The media fueled fears while experts went unheard

19 March 2012

What happened a year ago in Fukushima? What role did the media play concerning safety assessment? What are the risks of nuclear power? Dr. Gabriele Hampel, operating manager of the research reactor TRIGA of the Institute of Nuclear Chemistry at JGU, advocates an objective discussion about questions such as these. She sees the symposium "Radiation Protection - A Year after Fukushima" as a step in the right direction.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake shook the northeastern coast of Japan, unleashing a tsunami that wreaked havoc across the country and left at least 20,000 dead. The effect of these natural disasters was also felt at the nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi on the Pacific coast. The safety precautions employed at the plant were by far not effective enough. The result was one of the world's worst nuclear catastrophes. Images of the disaster were everywhere. TV stations rushed to put together reports on the crisis. Panic reigned, and expert knowledge only gradually filtered its way through media channels.

"Experts were hardly given a chance to talk," recalls Dr. Gabriele Hampel a year after the incident. "In fact, during the really critical phases, they weren't even consulted," complains the operating manager of the research reactor TRIGA at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The same faces kept reappearing on TV. "But no one from the Radiation Protection Association was even asked to provide an assessment."

Radiation protection - a year after Fukushima

Scientists are now examining this incident from a myriad of different perspectives. Under the title "Radiation Protection - A Year after Fukushima", the German-Swiss Radiation Protection Association and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz convened a two-day symposium in Mainz on this topic. Stephan Zauner of the Institute of Nuclear Chemistry at JGU was one of the main organizers. "We from the university are seen as impartial authorities who have an academic interest in throwing light on the incidents," he states. "There is a lack of understanding among much of the population and, generally speaking, people are afraid of radioactivity." But fear is a bad counselor. "It is better if we treat it with respect."

What actually happened last year? What has been the impact of the release of radioactivity in Fukushima? How has the public dealt with this? At the symposium, high-ranking experts sought to find the answers to these questions and others. Hampel and Zauner also have something to say on this subject.

Statements issued too early because of media pressure

"Because the media reported on the incident so quickly, many were forced to respond immediately," explains Hampel. "Politicians had to make statements right away. Thus, the situation had not been looked at properly." Angela Merkel, for example, talked about "residual risk" in reference to Fukushima.

"The problem was in fact a design basis accident," clarifies Hampel. This may sound complicated at first, but can be easily explained: Fukushima was simply not appropriately constructed for the environmental conditions that prevail on the northeastern coast of Japan. "There was only a 5.7 meter high wall to protect against flooding," she explains, "but waves up to ten meters high can be realistically expected at that location." And, important aggregates for the nuclear power plant were located behind this wall that was much too low. "They should have been located behind the power plant," maintains Hampel.

Hampel recalls the various stages of the Fukushima accident, starting with the earthquake and the power outage, and moving on to the damaged diesel generator set and the oxyhydrogen gas explosion. "The pressure release system in Fukushima leads into the service area." In Germany this system is set up differently and leads out into the open. In Fukushima, however, the result was the build-up of an explosive mix of hydrogen and oxygen inside an enclosed space.

Who died in Fukushima?

Radioactivity was released, but at what levels? Hampel asks an apparently provocative question: "What do you think - how many people have died so far as a result of the accident in Fukushima?" The answer at least surprises the laymen: "No one." The TRIGA operating manager gives the exact figures: "Eight people were exposed to a dose of radiation somewhat higher than 250 millisievert. Exposure to levels like this result in initial reactions, people feel as if they have the flu and there are minor changes in their blood picture. But in terms of long-term effects, even the increased risk of developing cancer is far lower than 1:100." In comparison, 48 people died during the first aid measures in Chernobyl.

Nonetheless, people 9,000 kilometers away in Germany started worrying about the effects on their health and saw in their mind's eye clouds of radioactive particles drifting over their country. Politicians joined ranks with nuclear power opponents, ushering in an energy turnaround. "We were never in danger," Zauner states. "The fallout from Fukushima was barely detectable in Germany."

Stretches of land remain uninhabitable

Hampel does not want to downplay the magnitude of the catastrophe in any way: "It's like a war. The government forces 100,000 people to leave their homes and then has to tell them that they'll never be able to return." Radioactive cesium with a half-life of about 30 years has made sure that broad stretches of land will remain uninhabitable for over 300 years.

"If you ask me whether I am for or against nuclear power plants, I really can't give you a straight answer," says Hampel thoughtfully. There are three aspects that worry her: "The permanent disposal of nuclear waste, the long-term consequences of an accident, and the human factor." She is especially preoccupied by the last one. For years now, Hampel has been on the Executive Board of the German-Swiss Radiation Protection Association where she is responsible for the promotion of young researchers. "We need young people who are interested in this field. As we are beginning the process of dismantling our nuclear power plants, expert knowledge about radiation protection is now more important than ever."

Treat radioactivity with respect

Hampel is, after all, operating manager of a research reactor. What is its current status? Although TRIGA has been subjected to the German stress test for nuclear facilities, final conclusions have yet to be reached. The reactor is designed so that it is unable to operate at temperatures exceeding 250 degree Celsius. In Fukushima, on the other hand, the critical temperature was a little below 2,000 degree Celsius. "Our reactor is completely controllable," Hampel claims. Scientists here are working on aspects such as the improvement of solar cells. Zauner also regularly guides school groups on tours through the facility, making sure to explain to them his fundamental credo: "You must approach radioactivity with respect, not with fear."

Fear has brought about a lot of damage. "The media didn't give us enough time to look closely, to analyze the problem in detail," criticizes Hampel. She hopes that the symposium will be a step in the right direction as it provides the opportunity to make rational assessments. After all, experts in the field such as Hampel have long been asking themselves the question: "Are we, as human beings, up to the task of dealing with this technology?"