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The Fukushima Fearmongers

What unites the left and right: a radioactive plume headed for the West Coast

Kimimasa Mayama/Pool via Bloomberg

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off Japan's east coast, creating a tsunami that knocked out the electrical power at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant—including the cooling system that prevented thousands of uranium-filled fuel rods in each reactor from melting down. Over the next few days, three of the plant’s six reactor buildings exploded, scattering nuclear fallout. Last summer, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plant, admitted that at least 300 tons of radioactive water have leaked since then, some of it into the Pacific Ocean. More radioactive particles have escaped as steam and rained back down onto the ocean.

That contaminated water has been dubbed the “Fukushima plume,” and it has been slowly making its way eastward for the last three years. First, it mingled with water in the Kuroshio and Kurushio Extension currents off the Japanese Coast. Then it abandoned some of its radioactive cargo in the North Pacific gyre, also known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” This winter, as predicted, the plume was detected off the coast of Vancouver. It will reach the West Coast of the United States no later than this fall, and perhaps as soon as next month.

The plume has been covered only sporadically by the mainstream media, but it has become an obsession in certain corners of the blogosphere, even bridging the furthest poles of the political spectrum: Both the government conspiracy theorists on the far right, such as 9/11 truther Alex Jones, and the anti-nuclear environmentalists on the left have written extensively about the plume. As they see it, Fukushima's aftereffects pose a much greater risk to Americans than the government is letting on—cries of a "coverup" abound on Jones' Infowars site. Now, as the plume nears the West Coast, the fear is ratcheting up. On a message board on the green site Peak Oil, someone posted in January, “We all must come to the realization that swimming in the Pacific Ocean (let alone eating anything out of it) is a thing in the past.”

Some believe that radiation from Fukushima is already wreaking havoc in the U.S., linking it to starfish in California disintegrating into goo, polar bears in Alaska losing their fur, seals and walruses with “oozing sores,” and Pacific herring bleeding from their eyeballs. There are even claims that radiation is "already killing North Americans.” Scientists insist otherwise. “The polar bear losing fur, the three eyed-fish… There is no way that the levels we measure can explain these claims,” said Kai Vetter, a nuclear physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. But Vetter and others lack hard data to prove the Cassandras wrong—in part because the U.S. government has shown little interest in producing any. “In typical government terms, they’re saying, ‘There is nothing to be concerned about, just trust us,’” Vetter said. “They are not being very proactive in understanding the concerns of the public.”

Paranoia about the effects of nuclear radiation is as old as nuclear power itself. Tens of thousands of Americans equipped their homes with basement fallout shelters during the Cold War. After the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s, Soviet nuclear experts coined the term “radiation phobia syndrome,” later shortened to “radiophobia,” to describe the “chronic state of stress” that posed “an even greater threat to health than exposure to radiation itself.” But Fukushima is something new: the first major nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and therefore the first one of our digital age. The enduring, invisible boogeyman of radiation has met the limitless echo chamber of the Internet. Add the near-silence from the federal government, and it amounts to a perfect storm of paranoia that will only grow louder as the plume gets closer.

In the days after the 2011 meltdown, wind, rain, and snow scattered radioactive particles across Fukushima Prefecture. Where high concentrations gathered, the risk of cancer among residents increased, sometimes dramatically, according to a February 2013 report from the World Health Organization. In the “most contaminated” areas, the risk of thyroid cancer among girls who were infants at the time of the disaster went up 70 percent. The risk of other cancers among boys and girls exposed as infants went up between four and seven percent. Dozens of U.S. Navy sailors who were stationed off the Japanese coast during the disaster have developed severe health problems, including leukemia, testicular cancer, thyroid diseases, and infertility. (Some scientists challenge whether radiation is the cause, and a pending lawsuit may hinge on that issue.)
The path of the plume.

But when the plume reaches North America later this year, its radioactive concentration will be lower than it was right after the disaster by a factor of over a million. The radioactive particles have already begun to decay, and have been diluted by currents on their travels around the globe, as models created by scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show. The isotopes in the plume include iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137—to which researchers have paid particular attention, since it has an unusually long half-life of roughly 30 years. Scientists predict the West Coast will see its cesium levels rise by between one and 30 becquerels per cubic meter. The Environmental Protection Agency caps the quantity of cesium-137 in safe drinking water at 7,400 becquerels per cubic meter.

The radiation released by the Fukushima disaster is dwarfed by the amount that naturally exists. Oceanographer Kim Martini wrote in Deep Sea News that the radiation recently measured in a single tuna—a fish that travels near Fukushima on its migratory route—is equivalent to the natural radiation in nine bananas. It’s above normal, but not considered dangerous. Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who created a site called “Our Radioactive Ocean” to counter the snowballing misinformation, sees Fukushima as a “teachable moment, a time to educate the public that they do live in this radioactive world.”

Buesseler also wants to fill the gap left by the government’s silence on the Fukushima plume. “It fell between the cracks,” he said, because it’s not under any agency’s purview. “We have the EPA to monitor drinking water and air but not oceans, and NOAA to measure oceans and the atmosphere but not radioactivity.” In the end, “no one wants to expend the money when, by our estimates, it’s going to be okay.” The government has kept an eye on radiation levels more generally: The EPA's "RadNet" office "monitors the nation’s air, drinking water, precipitation, and pasteurized milk," and the FDA guards the safety of food. But testing the ocean water is up to the state and local officials who live beside it. In Oregon, for example, state park rangers are collecting samples.

The government’s silence has bred nothing but paranoia on the Internet. The left-wing Nation of Change posted “3 Disturbing Fukushima Facts the Government is Covering Up,” while the Tea Party site Freedom Outpost found “36 Signs The Media Is Lying To You About Fukushima Radiation” and claimed that “Tests Show Fukushima Fish Are Up To 124X Above Safe Radiation Level.” Anthony Gucciardi, the blogger behind the conspiracy-peddling site Storyleak, accused the government  of “turning off key radiation counters positioned in the west coast.” A blogger on Infowars alleged that the Department of Health and Human Services was stockpiling potassium iodide to combat “radioactive debris washing up” on U.S. shores. (Potassium iodide pills can stop the thyroid from absorbing radiation.)

The same collection of blogs has made much of a study from two public health researchers who are also long-time anti-nuclear activists, Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman, suggestively titled “An Unexpected Mortality Increase in the United States Follows Arrival of the Radioactive Plume From Fukushima: Is There a Correlation?” The authors note an uptick in the U.S. death rate in the months after the meltdown—“13,983 total deaths and 822 infant deaths in excess of the expected”—but don’t seek to prove that Fukushima is to blame. This didn’t stop bloggers from running with headlines such as, “Study: Fukushima Radiation Has Already Killed 14,000 Americans.” Meanwhile, Josh Bloom of the American Council on Science and Health, writing in Forbes, called the study “a crackpot theory” based on “data that is essentially useless.” Scientific American wrote that “the authors’ statistical claims are critically flawed—if not deliberate mistruths.” 

But the false alarms keep coming. In December, an unidentified man went to a beach in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco, with a Geiger counter. He recorded a video of the device picking up roughly four times the level of radiation on the beach as it had on the path—and put it on YouTube. The California Department of Public Health and Vetter, along with one of his graduate students, both went to the beach shortly after, where they used more sensitive instruments to show that the radiation was natural and emitted by the sand. “This has nothing to do with Fukushima,” Vetter said. “This guy was claiming it was cesium and raising concerns.” But as of this writing, the video has more than 770,000 views.

You have not made my day!” said Charles Perrow, an emeritus sociology professor at Yale University and a visiting professor at Stanford University, when I told him he has become a regular fixture in jeremiads about the plume.

Perrow, who jokingly calls himself a “catastrophe maven,” is a longtime advocate for reducing reliance on nuclear power. He recently wrote a paper called “Nuclear Denial: From Hiroshima to Fukushima” for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with an abridged version called "Fukushima Forever" in the Huffington Post, which laments decades of “denials and trivialization” of radiation’s dangers and calls Fukushima “just the latest episode in a dangerous dance with radiation that has been going on for 68 years.” Bloggers have fixated on the most apocalyptic paragraph of Perrow’s essay, in which he warns that a storm or human error could cause another meltdown at the still-smoldering Fukushima plant.

Perrow, who calls the bloggers “scaremongers,” is just one of several prominent figures who have become entangled in the online Fukushima frenzy. Another is Cenk Uygur, who in 2011 told his MSNBC viewers not to trust the Japanese government’s evacuation scheme. Four months later, he lost his 6 p.m. slot and departed the channel. This past December, he recalled that when his cable-news colleagues heard his Fukushima segment, they told him to watch his words. The statement vindicated bloggers' suspicions of a large-scale cover-up. “Former MSNBC Host Told Not to Warn Public About Fukushima,” declared Infowars. “MSM Fukushima Cover-Up Exposed At Highest Levels Of Govt & Media By Former MSNBC Host,” claimed Before It’s News. When I called Uygur in January, he told me he “wanted to clear the record”: the rebuke from MSNBC wasn’t a cover-up, he said, and “did not come from management.” Rather, he and his MSNBC producers often disagreed about how much to “contradict the government,” and he usually told audiences what he wanted to anyway. When I asked if he had any warnings to impart now, or any opinion about the plume, he said no. 

While Uygur and Perrow have become unwitting participants in the blogosphere, scientists have also found themselves sucked into the melee. Vetter, who posts analyses of seafood and other substances at his site “Berkeley RadWatch,” told me bloggers have gone after him personally, accusing his lab of being “bought by the nuclear industry.” (They get funding from the government and the university, though much of their Fukushima awareness work is volunteer.) “No one is paying for me to talk to you,” he told me. Buesseler, meanwhile, has resorted to crowd-funding support for the Woods Hole institute’s efforts to gather water samples—some of them provided by concerned West Coasters—and measure their radioactivity. And biologist Steven Manley, of California State University, Long Beach, teamed up with Vetter on a project called “Kelp Watch”: Since kelp lines the California coast and functions “like little sponges that absorb and concentrate ions in seawater,” Manley said, by testing the plant, they should be able to track the plume.

But by the time the experts have the numbers, the plume will already have come and gone. For now, West Coasters will have to rely on the evidence at hand. As a California resident, Perrow has been reading broadly about the plume. “For a while, I thought of cancelling a family vacation on the beach just south of Santa Cruz,” he told me in January, a few weeks before the planned trip. “I was worried, because I have two grandchildren who will be swimming in that water.” Perrow did his research and reached his conclusions. Then he and his family went to the beach.

This story has been updated.