Comparison of Japan dam burst and nuclear disaster

I have been following the news from Japan over the last few days quite closely, and amongst some of the quotes on the news one took my interest. It was from a nuclear power expert trying to put the current nuclear crisis in perspective. His claim was that hydro electric power is more dangerous (in deaths caused) than nuclear. I felt the need check up on that one.

Certainly looks like he has a point with disasters like the Banqiao Dam burst in 1975

“According to the Hydrology Department of Henan Province,[5] in the province, approximately 26,000 people died from flooding and another 145,000 died during subsequent epidemics and famine. In addition, about 5,960,000 buildings collapsed, and 11 million residents were affected.”

Anyway earthquake in Japan also broke a dam but I have been unable to find out much about it other than it is in Fukushima prefecture and it swept some homes away.

Anyone have anything more on this and how it compares to ongoing nuclear disaster?

Chances are no one will die outright from the current nuclear disaster, and people will argue about the long term effects by bashing each other over the head with statistics.

Chernobyl was so different than current designs that it should not be factored in to any comparison.

Damage/destruction from a dam break is going to depend upon many things, like the volume of stored water behind the dam, the size and location of the breach, and the characteristics of the built environment below the dam.

Another thing to consider would be the effect of the breach flood wave on downstream dams, as is mentioned here with regards to the Hoover Dam. In theory, you could see the breach wave overtop and breach a downstream dam (or dams), making the total flood much worse in magnitude.

Some famous dam breaches for your information:

The Johnstown flood (Pennsylvania)
Teton Dam (Idaho)
St. Francis Dam(California)
Malpasset Dam(France)

Chernobyl was a newer power plant than the Fukushima power station.

Chernobyl’s first reactor was completed in 1977. Fukushima’s was completed in 1971.

Doesn’t matter. Chernobyl isn’t representative of anything else. You can’t introduce Chernobyl into a rational discussion of risk. It’s like a nuclear plant from an alternate dimension.

Exactly. (What a great way of putting it!)

Chernobyl had a terrible design (with inherent design features that are actually illegal in the U.S.), poorly trained operators with inadequate experience, combined with a “safety test” on the night of the accident that intentionally disabled multiple safety features of the plant.

More detail in this current thread here.

Except it isn’t, by a long shot. There are nearly a dozen active reactors of the same configuration (RBMK-1000/-1500), and despite the safety refits still have the essential features that make this type of reactor non-failsafe. There are a handful of other graphic-moderated commercial reactors–most notably the few “Magnox” type reactors used by the UK for both power generation and weapons-grade plutonium production–with similar design features and a lack of containment shield, as well as a number of documented and potential weapon-producing facilities which are not in compliance with IAEA safety standards that use graphic moderation and may lack the safety features of modern fail-safe.

It is true that none of the reactors in Japan are of this configuration–the only plants currently operated in Japan are boiling water or pressurized water reactors, most of which integrate later Generation II or Generation III safety features and “defense in depth” (i.e. not just redundant systems but allowing for robustness against multiple independent failures)–but it cannot be said that a failure like Chernobyl could never again occur, or that even with ostensibly failsafe design that even modern Gen III reactors are immune against hazard, particularly hazards imparted by catastrophic and unavoidable environmental causes.

Even a cursory review of past nuclear accidents shows a disturbing trend of near-catastrophic accidents; although the Three Mile Island #2 partial meltdown gets a lot of press, the Windscale fire and the Kyshtym disaster (which the West knew nothing definitive of until after the fall of the Soviet Union) are more representative of the potential for hazard in both the power generation and fuel/waste processing aspects of the nuclear power cycle. Nuclear power is a calculated risk; shining on the potential for hazard, and particularly environmental persistence and range over which such hazard could be seen does nothing to address concerns either real or perceived.


I’m aware that Chernobyl was a type, not a singleton. I’m also aware that our military has a long history of exempting itself from safety features that the government mandates for commercial users.

I don’t think that invalidates my point. A rational discussion of the future of nuclear power or of the conditions in Japan does not include RBMK-1000/-1500 reactors. I’ve never said that a containment dome breach was an impossibility. I’ve also made the point in two other threads that the reality of disasters is, quoting an IEEE blog, a worse than worst case event, because engineers downplay the odds of everything going wrong at once.

There are huge risks from nuclear power. And huge risks from not including nuclear power in a future set of power generation alternatives. Who has said otherwise? No matter, Chernobyl-type reactors are like asbestos. It’s out there, it’s dangerous, and it’s outmoded. But if somebody shouts asbestos as a reason not to build a building, it shouldn’t be taken as a rational objection.

First post - hello everyone.

Chernobyl, as drastic as it was, still only killed around 50 people. A reporter for our leading ABC current affairs program “4 Corners” confirmed that figure recently when he researched it for the program.

Coal mining has accounted for over 250,000 deaths in the past 50 years, that’s 5,000 a year, mostly in China.

In fact in the last decade the wind farm industry has killed far more people for far less electricity produced than the nuclear industry

Nuclear fatalities in the last ten years: 7

Wind farm fatalities in the last ten years: 44. :slight_smile:

Another huge loss of life via earthquakes for Japan was the pre global warming and CO2, earthquake of 1923 where 142,000 died.ō_earthquake

When I said essentially the same thing I was treated like an idiot.

The Straight Dope has been full of posts the last few days highly critical of the intelligence of anyone who questions nuclear power. Advocates of unexamined nuclear proliferation have come off as angry and aggressive.

What does this sentence mean? Both global warming and, certainly, CO2 existed before 1923…and what do they have to do with earthquake death tolls?

When evaluating the empirical statistics and potential for hazard of safety failure of a nuclear reactor (such as an uncontrolled criticality excursion or loss of coolant/loss of containment), significant consideration needs to be given to not only the immediate impact of such an accident, such as explosive damage or direct irradiation effects, but also the persistence of such effects in the environment and the range of effects. Pointing to Chernobyl as only having directly killed approximately fifty people, for instance, glosses over the persistent radiation hazards, accelerated mortality from long-term low level exposure, the cost of evacuating and relocating the population of the nearby city of Pripyat, total remediation costs, and enduring economic impact to the Soviet Union and the Ukraine in the form of contaminated areas that are no longer arable, health impacts and property damage, et cetera. The damage to the Soviet Union is almost universally regarded among historians and economists as a significant contributor to the ultimate economic and political collapse of that nation, to the extend that it largely dominated Gorbachev’s later tenure.

Consider, too, what the impact could have been had the Chernobyl facility been located not in a remote area of the Ukraine but adjacent to or upwind of a major metropolitan center. The location around Chernobyl has been essentially sealed off with only a modest impact upon available property, but had such an event occurred near a major population center the economic impact could have been enormous, dwarfing the estimated US$20B for loss and clean up of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings. The estimates of the economic impact and projected remediation costs for Tokyo are already in the tens of billions of dollars, and this is without any evaluation of persistent radiation or other long-term costs. Certainly, petroleum refineries can catch fire, coal mines can explode, and oil wells can leak or burst, but the persistence of all of these, as massive as they can be, pales in comparison to what the long-term effects can be from massive radiation release or leakage.

Nuclear power generation facility safety design and risk mitigation steps are based upon what what are called design basis accidents, i.e. the at-present best engineering judgment as to the likely worst-on-worst conditions the reactor and containment systems are likely to experience in the operational lifetime. However, if that threshold is exceeded–as in the case of a massive seismic event that is beyond facility code experience to withstand–all bets are off; the provisions that would normally prevent or limit catastrophic failure may no longer be adequate, as with Chernobyl #4 fire or the ongoing events at the Fukushima facility. Because they are beyond anticipation doesn’t mean that they are inately unlikely to occur or that the impact shouldn’t be considered, any more than our prior ignorance of the likelihood of catastrophic meteorite impact has protected civilization from impact.

A brief perusal of other threads on this topic reveals a great deal of speculation and no small amount of fundamental ignorance on the practical operation and function of nuclear fission power generation masquerading as self-proclaimed expertise. Large scale power generation facilities are not like small research or mobile reactors, where SCRAMing reduces function to negligible levels and the decay heat can be readily carried away. Large fission cores can be both highly sensitive to modest tweaks and yet resistant to attempts to reduce activity once hey have exceeded a criticality threshold, which is why the first researchers who worked on fission weapons and later energy production referred to control of the fission reaction as “twisting the dragon’s tail”.

Diagrams in textbooks or glossy pop-sci magazines give the impression that this is all a tightly controlled process of shooting a neutron into a nucleus and receiving a specified result like an expert bowler performing a strike; the reality is that the entire process is stochastic, and there are a lot of phenomena that can influence the criticality threshold that have been mostly learned by trial and (occasionally lethal) error. While modern Generation III reactor designs have implemented the lessons learned from previous failures, it would be very ostrich-like to baldly assert that such reactors are immune from any future failures, particularly those that result from a condition that is beyond the design basis accident envelope.

Despite the current knee-jerk response by Germany and other nations to abandon or roll back nuclear fission power production, the reality is that current capabilities in renewable sources will not fill the gap created by dwindling supplies of hydrocarbon fuels. Nuclear fission power will be part of any realistic energy planning for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some very significant risks, costs, and drawbacks to the entire nuclear energy production cycle, from fuel refining through waste disposal. To justify not considering those impacts on the basis of “it’s just a political problem” or “won’t happen because it is too unlikely” glosses over the fact that our understanding of those probabilities is non-rigorous and based upon a lot of assumptions.


The Fujinuma Dam is estimated to have killed 8 people (only 4 of the missing bodies found). Estimates of the death toll from the cascade failure of dams at Banqiao, China in 1975 are as high as 230,000. Guinness Book of records claims 900,000 were killed when a Chinese dam was dynamited to slow the Japanese army in 1938 (not a hydro facility in that case, just a listing for comparative dangers). This is dwarfed by the UN’s estimate of around 2.5 million deaths from the smoke from fossil fuels and biomass energy. That’s far more than Chernobyl and Fukushima combined, every day (maybe every hour) and about 56 million dead since Chernobyl.