The Crisis Papers has received numerous letters from
scientists and academics in response to co-editor Bernard Weiner's
"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
A Response on Fukushima Reactors
From U.S. Officer Who Was There in 2011
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.