Downplaying deadly dangers in Japan and at home
Ever since the start of nuclear technology, those behind it have made heavy use of deception, obfuscation and denial—with the complicity of most of the media. New York Times reporter William Laurence, working at the same time with the Manhattan Project, wrote a widely published press release covering up the first nuclear test in New Mexico in 1945, claiming it was nothing more than an ammunition dump explosion. The Times and Laurence went on to boost nuclear power for years to come (Beverly Deepe Keever, News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb).
A central concern of nuclear promoters, as Rosalie Bertell writes in her book No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radio-active Earth, has been: “Should the public discover the true health cost of nuclear pollution, a cry would rise from all parts of the world and people would refuse to cooperate passively with their own death.” In the U.S., the nuclear industry and government nuclear agencies lied after the accident at Three Mile Island. In the Soviet Union, government lies flowed after the catastrophe at Chernobyl. There have been cover-up after cover-up of the smaller accidents in between (Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation; Jay M. Gould and Benjamin A. Goldman, Deadly Deceit: Low-level Radiation, High-level Cover-Up).
The nuclear enterprise, with its army of PR people, has had little trouble through the years manipulating a largely compliant media, a major component of which it has owned: Westinghouse owning CBS for many years, and General Electric, NBC. And this continues in the still-unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan.
Media coverage of the Fukushima nuclear power facility disaster has ranged from dreadful to barely passable. Much of the reporting about the threats of nuclear power and the impacts of radioactivity has been outrageously poor, as journalists and their talking-head experts have parroted the assurances of Japanese and other officials that the amounts of radioactivity being released were low and thus posed “no health threat” to people (e.g., AP, 3/21/11).
Decades ago, there was the notion of a “threshold dose” of radiation, below which there was no harm. That’s because when nuclear technology began and people were exposed to radioactivity, they didn’t promptly fall down dead. But as the years went by, it was realized that lower levels of radioactivity take time to result in cancer and other illnesses—that there is a five-to-40-year “incubation” period.
Now most scientists acknowledge that any amount of radioactivity can lead to illness and death, especially in fetuses and children whose cells are dividing more rapidly than in adults. As the National Council on Radiation Protection (No. 136, 2001) has said: “Every increment of radiation exposure produces an incremental increase in the risk of cancer.” Or the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“Fact Sheet: Biological Effects of Radiation”): “Any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer.”
Much coverage reassured the public that, even if there was some risk, potassium iodide pills being distributed in Japan “block radioactivity” (CNN, 3/18/11). In fact, potassium iodide pills work only on the thyroid, filling it with “good” iodine so radioactive iodine-131, which causes thyroid cancer, cannot be absorbed. But there are hundreds of other fission products—including cesium-137 and strontium-90, both of which were discharged when the Fukushima nuclear plants erupted—and there are no magic pills for any of them.
Fox News took its coverage to another level, with Geraldo Rivera declaring (3/18/11): “I love nuclear power.” And right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter on the O’Reilly Factor (Fox News, 3/17/11) asserted that “radiation [amounts] in excess of what the government says are the minimum amounts we should be exposed to are actually good for you and reduce cases of cancer.” Even fellow right-wing firebrand Bill O’Reilly was taken aback. “You have to be responsible,” he told her.
Coulter’s comment stems from a wild theory of some nuclear scientists called “hormesis,” which holds that radioactivity is good because it exercises the immune system. Coulter chastised media for not pursuing the radiation-is-good hypothesis. They should—they’ll find that it’s been dismissed by national and international agencies involved with radiation protection, including the U.S. National Research Council, the National Council on Radiation Protection and the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.
There have been huge scientific errors, even by people who acknowledged the seriousness of the disaster—such as the explanation of cesium-137 by Bill Nye, aka “The Science Guy,” on CNN (3/12/11). “We hear about this substance called cesium, which is being released,” anchor John Vause said to Nye. “What’s the significance of that?” The “Science Guy” responded: “Cesium is used to slow and control the nuclear reaction, the fission of these very large atoms of uranium. And so when cesium can’t get in there to slow things down, it gets hotter and hotter.”
In fact, cesium-137 has absolutely nothing to do with slowing or controlling fission (that’s boron); it is one of the deadliest radioactive products created by fission, and one of the main reasons there’s still a 1,660-square-mile Exclusion Zone around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. So the “Science Guy” flubs a high-school physics exam question, and one that is crucial to understanding the health effects of nuclear accidents.
Media have betrayed a lack of understanding about the hydrogen explosions that blew the roofs off the Fukushima plants as well. It was reported that this had to do with fuel rods, and sometimes zirconium was mentioned (e.g., L.A. Times, 3/16/11). But missed was a huge issue: Zirconium, which is used to make nuclear fuel rods because it allows neutrons to pass freely, is extremely volatile. It explodes at 2,000 F with the explosive power, pound for pound, of nitroglycerin. (A tiny speck of zirconium produces the flash in a flashbulb; a typical nuclear plant contains 20 tons.) With lesser heat, it emits hydrogen, which itself can explode, and this is what occurred at Fukushima. Using zirconium in a nuclear plant is like building a bridge out of firecrackers. It’s not hard to explain, but that didn’t happen.
Then there were the reports about three GE nuclear engineers who resigned because of defects in the GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor used at Fukushima (ABC News, 3/16/11). This was in line with the spin that the problem is not nuclear power in general, but merely one flawed plant design.
While the Mark 1 design was, indeed, a factor in why the three GE nuclear engineering supervisors, Dale Bridenbaugh, Richard Hubbard and Gregory Minor, left the nuclear industry, their broader point went missing in media coverage: As they declared in a statement to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in Congress in 1976,
Meanwhile, disinformation about the impacts of previous nuclear plant disasters has served to downplay the potential impacts of the Fukushima disaster.
U.S. media regularly reported that only a few thousand people died as a result of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant catastrophe—commonly used as a baseline of comparison (e.g., New York Times, 3/27/11). These numbers ignore the most comprehensive study done on the effects of Chernobyl, a book published in 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences titled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. A team of scientists from Russia and Belarus studied health data, radiological surveys and scientific reports—some 5,000 in all—from 1986 to 2004, and estimated that the accident caused the deaths of 985,000 people worldwide. More deaths, they wrote, will follow. That’s the real baseline for a major disaster at one nuclear power plant.
Indeed, the senior scientist in that study, Dr. Alexey Yablokov, at a March 25 press conference in Washington, D.C., pointed out that because of the multiple nuclear power plants and spent fuel pools involved in the Fukushima disaster, and “because the area is far more densely populated than around Chernobyl, the human toll could eventually be far worse.” The New York Times did not cover or run a story on that press conference at the National Press Club—or the New York Academy of Sciences’ book.
There were also declarations that “no one died” as a result of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 (e.g., O’Reilly Factor, 3/16/11). NPR (3/28/11) went so far as to claim that “relatively small amounts of radiation had escaped from the plant. No one was even injured.”
That myth was long ago exploded by the book Killing Our Own, which includes a chapter called “People Died at Three Mile Island,” detailing infant and adult deaths. I wrote and narrated a TV documentary on the impacts of the TMI partial meltdown, Three Mile Island Revisited, that focused on the cancers and death in the area around the plant, and how its owner has quietly given pay-outs, many for $1 million apiece, to settle with people who suffered health impacts or lost family members because of the accident.
Also unexplored: Japan in recent years has become a global giant in the sale of nuclear power plants. GE and Westinghouse have long been the Coke and Pepsi of nuclear power plants worldwide, historically manufacturing or designing 80 percent of all nuclear plants. In 2006, Toshiba bought Westinghouse’s nuclear division and Hitachi entered into a partnership with GE to run its nuclear division. How might this huge Japanese stake in selling nuclear plants worldwide affect what Japanese officials were saying about Fukushima? This area was ignored by U.S. media—many of which have links to the nuclear industry themselves. (See FAIR Blog, 4/12/11.)
A pioneer journalist on nuclear technology, Anna Mayo, had one word to describe U.S. media coverage of the Japanese disaster: “grotesque.” From 1969 to 1989, Mayo worked for the Village Voice, writing a column titled “Geiger Counter.” She once said (Karl Grossman, Cover Up), “I built a full-time career on covering nuclear horror stories that the New York Times neglected.” Mayo was forced out after changes of ownership at the Village Voice, with “nuclear industry pressure” having much to do with her ouster: “The nuclear industry went after me. It was very obvious.”
The nuclear industry on the disaster in Japan, said Mayo, “is trying desperately to conceal the extent of radiation exposure, and they’ve wheeled out the same old lies.” And media, as usual, have bought the deadly nuclear deception.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of books on nuclear technology, including Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power, and is the writer and host of many TV programs on the issue (EnviroVideo.com).