Tag Archives: radioactivity

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?

Thanks!