At first I was ready to yawn and say, “So what?” The headlines seemed almost tailor made for tabloids or TV news – “Radiation from Fukushima power plant meltdown ‘triggers genetic mutations in butterflies’. Since I rarely watch television news and never read more than the blaring headlines of tabloids that are inescapable in the supermarket checkout line, I thought this story would fade away.
Suddenly, discussions about the story was filling my inbox with messages coming from several of the email lists to which I subscribe. Tweets started appearing, with one from @SteveFost calling me to action:
@Atomicrod Have you seen this making the rounds – now mutant butterflies due to Fukushima! Any debunking resources? http://news.discovery.com/earth/mutant-butterflies-spawned-by-fukushima-disaster-120814.html …
I am not an entomologist and have never studied the radiation health effects on insects, but I am aware of some important facts about the topic. The first is that insect biology is VASTLY different from human biology. The second is that the amount of radioactive material released by the damaged Fukushima reactors (roughly 100 kilograms of long lived material) is minuscule compared to the amount of other toxic material released by the industrial destruction caused by the Great North East Japan tsunami. The final fact is that I am well aware of the existence of people with science degrees who focus on finding and publishing every possible negative available about nuclear energy.
When it comes to insect biology, I know that I am no expert and not much of a fan. I like looking at butterflies and a few other insects when they are outside, but they are not creatures that belong in my house. We have a service that comes every few months to spray chemicals that have no effect on humans at the concentrations used. In contrast, those same chemicals and same concentrations kill bugs rather quickly with a brief exposure at any time during the months between visits. Contrast those effects again – no harm to humans – nearly instant death to bugs. My observational conclusion is that bugs and people are different.
The radiation released by Fukushima was low enough that credible estimates indicate that the most exposed people outside of the Fukushima fence line received about 10 mSv (1 rem). Measurements of a sample of 10,000 people from Minamisoma for internal contamination showed that they received a maximum dose of about 1 mSv (100 mrem) from exposure to Cs-137. Since those doses are barely discernable from variations in normal background radiation, I was pretty skeptical about their ability to mutate anything, even butterflies.
Though I knew nothing about the authors of the butterfly paper, the subject and tone reminded me of the way that Professor Tim Mousseau and friends have publicized a questionable study about the size of bird brains in the area around Chernobyl.
Some of the contributors to the email threads I was following, however, provided cautionary statements about dismissing the butterfly paper out of hand. Some are cautious scientists who wanted to read the paper before commenting. Using the tools we all have at our fingertips, they found a link to the original paper titled The biological impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the pale grass blue butterfly, shared that link and started reading.
Others want the nuclear industry to put on a hair shirt and respond to all criticism related to Fukushima with a promise that we have learned lessons and are taking (expensive) corrective action. The hair shirt crowd told us all that there is no sense in trying to share accurate facts that will show how small the impact of the damaged reactors really is. According to that faction, the public has already decided it was terrible and “perception is reality.”
As many of you may realize by now, that kind of advice grates on me. Melting down three reactors was a huge financial catastrophe; the defense in depth layers that have been used when building nuclear plants for the past 50 years provided adequate protection to the public. There were no injuries from radiation; a statement that cannot be made about even an almost completely ignored refinery fire that resulted in hospital visits for about 1000 people.
Some of my email friends, especially one of the frequent contributors at Nuclear Diner responded more usefully by quickly reading the paper and digging out some interesting details about the shaky science and statistics used by the authors of the study.
I encourage you to go and read the Nuclear Diner post. I hope it makes you wonder about the peer review process that proceeded publication, especially when you realize that she wrote her fine criticism within about 24 hours of gaining access to the paper. The errors that the author points out are rather striking and should have been grounds for rejection at most credible science journals. They include tiny sample sizes (a single butterfly with deformed wings is described as a 20% rate of mutations – the total sample size in that case was 5 butterflies), finding correlation from data points that seem randomly scattered, and ignoring the importance of data points that directly contradict the hypothesis.
In my opinion, the authors of the mutated butterfly paper knew what they wanted to find before they started their “study” and ignored any other possible explanation for the observations. At least some of the people promoting this study also have an agenda that is in direct opposition to my agenda to provide abundant, virtually emission free power to the people, so I do not mind calling them out as dishonest charlatans.
The Nuclear Diner commentary points out that the paper’s publisher is trading on a fine name – “Nature” – without actually being the same organization that has been publishing that well-respected, peer-reviewed science journal for more than 100 years. Don’t let the nature.com in the paper URL fool you, the publisher is actually Scientific Reports a commercial venture that is seeking to take advantage of modern technology to provide more rapid access to scientific work.
Scientific Reports is committed to providing an efficient service for both authors and readers, and exists to facilitate the rapid peer review and publication of research. With the support of an external Editorial Board and a streamlined peer-review system, all papers are rapidly and fairly peer reviewed to ensure they are technically sound. An internal publishing team works with the board, and accepted authors, to ensure manuscripts are processed for publication as quickly as possible.
Rapid dissemination of accepted papers to the widest possible audience is achieved through a programme of continuous online publication. Scientific Reports leverages the tools, technology and experience of Nature Publishing Group to ensure that published manuscripts are enhanced by innovative web technologies. In addition, all papers are archived in PubMed Central.
There are tremendous benefits to that model, including providing rapid access to the full work for talented, skeptical reviewers who were not part of the initial review cycle. The model of more open publishing, however, carries with it the responsibility to look more deeply than the summaries. Journalists that want to report rapidly cannot simply depend on the original publisher to have properly vetted the work. It may be reasonable to trust that an article published by Nature has some scientific validity, but it is not so reasonable to blindly trust “nature.com”.