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Editors' Introduction:
 
The Crisis Papers has received numerous letters from scientists and academics in response to co-editor Bernard Weiner's essay: "Cutting Through Fukushma Fog: Radiation in U.S.?"  Perhaps the most interesting letter came to us from Reid Tanaka, who served as a nuclear advisor to the commander of U.S. military forces in Japan and to the U.S. Ambassador to Japan during the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. We don't necessarily agree with all his assertions and conclusions, but we find his recollections cogent, informed, well-written and important to a fuller understanding of the Dai-ichi disaster. We will post follow-ups at a later date.
 

 


 

 

SHEDDING SOME LIGHT ON THE FUKUSHIMA FOG

 

A Response on Fukushima Reactors From U.S. Officer Who Was There in 2011


By Reid Tanaka

 

 

 

Dear Dr. Weiner:

 

Your Op-Ed on Fukushima is quite on the mark regarding the Fukushima Fog — the lack of clarity — from the cacophony of information out on the web.  As you point out, the non-technical man-on-the-street has little ability to make sense of such a difficult and complex topic in view of the apparent divergent opinions by experts and self-proclaimed experts.  I am nuclear-trained and am a very interested party.  Yet it takes me a tremendous amount of time and effort to wade through the data and studies and reports to draw my own conclusions.  Granted there are still many issues where my expertise is not adequate, so I can well understand the common person’s confusion.

 

A key point which I try to make is that the issues are extremely complex.  Furthermore, expertise in subjects regarding the accident and the aftermath are not necessarily closely related: nuclear engineering and physics; radiation health and health -- these are examples where being an expert in one field doesn’t mean you have any understanding in the other. 

 

This complexity results in two overarching problems for the public.  The first is that the public wants answers in somewhat black-and-white terms.  Am I safe or not?  Are things good or bad?  Is someone an expert or not?  It is like asking the question, is it safe to get in a car and drive to work with a driver who smokes in the car?  Anyone who has any real expertise will not be able to answer the questions in those certain terms.  For the public, this is unsettling and unsatisfying.   

 

The second problem is that we tend to believe alarmists who proclaim themselves to be experts regardless of their credentials.  Tack on a title, like Chief Engineer (of a blog) to the name and a dramatic rise in credibility results, regardless of the person’s actual realm of expertise or experience.  Unfortunately, when called to answer questions outside their field, some often opine when they should demur.  I suggest it is the false testimony and speculation from pseudo-experts which gives undue life to myths and downright untruths.  Unsupported speculation from the mouths of these “experts” becomes “facts” and these stubbornly persist in the public domain.  A current similar issue swirls with another very complex issue: man-induced global warming.  I tend to believe in the >90% of scientists (factoid) who contend it is a real phenomenon and I look skeptically at the self-proclaimed experts, particularly if words such as “conspiracy” or “large scale coverup” are used.  Perhaps I am falling victim to herd-mentality, but I find myself giving greater credit to those who speak in terms of science and less in those who refer to politics in their argument.

 

I was in Japan, in the Navy, when the tsunami struck and because of my nuclear training, I was called forward to assist in the reactor accident response and served as a key advisor to the U.S. military forces commander and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan.   I spent a year in Tokyo with the U.S. NRC-led team to assist TEPCO and the Japanese Government in battling through the casualty.   I don’t qualify to be called an “expert” in reactor accidents and radiological impacts according to my own sensibility and standards, but I am well informed enough to know where my limits are and to see through much of the distortions on this issue.

 

Getting back to your op-ed, clearing the fog will take a tremendous effort.  If I may now, I’d like to address specifically the idea of data and public access to information.
 

 

A.  SECRETIVE – AN UNFAIR CONTINUING CHARGE?  

Unlike the first few days of the casualty, the amount of raw reporting and data provided by TEPCO and the Gov’t of Japan has been quite substantial.  Yet, accusations of obfuscation and lies continue to be leveled at TEPCO.  It is true, in the first days of the accident, TEPCO did circle the wagons and were recalcitrant regarding the release of information.  To some extent, we all do that when the thing for which we are responsible is offering nothing but bad news.  I certainly have been in that position before.  Do you withhold bad news from your boss or spouse hoping that it will somehow get better with time?  Or somehow try and paint a more positive picture when you do present the news?  Do you release sketchy information or wait until you can confirm the validity of the information?  For the U.S. team in Tokyo, it was maddening to receive filtered information and time-late data.  But with persistence and using our influence with the Gov’t of Japan, we eventually gained unprecedented access with which TEPCO (and the Japanese industry) was unaccustomed.  Moreover, the Prime Minister directed TEPCO and the Gov’t ministries to be open with data and release it to the public.  Websites for the key ministries and for TEPCO were created with postings of a substantial amount of information.  TEPCO reported reactor plant data, radiological instrument readings, in addition to hundreds of technical and non-technical presentations on problems, resolutions and plans. 

 

The various ministries of Gov’t of Japan started posting real time radiological monitoring data and radiological survey data: food, water, air, ocean, dirt, etc.  Some of it is in Japanese, but a great percentage of it has been translated to English (and other languages such as Chinese and Korean as well).  The amount of data that was (and is) posted to the web is, in my opinion, overwhelming.  I believe the only reason anyone may feel that there isn’t information available is because they haven’t looked at the information available.  A general Google search for Fukushima will tend to result in the sensational and alarmist websites and non-technical news reports.  If one narrows the search, you could also find the dull, technical and uninteresting (yet truthful) places such as the IAEA or DOE.  Unfortunately, you have to know what to look for.   Moreover, the Japanese public gets even more than this (in Japanese news reports).  Your impression that no news is good news is a fair one—particularly because there really is no, nor will be an, impact to the U.S. from Fukushima fallout.  You might want to look at the three websites with links below if you really want to crack into the information and data available.

 

Leslie Corrice who runs the Hiroshima Syndrome blog has been providing near daily (English) updates since the start of the casualty.   Although he is a nuclear advocate, I really like his blog as a source of timeline and references (primarily news releases and press reports).  I think you will see that the information being published in English is not the paucity you have grown to believe it is.  http://www.hiroshimasyndrome.com/fukushima-accident-updates.html

 

I would also suggest going to the TEPCO website.  I think you’ll find it full of “just-the-facts-ma’am” data and reports and will have a hard time believing they are engaging in a “lie to the public” campaign.  http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/index_ho-e.html

 

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) posts status of food and water contamination, linked below.  Other ministries have similar postings:  http://www.mhlw.go.jp/english/topics/2011eq/index_food.html

 

One other point which creates an image of coverup is the lack of information available:  there are so many things that are not known because there is no way to investigate and to know.  The radiation levels inside the containment buildings to this day are hazardous after just a few minutes of exposure -- they would be deadly inside.  This is briefly mentioned in the IAEA report (attached).  In a normal plant, these spaces would be easily accessible and we’d send people in and go look.  After almost 3 years, we are making slow but steady progress with specialized robots at being able to even look.  Answers to many questions will take years to develop.  It is one of the huge drawbacks to nuclear power and a valid concern which weighs against the industry.  Sometimes initial assessments are wrong and have to be corrected later.  Incomplete knowledge sometimes results in incorrect assessments.  These are often characterized as lies or “whoppers”.  Instead, these new revelations should be characterized as a better assessment after having new information.  Strontium measurement is an  example of a radionuclide which is not detectable by most of our instruments and it takes a time-consuming laboratory analysis to measure it.

 

You mention the new "state secrets" law as it somehow relates to journalists and Fukushima.  From what I understand (I’m speaking in an area where I am not well-versed), that law applied to intelligence and military capability and hardware.  I do know that we in the Navy had been sometimes restricted when working with our Japanese counterparts with classified material, because Japanese law did not quite comport with our U.S. espionage laws.   Somehow I don’t see how this is restricting data or information.
 

 

B.  TRUTH. 

In addition to openness, numerous bodies of experts have weighed in and provided assessments and reports.  Many quite comprehensive and difficult to wade through.  A couple of the reports are attached which are quite critical of TEPCO and the Japanese nuclear industry and regulators.  For me, after reading through numerous reports and assessments (all available on the web), it is difficult to assert that the truth is being hidden from the public domain.  I will say again the biggest problem the public has is the complexity of the issue and the challenge in being able to distinguish the science-based, objective reports from the alarmist and emotionally charged positions that regularly get the attention of the press. 

 

To be more specific in my assertion, I would like to address some of the names you have listed in your report.

 

    (1) Two are self-proclaimed experts in some fields but NOT nuclear power: Dr. David Suzuki and Dr. Michio Kaku.  Based on the things they have said publicly, neither understand spent fuel, nor the condition of spent fuel pools.  Although it is true that the spent fuel contains a substantial amount of radioactive material, they are not at risk of meltdown.  The scenario being painted by these two scientists just doesn’t make sense and their assertions of calamity or disaster are not credible.  Dr. Kaku may be a brilliant physicist, and I used to like to watch him as a science expert, but now that I’ve seen what he says about anything regarding a nuclear power plant, I realize he is clearly outside his understanding.  He could probably tell you exactly the physics of why an airplane can fly, but I wouldn’t trust him to jump in a cockpit and land the plane.  Dr. Suzuki is an award-winning scientist and a champion for the environment, but it is clear to me he is lacking any real understanding about spent fuel or radioactivity.  “Bye-bye Japan?”  A headline grabbing sound-bite, but the math just doesn’t work.

 

   (2) Two are self-admitted staunchly anti-nuclear propagandists.  Arnie Gunderson and Paul Gunter.  Arnie Gunderson blogs on a website called Fairewinds and sometimes offer valid criticisms and insight.  However, much of what he says demonstrates he doesn’t really understand the complexity regarding the Fukushima accident.  He also likes to criticize TEPCO for their assessments as lies or incompetence, but his “correct” analysis comes to a different conclusion.   Unfortunately, I find that he too often cherry picks TEPCO’s assessments and misstates their conclusions.   Furthermore, he is also willing to speak in areas where he clearly has neither expertise nor valid information.  The most recent is his comments regarding the radiation fallout on USS RONALD REAGAN.  It is because he says things which I clearly know to be not truthful or ill-informed, I have come to the conclusion his credentials as an expert are not what he self-professes them to be.  Paul Gunter is the lead blogger for the anti-nuclear website Beyond Nuclear with a stated goal of eliminating nuclear power.  Although, I’m not quite familiar with his work directly, I have viewed many, many ridiculous statements offered by the founding president, Dr. Helen Caldicott.  She is well known for substantially exaggerating the risk of radiation exposure. 

 

   (3) Of note, you pointed to a science-based, non-biased (nuclear) series of studies by Dr. Ken Buessler from MIT Woods Hole.  His interest as an oceanographer is to study the radionuclides in the ocean environment.  I find his discussion and findings to be quite fair and credible.  In my mind, another key indicator of an expert is that he professes both the strengths and weaknesses of his findings.  Dr. Buessler does so.  I don’t find the same with the fore-mentioned four in (1) and (2) above.
 

 

C. VOCABULARY. 

At risk of being redundant, nuclear power and radiation are two very complex subjects.  The reason why we speak in becquerels, sieverts, rem, gigawatts, peta-bq, and the like is because these are the names of the units of measure.  It is not meant to confuse, but rather meant to explain so that a meaningful comparison can be made.  One cannot talk about buying a house without talking square feet, acreage, dollars and distances to the school.  Without the discussion of measurement, how do you expect a discussion about impact to be held?   What makes radiation and radioactivity also difficult to discuss is because of the span of the mathematical magnitude.  Most of us can only picture things that are ten times or hundred times bigger (on the order of 10 to the 2nd or 3rd power perhaps).  Even if we hear someone is a millionaire or a billionaire, we have a feeling of what it means, but really can’t imagine what a billion dollars on a pallet would look like.  But if we say pico (10 to the minus 12 power) and Peta (10 to the plus 12 power) in the same discussion, regarding radiation, we really would struggle to put it into context. 
 

 

D.  OK or NOT OK? 

This is the question people want to hear, but are provided with divergent opinions.  It is not a simple question to answer.  There has been a tremendous amount of good work to stabilize and contain the situation.  There are enough measures in place where even another earthquake or tsunami could be absorbed without catastrophe.  However, we are decades away from a long-term solution.  And radioactivity from the plant will continue to leak slowly out into the ocean and air for at least a couple of more years.  To those that understand radioactivity and biological effects, this leakage needs to be contained, but overall the impact will be inconsequential.  To those who really don’t understand or who have a gut fear (as most of us do) of radiation, this leakage is not insignificant since it is not zero.  The conflict you read is the opinions of the two camps.  I believe the true experts cannot give a simple answer, because there isn’t one, while those who really have no science to back their claims have no compunction in saying the sky is falling and everyone else is lying.
 

 

E.  PLANT EXPERTS. 

The UN or IAEA cannot operate or oversee a nuclear power plant or an accident clean-up effort at a site.  The true experts are those who have been operating the plant for years.  Each plant is unique as it is custom built to the landscape among other variables.  You couldn’t grab a team of “experts” from a company headquarters to run down to the manufacturing plant and run the assembly line.   After watching our team of US experts work with TEPCO for a year, it was clear TEPCO really did have some great minds analyzing the issues and finding solutions. The task is enormous and the problems incredible.  I think TEPCO engineers and workers deserve tremendous credit.  I am withholding judgment on the executives, however.
 

 

F.  USS RONALD REAGAN. 

For the Navy, the contamination from Fukushima created a huge amount of extra work and costs in decontaminating the ships and aircraft to “zero”, but no risk  to the health of our people.

 

   (1) REAGAN was fairly far from Fukushima (~100 miles) when the radiation alarms first alerted us (US NAVY) to the Fukushima accident.  Navy nuclear ships have low-level radiation alarms to alert us of a potential problem with our onboard reactors.    So when the airborne alarms were received, we were quite surprised (and concerned).  The levels of airborne contamination were small, but caused a great deal of additional evaluation and work.  REAGAN’s movements were planned and made to avoid additional fallout.  Sailors who believe they were within 5 miles or so, were misinformed.  Japanese ships were close, the REAGAN was not.

 

    (2)  Water was never a real problem, but we took painstaking measures to ensure it wasn’t.  Indeed a false positive water sample (I believe to be aboard REAGAN), caused us to alert the crew, secure onboard water supplies, terminate water-making and the like until it could be investigated.   For us, detectable contamination in the water would have really been a quite a significant issue since it would take quite a large sea-borne plume, at a great distance to land for that to be the case.  As it turns out, it was a false alarm.  As a prophylactic measure, we did prohibit water-making in a large ocean area “just in case” since most of our ships are not nuclear and didn’t have the ability to sample for low-level radioactivity in the ocean.

 

    (3) Former Sailors in a lawsuit.  There are former Sailors who are engaged in a class-action suit against TEPCO for radiation sickness they are now suffering for the exposure they received from Operation Tomodachi.  The lead plaintiffs were originally Sailors from REAGAN but now have expanded to a few other Sailors who were on other ships.  Looking at the lawsuit claims, I have no doubt some of the Sailors have some ailments, but without any real supporting information (I haven’t seen ANY credible information to that end).  I do not believe any of their ailments can be directly attributable to radiation—fear and stress related, perhaps, but not radiation directly.  Of interest, radiation sickness occurs within minutes/hours timeframe of exposure and cancer occurs in many-years timeframe.  These Sailors were not sick in either of these two windows.

 

I do believe many of them believe it, but I also believe most are being misled. 
 

 

G.   HYPERBOLE IS REALLY ONE-SIDED. 

When one side of an issue goes to the extreme, it doesn’t mean the other side is at the other polar extreme.  I believe much of your angst and frustration stems from the hyperbole which you suggest.  Some of your own words borrow unfortunately from the extremes of the hyperbole and perpetuate mistruths and fear: “increasingly dangerous to humanity”, “Tepco, for example, often dispenses flat-out lies, whoppers..”; “One bad accident and/or another major earthquake in the vicinity, and a radiological cataclysm could occur.”; “The U.S. offered to provide more onsite help, an offer that was rejected by Tepco”; “what may be a whitewashed coverup”.

 

In closing, I too am frustrated with the unchecked falsehoods and perpetuated myths and wish we could get to the point where we are having rational people having rational debate.  I initially wanted to shoot a quick note in response to your article because it seems it was written by a rational person who was reaching out for a more cogent information.

 

It turns out, I wrote a lot more than I intended.  I hope this helps.

 

Warmest regards,

Reid Tanaka

 

-----------

 

Reid Tanaka, who has more than 25 years of experience in nuclear issues in the U.S. Navy, served as a nuclear advisor to the commander of the U.S. military forces in Japan and to the U.S. Ambassador to Japan during the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

 

 


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances