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Dire Warnings and Melting Starfish: Fukushima Fearmongering, Volume 3

by Mike Rothschild

November 25, 2013

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Donate This is the third in a series of pieces debunking the scaremongering and hysteria regarding the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant. I believe the anxiety about the meltdown and its aftermath comes from a mix of negativity toward nuclear power, hostility toward plant operators TEPCO (which is well-deserved in most cases), a lack of knowledge about basic science, distrust of experts (who are seen as dishonest shills) and the common habit of sharing social content that’s driven by strong negative emotions " often without understanding it, and sometimes without even reading it.

Using links to good science and some basic concepts in logic, I’ve demolished two of the most prominent lies about Fukushima already, one that Pacific Ocean fish is unsafe to eat and the other that the West Coast is being “absolutely fried” by radiation from the disaster. This time, I’m not going to debunk one single post, but address a grab bag of myths, exaggerations and scaremongering racing around social media. Some of it you’ve probably seen many times, and some of it might be brand new, but all of it needs to be dealt with.

CLAIM: The ocean is broken. This is the title of an October article from Australia's Newcastle Herald, chronicling the journey of Ivan Macfadyen, a yachtsman who retraced a voyage between Melbourne and Osaka, and ten years later found the Pacific Ocean virtually devoid of life but teaming with floating trash. With its attention-grabbing title and compelling content, it went viral, with over half a million views in three days. People connected the dots and linked the dead, garbage-filled ocean that Macfadyen encountered on his trip to Fukushima, and the piece has been used as part of the exaggerated story since then.

But the link between the two doesn’t appear to exist. As the ocean conservation blog Upwell points out, the story in the Newcastle Herald isn’t a hard science piece, and has no citations or links to relevant research. It’s not meant to. It’s a human interest story, the relaying of a personal anecdote, and rooted in emotion. It’s full of phrases like “nauseous horror” and “astounding volumes” " compelling writing, but not science. The story is also not at all about the nuclear plant, but the damage done from overfishing and plastic pollution. It doesn’t even mention Fukushima by name. As such, it's worth reading, but not useful for any discussion about the meltdown.

CLAIM: David Suzuki’s Dire Warning. The removal of the spent fuel rods from Fukushima could have apocalyptic consequences if done incorrectly, warn activists around the world. Chief among them is David Suzuki, a Canadian environmentalist, scientist and author, well known in his native country, but not elsewhere. A post containing video of him discussing the fuel rod removal, called “David Suzuki’s Fukushima Warning is Dire and Scary” went up on Huffington Post and was a viral hit. So what is his warning, and is it accurate?

The facts related to the fuel removal are certainly cause for concern: 1,500 fuel rods (also called fuel bundles) must be removed from Reactor #4 at Fukushima. The work is normally done via computer controlled crane, but because of the damage from the tsunami and a subsequent hydrogen explosion, the rods, which are 4 meter tubes containing pellets of uranium fuel and cocooned in water, have to be removed by manual guidance. It’s slow, deliberate and dangerous work, and also unprecedented. Spent fuel rods are pulled from nuclear reactors all the time, but never ones with the damage that Reactor 4 suffered.

TEPCO has insisted they’ve taken every possible precaution, hence the delays, but given their previous bungling, it’s easy to see why some people don’t believe them.

And David Suzuki isn’t some average internet crank. His warning that an earthquake or major mistake during the fuel removal could trigger planetary catastrophe " “It's bye-bye Japan"and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate” are his exact words " carries weight. He’s a highly respected guru, internationally honored and venerated for his groundbreaking work " in genetics. What he is NOT is a nuclear physicist.

And real nuclear physicists (which, full disclosure, I am not) disagree strongly with Suzuki. Many believe he is deliberately exaggerating the risks of the fuel rod removal in particular and the entire Fukushima situation in general. They believe the idea of Japan being obliterated and the US needing evacuation is ridiculous and totally implausible. This skepticism toward fearmongering has been the trend over and over in fields that directly intersect with the Fukushima disaster " nuclear power, radiation, oceanography, medical research. Most of the people who research this stuff for a living believe that the fear being pushed on us about Fukushima has little or no basis in reality.

Could they all be paid shills kowtowing to their paymasters in Big Nuclear? Sure. But if amateur scientists and anti-nuke activists can push their version of events, so can the experts. And the experts agree that the risk of Armageddon from Reactor 4 is miniscule, if not non-existent. And as of this writing, the fuel removal process has begun without incident. Let’s hope it continues.

CLAIM: Fukushima is as bad as 14,000 Hiroshima bombs. Big numbers are scary. Hundreds of tons of water. Thousands of uranium rods. Trillions of becquerels. We’ve seen figures like this tossed around constantly in the two plus years since the tsunami hit Fukushima. The new number scaring the hell out of people is that the release of radiation from Reactor 4, if the fuel rod removal isn’t handled properly, could be the equivalent of 14,000 Hiroshima bombings. As many as 166,000 people died due to the Hiroshima bombing, so this is nothing to fool with, right?

When dealing with a hyperbolic claim like “as much radiation as 14,000 Hiroshimas!” it’s best to go back to the original source and see if the research they did was sound. In this case, the claim has appeared in numerous places without any kind of citation (and has also been quoted as 15,000, which is a pretty big difference in the world of atomic bombs going off) making it hard to track down where it first came from.

The first use that I found of the 14,000 figure is in a Reuters piece from August, where it was given by Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at Kyoto University and a researcher in nuclear power who has since turned into an anti-nuclear activist. Neither Koide nor the piece’s two authors offer substantive proof of how they came up with this number, what kind of radiation would be released or what it means in a greater context " only the fear of what the worst case scenario. It also doesn’t bother explaining that the Hiroshima bombing and the Fukushima meltdown are vastly different and not really comparable except as incidents involving radiation in Japan. As a further imbalance against good science, the piece heavily quotes Arnie Gunderson, another nuclear power researcher turned activist.

Since then, the claim of 14,000 Hiroshimas has spread all across the internet with no context and is unthinkingly used as an example of the nightmare that Fukushima could unleash. But without hard science to back up the claim, I can’t take it as anything other than an exaggeration offered by someone who believes nuclear power should be abandoned. It may not be a lie, but I can’t accept it as the truth. Not without evidence.

Incidentally, the atomic bomb that detonated over Hiroshima, the so called "Little Boy," was actually less powerful than the one that went off over Nagasaki. But "10,000 Nagasakis" doesn't sound as scary as "14,000 Hiroshimas."

CLAIM: The scary radiation map. Many people have covered this one before, but since it’s still going around, I’m going to one more time. The map of red and yellow pouring out of Japan that you’ve seen a thousand times on social media is NOT a map of radiation. It has NOTHING to do with radiation. It’s a map of wave heights after the tsunami that caused the initial Fukushima incident. If it wasn’t, why would the waves stop when they hit land? Radiation doesn’t do that. Water does.

CLAIM: Cancer rates are spiking in Fukushima's children. Many bloggers are claiming that pediatric thyroid cancer rates have sharply risen around Fukushima, a trend that was seen in Ukrainian children after the Chernobyl meltdown. These allegations directly contradict a UN report from May that claims there would be no deaths from radiation as a result of the incident " owing to the quick evacuation of the area.

However, a Lancet study from August confirmed an alarming rise in childhood thyroid cancer around Fukushima " with 44 confirmed or suspected cases out of 193,000 tested children. This is a much higher rate than normal. But the children are being screened regularly, which normally doesn’t happen. It’s rare to know that a child has a thyroid disorder until they start complaining about not feeling well, and better detection of any disease will reveal more cases of that disease. Furthermore, the spike in cancer rates post-Chernobyl didn’t appear until 4-5 years after the meltdown, which is not enough time for cancer to start developing around Fukushima " and nowhere near enough time for it to develop in the United States.

Right now, more research is needed to prove whether the spike is a result of Fukushima or better detection. Until then, I want to point out one particular line in the Lancet article:
“Unscientific comparisons with Chernobyl, which released far more radiation than Fukushima, are creating needless anxiety, particularly among the 160 000 people living close to the Fukushima facility who were evacuated in the hours after it was rocked by a tsunami on the afternoon of March 11, 2011.”
Words to live by.

CLAIM: Fukushima radiation is the cause of an epidemic of melting sea stars. Marine biologists are buzzing about a string of grisly starfish deaths in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The creatures suddenly become covered with lesions, lose their internal pressure, begin disintegrating and die. However, this is a well-chronicled disease called starfish wasting syndrome, and has caused massive die-offs many other times, including as far back as 1983.

Experts in the field don’t know what causes the disease or how to stop it. There’s speculation that it’s a parasite or possibly warmer water temperatures. But nobody in a position to know better is blaming it on Fukushima. To do so is simply post hoc logic " it happened after Fukushima, therefore that’s the cause.

There are many other claims about the damage caused by Fukushima. All such stories, be they from TEPCO, reliable news sources or fringe conspiracy sites should be treated with skepticism and examined carefully. They should NOT be passed around without being read, and without consideration for whether they’re true or not. To do so only encourages needless anxiety.

by Mike Rothschild

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