After I started writing about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it quickly became clear that there was a huge amount of fearmongering about it. Garbage anti-science pieces like “At the very least your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish are over” and “28 Signs the West Coast is Being Absolutely Fried by Fukushima Radiation” were needlessly scaring the crap out of those who didn’t have the training, knowledge, or common sense filter needed to see through them.
The result was that people became afraid that radiation was melting all life in the Pacific Ocean, that cancer was slamming the West Coast, that fish were inedible, that the beach was a death zone, that Japan would be obliterated, that half of America would have to be evacuated, that giant marine animals were washing ashore, that the ocean was broken, that life as we knew it was over, and on and on.
And all of that horror was before “the plume” reached the West Coast.
The radiation leak from Fukushima actually has two components. One was the initial leak from the incident itself, which hit the US fairly quickly. The other was the much slower moving “plume” of radioactive water, the extent of which only became clear last year after Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted that 300 tons of runoff was leaking into the Pacific every day, with no way to stop it.
There were generally two reactions to the news that a plume of radioactive water was heading straight toward the West Coast:
Scientists did science. They researched, they set up studies, they developed computer models, they wrote papers, they disseminated their findings, they adjusted their hypotheses accordingly. The aim was to determine when the plume would arrive, what danger it carried, and what the next steps should be.
Panicmongers mongered panic. They wrote long blog posts trumping up the unknown dangers, they spread false stories, they relied on dubious sources, they sold anti-nuclear products, they accused researchers and government officials of covering up the “real story” of how bad it was. The aim was to make money, abolish nuclear power, and spread fear.
What the researchers looking into the plume found was, at least to me, fairly comforting:
1. Traces of Fukushima radioactivity would reach the West Coast of the US sometime in early 2014.
2. Because of the natural dilution of a relatively small amount of water in the hugeness of the ocean, they would be just that – traces.
3. However, there was no way to tell exactly when the radiation would arrive.
4. Therefore, monitoring of the radiation levels in sea life and water should continue.
5. While that’s happening, go about your business safe in the knowledge that you aren’t being fried.
So here we are, past early 2014. Almost halfway through the year, really. What’s the status of the plume?
For one thing, we still don’t know when the plume will hit, or if it actually has. The estimates are still a moving target.
A February press release from Woods Hole researcher Ken Buesseler, a leading figure in the fight to calm the Fukushima panic, said that the plume hadn’t yet reached the West Coast, but would in April. And the California Coastal Commission released a report saying that the main body of the plume wouldn’t hit that state until 2015. However, a presentation at the Ocean Sciences Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Honolulu made the case that the plume had already reached US waters.
Other evidence supports this conclusion, though not to any degree that should cause alarm. Radioactive isotopes were being found all along the West Coast, though in extremely low levels, virtually indistinguishable from the radioactivity left by decades of nuclear bomb testing. Albacore tuna caught off the coast of Oregon have shown trace amounts of radioactivity, though in such small quantities that you’d have to eat 700,000 pounds of it to equal the amount of radiation you’re normally exposed to. Meanwhile, West Coast kelp has shown no signs of radioactivity. Additionally, a new UN report downplayed the danger of both radioactivity in fish and the perceived spike in cancer in the Fukushima area.
So has the plume hit us yet? The only scientifically accurate answer would be to say we just don’t know.
Keep in mind that “we don’t know” is ALWAYS an acceptable answer when it’s the right answer. Sometimes it’s the only acceptable answer. What happened to Flight MH370? We don’t know. Is there life on other planets? We don’t know. What exactly is dark matter? We don’t know.
Of course, that’s not stopping the panicmongers.
A Google search for “Fukushima plume” brings up a wealth of hit pieces from the usual suspects at RT, Enenews, and Infowars. They have horror titles like:
“Fukushima Plume Arrives at West Coast — Expert: “If this was of greater health concern, we’d be very worried”; One model predicts levels over 1,000% higher than another, “this is not really acceptable”
“Radiation level in tuna off Oregon coast tripled after Fukushima disaster”
“Fukushima Destroys Fetal Brains”
“Fukushima Radiation Plume Hitting California! (And lying coverup…)”
And so forth. It’s the same nonsense they’ve been dishing out since the disaster first happened. And it’s as false now as it was then.
Conspiracy theorists love to make pronouncements of life-changing things that are “just about to happen” that never actually do. We saw it with those who believed the Boston Marathon bombing was engineered to usher in martial law, and it never happened. We saw it with those who believed the Sandy Hook massacre was faked to introduce draconian gun laws, which never appeared. And we see it with the scam artists who declare that Iraqi dinar is constantly on the verge of revaluing, when there’s literally no possibility of such a thing occurring.
And so we see it here with the “plume of death” from Fukushima. They declare it’s about to hit us, and move the timeline as many times as they have to in order to ensure they’re right. Then when the plume does hit and almost certainly causes no harm, they’ll pontificate about the horrors that the mainstream media and reputable scientists conspired to cover up.
This is what panicmongers do. This is what conspiracy theorists do. This is what charlatans do. They sell you fear, then sell you products to protect you from the fear they sold you.
If you’re truly worried about the plume, keep an eye on news coming from places like Woods Hole, NOAA, and science blogs like Deep Sea News. Or even better, join Dr. Buesseler’s effort to crowdsource the tracking of radiation. Smart people are doing good work to find the truth about Fukushima and its aftermath – and none of them are interested in scaring you.