Fukushima & The Mainstream Press

This is a quick post to express my disappointment with recent mainstream press coverage of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. As an example, on the front page of CNN there is an article titled “Radiation in water rushing into sea tests millions of times over the limit.” In my opinion, this article is a prime example of some of the poor mainstream press reporting about Fukushima.

Here’s why:

1. Recently, the mainstream press has become fond of using large multipliers when discussing the Fukushima radiation releases. However, saying that something is “a million times” or “5 million times” or “100,000 times” over normal levels or acceptable limits is not very revealing. The normal amount of radiation at a nuclear power plant is very, very tiny. A million times very tiny is still very tiny. Now don’t get me wrong– there are some very significant releases of radiation occurring at Fukushima. But rather than be sensational and say “it’s a million times over the limit,” I think it’s more rational to state: (a.) What is the normal level of radiation and/or the acceptable limit of radiation release, (b.) What is the actual amount of radiation being released now, and (c.) What does this increase in radiation mean? How harmful is this radiation?

Additionally, I think the press should explain radiation releases in simple units that are consistent and which people can understand. Give people baselines (such as how much radiation a person normally obtains in a year) so that they can put the radiation releases into perspective.

2. The article states: “Also, utility and government officials have described conditions recently in the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s reactors and spent nuclear fuel pools as generally stable.”

Perhaps the utility and government officials are saying this, but this is far from the truth. Reactors 5 & 6 are the only reactors (out of 6) which are in cold shutdown with normal cooling systems. In my opinion (which is really the opinion of my nuclear engineer father), these are the only 2 reactors which could be called “stable.” Reactor 4 is also okay because there is no fuel in it– all of the fuel is in the spent fuel pool at reactor number 4.

However, reactors 1-3 (which had explosions in the reactor buildings) do NOT have normal cooling systems restored. The cooling systems are temporary and are still producing steam, which may periodically need to be vented releasing radiation to the environment. Until normal cooling systems can be restored at these three reactors, the situation cannot be called stable. Additionally, there are significant amounts of highly radioactive water being released from these three reactors, filling up turbine halls and being leaked to the ocean from the trench mentioned in the CNN article. Again according to my dad, there are three possible sources of this highly radioactive water: (a.) condensed radioactive steam that was vented, (b.) leaks from reactor containment, and (c.) leaks and/or splashover from spent fuel pools.

Speaking of the spent fuel pools, these (especially number 4) are not all stable either– and there are 7 spent fuel pools at Fukushima.

The article also mentions that the Japanese government has decided to allow TEPCO to release 3 million gallons of less radioactive– but still radioactive– water to the environment to make room for the storage of the more highly radioactive water. While perhaps necessary, this release is far from ideal.

Until normal cooling systems can be restored, highly radioactive water will continue to be generated in large volumes. TEPCO finally announced that restoration of normal cooling at reactors 1-3 will take MONTHS. This means that the situation at Fukushima will not be stable for MONTHS.

There is still radiation being released to the environment EVERY DAY at Fukushima. Until normal cooling systems and monitoring systems are restored at all 6 reactors and 7 spent fuel pools, there is potential for more radiation (possibly significant releases, such as the highly radioactive water being released to the ocean right now) releases to the environment.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t exactly describe the situation at Fukushima as “stable.”

3. My dad– a naval commander with decades of experience in nuclear power– had this to say a couple of days ago in Interview 16:

“We’ve tried to remain calm and rational and not get too excited. So, just because we haven’t raised our voice and started yelling and screaming doesn’t indicate at all that we don’t have concerns. I think from early on, if you go back and listen to some of the early interviews, the lack of transparency from TEPCO– I’ve been saying all along I think before, definitely before, the mainstream press, and I remember in one of the interviews early on I was really happy when finally Anderson Cooper was starting to take them to task for their lack of transparency– we’ve been saying since day one that TEPCO has not been forthcoming. And, in the last interview, and I realize it’s probably been three days, we talked about: hey [TEPCO], two-and-a-half weeks into this, now three weeks into this, how come you can’t get two or three reactor operators or engineers together from some of your other plants [and] interpret for the public what’s going on and produce a comprehensive briefing every day? And their [TEPCO’s] press releases are still not very informative.

The other thing that we’ve commented on is the lack of a website that an average person can go to and have the radiation and contamination readings in plain English so that they can understand where it’s above the limit and where it’s below the limit and where they should and should not be concerned. And the IAEA had at least put some information out there, and we had referenced people to it a few days ago, but still as far as I know, today– now there may be a site in Japanese that I can’t find or read– but to my knowledge there’s still not a website that people can go to that shows them: here’s the radiation and contamination readings for the past twenty-four to forty-eight hours– and here’s where we are above the limit, here’s where we are below the limit. It just doesn’t seem to exist. The information is scattered. Clearly, I think the Japanese government could be doing a better job there. I’m surprised that they’re not.

And the other thing that we pointed out– we had a very long discussion about venting and the fact that the NRC in the US had required plants with the Mark I containment to go back in and put in hardened vent systems and that TEPCO obviously didn’t do that– now they’re not in the United States so they’re not compelled to follow orders from the NRC, but certainly they were aware that this design change had been required in the US, and I think TEPCO as a nuclear operator has a responsibility to do the right thing whether they are required by the government or not. But also– where was the Japanese government in requiring this for the plants in Japan? So, as far as I’m concerned they’re both at fault. And that has to be looked at. The Japanese government has to look at their regulatory agency and say: okay, what else should have been done to our nuclear power plants in Japan that we haven’t required?…

…given the lack of transparency, given the lack of implementation of the design changes, given some of the other shortcomings that we’ve heard of in terms of radiation suits and radiation badges, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to question if TEPCO should be allowed to continue to operate nuclear power plants. Now, I’m not yelling, I’m not screaming, but I don’t think I can be any clearer in saying that I don’t trust TEPCO, and I’m not sure anybody else should either based on what’s happened during this accident. ”
-Cdr. Mark L. Mervine, Nuclear Engineer (USNR, Ret.)

So, personally I am bit skeptical of TEPCO and the Japanese government regarding the information about Fukushima. And, again, I would not call the situation there stable.

A final note: Although I have not been cross-posting these recently on Skepchick, my dad and I have continued to do our regular interview updates over at my geology blog Georneys. We have just announced that we are doing just two more scheduled interviews– a last interview update (the last one in which we answer questions) on Thursday and a final interview in which we summarize a month’s worth of interviews (19 in total plus one special interview with a Japanese citizen) and my dad talks about newer nuclear technologies, including proposed thorium reactors. If you have questions for our last interview update, send them in as soon as possible (georneysblog at gmail). We may do the occasional interview over the next few months to remind people of Fukushima or if there is a really big news story, but we will no longer be doing regular updates.

And now, because the CNN article and Fukushima do not make me happy, here is a happy video of a kitteh that survived the recent Japan tsunami:


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Well, bad news sells. The more fear they can drum up, the more $$$ they make on airtime. I’ve seen this with aviation stories and my wife with medical stories (She’s an RN-BSN).

    If you want accuracy, you have to educate yourself on the topic and go to the industry/specialist web sites for what passes for first-hand information.

  2. “The other thing that we’ve commented on is the lack of a website that an average person can go to and have the radiation and contamination readings in plain English so that they can understand where it’s above the limit and where it’s below the limit and where they should and should not be concerned.”

    Do you guys know about this?

  3. Informative as usual. Thank you Evelyn and thanks for all the effort you have put in on this!

  4. I posted a version of this over at Greg Laden’s blog a few days ago, I don’t have a sense that it has changed.

    I get the sense that the workers at the plant have been abandoned by management and everyone off-site. That senior management has just “shut down” and isn’t doing anything productive, and isn’t making way for someone else to step in and do something productive in their place. They are just reacting to things and not being proactive and anticipating what could be done, what should be done and what needs to be done to have backups and even more backups.

    That article about the workers in the plant starving themselves, sharing dosimeters and not having blankets to sleep on is completely bogus.

    Japan does not lack for resources. They might not have what they need within 500 miles of the plant, but in 24 hours they can transport anything by truck from anywhere in Japan to anywhere else.

    In 24 hours they can transport anything by air from anywhere in the world.

    What they should do is let the French take over.

    Why don’t they have minimal filtration equipment to filter radioactive crap out of the water they are dumping into the sea?

    Why don’t they have portable tanks to put the radioactive water in?

    Why don’t they have a double-hulled oil tanker to put the radioactive water in?

    Why don’t they have a few hundred tons of clinoptilite to adsorb cesium?

    I think the sentiment that is at the root of the Japan problem, the problem with the BP oil spill disaster, the problem with AGW, the problem with the levy in Katrina, the Iraq war disaster, the financial crisis, the US deficit, essentially every problem that we as humans face.

    The problem is the deference to the “authority” in the social power hierarchy even when that authority doesn’t know what they are doing. After the disaster the “leaders” always say “no one could have predicted this disaster”, when people did predict it, but the “leaders” refused to listen.

    Leaders become leaders due to their social skills, not their skills in understanding and solving technical problems. When those leaders become overwhelmed, they collapse and shut-down.

  5. Thanks so much Evelyn for this article. It’s not want I wanted to hear, but it is definitely what I needed to hear.
    I have found your fathers interviews in depth and interesting, while still being easy enough for a lay-persom to understand.
    In Oz, our ABC has tried to remain calm by giving out details as you suggested : amount received as background and comparisons with airline travel, TV’s and the like, but it still sounds pretty grim. Especially when our politicians suspend some food imports from Japan.
    Thanks again.

  6. @daedalus2U:

    So true! That rant is the same sort of thing I do all the time (in other contexts) but you are more coherent. Could have been me speaking.

    Evelyn, thanks to you and your Dad for your work so far. I look forward to your upcoming book.

    Could you ask your Dad to consider travelling Wave Reactors as well as thorium reactors in his final session?

    One small suggestion: could you put a date/time stamp at the top of each transcipt to make it easier to follow?

  7. Does your dad have any experience with Boiling Water Reactor plants – the kind of plants these are? I’m just curious.

    One thing I think needs to be noted is that TEPCO is not alone on this, and they’re not just sitting there doing nothing. There are hundreds of engineers and management employees in multiple companies around the world working on this, working on calculations, and working on answers and root cause analysis to see where this started, how it could have been prevented, who is responsible, and how to fix what is happening and prevent anything like this from ever happening again.

    There also have been (mostly) daily updates on the NEI site since the first day of this.
    It has had reliable information from TEPCO and the NRC, and there are also FAQ pages and fact sheets on the NEI site.

    Saying that TEPCO should no longer be able to run nuclear plants is a really rough thing to say – who is going to take over those plants? What is going to replace that power in the time between? Are we saying that BP can no longer ever have oil rigs?
    That’s the kind of decision that is. It’s a major economic impact, and would screw a lot of people, including the many people who work for them. Reactions like that only help the media make this out to be more extreme and give them someone to dog down and ruin.

  8. @BrieCS: Yup, he sure does have experience with BWR plants. For his qualifications, see Interview 1:

    Before you judge my father’s reaction, I suggest you listen to some of the interviews we have done.

    There have been some major problems at Fukushima, and someone needs to stand up and say so.

    We’re not saying that the rest of the TEPCO nuclear plants should be shut down, but TEPCO (and the Japanese government) need to be held accountable for some of the mistakes they have made.

  9. @Evelyn
    I have read some of the interviews (I don’t typically watch videos, sorry) but not all of them. I haven’t really had the time. I’m not really judging his reaction, I’m just trying to respond to the comments and clarify.

    Many people are saying that there have been major problems at Fukushima, and there have been. I’m not saying different. What I was responding to was this:
    “okay, what else should have been done to our nuclear power plants in Japan that we haven’t required?” – This is being looked at. Actively and on many fronts. They just aren’t posting speculations all over the internet and news. That’s not unreasonable – that’s a wise choice.

    and this:
    “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to question if TEPCO should be allowed to continue to operate nuclear power plants.” – That’s effectively saying that TEPCO plants should be shut down. There is not enough manpower to take over those plants and keep them running if their owner shuts down, and that would really affect the people who rely on that energy. They could get bought out, but there would at least be a short period where there wouldn’t be enough manpower to support those plants in a safe way.
    I definitely agree they should be held accountable – and they most likely will be fined heavily, pay out major insurance and will be audited very intensively.

    I’m just saying suggesting making TEPCO no longer able to operate is a really big leap – should they be punished and should their actions be reviewed and audited extensively? Yes. But should their plants basically be shut down because they’re forced to close their doors? I don’t think so. That punishes far more people than them. If they are audited and it’s found they are violating regulations or not up to standards, then considering shutting them down is reasonable. However, there has not been enough time to determine whether this was truly their fault. It feels like a lot of speculation to me.

    I also want to clarify that work IS being done, worldwide, to find out what happened, how to fix it now, and how to prevent anything like this ever happening again. I have heard a lot of people saying things to the affect of “they aren’t doing enough to fix this,” “they need to prevent this in the future,” or “why is no one trying to find out why this happened?” and the fact is, people are trying. Hundreds of them. It just makes me feel like people are ignoring their efforts just because they aren’t posting constant logs of their work. Sometimes, until you have an answer, you don’t want to publicly hypothesize, because there is too much of a risk of causing people to freak out.

    I’m not trying to attack anyone and it’s certainly not a topic that needs to be argued about, I’m just sharing a different point of view, I guess.

    (This was seriously tl;dr, I’m sorry. Thanks for reading, if you did!)

  10. @BrieCS: Thanks, Brie. You have a good perspective, and I don’t think we fundamentally disagree on anything.

    I actually don’t disagree with anything you say– my dad and I are mostly upset with the way the mainstream press handles reporting and the lack of clear & cohesive information for the average person on Fukushima.

    I do trust that many people & organizations are looking at what happened (and is still happening at Fukushima), but I also believe that citizens are entitled to have answers & information and that citizens can press for Fukushima to be investigated, addressed, & explained appropriately.

    Obviously, when it comes to assessing if TEPCO can be trusted to operate nuclear power plants, this is a decision that must go through proper channels. Again, though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for citizens to demand information & answers on that front.

  11. To add to this, whatever your opinion (pro or anti) on nuclear power, lack of clear information about Fukushima will harm everyone in the long run. So that’s also why we push.

  12. @BrieCS: I disagree. Removing TEPCO from a position of authority over the plants in no way implies they be shut down. It does not even imply that the people actually running the plants be removed. It just means that the plant management would report to someone else (probably an overseer or board appointed by the Japanese government.) This could be done in accordance with Japanese law and with the provisions of TEPCO’s licenses to operate the plants. I’m sure there must be provisions for what happens it TEPCO fails to operate the plants safely or effectively in the licenses and in Japan’s nuclear regulations.

    I don’t know whether that would be a useful thing to do (it might be) but I’m sure it could be done, legally.

    For example, if the plant managers don’t have budgetary authority to pay overtime, hire extra people or outside experts, pay for equipment or supplies or construction contractors or whatever they need to deal with the situation, and TEPCO is not promptly approving what needs to be done, then they should be removed from the loop. If TEPCO is obstructing the free flow of information relating to the crisis, then they should be removed. If it is the plant managers that are causing problems, and TEPCO is not fixing it, then the Japanese government should intervene and have the managers replaced or the plants placed under direct government management.

    On the other hand, it could be that everyone, both TEPCO at a corporate level and the plant management, is doing the best they reasonably can under very difficult circumstances and mucking around with it will just cause delays and increase the chances of more problems occurring.

    Most likely some middle course is really needed, e.g. someone in authority telling TEPCO they need to be more forthcoming about public information, or offloading logistical problems. (I can imagine a zillion problems that plant management might be trying to deal with that have absolutely nothing to do with the technical situation but are requiring great gobs of time, effort and money. For example, I bet the plumbing in the plants doesn’t work and they’ve spent days trying to get an extra 20 Porta-Potties on site and/or serviced.) All these things can and should be fixed, and if requires removing the plants from TEPCO’s control, so be it.

  13. @Evelyn – I certainly agree that there needs to be more transparency. I do understand why there could be a delay in a lot of the technical stuff being passed along, though – I don’t think any of the people involved want to have facts come through that aren’t validated and very clear. I guess it’s just that I am more comfortable waiting a little bit to get the solid information, than relying on half-assed stuff. The media has done a horrible job of reporting for this, and it makes me feel even less trusting of our news outlets.

    @Buzz Parsec – I really don’t think there *is* a plan in place for someone taking over in the interim. And keep in mind, bringing the government in to decide who is going to take it over could cause a lot of complication and delay. There would be halts in funding – people could go without pay or be laid off, and the maintenance for the plants would not be able to be kept up in that time.
    If they fail to operate within regulatory parameters, I believe the result would be that they would be fined heavily and given dates to meet to make the corrections necessary, and would temporarily be unable to operate the plants until the plants have been reassessed, which most likely would mean a shut down. It’s not as easy to find an appropriate group to just take care of handling a large fleet of plants like TEPCO maintains. Not just anyone can make decisions about the work they do.

    I really believe that TEPCO and the Japanese government (and the companies and regulatory groups around the world) are doing their best to fix the problems that are occurring now, and to prevent it in the future. They could definitely be more forthcoming with information, but I can understand why that wouldn’t be at their highest priority, as well – I think they *will* explain everything at some point (like TMI, there will probably be a major release that explains everything that happens from start to finish), and I’m just trying to be patient.

    I worry that people don’t realize how hard it is to get this kind of data together and say exactly what happened and why and how to prevent it. This kind of event is really unprecedented. It will take time to find all of the answers, even with the hundreds of people working on it.

    I think all would be better if the news media would just get real experts to talk about it, not people who have no idea what they’re talking about, and if the speculation were reduced. I would like to see a better compilation of information about the radiation and effects, though.

    I don’t know if anyone here has seen these links, so I thought I’d share them – the NEI has been my primary source:

    Honestly, I think the best thing to do is to send links like these to news sources and ask them to share them. Unfortunately, I’m not able to do that*, but other people can.

    Thanks for reading. :)

    *Due to the nature of my job.

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