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Conspiracy theories and the reactor accident

On the comments for another blog on the Japanese reactor accident I have seen someone suggesting that the reader should go to a web site which deals in conspiracy theory as a source of data and explanation about the accident.

I have looked at the “abovetopsecret” web site, much of the content is impossible to get to. I see two problems, one is that a utility company might want to withhold data from the public and on the other hand some scaremongers might want to whip up the public into a state of terror.

I hold the view that “Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant !”, TEPCO and the Japanese government should be totally open and honest about radiation levels and contamination levels. Worker doses should not be published with the names or photos of workers, but if some event occurs which causes a worker to suffer a 100 mSv dose occurs then most of the details should be made public.

But it is important to understand that some measurements take time to do. Things like traces of plutonium and strontium-90 in soil are not simple and quick tests to do. But some things like gamma spectroscopy measurements are much quicker to do, but I worry that at some points that as a result of people being poorly equipped, under stress, not adequately trained or some other reason that errors have been made. TEPCO have been given a “telling off” at least once over the standard of their radioanayltical work.

I fear that a sensationalist web site which deals with conspiracy theories may divert attention away from where it is truly needed. I also fear that in common with the boy who cries wolf that if a series of wild exaggerations and alarming total fabrications are made then the general public will no longer pay attention when a real threat is identified. The problem with conspiracy theories is that once they start it is sometimes close to impossible to stop them.

How about “A conspiracy of the town lawyer, a university lecturer, two renegade dentists, the local doctor, the local chief policeman, a veterinary surgeon, an obstetrician, the local vicar and a park keeper are breeding alien / lobster hybrids in a remote shed in the forest near a Swedish town. They plan to use these monsters to kill or menace anyone who threatens their commercial interests.”

OK I have chosen a supersilly one but it shows that in two minutes I can come up with some farfetched story of wrongdoing which involves the upper echelons of society plus a humble park keeper. I hope that you can see through this idea as a tissue of lies but sadly lies which are just as outrageous seem to take on a life of their own. I worry that wild stories about health effects caused by extremely low levels of contamination from the Japanese reactor accident will whip up public hysteria and then blind people to the real nature of the accident. I have already seen claims that transpacific fallout from the Japanese accident has killed small children. While this has been debunked by Scientific American I am not sure if the story has died out yet. My worry is that no matter how much the authorities show the truth, some members of society do not want to change their minds. One of the problems is that for many people “the first lie wins”.

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4 Responses

  1. Would you recommend some sites that provide balanced data?

  2. It is impossible for me to make a list of every trustworthy site, but I would suggest that if you want to know about what is happening at the reactor park then go to

    http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/
    http://www.nisa.meti.go.jp/english/index.html
    http://www.iaea.org

    While the first of these sites may be run by people with a vested interest, the other two are goverment and international sites which are far more liekly to be independant of TEPCO / the Japanese nuclear industry.

  3. Thank you for the suggestions. Unfortunately, I have very little confidence in the reliability of the information coming out of the nuclear agencies. The IAEA seems to be over-reliant on TEPCO’s “information”, which AFAIK is very limited and not timely–at least about that which we hear. IAEA report after their visit sounded like they were all patting each other on the back. It seemed to me that they viewed the event and consequences solely as an intellectual exercise without the appropriate amount of concern for the people involved.

    I know explaining nuclear concepts is very challenging (as is understanding them), but I am troubled by the lack of explanation of the methodology and instrumentation used to collect these data. In trying to understand the information on the EPA site in this regard (which was extremely poorly organized), I found little information about the actual sensitivity/specificity of the instruments, and the methods of generating the statistics and their presentation seemed designed to mask any significant information–averaging out any significant trends. It’s not my field, but I hoped for more clearly presented information. The information that people are seeking should be presented in a more user-friendly fashion. Cutting back on monitoring in light of the ongoing crisis in Japan is not confidence building.

    I feel like the nuclear industry and governments on the whole have shot themselves in the foot by minimizing the risks of radiation. After Fukushima I don’t think many people have any faith that the nuclear community is dealing with reality or have/can made responsible decisions regarding health safety nor the safety of plants that get re-licensed long after their life-span design. I think the nuclear community should be backing scientific studies, if they believe there are minimal health dangers. Not investigating is not the same thing as no impact. They are beginning to sound like the tobacco industry.

    I have learned much from Physics Forums. Admittedly, much is over my head, but it’s informative and offers a wide variety of perspectives.

    • You wrote ‘It seemed to me that they (IAEA) viewed the event and consequences solely as an intellectual exercise without the appropriate amount of concern for the people involved.’

      I reply, the problem for the IAEA is that it needs to represent the interests of not just a single country, it has to serve the interests of the whole world. As a result it has to be careful about having policies, as a policy which agrees with one member state might disagree strongly with another member state. As a result I suspect that they are forced to walk a tightrope much of the time.

      The purpose of an IAEA report into an accident is not to provide entertainment or make a legal judgement as to who is to blame. Instead an IAEA accident report is to document an event, work out the cause of the event, suggest how to prevent further such events and to explain how the event can be mitigated. As a result if you read a IAEA report expecting a newspaper like report then you will not get what you are expecting.

      When I get time I will try to get onto the other points which you made.

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