Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 16, 2011

Now I’m worried again about Japan’s reactors

Funny how the techie bit of this disaster and future risk is capturing the media and my attention more than the horrific human loss caused by the earthquake and tsunami directly. What no-one is discussing much is the actual risk level to health if the plants do go the way of Chernobyl. Perhaps because we’re not even sure of what the impact of THAT disaster was: Wikipedia suggests that there are a number of competing studies and much disagreement.

In any event, since I read (and tweeted) this now-criticized-and-edited piece stating (now more or less implying) that there was nothing to worry about, there are enough scientific voices weighing in with nuclear factoids, and reports of additional explosions etc from the plants, to make me worry again. Even business insider comment threads are putting scary thoughts in my head. And suddenly it is emerging that the containment vessels may be leaking, prompting the remaining plant staff who were monitoring and (I assume) managing the pumping etc, to be evacuated so as not to expose them to radiation risk. And finally there’s the thought that combining the levels of likelihood of a core meltdown and another 7+ earthquake in the next few days drastically increases the chances that long half-life radioactive products could get into the surrounding environment.

Which brings me to a random and awful thought. Wikipedia cites one of the firemen who responded to the Chernobyl disaster as saying he was aware of the risks he was taking while being exposed to radiation as he helped extinguish fires (in the disaster there were literally bits of fuel rod lying around the site). Anatoli Zakharov said, “Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation—our duty. We were like kamikaze.”

Gosh. Do we need kamikaze at the Japanese reactors? Could it be that Japan is facing a moral dilemma where regulations designed to reduce risk in one context act to increase risk in another? Or are points of no return already being passed? Above all: how can we reduce the uncertainty in all of this, so that we can anticipate and plan for a suitable, proportionate response?

UPDATE 3, 16/3 4.30pm ESDT: I’ve found that this Wikipedia page is actually the most up to date in terms of citing various news sources and synthesizing them, while this Earthquake Report page is also giving regular updates on verified information from the various government authorities on the more general disaster context as well as the nuclear issues. Apparently 5 plant workers have now died, up from 1 in previous reports, though it doesn’t seem that any of these are due to radiation so far (caught in the explosions perhaps?). And to add insult to injury, a dump of snow is making the general humanitarian situation worse.

UPDATE 2, 16/3 11am ESDT: According to another report by ABC news, the Japanese government has amended radiation regulations to raise the amount of radiation exposure permitted for workers by 2.5x, to 250 millisieverts. The crews of 50 workers cycling through the plant to manage the crisis have been nicknamed “the Fukushima 50”.

UPDATE 1, 16/3 8am ESDT: Apparently the workers have returned to the plant after a drop in radiation levels. My Kamikaze index has dropped.

Some interesting sources from Brad DeLong:



  1. The Fukishima situation seems to be getting back under control, but your question is still a good one. My view is something like Perrow’s ‘Normal Accidents’: we have in place systems (including safety rules) that are designed to cope with all situations that we have anticipated. When a situation goes ‘out of range’ we have to change the rules, as the Japanese have done. We may have to go back to ‘square one’, engaging with ‘deep experts’ to develop reasonable guidance, as the Japanese have done.

    My concern in preparing for situations like these has been to make sure that there are adequate experts and that they will be properly used. This didn’t happen in the run-up to the financial crisis, for example. I know that in the UK the authorities have been very alive to the difficulties of maintaining expertise in obsolete designs using obsolete technologies, and assume that the Japanese have done likewise. But a good point.

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