On December 21, 2012, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) blog posted a letter from Chairman Macfarlane titled A Visit to Japan: Reflections from the Chairman. She has recently returned from a trip to Japan and a visit to the evacuated areas near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

Here are her concluding thoughts:

On our first day in Japan we visited the crippled reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi. We approached the scene through silent villages, devoid of people, with weeds growing in abandoned parking lots, and now-empty crop fields. I saw the immense beauty of the countryside and the Japanese coastline. This striking land is now empty and may be unusable for a considerable period; 160,000 people are displaced because of the radiation that escaped these reactors.

We stood atop the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima site, next to the now-covered spent fuel pool. We witnessed the progress made by a full contingent of cleanup workers in remediating the site, a testament to the resilient spirit of the people of Fukushima and Japan. This said, immense work is still ahead at the Fukushima site and the surrounding areas – work that will take decades to complete.

On reflection, I can’t help but be reminded of the important role the NRC performs for the nation; the work we have underway to further enhance reactor safety; and the renewed importance of ensuring no accident like this happens in the United States. I want to be sure that we continue to take the steps necessary to be certain that communities surrounding nuclear reactors are protected and that we’ve done all we can as regulators to prevent and mitigate severe accidents that displace people and contaminate land.

I added the following comment, but looking at the calendar and knowing a little bit about how the government works, I suspect that it will be “awaiting moderation” for a week or two. Instead of waiting for action from an agency that is well-known for taking its own sweet time to do anything, I decided to publish my comment here, hoping to generate a more useful discussion than I expect will occur on the NRC blog site during any holiday season.

This version of the comment is sweetened by links and some “emphasis added” techniques that I cannot use in the comment thread of someone else’s blog.

The land that the Chairman saw is beautiful and fit for human habitation. The reason it is empty is that people with various motives, some of which include enormous sums of money, have worked really hard for many decades to spread irrational fear of low level radiation and its health effects.

There are several places in the world where people have been living for millennia that have naturally occurring background radiation levels that are higher than those in the most “contaminated” regions of Fukushima outside of the power plant gates. There is no evidence that those populations have experienced any negative health effects, in fact, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that there are health benefits associated with radiation levels below about 100 mSv (10 REM) per year.

That level is five times the level at which Japan’s antinuclear government ordered forced evacuations and 100 times the level that they are trying to achieve through an incredibly wasteful clean up effort that is removing valuable soil and calling it radioactive waste.

Regulators may need to be “buffered” from political winds, but they need to be fully subjected to the pressure of scientific and engineering truth and cannot be allowed to make decisions or order actions that are “independent” of facts. They cannot be allowed to push rules that are aimed at addressing emotional feelings and reinforcing irrational fears.

The reactors that we built and licensed 40 years ago might be vulnerable to being destroyed by severe natural disasters but the scientists and engineers who licensed them were not short-sighted or lacking in imagination. Instead, they understood that human designed equipment can fail no matter what the designers do. Their response to that fundamental knowledge was to require multiple, resilient barriers that allowed them to be comfortable with the probability of failing equipment, knowing that the public health would still be protected.

The Chairman needs to curl up this holiday season with a copy of a report that her own agency released in final draft form soon after Fukushima – The State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequences Analysis. Here is a brief summary of the effort that supports that report:

“NRC initiated the State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses (SOARCA) project to develop best estimates of the offsite radiological health consequences for potential severe reactor accidents. SOARCA analyzed the potential consequences of severe accidents at the Surry Power Station near Surry, Va. and the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station near Delta, Pa. The project, which began in 2007, combined up-to-date information about the plants’ layout and operations with local population data and emergency preparedness plans. This information was then analyzed using state-of-the-art computer codes that incorporate decades of research into severe reactor accidents.”

Here is the (somewhat buried) bottom line from that report (pg. 82):

“The individual early fatality risk from SOARCA scenarios is essentially zero. Individual LCF risk from the selected specific, important scenarios is thousands of times lower than the NRC Safety Goal and millions of times lower than the general cancer fatality risk in the United States from all causes, even assuming the LNT dose-response model.” (Emphasis added.)

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