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.

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

  1. Morgan Brown
    March 11, 2016 at 18:50

    Thanks Stephen. I have long been frustrated with the coverage of nuclear stories, an area with which I am very familiar. I am appalled at some of the comments I read (e.g., CBC) due to their lack of scientific / math understanding, or their willingness (gullibility) to disbelieve expert opinion in favour of a flimsy web site or a self-appointed “expert”. It is good to ask questions, to expect logical argument and qualified references. It is not shameful to admit ignorance (I am ignorant in many fields) and to look for (and expect) good answers. The best answers are unlikely to be quick, easy, popular or fashionable; it takes time and effort to understand.

    • March 12, 2016 at 07:20

      a few years ago CBC The Current carried a debate between the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Jeremy Whitlock. The contrast between ill informed handwringing hysteria (BAS) and cool possession of knowledge and facts (Jeremy) was pretty striking. The BAS editor was so far out of her depth it was almost embarrassing.

      I wonder if most media types feel that embarrassment when treading on this issue. I think that when doing investigative work they are more comfortable when the parameters are clear from the outset — hence the glomming onto simplistic black-and-white morality instead of learning something that is out of their comfort zone. That stuff like science/math/engineering would trigger a fight or flight response is just so disappointing. Especially when in the next breath they do pieces on the need for STEM in education.

  2. Jaro
    March 12, 2016 at 15:28

    The media is one thing.
    Another is the antinuclear activist groups still making hay with Fukushima — to the total exclusion of the real tragedy that occurred as a result of the tsunami.
    You write, “What I find disappointing is that the prophets of doom, having been proved laughably wrong, are not being called to account.”
    I agree.
    I take action in the form of satirical cartoons, made using the Bitstrip app.
    They get around quite a bit, with many hundreds of people “reached”, according to the count provided by Facebook.
    Here are a couple of recent examples, which I encourage others to share, far & wide:

    This one actually got a “like” from Friends of the Earth International:

    As always, suggestions for more satirical cartoons welcome !

  3. exploderator
    March 14, 2016 at 13:15

    From the article:

    > “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? I prefer the former explanation, while dreading the latter is the right one.”

    Thank you, that is a very important insight. But instead of thinking of media’s motivations as an either-or situation between hysteria-peddling and corruption, we should think of the issue as a case of all-of-the-above (and more).

    — Peddling anti-nuclear doom hysteria is emotionally gripping and popular (click-bait headlines).

    — Pandering to wind, solar, hydrogen and energy storage is all popular, with promises of lots of green sector jobs (and the most expensive energy is the best for business after all).

    — Pandering to “clean” natural gas is very popular in other social segments (many people earn their living in the industry, and hope gas can carry Canada in spite of the tar sands failing).

    — Corporate advertisers get mad at media when media challenges the false ideology behind their business plans. Even if nobody explicitly formulates the entire nuclear-free popular vision and presses it on the media, the fact remains that if anyone in the media did begin to talk up the real safety and absolute necessity of nuclear power as the world’s primary energy source for the future, and did a good job of exposing the broken logics being pursued by so much anti-nuclear popular thinking and public policy, they would get very real blow-back. Phone calls to editors would happen, there would be private messages that certain articles were not appreciated, and insinuation that “respected industries” were being unfairly treated. All the usual stuff that happens when you support the competition of your biggest advertisers. Corruption often needs no pre-arranged contract, and the rules of conduct can usually be left unspoken, but are no less real.

    It saddens me that our dear leaders here in Canada chose what they saw as the easy buck for our future, the tar sands. Maybe at the time they hadn’t heard that it is likely suicide for the planet if humanity burns the tar sands, I’ll forgive them that much. But they premised our future on a form of energy so costly to produce, that it would only be viable is energy is so expensive that the rest of society is all but crippled by the high price. Planning a future on energy so expensive that the rest of your economy is crippled, is horrible planning. It’s doubly bad planning when a good portion of that high price was because of artificial market manipulations, that they didn’t control, and were sure to end, leaving your product far more expensive to produce than you can charge for it.

    Meanwhile, we are a country, with the freedom to write our own laws. We could have opened Canada to nuclear research, and become Los Alamos North, The New Manhattan Project. We could be pioneering the future of nuclear energy. We are ideally situated in every practical way, but people don’t understand the need. Instead of renewing our legacy of providing safe nuclear power, we stagnate and wither away, sold down a river of tar. It’s a real tragedy.

  4. Kevin Deeny
    April 15, 2016 at 18:46

    Just a quick question.

    I realize that there were no deaths directly from the meltdown of the Fukushima reactor. However what about the 300 square mile exclusion zone, the 156,000 displaced people and the impact to the environment?

    How does this square with your most recent post on the negative impact of energy infrastructure on the environment and eco-system.

    Realize this is more localized than a lot of the effects that you reference, but would be interested in your response.


    • April 15, 2016 at 19:51

      what impact to the environment? There is none. All the talk about this being a wasteland forever is antinuke nonsense. More radionuclides came out of Chernobyl, and that place is a thriving wildlife preserve today, teeming with healthy flora and fauna. See the PBS doc Radioactive Wolves.

      And the 156,000 displaced people didn’t need to be displaced. They could and should have stayed put. A lot of them would be alive today — six hundred or so died from having been evacuated. Chalk that up to fearmongering, not the effects of radiation.

      We happily accept far greater risks from everyday exposure to ubiquitous chemical fuels. How many natural gas-related explosions and CO poisonings are there every year? They are numerous, but don’t get reported except on the local news. Unlike nuclear events, which occur extremely infrequently but get worldwide coverage, gas accidents actually cause casualties.

      My point in the article about energy infrastructure was precisely related to relative magnitude of infrastructure required to deliver nuclear energy versus other types. e.g., how many ocean freighters carry petroleum or LNG, versus how many carry nuclear fuel. How many trucks carry liquid fuel on our roads, versus how many carry nuclear fuel. How many hectares per kilowatt of capacity do wind turbines need to occupy, versus hectares per kW required by nuclear plants. How much physical resource extraction is required to deliver petroleum/gas to consumers, versus the amount required to deliver nuclear energy.

      In all instances, without exception, physical infrastructure required for non-nuclear energy sources is far greater in magnitude. This, combined with the physical characteristics of non-nuclear fuel — e.g. natural gas, an inflammable and violently explosive substance — serves to increase the probability of accidents. Not surprisingly, they happen, and people die.

  5. Don G.
    May 13, 2016 at 14:34

    Thanks for writing this piece, it is a shame the truth gets so muddled by the anti-nuclear fear mongers.

    A recently watched a great video from Professor Geraldine Thomas which should be required viewing for anyone reporting on nuclear accident health concerns. I encourage folks to pass it around.

    Unfortunately, after doing a little more checking, it was clear that the anti-nuke movement did exactly as they always do when confronted with facts, they dismiss this extremely knowledgeable professor, call her an industry shill and worse. Then they proceed to reference their own garbage propaganda as a counter to her points. Sometimes is seems futile, but we’ve got to keep working to educate people.

  6. olga lenko aplin
    June 4, 2016 at 15:35

    Hi Steve: REad your article, and am glad that you are enjoying writing up and telling us as it is about nuclear energy. Hope to see you at the family reunion in July…yes I am coming, I still enjoy family visits, and when Dave and Grace organize anything, you know that it will be done well. Olga L. A

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