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By Russ Finley on Mar 5, 2012 with 16 responses

Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown — The Unsensationalized Version

Impending Media Tsunami

March 11 will be the one year anniversary of last year’s quake in Japan. Brace yourselves for the coming media tsunami. My hypothesis is that the media will focus on the Daiichi reactors instead of the 22,000 who lost their lives. I will also hazard a few guesses as to why they will do that.

Below is my nutshell synopsis of the major events that occurred at the Daiichi power plant:

  1. The reactors shut down and the fuel rods began cooling as designed when the quake hit.
  2. A 30-foot high tsunami swamped the emergency power generators.
  3. Water that was covering fuel rods evaporated causing them to start melting.
  4. Hydrogen that had accumulated in the upper stories of the buildings that covered the fuel pools and containment vessels exploded (eliminating the potential to trap more hydrogen).
  5. People living within a twelve mile radius were evacuated prior to venting the containment vessel.
  6. A badly misguided attempt was made to dump water on the pools using helicopters.
  7. Within one hour of their arrival, firefighters using a single pump truck parked near the ocean managed to leave enough water spraying into the reactor buildings to avert further overheating, which allowed workers to safely return to continue containment and cooling.

Certainly, just as airline regulatory bodies have always used major incidents to improve designs, inspections, and procedures, the nuclear regulators will do the same as a result of this latest nuclear incident.

Activists Using Fear Tactics Rather Than Reason

For decades, anti-nuclear groups have played on people’s fears, conflating nuclear weapons with nuclear energy and exaggerating the radiation risks associated with it. If there were an airline equivalent of today’s anti-nuclear activists, the public might be told (for decades on end) that airline travel involves moving at 500 miles an hour, thirty thousand feet above the ground, in air that is so cold and rarefied you would suffocate and/or freeze within minutes without protection, in a (literally) paper-thin tube of pressurized aluminum, managed by a large for-profit corporation with razor thin profit margins. Oh, and they can be also used by terrorists as flying bombs. We would see footage of mangled bodies, corroded structure, and interviews of grieving loved ones. Come to think of it, that does sound scary.

These hypothetical anti-airline activists might lobby politicians to foil attempts by airlines to properly deal with waste, forcing them to store it on site as much of the nuclear industry has to do with its waste. On the other side there would be engineers and scientists trying to use reason, statistics, and rational arguments to counter irrational fear. They would use numbers to prove that airline travel is the safest way to travel per unit length traveled …ah, we should all be glad there are not significant numbers of anti-airline activists.

Sensationalism Brings in Viewers

I recently watched a documentary on NOVA called Japan’s Killer Quake. Because the cost of cleaning up the damaged nuclear reactors has been estimated to be roughly five percent of the total cost of the quake, it seems reasonable to me that a one-hour documentary about the quake might spend about five percent of the time on the reactor incident–and that is just what NOVA did (about three minutes). Although, in one scene the narrator told us he was keeping the car window rolled up as they drove past the reactor, which was 38 miles away. Never mind that most people don’t drive around in the dead of winter with their windows rolled down. He then decided to put on a mask, probably after the cameraman suggested it would make good footage. On the other hand, if lives lost were the metric instead of cost, the reactors wouldn’t have been mentioned. OK. So far, my hypothesis isn’t holding up.

There was a lot of deserved angst in the days preceding somebody’s epiphany to have the fire department spray water on everything. Had someone thought of this a few days earlier, the outcome would have likely been a lot better.

Those seven bullet points above have little potential to draw readership and advertising dollars the way a slick documentary does. A market for sensationalist anti-nuclear energy news has been created over the past three decades via the anti-nuclear movement’s effective use of truthiness:

“Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

Steven Colbert, put it this way, “…we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.”

Truthiness can, in turn, lead to a condition called Wikiality (a portmanteau combining “Wikipedia” and “reality”). Again, from Colbert:

A reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it becomes the truth ...an essential element of ‘wikiality’ is the rapidity with which its corrosive, virus-like effects destroy the facts, but not the truth, which it actually helps spread.”

Now that’s good satire, folks.

Propaganda on PBS

I also watched a documentary on Frontline called Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown, which, in my humble opinion, walked the line between documentary and a work of propaganda, although, admittedly, we are all victims of marketing to one degree or another.  From Wikipedia:

“Propaganda is generally an appeal to emotion, not intellect. It shares techniques with advertising and public relations, each of which can be thought of as propaganda that promotes a commercial product or shapes the perception of an organization, person, or brand.”

The rest of this article is a critique of the Frontline documentary but feel free to watch it for yourself, preferably after reading the critique to soften its impact. It does a very effective job of painting an incident (that in the end was snuffed by the arrival of the fire department), in the most terrifying light imaginable.

The low spots for me were the four separate heartrending scenes of a grieving parent who lost his father, wife, and one of his young daughters. You should be thinking, “Wait a minute. I thought you said the reactor incident didn’t cause any fatalities?” It didn’t. This is an example of the use of incorrect inference, or more specifically, a fallacy:

“By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener or interlocutor (appeal to emotion), or take advantage of social relationships between people (e.g. argument from authority). Fallacious arguments are often structured using rhetorical patterns that obscure any logical argument.”

The grieving father is being used to stir our emotions The only link between this poor man and the reactors is the fact that he lived in what is now the exclusion zone. After a fruitless search for his loved ones he finally heeded warnings to evacuate the area. The bodies of his wife and father were later recovered from the area.

Getting the Facts Wrong by Way of Exaggeration

Along with dramatic footage and beating drums, the solemn voice of the narrator begins the film with “…inside the worst nuclear disaster of the century, “ then “boom” we see a shot of a hydrogen explosion, which is dramatic, but actually did no damage to the reactor ensconced inside its containment dome or the spent fuel rods in their cooling pools.

Worst nuclear disaster of the century? What nuclear disasters, other than Chernobyl, would they be referring to (not to mention, this incident pales in comparison to Chernobyl)? After surviving, intact, a magnitude 9 quake, literally, a thousand times more powerful than the magnitude 7 quake that hit Haiti, these reactors finally succumbed when deluged by a thirty-foot-high mountain of water. The quake was the real disaster. The tsunami, which was caused by the quake, was the cause of most of the destruction in Japan, which included in the trillions of dollars of damage, one nuclear power plant, which in turn released amounts of radiation that did not and may not ever kill anyone. These levels of contamination don’t cause illness outright but can increase the odds of developing cancer in one’s lifetime.

The Frontline documentary mentions that up to a hundred of the workers at the plant were exposed to radiation levels that will increase their odds of developing cancer in their lifetimes, which is not the same as saying they ever will develop cancer from the exposure. Too much exposure to solar radiation also increases your risk of cancer.

The radiation released from the damaged reactor forced the evacuation of roughly 120,000 people (equivalent to a city the size of Charleston South Carolina) from an area encompassed by an arc with a twelve-mile radius.

This is a very significant hardship for the affected families who will not be allowed to return to their homes until the radiation hazard has been dealt with, if ever. It is possible that some areas may be off limits for many years.

Because the Daiichi power plant is on the coast, the exclusion zone forms a semi-circle. Assuming one could drive a car at 60 miles per hour along that arc it would take about 37 minutes to travel its length.

They mention that TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has forbidden employees to talk to reporters. No evidence was presented to suggest that TEPCO has not been cooperating with official investigative bodies. Like most other big companies, the company I work for also forbids employees from talking to reporters about incidents. It’s standard operating procedure to prevent the lay press from spreading innuendo.

They tell about workers using scavenged car batteries (the instrument panels are apparently 12 volt DC) to run the power plant’s instrument panels, but then show us a picture of brand new batteries (obviously not from cars) still in their cardboard boxes being used to run instrument panels.

Next comes the obligatory juxtaposition of nuclear weapons with nuclear energy, replete with old footage of hydrogen bomb explosions as well as radiation and burn victims from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Nuclear power plants are incapable of becoming nuclear bombs. They can’t create a nuclear detonation. For many decades now anti-nuclear activists have been conflating WMDs with nuclear power plants in order to frighten people into accepting their misbeliefs.

The narrator says that the plant manager told the Prime Minister that he would send in a suicide squad if necessary to open the vent valves. This isn’t a quote so I can’t verify if he actually said that, but I seriously doubt that plant managers in Japan really have the power to order employees to commit suicide. The solemn-voice narrator then tells us that the Prime Minister left the plant knowing that he may have condemned employees to death. Without a source or quote, I’m going to chalk that up as conjecture.

They keep telling us that TEPCO ordered employees to do this and to do that, as if this were some kind of military organization. The people who opened the valves were volunteers. They wore safety suits with radiation detectors, and worked in shifts to eliminate risk of excess radiation exposure.

“In the control center they watched the radiation levels and waited to learn if they would survive.” Again, considering that the film director did not have access to the people in the control tower to interview, one has to wonder about the accuracy of the above narrator’s statement.

“In Tokyo, the Prime Minister’s chief cabinet secretary was playing down the crisis.” But when you watch the press conference, everything he said was accurate, “Radiation levels have not changed much since the explosion. …We see no indication of damage to the containment vessel itself.”

In the end, the whole mess was finally brought under control by simply having firefighters “…park a truck by the sea to suck up water then lay 800 yards of hose and leave it spraying into the fuel pools.”

Photo courtesy of digit-al via Flicker.

  1. By Anonymous on March 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    You can live next to a nuclear power plant, dude… I will pass, thanks.

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    • By Captain Obvious on March 5, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      Are you OK with breathing coal plant fumes instead?

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      • By Sandy on March 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm

        Wow, what a brilliant response! There is such thing as alternative energy - ever heard of solar panels, idiot?

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    • By Russ Finley on March 5, 2012 at 10:08 pm

      You can live next to an airport, dude …I will pass, and thanks for making my point ; )

      10 Plane Crashes That Changed Aviation

      I’m a little worried that my airline analogies may create a real anti-airline movement. If so, I’ll switch to a cars, which still kill 40,000 a year with seat belts and airbags.

       

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  2. By Tom Clements on March 5, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I got a sick little chuckle out of that bloggy sensationalism thing.   The sick part is that apologists for the accident – three meltdowns, count ‘em – have nowhere to hide expect strike out in any random, illogical way they can.  Good job at that!  But the meltdown and disaster and 80,000 people still evacuated can’t be just waved away by a paniced opinion piece.

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  3. By Russ Finley on March 6, 2012 at 12:23 am

    Sandy said:

    “Wow, what a brilliant response! There is such thing as alternative energy - ever heard of solar panels, idiot?”

    I understand where you are coming from. You’ve been told that solar panels can meet our energy needs, therefore we don’t need coal or nuclear.

    If solar and wind really could do that, I’d agree with you, but can they really replace coal and nuclear? Look to other environmentalists who are promoting a fossil fuel called natural gas to power the country at night and when the wind isn’t blowing. They have reluctantly concluded that wind and solar can’t do it alone.

    Answers to questions like these usually boil down to cost. For example, “Can we grow vegetables on the moon?” But the right question would have been “Is the act of growing vegetables on the moon economically viable?” It may be technically possible to grow vegetables on the moon but it definitely is not economically viable. I’m a big fan of solar, but it also may not be technically possible to create a super-grid capable of keeping the lights shining coast to coast on windless nights.

    Many of my fellow environmentalists find themselves between a rock and a hard place when asked to choose between coal and nuclear because they’ve been taught (wrongly) to associate the word nuclear with badness, just as millions of Americans have been taught to associate words like atheist, gay, conservative, liberal, Democrat, or Republican with badness. Sometimes it pays to think with our heads instead of our hearts. Admittedly, and obviously, easier said than done.

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  4. By duke nukem on March 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Check out how much land area is needed to put the whole planet on solar power exclusively by 2030:   http://twitpic.com/8r3njw  .   It is not that much area, but it would be unlikely that the world would be only solar. 

    Radiation is a quiet killer, so if a billion people lose an average  5 years of healthy life to radiation aftereffects, versus 20,000 people losing an average potential 50 extra years of life instantly due to tsunami, radiation causes 5000 times more life lost.   And what of the tons of ionizing radiation released from burning carbon sources (all of which contain trapped radiological particles)?  Not to mention other carbon environmental effects like ocean acidification and polluted urban areas.

    We need to go to clean energy sooner than later…for my part, I feel good about the solar on my roof.

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    • By Samuel R. Avro on March 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      Radiation is a quiet killer, so if a billion people lose an average  5 years of healthy life to radiation aftereffects, versus 20,000 people losing an average potential 50 extra years of life instantly due to tsunami, radiation causes 5000 times more life lost.

      Did you simply pull these numbers out of a hat? If not, please provide a source.

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    • By Russ Finley on March 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Duke,

      I’m a big fan of solar.  Read the following comment to understand why it can’t do the job alone:

      http://www.consumerenergyreport.com/2012/03/05/inside-japans-nuclear-meltdown-the-unsensationalized-version/#comment-96584

      Your assumption that billions of people are losing 5 years of healthy life thanks to radiation from nuclear power plants is a complete fabrication.

      Your reference to carbon and acidification has nothing to do with nuclear power.

      I do agree that we need to go to clean energy, which includes nuclear, which is on par with solar for lifetime emissions.

       

       

       

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  5. By tennie davis on March 7, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Almost half of the world’s people -over 3 billion – live on less than $2.50 a day (2005 stats).

    Their life spans are shorter because of it. I would guess by more than 5 years.

    This shorter life span is NOT caused by radiation, it is caused by grinding  poverty and lack of modern infrastruture made possible by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

    Russ, you have infinite patience. I applaud that because the only way to combat ignorance is to inform.

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  6. By tennie davis on March 7, 2012 at 1:55 am

    Wikipedia says, accordind to both UN and WHO estimates, japan has the longest life expectancy at birth than any country in the world.

    Remember this is a small island country where 2 nuclear weapons were detonated.

    Forgive me for being facetious, but maybe the secret to a long life is nuclear war;)

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  7. By Jessica on March 7, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    Russ,

    I’m particularly interested in your phrasing of the heading “Sensationalism Brings Viewers”. Do you mean to say the media makes a conscious choice to mislead it’s viewers, purely for the purpose of profit? As a current student, I am only beginning to truly notice the difference between a news story and an actual truth. I often find myself torn between thinking perhaps personal ignorance or bias of the author or reporter may be the fault of exaggerating or misinterpreting facts, and hoping that an entire company of individuals who produce a story such as the one you’ve mentioned can’t possibly be so universally naive. What is your opinion in this matter?

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  8. By Russ Finley on March 8, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Jessica Said:

    Do you mean to say the media makes a conscious choice to mislead it’s viewers, purely”for the purpose of profit?

    The Nova documentary was very good and not sensationalized at all. Although the scene in the car appeared ad-libbed and silly (pretending that they rolled a window up to avoid radiation when it is cold enough to have snow on the ground and they are 38 miles away from the damaged reactors that are no longer emitting any emissions). The Frontline documentary, on the other hand, fit Wikipedia’s neutral definition of propaganda for profit like a glove.

    Not all documentaries are created equal. Some are very good, some are complete fabrications, most fall somewhere in between.

    There are many forms of media. Take the time to read this piece by Arianna Huffington about the death of newspapers:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman?currentPage

    As for the radio media , I give you Rush Limbaugh.

    The harsh reality is that most of what we read (especially in a printed newspaper), or watch on television, or hear on the radio is riddled with inaccuracies and hidden bias, how much is deliberate, or subconscious is beside the point. It is inaccurate. Take it all with a big grain of salt. Look for authors who draw readership specifically because of their knowledge, accuracy, courage, and honesty (Rapier, Monbiot to name two). It helps to read only articles that have a comment field–where readers will point out flawed reasoning, bias, and inaccuracy.

    Hateful, manipulative, bigoted critiques by commenters are often tolerated because they tend to lend credence to the author’s point of view, although that isn’t their intent.

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  9. By OD on March 8, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    So the nuclear reactors worked exactly like they were designed to. The generators were the failure.  Why do people ignore this fact?

    I agree with Tennie, you have a lot of patience Russ! ;-)

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    • By Russ Finley on March 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm

      Thanks OD but I didn’t mean to mislead you. Fuel rods at Daiichi actually did get hot enough to at least partially melt.

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  10. By J Hodge on March 24, 2012 at 12:07 am

    Japans and the world’s problems with nuclear waste has just become a very solvable issue. A new innovation with our business provides complete solutions for radioactive materials whether it is in the air or our primary business water. Our electronic system provides a way to neutralize radiation emitted into water or air. We can provide real solutions for real problems to most if not all water issues. So now it is possible to reclaim land and water once uninhabitable or undrinkable due to contamination. Once equipment is installed the process starts within months business as usual can resume without the need for protective gear for the areas outside normal safe zones.

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