A colleague of mine warns that you can tell when a situation is deteriorating rapidly when “official sources” shift from numbers to adjectives – and we’re now seeing terms like “within legal limits” and “acceptable” taking on new context in Japan’s nuclear crisis.
For example, if we hear that exposure is “within legal limits” anytime soon, let’s remember this from the Washington Post: “Japan’s Health and Welfare minister had to waive the nation’s standard of radiation exposure, increasing levels of acceptable exposure from 100 millisieverts to 250 – five times the level allowed in the United States.”
In setting limits, they use numbers. In reporting radiation levels, they use modifiers. Not a good sign.
Another point is that authorities still tend to focus on short-term exposure and short-term impacts, when a big part of the danger is that radiation exposure is cumulative over a person’s lifetime – it accumulates in our bodies – so any artificial spike in routine exposure, like what is happening to people in Japan, increases the risk of cancer.
The Post noted that a blast at what is identified as “Unit 2” was not outwardly visible, but was potentially more dangerous than more spectacular explosions “…because it may have created an escape route for radioactive material bottled up inside the thick steel-and-concrete reactor tube. Radiation-laced steam is probably building between that tube and the building that houses it, experts said, triggering fears that the pressure would blow apart the structure, emitting radiation from the core.”
The Post quotes Arnie Gundersen, who is emerging as a go-to expert on the situation based on four decades overseeing the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility, which has a similar design and age to the Japanese plants. Mr. Gundersen told the Post that “…they’re putting water into the core and generating steam, and that steam has to go somewhere…. It has to be carrying radiation.”
Mr. Gundersen also noted that the plant’s reactor cores take about two weeks to lose half of their intense heat, which, according to the Post, means “…the battle between the radioactive cores and Fukushima Daiichi’s badly damaged cooling system will play out for days or weeks to come.”
Meanwhile, we’re still hearing from largely unnamed “experts” (in the Post article) that “…radiation releases on the scale of Chernobyl are unlikely or even impossible, given the Japanese plant’s heavier engineering and additional layers of containment.” But hearing terms like “unlikely” from unidentified sources is not especially comforting as even helicopter missions around the site are being canceled due to radiation in the air.
Here’s the Washington Post report: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/latest-nuclear-plant-explosion-in-japan-raises-radiation-fears/2011/03/15/ABwTmha_story.html
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