Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Seminar at Dartmouth: If Vermont Yankee had an Accident Like Fukushima

On Friday, October 7, I attended a Jones Seminar at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. The Jones Seminars are open to the public, but mostly attended by engineering students.

10 Kilotons in Washington D.C.

Dr. Swartz's area of scientific inquiry is after-the-fact dose measurement, and he started the seminar with a description of an improvised nuclear explosive device going off in Washington D.C.. (Parenthetically, he said it would be easier to buy a bomb than to make one.) At that point in the seminar, since I knew Dr. Swartz is a medical specialist in radiation dose measurement, I wondered why he had titled this talk anything about Vermont Yankee? Vermont Yankee cannot be a bomb, either improvised or purchased.

But as the talk continued, I realized his reasons. He described the casualties of a bomb and the non-casualties of Fukushima in a masterful way. I recommend his talk highly. It is scientific, direct and reassuring.

Helping the Worried Well

Dr. Swartz basically said that in the real events of Fukushima, or the theoretical events at Vermont Yankee, the "worried well" are the major issue. Civilians will not experience exposure at a dose which would measurably increase their chances of getting cancer or limit their life-expectancy. At the same time, they will not believe any official reassurances that "everything is okay." It would be the duty of the scientific community to explain that people are not in danger of cancer or early death. In other words, it would be the duty of the scientific community to reduce one of the major public health effects of any type of accident: fear and anxiety.


Anonymous said...

The problem is, if we ever *did* have any kind of radioactive release in the U.S. of the kind at Fukushima, every time anybody got cancer, or any kid is born with a birth defect, mental retardation, etc (which of course happens all the time, and has happened long before nuclear power), it's going to get blamed on the nuclear plant by many in the public.

It won't matter if you can show statistics saying that the incidence is the same after the release as before, people will say you're lieing.

Then, 10 or 20 years later, Greenpeace or FOE or some such group will get NYAS to publish junk science by some quack.

It's sort of a no-win situation. Let's just try to make sure a large release never happens in North America.

Heck, I bet some people in the U.S. will start blaming Fukushima for their health problems.

Anonymous said...

The "worried well" are a major issue in accident risk management. Two particular cases come to mind. The first is unnecessary evacuation. Shelter-in-place may be the recommended strategy, but a good percentage of the worried well will not follow it because of distrust. So you have droves of panicked citizens taking to the highways. Automobile accidents then pose the greater risk factor. The other specific is unnecessary prophylactic use of KI. Unless radioiodine uptake is indicated, use of KI poses risks from allergic reaction as well as other longer-term effects. But I can very easily see panicked mothers popping KI pills into their kids "just to be on the safe side", because they won't trust health authorities who say not to.

Andrew Jaremko said...

Thanks for sharing Dr. Swartz's presentation. I noticed that at about 30:30 he showed a slide and said that there was "uncontrolled fission" at Fukushima. From what I've read at places like Depleted Cranium and Brave New Climate, the Fukushima reactors did shut down properly with the earthquake, and there was no subsequent fission. Dr. Swartz has provided an example of what he was talking about - being sure to have the facts straight. ;-)

That having been said, I agree with his thesis and it's interesting to see (if only in passing) that there are biometric ways of estimating radiation doses. The only problem is, if people don't trust official pronouncements they might not trust a real measurement that doesn't confirm their fears either. IMO there are many people who will search for "experts" until their fears are confirmed, rather than be reassured by voices from "the establishment".

Meredith Angwin said...

Thank you alll for your comments.

Jeff, I agree that preventing any accident is the most important step.

Anon, yes, the "worried well" are a major risk issue. They can easily hurt themselves or their families by attempting to protect themselves against non-dangerous situations. What I hate, frankly, is that so many people make a living by making this situation worse. Fear-mongers raise money for their anti-nuclear organizations by promising to protect people against theoretical horrible nuclear accidents. Fear sells!

Andrew. Yes, Dr. Swartz was wrong about the "uncontrolled fission." I recently heard a talk from nuclear engineers who just returned from Japan and there was no "uncontrolled fission." Swartz also had some things wrong about the control rods. My friend Howard Shaffer was at the presentation--he's a nuclear engineer. Shaffer talked to Dr. Swartz after the presentation and shared some better information .

Anonymous said...


Can you provide a link to any "authoritative" source on the web to backup the statement that no uncontrolled fission occurs? I'd like to have something I can point people to to rebut anyone making a public claim that uncontrolled fission had occurred (it's my experience that a lot of anti-nuclear people like to say things very publicly and emphatically that don't match reality; instead of it becoming a game of you say/I say, I'd like to have something which oozes credibility).

Howard Shaffer said...

Great Post about the meeting. It was good to be there witn you and Steve.

When I talked to Prof Swartz he was receptive to being told of the recent American Nuclear Society local meeting that had a presentation from Shaw Stone and Webster Engineers who are working under contract on the immediate problems at Fukushima Daiichi and a 10 year cleanup plan. This presentation found no evidence of uncontrolled criticality. Further there are ten plants in the Fukushima prefecture and six survived.

It was pointed out that the MK I Containment is adequate. There were questions in the early days, but research and testing resulted in backfits. The opponents only quote the early questions an never tell the whole story.

Prof Swartz also said in his lecture that he would include in the plant design a liquid tank of solution to shut down the reactor - liquid control rods, so to speak. It was pointed out that this existed on the first nuclear submarine and is in all civilian

Jerry Cuttler said...

Regarding Jeff Schmidt's comment: "The problem is,..., every time anybody got cancer, or any kid is born with a birth defect, etc ..., it's going to get blamed on the nuclear plant by many in the public."
This is why it's important for everyone to learn about the LNT hypothesis http://tedrockwellmemorial.org/lnt.html and sign the initiative to ANS to urge the NAS to revoke its 1956 adoption of this nonsense. www.tedrockwellmemorial.org