Someone Still Wants to Embrace the Atom

Sixteen months after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster there is still occasional media commentary that claims that the meltdowns, explosions and exposed spent fuel pools are of no consequence. As information trickled out over the first year, and the dreadful lies of TEPCO and government agencies were exposed, these editorials decreased in frequency, and almost disappeared altogether. It seemed as if the public relations strategy of the nuclear lobby changed as it realized it was fruitless to go on downplaying the severity of disaster. By late in 2011, everyone, both pro and anti-nuclear lobbies, were sufficiently terrified by the situation. The majority of nuclear engineers and health physicists, no matter how pro-nuclear they were, had to admit that there was nothing to gain in appearing to be blasé about the consequences of Fukushima.
But this week the trend was back with a vengeance in a guest editorial in The Japan Times. Michael Radcliffe, a lecturer at Yokohama City University, seems to have not got the memo that the pronuclear PR machine has moved on. I suspect that he will feel very lonely as rebuttals pour in because the pro-nuclear lobby will be content to let him twist in the wind with the ideas he has put forward. The Japanese government, the IAEA, and the American NRC have recently shown a lot more contrition and seriousness about the Fukushima disaster. Nonetheless, the downplayers and minimizers keep coming back once in a while like the undead. I’m not sure this zombie is even worth the effort of responding to, but I’ll take out my pitchfork and do battle with the advancing beast one more time.
The first problem is that Radcliffe chooses as his title How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the atom which is, of course, an allusion to the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. This is a badly chosen title because readers who are familiar with this film know that the title is ironic. The film is a satire of the nuclear arms race and it did much to inspire the anti-nuclear movement. Thus, adapting the same phrase for the title of an essay about nuclear power sets up the reader to expect an argument against it. Instead, we get a long list of spurious arguments in favor of nuclear power:
1. No one died because of the Fukushima Disaster
This is not exactly true because several hospital patients died in Futaba City due to the chaotic conditions of the evacuation. And there are more deaths if you count the suicides of evacuees.
But still, OK, casualties were very low. Let’s grant that. However, this is like saying it’s alright that your house burned down because everyone got out alive. People who make this oft-repeated point that “no one died” make no mention of the devastating impact of the loss of agricultural land, destruction of business enterprises, the evacuation of 100,000 people, and the psychological and physical toll on them. The callousness of this argument is no different than telling a rape victim that all is well if she didn’t catch a disease or get pregnant.
As part of this argument, Radcliffe compares the situation with the casualties from the Bhopal chemical spill. OK, but the point is irrelevant. It was a chemical accident, involving not even a competing form of energy production. If Bhopal had never happened, the discussion of nuclear safety would be no different.
2. Mainstream Science
Radcliffe suggests that we should pay attention only to reliable “mainstream science” such as the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), or listen only to select pro-nuclear health physicists like Wade Allison. Unfortunately, it is not possible to define the limits of “mainstream science” or find a consensus even among the most established experts in health physics. There are large non-governmental organizations such as Physicians for Global Survival and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and there is the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR)  which all come to widely different conclusions than the UN bodies that are staffed by and subservient to the global nuclear industry. Putting one’s faith in the optimistic “mainstream” science is as sensible as it was to listen, before 2008, to mainstream economists and financial regulators who failed to see the crash of the US housing market. This is an age to be very skeptical of mainstream wisdom in any field where large financial stakes are in play.
3. Previous nuclear disasters
Radcliffe goes along with the “mainstream” view of the effects of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. In the case of TMI he says, “there were no reported health effects from radiation at all, regardless of what you may have heard.” In other words, if you heard otherwise, you should ignore this information simply because it disagrees with sanctioned government research.
In the case of Chernobyl, he cites the UNSCEAR report that said impact was minimal. Yet the research by scientists at the ECRR finds the UNSCEAR results to be serious underestimations of the effects of the disaster.
All that can be reasonably said about this issue is that no one knows the full extent of the effects of low level radiation and internal radiation. Officially sanctioned research is doubtful because it disagrees with mountains of anecdotal evidence given by the victims (in books like Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment, by a Ukrainian journalist and politician who lived through the disaster and its aftermath). Their stories can never be verified by “mainstream” science because official bodies don’t want to fund research that might give undesirable results.
4. Internal and External Exposure
The danger of internal exposure to radionuclides has been known since the dawn of the atomic age, but it is astounding to note how often the topic is ignored by mainstream health physicists and radiation experts. Those who downplay the hazards consistently talk about only external exposure. They constantly assure the public that background levels are only slightly elevated in the disaster area, and they trot out the familiar tropes of their argument: If you’re worried about radiation, don’t eat bananas. Ramsar, Iran has been inhabited for centuries with higher background radiation than any place in post-disaster Fukushima. Your dental x-rays are more dangerous. Radon gas in your basement is more of a worry than Fukushima, and so on.
The fact is that the anti-nuke people are not concerned too much about external radiation. 100 mSv per year may not cause any harm, but what they are really worried about is internal exposure to fission products such as muscle-seeking Cesium 134 and 137, bone seeking Strontium 90, various isotopes of plutonium, and several other exotic radionuclides and chemicals from the Fukushima explosions that rarely get mentioned (Telerium 129, Manganese 54, Silver 110, Cobalt 60, Americium 241, Neptunium 237, Rhodium 102, Iodine 131, Krypton-85, 86, Xenon133, 134, 135, 136, stable and unstable uranium, tritium…). Some of these decayed away quickly after doing their damage, while there are others remaining in uncertain amounts around Fukushima and nearby regions. No one knows how much got and will get into people’s bodies, and what the effects will be. No one can claim any certainty about these dangers, and so no one can discount the anxieties of people who have to live with them.
I have read commentary by people who work in the nuclear industry, such as the US NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko, who still think nuclear is a necessary part of the solution to the energy crisis, but they are humbled by the Fukushima disaster, mindful of the harm it has caused, and respectful of the lives that have been damaged by it. This is sharp contrast to the strident, shameless voices that say “So what? No one died.” They ignore the dangers, blame the media for hyping bad news “because it sells,” and label victims and opponents as hysterical naysayers. One can respect people who have differing views about the future role of nuclear power, but it is hard to comprehend the heartlessness that has appeared in some of the commentary of the last year, especially when it comes from medical doctors.
5. Why evacuate or decontaminate if there is no risk?
A curious thing about the minimizers is that they avoid saying too loudly that the government was wrong to declare an exclusion zone and attempt decontamination. The official line is that these are necessary public safety measures, but if radiation were as safe as they claim it is, these measures would be unnecessary. Radcliffe says, “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.” Radcliffe is suggesting here that the government was over-cautious and should have done nothing at all in the aftermath of the disaster. All efforts at decontamination and evacuation were a colossal waste of money done only for show and political compromise, according to this view. Radcliffe can say it, but those in official positions cannot: all measures to mitigate a nuclear disaster – evacuation, decontamination, food monitoring – serve no practical purpose but are necessary for political expediency. They appease the public, save the industry’s image, and allow it to carry on after the situation gets “remediated.”
6. Food monitoring
Just as Radcliffe suggests that decontamination and the exclusion zone were unnecessary, he says the public obsession with food monitoring has been a needless concern. He states about the contaminated beef “scare” that a soothing authority on NHK news assured the nation 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.” Radcliffe suggests that this fact is reason to say that the public reaction to the beef “scare” was unwarranted. However, he fails to see the justifiable reason for the public outrage. People were not worried that they were going to die from this one case of exposure. They were correct to be hyper-vigilant of the government’s food inspection program. The best way to pressure the government into setting up an effective, systemic approach to food monitoring was to be outraged at every lapse, whether or not it had real consequences.
7. “Massive amounts of CO2 released unnecessarily”
Finally, Radcliffe states that the sudden shutdown of nuclear power plants created an unnecessary reliance on fossil fuels that set back Japan’s trade balance and greenhouse gas emission targets. By saying this, he implies that there was an alternative, that nuclear power plants could have been kept open. However, everyone except Radcliffe, even the nation’s pro-nuclear lobby, seems to have understood that there was no alternative. Several nuclear power plants had been shut down before March 2011 because of scandals, earthquake damage, and breakdowns. Others were down for scheduled maintenance, or scheduled to go down later during 2011 and 2012. The remainder had to be shut down for rigorous safety inspections because Japan could not risk suffering another blow like Fukushima Daiichi. All of the seismic risks had to be reassessed, and power plants had to be put through more rigorous stress tests. Another meltdown would be a fatal blow to the country.
8. Not mentioned
At the end of the essay Radcliffe declares that the media and the anti-nuclear lobby were not sufficiently relieved when cold shutdown was declared. Instead, they were almost angry, as if asking, “How dare the crisis be over?” Media elements are “absurdly and tragically invested in the continuation of the crisis.” It is odd that Radcliffe does not discuss the actual content of the media reports where one can find the reasons for disagreeing that the crisis has been resolved. The destroyed reactors are still spilling massive amounts of radiation, no one knows where the melted cores are, or how they will be removed or sealed off from the environment. The damaged spent fuel pools in reactor buildings 3 and 4 contain massive amounts of radionuclides which cannot be removed to safe confinements. If they collapse in another earthquake, the whole site will be too radioactive for any human to work at. At best, the crisis will take 40 years to resolve and, like Chernobyl, be a contaminated no-man’s land for centuries. These are the facts of the situation which are uncontroversial at this point. It is difficult to comprehend why essays such as this one appear now when the frightening extent of the disaster is well understood.
9. Fossil fuels
Radcliffe laments that Japan has gone into a trade deficit because of the need to import fossil fuels. It is not at all clear why we should risk destruction of the country by another nuclear disaster just to pursue an economic goal, but the trade deficit argument may be spurious for other reasons. Some of the trade deficit was from firms moving sourcing and production overseas in the wake of the tsunami. Some of it might have happened anyway. In any case, nuclear energy is not cheaper just because uranium is less costly than fossil fuel per unit of energy produced. All of nuclear energy’s costs need to be accounted for. These include decommissioning of dozens of aging reactors, building future reactors, buying insurance for the associated risks, finding a long-term storage solution for spent fuel, as well as the aforementioned forty-year cleanup of Fukushima Daiichi. Finally, we cannot forget the opportunity costs of alternative energies not adequately developed and conservation programs not pursued.
10. Fossil fuel health effects
The only thing that Radcliffe gets right is in the point made about the anti-nuclear movement’s tendency to ignore the damage caused by fossil fuels, but he is wrong to suggest that the solution for solving one evil is to go with something that appears to be a lesser evil. An addict who switches from heroin to crystal meth really hasn’t solved his underlying problem. Anti-nuclear activists and global warming activists need to merge into a wider engagement with the energy crisis. These issues are part of the bigger problem which is the end of the global system based on economic growth and consumption. It is senseless to keep bickering about whether cesium or particulate smog is worse for us. As George Carlin said, we don’t have to save the planet. The planet is fine. It is indifferent to our existence and is not obliged to provide us with a solution to our perceived energy needs.
I end on this point by tipping off readers to the brilliant speech by Paul Gilding at the 2012 TED Conference. His talk called The Earth is Full left the crowd of wealthy techno-optimists speechless and twisting uncomfortably in their chairs. Give him seventeen minutes of your time.

Further reading: 
The Japan Times - Letters published in response to the editorial


  1. Thank you for this wonderful rebuttal to Michael Radcliffe's essay.

    We live up in Ibaraki, and I am totally behind your Nuclear Free by 2045 idea.

    It can't happen soon enough.

    Eric in Ibaraki

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for your comments regarding my article! I hope that I challenged your thinking, if only a little. Personally, I hope that one day you will change your blog title to 'All nuclear by 2045'.

    I've got a couple of points to make if you bear with me.
    1. No one died at Fukushima. This remains completely correct. I do wonder what would satisfy anti-nuke activists regarding nuclear safety- unfortunately at this stage zero deaths or injuries is all that can be achieved. The other things- deaths caused by evacuation, the psychological toll, loss of farmland etc...all those things were caused by Fear of radiation, which is a very different beast to radiation indeed, which in fact was one of the points I was trying to make.
    2. The WHO and UNSCEAR remain the scientific consensus on radiation. it would be better if you recognise this; the science also sees little difference between internal and external exposure; certainly at Fukushima it is not an issue.
    3. The ECRR is hardly a reputable or rigorous organization. It's a political creation and you can see some of the criticism it has garnered on wikipedia.
    4. I'm not sure exactly what point you are making at number 5, but I can tell you straight out that the evacuation and 'decontamination' were and are completely unnecessary, just an expensive and mostly futile effort to appease the fearmongers. Indeed this is well-known by the government and its scientific and economic advisers.
    5. Wow: Readers of point 6 may conclude that outrage is more important that real consequences.
    6. Nuclear power plants should not have been shut down. Shutting down plants over the country unnecessarily constitutes an extraordinary crime against the environment, and indeed, against humanity.
    7. All your 'not mentioned' stuff is quite wrong, but the phrase 'no man's land for centuries' is particularly offensive, as the whole of Fukushima is completely safe for human habitation, and indeed measurably and indubitably safer than large cities such as Tokyo.

    By the way, I didn't choose the title of the piece, the editors did; I'm rather ambivalent about it myself.

  3. http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2012/10/cointelpro-techniques-for-dilution-misdirection-and-control-of-an-internet-forum.html