use faux pas (killtacular) wrote,
use faux pas
killtacular

Non-agenda sources of radiation health risks?

So, I'm having a hard time parsing the health risks associated with various scenarios for the Japan reactor collapse. Most that I come across are either the admirably honest "I don't really know," or of the "No sweat, nuclear is teh awesome" or the "BAN ALL NUCLEAR POWER NOW" variety (last two slightly exaggerated). None of those are helpful.

Anyone have a better source of info? And no, the xkcd graphic does not count as better.

As a side note: I count myself as being on the ambivalently pro side of nuclear power as a way of reducing carbon emissions. Definite problems are the very large costs, and the waste issue. I used to think both were manageable (and kinda still do). However, if we also have "small but non-negligible probability of really massive shit," which I didn't think before (I also didn't think this about ocean oil drilling, so perhaps I am a sucker. Or perhaps I am overly persuaded by one-off events) then I think we just go to a full on hydro/solar/wind/whatever solution with natural gas providing baseline. At the very least, we definitely get rid of reactors in California and other massive-natural-disaster-prone areas.

Anyways, if you know any, let me know!
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Why doesn't the XKCD graphic count as better? I suppose it doesn't tell you the chances of having all these different eventualities, but is there more that you're looking for?

I'm also not convinced that getting rid of nuclear is essential - this earthquake was a more massive one than anything that has happened anywhere near Japan in recorded history. Of course, we'd like to go for entirely solar/wind if we could, but hydro is really no better - in fact, hydro is likely to be much worse, because its failure mode in an earthquake could wipe out a major city pretty easily. (See St. Francis dam and the similar, and quite lovely Mulholland Dam that Matt and I walked around last weekend, which could easily flood central Hollywood in a bad earthquake.) The problem is that anything that releases large enough amounts of energy to provide our baseline power generation is going to be dangerous - large amounts of energy are inherently dangerous.

Also, note that even in this huge disaster, the nuclear plant has run a risk of costing a few thousand lives, while coal/oil are guaranteed to kill several thousand people from asthma and the like over the course of their run, and any fossil fuel is guaranteed to make global warming worse (with the effect on human lives uncertain). Not to mention the dangers of natural gas extraction that people have been talking about lately. (I don't really know what to believe about this "fracking" business.)
Oh, I'm not convinced that getting rid of nuclear is essential either. I'm still ambivalently in favor of nuclear. The xkcd graphic doesn't count because it doesn't total radiation exposure over time. Which is pretty crucial, and actually a little disappointing (for me, for the comic).

I suppose what I am looking for are honest probabilities for various catastrophic situations. What has happened in Japan (and the initial US response) has made me, I suppose, be pretty distrustful of the values nominated by the usual suspects.

Good point about the potential catastrophes resulting from a dam breaking, though.

And, again, I'm still in favor (I suppose) of nuclear over coal-fired plants. The question is whether we should go to, say, "wind/solar/natural gas" or "wind/solar/nuclear." This is making me rethink my commitment to the latter until I have numbers I am confident in. Which, at the present, I am not.

But yes, I agree - it's remarkably hard to get information about nuclear that isn't entirely pro or anti. The Union of Concerned Scientists has generally seemed good to me, but maybe it's because they've always been cautiously pro-nuclear, which is a more nuanced position than just about anyone else has ever taken.
Ya, the Union of Concerned Scientists has been about the best I've found, but I still kinda suspect something of an anti-nuclear bias there, and am not knowledgeable enough to know whether that is the case.
That's interesting - my worry with UCS is that it's a pro-nuclear bias, even if a relatively moderate one.
I'd expect they have a pro nuclear energy bias, and an anti nuclear weapons bias.
Really? I might be completely wrong, then.
I think the problem is that there honestly aren't that many nuclear incidents and so there isn't much opportunity to study the health risks. Most of the data comes from a handful of events: a few first world nuclear accidents, the atomic bombs and people who become exposed while handling nuclear material (mostly for medical use). That's not a lot of data points to begin with and you're going to lose most of these because doctors aren't in the business of research.

I wouldn't suspect substantial health risks, however. Even people that were caught up in Chernobyl are largely without any symptoms. It also doesn't seem like we have breathless reports from Golden, CO where a major Superfund project was cleaning massive contamination from a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility.
Ya, you are definitely right about the limitations of what data we have. I think we could do better about data for the likelihoods of various types of accidents, but what that would actually mean does seem likely to be obscured.

I am also suspect of the "Chernobyl wasn't that bad" reports.

http://www.boingboing.net/dose%20table.png

Dose table put together by the Mayo Clinic. Read the footnotes carefully.
Ya, that makes sense. But looking at numbers like that also means that smoking is no big deal. Smoking a half a pack a day of cigarettes will give you similar results. People die of all sorts of things all the time. The problem is figuring out how much of an increase a Japan-catastrophe would result in.
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Great post! I want to see a follow up to this topic