Talkin’ John Birch Fukushima Paranoid Blues

If The John Birch Society is familiar to anyone in 2014, it is probably known only among people who lived through 1940s to 1960s who recall it as the voice of radical conservatism during the Cold War. Among liberal baby boomers it became an object of ridicule and derision for its support of the McCarthy witch hunts and paranoia about the communist threat. Bob Dylan satirized it famously in Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues. In 1963, he was set to perform it on The Ed Sullivan Show, but an executive of CBS-TV forbade it at the last minute, so Dylan walked out and never appeared on the show. Columbia records also chose not to include it on studio albums, and so it was known only through live performances until it appeared in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.
The delay in releasing the song goes to show how The John Birch Society, and the interest in even mocking it, had faded. It also shows that US laws had changed to permit satire (Dylan should perhaps be glad that CBS saved him from being sued). Nonetheless, the society still exists, performing its traditional role in the era of Fox News and paranoid opposition to the perceived “progressive” agenda. However, The John Birch Society now seems to be aware of its brand image problem – its historical association with black-and-white newsreels of Cold War inquisitors persecuting and prosecuting American heroes like Pete Seeger at The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Nowadays, The John Birch Society publishes journals like The New American and buries the name of the society and its ownership of the journal deep within the About section of the website.
If you ever suspected that the promotion of nuclear energy is associated with this brand of radical conservatism, The New American is a source that answers this question. A recent editorial by Rebecca Terrell called Fukushima: Fear and Fallout illustrates how certain strains of conservative ideology are natural fellow travelers with the nuclear industry. The essay also stands as an example of a badly and willfully uninformed journalist writing on a topic that she hasn’t made much effort to learn about.
The arguments Terrell present display a lack of knowledge of the issues, as well as what must be deliberate omissions and distortions. Along the way, she makes breathtaking departures from logic and reality by suggesting that irrational fears of radiation have led to crimes against the unborn, thereby linking anti-nuclear people to being members of the right’s detested anti-pro-life camp. She goes further by accusing anti-nuclear groups and greens of being all-powerful masters of government bureaucracy, now leading a war on industrial society that threatens to “restrict access to clean, plentiful, safe, and affordable sources [of energy] such as nuclear.”
Some might say that there is no point in dignifying editorials like this with a response because they seem designed to bait and infuriate people who are knowledgeable on the issue. Countering this genre of denialism is a game of whack-a-mole, but it’s worth doing because it does influence public opinion, and it is not limited only to the extreme fringe. Highly esteemed scholars like Steven Pinker, who coyly stays out of political debates to avoid declaring his ideological leanings, supports nuclear power. He wrote in The Better Angels of our Nature that the shutdown of nuclear power construction after Three Mile Island was a tragic error and an irrational over-reaction, even though he showed no evidence that he had read up on the matter. As for people who are new to the issue, they may want to believe there is a magic cure to the energy crisis, so there are many who will not question these views unless they are challenged whenever they appear. So, for what it’s worth, I take a stab at it once again.
The only good thing to say about this editorial is that it is comprehensive. For anyone unfamiliar with this genre of pro-nuclear spin, this is the place to see it all. Below, I comment on all the points made and make a brief counter-argument to each one. I don’t go into any of them at length because fuller explanations have been made elsewhere, so there is no point in rehashing what can be easily found in numerous sources. This information can be easily accessed by anyone who is motivated to learn about the valid criticisms of nuclear energy written by experts who have worked long and hard on this issue.

1.     No one died at Fukushima.

Well, actually, they did. Several senior citizens got left behind in the evacuation and apparently starved to death in the abandoned hot zone. Other evacuees died from the stress or committed suicide. Aside from these, it is a certainty that lives of workers on the cleanup site will be shortened due to their radiation exposure.
The main point about the “no one died” argument is that no one died because everyone stayed away from the lethal levels of radiation that have been on the site since March 11, 2011. The ruins of the World Trade Center were cleaned up within a couple years, but Fukushima Daiichi is still a steaming, twisted wreck, and will be for decades, because of the lethal levels of radiation there.

2.  The Fukushima explosions were hydrogen explosions

Terrell describes the reactor building explosions as hydrogen explosions, but this statement demonstrates that she hasn’t been closely following the controversial questions that linger about what really happened. Everyone who is familiar with Fukushima Daiichi knows that the Unit 1 explosion produced white smoke and the Unit 3 explosion produced black smoke in a much more powerful burst. A large volume of black debris shot high into the sky in a mushroom cloud, while the Unit 1 explosion shot outward and was not so alarming. Unit 3 was known to contain MOX fuel (containing plutonium), and TEPCO is rather coy about discussing whether it involved a nuclear re-criticality, as many have speculated. The nuclear industry is loath to talk about this because it would diminish even further the public acceptance of nuclear energy. Terrell chose not to discuss the fact that large amounts of plutonium were dispersed into the atmosphere, nor did she mention the questions about what happened to Unit 3.

3. Pulling the plug on nuclear

Terrell writes, “Not only did Japan pull the nuclear plug, but Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium all nixed nuclear or canceled future plants in response to the Japanese accident.” Again this shows that she hasn’t bothered to look at the issue in depth or follow recent news. Much of her essay seems to be based on information and perceptions of the crisis that existed in 2011. The Japanese government that was in power in 2012 briefly floated a policy of withdrawing from nuclear over twenty years, but the bureaucratic and business establishment was outraged, and that government was soon gone. The new government led by Shinzo Abe is determined to restart nuclear reactors. As for the other countries in Europe, their decision to abandon nuclear was influenced by other factors besides Fukushima.

4. Citing UN health studies as the final word on Chernobyl

Extreme conservatives like to state that the UN is run by socialist radicals who want to undermine American freedom and take over with a world government, but when it’s convenient and a UN study says something they like, they cite it to support their argument. This is the case with nuclear energy. The horrific shortcomings of the UN studies on Chernobyl have been discussed at length for years. There is no point in rehashing them all here.
In discussing Three Mile Island, Terrell misses the contradiction in what she wrote toward the end of the essay. She contends that the “antinuclear movement has become part of the political establishment” and a “fearful public cowers to… bureaucratic bullying,” but before saying so writes that government studies showed no one was harmed by Three Miles Island. At her convenience, the government is either on her side or it is has been taken over by the enemies of freedom.

5. No strontium or plutonium from Fukushima, reactor vessels intact

Another sign that Terrell didn’t do her research is in the wild claim that strontium and plutonium were not released from the Fukushima meltdowns and that the reactor vessels are intact. Nothing to say here but that these statements are wrong.

6. Tritium

Terrell makes brief mention of the vast amounts of tritium that have been created by the Fukushima Daiichi accident, but then dismisses it as a radionuclide of little concern in terms of its environmental impact.
If one attempts to learn a little about this radionuclide, one can only conclude that it is harmless at the very low concentrations at which it was found in nature before the nuclear age. Little is known about the damage it has caused in real world situations that involve leaks from nuclear facilities because the people responsible for these leaks don’t want to know. From work in the lab, though, scientists know that fractions of a gram in the human body can be deadly, and, with a half-life of twelve years, it bio-accumulates as OBT, (organically bound tritium), a radioactive isotope of a hydrogen atom that can be a part of the many organic molecules containing hydrogen. Tritium is nothing to dismiss casually.

7. Downplaying the health effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Terrell’s worst distortions appear in her discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She cites studies that found that survivors had lower cancer rates than people from other areas, and she concludes from this that this is evidence of the beneficial effect of a little zap of radiation – the hormesis effect. This almost seems to suggest that they should be grateful those bombs were dropped.
Terrell overlooks the fact that the IAEA, the UN, national regulators and the nuclear industry reject the hormesis theory and support the linear-no-threshold model of radiation safety, which states that risk increases linearly with dose and it should be minimized at all times. Many professionals within the industry may privately believe there is something to the hormesis theory, but it will never be adopted as policy for good reasons. One is that it is probably wrong, and the other is that it would encourage a cavalier attitude about radiation exposure.
Terrell’s interpretation of what happened after the atomic bombings in Japan is erroneous for several reasons. First, the radiation studies couldn’t include victims of radiation who died in the blasts. Second, the studies never considered the effects of internal contamination by beta and alpha particles, which affected not only the people who were present at the time of the blast but also those who entered the cities afterwards. The studies that form the basis of the Hiroshima model ignored such people. Finally, the apparent good health of people in the studies may indicate that they were the sturdy survivors. It is no surprise to anyone that many people escape harm after radiation exposure. The case against the nuclear industry is based on the belief that the minority who will suffer should be protected. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many people had perished in the first two years before studies even began.
The Hiroshima model of radiation studies has been widely rejected by anti-nuclear groups for good reason because of these and other flaws. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unique incidents of radiological contamination, and it is wrong to apply the model to other phenomena such as nuclear power station accidents or nuclear test sites where people live with nuclear fallout for many decades in different climactic conditions (such as at the Lop Nor site in Western China which receives rainfall to wash away fallout from Chinese weapons tests).
At one point Terrell compares hormesis to the use of pharmaceuticals, saying it all depends on the dose-response curve. We take aspirin for headaches, but avoid taking a lethal dose of it. The trouble with this analogy is that it doesn’t go very far. All drugs are designed to do their work then break down and leave the body. Radionuclides like plutonium and strontium 90 stay in the body and emit cancer-causing particles for many years. The ones which are administered for therapeutic effects must be ones with short nuclear and biological half-lives. When talking about things nuclear, it is best to avoid analogies because there is nothing else quite like radiation.

8. Radiation sickness strikes US Navy personnel

Another glaring omission in the essay is that there was no mention of the hundreds of personnel on the US Ronald Reagan who have suffered severe radiation-related ailments since being stationed offshore of Fukushima in March 2011. Their lawsuit against TEPCO has been featured on Fox News and various media outlets on the Internet. For anyone following Fukushima news, it has been pretty hard to avoid learning about it. The omission is more odd when one considers that it is conservative groups that are always quick to stand up for the troops who put their lives on the line defending freedom. In this case, however, it seems conservatives can ignore the suffering of the people in uniform, if it proves to be inconvenient for other aspects of their agenda.

9. Thyroid cancer in Fukushima

Another glaring omission was the non-mention of the spike in childhood thyroid cancer that appeared last year in Fukushima Prefecture. Although the officials overseeing the screening program said it was too early to see a spike in cases, it turned out that back in the 1990s these people were writing in their studies of Chernobyl that the first cases did appear after two years, not four as they now claim (see this blogpost for further discussion).

10. Nuclear waste

The final omission is the most obvious one: What to do with nuclear waste? Who wants it? Where can it be buried safely for thousands of years? What containers will hold it reliably for even a hundred years? How much is it going to cost? Even if the nuclear industry could operate without further catastrophic meltdowns, these unresolvable questions are enough to demand a halt to the generation of more waste.

11. Leaps of Logic

Toward the end of the essay, Terrell descends into some jaw-dropping hyperbole that connects the anti-nuclear movement to being pro-abortion, anti-freedom and anti-American. She chooses to dwell on the worst exaggerations about Fukushima, failing to notice that the anti-nuclear movement itself has distanced itself from the more extreme conspiracies and dark prophecies about the catastrophe. Then she writes that the anti-nuclear movement is:

... peopled with radical environmentalists using clean air and clean water only as a bait to mobilize the gullible in their campaign to stifle economic growth and control population… The attack on nuclear energy is part of a larger war on industrial society… the manipulated public is willing to sacrifice liberty for a false sense of security — a harbinger of tyranny. In order for liberty to prevail, so must reason.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of nuclear technology would decry instead the liberty that has been stolen for nuclear technology to be established. Freedom has been sacrificed for all aspects of the technology − uranium mining, fuel processing, weapons production and testing, and nuclear waste generating stations (also called power plants) in both their normal functioning and in their accidents. Nuclear technology has been a hazard imposed on local populations wherever it has been implemented. If the continuation of nuclear technology is the pursuit of freedom, it is only the freedom of the powerful to impose their will on the powerless.

12. Demonizing the Victims

The section of the essay I find the most egregiously insulting is in the discussion of “Chernobyl abortions.” Terrell accepted only the UN findings on the health impacts of the disaster, and completely ignored eye-witness accounts, historical documents, and medical studies that had vastly higher estimates of the health damage caused by Chernobyl. However, she was willing to concede one point because it props up the anti-abortion movement, the favorite lightning rod issue of the conservative agenda. So she writes:

Sadly, however, thousands did die in the wake of Chernobyl. According to the IAEA, overdramatized reports of radiation risks to unborn children led to an increase of between 100,000 and 200,000 European babies intentionally aborted by their mothers, who feared they might be carrying “nuclear monsters.” Jaworowski said Chernobyl “sheds light on how easily the global community may leave the realm of rationality when facing an imaginary emergency.”

That “imaginary emergency” involved, of course, the explosion of a nuclear reactor, high levels of nuclear fallout over Europe, and a massive evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. Terrell herself, in preceding paragraphs, emphasized how dirty and dangerous the reactor was when she wanted to say how much better the American-built reactors at Fukushima were. You see, those nasty Russians were using it as a bomb factory, she suggests, as if to imply that no such factories ever existed in America.
In fact, after Chernobyl, thousands of people had miscarriages, newborns died, and others were born with serious mental and physical handicaps. Some estimates say that in spite of the abortions and miscarriages that occurred, 300,000 children (and I emphasize that they were children, not “nuclear monsters”) were later born with serious disabilities caused by the disaster. Regardless of what one thinks of abortion in normal circumstances, it is just appallingly cold and cruel to judge the actions of parents in this situation as irrational or immoral. The concerns about radiation exposure were real and rational. The fact that “sadly, thousands did die” is squarely the responsibility of the people who built Chernobyl, not of the people victimized by it and forced to make the horrible decision about whether to continue a pregnancy.
The 1991 movie Chernobyl: The Final Warning, tells the true story of Dr. Robert Gale, an American blood specialist, who rushed to Moscow to help with the treatment of firemen who had been the first responders at Chernobyl. He does his best to save Aleksandr Mashenko, and has a few heart-wrenching scenes with his soon-to-be widow, Yelena, who is also in the first trimester of pregnancy at the time. For some reason that the film never explores, she is allowed to spend much time with her dying, highly radioactive husband.
At the end of the film, she comes to Dr. Gale begging for advice. The communist health authorities in Kiev have advised her to have an abortion because the chance of her having a child with a severe birth defect has increased by 50%. Dr. Gale encourages her to go through with the pregnancy while respectfully acknowledging that the decision is hers alone to make and that scientists don’t know what the effects of Chernobyl will be. He gives her the scientist’s usual condescending explanation of basic statistics, reminding her that the increase in the rate of birth defects means a change from 1 to 1.5 per thousand.
The movie ends here, and it’s not clear whether the Mashenkos were a real couple. It seems like they were composite characters whom the filmmakers had to create, either out of respect for the victims or their unwillingness to be featured in the film. Alexandr’s name does not appear on the list of Chernobyl fatalities that is posted on various websites. Yelena’s story matches closely with the account told by another firefighter widow whose husband died in the same Moscow Hospital Six. Lyudmilla Ignatenko was pregnant at the time and admitted having hidden this information in order to be at her husband’s side. This is how she described the birth of her daughter months afterward:

They showed her to me − a girl. “Natashenka,” I called out. “Your father named you Natashenka.” She looked healthy. Arms, legs. But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had twenty-eight roentgens. Congenital heart disease. Four hours later they told me she was dead. And again: “We won’t give her to you.” “What do you mean you won’t give her to me? It’s me who won’t give her to you!”

So much for probabilities. Dr. Gale appeared in Fukushima in 2011 to give similar reassurances to the workers on the Daiichi site. In 2013 he published Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know, which the publisher’s blurb describes as a book that “corrects myths and establishes facts.” The authors “demystify the science and dangers of radiation, and examine its myriad benefits.”

Sources and Further Reading:

Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko. “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.” New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 1181, December 2009.

Alla Yaroshinskaya. Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment. Transaction Publishers, 2011. (Reviewed here.)

Robert Jacobs. “Radiation Makes People Invisible.” SimplyInfo. January 30, 2014. http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=12245 .

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking Adult, 2011) p. 346.

Svetlana Alexievich. Voices from Chernobyl, trans. Keith Gessen (Picador, 2006). First published in Russian in 1997.

A previous blog post containing a list of studies that indicate radioactive contamination has clearly had a negative impact on health. This list is partial, and any motivated and inquiring mind could easily find other researchers whose work presents a refutation of the claims made in editorials such as Fukushima Fear and Fallout.

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