Fukushima: sounding worse, getting better

Obsessed with the idea of a nuclear meltdown, the doom mongerers are blind to the reality at Fukushima.

Over the weekend, much of the world’s media reported a radiation spike emanating from Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant of the order of 10million times above the norm. It soon transpired that this figure was erroneous and it has since been retracted by the Japanese authorities. But why did so many seem so keen to report the alarming estimate?

The closer the situation comes to being resolved at Fukushima, the clearer it will become what actually happened there. Hence it will sound like matters are getting worse just as they are getting better. As things stand it would seem that one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded, followed by a devastating tsunami that took out the back-up generators required to cool the nuclear facility, may have caused a minor fissure to the casing of one of six reactors, leading to some radioactive materials being released into the environment.

It is important to maintain a sense of proportion and perspective about this. The quantities released, while alarmingly headlined as raising radiation levels in nearby seawater to 1,250 times the normal safety limit, still amounts to less than one per cent of that which was released over the course of the worst nuclear accident in history at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

There are two things worth noting from the outset. Firstly, that 1,250 times the normal safety level still amounts to not very much at all. And secondly, contrary to the popular myths about Chernobyl, it is today a visitor destination, albeit for what the trade identifies as extreme tourism. The three remaining reactors at Chernobyl reopened just seven months after the explosion there, with one of the reactors working right through to December 2000, since when a small army of workers has been on-site and steadily decommissioning the plant – a process that could still take many years.

Alarmist figures as to the number of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster bear no resemblance to the actual data confirmed by the Chernobyl Forum – a group that includes the UN, the IAEA and WHO – in its 2006 report on the matter. Only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the accident. These occurred among those workers brave enough to return to the plant when it was burning to sort out the mess at the time, and among a small number of children in the wider community who developed thyroid cancer.

Those who suggest that thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of fatal cancers are linked to the Chernobyl disaster are basing these estimates on extrapolations from the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. These estimates are derived using a linear extrapolation from the effects of high levels of radiation received in an instant as the bombs exploded. But most researchers recognise that the circumstances in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were very different to those in Chernobyl. Such estimates are, therefore, based on rather shaky evidence. It is like suggesting that because a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius would kill 100 per cent of human beings, so a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius should kill 10 per cent of them. In reality, our bodies are able to tolerate radiation up to a certain threshold. Low levels of radiation are almost certainly harmless.

This brings us back to the contaminated seawater, as well as the affected food items and drinking water in Japan today. The situation is certainly not ideal and no doubt lessons will be learnt from all this as they always are after every emergency. Indeed, whether we appreciate it or not, it is only by taking risks that society has evolved to the form in which it exists today, whereby we live longer and healthier lives than any preceding generation. Sadly, it is only by making mistakes that we learn the real limits of anything. And as some have also indicated, even the worst levels of radiation reported from Japan – aside from those to which a handful of workers have been exposed – amount to little compared to natural background levels in other places on earth, as well as comparing favourably with other exposures we voluntarily subject ourselves to, whether these be through flying or having an X-ray or a CT scan.

The situation now is likely to require a plentiful supply of energy to resolve – energy which, like it or not, will probably come from other nuclear facilities, not from windmills and solar panels. These renewable technologies, while they may be desirable for the future, will only emerge based on what we have available to us in the here and now.

The anti-nuclear campaigners however – alongside the far bigger army of catastrophists, who seem keen to imagine the worst at every opportunity – are now smugly standing by to say ‘I told you so’. But none of them suggested there would be a tiny crack through which a limited amount of radiation may leak. Rather, there was a cacophony of voices projecting a meltdown and Armageddon. And, as none of these commentators were nuclear engineers who attended the site in Japan itself, it is obvious that all they could do was imagine the worst and project that fantasy into the public domain.

It would be preferable to have a few more trained specialists dealing with the actual emergency. From a sociological perspective, however, one focused particularly on risks and how these are perceived and communicated, it was entirely predictable that an assortment of risk entrepreneurs, doom-mongers and assorted lobbyists would clamour to claim this incident for themselves and attach it to whatever fear-laden view they hold.

Eight years ago, as hostilities resumed in Iraq, there were many determined to uncover Saddam Hussein’s supposed stash of weapons of mass destruction there, despite the evidence consistently pointing to their absence. We were advised instead to focus on the unknown, or the ‘unknown unknowns’ as the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously put it. Two years ago, once the director-general of WHO had identified H1N1 as ‘a threat to the whole of humanity’, nations everywhere cranked into pandemic prevention overdrive, convinced that only their precautionary actions could save humanity – this despite all the evidence pointing towards the outbreak of a mild version of influenza. We have to recognise that once a particular mindset is established it is very hard for people to accept that their model of the world may not be correct even if the facts are staring them in the face.

This is the pattern being repeated around the nuclear incident in Japan. Some newscasters seem determined to convey the worst that could happen, as if this were some public service. But surely at such times the role of the media is to report the facts rather than imagine a Hollywood script? The problem we now confront is that a significant number of cultural pessimists have staked their reputations on proving that there was a major problem and possibly that this was covered up. Such individuals seem to desire – if not need – the worst, to confirm their apocalyptic frameworks. It is high time we focused on the evidence and let those who are actually capable of dealing with the mess at Fukushima get on with their jobs without having to worry that their every step will be projected on to the world stage as an example of incompetence and conspiracy.

First published on spiked, 29 March 2011

The mad post-tsunami food panic

You could eat Japan’s so-called ‘radioactive spinach’ for a whole year and it still wouldn’t cause you much harm.

It would require an iron will to stand in the face of today’s febrile culture and oppose the wave of countries rapidly withdrawing Japanese foodstuffs from their shelves ‘in line with the precautionary approach’, as a Singapore government spokesperson put it.

Having alerted the world to elevated levels of radiation in food items such as spinach and milk, as well as doses twice the recommended limit for babies in drinking water in Tokyo, the Japanese government really has no one other than itself to blame. After coping admirably in managing the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami, as well as demonstrating the resolve to address the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it seems that it is at the level of communication that the authorities may yet score an own-goal.

The Japanese cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano – until now the image of cool with his detached demeanour and worker’s overalls at press conferences – has asked international importers to take a ‘logical stance’ over the food situation. They will. Unfortunately, it is not the logic he may have had in mind. ‘Even if these foods are temporarily eaten, there is no health hazard’, he advised. Others have indicated that one would have to drink a lot of the water before being harmed. Drinking the water in Tokyo for a year might expose you to an additional 0.8 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation. But then living in some of the places on earth where the natural background radiation is above the norm could easily expose you to 10 times as much.

Needless to say, people continue to live in such areas – and have babies. In fact, there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that – if anything – their longevities may be enhanced through such exposure. After all, biological life emerged into an environment that had far more radiation, from the ground and from space, than it does today.

Eating the spinach non-stop for a year (perish the thought) would give you a radiation dose equivalent to about one CT scan. Drinking the milk endlessly would be even less of a problem. In fact, you would be sick of eating and drinking these products long before any of them could make you sick from radiation poisoning or cancer.

So where did it all go wrong for Edano? Where did the army of over-zealous officials wanting to ban things on a precautionary basis come from? Should we blame the US – we often do – for starting the cascade? Or was it the media who irresponsibly amplified concerns?

In fact, if we truly hope to understand the confusions now emerging over the situation regarding food from Japan, there is little point in looking there, or even trying to understand nuclear accidents and radiation, or the role of today’s nervous officials and the media.

Rather, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the world has steadily been reorganised along the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. That sounds eminently sensible. But is it true? Is there not a point where safety comes at a cost to other areas of life? For instance, if we were to put all our resources into combating terrorism, there would be none left to deal with disease.

Risk management is always about such trade-offs. But the mantra that we should be as safe as possible and always take precautionary measures whenever possible has become good coin among bureaucratic elites the world over. This provided governments with a new role once the old Soviet enemy had imploded. Noting too that the end of the old-style confrontational politics had also left people rather more isolated and insecure, politicians refashioned themselves as the people’s protectors of last resort.

This has come at a tremendous cost to society – leaders driven more by events than by principles, and populations that are used to having their prejudices pandered to rather than challenged. The rot, of course, started at the top. Hence witness a large number of foreign nationals in Japan, many of whom were caught up in these tumultuous events, and who wanted to stay behind to help their friends and loved ones. They even wanted to help complete strangers – but of course we now know, because we have been brought up to believe so, that strangers are a danger anyway.

So, rather than pursuing their humane instincts, according to their own assessment of what the real risks were, many such individuals were advised, by their own national governments, to get out. Get out of the region. Get out of Tokyo. Get out of Japan.

In the past, people who ran away from people in need, particularly when these were people they knew, might have been accused of being cowards. Today, we call that ‘precautionary measures’.

Welcome to the brave new world of risk-obsessed politics. Far from building character and making populations more resilient, as the leaders of some of these countries constantly profess themselves to be doing, what we find is a highly confused culture that encourages a febrile response, both on the ground, and many thousands of miles away.

It is this that might prove to be the greatest problem for the wider Japanese population for quite some time to come.

First published on spiked, 24 March 2011