Accurate and inaccurate predictions, garbage dumping, and death threats: an easy lesson about nuclear power, still not learned after 1,827 days

Five years ago today, amongst the horrendous destruction in northeast Japan caused by an earthquake so strong it knocked our planet off its axis, was a predictably innocuous event that should have been recognized as a non-event. This was, of course, the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi generating plant. The earthquake raised a 10 meter tsunami which when it collided with the coastline, moving at about 100 kilometers an hour, killed nearly 20,000 of our fellow human beings and made half a million homeless. It also flooded and rendered useless the backup pumps that circulate cooling water through F-D’s reactors. This caused the meltdowns.

Having studied the outcomes of other nuclear meltdowns, notably the Chalk River incident (1952), and Three Mile Island (1979), I quickly realized that while the destruction of three nuclear reactors would be a major problem for the company that owned them and the millions of people who relied on their power, it was little more than a local issue. The real problem at the time, as I saw it from Ottawa Canada, 13,000 kilometers away, was helping the survivors of the tsunami. This was early March, and Japan is in the north Pacific. I watched the stunning and terrifying video footage of the wave sweeping through coastal towns, like an out-of-control uphill-running whitewater river, and saw that the shocked onlookers were wearing winter coats. Imagine being in that situation.

All through that day, and in the days and weeks after, I told every reporter who I spoke to that I expected there would be few if any casualties from the nuclear meltdowns. I emailed a note to this effect to Rex Murphy, host of CBC radio’s Cross Country Checkup, on the Sunday following the tsunami; Rex read it on the air.

(Others told the media the very same thing. These include Rod Adams of Atomic Insights, Duncan Hawthorne of Bruce Power, and Dan Meneley of UOIT.)

The following Thursday, I repeated this message on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. A fellow panelist on that show claimed he had heard there actually had already been a casualty; obviously that was wrong.

Well, today marks the 1,827th day following the meltdowns. My prediction on Day One has proved perfectly correct.

While I am immensely pleased that nobody has died or even gone to the hospital because of the effects of ionizing radiation released because of the meltdowns (radiation has of course been released, but in amounts simply too small to cause harm to anybody or anything), I have found these past 1,827 days to be rather frustrating. I harbour this naive fantasy that those who were surprised to hear me tell anybody who would listen to expect few if any casualties might revisit their initial surprise.

I understand why they were surprised. I was one of very, very few people saying what I was saying. The vast majority of other commentators on the nuclear situation in Japan following the earthquake were saying just the opposite. They were telling everybody who would listen that there would be untold death and disease because of the release of radiation.

I also understand why these prophets, false prophets I should say, got on the air: from the point of view of a media vehicle locked in mortal hyper-competition with other media vehicles for readers/viewers/listeners, it is much much sexier to prophesy doom and destruction. Reassurance is boring, even if it is bang on. I get that.

What I find disappointing is that the prophets of doom, having been proved laughably wrong, are not being called to account. I mean, they said this stuff in public. You might think that having said things that prove they do not know what they are talking about, somebody might, you know, call them on it.

Apparently such correcting of the public record is not a priority in the current media universe.

It should be. There are real consequences to allowing alleged experts to utter falsehoods in the public sphere.

One of these consequences is that Japan has dumped, by my estimate, 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the global atmosphere since the meltdowns began. This is because Japan mothballed its entire 54-reactor nuclear generating fleet in the wake of the event. It did so because its public, having been conditioned over decades to fear nuclear energy, demanded it. (Note that this is 1.5 billion tons on top of what Japan would have dumped anyway, from other activities like transportation and heating.)

The media circus that descended on Japan in the wake of the tsunami added momentum to that conditioning. More stories were devoted to the nuclear issue than to the humdrum one of how to feed and shelter half a million homeless people. Today, five years after the catastrophe that befell these unfortunate people, most media stories continue to place the nuclear event above the tsunami. Here’s Reuters:

Five years ago, one of the biggest earthquakes in history shook the country’s northeast. The 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami it spawned smashed into the power plant on the Fukushima coastline triggering a meltdown and forcing nearby towns to evacuate. The disaster killed over 19,000 people across Japan and caused an estimated 16.9 trillion yen ($150 billion) in damages.

Which disaster killed the more than 19,000 people? The article makes it sound like the nuclear meltdown caused the deaths. But as I predicted five years ago, nobody has died because of the meltdown.

The Reuters story is, quite plainly, irresponsible journalism.

It is precisely because of this kind of irresponsible reportage polluting the public sphere that Japan now dumps, every year, 300 million tons of utterly unnecessary pollution into the air we all breathe. Pollution begets pollution.

It is also because of endless stories like the one above that a Canadian scientist received death threats after he published the results of an extensive radiation monitoring program. The results showed, predictably, that there is no risk of radiation on the west coast of North America.

Well, at least one hare-brained and violent person took it upon himself to threaten the scientist with death. What inflamed this individual to the point that he allowed himself to be videotaped threatening the scientist? Outrage that the scientist had the temerity to publish research that contradicts the meme that news organizations like Reuters publish as a matter of editorial policy.

It is difficult to explain why Reuters and innumerable other news organizations continue such reportage, especially in the Age of Climate Change. Is it because laziness and mediocrity have infested what was once a noble profession? Or is it that they know which side of the bread the butter is on, and publish stories favourable to the business competition of nuclear energy, which is natural gas? Gas companies and associations are enormous and prolific advertisers in mainstream media, and advertising revenues are declining.

I prefer the former explanation, while dreading the latter is the right one.

That we, humankind (as represented by readers of organizations like Reuters, at least), have failed to learn the lesson of Fukushima–which is that a nuclear meltdown is consequence-free beyond the loss of a reliable power source on a modern grid–is by no means surprising. But I take heart. Every dog has his day. Today is the day of the anti-nuclear dog. And there is always tomorrow.

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