Frontline Episode on Fukushima & Nuclear Safety Misses On Details

PBS show Frontline recently did an episode “Nuclear Aftershocks” on the Fukushima nuclear disaster and US nuclear safety. The feedback after the premiere on Twitter wasn’t very kind. Many weighed in dismissing the entire piece as “pro-nuclear propaganda”. The information in the show itself was not necessarily a PR piece for the nuclear industry as some on Twitter complained but it did have a few missing important details and some miss-statements that were misleading.

Before going more into the show, the “show” after the premiere on Twitter was probably more enlightening than the show itself. Under the #frontline tag on Twitter people were encouraged to discuss the show but what people encountered on Twitter was a flurry of PR propaganda from the nuclear industry lobby group NEI, Areva and Entergy. The tweets ranged from standard pro-nuclear platitudes to outright fabrication. The group of PR accounts refused to respond to any actual questions posed about specific public concerns like spent fuel safety, post Fukushima safety upgrades, failed GE venting systems and renewable energy. The only actual responses came in the form of standard industry ad hominem attacks on people asking questions. When they realized they couldn’t control the conversation the PR accounts stopped tweeting. This was an interesting real time peek inside the tactics of the nuclear industry to manipulate the public, but it doesn’t stand up well to open debate.

A live chat was held the following day on the PBS website. The chat involved the shows producers and a writer from Wired. They said they had over 200 people in the chat but only fielded a handful of questions. A number of people said they sent in multiple questions, only one of all of those was posted. The bulk of the live chat was the producers and the Wired writer talking to each other and prattling on about themselves. Maybe they don’t understand how a live chat (even a moderated Cover It LIve one) works.

The show itself starts with an overview of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster early events. Then it focuses more on Indian Point near New York City. The show does point out the unaddressed risk of having an old unsafe reactor on a fault line just outside the US’s largest city. It would simply be impossible to evacuate New York City if Indian Point ever had a major accident. The show leaves the viewer there to decide for themselves what would actually happen in NYC. In between they interview a variety of people, most were US nuclear industry insiders.

Probably the biggest concern or comment from our members that watched the show were the inaccuracies.
The series of omissions and errors with fact check:

Everything was fine until tsunami hit
Fact check: Workers witnessed damage at unit 1 as the quake hit.
Fact check: The IC was shut down at unit 1 by workers due to rapid cooling
Fact check: The IC was not operating properly
Fact check: The HPCI at unit 1 never worked and was not used 
Fact check: The official investigation said there is not enough information at this point to declare the tsunami as the source of the fatal damage
Fact check: Daini, who had power after the tsunami, has a unit with a cracked containment.

That evacuations of people didn’t happen until March 15
Fact check: Up to 10km was evacuated March 11
Fact check: Up to 20km was evacuated March 12
Fact check: March 15 a new declaration that anyone still in the 20km zone should leave and 20-30km stay indoors

That emergency generators were on the seafront
** this may have had to do with the way they worded it but was vague and gave the impression they were saying this
Fact check: Emergency diesel generators are inside the buildings but in basements, this lead to the flooding.

That contaminated zones are relatively low
Fact check: Many areas in Fukushima are still highly contaminated and over the govt. threshold. 
Fact check: Intense hot spots are frequently found around the area.
Fact check: The 20 mSv annual exposure used by the government is the maximum EMERGENCY level cited by ICRP
it is not intended to be a normal living condition. 

Fact check: women, children and people with certain health issues are more at risk and the current govt. level for children is 1 mSv annual exposure.
*New hot spots can develop due to weather and other factors. These also only look at external contamination factors.

That the risk of cancer is very very small
Fact check: 1 in every 100 young girls exposed to 20 mSv annually could develop cancer, based on BEIR VII
* The issue of cancer risk and safe levels of exposure is highly debated. Many established experts admit we still do not fully understand exposure, cancer risk
and the impact of chronic low dose radiation exposure. Even with a set of numerical odds given, expecting someone to purposely accept that risk that they might
be that person to develop cancer out of the population is a ridiculous proposition.

The only bridge to not using nuclear power and future energy technology is coal
Fact check: Nuclear power is only 9% of US power consumption, not the 20% frequently claimed by nuclear lobbyists NEI
Fact check: Germany is not likely to use coal as the primary source to replace nuclear an will likely meet their emissions reduction goals.
Fact check: Coal is only 21% of total US power generation. Coal plants without scrubbers account for the majority of US Co2 emissions.
Fact check: Renewables now create more US power than nuclear
Fact check: South Dakota alone has enough wind capacity to provide 50% of the US power demand.

Among other issues with this omission of renewables and the claims of a dire need for either nuclear or coal is the omission of the spent fuel issue. The US currently has spent fuel pools so overloaded with decades of nuclear fuel that MIT wrote a paper about the public safety risk of storing all this unsecured near big cities.  We currently have no storage plan for nuclear fuel.

The show itself omits some key facts. While some of it is understandable due to a limited time allotment, some were key facts that should have been included. Others that were key parts of the presentation were patently false such as the “nuclear or coal” as our only options and the downplaying of both risk and exposure.

The day after the show a moderated chat was conducted on the PBS website. Some of Miles O Brien’s statements were far from objective and outright misleading. It had hints of both arrogance and bias for the subject at hand, accusing the general public of being both fearful and stupid. Probably not the best way to gain public trust needed for successful science journalism. We saw how bad this kind of attitude and bias can be in the BBC’s Jim Al Kahlili episode of their science show Horizon. Ian Goddard debunks the episode here.

These are some of the comments Miles O Brien made during the live chat:

Miles: it probably has been overdone and the level at which a evacuation is triggered in Japan-20 Millisieverts of exposure per year is extremely low. I am certain the government of Japan would like to walk that one back. But it’s impossible to do that. The truth is the stress and anxiety of dislocating 180,000 people will pack a much greater health risk over the long term than if they stayed in an area that was contaminated at those levels.

Areas around Japan in and outside of the evacuation zone are higher than the mandatory evacuation threshold used at Chernobyl.  20 mSv per year is the maximum exposure for German nuclear plant workers. 20 mSv per year is the ICRP maximum during an emergency, not expected for day to day normal life. To call this level extremely low and claim that relocation is a greater risk is just reckless and not backed up by the body of science. 

Miles: it depends on who they are and where they live. If you’re a mother with young children who like to play in the dirt and maybe even little of it, you might rather live somewhere else. But if you’re older, you might rather be at home and except the slight additional dose of radiation over the remainder of your life. You might very well get cancer, but that could be from smoking or drinking or the big risk factor: obesity. So wherever you live, stay away from the cheeseburgers and french fries! They are a much bigger risk to our health than cesium.

Claiming that a bad diet is worse than the kinds of radiation exposure levels people are being subjected to in Japan smacks of US arrogance and indifference to the suffering of others. It also ignores the growing problem of cesium and other contamination showing up in the food supply in Japan. We already know that internal contamination is far worse than external exposure as the isotopes stay in the body for years or decades exposing the body from the inside. This claim that fatty food is equally as dangerous as the radiation issues in Japan is just very misleading. 

Miles: people in general fear radiation in a way that is not connected to the statistical risks. There’s a lot of reasons for this including the fact that this technology was born with the creation of atomic bombs. But it is invisible and the consequences are frightening and people feel as if they can’t control it. More importantly: people fear what they do not understand. So it is important that we all strive to educate the public about this amazing, complex energy source.

This is the kind of disconnect and arrogance that science journalism is supposed to resolve. Sadly again, instead of more in depth facts the public is dismissed as ignorant and irrational. In a world where more and more people have direct access to factual information, live reporting and the same scientific studies as the science and technology communities do, claiming the public to be uninformed and ignorant is an outdated mindset. Science journalism should be engaging the more informed world rather than insulting them. The online communities usually know far more and far earlier than traditional media does. The meme of irrational fear vs. radiation is a very standard fall back tactic of the nuclear industry, hearing it out of a science journalist is concerning. Our experience out of the Fukushima disaster is that people become more concerned about radiation risks the more they know about the scientific and technical facts involved. 

Miles: it’s about the carbon! we need to stop climate change. That should be the preeminent goal. The trace isotopes that come out of a nuclear power plant are not worth worrying about.

There are more than “trace isotopes” coming out of the operating nuclear plants in the world. Watts Bar nuclear plant in Georgia is producing tritium for the US nuclear weapons stockpile, crossing the line between peaceful civilian power generation and the arms race. 30,000 curies of tritium dumped into the river the local population uses for drinking water is certainly something to worry about. This statement also ignores the risk of spent nuclear fuel and the risk of yet another major nuclear disaster. It is also not a climate change or nuclear only debate. Since nuclear is only 9% of US power production and we have many other options that help tackle climate change. 

Miles: the nuclear industry in the US could not exist without a full array of government subsidy-including indemnification. so your question really is you want to have nuclear power not. Because if the government were not in on this game it simply would not exist. It that the business model just does not stand well enough on its own.

This is one of the few honest statements on the issue. Nuclear power is heavily subsidized and simply is not profitable. So while the public is told that nuclear is cheap it ignores the portion of the cost those same consumers pay through taxes that go to pay for that “cheap energy”. But the question isn’t as simple as “do you want nuclear power or not”. While the public has been increasingly against nuclear power and even more so at the local level, government has been complicit in shoving it down the throats of consumers even where it is clear they do not want it. The battle over Vermont Yankee is one such battle where the state and the population do not want an ancient nuclear plant to continue to operate but the government has assisted the private company that now owns it to go against the will of the people.  There are clearly more than one option for energy policy in the US, the public needs more say in the process and decisions.

Many thanks to Peter Melzer, Mary W, Dean, MIA, Mid Valley and all the others who helped follow and analyze this Frontline episode.

This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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