Going nuclear on facebook

A few days after the Japan earthquake hit, a link to a blog giving background information on the Fukushima I reactors was circulated on facebook. It originally appeared on this page (with the interesting title “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors”), but was soon moved to the “MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub“. The original page now shows this explanation of how the post came into being:

I am a mechanical engineer and research scientist at MIT. I am not a nuclear engineer or scientist, or affiliated with Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, so please feel free to question my competence. The text is based on an email that I send to family and friends in Japan the night of March 12. It was posted on this blog by my cousin Jason, went viral and has been equally popular with people who hate it and love it ever since.

The actual post – well, the modified version – can now be found here, or here with pictures. Unfortunately now both the title, which was the first thing that caught my eye when I discovered it on facebook, as well as the main conclusion, “The plant is safe now and will stay safe”, have been removed. No comment. Which reminds me: Comments on the post have now been disabled too. Hm.

As much as I appreciate people trying to explain the scientific background of things and prefer them over those who simply run around like headless chickens, I got really mad reading this article – mainly due to the ridiculous title and the absolutely unrealistic conclusion (remember, the post was written only two days after the earthquake, when nobody really knew yet what was going on at Fukushima 1). So in the end I spent quite a bit of my time replying to the three people who posted the article on facebook. Sorry, this is a pretty long post, but I thought it would be nice if these discussions didn’t remain only on facebook. I removed all names (except for my own) and replaced them with a bit of info on where the participants are from.

 

~~~~~ Discussion 1 ~~~~~

An Italian friend of mine (living in London) posted the article on someone’s wall, saying: Worth reading..
14 March at 17:21

Her boyfriend “likes” the article.

Me: What’s to like about this?
15 March at 00:46

My friend: Well, it’s just reassuring, I was honestly scared by what could have happened
15 March at 07:13

Me: It’s not about what “could have happened”. It’s about what’s happening *right now*. Writing things like “The plant is safe now and will stay safe” is ridiculous – nobody can predict something like that, and everything that’s happening right now indicates that this person is simply wrong! I can’t believe people write things like that claiming *they* are the ones who are propagating the truth – what does it take to show people how dangerous nuclear power really is and that you simply *cannot* predict whether a plant will stay safe or not?? Hundreds of thousands being evacuated and/or contaminated is not enough? How do you think the affected people *feel*, having to live with the fear of disease or the thought of possibly never being able to come back to their homes? That fear alone should be enough to make governments rethink their approach to nuclear technology, let alone the actual and quite real dangers of the technology itself!
Well, let’s keep on reading the news (because I *trust* them – certain things just can’t be denied) and people will realise that “the plant […] will stay safe” is a pretty bold statement!!!
15 March at 09:11

A German friend of ours (living in London/Spain): Whoa! Quite outspoken, Sarah!
Regarding the article, although I believe that scientific explanations and reassurances are far more believable and justified than spreading panic through exaggerated news reporting, the scientific explanation still has to be based in fact.And unfortunately, in the case of this article and the reactors at Fukushima, the article and reality don’t seem to add up. I don’t know if you’ve read most of it, but the gist of the article is that the reactor is inherently safe, because even in the case of a total nuclear meltdown, the radioactive material would be contained in a huge containment structure beneath the reactor, which would catch all the molten uranium oxide. Now, unfortunately, Fukushima doesn’t seem to have or only partially have this kind of outer containment structure. Oops!
At least so far, the radiation leaked is much less than what would usually affect human health. Whether it stays that way, we’ll have to see.
15 March at 09:44

Me: Exactly. I’m not a fan of exaggerated media coverage either and prefer scientific explanations instead, but saying that everything will be okay (and, as you say, maybe not even getting the facts right either!!) is just wrong. That’ll give people a sense of safety that’s just not there!
And even if Fukushima *had* this containment structure, who can say that’ll never burst either? Some things you just can’t predict, so making any sort of comment on what will happen in Japan is just negligent. It’s unpredictable, end of story.
And on a personal note, I’d prefer if people over here were a bit shocked, woke up and switched to Green Electricity as a result of this. Rather than just falling back asleep pretending everything’s okay. That’s just ignorant.
15 March at 09:58

My friend who posted the article: I completely agree with what [our German/London/Spain friend] said.
I didn’t post this article because I think that the nuclear reactors are safe or that it’s a smart source of energy, or that people in Japan should walk like nothing is happening.
I just found it was explaining things in a proper way, and it made sense to me, for as far as I could understand, and I prefer this kind of information to the one of the papers that make people freak out, basing their articles on imprecise information.
15 March at 10:02

Me: I understand that, and it sure is nice to have someone explain the scientific background too. But I simply don’t trust anyone who, in the same context, says that a nuclear catastrophe is impossible. Who does he think he is, God??
15 March at 10:18

Our German/London/Spain friend: [To our friend who posted the article]: No need to justify, I quite liked the article as well, until I noticed that it doesn’t actually describe the Fukushima reactor exactly. And even then it’s a good explanation (although a bit too much nothing-will-ever-happen, as Sarah said).
[To me]: I believe they define “impossible” in their own theoretic world, “given that all I said is true, it’s impossible”. Only, their assumption doesn’t hold…
15 March at 10:24

Me: Sure, physicists (as well as other scientists) like to define their “events” first and then talk about them. However, this was specifically written for a layman audience, so it should’ve been clear that “impossible” means “not possible” to the readers and not “not possible under the given conditions”.
Well, enough about that now, I think I made my point: I don’t like nuclear power, and I particularly don’t like people playing down the dangers of this technology under the pretence of “scientific explanations”.
I would’ve commented all this on the blog itself, but – oh surprise! – they’ve disabled the comments…
16 March at 14:55


~~~~~ Discussion 2 ~~~~~

A German friend of mine (who lives in the US) posted it on his on wall, saying: and here I was getting ready to carry the fire… guess that’ll have to wait for another day
14 March at 21:02

Me: Writing things like “The plant is safe now and will stay safe” is ridiculous – nobody can predict something like that, and everything that’s happening right now indicates that this person is simply wrong! I can’t believe people write things like that claiming *they* are the ones who are propagating the truth – what does it take to show people how dangerous nuclear power really is and that you simply *cannot* predict whether a plant will stay safe or not?? Hundreds of thousands being evacuated and/or contaminated is not enough? How do you think the affected people *feel*, having to live with the fear of disease or the thought of possibly never being able to come back to their homes? That fear alone should be enough to make governments rethink their approach to nuclear technology, let alone the actual and quite real dangers of the technology itself!
Well, let’s keep on reading the news (because I *trust* them – certain things just can’t be denied) and people will realise that “the plant […] will stay safe” is a pretty bold statement!!!
15 March at 09:18

My friend: I think the key piece of information to take from this is, that even though things went wrong, they did so within the scenarios that had been envisioned by the architects of these power plants, which is quite a feat. Personally, I would not want to live in close proximity to such a plant, however I think most reports of the release of radioactive material I have read in the more mainstream media have been incredibly undifferentiated (“Oh no! radioactive! scary!”), so it doesn’t hurt to see both sides of the argument.
I like how this was posted by multiple [people] and you took the time to comment on each of them ๐Ÿ™‚
15 March at 17:01

Me: I know, some of the reports in the media have been quite full-on, and sure, you need to distinguish between the different radioactive elements. But still, if only the less harmfull ones get through now, how can I be sure that next time it won’t be plutonium or iodine? Or, if the wind blows all radioactivity away from Tokyo this time, that still doesn’t mean it’ll happen again next time too. So yeah, nuclear power, I’m not a fan…
Hence my comments on all those posts. BTW, copy/paste helps! ๐Ÿ˜‰
16 March at 14:47


~~~~~ Discussion 3 ~~~~~

An Australian friend of mine posted the article on someone’s wall, saying: a great read for anyone that is sick of the shit that the media is producing over this. I encourage everyone to read it and become that bit more knowledgable.
14 March at 23:27

4 people like this.

One of his friends: Of course the media is just out there to propagate fear, all they will do is rehash the whole Chernobyl story. Trouble is, hardly anybody knows the full story, each of the events and the inherent design flaws that led up to the disaster. Instead, all they do is chant about the disaster and the resulting fallout.
14 March at 23:30

My friend: Lucky you aren’t here in Australia. The media is having a field day because a few politicians decided to use the event as an example of why there should never be nuclear power in Au and now everyone else is scrambling to get their opinion voiced in the media too.
14 March at 23:48

His friend again: I could only imagine, hence my comment. Nuclear power will never happen with all of these ignorant people out there in Australia.
Pity.
14 March at 23:51

Another friend of his: This is a great read. Thanks for sharing it, will definitely pass it on to keep as many people informed. Is it sad that I see there being a new arcade game called ‘prevent the nuclear breakdown’ by the end of the month?
15 March at 00:16

Me: I’m sorry, but this doesn’t convince me at all. I’d rather have a wind generator next to my house than a nuclear power plant. Why choose the dangerous option if there are safe ones out there? Nuclear power is not 100% safe. End of story. Oh this makes me angry, I better stop writing.
15 March at 00:45

My friend: Sure – nuclear power isn’t perfect. All this article seeks to do it remove the misconceptions around the current events in Japan. I don’t know anyone that would prefer to live next to a nuclear power station than a wind turbine, but I’d prefer to live next to nuclear than a coal power station.
15 March at 01:36

A third friend of his: Nuclear plant would be quieter.
15 March at 04:01

My friend: and also statistically the least likely to kill you.
15 March at 04:49

The third friend again: and no dead birds and bats on the lawn each morning.
15 March at 05:54

Me: Haha, statistics!! Look how statistics failed in Japan! 99% safety simply isn’t enough! Oh, and statistics with regards to deaths caused by radioactivity are particularly tricky since an enormous number of people die a very slow death – which I’m sure loads of governments manage to not include in their statistics. Anyone who’s ever studied science know for a fact: Statistics Lie.
And sure, nuclear power is greener than fossil-generated power, and it’s quieter too. I am not saying we should choose coal over nuclear. But there’s even better alternatives out there – water, wind, sun!! If the world’s governments finally started *properly* funding research into these areas, they would become better developed, more effective, and a safe and green alternative to anything we have so far.
What really grinds my gear about this article though is that writing things like “The plant is safe now and will stay safe” is ridiculous – nobody can predict something like that, and everything that’s happening right now indicates that this person is simply wrong! I can’t believe people write things like that claiming *they* are the ones who are propagating the truth – what does it take to show people how dangerous nuclear power really is and that you simply *cannot* predict whether a plant will stay safe or not?? Hundreds of thousands being evacuated and/or contaminated is not enough? How do you think the affected people *feel*, having to live with the fear of disease or the thought of possibly never being able to come back to their homes? That fear alone should be enough to make governments rethink their approach to nuclear technology, let alone the actual and quite real dangers of the technology itself!
Well, let’s keep on reading the news (because I *trust* them – certain things just can’t be denied) and people will realise that “the plant […] will stay safe” is a pretty bold statement!!!
15 March at 09:18

My friend: There are two arguments here so lets not get confused. The first is the correct reporting of facts by the media, and the second is the safety of nuclear power generation.
The first is the topic of the article. It is laying down the full story of the events at Fukushima. Sure, some assumptions maybe be made about the actual sequence of events but this is the first article I have read over the past few days that is not trying to sensationalise the information.
There is a huge amount of misinformation out there, and as you pointed out statistics can be interpreted in ways to argue any argument. The media does a great job of distributing information, but they exist to make money and they do that by getting readers/viewer. By comparing the current events in Japan to Chernobyl is rather irresponsible by the media and is simply fear-mongering to make the story more sensational. Now – I’m not saying that what is happening in Japan isn’t serious, but we did learn from that disaster in 1986 (and 1979 too). Now Japan is doing completely the right thing – they are trying everything to avert a disaster, cautioning people to stay indoors, distributing medical supplies for just-in-case and perhaps most important of all – trying to be open and honest with the information it has. I just feel that the media however is incorrectly relaying this.
15 March at 11:45

My friend: and an update if anyone is interested: http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/15/fukushima-15-march-summary/
15 March at 11:52

A mutual Australian friend of ours: You know its funny Sarah, renewable energy uses nuclear power too. Albeit the source is a little further away, but still one day it’ll run out of fuel and we’ll have to say bye bye earth!
15 March at 12:12

My friend’s friend whose wall the link was originally posted on: Getting power by wind and sun are incredibly inefficient methods of power generation to date. People forget the huge costs and “carbon” factor of actually building it all, and then maintaining the equipment (life of it, part replacement etc…). It maybe fine for the average household, but EVERYTHING is moving towards a greater need for energy (eg your car and basically every bit of technology that surrounds us)
Unfortunately to power any 1st world nation, you simply need a lot of energy. Nuclear is far from being the most used power source (15%).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EIA2007_f4.jpg
I’d rather see an increase in Nuclear and Household Renewable/Engery efficiency… rather than the alternatives of developing coal/liquid/gas ower stations. But as the trend goes, we’re seeing an ever increasing use of these.
Nuclear waste is even reusable now – they reckon the UK could power through to the 2060 on just their current nuclear waste.
15 March at 12:36

Me: I’m totally on board with informing people about scientific details rather than sensation-seeking journalism. But in my opinion that’s the only good thing about this article, that it’s trying to do that – although apparently even that article got the facts wrong, so who can you trust? And that’s precisely what I’m getting at: you can’t trust anyone, any statements, any predictions. But that article *made* a prediction, a clear statement that Fukushima I is and will be safe. Now I’m not saying it’s not safe, even though the events so far do (more than) indicate that. I’m saying: wait and see! But don’t distribute useless “information” on what may or may not happen. Making people feel safe when actually they’re not is, in my opinion, even more reckless than doing it the other way round!!
A few other points though: I do not believe that the information we’re getting so far is honest, which is another reason why I think nobody should make any assumptions about anything. Tepco, who run Fukushima I, has a shocking record of dishonesty when it comes to covering up faults at the plant etc. etc. I’m not going to make a statement on the honesty of the Japanese government here, but even if they’re being honest themselves they do after all rely on what Tepco tells them, which, as mentioned above, is questionable at best.
With regards to the high energy use of 1st world countries, people need to think outside the box a bit more – the answer to “we use a lot of energy” is not necessarily “we need to get more” – it could also be “we need to use less”. I don’t have a car, I switch all my appliances off when not in use, I have energy saving lightbulbs and so on. Sure, it takes a bit more effort, but I don’t mind doing it, I’m not too lazy – no, on the contrary, I’m proud of doing my bit to save the environment!
Oh, and by the way, building new nuclear power plants and maintaining old ones to somewhat acceptable standards costs quite a bit of money too! Especially if they have to be built “earthquake-safe” (no comment) – we’re talking several billion dollars here. I’d rather invest that sort of money into green energy.
And last but not least, like I mentioned in a previous post, I agree with 1) wind/solar/water-based power generation methods are way too ineffecient at the moment, and 2) nuclear power is greener that coal etc. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here – the point is: 1) inefficiency of alternative energy resources is the reason more money has to be invested in *research* into these areas. We can’t just overlook these technologies just because they’re not perfect yet – we need to improve them! People have been working on, well, let’s call it “nuclear physics”, for decades now (as Japan should remember best…), so obviously they’re ahead (but still far from perfect themselves!!). Time for green energy to catch up. And 2) nuclear power can be as green as it wants, it’s still *dangerous*, so if I have a choice I’ll always go for solar (etc.) power. Because I want my children to be able to eat carrots or potatoes we’ll grow in our own garden – which, incidentally, is something *I wasn’t* allowed to do in spring/summer 1986…
16 March at 00:13

My friend: Another interesting article coming out of MIT: http://tech.mit.edu/V131/N13/yost.html
16 March at 23:30

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