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:

The reactors shut down and the fuel rods began cooling as designed when the quake hit.

A 30-foot high tsunami swamped the emergency power generators.

Water that was covering fuel rods evaporated causing them to start melting.

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).

People living within a twelve mile radius were evacuated prior to venting the containment vessel.

A badly misguided attempt was made to dump water on the pools using helicopters.

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.”

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