Fukushima is Not Killing Your Babies

Well, the Packers lost and now I’m mad and want to shout about something. So here goes.

It’s been almost three years since the tragic double-catastrophe of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami caused what is undoubtedly the second largest nuclear accident in history, crippling the Fukushima Nuclear plant and sending many thousands of tons of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and leaking into the Pacific Ocean. To call it a disaster is an understatement, and the people of Japan will be dealing with the after-effects for a generation. None of this is in dispute. Scientists, environmental agencies, and nuclear watchdogs throughout the world agree that continued study and work needs to be done to limit the damage.

But a funny thing has been happening lately, as the usual chorus of lunatics, conspiracy theorists, know-nothings, and the slick-talkers who make their money pedaling falsehoods to them have been flooding the internet with new accusations, unproven links, and wild speculation about the fallout and after effects of the Fukusima disaster on U.S. soil and sending many well-meaning people into a panic.

The headlines read like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie:

Radioactive Fish Invade West Coast!, Ocean Floor Covered in Corpses!, California Babies Dying by the Thousands! They even have big, colorful, very official-looking maps!


All very scary, to be sure. The problem, as is so often true of sensationalistic headlines, is that they people running them have used exactly the same standards of scientific rigor employed by the average Hollywood scriptwriter.

That is to say, none at all. Let’s calm everyone down one headline at a time.

Holy shit, there’s radioactive fish in my tacos!

Here’s the issue with that. The claim is absolutely true, up to a point. Samples of bluefin tuna have been found to contain traces of Cesium-134 and 137 that can be linked back to Fukushima. Cesium-137 is a byproduct of the fission process and does not occur naturally on Earth, so whenever we find it, we know it can be traced back to a nuclear reactor (or bomb). This is where the alarmists, kooks, and anti-nuke hippies want you to stop reading.

Still with me? Good, I figured you would be. Here’s what Paul Harvey would call, “The rest of the story.” The very scientists who took the tuna samples and discovered the contamination go on in their study to say that the levels of radiation in these fish is miniscule. Only 3% above naturally-occurring background radiation. That’s well below presenting any measurable increase in cancer risks to humans. Indeed you get a dose of radiation twenty times greater from the decay of potassium with every banana you eat. Here’s Nicholas Fisher, one of the authors of the study, speaking to Scientific American:

For fish that are harvested 100 miles [160 kilometers] out to sea, I doubt it’d be a problem.

To help you visualize why he can say eating these contaminated fish isn’t an issue, take a look at this radiation dosing chart. An airline flight gives you many, many times more radiation exposure than one of these fish ever could. Living in a brick building. Getting a mamogram. The list goes on and on.

But what about the ocean of corpses? Radiation kills things, so that has to be the answer, right?

Not so fast. Turns out, the study being misquoted in these headlines was actually referencing a natural cycle of something called “marine snow” which is the deposition of organic detritus onto the sea floor from higher up in the water column. This cycle goes through things called “Blizzards” where an unusually high amount of material falls to the seafloor. However, these blizzards have been observed many times before and after Fukushima, and have more to do with ocean currents, wind patterns, and temperature, as the study itself goes to some length to explain.

You may also have heard or read headlines about massive starfish die-offs happening along the West Coast. This is, just like the previous two claims, true, except that again it is not a new phenomena, hasn’t been linked to Fukushima in any way, and has also been observed recently happening on the East Coast as well, many thousands of miles removed from any possible water contamination for Fukushima. Often times, knowing only half the facts is worse than knowing none at all.

Wait! Babies are dropping like flies! Don’t you care about babies!

Yes, I do, which is why I really hate it when people lie about them to manipulate our innate parental fears and protective instincts. And incidentally, no, U.S. babies are not dying from radiation poisoning. But even after having this headline shot out from under them, the publicly anti-nuclear energy authors of the first ridiculous claim doubled down and, using many of the exact same methodological flaws, came back with this gem about an increase in infant hypothyroidism on the West Coast that is just as big a pile. As the link shows, the authors never even attempt to establish a causal link between the two, instead merely documenting a rather weak correlation and hoping a largely scientifically-illiterate public will connect the dots that they failed to, while ignoring important details like the fact Iodine-131 has a half-life of only eight days. It turns inert in a matter of weeks, yet three years and many thousands of miles later, people are still being whipped into a panic.

If these sorts of tactics sound familiar, they should. For years, we’ve seen the exact same kinds of distortion coming from all corners of the alarmist, denialist, and conspiracy theory camps. For example, nearly everyone by now has heard from the completely discredited anti-vaccine movement about how childhood vaccinations correlate with rising rates of autism. They point to vaccine ingredients that everyone recognizes as poison in sufficient doses, such as mercury or formaldehyde as the triggers. What they always leave out are important things like the fact the dose of mercury is massively overshadowed by other natural sources (including, ironically, tuna) while the formaldehyde that naturally forms in our own blood streams is many dozens of times greater as well.

Same pattern; find a correlation, throw out some scary scenarios, add a pinch of facts, but only a pinch, leave out the rest of the facts and important context needed to see the whole picture, then pass it around through channels that are not subject to peer-review and wait for a concerned, yet naive public to draw the connections you never had the evidence to prove scientifically. It works for anti-vax, global-warming denialism, 9/11 truthers, moon-landing hoaxers, the whole lot. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Okay, but what about that terrifying map of all the radioactive water? Surely that’s got to be something, right?

Wrong. In fact, it’s not even a map of water currents! What you have here is a map of the projected distribution of tsunami waves from the disaster, how they were expected to propagate across the Pacific, and what heights they were expected to be. And before you ask if the waves could carry radioisotopes, just stop. Waves do not carry anything except kinetic energy. A wave is simply a transfer of energy from one molecule to the next. Think about what happens when you’re in the deep end of a wave pool. Does the wave pick you up and carry you all the way to the shore? No. You go up, then come back down again as the wave of energy moves on and the next person goes up, then comes back down and so on.

The exception is right at the coasts where the water shallows out and forces the wave up until it ‘breaks.’ Only once the wave breaks in the last few dozens or hundreds of yards can it move anything forward with any speed. This is why you can’t catch a wave in Tokyo and surf to San Diego. And if you can’t, neither can radioactive cesium and iodine.

So why did they use the map in the first place? I don’t know. Lack of any fact-checking, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, it doesn’t really matter in the end, because now YOU know better.

The basic, foundational problem with all of the claims about Fukushima material causing species die-offs, habitat destruction, or human health risks on the west coast or anywhere else in North America is simply that the Pacific is absolutely, staggeringly massive. It is seventy million of cubic miles in volume. That’s one hundred and eighty-eight quintillion gallons. I’m going to write that number out: 188,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons.

Got that? By the time any contamination from Fukushima has been mixed into a volume that large, it will have become diluted many millions, even billions of times. Coupled with the fact that most of the more dangerous contaminants have radioactive half-lives ranging from days to a handful of years, and the danger is reduced even closer to zero. Once you understand this, the alarmists are left with a sort of homeopathic theory of radiation poisoning, with just as much supporting evidence backing the claims of both disciplines.

But I’ve rambled on long enough. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Now, my west coast friends, go take a swim in the ocean. Enjoy a plate of fish tacos.

And 49ers fans, you can go to hell.


Comments (6 Responses )

  1. Horace Boothroyd III - 01/08/2014 - 8:23 am #

    Great article. You have done a great job of pulling together the main strands of disinformation and setting them up against accurate & truthful facts about the situation.

    However, what puzzles me is how eager some people are to whip themselves into hysterical frenzies: grabbing any tool that can be put to that purpose. Having become hysterical they are then immune correction in their mistaken convictions.

    I have to say that the same phenomenon is at work in this Snowden leak scandal. I don’t like NSA spying any more than the next guy, but I see people whipping themselves into hysterical frenzies again, and swallowing the most lurid fairytales about computer chips and mind readers. All of which is not only silly but has proven counterproductive in terms of pressuring Congress to get off its but and do something to roll back the National Surveillance State. Seven months have passed since the story first broke and we have accomplished pretty much nothing – except giving platforms for silly people to rant about how pure and righteous they are because they hate the NSA so much more strongly and freedomy than you ever could.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

    • Patrick S. Tomlinson - 01/08/2014 - 5:24 pm #

      I think it’s a pretty simple and straight-forward human desire at play with all of these issues. People want to feel intelligent. They want to feel like they’re in-the-know and empowered. Internet conspiracies give them the opportunity to feel like they’re enlightened, even smarter than all those elitist ‘experts’ without actually having to do any of the, you know, work of becoming an expert. People want to have a voice and want to be heard. They want to have some input and control over the world around them.

      Which is totally understandable, but in a world that seems to grow ever more complex and confusing by the day, we need to afford more weight and respect to the views of the few who have taken the time to truly become educated, and much less weight to those shouting masses who haven’t. But most importantly, we have to become much better at learning to differentiate between the two.

  2. Derek - 01/13/2014 - 6:03 pm #

    Good article, however the radioactive elements are being found at higher than 3% norm since you wrote your article, and as you know these elements/particle = bad stuff have a very long half life and unlike naturally occuring things are harmful and don’t dissipate, as such your article does not mention that if the Japanese reactors continue to leak (which they are) the current bad stuff isn’t going away and only more bad stuff is being added – I’ve taken out the big terms for simple = the reactor (s) melting down isn’t a huge deal to the rest of the planet. Yet. Science as we know it indicates that this may very well escalate – and making light of people’s concerns doesn’t make cesium’s half life any less nor its effects any less damaging, or potentially damaging, to humans or the environment.

    • Patrick S. Tomlinson - 01/14/2014 - 3:43 am #

      I wrote my article less than two weeks ago. And no, I do not know of anything in the scientific literature showing an increase in the contamination of Pacific seafood since that time, or more to the point since the original study was published. Indeed, I find such a claim difficult to believe for several reasons: First, the contamination has diluted significantly since the paper was written more than two years ago as the water has mixed with the Pacific. Second, the rate of contamination from the site has drastically tapered off with clean-up and other remediation efforts. And third, the biological half-life of Cesium-137 (the length of time it stays active within living tissue) clocks in at only seventy days if my memory serves. Not to mention the fact the dosing would have to go way over the 3% of the natural background levels before it posed any legitimate threat. And I mean WAY over.

      Also, no, the “bad stuff” does not have a particularly long half-life. This isn’t Uranium-238 we’re talking about here with a half-life measured in millennia. Most of the contaminants have decay rates measures in months, years at most. Not to mention the also-overlooked fact that atomic testing in the same ocean during the Cold War released many times more of the same contaminants into the ecosystem without triggering the kinds of effects alarmists are now rushing to pin on Fukushima. Many of them, like the starfish die-off and polar bears losing their fur, probably ARE linked to human activity, but the odds are that activity is Global Warming, which, ironically, nuclear plants like Fukushima are one of the most effective weapons against.

      Make no mistake, no one is saying that the meltdown of a nuclear power plant is a good thing with no side effects. But, like so many scientific topics in the public discourse, the risks are severely misunderstood, leading otherwise well-meaning people to either radically overblow them, or tragically underestimate them.

      In the case of Fukushima, it is the former.

  3. gil cottrell - 01/27/2014 - 9:45 pm #

    I cannot believe that authors will write about the lack of evidence of the danger of Fukushima! NEVER have we had 4 nuclear plants going or getting ready to go China Syndrome! Unlike the last nuclear accident in the U.S.S.R., people sacrificed their lives to prevent this syndrome and capped it and buried underneath the core with cement to stop the meltdown. Fukushima is doing NOTHING! The government isn’t even handling it ( like the Russians did!). All the experts say this is going to make THAT accident look like a pimple compared to a star going nova! How dare you idiots minimize the danger of this extermination event! We are talking about the MOST dangerous MANMADE poison the earth has EVER seen with a 9000 year life. This stuff doesn’t lose its potency for killing and mutating( cancers) for 9,000 years. 70 tons of radioactive water is and has been going into the ocean for 3 years now and no one is even talking about it in the news! Oh, we talk about the Chinese smog that takes 3 days to get here ( California) but politely refrain from scaring everyone about the fact that potential for a nuclear fallout form just one of these reactors is 1,777 times MORE then Hiroshima ( and there are three more reactors getting ready to blow)! HOW DARE YOU SPREAD “stick you head in the sand ” ignorance! You KNOW that 70 tons of radioactive water going into the ocean daily will have an effect!

    • Patrick S. Tomlinson - 02/14/2014 - 5:55 pm #

      I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of things you cannot believe. Like evidence. Yes, we do know that tons of radioactive water going into the ocean will have an effect, but if you could have been bothered to actually read the scientific papers I linked to, you would have learned that the effect will be fairly localized. And please, what radioactive isotope, specifically, are you talking about with this 9,000 year half-life is leaking from Fukushima? Cesium? Nope. Iodine? Nope. I would absolutely love to know where you’re getting your data from, but I suspect you aren’t getting it from anywhere legitimate. If you were, you’d know that the Japanese government is going to extreme lengths to contain and clean up the disaster area, and has been for three years now.

      You are exactly the sort of panic-spreading Chicken Little I wrote this post to counteract. Thank you for providing everyone with such a clear example of the sort of hyperbolic drivel to watch out for.