Archive for category Nuclear things

Nuclear cover up? Probably not

The Guardian‘s website is at the moment leading with yet another story about leaked emails: Revealed: British government’s plan to play down Fukushima.

What dastardly scheme was the government up to?

British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known.

Internal emails seen by the Guardian show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

I’m not sure “play down” is really the right phrase to use here. After all, this appears to be the relevant part of the worst email:

We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl – by using the facts to discredit.

Is that “playing down” Fukushima, or putting it in perspective? This email was sent long before the worst of the damage was known, at which point Chernobyl comparisons would have been gross exaggerations.

Yet over and over again, the Guardian seems to forget that this was written when there was little information available, and the reactors still appeared to be intact:

The business department emailed the nuclear firms and their representative body, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), on 13 March, two days after the disaster knocked out nuclear plants and their backup safety systems at Fukushima. The department argued it was not as bad as the “dramatic” TV pictures made it look, even though the consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at reactors on the site were yet to happen.

Well yes, there were serious explosions that resulted in radiation release, but they hadn’t happened when the email was sent. What was the civil servant* supposed to write?

The nuclear industry, like any industry that tries to balance profit against public good (see: transport, healthcare, media, communications), is often pretty hard to defend, but to be honest, it doesn’t come across too badly in the emails.

Sometimes they seem a bit dickishly entitled – Westinghouse probably didn’t win any points for emailing the government to object to Nick Clegg’s choice of wording in a speech – but most of the time, no matter how The Guardian spins it, it’s hard to see PR collusion in EDF offering to be “sensitive” to events in Japan in decommissioning old plants, the government explaining its new build policy, or Westinghouse discussing changes in reactor design to improve earthquake safety. I certainly can’t see what’s wrong with organising a conference to discuss how to “maintain confidence among the British public on the safety of nuclear power stations” with “factual and scientific evidence”.

In fact, given that nuclear new build is a government policy being carried out by private companies, it’s hard to see how the government could have made any statements about British nuclear power without talking to the nuclear industry.

A few emails discuss the PR response, but apart from the one from the unnamed civil servant, who fair enough does seem a bit too gung-ho about nuclear power, they make it clear that the government’s position is distinct from the industry’s, and refuse to join the industry in making a joint response (for instance, check out the email “Re: Nuclear Lines – Messaging” on page 15, sent March 14, 10:31, and any other email in that converstaion).

If a reservoir had collapsed, and the government emailed water companies for comment and to discuss preventing public panic, would that be news? Probably not.

If a train had crashed, and the government invited representatives of train operators to discuss the impact on the future of the railways, would that be news? Probably not.

So when the government discusses the future of the nuclear industry with the nuclear industry following a nuclear disaster, why is that news?

* Incidentally, the civil servant’s name has been redacted, but according to the BIS, it’s someone pretty minor, not a minister or someone with power over policy. So that’s not really a “government plan” then, is it?

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Radiation scaremongering in the Daily Express

On March 30, The Daily Express ran with this front page this front page article:

TSUNAMI NUCLEAR FALLOUT HITS UK

The headline’s technically true, but the scale of the radioactive fallout compared to the media fallout is a bit out of sync. Slightly elevated levels of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 (I-131) have been seen in Glasgow and Oxfordshire, but the key word here is slightly.

The levels of I-131 detected in Oxfordshire rose by 0.0003 becquerel per cubic metre (Bq/m3), while in Glasgow it rose by just 0.00001 Bq/m3. A becquerel (Bq) is the unit of radioactivity; 1 Bq means you have one radioactive atom decaying and releasing radiation per second. These decays are what produce the distinctive clicks of a Geiger counter; each “click” represents a flash of radiation from the decay of one atom. As you may have seen in school, even when held away from radioactive sources a Geiger counter will probably give you a click or two per second – we’re surrounded natural radiation from the air, the ground, space and even from our own bodies. Around you right now, radon gas is releasing, on average, 20 Bq/m3 of radiation while inside your body, radioactive potassium-40 is decaying at over 4,000 Bq, and carbon-14 is producing radiation at a similar rate. Compared this background radiation, the change due to fallout is minimal: 0.0003 Bq is equivalent to one atom of radioactive iodine decaying per hour, and 0.00001 Bq is one extra decay per day. (For some perspective, after Chernobyl I-131 levels in the air at Harwell reached a maximum of 4 Bq/m3, ten thousand times the levels seen in Oxfordshire.)

Working out how much harm radiation causes isn’t always easy – a few bequerels from radon gas are more harmful than the thousands of bequerels released by potassium in your body, since radon releases harmful alpha radiation instead of the comparatively safe gamma radiation, and radon spends most of its time lurking in your delicate lungs – so to work out the risk you need to work out the equivalent dose, a measure of how much damage the radiation does to the body usually measured in sieverts. Being exposed to 0.0003 Bq/m3 extra I-131 is equivalent to an increased dose of 0.01 microsieverts (μSv) per year. You would absorb almost as much radiation just by sleeping next to someone for one night. For comparison, the smallest dose that we know to be harmful is around 100,000 microsieverts per year; millions of times more than anyone in the UK could receive from the fallout.

The Express quotes John Large, one of the critics of the nuclear industry, as saying:

The International Commission on Radiological Protection – which is made up of government agencies – is quite clear. It says any increase in accumulated radiation dose exposure is accompanied by a proportionate increase in risk. That is the natural law.

For Sepa [Scottish Environmental Protection Agency] to make profound statements about it is ‘not of concern’ to the public is not right. Of course the risk’s tiny but it’s up to the public to decide.

If you want the public to make an informed decision about nuclear power, it has to actually be informed. Screaming about “TSUNAMI NUCLEAR FALLOUT” without providing any context is not helpful, it’s just scaremongering, plain and simple.

Since the harmful dose for radiation is 5 million times higher than the levels found in Oxfordshire, I wonder what John Large would like Sepa to have said. Saying that these radiation levels are not of concern is not leading the public on, it’s simply a cold, hard medical fact. If Large does think these radiation levels are of concern, then may I suggest that his next statement focuses on the extreme dangers of radioactive bedmates.

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