The after effects of the quake and tsunamis in Japan will cause clear and on-going pain and suffering for years, while the risks from the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors look to be subsiding - see here for the latest updates. Meanwhile, Geoff Russell argues that any and all risks need to be put in perspective.

More deadly than nuclear. Pic: Getty Images

Residents living in the vicinity of the Fukushima nuclear plant face some considerable cancer risks during coming decades. They will come primarily from cigarettes, red meat, alcohol and salty foods. These should hardly be called risks, since each will definitely cause tens of thousands of new cancer cases every single year throughout Japan.

An additional possibility, a potential risk, hardly visible in comparison, may come from radiation as a result of the quake and tsunami damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

After the unrelenting horror of the biggest earthquake and tsunamis ever to hit Japan, you’d think the world’s journalists would jump on the biggest good news story to emerge from the carnage. This good news story is the performance of Japan’s nuclear reactors.

While the media focuses on the serious problems in a single cluster of older reactors, the more modern reactors shut down gracefully. Of 54 reactors in Japan with a combined capacity of 48 gigawatts, five clusters were affected by the quake with four shutting down successfully despite sometimes significant damage.

The cluster closest to the epicenter of the quake was Onagawa. It experienced significant damage, including a fire, but shut down without problems. Fukushima Daiichi isn’t far from its slightly newer sister plant, Fukushima Dainii. The four reactors at Dainii shutdown successfully despite significant damage caused by the quake.

The two plants were designed to withstand a 5.7 metre tsunami, but the tsunami that hit these two plants was 14 metres high.

The reactors didn’t buckle like some bridges and even the explosions at the reactors were trifling compared to the deadly conflagration at the Chiba oil refinery. The reactors stood up substantially better than the tsunami sea walls which turned back the waves of the massive 1960 Chilean earthquake but which failed this time with catastrophic consequences.

Despite this good news, the top 12 stories on Yahoo News that came up on the Sunday after the event included the following headlines; “Japan’s nuclear crisis deepens”,  “Japan quake evacuees scanned for radiation”, “Nuclear meltdown new threat for Japan”, “Japan grapples with nuclear crisis”.

There were only three other earthquake stories and five stories unrelated to the quake. While it was reasonable to talk about a Fukushima nuclear crisis there was never a national crisis.

Sunday’s nuclear focus was followed by a relentless week of fear mongering with every event related to the plants, regardless of magnitude or import, being painted as a harbinger of national, if not global, doom. This relentless fear mongering wained a little during the second week when the crisis in Libya finally shifted to lead story.

Nevertheless, the smallest puff of smoke from the reactors managed to reignite echos of the previous week’s panic.

Radiation facts missing in action

Most journalists showed an ignorance of radiation basics that could have, and should have, been rectified by 10 minutes with Wikipedia. Why didn’t they bother? SMH on March 16 reported that 100 millisieverts of radiation in a year would elevate cancer risks and followed it with:

Measurements at the damaged plants are now well below the lethal levels of 400 millisieverts an hour measured yesterday.

Lethal? 400 millisieverts per hour? Such levels are definitely to be avoided, but lethal? A key question is to ask what “elevate” means.

Two and a half hours spent receiving 400 millisieverts per hour is 1,000 millisieverts. According to Kelly Classic, a radiation physicist at the Mayo Clinic, if you exposed 125 people to such a dose, you would expect one of them to get cancer sometime in their life. How many of 125 people would normally get cancer? About 40.

In Australia, roughly 1 in 17 men get bowel cancer with another 1 in 22 getting lung cancer. About half of those bowel cancer cases are due to eating more than one red meat meal per week. It’s a safe bet that cigarettes, sake and even Aussie beef will cause far more cancers in Japan than the Fukushima reactors. There are about 60,000 new cases of both bowel cancer and lung cancer each year in Japan.

Lastly, it isn’t just that the risk of cancer from radiation is low, the most likely cancer from a reactor problem is probably thyroid cancer. If you had to choose a cancer, thyroid is better than most. According to Professor Kirk Smith of Berkeley University in the US, less than one per cent of thyroid cases caused by Chernobyl were fatal.

The workers at Fukushima know these things. It’s their job. Their bravery in getting on and fixing the damage was just that, bravery. It was exactly the same kind of heroism shown by emergency workers around the world in the recent earth quakes and floods. Fires, explosions, debris, and contaminants. All pose risks.

The radiation risk can at least be measured and managed with some precision.

The one media exception I saw to the ill-informed radiation fear mongering drivel during the first week was a report by Stan Grant on Friday 18th which put radiation risks in some perspective. But, two days later, Channel 7 was back to form showing a clearly terrified expat Australian in Tokyo who had overdosed on fallout fear and was mortified at not being able to afford to fly out of Tokyo and back to the bosom of safety in Australia.

Whipping up such terror should be a sackable offence.

Basic Questions

Journalists should have asked and answered some basic questions.

How many people died due to radiation releases or leaks in the nuclear plants? None reported so far. Probably none ever.

What exactly is a meltdown? Why was the word thrown around like a prescription for global doom? There have been six meltdowns in US reactors over the years. The worst killed three workers. This is a personal tragedy, but more like a bad weekend on Adelaide roads than a global catastrophe.

If a meltdown did or has already occurred, how many people would die? Usually none. A meltdown is a nuclear plant operator’s worst financial nightmare ... your investment is trashed and you are in for a long running stabilisation bill ... but it isn’t necessarily life threatening.

At Three Mile Island the molten core ate less than 1 inch into the 8-inch reactor vessel and if it had gone through that, there were further barriers to absorb the energy. The worst case risk of an explosion is certainly real, and has been admitted by the UK Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington. But he pointed out that it could be nothing like Chernobyl and that any significant radiation impacts from this unlikely event would be limited to within 30 kilometers. Hence the evacuation.

As each day passes, this unlikely event becomes even less likely.

The desperation at the nuclear plants is three fold. The financial and safety incentives are obvious. But more importantly, Japan has lost about 18 giga watts worth of generating power as a result of quake damage. This is evenly split between the thermal plants (gas, coal and oil), and nuclear plants.

All of the operators are desperate to fix the damage and return power to their customers. Vital machinery and equipment (frequently medical equipment like machines to X-ray limbs broken by the tsunami) needs power. Without refrigeration, food poisoning rates will rise.

What about the explosions? Yes, there have been explosions but without the horrific afterburn of the oil refinery fires. The Chiba refinery fire was finally extinguished on 21st of March. For 10 days this fire spewed out toxic fumes, the refinery was offline and workers couldn’t enter the complex. The fires at Fukushima were relative wimps that didn’t even manage to melt the light metal frame. The explosions didn’t damage the reactor pressure vessel and were very unlikely to.

While I saw the huge dangerous fumes of the Chiba refinery fire once on the night it started, the relatively minor explosions at the nuclear plant were repeated by the TV media ad-nauseum.

Nuclear designers don’t aim to prevent all explosions, just the ones that matter. I hesitate to make light of a serious matter, but do you care if your dunny explodes? Absolutely, if you are on it. But you don’t necessarily make dunny explosion prevention top of your design specification.

The reactors that have caused such concern were designed to prevent catastrophic failure and have done just that. These are 1970s reactors and don’t have the bells and whistles of later models but are from an era when people were sent to and from the moon. There is nothing dodgy about the engineering. It wasn’t perfect and lessons will be learned. But nobody died.
It’s worth repeating the last sentence. Nobody died. They died in the quake and the tsunami and the fires, but not due to the reactor failures. Nobody died at Three Mile Island. Not due to the meltdown and not due to any radiation leaks. Nobody died.

People in the quake area are facing a large range of bacterial and viral agents that will, with certainty, be hospitalising and killing people right now. The amputations will be many and horrible. They are happening now while your TV news is showing you people in Tokyo buying bottled water. The health care logistical challenges remain enormous. Next to these certainties, radiation risks are trifling.

I don’t know what the TV news is and was reporting in Japan, but I fervently hope that Japanese children aren’t having nightmares fuelled by reporting similar to the shock-jock rubbish which predominated in Australia.

The performance of the nuclear power plants in the face of the largest quake ever to hit the region has been a spectacular success and one of the biggest unreported good news stories of the decade. But it wasn’t Hollywood or Bollywood. There were some serious problems that will inform future designs. Particularly as concerns spent fuel ponds. “Keep covered with water” ... how hard can that be?

If you wanted to test a reactor design against this kind of event, you could never stage anything even close to being this bad. While the nuclear plant workers were and are being both heroic and vigilant, solid engineering design work has already done the major job in protecting lives.

Lastly, just one parting thought. The much hyped Andasol I solar thermal power station in Spain is a 50 mega-watt unit. This is about 20 times smaller than most of the Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors. Andasol has a tank of molten salt which is 14 metres high and 38 meters in diameter.

This molten salt acts as a battery to store energy when the sun isn’t shining. To replace a single nuclear plant, you will need a tank 20 times as big, holding about half a million tonnes of molten salt at 400 degrees centigrade. If you were living on a fault line in Japan, which would you prefer to live next door to ... the ocean, the molten salt, an oil refinery or a nuclear plant? How would you farm land after a half million tonne salt spill?

The main game is climate change and there is no free lunch. If there is a solution, it will involve nuclear power.

Most commented


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    • persephone says:

      06:32am | 26/03/11

      Well, I suppose you could say that the tsunami and earthquakes weren’t a national crisis either, as they also were localised in their effects.

      Like some previouis posts on this topic, I think it’s a bit early to be running around saying that it’s all a fuss about nothing.

      A week or so ago, the nuclear buffs were telling us that the problems were going to be solved any day now. They haven’t been.

      It’s fairly clear that the company concerned has been reluctant to fess up to the true state of affairs. Information has been coming out in dribs and drabs, to the extent that even the Japanese PM has made it clear he has not been kept fully informed.

      So let’s wait and see when it comes to working out what the long term damage may/may not be.

      Finally, the fact that they were at greater risk of dying from eating red meat or smoking is probably not much comfort to the two men who were rushed to hospital yesterday, or the other brave people who are risking their lives in an attempt to get the situation under control.

      The fact is, there will be increased cancer related deaths as a result of this accident - on top of those caused by smoking and eating red meat.

      Your attitude seems to be that that doesn’t matter.

    • Ben81 says:

      12:05pm | 26/03/11

      “A week or so ago, the nuclear buffs were telling us that the problems were going to be solved any day now.”
      Anyone with the first idea of what they’re talking about, of which I saw a lot, have consistently said from the start that this will be an expensive headache but the reporting of it is way over the top and the actual threat to human life from the plant is miniscule compared to any number of other things happening in Japan right now.  Seems to me they were right.

      “The fact is, there will be increased cancer related deaths as a result of this accident - on top of those caused by smoking and eating red meat.
      Your attitude seems to be that that doesn’t matter. “
      How many, 5? 10?  Maybe none?  The obvious point is that to a lot of people deaths from cancer don’t matter, they couldn’t care less and aren’t interested, unless it can be linked somehow to nuclear power even if it takes a massive quake and tsunami.  He’s illustrating the double standard.

    • acotrel says:

      09:09am | 27/03/11

      Put Geoff Russell’s name down as volunteer to help with the clean-up at Fukushima!

    • acotrel says:

      07:03am | 26/03/11

      ’ a potential risk, hardly visible in comparison, may come from radiation as a result of the quake and tsunami damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.’

      And who will be looking?  The nuclear industry will have an interest in heading off collection of medical data, and supressing conclusions.  The public will again be given the sanitised version for consumption.  Even in country Victoria there are cancer clusters which go without investigation.  If you expect the NH&MRC; or the AMA to make statements on damage to the public by corporations, you’ll wait forever!  Which body collected the cancer data from the Chernobyl disaster, have we ever seen the scientific papers or results published?

    • Soylent says:

      09:54pm | 26/03/11

      You’re aware of the Chernobyl forum, set up to asses the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster right?

      The organizations involved in the chernobyl forum are:
        * the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)
        * the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)
        * the OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)
        * the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme)
        * the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme)
        * the UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation)
        * the WHO (World Health Organization)
        * the World Bank.

      Yes we’ve seen scientific papers and results published; it’s just that you’ve been too busy with the scaremongering nonsense to read them; hell you’ve even managed to ignore the reports from the Chernobyl forum which condense these studies into a single report that is relatively easy to read and meant for public consumption by non-scientists.

      The 600-page, 3 volume “Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts” put out in 2005 concluded that 50 deaths were directly attributable to Chernobyl and another 4000 excess cancer deaths could eventually occur, 2200 of those were to be expected among a cohort of 200 000 emergency and recovery workers.

      There were also ~4000 excess thyroid cancer cases, resulting in 9 deaths.

      In the mean time, coal power has a coal-Chernobyl every few days.It is expected. It is routine. The death rate is of the same order of magnitude as malaria or aids or the holocaust.

    • acotrel says:

      09:29pm | 27/03/11

      Regardless of what your political agenda might be, the incident at Fukushima should not be trivialised!  It’s a serious matter potentially affecting the health of thousands.  Your comment about red meat causing cancer is specious.  Nearly every common chemical is attributed the notation ‘suspected tumorigen’ on MSDSs.  And that is irrelevant to the matter at hand.

    • Ben81 says:

      12:30pm | 26/03/11

      They seem to be about the Chernobyl disaster, mainly regarding the cases of thyroid cancer that most people survived and some with conclusions that point to a negligible difference in cases of cancer among the population around Charnobyl vs pretty much any other population sample and some with more cautious conclusions because of the way the studies were carried out.
      Your point?

    • Geoff Russell says:

      05:33pm | 26/03/11

      I looked at the first paper linked to. They are following a group of 12,500 young people and have found 65 thyroid cancers . This is 1 in 192 and will drop in the direction of the 1 in 125 figure cited by the Mayo link in my article. Nobody is suggesting Chernobyl wasn’t a disaster. But the outcome is still less serious than the normal outcomes of other industries that are accepted without a second thought by most people.

      Who collects data and does studies like this? Look again at the first article. All the people come from publicly funded Government institutions ... nobody else has the money to do this work. My claims about cancer from red meat are likewise from similarly well funded official sources. I do agree that scientific data is often not well publicised when it embarrasses large industries.  I have a whole chapter about this in “CSIRO Perfidy”. But the data ARE collected and ARE published so the problem isn’t with the scientists or the funding bodies.

    • AMac says:

      06:58pm | 26/03/11

      Geoff Russell’s perspective on media-driven cancer scares is helpful.  Regarding radioactive iodine in Tokyo’s tap water, I read plenty of scary articles, but none that spoke practically about the risks of exposure.

      With some Googling and background reading, I was able to make a first-pass estimate.  If a Tokyo infant drinks half a litre a day of water at the maximum contamination level recorded, for a month, his or her lifetime odds of getting thyroid cancer might increase from 0.90% to 1.04%. 

      If that’s right:  following 10,000 babies for the next 90 years, one would expect to find 104 people diagnosed with thyroid cancer, rather than 90.  At a 90% cure rate, that would be ten to eleven deaths among those ten thousand, rather than nine deaths.

      The reasoning and references for this estimate are posted as a comment at the blog “BraveNewClimate.”

      If the arithmetic is correct, this estimate is probably high.  For one, I-131 levels are already falling.  For another, very low exposures to radiation may be less harmful than a linear extrapolation would suggest (the “hormesis” hypothesis).

      Journalists felt free to take literary licence and use terms like “tainted,” “contaminated,” and “above safe levels” to paint vibrant word pictures.  What about the figures that would put these concepts in concrete, useful terms?  Has an entire profession become innumerate?  Incapable of interviewing experts?

    • acotrel says:

      09:23pm | 27/03/11

      So you’ll be going to Fukishima to help with the clean-up Geoff? They’ll be needing help from brave people like yourself!

    • acotrel says:

      09:34pm | 27/03/11

      @AMac You seem to have all the numbers.  What is the maximum permitted exposure to ionising radiation for a member of the public under the IEAE guidelines?

    • acotrel says:

      09:43pm | 27/03/11

      @AMac and Geoff Russell
      Would you please comment on the Fukushima incident , in terms of the following:

      For individuals in the general public, the ICRP recommends a whole body dose-equivalent limit of 5 mSv (500 mrem) in a year. It is believed that the average dose to members of an exposed group will be less than the dose limit, using this criterion.

      The current (1990) ICRP 60 recommendations do not specify either maximum permissible body burdens or maximum permissible concentrations. They specify annual limits on the intake (ALI) of radioisotopes.

      The ALI is defined as the annual intake that would lead to an effective committed dose (a 50 year dose commitment) not exceeding 50 mSV (5 rem), and an annual dose equivalent to any single organ or tissue not exceeding 500 mSv (50 rem).

      Alan Cotterell

    • AMac says:

      08:56pm | 28/03/11

      @ acotrel -

      I am not an expert in the areas of your queries.  In addition to the usual sources, I would recommend the site recently established by the Nuclear Engineering students at MIT, “”.

      Re: maximum permitted exposures under IAEA guidelines - to find those numbers, I would perform a Google search, using the terms in that phrase.

      Re: Exposures to the general public from the Fukushima incident - There are areas within 10 to 20 km of the plant where doses have been above the levels generally recognized as safe, so I would be very concerned about loved ones who are there.  That said, the Chernobyl experience suggests that these levels are likely to be well below the threshold for causing detectable adverse radiation-related health effects over the next few decades.  The possible exception for some would be I-131-caused thyroid abnormalities.

      One key area of scientific dispute is whether the “Linear No Threshold” (LNT) paradigm is correct.  LNT is the basis for the very low exposure limits that are currently in force, e.g. for Tokyo tapwater.  (Even accepting the LNT theory, I believe there is negligible harm from exceeding that standard, in that case.) 

      An important pro-LNT paper is referenced in this BraveNewClimate blog comment

      Oxford physicist Wade Allison presents the case that LNT is a poor match to theory and experience, in this recent BBC Viewpoint piece

      Hope that helps.

    • I used to vote Labor in NSW says:

      07:30am | 26/03/11

      The Balmain Greens will go crazy with this story.  The points are well argued and I fundamentally agree.  There are risks with nuclear however a developed country with a spoilt population that demand comforts and the freedom/s to use them, requires power and plenty of it. 
      Coal, Oil and Carbon seem to be a problem with regards to limited supply, air pollution and greenhouse gases.  No one wants the wind farms because it spoils the view (even the greenies find a reason for them not to be in THEIR backyard) and let’s not forget the cows and bats well-being.  Pitching solar hot water heaters, generators and water tanks was always aimed at transferring the cost of infrastructure to the normal person and, of course, you never see them in the expensive parts of the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.
      What is happening at the nuclear plant in Japan is sad (this is not the best word) but not tragic (the 10,000+ and counting deaths plus the reduction of the standard of living for the Japanese people for a generation is tragic).  Those men that are trying to put the power station fires out and mitigate the damage are heroes in every sense of the word however the losses are insignificant compared to what has happened overall in that country, due to the earthquake and resulting tsunami. 

      The industry and regulators will learn from this disaster and depending on the strength of politicians will enforce higher, but still workable, regulations and supervision. 

      Ultimately we (the royal we) will pay for all this because as we will not accept a reduction in our standard of living.  The world’s population is being allowed to get larger and larger and our childrens, children, children electric car’s have to get their charge from somewhere.

    • acotrel says:

      01:19am | 27/03/11

      @Ex Labor Voter NSW.
      ‘The industry and regulators will learn from this disaster and depending on the strength of politicians will enforce higher, but still workable, regulations and supervision. ‘

      We already have ‘workable regulations and supervision’.  What we don’t have is the mindset and culture to work with minimum risk.  The very fact that the Liberal Party introduced Workchoices shows our inability to motivate our workers to initiate effective operating procedures. iT cannot be done through coercion. The whole thing depends on INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACY, and that’s anathema to the conservatives.  The old Industrial Relations paradigm must finish, and a new participative one brought along to replace it.  Which party is capable of,  or interested in doing that? You are effectively hoist on your own petard!

    • VVS says:

      09:00am | 26/03/11

      Need help pushing that barrow, mate?

    • Ben81 says:

      12:11pm | 26/03/11

      If you only want to read things you want to hear it’s not as if there’s a shortage of fearmongering and drama around, go get your fix of doom and gloom if you want. 
      Meanwhile more level headed people are interested in the facts, you should probably read this article again without deciding that you’ll brush it off before you get past the headline.

    • Levi says:

      09:21am | 26/03/11

      Excellent article Geoff. Finally a balanced review of what is really happening at Fukushima and of what the media is doing to the minds of the people in this country.

    • Mark Young says:

      09:24am | 26/03/11

      Thank you Geoff for a great article which should allay a lot of fears.

      If we jump on the nuclear power bus, our nasty emissions will plummet and we can forget about this tax nonsense.

    • persephone says:

      11:34am | 26/03/11

      Er…a price on carbon will be way way cheaper than nuclear.

      Safety isn’t the argument against nuclear power.

      Economics is.

      The Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ Plan, for example, aimed at reducing the same emissions as Labor’s, costs $11 billion over 10 years.

      Building one nuclear power plant would cost $4 billion.

      To get the 25 (minimum) needed, we’re looking at ten times the cost of a package which has been criticised for being more expensive than putting a price on carbon.

      So if you want nuclear, be prepared to pay $7200 a year extra in your taxes, not $720 under the Coalition or even less under Labor.

    • stephen says:

      09:26pm | 26/03/11

      One Nuc. plant may or may not cost 4 billion, but that is a first outlay, and that plant should last forever, (at least as long as residue is observed, which, as soothsayers tell us, will be 50,000 years).
      What is its’ maintenance cost ? Is your seven and a half grand per-year accurate ?
      I’ll bet it ain’t. Friends in Europe I know didn’t suffer tax-increases.

    • acotrel says:

      09:14am | 27/03/11

      @persephone What could be cheaper than a nuclear disaster that destroys your country’s economy?  Stops you from exporting food to other trading partners?  Increases medical costs in the mid to long term?

    • persephone says:

      08:16pm | 27/03/11


      ‘may or may not’ - what kind of an argument is that? If you can’t even be bothered finding out what the cost of a nuclear plant is, you can’t really be that interested in the subject.

      no, they don’t last forever. One of the reactors presently under threat was due for decommissioning. Ironically, the company convinced the authorities it was good for a few more years.

      The half life of the residue has nothing to do with how long a plant lasts. All that means is that we’re still trying to keep the waste safe thousands of years after the power plant itself has stopped producing electricity.

      Which is another high cost of nuclear - the necessity to store waste safely for hundreds of thousands of years, when our entire civilisation is only a few thousand years old and has managed to lose track of all sorts of things in that period.

      My $7200 is a simple extrapolation of the figures given for the Liberal’s policy - they plan to spend $11 billion on their Direct Action policy, this will cost taxpayers $720 per year, therefore a series of reactors costing ten times as much will cost taxpayers $7200 per year.


      I guess it gives you a point of difference in the market - spinach which glows in the dark is easier to find for a midnight snack.

    • Col. of Blackburn says:

      10:09am | 26/03/11

      Mr Russell
      We have heard it all from the mainstream media about the hazards of Fukushima. Perhaps you would care to enlighten us all as to what happened at all the Coal and Gas fired power plants affected in Japan? I cannot imagine inundating a red hot working boiler with cold seawater from a Tsunami would have done it a lot of good? wink

    • Not next to me says:

      11:48am | 26/03/11

      Nuclear sounds fine to me. As long as it’s 1000 km’s away.
      Where do you want to put it?
      I know, how about next to the Opera House?

    • howardb says:

      05:26pm | 26/03/11


      what are you talking about? The government loans money to build Power Plants. The money is paid back with interest. Very easy to check on the internet. Power Plant are very profitable and very cheap energy. Its easy math. Take the number of watts the plant puts out, divide by maybe 1000 watts per household and multiply by the average electric bill. Power Plant pay for themselves very quickly.

    • persephone says:

      08:34pm | 27/03/11


      if it’s very easy to check on the net, then I’m sure you won’t find it at all difficult to provide a few links.

      What we are talking about here is decommissioning functioning coal power plants and replacing them with new power plants.

      That’s not what’s happened elsewhere (or what anyone with half a brain is suggesting).

      Elsewhere, nuclear power plants have been built where there was no other source of cheap energy.

      So they didn’t get rid of something else, they provided a new service.

      What nuclear proponents are proposing for Australia is that we ignore a cheap power source that we already have the infrastructure for and replace it with a power source which is expensive to build and to decomission (after fifty years of service) but is cheap while it is running.

      Given that coal is cheaper than nuclear, and using existing coal fired stations is obviously far cheaper than building something else, the only justification for doing this is if burning coal is somehow bad in other ways - in other words, if you believe in global warming.

      If you don’t, then you should be arguing that we keep burning coal. We have heaps of it, it’s cheap and we have all the infrastructure there already.

      If you believe in global warming, then there is a case for nuclear, but it’s still not strong.

      Firstly, the assumption seems to be that coal needs to be ditched entirely if we’re to tackle global warming. Certainly, it would make the task easier, but it’s certainly not a necessity. We can achieve significant reductions in carbon emissions and keep burning coal (just not as much).

      Secondly, we have emission reduction targets we need to meet within the next nine years - by 2020. That’s a very short time frame. There’s no way we could get enough nuclear power plants up and running in that time frame to do the job.

      A tax on carbon emissions (according to economists, who are supposed to know something about this) can drive the behaviour needed to meet these targets far more cheaply and within this timeframe.

      Thirdly, if you believe in global warming, then chances are you have at least some faint appreciation of science and of environmental issues. Which might make you a little bit uneasy about issues such as nuclear waste and the chances of a civilisation which is only a few centuries old being able to keep track of highly dangerous material for millenia.

      Fourthly, if you believe in global warming, you’ll have looked at the economics of tackling it, and realise that (with a price on carbon) industry will decide for itself which are the cheapest, most effective ways of tackling emissions. And industry isn’t lobbying for nuclear to be part of the mix.

      In summary:

      If you don’t believe that climate change is real and is driven by man’s actions, then there is no reason to replace coal with anything.

      If you do, then you understand that there are options which are more effective than nuclear in tackling the problem.

    • howardb says:

      05:39pm | 26/03/11

      Sorry, wrong country, I thought we were in the US. However, Nuclear is the cheapest form of energy, do the math, very easy to figure out. When you compare the damage coal and oil have caused, the cancers, black lung,deaths, I’d say Nuclear has a stellar record. Chernobyl should have never been build, and the nuclear agencies advised Russia not to build it. For technical reason which I will not go into (easy to find on the internet) the fission processes increased as the temperature rose in the Chernobyl reactor. That would be impossible in todays reactors.

    • acotrel says:

      07:26am | 28/03/11

      ‘When you compare the damage coal and oil have caused, the cancers, black lung,deaths, I’d say Nuclear has a stellar record.

      You could use the same sort of argument to press the case for ciggy smokers to change to marijuana

    • Lars says:

      07:23pm | 26/03/11

      I’d rather live next to a nuclear plant than a coal powered plant. Or below a hydro plant. Great article. I’m lucky to live in Norway, where water is abundant, and hydro-power covers most needs, but I’d have no problems living next to a nuclear plant if it came to that. I risk more every day, driving a car, walking the stairs, eating red meat. I was sceptical to nuclear power before the Japan disaster, much because that’s the norm in Norway (and we really don’t have to question it), but the disaster has put my fears in perspective. First of all, most of the powerplants held up well, and the one that didn’t have no signs of being another Chernobyl. I think most Norwegians fear that a new nuclear accident will be a new Chernobyl, since that had effects on the food chain etc. even here. But, as I have researched and been informed during this accident, there’s really no way for this to be on the same scale, as there’s no active, graphite moderated core burning openly etc. Thanks for the people like Geoff nuancing the simple “explanations” and fearful scenarios of the press.

    • Paul says:

      07:53am | 27/03/11

      Yes Fukushima is nothing, just a little leaked radiation, the same as eating a few steaks or eating salty food if you listen to Geoff Russell.

      “I think most Norwegians fear that a new nuclear accident will be a new Chernobyl, since that had effects on the food chain etc. even here. But, as I have researched and been informed during this accident, there’s really no way for this to be on the same scale…”

      Chernobyl had 180 tonnes of nuclear fuel on site. Fukushima has 1700 tonnes of nuclear fuel on site.

      No signs of being another Chernobyl?
      Look at what New Scientist has to say:

    • Lars says:

      08:43pm | 02/04/11

      To Paul:

      Not saying that Fukushima is nothing, just as little as being hit by a speeding car is nothing. And I do recognise environmental risks of nuclear power, although they exist in abundance with coal power as well. The Chernobyl was a totally different accident regardless of amounts of fuel on the site. 1. the reactor was running at the time of the explosion, 2. the moderator was burning, 3. the fuel/moderator exploded, plummeting it far into the atmosphere, where it was spread to distant locations. 4. What was spread, as I understand, was long-lived isotopes from the burnt/exploded fuel (which still is being accumulated to some degree in reindeer etc). This is something very different from what what you see at Fukushima. Another aspect: The people in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant were evacuated on an early stage, where as people close to Chernobyl weren’t evacuated before some days had gone. Which subjected them to radiation that I guess later will have caused later cancer etc.

      I’m just another layman, but the consequences from one of the biggest natural disaster of our times on nuclear power plants in Japan, has not scared me. I’d be even more impressed if there were no problems whatsoever on Japanese nukes, but given the situation, I am optimistic. There are other, more lethal ways, to produce electric energy.

    • Paul America says:

      10:17pm | 26/03/11

      Great example of whitewash and spin.
      “Nobody died.”  Yet. (a bit premature maybe?)
      This piece sounds so benign yet also radiates flippancy.

      “Lethal? 400 millisieverts per hour? Such levels are definitely to be avoided, but lethal?”
      400 mSv is not usually lethal, but it does result in symptoms of radiation poisoning.
      Let me ask you Geoff, does it only take an emergency worker an hour to deal with a nuclear accident like Fukushima? About 10 hours exposure (4 Sv) results in severe radiation poisoning. 20 hours total exposure at 400mSv per hour (8 Sv) is a fatal dose.

      Would you be so blasé if a nuclear accident of the same scale happened in an Australian city? (imagine a 40km radius exclusion zone for 50 or 60 years in Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide - how does that grab you?)

      - Is immediate death the only measure of the safety of an energy generation system when something goes wrong?

      - What about health effects that don’t result in death - but in long-term sickness and suffering?

      “To replace a single nuclear plant, you will need a tank 20 times as big, holding about half a million tonnes of molten salt at 400 degrees centigrade. If you were living on a fault line in Japan, which would you prefer to live next door to ... the ocean, the molten salt, an oil refinery or a nuclear plant? How would you farm land after a half million tonne salt spill?”
      Frankly, I’d prefer to be 10km from molten salt than molten radioactive fuel.
      Your argument is a complete furphy anyway. Who says a solar power station needs to be built on arable land?
      And why would you build a tank 20 times as big when decentralised power systems make more sense?

      I’ll ask you: If there was a fire at 2 power stations, one nuclear, one coal fired - which would you rather hose down?

    • Jo says:

      12:26am | 27/03/11

      Brilliant article ! It is nice to see someone put the risks into perspective. There are many causes of cancer that will cause far more cases of cancer than will this incident. For those concerned about the men with skin burns, I too hope they will be okay. It is likely that they will be. I base this on the fact that my father receive horrific and extensive radiation burns to his arms and hands 40 years ago. He has over the years received treatment for this, mostly in the form of skin grafts and the reconstruction of his thumb nail (this was so he could keep playing his guitar!). He has no cancer and no other ill effects. He is in his 70s now, and I expect will be with me for many more years. I for one would be much happier if we switched to nuclear power and stopped coal power. Solar is good, but inefficient. Wind farms are horrible. Having seen the extensive windfarms that snake across the European countryside, I wouldn’t wish these nightmarish structures on anyone.

    • michael j says:

      01:26am | 27/03/11

      Geoff you had me nodding my head until the last paragraph,then i got confused
      while i used to like the ocean i find the salt and sand iterates me ,,,
      next to a nuclear power plant probably wouldn’t be to bad i suppose because as i m getting on a bit i will probably need some sort of treatment like radiation in the future,,
      And if you can find the time could please give QLD Premier Bligh a ring and let her know that many millions of tons of salt laying around the best farmland in the world ,,a side effect of fracking coal ??,,,for natural gas is not really in anybody’s best interest,,any one that doesn’t want to stave to death anyway,,,,,,,,,,

    • Laocoon says:

      05:32am | 27/03/11

      Persephone has also made a good point about the economics of reactor construction and decommissioning, which would require substantial government (public) financial support, in effect. I think that we all need to remember that all governments lie until proven otherwise. Hence anything promoted by governments for the greater good is probably total rubbish. Anthropomorphic climate change is probably in this category (and the NBN certainly is, as an aside). It is being promoted as a planet killer and in a relatively well educated Australian population causing great anxiety. But how pouring large quantities of money into reducing Australia’s contribution, while the rest of the world doesn’t quite match it seems nonsensical. Sadly, if there are too many of us doing too much damage to the planet, we are not going to solve it by Australia spending some money to reduce our CO2 emissions.

    • Gregg says:

      12:45am | 28/03/11

      I did attempt to answer earlier Geoff with a reference to the variable reporting that you do mention and even found your link leaving a little to be desired re update.
      There was one global map, but not to do with nuke stations, radiation or other three mile items but would you believe a map of what ought to be kept behind a fly so there was no radiation to add to any other burning sensations.
      I think my linking of the reference was what had the Punch filter in action.

      But anyway, certainly there has been a much greater initial impact from the quake and tsunami with the refinery fires, it all being quite horrific and despite vagaries of the PS reporting and that caused no doubt by a lot of speculation with limited detail available for obvious or not so obvious reasons, there has also been significant coverage of the general problems Japan faces and particularly the plight of the many elderly apparently living in the northern areas close to the sea.

      On the radiation of now or the future, I’ll defer to agreeing that low level doses may not be the bogeyman that the general public may think about as soon as we hear about a nuclear mishap and fortunately for now offshore winds may have saved a lot of people from greater exposure.

      The most recent report - would seem to indicate that the extent of radiation may still be a work in progress and though we do not know of the size of the ” puddle ” , hopefully there will not be building pressure to puddle some more.

      The real danger lies in the uncertainty of what may be developing in the reactors and or spent rod pools and I would doubt very much whether real close up inspections are yet being made so information is likely to remain sketchy for quite some time.
      A Chernobyl we may not have but we still do not know what the extent of radiation leaked will be.

      Even with that occurring, I suppose there is a lesson to be learnt re having a nuclear power station adjacent to the ocean and that is to either have it on higher ground, have a bigger seawall or at least have reliable back up power.

    • Stephen Wilson says:

      03:48am | 29/03/11

      I’m afraid it’s lame to say everthing is relative. Of course people should have the “perspective” to appreciate that many many more died from the tsunami that from the nuclear accidents.  Then again, many more died in the Indonesian boxing day tsunami.  And yes, another “perspective” is that cancer risks from tobacco are greater than from the plants’ radiation. As if tobacco is a worthy benchmark.

      Not just lame but these issues are beside the point, which I believe is the trustworthiness of the nuclear industry.  Here’s why the Fukushima accident matters in Australia.  While we won’t ever suffer the same sesmic events, we can see that the industry builds their plants with bare minimum safety margins wherever they may be. 

      See e.g. I also draw attention to reports that the Fukushima plant was designed for an expected maximum quake of 8.3—Japan has had three of these in the past 100 years.

      I recall nuclear advocates in Oz appeasing safety concerns by saying, ‘Hell, our tech is sooo good now, we can even build power plants in earthquake zones’.

      I would not trust the nuclear industry to build a plant anywhere.

    • Geoff Russell says:

      08:19pm | 30/03/11

      Just updating what is known about worker radiation exposure according to
      daily IAEA updates ... the 3 workers who got radiation burns after ignoring the
      dosimeters have been released from observation. They are said to have
      a “localised dose” of 2-3 Sieverts ... a serious dose by any means. It
      will increase their lifetime risk of cancer by 1 in 30.  A normal Australian
      lifetime risk of cancer is about 1 in 3 ... so a 1 in 30 increase is quite small.

      Another 17 workers are reported to have total doses of 100 to 150 millisievert which will give a tiny increment in lifetime cancer risk < 1 in 250.

      The bottom line is still ... nobody has died, nobody has been made seriously
      ill and it is still quite unlikely that anybody will get cancer from this event. The only fatalities I can imagine will be the animals left behind in the evacuation area, many of whom may starve.

    • SuperDync says:

      06:25am | 15/02/12

      Outstanding blog post. The graphic content presented right here is actually of very substantial quality. I am going to take advantage of this web page much more frequently with regard to
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