Spinning Fukushima

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How have Australian scientists handled the difficult task of keeping us informed about the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan? Well, precious few Australian scientists have actually featured in the media. The most prominent have been Professor Aidan Byrne from the Australian National University, RMIT Chancellor Dr Ziggy Switkowski, and Professor Barry Brook from Adelaide University.

A clear pattern is evident: those with the greatest ideological attachment to nuclear power have provided the most inaccurate commentary.

The best of the bunch has been Byrne. He has presented the facts as he understands them — and has willingly acknowledged major information gaps.

Switkowski has been gently spinning the issue, repeatedly reassuring us that lessons will be learned, improvements will be made. However, history clearly shows that nuclear lessons are not properly learned. The OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency notes that lessons may be learned but too often they are subsequently forgotten. Or they are learned but by the wrong people. Or they are learned but not acted upon. The Nuclear Energy Agency says the pattern of the same type of accident recurring time and time again at different nuclear plants needs to be "much improved".

The situation in Japan illustrates the point — it has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that greater protection against seismic risks is necessary, but the nuclear utilities haven’t wanted to spend the money and the Japanese nuclear regulator and the government haven’t forced the utilities to act.

Barry Brook is a strident nuclear power advocate and host of the bravenewclimate.com blog, which has received an astonishing half a million web hits since the crisis in Japan began. Right now, Brook has egg on his face. Make that an omelette. He has maintained a running commentary in the media and on his website insisting that the situation in Japan is under control and that there is no reason for concern.

His message has not changed, even after efforts to cool the nuclear reactor cores met with mixed success, even as deliberate and uncontrolled radiation releases occurred, even as the outer containment buildings exploded, even as 200,000 people were being evacuated, even as a fire led to spent nuclear fuel releasing radiation directly to the environment — and even as radiation monitors detected alarming jumps in radioactivity near the reactor and low levels of radiation as far away as Tokyo.

On Saturday, Brook came out swinging, insisting that "There is no credible risk of a serious accident." Phew.

That afternoon, after the first explosion at Fukushima, Brook kept going, making numerous assertions in the comments section of his website, most of which turned out to be wrong. Try this one:

"The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero. There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces. I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong … but I won’t be. The only reactor that has a small probability of being ‘finished’ is unit 1. And I doubt that, but it may be offline for a year or more."

On Saturday night, Brook continued, responding to a commenter on his website with the following words: "When the dust settles, people will realise how well the Japanese reactors — even the 40 year old one — stood up to this incredibly energetic earthquake event." The dust is (hopefully) settling and it seems likely that four reactors will be write-offs.

It didn’t stop all weekend. On Sunday morning, Brook reflected on the unfolding disaster: "I don’t see the ramifications of this as damaging at all to nuclear power’s prospects" and that "it will provide a great conversation starter for talking intelligently to people about nuclear safety." Actually Fukushima will likely prove a great conversation starter for talking intelligently to people about nuclear hazards. Not recommended at parties.

On Sunday afternoon, Brook was congratulating himself on his "just the facts" approach in media interviews. He pondered on the comments thread: "What has this earthquake taught us? That it’s much, much riskier to choose to live next to the ocean than it is to live next to a nuclear power station." Well, the lesson for people in Fukushima is that if you live next to the ocean and next to a nuclear power station, then you’re really stuffed.

On Monday, when the second explosion at Fukushima occurred, Prof. Brook was still insisting that "the nuclear reactors have come through remarkably well". On Monday evening, half a dozen people were banned from posting comments directly on the website. True, some of their comments were silly and unhelpful, but by that criterion Brook ought to have banned himself. And on Tuesday, with a fire at Fukushima spewing long-lived radioisotopes directly into the environment, Brook was rallying the pro-nuclear lobby, arguing that "now, more than ever, we must stand up for what we believe is right".

Cracks were starting to appear on Tuesday night, with Brook finally acknowledging an "ongoing crisis situation", banning another 40-50 "random nobodies" from posting comments directly on his website, and quoting Rudyard Kipling:

"If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools"

Make of that what you will.

One contributor to Brave New Climate summed it up nicely: "Unfortunately, Prof. Brook has really abdicated a neutral position on this event. His clear support of nuclear power seems to have impacted his critical thinking skills. … Every time he states something in this crisis is ‘impossible’, it seems to happen the next day."

Andrew Bolt has been urging people to read the "marvellously sane and cool explanation" from "our friend Professor Barry Brook". Both Bolt and Brook claim that no more than 50 people died from the Chernobyl catastrophe. More on that next month — the 25th anniversary falls on 26 April 2011. The scientific estimates of the Chernobyl death toll vary. The World Health Organisation puts the figure at 9000. A 2006 report based on Belarus national cancer statistics, paints a much gloomier picture: approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl.

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