On November 12, 2011, USA Today published an article titled Media allowed in tsunami-hit nuke plant that contained some classic elements of slant by selectively highlighting certain facts while ignoring others. The situation was a good news story. Tepco, the electric power utility company that owns the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station has reached a stage in their recovery efforts where they could comfortably allow the news media to come into the station and have a first hand look around.
Here is how the USA Today report chose to lead his version of a story about the visit.
Media allowed into Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant for the first time Saturday saw a striking scene of devastation: twisted and overturned trucks, crumbling reactor buildings and piles of rubble virtually untouched since the wave struck more than eight months ago.
As a questioning reader, I have to ask – was that scene at the power station any different from the scene outside the gates of the power station? After all, the waves of the tsunami affected a wide swath of coastal land. The early responders have been busy taking care of basic needs and stabilizing various aspects of the plant’s infrastructure; righting trucks and picking up rubble was probably low on the to-do list.
Here is another quote that includes a word that is frequently, and incorrectly, used with regard to the situation at the facility.
For weeks after the tsunami, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, about 140 miles northeast of Tokyo, spewed large amounts of radioactive materials onto the surrounding countryside, much of which remains off-limits.
According to Miriam-Webster’s dictionary, the primary definitions of “spew” include enormous volumes. The wording above includes an obvious desire to portray the amount of radioactive material released by the tsunami ravaged plants as very large. However, the actual quantity of radioactive material that was released as a result of significant amounts of fuel damage inside three nuclear reactor cores at the Fukushima Daiichi power station was tiny by most conventional measurements of weight or volume.
Here is a quote from the recently released timeline report by the Institute of Nuclear Plant Operators (INPO).
The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan estimated approximately 17 million curies (6.3 E17 Bq) of iodine-131 equivalent radioactive material was released into the air and 0.127 million curies (4.7 E15 Bq) into the sea between March 11 and April 5. The 1986 accident at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was the only other nuclear accident to have a level 7 INES rating. According to the IAEA, the Chernobyl accident resulted in approximately 378.4 million curies (14 E18 Bq) of radioactive material being released into the environment.
Though the units of measure associated with radioactive material are unfamiliar and potentially scary, and the actual math is complicated by the unknown mix of isotopes involved, it is possible to do some rough bounding calculations to show how tiny an amount of material 17 million curies might be. At one end of the size spectrum, if most or all of the 17 million curies was I-131, the total quantity of material could be computed as follows:
17,000,000 curies I-131 x 0.000008 grams I-131/curie = 136 grams of I-131.
At the other end of the spectrum, if only 50% of the radioactive material released was I-131 and the other 50% was Cs-137, which has 1420 times more mass per curie because of its much slower rate of decay, the total quantity of material could calculated as follows:
68 grams of I-131 + 8,500,000 curies Cs-137 x 1 gram/88 curies Cs-137 = 97,000 grams or 97 kilograms
It takes some creative writing or ignorance of facts to call a release of 97 kilograms of material from a large industrial facility over several weeks “spewing”. Of course, that radioactive material was mixed in with a much larger amount of water in the form of steam, but if this story was being told about the natural gas industry and its fracking chemicals, the emissions from Fukushima Daiichi might have been described as 99.99999% water with just some minor contaminants mixed in.
The concluding paragraphs of the article are also worth noting as an opportunity for making a huge difference in the conversation about the prospects for nuclear energy expansion.
Japan’s government and the utility that runs the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., say radiation leaks are far less of a danger than in the early days of the crisis. They say work is on track toward achieving a “cold shutdown” — in which the temperatures of the reactors are cool and under control.
But the government has predicted that it will take another 30 years at least to safely remove the nuclear fuel and decomission the plant. It could also be decades before tens of thousands of residents forced to flee the 12-mile exclusion zone around the plant will be able to return. Some experts say even that estimate is optimistic.
There are also radiation safety experts who say that nearly all of the exclusion zone has radiation dose rates that are substantially lower than dose rates that exist in other areas around the world that have been continuously inhabited by people for many centuries with no evidence of ill effects.
People have lived healthily for millennia with natural radiation up to following mSv/yr:
Ramsar, Iran (260), Kerala, India (35), Guaripari, Brazil (35), Yangiang, China (5.4)
Since we have evidence that the risk that would be assumed by moving back into the exclusion zone would be far less than many other risks associated with living on earth, why not allow people to return to their homes and rebuild their lives without fear? If the reactor cores are cool and under control, the fact that the clean-up work continues for decades means nothing to the local residents, other than the fact that the sustained effort might enable quite a few of them to hold long-term employment at decent wages.
An accident at a nuclear reactor can definitely ruin a lot of days for the owners of the plant and it can make life rather difficult for the workers for a long time. However, it does not render large areas of land uninhabitable UNLESS governments make irrational, unscientific decisions to forcibly prevent people from living there.
Our lives would be so much richer if people learned that radioactive material released from even a hugely-promoted, scary amount of damage to three large reactors at one time produces doses after just a few months that are no more harmful than an occasional trip on an airplane, routine traffic crossings, being packed into temporary living quarters with inadequate resources, or occasionally breathing the smoke from a diesel powered bus. Why are we supposed to be so afraid of radiation that we make expensive and unhealthy decisions to avoid something that has always been a natural part of our earthly environment?
Just as a reminder of the importance of carefully evaluating the reality of various energy choices, here is a less frequently repeated story about another source of reliable power that competes with nuclear energy for market share. Do you think that the residents of this neighborhood might have preferred a temporary evacuation instead of the effect that they actually experienced from their local energy infrastructure?