Ted Rockwell on Fukushima: It's Not About Radiation, It's About Seawater
March 14, 2011 • 4:39PM

A lot of wrong lessons are being pushed on us, about the tragedy now unfolding in Japan. All the scare-talk about radiation is irrelevant. There is no radiation danger, there will be no radiation danger, regardless of how much reactor melting may occur. Life evolved on, and adapted to, a much more radioactive planet, Our current natural radiation levels—worldwide—are below optimum. Statements that there is no safe level of radiation are an affront to science and to common sense. The radiation situation should be no worse that from the Three Mile Island incident, where ten to twenty tons of the nuclear reactor melted down, slumped to the bottom of the reactor vessel, and initiated the dreaded China Syndrome. On the computers and movie screens of people who make a living “predicting” disasters, this is an unprecedented catastrophe. In the real world, the molten mass froze when it hit the colder reactor vessel, and stopped its downward journey at five-eights of an inch through the five-inch thick vessel wall. And there was no harm to people or the environment. None.

Yet here you have radiation zealots threatening to order people out of their homes, to wander, homeless and panic-stricken, through the battered countryside, to do what? All to avoid a trivial radiation level, lower than if they went skiing.

The important point for nuclear power is that some of the plants were swept with a wall of seawater that may have instantly converted a multi-billion dollar asset into a multi-billion dollar problem. That’s bad news. But suppose the money had been invested in a pharmaceutical factory, or an electronics factory, or a chemical plant or an oil refinery. Is there any reason to believe that such facilities would be any more resistant to damage from such a seawater surge? There is nothing in nuclear plants that makes them uniquely vulnerable to seawater. Moreover, the extent and nature of the damage from seawater may be less than first indicated. Rod Adams, a former nuclear submarine officer, who operated a nuclear power plant at sea for many years, says that inadvertent flooding of certain equipment with seawater was not uncommon. He includes electronics-laden missile tubes. “We flushed them out with fresh water,” he said. “Sometimes we had to replace insulation and other parts. But we could ultimately bring them back on line, working satisfactorily.” The lessons from Japan involve seawater, not radiation.

Theodore Rockwell Member, National Academy of Engineering

Dr. Rockwell’s classical 1956 handbook, The Reactor Shielding Design Manual, was recently made available on-line and as a DVD, by the U.S. Department of Energy.