Monday, March 14, 2011

The U.S. West Coast is NOT at Risk from Radiation

Today I got calls and emails from all sorts of folks, worrying about the Japanese radiation reaching the Northwest in dangerous quantities. Potassium iodide pills, used for thyroid protection from radioactive iodine have been stripped from the shelves in Seattle.

I think the reality is clear...there is no serious radiation threat to us here in the Northwest.

First, I should note that the weather pattern is shifting and the latest trajectories show that the low-level trajectories don't reach us.(see below) The low-level trajectories circle around in the Pacific and the upper one heads south of us. (Yes, there is uncertainty with this and it is only as good as the National Weather Service GFS model)


But even it they were heading straight for us..there is little to fear.

From virtually a point source, the radiation would mix through huge volumes of the atmosphere due to horizontal and vertical mixing. Since it would take days to reach us, there would be time for larger particles to settle out and precipitation would wash some out as well. Even for Chernobyl, where the core exploded while the reactor was powered up and where there was no containment, serious radiation only extended roughly 1000-1500 km away.



The Northwest is more than 7000 km away!

Clearly, the situation in Japan is serious and tragic, but the U.S. is not threatened.

Thinking about the tsunami I wondered whether locations threatened by tsunamis like coastal Japan (and coastal Oregon and Washington) should build escape towers. Steel and concrete buildings were not toppled by the Japanese tsunami....what if structures that could hold 200-1000 people were positioned regularly along the coast, giving people another option for safety. This would be much cheaper than sea walls and the like, which didn't seem to work anyway. Here in Washington I think of the Long Beach peninsula...a tsunami deathtrap if one ever existed. A few such towers could save many, many lives in case of a major event. And they could be relatively cheap...perhaps as simple as a wide suspension bridge between two towers.


Is this a viable idea? If it is, why aren't we doing it? Now.

55 comments:

marit.island said...

There have been press reports of vertical evacuation plans under development, but don't know details.

Miss Pudding said...

Are those forecasts still valid even though we have no coastal radar? Just kidding!

Thanks for the good news.

Ross said...

I think vertical evacuation structures are a great idea!

I want to make a point about the "threat" of radiation from Japan. It is well the wind isn't blowing the radiation towards Tokyo. The mere fact that we need to forecast for where radiation may or may not drift after a disaster like this, makes one thing very clear: nuclear energy is not a safe and smart energy source for the future.

Katherine said...

The College of Built Environments at UW has been working with the Long Beach Peninsula and surrounding areas over the past year to plan and design vertical evacuation structures. The most cost-effective structures are earthen berms that are engineered to withstand a strong earthquake and oncoming tsunami waves. Japan had a few vertical evacuation towers and buildings. I wonder if they were put to the test during this recent event?

Katherine said...

The College of Built Environments at UW has been working with the Long Beach Peninsula and surrounding areas over the past year to plan and design a series of vertical evacuation structures. The most cost-effective structures are earthen berms that are engineered to withstand a strong earthquake and oncoming tsunami waves. Berms can be built to hold a large number of people for much less cost than towers or buildings. Japan had several vertical evacuation towers and buildings - I wonder if they were put to the test during this recent event?

Glenn said...

Problem with the suspension bridge idea: How the heck is someone on wheels gonna get up there? I know far too many folks with disabilities...

Thanks for the update, Cliff. Too many folks I know panicking in the manner you describe, and you've been one of my touchstones for how to tell them DON'T PANIC.

WAXY POETIC said...

Thanks for your analysis. I usually live in Vancouver, Canada but I am residing in Australia until July. I must admit, that while I trust your analysis, radiation has a way of creating an irrational fear.. even for me and I have an advanced degree in chemistry. So, even though I am normally on the west coast, I am thankful to be down under for now... even if you are correct.

As far as towers, one of the recent stories in the NY Times (see below) mentioned how scores of people died because they were simply too old and thus too weak to climb stairs. I can't say if towers are a good idea but any such structure would probably need ramps for the elderly and disabled and/or elevators. But given that the rushing water moves at speeds of up to 500m/hr, I have a sneaking suspicion one or two elevators simply may not be enough...

NY Times Article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15elderly.html?hp

WAXY POETIC said...

Thanks for your analysis. I usually live in Vancouver, Canada but I am residing in Australia until July. I must admit, that while I trust your analysis, radiation has a way of creating an irrational fear.. even for me and I have an advanced degree in chemistry. So, even though I am normally on the west coast, I am thankful to be down under for now... even if you are correct.

As far as towers, one of the recent stories in the NY Times (see below) mentioned how scores of people died because they were simply too old and thus too weak to climb stairs. I can't say if towers are a good idea but any such structure would probably need ramps for the elderly and disabled and/or elevators. But given that the rushing water moves at speeds of up to 500m/hr, I have a sneaking suspicion one or two elevators simply may not be enough...

NY Times Article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15elderly.html?hp

John Goldsmith said...

Thanks for your analysis. I usually live in Vancouver, Canada but I am residing in Australia until July. I must admit, that while I trust your analysis, radiation has a way of creating an irrational fear.. even for me and I have an advanced degree in chemistry. So, even though I am normally on the west coast, I am thankful to be down under for now... even if you are correct.

As far as towers, one of the recent stories in the NY Times (see below) mentioned how scores of people died because they were simply too old and thus too weak to climb stairs. I can't say if towers are a good idea but any such structure would probably need ramps for the elderly and disabled and/or elevators. But given that the rushing water moves at speeds of up to 500m/hr, I have a sneaking suspicion one or two elevators simply may not be enough...

NY Times Article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15elderly.html?hp

John Goldsmith said...

Thanks for your analysis. I usually live in Vancouver, Canada but I am residing in Australia until July. I must admit, that while I trust your analysis, radiation has a way of creating an irrational fear.. even for me and I have an advanced degree in chemistry. So, even though I am normally on the west coast, I am thankful to be down under for now... even if you are correct.

As far as towers, one of the recent stories in the NY Times (see below) mentioned how scores of people died because they were simply too old and thus too weak to climb stairs. I can't say if towers are a good idea but any such structure would probably need ramps for the elderly and disabled and/or elevators. But given that the rushing water moves at speeds of up to 500m/hr, I have a sneaking suspicion one or two elevators simply may not be enough...

NY Times Article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15elderly.html?hp

Michael said...

Thanks for the post...my wife was asking about this tonight. I compared it to emptying a can of air freshener at one end of the block, and expecting to smell "fresh air" at the other end...but to hear it from a pro makes it that much better!

Blossom Clinic said...

This gives me hope...

but what about Hawaii?

And this lowest trajectory, does it pass through Northern California? Please explain this further.

And what about the Cesium, which has a longer half-life (30 years).

Also, this could go on for MONTHS and the weather trajectories could change, correct?

Thanks in advance for answering my questions.

scrubjay93 said...

Thank you again for your posts on the ongoing disaster. People are desperate for information that comes directly from scientists rather than corporations or institutions with a stake in the outcome, or our government. Unfortunately, they say this could go on for months.

UW Kayak Club said...

I'm with you on your last question of tsunami refugia, but as you know, there's viable from an engineering standpoint, and viable from a political/funding standpoint.

Also, consider the problem with people jumping off existing bridges. You'd have to spend a good bit extra to try to prevent people from misbehaving, or have *another* political headache.

google said...

Seaside Oregon has talked about making a new city hall double as an evacuation structure. The problem is finding the money to pay for it. It is also not that great of an idea in my opinion since it wouldn't be practical to make it big enough to handle the number of people that would need to use it.

In Japan there are reports of people being swept away who were trying to get to the upper floors of buildings because the stairwells were blocked by exhausted elderly who couldn't make it any higher. A building big enough to handle the population of Seaside would be not only huge, but much bigger than necessary for the cities use and expensive to maintain for the decades or centuries that might pass before it is needed.

I work at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. If we survive the earthquake in our un-reenforced concrete buildings built on dredge spoils we are then supposed to hike to a nearby hill at the south end of the Yaquina Bay bridge. On a summer weekend we will be competing with an estimated 3500 others from the Oregon Coast Aquarium and other tourist spots here. The part of the hill high enough to be above the water levels I have seen in Japan is covered by a dense forest. To sum it up we are doomed.

Getting money to pay for any kind of structure that would save us is pretty slim given that we have a political party that is even now trying to cut funding for the tsunami warning system and other earthquake preparedness efforts.

Scott K said...

First of all, I'm a skeptic.

Secondly, I'm surprised at how the 50 meter forecasts were pointed directly at Washington State and now suddenly they are nowhere near us. Is this some kind of cover up or did it really just change that dramatically over just a single day?

Robert said...

http://mitnse.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

If anyone you know is at all concerned about the Japanese reactors, send them to this page.

Will said...

Are there any publicly accessible radiation monitoring stations in the NW?

Glenn said...

My brother mentioned that some local officials in SW Washington were floating the idea of 30 foot high artificial hills on the N. Beach Peninsula as emergency refuges.

BTW, please don't ever again state that the severe winter storms are over at the beginning of March. Or at least qualify your remarks. The last week we have had severe winds, prolonged rain and more standing water and run off than I have seen here before.

You seem to have annoyed the weather dieties, who never tire of humiliating experts.

Glenn

Marrowstone Island

Bob said...

Comparisons with Chernobyl seem to consistently lack one vital piece of information. It was a graphite moderated reactor, and graphite burns like one giant charcoal briquette, for weeks. I don't think that a single graphite moderated reactor remains on the planet (Years ago, the one in Britain was also destroyed by fire.) So, there will never be another Chernobyl! Modern reactors are not flammable. The hydrogen explosions do not generate the tons of airborne particulates that the graphite fires did, no carbon. No matter what scenario unfolds in Japan, it is extremely unlikely that atmospheric radiation spread will ever be more than a very tiny fraction of the Chernobyl disaster. Only folks in close proximity are at serious risk.

windlover said...

Cliff ~ Thank you so much for being a calming voice of reason! I have many friends that are panicking about this and are posting quite alarming messages on their facebook pages scaring even more people! I'm all for being prepared and keeping an eye on things but I also don't believe in buying into the media hype. One freind read your blog but still insists on going with the more hyped up information. Thank you, again! When you say to worry, then I'll start to worry. Until then I'll enjoy our fresh, Pacific Northwest air.....

Skokomish said...

My understanding is that in the mid 1940's, significant radiation was exposed to the environment in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and even New Mexico. Yet the United States managed to survive. While we wouldn't want to repeat those events, my guess is that the radiation levels presently in Japan are mild by comparison.

I find it interesting how some who are critical of nuclear power but accepting of climate science will talk out one side of their mouth about how we need to trust the climate science and out the other side about how nuclear science is made up of power hungry liars who can't be trusted. I'm not saying we should trust everything science says without evidence, but you sure do see people's bias come out in situations like this.

Cafe Racer Seattle said...

I think the towers are a great idea... With the suspension bridges in between, if they were high enough, you can charge a buck to go up and look at the view and set up bungie jumping stations (how much does it cost for a jump?) to pay for it. They could double as light houses and, of course, weather stations.

Jim said...

Love the idea of vertical evacuation structures... I say build it from concrete with ramp(s) going up around the exterior - kind of like the ramps were at the Kingdome. Taper the structure as you go up so any jumpers would only be able to fall one story. Put some spyglass binoculars up on the top, and information about tsunamis and earthquakes, and call it a tourist attraction.

A creative designer might even put in a compartment for emergency supplies just below the floor of the structure at the top that can be accessed in the event of emergency. Build a roof around the spiral ramp(s) so it could be used for storm watching in rainy weather. Put solar panels on the roof which supply power to pathway lighting, and emergency-only lights that would flash to help locate survivors after a disaster.

Great idea... would have many functions and would potentially be a lifesaver!

JewelyaZ said...

This blog is an excellent reference to nuclear power and weaponry issues and I've been reading it for a long time. http://allthingsnuclear.org As you can imagine, because the Union of Concerned Scientists sponsors and operates the blog, it is not prone to reactionary hype and it contains a wealth of scientific information if you're willing to educate yourself a little bit. Sort of like Cliff's blog, actually! :-)

While I fear greatly for my friends in Japan, and my heart aches for all the strangers you can see suffering in photographs and videos, closer to home, I don't think we have much to worry about, for now from the reactor fires.

For those who say nuclear power is incredibly dangerous, I think all fuel-based power generation is very dangerous, including coal and natural gas. Mining is an extremely dangerous occupation, and the environmental damage caused by mining the fuel and then burning the fuel, not to mention the health consequences of the same, are significant but unfortunately, easily ignored because the strong impacts are very localized and the global impacts are very diffuse. In short, would you like to be poisoned a little bit every single day, or would you like to (maybe) be poisoned rather more dramatically over a few days?

We really need to move to renewable power sources like solar, wave, and wind power as soon as possible while simultaneously reducing our power requirements. Wouldn't it be fantastic to be able to lobby against a proposed nuclear plant because you had a huge solar/wind array that was providing all the power needed by a community? THAT is progress.

As for the weather, Cliff, what happened early Monday morning? Here in east Bellevue, we had a shower of intense rain and really strong winds (gusts over 25 mph) that lasted for 14 minutes. It was such an unusual wind direction that MANY branches came down, some of them so dry and old that clearly they'd been stuck in the canopy for quite some time. I'd be glad to hear about this sudden storm since it seems to have been experienced rather widely across the Seattle area. Was it a strong "corner" of that low that passed over us?

Thanks as always!

turkeycat said...

Scott K-
I'm concerned about how the trajectory changed so quickly too. If it could change within a day, it could change again, could it not?! Seeing how weather forecasts change for frequently, I don't see how one could make a blanket statement that we are not as risk here. I personally will be setting up a tub with emergency supplies (including extra food and water) because It'd be necessary in any emergency. I've been putting it off for a long time.

Bill Reiswig said...

Vertical Escape Towers are a seriously great idea. I think it's pretty clear from Japans experience that you cannot build enough protection into most of your buildings to withstand a major Tsunami. Many communities along our coast have hills of sufficient hight nearby that can provide escape.... If not, steel towers with deep foundations seem perfect for saving human lives.

orv said...

I suspect such a thing would fall victim to the "Seattle process." First people would complain it wasn't handicapped-accessible enough, then they would complain the (now bulkier, elevator-equipped) structure was too ugly and demand a redesign. Pretty soon it'd be too expensive to build, and would end up pecked to death by various constituencies, just like every other infrastructure project they try to do around here.

Cafe Racer Seattle said...

I think that's a great idea, the towers... And we could pay for them by charging people a buck to go up them for the view. Also, if there are bridges between the two, you can sell bungie jumps. Or maybe put a little coffee shop on top. Seriously, why not?
Of course, we'd have to put a weather stations in them too. :)

Andrew Taylor said...

Multi-story parking structures should be excellent vertical evacuation structures IF we are all disciplined enough to allow the disabled to use the elevators and the rest of us walk up the (wide) car ramps to reach the upper levels. Most parking levels would provide some shelter and the roof level would be ideal for helicopter landing.

Jen said...

I wonder if you could make them windmills while you are at it?

Joe said...

There's a lot of merit to the idea of vertical evacuation structures along the Washington coast; they could even have wind turbines at the top and produce enough power to pay for themselves. Cliff, you should approach some of your colleagues at the UW School of Architecture to get a student design competition going.

But even if they were simple (and cheap) slope-sided concrete towers 50 or so feet high, they'd have to have a fairly large footprint to accommodate a lot of people -- and there would have to be a fair number of them. They might be cheap to build, but what about the land they sit on?

And I have to wonder: how many people on the coast would object to them on aesthetic grounds (despite the structures' entire purpose being to save their lives)? But maybe that's too cynical, and I'm just jaded from watching too many NIMBY battles around Seattle.

natchrl8r said...

I love the idea of tourist attraction evacuation towers with educational displays. They will need spiral ramps for the elderly and handicapped. 500 MPH only applies at sea. It drops to 50 MPH offshore. There should be plenty of warning for a distantly generated tsunami and even a fair amount of time for a local.

I am also loving the rainshadow over Bellingham. Its been mostly dry for days and even good for gardening. ; )

Fleetwood said...

Cliff - I'm certainly heartened by your assessment that the risk is low and I certainly hope you are correct but I wonder if you really have enough info to make such a blanket statement? I'm certainly not a nuclear or weather expert but I believe Chernobyl involved only one reactor and here we have multiple reactors plus the fuel rods. I have no idea how the amount of radioactive material compares between the two events. Its possible a larger source and different weather conditions might result in a different result and eventual distribution of contamination than was observed in the Ukraine. I don't know without some more sophisticated modeling or analysis you can really say that we are not at risk. It may be misleading and premature to make such a statement. As I said I hope it is not. Thanks.

Angela said...

Will, you can access this page for real-time radiation monitoring, for what it is worth. I notice that today they have changed it to update every minute, whereas before it was every three minutes, so someone must assume it will be useful for the current situation.
http://radiationnetwork.com/

Skokomish, I think the bias has a lot to do with visceral fear of radiation. Notice that the European Union and other countries are announcing suspension of nuclear energy production until all developments are thoroughly checked for safety, but the United States has merely stated that all of our facilities are safe. I don't think our government and corporations give us all that much confidence. The BP disaster may also have something to do with it, because everyone was assured by the oil companies and the government that there was little risk in drilling. The bigger worry with nuclear energy is ongoing potential for nuclear weapons proliferation.

micromethow said...

Appreciate your blog! I could play devil's advocate for a minute...

You state "there is no serious radiation threat to us here in the Northwest." and "Even for Chernobyl...serious radiation only extended roughly 1000-1500 km away."

OK, so there's no serious threat. But what is there? A moderately serious threat? A minor threat? No threat at all?

This event is still evolving rapidly and so far the only constant is the expanding scale/scope/potentiality of the developing nuclear catastrophe. Is is perhaps a bit early to conclude that the U.S. West Coast is NOT at risk from radiation?

There is a large body of research about the transport of pollution from China to the West Coast, including stuff by your UW colleague Dan Jaffe.

"Ozone, carbon monoxide, mercury and polluting matter from Asia have been detected on Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Cheeka Peak in Washington state, says Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington."
(From the NY Times)

According to the EPA, on some days
"nearly 25% of polluting matter above Los Angeles can be traced to Asia."

Clearly this stuff can reach us - the question is how much? You conclude not enough to constitute a "serious threat." But instead of speaking in the negative, perhaps it would be more reassuring to attempt to quantify what is possible.

Also, thanks for the amazing atmospheric flow graphics. Since this is an ongoing event, it is possible to overlay predicted paths day by day?

Urbancowgrrl said...

Is there any information on the projected damage of a tsunami coming from the Puget Sound? I'm assuming the city has not done much planning for something like that because of the assumption it would be mild?

One of our favorite places to vacation - Pacific City, OR - has tsunami evacuation routes mapped out and available to all residents and they have a tsunami warning siren if there is a quake in the ocean - do our WA coastal towns have such a thing?

And lastly - there is so much radiation risk in WA from the Hanford Facility and most people don't even think twice about it, that it seems odd to be worrying about the Japanese nuclear facilities. There is a daily real threat from leaking high level nuclear waste right next door to us - getting into the rivers and possibly affecting Eastern WA crops (including grapes for wine) that seems much more of a real threat to our personal lives.

Matt said...

I noticed in the before/after pictures almost all of the concrete structures survived. Maybe this can be as simple as building concrete structures with very thick walls. Make sure it seals well and add a tall snorkel to the roof for ventilation (would need batteries to make sure the vent fans worked when the power goes out).

Yes it would be strange to be potentially underwater, but it seems cheaper than building a hill. Plus then it's at grade - no climbing necessary.

Joe said...

Thanks Cliff.

What upsets me most of all is that there are people here in Seattle who are so myopic and self-centered that their principal concern is radiation reaching us from across the ocean. Meanwhile in Japan, there is serious loss of life, mass destruction, and an actual nuclear crisis whose final outcome is still uncertain. I am thinking more of them than us right now.

Dave said...

This is not comparable to nuclear bombs. There is only a few pounds of fuel in those, it's not even in the same ballpark as the current situation. Plus one of the reactors has MOX fuel which is much worse. Look it up. If this goes on for months/years, I'd be concerned about the US taking a hit. The current predictions are not based on the worse case scenario.

J.See said...

Great, now can we go back to talking about NW storms, please?

rebecca said...

@Urbancowgrrl - There's some great information about the potential for tsunamis in Puget Sound resulting from quakes along the Seattle fault: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/pugetsound/pre2/

Tony said...

Waxy Poetic and natchrl8r, Cliff presented a solution that is feasible (I am an engineer) and affordable and could save say 9,700 out of 10,000 people. What solution are you suggesting that will save more people while being feasible and affordable?

Skokomish said...

Mkay. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-he-japan-quake-radiation-20110316,0,6465080.story

scrubjay93 said...

Another good resource for people worried about radiation transport by Jeff Masters, the meteorologist who founded WeatherUnderground.
http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/show.html

Hue Beattie said...

70 years back some ballons made it from Japan to the west coast.

ryanshaunkelly said...

The elevated spent fuel pools have also been compromised by the explosions.
Israeli dependents and non-essential embassy staff removed several days ago.

The Dude said...

Nuclear Experts: Japan Nuclear Disaster Unprecedented - No Way to Know About US Impact

www.alternet.org/world/150268

Yatata said...

you can bet that great ideas like the escape towers and many more ingenious designs will be defended by architecture students in thesis reviews around the world this year. if you want to see some great architectural solution concepts, i'd go poke around your local architecture school where the students will be buzzing.

ballard98107 said...

Sorry if the following sounds crude...

Is there any data with regards to the nuclear devices dropped on Japan in the late 40's and the effect of that fallout on the Western US? Japan's neighbors?

I would think that this would provide some insight, given the gravity and intensity of that event.

Nikki said...

Please keep doing daily projections on the trajectories of the radiation cloud. When you say "no serious threat" are we talking a chest x-ray or a CT scan or several??? Also, radiation leakage in Japan appears to be increasing and ongoing for who knows how long. What about cumulative buildup here of the "infinitesimal" amounts if we keep on getting radioactive clouds? I kind of understand that trajectories change constantly so all that radiation landing in the one spot for months would be unlikely but still....love to have the trajectories info. Thank you for your posts so far.

Ignado said...

These are some pretty good ideas, but alos think this is a perfect opportunity to study the structures in Japan that survived the tsunamis, and also probably the earthquake.
Perhaps there is a way to incorporate these elemennts into new public buildings that could serve as places of refuge. But getting to high ground should be the first option. Please think about what you would do in an earthquake....be prepared.

edlalu said...

http://www.thenewstribune.com/2011/03/18/1589836/apnewsbreak-source-minuscule-fallout.html

I'm still not convinced.....

SummumBonum said...

I understand that radiation is spreading and diluting to low levels, but at some point, we saturate the planet's atmosphere since this a continuous source of radioactive products and not a single release. I imagine levels continuing to rise due to just plain more time of release plus the increase in severity of discharge. I imagine some sort of equilibrium will be reached; where is that expected to be. I know we have half life and deposition (e.g. into remote parts of the ocean) working in our favor, but worst case scenario, what's the maximum amount of harmful radioactive isotopes assuming a continuous release of decay and fission products into the air from all the fuel from all six reactors over some prolonged period of time based on a number of scenarios: e.g. re-criticality, fuel rod fire, etc.?

VonPatate said...

Your Europa map is so wrong....

Look at this french map, compare and think again...: http://www.criirad.org/actualites/tchernobylfrancbelarus/tchernobylmisajourjuil05/sommairecartessecteur.html