The Fog of Nuclear Emergency

Like everybody else, no doubt, I am finding it difficult to pay attention to anything but the catastrophe in Japan.

Coverage of the nuclear emergency is probably as informative as it can be under the circumstances--but still I find it frustrating. Purportedly analytical accounts are muddled; obvious questions are left unresolved or unaddressed; there are inconsistencies all over the place. Much of this is unavoidable, I know, but the problem is compounded by the journalistic propensity to glide around what you don't know or have failed to understand.

From the start of this calamity I have wanted to know, "What is the worst that can happen at these nuclear sites? Suppose everything that could go wrong does go wrong: what then?" I still don't know the answer. In what I have read so far--dozens of articles--nobody who knows what he is talking about has spelt this out carefully.

My father, who retired many years ago, was a mechanical engineer in the British nuclear power industry. He worked on the designs of several new reactors, specialising in the handling of fuel. I vividly recall his telling me decades ago that the thing that concerned him most about nuclear power was not the reactors but the storage of spent fuel. This needed to be very carefully managed. If planners insisted on giving nuclear installations the smallest footprint, everything would be on the same site. What would happen to the spent fuel if an accident meant a site had to be evacuated? Insufficient attention was being paid to this, he said. The conversation passed through my mind as soon as the first reports of problems at Fukushima appeared. Where do they put the spent fuel?

Today the New York Times tells us where: on "the top level of the reactor buildings". The piece worsens the worst-case scenario yet again, saying that this fuel may pose a bigger risk at Fukushima than the reactors themselves (reactors, plural, of course: the small-footprint approach bunches many of them together). Elsewhere one reads that hundreds of workers have already been evacuated from the site and only 50 remain, scrambling to stabilize six reactors, and to keep the storage pools replenished. What happens if and when those last workers are pulled out?

The Times cites, without further comment or context, a 1997 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory:

[The study] described a worst-case disaster from uncovered spent fuel in a reactor cooling pool. It estimated 100 quick deaths would occur within a range of 500 miles and 138,000 eventual deaths.

The study also found that land over 2,170 miles would be contaminated and damages would hit $546 billion.

I'm interested to know that, but as this stands it is another semi-digested fragment of analysis. What does "land over 2,170 miles mean"? Land within a radius of 2,170 miles? What does "contaminated" mean? Why the specious precision over distances and costs, yet zero guidance on how to interpret the numbers? Above all, is this is a plausible analogue? Might the situation at Fukushima be worse than this? What is the reader to make of this information?

Where are the science and technology writers when you need them? And where are their editors?