atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#436: Anti-nuclear lies

I just finished watching an alleged "documentary" under the Modern Marvels monicker on History International. It was about the incident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979.

It spent the first 45 minutes in a discussion of TMI. I don't doubt that the historical data is accurate, more or less. But "fair and balanced" it was not. ("Hack job" is the phrase which comes to mind.)

Every minute of footage which was not historical/archive footage was of people who were clearly anti-nuclear. They didn't get anyone who was pro-nuclear or even remotely neutral.

The show did its best to maximise the danger and minimize the good points. "The radiation at the top of the containment vessel," the narrator intoned gravely, "will kill a man in twenty minutes." He meant the radiation inside the containment vessel, of course, because if the radition outside the containment vessel had been that high, a lot of people working at the plant would have been dead. But he didn't specify that, because people who uncritically accept tripe like this would say, "Oh my God! We almost died!"

At least the show admitted that TMI didn't kill or injure anyone. But then they told us that in order to understand TMI we had to consider an event which took place "half a world away". As soon as they started talking about that I knew what they were talking about: Chernobyl.

The only problem with that is, talking about TMI in the context of Chernobyl is like talking about a walk in the woods in the context of the Bataan Death March.

The documentary was mostly right about one thing: Chernobyl was deliberately mis-operated, which resulted in the explosion of the reactor core, and subsequent contamination of the surrounding countryside. But there the facts pretty much come to an end, and the bullshit begins.

The documentary said that the reactor core destroyed the "containment building". There was no containment vessel. It's disingenuous--at best--to call the building a "containment building"; in the sense that the building contained the reactor, it is true, but it was not designed to hold in the contents of the reactor in the event of an accident. It was a "containment" building in the sense that the building contained a nuclear reactor, much the way a warehouse contains merchandise.

A typical containment vessel for a light water commercial reactor in the United States is made of concrete and steel; it's very thick and designed for the worst conditions in which a reactor can be reasonably expected to exist. It's designed to contain overpressure as well as excess radioactivity and heat. The containment vessel at TMI worked flawlessly, and prevented any uncontrolled escape of radioactivity or pieces of the reactor core.

Chernobyl did not have a containment vessel. It was housed in a building made of concrete and steel, and when the reactor blew, it blew big. But why did the reactor blow up?

The Chernobyl reactor was a graphite-moderated reactor. It is a type of reactor that no one in the West uses; no commercial power reactors were ever built that way in America. Why? Because graphite can burn. If it gets too hot, it will ignite, and it is notoriously difficult to extinguish.

If Chernobyl had had a containment vessel--a real, Western-style containment vessel, like the ones at TMI--it might not have been such a disaster. Or, at least, the disaster might have been mitigated. But a proper containment vessel was too expensive for the USSR to bother with.

The documentary invented some statistics. It said that 2,000 people died in the initial explosion, and that 6,000 more died trying to contain the fire and radiation. It added that there were a certain numbers of birth defects and cancers due to the radiation released from Chernobyl.

But the casualty figures are drastically inflated. In fact, 60 people died fighting the fire and building the containment sarcophagus. There have been four thousand cases of juvenile thyroid cancer that can be linked to Chernobyl. But I haven't seen any statistics for birth defects anywhere.

Check out this quote from Wikipedia:
The 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that as many as 9,000 people among the approximately 6.6 million most highly exposed, may die from some form of cancer. Specifically, the report cited 4,000 thyroid cancer cases among children diagnosed by 2002.
These aren't nuclear industry figures; these are from the freaking UN, for crying out loud. And "may die" does not count as a casualty of any kind of accident. Everyone "may die" of something.

At Chernobyl, the safety systems were deliberately de-activated and the reactor was deliberatey mis-operated in order to perform a long-overdue test. The reactor was an outmoded design which had a history of being hard to control, and it used a moderator which could burn. There was no containment vessel around the reactor; when the reactor exploded, it destroyed the building that held it. 60 people died from radiation exposure, and a couple hundred got enough of a dose to be made perilously ill.

At TMI the safety systems worked properly. There was a controlled release of radioactive hydrogen which resulted in a radiation release on the order of 1,500 millirems, which isn't even enough to make a person sick; in the same year, getting an angiogram would have exposed you to 25,000 millirem of radiation. Typical background radiation from natural sources averages around 100 millirem per year, and at no time did radiation on the ground at TMI rise much above that background level. In order to receive the 1,500 millirem dose, you would have had to camp out atop the containment vessel for the entire duration of the event. Cancer rates for the area have dropped slightly since the event, although the drop is not attributable to the event at TMI; it's a statistical fluke and not relevant.

About the only thing which TMI and Chernobyl have in common is that both were nuclear fission reactors designed to produce electricity. The attempt to conflate the nuclear accidents at these sites is both ludicrous and disingenuous.

And they have to lie to perpetuate the myth that nuclear power is dangerous. If you have to lie to support your thesis, there might just be something wrong with it.

Coal power has killed more people than nuclear power has (particularly coal miners) and under current federal nuclear regulations, a coal-fired power plant actually emits more radiation than TMI ever did, because coal contains all kinds of radioisotopes (Carbon 14, for example)--besides making pollution and "greenhouse gases", that is.

But no one is suggesting that coal-fired power plants are somehow inherently dangerous, despite proven environmental and safety issues. Coal power is hazardous.

Nuclear power is also hazardous. Most useful tools are. A chainsaw can lop off your arm easier than it can take a branch off a tree. A person could be stabbed to death with a steak knife. The correct application of a wood pencil to a person's temple or throat can kill him just as dead as a bullet. A baseball bat can kill. How many people die in car accidents every year? A friend of mine once killed a bat with a dictionary, for Christ's sake!

But nuclear power is only frightening if you don't understand it. It is a tool, and properly used it is safer than coal and much cleaner. TMI, rather than showing how "dangerous" nuclear power is, actually showed us how safe it is. The reactor core underwent a partial meltdown and nothing happened outside the plant.

If the press, and the makers of this alleged "documentary", had not had an anti-nuclear axe to grind--if they were pro-nuclear--the story would be all about how great the safety systems were, how well they worked, and how the people who ran the plant were smart and conscientious people. But that's not the story they want to tell, because they are not even remotely neutral.

And so the lies and half-truths got another showing today on History International. I guess from now on I'll have to take everything I hear on Modern Marvels with a grain of salt.

* * *

And what is "modern" about an event which happened 28 years ago? For a show about "modern marvels" I note that many of their episodes aren't about modern things.

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