Like an out of control flood of death and destruction, silly rumors and scares about the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster continue to emanate from a toxic slagheap and pour into the world, causing fear and panic buying of worthless detox junk. Scientists and skeptics, armed with virtual mallets, slam these demonic hedgehogs of lies back into their dark holes; only for more to pop out of the ground, clutching new rumors and scares in their foaming maws.
But major media outlets haven’t been silent. There are solid pieces all over the internet from the likes of Time, the LA Times, the New York Times, Forbes, Daily Kos, Popular Mechanics, Slate and others. There is also excellent debunking by experts of all stripes, from physicists to marine biologists to nuclear engineers, at places like Deep Sea News and Southern Fried Science. Finally, there are my humble attempts to bring some sanity to the madness.
So in the spirit of good science and healthy snark, here’s Volume 4 of my Fukushima series.
The previous volumes answered the pressing questions:
Is Pacific Ocean fish safe? Yes.
Is the West Coast Being Absolutely Fried by Fukushima Radiation? No.
Did a bunch of other apocalyptic nonsense happen? No.
And now, meet the new crap. Same as the old crap.
CLAIM: OMG! A giant squid beached itself in Santa Monica! Fukushima! This one is actually a decent litmus test for whether a person is serious about the impact of Fukushima. If they take this obvious hoax to be reality, they probably aren’t that bright and shouldn’t be listened to. For the record, Snopes demolished this the same day it hit the web, finding the two pictures Photoshopped together to create the hoax, and driving down to Santa Monica to ensure that, no, Squidzilla had not washed up on Muscle Beach. We’re dealing with moderately humorous satire, and that’s it.
CLAIM: Two underground nuclear explosions rocked the Fukushima site on New Year’s Eve, forcing Russia’s Ministry of Defense to go on high alert – and causing TEPCO to quietly admit that Reactor 3 was melting down. GAME OVER!!! None of this happened, other than Reactor 3 melting down, which took place right after the tsunami. The original “report” about the “explosions” came from whatdoesitmean.com, one of the least reliable “news” websites on the internet, with a reputation for making up wild conspiracies and insane stories, then tossing them out there for other conspiracy sites to disseminate. Which is exactly what happened here. There were no underground explosions and no high alert.
Not only were there no nuclear explosions, there couldn’t have been. A nuclear bomb and a nuclear reactor are not at all the same thing. They’re designed differently to do very different things. Without some kind of detonator and weapons grade nuclear material, which Fukushima doesn’t have, a nuclear explosion literally could not have happened. This is basic nuclear physics, and if you don’t know this, you shouldn’t be sharing anything about Fukushima.
CLAIM: Radioactive steam was seen pouring off Reactor 3, meaning it’s in the middle of a meltdown. Alternative media sites went crazy right before New Year’s with claims that the west coast was about to be hit by an onslaught of radiation from Reactor 3 in the form of nuclear steam. Putting aside the ludicrousness of “radioactive steam” in Japan killing people on the west coast, the steam, which is real, has a simple explanation, rooted in kindergarten physics.
1. The reactor is physically hot, because of the decay of nuclear fuel. Of course, this is dangerous, but that’s beside the point.
2. It’s winter in Japan.
3. When cold water from rain or snow hits something hot (like a reactor), it turns into steam. Just like your breath.
The steam has been coming off Reactor 3 for almost three years. Panicking about it now makes no sense.
CLAIM: A dude with a Geiger counter went to a California beach and found radiation levels off the charts! Evacuate the west coast at once! This one has been pretty well covered here at Skeptoid and at other places, so I won’t go into the whole explanation again, except to say that there are any number of reasons why the Geiger counter in the video reads the way it does. Background radiation is everywhere, and in everything (so much for the “no safe dose” meme.) This is especially true of the ocean, which is rich in uranium. That particular area, Pacifica State Beach, is especially radioactive, owing to natural substances in the granite and sand there.
The video is not a source of anything other than a guy with a Geiger counter. California officials dismissed it as scaremongering, and they were right. Your granite countertops will absolutely fry you long before a day at the beach does.
CLAIM: 98% of the Pacific sea floor is covered in dead creatures nuked by Fukushima. Not even close to true. The way-smarter-than-me folks at Deep Sea News have a fantastic blog post that explains this insane claim. In essence, it’s a sampling of a study related to the phenomenon of “marine snow.” This is when salps, plankton or algae suddenly bloom in mass quantities, then die and fall to the sea floor, providing meals for the creatures there.
The original story, from Natural News, takes a report from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (full disclosure, I’ve been to the Aquarium and it’s really cool) and twists it into some weird conspiracy rant about Fukushima killing everything in the ocean. But like I said, Deep Sea News explains it way better than I could.
CLAIM: A mass die-off of sardines in the Pacific is because of Fukushima radiation. This is classic Fukushima trutherism: take a real thing that has nothing to do with Fukushima and start “asking questions” to see if the disaster is “really” the cause. We’ve seen it with starfish wasting (a real thing with no connection to Fukushima), Bald Eagles (dying of West Nile virus), salmon stocks (crashing for unknown reasons over two decades) and now here. In fact, you’ll see lots of truthers rhetorically asking “What’s causing the die-off? Is it Fukushima? Of course it is, you idiots!” Not great science, there.
To be sure, we’re in the middle of a massive sardine crash, the worst in generations. But it has everything to do with the nature of sardines themselves. It’s an unpredictable fish, prone to wild swings of overpopulation and disappearance. In fact, next to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you can find the remains of Cannery Row, a massive industrial complex dedicated to sardine fishing and canning – that went under when sardine fishing crashed in the 40’s. Can’t blame that one on Fukushima.
The cause of the boom/bust cycle could be anything from naturally occurring climate cycles to parasites to the effects of climate change. But it’s real. And blaming something that’s happened for at least a century on something that happened two years ago isn’t even post hoc logic. It’s just silly.
Incidentally, there were two mass sardine die-offs in 2011, and one took place just before the Fukushima meltdown. The folks at Deep Sea News came up with a perfectly valid explanation for it: the fish had eaten a bloom of toxic algae.
CLAIM: California scientists are going to start monitoring kelp forests, because they know Fukushima radiation is killing us all! Here we have a shining example of how conspiracy theorists can hold two contradictory beliefs at once. In my first Fukushima piece, one of Gary Stamper’s complaints was that the FDA wasn’t monitoring fish from the Pacific Ocean. They actually were and stopped after finding nothing, but never mind that. The FDA’s “inaction” became fodder for the meme that the government doesn’t care about us, only protecting its revenue stream from fishing (pun somewhat intended.)
Recently, researchers from Berkeley National Laboratory and Cal State Long Beach announced a plan to monitor 36 different kelp beds on the west coast for signs of Fukushima radiation. And true to form, the truthers moaned about THAT. It’s just the fox guarding the hen house, they say. The media has been lying to us about the danger the whole time, they say. SHILLERY ABOUNDS!!
Well, if you get mad they’re not monitoring, you can’t get mad when they start monitoring. This is exactly what scientists should be doing: studying, gathering data and coming to evidence-based conclusions. If you were upset before, you should be pleased to hear this.
CLAIM: The US government bought 14 million potassium iodide doses to protect the wealthy elite from radiation! APOCALYPSE AHOY! Around the first of the year, truther hotbeds had their tinfoil hats blown off by an Infowars story that the Department of Health and Human Services ordered millions of doses of drugs meant to counteract radiation poisoning. The proof was screen captures of a federal contracting website where HHS asked for 700,000 packages of 20 pills each, each pill being 65 mg of potassium iodide (KI). And the kicker is that they had to be delivered on or before February 1. THAT’S TWO WEEKS FROM NOW, PEOPLE!!!
The problem with stories like this is that there’s no context given with it. Who is the iodide for? Has an order this size been made before? Is it routine?
Alex Jones cares not for your pesky questions, but I do. So I did a little digging. The first thing you have to realize is that 65mg is actually the dose recommended for children. The adult dose of KI is 130 mg, or two tablets. So our “14 million doses” is actually only 7 million adult doses. And it’s much more useful for children than adults, with the FDA not recommending anyone over 40 take it, due to lack of efficacy and potential for allergic reaction.
The second thing to keep in mind is that KI doesn’t protect against any radiation except radioactive iodine. In fact, it’s potentially harmful. This is important because the iodine-131 released by Fukushima only has a half-life of eight days. So it’s impossible for anything other than harmless traces of it to reach the west coast – meaning that if the “globalist controllers” were trying to protect themselves from Fukushima, they bought the wrong stuff.
The third thing to remember is that governments procure supplies all the time. Including radiation antidotes. In 2002, the 107th Congress passed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, calling for HHS to “maintain a stockpile […] of drugs, vaccines and other biological products…” Potassium iodide falls into this category. A quick search finds HHS publicly announcing another such purchase in 2005, and I’m sure if I looked harder I could find more.
Tl;dr version: Routine purchase, called for by law, not what you’d buy to protect a giant conspiracy.
So what are we to make of all this? And what can the average person who doesn’t have the time or resources to dig into every ridiculous claim do when faced with this nonsense?
I believe there are three things we can all do to fight Fukushima misinformation and fear:
1. Consider the source. If a piece that you read comes from a legitimate news outlet, science blog or evidence-friendly writer, it’s probably worth your time. If it comes from an anti-nuclear activist, conspiracy theorist, doomsday prepper or hack doctor, you can probably let it go.
2. Save your money. Don’t buy any of the anti-radiation junk sold by conspiracy websites and “alternative” physicians. If you live on the west coast, purchasing earthquake supplies is a way better idea than buying potassium iodide drops, “sacred clay” or lead-lined underwear.
3. Don’t panic. There’s just no need to. Despite the scaremongering, science, research and logic tell us you don’t need to stop eating Pacific Ocean fish, you don’t need to stop going to the beach and you don’t need to evacuate the west coast.
Knowledge and calm will save us. Panic and fear will not.