Debunking Fukushima’s radiation myths

Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster is scary enough, but some rumours and hoaxes linked to it are alarming and persistent.

This hoax photo, originally published on a satirical news site, fuelled social media users' conspiracy theories of giant mutant squid [Credit: Lightly Braised Turnip]
Vienna, Austria – Although the real ramifications of the meltdown of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant are bad enough, hyperbolic claims abound of drastic spikes in cancer rates, mutant sea creatures and more. And little of this has been successfully countered with, well, anything close to reason.

If public trust in major institutions is undermined, many people turn to social media to find information they deem more authoritative.

So, after a major event which may have a huge impact on public health, how can officials best communicate the risks of radiation exposure in an effective way?

Vincent Covello is an epidemiologist who runs the Center for Risk Communication in New York. Generally speaking, he said, about 50 percent of people respond favourably to “regulatory standards” – if, for example, they take a measurement of radiation and know that it falls within accepted boundaries, that is enough for them to feel safe. In this particular case, it should be noted that there is a lack of consensus on regulatory standards when it comes to radiation exposure.

Forty percent of people tend to place a greater priority on three main comparisons when assessing their safety. A temporal comparison makes people consider what they were exposed to before and after an incident. A geographical comparison considers exposure in the context of other locations’ exposure. Finally, a situational comparison allows people to draw frames of reference around more familiar experiences, such as how much radiation one is exposed to in a dental X-ray versus being in Fukushima.

“The bad news is that 10 percent of the population never believe what you have to say – and that is generally true for almost any type of issue,” said Covello.

“In today’s world of blogs and Wikipedia, being first is critical – in fact, we often find that you can typically have almost any question answered by a person claiming to be an authority within as little as four minutes of an event… which puts a premium on being first.”

In today's world of blogs and Wikipedia, being first is critical - in fact, we often find that you can typically have almost any question answered by a person claiming to be an authority within as little as four minutes of an event.

by Vincent Covello, Center for Risk Communication

In other words, being forced to wait months, or even days, for the release of information just won’t wash.

“We have to be prepared to respond in as little as four minutes,” added Covello. “Which is one of the reasons why a number of organisations have ‘dark’ websites,” or pages that hold crucial information needed in case of a major event or disaster. Sadly, such a site was not available after the Fukushima accident. It still isn’t – hence the steady whirl of the online rumour-mill.

Covello was among the experts speaking in Vienna at a recent International Atomic Energy Agency conference on Japan’s nuclear disaster. Al Jazeera caught up with a few more experts and asked their opinions on some of the wilder claims circulating the internet.

Giant squid

In a cartoonish turn – think of Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider, or Godzilla empowered by nuclear fallout – the persistent myth of mutant sea monsters such as giant squid or mutant “fish-like snakes” persists.

“The radioactive leaks from the damaged plant will not cause an outbreak of mutant sea life,” said Carl-Magnus Larsson, chair of the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.

“There has been much concern over the very large, and unfortunately still ongoing, releases of radioactivity to the ocean, which means that fish and other marine life caught close to the damaged power plant can’t be marketed in Japan or elsewhere,” said Larsson, who is also CEO of Australia’s nuclear safety agency.

This, however, is not about to produce a race of sea monsters.

“The radioactivity is also being transported over very long distances with the ocean currents, but will at the same time be diluted to levels where there is no concern for harmful effects on sea life or for using, for example, the beaches along the North American west coast for recreational purposes.”

So if you see photos of mutant sea creatures on Facebook, marvel at the Photoshop skills, not the effects of radiation.

Radiation from Fukushima is frying California’s beaches

It wasn’t long after the March 2011 trifecta of disasters – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – that Americans started to worry about radioactive debris and water cluttering their coastlines and destroying their beaches.

That worry – along with videos of misunderstood measurements and wholly unscientific claims – still persist.

After one habitually alarmist blogger posted a video showing radiation readings on a California beach, Azby Brown, director of the Future Design Institute at Kanazawa Institute of Technology, and a volunteer for independent radiation monitoring group Safecast, said his group sprang into action.

“Immediately we questioned whether or not the readings on his radiation detector in the video were true or somehow manipulated,” said Brown.

“A brief web search turned up several scientific references dating back to the late 1950s indicating that it’s been known that many beaches in California have noticeable levels of natural radioactivity, so that was an indication that it was at least plausible that this was natural radioactivity.”

Safecast volunteers then took their own measurements and sand samples from the beach and found traces of thorium and radium, and “nothing from Fukushima. If it had been from Fukushima, we would have seen Caesium-137 and Caesium-134, and there was nothing”, said Brown.

This isn’t to say that minute levels of radiation from Fukushima has not reached the US – or many other countries – but it’s in “levels that are thousands of times lower than anything that has ever been demonstrated to cause health effects”.

Don’t consume Japanese … anything

Although Japanese regulators lowered the permissible level of radiation in food dramatically – from 500 becquerel/kg a year after the nuclear accident to 100bq/kg –the fear persists, and, now and again, there is panic over radiation being found in some food.

Don't pick wild mushrooms in the exclusion zone in the Fukushima area.

by Astrid Liland, Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority

“People are much too afraid,” said Astrid Liland, a nuclear chemist with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, in Vienna to give a talk on managing the food chain in the event of a nuclear accident.

“They have one of the most strict levels in the world right now,” said Liland. In Norway, the limit is 600bq/kg for staple foods.

“So, in my view, they’ve put a very, very strict limit which is not based on health risk, but based on other issues like consumer trust, trying to regain the public confidence, since they did a lousy job in the beginning, and the people lost a lot of confidence in the government,” she said.

“They also have very strict export control, so the food that is exported has to be below the same limit… in the European Commission, they decided to temporarily have the same limit for importing food from Japan, although the normal limit in the European Commission is 1,000bq/kg,” said Liland.

“The reason why they lowered it was, because otherwise, people would be speculating that food that was not safe for the Japanese was being exported, which is then not seen as socially acceptable.”

At these low doses, she said it’s difficult to perform epidemiological studies to see if foodstuffs carry increased risks, although studies are ongoing.

However, some foods tend to collect more radiation than others, so Liland does leave us with some parting words of wisdom: “Don’t pick wild mushrooms in the exclusion zone in the Fukushima area.”

We’re all going to die of cancer

That people were exposed to radiation above normal, pre-accident limits is not in dispute. Nor is the fact that it might take years to see if and how illnesses develop among those who were exposed.

But according to a talk presented by Malcolm Crick, secretary of the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, “there were no radiation-related deaths or acute diseases among the general public and workers”.

Crick told Al Jazeera that there were two things that people should keep in mind when it comes to radiation and cancer.

“The first thing that people don’t realise is that radiation is natural. We are exposed to radiation from outer space… that radiation is there, it provides us with a background exposure as we live on this planet,” he said.

“If we take the Japanese population – the normal expectation is that there is a 35 percent chance that you’ll die of cancer,” said Crick. Cancer is largely “an old person’s disease”, said Crick, and we are, as a species, living longer.

Crick also defended the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima accident, saying that the evacuations – seen as bungled and delayed by many – reduced radiation exposure.

“If you look at the total dose of radiation, it looks to us that they reduced the doses by a factor of 10, from doses where we probably would be concerned about increases in cancer to doses where any notional increased risk is small compared with this annual difference in the fluctuation in the background [radiation] rate.”

“So, no-one’s saying that this is a good thing, no-one’s saying that there wasn’t a notional risk,” said Crick.

“And there are some exceptions, and the most important one is the thyroid cancer issue, particularly in infants.” 

Infants drink milk, and the thyroids of infants are very absorbent of iodine, which was present in the air and in food stuffs initially. Regulators tried to control what went on the market, and while the risk remains, he said it was “borderline as to whether there is one in a million [cases of thyroid cancer among infants] or twice as many, two in a million… and on this fluctuation, you will not be able to see anything… we can’t rule out whether we can find something, but it’s borderline”.

The contamination is never going away

Just how long it will really take to decommission the plant is up for debate, although the Japanese government estimated that it would take roughly 40 years. And that’s just the plant itself.

The public... probably expects something completely clean, with not one atom of caesium there, which is impossible.

by Volodymyr Berkovskyy, Radiation Protection Institute

Some, however, believe that it’ll take closer to a century, if not longer, before the area is decontaminated.

To say that Fukushima will remain “contaminated”, said Volodymyr Berkovskyy of Kiev’s Radiation Protection Institute in Ukraine, is almost meaningless.

“It’s a technical term which means any presence of radioactivity – it has no connotations of safe or not safe. [That’s] a completely different story,” said Berkovskyy.

“If you can measure something, if it’s present, then someone can say that it is contaminated – but in such a case… we are contaminated… our bodies contain natural radionuclides such as potassium-40, so we are ‘contaminated’,” he said. “It’s completely natural and [has been around for] billions of years.”

What’s controversial, he said, is managing public expectation. “The public… probably expects something completely clean, with not one atom of caesium there, which is impossible,” said Berkovskyy, referring to the radioactive element caesium-137, present in the soil and water around the not entirely stable plant.

With some compromise, people can live and work – but it depends on where, exactly, and the “local constraints… but there is a range of possibility”.

“It’s completely achievable… and it’s not black and white,” said Berkovskyy. “Accidents can cause heavy damage, for sure.” 

The exclusion zone that remain around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exists largely due to economic reasons, as “infrastructure is too expensive,” said Berkovskyy. “Also an issue is the availability of expertise throughout the decades it will take to decommission a plant and carry out decontamination plans.

“Concerning the time frame of decommissioning of the Chernobyl Unit 4, it is a trade-off between the level of workers’ exposure – many short-lived radionuclides disappeared with time – and the availability of expertise of experts who knew the plant before the accident.

“It’s completely feasible to decommission it [the damaged Daiichi plant] and put it in a safe condition – and it’s completely feasible to remediate the area – it is proven by Chernobyl.”

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