qualified mathematician when I chuckle knowingly at math jokes.

The screenshot above is from the All Things Nuclear site from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is strongly anti-nuclear but as far as I can tell, generally not prone to pseudo-science.

Importantly, the figures quoted in the graph above represent fuel assemblies, not kilograms. Each assembly is about 170 kilograms, not all of which is nuclear fuel but all of which is highly radioactive (though it depends on how you define “highly.”

For you non-metric types, a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. For you non-British-system types, when Americans talk “tons,” they mean 2,000 pounds.

Therefore, if you believe these figures, and if I am understanding these figures, the amount of spent fuel stored at Fukushima I, in the pools, as of March 2011, is about 2,000 tons. These assemblies are not stored in one single pool, so a single compromise of cooling (or, say, a re-criticality) does not compromise all of the spent fuel. From these figures, the single pool at Reactor #4 that was having the biggest problems last week has about 248 tons of spent fuel, not the 172 tons that I originally reported.

The Reactor #4 pool includes, apparently, the spent fuel assembly from Reactor #4, which was shut down prior to the earthquake. That is more recently decommissioned fuel, more fissionable, and more likely to enter re-criticality (also much more likely to heat up). In fact, it is the presence of the recently decommissioned fuel from #4 that made re-criticality any sort of risk, apparently.

The site referenced above says the recent fuel from Reactor #4 was 548 assemblies (about 102 American tons), which was added to 783 assemblies (about 148 tons) already in the pool. As the Union of Concerned Scientists observes, the Kcal calculations mean the heat put out by the 783 older assemblies must be negligible.

For the purposes of this information, I have omitted the dry cask storage, since it does not require cooling. It’s older fuel and less fissionable. I’m not so sure that makes it any less hazardous in long-terms, but that’s a matter of getting real specific about what you mean by “hazardous.” In terms of the cooling problems, only the pools are directly relevant.

Unfortunately, the information is out there to look at, and it all seems to more or less agree. Whether you want to believe Scientific American, the Powerpoint over at the anti-nuke Nuclear Information and Resource Service, or the Union of Concerned Scientists, it looks like we’re talking about several thousand tons of spent fuel, and around 250 tons in the Reactor #4 pool they’re still having trouble keeping cool.

Radioactive Broccoli?

March 22nd, 2011 No comments

Screenshot from the front page of the English Kyodo News site, about five minutes before press time.

Western press outlets are reporting radioactive broccoli and raw milk from Japan, but they’re referencing a Kyodo News report that has since been greyed out.

Check out the screenshots of the “advisories” in the list to the right from the English-language Kyodo site — which have links to reports of radioactive broccoli and raw milk greyed out. Huh!?!? I’m assuming that’s because the reports proved not to be credible, but as to why exactly they’re still being reported, then, I’m not sure.

The New York Post and Agence France-Presse do report that Japanese officials said broccoli and raw milk near the plant had tested positive for higher than permissible levels of radiation. They reference the Kyodo report, which was greyed out when I visited the site.

I don’t know enough about radiation to say, but it sounds strange and unlikely that such a thing could be directly related to Fukushima. How long does broccoli take to grow?

I can’t help but think that the reports of radioactive broccoli may be fueled by the fact that “radioactive broccoli” brings up — high on the list — a 2006 report of the port of Rotterdam thinking it had found a nuclear bomb being smuggled into the Netherlands. In fact, it had found radioactive broccoli. That was in 2006. Broccoli often soaks up radiation — it’s just a thing that it does. Does that mean there’s radioactive broccoli in Japan?

Therefore, absent evidence to the contrary, I’m left to ask, if broccoli is something that serves as a “canary in a coal mine” for radioactive food, why would the broccoli be what’s showing up with higher than permissible levels of radiation, whereas any agricultural product that grows under the open sky could potentially have had radioactive material rained onto it from Fukushima? It all sounds very dicey.

Raw milk seems more credible, since cows could have eaten grass that had received radioactive material from Fukushima. But the story on Kyodo was still greyed out.

Spent Fuel Pool(s) Near Boiling Point (Again)

March 22nd, 2011 No comments

The good news is that lighting at Fukushima I has been restored, and all six reactors at Fukushima I have had power restored, which helps both repair efforts and cooling.

But then the bad news starts. The IAEA says the site is still leaking radiation, the source of which they’re not sure of. There have been NO reports of radiation sickness).

Another Reuters report says the Japanese government says chance that the spent fuel pools will reach re-criticality is “low,” which means either that it’s still not zero or that the government is repeating talking points from last week. The latter seems likely to me than anything, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

Worse, Reuters sent out a breaking news alert that at least one spent fuel pool at Fukushima I is heating up again — and currently near the boiling point. When I went to the Reuters site, I couldn’t find the report, but I discovered that the both reactors 2 and 3 have abnormalities visible — “white smoke” in the case of #2, and “white haze” in the case of #3. Both are likely to be steam from the spent fuel pools.

Steam comes from boiling water, in case you were wondering. However, under some atmospheric conditions, water vapor can show up at much lower temperatures than boiling — so in practical terms steam is far from de facto proof of boiling.

There are spent fuel pools at each reactor, and the bad news is that if any of the six of them at Fukushima I were boiling, we would expect it to be the one at Reactor #4, which apparently has a recently decommissioned set of 548 fuel assemblies, which are fresher, more fissionable and hotter. These were removed and placed in the Reactor #4 spent fuel pool when #4 was shut down for routine maintenance before the earthquake.

Does any of this mean anything? Likely, not for anyone except the workers at the plant. With power restored, cooling will surely be managed effectively.

It’s even possible that the report of the fuel pool(s) at the boiling point preceded the restoration of power, and therefore it’s now completely irrelevant. But we won’t know that for a while yet.

Radiation and Misinformation

March 21st, 2011 No comments

New(ish) radiation hazard symbol, launched by the IAEA in 2007.

With the deputy head of Japan’s nuclear agency calling Fukushima a “very huge disaster,” it’s fairly obvious that the scale of the events of the last week were grossly under-reported as they were happening. Tepco and the Japanese government went well beyond the call of duty in obfuscating the situation, while pro-nuclear voices in the U.S. popped off with claims as to what was about to occur before they even had the faintest idea what had just happened. Thankfully, the FDA was there to help.

The cocktail of hysteria, paralysis and disinterest was all very edifying.

Now the mop-up starts, and for most of the media it’s likely to settle on radiation — how much there was and is, and what exactly it’s going to do.

In the United States, hysteria and overstatement about the magnitude of the events at Fukushima were (and are) endemic not least because people are scared of radiation. But misinformation on this is also endemic in the U.S. because Japan is very far away, and anyone who pays much attention is used to hearing bizarre stories about Japan to begin with. The IAEA had to refute reports (back on the 18th) that there had been reports of radiation sickness in Japan. There hadn’t been — at least, not delivered to the IAEA, which would be Japan’s obligation as a signatory state. There still haven’t.

However, that didn’t stop ABC News from pushing a helpful story live today that said, and I quote, while still scratching my head:

According to the National Institutes of Health, radiation sickness can be caused when the total body is exposed to 1000 of radiation. [sic] If humans are exposed to more than 4000 millisieverts of radiation, half are likely to die. Any more that 6000 millisieverts, doctors say, is untreatable and leads to almost certain death.

the health effects of radiation sickness are particularly brutal. The radiation causes chemical changes in the body, destroying cells. This results in symptoms that include bleeding, hair loss, skin burns and open sores.


In case you missed it, that quote is “…the total body is exposed to 1000 of radiation,” emphasis mine. Yes, they left the units off. It’s supposed to be mSV.

This result is an inexplicable, out-of-context mobile-news push of a couple of paragraphs from an article on March 17th, by Bradley Blackburn, headlined Understanding Radiation Sickness: What can Happen in the Worst Case. In that article the statements (still problematic because they left the friggin’ units off that first figure!!) are at least placed in the context of a headline that makes it obvious we’re talking about the worst case scenario here.

How such a statement could be grabbed and then pushed live to a mobile news alert remains utterly bewildering to me. How does crap like that get on the web with an URL? And if it goes out as a mobile news alert, that’s terrifying. What, you sign up for ABC News mobile alerts so you can stay hip to current events…then you’re just hanging out with your kids and suddenly you get that shit on your cell phone? Who are these people?

Meanwhile, searching “radiation poisoning japan” today gets me no actual news — but a couple of hits trying to hawk alternative healthcare preventatives against radiation, which I saw extensively over the weekend. The only thing close to a major news source is an article headlined Exposed Rods Cause Radiation Poisoning, on The Tartan, Carnegie-Mellon’s student newspaper and a damn fine paper as student papers go, especially when it comes to science reporting. (Carnegie-Mellon also has more robots than anywhere else — so many it needed its own robot census). It’s really a fine article — no major arguments with it. But should it be the only top-of-the-news hit for those keywords? The headline is also the perfect lead-in to an inspiringly unfunny “That’s what she said!” which is about all that my brain is capable of after a few hours of looking at the mainstream news.

Meanwhile, why were there earlier news reports, at least according to the IAEA, saying the IAEA had reports of radiation sickness in Japan? Damned if I know. The only thing I can figure out is that the IAEA is using the term “news stories” very loosely here — and means blogs, or social media posts by the general public. If that’s the case, the IAEA needs to get him to what constitutes news, though I do appreciate their at least answering the public hysteria — that’s more than the U.S. Feds managed to do without screwing it up, largely because nobody seemed that sure who’s job it was to tell us we’d be all right.

To be sure, the potential for misinformation in disaster situations is augmented by the vagaries of news outlets’ fragmentary coverage — where any given piece of information might show up in the BBC and in CNN not just hours but days apart. Then there’s the fact that Google serves as a de facto newsvetter, thus becoming a loudspeaker for whoever bubbles to the top of its search results — which, at times, could be anything from lame governmental plattitudes or hysterical asshattery. Google’s function also encourages the spread of incomplete information. For instance, when searching terms about Fukushima and radiation sickness, teasers showed a figure of “31″ in response to searches. But this was an artifact of Google’s structure, where fragments of an article are grabbed as teasers in response to your search terms. The 31 figure that some searchers might have seen is the number of people who got radiation sickness at Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, the media did its part. As for the 31 figure, nuclear engineer and physician Ann Coulter said on the 17th that even that wasn’t true, writing in what New Times called a “singularly weird article” on the 18th that:


With the terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami that have devastated Japan…the only good news is that anyone exposed to excess radiation from the nuclear power plants is now probably much less likely to get cancer.

This only seems counterintuitive because of media hysteria for the last 20 years trying to convince Americans that radiation at any dose is bad. There is, however, burgeoning evidence that excess radiation operates as a sort of cancer vaccine.

…Amazingly, even the Soviet-engineered disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 can be directly blamed for the deaths of no more than the 31 people inside the plant who died in the explosion…



Um. Say wha-huh!? Not “don’t panic,” not “chill out,” not “data indicates the dose is likely irrelevant,” but “now you won’t get cancer because of the radiation you were exposed to.”

This is utterly bizarre, as are the out-of-context and utterly  misconstrued studies she seems to think tell her something that only she is privy to and liberal hysterics have been ignoring. Mind you, Ann Coulter isn’t generally a source for accurate science news, but this is pushing the envelope even for her. As Brandon K. Thorp of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times pointed out, “bullshit.” Nobody was killed in the explosion. The 31 died of radiation poisoning.

But nobody expects Ann Coulter to make any sense to anyone other than people already convinced that whatever liberals say is bullshit — “liberal” being defined here as “anyone who knows the difference between a steam explosion and radiation poisoning,” which casts kind of a wide net. What might be more important, in both media-misinformation and public health terms, is the widespread sense among the public that we’re “not getting the whole story” on Fukushima. This is compounded, not helped, by the rampant attempts by nuclear advocates to predict the future before they knew the immediate past. Being directly counter to anything like established journalistic or scientific procedure, this is exactly the same kind of logic that says the following:

  • EVIDENCE: There have been no reports of radiation sickness from Japan.
  • CONCLUSION: The government is suppressing them!

Have the Japanese government and Tepco been suppressing reports of radiation sickness? There’s no information to indicate that, as far as I can see, and I’m confident that if such information has been suppressed, it will be out sooner rather than later. But surely conspiracies demand a perceived secrecy — on the part of those who have been excluded. And so, here in the States, it worries me that the search for the cover-up isn’t just getting started…in the minds of those convinced of it, it’s already been concluded.

If you’d like to look for reports and evidence that there has been radiation sickness in Japan, look for reports and evidence. If you’d like to decide that it’s all a conspiracy, feel free to do that, as well. But in the latter case, don’t play a half-baked UFO conspiracy game and let the existence of evidence to support your hypothesis support it just as much, but in a different way, than the absence of evidence. If that’s the case, why even look for it?

Japan is a wired society; Fukushima was a closed site. When Tepco was hemming and hawing about why spent fuel pools had a risk of re-criticality that was “not zero,” the information was hampered by distance and insularity. In terms of radiation sickness, that fact is no longer the case, or no longer as much the case. I’m not claiming that there’s no radiation sickness in Japan; I don’t know. But getting hopped up about it won’t help anyone until there’s better information.

XKCD’s Helpful Radiation Chart

March 21st, 2011 No comments

The webcomic XKCD has become one of those ubiquitous fixtures of geek life in the new century. In addition to drawing a wonderfully irreverent comic, however, xkcd’s creator Randall Munroe is an actual geek, with a physics degree and experience working on NASA’s Langley Research Center to prove it.

Unlike Josef Oehmen, however, that doesn’t make him an expert on nuclear engineering or radiation, something he cheerfully admits (as do I). However, while the effects of radiation on human and non-human animal tissue is complicated, the way to understand it starts with math, and that’s something that XKCD (rather famously) frequently touches on.

Munroe drew up this fantastically helpful chart at right, inspired by a much simpler one created by a friend of his who works on the research reactor at Reed. Ellen McManis is a Senior Reactor Operator and Munroe says something very amusing that reminds me that plenty of people work on this crap every day:

[McManis] has been spending the last few days answering questions about radiation dosage virtually nonstop (I’ve actually seen her interrupt them with “brb, reactor”).

For the record, received radiation dose is the sievert, or Sv. In case you’re not hip to the Metric system, in practical terms, there are two units you’ll see used in measuring received radiation dose, and they’re easy to mix up if you’re not good with symbols. The first is the “microsievert” (abbreviated as μSV or, uSv in internet shorthand — which is sort of a “science LOLcat.”). The second is the “millisievert,” abbreviated as mSv. This may be obvious to those of you who are hip to Metric, but: a sievert or Sv is one thousand millisieverts or mSv, and one million microsieverts or uSv. A millisievert is one thousand microsieverts.

Personally, I find this chart comforting. But, depending on your perspective, you may see it one of two ways, whether you live in an underground bunker in Slovakia or you’re a worker at the plant. Either the effects look a lot less scary, or look less scary than the rest of life — which you may not have realized was that scary.

Sort of a good news/bad news thing, right?

The Yahoo Iodine Scam: Take FDA-Zac Instead!

March 18th, 2011 No comments

Yahoo News teases readers with a headline, “Beware of ‘Fake’ Potassium Iodide: FDA,” apparently because they need a trip to the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks. It’s either fake or not fake, Yahoo. If it’s “fake,” that means it’s real. Something said to be “fake” potassium iodide would be said to be fake, but be real. What they meant was “Beware of Fake ‘Potassium Iodide’: FDA.” It might be a generational thing; we X-ers are straight-up gangsta with the irony and the air quotes. We can’t possibly expect the rest of you to keep up.

All that would be fine if Yahoo’s article was about a fake iodine scam. However, what the Yahoo article presents is is the same confused public-health non-news we’ve been getting for days — Don’t take potassium iodide! If you do, you might get mild burning  in your throat that will subside in 2-3 hours! Huh!?!?

The Yahoo story is a generalized smattering of trivia about potassium iodide. Yahoo’s sole excuse for a headline that has absolutely nothing to do with the warmed-over story, is a link to a CNN article on the the FDA’s warning about iodine scams.

The Yahoo story is essentially a retread of the many other news reports that caution against taking potassium iodide as prophylaxis because of potentially catastrophic side effects like upset stomach. Many of us already had upset stomachs by that point, because a fucking radiation cloud is headed for us, so the message sounded beyond disingenuous, sort of a “toxic sludge is good for you” brand of disinformation.

The health message of the media was so confused, ill-informed and dismissive of the public’s concerns that it managed to build Certain Doom out of an avalanche of reassuring facts: that there is no indication harmful radiation will reach the U.S., that radiation levels are being closely monitored, that there are many ways to measure the radiation that does reach the U.S. (which will almost surely be detectable) that come from independent sources not involving the federal government. It created the appearance of a conspiracy-of-disinformation where there was none. The “don’t panic!” message ended up sounding like it was alternately sobbed through teeth gritted in terror and slurred by PR-bots unsure of what they were saying.

The result was, of course, the Iodine Panic of 2011, and stores are sold out.

Once I get to the CNN story that Yahoo references, however, the beef I have is not with CNN or the newswriter, who did a bang-up job of covering the issue. The problem I have is with the FDA, which is up to its old tricks.

The story itself, reassuringly, is really what it claims to be. It’s about the FDA’s scam warning, which is awesome that CNN covered it but sketchy that the FDA has no concrete information whatever about specific scams around potassium iodide. What they do have is the same complaint the FDA has always had about the manufacturers of dietary supplements, whom the FDA doesn’t regulate and has never regulated. It’s not their job.

That’s why when you buy a dietary supplement that makes a specific health claim (“builds strong bones,” “helps regulate sleep,” “keeps you and your loved ones from dying of thyroid cancer caused by Japanese fallout”) the side of the bottle says (or should say): “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” Such a statement is is required by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, when a product makes a specific claim that it affects the structure or function of the body. The FDA puts a lot of energy into CYAing about the fact that it doesn’t regulate supplements, but it also has shown time and time again a resentment against the supplement industry — with a few qualifications that I’ll go into at another time (like, for instance, megadose vitamins made by major pharmaceutical companies instead of natural-foods manufacturers).

The CNN story amounts to a “be aware” message similar to the FBI’s occasional vague warnings about wiring money to Nigeria. It’s not only maddeningly unspecific; it cites certain examples that aren’t really relevant and were happening last week and will be happening next week — because the supplement industry in this country has always been packed with weird shit consumers aren’t really sure how to use. This week it’s radiation; last week it was aging.

That’s pretty weak sauce when we’re promised a “scam.”

Without quoting specific cases, the FDA warning insinuates that a nefarious foreign-looking man with a pencil mustache might approach you while you’re waiting in line to see Mary Poppins, open his trench coat and display a tempting array of bottles marked pOTaSSiAm IooDyde, pReVENTs FAllOUT!!!!! “Only six hundred bucks, my friend. Sure, the government says you don’t need to take it — but do you trust the government? By the way, comrade — you look like you could use some bath salts…”

Don’t worry, though! The FDA says you should be aware of shady health products, which is portrayed by CNN as if it just occurred to them. The FDA says there may be scams out there, where products claim to be potassium iodide  but aren’t — a claim that’s treated credulously, like all FDA claims, when the real warning is that all dietary supplements are sketchy because they “might” be something nasty.

Incidentally, health food stores, which may sell snake oil but don’t tend to sell poison, have always sold iodine products. A bottle costs $8, not even close to the amount of my federal taxes. Such supplements are made by the same people who make my Vitamin C, and I haven’t keeled over yet.

I haven’t really dug around to look at what ads are running next to the stories about the FDA warning at news sites like Yahoo.

When mainstream sites like Yahoo publish stories about the dangers of supplements legally sold in health food outlets across the nation…do they do it next to advertisements for the likes of “Restor-A-Trol!” and “Miracle Young!” and “Ginseng-O-Dine!”, which so often fill the pages of such mainstream sites — and the coffers of the companies that own them?

IAEA: No Reports of Radiation Sickness, Despite News Reports

March 18th, 2011 No comments

From Al Jazeera's liveblogging coverage.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says on its front page that several news reports have claimed it as a source in reporting people in Japan ill from radiation sickness.

With only a cursory check, I can’t find any, though I found some “news reports” on forums, but nothing from a credible news source. However, the Google teasers for some articles have been referencing Chernobyl as an event that resulted in 31 people ill from radiation sickness. That means someone Googling “people with radiation sickness japan” might get a fragment that looks like it indicates there’s radiation sickness reported in Japan — if they don’t click the link.

Regardless, IAEA clarifies that it has received NO reports of radiation sickness in Japan.

Here’s what they say in an update shortly after noon GMT today:

Contrary to several news reports, the IAEA to date has NOT received any notification from the Japanese authorities of people sickened by radiation contamination.

In the report of 17 March 01:15 UTC, the cases described were of people who were reported to have had radioactive contamination detected on them when they were monitored.


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How the Spent Fuel Pools Might Achieve, Or Have Achived, Re-Criticality

March 17th, 2011 3 comments

Earthquake and Tsunami damage, Japan-March 16, 2011: This is a satellite image of Japan showing damage after an Earthquake and Tsunami at the Dai Ichi Power Plant. (credit: DigitalGlobe)

I saw an interesting possibility mentioned in a forum I won’t disclose because I don’t want to risk calling its reputation into question. I’m not a scientist, I don’t understand this shit, and if I am misconstruing scientific statements I do not want to call a real, and apparently responsible, nuclear scientist’s reputation into question. So just pretend I saw this opinion in an opium dream, for the moment.

Meanwhile, if you want the largely non-speculative version, check out the very comprehensible report on the spent fuel pools from the Nuclear Energy Institute, available in PDF form here. It’s from yesterday. I’m going to comment on it tomorrow because even glowing mutants need to sleep.

My Opium Dream: The Freshly Decommissioned Fuel Rods From Reactor #4

I saw the opinion from a cautious and clearly knowledgeable poster (in my opium dream) who expressed the view that one of the potentially problems with the #4 fuel pool is, ironically, the fact that #4 reactor was not operating at the time of the earthquake. Its fuel assembly may have just been removed for maintenance (presumably replacement with a fresh one). Were that true it might mean the #4 assembly (may) have been stored in the spent fuel pool at #4. This is speculative, and I did not check the credentials of this poster (in my opium dream), but I got the distinct sense there was significant expertise behind the comment. Still, I cannot vouch for it.

Oscar Wilde and a very large pink bunny said the guy’s cool, though. They were wearing gold lame tuxedos at the time; it was a hell of a dream.

What This Might Mean

If it is true that the very-recently-decommissioned fuel assembly for reactor 4 was/is in that the spent fuel pool, and there is absolutely no confirmation it is, how important would it be that is in operational terms? Most likely, not all that significant. However, it could be very significant, because were it true, that would mean the #4 fuel assembly could have been “live,” ie, operational, in criticality, in the functioning reactor, not long before it was transferred to the spent fuel pool. As long as it was stored properly and there were no earthquakes or explosions, no problem. Spent fuel becomes less “hot” (radioactively and thermally) with time, so in the case of compromised containment structures in the spent fuel pool at #4, “fresh” decommissioned fuel would pose a much greater risk for entering re-criticality than older fuel. In short, because those fuel rods would have been operational not long before, they therefore (I gather from my reading) would be more fertile, more easily fissionable.

The greater heat of freshly-decommissioned Reactor #4 fuel assembly in the spent fuel pool in #4 would also pose a greater risk of raising the temperature of the pool, which would potentially compromise the other fuel rods and, if the explosions damaged the neutron-absorbent material between the rods and/or pushed the rods closer together, some of those rods being more freshly-decommissioned ones, that could cause a problem in terms of re-entering criticality.

Meanwhile, something immersed in water really has a heck of a time getting hotter than 212 degrees Fahrenheit without being in a pressurized environment, which this is not. Therefore, the heat only gets important if the water evaporates off. I’m not going to say “boils off” as many news agencies have been saying, because I don’t believe (though I could be wrong) that it’s been confirmed the water in the spent fuel pool at#4 ever boiled. It doesn’t have to boil to evaporate; hot water still evaporates faster than cold. Remember, the “fresher,” more recently decommissioned fuel, is going to be hotter in both radiation and thermal terms than the long-ago-spent fuel, depending on how old it is. It is therefore more prone to potential thermal compromise of the zirconium fuel rod cladding, which would increase the risk of re-criticality.

The claim that a spent fuel pool cannot enter re-criticality is based on the fact that you don’t have brand-spanking-new freshly-decommissioned fuel in it. Also that the neutron-absorbent material like boron between the sheets is not compromised by an explosion or earthquake and tsunami, and that one or several of those events don’t knock the rods closer together.

Incidentally, while there is again no confirmation and even no concrete indication that the freshly-decommissioned fuel assembly from Reactor #4 was placed in the spent fuel pool at #4, to my knowledge that would NOT have been a violation of any specific safety procedures on Tepco’s part.

There may have been other violations — that’s totally unknown right now — but I don’t see any reason a freshly removed fuel assembly that has already gone through its shutdown procedure wouldn’t be put in the spent fuel pool — where the hell else are you supposed to put it?

Again, I’m not a nuclear engineer or a scientist — I got a “C” in chemistry and can’t even change my own Volkswagen’s oil.

But this ain’t rocket surgery…right?

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