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Fixed Points

Mind blown. Vsauce does it again. 🙂

Hey, Where’s the Fukushima Plume?

Mike RothschildBy Mike Rothschild via Skeptoid

After I started writing about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it quickly became clear that there was a huge amount of fearmongering about it. Garbage anti-science pieces like “At the very least your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish are over” and “28 Signs the West Coast is Being Absolutely Fried by Fukushima Radiation” were needlessly scaring the crap out of those who didn’t have the training, knowledge, or common sense filter needed to see through them.

fukushima bread 02_200pxThe result was that people became afraid that radiation was melting all life in the Pacific Ocean, that cancer was slamming the West Coast, that fish were inedible, that the beach was a death zone, that Japan would be obliterated, that half of America would have to be evacuated, that giant marine animals were washing ashore, that the ocean was broken, that life as we knew it was over, and on and on.

And all of that horror was before “the plume” reached the West Coast.

The radiation leak from Fukushima actually has two components. One was the initial leak from the incident itself, which hit the US fairly quickly. The other was the much slower moving “plume” of radioactive water, the extent of which only became clear last year after Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted that 300 tons of runoff was leaking into the Pacific every day, with no way to stop it.

The New York Times’ map of the Fukushima Plume projection. (click image for larger view)

The New York Times’ map of the Fukushima Plume projection. (click image for larger view)

There were generally two reactions to the news that a plume of radioactive water was heading straight toward the West Coast:

Scientists did science. They researched, they set up studies, they developed computer models, they wrote papers, they disseminated their findings, they adjusted their hypotheses accordingly. The aim was to determine when the plume would arrive, what danger it carried, and what the next steps should be.

Panicmongers mongered panic. They wrote long blog posts trumping up the unknown dangers, they spread false stories, they relied on dubious sources, they sold anti-nuclear products, they accused researchers and government officials of covering up the “real story” of how bad it was. The aim was to make money, abolish nuclear power, and spread fear.

What the researchers looking into the plume found was, at least to me, fairly comforting:

  1. Traces of Fukushima radioactivity would reach the West Coast of the US sometime in early 2014.
  2. Because of the natural dilution of a relatively small amount of water in the hugeness of the ocean, they would be just that – traces.
  3. However, there was no way to tell exactly when the radiation would arrive.
  4. Therefore, monitoring of the radiation levels in sea life and water should continue.
  5. While that’s happening, go about your business safe in the knowledge that you aren’t being fried.

So here we are, past early 2014. Almost halfway through the year, really. What’s the status of the plume?

For one thing, we still don’t know when the plume will hit, or if it actually has. The estimates are still a moving target.

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Is the sea floor littered with dead animals due to radiation? No.

by via Deep Sea News

Fukushima_250pxRecently we at Deep-Sea News have tried to combat misinformation about the presence of high levels of Fukushima radiation and its impact on marine organisms on the west coast of the United States.  After doing thorough research, reading the scientific literature, and consulting with experts and colleagues, we have found no evidence of either.  In the comments of those posts and on Twitter, readers have asked us about the “evidence” of dead marine life covering 98% of ocean floor in the Pacific as directly attributed to Fukushima radiation.  After some searching I found the main “news” article that is referenced.

The Pacific Ocean appears to be dying, according to a new study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California recently discovered that the number of dead sea creatures blanketing the floor of the Pacific is higher than it has ever been in the 24 years that monitoring has taken place, a phenomenon that the data suggests is a direct consequence of nuclear fallout from Fukushima.

In spring 2012, the muddy seafloor at Station M was literally covered with the silvery bodies of dead salps (gelatinous midwater animals that feed on microscopic algae). This debris provided food for seafloor animals such as sea cucumbers. Image © 2012 MBARI

In spring 2012, the muddy seafloor at Station M was literally covered with the silvery bodies of dead salps (gelatinous midwater animals that feed on microscopic algae). This debris provided food for seafloor animals such as sea cucumbers. Image © 2012 MBARI

Before I discuss this “evidence” further, I want to provide a little background.  I am a deep-sea biologist and over the last several years my research has focused on the biodiversity of deep-sea communities off the California coast.  Like many others, I am also working toward understanding how deep-sea life will respond to increased anthropogenic impacts particularly climate change.  This resulted in a high profile publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.  I mention this background because 1. It explains why I view myself as an expert to comment on this and 2. it explains why I was confounded for a moment when I thought I had missed a paper in a journal I have published in, on a geographic region I study, and on a topic close to my own research.  And to boot from researchers at institution (MBARI) I was formerly employed with.

The reason I am unfamiliar with a study providing evidence of  “Dead sea creatures cover 98 percent of ocean floor off California coast; up from 1 percent before Fukushima” is because no such study exists.  Here are the details of the actual study.

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Dire Warnings and Melting Starfish: Fukushima Fearmongering

Mike Rothschildby Mike Rothschild via Skeptoid

This is the third in a series of pieces debunking the scaremongering and hysteria regarding the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant. I believe the anxiety about the meltdown and its aftermath comes from a mix of negativity toward nuclear power, hostility toward plant operators TEPCO (which is well-deserved in most cases), a lack of knowledge about basic science, distrust of experts (who are seen as dishonest shills) and the common habit of sharing social content that’s driven by strong negative emotions – often without understanding it, and sometimes without even reading it.

fukushima bread 02Using links to good science and some basic concepts in logic, I’ve demolished two of the most prominent lies about Fukushima already, one that Pacific Ocean fish is unsafe to eat and the other that the West Coast is being “absolutely fried” by radiation from the disaster. This time, I’m not going to debunk one single post, but address a grab bag of myths, exaggerations and scaremongering racing around social media. Some of it you’ve probably seen many times, and some of it might be brand new, but all of it needs to be dealt with.

CLAIM: The ocean is broken. This is the title of an October article from Australia’s Newcastle Herald, chronicling the journey of Ivan Macfadyen, a yachtsman who retraced a voyage between Melbourne and Osaka, and ten years later found the Pacific Ocean virtually devoid of life but teaming with floating trash. With its attention-grabbing title and compelling content, it went viral, with over half a million views in three days. People connected the dots and linked the dead, garbage-filled ocean that Macfadyen encountered on his trip to Fukushima, and the piece has been used as part of the exaggerated story since then.

But the link between the two doesn’t appear to exist. As the ocean conservation blog Upwell points out, the story in the Newcastle Herald isn’t a hard science piece, and has no citations or links to relevant research. It’s not meant to. It’s a human interest story, the relaying of a personal anecdote, and rooted in emotion. It’s full of phrases like “nauseous horror” and “astounding volumes” – compelling writing, but not science.

Nuclear fuel rods

Nuclear fuel rods

The story is also not at all about the nuclear plant, but the damage done from overfishing and plastic pollution. It doesn’t even mention Fukushima by name. As such, it’s worth reading, but not useful for any discussion about the meltdown.

CLAIM: David Suzuki’s Dire Warning. The removal of the spent fuel rods from Fukushima could have apocalyptic consequences if done incorrectly, warn activists around the world. Chief among them is David Suzuki, a Canadian environmentalist, scientist and author, well known in his native country, but not elsewhere. A post containing video of him discussing the fuel rod removal, called “David Suzuki’s Fukushima Warning is Dire and Scary” went up on Huffington Post and was a viral hit. So what is his warning, and is it accurate?

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More Fukushima Scaremongering Debunked

Mike Rothschildby Mike Rothschild via Skeptoid

Another day brings another science-free but hysteria-packed screed of terror about how radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant incident will bathe all of us in torrents of cesium-soaked death. Fukushima_250pxA few months ago, I took on one of these rambles, Gary Stamper’s not at all melodramatic “At the very least, your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish are over” and determined that nothing of the sort is even close to true, with the evidence behind it either willfully misinterpreted or simply incorrect.

Now it’s time to get the knives out for a newer piece of Fukushima scaremongering, published just over a week ago on “Activist Post.” While it’s just as wrong and hysterical as Stamper’s piece, it’s also just as popular, with 28,000 shares on Facebook already. It’s sad that far more people are drawn in by crap than in the debunking of said crap, but that doesn’t mean we stop spreading the correct message: that the radiation released by Fukushima, while serious enough to be cleaned up and monitored, is having a negligible effect on everyone but the unfortunate people living in that area.

28 Signs That The West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried With Nuclear Radiation From Fukushima

fukushima bread 02_200pxAnd we’re off to the races: specifically, the Gish Gallop, a fallacious debating technique that involves overwhelming your opponent with information, without any regard for its accuracy. Also, I’d like to know what “absolutely fried” means. Is it measurable? Is there a unit that denotes “absolutely fried” as opposed to “mostly fried” or “somewhat fried?” How many AF’s (absolutely frieds) does the radiation from Fukushima contain? And what’s a survivable dose of AF’s? I have many questions about the science underlying this clearly scientific measuring tool.

Michael Snyder
Activist Post

According to his blurb on Activist Post, Michael Snyder is a former Washington D.C. attorney who now publishes The Truth. His new thriller entitled “The Beginning Of The End” is now available on Amazon.com.

Snyder’s site appears to be some kind of Christian doomsday prepper clearinghouse, and his novel is about (surprise) the economic collapse of America. So if you’re looking for a way to incorporate hoarding precious metals into your fellowshipping, Snyder is your man. None of this is a knock against him, but he does seem to have a vested interest in trying to convince you the world is about to end. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

The map below comes from the Nuclear Emergency Tracking Center. It shows that radiation levels at radiation monitoring stations all over the country are elevated. As you will notice, this is particularly true along the west coast of the United States.

map_600px

The name “Nuclear Emergency Tracking Center” sounds a lot like a government regulatory body. It’s so incredibly the opposite of that. The website is a slapped together map of the supposed radiation levels at nuclear sites around the world. It’s got no indication where it’s getting its information or what it means, but it does have a fee based service that will alert you to radiation spikes anywhere in the world. And Bible quotes.

Every single day, 300 tons of radioactive water from Fukushima enters the Pacific Ocean. That means that the total amount of radioactive material released from Fukushima is constantly increasing, and it is steadily building up in our food chain.

I already covered this in the Stamper piece, and why it seems much worse than it actually is. The short of it is that 300 tons of radioactive water is literally a drop in the bucket compared to the 187 quintillion gallons that make up the Pacific Ocean. Whatever radioactivity is in that water will be diluted to the point of harmlessness.

[…]
We are talking about a nuclear disaster that is absolutely unprecedented, and it is constantly getting worse.

It’s not unprecedented. Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear disaster in human history, much worse in virtually every measurable way than Fukushima.

The following are 28 signs that the west coast of North America is being absolutely fried with nuclear radiation from Fukushima…

Bring it, list. Bring it.

1. Polar bears, seals and walruses along the Alaska coastline are suffering from fur loss and open sores…

Stamper referenced the same article that Snyder does. And if I may be so bold as to quote myself: “The article Stamper links to specifically says ‘Reuters noted that preliminary studies do not support a theory that the disease is due to contamination from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.‘”

Citing an article that specifically refutes the point you’re trying to make is not the way to make that point.

2. There is an epidemic of sea lion deaths along the California coastline…

There is an epidemic of sea lion deaths along the west coast, happening for as-yet unknown reasons. But it’s sea lion PUPS dying, not sea lions as a whole. Radiation does not distinguish whether an animal is young or old, so it’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, that Fukushima has anything to do with this.

3. Along the Pacific coast of Canada and the Alaska coastline, the population of sockeye salmon is at a historic low. Many are blaming Fukushima.

Sockeye salmonSockeye salmon numbers have been in decline for decades.[/caption]And they would be wrong. Sockeye salmon stocks are low in Canada’s Fraser Basin, with experts in the field researching a number of causes for it. But it’s a decline that began in 1992, long before Fukushima was scaring the crap out of people.

4. Something is causing fish all along the west coast of Canada to bleed from their gills, bellies and eyeballs.

Just as “many” does not equal “people who understand this stuff,” “something” does not equal “Fukushima.” The link Snyder sites doesn’t even talk about “fish all along the west coast of Canada.” It mentions one school of herring found to be mysteriously bleeding. The cause of this is unknown right now, but even the biologist who discovered the herring isn’t blaming Fukushima – and she discovered them before the plume of radiation would have reached Canada.

5. A vast field of radioactive debris from Fukushima that is approximately the size of California has crossed the Pacific Ocean and is starting to collide with the west coast.

I don’t know where the “size of California” bit comes from, and I can’t find any reputable source to back it up. There is a large field of debris from the post-earthquake tsunami that will hit the west coast, but interestingly, the link Snyder cites has another link to a BBC article that says it won’t happen until March, 2014. And the debris is not likely to have anything more than traces of radioactivity.

6. It is being projected that the radioactivity of coastal waters off the U.S. west coast could double over the next five to six years.

True, and nothing to be concerned about, given how low the current radioactivity level of the west coast is. To quote Dr. Claus Boning from the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany: “The levels of radiation that hit the US coast will be small relative to the levels released by Fukushima. […] But we cannot estimate accurately what those levels will be because we do not know for certain what was released by Fukushima.”

7. Experts have found very high levels of cesium-137 in plankton living in the waters of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the west coast.

This is entirely expected and in keeping with a radioactive leak. The amount of radioactivity in the plankton will continue to decay as it moves up the food chain, staying well within Japan’s newly-raised acceptable levels of becquerels per kilogram of foodstuffs.

8. One test in California found that 15 out of 15 bluefin tuna were contaminated with radiation from Fukushima.

Yet another link Snyder cited without actually reading. It references a CNN article that states: “Tissue samples taken from 15 bluefin caught in August, five months after the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, all contained reactor byproducts cesium-134 and cesium-137 at levels that produced radiation about 3% higher than natural background sources.” (Emphasis mine)

A 3% increase in radiation is negligible. It’s around the same amount of additional exposure you get flying in a plane, or sleeping next to someone. If that worries you, then it’s time for separate bedrooms.

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