Thursday, January 16, 2014

36 (Alleged) Signs the Media Is Lying to You about How Radiation from Fukushima Is Affecting the West Coast—and why I’m Not Concerned.

This is quite a departure for this blog. But as someone who works with radiation I've been asked about this by a few friends, soI spent a bit of my free time putting this together. And I don't have a better forum for posting it. So enjoy (or ignore, if you come here to read about movies.)

This is in response to this article I’ve been seeing popping up on my Facebook page recently:

Author Michael Snyder has compiled an impressive list of scary headlines about Fukushima. And social media has done a great job of passing it around.

Now some background information about me. I’ve been working with radiation (as an engineer for medical device companies) for the past 13 years. I do not believe that makes me an expert in nuclear power plants or safe exposure levels. But it does inform my attitude towards radiation (in small doses)—respect, but don’t fear. I know, for example that if I stand next to a 1 mCi (37 MBq) gamma-emitting source for a few minutes, that will…do nothing to me. So when I see paranoiacs hyperventilating over 1000 Bq (0.001 MBq) per cubic meter of seawater, I don’t worry about it. I’d swim in that water. If it wasn’t so damn salty, I’d drink it (no coincidence, 1000 Bq/cubic meter is lower than the EPA limit for safe drinking water.) A lot of this comes down to detectable levels vs. dangerous levels of radiation (i.e., similar to chemical toxicity, the dose makes the poison.) That’s a huge, important distinction.

Given that, I will stipulate that the rule with radiation is ALARA—As Low As Reasonably Achievable. Despite some theories that micro-levels of radiation might actually be beneficial (and of course, there are medical applications of radiation) the rule is that you want to have as little radiation exposure as possible. In that context, it would obviously be better if Fukushima had never happened. The question isn’t whether Fukushima released any radiation, it’s whether the extra radiation is tiny enough to ignore or if (as the opening line of the linked article states) we’re “being absolutely fried” with Fukushima radiation.
I will reiterate that I don’t consider myself an expert. I think my background and critical thinking skills give me tools to ask pointed questions of each of the 36 points in the article, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I can answer them (although many times it will look like I do.) So think of this more as an exercise in thinking critically about what you read (a skill equally applicable to articles downplaying the dangers from Fukushima) than a thorough debunking of the linked article.
  1. “Independent researchers have measured alarmingly high levels of radiation…” this shows a video of a man walking along Pacifica State Beach and showing his radiation detector sounding an alarm when he approaches the ocean. I guess it’s literally true that it’s an “alarmingly high” level, but perhaps that’s because he set his alarm too low? They breathlessly announce that “radiation levels near the water are up to five times higher than normal background radiation” but provide no context. Background levels are typically low. Is five times background still low, or is it dangerously high? Remember the difference between detectable and dangerous. Or to put it another way, if the ocean levels are dangerous and the background levels are only one-fifth of that, wouldn’t the normal background levels also be dangerously high? I don’t know the specs on his detector, so I don’t know how sensitive it is, so I don’t actually know if either the ocean or the background registers dangerous levels. I do know that when I watched it I was thinking ‘100 counts per second, that’s practically nothing.’ Then I saw elsewhere where they were claiming it was counts per minute, not counts per second (I can’t tell in the video) so that’s practically nothing divided by sixty.
There are also measurements confirming the spike in radiation but identifying the cause as naturally occurring.
  1. “…the total amount of cesium-137 that has been released into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than the amount released into the oceans by the Chernobyl disaster…” Snyder links to an article that blatantly contradicts this. The article shows dangerous levels right next to the power plant immediately after the disaster. Then describes how once a major leak was plugged it dropped dramatically (to 1,000 Bq per cubic meter, according to the EPA, below the safe level for drinking water) but expressed concerns that it wasn’t dropping further, indicating there were other, smaller leaks. The article was from Spring of 2013, so I don’t know about further progress along these lines…but I’m getting off topic. The claim was 10,000 to 100,000 times more Cs-137 released in Fukushima than in Chernobyl. Scan to the end of the article and you find this: “…a total cesium-137 release of between 15 and 30 petabequerels (1015 Bq). In comparative terms, he said, this is slightly more than the amount put into the sea by Chernobyl—although the total environmental release from that accident, at 85 PBq, was much higher.” I have no idea how that equates to 10,000 to 100,000 times greater.
  2. This boils down to noting that there’s another (high profile, if you consider being on MSNBC high profile) person who is also paranoid about this—Cenk Uygur. Nothing about his qualifications to evaluate the dangers, just that someone else is afraid. Colleagues reminded him that the “official government position is that it’s safe” which is supposed to be damning evidence of a cover-up, and not the fact that the official government position was that it’s safe. As for the specter of lying to avoid a panic—Cenk was the one who brought it up (at least in the excerpted text.)
  3. The 71 sailors of the USS Ronald Reagan. I have massive sympathy for them and wish them as great a chance at recovery as possible (along with winning their lawsuit against TEPCO.) They were at Fukushima, assisting in the cleanup in the immediate aftermath. But that’s a long way from being on the west coast of America almost 3 years later.
  4. Starfish wasting disease. Fukushima radiation is one hypothesis, but far from proven (far from even the leading theory.) By the way, there’s a similar (smaller and isolated) outbreak on the Atlantic coast, too. So are they getting “absolutely fried” too?
  5. Bald eagle deaths. Again, radiation is one theory but not the leading theory, as they “aren’t ruling out anything.”
  6. Dead birds in Alaska (actually to quote Snyder “dead birds are dropping dead”) Okay, now the article stops linking to external sources and links to another breathless story from Snyder’s website. Following the links again to the original source we get a radio program that identifies the unseasonably warm autumn as the most likely culprit. Fukushima or radiation is never even mentioned.
  7. Dead birds in Oregon. The headline of the linked article again points to weather. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be “absolutely baffling scientists” as Snyder claims. Again, there is no mention of Fukushima or radiation.
  8. Seals and walruses in Alaska are losing their hair and developing oozing sores. At least the linked article for this one uses the word “radiation” once—in context of many hypotheses. Radiation and viruses have been studied, and “no tests have linked these origins to the illness.” Other theories include harmful algae blooms, thermal burns, allergy, hormone or nutritional problems. But clearly it must be the radiation.
  9. Polar bears in Alaska are suffering from fur loss and open sores. It kinda sucks to be an animal in Alaska right now, doesn’t it? The linked article at least mentions both radiation and Fukushima, in this quote: “Reuters noted that preliminary studies do not support a theory that the disease is due to contamination from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.”
  10. Sea lion deaths in California. The linked article…is really difficult to read. No flow to the writing at all, it’s just a series of statements, separated by trios of asterisks, amounting to the longest run-on paragraph I’ve seen in a long time. It’s also pocked by several hyperlinks, many of which are broken. Analyzing the claims and sources in this article alone would be as big of a task as what I’m doing for Snyder’s article, but about 50 times more annoying. So instead (and I apologize for this, I googled “sea lion deaths in California” and saw what I could see. And I saw…well, a lot sites similar to Snyder’s making unsubstantiated claims (or at best “asking questions”) that radiation was to blame. I found NOAA’s official site on it (not a lot of information, but the FAQ does include that they plan to test for radiation…that was a year ago.) And a number of mainstream news sites that include mentions of radiation in the context of not-ruling-anything-out but not as the likeliest cause. What was interesting is that there does look to be widespread agreement that the sea lions are undernourished. That is, the primary cause is starvation (including the pups being left to fend for themselves while the mother looks for farther away.) If that’s the case, then the question is what is disrupting their food chain, and that might point back to radiation (anchovies being killed off by Fukushima radiation is one theory here, I haven’t looked at how likely that is) but it’s important to make the distinction between this and deaths from radiation exposure—either from the contaminated water or from eating contaminated food.
  11. Sockeye salmon on the Alaskan coast are at a historic low. Neither radiation nor Fukushima is mentioned in the linked article. In fact, the article is about native British Columbians who rely on subsistence fishing, and blame commercial fishing (having lived in Alaska for some time, I know this is a constant issue there.) “Conservation groups have sounded the alarm, saying Alaskan commercial fishermen are contributing to the problem as Skeena River sockeye get caught in the nets of Americans fishing for pink and chum sockeye.”
  12. Pacific herring are bleeding from the gills, bellies, and eyeballs. Neither radiation nor Fukushima is mentioned in the linked article. “Dr. Gary Marty, fish pathologist with the animal health centre for the B.C. Ministry of Environment, said VHSV [viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus] and a second disease, viral erythrocytic necrosis, or VEN, are the two most likely suspects.”
  13. Cs-137 in mushrooms and berries. Oh, excuse me, “Dangerous levels” (according to Snyder) in mushrooms and berries. The linked article didn’t mention the level (or even if it was dangerous), only that some has been found. Googling revealed a UC Berkeley report. The highest levels of radionuclides were actually I-131. But I-131 has a half-life of 8 days, so there’s no way that came from Fukushima. Worst case reading was in the topsoil at 12.5 Bq/kg of I-131. Worst case for Cs-137 was 6.9 Bq/kg in grass. Worst case for an actual food product was mushrooms at 8.4 Bq/kg of I-131. Worst case food product for Cs-137 was 0.67 Bq/kg in strawberries. The FDA sets the level of concern at 55 Bq/kg of I-131…for infants. So the “dangerous levels” are well below the FDA limits for infant food. Remember the distinction between detectable and dangerous.
  14. Pacific Bluefin tuna have transported radioactive material across the entire North Pacific Ocean. It’s an “absolutely shocking report!” Actually, given a 2 year half-life for Cs-134 and a 30 year half-life for Cs-137, it would be shocking if fish that cross the Pacific from Japan don’t carry it with them all the way. To put it another way, there’s detectable levels of radiation in Bluefin tuna, but it isn’t harming them enough to keep them from crossing the ocean. Sure enough, looking at the measurements in the linked paper, we see about 4 Bq/kg of Cs-134, about 6 Bq/kg of Cs-137, and…holy shit, 367 Bq/kg of K-40!? That’s the real story, Fukushima released massive amounts of K-40…oh, wait, K-40 is naturally occurring and was found in pre-Fukushima tuna. So…the story here is that there’s measureable amounts of radioactive Cesium in Bluefin tuna, but it’s orders of magnitude lower than naturally occurring radioactive isotopes. Detectable, but not dangerous.
  15. Killer whales are dying off the coast of British Columbia. Once again, the linked article says nothing about radiation or Fukushima. I’m getting kinda tired of this crap. Are we going to blame every animal death on Fukushima?
  16. High levels of Cs-137 in plankton. Excuse me “very high levels.” But the linked article shows they instead measured Cs-134 (a minor point, but Cs-134 has a half-life of 2 years, Cs-137 is 30 years, so Cs-137 is a bigger long-term concern.) The highest level was “8.2 to 10.5 becquerels per kilogram.” Remember the difference between dangerous and detectable, remember the limit that the FDA places on baby food (55 Bq/kg,) and ask if 10.5 Bq/kg is dangerous.
  17. All (15 out of 15) Bluefin tuna tested in California contaminated with radiation. “…all contained reactor byproducts cesium-134 and cesium-137 at levels that produced radiation about 3% higher than natural background sources.” I stopped reading there. 3% above background might as well be background.
  18. Practically all the fish tested in Japan and shipped to Canada had Cs-137. And the linked article says it was at low levels, well below the levels of concern Canada has set. Japan set a level of 100 Bq/kg in their fish (remember, the Bluefin tuna in the previous point exceeded that limit with naturally occurring K-40 before Fukushima, so I’m inclined to think Japan is being extra cautious here) but Canada has a level ten times that, at 1,000 Bq/kg. This is for fish caught in Japan and exported to Canada, and the article describes how Japan is actually being very aggressive and comprehensive in testing their fish. As for fish actually caught in the Pacific coast of Canada, “In August [2011], CFIA also tested a dozen samples of fish caught in B.C. coastal and inland waters. None of those tests found any radiation.” Of course, that was just 5 months after Fukushima, so perhaps the radiation hadn’t reached Canada yet. My favorite quote in the article: "Is it something we need to be terrified of? No. Is it something we need to monitor? Yes.”
  19. Up to 210 quadrillion becquerels of Cs-137 released into the atmosphere, according to an EU study. Well, 210 quadrillion is certainly a big number, even if we ignore the fact that this is an upper bound (the lower bound is 12 quadrillion.) I certainly wouldn't want to be exposed to 210 (or 12) quadrillion becquerels! But it's also a number without context. This is the amount released into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is a huge place, so there's lots of potential to dilute it to concentrations where the health risks are negligible. The important question is what the absorbed dose to people is. Luckily the linked study calculated just that, and determined that people living in Japan (excluding occupational exposure of cleanup workers) were exposed to 10-20 mSv (the Sievert being the unit of absorbed dose) through inhalation from the time of the incident (March 2011) until May 2011. This is about the equivalent full-body CT scan. Not insignificant (I wouldn’t want to get a CT scan for no reason) but not panic-inducing (I wouldn’t expect to drop dead of radiation sickness after getting a CT scan.) Over a 50 year timespan, the maximum accumulated dose due to ground contamination is about 125 mSv. For context, the occupational dose limit (for people who work with radiation on a regular basis) in the U.S. Is 50 mSv/year. So over 50 years, the people of Japan near Fukushima may receive as much dose as U.S. Radiation workers are allowed in 2.5 years. Not great, but not panic inducing. And this study is all about dose in Japan, so I'm really at a loss to how this translates into panic in America.
  20. An Australian adventurer felt like “the ocean itself was dead.” However, in the linked article the lack of fish (and hence lack of seabirds) is attributed first to overfishing. Then in the Osaka-to-San Francisco there's a lot about the debris and garbage washed into the ocean. The only mention of radiation in the whole article is mentioning how he's involved (and enlisting help from other yachties) with U.S. academics' efforts to fill out surveys and collect samples for testing. My favorite quote from the article, when he asked the academics why there wasn't an effort to clean up all the debris: “But they said they'd calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there.”
  21. The radioactivity of U.S. west coast waters could double over the next 5-6 years. In fact, the linked article says German researchers predict radiation from Fukushima could reach the U.S. west coast within 5 years. But I thought the radiation was already here! And, of course, the article also has those same researchers explaining that “these levels are still lower than those permitted for drinking water.”
  22. A Russian official said that seafood in the northwest coast of the U.S. is a “danger for mankind.” Even allowing for the possibility of the Russian-English translation missing some nuance (imagine if “danger” was replaced by “hazard” or “risk”) my initial response was ‘so what?’ Not that I doubt his sincerity or his qualifications, it’s that I care more about the data backing up his statement than the statement itself. But then I took another look and compared Snyder’s summary to his:
Snyder: The deputy chairman of Russia’s State Duma Committee for Natural Resources, Maxim Shingarkin, says that seafood captured off the northwest coast of the United States is so radioactive [emphasis added] that it represents a “danger for mankind”
Shingarkin: Currents in the World Ocean are so structured that the areas of seafood capture near the US north-west coast are more likely to contain radioactive nuclides than even the Sea of Okhotsk which is much closer to Japan. These products are the main danger for mankind because they can find their way to people’s tables on a massive scale.
Shingarkin does not actually mention the levels of radiation, so I think Snyder got those words “is so radioactive” from…deep within his body cavity. How I read Shingarkin’s statement is that the biggest source of radiation contamination for humans is from eating contaminated fish. But that’s also the easiest to avoid, simply by choosing to not eat fish or by taking care to know the source and avoiding fish from the Pacific Ocean. This is particularly easy in the U.S., where we don’t traditionally have a diet high in fish. I want to be clear, even though I’m not particularly afraid of eating fish caught in the Pacific, if you want to avoid it be my guest.
  1. A report predicts the radiation could affect our seafood for “many generations” and kill more than a million people. The report itself is mostly a critique of standard models of estimating the impact of nuclear disasters. I’m not qualified to say whether their methods are correct or not (e.g., they include not just those alive at the time of the accident but those born subsequently. And they include death from infectious diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and genetic diseases as well as cancer. And they project over an 80-year timeline instead of 50 years.) And in the end they conclude “within 80 years the number of victims of the Fukushima disaster can be expected to be AT LEAST in the range of 10,000 to 300,000 people in terms of deaths…” That’s 10,000 to 300,000 deaths over 80 years on a planet where about 56 million people die every year. I don’t want to diminish those deaths, but statistically they are a drop in the bucket.
So where does Snyder’s line of “kill more than a million people” come from? This line: “This cycle will last for many generations, because of the food chain of fish and other marine fauna, and the radioactivity will be recycled and in fact the meat content will increase rather than decreasing by decay. Even if only one one-hundredth of the radioactivity (more than 1e15 Bq of CS137) were to enter this recirculation pattern, the collective whole body ingestion dose over many generations would exceed 1e7 Sv, sufficient to kill more than 1,000,000 people.” This isn’t a prediction that 1,000,000 people will die; it’s a description of the scale of the whole dose in all the contaminated fish in the Pacific Ocean. It would be more accurate to say that if all the contaminated fish in the entire Pacific Ocean were eaten by just 1 million people, then those 1 million people would surely die from radiation. But I don’t think that’s a very realistic consumption model. I think more than a million people eat fish, and I don’t think they eat every last fish in the ocean.

By the way, the same report predicts the health risks from I-131 are nearly non-existent and in fact taking potassium iodine pills may have worse effects than the radiation itself. So where’s your panic now?
  1. 300 tons of radioactive water is pouring into the Pacific Ocean every day. Well, 300 tons sounds like a big number, but what’s the context? The linked article (an NPR interview) does very little in providing context, although it does point out “the Pacific Ocean is a big place, so this gets diluted very quickly.” So how big is 300 tons of water? It would be a cube about 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) on a side. Suddenly comparing that to the size of the Pacific Ocean it seems miniscule. And it is. The Pacific Ocean contains 707.5 million cubic kilometers of water (or to put it in the same panic-inducing units, 7.78x1017 tons.) At 300 tons per day, it would take 7.1 trillion years to fill the Pacific Ocean. Or, given the best estimate is the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, it would take about 1,565 ages of the Earth (putting huge numbers in context is fun!) This all obscures the fact that it’s not the volume of water but the amount of radioactive material that is important, and this article contains nothing about that, so on to the next one…
  2. 30 billion becquerels of radioactive cesium and 30 billion becquerels of radioactive strontium” are being released every day. Now we’re talking! Real radiation measurements instead of just raw tonnage of water. And again, 30 billion sound like a lot (and 60 billion is even more) but the ocean is a big place. The question is how much is the concentration of radiation increasing, and the answer is…it’s not. In fact, the 60 billion becquerels isn’t measured, it’s an estimate to explain why the waters right outside of Fukushima aren’t showing any drop in radioactivity (after the initial large drop.) My favorite quote (and the one relevant to the west coast of the U.S. rather than the waters neighboring Fukushima): “But experts said levels of seaborne radioactive substances stay mostly below detection limits in the outer ocean because the substances have simply become diluted.”
  3. 20 trillion to 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive tritium have gotten into the Pacific Ocean since the Fukushima disaster first began. Snyder again links to his own article, but following it to the original story we find…well, a lot of criticism of Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co, the owner and operator of the power plant) but also a claim (by Tepco) that the discharge of tritium “was within legal limits.” And we have this statement: “Tritium is far less harmful than cesium and strontium, which have also been released from the plant. Tepco is scheduled to test strontium levels next.” We also have this line from an EPA spokesman in the U.S.: “With the amount of dilution that would occur, any kind of release in Japan would be non-detectable here.” And this one from a UC Berkeley professor: “The Pacific Ocean is an enormous place… There's a lot of material between us and Japan. No matter what happens in Fukushima, it's not going to be a problem over here.”
  4. 3 gigabecquerels of cesium-137 are flowing into the port at Fukushima Daiichi every day. Okay, one gigabecquerel is 1 billion becquerels. If I wasn’t worried about the 60 billion (combined cesium and strontium) becquerels just two points up, why would I be worried about one twentieth of that? Turns out in reading the story the point isn’t that 3 gigabecquerels is a lot (even factoring in that the number he intended to say was 10 gigabecquerels) it’s that given the measured concentrations in groundwater runoff, those 300 tons/day doesn’t account for it all. This is important because finding the other sources is required to finish the containment/cleanup efforts, but not because the levels are too high to be diluted by the ocean (remember, the ocean is really, really big.) Snyder seems to have a pattern of picking out the most panic-inducing headline but missing the valid points of concern in his linked articles.
  5. Significant” levels of cesium-137 will reach every corner of the Pacific Ocean by the year 2020. “Significant” is a wonderful weasel-word, meant to put fear in your mind but actually meaning very little (one might say the word “significant” is pretty insignificant.) Interestingly, the linked article doesn’t use “significant” it just says, “the dispersion of Cesium-137, a radioactive byproduct, will reach every corner of the Pacific by the year 2020.” It also does a piss-poor job of linking to its source, linking to GEOMAR’s main page instead. But a little search reveals this article with a link to the full story here. Wait a minute, that’s the same story linked in point 22, above! And those researchers conclude that while there will be detectable radiation, those so-called “significant” levels “are still lower than those permitted for drinking water.” And come to think of it, if we’re relying on dilution in the Pacific Ocean, isn’t it better if it gets dispersed into the whole ocean? Wouldn’t it be worse if the radiation remained concentrated (say if it stayed within a major current instead of spreading to the whole ocean?)
  6. The Pacific Ocean will soon “have cesium levels 5 to 10 times higher” than during the era of atomic testing many decades ago. I’m actually surprised that Snyder didn’t make more out of the claim that Hillary Clinton (as Secretary of State at the time) made assurances to Japan that the U.S. would still buy their fish and not test them for radiation. I might not be paranoid about radiation, but I still think testing is a good idea. In any case, responding to their claim, much like many of these points, they provide no context. Is “5 to 10 times higher” a horribly dangerous level? Somewhat dangerous? Barely dangerous? Negligible? And the actual claim is “The net effect is the Pacific near Japan, and likely the whole Pacific, over the next 5 years will have cesium levels 5 to 10 times higher…” Claiming that the sea near Japan will have elevated levels, and then extending that to claiming the entire ocean will have the same elevated levels seems to ignore the element of ocean dilution, which we repeatedly see is what brings large amounts of total radiation down to concentrations of minimal concern.
  7. Environmental activist Joe Martino says “Your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish are over.” Hey, that’s the same linked story as point 29! (Which if you recall, ended up being a rehash of the study linked in point 22.) Rather than dissect the claims that I’ve dissected twice already, I’ll just make this pithy response: Mr. Martino, your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish might be over, but mine aren’t.
  8. The Iodine-131, Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that are constantly being released from Fukushima are going to affect the health of those living in the northern hemisphere for a very, very long time, according to Harvey Wasserman. Since this was one of the rare times when Snyder mentioned someone by name (instead of saying “experts” or “researchers”) I decided to find out who Mr. Wasserman is. Turns out he’s been an anti-nuke activist for about 40 years. Now I want to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It influences how I consider his leanings, but just because you’re an advocate on an issue does not mean you’re not trustworthy. And although his formal education is in history and not science, I assume working on an issue for 40 years he’d naturally learn some things. So I started reading his article. He starts out by mocking the media coverage for focusing on “mere” tritium (his scare-quotes, not mine.) Most of what I’ve read has been about Cs-137, not tritium, but fair enough, maybe the articles he reads are different from mine (I’d even accept that he reads more mainstream articles than I do.) But then I get to this doozy: “Tritium is a relatively simple isotope with an 8-day half-life.” (emphasis added) Tritium has a half-life of 12.32 years! He has his facts blatantly wrong. Not that that means everything in his article is wrong, I just want to pause and marvel at the fact that someone who has been advocating on an issue for 40 years could screw up such a basic fact. I suspect he got it confused with I-131, which does have an 8 day half-life. I-131 is, of course, one of the isotopes he is afraid of; maybe he wouldn’t be if he knew it had an 8 day half-life (remember, the report linked in point 24 actually showed nearly no impact on health from I-131, and in fact questioned if health risks from potassium iodide pills meant to protect against radiation might be worse than the radioactive I-131 itself.) He does correctly identify that I-131 goes to the thyroid where it emits beta particles that can damage the thyroid (I-131 is used in radiation therapy for just that reason.) And he correctly identifies that Cs-137 has been found in fish and accumulates in muscles. And he correctly identifies that Sr-90 accumulates in bones (he ignores that fact that it also accumulates in fish bones so it’s commonly assumed that people eat fish flesh and throw away the bones, so doses from eating fish are assumed to be mostly Cs-137 and not Sr-90.) What he doesn’t identify is how much of any of those isotopes are found (or modeled) to be in the environment (e.g., in fish we eat.) As the old saying goes, the dose makes the poison, and he’s talked 100% about poison and 0% about dose.
  9. Outdoor radiation levels at Fukushima recently hit a new all-time high.” I put that whole line in quotes because that’s exactly how Snyder worded it. It’s an interesting teaser, because “Fukushima” could refer to something as large as the entire Fukushima prefecture, while only areas up to 30 km away from the power plant were evacuated and most of them have had their no-go zone designation lifted as of April of 2013 (the linked article is from December of 2013.) And “outdoors,” could be everywhere (everywhere that isn’t indoors, that is.) But if the headline had revealed that the readings were “in an area near a steel pipe that connects reactor buildings” then maybe it wouldn’t be quite as frightening. You’d expect a catastrophically destroyed nuclear power plant to have pretty high readings until the cleanup and containment is completed. The question is whether areas where they’re letting people return to live is safe. Or actually, since this whole list is supposed to be about dangers to the U.S. west coast, how about these lines from the linked article:
Meanwhile, the chairwoman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured that the radioactive water will reach the US West coast at safe levels.
“The highest amount of radiation that will reach the U.S. is two orders of magnitude - 100 times - less than the drinking water standard,” Allison Macfarlane said in Tokyo on Friday as cited by Bloomberg. “So, if you could drink the salt water, which you won’t be able to do, it’s still fairly low.”
  1. Cleanup of Fukushima could take up to 40 years to complete. The linked article is about how there’s finally an approved plan for the cleanup, instead of the disorganized ad hoc efforts. This is…good (it’s bad that it took this long, but the fact they have a plan now is good.) I hope they stick to it. I hope they update it as more information is available. As for the 40 years…given Cs-137 has a 30 year half-life, I would assume it would be much longer (although much of that time would be monitoring the stored radioactive material to check for leaks.) And the 40 years is just given as a number that “experts expect.” No context is given on how much of an effect that will have on the public (especially the public of the U.S. west coast) in that time…or after, for that matter.
  2. If the cleanup is done badly, humanity could be threatened for “thousands of years.” Well, damn! Then they better do it carefully, even if it takes 40 years! Actually, the linked article is very interesting and well worth a read. As an Emeritus Professor at Yale, the author Charles Perrow certainly has some impressive credentials (googling him further, I see he is an expert in complex risky systems, starting with his work analyzing the Three Mile Island disaster.) As a professor of sociology, I wouldn’t initially trust him as an expert in the physics of nuclear fission, but he seems to know what he’s talking about, and I can’t find any glaring errors like I did with Wasserman’s article back in point 32. The bulk of the article isn’t about this specific danger from Fukushima, but about the pattern of governments and compliant media denying or downplaying dangers from radiation. That’s an interesting point and should give everyone pause about everything they read (including this.) Snyder again ignores this important point to go after the most panic-inducing headline (and adds a “if the cleanup…is not handled with 100% precision” scare line that isn’t in the actual article,) but I actually have nothing but praise for the article itself.
  3. Unexplained plumes of radioactive steam are rising at Fukushima. This is interesting. The linked article presents three theories, ranging from another catastrophic meltdown (which they do say is “relatively improbable”) to rainwater coming in contact with hot fuel pellets, which is relatively benign. But there’s not enough information to know exactly what’s going on, so file this under ‘possible future concerns.’ Although this site claiming to debunk Fukushima alarmism has its own article. At which point I’ll step back and let the reader decide.

So where does that leave us? What do I expect or hope will happen from writing this? Well, I expect…that nobody will read this. Of those who do, if they’re already afraid of Fukushima radiation, I don’t expect this to convince them. I might even get some nasty comments about it. If they’re already unconcerned about it, they might like this and forward it to friends, but again I won’t have changed any minds. If you aren’t convinced either way…I don’t know what to expect your reaction to be. But I know what I hope—I hope I haven’t convinced you. At least, I hope you don’t replace your own judgment with mine. I hope I have convinced you to think critically about what you read. If you’re reading this online, you have the same access to information as I do, so it’s only a question of critical thinking and reaching your own conclusions. And you are perfectly free to reach a different conclusion than I do.

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