Day 500 of the casualty-free Fukushima “crisis”: going for a record?

I wonder if the Guiness Book of World Records has a record for duration of silly hysteria. If so, I wonder if the manufactured handwringing over the casualty-free Fukushima meltdown is challenging that record. It has, after all, been 4588 days since the reactors melted down after a 14-metre tsunami knocked out the backup power to their cooling pumps. Those 4588 days have featured some of the most amateurish, incompetent, and irresponsible reporting and commentary that I have seen. Tens of thousands lost their lives in the tsunami, but the casualty-free meltdowns have gotten all the ink. The Associated Press and Arnie Gundersen deserve special mention in this regard. Because AP decided to riff on a reputation earned decades ago and lend its hefty media reach to profit-minded scaremongers like Gundersen who prophesied then and continue to prophesize today millions of agonizing deaths by radiation, Japanese authorities panicked at the first sight of elevated instrument radiation readings and evacuated a hundred thousand people, killing 600 in the process.

All that could have been avoided if media vehicles like AP had only stuck to the principles of good journalism and stepped out of their comfort zone when it comes to seeking balance in stories. Had they looked further afield in the expert community, they could have come up with expert commentary that is far better informed than what they got from the pseudo-experts like Gundersen on whom they almost exclusively rely. The real experts, who have spent decades studying in detail the behavior of radionuclides that have escaped from broken reactors and their effects on humans and the environment, could have given information that relates far more closely to reality than Gundersen’s obvious hyperbole.

I know it’s the news business—you have to draw eyeballs to your pages. But it’s possible to do this in a way that doesn’t involve Yellow Journalism. It just takes a commitment to fresh thinking, which is what professional journalists should be committed to in the first place.

I don’t know how to explain the determination with which AP clings to its anti-nuclear bias. Perhaps it’s just laziness, reporters set in their ways and unwilling to put anybody else on their speed dial. Perhaps it’s systematic and deliberate: maybe a lot of natural gas companies advertise in the vehicles that distribute AP stories and don’t mind the excellent publicity that accrues to them when their competition—nuclear energy—gets trampled in endless negative advertorials masquerading as news. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two.

But it most definitely is bias.

It has become fashionable to predict grand changes in the intellectual frameworks that predominate in human discourse. Many refer to these frameworks as paradigms, in deference to Thomas Kuhn, who in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions attempted to explain the mechanisms by which science progresses. Like many eager undergrads I read (okay, skimmed) that book, and like many probably could not off the top of my head give a coherent account of Kuhn’s ideas. But I do remember his differentiation between “normal science” (the main activity of which he called puzzle solving), and the “paradigm shift” (the breakout discoveries that revolutionize thinking in a particular area). Johannes Kepler’s work in discovering the nature of planetary motion around the sun is an example of a Kuhnian paradigm shift. Kepler laboured for years attempting to superimpose his notion of perfect godlike symmetry onto the orbits of planets around the sun, only to be frustrated every time when his measurements of the planets’ actual orbits indicated elliptical routes and not the perfect circles he predicted. Eventually he gave in to his observations and accepted that planets do not travel around the sun in perfect circular orbits. That was a revolutionary development; a paradigm shift.

Similarly, I wonder when the reality of zero radiation deaths from the Fukushima meltdowns will lead to a revolution in the scientific thinking around radiation levels. The first 500 days have seen no change in thinking; that has led to 600 people dying in the course of an evacuation that was supposed to make them safe. What will the second 500 days bring?

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James Greenidge
11 years ago

A-Men to this article!

That there’s blatant anti-nuclear media bias is an understatement; to my knowledge NO ONE from the professional or grass roots nuclear blogs has ever been contacted by the mass media as a consultant resource regarding Fukushima (or has in such few brief obscure occasions that don’t count) wherein they’re stumbling all over themselves after Arnie’s and Helen’s takes on the evils of nuclear energy. What’s most dismaying to me is the blind uncritical faith the followers of anti-nuclear activists have. People in Japan are near rioting over a catastrophe that never happened! I mean if the nukes actually killed someone I could halfway understand their passion, but staring an energy gift-horse in the mouth that kills no one with four major chances to on their rare worst day? Even windmills topple over and kill people, not to talk about under-reported gas and oil explosions and fires around Japan from that very same quake! Seems to me school systems aren’t doing too well a job delivering well-rounded science educations between windmills and whales.

Ruefully much of the success of anti-nuclear activist lies in the nuclear industry’s complacent non-existent public education programs which should’ve gotten a red flag from TMI so that reactors wouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail just to stay open much less built today. I’m long for hyper-aggressive pro-nuclear PSAs and special TV programming and regret the nuclear industry/unions/professional organizations and agencies are so far behind the ball with this. I mean, how much Madison Ave brainpower is needed to make an ad charting the industrial normal operation/accident mortality rates of energy companies in the 60 years since the first reactors? Really, it ought be a stark no-brainer PSA question to pose the viewer; an energy industry whose accidents has directly killed and maimed tens of thousands of its workers/public — not to speak of millions afflicted by pollution and respiratory diseases — or a near pollution free energy source that worldwide over 60 years has killed – including worst accidents — less than a single 707 crash — most all in Russia. Dump grade school level cartoon nuclear PSAs and try that logical nugget out on the air and print and see the positive traction nuclear’s image will receive.

Lastly, one must wonder why it’s taking so long to allow Fukushima residents to return home in lieu the WHO and other renown institute studies that environmental radioactive contamination health risk is much less than the tolerated heavy metal content permeating the hills and houses of the area; Are Fukushima resettlement decisions being forestalled by gas/oil “input” to delay and exaggerate the peril?

James Greenidge
Queens NY

11 years ago

Many of the people wanted to be evacuated, they wanted and still want the government to impose lower dose limits. The fact that an evacuation wasn’t be managed well, isn’t an argument for more plants and possibly more evacuations. It’s an argument against it.

We don’t know how many cancers will arise from Fukushima, but one can’t declare by fiat that the number is zero. Or is it 0.0000?

11 years ago
Reply to  Bob Applebaum

Many people might have been panicked into wanting evacuation, but in retrospect they must surely be regretting sacrificing their existing lives and communities to a basically trivial health issue.

Solid information on the likely (not just worst-case) outcomes and a flexible ongoing evaluation of the actual status of the various possibilities would have helped, of course. The losses actually incurred should not be forgotten. Even a perfectly-managed evacuation still has a massive impact on the lives of those involved.

We can be sure that the number of cancers will be zero (or 0.0000), but no fiat is necessary – only review of the totality of the evidence of no noticeable harm at low-level exposure.

11 years ago
Reply to  Bob Applebaum

Wow… “many people” want lower dose limits. Really? Based on what medical expertise around dose limits? their “limits” are already lower than background. Live in lead lined houses perhaps?

No, one can’t declare zero. One can declare that there is likely to be no *discernible* increase based on actual understanding of does limits now: you won’t “find” them all given over 400,000 Japanese are digonosed with cancer every year anyway. Needle, haystack.

What we can say, and in fact with certainty, the doubling of oil burning and increase in LNG increases for generation WILL most certainly lead to more cancer deaths. That we know because we know for a fact that air pollution kills. Thus turning off the nuclear plants and keeping those off that were off line anyway WILL kill, and kill a lot more than if the plants were running displacing the fossil fuel that took their place.

11 years ago

“Crisis”? excuse me, the papers all have this as a “disaster”. Calling it merely a “crisis” – well, that would be regarded as a mortal sin in the over-dramatic world of modern media.

The evacuation outcome was not merely that some people – unfit for the stress of relocation – died in the process. The obvious and much-overlooked impact was that functioning communities were destroyed. It takes invested effort and resources to build a town – that investment has been cast aside as worthless by the blanket evacuation decision.

Jerry Cuttler
11 years ago

Our major communication problem is our failure to inform everyone of the following three facts:

1. There is an enormous rate of spontaneous (endogenous) DNA damage occurring naturally, which required the evolution of the very powerful defences that every person has

2. The rate of additional DNA damage caused by low-level radiation is relatively very small—millions of times less! This message is very clear in the Billen commentary and in Feinendegen’s calculations.

3. The effect of low-level radiation is stimulation of these defences—a beneficial effect. High-level radiation has the opposite effect.

I tried to communicate these simple facts in my presentation at the ANS President’s Special Session, but it seems that many people in the audience did not receive these facts, or did not understand these facts or did not remember them.

We just have to repeat them over and over and over again.

Jerry Cuttler