TED's Pro-Nuclear Bias

TED talks gone nuclear: how neoliberal proselytizing goes hand in hand with the promotion of nuclear energy
(revised 2015/02/23)

The TED talks became popular about ten years ago once broadband video had become widely available. At first, the videos seemed like a compelling alternative form of education in a post-literate world. Few people would read, or even find, a report about the eradication of smallpox, but many more would find and listen to a twenty-minute personal narrative by the man (Larry Brilliant) [1] who led the UN program which successfully eradicated smallpox. What’s not to like here? But over time I noticed that more and more of the talks ended with the speaker saying something to the live audience like “go out and change the world,” and it was clear that the message was directed at the wealthy, important people in attendance, not at the masses watching the recordings. It had become clear that TED reflected a particular belief system about how to improve the world, and that the conference had a missionary purpose which left people watching at home as mere spectators.
Critical voices started to grumble about a vaguely-sensed banality that arises from the missionary aura of the event. For a while, no one was quite able to define the problem, and it was difficult to find fault with a forum that presented so many interesting speakers and was apparently devoted to changing the world for the better. It wasn’t until 2012 that critical reviews began to articulate what is wrong with TED.
Martin Robbins wrote “The Trouble with TED Talks“ [2] in New Statesman in September, 2012. He noted that the TED slogan “ideas worth spreading” indicates that TED is essentially concerned with proselytizing. A significant flaw in the structure of TED is that participation in the conference is accessible only to people who can pay thousands of dollars to attend for a few days. Robbins asks, “What better crowd could there be than social elites who’ve invested thousands of dollars for the opportunity to bask in the warm glow of someone else’s intellectual aura?” For Robbins, the major flaw is that ideas worth spreading are never challenged or peer reviewed. There is no question period after the talks, no debate, no transparency about the way speakers are selected. He concludes:

TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place. People join for much the same reason they join societies like Mensa: it gives them a chance to label themselves part of an intellectual elite. That intelligence is optional, and you need to be rich and well-connected to get into the conferences and the exclusive fringe parties and events that accompany them, simply adds to the irresistible allure. TED’s slogan shouldn’t be “Ideas worth spreading,” it should be: “Ego worth paying for.”

In December 2013, Benjamin Bratton wrote “We Need to Talk about TED” for The Guardian.[3] He argued that “TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” He noted an implicit requirement that talks be based on “epiphany and personal testimony” in order to be considered worthy. He asked, “What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?”
Bratton noted that TED management demanded that its various satellite conference organizers (TEDx events) refrain from featuring speakers whose topics include the paranormal, the conspiratorial and new agey. The goal was to have TEDx present talks that are imaginative yet grounded in reality. Bratton gives TED some credit for trying to maintain its reliability, but he added:

… the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine are placebo politics and placebo innovation. On this point, TED has a long way to go… If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation… Keep calm and carry on ‘innovating’ ... is that the real message of TED? To me that’s not inspirational, it’s cynical.

In spite of what TED claims in its response to such criticisms, I think there is nonetheless an ideological bias in the TED conference, and it is incompatible with the objective of conducting an open search for innovative solutions to global problems. This can be understood by asking what is absent as opposed to what is present. Because it was established by and for technology millionaires, content has been consciously or unconsciously selected to reflect their world view. Prominent intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, for example, have never appeared on the TED stage.
In TEDworld, solutions come in the form of small-scale initiatives by selected innovators that can be scaled up, if they receive support from wealthy donors during networking sessions at the conference. Someone who has developed an inexpensive water filter might get private funding to launch a large-scale deployment in an African country, but this is as far as problem-solving goes. The TED stage does not welcome discussion of the big questions about resource exploitation and the geopolitical goals of Western powers that perpetuate numerous African conflicts. No one on the TED stage talks about solving complex social problems through government policy, taxes on the wealthy, or electoral reform. Many TED speakers beseech the TED audience to take action because they see government and private enterprise as incapable of doing the right thing. Bill Gates said in his talk about his charitable foundation, “Governments don’t naturally pick these things [philanthropic initiatives] in the right way. The private sector doesn’t naturally put its resources into these things. So it’s going to take brilliant people like you... [special people in the TED audience]” [4] Somehow, this depressing lack of faith in democratic institutions and traditions isn’t seen as detracting from the optimism and inspiration of the event.
An excellent example of ideological filtering can be seen in the way TED has set the parameters of its discussion of nuclear energy. In the list below, I briefly comment on the few talks that have mentioned nuclear energy, and what emerges from this review is a bias that promotes nuclear energy as a solution to global warming yet avoids all mention of its historical failures, the health and environmental hazards, and the intractable problem of waste disposal. There is a long list of qualified and respectable nuclear scientists who lost their official funding when they began to report findings unfavorable to national energy policy goals, but they have continued to do good research with funds they raise privately. These people have never been invited to the TED stage because it seems they have been categorized among those who do “placebo science,” science which is “not grounded in reality.” Other people who will never be invited are representatives of ethnic groups such as the Navajo, Dene and Marshallese who have been victimized by the detonation of nuclear weapons and uranium mining.
What follows is a brief summary and critique of the short list of TED talks that are concerned with nuclear energy.

This is perhaps the only instance of a TED talk presented as a multi-faceted discussion in which ideas are challenged by the debaters, the moderator and members of the audience. However, the debate parameters are stacked in favor of nuclear energy. The “No” answer is framed as needing to prove that renewable energy could provide enough baseload energy for all human wants (always mistakenly referred to as “needs”) to replace both carbon and nuclear sources. The speaker, Mark Jacobson, is a specialist in atmospheric research and renewable energy, so he isn’t the best person to speak of the negative aspects of nuclear energy. The “anti-nuclear” argument is allotted little opportunity to discuss environmental impacts, health impacts, proliferation risks, the risk of catastrophic failures (this was one year before Fuskushima) and the questionable values of a society that leaves the nuclear waste legacy to future generations. Nonetheless, Jacobson manages to cover some of these topics while spending most of his time explaining the potential of renewables, and he succeeds in changing some minds in the audience by the end of the debate. The pro-nuclear argument is presented by the famous apostate of traditional environmentalism, Stewart Brand.

This is a talk given by the teenage physics prodigy Taylor Wilson. He speaks of the promise of fusion energy, and the talk is a notable example of how nuclear proponents acknowledge the unacceptable risks of present nuclear technology only when they are promoting the relative safety of the next technology. Taylor Wilson is obviously a very smart guy, but he seems to have a dangerously narrow focus on nuclear physics that hasn’t been balanced with an education in the biological, political and social aspects of nuclear technology.

One year later, Taylor Wilson was back on the TED stage promoting the development of small modular reactors (SMR). Throughout the talk Wilson clearly implies something which is utterly false: that this technology is his own breakthrough innovation, and that he, at the age of 19, has even gathered a brilliant team to work with him. He speaks as if he were a tech billionaire with a long resume of successful ventures behind him.
He might have contributed some new ideas to the concept, but it seems more likely that he is being cynically used as a front to give this venture a sheen of novelty. The truth is that the potential of this design has been known for a long time. Reactors cooled by molten salt have a long history of development followed by failure and rejection. There are reasons why this hasn’t been done before. The US, the UK, Germany, and France all tried then abandoned fast breeder reactors cooled by liquid sodium (they were not molten salt breeder reactors). Russia is the only country that operates a functioning commercial breeder reactor, with plans to build more. Japan has all but conceded failure on its Monju reactor, which has never worked since it was supposed to go online twenty years ago.
The French have been slowly and very carefully draining the radioactive sodium out of their failed Superphenix reactor for the last fifteen years. Proponents of molten salt reactors fail to explain why the molten salt fuel wouldn’t pose similar problems or different problems after implementation.
A thorough, skeptical 9,000-word analysis of the technology appears on the blog Daryanenergy, a review that raises many of the tough questions that are ignored in the brief promotions that have appeared on the TED stage. The author provides the necessary warnings about technological challenges, long developmental timelines, financial barriers, environmental risks and long-term waste management that can’t be addressed in a twenty-minute promotion.[5] Perhaps the most significant red flag in the promotion of thorium and molten salt reactors is the banner ads for “thorium investors” that frequently appear in any news articles related to the energy crisis. It would appear that thorium is the next Ponzy scheme rather than the solution to the energy crisis.
With my limited IQ, I hesitate to give advice to the young prodigy, Taylor Wilson, but I think he could benefit from taking a year off to travel and round out his character before he lets himself be used this way by venture capitalists. He is blessed with a gift for science, but wisdom might be something he has to acquire the hard way like everyone else.
This talk is a clear example of Robbins’ critique that TED has come to favor showbiz appeal over content and rigorous challenge of ideas. It’s better to put the whiz kid on the stage than to have some boring billionaire come out and tell us how his reactor design is going to change the world…

… Unless, of course, it’s Bill Gates. This talk given three years before Taylor Wilson’s is basically promoting the same dream. In this case, it’s called the Travelling Wave reactor. Once again, this talk is an advertisement rather than a thorough discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of a design. Bill Gates makes no mention of waste management and the problem of broken intergenerational loyalty implied by such technology. The infrastructure of the reactors and the waste management system would have to be maintained for numerous generations into the future.

One could classify this presentation as virulently anti-nuclear, inasmuch as the speaker wants the audience to believe that nuclear technology of the present is unacceptably dangerous relative to the promise of thorium reactors. The argument is much the same as the ones made by Bill Gates and Taylor Wilson. I’d give this speaker credit for just being an ordinary guy standing up for an idea he believes in, without relying on a billionaire or a cute prodigy to do the sales job for him. He does make a favorable comparison with existing reactors on many points (which critics concede), but he fails to share with his audience the well-known downsides which explain why thorium reactors have never been built. If TED talks were really about science and facts, such one-sided promotions would not be tolerated. An example of what a balanced debate might look like can be read in the transcript of an NPR interview with Richard Martin and Arjun Makhijani on the topic of thorium reactors.[6] Here one can find a respectful debate, and the counter-argument pointing out that thorium reactors would still pose significant proliferation risks and serious problems in managing the molten salt waste.

This talk is a touching discussion of the elderly people who have stayed illegally in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It is a worthwhile topic in itself, but the speaker leaves the audience with a stunning lack of context. The result is that she implies by omission that it was a mistake to establish the exclusion zone because these holdouts are obviously happier and healthier than they would have been if they had followed the evacuation order. Perhaps she assumed the disaster is so famous that there was no need to mention the necessity of the evacuation, the health damages and deaths, but the effect of the talk is the creation of a soothing gloss over a complex catastrophe that upended millions of lives.
     By not describing the wider phenomenon, and especially by not acknowledging the proper decision to get children and women of child-bearing age away from Chernobyl, this talk plays right into the hands of the nuclear industry that has often claimed that evacuation orders are an over-reaction. 
     The speaker concludes by saying, “the spirit and existence of the babushkas… will leave us with powerful new templates to think about and grapple with, about the relative nature of risk, about transformative connections to home, and about the magnificent tonic of personal agency and self-determination.” This uplifting conclusion fails to remind the audience that this “magnificent tonic” had to be used as a reaction to an industrial crime. It should be stressed that these babushkas had no agency in the decision to build the technology which destroyed their lives.

With regard to nuclear energy, what Stewart Brand says here is essentially the same as what he covers in the 2010 debate on the TED stage (see above). In addition, here he promotes geo-engineering, gene modification and the notion that the urban poor of the world are not trapped in poverty but just transitioning out of it while (bonus!) the rural environments they left are recovering from the damage caused by their subsistence farming. It’s all good, you see.

8. Project Orion (2002)

This brief talk describes the long-classified abandoned American project to build nuclear-powered rockets for deep space travel. For some reason, the speaker was given only eight minutes to inform an audience about a remarkable but unknown chapter of history that lasted a decade. The topic required much more time, but still, in those eight minutes he might have mentioned something about the stunning disregard in Project Orion for protecting the population from nuclear fallout. The book “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base”[7] describes the experiment called Kiwi done for Project Orion which involved the deliberate destruction of a nuclear-powered rocket, just to learn what the radiation levels would be. Its aim was to measure the fallout from the explosion and from the melted 100-pound nuclear core as it fell over the launch area. A still-classified amount of radionuclides were carried away in the wind toward Los Angeles. The omission of such stories is an example once again of how all mention of nuclear energy in TED talks somehow fails to touch on the subject of the health and environmental consequences of nuclear energy.

From the title, one could guess that this talk claims renewables can’t supply enough electricity to meet demand and can’t supply baseload electricity. These claims might be true, but there is a large contingent of scientists and engineers who disagree, and yet these contrary views are hard to find on the TED stage.

This talk by Amory Lovins on the potential of renewable energy is the only TED talk I’ve found in which a speaker explicitly says nuclear energy is too expensive, too dangerous, and unnecessary for moving away from carbon-based energy. As such, it’s notable that he says this at a minor TED event (TED Salon) and not at the main conference. In his talk, he provides the data, the details and the convincing argument that we are capable of shifting to an energy paradigm based on energy produced in real time and above ground, as opposed to energy produced from underground sources.

11. The earth is full (2012)

This is a rare example of a contrarian getting onto the stage before the TED audience of techno-optimists and managing to shake them out of their comfortable presumption that forums like TED have the capacity to change the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if his inclusion in the event was viewed later as an embarrassing oversight.
In the talk, Paul Gilding argues for a massive shift in society’s priorities and calls for a centrally directed “war effort” of the kind that America put up to redefine its economy and win World War II. He wrote on his blog [8] afterwards that his talk ignited some heated debates in the hallways during the conference, but all in all, he found the crowd had too much of an optimism bias that held fast to the wishful belief that technology would save the world.

The speaker argues that our use of fossil fuels can be made much more efficient while we transition to other energy sources. This talk is mostly about how microbes and biological processes can be used in carbon fuel extraction processes to make them cleaner, cheaper and more efficient. Enriquez says this is essential to do during the time that we improve renewables and nuclear. He seems to be one of the conditional pro-nuclear people who think it can be done right but that it has been done wrong until now. At one point he suggests, “This has to be a bridge to the point where you can get to wind, to the point where you can get to solar, to the point where you can get to nuclear—and hopefully you won’t build the next nuclear plant on a beautiful seashore next to an earthquake fault.” This seems like an oblique reference to Fukushima (incidentally, in February 2015, a search on the TED website for “Fukushima” produces only two brief mentions of the disaster, and they are only passing references to the nuclear meltdowns), but this presentation was recorded in 2007. While he may have been conceding a point to nuclear critics who have opposed nuclear power plants built on the California coast, he left a remark on record that would turn out to be prophetic.

This talk makes no mention of nuclear energy, but it knocks a leg out of the standard argument that nuclear proponents make about renewable energy. The speaker describes his work on developing large-scale electricity storage solutions, and he is confident that a breakthrough is imminent. If renewable energy can be stored, then critics will no longer be able to say that it can’t provide baseload electricity.
In conclusion, this review leaves three things to say about TED. First, the techno-optimism and neoliberal bias of the organization make it a natural partner for the promotion of next generation nuclear energy, though this policy is undeclared though this policy is undeclared and the financial interests behind it are not declared. Second, dissenting views make occasional appearances, but the anti-nuclear argument has never been fully or fairly covered.
Finally, considering the thousands of talks that exist on the TED website, it’s remarkable that nuclear energy is discussed in only these few. Thirty-six talks are tagged “energy” and among these only a few are primarily about nuclear energy while a few others cover it as a sub-topic. This is a reflection of the TED’s bias, but also of those searching for the best responses to global warming. Some of them are pro-nuclear, while others believe either that nuclear is so irrelevant that it’s not worth discussing, or they prefer to have a one-front war against the fossil fuel industry.
The bias in the TED talks is also a reflection of society’s lack of concern about nuclear energy. Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons are no longer novelties that strike fear in our hearts, even though the risks haven’t changed at all, and are worsening now because of the war in Ukraine. Nuclear fears have been pushed out of our civilization’s consciousness while other preoccupations have been foregrounded. But nuclear technology is like an old water heater in your basement: Out of sight, out of mind. Though you know it’s going to blow someday, you prefer to imagine it won’t. No money has been put aside for the replacement, and you hate going down to the basement, so you refuse to think about it. Obviously, there will be a price to pay for willful ignorance, as there has been in Japan for the last four years.


[2] Martin Robbins, “The Trouble with TED Talks,” New Statesman, September 10, 2012, http://www.newstatesman.com/martin-robbins/2012/09/trouble-ted-talks

[7] Annie Jacobsen, “Area 51: An Uncensored History of Americas Top Secret Military Base,” Back Bay Books, 2012.

[8] Paul Gilding, “Will the Techno-Optimists Save the World?”  http://paulgilding.com/2012/03/08/will-the-techno-optimists-save-the-world/


Thyroid Rage

It’s hard to imagine what motivates so many medical professionals to interpret epidemiological findings in a way that supports the views of the nuclear industry. It’s equally hard to understand why editors and journalists so readily go to such people and accept their glib denials that the nuclear disaster has had or will have any impact on public health.
photo from Al Jazeera
A case in point is this week’s National Geographic interview with Norman Kleiman of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.
The interviewer asked him to comment on the fact that there have been 33 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer in children in Fukushima prefecture since the nuclear catastrophe in 2011. The writer conveniently omits the detail that there are another 42 suspected cases, many of which will be confirmed at a more convenient time when the mass media is paying less attention to the issue. It should also be emphasized that for every cancer there are many more cases of damaged thyroid function, a fact which makes the nuclear accident a much more serious public health problem than it appears to be.
In any case, this finding of 33 cases among 245,000 children converts to a rate of  about 132 per million, a 61-fold increase over the normal rate of 2 per million (quoted in the National Geographic article). The American National Cancer Institute shows thyroid cancer occurring in 2010 at a rate of 1 per 100,000 for people under the age of 20. If this rate were taken as normal, then the finding of 33 cases per 245,000 equals a rate of 13 per 100,000.
The official line in Japan is that this increase can be put down to the screening effect. That is, if you go looking for a disease, you’ll find more of it than you would just by waiting for sick people to walk into a clinic. Norman Kleiman, along with the nuclear industry, agrees with this interpretation. Interestingly, they seem to assume, without presenting evidence, that the existing estimate of 2 per million was not a product of rigorous epidemiological research that screened a population. They suggest that the Fukushima survey was the first time that a population has ever been intensively screened for thyroid cancer.
Dr. Kleiman went on to even compare thyroid cancer to prostate cancer in older men. Increased screening for prostate cancer turns up more small, slow-growing tumors that patients would be better off ignoring because they will probably die from something else before the tumor becomes a problem.
It’s hard to know what to make of such an inappropriate comparison coming from a physician. I’m just an amateur, but I think I can see the differences between a child’s thyroid cancer and an old man’s prostate cancer. Cancers in children are known to grow more quickly than they do in adults over age 50. A child’s thyroid is a vital organ needed for proper development and endocrine functioning, whereas the prostate gland of a man over fifty is not so essential. It is extremely insensitive to equate a tumor in a child’s thyroid with a tumor in an old man’s prostate. The child needs to keep that organ healthy for seventy years, so the finding of a tumor in it is sure to be alarming. It is cold comfort for the parents or the child involved to be told what can be said to older men with prostate trouble--“just keep an eye on it, you’ll probably die of something else first.”
In addition, Dr. Kleiman gets a few of his facts wrong and shows only a passing familiarity with the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. He claimed that the Chernobyl research showed thyroid cancer appearing after four years, but in fact, several research projects showed that thyroid cancers started to appear within two to three years of the catastrophe. They were described as more aggressive and with an earlier onset than the thyroid cancers that arise from other causes.(1)
Dr. Kleiman's interpretation of Chernobyl research illustrates the ways that the Soviet response to Chernobyl gets twisted to be either terrible or wonderful, depending on the spin that is necessary. Dr. Kleiman says that the Soviets did a terrible job protecting children from consuming milk and water laced with radioactive iodine, but we are to believe that later on they were flawless in detecting every case of thyroid cancer.
Dr. Kleiman also naively believes that people in Fukushima did not consume products laced with radioactive iodine in the first weeks after the accident, and he fails to mention that a significant concern aside from ingestion is the inhalation dose. No one (except some medical personnel who took care of themselves) got prophylactic doses of stable iodine, and the situation was generally chaotic, just as it was in the USSR. People were not warned of the dangers, and false assurances went out, even though data on the fallout was not available. Delivery trucks came to a certain point, but drivers bailed out when they got close to the radiation and left many people further down the road without vital supplies. Perhaps some people got bottled water, but many more had to settle for whatever they could get when they got thirsty. Regardless, the inhalation doses were enough of a concern for even Dr. Yamashita of Fukushima University Hospital to admit his error. He finally saw the data long after he had assured people there was nothing to be concerned about.(2)(3)
Dr. Kleiman also falsely described what cesium does in the body. He described it as accumulating in “fatty tissue” when in fact it goes to all connective tissue such as tendons, ligaments, fascia, skin, fibrous tissues, and fat, and to muscles, nerves and blood vessels. This is just a bit of Wikipedia fact checking that a doctor could have done before he went on record in a high profile magazine. Likewise, the journalist could have done some checking before the article went to print.
The doctor finishes by regurgitating the standard condescending nonsense that comes from nuclear advocates–comparing fission products from a nuclear accident with the radiation found in granite counter tops, bananas and rays from the sun--as if that should make people relax when a nuclear reactor is melting down and exploding a few miles from their homes. Everything he said in this interview resembles numerous other pronouncements assuring the world that Fukushima will have no health consequences. They all seem to be getting their talking points from the same source. 
   He claims that no one in Fukushima is living there with any serious “concentration” that will lead to health effects. Such statements are always made in willful neglect of the real danger of internal contamination. Of course, he had to finish by adding that the real problem is the “anxiety and fear of living in what people perceive as a contaminated area.” He adds the word “perceive” to deny a fact which the IAEA, the nuclear industry and nuclear opponents agree on. There is no perception problem. The land is contaminated.
All in all, this is a shameful gloss of a deadly serious, large-scale public health problem caused by corporate malpractice and negligence. National Geographic is seen by many as an inspirational educational resource, so it is all the more regrettable that the magazine failed to do much better research on this subject and failed to consult with a medical professional who has direct experience and in-depth knowledge of the Fukushima catastrophe and its impact on the people there. But after all, this may be the desired slant of the publication. The magazine is still ostensibly managed independently by the National Geographic Society, but National Geographic Channel is owned by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox.
At one point Dr. Kleiman said, “I'm not a pediatric endocrinologist, and I don't want to speculate..,” which just makes me wonder why the interviewer didn’t stop there, forget the speculations and go find a pediatric endocrinologist. It’s not clear why the National Geographic staff chose to interview Dr. Kleiman, a person who appears to have read from a list of talking points, with little knowledge of the event he was asked to comment on. It seems like the editors just went to someone who was easy to find locally.
Finally, there is a glaringly obvious point overlooked by those who say that the high incidence of childhood thyroid cancer in Fukushima is due to the screening effect. If it is true that the same result would come from surveying any population anywhere else, then the health authorities in Fukushima have really made a shocking, high-impact medical discovery that people all over the world will want to know about. Thyroid cancer in children is 61 times more common than we once believed it was! Any proper scientific review of this finding would insist that the researchers at Fukushima Medical University attempt to replicate their findings on a population not affected by a massive release of Iodine 131. This is the only way to confirm their conclusion, but it’s a certainty that Japanese officials will avoid doing it all costs. Yet there is always the possibility that their conclusion is correct because there are a lot of pre-existing toxins all over the world that affect thyroid function. If this research on children in Fukushima truly does imply that the global rate of thyroid cancer is so high, then this is a finding that deserves much more attention than it has got so far.


(1) Some quotes from sources listed below:

“The high incidence of childhood thyroid cancer in Belarus is suspected to be due to radiation exposure after the Chernobyl reactor accident…  All of the preceding thyroid carcinomas developed after longer latency periods, whereas tumors arising in the Chernobyl population began developing with surprising rapidity and short latency.” (Shirahige et. al.)

“… absence of marked latency period is another feature of radiation-induced thyroid cancers caused in Belarus as a result of this accident.” (Malko)

“[the latent period for thyroid cancer is] 2.5 years, based on low estimates used for lifetime risk modeling of low-level ionizing radiation studies.” (Howard)

(2) Dr. Shunichi Yamashita: I thought, "Oops..." After Seeing the SPEEDI Simulation Map on March 23, 2011. Ex-skf. November, 2011. http://ex-skf.blogspot.jp/2013/11/dr-shunichi-yamashita-i-thought-oops.html. This source is a translation of Asahi Shinbun’s in-depth report Trap of Prometheus on the chaos March 2011. The report tells how the head of the medical team overseeing the response to the catastrophe discovered too late that Iodine 131 levels were indeed very high and that stable iodine should have been given to the population immediately.

(3) Miyake et al. determined a very effective way to reconstruct the fallout of Iodine 131 after it has decayed away. Iodine 131 has a short half-life of eight days but a high energy rate that makes it very damaging to the thyroid gland. Since it is completely gone after about ten half-lives, it is difficult to determine what inhabitants were exposed to in particular areas. Miyake et al. found that Iodine 129, with a 16 million-year half-life and a proportionately much lower energy, was found in the Fukushima fallout in a fixed ratio with Iodine 131 of about 32:1. To know how much Iodine 131 fell in a particular place, one can determine the amount of Iodine 129 still in the soil. Thus there should be no fatalistic shrugging and talk of how we’ll never know what children were exposed to.


John Howard. “Minimum Latency & Types or Categories of Cancer” Administrator World Trade Center Health Program, 9.11 Monitoring and Treatment, Revision: May 1, 2013.

Mikhail V. Malko. “Chernobyl Radiation-induced Thyroid Cancers in Belarus.”
Joint Institute of Power and Nuclear Research, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. 2002.

Y. Shirahige, M. Ito, K. Ashizawa, T. Motomura, N. Yokoyama, H. Namba, S. Fukata, T. Yokozawa, N. Ishikawa, T. Mimura, S. Yamashita, I. Sekine, K. Kuma, K. Ito, S. Nagataki. “Childhood thyroid cancer: comparison of Japan and Belarus.” Endocrine Journal, 1998 Apr;45(2):203-9.

Justin McCurry. “Fukushima's children at centre of debate over rates of thyroid cancer.” The Guardian. March 9, 2014.


The Narrow Road to the Radiant North

As the third anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown disaster comes around, there is too much to possibly say, so I’ll be brief and say it with a picture.
The sketch above is a mash-up of a famous sketch by the 18th-19th century artist Hokusai, who is better known for his colorful woodblock prints such as the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The sketch above depicts the famous 17th century Haiku master Matsuo Basho who wrote about his journey to the great beyond in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The scene depicts him on the road, but now with a thyroidectomy scar on his neck and a contemporary scene in the distance.
Some might think it is wrong to rework national art treasures to make a satirical point about energy policy, but I think the old masters would approve of any action that protests what has become of the country they revered in their art.
When Shinzo Abe was prime minister for the first time in 2006, his stump speech referred often to a wish to make a “beautiful country,” as if Japan was not beautiful, or never had been, or had to be beautiful once again. In his second coming in the 2012 campaign, he conjured up more vague wishes saying “take back Japan” or “Japan is back.” He never specified how it had been taken away, or what it was back from or back to. The implication, of course, was that he and his party were the rightful owners.
When it comes to all this talk of restoration and making a beautiful country, we have to keep in mind who turned Japan into a nuclear waste repository, and who is busy denying that the stunning spike in childhood thyroid cancer rates has anything to do with a cloud of radioactive iodine that blew over the deep north. If anyone is angry that treasured art has been defiled, they should ask themselves the very old question of whether art or life is more important. Those children awaiting treatment for thyroid cancer might like to know how their fellow citizens would answer the question.
Abe's "take back Japan" posters in one of the yet-to-be beautified
locales in rural Japan. The sign in the foreground says "danger,"
the arrow points left.


Remembering March 10th and 11th

News organizations and activist groups are preparing to commemorate the third anniversary of earthquake-tsunami-meltdown disaster that occurred in Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. It would be good to note another important event from March 10, 1945 and see the traces that connect it with the events of 2011.
On March 10, 1945, US forces struck Tokyo with the most destructive air raid in history. It caused such an inferno of boiling asphalt and rivers that it probably killed more people in one night than either of the atomic bombings. This date is not as well-known as those of the atomic bombings in August that year, and the reason is largely political.
In the West, people tend to be Eurocentric in their knowledge of the war, so they know about London and Dresden, but not much about Tokyo. Tokyo was the capital and headquarters of the Allied Occupation that lasted from 1945-52, so for seven years there was little motive to make historical evaluations of the event. The pro-American, anti-communist government that followed the occupation had just as little interest in dwelling on historical events that would remind people of the war. The citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more successful at resisting the national government pressure to sweep history under the carpet, but this never happened in Tokyo to such an extent, so the night of March 10 is not memorialized as much as the atomic bombings.
A report in the Seattle Times back in 2005 claimed the reason for this was the sensitive feelings of the victims, but this rationale wouldn’t explain why Hiroshima and Nagasaki did much more to commemorate their experiences.
   Another factor causing official reluctance to commemorate the raids was the legal fight for compensation launched by victims. Reasoning that since civilians had been targeted in war, they said that they deserved the same compensation as veterans. They argued that the wartime government was responsible for prolonging the war long after it was obvious that it couldn't be won.
   This demand for compensation, which was never received, has some parallels with the present demand for compensation for land contaminated by radiation. In both cases, the amount owed is far beyond what any government could pay. 
   Despite the official neglect, a memorial in a Tokyo park was finally opened in 2001, and a small museum called the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage opened in 2002 with private donations but no official support.
Memorial of the air raid in Sumida Ward, Tokyo
It is interesting to note that the present government is very conservative, but less concerned about annoying America these days, which may be the reason that the prime minister was recently not afraid to say the bombing of Tokyo by the United States in 1945 was against the “humanitarian principles of international law” of that time.
If there is a tenuous connection between March 10 and March 11, it must be in the fact that March 10 was indicative of the how the world had been desensitized to sacrificing civilians during WWII. German, British, Japanese and American air raids paved the way to making atomic bombing seem like a reasonable thing to do to civilians in an enemy nation, and there has been a similar desensitization in modern times to making civilians suffer for national energy and defense policy.
The regrets about the bombing of civilians after the war seem to have been expressed in Japan and the US only as an urge to develop nuclear energy under the slogan “atoms for peace.” Sixty-six years later, a civilian Japanese population was again assaulted by nuclear technology. Coincidentally, the eastern region of Tokyo that was heavily affected in the air raid is also the part of Tokyo where the most radioactive hotspots have been found since Fukushima Daiichi exploded. For some reason, the rain fell in a particular way on a swath of land between eastern Tokyo and Kashiwa City in Chiba prefecture.
Another ironic connection between March 10 and March 11 shows a certain regress, as opposed to progress, in the moral standards governments live up to. As wicked as the wartime Japanese government was, it still had enough concern for the children of Tokyo to relocate them to the countryside, and many lives were spared on March 10, 1945 by this precaution. The veteran anti-nuclear activist Takashi Hirose is one of the few people who have asked why a country impoverished by war was able to muster the resources to protect its children, but the present government cannot arrange evacuation of children in a rural prefecture to protect them from radioactive fallout. (Watch his short speech here--you can select English subtitles in the “captions” icon on the bottom right of the screen.)
So what good could have possibly come out of all this history? I came to Japan in 1986 on a desperate lark to have an adventure and make some money teaching English. In those days, I bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Royal Canadian Air Force pilot I’d seen in a photo, an uncle I never met, who was shot down and killed in 1942 during one of his first bombing raids over Holland to destroy a German-controlled runway--something that British officers probably understood as effectively a suicide mission. Fifty years later, a nephew the pilot never saw (me) married the granddaughter of a survivor of the Tokyo air raid. No one in either of our families had a problem with intermarriage. It had become completely unremarkable. Three children came from this, and everyone around here calls them “halfs,” but I prefer to think of them as “doubles.” My wife and my children probably wouldn’t have existed if my father-in-law hadn’t missed the air raid by being one of those children sent out of Tokyo during WWII. This fact makes me wonder what future potential is being erased by the Japanese government’s insistence on keeping children in Fukushima.


Excellent source of paintings, photos and documents in English and Japanese at http://www.japanairraids.org/

Alex Wellerstein. "InteractiveMap Shows Impact of WWII Firebombing of Japan, if It Had Happened on U.S. Soil." Slate.com.

Ayako Mie. "New Map Shines Light on Tokyo Air Raid Horrors." The Japan Times. March 9, 2014. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/09/national/new-map-shines-light-on-tokyo-air-raid-horrors/  

Ida Torres. “Japanese government says 1945 Tokyo bombing was ‘against humanitarian principles.’” Japan Daily Press. May 7, 2013. http://japandailypress.com/japanese-government-says-1945-tokyo-bombing-was-against-humanitarian-principles-0728382/.


Radiation, let me compare thee

We know Japan has heightened levels of radiation, but what about those killer vending machines?
When I entered university, I quickly became aware that there were three types of people on campus: students in the humanities, others in commerce (the blanket term there for studies in economics, management  and finance), and the rest in engineering and sciences. At first, it seemed like a joke, like a contrived distinction on a school sports day when students are divided into red team, blue team and white team. But as time went on, I realized these were very serious and useful distinctions to last through a lifetime, perhaps even a very solid element of a theory of human nature. Thirty years later, the distinctions seem more pronounced than ever.
There are very few people who can live in more than one of these worlds, although the commerce and engineering types seem to move in each other’s world more easily. My university had a requirement that all undergraduates had to pass English 100 and at least one course in the sciences. This led to many strained relationships of convenience between people who couldn’t stand each other’s company. One would ask for help with an English paper in exchange for notes from a science course. Each would be embarrassed by his or her weakness, impatient with the other’s weakness, yet proud of his or her own strengths. And they hated each other’s world view. Usually, the relationships didn’t last long enough to make the study exchange bear any fruit.
These ancient animosities have been on my mind since I started writing about nuclear issues. I’ve encountered many defenses of the nuclear industry that remind me how difficult it is to exchange views with someone with a completely different set of cognitive skills who lives and works among like-minded people with shared interests. When we meet, we seem to each other like alien creatures speaking an unintelligible language. On a few occasions, I’ve come across arguments made by engineers that are pronounced with great confidence because they have been propped up within their insular world. As soon as they are uttered outside that world, the situation is just embarrassing because it is readily apparent that they are based on poor analogies, illogic and obliviousness to the wider questions beyond material utility–questions about morality, philosophy and creative ways to avoid ecological destruction.
One such example is the idea that the nuclear industry is moving toward perfection with each meltdown that provides valuable “lessons learned.” This idea of the perfectibility of the technology is enough to make me wonder if I’m not the one who is being quixotic. The nuclear lobby thinks of themselves as conservative, hard-nosed realists. They say, "You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. This is the reality. Deal with it. Don’t be a quixotic fool dreaming about a nuclear-free world." But when it comes to the record of nuclear disasters, they are suddenly utopian dreamers ready to spout about the perfectibility of man.
It was put to me once that nuclear perfection will be just like the history of boiler accidents. Once, when boiler technology was new, there were many accidents and many deaths, but now there are few because of better regulation and designs. Actually, Wikipedia lists about forty famous boiler accidents, and they seem to still be occurring in recent history. But in any case, the important thing is that we’ve all forgotten about the boiler disasters of the past because they aren’t surrounded by massive sacrifice zones where no one can live or cultivate the land. The broken boilers didn’t leave a molten core of radioactive waste leaking into the groundwater for centuries to come. The ruins of boilers were cleaned up quickly because the site was not too radioactive for humans to work in. Clearing up the site didn’t take four decades and 100 billion dollars. Boiler disasters were not low-consequence events for the people who died in them, but they were low-impact in terms of their broader effects. There is just no basis here for a comparison with the meltdown of a nuclear reactor.
Another strange argument I’ve heard is that the nuclear industry is unfairly targeted for regulation, and provokes too much irrational public anxiety. Risk is everywhere, so another argument suggested that hamburger restaurants should be regulated so that cholesterol consumption is reduced to the lowest possible level that is known to cause no harm. It’s surprising to me that the highly trained scientists and engineers who run the nuclear industry can actually be proud of such arguments. When I was younger, I sort of admired the people who could pass advanced calculus and physics courses, but now I wonder if this talent comes at the expense of other faculties of reasoning.
It seems to me that it shouldn’t be necessary to explain to a nuclear engineer the difference between cholesterol and anthropogenic radionuclides. The former is an organic molecule that has been part of the human diet since before we evolved into humans. It has benefits in itself, and delivers more benefits because of the protein and other nutrients that come with it in many foods. We have ways of sensing when we’ve had too much, we know when we are eating it, and we can freely choose to have more or less of it. None of these things is true of anthropogenic radionuclides. They’ve been in our food and water for only a few decades, and the decision to put them there came without the consent of the victim. They have no role in organic chemistry, and no benefits to offer in living organisms. They are poisons. We have no way to sense when we have been exposed to them, and thus no way to avoid them. To protect ourselves from them, we must rely on experts whose function it is to promote the nuclear industry, not to protect individual health. When a nuclear expert argues that the nuclear industry is unfairly targeted and regulated, he is showing that he doesn’t understand what it is about the field he works in that makes it uniquely hazardous and fully deserving of public oversight and skepticism.
I encountered the first two examples in private conversations. The next one comes from the book The Highway of the Atom, by Peter Van Wyck. He critiqued the Government of Canada study that whitewashed the radioactive contamination of the Dene people on Great Bear Lake (which is another story covered in more detail here). The lead fact-finder of the study, Walter Keyes, is vocally pro-nuclear and generally opposed to regulation. He worked for the firm Intertec Management Limited which was contracted to conduct the study. He was also a former deputy minister in the Saskatchewan government (which promotes uranium mining in the province) and he belongs to the lobby group Canadian Nuclear Association. Van Wyck discovered a publication in which Keyes seems to be seriously complaining that vending machines deserve to be more regulated and publicly feared than the nuclear industry because they have caused several deaths over the years (because once in a while angry customers shake them until they topple over), whereas nuclear power plants caused none. Van Wyck cites these words that Keyes spoke to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency:

Although there have been no recorded deaths in North America from radiation exposures at either uranium mines or nuclear power facilities during the past 30 years, there have been enormous sums of money spent on regulation, inspection and enforcement. Yet, in contrast there have been 30 reported deaths in North America from vending machines during the past 20 years–and that’s from the machines themselves, without looking at what may be the hazardous contents of the machines such as cigarettes, food products and other items. Does this mean that government is over-regulating the nuclear industry or under-regulating the vending industry? Is this a case where the cumulative impact on the environment and public safety of vending machines has been overlooked because each incremental item is seen as being so very small without fully understanding the overall impacts? (1)(2)
We can leave aside the fact that Keyes sets the parameters narrowly as deaths by radiation on site. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that the nuclear industry has slowly killed many people offsite. Of more concern is that a lead investigator in a study on the health effects of radiation disingenuously tries here to deny the potential of the nuclear industry to cause disasters of wide-scale consequence. He pretends not to understand what it is about nuclear technology that makes the public want to have it more strictly controlled than vending machine technology.
The three arguments discussed here are just some examples of how the nuclear lobby develop these non sequiturs among themselves and become laughably over-confident in their ability to present convincing arguments to the public. One would think that people so well trained in the sciences would be more skilled in logical rhetoric. In fact, I think they would be capable of better rhetoric if there were indeed any good arguments to be made. Lacking them, all they can do is make very weak analogies to boilers, hamburgers and vending machines.
So let me offer a suggestion. Forget the analogies. There is nothing else like nuclear physics, even though it does provide some powerful metaphors for many abstract phenomena. I would give the same advice to anti-nuclear people. You can compare radioactive contamination to assault on the integrity of the body, but the analogy only goes so far. Direct violence (person on person) is illegal, but the same cannot be said of the activities of the nuclear industry. Its activities are licensed and its accidents do not result in criminal prosecution.
Strangely enough, radiation can be the source of a metaphor, but not the target. Meaning is very effectively conveyed when we talk about a policy that is too radioactive for the president to mention, or when we warn about a financial meltdown, but it’s senseless to say, “Stay away from that nuclear reactor. It’ll get you like a vending machine.” As a rhetorical device, this is cheap sarcasm, I know. But seriously, there is nothing else like radiation. I suspect that the reason is that metaphors are drawn from the natural world, what the human mind understands instinctively from its long evolution. We can easily conceive of birth as arrival and death as departure, but what is beta decay? Until the 20th century, radiation was irrelevant to life, and it is still outside of sensory experience, so there is no way to make it the target of an insightful, interesting metaphor.

Walter Keyes and Dennis Lawson. Presentation to Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Saskatoon, February 29, 2000, on behalf of the Risk Assessment Society. Cited in: Peter C. Van Wyck. The Highway of the Atom (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010). Pages 186-187.
United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. CPSC, Soda Vending Machine Industry Labeling Campaign Warns Of Deaths And Injuries. November 2, 1995.