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Nuclear defense

| Monday, October 12, 2015

I have no doubt that the author of “A mother’s worry” that was published in The Observer last Thursday is sincere in her belief that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant incident in Japan poses a risk to the well-being of her children living in Oceanside, California. However, I strongly disagree with the validity of these claims, as well as her attempts to smear the nuclear industry as dangerous. Well-intended as her claims probably are, they do seem to be heavy on conclusions and light on science.

Consider the (unsourced) claim that cesium-134 and cesium-137 contaminants from the Fukushima reactors are heating the water of the Pacific Ocean to 80 degrees Fahrenheit in October. First, it’s important to note that the author does not cite any oceanographic data when she claims this temperature is anomalous — rather, she simply claims that she has “never felt water so warm here until the last three years.” As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Further, the author goes on to attribute this temperature increase to radiation levels of eight becquerels per kilogram in the water. Fairly elementary calculations prove that this is impossible. One becquerel is one nuclear decay per second. One cesium decay liberates around 605 kiloelectron volts; one electron volt is less than a billionth of a billionth of a Joule, so the total energy liberated per day is less than one ten-millionth of a Joule per kilogram. Dividing by water’s heat capacity (4,184 J/kg-K) yields the total increase in the water’s temperature — sixteen trillionths of a degree. This is almost 2000 times less than even the world’s most sensitive thermometers can possibly measure. If you’re curious about how fission reactors like Fukushima manage to boil water from such small energies, the short answer is that many, many fissions occur per second, and that these fissions each release much more energy.

It’s also telling that the author does not provide sources for her claims that Fukushima’s radiation is “devastating the West Coast of the U.S.” If pressed, I can only speculate that she might point to crop failures or irregular fish migration patterns, as I’ve seen antinuclear advocates do in various corners of the Internet. This, along with her assertions about water temperature, exemplifies “post hoc ergo propter hoc” reasoning — “A, then B, so A caused B.” It’s particularly puzzling that Fukushima ends up the prime suspect, especially when the scientific community has spent so much time discussing the effects of catastrophic global warming on California’s local climate.

Moreover, the author wildly overstates the threat posed to humans by radiation from nuclear power plants. For example, she claims that “99 percent of all mutations are the bad kind, not the natural selection type — the result is cancer.” First off, the author appears to be conflating mutations in gametes that are passed on to children with mutations to other tissues in the body, which do not affect natural selection. Second, the human body’s resilience and the redundancy of DNA means that many mutations are neutral, not the “bad kind.”

Then the author further claims that nuclear power plants “regularly release radioactive particles into the air and water as part of their normal procedures.” This is true, but with radiation as in all things, it’s the dose that makes the poison. If the author is concerned about radiation from nuclear power plants, which emit about 0.09 microSievert annually, does she allow her children to eat bananas, which contain more radiation, 0.1 microSievert, due to their potassium-40 content? Does she allow her children to live in a house made of brick or concrete (70 microSieverts)? This is the old canard that “vaccines contain toxic mercury” reworked for the nuclear age.

But the biggest question that the author must answer when she calls nuclear power dangerous, or a threat to her children, is “compared to what?” Let’s ignore for a moment the long-term climate implications of continuing to burn coal, the world’s current workhorse energy source. According to the World Health Organization, particulates released by coal power plants kill a million people every year. Meanwhile, the deaths from America’s worst nuclear power accident — Three Mile Island — can be counted on the fingers of Jaime Lannister’s right hand.

Why, then, is there such fear around nuclear power? Well, human beings have trouble quantitatively understanding risk. Consider how many people are deathly afraid of sharks (less than one fatality per year), but happily chow down on hot dogs (which account for 17 percent of all food-related asphyxiations each year). In many cases, these irrational fears are hyped by the popular culture. For sharks, it was Jaws; for nuclear power, it was probably Godzilla. Radiation is a great horror-movie villain — not only can’t it be seen, but the layman knows so little about it that it might as well be Cthulhu.

As I’ve noted, the author clearly cares about her children very much, and I commend her for that. But she needs to make her case with science, not speculation based on inconsistent logic. Until that happens, I look forward to our fully nuclear future. If you need me, I’ll be taking a long swim in the Pacific.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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