Rob, funny you should mention that. I’ve been talking to Chuck Devore these past few days about exactly the same thing.
Here’s what he said to me about this:
It’s important not to understate the severity of what’s happened in Japan, but also important not to understate the safeguards that have been put in place and how fundamentally different the safeguards that have been put in place in plants in Japan are from Chernobyl in 1986. There was no containment dome in Chernobyl. And there are containment domes in Japan.
And what happens when you get a meltdown or a partial meltdown, as may be happening, is the substances you’re most concerned about–things like strontium and cesium and iodine–because those are elements that are easily picked up by the human body, in the case of strontium and cesium, they’re very similar, chemically, to calcium, so they tend to get absorbed into the bones and can cause bone cancer and leukemia; in the case of iodine it gets taken up by the thyroid gland. But it’s also very easy to combat, and that’s why the Japanese government is distributing the iodine pills, to prevent that.
The important thing, though, is the containment dome itself. And what happens when you have a meltdown, or partial meltdown, is that there’s a fair amount of very hot, as in vaporized, cesium and strontium and iodine that gets released. These are products of nuclear fission, and what’s happening is that these products of nuclear fission are embedded in the concrete of the containment dome. They’re very sticky: They like to seek out and find concrete when they’re at that temperature. And they actually bind with the wall of the containment dome. So even if there’s a partial rupture of the containment dome, which can happen, and there’s a crack in it, the bottom line is these materials are going to coat themselves, in their super-heated state, on the side of the walls of the containment dome. And as long as it functions as it’s supposed to, then the secondary damage–you’ve had the earthquake, and the tsunami–then the likelihood of civilian casualties at these nuclear power plants is actually very limited.
I don’t want to discount it — the bottom line is it’s a serious situation — but let’s look at Chernobyl: according to UN reports in the aftermath, roughly 50 people died at Chernobyl, about half of them being direct responders, people who were putting out the fire, and about half of them being civilians. So this is the worst nuclear power accident in the history of mankind, put that into context of Japan–we may be looking at thousands of people dead from the earthquake and tsunami. So in the greater context of things, this nuclear power plant meltdown is mainly in the minds of Western media as a big deal, when the big deal was the earthquake and tsunami.
Containment domes aren’t my specialty, but he sounded quite persuasive. I’d be curious to hear from other people who know more about this. Does this sound about right to them?