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All About Fukushima

This page will contain information about what happened in Fukushima, what's true, what's not true, who you can trust for accurate information, and more.  For now, please visit the MIT Nuclear Information Hub for timely and reliable synopsis.

I also highly recommend XKCD's handy radiation chart and blog entry, which can be found here.

Further links can be found at the bottom.

Why write this page? 
Well, because there are plenty of misinformation "news" articles on the net by people who know nothing about the situation.  For example, in After Fukushima: nuclear dirty tricks the authors claim that the Japanese government has not released radiation measurements to the public, which is patently false.  I have seen even more absurd claims, including crackpot theories that the earthquake was caused by United States government experiments, etc., which I won't bother to debunk here.

Everyone's an Expert
Apparently knowing next to nothing about a topic doesn't stop people from writing about it, or even give them an incentive to brush up on their knowledge before publishing rampant speculation and misinformation as fact.  With normal topics, we might brush such concerns aside as "freedom of speech", but in cases like this real damage can be done.  Specifically, screaming to anyone who will listen that the sky is falling may lead to more tragedy and deaths.  That type of behavior is irresponsible, plain and simple.  Not everyone can be an expert on every topic, but when publishing information, it is relatively easy to vet the source and present the data in a straight-forward way without spinning it.  

Trust vs. Learn
The world is a complicated place, and we can't all be specialists in everything.  I don't have the time or patience to learn how to fix the train that I take to work, adjust the settings of a sophisticated hearing aid, and figure out how to re-do my indoor plumbing.  This is why there are specialists.  Some people fix cars, while others cut hair.  In every profession, there are experts at the top of their trade, people in the lower and middle rungs, and crazy people that everyone ignores.  If you really want to know what's going on, you have to learn how things work by yourself, but much of the time, we rely on expert opinions - and in most fields that serves us well.  Either way, at the end of the day, there are only two options to obtaining reliable information on any topic: Learn it yourself, or trust the experts.  
    Most people don't discuss radiation on a daily basis, and so might not be equipped to understand things when the need arises.  While this is party a failure of our science programs, it is also partially inevitable that people don't remember the details of things they haven't studied for many years.  The main problem after Fukushima is that many people who clearly didn't know what was going on didn't study things themselves, or seek out any true experts.  Indeed, many of the overseas news agencies reached out to the crackpots mentioned above who were only too happy to give their opinions.  One might ask "But how to you know who the experts are?"  Well, experts are not often anonymous, for one thing.  Almost every field has academic and professional groups, accreditation, and certifications.  If you are seeking someone who understands radiation, they should at a minimum have a degree in a related science field, from a credible school.  
    It may seem obvious, but it should be noted that the more critical the information, the more picky you should be in evaluating your experts.  Yet, people in China were drinking iodine liquid because they "heard they should" - from where?  Likewise, I know of one person in the US who said he needed to go buy bottled water "before the fallout comes".  Why?  Because he "heard somewhere" that he should.  Even if I heard it on the news, I would want to know who on the news suggested it, and what their credentials are.  (Also, how much water was he going to buy?  a few year's supply?  I guess he was also planning to stockpile food and not eat out for a very long time?)

Use Logic
    Another problem is that people fail to think logically even when they do have all the information they need at their fingertips.  For example, most people know that the US and other countries have done nuclear testing at various times, and that the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.  Most people could also guess that those bombs released a lot more radiation than even Chernobyl, much less Fukushima - and yet they didn't have to buy bottles water in the mid-western US or drink Iodine in China then.  You might argue "But it's hard to use logic when you are scared for your life!" - perhaps, but this is also the most important time to be calm and fact based.  People do hasty things in emergency situations that make the situation much worse.  

My Own Brush-Up
    Although I remembered much about radiation and nuclear power plants from school, I am not a nuclear physicist, so brushed up myself by:
  • Reviewing the difference between all of the different types of radiation measurements
  • Reviewing the normal background radiation received in different places in the world, and by doing everyday things like flying in a plane.
  • Reviewing the official radiation limits established by government agencies around the world.
  • Reviewing how the specific type of nuclear reactor used at Fukushima works, how other reactors work, how the Chernobyl reactor worked, etc.
  • Reviewing recent history on earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan.
  • Reviewing the current state of alternative energy sources (including talking to the CEO of a major solar panel producer). 
  • Watching hundreds of hours of Japanese news and reviewing radiation measurement data and reports produced by TEPCO and other sources.
  • Comparing the radiation data produced by the Japanese Government and TEPCO to that of universities and independent entities.
  • Reading an entire [very technical] book on nuclear reactor risk assessment and waste disposal.
  • Reading other assessments by professionals at MIT and other places.
That is, I took a combination of trusting experts and increasing/refreshing my own knowledge.  Obviously I didn't do all of this as soon as the crisis started to unfold, but In particular I did check the radiation limits, the normal radiation levels, and independent sources or radiation measurement.  Just doing that, it was very easy to tell that Tokyo was in no significant danger.  For example, the radiation levels in Tokyo spiked to about two times normal background levels for two hours.  This could easily be sensationalized by an irresponsible news agency (i.e. "Deadly radiation levels in Tokyo Double!"), but once you realize that the level is still within the naturally occurring range that you can find in some places, it seems much less exciting.  (And again, using logic, one can estimate that if a full-blown atomic bomb blast doesn't significantly harm people living 250Km away, a reactor malfunction is much less likely to do so).  

Comparisons to Chernobyl
    Anyone who is comparing Fukushima to Chernobyl in any serious sense has no idea what they are talking about, so you should probably take it as a good indicator of an unreliable data source.  Latest estimates put the total release of radiation from Fukushima at around 10% that of Chernobyl.  Perhaps more importantly, many people died trying to put out Chernobyl, while nobody has died in trying to stabilize Fukushima.  

Chernobyl was a badly designed reactor that was used to:
  • Make fuel for nuclear weapons
  • Produce power
  • Run experiments
  • and more!
    Seriously, the reason that most reactors can not be used to make materials suitable for nuclear weapons is that the right kinds of materials are produced in small quantities and then destroyed during the normal operating cycle of the reactor.  In order to collect the "goodies" in a normal reactor, you would have to open the containment unit, which would mean shutting down the reactor.  The Russians came up with a brilliant solution to this - don't have a containment unit!  Brilliant, that is, unless you have no concern for safety whatsoever - which apparently the did not, since they let inexperienced staff run experiments on an unstable reactor.  Another huge difference is that Chernobyl released large quantities of radioactive smoke into the air where it could be breathed by people and spread more easily, whereas most of the leakage from Fukushima has been liquid, where much of it can relatively safely be diluted to natural levels.  There's just no comparison, Chernobyl was a poorly designed inherently unstable and dangerous plant. Fukushima was merely old and somewhat poorly maintained - but it was fine until a record breaking earthquake and tsunami hit it.  Even then, all of the reactors at Fukushima combined have been much less of a problem than the one at Chernobyl.    I guess containment units are a good idea after all.

Radiation or not?
    Some people seem to have this idea that there is this thing called "Radiation" - and it is there, or not there.  The reality is that there are many forms of radiation, and most of them are always present.  It isn't a question of "yes or no?" but of levels.  For example, Plutonium was found in very, very minute quantities around the area of the Fukushima reactors, but the quantity was so small that it was probably left-overs from nuclear weapons testing that can be found everywhere.  It doesn't make sense to ask whether something is radioactive or not - because the answer is always "yes".  It makes sense to ask if something is more  radioactive than background level or not, and if so, by how much?  For example, Bananas are more radioactive than the soil they are grown in, but not by enough that most people should care.  Granite buildings are more radioactive than wooden ones as well, but you need not freak out of you work in a stone clad office.  The point is that we have very sensitive instruments today that can measure very small variances in different types of radiation - "Radiation has been detected" is not a death knoll, but rather a data point.  If the data point says that your environment has 100x the natural background level of gamma rays, you probably want to get out of there.  If it says you have 1.5x the normal level, there is nothing to worry about.  (In fact, there is some evidence that small amounts of radiation are good for your health - but that's a topic for the relevant researchers to analyze further).  In reality, the effects of small amounts of radiation are so small that it's difficult to determine experimentally, so government agencies have adopted very conservative scales.  If you are safe by those scales, then you are safe.  

Site Clean-Up Progress
Although you should check the news for the latest progress report, ongoing clean-up efforts continue, and things are slowly being brought further and further under control.  
  • Circulatory cooling systems have been installed in the spent fuel pools
  • A large tent is being built over one of the reactor buildings to protect it from the weather
  • Contaminated water is being filtered and treated
  • All of the reactors have been brought more or less under control, despite the damage sustained
Continuation of Electric Power
  • TEPCO has asked everyone to limit power use, and people are mostly complying
    • Japan Rail has reduced the number of trains per hour somewhat
    • Air Conditioning in many places has been reduced
      • The doors have been removed from most ATM booths in order to allow them to turn off the A/C
    • Lighting in many places has been reduced
      • For example, many stores and trains during the daytime
    • Businesses that need to use a lot of power are operating off-hours
  • LNG is being imported and burned to produce power while the nuclear plants are down
    •  (Of course burning fossil fuels will create more pollution, but there is little choice in the short-term)

The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that nobody has died, or is expected to die as a direct result of radiation from the Fukushima reactors, while tens of thousands of people have already died as a result of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that followed.  The main problem now facing people who lived in the vicinity of Fukushima is the inconvenience of not being able to return to their own homes.  Even once the evacuation orders are lifted, there is so much destruction from the natural disasters that there may be little left for them to salvage.  The real tragedy about the nuclear situation is that it has distracted people's attention from the larger problems that have killed many, and continue to affect many more in the Sendai area.  The road to rebuilding will be a long one, and decommissioning the Fukushima plant is only a small part of that effort.  Besides simply rebuilding, residents and the government have to make difficult choices about whether to rebuild on previous sites, or move to safer areas for the long term safety of their communities.  


Subpages (1): Fukushima - Looking Back