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Boardman writes: "The news of Fukushima in mainstream media has been reassuringly minimizing of late, when there was any news at all. The reality of Fukushima continues to be an ongoing low-grade, partly-controlled disaster poised to get a whole lot worse if something else goes wrong."

Evacuees dressed in protective suits during a Fukushima memorial service in 2012. (photo: Kim Kyung-hoon/Reuters)
Evacuees dressed in protective suits during a Fukushima memorial service in 2012. (photo: Kim Kyung-hoon/Reuters)

Fukushima Ho Hum

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

24 October 13


Pay no attention to those Strontium-90 leaks at 70 times safe level

he news of Fukushima in mainstream media has been reassuringly minimizing of late, when there was any news at all. The reality of Fukushima continues to be an ongoing low-grade, partly-controlled disaster poised to get a whole lot worse if something else goes wrong.

And then there's the Strontium-90 you don't hear much about. Apparently recent Fukushima leakage has included Strontium-90 – at more than 70 times the level considered officially safe. More troubling, no one seems to know, or no one is telling, just where that Strontium-90 comes from. (Strontium-90 first gained widespread notoriety in the 1950s, as one of the prime elements of fallout from nuclear testing, an element that concentrated in the food chain, especially milk, got stored in your bones, and increased your chances of getting bone cancer or leukemia.)

On October 16, the Fukushima Daiichi's three melted-down reactors escaped a new crisis from Typhoon Wipha, as the Pacific hurricane managed to kill 17 people on off-shore islands but passed far enough from the mainland that Fukushima got only a heavy soaking. But that was enough to create conditions on the ground that worsened later, with an unusually heavy rainstorm over the weekend, as The New York Times reported on October 22, starting this way:

"The operator of Japan's wrecked nuclear plant said Monday that rainwater from a weekend storm became contaminated as it collected behind barriers meant to stop radiation leaks. The toxic water overflowed those barriers at several locations, with some of it possibly spilling into the Pacific Ocean…."

One wonders that a Times editor would allow a story to pass when it avers only a "possibility" of radioactive water flowing from the plant to the ocean. That flow has been a chronic, uninterrupted reality at Fukushima since the disaster began in March 2011. The generally accepted estimate (as in the Washington Post of October 21) is that 400 tons of contaminated water flows into the Pacific daily – about 96,000 gallons a day. That's actual, not just "possible." And as news goes, it's also a lot less reassuring.

Not reassured yet? How about some clever, distracting wordplay?

But to the Times, this leakage was just "the latest in a litany of lapses and aggravations for the problem-plagued cleanup" of Fukushima. That's awfully clever and dismissive language to describe a situation that no one knows how to fix, that still has pockets of lethal radiation, that may cost $100 billion over the next 40 years, and that has left more than 90,000 residents unable to return home. Those people may be beyond reassurance, but it's the Times readership that needs to be calmed.

And why should we care what the Times says? Because, like it or not, it's still the paper of record in some meaningful ways. The way the Times plays a story still matters. It wasn't that long ago that the Times enabled reporter Judith Miller to help lie the country into our dishonest and disastrous war on Iraq.

The Times agenda regarding nuclear power has long been rather too frequently little more than cheerleading, interrupted by fits of coerced reporting when events like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl left the paper little choice. Of course the coverage has not been monochromatic, but the paper's default position seems to be to promote nuclear power by minimizing its risks.

So it's little surprise, even if it's a coincidence, that the same day the Times reported dismissively on Fukushima on page A11, it also featured an op-ed page piece titled "Taming Radiation Fears." The piece argues somewhat disingenuously that the radiological damage from events like Fukushima is not nearly as bad as the psychological damage they cause. As an example, it cites a Japanese Education Ministry report that, because schools near Fukushima have curtailed outdoors exercise, students in the Fukushima area have become the most obese in Japan.

Assuming that's true as stated, the piece gives the game away with its throwaway tag to that example, that the exercise was curtailed "in most cases in areas where the risk from radiation was infinitesimal." What does that mean, "most cases?" And "infinitesimal" is not the same as non-existent. But those words help to minimize the danger, as well as ignoring the apparent reality that there is no safe level of radiation.

And the reality too many media evade is that radiation levels at Fukushima continue to rise. This is regularly reported by the Japanese government and dispassionately tracked by Lori Mochizuki on his bi-lingual blog, Fukushima Diary.

"Are you a nuclear-phobe in need of a good brainwash?"

The more slippery media approach fits neatly into the nuclear industry's decades-long promotional campaign for a psychiatric condition they called "nuclear phobia," the essence of which is the proposal that anyone afraid of nuclear power in general and radiation in particular is somehow nuts. The author of the Times op-ed piece, David Ropeik, wrote a book along these lines called "How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts."

It's surely true that some people sometimes over-react to the dangers of radiation, which are indeed very slight for those radioactive substances with half-lives even shorter than Ropeik's book. It is also true that Ropeik's argument in the Times is dishonest in the ways it makes no allowances for intensity of exposure, exposure over long periods of time, or the enduring danger of long-lived radioactive elements such as Strontium-90 (with a half-life of 28.8 years) or Plutonium-239 (with a half-life of 24,000 years).

Low levels of radioactivity are virtually no threat to most people most of the time and worrying about it is something of a waste of time, since there's no escaping background radiation throughout your life anyway. But such worry is not a total waste of time, since radiation can kill you as surely as electricity or water. So neither fear nor denial is all that helpful in managing a real risk. And we might have an easier job of that now if the nuclear phobia shills hadn't been lying to us for more than half a century, when they started talking about measuring radiation in "sunshine units."

Betrayal is a solid rational basis for distrust.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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