Hazard, alarm, consequence.

Deaths by workplace.

Summary of what led to yesterday’s radiological injuries:

Possibly hazardous work was performed by untrailed personnel.  Hazard extent: unknown. The workers sent to do the work were incapable of determining the hazard. 

That hazard was present, in levels vastly beyond the expected. But the workers possessed alarms intended for just that occasion. The alarms functioned as intended and designed.

The workers then chose to ignore the alarms and procede into the hazard.    

Here are other  hazards.  Play out that above scenario for each.  Hazard, Alarm, Consequence of proceding.

Hazard:  gravity.  Warning:  vertigo.  Consequence:  death.

Hazard:  car.  Warning: busy highway.  Consequence:  death.

Hazard: electricity.  Warning: arcs, buzzing sound.  Consequence:  death.

Hazard: Confined Space. Warning: oxygen alarm.  Consequence:  death.

Hazard:  fire.  Warning:  singed eyebrows.  Consequence:  death.

Hazard:  man-eating bear.  Warning:  man-eating bear.  Consequence: death. 

Hazard:  beta radiation.

Alarm:  multiple shrieking Electronic Personal Dosimeters.

Consequence:  severe skinburn to feet and lower legs.

(Plus possibly a higher chance of future skin cancer than from skinburn by UV radiation.  Which is also a known carcinogen.)


Hazard:  perspective. 

Warning:  odd looks from others. 

Consequence:  wisdom.

About wormme

I've accepted that all of you are socially superior to me. But no pretending that any of you are rational.
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40 Responses to Hazard, alarm, consequence.

  1. Xpat says:

    I appreciate the perspective provided to me by W.O.R.M. over the past several days, as well as the response time (the IAEA and MIT sites are excellent, but a little slow), the multiple knowledgable voices in comments, and the analyses. The Japanese broadcast news has been largely accurate and honest, as far as I can tell, but also hard to parse. So, it is very useful to have you right on top of that news cycle–allowing for some frustrating time zone differences. Of course, it is clear now that the media coverage outside Japan has been egregiously horrible–I don’t even consult it any more–so all the more important to have W.O.R.M. around. Generally I’m reassured by the likes of W.O.R.M. and Charlie Martin, but after the reassurance revise the threat level upwards.

    I’ve got concrete and immediate concerns involved in the situation, and have been putting off the question of whether nuclear power is generally a good idea or not–kind of moot for me at the present time. However, as the crisis cloud recedes a bit now, I’m leaning a bit in the “maybe not such a good idea” direction. Am I qualified? No. Is my opinion important? Maybe not. Does Japan really have any other choice than nuclear power? Doubtful. But the size of the evacuation zone bothers me, as does the contamination potential for Tokyo, food, water, agriculture, etc. Lives disrupted, the amount of time it will take to recover that area, the compensation that will be required . . .

    From your perspective, of workers on site, you must certainly be right–a lot more danger in a lot of different occupations. But it just seems to me there’s a fundamental problem when something goes wrong (natural or human) and you can’t get in there and fix it properly–and for an extended period–simply because of the nature of the beast itself. Add to that the general tendencies of bureaucratic incompetence, enhanced in this case probably by cronyism between power companies and government minstries. (By the way, anyone know what’s up with the president of Tepco? He hasn’t been seen, which is highly unusual for Japan. Normally, the president apologizes with deep bows in front of a wall of flashing cameras and such. This guy is totally AWOL. My wife speculates cynically that he has committed suicide or fled the country or something like that.)

    Anyway, throw into that the terror potential–what happens when some guys attack and take over a plant, and they don’t care how radioactive they get, and they start throwing switches and blowing stuff up? Now they would have an excellent model for how much psychological terror, at the very least, they could cause.

    Nuclear energy is looking like a questionable bet to me, though my mind is not absolutely closed on the subject. Though, again, the question is still fairly moot; I’m only distantly interested in long term energy policy questions at the moment.

    2 cents from an ignorant layperson!

    Anyway, what the status of that debate, thanks W.O.R.M. Excellent public service!

    • waytoomanydaves says:

      Xpat just made me realize something…

      Without really knowing it, I have also stopped reading most news about Fukushima provided through the usual sources.

      Reason: I’m getting it here.

      • wormme says:

        I haven’t been getting out much either, since folks bring the information here for our shared review.

        So I was about to say that you’re missing the “breaking news” that way. But since that stuff is totally unreliable anyway, you’re probably doing your blood pressure a favor.

        And thank you!

      • DefendUSA says:

        WTM Daves…
        I am like you. Once AofS linked here, this became THE place for me as well. Last night, for example, I ended up on the soap box giving people facts about the half-lives and the types of radiation and what happens. They had not a clue, yet all of them could cite “10,000X” from some news outlet.
        Ignorance really ticks me off. I have been soaking it up like a sponge here and plan to do a blog post about the things I have learned. More for posterity and my kids, but also for those that have let the hysteria in.
        So thanks to everyone for the knowledge base. I truly appreciate it!

    • wormme says:


      Very thoughtful commentary. Thank you for that and the compliment.

      Just a couple of things here, hopefully will address all your concerns in coming posts.

      As far as terrorism, they’d actually need to know what they’re doing to be confident of a meltdown. The design is such that flipping switches and pressing buttons you don’t understand are more likely to shut fission down. You’ve still got decay heat. Certainly enough explosives and expertise could bring a meltdown.

      For the still and effort needed here, terrorists could kill and injure thousands elsewhere. And even if they melt the reactor down there’s no certainty they’ll kill even one person with radiation. And I’d rather terrorists terrorize people than kill them.

      As far as nuclear power…other commenters have pointed out how old the design of these nukes are.

      Would you consider nukes if it was physically impossible for their fuel to melt down?

      • Xpat says:

        Thanks for all the responses, Worm and everyone else.

        “Would you consider nukes if it was physically impossible for their fuel to melt down?”

        Of course. I can always consider nukes. I have no essential bias against nukes, Worm, and as a rule tend to gravitate toward Libertarian types whose opinion I respect and who like ’em.

        It’s just that I’ve got family in Tokyo, am watching how much this is affecting the country, and find the disruption of life in the radius around the plant and contamination in and beyond troubling. Some of my concerns have been addressed above and below.

        Thanks again, folks.

        • wormme says:

          I pray your family is safe?

          No flogging of new nuke plants when you have the most important possibleconcerns. I totally agree with not building any more of these plants designed 50 years ago.

          Oh, let me just mention one difference in some newer designs. The fuel isn’t in metal form. It’s encased in ceramic spheres. These are physically incapable of melting down even with loss of cooling. Obviously the spent fuel can’t melt down either.

          All the best to you and yours.

  2. crosspatch says:

    “Nuclear energy is looking like a questionable bet to me”

    This was not a modern plant. This was a 1960’s design. A similar plant on the other side of the same town fared much better, but it was built 10 years later with a more modern design.

    I wouldn’t want to live next to a 1960’s plant in an earthquake zone, either, but I would have no problem living next door to a modern ASBWR or AP1000 plant by GE or Westinghouse (respectively).

  3. Sam E says:

    Total deaths involved in entire disaster =10,000-20,000 from radiation=0, from trains 100’s to thousands’
    Total disaster expense 100’s of billions of $$ radiation cleanup 100’s of millions of $$

    To mangle a quote from Winston Churchill and apply it to Nuclear power instead of democracy. “Nuclear power is a horrible source of energy. The problem is that every other known source of energy is even worse.”

    • wormme says:

      I sort of agree, as long as we qualify this as “industrial sources”. The sole exception would be hydro…as long as you wanted a lake there in the first place. And collapsing dams have, of course, killed vastly more people than commerical nukes have with radiation (total to date: zero).

      And of course passive solar energy in the home, things like this are better. Better in the sense of environmental impact, since these things are the environment.

      But they can’t run electricity-based industry.

  4. Xpat says:

    I think I’ll be more amenable to the arguments when things have settled down.

    Crosspatch (and others who make the point eslewhere) are persuasive on the newer technology–though I still worry about bureaucratic incompetence.

    The affected area–how long before people can move back and farm produce can be eaten, seafood from there can be caught and bought, and so forth? I wonder what the total economic impact will be, for instance, China not buying big, gorgeous Japanese strawberries anymore, even if they’re from non-affected areas. Chinese or Koreans not visiting Japanese spas anymore. Everyone in the world thinking “radioactive” about anyone or anything from Japan–when Japan has already been struggling with economic recovery. These kinds of things are worrisome. I’m not blaming nuclear technology for people’s irrationality per se, but the damage there is not inconsiderable, however unreasonable.

    I won’t argue (nor was I trying to) about relative horrible death tolls from the natural parts of the disaster–although earthquake and tsunami survivors as well as rescue teams do have the one advantage of being able to walk back into the wreckage after a day or two, and without working desperately in quick shifts to avoid exceeding their limits.

    • haroldancell says:

      Everyone in the world thinking “radioactive” about anyone or anything from Japan….

      How much of this is a problem with a totally irresponsible, almost entirely technically incompetent foreign press and the “activists” they tap, all of the above with a pretty clear anti-nuclear anything agenda?

      In fact, how much of the long term economic damage will be from these usual suspects? They sure were effective after Three Mile Island…. Perhaps the ultimate problem with nuclear energy in free societies is that too much of their ruling class just isn’t responsible enough to deal with anything less than perfection (in this case, in the face of a 9.0 quake and a 14 meter (last estimate I read) tsunami).

      (Note that I’m not saying the Japanese press and ruling class is this bad, but then again I don’t consider Japan to be a particularly free society.)

  5. midwest bill says:

    We should be able to convert kilowatts into dollars into human lives. The insurance companies do the last two. The kilowatt conversion is not established. But if you compare kilowatts generated per capita in different countries, it would (surely) relate to longevity, as well as quality of life. Also we’d have to add in R&D that has benefitted mankind from having US farmers leave the fields and go to schools. Add in all the humanitarian relief emanating from the power rich US, and some other countries. As well in the military might that is sometimes used to stop totalitarianism (or whatever).

    Given those numbers, we could make more rational decisions based on hard numbers. Nuclear is the clear winner in the capability for massive production with a small footprint, using few resources. There is no rational reason we don’t have thousands of safe nuclear plants being tucked away in safe locations across the country.

    But power corrupts. And now we leave the rational portion of our program, and enter the “id” driven world of warfare … whether political, economic or religious. Love of money is said to be the root of all evil, and electricity is money. Cheap power means a lot of people lose power. (remember, we can convert electrical power to dollars, which equals other kinds of power)

    So the radical anti-nuke left seems to have a very clear agenda, rational only in the sense that they have more political power (and control) over people if they keep the unwashed masses relatively powerless. Power structures are in place, and must be defended … that might be partly coal or oil, but mostly the political power over people.

    Anyway … I haven’t fully developed that “thesis” … but where I started, (before some neural electrons lost their “orbit” and went off on that tangent) was on the subject of “Deadliest Catch”, the show about men dying to bring fresh king crab to the plates of the wealthy. Why is that such a noble adventure, whereas clean nuclear energy that would save millions of lives (according to kW/HumanLife conversion tables) is ballyhooed as some evil juggernaut out to kill us all?

    I hoping some of you 100 pound heads here can put that table together, present the data to the proper authorities, and we can break ground on those 1000 nuke plants by summer. Shouldn’t be hard, if we are really governed by rational men seeking only the betterment of society. And chop chop … no time to waste. Even as I was writing this, I’m sure some men have died from black lung or industrial accident, bringing us those archaic forms of power.

    • wormme says:

      I’ve seen a couple of analyses lately, running side-by-side comparions of kw-hours vs. deaths and kw-hours vs. pollution. Naturally, nukes come out exceptionally well.

      But fewer people are swayed by appeals to reason than by appeals to emotion. So in democracies, rational argument needs emotional reinforcement to win. Lives lost in other accidents, increasing starvation due to higher energy and food prices, etc.

      But rational people generally feel dirtied by using that approach.

      And so irrational policies take hold.

      • midwest bill says:

        There is an advantage to using a real number, even if the accuracy is debatable. This is why Obama uses “jobs saved or created” … an unprovable number. But a daily cost in lives lost for each megawatt hour produced would not be dishonest.

        The current US response has pretty much stopped nuke development, as we contemplate whether closing plants is a good idea. Maybe a better headline would be “3200 lives to be lost due to bureaucratic delays in nuclear plant construction”. This could be more accurate than “jobs saved” numbers.

        But nuke plants were already slow in developing, and many think this will end them.

        • wormme says:

          There will be some new jobs from this. New commissions, probable agencies, lots of chances for attorneys and approved think-tankers and bureaucrats and the like.

  6. midwest bill says:

    Oh, and to try to fit nuclear development into the Hazard, Alarm, Consequence theme

    Hazard of modern nuke plants … near zero

    Alarm: histrionic anti-nuke activists have been shrieking a false alarm for decades, like an air raid siren that sends fear driven non-scientists to a bunker mentality, hiding from Godzilla.

    Consequence: death of millions, impairment (by loss of freedom/power) of millions more (see kW/HumanLife conversion table above)

  7. Mountainbear says:

    “Hazard: man-eating bear. Warning: man-eating bear. Consequence: death.”

    Awwwwww… I’m touched.

    The higher risk for skin cancer… I think we can ignore it. It depends on the genetic set-up of the workers as well. A higher risk, maybe, but given that cancer is basically a copy error, which can happen any time, I don’t think it’ll matter at all. Besides, as an oncologist once told me, all of us would get cancer, most of us just don’t live long enough.

    • wormme says:

      It’s almost certain we’ll never have enough data to determine the relative carcinomic (?) risks between beta and UV radiation.

      I would go with beta though, as the more penetrating one. Thus more total cells injured, slightly higher chance of one going amuck.

  8. Xpat says:

    MayI ask a basic question? Take, for instance, milk or spinach in Fukushima Prefecture–or anywhere else in the general neighborhood–which are currently contaminated over the limit. Approximately how long, do you estimate, before these products in those areas can be sold and eaten? How about fish in the water on the Eastern side within that radius of badness? I have absolutely no knowledge to get a sense of these sorts of long term effects, and I suspect most people don’t either, and it would help to know. Is it a matter of months, a year, more? Or are there too many unknowns and variables right now to answer?

    • waytoomanydaves says:

      I will go out on a limb and predict a potential long-term benefit to ocean contamination…

      Suppose that seafood from the region becomes slightly contaminated, and thus, un-salable. Japanese fishermen will be forced to avoid the region, and fish other areas. The contamination itself will be almost completely harmless to the marine life itself, because human paranoia surrounding radiation triggers at a level far, far below the level of actual harm.

      Result: the marine ecosystem thrives.

      But don’t expect the zealots to acknowledge this when it happens.

      • wormme says:

        I was confused for a moment. Still am, unless you meant benefit from ocean contamination. You don’t really want to help the contamination out, do you?

        Kidding aside, that’s a terrific point. If they’ve been overfishing their waters this might ease pressure. I truly don’t expect signficant finds of marine contamination above international or even (paranoid) national limits. But as you say, if people won’t buy, Japan won’t try to sell.

        Not all unintended consequences are bad. Of course it’s still the safe way to bet.

        UPDATE–an oldHP comment reminded me of the likely runoffs now going into the ocean. Sealife local to the Fukushima site might get very significant uptakes, if it hasn’t headed the evacuation warnings.

    • wormme says:

      Well, successful cleaning of any foodstuff makes it immediately safe. I don’t know how difficult it is to get all Cs-137 off a plant’s surface. Or how long before it’s absorbed and impossible to remove.

      The problem is that, absent very sensitive rad instruments, how can the consumer be sure it’s cleaned? Trustworthy decontamination on a large scale simply isn’t a workable solution.

      Milk that’s got Iodine-131, not Cs-137? One clever approach is to make cheese out of it. By the time the process and curing time is complete, the radioiodine is below detectable levels.

      But properly stored wheat and honey are about the only things that can outlast Cs-137 (30-year half-life). If you’re willing and able to store them up for consumption centuries later…I salute your planning horizon!

  9. crosspatch says:

    Radioactivity in the water will disperse rather quickly. The ocean is pretty big and the radioactivity will dilute. The radioactive iodine will for all practical purposes be gone in a couple of months. The cesium will be around for a long time but I don’t have any indication so far of widespread cesium contamination on land at great levels. There have been a couple of “hot spots” reported but that can be due to something other than the plant. How do you get a spot so highly contaminated (5 cm under the surface of the soil) 40km away from the plant and no significant contamination in between? Maybe someone improperly disposed of a cesium phosphate surveyor’s target or something. Maybe an old cesium magnetometer was tossed out or medical waste improperly disposed of. Cesium is used in a lot of industrial, medical and scientific stuff. From the wiki: “The radioactive isotope caesium-137 has a half-life of about 30 years and is used in medical applications, industrial gauges, and hydrology. ” They should be able to tell from looking at the ratio of cesium 137 to barium to determine how old the cesium is that they are finding.

    Cesium has a “biological half life” of 70 days. Cesium is water soluble and if you get some of it in you, half of it will be excreted within 70 days, mostly through the urinary tract. You can possibly speed that up by drinking lots of water and taking extra potassium. But in any case, if you are ingest some once, it will be greatly reduced in your body within a year or so.

    The real nasty one is strontium 90 and I have read they are testing for it, there is no indication so far that they have found any. But there is one thing about Japanese culture that bugs me. When the Japanese become quiet and don’t release much information, I worry.

    What bothers me is an *increase* in iodine 131. Since the reaction stopped, no additional iodine should be produced. Iodine 131 has a half-life of 8 days. There should only be about 25% of the iodine 131 in those reactors that there was when the reactors were shut down. Yesterday iodine 131 levels increased in the water offshore of the plant by an order of magnitude, from 100x allowable levels to 1000x allowable levels. There could be innocuous reasons for this increase such as rain washing contamination into the ocean. This *seems* like a likely explanation as it has been raining at the site and the agency there says they can’t find any obvious source of the contamination.

    One thing to keep in mind is that Japan’s radiation standards are at levels much lower than most of the rest of the world so when you hear things like “higher than allowed” in Japan, those levels might be allowable in most of the rest of the world.

    • midwest bill says:

      U.S. Navy Tries to Douse Nuke Crisis

      U.S. naval barges with fresh water race toward the crippled Japanese nuclear plant in an effort to cool overheating reactors after highly radioactive water was found leaking.

      That’s the FOX website headline, and extends on their network news from yesterday morning. Yet as far as I have seen, the only evidence of most of that is the increase in Iodine 131 you note.

      Did they find highly radioactive water leaking, or did they just find some in the turbine building?
      Are the reactors overheating, or are they at stable pressure and temperature?
      Are they racing with the fresh water to douse a nuke crisis, or is this just a normal progression in steps to better stabilize the reactors?

      It ALL seems like an effort to sensationalize the serious situation. Your probable explanation for the iodine 131 seems most logical.

      • crosspatch says:

        Well, it is either contamination runoff, or there is fission going on someplace it shouldn’t be.

      • midwest bill says:

        can there be fission going on in little pockets? If the hot rods had shattered from firehose water, and some hot nuclear fuel amassed in the bottom of the pool, could there be just a little fission, or would any fission result in a full blown meltdown,as it went “critical”?

        • wormme says:

          There could be some ongoing fission, probably is a very little, but I don’t see a full meltdown from fission. The decay heat from existing isotopes should already dwarf any likely fission.

          There are all kinds of factors here. I’ll just touch on a couple of major ones. The smaller the pocket, the greater the surface area. That means a higher percentage of neutrons escape. Also, if you get mounting fission, the rising heat can flash surrounding water to steam. This creates a “void” of air from which more neutrons escape. So increasing fission tends to limit increasing fission.

          Given this, I don’t see some extra neutrons down there as an engineering problem compared to what they already have.

          Now, the more you “enrich” the fuel (increase the percentage of U-235) the easier it is to have “criticality accidents”. In the pioneer days people could get killed just from doing something like pushing barrels too close together.

          But commercial nuke fuel isn’t enriched the way bomb or submarine fuel is. Their reactor spaces are much larger, so there’s no need or desire for more than is needed.

    • wormme says:

      Very informative, thank you for the considerable effort spent here.

      That 40km hotspot had me thinking false (Fukushima) alarm, too.

      “Ocean runoff” does seem overwhelmingly likely as the source of the I-131 spike.

  10. crosspatch says:

    RE: Radioactive contamination of food:

    It depends on the type of contamination and where it is on the food. Iodine will be 1/2 the level 8 days from now as it is now. So if the main contaminant is iodine, freeze the spinach, keep it in cold storage for a month or two, it it will be safe to eat. If it is cesium, again, it depends on where. Cesium can be washed off. It is extremely soluble in water, provided you aren’t washing with contaminated water. If the cesium has been absorbed by the organism and is inside as part of its tissues, better to chuck it. In the case of a living animal like a cow, move the cow to an uncontaminated area and it will be fine in a year or so once it has flushed most of the cesium out of its system.

    The problem with cesium is that it is everywhere. It is in the environment since we started building reactors and setting off bombs. You can’t get rid of it. If you try to make anything, there will be measurable amounts of cesium contamination. That glass soft drink bottle will have cesium 137 in it. In fact, that is one way they check for antiques. If someone shows up with something that contains metal or glass and claims it is from the era before atomic fission, a quick test of the item will show if it is made before that time or not. All the current glass, steel, aluminum, etc. that is manufactured today has cesium 137 contamination of varying degrees.

    You also have strontium 90 in your teeth and bones. If you were alive in the 1960’s, you have a *lot* of it in your teeth and bones and you got it from fallout from nuclear testing.

    If you lived on the East coast and had a vegetable garden and ate a tomato or squash or apple without washing it thoroughly in the 1960’s, you probably got quite a dose of strontium 90 in you. Same if you drank milk. The cows eat contaminated grass, the strontium acts like calcium and is deposited in the milk.

    At least with cesium it flushes out quickly. So lets say you eat some cesium. Lets say 5% of what you ate is taken up by the body and the other 95% is immediately eliminated. 70 days later you are rid of half of that 5%.

    • wormme says:

      I did think you could wash Cs-137 off pretty easily, but I assume people who have the luxury will prefer not to take their chances.

      Soviet-bloc folks downwind of Chernobyl, of course, didn’t have the option of waiting a month or two for iodine.

  11. crosspatch says:

    NOTE: most of what I know about radioactive contamination and fallout is pretty old. It is from watching the films and such we needed to watch in school in the 1960’s about fallout and from what I got in the military in the 1970’s with some more recent knowledge since the Chernobyl, 3MI, and Fukushima incidents. I am not an expert in this area by any means but I my background is in engineering and I am familiar with such concepts as reporters issuing stories on highly technical subjects they know nothing about in order to create a sensational story that generates ad revenue.

    As with anything else, the more you know about something, the more you can manage the hysteria. Edison did the same thing with Westinghouse when he tried to create hysteria about AC power vs his DC power distribution.

    • wormme says:

      Unlike other stuff, I don’t think our understanding of fallout has changed much since then. The level of radiophobia is the main change there.

  12. crosspatch says:

    “can there be fission going on in little pockets?”

    I was thinking more along the lines of unit #4 spent fuel pool. That would be the most dangerous location on the grounds, in my opinion. Or was until they brought in that mud pumper that can place water fairly accurately. But it also looks like the entire roof of unit 4 collapsed in on top of the refueling floor. It might be pretty hard to get water into that pool.

    • wormme says:

      Oof. Haven’t even looked at pictures lately. Of course random debris shouldn’t usually help the fission process. Apart from bringing fuel closer together, odds are it would hinder fission, not help it as water does.

      • crosspatch says:

        What I meant was that the fallen roof covers the pool. Water inside the pool boils off. Attempts to put water into the pool hit the fallen roof and not much water gets inside the pool itself. Rods then heat up, Zircaloy fails, pellets fall to the bottom of the pool in close proximity to each other in a pile. But I remember seeing video footage where the water was actually visible from the air so they do have at least one clear shot into the pool.

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