Tag Archives: fukushima

A Disturbing Story on Fukushima — Can You Help Confirm It?

[Note Added: I have been unable to confirm the story described below from any source other than the original one — the lawyer who stands to benefit from it.  At this point, based on remarks by my readers, I’m inclined to think the story is implausible.]


It’s been a little quiet on the blog, because I’ve been working very hard, with a dozen colleagues, to finish a monster project that will appear later today on the public physics archive (arXiv) for professional theoretical physicists to present their work to the their colleagues.  More on that tomorrow.

But in the meantime, I have come across a very disturbing update to a story regarding the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster— nothing to do with what is going on there now, but something that happened immediately after the accidents following the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.  The latest update, though widely reported around the internet, is currently attributed only to a lawyer for plaintiffs… hardly a reliable source of information.  Nevertheless, the story might be true, and I’m looking for corroboration, if one of you has come across any.

The story is that dozens of sailors from the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (ironies, anyone), who I believe were right off the coast of Japan following the quake to help out with disaster relief, were exposed to radioactive sea water.  Some were diving into the sea to help rescue people, and many were bathing in and even drinking desalinated sea water — and taking the salt out of seawater does not remove radioactive atoms of iodine, caesium, etc.   Apparently it was a short but significant time before somebody realized the water was not safe.  And now dozens of sailors — more than 1% of the total number on board (last year it was eight, and this summer the lawsuit apparently grew to more than 50) are suing TEPCO (the Japanese electric company) after suffering a variety of diseases, including various cancers, eye and thyroid problems, etc.  So says their lawyer, anyway.

Does anyone reading this know anything else about this story?  In particular, does anyone know someone who was on the ship?

A certain number of people get sick every year, just by chance; assuming the story is true, is this particular cluster of illnesses a chance event, or a real effect of radiation exposure? This is one of those situations where you could do a real scientific test, if the Navy would let someone do it.  You could compare disease rates on the Ronald Reagan to disease rates for sailors who served on the same types of ships operating in other parts of the world, and see if they are significantly larger.  The populations are plenty big enough for such a study… But will anyone be able to find out the truth when the truth becomes a football in a lawsuit?

The Guardian’s Level-Headed Article on Fukushima

[Note: If you missed Wednesday evening’s discussion of particle physics involving me, Sean Carroll and Alan Boyle, you can listen to it here.]

I still have a lot of work to do before I can myself write intelligently about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the nuclear accident and cleanup that occurred there. (See here and here for a couple of previous posts about it.) But I did want to draw your attention to one of the better newspaper articles that I’ve seen written about it, by Ian Sample at the Guardian. I can’t vouch for everything that Sample says, but given what I’ve read and investigated myself, I think he finds the right balance. He’s neither scaring people unnecessarily, nor reassuring them that everything will surely be just fine and that there’s no reason to be worried about anything. From what I know and understand, the situation is more or less just as serious and worthy of concern as Sample says it is; but conversely, I don’t have any reason to think it is much worse than what he describes.

Meanwhile, just as I don’t particularly trust anything said by TEPCO, the apparently incompetent and corrupt Japanese power company that runs and is trying to clean up the Fukushima plant, I’m also continuing to see lots of scary articles — totally irresponsible — written by people who should know better but seem bent upon frightening the public. The more wild the misstatements and misleading statements, the better, it seems.

One example of this kind of fear-mongering is to be found here: http://truth-out.org/news/item/19547-fukushima-a-global-threat-that-requires-a-global-response, by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers. It’s one piece of junk after the next: the strategy is to take a fact, take another unrelated fact, quote a non-expert (or quote an expert out of context), stick them all together, and wow! frightening!! But here’s the thing: An experienced and attentive reader will know, after a few paragraphs, to ignore this article. Why?

Because it never puts anything in context. “When contact with radioactive cesium occurs, which is highly unlikely, a person can experience cell damage due to radiation of the cesium particles. Due to this, effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding may occur. When the exposure lasts a long time, people may even lose consciousness. Coma or even death may then follow. How serious the effects are depends upon the resistance of individual persons and the duration of exposure and the concentration a person is exposed to, experts say.” Well, how much cesium are we talking about here? Lots or a little? Ah, they don’t tell you that. [The answer: enormous amounts. There’s no chance of you getting anywhere near that amount of exposure unless you yourself go wandering around on the Fukushima grounds, and go some place you’re really not supposed to go. This didn’t even happened to the workers who were at the Fukushima plant when everything was at its worst in March 2011. Even if you ate a fish every week from just off Japan that had a small amount of cesium in it, this would not happen to you.]

Because it makes illogical statements. “Since the accident at Fukushima on March 11, 2011, three reactor cores have gone missing.” Really? Gone missing? Does that make sense? Well then, why is so much radioactive cooling water — which is mentioned later in the article — being stored up at the Fukushima site? Isn’t that water being used to keep those cores cool? And how could that happen if the cores were missing? [The cores melted; it’s not known precisely what shape they are in or precisely how much of each is inside or outside the original containment vessel, but they’re being successfully cooled by water, so it’s clear roughly where they are. They’re not “missing”; that’s a wild over-statement.]

Because the authors quote people without being careful to explain clearly who they are. “Harvey Wasserman, who has been working on nuclear energy issues for over 40 years,…” Is Harvey Wasserman a scientist or engineer? No.  But he gets lots of press in this article (and elsewhere.) [Wikipedia says: “Harvey Franklin Wasserman (born December 31, 1945) is an American journalist, author, democracy activist, and advocate for renewable energy. He has been a strategist and organizer in the anti-nuclear movement in the United States for over 30 years.” I have nothing against Mr. Wasserman and I personally support both renewable energy and the elimination of nuclear power. But as far as I know, Wasserman has no scientific training, and is not an expert on cleaning up a nuclear plant and the risks thereof… and he’s an anti-nuclear activist, so you do have to worry he’s going to make thing sound worse than they are. Always look up the people being quoted!]

Because the article never once provides balance or nuance: absolutely everything is awful, awful, awful. I’m sorry, but things are never that black and white, or rather, black and black. There are shades of gray in the real world, and it’s important to tease them out a little bit. There are eventualities that would be really terrible, others that would be unfortunate, still others that would merely be a little disruptive in the local area — and they’re not equally bad, nor are they equally likely. [I don’t get any sense that the authors are trying to help their readers understand; they’re just bashing the reader over the head with one terrifying-sounding thing after another. This kind of article just isn’t credible.]

The lesson: one has to be a critical, careful reader, and read between the lines! In contrast to Sample’s article in the Guardian, the document by Zeese and Flowers is not intended to inform; it is intended to frighten, period. I urge you to avoid getting your information from sources like that one. Find reliable, sensible people — Ian Sample is in that category, I think — and stick with them. And I would ignore anything Zeese and Flowers have to say in the future; people who’d write an article like theirs have no credibility.

A Couple of Questions for Readers

Today I’m looking for insights from readers on two issues that were nagging me over the weekend.

The first issue has to do with the Fukushima nuclear accident and subsequent radiation fears, which I first brought up on this blog last week.   I’ve been thinking about how to write articles that explain radioactivity and radiation in rather plain language, and about what we know is dangerous and what we know is not.  One of the challenges is to confront the extreme irrationality of people’s fear of radioactivity.  I’d like to hear my readers’ opinions of where this fear really comes from.  One explanation of this fear that you’ll commonly read is that “radioactivity is scary because you can’t see or smell or feel it”.  But that makes no sense; you can’t see, smell, or feel viruses either, or low levels of chemicals, so why aren’t people equally afraid of those things?  Especially since the average person is far more at risk of getting cancer or other potentially deadly diseases from viruses (such as papilloma) or from chemicals (asbestos, benzene, etc.) then from radioactivity, despite all the atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s and the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant accidents.  So I don’t think this explanation is correct; there are plenty of invisible scary things in the world, and people’s fears are totally out of proportion to the true risks.  I have my own suspicions as to the real causes, but I am wondering what my readers think.

The second issue is more technical. Comet ISON, dubbed, as is typical of our sensationalist age, “comet of the century” before it has even become easily visible [and it might still be a dud, or it might be the best of the year or even the last twenty years; but of the century? check back in 2099!]) is approaching the sun.  There is indeed the tentative possibility, if it survives its very close encounter with the sun on November 28th, that it will give us a spectacular early morning display in December.  In preparation, I’m wanting to read more details about the properties of cometary tails, which are generated by the physics of particles and fields (photons, ions, magnetic fields, momentum conservation, etc.).  [Here’s a nice video of ISON’s tail and its interaction with the solar wind, the stream of charged particles emanating from the sun; also visible to its upper right is Comet Encke, which by chance is also near the sun.  By the way you can also see, watching Encke, that its tail is not a trail; it does not point along its direction of motion but instead points away from the sun.] But I’ve been unable to find anything online other than vague descriptions with no technical information, or references to books or review articles from several decades ago.  Do any of my readers know of a roughly up-to-date technical introduction to the physics of comets’ tails?


The Mess at Fukushima, and The Need for a Scientific Lens

Ever since the horrific earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear accidents hit north-eastern Japan in March of 2011, the world has been keeping an eye on Fukushima, where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered extraordinary amounts of damage.  Initially the news out of the power plant, operated by the company TEPCO, was awful, but gradually the situation seemed to be increasingly under some control.  But that control has not been convincingly secured, and has even perhaps been slipping of late.  And the worries about a variety of possible risks from the plant have been growing, especially because the clean-up at the plant is still run by TEPCO, which has engaged in repeated cover-ups and poor decisions… not to mention the fact that it’s a power company, not a nuclear accident site cleanup company.  I find it extraordinary that the situation hasn’t been put into the hands of a blue-ribbon international panel of nuclear scientists and engineers, with full power to make decisions and with full transparency for all to see as to what is going on.  It’s taken the Japanese government far too long to step in.

I’m bringing this topic up now because TEPCO is finally ready to address one of the major issues that they face in the clean-up.  In addition to finding ways to deal with the melted-down nuclear fuel at Reactors 1, 2 and 3, which will take years, they have to deal with the stored and mostly undamaged fuel rods that are sitting outside of Reactor 4, in a water-filled pool.  The water keeps the fuel cool, and right now there’s nothing wrong with the pool or the cooling.  The problem is that this pool is on the 3rd floor of the Reactor 4 building, which was damaged in a (chemical, not nuclear) hydrogen explosion shortly after the earthquake… and it would be better to get the fuel rods into a safer pool, at ground level, outside of the compromised building.  This is not easy for many reasons, and apparently there is some risk involved — not risk of a nuclear explosion, which is physically impossible in these circumstances, but of some amount of radioactive gas being produced and released into the atmosphere if the fuel rods are not kept submerged in water or are otherwise damaged.  However, I’m not precisely clear on the nature of this risk.

Just the same as anyone else who might be affected if fish from the Pacific become unsafe to eat (which, as far as I can tell so far, remains the main risk to areas outside Japan), I want to know what is happening at Fukushima and what exactly the risks are.  But I’m not an expert on this subject.  Just because I’m a scientist doesn’t mean that it’s that much easier for me to figure out what’s really going on. It’s just perhaps easier for me, compared to the general reader, to recognize misinformation for what it is.  And when I look around the web, I am seeing huge amounts of it.  (For instance, starfish on U.S. coastlines are being afflicted by some sort of disease; around the web you will see suggestions that this has something to do with Fukushima, which, given that the amount of Fukushima-related radioactivity currently in the Pacific is small, is manifestly ridiculous.)

There are good reasons to be concerned that things are at risk of getting out of hand on many different fronts, both in terms of actions on the ground and in terms of public understanding.  On the one hand, I’m reading more and more scare-mongering: irresponsible statements made by non-experts, such as the ones about starfish, that are starting to frighten my friends and neighbors unnecessarily, especially on the west coast of the United States.  (Here’s a response by a deep-sea biologist to one of the most egregious; I can’t directly verify all of the points he makes, but many of them were obvious to me even before I found his website.)  On the other hand, I’m not at all convinced, given their terrible track record, that TEPCO is capable of dealing with the extreme technical difficulty and considerable danger of putting their nuclear plant back into a safe condition without there being additional significant releases of radioactive material.  And meanwhile, media reporting is just not sufficiently reliable; the journalists aren’t experts and often don’t understand the issues well enough to get it all straight or put it in proper context.

If there were ever a time when level-headed scientific discussion, careful calculation and thoughtful consideration were needed in a public setting, this would be it.

I haven’t yet found a sensible, trust-inspiring blog that does for nuclear engineering and radiation safety what I try to do for particle physics (though this one looks somewhat promising.)  Consequently, I don’t really have a way to understand the whole story and to gauge it properly.  So I’d like to find a way to use my website and its readers, some of whom surely know more about nuclear engineering and radioactivity risks than I do, and some of whom are perhaps getting more information than I am, to assemble a clearer understanding of what the risks and dangers really are and are not.

Fair warning: In contrast to my usual policy, I am going to be strictly editing the comments on this post, and all similar posts on Fukushima.  I will accept thoughtful scientifically-based discussion, and links to such discussion, only. I want neither my own mind nor my readers’ cluttered with unscientific chatter from non-experts.  Polemical diatribes will be deleted; activism for or against nuclear power is inappropriate here [I happen to oppose nuclear power in its current form, but that’s beside the point right now]; and unscientific assertions without any support from replicated studies will be marked as such, and if sufficiently egregious, deleted.  My goal is the same as that of most people: to get a better grasp of the situation, and to get a clearer sense of what to worry about and what not to worry about, both for now and looking into the future.

So: do I have any readers with expertise in this area? If you’re one of them, can you help us establish a baseline of solid science that we can build on?  Does anyone know of particularly even-handed and sensible blogs by experts that we can draw on?  Websites with data or resources that are run by people without an obvious big axe to grind?  One of the big problems I find is that there are plenty of scientific studies quoted on blogs, but few guides to the non-expert reader to help us put the results in precise perspective.

By the way, here’s one site that shows the radioactivity levels in and around Berkeley, California; as far as I can see, nothing above normal levels has been measured for well over a year, and never were levels high even in 2011.  http://www.nuc.berkeley.edu/UCBAirSampling