A cloud of hysteria threatens to engulf the planet

The authorities in Japan may have raised the nuclear alert level by a notch, and there is no doubt that the situation there is serious, but the fallout from Fukushima is arguably more political and psychological than radioactive. I have already commented on pisspoor punditry and reporting of the nuclear emergency, and since then have contributed to discussion of the Fukushima crisis on the PSI-COM email list for science communication professionals. What follows is a rejigging of my input to that discussion.

First, some recent front page headlines…

“Just 48 hours to avoid ‘another Chernobyl” (Daily Telegraph)

“Britons told to consider leaving Tokyo as nuclear crisis escalates” (Guardian)

“Japan feels chill as crisis depends: Britons advised to leave Tokyo while engineers battle to stem radiation leaks” (Times)

“Out of control: Reactors on the brink; Radiation leak spreads; Brits told: Quit Tokyo” (Sun)

So far, so bad.

Official advice from Her Majesty’s Government to Brits in Japan…

“Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area."

A shocking abuse of the English language. I blame the public schools.

Some sanity from the government’s chief scientific advisor, John Beddington…

"Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word "meltdown". But what does that actually mean?  What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials… that is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen.  In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area.  It’s not serious for elsewhere even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e., prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down do we have a problem? The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue. The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet.  It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time.  But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health."

Beddington has since revised his opinion in light of the escalating nature of the Fukushima crisis, but still it doesn’t detract from the core of the argument presented above. That isn’t good enough for some critics, however, who have accused Beddington of being a nuclear industry stooge.

I don’t think it fair to attack Beddington in this way. The chief scientist’s original comments were perfectly reasonable, given what is known about the reactor type in question, and the specifics of the setup at Fukushima. More recent concerns are about the overheating of fuel in storage ponds, and from what I understand those concerns are perfectly valid.

On a technical level, what isn’t being addressed in media reports is the criticality of fission by-products – i.e., continued nuclear reactions in the core that arise from nuclear isotopes created in the fission of uranium and plutonium fuel, which has since ceased. There has been some mention of very short half-lives in these radioactive isotopes, but generally speaking all we get is woe-is-us stories about the situation spiralling out of control into a full-scale meltdown.

Beddington and others who caution against over-reaction are telling it like it is, based on the information available, and they are revising their opinions in the light of new detail emerging from the site. Aside from the attention-grabbing headlines and appeals to base fears, the media is at fault in not acknowledging that the scientific approach is precisely the right one to take.

Daily Mail science editor Michael Hanlon’s strident defence of nuclear power contains a few good points, but mostly it is rhetorical point scoring, and in the circumstances not particularly helpful. Hanlon’s piece may be good blog fodder, guaranteed to attract large numbers of click-throughs for the publisher, but journalism it ain’t.

Was Beddington ordered by the powers of darkness to talk down the nuclear emergency? Given that some state authorities are now calling on their nationals to leave Tokyo (where the enhanced radiation resulting from Fukushima is currently insignificant, and is most likely to remain so), this doesn’t make sense. In fact, there is so much about this affair that doesn’t tally. No doubt it will all come out in the wash, but for now I would rather that journalists and other commentators focus on the details of the crisis as-is. The political score settling can be left for later.