Public Health Melt Down: Nuclear Lessons from Japan

9/11 showed the strength and weaknesses of skyscrapers: incredible resilience capable of withstanding the impact of a direct hit by an airplane, but vulnerable to extreme heat.

Japan's nuclear reactors show similarly unexpected strengths and vulnerabilities worth pondering not only from an energy policy perspective, but also public health. When we consider how risky a behavior is, three general criteria come to mind: How likely is it to happen to me, how bad will it be if it does happen, and what are the trade offs? Keeping these two factors in mind, even events as unlikely as recent Somali piracy have health lessons.

Japan’s current nuclear saga is far from done or even fully understood. But two points seem fairly certain: The reactors actually withstood the 9.0 earthquake, and the subsequent tsunami. What they were not able to recover from was the ultimate failure of the power grid and backup generators necessary to maintain cooling systems. This was exacerbated by poor emergency planning that placed backup generators in a low laying location susceptible to flooding.

This paints a far more scary picture from a generalizable public health perspective, because it potentially makes the "Japan Syndrome" (explosion and radioactive release secondary to a cooling failure) a real possibility practically anywhere. Rather than a tale of what can happen to the infrastructure when a once-in-a-generation natural disaster occurs, this becomes a possibility under much more mundane circumstances that might threaten electricity supply and backup plans, in much more geologically stable areas far above sea level.

Risks, Perceptions and Trade Offs

Serious nuclear accidents are rare, and in the US no one has ever died from a nuclear power accident. But the consequences are tremendous: radiation contamination of large areas of land for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Ground waters and atmospheric forces spreading the danger. You can’t see or smell radiation, so the public is left to trust government and industry to tell them who is at risk of what. Situations that don’t engender confidence include evacuation notices that clear populations in neatly concentric circles with a radius of a dozen or so miles, then experts tell us that the danger actually extends more in a pencil shaped plume potentially hundreds of miles that will wander based on weather conditions.

Then there's the strange trade-off that nuclear energy offers: Ideally, in an accident free environment they offer lots of (relatively) cheap electricity in the short term that doesn't contribute to climate change. More reliable than generation dependent on the sun or wind, cleaner than coal. Long term they of course create wastes that remain deadly for thousands of years. There're huge capitol expenses to build plants. And accidents can be horrifying.

Perhaps reactor age and design doesn't matter, but it certainly doesn't make the public relations any easier when news spreads that plants of the same design and age as Japan’s exploded Fukushima Daiishi Unit 1 are operating elsewhere. 40-year old Vermont Yankee, the oldest nuclear power plant in the US, is apparently an identical reactor.

In addition to being plagued with numerous safety problems and (comparatively mild) radiation leakages, Vermont Yankee faces regulatory challenges. Although the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a license for Yankee to continue operating for another 20 years, the Vermont legislature voted against re-licensure. It's unclear whose authority will ultimately prevail, so the issue will likely fester in federal court before reaching an eventual resolution.

Will events in Japan diminish the Obama administration’s previous support for building more nuclear power plants in the US? Will it influence the fate of Vermont Yankee? Should it? Could the Northeast be endangered by failures of the power grid and backup generation caused by weather or man-made conditions? Are these rare risks worth taking, even though their potential health impact could last for hundreds of generations?

Photo credit: Vermont