Worse than Chernobyl?

18 Mar

The focus on Japan’s nuclear reactors has been more intense than practically any issue I’ve ever seen. The amount of discourse from both pro and anti nuclear advocates could already fill libraries. I don’t have much to add to this that hasn’t been said. Instead I’m going to trace the origins and impacts of one particular phrase:

Worse than Chernobyl

Let me first state that I do not know the outcome of the nuclear problems in Japan. It is possible it will be worse than Chernobyl. It is incredibly unlikely, but possible. The design of Chernobyl was so entirely different it is like comparing a bonfire to a kerosene lamp.

However, no one else knows the outcome either. We all have the same limited information about the problems they face. Considering that we have limited information and adding the fact that Chernobyl was a totally different situation, the phrase “worse than Chernobyl” is fear mongering of the most pernicious kind. They have no basis for that claim, except the knowledge that their audience doesn’t understand the issue.

My Dad has worked in Nuclear power for over thirty years and considers the comparisons to Chernobyl absurd. I’m not going to bother giving you details about the Japanese accident or Chernobyl because there are numerous excellent sites that do that much better than I could. Anti-nuclear advocate know about the design differences, but they insist the Japan incident could still be as bad or worse because of the spent fuel pools overheating. However, that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where did this phrase originate?

Perhaps not surprisingly, from an anti-nuclear advocate press release. On March 11’th, the same day as the earthquake, the Institute for Public Accuracy issued a press release:

AP is reporting: “Japan ordered thousands of residents near a northeastern nuclear power plant to evacuate today following a massive earthquake that caused a problem in the plant’s cooling system.”

Kamps is a specialist in nuclear waste at Beyond Nuclear. Last year he was in Japan assessing the state of nuclear facilities there. He said today: “The electrical grid is down. The emergency diesel generators have been damaged. The multi-reactor Fukushima atomic power plant is now relying on battery power, which will only last around eight hours. The danger is, the very thermally hot reactor cores at the plant must be continuously cooled for 24 to 48 hours. Without any electricity, the pumps won’t be able to pump water through the hot reactor cores to cool them. Once electricity is lost, the irradiated nuclear fuel could begin to melt down. If the containment systems fail, a catastrophic radioactivity release to the environment could occur.

“In addition to the reactor cores, the storage pool for highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel is also at risk. The pool cooling water must be continuously circulated. Without circulation, the still thermally hot irradiated nuclear fuel in the storage pools will begin to boil off the cooling water. Within a day or two, the pool’s water could completely boil away. Without cooling water, the irradiated nuclear fuel could spontaneously combust in an exothermic reaction. Since the storage pools are not located within containment, a catastrophic radioactivity release to the environment could occur. Up to 100 percent of the volatile radioactive Cesium-137 content of the pools could go up in flames and smoke, to blow downwind over large distances. Given the large quantity of irradiated nuclear fuel in the pool, the radioactivity release could be worse than the Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe of 25 years ago.”

Alvarez is a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy and now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Wasserman is author of Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth, AD 2030 (which includes an introduction by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.).

For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167

That’s the first mention that I could find of “worse than Chernobyl” after the Japanese earthquake. Notice that the quoted “expert” is called a “specialist in nuclear waste at Beyond Nuclear”. Alright, so what is Beyond Nuclear?

It’s an anti-Nuclear group. The header on their website says “working for a world free from nuclear power and nuclear weapons”. Not exactly unbiased. However, this fellow, Kevin Kamps, he must be some kind of expert right? Not at all. Take a look at his biography:

Kevin Kamps has served as Radioactive Waste Watchdog at Beyond Nuclear in Takoma Park, Maryland since July, 2007 (Before that, he served in a similar role, as nuclear waste specialist at Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) in Washington, D.C. since June of 1999).

Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) in Washington, D.C, that sounds official! What is it? It’s an anti-nuclear group. The man has absolutely no experience in the nuclear industry. However, maybe his education was in nuclear engineering? Let’s look at the bio again:

Kevin attended Earlham College, a Society of Friends (Quaker) school in Richmond, Indiana, as well as Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he studied biology and chemistry, respectively.

Seriously? A Quaker college and Kalamazoo? This man is a long time anti-nuclear advocate, he is not a nuclear expert or specialist or anything worthy of quoting. In testimony before the State of Connecticut, he explains his technical background (none). In fact, he already was trashed by Penn and Teller for being an advocate (warning! that link contains language).

The damage was already done. This “nuclear expert” was quoted in a Forbes story on March 11’th. Also on the 11’th, he was interview by Fox News. Later, on the 17’th, he was quoted in an IPS story:

Radiation levels are deadly when there is not enough water to cover a spent fuel pool, said Kamps. “It will be very difficult to get close enough to cool these pools down,” he noted. “If the worst happens, and the six pools burn, it will be an unimaginable disaster. It could be worse than Chernobyl.”

Other “experts” joined in and soon the phrase was all over the internet. Googling the phrase “worse than chernobyl” and selecting only news articles in just the past week yields 2,200 results.

I’m not blaming Kevin Kamps for all of this. Forbes bloggers, Fox News analysts and journalists should know better than to call these people “experts”. They are advocates, which means they advocate certain positions. Kamps is advocating for a nuclear free world. His information is not un-biased.

When this is all over and it has been nothing even remotely like Chernobyl, will Kevin Kamps, Forbes, Fox News, and IPS apologize for fear-mongering? We’ll see…


Leave a comment

Posted by on March 18, 2011 in Uncategorized


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: