The following quotation is taken from Jim Mora’s four o’clock panel discussion on Radio New Zealand, 9 May, this year: “Fukushima is threatening life on this planet …. Worst case scenario (Jim did ask!) … we all die!”. The speaker was Peter Elliot, who was described in his panel introduction as an ‘entertainment professional’, but whether he intended his comments as ‘entertainment’, or whether they were recognised as such by Radio New Zealand listeners, may be doubted.
What also should come up for discussion is the place of this sort of infantile observation on what is claimed to be public-service radio, and the obligation that broadcasters, like Jim Mora, have to ensure some standards, with regard to the quality of the information put out and, of course, some balance, in the public debate on important and contentious issues.
Of course, Fukushima isn’t threatening life on this planet. It isn’t even threatening life in Fukushima. The region around the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear plant has received an elevated radiation dose of between 1-10mSv, which is well within the variation in natural radioactivity around the world, and orders of magnitude less than the sort of radiation exposures that have been shown to cause harm. People in the vicinity are thus in no danger, and those that were evacuated as a precautionary move, ought now to be returned their homes.
The fact is that, more than a year later, nobody has died of the radiation consequences of the Fukushima events, and that includes workers at the plant. This can be compared with the 20,000 people who were killed through the other consequences of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Moreover nobody will die of the Fukushima fall-out. We can say this with some confidence because we have the report of the United Nations Chernobyl Panel, speaking twenty years after that (similar) event, concluding that the largest public health impact was produced by unfounded anxiety about what might happen. I wrote about this in May 2010 and about Fukushima as recently as August of last year.
We don’t ‘all die’, even in the implausible Wall Street Journal blog scenario of 24 April 2012, on which Peter Elliot was presumably (directly or indirectly) relying. In this fanciful extrapolation, another large earthquake in the same region causes further damage to the spent fuel pool at Fukushima 4. This, in turn, causes a massive release of radioactive material that spreads around the world, contaminating the air, food and water, and then: “The cancer rate will skyrocket and the die-off will begin”, and we all die!
Insofar as it is presumed that the precipitating event takes place before the rods are removed (i.e. in the next year or so), and that the plant operators have taken no steps to preserve cooling, this might look like a possible ‘Chernobyl’ event (the blog talks of fire and explosion). But the whole scenario is, in the highest degree implausible. In fact, substantial steps have been taken to repair the pool and cover it, and ensure cooling, and even if this were lost to any degree, the potential for ‘decay heating’ is much less now than it was eighteen months ago when the rods were removed from the reactor. In any case, there is no way the rods could take fire. There is not enough heat and they are not flammable. The Chernobyl reactor was graphite moderated. The graphite (carbon) was what burned and carried away radioactive material.
This is not simply a matter of ill-informed comment on a broadcast network that makes claim to a public information function. The consequences of such egregious misinformation can be serious. As noted earlier, these kinds of dramatic scare-stories have the potential to cause serious harm; in Japan recently, and earlier in Europe and Western Asia (Chernobyl), they have done so with abortions and suicides by persons oppressed by ill-founded fears. More generally, media-induced nuclear phobia has been the cause of vast, unnecessary public expenditure dealing with largely non-existent problems. One prominent aspect of this has been the responses of various governments to their civilian nuclear power programmes. As is well known, Germany has now shut down all 9 of its nuclear power plants and will now rely on ‘renewables’ and make greater use of coal (and imported electricity from France’s 60 nuclear reactors). Switzerland is planning a total phase-out by 2034. The cost of this has been estimated in the billions of dollars, aside from the consequences of decreased energy security.
The really interesting case is Japan, where it all started. After the March 2011 events all Japan’s nuclear capability (50 reactors) was progressively shut down. Despite opposition from 75% of the population, the Japanese government is on the point of re-starting two large reactors. Japan simply needs the power and it has an enormous investment in nuclear.
In many ways anti-nuclearism is an indulgence of the developed world. It is of little interest to the non-western world, which has serious ambitions to improve the lot of its people. Secure energy sources are key to this. China has 15 operating nuclear reactors. It plans to build a further 197. Russia has 33. It will build 50. India has 20. It will build 60 in the coming years. Other counties, such as Vietnam, will start a civilian nuclear power programme and the likely contractor in this case will come from Japan. Nuclear power is not about to disappear, despite its generally shallow and sensationalist treatment in the western media.