Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Level 7

number7 The Japan government has classified the Fukushima Daiichi accident as a level 7 accident, using an international scale for such incidents.

This struck me as puzzling – Fukushima, without at all denying its impact, still seemed less consequential than Chernobyl, also a level 7 accident – until I realized that there is no level 8. Thus, anything between Fukushima and Chernobyl would be classified as level 7 simply because there is nothing higher. A flaw in the classification system? Maybe – but it’s what there is.

NPR has a try at sorting out the differences between Chernobyl and Fukushima:

Though Fukushima and Chernobyl are both level 7 nuclear accidents, the health consequences in Japan to date are much less severe. In part, that's because far more radiation was released at Chernobyl. So far, Fukushima Daiichi has released about one-tenth of the amount of radioactive material that escaped Chernobyl, according to an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A little more:

At Chernobyl, an entire reactor exploded, sending up a massive fire and radioactive plume that dispersed radiation over a wide area. The reactor at the Soviet plant was not surrounded by any containment structure, so radiation escaped freely.

People near Chernobyl were not warned against drinking contaminated milk, and many residents later developed thyroid cancer. Two Chernobyl plant workers died on the night of the accident, and 28 more people died within a few weeks from radiation poisoning. Over the long term, several thousand more people were put at risk for cancer.

That speaks to the Soviet desire to keep things secret, even if the cost was their own population.

I will note, though I don’t want to stress this too hard, that the actual cancer risk from Chernobyl is a highly controversial issue. Why not take a side on it? Because the Soviets did treat the issue irresponsibly and shouldn’t enjoy much room for evading further responsibility now (even if the breakup of the Soviet Union – Chernobyl is in Ukraine - makes that stance problematic.)

Much of the radioactive material already released in Japan has been carried out to sea away from populated areas, thanks to prevailing winds. And the government moved quickly to evacuate people from risky areas and to keep contaminated food out of the stores.

And the Japanese, by contrast, have been quite responsible, with a portion of good luck. There’ll doubtless be more to say about this. One thing really isn’t much like the other, level 7 or no.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't put too much stock in this. It is more symbolic than real. These people are under tremendous political and social pressure to admit the very worst that anyone can imagine, simply to satisfy those who would seek to exact their pound of flesh. They've been so browbeaten over this event that they're going to cop to anything just to get people off their backs who are demanding that they grovel in public.

No way this event comes close to Chornobil, the archtypical Level 7. You're looking at 3-6% of the activity release, no fatalities from radiation (which actually puts it as less than Level 4 by that measure), a contained, shutdown reactor that had close to an hour of decay heat removal compared to a prompt critical excursion for an uncontained, operating core. Just the energy release alone makes Fukushima look like a wet firecracker by comparison.

Anonymous said...

no fatalities from radiation (which actually puts it as less than Level 4 by that measure),

Where do the INES ranking criteria require fatalities from radiation for an event to be ranked above Level 4?

Brian Mays said...

"Where do the INES ranking criteria require fatalities from radiation for an event to be ranked above Level 4?"

No, it's the other way around. One death automatically places the event at Level 4. Several deaths will raise it to Level 5. The scale uses several criteria.

Anonymous said...

It seems unfair to me that if you are going to use a single category (activity release) to categorize it as Level 7, you should be able to use a single category (effect on people and the environment) to categorize it as Level 3 (no radiation-related fatalities). I mean, why be selective? If you can use selectivity to paint the worst possible picture, why not use selectivity to paint a more optimistic one? What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.