Monday, September 05, 2011

The Reality of Radiation in Japan

Before March 11, like everybody, I had only the vaguest ideas about nuclear power and radiation. 
But I have to tell you, it has been a revelation since then. I have been reading and reading. The net is extraordinary. I have searched for and read mainstream scientific views, and have been bombarded with alarmist articles and videos by well-meaning friends.  The amount of unsubstantiated fear-grounded media out there is extraordinary.  But if you read the science objectively, in my view it is impossible to not come to the conclusion that 99% of the fear Japan is experiencing is unnecessary.

Half the battle is to be careful about your sources.   This site is an example.  Here, they have just decided to include everything they could find that was anti-nuclear, seemingly on principle, and have thrown in massive numbers that are meaningless without context. Then there are the youtube videos like this one by Arnold Gundersen.  He comes across as a credible speaker and looks the part; then he starts talking about 'black rain', something no reputable media source would mention, and then you know you're in trouble. 

The craziest video is the one called 'Japanese government killing its own people', which you can see here.   You might call it the 'piss video'.  It's an exercise in clumsy propaganda. We don't see the calm, measured presentation from the bureaucrat simply stating that the local radiation is not dangerous. Instead, the original video has been cut and we see this aggressive (and irrelevant) questioning: they don't bother to include anything as boring or prosaic as actual radiation measurements.  I guess people would rather see bottles of urine being thrust around. Oh well. And yes, that Japanese bureacrat does come across as a heartless. But I have to tell you: the man with the urine trying to block the elevator is getting 10 times the sympathy I got last year at the Yokohama immigration office when my visa was unceremoniously cut for no reason from 3 years to 1.   But if I had tried the same shit as the urine guy, I would have been detained, interrogated, and deported before you could say 'discrimination'. My point is: that Japanese bureacrat is being heartless not because of radiation, but because he is a Japanese bureaucrat. And did you ever think why it is THIS video that goes around the net, and not some calm NHK presentation? Well, people love to feed their fears; and this video tells me a lot more about human paranoia (quite a bit) than it does about radiation in Fukushima (nothing).

That's enough of the fear-mongering for the moment.  If you are really interested in finding out the facts, you need to go to trustworthy sources. Wikipedia is one. In fact, it's the best source of information on the planet; because it's free, nobody gets paid, and it is beholden to noone. All it is is people slogging it out with facts and sources. Start with the article on the Fukushima accident

In fact, read the discussion page behind it; it is truly a wonder and I am in awe of it. For example, on the main page there is a quote from a man (I just looked it up, and, low and behold, it is Arnold Gundersen, the 'black rain' guy!), saying that Fukushima was the biggest industrial catastrophe in history.   I thought, that's a bit rough, especially in comparison with genuine disasters like Bhopal in India. So I go to the discussion page and there is a huge discussion about whether to remove the quote. Or not. You should read it yourself and make up your own mind. I also just noticed that above the quote there is a little wikipedia note: neutrality disputed. What other news source will take that much care?  For impartiality, go to wikipedia. 
As for actual radiation measurements in Fukushima (or Tokyo, or anywhere in Japan), they are freely available, in Japanese at least: e.g. an independent company or the more official NHK site

To interprest the figures, you have to know about the sievert, which is how radiation is usually measured when it affects humans affects bodies.  Included in this one unit is all the different types of radiation.  10 of these sieverts will kills you, and 1 will make you sick.  When thinking about how much radiation is dangerous, you can start by comparing the dose to natural background radiation, and that's where it starts to get interesting.   This natural radiation can vary a lot from place to place, anywhere from about 0.3 to 2 or 3 millisieverts a year  (a millisievert is 1/1000th of a sievert.)   Well, according to the Naver site Tokyo today has 0.056 microsieverts an hour, 0.49 millisieverts a year, on the lower end of the natural background radiation range.   Obviously nothing to worry about.   Up in Fukushima itself it is a little more interesting. People in Fukushima city are getting 10.6 millisieverts a year, some 20 times what people in Tokyo are getting.   But, in different places in the world the natural background radiation is substantially higher than even this, up to 20 or 50 or more millisieverts, or even more in certain areas in Iran or India. Those areas do not have higher cancer rates than other areas. In fact, no negative health impacts on humans have been observed for doses less than 50 millisieverts a year (according to who you read, it could be higher). In fact according to wikipedia, some areas in Iran have high natural radioactivity of more than 200 times normal background level, higher than safety levels for nuclear workers, and hot springs there are visited by locals and tourists!

Which brings me to radiation hormesis. Never heard of it? Neither had I, before all this happened. Radiation hormesis is the theory that very low doses of radiation are...good for you! It's not accepted by the mainstream of nuclear science, but there seems to be substantial evidence for it, and scientists are at least taking the idea seriously.  The very lack of widespread knowledge of the existence of this theory should tell you how much the media is disposed to negativity on the subject.  Now, I am not a supporter of radiation hormesis.   I don't have a degree in nuclear science, I have not published on the issue in academic peer-reviewed journals. But the issue demonstrates there is some evidence that low level radiation is good for you, just not enough evidence to overturn the dominant paradigm. Science is very conservative; you need a lot of evidence to overturn an existing theory.  And that's probably a good thing.
Now there a lot of people, strident activists, who are firmly against nuclear power. Arnold Gundersen is one. Helen Caldicott, an Australian woman, is another. You can see an interesting debate between her and George Manbiot, a British journalist and environomentalist.  I've spent hours watching debates like this, and much longer chasing up the substance of what the people say, a much less interesting but rather more illuminating pursuit.  As an example, George Manbiot wrote a detailed reply to issues Ms Caldicott raised in the debate, detailing her inadequacies at some length.  The comments after his article are themselves amazing.

One thing that comes out clearly in these debates is that anti-nuclear activists always maintain the mainstream of nuclear scientific opinion is wrong.   Not only do they question the scientific consensus, they charge that there is a conspiracy, a cover-up, to hide the much more dangerous and sinister truth.  Well, my take on that is this: it stretches credulity to suggest there is a huge international conspiracy, involving not only thousands of respected scientists, but including the organisations of the United Nations.  But this is what you have to believe if you believe that the paranoia and fear-mongering in the media is justified.
For the official, authoritative view of the dangers of low-level radiation, see this publication by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation.  Their FAQ is particularly readable.  In these documents you can see the moderate, rigorously scientific viewpoint.  You might summarize this view by saying that the tiny releases of radiation from Fukushima will have a negligible effect upon human health.  Not only that, but the response of the Japanese government and TEPCO to the nuclear accident, derided in both Japanese and foreign media as shambolic and ineffective, is revealed by the relevant agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, as both effective and appropriate.
But be aware, now we're getting into the actual science; but it's where you have to be if you want to think about this issue with any authority. It's the kind of authority that Arnold Gundersen and Helen Caldicott have to deny. In fact, it was clear in the debate that she hadn't even read the documents.
For me, personally, I became suspicious of the 'dangers' of radioactivity when I saw how the media was treating it. There seemed to be a lot of panic and precious little data. As an example of the fear of radiation versus radiation, consider the current beef scare. When it broke out NHK featured an hour-long news report focusing on this issue. There was a lengthy introduction, footage from cattle farms in Fukushima, an examination of flaws in the inpection system, repeated shrill announcements of becquerels in the hundreds and thousands, interviews with crying supermarket managers who had inadvertently sold the meat, on-the-street interviews with young mothers fearfully clutching babies and wailing about the safety of their family etc etc. Finally, there was a 10-second clip from an actual nuclear scientist at Tokyo university, calmly stating that you would have to eat a kilogram of the beef every day for several years in order for it to have any measurable effect upon your health.

And that contrast- between 45 minutes of fear-mongering and 10 seconds of reality – tells you all you need to know about the nuclear ‘crisis’ in Japan.
And now, if you haven't before, you are now obliged to read some unashamedly pro-nuclear opinion to balance it up all the negativity. You can start with this site, The Hiroshima Syndrome, which has an excellent chronology of the actual accident, among other things. There is also Rod Adams, who has an interesting take on Arnold Gundersen.  Read it yourself and make your own judgement about him!
For one view of why the media is full of disaster, watch this British documentary.

And here is a link where you can compare fatalities from different energy-related accidents in history. As you can see, nuclear energy is much much safer than fossil fuels such as coal, and even safer than hydro.
Finally, and very sadly, the Fukushima accident will have a long-term and substantial detrimental impact upon the planet, in terms of contributing very significantly to global warming.  Germany may be the first of several countries who regrettably roll back nuclear power because of the irrational fear of radiation.


tripu said...

This is a remarkable summary of the situation — the best you have written so far.
Thanks for balancing the mainstream media. People here in Europe are sometimes commenting nervously every time they hear that an acquaintance is visiting Japan for holidays. Go figure.

Captaincassowary said...