I plan to write more about the disaster in Japan and the situation at many of its nuclear power plants later but I wanted to put up a note on the U.S. media’s coverage of the issue which is becoming completely irresponsible (full disclosure-my father is a nuclear engineer and has worked at dozens of nuclear power plants around the country). 

Considering my personal bias on this issue, it’s no surprise that I’m extremely pro-nuclear power and I’m used to the anti-nuclear rhetoric one often sees in the media and when I was a young girl, on college campuses (I can still remember my totally amused father arguing with some young hippie college student who had no idea she’d knocked on the door of a nuclear engineer when she was out soliciting signatures for her anti-nuc petition). 

However, even I’m surprised at the hysterical tone media outlets are adopting when covering the earthquake and tsunami-caused problems at Japan’s nuclear power plants.  It’s unfortunate and it is almost guaranteed to hurt the nuclear industry here in the U.S. which is already burdened by a decades-long effort by environmentalists, irritating Hollywood actors (and cartoon characters), left-leaning (and hyper regulatory) politicians, and the anti-nuclear movement (such as the Union of Concerned Scientists) which has worked hard to discredit the industry and scare the American public.  

Providing some thoughtful analysis of the situation is Ron Ballenger, a nuclear expert at MIT.  The Daily Beast’s Josh Dzieza talked to him and found out he has some interesting thoughts on the nuclear non-disaster in Japan.  Here’s just a taste of Ballenger’s thoughts:  

About the media’s constantly mentioning Chernobyl:  

Well, first off, we can’t have a Chernobyl-like situation. The system is designed so that as long as we keep water in there to keep it cool, nothing will happen. There are three levels of protection here. One is the fuel cladding, and if that’s damaged then it releases radioactive material into the pressure system, which is a steel container. Then there’s a containment vessel around that. What likely happened is that you had fuel damage, damage to the first barrier, which produced hydrogen in the primary system, and then to keep the pressure down they vented the hydrogen into the building that was destroyed.  

Regarding those big, scary numbers the media keeps talking about, Szieza asks “radiation spiked at 1,015 microsievert per hour before the explosion. Is that dangerous?  

No, that’s about 100 milirem. It’s high, but you get about 35 milirems on a trans-Atlantic flight. And if you live in Denver, you get about 50 milirems per year.  

Dzeieza then follows up with “what is the dangerous level, and what happens when that level is reached?”  

The LD50-that is to say, the point when 50 percent of the people exposed will meet Jesus-is in the order of 250 rem, or maybe 400. A big number. Keep in mind, what they’ve been exposed to is 0.1 rem, and about 50 percent fatality is on the order of 400 rem. What would happen with that kind of exposure is that they would get sick. Radiation damage destroys the immune system. Most people who die of radiation sickness die of pneumonia or a cold, they die of some disease which they have but their immune system can’t fight off.  

How we’ll all know the crisis is over?  

The fuel has to cool down to the point where the water that’s cooling it is below the boiling point. Usually when they shut one of these plants down to refuel they have to open it up. It takes a couple days to get the plant shut down to the point where they can take the lid off and replace the fuel.It might be a financial disaster, but no member of the public has been hurt, and I doubt anybody will be.  

Ballenger has a lot more non-hysterical information to share. I encourage anyone who’s interested in this issue to read the whole question-and-answer session here.