Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ron Smith: Knowing the Truth

An anonymous commentator on my 13 January blog concerning the UN expert committee report on the health consequences of the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima (“Radiation, Fukushima, and the Future of Nuclear Power”) says (amongst other things):
“Actually those figures are terribly wrong . USS Reagan sailors required bone marrow transplants after exposure to Fukushima fallout, and are presently suing TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant’s owners).  Many people have died from radiation exposure from Fukushima in Japan.  It just isn't in the media - because the media is being muzzled.”  What are we to make of this?
The third sentence is patently absurd; the media is not being muzzled.  There have been endless postings and news-items about the claimed consequences of nuclear accidents and the effects of radiation, which is why ‘anon’ is able to make the claim.  It is also why the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found for Fukushima, what the Chernobyl Panel found for Chernobyl, that the greatest health consequence for people at both places was not cancer or radiation sickness but unfounded anxiety about what might happen to them.

Now to the claim itself.   “USS Reagan sailors required bone marrow transplants after exposure to Fukushima fallout”, anon says.  He is wrong.  His assertion is either carelessly or deliberately misleading.  What the original report, which appeared in the 28 December 2012 issue of a US local paper (North County Times), actually said was, “Eight sailors who were aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan during the Fukushima disaster have sued the Japanese company that owns the power plant, claiming that they were damaged by the plant’s radiation.”  The newspaper report goes on, “As a result of the radiation exposure ….they require therapies such as chelation bone marrow transplants.”   This goes beyond their lawyer’s  statement of claim, which is carefully ambiguous, “Plaintiffs have been and will be required to undergo further medical testing, evaluation and medical procedures, including but not limiting to (sic) chelation therapy and bone marrow transplants…”

There are a number things which need to be noted here.  The original, “USS Reagan sailors required bone marrow transplants after exposure to Fukushima fallout”, has now become ‘8 sailors, out of a ship’s company of 3200, may be found (after appropriate tests) to be suffering from a blood cancer, for which a bone marrow transplant  may be appropriate.
In the absence of an actual diagnosis, the question then becomes, how likely is it that the eight individuals concerned were subjected to a level of contamination that would give rise to any concern?   On the day in question (March 13 2011), helicopters from the Ronald Reagan flew over the damaged reactors at Fukushima.  Returning aircrews were screened and treated for possible radioactive contamination.  The ship’s captain is quoted as saying that levels of radioactivity were very low, comparing them to an additional exposure over the annual natural background level of one month (0.23mSv).  This should be compared with the UNSCEAR data I gave last time, which showed no adverse effect on a local population exposed to levels of radiation up to ten times natural background.  It also should be noted that the eight sailors who are the subject of the legal action were not aircrew.  For the most part they were flight-deck support staff.

There is a more general point to made here, and that concerns the difficulty of dealing with the continuing torrent of misinformation about nuclear matters.  Whether it is deliberate (i.e. propaganda) or simply careless sentimentality, it is an enormous disservice to a proper understanding of radiation and nuclear matters generally.  It is also the source of considerable harm to ordinary individuals, who may erroneously think themselves to have been exposed to damaging amounts of radiation.  This may even be the case with the ’eight sailors’.  As far as ‘anon’ is concerned, if he is going to continue to comment on this sort of issue, he needs to get himself much better informed and be a little bit more critical of the data he re-transmits.


Ray S said...

What you have alluded to classic scare mongering, something one might expect from the 'green fringe'. (They might also be supporters of wind turbines and the like)

While all forms of energy have varying levels of risk associated with them, prudent risk assessment usually provides enough information to enable rational decisions.

While personally not in favour nuclear energy at present, fossil fuels and hydro should continue as the main forms while they are available.

Anonymous said...

Japanese and other hysteria claims that Fukushima 'proves' that nuclear power is unsafe. It does nothing of the sort. The problem was a magnitude nine earthquake - a huge one which destroyed everything in its path. We might as well say that motor cars are not safe because Fukushima destroyed a lot.

The real mistake the Japanese made was to site the nuclear plant whiere it was at risk of a force nine earthquake. There were other options and they should have chosen one less subject to this risk in their very shaky country.