Nuclear remediation veteran comments on accident at Japanese nuclear power plant

Frank Parker
Professor emeritus Frank Parker (Accusoft, Inc.)

For Frank Parker, there is a major element of déjà vu in the ongoing nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi facility in Japan.

Parker, who is professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, was one of the first American soldiers to enter Nagasaki after the end of World War II.  He was a frequent visitor at the Chernobyl nuclear station after its accident and knew some of the early responders who removed their dosimeters before entering the reactor building so that they could continue to fight to bring the reactor under control. He also chaired an inquiry into the Three Mile Island accident for the National Council on Radiation Protection.

“[rquote]Fukushima is closest to Three Mile Island, with the added complication of the problems with the spent fuel[/rquote],” he said. TMI was a new reactor that had operated only three months, so it didn’t have any spent fuel stored in its spent fuel pool. Little radioactive material was released into the environment and no one was injured from the radioactive material released by the accident.

By contrast, the Fukushima facility contains a large quantity of spent fuel, which is highly radioactive and continues to generate large amounts of heat even after removal from the reactor. Therefore, it is stored in large pools of water to block the radiation and keep the rods cool. Many of the most serious problems at Fukushima have resulted from the radioactive particles and explosive and radioactive gases released from spent fuel when it became uncovered, he pointed out.

Among the points that Parker makes:

  • The radiation environment created by the Nagasaki bomb was completely different. It was an air explosion and gave off gamma rays and high-energy neutrons that were lethal, but did not leave a lot of radioactive dust and particles behind. “When I checked the dosage I got from my army duties there, it turned out to be approximately no dose,” Parker said.
  • Chernobyl was a different reactor design and the circumstances were totally different. It was designed using graphite instead of water as the moderator needed to sustain the fission chain reaction.  Due to improper actions taken by the operators, the graphite caught fire and heated the fuel elements and produced an extremely violent explosion. The first responders suffered the most – 31 died fairly soon from radiation poisoning. A 20-year retrospective study found that the only other radiation victims were about 2,000 children who suffered from thyroid cancer, a condition that could have been prevented if the government had acted more responsibly in preventing local people from drinking contaminated milk and dairy products and issued potassium iodide pills earlier.
  • In 2003, Parker led an International Institute for Applied System Analysis worse-case study of the risk that radioactivity from an accident at facilities of the Russian Nuclear Navy in Vladivostok and Kamchatka poses for the United States, specifically Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and California.  They found that the amount of radioactivity that would reach the U.S. would be miniscule. This study can be applied to the Fukushima case once the difference in the amount of radioactive material in the commercial nuclear reactors is accounted for. These reactors are about 10 times the size of the compact submarine reactors used in the IIASA study. “Even when you take their bigger size into account, the amount of radioactivity that could reach the U.S. would be far too small to have any health effects,” Parker said.
  • Despite all his experience with nuclear accidents, Parker maintains that, if he were forced to choose, he would prefer to live next to nuclear power plant rather than a coal-fired power plant.