Armchair nuclear experts sprouting…

It’s been only a week since the onset of the Fukushima nuclear accident, and we all know too well by now that bits of information and rumours are circulating like crazy.

I look around and find nothing but confusion and anxious speculations. I don’t know the truth in the matter, and I’m quite sure not many people do. There seems to be quite a lot of armchair experts suddenly sprouting and making assertions, warning us of the danger we are faced with as if we were oblivioius to it. No, we are not unaware of the danger, but simply confused about who to believe. There is very little about the sources of information conveyed in such warnings, and many claims seem to contain elements of errors based on unfounded judgements.

Take this article on Japan Business Press, for instance, its title reads “Fukushima Nuclear Plant: radiation levels far higher than official media reports – self-sacrifycing SDF; are the State Leaders aware of the seriousness of the matter?” written by Gentaro Fujii. (The title already suggests there is something fishy about what the Japanese government is telling us, and I have no idea who this author is, or with what qualification he has to make such a claim.)

The article begins by addressing the Japanese nation “I would like to warn the Japanese public of the grave danger we are faced with…”

As you read the article (written in Japanese), you may have an impression that this article must be pretty credible, given the style, references to legal stuff, and some histories relating to establishment of laws regarding SDF deployment in nuclear emergency situations.

And here’s the crucial part: He claims, under the sub-heading “radiation more than officially claimed by the government and TEPCO” that the amount of radiation in the vicinity of reactors is no doubt greater than has been officially claimed by the government and TEPCO.

His conclusion is, however, based on his misinformed judgement about the recent news relating to the government’s decision to raise the legal limit of radiation exposure for nuclear plant workers from 100  to 250 milisieverts. The author thought from his calculation that the difference of 150 milisieverts indicated more than 1 sievert radiation level present on the site. This article had two comments, one of which pointed out his error. It seems that the author applied high-school mathematics to understnad the nuclear physics. Or he just wanted to blame the government using a wrong kind of argument.

I noticed that wikipedia has created an entry dedicated to Fukushima Nuclear Plant Accident, and its reference column include an article wirtten by Josef Oehmen of MIT. The article is revised by nuclear scientists and engineers of MIT, which is now accessible on the internet. It had a lead-in paragraph, which is now omitted. I just liked the sound of this Mr “Barry Brook” so I quote it here:

I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. And this text is long! But you will know more about nuclear power plants after reading it than all journalists on this planet put together.

There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.

By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.”

Some people believe that at least 5 people died in the accident. Where’s the source? I ran internet search both in Japanese and English, and I cannot locate a credible source for this information. Still, many non-Japanese friends heard it and believe it to be true. I think we are hearing things due to our fear of radiation contamination and death, and the big media exacerbate it. I am content with the fact that we don’t know the truth…

About Dr Kats

a working sociologist/linguist/translator based in Kobe, Japan
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