Critical Look: PBS Newshour’s coverage of 10th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear accident

March 15, 2021, 3:00PMNuclear News

Along with many other media outlets on March 11, the PBS NewsHour reported on the continuing recovery efforts from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan 10 years ago. The segment, "Japan marks 10th anniversary of Fukushima nuclear disaster," is just over eight minutes long, most of which discusses the effects of the earthquake and tsunami on the region and Japan’s preparedness for the next major natural incident.

Careless from the start: The report starts off, however, with careless wording, saying that the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown resulted in more than 20,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of Japanese residents displaced. First, discussing the three events in the same sentence, in terms of events that occurred on March 11, is inaccurate, as the nuclear accident played out over days and was a result of the tsunami. The phrasing is also reckless, implying that the tragic loss of life can be blamed on all three aspects of the disaster instead of focusing on the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami. Given such wording, it is easy to see how viewers would believe that the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns were responsible for much, or even most, of the loss of life.

This is simply not true. Over the past decade of careful study, organizations including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Nuclear Energy Agency, and ANS have repeatedly stated findings that the nuclear accident has not had an impact on the health of the population (besides the evacuations stemming from the accident—the evacuations caused more loss of life than if people had sheltered in place) and no observable increases in cancer above the natural variation in baseline rates are anticipated. According to the U.N. report, “evacuated communities where evacuation orders have been lifted, average annual effective doses in 2021, taking account of remediation work completed in these areas, are generally less than 1 mSv.” Those levels are below average background levels and are safe to return to according to international standards.

Interview with an “expert”: The NewsHour report ends with an interview of an assumed nuclear expert—Thomas Bass, who is described as the author of seven books and a professor of English and journalism at the State University of New York in Albany, with no mention of a science background. Again, this is reckless reporting on such an important topic—during the time of COVID-19, would a news organization such as PBS present an English professor as a subject matter expert on the topic of infectious disease? It is unclear why NewsHour thought it would be okay to do so when discussing the nuclear meltdowns and radiation risks.

The real experts: To provide the view of true nuclear experts on this topic, ANS reached out to two members who have been involved in the decommissioning and remediation of the Fukushima nuclear power station and the surrounding area, Lake Barrett and Paul Dickman. Barrett is a consultant to the Tokyo Electric Power Company and Japan’s International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning and he served as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s site director for the cleanup of the Three Mile Island accident. Dickman is a senior policy fellow at Argonne National Laboratory and was the study director of the ANS Special Committee on the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Below we present the original questions from PBS and the responses from Bass, along with responses from Barrett and Dickman when we posed the same questions to them.

A primer on dose limits: But first, one statement below from Bass needs some context. Bass says that Japan increased the radiation limit 20-fold (from 1 mSv to 20 mSv). While true, a critical look reveals the statement to be an overdramatization. Most governments, including that of the United States, have radiation dose limits set at 1 mSv, which is based on conservative models established near the nuclear industry’s beginning. The average annual dose a person in the United States receives from natural background radiation is 3 mSv, three times what the government sets as tolerable exposure to radiation released from nuclear power plants.

To put that figure in context, the Health Physics Society (HPS) states that an exposure of 20 mSv in one year would result in an additional lifetime cancer risk of 0.17 percent. Many do not realize that most homes in the United States have naturally occurring radon levels that exceed 1 mSv and can be as high as 100 mSv per year in some areas of the country. In the days after Fukushima, PBS itself published a story about a popular radiation dose chart that states that the lowest dose clearly linked to cancer is 100 mSv per year. Many other websites have more information about radiation dose and how to calculate the average dose one would receive in a year, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. NRC, the HPS, and ANS.

The Japanese government claims it’s safe for citizens to return to their homes, but many don’t feel safe returning. There will be Olympic matches held in Fukushima City this year. Do you believe it’s safe?

Thomas Bass

Well, it still is a nuclear exclusion zone. So, it actually is a zone that excludes people from living in it.

So, certainly, those areas are not safe to return to. And other areas are contaminated with nuclear particles and not safe to return to. You just saw a woman who’s facing a village that’s been completely devastated and is no longer habitable, no longer has any stores, any services. Even if it were considered—quote, unquote—“safe to return to,” one couldn’t return to it.

Lake Barrett

Feeling safe or not is a personal emotional feeling about a certain risk. And often the emotional response is not commensurate with the true scientific risk of injury. The radiation risks in the released [reopened to habitation] Fukushima area are very low and well within normal international risk standards; however, for various psychological reasons, people may feel they are not safe. The scientific radiation safety risks in released areas for the Olympics are extremely low, being commensurate to crossing a street, and should be considered safe by any reasonable standard.

Paul Dickman

First, there are very few areas where the Japanese government continues to limit access and habitation. These are very clearly identified, controlled, and under active remediation. The rest of the region that was subjected to the evacuation is open and fully habitable. The region continues to recover from the massive damage caused by the earthquake; it will take time to rebuild the economic and social infrastructure in the region. It took over eight years after the earthquake to reestablish rail service to the area, which gives you some indication of the [earthquake and tsunami] devastation to the region.

Japan’s government has long acknowledged some of its very early mistakes. And, politically, the party who was in charge paid very dearly for those mistakes.

And it points out today that it set a level of acceptable toxicity in the area and that the IAEA has accepted that level. Do you believe that argument?

Thomas Bass

Well, no, I certainly do not.

The government raised the so-called allowable level of contamination 20-fold. They raised the allowable level to that that is usually limited for full-time workers in nuclear factories. So, it was only by raising the so-called level of toxicity that they were able to claim that the area was safe.

Lake Barrett

Yes, various mistakes were made, but they were mostly being overly cautious with radiation risks and not sensitive enough to the societal harm caused by the evacuations. Toxicity exists in everyday life and is minimized to the extent appropriate; however, there are always debates about “how safe is safe enough.” The standards in place in Fukushima are well within recognized international standards.

Paul Dickman

There were many mistakes made by the Japanese government at the time, particularly in communication. These have been well documented and acknowledged. But radiation, radioactivity, and radiotoxicity are based in science and have been studied in depth. These are well understood, and laboratories, institutions, and medical centers use radiation every day to improve our lives and cure diseases.

Japan has kept offline more than 30 reactors. It rewrote the rules for its nuclear regulatory agency, much like the U.S. rewrote its rules after the Three Mile Island accident. Do you believe the Japanese government has done enough?

Thomas Bass

Well, first of all, they shut down all 54 of their nuclear reactors, and only a handful of those had been given clearance to reopen.

Let's face it. Japan is a geologically unstable part of the world. I mean, it suffers—there was just an earthquake recently, a couple of weeks ago. So, Japan has geological problems that are far greater than most of the United States and its nuclear reactors.

So, the Japanese government can claim that it’s made its reactors safe and toughened up—toughened up its regulations, but the simple fact of the matter is that Japan never should have built nuclear reactors along its incredibly unstable shores.

Lake Barrett

Japan has very much tightened their safety requirements after Fukushima. In fact, current Japanese requirements are among the most stringent in the world. Earthquakes exist everywhere in the world and happen every minute. Japanese earthquake engineering is among the best in the world, and the extra safety precautions now taken there more than compensate for their higher-seismic-activity geologic setting. Overall, Japanese reactors approved for restart are very low risk and worthy of producing safe, dependable, clean, carbon-free electricity to support their societal needs.

The Japanese government says that it acknowledges that radiation is a long-term problem and is trying its best to manage the risks inside Fukushima, which are still there. Do you believe that they are managing the risks well enough?

Thomas Bass

No, I certainly do not.

I mean, the reactors are still uncovered. There has not been a concrete sarcophagus built over them, as was the case with Chernobyl. They’re still massively hot, still leaking large amounts of radiation, still having groundwater flowing through the reactors that has not been controlled.

They—the plan to decommission them stretches out 40 years, because it requires technology that has not yet been invented and technology that has not yet been proven to work. So, in terms of managing the disaster, I would not give the Japanese government high marks on that front.

Lake Barrett

Yes, they are managing the radiation risks there very well. Radioactive materials are being well controlled through extensive containment and monitoring programs to protect the public and environment. Melted core debris remains in the building containments, but steady progress is being made to remove it. After 10 years the core debris decay heat is now approximately 75 kilowatts, which is less heat output than a small automobile. A normal operating reactor puts out over 2 million kilowatts of heat energy. So present-day temperatures are no longer hot, and active cooling is no longer needed. Much work remains to be done to develop specific engineering details, but decontamination and debris removal can be achieved within current technologies.

At Chernobyl, the top of the containment was blown off due the nuclear excursion, making the damaged cores fully exposed to the environment. Whereas at Fukushima, the inner primary containment is mostly intact (although leaking into the outer reactor building) and not directly exposed. So a sarcophagus, like at Chernobyl, is not necessary.

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