Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Media Goes Nuclear

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the endless fear mongering about nuclear power plants. In some sense, its understandable that in the aftermath of the oil spill disaster in the gulf, people are more and more skeptical of safety claims of so-called 'experts' and people who work for certain industries.

But sometimes, the media blows minor issues far out of proportion.

Reading the Japanese and Hong Kong news, I noticed that there was a fair bit of attention being given to a nuclear 'leak' near Hong Kong. Reading some of the early reports it sounded like it was a serious breach of containment and that radiation had contaminated local waters, a real disaster. In reality, what actually had happened was a relatively routine occurrence.

Uranium fuel inside a nuclear reactor is contained within fuel elements which act to keep the radioactive uranium and fission bi-products from entering the water that is used to transport heat from the reactor to the boilers. The water is inside a completely contained cycle and under normal circumstances won't leave the system.

Sometimes, fuel elements are defective and 'leak' into the water. Radioactive iodine levels in the water are measured and trended to detect when these fuel defects occur, and if too many fuel defects occur, the reactor is shut down to remove the defective fuel. (In a CANDU reactor, with on-line refueling available, the reactor doesn't need to be shut down and the defective fuel can be removed without turning the reactor off.) Since shutting down a reactor is costly and finding a single defective fuel element among many can be time-consuming, there are international standards that are established that judge how high radioactive iodine levels can be before shut down is recommended.

What happened in the Daya reactor was a single minor fuel defect that left iodine levels slightly elevated but likely below the internationally accepted unsafe levels. I say likely because I can't find any specific information on how elevated actually is, but none of the journalists writing these stories seem to have asked either. None of them probably knew to ask.

No injuries, no radiation exposure, no elevated radiation levels at all. But remember that the media thrives on sensationalism, they make money when they can rile you up. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised at the endless fearmongering...

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