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Today's MSNBC report on U.S. nuclear risks misinterpreted government data and overstated realistic risks by as much as two orders of magnitude. For example the site stated that the Indian Point 3 reactor (pictured) had a 1 in 10,000 chance of core damage from an earthquake. The actual estimate is one in 670,000.  (Source: Mike Segar / Reuters)

Misinformed by the media, many in the public are stocking up on radiation pills and suggesting banning nuclear power.  (Source: FOE Europe)

The Japanese government is also releasing contradictory and alarming information. According to its latest statement no cores have been breached, so there's no immediate danger to the population, even in this "worst case" scenario.  (Source: The Times)
Fear, uncertainty, disinformation -- news sites offer misinformation, speculation on nuclear power for profit

The nuclear crisis in Japan is bringing international attention.  And there's plenty of misinformation based on current media reports.  We wanted to examine a couple of the top reports circulating, including a report on the risk of a similar disaster occurring in the United States.

I.  Is the U.S. at Risk?  Do You Want the Truth?

Are you at risk of a quake breaking a nuclear plant's core containment vessel and exposing you to potentially cancer-causing levels of radiation?  Yes. 

You are also at risk of dying from lightning, getting mauled by a pig, killed by falling coconut, and all myriad of other unforeseen, unlikely events.

But according to a joint U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and U.S. Geological Survey(USGS) report (PDF), the odds of that happening are extraordinarily low.  Risk, after all, is an assessment of uncertainty -- not a prediction that something will happen.  There's plenty of catastrophic but incredibly unlikely risks we face on a daily basis -- the chance of plant damage in the U.S. is one of them.

The report, which is gaining a great deal of attention in the wake of the Japanese incident, should be considered reassuring, if anything.

According to the report, the greatest risk any plant in the U.S. faces is 1 in 10,000 risk of core damage per year at the perfect frequency.  Note this is the probability of core damage, not "large early release" (LER) -- a completed release of radiation into the environment. did an excellent job digging up the document.  Unfortunately, from they made numerous factual mistakes in interpreting it.

First, their report offers the hyperbole:

It turns out that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has calculated the odds of an earthquake causing catastrophic failure to a nuclear plant here. Each year, at the typical nuclear reactor in the U.S., there's a 1 in 74,176 chance that the core could be damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation. No tsunami required. That's 10 times more likely than you winning $10,000 by buying a ticket in the Powerball multistate lottery, where the chance is 1 in 723,145.

First, all statistic chances are not created equally.  There are 104 commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. (69 pressurized water reactors and 35 boiling water reactors).  That means there's roughly 1 in 742 chance per year of core damage -- or roughly 1 in 7.4 chance per century of such an incident at a single plant.  

By contrast there are dozens of $10,000 "Powerball multi-state lottery" winners every year and will likely be thousands of winners per century.  Thus the comparison itself is a bit puzzling.

But the error runs far deeper.

Note, the report says that the risk is of "the core being damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation".  But as we mentioned earlier, that's not what the report says.  The report references the risk of core damage, which does not estimate the actual probability of a "large early release" of radiation at all.  As the report says, in the case of core damage, such a release would be a "possibility", but given additional containment measures, would likely be a far lower probability than the cored damage frequency (CDF) estimate.

In other words, the report does not predict the risk of the public being exposed to radiation directly at all.

And the errors continue.  The MSNBC report offers a list of plant yearly risks, compiled in handy text format online and in the form of an Excel document.  These risks were taken from the report, but they were the risks at a specific earthquake frequency.  

For example the most "at risk" plant -- New York's Indian Point 3 plant -- has a 1 in 10,000 annual risk of core damage if an ultra-powerful 10 hz earthquake were to strike (thus this is dubbed the "maximum risk" or "weakest link" model).  The actual risk is far lower.  The report gives what is likely the most accurate estimate in the form of a weighted average.  For example for Indian Point 3, the risk is 1 in 670,000 per year.

Now consider the difference between 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 670,000.  We've now gone from 1 in 100 chance of quake core damage per century to 1 in 6,700.  

Looking at the actual numbers, this means that the conclusions goes from there would be likely one core damage at a single plant in the U.S. over the next millennia, to that there would likely be none.

II.  So Reports are Sensationalized -- Why Should I Care?

Now it would be far too easy to cast a blind eye to this kind of misinformation.  All news sites and networks make errors.  But the problem is that in the wake of the earthquake the media has seized on this topic with particular sensationalist fervor and offered much speculation and hyperbole.

The net result is that the U.S. public is becoming mistrusting and fearful of nuclear power.  Anecdotal evidence of that is given by the run on radiation pills in the U.S.

This could have a tremendous deleterious effect on the energy future and security of the U.S.  Nuclear power in the U.S. is arguably the cheapest and most tested form of alternative energy.  The U.S. contains many rich deposits of uranium and other fissile isotopes -- enough to drastically reduce the reliance of the U.S. on fossil fuels from volatile foreign sources.

But public fear can and does have a number of direct effects that may sink that effort.  First, past efforts to build plants in the 1970s and 1980s led to massive lawsuits that raised costs of construction so high that no new U.S. plants were even seriously considered until a year or two ago.

Finally, the U.S. has its first new plant application in three decades and is preparing to embark on a new era of nuclear energy.

It is important to also consider that fission power is widely viewed by the scientific community as only a stopgap solution that at most will be used for power generation for a couple more centuries before being replaced by fusion power.  Nature shows us that fusion is a far more abundant and lucrative source of energy in our universe, so if we can't harness fusion power within 300 years we've done something wrong, given how close we seemingly are.

In other words, nuclear power is a short-term solution and thus risk should only be considered in the short term (as discussed above).

Further, the risks on these new plants will be orders of magnitude less and that they will produce less nuclear waste and more energy.

And last, but not least any discussion of risks should put things in perspective by providing information on equivalent dangers of fossil fuel power generation -- something virtually none have done.  As underscored by the recent coal mining disasters in Chile and West Virginia, fossil fuel power is hardly safe and human friendly.  Every energy source has a cost.  For some alternative energy sources like solar and wind, that cost is high production costs.  For fossil fuels, it's loss of life.  In total 6,400 people died between 1970 and 1992 during coal mining operations, and 1,200 died extracting natural gas [source].

The importance of the truth and accuracy in this situation cannot be overstated.  It is of the utmost importance that the media offers accurate information to the public in countries with nuclear interests, particularly in the wake of the Japanese incident.

III.  Confusion in Japan and other news organizations are not solely responsible for the confusion and misinformation that's permeating all news outlets.  Some of it is coming from those who should be reassuring, not speculating -- the government of Japan.

Japan's Fukushima nuclear plants still face a precarious situation in the wake of the record-setting 9.0 magnitude Sendai earthquake.  Smoke has been billowing up from southern Fukushima I's reactor three -- steam from a damaged roof.  Now that smoke is steam from broken water pipes in the cooling system of the reactor building.

Japanese officials on earlier today in a report [PDF] suggested that the reactor core may have been released and that radiation could be carried in the steam into the environment endangering the public.  But then later in the day, they said that the core was not compromised.

Of course by then a score of outlets had already reported that it was compromised.

Similarly, many reports stated that the reactor rods had "melted down" -- a serious problem.  These reports are based on statements made by Japanese officials that the rods may have melted.  There is some evidence of this conclusion -- water was observed to have boiled off of some of the rods, leaving them uncooled.  But officials don't know or haven't released to what extent the rods have melted.

The levels inside the most radioactive plant reached approximately 6.4 millisieverts per hour, before dropping.  To put this in context, a full chest CT scan gives you 7 millisieverts [source] of radiation.  In other words, you could work in the most damaged plant with no protective gear and only receive the amount of radiation of a common medical procedure.  Now that's absolutely not to say that there aren't more serious risks if certain possibilities play out, but the risk of loss of life from the nuclear accident just isn't there yet.

Ultimately, the fault for these confusing and contradictory reports rest largely on the shoulders of Japan's government and international regulators. They have cooperated to publish contradicting and overly speculative reports.

IV. Conclusions

The situation in Japan is ongoing.  Officials are using helicopters and fire-trucks to spray water, and possibly boric acid to cool the smoldering cores.  We won't have the final picture of what -- if any -- significant long-term radiation release the reactors will create for some time now.

If the media wants a sensational story, they can get some great coverage of the efforts to contain the overheating rods.  But in the interest of accuracy they should beware or offer disclaimers on the statements of government officials, given their contradictory track record.  And they should most definitely avoid going out of their way to create more misleading statements themselves by misinterpreting obscure U.S. government reports.

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RE: MSNBC.....
By JasonMick on 3/16/2011 3:31:59 PM , Rating: 5
Yes people are going to keep spouting their BS about anti-nuclear power but if anything, this earthquake in Japan should be a learning experience: DON'T PUT NUCLEAR POWER NEAR NATURAL DISASTER ZONES.

No, that is NOT the lesson here. If that were true nuclear power wouldn't be possible in New York, the west coast or most of Japan.

There are multiple lessons here, none of which you directly mentioned. Among them are:

1. Beware sensationalist fear mongering in the media.
2. Even in a "worst case" scenario of a record earthquake, a directly affected plant is unlikely to release significant radiation if the authorities perform a responsible effort of containment.
3. Legacy plants at disaster sites should have sealed (waterproof), shock-resistant backup power supplies. Sufficient lengths of cabling should be provided for quick connection, should the primary line be broken. In this case the cooling pumps would have done their job and there'd be zero accident so to speak.
4. The world should move to modern nuclear designs like advanced CANDU HWRs or, less optimally thorium. These designs would be far safer and carry much less meltdown risk.

I trust your comment was well intentioned, but beware spreading misinformation yourself, in your effort to discredit alarmism and misinfo from "antinuclear" groups.

RE: MSNBC.....
By 3DoubleD on 3/16/2011 4:46:02 PM , Rating: 3
It is interesting to me that of all the next generation reactors, you specifically chose to mention the advanced CANDU reactor (ACR). I worked at AECL years ago, and since they have had some trouble (partially at the fault of our ill-advised government). A large reason for government intervention at AECL was the lack of profit because no one would buy an ACR because it represented too much of a financial risk (not a safety risk, it is supposed to be a very safe reactor) as one had never been built before.

Mostly to blame is to Canadian Federal and Ontario Provincial governments as it is generally seen as their responsibility to shoulder the financial responsibility (and risk) of building the first ACR. I know US customers have expressed interest in the ACR, but when it comes down to it they won't take the financial risk of being the first to build it.

So you see I find it interesting you bring it up. What about the ACR causes you to mention it?

RE: MSNBC.....
By JasonMick on 3/16/2011 4:54:06 PM , Rating: 5
So you see I find it interesting you bring it up. What about the ACR causes you to mention it?

From my research on the topic, its design:

1. Is remarkably safe.
2. Is super efficient.
3. Can use a variety of fuel, including repurposed plutonium.

Sounds like a win-win situation for everyone.

Mostly to blame is to Canadian Federal and Ontario Provincial governments as it is generally seen as their responsibility to shoulder the financial responsibility (and risk) of building the first ACR.

Not surprising. Why do you think no one in the U.S. built a plant for THREE DECADES? It was because of the inordinately high cost of lawsuits, government red tape, and other brainlessness from the misguided public and government.

Ultimately fossil fuel providers profited greatly off of nuclear power being discredited. I would be amazed if oil interests in the U.S. and Middle East weren't in part secretly financing these efforts. (They at least have the advantage in that the media is perfectly willing to play along for free as sensationalism == profit...)

We could cheaply remove virtually all of our dependence on foreign oil if we switched to nuclear.

If there's anything this incident has shown us, it would be that the switch would be almost completely safe -- arguably safer than fossil fuels at least. Unfortunately media is so busy misinforming the public for profit, that the majority of people in the U.S. probably believe the opposite -- that it's horribly dangerous.

They should consider -- how many people died in oil and coal mining accidents in the last year. Have there been ANY deaths in Japan's worst case scenario? Use logic.

RE: MSNBC.....
By 3DoubleD on 3/16/2011 5:50:22 PM , Rating: 5
I'm happy to hear news about the ACR's potential is getting out. While all three points are great, I've always loved the third one. It is somewhat ironic that people would protest the building of these reactors when they simultaneously reduce stockpiled plutonium while providing emission-free power. Especially ironic when one considers how many order of magnitude more dangerous nuclear weapons are than power plants.

Unfortunately, for nuclear to make a comeback in any country there needs to be political will. Powerful lobbyist groups will be required to gain this political will, as we all know that's where the real power sits in our countries (US, Canada, ect.). Unfortunately, I cannot think of who would lead these groups. There are few non-nationalized players in the nuclear industry and obviously none of them in the past 20 years have significantly relied on building new reactors as a source of revenue. Even in the case where sitting idle costs the government more money, even the Canadian government can't find the inspiration to take a step forward. Hell, if the US government had invested a fraction of the $700B bailout and War on Terror/ Iraq war on energy infrastructure, education, and health care - the US would currently look completely different right now - for the better.

Then there is the impossible task of dealing with public opinion. People are especially afraid of things they a) don't understand and b) can't see. Radiation, like terrorism, will always scare the uninformed. Unfortunately, I retain little hope anymore that the uninformed skeptics in Canada will become educated. I have even less (approaching zero) hope for uninformed Americans skeptics due to their shear numbers. This is especially sad since the US moving from coal/gas to nuclear would make ~10x the difference than if Canada did so.

But, solar and wind cannot replace baseload power, and fossil fuels will eventually run out way before we master fusion as a power source. To make matters worse, energy use is increasing rapidly and many reactors built in the 60s, 70s, and 80s will be decommissioned soon.

Where do people think they are going to get their electricity from? How will they drive their shiny new EVs or surf the web on their iPads in their air conditioned homes? Rainbows, fairies, and pixie dust don't burn so well!

Why are people delaying the inevitable? We will have to build new nuclear reactors! We should have started years ago!

RE: MSNBC.....
By MrTeal on 3/16/2011 6:45:15 PM , Rating: 2
I wish I could rate this up, but I've already posted.

The sad fact is that the one great saviour of the nuclear industry might have been the even greater fear of global warming. If the events at Fukushima delay the introduction of new facilities for 10 or more years, the industry could be in for real problems in North America as existing plants (and personnel) are retired and none are built to replace them. The political will to restart the industry might not be there in a decade if and when the attention of politicians moves from AGW to whatever else is the hot topic of the day.

It's shocking the number of people who really believe that all of the world's energy could easily be provided by "green" energy, if it wasn't for Big Oil and Big Nuclear holding them back. These "environmentalists" loath coal, but block new hydro and nuclear efforts because of potential damage. It is like Solandri posted in the comments on the other Japan article; people are willing to accept the guaranteed consequences of using coal over the remote possibility of severe consequences from a meltdown. Even then, the consequences are mostly in people's imagination. I'm really starting to believe that more people than not actually believe that
1) A meltdown is bound to occur
2) When a meltdown occurs, the plant will blow up, bomb-style

So, nothing happens. New coal/NG plants get built because you can't approval for any other baseline capacity. Green's whine that there isn't enough investment in solar or wind to bring costs down, while ignoring the huge problems that prevent them from being used exclusively. If you think we have electricity issues now, just wait our lack of investment collides with huge increases in demand in a couple years.

RE: MSNBC.....
By Spoelie on 3/17/2011 7:40:13 AM , Rating: 3
Funny that you mention this.

Try finding news reports on the rampaging oil refinery fires happening in Japan for the past few days. Almost none. And they are doing some real environmental damage...

RE: MSNBC.....
By bah12 on 3/16/11, Rating: -1
RE: MSNBC.....
By JasonMick on 3/16/2011 6:52:45 PM , Rating: 3
You do realize that the majority of power used in the US is coal/gas not oil. Oil is primarily used to power our cars and heat. So NO switching to Nuclear would not remove our dependence. Now if you said switching to Nuclear, and mandating a switch to EV's could remove our dependence that would be a truer statement. But simply using Nuclear alone would not accomplish that goal. Arguably the shifting of the US consumer mindset to drive EV's instead of oil powered cars, is a MUCH harder change than using Nuclear power. Unless you propose we force them to via fuel tax or legislation, and I just know you would not want that riiiighhht.

EVs are rapidly becoming a feasible replacement for gasoline vehicles. An EV/nuclear economy WOULD eliminate dependence on foreign fossil fuels. THAT is what I was referring to.

Of course that change can't happen overnight, but neither will building nuclear plants, even if the public was properly informed.

As for coal, interesting you bring that up because coal mining is quite dangerous. The U.S. would be saving lives by switching from coal electric power to nuclear.

It's a win-win situation on virtually all fronts.

RE: MSNBC.....
By Keeir on 3/16/2011 11:15:29 PM , Rating: 2
As for coal, interesting you bring that up because coal mining is quite dangerous.

Coal power generation, and even Natural Gas power generation also produce significant amounts of real air pollution. PM, NOx, etc.

Switching to EV/ER-EV and Nuclear Power would significant increase air quality in ALL US Cities as well as most of the country. This would lead to an increase in both lifespan and quality of life.

RE: MSNBC.....
By piroroadkill on 3/17/2011 5:12:48 AM , Rating: 2
I've read about CANDU reactors for a while, and I have a hard on for them over and above other types of reactor. The ACR type would be my favourite future choice.

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