Japan currently faces a real emergency. As a result of the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, thousands of people are dead, and tens of thousands more are missing and may be trapped under rubble, severely injured, and in danger of death by thirst or suffocation. There are over 500,000 people without shelter, with a blizzard on the way, and even the as-yet unscathed could soon face death from epidemics caused by thousands of unburied corpses.
At such a time, nothing could be more scandalous than the current campaign by much of the international press to spread panic over trivial emissions of radiological material from several disabled nuclear power stations.
Let us be clear. Compared to the real disaster at hand, the hypothetical threat from the nuclear stations is zero. The reactors in question were all shut down four days ago. The control rods have been inserted, and the cores have been salted with boron. It is physically impossible for them to sustain a fission reaction of any kind at this point, let alone cause another Chernobyl. Only the fission-byproduct decay heat remains, and it is fading fast as the short half-life material (which accounts for most of the radioactivity) performs its decay reactions and ceases to exist. At this point, the total heating power in the reactors is only about 0.3 percent of what it was when the reactors were operating. That means that a system previously capable of generating 1,300 megawatts of heat would now yield 4 megawatts thermal — about the same as that emitted by a dozen 100-horsepower automobile engines. The Japanese engineers can certainly deal with that with water cooling. And even if they were to stop, there just isn’t enough heating power in the system anymore to generate a dangerous plume of radioactive materials, which is doubly impossible at this point since all the more active short half-life stuff is already gone.
No, the threat does not come from the power plant, but from panic spread by press misinformation. After Three Mile Island, the press spread hysteria as well, but at least there conditions in the rest of society were normal, and so the only victim of the press campaign was the nuclear industry.
But there is a real emergency in Japan right now, of epic proportions, which has to be dealt with as effectively as possible. That emergency is not nuclear radiation, but the need to rescue the trapped and the injured, shield the homeless from the elements, and to prevent an epidemic. In this case, panic induced by press misinformation could cause the deaths of multitudes of people, both by inducing them to take unwise actions, as well by scaring away those who might otherwise try to rescue them.
By diverting people from the real emergency at hand, this radiation scare could kill thousands.
— Dr. Robert Zubrin is the president of Pioneer Astronautics and the author of Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering.