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1 October 2016 14:03 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

Fearmongering about the stricken nuclear reactor at Fukushima in Japan has reached fever pitch again, thanks to a tricky operation to move spent fuel rods at the unstable reactor four. As usual, we’re all going to die the day after tomorrow. Nowhere is safe. We can’t even eat sushi one last time.

As soon as 12 March 2011, the day after a magnitude 9 earthquake and massive tsunami hit Japan, it became clear that the ongoing story would not be the devastation caused to large swathes of the Tohoku region of north-eastern Honshu island.

The nuclear power station closest to the epicentre of the earthquake, Onagawa, survived just fine. A bit further away, however, in the Fukushima prefecture, Fukushima Dai-ichi was less fortunate. It was an old power station, operated by a monopoly known as Tepco, and it went into meltdown. It was not pretty.

I promptly wrote a column on the subject in an effort to head off environmental exaggeration at the pass: Who’s afraid of the nuclear wolf? Although that column was written before all the facts were in, it proved prescient. The “many thousands of human victims” were indeed all but forgotten in the months and years that followed.

A few weeks later, I wrote a follow-up, saddened by the response of the media: I’m ashamed for my profession.

The difficult and uncertain process of cooling the reactors, to be followed by a decommissioning process that could take decades, has kept Fukushima in the news ever since. And with good reason. There are real risks, real hazards and real questions about the competence and diligence of both Tepco and the Japanese government.

Unfortunately, this news is drowned out by the cacophony of alarmism. And it doesn’t appear to have an end. In the last week, I’ve been bombarded with messages warning me of the grave dangers that Fukushima once again poses to Californians, the world and, most importantly, to tuna sashimi. The apocalypse is either upon us, or it has already happened, or both.

ALL Bluefin Tuna Caught In California Are Radioactive ... DO NOT EAT TUNA,” screamed the headline on a site entitled The Citizen’s Column. It uses Deepwater Horizon as a backdrop, and has section headings like “real news”, “honest money”, “true science”, “legitimate health” and “straight-up politics”. Those adjectives alone poison the well. A real news site wouldn’t need them.

Soon, another gem arrived. Prompted by the fact that the decommissioning process started with reactor four, it recalled a story from last year that appeared in several Dutch and Belgian media: “If reactor four at Fukushima collapses, life on earth will be wiped out.” A similar version in English can be found on Infowars, the ever-entertaining site maintained by incorrigible right-wing conspiracy nut Alex Jones.

Elsewhere, I could read 10 horrifying facts about Fukushima, including watching a video about the end of humanity.

A more recent video clip from Russia Today followed, which started down a cataclysmic script with a quote from Helen Caldicott declaring, in 2011, that Fukushima was “already worse than Chernobyl”.

The proximate cause of all this hysterical excitement about Fukushima appears to be two news items.

First, the operators, watched over by an international team of monitors, recently commenced the first stage of the decommissioning process, which involves the removal of spent fuel rods from a containment tank in reactor four. Because of the damage to the reactor building, these rods could pose a risk if another earthquake were to strike before they were secured.

Secondly, the matter of contaminated fish, which is an old story, was revived by recent news of contaminated water leaks into the ocean near the stricken plant.

But while Liveleak, Russia Today and assorted blogs no doubt provide entertaining viewing and reading material, regular readers will know that one has to be skeptical of nuclear fearmongering, even if it appears in the New York Times, and especially if it involves Helen Caldicott, as George Monbiot discovered.

The Atlantic puts the news and the associated fears into perspective in an article that correctly argues that the health risks have been exaggerated despite news of fresh contamination.

The stories about the contaminated water released into the ocean mention volumes of 300 or 400 tons per day. That sounds like a lot, but it would take a week to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. If the leaks continue for two years, as is widely expected, it will add 0.0003 cubic kilometres of contaminated water to the Pacific Ocean. The reason I’m counting in cubic kilometres is that I once was pressed by a particularly insistent questioner to find out how big the Pacific Ocean really was. I’ve been waiting for this question in pub quizzes ever since, but in the mean time I trot it out as often as I can.

The Pacific Ocean contains 622-million cubic kilometres of briny water, which works out to 622,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons. In short, while you wouldn’t want to go bathing right near the discharge site, by the time you get to California, you’ll be exposed to a one-in-2x1012 dilution. True Californians might recognise that as a 6C solution, and you will indeed die of it if you’re a homeopath. If not, you’ll be just fine.

Brian Hanley, a scientist, nuclear expert, medical doctor and author of Radiation Exposure and its Treatment, did a similar calculation to put one of Caldicott’s favourite comparators, Hiroshima, in perspective. He worked out the amount of uranium occurring naturally in sea water, worked out the volume of Tokyo Bay, and worked out the share of it that is the fissile isotope, U-235, used in nuclear weapons. Here’s what he discovered: “On a normal day, Tokyo Bay has enough U-235 dissolved into it [to] build at least 8 Hiroshima sized bombs. And yet, because it is dissolved in the ocean, you can swim in it. It is safe. You can eat the fish.”

Of course, alarmists like Caldicott like to use scary big numbers too. She’ll talk of radiation in terms of “quadrillion becquerels”. For example: “On March 15 alone, it is estimated that 100 quadrillion becquerels of cesium, 400 quadrillion of iodine plus 400 quadrillion of inert noble gases (xenon, krypton and argon) escaped.”

Let’s leave aside the vague, passive-voice “it is estimated” phrasing – who estimated it? how? when? on what basis? Let’s leave aside that a quadrillion becquerels are routinely referred to as terabecquerels by people who know the term, much like nobody who knows anything about technology measures a hard disk drive in quadrillions of bytes, but says “terabytes”.

Let’s compare the quadrillions of scary whatsits that’ll kill you to known things. One quadrillion becquerels is equivalent to 27 curies. Chernobyl released about 2-million curies, and global weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s released 36-million curies into the atmosphere. But a few thousand curies doesn’t sound as scary as quadrillion becquerels, does it?

And you still have to be exposed to all that radiation to actually get things done to you. Like with sea water, atmospheric radioactivity disperses rapidly. And even if it did not, this is where it gets rather complicated. You see, to the lay person, wishing to assess their risk, a measure in becquerels or curies is entirely meaningless. No, seriously. If you want the exposure rate you get in sieverts, so you can look it up on xkcd’s handy chart, you don’t just convert becquerels to sieverts. You’ll have to work it out, isotope by isotope and distance by distance. This is not trivial. But then, providing accurate and useful information measured in, say, banana equivalent dose, would undermine Caldicott’s alarmist thesis, that any amount of radiation is too much.

If you bear with that story about how Fukushima will kill all sea life, you’ll discover a similar statistical hole in the argument: “Radioactive cesium doesn’t sink to the sea floor, so fish swim through it and ingest it through their gills or by eating organisms that have already ingested it. It is a compound that does occur naturally in nature, however, the levels of cesium found in the tuna in 2012 had levels 3 percent higher than is usual.”

Wait, 3%?! Get out of the water, children! The Jaws theme tune is playing!

Since “usual” levels are very low, “3 percent higher” remains, well, very low. So it is true to say the fish are contaminated, but not that they are noticeably less safe to eat. Don’t take my word for it; here are the scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, saying the same thing.

I’ll grant that declaring tuna to be radioactive is an inspired ploy if you’re an environmentalist who thinks neither a price of $1.6-million per tuna nor tradeable fishing quotas can possibly save our pelagic fisheries.

Journalists, who should know better, are also prone to exaggeration. Witness this AFP story, headlined “Water decontamination system in trouble at Japan’s Fukushima”. Wait, that sounds serious. The story opens by breathlessly reporting a chemical leak that shut down the system. What fresh evil escaped this time? A litre of hydrochloric acid.

Now I know I’m an idiot, but I’ve been known to deliberately contaminate my pool with that stuff, and go for a swim immediately. I have several litres of it at home, and I don’t even bar my door with hazmat tape. Admittedly, I wouldn’t drink it neat.

After all that fearmongering, what was the outcome of that scary first step in the decommissioning process? The operator, Tepco, who had faced much criticism (and much of it fully deserved), was showered with rare, if qualified, praise: “It’s nice to see the good progress Tepco has made in the last several months,” a member of the independent monitoring committee told Tepco, according to Reuters. “Spent fuel movement at (reactor) No. 4 went very well. You have demonstrated a very positive approach to safety culture.”

It’s hard to cut through the fear, uncertainty and doubt sometimes, and I certainly don’t have the space or energy to debunk the reams of nonsense in the alarmist links I mentioned. Besides, it’s been done, over and over again.

But schooled on horror images of Hiroshima, nuclear testing, Chernobyl, and films like The China Syndrome, commentators everywhere – including some journalists – appear to be in a desperate race to make up the scariest, most sensational “facts”.

Some are clearly anti-nuclear campaigners, who ideologically just cannot bring themselves to reach George Monbiot’s conclusion: if this is the worst that can happen to an old, fairly badly run nuclear power plant exposed to a natural disaster many times worse than its design limits, it is a demonstration of the safety of nuclear power, not its dangers.

Nuclear energy really is safer than any other source of energy, bar none, as this data visualisation from the IBM Many Eyes project shows.

Others may be trying to suppress memories of the almost 20,000 people who did die, but not at Fukushima. Or they’re trying to forget the 300,000 refugees who fled, not from nuclear radiation, but from the devastation aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that comes around maybe once in a thousand years. After all, real human suffering today is so much less entertaining than indulging apocalyptic nightmares of our future dystopia.

But one thing we do know. Remember that old friend who lit out for California to become a special effects ninja? Don’t buy them a sushi-making kit for Christmas. Or any gift at all, for that matter. Between hydrocarbon seeps at Coal Oil Point off Santa Barbara, earthquakes triggered by all the fracking going on north of San Francisco and now radioactive tuna, the Big One will come as a relief.

If I’m wrong about Fukushima, at least we can console ourselves in our final days with the thought that California’s army of waiters won’t be nursing their shattered dreams and blogging their neurotic fears for much longer. And sushi. I’m having tuna sashimi, no matter what Helen Caldicott says. DM

PS. Another great fact-check on Fukushima can be found here.

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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