As I’m sure you all know by now, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has raised the classification of the Fukushima emergency from 5 to 7 on the international scale. (INES) The only nuclear accident previously rated this high was Chernobyl. It has suddenly made Fukushima the number one news story in the world…again. Here’s why the classification has been changed…

  • Re-examination of the numerous radiation monitoring levels and environmental sampling results compiled from the first day of the emergency revealed much higher volumes of two principle isotopes of concern, Iodine-131 and Cesium-137, than had been previously estimated. Both isotopic volumes are now understood to be greater than the “several tens of thousands of becquerels” necessary for the INES level 7 classification.
  • The majority of the I-131 and Cs-137 volumes occurred during the early days of the emergency, during and following the three hydrogen explosions. Atmospheric isotopic releases increased after the three explosions until water sprays for the spent fuel pools and fire truck pumping to boost water flows to the three reactor vessels were available. Atmospheric releases have decreased steadily and significantly since then. The re-classification does not mean the emergency situation has worsened, in fact radiation levels, contamination concentrations, and reactor 1, 2 & 3 parameters all continue to drop, and are lowest now than they have been since March 11.
  • While many western news media sources say the contamination of foods, vegetables, drinking water, and the nearby ocean contributed to the new classification, there are no such classification standards in the INES definition of a level 7. Only airborne activity volumes (i.e. total becquerels) and whole body exposures (i.e. millisieverts) are used for the emergency classification.

While Fukushima is now classified at the same severity level with Chernobyl, it does not change the fact that it is not a Chernobyl accident all over again. “Same classification” does not mean “same accident”. Here are some of the more important distinctions…

  • Chernobyl was a single reactor which experienced a titanic fuel cell steam explosion because of ridiculously poor design (some called it a stupid design). Fukushima is a three reactor emergency, and there have been no explosions of any kind in the fuel cells of any of them.
  • Chernobyl’s volume of I-131 and Cs-137 released during their accident was more than 10 times greater than what has come out of Fukushima.
  • Chernobyl’s rate of atmospheric release was essentially constant for 15 days, before the emergency team literally froze the destroyed fuel cell by injecting liquid nitrogen into the catacombs below the reactor compartment. Fukushima’s rate of atmospheric releases peaked after the unit 3 hydrogen explosion, and has dropped exponentially over the 30+days since. This is, like with rate of decay heat decreases explained in the first few updates, a reversal of Al Gore’s hockey stick graph, only less steep than with decay heat.
  • Chernobyl was located in the middle of Eastern Europe, surrounded by land and people. No matter which way the winds blew, people were subject to Chernobyl’s radioactive releases. Fukushima is on the ocean shore, and for the first several days of the emergency, when the greatest volumes if I-131 and Cs-137 were released, the winds were blowing out to sea, and not over populated land areas.
  • It was several days into the accident at Chernobyl before members of the public were evacuated. At Fukushima, evacuation of the 3 km. radius began before the first hydrogen explosion, and the extended evacuations out to 20 km. began immediately upon the first explosion. These actions severely reduced the millisievert exposures to the surrounding population, keeping them at least 100 times less than Chernobyl’s surrounding population. It also eliminated the possibility of having Chernobyl’s “highly contaminated” members of the public. (more later)
  • The Soviet government severely censored nearly all of the information they received from the thousands of people trying to stop the release of raw fission products into the atmosphere, and kept it from the billions world-wide. While this writer has taken TEPCO and the Japanese government to task over their informational ineptitude, their level of informational flow has been several orders of magnitude better than what the Soviets did in 1986. The Soviet Union covered up information, but there is no evidence of this happening in Japan.
  • The Soviets did nearly nothing to prevent the ingestion of contaminated foods during the accident, until the United Nations (through WHO) put extreme pressure on them to get it done. Their efforts to identify I-131 tainted foodstuffs were less than optimum after that. Case in point, 4000 children were discovered to have thyroids literally saturated with I-131 from drinking raw, contaminated milk. Many were found to have cancerous growths already forming on their thyroids. Surgery to remove the growths, and medications to flush the I-131 from the children were unbelievably successful. All were pronounced cured by 1989. It should be noted that the Chernobyl Forum report (more on this later) in 2006 said 9 of those children died of thyroid cancer as adults, but none of the deaths could be confirmed to be Chernobyl-related.Conversely with Fukushima, the Japanese government and health organizations, as well as the IAEA, were “monitoring, collecting and analyzing” from the first day of the emergency, not only in the Fukushima Prefecture (state) but in all of the contingent Prefectures, too. Contaminated food stuffs found to exceed health standards were confiscated and destroyed. As a result, it is unlikely that many, if any, children with I-131 saturated thyroids will occur.
  • There are robust, still-intact containments surrounding Unit 1, 2 & 3 reactor pressure vessels at Fukushima, while Chernobyl had no containment structures whatsoever. Plus, each reactor fuel cell at Fukushima is surrounded by a seamless, at least 6.5 inches thick, carbon steel pressure vessel inside the containment, while Chernobyl’s fuel cell had no pressure vessel surrounding it, of any kind.
  • Eventually, all three reactors at Fukushima will be in the cold shutdown condition of optimum safety, while Chernobyl probably still fissions (at a low but detectable level) below it’s massive concrete mausoleum.

There are numerous other differences between Fukushima and Chernobyl, but the above are this writer’s “big ones”. Regardless, it should be enough to get the point across…same classification does not mean same accident

Finally, we must address the potential health impacts of Fukushima. Because of the world-wide reports connecting the two, we must also return to the health impacts of Chernobyl. All media, both inside and outside Japan, are reporting several real and theoretical death numbers concerning Chernobyl, then pointing out that if Fukushima gets worse it could be as bad. Western Press (BBC, CNN, Fox, and etc.) reports a NISA spokesman said Fukushima could still get worse and eventually release more radiation than Chernobyl. I’ve checked all the Japanese Press at my fingertips and can’t find that one anywhere. Regardless, here’s the comparative death tolls and health effects estimates…

  • The 2006 WHO report on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl said 50 emergency workers, helicopter pilots, and plant operational staff died as a result of over-exposures to radiation fields in excess of 3 sievert (300 REM). How much many of them actually got can only be estimated, but may have been in the 10 sievert (1000 REM) range. In addition, two plant employees died early-on in the accident from severe injuries due to the explosion inside the reactor chamber. (for a more detailed explanation of how this happened, see “The Chernobyl Disaster” page of this website) There have been no deaths at Fukushima due to the nuclear emergency, although two bodies were found that appeared to have drowned in the tsunami. The three men who were heavily contaminated and received whole body exposures greater than the emergency limits (but nowhere close to approaching the radiation sickness threshold) are alive and healthy.
  • The 2006 WHO report also states that there have been no long-term health effects, and no increases in hard tumor frequency or cancer incidence in the generally exposed population which surrounded Chernobyl. Since Fukushima has released 10X less radioactive material, and the surrounding populations were evacuated early-on, any report alleging death numbers concerning the Fukushima-area population should be totally ignored. It should be noted, there was one radiation health effects model in 1986 (then-considered “fringe”) that correctly predicted the WHO health effect findings. The radiation hormesis model! In fact, radiation hormesis modeling predicted the population exposed to Chernobyl would experience longer lives, lower cancer incidence, and lower cancer death rates. WHO discovered the lower cancer incidence factor in 2006, and the 2010 European age-adjusted cancer death rate (the whole continent was exposed) dropped for the 9th consecutive year. Coincidence?
  • All news media reports mention the same WHO 2006 report as saying that 4000 people might die of cancer because of Chernobyl. This is a mild but important confabulation. The WHO report says that, using the Linear, No Threshold (LNT) model for theoretical cancer deaths, as many as 3940 cancer deaths could theoretically occur out of the 600,000 people who worked at Chernobyl to stop the radioactive material releases, and/or took part in the entombment of the destroyed reactor, and/or assisted in the clean-up of the contaminated areas outside the destroyed power plant, or were non-workers evacuated from the highly contaminated areas near the power plant (like Pripyat). These are not considered part of the exposed public identified above. No one has made any estimates of this sort for Fukushima. However, as technically bad as Fukushima’s HP has been, it is significantly better than the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl HP (if you could call it that).
  • It should also be noted that a Chernobyl Forum report in 2006 theorized that a worst case number of theoretical cancer deaths in the surrounding population (not the 600,000 Chernobyl workers) could exceed 9,000. The Forum also included the WHO results for Chernobyl workers, but expanded their scope to all evacuees, assuming the average dose to all evacuees was ~30 millisievert, with the highest public exposure to but a few people was ~300 millisievert. The Forum points out that natural background exposures in populated areas of India and China, as well as the famous beaches of Brazil, annually produce exposures above the Chernobyl “average.” Five years of living in these high-background areas provide exposures in excess of the highest Chernobyl public dose (this one’s not in the report, but I did a little homework). The Forum notes that these naturally exposed populations exhibit no higher cancer rates than their less exposed peers, and no shorter lifespans. But, they went ahead and did a Liner, No Threshold “death estimate” anyway.
  • From the questionable to the ridiculous…the notoriously anti-nuclear international “environmental” group, Greenpeace, said in 2006 that 270,000 people in Belarus and the Ukraine willget cancer and 93,000 will die because of Chernobyl. At the same time, nearly 50,000 will die in Russia of Chernobyl cancers. They guaranteed that several thousand people die of Chernobyl-inflicted cancers each year in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Now here’s the really creative, terribly gruesome, and totally repugnant part…Greenpeace argues that there is no way of telling a Chernobyl-caused cancer from a non-Chernobyl one. Since there is no safe level of radiation, and further since they say the LNT model grossly underestimates risk (they use the Petkau Effect model), Greenpeace guarantees that people are dying from Chernobyl cancers each day, but their numbers are buried in the millions of annual cancer deaths in Eastern Europe and Russia. You can’t statistically find them, but it’s radiation so they must be in there right? <wink>

references –

1. Health effects of the Chernobyl accident… an overview; World Health Organization; ; 2006

2.Chernobyl’s Legacy; Health, Environmental, and Socio-Economic Impacts; The Chernobyl Forum; ; 2006

3. Chernobyl death toll grossly underestimated; Greenpeace; ; 2006