Adjusting the terror quotient on Japan’s nuclear nightmare.
By Tim Connor
When the tsunamis arrived on the northeast cost of Honshu it was mid-afternoon, March 11th in Japan. Here, on the other side of the Pacific, it was approaching midnight and those of us still awake could watch the surreal, live video from Japan of an ocean bulldozing its way inland, lifting cars and boats, and even piles of flaming debris.
Of the nearly 20,000 people killed in the 2011 disaster, nearly all perished as a result of the surging ocean. Yet, what soon eclipsed the news coverage of the natural devastation, is what we now refer to, simply, as Fukushima.
At the six unit Fukushima Daichi power station, 150 miles northeast of Tokyo, an avalanche of sea water disabled the power supply for the plants’ cooling systems, causing fuel melting in the cores of three, large boiling water nuclear reactors. Hydrogen explosions blew the roofs off reactor buildings. A pool filled with irradiated nuclear fuel at a fourth reactor (unit #4) captured at least as much attention as any of the reactors out of fear that it had boiled dry and was releasing vast amounts of radioactive materials to the atmosphere.
These were all harrowing developments, and most especially so for the people of northern Japan who were reeling from a natural disaster and an emerging nuclear catastrophe. Emissions from Fukushima caused dangerous radiation exposures to site workers and the public, and hundreds of square miles remain badly contaminated.
But what of the consequences beyond Japan? Is Fukushima a threat to the planet itself? Does it threaten the Pacific Ocean? Is it, or was it ever, a threat to people on the Pacific coast of the U.S.?
This article examines common misconceptions about the global reach and public health implications of radioactive contamination from the badly damaged nuclear power station at Fukushima-Daichi in northern Japan.
•Part I lays out basic facts about magnitude and reach of the Fukushima radiation releases which—despite some early predictions—did not eclipse the emissions from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
•Part II answers specific questions about the dangers from the two most important exposure pathways—milk and seafood—that have the clearest potential for delivering significant radiation doses to people living outside of Japan. It explains why any danger via milk consumption has long since passed, why taking potassium iodide to prevent radiation exposure is unnecessary, and why contamination of seafood beyond Japan’s near-shore waters is not turning out to be a serious cause for alarm.
•Part III looks at the inherent problems with communication and trust on issues involving radiation exposure, and how poor journalism exacerbated fear and confusion over Fukushima’s radiation releases and their consequences beyond Japan.
I didn’t receive the concerns about the effects of Fukushima radiation on the rest of the world as idle questions. Early in my career my work required that I be conversant in the science of radiation and health in order to write about Hanford and other nuclear misadventures. In additional to several articles and reports, I eventually wrote a small book focusing on ionizing radiation and health studies. Because friends and acquaintances knew of my background, I began fielding queries almost immediately about what to make of Fukushima, and particularly whether the radiation releases posed serious health threats here, especially on the West coast of the U.S. I wrote articles and gave a talk on the subject to the Spokane Humanist Society a month into the Fukushima tragedy.
A few days into the disaster, I wrote a piece expressing my doubts that iodine-131 (a particularly nasty component of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests and reactor accidents) would reach the Pacific coast of the U.S. in dangerous amounts. At the same time, others had much more dire predictions. For example, at a Montreal press conference, Dr. Helen Caldicott—a former president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a heroine of the anti-nuclear movement—opined that Fukushima was “by orders of magnitude, many times worse” than the 1986 accident at Chernobyl that sprayed radioactive fallout throughout the northern hemisphere.
In retrospect, two things were underway.
In Japan, Fukushima is indeed a horrific environmental disaster. It still presents formidable public health, environmental, and economic challenges—for the Japanese. Yet, the tragedy also unloosed sensational warnings of a radioactive “apocalypse” far beyond Japan. In various forms, the hysteria persists with overblown reports of contaminated seafood and even highly radioactive “Fukushima rains” that purportedly fall from the skies without notice half a world away from Japan.
The alarming posts and videos continue to circulate. The common subtext is that dire truths about Fukushima are being suppressed, that no one is safe from Fukushima radiation, and that people on the West coast of the U.S. are especially vulnerable. At first, the frightening posts would usually arrive in my email box with the question: “what do you think?” As often as not, though, the question is simply implied.
So, here’s what I think: like so many others, I have deep and continuing concerns for the people of northern Japan who were irradiated, displaced, and who still confront mounting health risks and economic hardships because of the tragedy and the leaking radiation. Yet, well over the horizon from Japan, I’m still shaken and discouraged by the traffic in sensationalized news stories and what struck me (and still does) as blatant fear-mongering. No doubt, Fukushima remains a deeply important and complex story, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But, as a reporter, part of the story that intrigued me is how mangled the science and journalism became, and how this downward spiral of alarmism created even deeper fear and confusion. I’m going to write about that, here, and (with apologies) I’m not going to be brief.
For starters, let me walk through some basic facts about Fukushima, as I understand them.
PART I, Basic Truths
1) Fukushima was not Chernobyl.
Because the nuclear disaster in Japan involved three large reactors and the fuel storage pool at a fourth, the potential magnitude of the release of radioactive materials from Fukushima was greater than it was at Chernobyl. Yet, both because of the nature of the Chernobyl accident (the lack of containment and the explosion and fire in the reactor core) and the fact that the Fukushima releases turned out not to be as severe as even U.S. government analysts feared, the evidence is that considerably more radioactive debris was released at Chernobyl than Fukushima. There is no agreement on how much more, but it appears that total radiation releases from Chernobyl were at least twice the scale of the radionuclides released at Fukushima.
A key step in evaluating the environmental and health consequences of a radiation release is to nail down what scientists refer to as the “source term,” which is the inventory and quantity of radioactive substances emitted into the environment. Regrettably, technical estimates of the Fukushima source term vary widely. A reliable independent source for information on nuclear power reactors is the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization founded in 1969 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to promote scientific research devoted to addressing social and environmental problems. The organization is known for the rigor with which it examines and criticizes the nuclear industry and federal regulation of nuclear power. At the conclusion of their 268-page, authoritative account Fukushima, the Story of a Nuclear Disaster, UCS scientists have this to say about the scale of the Fukushima releases, as compared to Chernobyl:
“Ultimately, based on off-site measurements and meteorological data, it appears that Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 through 3, on average, released to the atmosphere less than 10 percent of the radioactive iodine and cesium that the three cores contained…What is clear is that, in terms of the amount of radiation released, the Fukushima Daiichi accident was far from a worst-case event. This meant that the direst scenarios that the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) estimated for Tokyo and parts of the United States, based on much higher radiation releases, never occurred. Fukushima will not challenge Chernobyl’s ranking as the world’s worst nuclear plant accident in terms of radioactive release, although it will remain classified a level 7 accident by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”
Here I should add that a level 7 accident is the most severe. There is no level 8.
(2) You don’t have to believe TEPCO.
Two years ago, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that operates the Fukushima reactors, estimated the source term from Fukushima at just over 1,000 petaBequerels or 27 million curies, which is roughly ten times less than the radiation releases estimated from the Chernobyl accident. By then, TEPCO’s credibility was as badly damaged as its reactors at Fukushima, so its estimate was received with a great deal of skepticism.
Yet, once the radiation releases were occurring, any estimates of the emissions could be independently evaluated by environmental sampling, not just in Japan, but around the world. It’s true that nuclear plant operators almost always downplay (and frequently lie about) radiation emissions and the extent of nuclear accidents. TEPCO has been true to form, and as recently as early August disclosed that fuel melting in one of the reactors was worse than it previously had thought. Still, there are ways to independently assess the levels and extent of radiation emissions from Fukushima, especially when it comes to the question of how dangerous Fukushima radiation is beyond Japan.
In December of 2013—to cite but one example—scientists working in connection with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (LBNL) Low Background Facility published the results of their efforts to measure Fukushima fallout on air filters and in rain water and food in the San Francisco Bay Area. The lab had earlier conducted sampling following the Chernobyl accident. Not surprisingly, the Fukushima fallout was detectable and measurable. It could be compared to samples taken in the same area following the Chernobyl accident 28 years earlier.
“The main conclusion drawn from these sets of data,” the investigators reported , “is that the peak fallout activities from Chernobyl in 1986 upon the San Francisco Bay Area were approximately an order of magnitude (ten times) more than the levels seen from Fukushima in 2011.”
(3) Detection has little to do with risk.
Radionuclides emit energy in rays and particles with distinctive energy signatures. Among other things, this means that radioactive isotopes escaping nuclear accidents are detectable even at extremely low levels and even in the presence of naturally occurring radionuclides. That we have the technology to detect these radioactive materials at very low levels is a good thing. There are certain isotopes—such as tellurium-132 and iodine-131—that are crucial indicators of how severe a nuclear accident is (in terms of how badly the nuclear fuel rods are damaged and how effectively the containment systems are working) and, thus, their mere detection says a lot about how grave the situation is at a reactor and what precautions are necessary. And, still, just because a radioactive isotope is detectable doesn’t say much of anything about whether it presents a serious threat to public health. To evaluate health risk, one needs to know what the radiation dose is, or what the doses would be would be if people were to be exposed to certain radionuclides at the levels at which they are being measured.
(4) Our biosphere is awash in radioactivity.
A typical person receives a 300 millirem (mrem) annual radiation dose just from exposure to naturally occurring radiation (i.e. cosmic rays, radon gas) and naturally occurring radionuclides such as potassium-40. Federal rules restrict nuclear facilities from exposing members of the public to doses of more than 100 millirem (mrem) per year. Neither of these numbers—the 300 mrem dose from natural sources, or a 100 mrem dose at the fence line of a nuclear plant—constitute a “safe” dose. This is because there is no “safe” dose of ionizing radiation. Under prevailing theories of how ionizing radiation causes injury, each nuclear disintegration has the potential for instigating the molecular and cellular damage that can result in a cancer.
Radioactivity is invisible. However dangerous mother nature is with radiation (the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. is exposure to naturally occurring radon gas) she won’t lie to us. On the other hand, governments, government contractors and nuclear plant operators have a long record of coverups and deceit. People are generally aware of this and the distrust and suspicion it has inculcated warps perceptions in interesting ways.
Much of the understandable concern, worldwide, in the wake of the Fukushima tragedy has focused on the threat to seafood in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, with the exception of fish caught in close proximity to the damaged reactors (where radioactive water is, to be sure, flowing into the ocean near the plants) tests show that the naturally occurring radionuclides in the fish (i.e. potassium-40, polonium-210) are at higher levels than the radionuclides from Fukushima. (See Part II below).
What the science tells us is that radiation exposure is not a zero-sum predicament—we all start at a disconcertingly high base-line of annual, naturally-occurring radiation exposure that translates into doses with significant cancer risk. Given this reality, many fine people I’ve worked with over the years express practical and moral objections to nuclear technologies and practices that add dose to the underlying risks we face from natural radiation sources. It’s a worthy argument and one of the legitimate arguments we should consider in the broader debate, going forward, about whether nuclear power is worth preserving, to any meaningful degree, as a source of power in a world that is in dire need of alternatives to burning fossil fuels.
But, of course, we can’t have a worthwhile argument about anything if the facts are so badly mangled that the public is confused and frightened and doesn’t know whom to trust.
PART II, Beyond Japan, a Fukushima Q& A
Here are some of the questions that still circulate more than three years after Fukushima.
Is it Safe to Drink the Milk?
Spokane briefly became part of the Fukushima story when Matt Wald of the New York Times reported that radioactive iodine-131 had been detected in a milk sample collected near Spokane on March 25, 2011—two weeks after the tsunamis crippled Fukushima.
The level measured in the Spokane milk was .8 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of milk. Relative to the naturally occurring radiation each of us absorb every day, that’s just not a lot of radioactivity. If you could use a Geiger counter (and you can’t) to measure the radioactivity in the liter of milk containing the .8 picocuries of I-131, you would expect to hear a “click” of detection once every half minute or so. By comparison, there are over 500 picocuries of radioactivity in an average banana, from naturally occurring potassium-40.
To assess health risk we have to look at dose. Infants and children are most vulnerable to radiation exposure and females are somewhat more susceptible than males when it comes to thyroid cancer, the primary concern with I-131 exposure. At 0.8 picocuries per liter, even if we were to assume that a one year-old child were to drink a liter per day of this milk for a year, the dose would be approximately 1 mrem. The risk would not be zero, but it would be small, roughly a one in a million risk of resulting in a thyroid cancer, if the one year-old were female.
There were other milk samples collected in the U.S. at about the same time the Spokane sample made news, and some had higher levels of I-131. One collected in Arkansas was measured at close to 9 pCi/L and one from Hilo, Hawaii, was measured at 18 pCi/L. Doses from drinking this milk would have been proportionally higher but, again, this assumes an annualized exposure to milk containing I-131 at these levels. (Concentrations of I-131 in milk around the world were much higher after Chernobyl, with multiple samples collected in Spokane and Boise averaging over 50 pCi/L.)
In my work on the once-secret Hanford emissions and the bomb test fallout from the Nevada Test Site, I became grimly acquainted with people whose lives have been devastated because they’d unwittingly ingested milk contaminated with I-131. Subsequently, I worked on a national level to try to promote public awareness of these risks and advocate for access to medical screening where it is warranted. That said, if people are concerned about the possibility of contamination in their milk, they should, of course, stop drinking fresh milk until they are confident the danger has passed. I wouldn’t worry that much if told that the glass of milk I’d just consumed contained .08 pCi/L of I-131 in it. But I respect that others might.
What’s not up for debate, though, is the radioactive half-life of I-131, which is 8.02 days. Because it is a fission product of nuclear reactions, the production of I-131 stops when the nuclear reaction stops. This is a crucial fact because it speaks directly to the next question.
Should I take potassium iodide to protect myself from Fukushima radiation?
No, and please don’t.
Potassium iodide is the medicinal form of stable (non-radioactive) iodine and it is a good idea to have some in your medicine cabinet if you live within fifty miles of a nuclear plant. If there’s a serious accident at the plant, you could take the drug to saturate your thyroid with stable iodine, so as to prevent your thyroid from absorbing I-131 (and other shorter-lived isotopes of radioactive iodine).
But potassium iodide can have harmful side-effects, especially if taken in excess. Public health officers warned about this in the aftermath of Fukushima when reports surfaced that people were rushing out to pharmacies and natural food stores to hoard the drug. And this was before any I-131 had been detected in the U.S.
For those living near a nuclear accident, the immediate risk from radioactive iodine is through inhalation and, thus, taking potassium iodide to block the uptake of inhaled radio iodine would make sense. Further downwind, however, it would make less sense because the main pathway of exposure (by far) is through the consumption of milk—a risk that could be avoided simply by not consuming milk until the I-131 decays away.
The day after the first reported detection of trace levels of I-131 in U.S. milk, the Union of Concerned Scientists took an unusual step. Worried that anxious U.S. buyers would hoard the international market for the drug and thus make it harder to acquire in Japan (where people really needed it) UCS took the unusual step of putting out an advisory discouraging people in the U.S. from buying potassium iodide. Although the run on potassium iodide peaked in the weeks after the Fukushima releases, it didn’t stop. For example, in January of this year (2014) sales of the drug spiked in British Columbia out of concern that radioactive debris from Fukushima was reaching Canadian waters.
What people who are still buying potassium iodide to try to protect themselves from Fukushima radiation apparently don’t realize is that it is useless. Once the reactors were deliberately shut down (at the time of the earthquake) the process that creates fission products was terminated. Thus, any I-131 released from Fukushima has long since decayed away—there simply isn’t any in the environment to be worried about because it’s physically impossible for it to be there. To the extent that there are other radionuclides (i.e. cesium-137 and strontium-90) from Fukushima still present in the environment, taking potassium iodide is to no avail, because it only works to prevent uptake of radioactive iodine.
Is Pacific seafood contaminated with radiation from Fukushima?
Yes. But with the exception of fish caught in close proximity to the damaged reactors, the naturally-occurring radionuclides in the same fish actually deliver a much greater radiation dose than the radioactivity from Fukushima.
Is Pacific seafood safe to eat?
Other than fish harvested near Fukushima, the short answer is also yes.
If you’re wondering how both things can be true, the answer lies, again, in the orders of magnitude between what’s a detectable level of radiation and what’s a dangerous level of radiation.
Because of the large amounts of radioactive cesium released from Fukushima, there were understandable concerns about the uptake of cesium in seafood and the doses people would receive from eating tuna, salmon, and other fish near the top of the food chain.
(I am not, by the way, trying to downplay the concerns about strontium-90 releases from Fukushima. Strontium-90 is a fairly long-lived fission product–with a 29 year half-life– that mimics calcium and, thus, bioaccumulates like calcium and concentrates in bones and teeth. As my friend Arjun Makhijani has warned, the strontium-90 contamination of groundwater beneath Fukushima does pose a long-term threat to the coastal ecosystem near Fukushima. Ironically, it’s possible for a fish near Fukushima to receive its highest portion of radiation dose from strontium-90 but a human consuming the same fish to receive a much higher dose from cesium-137 in the same fish. This is because the human wouldn’t normally eat the bones of the fish, where the strontium-90 is deposited. Whereas the cesium would be deposited in the edible portions of the fish.)
One of the leading researchers trying to address the concerns over radiation in fish is Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Buesseler has been closely monitoring radioactive cesium contamination in the Pacific in the wake of the Fukushima tragedy. As part of his research, Buesseler tries to put the contamination from Fukushima in context with the pre-existing radioactivity in the Pacific ocean, including the reservoir of cesium-137 that exists as a result of atmospheric fallout from nuclear weapons testing.
Prior to the Fukushima releases, Buesseler reports, there were an estimated 104 petabecquerels (2.8 million curies) of cesium-137 remaining in the north Pacific as a result of nuclear weapons tests, including tests the U.S. conducted in the Pacific after World War II. Estimates of Fukushima’s cesium-137 contributions to the north Pacific reach as high as 90 petabecquerels, Buesseler writes, “with most studies suggestion something like 5 to 15 PBq,” (between 135,00 and 405,000 curies.)
This is important for at least a couple reasons.
•It’s certainly not great news that we spewed large amounts of cesium-137 in fallout from weapons tests like “Ivy-Mike,” the world’s first thermonuclear explosion that vaporized a small island in the Marshall Islands in late 1952. But the reality is that it happened. Even if we take the high estimate of Fukushima cesium-137 releases (the 90 PBq), the Fukushima cesium would, at most, only replace the amount of weapons test cesium that has decayed (by one half-life) since 1984.
•More importantly, the inventory of cesium-137 from weapons test fallout flatly disproves the erroneous reports that Fukushima’s radioactive discharges to the Pacific are “unprecedented” and that they portend disastrous results for fish and humans alike throughout the Pacific. What it more likely portends is a temporary return to the higher cesium-137 levels that existed thirty years ago and a gradual decline back to levels that existed prior to the March 2011 tragedy.
So what does that all mean for the fish?
As Buesseler reports, researchers got a good look at the dynamics of the cesium contamination by comparing radiation levels in bluefin tuna as the fish (in the months after the peak radiation releases from Fukushima) made their ways from feeding grounds near Japan to waters off San Diego. Although the sampling showed tuna were concentrating radioactive cesium from Fukushima through their diet, they were also eliminating it (at a fairly rapid rate, it turns out) from their bodies as they moved on to less contaminated areas of the ocean.
The radioactive cesium (cesium-134 and 137 combined) measured in the bluefin tuna caught off San Diego in 2011 averaged just over 10 becquerels per kilogram Bq/kg. This is 120 times less than the FDA standard for radioactivity in seafood and 10 times less than the more conservative Japanese standard. It’s also noteworthy that the naturally occurring polonium-210 in the same fish averaged 79 Bq/kg and that the polonium-210 would deliver a dose 600 times greater than the radioactive cesium.
Morever, when the same researchers looked at Pacific bluefin tuna in 2012, they saw that cesium-137 levels had fallen by more than 50% in the year since the Fukushima emissions.
Here’s the paradoxical truth about Fukushima radiation (overwhelmingly radioactive cesium) in Pacific seafood. Given its radioactive potency, relatively long half-life, and its chemical similarity to potassium, there is no scenario where a release of even 135,000 Ci of cesium-137 into the environment is not a big story. That is more than enough radiocesium to present major public health problems in areas near such a source. Thus, Buesselor makes a point of reminding his readers he’s not trying to diminish “the scale and nature of events at Fukushima.” But the other reality is that as one moves away from Japanese waters the Fukushima contamination is present but present at miniscule levels–at concentrations well below those that would present much of a concern for public health.
Which leads to the next question:
What is the risk to eating Pacific seafood after Fukushima?
Let’s look, first, at fish harvested near Fukushima, where fishing restrictions remain in effect. Tom Cochran, a widely respected senior scientist and radiation expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council tackled this question in September 2013, focusing on radioactive cesium because, as he explained, that’s what the environmental monitoring data indicated would be the dominating factor in radiation doses.
Working from cesium-137 concentrations measured in sea water just offshore of the Fukushima reactors, Cochran made a calculation that fish harvested in that area would have concentrations of cesium-137 in their flesh of less than 15,000 becquerels (405,000 pCi) per kilogram. Based upon U.S. EPA risk calculations for Cs-137, Cochran concludes that for consumers of this seafood to keep their individual risk below 1 in 100,000 (for cancer incidence) they would have to limit their daily consumption to about a pound (0.7 kg) of this fish.
“While this is a conservative estimate of what is required to achieve a low risk,” Cochran concluded, “one could make a good case for quarantining fishing off the Japanese coast near Fukushima, which of course is what the Japanese government has done.”
There are, to be sure, even “hotter” fish. As Buesseler notes in his March 2014 article, some bottom dwelling fish caught near Fukushima had concentrations of 25,000 Bq/kg, and some inside the harbor nearest the reactors were sampled at 740,000 Bq/kg. These are not fish you’d want to eat.
But Buesseler’s article also provides extensive sampling data of bottom-dwelling fish caught all along the northeast coast of Japan in 2011 and 2012 and basically all the data points are an order of magnitude or more below the 15,000 Bq/kg that Cochran assumed for his risk calculations.
Buesseler notes that the Japanese set their protection limit for radioactive cesium at 100 Bq/kg, (much stricter than the U.S. limit of 1,200 Bq/kg) and that by this standard the naturally occurring polonium-210 in the same fish is at concentrations nearly 20 times the limit being applied for the Cs-137.
When Cochran turned to doses and risks that would accrue from eating Pacific seafood beyond the coastal waters of Japan he determined that a consumer would have to eat 3 metric tons of fish to incur a 1 in 100,000 cancer risk.
“In other words,” he wrote, “do not worry about eating fish taken from U.S. coastal waters.”
Most recently, (April 30, 2014) the California Coastal Commission—in response to widespread and persisting public concern among Californians about the effects of Fukushima radiation on their beaches and seafoods—circulated a 24 page Report on the Fukushima Dai-Chi Nuclear Disaster and Radioactivity along the California Coast.
Granted, government agencies (because they are more vulnerable to political influences) are generally less credible than independent scientists like Buesseler, Tom Cochran, Arjun Makhijani and Owen Hoffman. But the Commission’s work is thorough, well-documented and respectful of the persisting public concerns that motivated the report.
This is from the report summary:
From the breached Fukushima reactors, “(r)adioactive fallout to the North Pacific was augmented by the direct discharge of large volumes of radioactive water from the nuclear power plant in the weeks following the accident. Though the largest releases to the ocean (emergency cooling waters used in the damaged reactors) ended in April 2011, on-going leaks from the plant, contaminated river runoff, groundwater leakage and leaching nearshore sediments continue to introduce new radioactivity to the ocean near Japan. Over the least three years, the radioactive ocean plume has been carried eastward by ocean currents, becoming increasingly diluted as it spreads over an ever-larger area and mixes to greater depths. The leading edge of the plume appears to have reached North America off of Vancouver Island, and could possibly reach California within the next year. However, the concentration of Fukushima radionuclides (chiefly cesium-137, which has a ~30-year half-life) is expected to be only slightly above the pre-accident background and far below that of naturally-occurring radioactive elements in the ocean.”
So far as I know, there is no credible, science-based rebuttal to the Commission’s conclusions.
PART III, Fighting for the Light in the Radioactive Fog.
Fukushima demonstrates, once again, that people tend to be much more fearful of radiation emanating from man-made sources than from natural sources.
I have no doubt that the perceptions of human-caushed radiation emissions are magnified by the moral questions that radiate from humankind’s exploitation of nuclear energy for civil and military uses. To return to a point I made earlier: Mother nature is incapable of deceit. On the other hand, human institutions that operate nuclear power plants or produce nuclear materials for weapons are not only capable of deception and manipulation but have proven themselves to be proficient at it.
The forty years of secrecy around Hanford’s radioactive iodine emissions is close to home and but one example. A more recent example is how the Washington state Health Department misled people about radiation reaching Washington state from Fukushima. Eleven days after the crippling tsunami, the department put out a press release predicting that radiation levels in Washington would not climb above normal background levels. That turned out to be in error when, a few days later, Fukushima I-131 began to turn up in Washington milk samples, albeit at the small levels reported above.
The same press release stated that “radiation from the nuclear power plants in Japan is not a health risk for Washington.” This was just untrue, as a matter of fact. While it turned out that the health risk was never very large, there was a risk and it was the department’s responsibility to be forthright about it. My friend and former mentor Bob Alvarez at the Institute for Policy Studies made similar points in the Huffington Post when he criticized the federal Food and Drug Administration for its misleading assurances after the Fukushima radiation releases.
This long pattern of deception is such that a rational person would want to factor in the expected margin of deceit in such official pronouncements. Radiation scientists use an exponent called a “quality factor,” or simply “Q,” to adjust for the biological destructiveness of the different forms of ionizing radiation. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the public has learned to apply its own “Q” factor to industry or government pronouncements about radiation releases, to account for the damaged credibility of these institutions. (I think a factor of 5 is about right, but I’m sure others would put it higher.)
Another part of the communication problem is simply the tangle of terminology and the complexity of the science involved. For example, there is an enormous difference between the traditional measure of radioactivity, the curie, and the Standard International unit, the becquerel, that has replaced the curie as the most commonly used unit of radioactivity. A curie is equal to 37 billion nuclear disintegrations per second, and a becquerel is equal to one nuclear disintegration per second. Thus, when I write pieces like this one it is with notes to remind myself, for example, that a picocurie (1 trillionth of a curie) is equal to .037 becquerel.
This is just the brain dancing needed to get the units of radiation translated. And it doesn’t really tell us anything about what a low level of radiation is (from a health risk standpoint) and what a dangerous level is. All of this has to be translated into radiation dose, which is what you really need to know to assess health risk. Dose, like radioactivity, can be reported in both the traditional unit (rem) or the Standard International unit, the sievert, so, again, being able to translate back and forth is often a challenge in understanding the research. More importantly, it requires an awareness that there is no one-to-one correlation between the amount of radiation present and its consequent dose. You can only know what the dose is if you know the route of exposure (i.e. external versus ingestion), the chemical and radioactive properties the specific isotope(s) exhibit, the sensitivity of the tissue that will bear the brunt of the exposure, and how long the body will retain a particular radionuclide before eliminating it. (Typically, radioactive noble gases like argon-41 and krypton-85 dominate the radioactivity in emissions from nuclear plants, yet their contribution to dose is very small relative to equal amounts of radiation from other radionuclides because they are inert and, thus, don’t integrate into biologically active molecules. )
All of these technical complications afflicted the reports and discussions about Fukushima. But, to me, a bigger lesson about Fukushima and communication is this one:
Poor journalism is at least as important as good journalism.
Let me offer two examples of how information that actually should have assuaged fears—in this country—about Fukushima was essentially flipped by journalists to convey completely different messages. Both come from my email in-box, earlier this year, as I was asked to decipher them and address their credibility, at the request of a friend.
EXAMPLE I: This is a story that came from NationofChange a popular, progressive news service with the headline: “New UC Berkeley test reveals fantastically high cesium levels on California roadside.”
The backtrack link on this story, was actually to another news outlet, ENE Energy News, that I’d already noticed was the source for many of the piping hot Fukushima radiation stories being sent my way.
Here’s the long headline on the ENE News story, dated February 15, 2014—
Gov’t Test: Cattle feed at California dairy farm had 300 pCi/kg of radioactive cesium after Fukushima; 9-month gap between when sample harvested and when received by lab — New UC Berkeley study reveals over 3,500 pCi/kg of cesium deposited on nearby roadside.
A couple key observations: the technical source for the ENE story, and the wildly inflammatory NationofChange story it fueled, is the very same UC Berkeley study referenced earlier in this article. To me (and the report authors) the UC Berkeley report provided reassuring evidence that, despite well-publicized fears (including, of course, Helen Caldicott’s prediction) that Fukushima would eclipse Chernobyl as a global radiation threat, the observed contamination was actually much less than from Chernobyl. This was good news. But the data from the study, taken out of context by these news services, was being used to frighten readers and promote a story line that was essentially the opposite of that the scientists were delivering.
This is some of the actual copy from the NationofChange story:
“Imagine entire crops of food that we rely upon from California, and along the West Coast of the US, Mexico and Canada being completely inedible due to radiation poisoning. The fish from the Pacific is already too toxic to eat, and our livestock will suffer, as clearly indicated by this UC study, as well.”
But why should we have to imagine something that is divorced from reality, other than to scare the beejeezus out of readers?
Seriously, though, would an average reader know that 300 pCi/kg of radioactive cesium is actually ten times less than the radiation from the naturally occurring potassium-40 in a kilogram of bananas? I doubt it. Indeed, the cesium radioactivity in the “fantastically” high sediment sample that was singled out in the two news reports is at the level of the potassium-40 radiation in a single banana.
And this begs another question—since people don’t actually eat sediment in kilogram quantities—what did the study’s authors actually find in food?
In addition to local organic yogurt and grape leaves, the scientists bought fish caught in various areas of the Pacific, from Alaska, to California, to Fiji and beyond. The highest levels of radioactive cesium were found in tuna from the Philippines—at .26 Bq per kilogram, which converts to 7 pCi/kg.
It is noteworthy that none of the radioactive cesium found in the tuna was the shorter-lived Cs-134, that would have provided a Fukushima signature. Thus the scientists attribute all the cesium detected to “legacy activities such as surface nuclear weapons testing.”
“It is also worth noting,” they continued, “that all samples had much higher levels of potassium-40 present, which is a naturally occurring isotope. Comparing cesium-137 to potassium-40 is useful, since they both belong to the same column on the periodic table, and hence have similar affinities in various tissues and minerals. The tuna from the Philippines, for instance, had a potassium-40 activity level of 105 Bq/kg—more than four hundred times the activity of the cesium-137.”
Thus, even if you could assume that all the cesium-137 in the tuna from the Philippines came from Fukushima (and you can’t) the dose from the naturally occurring radiation in the tuna would be hundreds of times greater—which is what the earlier referenced Bluefin tuna study revealed as well.
The bottom line is that ENE News and NationofChange took a scientifically sound report and not only cherry picked it to pull data out of context, but then used it to advance an alarmist theme with a message that was completely the opposite of what the report actually documented.
EXAMPLE II: Comes from a March 3, 2014 article
in truthout a well-circulated progressive journalism and commentary outlet.
The stated purpose of the article was to bring clarity to the conflicting reports about Fukushima radiation. The title was “Cutting Through Fukushima Fog: Radiation in the U.S.?” Toward that purpose, the story attempted to provide a balanced report on Fukushima, to address some of the overreactions to the dangers, as well as the unanswered questions about the continuing and long-term hazards. The article included subheads like “Beware the Hyperbole” and, to truthout’s credit, the piece took on a viral YouTube video of a man with a crackling Geiger counter on a California beach. The internet buzz from the Geiger counter video was based on the presumption that this was Fukushima radiation coming ashore, but, as the truthout story reported, further tests on the same beach revealed the radiation to be from natural sources.
“Given the diametrically conflicting views of the Fukushima disaster,” the article concluded, “it’s way beyond time for a full-court-press approach by the U.S. and global community to challenge what may be a whitewashed coverup, and with intensified scientific research and accurate figures and diagnosis, to get to the bottom of what’s happening at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. Doing nothing is not an option.”
I can’t disagree with that. But what is so discouraging is that even as truthout was issuing a clarion call for accuracy—the story plainly distorts the science and is carelessly inaccurate on a key fact.
The distortion has to do with the Pacific Bluefin tuna study I cited earlier in this article. Here’s how truthout reported it:
“There were reports of bluefish (sic) tuna from the Fukushima area caught in the waters off San Diego in Southern California with high levels of radiation. A connection? (See the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which concludes: “We report unequivocal evidence that Pacific bluefish (sic) tuna, Thunnus orientalis, transported Fukushima-derived radionuclides across the entire North Pacific Ocean…Other large, highly migratory marine animals make extensive use of waters around Japan, and these animals may also be transport vectors of Fukushima-derived radionuclides to distant regions of the North and South Pacific Oceans.”
The truthout article gets this part of the story almost exactly backwards.
The embedded link is to the findings of Madigan, Baumann, and Fisher, the authors of the Pacific Bluefin tuna study cited by Ken Buesseler and others. It is truthout’s whole cloth interpretation—not the words of the scientists—that the tuna samples contained “high levels” of radiation from Fukushima.
The tuna samples did not contain “high levels of radiation” from Fukushima. The actual measurements (for the cesium-134 and cesium-137, combined) were 10 becquerels per kilogram. If you read what Madigan et al, actually reported, the naturally-occurring radiation in those same fish was 40 times higher than the radiation from the Fukushima cesium.
That’s right. Forty times higher. Moreover, as Woods Hole scientist Ken Buesseler pointed out in his March 2014 article in Oceanography, what the Bluefin tuna study showed is that the tuna were rather quickly shedding the Fukushima radioactive cesium (from over 150 Bq/kg down to 10.3 Bq/kg) as they moved east toward California.
In short, truthout’s description of the Madigan, Baumann, and Fisher research on the tuna misrepresents what the scientists report they found.
Then, in the next paragraph of the story, the truthout article reports this:
“According to Oceanus Magazine, the total amount of cesium-137 that has been released into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than the amount released into the oceans by the Chernobyl disaster or by the atmospheric nuclear-weapons tests from the 1960s.”
This is not close to being accurate.
The Oceanus Magazine story was written by David Pacchioli and it profiles the work of none other than Ken Buesseler. Here’s what Pacchioli actually wrote, in the story’s third paragraph: “In fact, most of the cesium present in today’s oceans, Buesseler noted, is a remnant of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing conducted by the United States, France, and Great Britain during the 1950s and ‘60s. Lesser amounts are attributable to the Chernobyl nuclear accident and to local sources, such as the dumping of low-level waste from England’s Sellafied nuclear facility into the Irish Sea.” (emphasis added)
The fault here belongs both to editors at truthout and at Oceanus because it’s obvious the truthout article relied upon a poorly constructed graphic included in the Oceanus story.
The graphic title says “An Unprecedented Release of Radioisotopes to the Ocean” and then reports, erroneously: “The amount of cesium-137 radiosotopes from the Fukushima disaster in surface ocean waters was 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than amounts that entered the ocean from the Chernobyl accident or atmospheric weapons testing.”
It’s only when you read deeper inside the graphic box that the words “in surface waters off the coast of Japan” attach to BOTH the Fukushima results, and the weapons testing results. Yes, of course, the Fukushima cesium is going to be much more concentrated in the ocean near Fukushima, just as weapons testing cesium sampled “off Japan” is going to be less concentrated than it would be if the samples were actually collected near the test sites in the South Pacific. But, as you can see, along with the misleading title, the graphic visually communicates something quite different, something that is wrong and which is actually refuted by the text of the story in which the graphic appears.
The impression created by the Oceanus graphic is that Fukushima cesium in the Pacific Ocean is a qualitatively different problem than what we’ve seen before. This, in turn, clearly fed the suspicion that the mainstream press was ignoring the Fukushima story, or not picking up on the scariest details.
Yet, as I’ve noted earlier, the truth is that we’d already run a pretty large experiment in the Pacific ocean with the huge amounts of radioactive cesium from weapons tests. It is the knowledge gained studying the earlier contamination that led scientists to predict that—post Fukushima— cesium levels in Pacific seafood would peak in the weeks and months after the disaster, but begin to recede after that. And, thus far, that’s what the science shows.
I do not mean to compare the harm of this kind of careless reporting to the harm created, say, by the New York Times when its journalistic malpractice helped the Bush Administration advance the phony case for the Iraq War in 2002-2003.
But the reality is that it still matters, a lot. People far from Japan, and far from any significant danger from Fukushima radiation, were (and still are) making decisions about their diets (and in the case of potassium iodide, what medicine to take) based on bad information, incomplete information, or scary-looking numbers that are completely of out a context that would give them meaning.
Moreover, in my view at least, a lot of smart, conscientious people were spending a lot more time and energy being worked up about Fukushima than they were about much greater radioactive hazards that are not only closer to home, but literally right in the home. Frankly, naturally-occurring radon gas in basements is a big public health problem in our region that, by comparison, gets scant attention.
Finally, there is this paradox. The Fukushima tragedy—like Chernobyl—is a nuclear nightmare that validates the safety and environmental objections that many of us have voiced to the propagation of nuclear energy. In basic terms, there is an anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. and around the world that is a longstanding and legitimate response both to the dangers of the technology and the well-documented abuses of those who advance and defend it.
But any successful social movement has to be credible and trustworthy or it cannot acquire the public support and political credibility needed for actual change. And so it says something that an anti-nuclear critic—like me—gets irritated and cynical about the ways in which the radioactive dangers of Fukushima were blown so far out of proportion and reason. It began to remind me of the abuses of global warming deniers, and their commitment to misinformation to deny and obfuscate the science.
Fukushima, like Chernobyl, is a grim and haunting monument to the unacceptable dangers of nuclear technology. And this opinion is based merely on what’s true, in Japan, about the devastating consequences to this disaster and its obvious global ramifications for future energy choices. To cast Fukushima in more frightening, apocalyptic terms is actually disrespectful to the actual dire reality of the Japanese, and not at all helpful to people beyond Japan who are still trying to sort it all out.