Fukushima: rationality vs emotion in policy-making

I can’t help thinking that if the French, German and Swiss governments had got better scientific advice – or listened to the advice of their scientists rather than the opinion pollsters – then they might have come through the Fukushima crisis looking slightly less foolish. Lest we forget, the French government pointlessly evacuated its embassy from Tokyo due to infinitesimal additional radiation, whilst the Germans topped that by switching off several nuclear power stations unnecessarily and importing millions more tonnes of coal (the biggest killer of all energy sources by some margin) from the United States to keep the lights on.

In contrast, the Brits seemed to do pretty well. This was confirmed for me last night at a meeting at the Royal Society in London of the Foundation for Science and Technology, where some of the leading experts in all things nuclear met to debate the outcomes of Fukushima. One of the speakers was Mike Weightman, whose Office for Nuclear Regulation report was issued yesterday, and concluded clearly that there was no case for taking any UK nuclear power stations offline in response to Fukushima (Guardian report, ‘UK nuclear industry gets green light from government inspector’ here).

Angela Merkel take note: this is how proper policy should be done. Instead of panicking about anti-nuclear green votes in upcoming elections, a sensible government leader would ask experts to conduct an urgent safety review of the nuclear power sector in the light of Fukushima and take decisions accordingly. The Weightman report, by the way, is anything but a whitewash – it contains more than twenty recommendations which the industry must respond to within a month. These cover issues like maintaining power supplies in the event of a station blackout, fuel pond design, spent fuel strategies, openness and so on.

A similar report has also been produced in Germany, according to World Nuclear News, but there of course the decision has already been taken. Eight nuclear stations have already been taken offline, and the government has decided to exit nuclear altogether. “I stick to the premise of sensibly leaving nuclear energy as quickly as possible and replacing it with renewables and energy efficiency,” the German environment minister is reported as saying. Good luck with that. I think we all need to recognise that whilst the German government has every right to determine its own national energy policy, the decision to dispense with nuclear is not based on any rational assessment of risk – it is politics, pure and simple. Germany now faces the much greater risk of not being able to reduce its carbon emissions sufficiently to meet its climate change commitments, whilst killing more people via direct pollution from coal-burning plants.

Back to Fukushima. We now know that the crisis was much worse than originally thought, and that possibly a complete meltdown in Reactor 1 took place within less than 24 hours after the tsunami hit. The molten fuel slumped to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel, and may even have burned its way through in places – which is presumably why attempts to pump in water for cooling ended up creating large volumes of radioactive water which pooled up in the basement and also flowed out to sea. Similar situations probably also took place in Reactors 2 and 3, though this is less clear still. The opinion of the experts at last night’s meeting was that with Fukushima having released about a tenth as much radiation as Chernobyl (which released a huge amount, let it be said), the crisis probably deserves its designation as a 7 on the INES scale.

This Wall Street Journal piece is a must-read, telling the extraordinary story of how workers had to scavenge car batteries to try to keep instruments working, and how the bursting pressure vessel was eventually vented by hand, giving the brave worker who opened it an immediate 100 millisieverts dose. The main piece of luck was that most of the radiation released by the failing reactors went into the sea, where it is quickly dispersed so will have no discernible impact on marine life (and may even be positive in strict ecological terms if it stops Japan fishing nearby for a while).

Things could have been even worse of course. What might have happened then was shared by the UK government’s Chief Scientist John Beddington, whose team conducted modelling during the height of the crisis to figure out worst-case scenarios – say, for example, a triple-reactor set of explosions, with large quantities of ejected dust and radioactive material, plus the wind blowing straight towards Tokyo. What most struck me was that even if that had happened, doses to Tokyo residents would still have been, in Beddington’s words, “trivial”. See the screen grab below from Beddington’s slide presentation:

The dose of 3 mSv would be about equivalent to doubling background levels for a year in Tokyo, so hardly worth moving embassies for even if several Fukushima reactors had blown up completely. Beddington had a chart to indicate the relative severity of these kinds of radiation doses too (please excuse tiny writing; note also that the doses listed in the blue box on the left are incorrectly labelled as microsieverts – they should be millisieverts):

So what do we conclude? There are certainly lessons from Fukushima, but not ones that require the total abandonment of nuclear power. If anything, Fukushima demonstrates that even the much-feared ‘China syndrome’ of a total meltdown does not necessarily mean a disastrous release of radiation – the melted fuel slumps down into the reactor pressure vessel, or even onto the concrete below, but that’s about it. Many books have been written about why we humans are so bad at estimating relative risk, and why nuclear seems to push many of our ‘dread’ buttons even though it is among the safest energy technologies of all. It is particularly extraordinary, given all the interest and hyperbolic media coverage of Fukushima, that it has been – and will likely remain – a non-fatal accident.


  1. Nuclearenergy.ch

    Excellent article! Hope many people will read that. Here in Switzerland it’s not about science, it’s about emotion and votes (In Autumn we vote our new parliament)…

  2. ssam

    in the big writing on left of the bottom chart, shouldn’t that be mSv not microSv?

  3. TalkNuclear


    excellent article.

    One question, though: the GOS graph shows natural background radiation to be 2.0 microSievert. That does not seem correct.

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Quite right – it should be millisieverts. I’ll put a note to that effect.

  4. Todd Taylor

    You and your scientists should take your families and supporters to the fukushima plant and teach them how they cooled the reactors down first hand. When you get there take some photos and email them to me and explain how they cooled the molten mass of each reactor? I hear if you drink and eat there for a while you will be cured of any illness known to man!! Its even better for you, your family and scientist friends to buy some land there and enjoy your long lives or so i believe? I cannot believe these alarmist types (so dumb) nuclear fission is so easy to put out when its in mass! Looking forward to seeing those photos and showing those dumbos that your friends and you talk the truth. You can actually stand and breath in radionuclide particles to get a tan and live healthy lives.
    Thanks for telling truths and not being just dumb.

    1. Jack

      I’ll do that if you and your family stick your heads down the smoke stack of a coal plant and take deep breaths. The difference is those coal plants are doing what they’re supposed to – pumping lead, mercury, arsenic, iodine, sulfuric acid, and CO2 into the atmosphere by the ton (not even hit by a 45′ tsunami).

  5. Person that Lives in Japan

    The fact that people like you still claim Fukushima is no big deal and will have no long term impact simply amazes me. What I also love is how people like you still are only citing external radiation exposure and nothing about internal exposure. These are two different things! If you truly believe everything is so safe and there will be no long term impact to the surrounding area and its people. Then I invite you and your family to please come live in Fukushima and show everyone just how safe everything is. Come eat the food, drink the water, and enjoy the outdoors.

    1. Jack

      Actually that’s the World Health Organization who says that – you know, DOCTORS.

  6. Karl-Friedrich Lenz

    You might also be interested in an article at the New York Times where they say that the damage from irrational fear is mainly limited to Germany and Japan.


    Most significant is that China is not going to base their policy on irrational fear. That article quotes one official with “we are not going to stop eating for fear of choking”.

    And even Japan is not switching off everything, but only Fukushima 2 and Hamaoka, for the time being.

    The German government recommended evacuating children from Tokyo well into May. They also evacuated the Embassy to Osaka. I disagree strongly with these decisions and have protested to the government publicly and repeatedly.

    By the way, “global meltdown” might be a more effective term than either “global warming” or “climate change”.

  7. Larry

    The French knew about the MOX fuel. Plutonium is the most deadly substance on the planet.

    You should research your articles better so you don’t mislead others.

    The real extent of this disaster will not be seen for another four or five years.

    Plutonium contamination in rice fields more than 50 kilometers from Dai-Ichi Fukushima.


    1. turnages

      It turns out that the plutonium toxicity “most toxic substance known” scaremongerings of Ralph Nader and Helen Caldicott are alarmist bull.

      From the Plutonium article on wikipedia: “Several populations of people who have been exposed to plutonium dust (e.g. people living down-wind of Nevada test sites, Hiroshima survivors, nuclear facility workers, and “terminally ill” patients injected with Pu in 1945–46 to study Pu metabolism) have been carefully followed and analyzed. These studies generally do not show especially high plutonium toxicity or plutonium-induced cancer results.[91] “There were about 25 workers from Los Alamos National Laboratory who inhaled a considerable amount of plutonium dust during the 1940’s; according to the hot-particle theory, each of them has a 99.5% chance of being dead from lung cancer by now, but there has not been a single lung cancer among them.”

      References: http://journals.lww.com/health-physics/Abstract/1975/10000/What_We_Have_Learned_about_Plutonium_from_Human.11.aspx


      Also see
      http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/2/163.full .

      A significant effect on cancer incidence was only seen when cumulative exposures from inhaled plutonium dust was of the order of 100mSv or more.

      The plutonium in the rice fields is down in the parts per megabillion range and probably dates from the era of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Completely harmless.

  8. Robin Smith

    What would have happened if the entire fire had dropped onto the concrete?

    We are very very lucky the design at least stopped that.

    The people in Japan have a seemingly irrational fear if radiation. Yet its a fear all the same. Lets be sympathetic about that. That way you might get more of a hearing.

    Im pro nuclear. We should already be replacing the old military designs with the safe commercial ones so abundant on the shelf.

    We could start in the morning. They could be running within several years. We got safely to the moon and back in 8 years 1 month 22 days.

  9. hector balint

    Good to to know that our top boffins stayed valiantly by their laptops while the Swiss were fleeing and the Germans panicking. Regarding the map the radiation figures are for 48 hours so you’re doubling the annual background in 2 days. In defining this as trivial Beddington appears to be suggesting that radioactivity in the fallout from the volatilized reactor cores deposited on Tokyo would cease after that. That is a questionable assumption. Personally I find the presentation, from the inept graphics complete with helpful illustration of what a packet of cigarettes looks like to the implausible “worst case” garnished with barely legible figures confusingly presented, less than 100% convincing. Add to that the howler with the units of measurement, coming from The Government Office for Science no less and the whole thing looks a bit shabby. Anyway, 3.6 x 365 / 36 x 1.5= 54.75 packets of cigarettes equivalent to spending a day at the “point 50km NW of Fukushima”. You got to smoke them all on the day. It’s rough out there.

  10. Paul Kingsnorth

    Here’s another way of looking at this.

    Human beings are irrational creatures, who operate largely on intuition, emotional responses, habit and socialisation. This applies to every walk of life, from love to politics to shopping. That some then choose to overlay a patina of rationality onto that teeming maelstrom to make themselves feel better doesn’t change much in the big picture.

    That being the case, all policies, worldviews, demands, campaigns and the like should work to this assumption. I draw from this that repeated demands for irrational creatures to ‘be rational’ about events like Fukushima (coupled with the assumption that ‘being rational’ is always necessarily superior to being irrational) won’t get you far. This post rather proves my point.

    If humanity is going to have any chance of extricating itself from its current mess it will need to learn from experience. Experience tells me that something which people are terrified of is – in the most basic sense – entirely unsustainable, however rational or irrational that fear might be. That obviously applies to nuclear power.

    The wider lesson might be that instead of constantly demanding that people put their emotions to one side and make ‘rational’ decisions – something which never happens on planet Earth – you take their emotions into account when crafting societies and cultures. Failure to do that leads to … well, failure. As we can see.

  11. Anonymous

    Suburbia and consumerism are not sustainable either by coal, oil, gas, nuke power, or renewables.

    The catch is that no lifestyle of any quality is sustainable by any fossil fuel or fissionable material.

    But a smart growth paradigm which achieves 80% of the material wealth that we have become accustomed to, with infinitely more health benefits and social interaction is achievable for the rest of time with family planning & renewables: wind, heat pumps, solar.

  12. Alice

    Excuse me, but NOBODY has come through the Fukushima crisis. The Fukushima crisis is still unfolding, and will last decades. And no one knows what to do about it. Not even the scientists.

    1. Andrew Lohmann

      This is true – but in any case will we know all the significant details eventually?

  13. Andrew Lohmann

    The problem is that the military nuclear industrial complex has grown so large that so many interests jobs and money make it unstoppable. That what is not to say that what is spun off could not be benfical to humanity.

    The Soviet rocket science was second to none going to the moon in 1957 when US rockets were to up to launching reliably at all till many years later. I watched the Apolo moon shot avidily at age 10 just to see americans playing golf with equipment they took with them. But real science and astronomy did come out of the MIR satalite and the shuttle programmes.

    This is not the case with Nuclear Power – too cheap to meter was a lie. The need for indirectly heating water as UKs gas cooled/moderated reactors were over costly. So said to be less safe direct water heating reactors have been substituted but even so these are still costly requireing governements to underwrite there decomissioning and we won’t worry about how to dispose of the most highly radioactive latter.

    It is likely that the lie or truth from the 1950’s of Pu being the most posinous susbstance on Earth came from those who wanted, in preparing for nuclear war and first strike limited war in Europe did that, to untimatly break the Soviet Union. They did that successfully but we still wait for the prommissed peace didvidend.

    Nuclear Power is a base load inflexible by-product of bomb making of cause in itself does not make the power bad But in this case it fills up Hydro storage capacity uses up flexible supplies that accomodate load fluctuation. These can be used more effectively for renewable energy and so what if you don’t use all the wind when its blowing that still does not sound as bad as burning and wasting nuclear material minned in places of where standards in those industries fall very far short of National Coal Board standards.

    1. Andrew Lohmann

      I doubt that anything has changed since BBC2 Horizon Programme in the 1970’s told us that Nuclear Power does not pay back in energy used to build the original power stations. Lets not kid ourselves this is big money for the big boys. It does not relate to issues such as excessive consumption – the belief that clever banking and money creation will overcome that we have managed without for many millennia.

  14. jangchuan

    Hi, I am from Koriyama-city, Fukushima. My parents and many of the familiar still live there. I do not deny all anti-nuclear energy policies are due to pure politics or not. Maybe or may not be. But let me a bit defend against your opinion as emotional guy from Fukushima.

    You are of interest in supporting England as obviously shown in your essay (some connection to the loyal society?). And I guess your self-serving bias coming from the interest seems to deprive you of the respect to other countries’ peoples. Each people has its historically fostered unique way of thinking, which should be respected even if it look irrational. It is our decision: cost and benefit is ours (I will leave out the discussion of COx or SOx emition issue may English like ).

    Plus, we many a time tend to fail to think of what rationality is, as the extreme belief in market, which many economists said was rational but now many experts say is irrational, had been contributor to financial crisis. We may face economic difficulty due to energy supply issue, but may develop faster-growing renewable in long run because of potentially low elevated and marginal cost of wind power, for instance. Or to take too high the risk for our children may be more rational than pursing economic benefits even if it means we can spend less health care benefits to them. We can not know, I believe, what is truly rational. .

    In summary We based on our unique culture should make choice what is significant to us, I believe. Thanks for reading my naive essay till the end

  15. Paul Cumming

    Granted, there will likely be few excess cancer deaths due to the Fukushima accident. However, I have been trying to reckon the economic cost of the accident, mainly arising from compensation for evacuation from the exclusion zone (where the dosimetry is >100 times background). One estimate is 250 billion dollars. I am not sure how that was calculated, and it probably depends on assumptions about how long the exclusion zone should be unfit for human habitation, and remain removed from agricultural production (in a country where only 10% of the land area is available for agriculture).
    250 billion dollars would buy a lot of solar panels; by pencil and paper reckoning, that would be enough cash to meet Japan’s electricity requirements through renewable sources. Nuclear energy has proven to be too expensive. We would have been better off investing all that money in alternatives.


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