Sunday, June 30, 2013

Holy Fukushima: Scaremongering is Everywhere!

It seems like this kind of thing has been doing the rounds:

Bogus Fukushima Radiation Map #1
I got a message on Facebook saying “I'd really like you to do a blog piece on this”, so here it is.

The above image is, in fact, an ocean wave amplitude graphic for the April 2011 Fukushima earthquake from NOAA. It has nothing to do with the “fallout” from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I repeat: it has nothing whatever to do with nuclear radiation of any kind — it is an ocean wave amplitude graphic. Somebody took this innocent graphic and maliciously emblazoned it with a scaremongering lie. A slew of ignorant anti-nuclear Internet Luddites then reposted this complete fabrication, which has been swallowed wholesale by some of the more gullible members of the public.

In many cases, the above graphic has been replaced by this one:

Bogus Fukushima Radiation Map #2

Now, this one is actually a particle simulation from the New Zealand based ASR Ltd., a marine consulting company. If you actually go to the original page, it says (in their block capitals): “THIS IS NOT A REPRESENTATION OF THE RADIOACTIVE PLUME CONCENTRATION”. What this graphic actually tells us — if their computer simulation is accurate and reliable — is that, in the year after Fukushima, nothing (radioactive or otherwise) in the ocean surface currents could possibly have gotten much further than about halfway across the Pacific Ocean, which is quite a different thing from what the scaremongers would have you believe, and says nothing whatsoever about dilution or concentration. This was a publicity stunt by a private company showcasing their technology; it is neither peer-reviewed science, nor the report of a competent panel of experts.

So, is radiation from Fukushima killing Americans?

If you look at similar peer-reviewed science [Behrens et al., 2012], whose graphics have also been used for scaremongering, what you find is that the radioactivity of 137Cs — everyone's favorite radioisotope — off the coast of California (blue box IV) due to Fukushima peaks at about 1.2 Bq/m3, while further North it might peak around 2 (cyan box II). To put this in perspective, the background of 137Cs in the Pacific is about 3 Bq/m3, and the background level of radon in the air averages 5–15 Bq/m3, depending on where you live. In other words, this kind of increase — another couple of becquerels per cubic meter — isn't going to make a whole lot of difference to anyone.

The expert consensus is similarly undramatic: by far the most pessimistic part of the WHO's assessment is that the lifetime risk of thyroid cancer for a 1 year old female in the most affected parts of Fukushima prefecture may increase by 70%. Wow! 70%. But here's the thing: the baseline lifetime risk of thyroid cancer for women is 0.75%, 70% of that, the additional lifetime risk, is just 0.5%. I'm not saying I'd like my risk of some kind of cancer to increase by 0.5%, but it's not anything that I'm going to get my knickers in a knot over either.

If you look around, you'll find out that the total Fukushima release was 900 PBq — by any standard an enormous amount of radiation — about one sixth of a Chernobyl, about equivalent to the fallout from a 2Mt nuclear warhead, or approximately bugger all compared to what the Americans, the British, the French, and the Russians were doing throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's in the Pacific, Siberia, and the Nevada desert.

You'll also find that a reasonable estimate of the total number of additional cancer-related deaths attributable to Fukushima is about 130. That's less than half the number of coal-mining deaths over the last 10 years in the US, less than a day-and-a-half's worth of road traffic fatalities, or a few weeks of coal-mining deaths in China. In other words, also bugger all.

The reality is that nuclear power plants are actually pretty safe in the grand scheme of things, it's just that when there is an accident, it's big and it makes a big splash on the news. It's a bit like the way a plane crash that kills 300 people is a major news event, but the 300 people who die on our roads every few days in an unnoticeable trickle never get on CNN.

So, to answer the question, the danger to Americans from Fukushima is essentially zero. If you're going to start washing your vegetables in filtered water — as some of the sensationalist anti-nuclear liars in the lede would have you do — think again… with a little more skepticism and balance.


  1. I found you only because this link was posted on facebook regarding the petition for fukushima. There are plenty of reliable sources and experts who are genuinely alarmed by this out-of-control and on-going disaster.

    Mark my words, friend, this disaster is not to be underestimated and the scale of it exceeds our tiny minds because it will go on and on and on for many, many years and the consequences to complex life forms is, quite frankly, unknown. Scientists have determined that so far bio-diversity has declined in the Chernobyl region and, while stable, the region is still a mess.


  2. There are three major problems at Fukushima: (1) Three reactor cores are missing; (2) Radiated water has been leaking from the plant in mass quantities for 2.5 years; and (3) Eleven thousand spent nuclear fuel rods, perhaps the most dangerous things ever created by humans, are stored at the plant and need to be removed, 1,533 of those are in a very precarious and dangerous position. Each of these three could result in dramatic radiation events, unlike any radiation exposure humans have ever experienced .

  3. NASA estimates that 1.8 million mortalities have been avoided by the use of nuclear power instead of fossil fuels between 1971 and 2009 ( The mean estimate on the number of additional cancer mortalities due to Fukushima is 130 ( Even if a nuclear accident 10x worse (1,300 deaths) than Fukushima happened every month since 1971, nuclear power would still be 3x better than fossil fuels in terms of human mortality. If Fukushima gets to be 1,000 or more times worse than current estimates, nuclear will *still* be better than fossil fuels.

    Despite the magnitude of the release, Fukushima is also trivially insignificant in nuclear terms. Fukushima is estimated to have released radiation equivalent to about a 2Mt thermonuclear detonation. The “Castle” atmospheric weapon test series in the Pacific totalled 48Mt. In other words, if Fukushima were 25x worse, it would be about as bad as *one* US nuclear test series in 1954, or the Soviet Tsar Bomba *single device* in 1961. In short, the US, UK, France, and USSR detonated hundreds, if not thousands, of Fukushimas worth of weapons in the 50's and 60's and the world didn't end.