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Fukushima: Openness can be the only policy

2011 April 13
by Paul Vallely

The temptation to withhold information about a nuclear incident is understandable. Yesterday we saw why. “Fukushima as bad as Chernobyl”, headlines shouted all across the world. Prices fell sharply on the Japanese stock market. The problem was that this was not what the Japanese authorities had admitted when they announced that they were raising their assessment of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station to the most serious level on a seven-step international scale.

It is true that Level 7 had only been applied previously to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. But the news yesterday did not signal new dangers or setbacks at the Japanese atomic plant. Rather it was an acknowledgement that, having re-analysed the data, it now seems that more contamination escaped in the early days of the crisis a month ago.

But this is no Chernobyl. Even on the new data the volume of contamination released is so far only about one-tenth that of the Russian catastrophe. Thirty emergency workers died from radiation poisoning in Russia; none have in Japan. In Chernobyl a water-cooled and graphite-moderated reactor produced a runaway chain reaction that exploded and sent radioactive debris 30,000 feet into the air, contaminating meat and milk for thousands of miles; by contrast Fukushima’s boiling-water reactors do not have a combustible graphite core and its containment structures are largely still holding.

More than that, the situation in Japan is not worsening but improving day by day. The amount of emitted radiation is falling. Fukushima would only be worse than Chernobyl if 100 per cent of its radioactive material escaped. But the opposite is happening; the 10,000 terabecquerels of radiation per hour being spewed into the environment in the first hours of the accident have dropped to less than 1 terabecquerel per hour.

The ability of the media to misreport on science is spectacular. But that does not mean the nuclear authorities in Japan, as elsewhere in the world, should withhold information. It means the opposite. The more educated public opinion becomes, the less purchase alarmist scares and inaccurate comparisons will have. Honesty and openness is the best long-term strategy to win pubic confidence if nuclear power is to play a major part in meeting the world’s energy needs, as it surely must.

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