How to prepare your family to survive and thrive in todays uncertain world

Fearmongers, Lies, and Nuclear Reactors

I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind that the situation in Japan is a terrible disaster. In fact, everyone with preparedness leaning should be looking at this and learning. Just like we should have from Haiti, and Argentina.

But I wanted to write today about something that is really bothering me. And that’s the rampant fear-mongering going on in the Prepping/Survival community around the reactor incidents.

People tend to hear the words ‘nuclear’ and ‘meltdown’ and freak out. And it’s not really something you want to be close to when it happens. But unless you’re in Japan, you don’t need to worry about radiation poisoning, etc from this event.

Let’s talk about why…

Nuclear Meltdown?  Not Even Close…

First, the reactors themselves are largely intact. These reactors are boiling water reactors, which are designed with three layers of containment. Think about three pressure cookers nested together, except the walls are 18 inches of steel instead of thin aluminum. The whole kit and kaboodle lives in a building ‘shell’ that provides environmental support, etc.

The amazing explosions we’ve seen on TV? Those were pockets of hydrogen that had built up inside the buildings and had nothing at ALL to do with the reactor itself. There is some question about whether the outer most containment vessel taking some damage, but if they did, it isn’t anything harsh.

The hydrogen was a byproduct of venting steam out of the reactor core to keep pressure down inside the pressure cooker. Think about the rocker on a pressure canner and you get the idea.

Within seconds of the earthquake hitting, the reactors automatically shut down. Control rods were inserted into the core and the chain reaction stopped.

Some radiation was absolutely released as a part of the steam venting. But the isotopes in question have long since decayed. Half life is an important thing, and the half life of most of the stuff in the steam is measured in seconds.

All the nasty stuff, like Uranium Oxide, is still stuck inside the containment vessels, and is not in danger of being released. They’ve found some trace elements of Cesium and Iodine, but nothing that is particularly concerning.

Simply put, the whole “meltdown” thing … isn’t. The fun part is that there really isn’t a definition for what a meltdown is … but it sounds pretty scary. What it basically refers to is the nuclear fuel melting due to inadequate cooling. This isn’t, and hasn’t been, an issue in Japan because they had multiple ‘defense in depth’ mechanisms in place to deal with it.

So don’t pay any attention to the fear-mongering about a meltdown and imminent radioactive fallout.

But we don’t deal in fear here, we deal with reality. And reality is that Fukushima is NOT and CAN NOT be another Chernobyl. Chernobyl happened with a live reactor that was in full swing, and the containment vessel exploding due to a poor reactor design.

But What If Fukushima DID Have a Chernobyl Type Event?

As a thought experiment, let’s say Chernobyl happened at Fukushima. It’d be a bad day for Japan. No question.

But how about the West Coast? (and remember, I live in Western Washington, so this matters to me…)

The dangerous radiation from Chernobyl traveled about 600 miles away from the event. Beyond that, there wasn’t any serious radiation.

Coincidentally, I was actually IN Europe when Chernobyl blew.  It was annoying.  We had to drink this processed milk junk for a while until some of the radioactivity worked its way through the grass/dairy systems.  But that’s about it.  The area I lived in was one of the yellow areas on this map.

So the bad stuff hit within 600 miles. How far are we from Japan?

Somewhere around 4,400 miles.

Any radioactive particles would have diffused into the atmosphere or dropped into the ocean at random LONG before they got to the west coast.

But The News Said We’re All Gonna Die From Thyroid Cancer!

But let’s pretend again. This time, let’s say it COULD get all the way here without diffusing. The isotope most people worry about is Iodine-131. This is what taking Potassium Iodide/Iodate helps with.

The National Weather Service gives us some projections on how long it would take to get to the West Coast, and how it would get here. Here’s a picture of one of the recent projections.

Note that only the weather originating at 9,000 meters even gets out to us. And it takes nine days for it to get here.

The half-life of I-131 is … 8 days.  By the time it gets to the West Coast, it isn’t particularly radioactive anymore.  Remember, the reactors aren’t generating new isotopes anymore because they’re shut down.  So that half-life clock is already ticking.

Rudy’s Note: Half-life is pretty simple.  It is the measure of radioactive decay.  Each half-life period reduces the amount of radioactive atoms by half.  So if your half-life is measured in one hour, after the first hour you have 50% left, the second hour is 25%, the third is 12.5%, and so on.

Half-life starts the minute the radioactive atom is produced.  In terms of a reactor, at any given time you’ll have particles of all sorts of different ages.  So in case of a disastrous meltdown, for example, not all of the particles will have a full life cycle ahead of them.  So the effective rate of decay in a fallout cloud is significantly faster than the pure half-life of the isotopes in question.

Physicists among you will quibble with the details, and I agree, this is a very layman-oriented explanation.  Intentionally so.  I don’t want to go into probability measures, stochastic predictions,  etc.  Please don’t nitpick!

Any vision the media and fear mongers have been pushing of a radioactive fallout cloud is just fantasy.

Please don’t panic.

Don’t listen to the fear-mongers.

Unless you live in Japan, you will NOT be affected by anything that could happen. And realistically, nothing else can happen in a catastrophic way, as far as these reactors are concerned.

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17 Responses to Fearmongers, Lies, and Nuclear Reactors

  1. Great post Rudy. I was just thinking as I was reading some of the other daily news is that folks need to apply a good dose of common sense before reacting to what they read. Perhaps this would lead to a more rational response.

  2. I don’t like to be argumentative with you, Rudy, but people will fear, sometimes realistically and sometimes not. One can hardly blame them in light of the fact that what has happened to the Japanese is so tragic and disheartening. I think the major concern here is that it could very well happen here and we are woefully unprepared for such scenarios.

    Perhaps the government could and should do more to allay people’s fears. I wouldn’t have much confidence in what they tell us to do though. Maybe another temporary “fix” like the budge woes?

    My hope is that people get a heads up about being as prepared as they can possibly be. If it takes a little fear to get that accomplished in a logical way then good.

    • Eh, I don’t see an argument there at all!

      What is pissing me off is the people coming out of the woodwork (many of them have anti-radiation/fallout stuff to sell, go figure!) creating a sense of fear and impending doom around something that most people are already afraid of.

      I don’t think the government really has much of a role here, I think it’s more about us educating ourselves and being realistic when we evaluate what people are telling us. Generally the type of things we as preppers tend to do anyhow.

      I think something like this has a natural tendency to ‘take off like wildfire’ because it plays right into a core scenario that many of us prepare for. But just because it happened there doesn’t mean that there’s a cloud of fallout heading our way.

      Being prepared is about living with a sense of security and knowing you can handle whatever comes. It isn’t about fear. I don’t think that it serves us well to promote things that are wrong just because it might get people off their duff and prepare. We can use what happened as an example of something to prepare for without being dishonest or sensational about it.

      Enough soap boxing for now!

  3. Rudy, thanks for being understanding, but usually optimistic little ‘ole me is unusually pessimistic these days in terms of people educating themselves. yes, we do it and conduct our own research but frankly I have little faith in the public at large with regard to being prepared of anything.

    Here in MA we had an incredible amount of snow, a water main break in Boston the year before last along with an ice storm. Very few people were adequately prepared. One would think they would be given the unpredictability of our weather but such was not the case. People were fighting over water in the stores, over generators and even returning the generators to get their money back once the crisis was over.

    BTW, I have little to zero faith in the government. :-)

  4. except the half life if iodine (what’s coming out of the reactors) has a half life of 8.1 days. It takes 7 half lives to reach zero. That means 1 half life will be at 50% (8.1 days) but it will take another 48ish days to reach an all clear for each incident. I too live on the west coast and I want to know these things so that I can make the best decisions for my family’s health, including using powdered milk if our local dairys are breached. Do I know it will happen? No. Do I want to be prepared if it does happen? You betcha!

  5. Sorry, I must seem a stalker but I am ever doing research to have my facts correct. I was wrong about the iodine being released. A couple plants are releasing iodine but not Fukushima plant. That one is releasing plutonium. They switched to a ‘mox’ compound last year according to the NY times. Plutonium has different half lifes. Plutonium is 73,000 days for a half life with a high retention in lungs, bones, bone marror, liver and gonads. 73,ooo days equals 200 years. So in 200 years it would be at 50% saturation and etc. You don’t have to post any of my comments, I just wanted you aware :)

    • The Fukushima reactors are Boiling Water Reactors that use uranium oxide for fuel. Only one of them uses MOX as a fuel. However, the fuel rods, both uranium and plutonium, are secure inside the containment vessels.

      The radiation spikes are normal for vented steam, and are primarily radioactive Xenon, Crypton, Iodine, and Cesium. Small amounts of those elements were released when the steam was vented.

      There is no plutonium or uranium contamination. There would have to be a containment breach for that to occur. Those elements are not present in the steam.

      For a good reference to what happened in more technical detail, check out the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering site here: http://mitnse.com/

      As far as half life goes, if everything was brand new, then yes, it would take a few weeks for everything to decay.

      However, any radioactive atoms were in various stages of decay, and so you can safely assume that there is a pretty even dispersal there, including quite a few that have been through various half-life cycles. Again, I’m not going to go into probabilities, but half-life is just a guess, not a definitive measure. It’s a probability of decay, not a definitive timer, if that makes more sense.

      Keep in mind that the clock started on the day of the earthquake because the reactors were stopped at that point. No new isotopes were being generated.

      So with all of that, plus environmental dispersal due to wind, precipitation, and natural settling of particulate matter (dust), by the time any radioactive dust got to the west coast, there would be nothing near enough concentration to be harmful.

      Hope this helps…

  6. “But The News Said We’re All Gonna Die From Thyroid Cancer!”

    No, the news didn’t say that. People jump to conclusions and spread stupid stuff around. But those people are not “the news.”

    But thank you for otherwise trying to do the responsible thing.

    • Yes, I write my headlines with a bit of sensationalism. That said, there’s plenty of ‘duck and cover, here comes the fallout’ going on, both in the news and through irresponsible statements from people with fancy titles…

  7. We have unfortunately become a fearful society. How do you reassure people who are viscerally terrified of second hand smoke, coconut oil and transfat that nuclear energy is actually pretty darned safe?

  8. What about the half life of the other radiation particles? Not to include the Iodine-131 already discussed?

  9. I hate to be a wet blanket, but some of the info is incorrect.

    I will say upfront, that I believe Nuclear power is the safest, cleanest power we have available and that we should have two plants in every state, to provide for our future needs.

    However factual information must be available for people to know what decisions to make.

    The preventative potassium iodide is a poison. You should consult your doctor before taking it. Period.

    Half-life, does not mean that you end up with a zero amount, unless the isotope was of the exotic types with a very short half-life. It means that after it’s half-life, you have half of the original volume, the second time 1/4 and so on. It never goes away you just find you have less and less.

    Hydrogen is produced by the rod casing partially vaporizing, when they vent the pressure container, either the friction or heat + oxygen causes the explosion. The main isotopes released are iodine 131 and caesium 137.
    Iodine 131 has a half-life of 8.5 days caesium 137 30 years. BOTH isotopes reached the west coast in 7-10 days.
    They reached the east coast in 15 days, traveling 449 miles a day via the jetstream.

    The radiation does not diffuse with time.
    The particles are dispersed, meaning there are less parts per million / billion in air, however the individual particle still emits beta and gamma radiation. There are less of a concentration of particles so less exposure.

    Some of the decay products in their form are beta and gamma emitting IE iodine decays to Xe 131 which is itself beta and gamma emitter. so decay is not necessarily a safe bet either. eventually an isotope of lead is reached that does not emit, after a long chain of decay and time.

    Exposure is a matter of proximity and TIME. the further you are away from the particle, the exposure drops off by the inverse square law. If you ingest or breathe it in that is another matter entirely. Iodine concentrates in the thyroid, can possibly be replaced by “good” iodine, but it is no guarantee. Caesium will work it’s way thru your GI tract in around 7 days irradiating you as it goes, until you excrete it, sweat it out, or urine. The beta radiation Burns tissue, Gamma follows potassium and alters dna nearby.

    The Rods did not get dropped in the core, the word is “SCRAM” to indicate that.
    since the rods were partially damaged at the least, the potential for Alpha radiation isotopes is probable.
    At the time I write this, Plutonium has been detected, as have periodic neutron “beams” The emmitting of neutrons is typical of alpha emmitting isotopes. The neutrons break the ionic bonds in tissue some pass thru some just lodge, as well as beta and gamma also being emmited by the core isotope.
    Damaged rods do not slide into their core slot easily if at all.

    The plutonium is a heavier element and so most will fallout around Japan or the ocean, unless there is a secondary explosion by more hydrogen as the rods further vaporize, it would have to get high into the atmosphere to reach here in the US. That Said, some of the lighter Alpha emmitting isotopes could follow in the same manner as the iodine and caesium did.

    The core “melting” or partially melting, simply means the heat has built up enough to melt the metals that make up the core, it is a direct result of the rods being able to interact with each other, by the lack of coolant or inability to scram all the rods. if the core is melting then the rod casings are vaporizing as well, exposing more isotopes of the uranium fuel. Alpha, beta, and gamma radiation is the result. The possibility of a nuclear excursion is higher at this point, and can cause explosions spreading the alpha emitting particles in a wider area, hence Japan widening the evac zone. IT will NOT blow like a nuclear bomb. Again it would only be because of a higher amount of concentrated hydrogen from the rod casings. It has not occured so far, but they have detected alpha emitting isotopes along with neutrons. It does not bode well for Japan. Pray for them and honor those working in close proximity to the concentration of these fission products, lethal doses can occur in minutes

    The key is DISTANCE between you and the radiating particle, as per the inverse square law.
    if you are one of the unlucky ones to ingest it from a turnip or drink it, even at a small particle or two, it still does not have the dose level at the reactor, but it could “help” contribute to the chance of cancer in 20 or so years.

    Finally, you do NOT turn off a reactor like flipping a switch. even the spent rods can interact and produce fission and the isotopes of fission, most reactors have spent fuel pools and decommissioned reactors are themselves turned into spent fuel pools, the coolant and core is to isolate the rods, that was the issue with Japans #4 reactor, it was the spent fuel repository and it too lost coolant and the rods began interacting again.
    As long as the rods are producing fission, new isotopes are being produced. Hence Japan’s urgency in getting and keeping coolant water in the pools. they first must reduce the heat, and then add in boron to dampen the reactions, so they ultimately can begin to remove damaged rods and fuel products.

    Plutonium the isotope of uranium we are all familiar with, will still be emmitting alpha, beta and gamma
    24,000 YEARS from now. one particle or a pile, it will still be hazardous to life. Some of It’s decay products will
    emit as well. (IE iodine 131 caseium 137 etc) until they reach the long chain to an inert element of lead.

    • Thanks for your comment. It seems from it though that you didn’t really read everything I wrote. Unfortunate.

      It happens that a real live nuclear scientist reviewed my article and said it was spot on and a great summary of the situation. I think I’ll go with his opinion.

    • Watchman,

      I’m curious…why did you spend so much time restating what mattered in Rudy’s explanation? We are, in fact, very far away from ground zero and thus have the benefit if time, distance and diffusion on our side. Additionally, I noticed you didn’t make any mention whatsoever of the ubiquitous nature of every type of radioactivity you described and how the levels of exposure compare to the levels we will experience in the U.S. from Fukushima fallout.

      Also, one of your own citations of ‘info’ is also categorically incorrect. Potassium Iodide is NOT a poison just as water is NOT a poison. The body MUST have potassium, iodine and water to survive. In your zeal , you neglected to mention that like water, OVERDOSING KI can produce side effects up to and including death, especially for those with iodone (shellfish) allergies (KI only; water is OK :)). Yes…one should consult a physician before taking any medication and while KI is generally considered a supplement, you at least got it right that a physician should be consulted before beginning a KI regimen.

      I agree with Rudy on this one and leave you to shiver in your cold, wet blanket. We should use Fukushima as a scenario to develop a preparedness plan for localized commercial nuclear disasters. Let education, planning and preparing drive our actions…not fear and paranoia driven by ignorance and misinformation in the face of remotely located disasters.

  10. Sorry boys but Watchman’s post is spot on you should try reading some information from Fairwinds it will help you understand how serious the event was in Japan. Arnie is a expert on the subject and I will trust his information first and always.