Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fukushima and Thyroid Problems:

No Significant Difference 
from Other Regions of Japan

Ever since the accident at Fukushima, we have been bombarded by dire warnings of the adverse consequences to the public, both in Japan and elsewhere--the radiation was going to waft over the Pacific to the US, causing numerous deaths, the children of the Fukushima accident would suffer an increase in thyroid problems, etc.  One by one, these dire warnings have been exposed as falsehoods, ginned up by numbers that are either biased or that were misinterpreted or misunderstood.

In December 2011, there was a great piece by Michael Moyer, writing in a Scientific American blog, exposing the erroneous reasoning that was leading some anti-nuclear activists to claim that "the plume [from Fukushima] arrived on U.S. shores, spread everywhere, instantly, and started killing people immediately."

Today, an article appeared in The Mainichi in Japan showing that there is no significant gap between thyroid conditions in the Fukushima area and elsewhere in Japan.  Most of us who follow nuclear issues closely have long realized that, just like the allegations about health effects on US shores, the logic of the claims about thyroid problems was faulty--the supposed effects were occurring too soon, and the radiation exposures weren't sufficient to cause such effects anyway. 

The Mainichi article reports on a study comparing a population of young people in the Fukushima area with similar populations outside the Fukushima area and concluded that the percentages of small lumps and other anomalies detected in the surveyed population were "almost equal to or slightly lower in Fukushima."

The study was conducted by the Japanese Environment Ministry, which is the parent agency to the new Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority.  The Vice President of Fukushima Medical University, Shunichi Yamashita, noted that this survey demonstrates that "small cysts and lumps naturally exist in children when they are examined with the same precision level as in Fukushima."

One problem we sometimes face in modern times is that the precision with which we can measure things can exacerbate concerns.  This has been true of radiation measurements themselves--very small increases over background can be measured, resulting in a level of anxiety that is disproportionate to the dose.  We now see that it is also true of possible biological effects.  The health industry has been discovering this phenomena in recent years with respect to a number of diseases.  Now, it appears that we can add minor thyroid anomalies to that list. 

The positive findings do not eliminate the need for continued follow up in the population that was exposed during the course of the accident.  Although little or no effect may be expected, the circumstances mandate continued close monitoring.  Such efforts should take a lesson from this recent study and should be sure to conduct comparisons with the population outside the affected area.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Saga of a Book:

Business Opportunity or Scam?

I had occasion to open the Amazon page for my book, Nuclear Firsts, recently, and was taken aback to see that it is selling for over $300 for a new copy, and for anywhere from $100 to $400 for a slightly used copy.

I guess I still have a lot to learn about the book-selling business, when ANS is selling the book for $45!  It makes the ANS price really look like a bargain, doesn't it?

I'm beginning to wonder if I should buy out ANS's stock and resell the books to the companies hawking the book on Amazon for such inflated prices.  Or, get in the business of reselling the books myself on Amazon.  I could easily undercut the competitors and still make a profit.

I must be missing something here.  Maybe I should stick to nuclear engineering.


Friday, March 22, 2013

John Landis:

Remembrance of a Nuclear Pioneer

I recently had an e-mail message informing me of the death of John Landis on March 16, 2013 at the age of 95.  I haven't noticed the news elsewhere, so although there are others who certainly know John better than I did, I wanted to devote this post to citing his accomplishments and his contributions to the nuclear field, some from my own personal knowledge and some from his obituary

I did know John through some American Nuclear Society (ANS) activities.  John was one of the founders of ANS, and served as its president from 1971-2.  I did not get active in ANS until some time after that, but I always heard him referred to as one of ANS's most outstanding presidents.  What I do know about John and the ANS is that he continued to be active in ANS--and to be an ardent supporter of ANS--for the rest of his life.

Particularly noteworthy is his financial support of the ANS through the John and Muriel Landis Scholarship for disadvantaged students of nuclear engineering.  Over the years, a number of these scholarships have been awarded, and I know it's made a difference in the lives and careers of many students.  It is through these scholarships that I got to know John, during the time I served as chair of the ANS Honors and Awards Committee.  (One of the really nice things about serving in this role was that I received letters from several students sharing their stories of how ANS scholarships, including John's, made a real difference to them.)  Later, as ANS president, I always felt I walked in the shadow of John and several other luminaries of the nuclear field who had preceded me as ANS presidents.

From John's obituary, I learned more details of his career than I ever knew when I worked with him.  While I always knew he was a pioneer in the field, I did not know just how much of a pioneer he was until I read his obituary.  A key excerpt summarizes a lot of his "firsts":
  • John's 50-year career in the nuclear industry started in 1950 when he began working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C. He participated in developing the rudimentary ground rules for the design of nuclear power plants. He oversaw some of the first research projects on nuclear energy and prepared material for some of the earliest courses in reactor technology.
  • In 1953 John joined the Atomic Energy Division of the Babcock and Wilcox Company. In 1955 he was put in charge of the Division's operations in Lynchburg, Virginia: the world's first privately-owned center for nuclear research, development, and testing. In 1961 John was named Manager of the Atomic Energy Division. While at Babcock and Wilcox, he oversaw the design of the reactor for the first civilian nuclear ship, the N.S. Savannah. He also contributed to the inception and design of the nuclear power station at Indian Point, New York, the first built in the U.S. without government subsidy.
 I was interested to discover that these were some of the key events I profiled in my book on nuclear firsts, so I know from my own research that the areas cited above were some of the key milestones in the early days of nuclear power development.

Clearly, we have lost one of the giants in the field, both in terms of his technical contributions to the field, in terms of his contributions to the ANS, and in terms of his support of students.  He truly had a positive influence on the lives and careers of many people.  My condolences to his family and to his many friends and admirers. 


Monday, March 18, 2013

Akira Omoto and the Japan AEC:

The Rest of the Story

On March 14, Nucleonics Week reported on the resignation of Akira Omoto from the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), where he had served as a Commissioner since January 2010.  As Nucleonics Week content is available by subscription only, let me summarize the article by saying that it presents several factual events:  that Omoto resigned from his position on the JAEC on March 7, that he had been called before the Diet (the Japanese Parliament) on February 26, that he said he was a paid advisor to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) from November 2009 to March 2012, that he refused to reveal the amount of compensation he received from TEPCO for his advisory services, and that he saw no conflict between his two roles (JAEC Commissioner and TEPCO advisor).  The article also reported that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary, had both said that the public would find it "difficult to understand" Omoto's view, but that they had rejected a suggestion to fire Omoto.

Since I know Akira Omoto well, I was surprised at this news.  Over the years, I've had a number of conversations with him about nuclear activities in Japan, and I had always found him to be honorable, and to take the "high ground" on issues.  The more I thought about the article, and the more I communicated with people in Japan, I realized that the Nucleonics Week article had missed a number of relevant points:
  • The role of the JAEC is to formulate nuclear power policies, not to regulate or license nuclear power plants, so it seems improbable that Omoto's dual positions could be used to influence government actions on behalf of TEPCO;
  • Omoto's position on the JAEC was as a part-time Commissioner, and part-time Commissioners usually hold other positions outside the JAEC;
  • Omoto was working for TEPCO prior to his appointment as a JAEC Commissioner, and that work was declared to the Diet as part of his confirmation process;
  • Omoto's advisory role to TEPCO focused on activities related to new entrants (based on his experience in his previous position with the IAEA), not on matters related to JAEC jurisdiction; and
  • The hearing before the Diet leading to his forced resignation came a year after Omoto had resigned his position as an advisor to TEPCO.
Although there may be elements to this situation that I don't know, the facts I do have make the actions of the Japanese government seem disproportionate.  Given the situation in Japan, perhaps it should not be surprising that the Japanese government is looking for "scapegoats" to try to provide an appearance that it is cleaning house.  I don't doubt that the public is skeptical, so even though the connection between the positions is remote, and even though the conflict, if any, has now been removed, some may feel that "punishment" is still due.

However, it seems to me there are more productive actions the Japanese government could be taking to "clean house."  Forcing the resignation of an individual who used to work for the industry in a position that appears to have no conflict with his government role seems cosmetic at best.  It is sad to see a good name maligned for what appears to be political purposes. 


Friday, March 8, 2013

Fukushima at Two Years:

The Larger Impacts

In a couple of days, we will mark the second anniversary of the Fukushima accident.  I know that everyone who blogs on nuclear issues will be thinking about this event as they write.  In the hopes of trying to take a somewhat different approach than other bloggers, I am not going to talk today about things directly related to the accident itself.

Rather, I am going to talk about the general issue of power supply in modern economies, and how the Fukushima accident has illuminated the degree to which the availability of clean energy affects...well, just about everything.

My concern is not just with Fukushima and its direct impacts, but rather with what happens when a country or a region tries to make a sudden shift, as has happened in the shutdown of the operating plants in Japan, as well as in Germany.

I am especially concerned about this issue because of the tendency of so many to look on the surface and conclude that the effects of the shutdown have been minimal.  "You see," people have told me, "Japan shut down its nuclear plants, Germany shut down its nuclear plants, and they are still functioning.  Obviously, this means that we can live without nuclear power."

The truth is not so simple.  Nations, like individuals, have a powerful self-preservation instinct.  In urgent situations, they will do what it takes, even, sometimes, if it means ignoring any longer-term impacts of what they do, or impacts on others.

In that respect, the path Japan and Germany have chosen is not surprising.  They did not let their population sit in the dark and cold.  They did not let everything grind to a halt.  They fired up old, dirty fossil fuel plants.  So, on the surface, both countries have power.  Admittedly, they don't have as much as they did before, and I'll get to that in a minute, but on the surface, things seem to function.  Yes, the average person has to make some sacrifices and endure some discomfort (and I know from personal experience that summer temperatures can be brutal in much of Japan, especially without adequate air conditioning), but to many, it looks like a slightly lower room temperature and an extra sweater and a stiff upper lip solve the problem.

Not so.  Both countries have significantly increased their greenhouse gas and particulate emissions since they shut down their nuclear plants and fired up their old fossil plants.  Not only is the air noticeably dirtier and less pleasant, the additional emissions have real health and economic consequences.  A very recent report on the health consequences of the nuclear shutdown in Germany put the number of excess deaths per year at around 20,000 (depending on what countries are included.)

The trouble is that these are deaths that are hard for the average person to link to the shutdown of the nuclear plants.  People will make a connection with immediate deaths, a later cancer spike, or perhaps even deaths triggered by the rigors of evacuations.

[Fortunately, in the case of Fukushima, there were no immediate deaths to the general population from the radiation released by the accident, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there will be little, if any, increase in the cancer rate in the population around the plant.  (I should note parenthetically that WHO is being criticized by people at both ends of the spectrum.  I won't take that issue on here, but will only say that they are the most credible source I know of that is making projections about the long-term health impacts of the accident.)]

But it is more difficult to make a connection with deaths that are more dispersed, that occur over time, and that generally have a greater impact on those who are elderly or ill.  People tend to expect the elderly and ill to get sick, and don't necessarily understand the role of environmental factors in those illnesses and deaths. 

Of course, the obvious counterargument is that the fossil plants are temporary.  The "real" solution is to build more solar and wind power plants.  Both countries are trying to do so.  However, replacing 20-30% or more of a country's electric power supply system is a long-term and expensive proposition.  Looking again to Germany, they estimate a one trillion euro cost to transition to renewable energy.  The coal plants were restarted because it will take many years, at best, and a huge amount of money to replace the lost nuclear power capacity.

And the long-term prospects are far from certain.  All industrial facilities are becoming harder and harder to site.  We are beginning to realize that there may be environmental concerns associated with solar and wind facilities.  And if we are really to rely on solar and wind plants, there are major issues associated with backup sources and grid interconnections. 

Another effect of the closures of the nuclear plants that the public at large doesn't fully see is the effect on the economy.  Here, the effects in Japan are instructive.  They are importing so much more fossil fuels to feed their power plants that Japan now has a record trade deficit.  Furthermore, the lack of sufficient electricity and rising prices for that electricity are forcing manufacturing off shore.  This has already cost Japan more than 400,000 jobs and, if it continues, will further weaken the Japanese economy.  (Germany is somewhat more insulated from these types of economic impacts because they can draw power--some of it nuclear--from neighboring countries.)

Let me close by pointing out that this whole discussion is not an argument for any one source of power.  The same economic consequences would apply if a country suddenly phased out any source of energy that accounted for 20 or 30% or more of its total supplies.  Obviously, one difference is that the environmental consequences of phasing out fossil plants quickly would be positive, but countries have resisted closing fossil plants abruptly for the very same reasons we are now seeing played out in Japan--the economic consequences. 

Rather, this discussion is an argument about the folly of a country making an abrupt decision to shut down any large source of energy supply.  While I think a decision to phase out nuclear power is short-sighted on other grounds, that is a somewhat different issue.  If a country decides on a long-term evolution of its energy mix and progress is slow or unexpected issues emerge, there is a chance to modify the plan before significant harm is done.  The "Fukushima problem" I am addressing here is the decision to make any rapid change.  For Japan as a whole, the consequences of the nuclear plant closures, in terms of premature deaths and effects on the economy, may well be the most significant legacy of Fukushima.