How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the atom
Fukushima ‘crisis’ changed my mind on nuclear power
By MICHAEL RADCLIFFE
Like millions of other people in Japan, I watched the events of March 2011 unfurl with shock and trepidation. The massive earthquake, the terrible tsunami and then what seemed to be a dreadful nuclear disaster.
Yet now I wonder at my naivety, because the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant triggered in me a critical review of everything I thought I knew about radiation and nuclear power. I am now firmly pronuclear, and not despite the Fukushima accident, but because of it.
Let’s look objectively at what happened. There was a major earthquake, unprecedented in scale, followed by a 15-20-meter tsunami that flooded a large nuclear power plant. The equipment designed to provide power to the cooling systems in case of accident was flooded, and human error was also a factor. As a result, full or partial meltdown occurred in three separate reactors. It was pretty much a worst-case scenario.
Yet, not one person was killed by radiation, and nobody has been harmed, though two workmen, who have since been released from hospital, were reported to have received “radiation exposure to the legs.” Overall, not much of a “disaster,” especially compared to a genuine industrial catastrophe like Bhopal in India in 1984, where more than 10,000 people died and 500,000 were injured.
Some media sources were reporting the Fukushima accident to be the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, if not ever. My response to that is to say, well, if that is the worst nuclear disaster ever, we should immediately start the construction of large numbers of new nuclear power plants.
Nor, according to mainstream science, are there likely to be any long-term health consequences due to radiation from Fukushima. In fact, a resident living anywhere in the prefecture, even within the evacuation zone, is likely to have received less radiation in 2011 than people living in areas of high natural background radiation around the world, such as parts of Iran and India. Yet those places have not reported any ill health effects; on the contrary, local hot springs in those areas, high in natural radiation, are frequented by tourists for their supposed health benefits.
Wade Allison is an emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University. He has shown that the risk of getting cancer from radiation is so low that it literally cannot be measured at less than 100 millisieverts of radiation exposure a year, yet areas of Fukushima with just 5 millisieverts of exposure a year are subject to expensive “decontamination” efforts.
Other experts have said that at worst, using the most pessimistic of theoretical assumptions, living close to the Fukushima plant may raise the risk of cancer in your lifetime by a fraction of 1 percent. In contrast, and as an example of the skewed perceptions of risk many people have, living in a major city subjects people to a very real and measurable reduction in life expectancy due to air pollution; but surprisingly, nobody is advocating the evacuation of Tokyo in the light of this.
In the case of Chernobyl, where explosions blew off the lid of the nuclear reactor and dumped large amounts of radioactive materials straight into the atmosphere, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported that about 50 plant workers died directly from radiation, there was a “dramatic” jump in thyroid cancers among locals exposed at a young age, and an increase in cataract problems and leukemia among cleanup workers. However, for the rest of the general population, the psychological reactions to the accident were judged to be the most serious problem.
In the case of Three Mile Island, there were no reported health effects from radiation at all, regardless of what you may have heard. And while UNSCEAR is not due to release a formal assessment of the Fukushima accident until September, they are likely to report that the actual health effects, minimal at most, are considerably outweighed by the psychological damage caused by the fear of radiation.
Yet so underreported is the scientific consensus in the Japanese media that the average person could be forgiven for having no knowledge at all of this very prosaic reality. On the contrary, barely a day goes by, even now, 16 months after the tsunami and nuclear accident, without some exaggerated and dire report of leaking water pipes, contaminated food or “radioactive” debris.
An astounding example of the skewed coverage of Fukushima could be observed last year during the “contaminated beef” scare. An NHK special broadcast featured a lengthy and worrisome introduction, footage from cattle farms in Fukushima, an examination of flaws in the inspection system, shrill announcements of becquerels in the hundreds and thousands, interviews with crying supermarket managers who had inadvertently sold the meat, and clips of young mothers fearfully clutching their babies and wondering about the safety of their families. Finally there was a 15-second clip of a university professor calmly stating that you would have to eat a kilo of that beef a day in order for the radiation to have any measurable effect upon your health.
It is that contrast — between 45 minutes of fear-mongering and 15 seconds of calm science — that tells you all you need to know about the nuclear “crisis” in Japan.
It is a crisis that some elements within the media and a vocal minority of the public seem determined should continue. Indeed, as time has passed since the accident, and as the situation at the plant itself has not worsened, the antinuclear lobby seems offended rather than mollified.
When in December last year the Japanese government, on sound engineering advice, declared the reactors in a state of cold shutdown, the response from some was hardly relief; in fact, it almost seemed to be anger: How dare the crisis be over? An English-language editorial on the Mainichi website accused the government of “fudging the rules” about cold shutdown, and concluded by declaring that the shutdown is “merely the result of officials lowering their own hurdles.” It continued, “It reminds me of the time during World War II when the Imperial Japanese Army headquarters called the Japanese army’s retreat a ‘shift in position’ “.
One might be tempted to suggest that the hyperbole of such an assertion might “live in infamy.” That a major newspaper was so desperate to keep alive an imagined nuclear crisis that they compared it to Japan’s hopeless fight in the Second World War shows us merely that some media elements are absurdly yet tragically invested in the continuation of the “crisis.” After all, fear sells more newspapers than calm scientific statistics.
The relatively minor effects of the Fukushima accident can really be appreciated when compared to the hideous health consequences of the use of other major energy sources. Every year thousands of people are killed in coal mining accidents in China alone, and the burning of coal and oil kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide annually through the release of air pollutants. Compared to those numbers, is it really possible that people choose not to support nuclear energy, when Fukushima radiation has killed no one at all?
The real tragedy of the Fukushima accident is that many normal people have been whipped into a fever pitch of extraordinary apprehension about nuclear power, which in turn is putting pressure on the government, against all scientific and economic advice, to keep Japan’s nuclear power plants idle and even shut down the industry forever.
The result of such a decision would truly be a disaster. Already Japan has spent ¥4.3 trillion more this year on fossil fuels, opening up old mothballed “thermal” plants and drastically expanding gas infrastructure to make up the shortfall of power production. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide have been released unnecessarily into the atmosphere, making a mockery of Japan’s once-genuine claim to be a world leader in the fight against climate change.
Add to this the constant threat of blackouts, electricity price hikes and the likelihood of people dying unnecessarily from heatstroke, and Japan really is on the verge of becoming a country that someone might choose to fly from. I might become a “flyjin” myself.
Michael Radcliffe is a lecturer at Yokohama City University.
This article is reprinted with permission from Japan Times. The original was published on July 24, 2012. How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the atom
Someone said recently:
The more I know about climate change, the more I am worried.
The more I know about nuclear energy, the less I am worried.
My thoughts exactly.
I too had no formed opinion of nuclear energy until the Fukushima incident, and turned into a passionate supporter in the process of figuring out what was really happening – and then getting dismayed at the breadth of the gap between reality and what was being reported on the mainstream media.
A while ago I held an e-mail discussion with several expatriates living in Japan (I myself don’t yet, though I’m trying to get a scholarship there), and I hammered home much the same points: the absence of actual damage by the nuclear plants versus the disproportionate public hysteria, the human and economical costs of keeping the plants shut down, and the true dangers of radiation exposure. To my surprise, several of my interlocutors – all learned people, university researches and expert professionals – would rather resort to emotional tactics (I was accused of having “no empathy” because I tried to counter the fear-mongering with hard data and logical analysis) than to look for any flaws in my arguments.
I still hope that after the hysteria dies out, the plants will be quietly restarted – but there’s no telling how far will the very real damages of the resulting energy crisis go until then.
When I read this in the Japan Times in July, it tripped on my “idea light”. I’m working on a new book about Fukushima’s political, social and psychological aftermath and would like Mr. Radcliffe’s input and comments on my effort. How might I reach him?
Leslie- Have you read the following pdf link?
Title: “Japan’s Nuclear Power and Anti-Nuclear Movement from a Socio-Historical Perspective”
The author describes how the Japanese nuclear power industry developed along with the great industrialization of the country in the 1960s and 70s. Now that industry in general is in decline (he calls Japan a post-industrial society), he predicts nuclear power too is on the way out. Fukushima was only the initiating trigger that gave protesters the reason to go out and protest. I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions, but it is written from an obvious knowledge base of Japanese culture and history.
Have you ever heard of the expression ‘the proof is in the pudding’ ?
Let me show you what I mean. We see a ton of protesters in Japan, yet 2 important elections took place recently. One for a governor and another one for mayor of a major city.
In both cases, vocal anti nuclear candidates were running. None of them were elected and as a matter of fact the pro nuclear candidates won in both cases.
Protesting is one thing. Winning votes is quite another.
We have all heard about the liberty fries when the US opposed France’s reaction to the situation in Iraq. In a matter of days, all US restaurant struck the name French Fries to have it replaced by Liberty Fries.
The word French at the time was bad for you.
A gesture of US solidarity no less and all in the name of freedom.
But what about Liberty Chips?
As we all know, potatoes do not emit CS 137 but rather K-40. The biological effects of the half-MeV gamma rays from each are the same, this according to Dr James Conca.
According to Dr Conca, eating just a bag of potato chips a day exposes you to more radiation than some of the evacuated territories in Japan following the Fukushima industrial accident.
At work, I often educate co workers that my bag of potato chips contains 3,500 pico curies of gamma radiation and that contrary to evacuated Japanese civilians, I get to go home a free man every night. For less radiation, Japanese civilians have seen their freedom of movement forever altered.
I LOVE MY LIBERTY CHIPS.
To conclude, I will let James Conca’s own word convince you:
Every time I eat a bag of potato chips I think of Fukushima. This 12-ounce bag of chips has 3500 picoCuries of gamma radiation in it, and the number of bags I eat a year gives me a dose as high as what I would receive living in much of the evacuated zones around Fukushima. But unlike the Fukushima refugees, I get to stay in my home. We live in a nuanced world of degree. Eating a scoop of ice cream is fine, eating a gallon at one time is bad. Jumping off a chair is no big deal; jumping off a cliff is really stupid. The numbers matter. It’s the dose that makes the poison. There is a threshold to everything.
The radiation in those potato chips isn’t going to kill me. Likewise, no one is going to die from Fukushima radiation. Cancer rates are not going to increase in Japan. The disaster wasn’t hidden like the Soviets did, so that people unknowingly ate iodine-131 for two months before it decayed away to nothing. No one threw workers into the fire like lemmings because they didn’t know what to do.
Spread the parody, I know I do.
According to the LNT, one out of every 10,000 people who jump off a chair will suffer a life ending injury. If we allow hundreds of millions of people to jump off a chair, we could literally have thousands of deaths. Clearly all chairs must be removed from homes and offices and replaced with bean bags.
You should think bean-bags are that much safer. A bean could escape from the bag, and cause somebody to slip and fall. A hundred million people with bean bags will cause thousands of death. No, bean bags are not the solution. The solution is putting everyone in a straightjacket and feeding them through tubes.
As I stated, the author of the link says that Japan is a post-industrial society. There are still a number of industrial leaders in the country who are trying to avoid that. That is why Japan’s government announced a plan to shut down all nuclear plants by 2040, and then a few days later reversed the decision. The future of nuclear power in Japan is sort of a description of the future of industry in the country in general, which is still somewhat up in the air.
Perhaps the governor and mayor you mention represent areas that are still heavily industrialized. However, the demographic and economic trends may still favor a move towards post-industrialization. Time will tell.
I still favor Japan having nuclear power, and building even more plants. One way the government could reduce fears among the public is to announce a shutdown schedule for the current fleet of power plants, but also announce a new build program based on inherently safe plants which do not require off-site or on-site sources of AC power. The Westinghouse AP1000, GE-H ESBWR, B&W mPower, or NuScale designs could all qualify. It shouldn’t have to be a choice between the current fleet of plants, which require active safety systems, or nothing at all. There is a third way, with increased safety and clean, reliable power.
A few points:
Indeed the future will tell. In the meantime, here are a few interesting bits:
a) Brian Mays, I think it was, reminded us a while ago that all politics is local. Many towns are in favor of having the nukes back. The higher authorities are the one stalling the process.
b) Japan’s business model with regards to nuclear plants is to inject funds heavily at the local, ie town, level. It has worked remarkably well and it should come as no surprise that the first approved nuclear plant (Hinkley Point C) in the UK in more than 30 years had one last hurdle to cross a few weeks ago. It needed local approval. Well, EDF got their local approvals all right when they reached a deal with the Somerset town where I think 60 million pounds (or Euros) would be injected in the local infrastructures. Expect more of the same for the 15 additional nukes that will be built in the UK
OK. So the deal is closer to 100 million british pounds.
Here are the exact terms:
HINKLEY C developer EDF Energy has hailed the signing of a “landmark” agreement which will deliver nearly £100 million for local communities to mitigate the impact of the proposed new nuclear power station.
I am really pleased to see this piece on Atomic Insights. As I wrote, I became pro-nuclear after 3/11, as a result of long evenings spent reading; it was quite a paradigm shift for me. Then I saw this article in the Japan Times:
which was so tragically absurd I felt I had to respond.
Leslie, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am very pleased to see this piece on Atomic Insights.
As I wrote, I became pro-nuclear after 3/11, after spending many evenings reading and reading; this was a paradigm shift for me. Then I saw this article in the Japan Times:
It was so tragically absurd that I had to respond.
Leslie, I found you on Facebook.
It always amuses and dismays me how an entire intelligent population can be whipped up into irrational fear protesting something that didn’t happen. I seriously wonder why there hasn’t been a much more massive nuclear education PR campaign to assuage the Japanese public, what anti-nukers and FUD flying thick and fast over there. We’re not talking Fort Knox in PSA and video ed expenditures here, and unless the nuclear industry over there is totally clueless about self-preservation and damage control PR a’la Tylenol, I have to wonder whether the Japanese public aren’t being intentionally kept nuclear ignorant and clueless to either keep the “spirit” of Hiroshima alive or are unwitting victims and pawns of some massive fossil industry investments corrupting the integrity and objectivity of the overwhelming anti-nuke media there. With salient rational points from excellent articles as this one by Michael Radcliffe, there’s a point in logic and reasoning that just blaming nuclear fears and ignorance on culture doesn’t cut the mustard.
In 1841, ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ was published by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay. It was a book on popular folly of way back when.
One day, TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima will make the cut in a similar book in the not too distant future.
Reminds me of what Pres. Clinton said on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show said the other night:
“This is a practical country [USA]. We have ideals. We have philosophies. But the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you’ve already decided you’ve got to have”
A question for Michael:
At what stage of your reading did you start to realize that Nuclear power wasn’t the bogey man that it was made out to be? For example was it a specific area or the sources you read, or both?
Thanks for the question!
When the accident happened we were surrounded by fear and doubt. One guy in my department coughed up $10,000 for tickets to take his family and go back to the States. Other people fled Tokyo to other places in Japan.
The first place I started looking was Wikipedia. I believe it to be an excellent resource; and I was especially fascinated by the talk pages behind the Fukushima article. I remember one quote by Arnie Gundersen saying it was the world’s greatest industrial disaster, and a little tag over the quote saying ‘neutrality disputed’, and the talk in the back page about whether the quote should stay. That’s not a level of impartiality that I was getting in other places, in videos and links friends were sending me. Then somebody sent me a link to a youtube video with Gundersen talking about ‘black rain’, and I sat there thinking, ‘Is this guy serious?’
I read an early article by George Monbiot and followed it up by watching a debate with him and Helen Caldicott, where amongst other things Caldicott claimed there was a worldwide conspiracy by hundreds of scientists to cover up the dangers of radiation. That seemed unlikely to say the least and after that I began to look at claims by anti-nukes skeptically; I guess a certain level of skepticism comes naturally to me. A commentator on a Monbiot article pointed me to UNSCEAR (which I had never heard of) and their reports were a real eye-opener. I had no idea the mainstream science about radiation was so poorly reflected in public opinion.
I also firmly remember seeing Wade Allison at a media conference in Tokyo dealing with somebody asking him if there was no radiation-induced cancer under 100/msv/year. He answered somewhat tetchily that he couldn’t say there was NO cancer, only that cancer was UNDETECTABLE. To tell the truth, he came across as a bit of a grumpy old man, but I knew immediately that he was approaching the issue from the right perspective: real scientists are very careful about what they know and don’t know.
After that I read as much of the science as I could handle, and everything confirmed the pro-nuclear viewpoint. Concepts like radiation hormesis shocked me at first, but if you are going to start reading you had better be prepared to follow to the logical conclusions regardless of what your initial biases are; and if the experts are arguing about whether low-dose radiation is just harmless or actually good for you, then what’s up at Fukushima is nothing to worry about.
Finally I tried to read Rod’s posts skeptically, for example when he compares Fukshima, where nobody died, to an oil refinery explosion which kills people but hardly makes the news at all. I was unable to think of any way in which his viewpoint is not correct.
The paradigm shift has lost me a couple of friends and dismays my family, but sometimes these things have to happen.
Now there’s the real tragedy.
Turning pro-nuclear almost cost me my job as a sustainable energy consultant to the HVAC and built environment sector. I was forced to denounce nuclear, which I did (I have a family to feed) until I found another employer where my views are viewed as less of a threat.
@ Michael Radcliffe,
It was the realization that radiation was not as dangerous as we have been led to believe, and may even be helpful that convinced me. This came home to me listening to one of Rod’s many podcasts where a medical doctor discussed how they expose cancer to 2 times the dose that the healthy surrounding tissue receives. Within 10 hours the healthy tissue has repaired itself, so within 24 hours the dose can be repeated. The cancer dies and the healthy cells repair themselves.
I verified this with a man at church whose profession is nuclear medicine. That sold me. I understood it takes a LOT of radiation to harm a person.
I will simply add that it is far too early to come to any final judgement on the effects of this disaster. There are so many variables at play here, many of which are not yet known, making the long term effects difficult to predict.
The reactors are designed to isolate and contain these materials for a reason and when they escape into the environment there will be an impact. We can only sit back and wait now hoping for the best.
Pro or anti nuke aside the handling of this disaster on the part of TEPCO has been a disaster of almost equal magnitude. We as humans must punish those responsible and learn from our mistakes.
I’m not knocking you, sincerely. I am knocking those who — hard-boiled biased by nuclearphobia inspired by bad movies or Hiroshima guilt or media getting their ignorant jollies out of scaring the unwashed for agenda gains — infected those as you a warrant-less fear and alarm that has made good people turn irrational and fretful towards anything nuclear in the face of fact and history. My parents long ago related to me how there were (too) many parents who acceded to their kids getting newly compulsory polio vaccinations who’s literally live in fear for years after expecting their child to topple over with the disease and end up in iron lungs and crutches any day, despite the astronomical odds of such happening. Even if such happened with one in ten thousand odds wouldn’t you “take the chance” and vaccinate your child anyway? (we’ve long forgotten the scourge polio was or often seeing kids in crutches in your classrooms.). Yet nuclear accidents have a FAR better chance of non-occurrence and survival than contracting polio. Despite what the “neutral” (cough) media labels, Fukushima WASN’T a “disaster.” An industrial incident yes (“accident” usually means mad-made than nature cause), but hardly any “disaster.” What is a disaster? A mid-sixties jet crash by JFK Airport near where I am that wiped out all aboard is a Disaster, the gory aftermath which I later drove by. My southern relatives who relate losing friends in New Iberia and Shreveport oil refinery and depot fires and explosions would fittingly call those Disasters. I’d bet 100% that the relatives of that jet crash (how much more often such?) and those lost in those oil accidents (how much more often such?) would give arms and legs having their loved ones located instead at the “disaster” at Fukushima than the real deals they briefly experienced. If Fukushima was about worst “disaster” that can happen with nuclear power — in reality, not wild anti-nuke nightmares — and by 3x chances to make such so! — then one would be crazy NOT to use nuclear power in the face of all fossil fuel’s awful and somber historical and current drawbacks… unless one’s fear triumphs fact and reason and history that badly.
Yet, not one person was killed by radiation, and nobody has been harmed ?.. you are kidding.
Stick to the facts. No kidding.
Find a source that says or points to anyone having been harmed by radiation in Fukushima.
Be the first! What a rush !
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