Home > Japan, News Accuracy > Article on Fukushima contains factual errors

Article on Fukushima contains factual errors

April 6, 2012

Figure 1. This map shows the areas struck by the March 11 earthquake. As the map shows, the areas not close to Sendai did not experience the same magnitude shocks.

The Wall Street Journal published an opinion article in support of nuclear power that has problems with accuracy. This article will identify and analyse some of these errors in an attempt to evaluate the article’s objectivity. As with most opinion pieces, they are not held up to the same standards a professional journalist would adhere to in publishing an article. However, some comment is warranted due to its subject matter, audience and nature of the errors.

“Japan has taken all of its 54 reactors out of service,” wrote William Tucker in his March 6 article entitled “Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power.” On March 6, however, there were at least two reactors online: the No. 6 reactor at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (operated by TEPCO) and the No. 3 at the Tomari plant (operated by Hokkaido Electric Power Co). The Tomari reactor is still running and is scheduled to go offline in May. Barring the restart of other reactors,  there be no commercial reactors running in Japan. Therefore, it  incorrect to say that “Japan has taken all of its 54 reactors out of service.” Even a casual search on the internet shows this to be the case (see stats on plants here).

All 54 of Japan’s reactors absorbed an earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale—the biggest in Japan’s recorded history” (my emphasis). First, Fukushima is located on the main island of Honshu, and is one of the few areas that registered a 9.0 earthquake. Much of the damage occurred near the eastern coastline (near Sendai). Whilst it is true that some felt earthquakes in other areas -like Tokyo – they were of a lower magnitude, not 9.0. In fact, many people in Japan felt nothing at all on March 11. Kyushu, which is home to several reactors, did not experience a 9.0 earthquake, according to USGS data. Many of the residents knew nothing of the earthquakes and subsequent aftershocks to the northeast until they saw the news reports after the fact.

Only the few reddish areas listed on the map had a 9.0 earthquake. The rest affected by the earthquake showed a much lower reading on the scale. The map shows that most of Honshu experienced figures of 3.0 to 6.0 (see figure 1 or the original USGS data here). Moreover, the majority of Japan’s nuclear reactor are not located in the Tohoku area, and could not have experienced 9.0 earthquakes, as a quick look at the geography makes clear. Thus the statement that All 54 of Japan’s reactors absorbed an earthquake of 9.0″ is directly contradicted by the USGS data. Mr. Tucker’s argument claims that the 54 reactors were tested at levels above their design capacity and had no damage (as he states here: “Though the shock exceeded design specifications, the steel reactor vessels and concrete containment structures remained intact.”), which would indicate earthquakes pose no threat to the plants. However, the nuclear plants were never tested at withstand a 9.0 earthquake on March 11 because they were not in the areas where the 9.0 earthquake struck, as demonstrated. Those in Fukushima that were hit by the earthquake were completely incapacitated. Whilst it is not publicly known exactly how much damage the earthquake did to the reactors, there is the possibility it played a role in the coolant failings or caused other damage (see here). Mr. Tucker blames all the damage on the tsunami, which is speculation at best but a talking point by the pro-nuclear crowd. His point that all the nuclear plants can withstood Japan’s largest recorded earthquake has no basis in fact.

One problem with his writing is ambiguity. It is often not clear what exactly he is referring to. There is the possibility the article says that their containment vessels (reactors outside of Fukushima) and concrete structures remained intact; if so then he would be correct in that they were not heavily damaged (if at all). But that would prove nothing. As established, those reactors outside of Fukushima did not experience a 9.0 earthquake. If the writer is referring to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, then there is a problem. First, the radiation levels are so high that humans cannot inspect the Fukushima reactors in person and live. At some 72 sieverts for the No. 2 reactor, only a scope is capable of looking in it briefly. This “is the only one that has been examined,” says Al Jazeera. “The exact conditions of the other two reactors, where hydrogen explosions damaged their buildings, are still unknown” (read the data here). Even before the scope test, “plant officials previously said more than half of the melted fuel had breached the core and dropped to the floor of the primary containment vessel, some of it splashing against the wall or the floor.” Did the reactor vessels at the Fukushima Daiichi plant remain intact? How about the concrete structures? Whilst questions remain on the state of the melt through at those reactors, there is no question that at least the outer concrete structures were blown off and completely destroyed in highly televised explosions, which needs no repetition here. That structure obviously did not withstand the effects of the earthquake and tsunami.

Figure 2. This image, From NTV Japan, shows an explosion that wrecked the outer building. See the Telegraph for additional photos here.

If the  writer is referring to the concrete inside the buildings, then there is a problem as well. In June 2011 the Telegraph reported that the fuel at the reactors “has melted through the base of the pressure vessels and is pooling in the outer containment vessels” (see here). In December 2011, the Guardian analysed a  TEPCO report that “said the concrete ‘could have been penetrated'” (see here). Mr. Tucker may be correct in his claim that the fuel itself has not escaped through the last layers of defence, but it would appear that is dangerously close to doing just that. The Daily Kos printed TECPCO’s Matsumoto’s words in a meeting with NISA: “In addition, the simulation suggests that the fuel bored more than two feet into the concrete, Mr. Matsumoto said” (their emphasis, see report here). All of this – whilst not insignificant – is a sideshow that distracts from the main point: the untold the amount/types of radiation released and the effects they will have on the environment and its inhabitants. Concrete and vessel intact or not, there was a large release of radiation and the measures in place at the plant failed to prevent this.

Third, it is true that the March 11 earthquake was “the biggest in Japan’s recorded history,” but there were larger earthquakes elsewhere. The largest recorded one took places in Chile in 1960, which was a 9,5 (see here). Though the article does not claim the March 11 earthquake was the largest of all, it uses a pro-nuclear industry talking point which emphasises that it was one of the largest earthquakes to hit Japan in “recorded history” – note it does not say “in history.” There is a reason for this. The USGS says that “a predecessor may have occurred on July 13, 869, when the Sendai area was swept by a large tsunami that Japanese scientists have identified from written records and a sand sheet” (see here). By using the phrase “recorded history” the writer is knowingly excluding this essential historical precedent for earthquakes on par with the 9.0 one that struck in 2011. This gives the impression the earthquake of 2011 was the largest when there is evidence to suggest otherwise.

What is so interesting about this particular earthquake in 869 is that it appears to be the very same one seismologist Yukinobu Okamura used to warn NISA (Japan’s nuclear safety agency) and TEPCO (Fukushima’s plant operator) that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was inadequately built to withstand a large tsunami triggered by an earthquake; he specifically said an earthquake larger than that of 1938 had occurred in the Sendai area, citing the one of 869. NISA and TEPCO did not want to accept this (TEPCO even disputed it), and did not act on his advice to take precautions that might have prevented damage  To admit large earthquakes at certain magnitude could have occurred would have called into question the plant’s inadequate protections against large earthquakes and tsunamis. Saying the Fukushima plant was not able to withstand a large earthquake or tsunami (as the castle had not been able to in 869, remarked Mr. Okamura) could have meant shutting it or other plants nearby. Mr. Tucker may or may not be aware of the implication of his comment, but his calling the March 11 earthquake the largest in recorded history might leave the casual reader thinking that the Japanese had taken seismologists’ advice seriously and built plants designed to withstand the largest known tsunamis and earthquakes (since larger ones never happened there was no reason to take precautions). Evidence, however, suggests the government and TEPCO ignored expert advice to take necessary precautions as late as 2009 (see here).

Figure 3. This INES chart from the IAEA website shows the 7 stages of nuclear accidents. Fukushima was raised to a level 7 last year, putting it above Three Mile Island (whose reactors did not allow significant releases of radiation into the environment) and on par with Chernobyl, though experts generally agree Chernobyl released more radiation into the environment.

There are other problems. Mr. Tucker says that “the core of three reactors melted down, but that in itself is not a public catastrophe as long as the reactor vessel and containment structure hold.” This is so ridiculous as to not merit comment. Not only, for instance, are three reactor meltdowns a “public catastrophe,” but they in themselves would be grounds to declare a level 5 disaster even if the radiation had not spread all over the place (as was the case with Three Mile Island, 1979). The idea that an intact containment pressure vessel is the criterion by which a “public catastrophe” is measured is not in line with the INES scale guidelines (see here). So extensive is the damage that it might take 40 years to dismantle the reactors; this is just a tentative estimate. The technology needed to do the work does not yet exist. Mr. Tucker’s focus on the source of the radiation (steam, leaks or spent fuel) tries to sidestep the one fact he cannot hide: the massive escape of radiation that will affect the environment and life forms for hundreds of years or more.

Fukushima was raised to a level 7 disaster precisely because it was not a “local” accident. The IAEA’s guidelines for a level 7 disaster include “severe damage to reactor” and “major release: widespread health and environmental effects” (their emphasis see here). Did the March 11 disaster not meet both? Three meltdowns is “severe damage” by any measure (three melt through problems are unprecedented), and “widespread health and environmental effects” is precisely the criterion listed and why the Japanese government had to order the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. One might argue the extent of the health or environmental effects, but Mr. Tucker does not do that. He, instead, denies there are any, claiming that “all the damage has been from depression, despair and even suicide among the 100,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes within a 12-mile radius.” One might interpret this as saying the radiation released is harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is true there have been no recorded deaths attributed to radiation so far, but that is likely to change as nuclear and health experts have pointed out. “I believe we’re going to see as many as a million cancers over the next 30 years because of the Fukushima incident in Japan,” said a respected expert, Arnie Gunderson, in an interview with Democracy Now (see here). Whilst experts disagree with the numbers (some say more and some say less), they do expect there will be some health effects, even if it is still too early to quantify. Mr. Tucker, interestingly, only denies that they have happened so far (he says “has been,” which only refers to the past up to the present). Again, saying that people have not become sick from radiation yet is not the same as saying they will not one day become sick. Many people were exposed to upwards of 20 mSv/yr and others over 100 mSv/yr. The latter have a statistically greater chance of becoming sick in future (which is not controversial). Even Dr. Shinichi Yamashita might have trouble denying that. Some will recall his infamous remarks about 100 mSv/yr being no problem for pregnant women (or up to 100 mSv), and that “the effects of radiation do not come to people who are happy and laughing,” which he later tried to explain away (see an English translational here & report here). Needless to say, his comments caused an uproar particularly among parents, whose children are more vulnerable than adults to radiation (see UNSCR report here). Their parents understand they cannot deal with radiation the way adults do, are more vulnerable to its effects and need greater protections.

Mr. Tucker’s comments could be understood to be part of the Yamashita school of thought, particularly when he claimed that “low radiation doses may immunize the body against cancer and birth defects.” This claim (based on a case in Taiwan in which residents were exposed for years) would seem to be outside the mainstream of scientific thought. There are several ideas in the scientific community, detailed in the NY Times. The first is that radiation up to a certain level will not be harmful (minority). Another view is that cancers increase with low-level exposure (minority). The other view is that “when people are exposed to small doses for decades, the incidence of cancer will rise over time” (see here). The article quotes Dr. Richard Monson who said, “There’s a point beneath which you just don’t know and a straight line is the simplest assumption.” This is what most experts would say, that there are some unknowns until further evidence is published.

The WSJ article, on the other hand, quotes a Berkley researcher, Mina Bissell, who said, “This non-linear DNA damage response casts doubt on the general assumption that any amount of ionizing radiation is harmful and additive.” Bissell is a respected scientist, and neither her work nor report is being called into question. The problem is the way Mr. Tucker uses it. He claims that, based on this, the current “premise that even the smallest exposures to ionizing radiation can be harmful” will continue to be used, leading to major economic damage (“dismembering economies”). His claim is that governments are too protective of their citizens with radiation, and this is unreasonable and destroying economies. He uses Germany and Japan as examples. Aside from the fact he provides no convincing evidence the German and Japanese economies are suffering from a lowered use of nuclear power, he is reducing a complex scientific problem and drawing widespread conclusions that many scientists would not.

For example, the report he cited says: “this comprehensive quantitative analysis challenged the concept of linearity between IR dose and RIF yield and suggests the existence of DNA repair center in human cells.” The study, “Evidence for formation of DNA repair centers and dose-response nonlinearity in human cells,” adds further knowledge an area desperately in need of study, and “casts doubt” (as Bissel said) on current understanding on the effects radiation effects as studied in a model based on Atomic bomb research, which would indicate the need for further study. This is what the Berkley Lab news release says, and is in line with the researchers comments and report. However, calling for a complete dismantling of scientific understanding based on this study, as the WSJ article seems to do, might be considered premature by some (see the Berkley report here & comments here).

More importantly, using the report to claim that exposure to unspecified levels of radiation released from Fukushima poses no health risk is questionable. Bissell’s comment is that those scientists who believe that “any amount of ionizing radiation” could lead to cancers have to reevaluate their views, is not the same as saying exposure of children of up to 20 mSv/yr is harmless, and is something the Japanese government has allowed (or 100 mSv as Dr. Yamashita says). But these are not necessarily low doses of radiation. They are not, for example, equivalent to a simple x-ray or normal background radiation (nor are they even the same types of radiation). They are numbers being compared with what people are normally exposed to (1 to 3 mSv/yr) and what the upper limits of  “occupational radiation exposure to adults working with radioactive material to 5,000 mrem (50 mSv) per year” (see NRC’s guidelines here). In other words, exposing civilians (particularly children) up to 20 mSv/yr is not low dose radiation – particularly if it is done for successive years. They start approaching the limits of what nuclear plant workers can endure legally. Just because workers in the US can be exposed up to 50 mSv/yr does not mean they are. So ten-year-old school children should be exposed to 20 mSv/yr?

The controversy over children’s exposure to radiation took centre stage when special adviser to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Toshiso Kosako resigned in protest over the government’s 20 mSv/yr exposure limit to children. A respected expert on radiation and professor at Tokyo University, Kosako made the highly unusual step of resigning publicly, saying that he would not allow his own children to be exposed to those levels of radiation (see here). Though the government subsequently changed its standards to limit children to 1mSv/yr at schools, that does not mean some children will not be exposed to higher rates as soon as they leave the school building. The WSJ ran an article last year in which it examined some of the forecasts Kosako made of radiological contamination that were later confirmed (as with food contamination, see here). This reporting by journalist Yuka Hayashi differs markedly in its approach to these topics from this article by Mr. Tucker. On exposure to radiation Mr. Tucker said, “There’s no evidence that low doses of radiation are harmful and no reason to paralyze our economy out of fear of nuclear power.” One must have a clear understanding of what he considers “low doses” of radiation. 1 mSv/yr is normal, but 20 mSv/yr? None of this even deals with internal caesium, which is a whole different matter.

Figure 4. This USGS intensity map shows the earthquake levels in the majority of Japan.

The article’s claim, as mentioned earlier, that not using nuclear power will “paralyze our economy” contradicts a Pew 2009 report that clean energy (it defines the term and does not include nuclear due to waste) has the potential (assuming more investment and political support) to help the economy (see report here). Nor is it the only report to do so.

The writer supports the economic damage argument in part on “factories [that] have slowed because of power shortages” and an “$18 deficit” as a result of having to purchase oil and natural gas. First, there were decreases of electricity usage in the summer of 2011, but that was in the peak operating time, and the entire nation worked together to avoid blackouts. An unprecedented energy efficiency campaign and adjusted work hours allowed factories to operate, but they had to make some adjustments so as not to overburden the system at peak hour time. This is not what economists would label as able to “paralyze [their] economy,” for it did not. Japan managed to survive the summer of 2011 with energy efficiency, “super cool biz” and hard work. Factories going out of business en masse over this problem did not occur. Economic damage?

Whatever economic problems it has is due largely to debt existing prior to the March 11 disaster. $18 bn deficit or not over the purchase of natural gas to offset nuclear power, the Japanese economy is the world’s third largest and its unemployment is low. Japan actually lowered its unemployment from 5.1 in 2010 to 4.5 in 2011. Neither this, the CPI nor other rubrics will show a lack of nuclear energy caused significant damage to the Japanese economy. There is no evidence in this argument to support the idea that is causing harm to the Japanese economy. It might reduce power companies’ profits, but that is hardly the Japanese economy. This seems more in line of the Republican party’s incessant yelling of deficits in the US, not the Japanese economy as it is today.

As a side point, the writer also claims that the real problem was not earthquakes, but rather “the subsequent 50-foot tsunami [that] wiped out the backup generators at Fukushima.” The Japan Today published an article on March 12, 2012 with the title “Only 2 nuclear plants have sea walls – Fukushima Daiichi, Danini,” citing an Associated Press report (see here). What does that say for all the other reactors without sea walls currently in place the next time a large tsunami comes? All of this comes to light as yet another Japanese nuclear power plant was interrupted by the weather: “The storm temporarily reduced electricity supplies to the Onagawa nuclear power plant, in Miyagi prefecture, halting the cooling system for a fuel pool, operator Tohoku-Electric Power Co said” (see here on April 4). Despite appearance, the Japanese nuclear power plants apparently have little in place to prevent further Fukushima disasters, and the US is far from immune as well. The idea that upgrades ignores another complex problem, that of ageing and obsolete plants still online round the world.

This opinion article in the WSJ makes unsupported assumptions, ambiguous claims and draws widespread sweeping conclusion with insufficient evidence. Other facts are ignored or not addressed at all. This appears to be a pro-nuclear argument for an American audience who do not follow the Fukushima disaster closely or who do not understand the effects of radiation. Its purpose is  to make anti-nuclear protesters look unscientific or irrational – i.e. opposed to nuclear power, not because they might get sick, but because they are ignorant of the facts. This is the conclusion one might draw if one reads this article and is unaware of the facts. It denies the suffering that hundreds of thousands of people right now.

There are farmers whose land is too radioactive to farm. There are whole communities who will never be able to re-inhabit their lands. There are people who were in the path of the radioactive plume, exposed to disconcerting levels of radiation because of government failures or refusals to evacuate or use SPEEDI data. Radioactive food and debris are being sent all over the country. The list goes on, and many in the Fukushima area will get sick (the numbers are disputed, though). These are the real effects of the contamination. This article’s claims are not that different from the Japanese government’s frivolous claim that “baseless rumors” or “harmful rumors” are the real problem. They argue the problem is all in the mind and behaviour of those people, not radiation. People are supposed to believe that.

As Mr. Tucker says, “it might behoove the world to ponder what the dangers of nuclear energy really are.” Unfortunately, one will not arrive at an accurate understanding of those dangers based on the opinion piece published in the WSJ.

Staff Report,

Civis Journal

Problems with this WSJ article are also covered by Ex-SKF (click here), which looks at a different set of problems are not covered here.

The WSJ article can be accessed here with a subscription; for a free reading of it and commentary (click here or here).

Copies to the studies looking at the Taiwan buildings (not discussed here) can be read here and here.

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