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28 fallacies about the Fukushima nuclear disaster’s effect on the US West Coast

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is back in the news, with recent reports of continued leaks. Coming on the heels of these new reports is a viral blog post entitled 28 Signs That The West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried With Nuclear Radiation From Fukushima. The article is a paranoid, poorly reasoned attempt to link the tragedy of the Fukushima disaster to just about every environmental issue facing the US west coast in the last few months. At its best, it’s an illogical piece of post-modern absurdism. At its worst, its empirically false and intentionally misleading, rife with out-of-context quotes and cherry-picked data. The author had 28 chances to make a single reasonable point, and every single one rang hollow.

Of course it went viral.

Since I believe in open, honest discourse, let me begin by pointing out that I am not a physicist, nor do I have any particular credentials when it comes to nuclear energy. I am a marine ecologist. You’ll find, however, that for these 28 points, the devil is not in the details. Most are the result of logical fallacies, rather than technical inaccuracies. Many are simply articles taken out of context or unbelievably tenuous observations followed by “couldn’t it be Fukushima?” In a follow up, the author even argues that he’s “Just asking questions” a phrase I thought was long ago relegated to Glenn Beck parodies. A fifth of these points don’t even have to do with the North American West Coast.

So here we go, with a point by point debunking of this unfortunate article. I’ve broken them out into larger themes which I hope will make the many logical fallacies apparent. For reasons that will become obvious, we begin with point 20.

An article arguing that the West Coast is being “absolutely fried” by radiation also argues that the radiation won’t reach us until 2014.

“20. One recent study concluded that a very large plume of cesium-137 from the Fukushima disaster will start flowing into U.S. coastal waters early next year…
Ocean simulations showed that the plume of radioactive cesium-137 released by the Fukushima disaster in 2011 could begin flowing into U.S. coastal waters starting in early 2014 and peak in 2016.”

The title of this article is “28 Signs That The West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried With Nuclear Radiation From Fukushima”, but buried deep in the text is point 20 — the radioactive plume won’t reach the West Coast of the United States until 2014. Are you familiar with the old robot folk-saying “Does not compute”? Keep this point in mind while reading through the rest of these points. Interestingly, the whole paragraph that the 2014 line was cherry picked from reads:

“Ocean simulations showed that the plume of radioactive cesium-137 released by the Fukushima disaster in 2011 could begin flowing into U.S. coastal waters starting in early 2014 and peak in 2016. Luckily, two ocean currents off the eastern coast of Japan — the Kuroshio Current and the Kuroshio Extension — would have diluted the radioactive material so that its concentration fell well below the World Health Organization’s safety levels within four months of the Fukushima incident. But it could have been a different story if nuclear disaster struck on the other side of Japan.”

source

Points with no connection to Fukushima

These are real issues affecting the ocean but there is no evidence that any of them are connected to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Remember, the original article itself even noted that the first radioactive ocean plumes wouldn’t reach the Pacific coast of North America until 2014.

1. Polar bears, seals and walruses along the Alaska coastline are suffering from fur loss and open sores…

From the actual article cited:

“Reuters noted that preliminary studies do not support a theory that the disease is due to contamination from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.”

source

2.  There is an epidemic of sea lion deaths along the California coastline…

This is true, and those dead sea lions were killed by starvation. One theory is that a decline in food fish populations has made it harder for mothers to nurse newborn pups.

From one of the sources:

“Sarah Wilkin is a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Asked why it has reached this point, she said: “We’re looking at whether the prey that these animals should be eating just isn’t available to them for some reason, and that could be because there’s less of it or because it’s moved and it’s not accessible.””

source

3.  Along the Pacific coast of Canada and the Alaska coastline, the population of sockeye salmon is at a historic low. Many are blaming Fukushima.

There is no mention in the source article of anyone blaming Fukushima. Salmon populations have been struggling for decades. What the article does say is:

“Conservation groups have sounded the alarm, saying Alaskan commercial fishermen are contributing to the problem as Skeena River sockeye get caught in the nets of Americans fishing for pink and chum sockeye.”

source

4. Something is causing fish all along the west coast of Canada to bleed from their gills, bellies and eyeballs.

The suspected cause is viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a disease known from other Pacific fish species. Again, no mention in the source of anything to do with Fukushima.

Points that are misleading or deliberately distort facts

5. A vast field of radioactive debris from Fukushima that is approximately the size of California has crossed the Pacific Ocean and is starting to collide with the west coast.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami was an unprecedented natural disaster. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was an unprecedented human disaster. They are related, but they are not the same thing. There was a large amount of debris washed into the Pacific by the tsunami. A very small component of that debris may have come from Fukushima. There is not a California-sized island of radioactive debris making its way across the Pacific.

6. It is being projected that the radioactivity of coastal waters off the U.S. west coast could double over the next five to six years.

Technically true, egregiously misleading. From the source:

Tentatively assuming a value of 10 petabecquerel (PBq) for the net 137Caesium (Cs) input during the first weeks after the Fukushima incident, the simulation suggests a rapid dilution of peak radioactivity values to about 10 Bq/m³ during the first 2 years, followed by a gradual decline to 1–2 Bq/m³ over the next 4–7 years. The total peak radioactivity levels would then be about twice the pre-Fukushima values. “While this may sound alarming, these levels are still lower than those permitted for drinking water,” said Böning.

source

7. Experts have found very high levels of cesium-137 in plankton living in the waters of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the west coast.

True, but again, misleading. Cesium-137 doesn’t biomagnify like mercury. Cesium has a biological half-life of 70 days. Claiming that cesium-137 will travel up the “food chain” like mercury and other heavy metals do is simply wrong.

8. One test in California found that 15 out of 15 bluefin tuna were contaminated with radiation from Fukushima.

Again, the article ignores the fact that they found low-levels of cesium. From the source:

Low levels of radioactive cesium from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident turned up in fish caught off California in 2011, researchers reported Monday.

The bluefin spawn off Japan, and many migrate across the Pacific Ocean. Tissue samples taken from 15 bluefin caught in August, five months after the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, all contained reactor byproducts cesium-134 and cesium-137 at levels that produced radiation about 3% higher than natural background sources

source

9. Back in 2012, the Vancouver Sun reported that cesium-137 was being found in a very high percentage of the fish that Japan was selling to Canada…

There are important health issues associate with seafood caught near the power plant. Because of that, Japan has since suspended fishing activities near Fukushima and established an exclusion zone.

10. Canadian authorities are finding extremely high levels of nuclear radiation in certain fish samples…

The source for this is talking about fish from Japan, not Canada, although the author makes it sound like he’s talking about fish caught in Canada. Points 9 and 10 are actually the same point.

11. Some experts believe that we could see very high levels of cancer along the west coast just from people eating contaminated fish…

The science says otherwise:

The additional dose from Fukushima radionuclides to humans consuming tainted PBFT in the United States was calculated to be 0.9 and 4.7 μSv for average consumers and subsistence fishermen, respectively. Such doses are comparable to, or less than, the dose all humans routinely obtain from naturally occurring radionuclides in many food items, medical treatments, air travel, or other background sources. Although uncertainties remain regarding the assessment of cancer risk at low doses of ionizing radiation to humans, the dose received from PBFT consumption by subsistence fishermen can be estimated to result in two additional fatal cancer cases per 10,000,000 similarly exposed people.

source

Points that lacks sufficient context to be informative

13. An EU-funded study concluded that Fukushima released up to 210 quadrillion becquerels of cesium-137 into the atmosphere.

Ok, but how much is that? Is that a lot? Is that a dangerous amount? The total radiation from Fukushima is currently estimated to be about 5.5% of that released by Chernobyl.

14. Atmospheric radiation from Fukushima reached the west coast of the United States within a few days back in 2011.

When we measured that radiation in 2011, it was found to be too low to have any effect.

15. At this point, 300 tons of contaminated water is pouring into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima every single day.

The mass of water in an olympic swimming pool is 2500 tons. At this rate, it would take more than 8 days for that contaminated water to fill an olympic swimming pool. The Pacific ocean is significantly larger.

16. A senior researcher of marine chemistry at the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Meteorological Research Institute says that “30 billion becquerels of radioactive cesium and 30 billion becquerels of radioactive strontium” are being released into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima every single day.

Again, the article gives us no indication of whether those numbers are meaningful? Is that a lot?

17. According to Tepco, a total of somewhere between 20 trillion and 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive tritium have gotten into the Pacific Ocean since the Fukushima disaster first began.

What does that mean? Where is the context. Just throwing out big numbers without providing any sort of explanation is nothing but scaremongering.

19. It has been estimated that up to 100 times as much nuclear radiation has been released into the ocean from Fukushima than was released during the entire Chernobyl disaster.

Fukushima is on the coast. Chernobyl was in the middle of the Ukraine. Of course there was more radiation released into the ocean by Fukushima. That doesn’t change the fact that the total radiation released by Fukushima is about 5.5% of that released by the Chernobyl disaster.

24. The Iodine-131, Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that are constantly coming from Fukushima are going to affect the health of those living the the northern hemisphere for a very, very long time. Just consider what Harvey Wasserman had to say about this…

There are no scientific studies cited by this source. Harvey Wasserman is an anti-nuclear activist. There’s nothing inherently problematic about that, and I’m sure he’s got some interesting ideas to discuss, but I need to see the data backing up these (very vague) claims and the data is not provided.

Points that have nothing to do with the premise of the article, AKA non-sequitors

These next 6 points have plenty of issues, but the most pressing of which is that they have nothing to do with the US West Coast or how it is currently being fried by radiation from Fukushima. As they are non-sequitors, they do not warrant further analysis here.

12. BBC News recently reported that radiation levels around Fukushima are “18 times higher” than previously believed.

18. According to a professor at Tokyo University, 3 gigabecquerels of cesium-137 are flowing into the port at Fukushima Daiichi every single day.

21. It is being projected that significant levels of cesium-137 will reach every corner of the Pacific Ocean by the year 2020.

26. A study conducted last year came to the conclusion that radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster could negatively affect human life along the west coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska “for decades”.

27. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is being projected that the cleanup of Fukushima could take up to 40 years to complete.

28. Yale Professor Charles Perrow is warning that if the cleanup of Fukushima is not handled with 100% precision that humanity could be threatened “for thousands of years”…

Points that are just, plain wrong

22. It is being projected that the entire Pacific Ocean will soon “have cesium levels 5 to 10 times higher” than what we witnessed during the era of heavy atomic bomb testing in the Pacific many decades ago.

It is not easy to find direct comparisons between nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, which makes me think this factoid was invented whole cloth. The closest I can find are comparisons in ‘units-Hiroshima’. In the Pacific, Castle Bravo alone had a 1000 times greater yield than Hiroshima. And Castle Bravo was only one of over 100 high yield nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States. An additional 193 test were conducted by France in Polynesia. The most liberal sources I can find, place Fukushima at somewhere around 4000 Hiroshimas. That’s high, but it’s nowhere near the claim of 5 to 10 times higher than the Pacific nuclear weapons testing era.

23. The immense amounts of nuclear radiation getting into the water in the Pacific Ocean has caused environmental activist Joe Martino to issue the following warning: “Your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish are over.”

Actually, Gary Stamper said that. And Gary Stamper’s claims were completely debunked.

25. According to a recent Planet Infowars report, the California coastline is being transformed into “a dead zone”…

No. Just no. Planet InfoWars? No.

I have been to the California Coast, recently. It does not look anything like this bizarre article describes.

Conclusion

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was an unparalleled environmental catastrophe and we will be seeing fallout from it for years to come. I honestly cannot think of any reason to fabricate a bunch of paranoid talking points to make it seem worse. Thousands of people were displaced from their home, many of them permanently. Contaminated waste was, and still is, being dumped into the water surround the plant. The energy infrastructure of an entire nation was compromised. Do we really need to blame Fukushima on a viral outbreak in British Columbia, too?

To put things in perspective, the Fukushima disaster released approximately one ten-thousandth of the total radiation produce by the world’s coal power plants annually. That number will either be reassuring or terrifying, but, really, it should be both.

There is another reason why articles like this are so compelling, particularly to those in rich, developed countries. It gives us the ability to blame the “foreign other” for our own environmental crises. It’s not our fault that salmon stocks are collapsing, it’s the Japanese! We aren’t the ones driving polar bears and marine mammal moralities, Fukushima did it! The West Coast of the United States is being fried. It’s being fried by over-fishing, agricultural run-off, runaway development, and a host of other issues, but it’s not being fried by Fukushima, and articles that promote that fallacious argument are distracting us from the dominant causes of environmental degradation on our coasts: Us.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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