Published on 28 Mar 2011

Fukushima's unknown unknowns

It is proving hard to get Japan out of my mind. The continual drip, drip of ever worsening news about the Fukushima nuclear plant has somehow overwhelmed the continuing awfulness of the consequences of the natural disaster itself. I guess the tangible disaster, vast though it is, is somehow more determinable than the unseen, unknown quantity of danger residing in the reactors, or outside them, in Fukushima.

For whilst heroic Japanese rescue teams busy themselves with retrieval, rehabilitation and reconstruction in the stricken tsunami areas, the news out of the plant talks to us in terms we have never been asked to comprehend before. Suddenly we are confronted by ‘millisieverts’ (mSv).

At times we are told that whatever is happening is only inflicting some small proportion of what we are bombarded with when be undergo an X-ray. Then at other times we are informed that the entire plant has had to be evacuated because of the state of immediate radioactive fall out. Yesterday we were given a figure of “ten million times what is safe”. Then we were told that that figure was “untenable” and that a new reading would be taken.

In amongst the state of the sea, the drinking water, the air, and Japanese travellers to China (hospitalised in some cases), we are told dollops of physical detail about the plant.

It seems today that although a mains cable has been re-connected to the critical cooling systems, in reactors 2 and 3, this has never reactivated the actual cooling system. Then we are told that there is highly radio active water lying on the floors of the reactors. We are now told that this may have something to do with broken fuel rods.

Oh, and for good measure, we are told that the radioactive iodine in sea water off the coast of Fukushima has reached the wonderfully precise level of 1,850 times the legally permissible level. Then again the legally permissible levels may be so low, that even 1,850 times that level is still very low.

Read more in the Channel 4 News Special Report on Japan

The problem is that we don’t really know. And now many are beginning to wonder whether “they” know. We keep being brought back to Chernobyl. But my tangible memory of Chernobyl, as a reporter, is that sheep meat in parts of Wales and Cumbria, at one stage, became too contaminated to be consumed.

So what becomes of a big, and presumably continuing, dumping of radioactive material in sea water off Japan. When will it pitch up off Cornwall? Never? Do we know? Will it cause cancers? Will it kill eventually? These days we are told Chernobyl actually killed relatively few people. It deformed some babies, cancer rates increased, but somehow precision in the world’s worst nuclear accident, even after all these years, eludes us.

Read more: how will Fukushima crisis hit nuclear power?

George Monbiot argued in the Guardian on Saturday that the damage from nuclear was still massively outweighed by the damage we are anyway doing daily to the global climate system, merely living on the planet in the way that we do.

Many will be prepared to contemplate the idea that he may be right. Even so, the continuing problem of Fukushima seems to be that it is telling us that “they”, the authorities, do not actually have a clue what is going on. As a consequence “they” cannot possibly be able to quantify what the fall-out from it all will be and how it will be expressed.

I’m afraid I must resort to our old friend Donald Rumsfeld once again. We are in the zone of the “unknown unknowns”. And until “they” can returns us to the realm of the “knowns” we are bound to continue mistrusting “them”, and worrying about “it” – the nuclear.

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40 reader comments

  1. Barbara Robertson says:

    If solar energy is a viable alternative for supplying electricity then why is there not a national move towards installation? I plan on researching the costs and advantages or disadvantages with the probable intention of installation in my home.?It is my understanding that it is a very green solution.

    Perhaps the government should consider its implications versus nuclear and oil.

    1. Philip says:

      I have solar panels – both for hot water & for electricity. In summer on sunny days the solar panel for water just about does us for hot water + 1 shower, but otherwise we couldn’t rely on it for the rest of the time. The electricity generated is on average about 25% of what we use (& we export a tiny amount to the grid). panels are only worth installing in roofs facing south. Our investment is unlikely to pay for itself in 25 years. We did it to be as green as we could – but it doesn’t meet our (relatively low) energy requirements. Cost? c £10k after Government grant + FIT repayment of around £100 a year.

  2. Clumperino says:

    Interesting comparison to Bhopal disaster today via the BBC … http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12860842

  3. robin yates says:

    my thoughts exactly Jon, thanks for posting

  4. MM says:

    Two Japanese travellers to China were taken to a hospital for a detailed examination and released soon after as the level of radiation found on their bodies weren’t very high.

  5. redman says:

    Take two tablets and go and lie down in a darkened room.

  6. adrian clarke says:

    Until this post i was not worried in the slightest.Now you point out a “Guardian” reporter says we have little to be worried about,i think we should be seriously worried.
    The newspaper that contributed most alongside Labour to our current economic crisis,with its bland support of Labour and public service advertising of 1000’s of non jobs.
    I was until then totally calm in the belief that the nature and resiliance of the Japanese character will drag them through.Each time i see a picture of the devastated areas,i see calm ,organisation and efficiency coming through. I wish we had more of that character here in the UK, rather than the mindless , fruitless .pathetic anarchical violence we witnessed on the political supportive BBC this weekend.They all need a good dose of corrective punishment.
    I believe those businesses affected should sue the march organisers for every penny lost, as should the Mayor of London,for the damage to our Capital city.I have no problem with the march,as meaningless as it was. but it should be their responsibility to ensure law and order.I never saw one alternative to the cuts or loss of jobs.No answers whatsoever.

    1. Saltaire Sam says:

      I’m almost lost for words at this outpouring of complete claptrap. But just to reply to the last bit, there are alternatives.

      1 If we paid back the debt slower, as it was intended when taken out, we wouldn’t have to put as many people out of work, which will add to the deficit with unemployment payments.

      2 We could reduce our expenditure by getting rid of nuclear weapons and stop trying to be policeman to the world.

      3 We could make more of an effort to close the tax avoidance loopholes which currently allow an estimated £25bn to disappear into the coffers of those companies and individuals you are cheer-leading.

      4 A Robin Hood tax on banks would save many services people rely on.

      5 (you support this one) People should be taxed on the unearned uncome they have gained just by owning property. When you think of property inflation over the past few years, the richest in our society have gained millions just by owning property. They haven’t worked for it and they haven’t paid tax on it.

      I thought even the right could tell the difference between 250,000 protesting peacefully and a few hundred hot heads causing damage. But it seems not.

    2. Philip says:

      WEll said, Sam. It’s a pity people can’t stick to the subject rather than parroting the Tory line on a completely different matter.

    3. adrian clarke says:

      I thought that might get you going Saltaire :). Now you post alternatives that the Unions didnt.Lets face it ,it was the unions marching .Isn’t that a lot of jobs paid for out of the public purse,not putting anything into it.Unfortunately your analysis is totally wrong too.
      1.The debt was not intended to be paid back as you describe.Labour thought the financial sector would pay it back.Instead they produced the bulk of it.Labour intended cuts of a similar magnitude,but their way would undoubtably resulted in a loss of credit rating and therefor greater interest exacerbating the situation.
      2.Nuclear weapons do not make us the policeman of the world.I do not believe getting rid of them , neither makes us safer ,nor is it sensible.
      3.The tax loopholes you mention are mainly legal and i do not ,and never have supported those individuals or companies who avoid tax,but i would point out that Labour had 13 years to do it and it is still not their policy.
      4.Osborne is taxing the banks this year as you suggest , but i prefer a 100% tax on bonuses.
      5.I do not support the tax you describe. I support LVT which is something different.
      Finally the hotheads were part of the march.

    4. adrian clarke says:

      Philip,i didnt realise it was the Tory line i supposedly parrotted .Perhaps it is just a line you do not like.
      As for blogging on different matters i merely took a leaf out of Saltaire’s book , but i suppose that is ok if it is Socialist:)

    5. Jim Flavin says:

      ”When you think of property inflation over the past few years, the richest in our society have gained millions just by owning property. They haven’t worked for it and they haven’t paid tax on it.”
      Sam – where have u been – did you ever hear of Ireland [ R.O.I]-. that is eaxcctly what happened here – and now property prices have halved or worse – and same may happen in UK .- – Not a realistic tax – unfortunately – no more than Adrians love of beuricracy in paying a bonus – and then taxing it at 100% – !!!!!.
      As for Japan – let them deal with it , hopefully they have know how.-
      It was a dreadful decision to site such a reactor in an eartquake zone . I rather doubt whether as many as were un-necessarily killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki [ Japan was suing for Peace at the time ] will be killed by this event – and those atrocities back in 1945 – did they create much comment worry here in ” West ”. Anyway it will be a big bonus to the religous if things did go badly wrong – they would get to ”Paradise” soon – Great News for them .

  7. Saltaire Sam says:

    Sorry, Jon, off topic but want to alert bloggers to an excellent piece on Guardian site

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/mortarboard/2011/mar/28/whats-an-elite-university

    It points out the anomaly that universities who can attract the most qualified students are about to charge £9000 pa while those who have to work harder to educate the less qualified have to make do with £6000. Not much logic produced by the market there then.

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Saltaire,a typical Guardian report that misses the whole point of further education.The so called elite Universities are attracting and teaching those capable of succeeding to a higher level,whilst the rest are acting like further education colleges,under the umbrella of the name University and in the words of the article taking those with poorer qualifications.In other words those not ready or capable of succeeding at University.Perhaps either they should not be there or the Universities should not be so called.
      This article is why i worry about the Guardian’s pronouncement on the Japanese nuclear situation.

    2. Saltaire Sam says:

      That’s the point Adrian. Shouldn’t the greater resources go into teaching those who need it most? It must be easier to teach all those bright young things who get to Oxbridge than the rest. The £3000 difference will only make the situation worse, giving those with advantages already and even greater advantage. Market forces don’t always work out right for a just society.

    3. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      Adrian are you gullible enough to think that the exam results of those from ‘ important families’ are not tweeked and twisted. Money buys the line in education too.

      BTW Oxford did very well in the boat race, now that was very good training.All students carved for fame.

    4. adrian clarke says:

      Saltaire i do not agree with your logic. University teaching is an after school endeavour.
      A choice not a right or a legal requirement.
      If as you suggest it takes more to teach those with poorer qualifications,perhaps it would be right to charge them more.For the £9000 is a charge , not a loan .It is intended to be paid back.
      You quote it as if it is just the rich who are bright enough to progress but it is on ability and results , and except for the private institutions Oxbridge is open to all with the required ability .

    5. adrian clarke says:

      Margaret, i believe exam marking is independent , but if you have proof to the contrary i would be one of the first to condemn it

  8. Meg Howarth says:

    Indeed, Jon.

    Lest we become (unsurprisingly) distracted by the continuing flow of contradictory/detracted/revised etc detail, the issue we surely need urgently to address is our electricity usage.

    NB to save bloggers wasting time – and electricity – this is not a call for a return to a mythical nicer pre-industrial past, merely a request that we think critically about our everyday behaviour and not be misled by the frankly outdated argument that this about ‘keeping the lights on’. It could be argued we’ve keep lights on unnecessarily and for too long.

    George Monbiot’s a fully paid-up member of the energy status quo: don’t question usage/wastage, only generation. NB and he gets a handsome fee, no doubt, from the Guardian for doing so.

    Government is flogging us a C21 rotten apple : we need nuclear because otherwise ‘our’ – they mean ‘their’ profits/lifestyles etc – are unsustainable. Are we really that gullible?

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Meg ,are we really gullible enough to believe that alternative energy supplies can provide the countries needs.It does nowhere else , so why should it here?
      The greens’, friends of the earth ,and their like live in a dream world.Just like the anarchists.Many who are rich pampered kids , playing with lesser mortals lives whilst having their immature fun at others expense.Just as they are backed by the immature and immoral BBC , living of the back of its licence payers who have no choice.It is time the BBC moved into the real world and had to earn its keep.

    2. Meg Howarth says:

      Please start reading before you respond, Adrian, and not just to me. Some of what you say is simply nonsense.

    3. adrian clarke says:

      Government is flogging us a C21 rotten apple : we need nuclear because otherwise ‘our’ – they mean ‘their’ profits/lifestyles etc – are unsustainable. Are we really that gullible?

      Meg i read your blog.If the above is not anti nuclear , tell me what it is!!!
      If it is anti nuclear,what are your alternatives ,other than switch the lights out.
      I lived in an era without electricity to our home,perhaps you haven’t

  9. TjChocolate says:

    Some truth based on factual research would be helpful at this point indeed.

    However seeing as this disaster wasn’t really accounted for I’m not really sure whether any “expert” in the field of nuclear reactors and their behaviour are any wiser on how bad the situation is or might be.

    It could be worse than anyone could imagine but if anyone “knows for sure” they simply do not want to create a state of panic. I mean where are all these people going to go?

    Whatever the facts are, it’s only human nature to be scared of the consequences. But you never know, things might not be as bad as people imagine. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what unfolds…

  10. Yasushi Uchiyamada says:

    The issue you have just raised today (and on March 16th) has been nagging us all the time for two weeks. I automatically switch off the news whenever the press conference of Yukio Edano, the Cabinet Chief Secretary, is being broadcasted. Edano’s briefing always ends with the suffix “it poses no immediate threat.”

    The problem is that all of us know that the nuclear meltdown has long-term effects. Yet the authority is unable to provide us timely information. I circumvent press conferences of TEPCO and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of METI on the web too.

    Today, Senior Vice Minister of METI Motohisa Ikeda is reported to have said, “god only knows,” when questioned about the crisis management to avoid the worst-case scenario in Fukushima in the Budget Committee of the upper house. The slip of tongue gives us a glimpse of the state of affairs of the authorities – they do not have a clue what is going on. Jon, I agree with you.

  11. anniexf says:

    That ridiculous saying “What we don’t know can’t hurt us” comes to mind. On the Rumsfeld scale of probable unknowns there must be some with the potential to harm us. Trouble is, which? And should we worry? If so, how much – and would there be any point anyway? It’s too enormous for me/us to do anything about so, as John Major often put it, “We must wait and see”.
    Alarmingly, that finds me nearer to Adrian’s initial stance – Keep Calm And Carry On. Except that once he turned the whole thing round to his co-hobby-horses (The Guardian and “corrective punishment” – Adrian, I suspect a fetish) I started losing the will to ….

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Ahhhhh!!!Annie;moi a fetish??? No more than the Guardianista against mail readers.
      On a serious note,the Japanese are playing it right.If the fall out is uncontrollable , what is the point of broadcasting it .Who does it help?
      As for the rest i believe in law and order,and i believe the police should have reacted much tougher and stronger, but lets face it they are the whipping boys and a bunch of louts get away with it

    2. anniexf says:

      Adrian, I’m not sure you’ve grasped the meaning of “fetish” – it doesn’t mean “prejudice”, but something quite different!
      Yes, I too believe in law and order but when our nice policemen resort to belting the daylights out of peaceful protesters and even the life out of those innocently caught up, as the late Mr. Tomlinson was, I have serious reservations about the good/bad, black/white position you seem to believe exists.

    3. adrian clarke says:

      Annie,
      I do not see how you can compare the anarchistic activities on Saturday with a peaceful march.By being tougher and stronger does not mean belting the daylights out of peaceful protesters,it means arresting and taking out the mindless thugs who did so much criminal damage.If you consider their actions peaceful,or lawful ,god help us.I am afraid the law is black/white unless you believe in anarchy

  12. Michael Aylett says:

    Jon, I living in Iwate Prefecture, the consequences of both seen and unseen disasters are daily life. I run a school and a small vegetable farm. While my relatives in Kamaishi are safe, those of a student are still missing. While my farm can grow and sell spinach, other farms in other prefectures can’t. No one I know trusts the official message. Perhaps we’re all misguided simpletons being fearful of something that is apparently safe? Yes we are, if those pro-nuclear are to be believed. No we’re not, according to scientists like UK’s Dr. Chris Busby who recently called  MonbioMonbiot “crimnally insane” for downplaying Fukushima http://goo.gl/YB4qZ Personally, I’ll listen to both but put my trust in the time honoured media called common sense and that tells me that we’re being lied to. The history of TEPCO and the nuclear industry in general is one of lies, secrecy and greed. Governments are no better. Cover-up? Maybe. Sheer incompetence? Maybe. Never put all your eggs in one basket though. It’s probably both.

  13. CWH says:

    According to an article published in the New Scientist on 26th March 2011 the Atomic Energy Agency and the UN estimate that the death toll from cancer following Chernobyl will reach around 9000.

    Twenty-five years after Chernobyl around 400 farms, mainly sheep farms, in parts of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland still have restrictions placed on them with regards to the transportation of livestock and their entry into the food chain.

  14. Inkelectric says:

    There are some facts we do not know about Fukushima that are not related to it being a nuclear incident. The truth rarely emerges from any large corporation, as commercial considerations apply. Fukushima is a developing picture and some facts are not yet known but will be. Japanese culture and they deal with such situations will be relevant.

    Rumsfeld, though, has given respectability to anyone who claims that something is an unknown unknown merely because they don’t know it. If we took out the knowable unknowns from the Fukushima equation, it would still be worrying, but less so.

    Co-incidentally, The Sunday Telegraph published a feature on the Chernobyl disaster on 6 March 2011. Differently, at Chernobyl the reactor was still processing when it exploded, exposing the core and sending radioactive matter high into the atmosphere. This was carried by prevailing winds and fell in the rain over Wales resulting in some contaminated sheep.

    Fukushima has highlighted that not enough quality news broadcasters are also good scientists and not enough scientists make good broadcasters. That needs to change if we are going to make informed decisions about the difficult issues ahead.

  15. William Hesketh says:

    Thank you for your reports Jon. My family and I live on the Pacific coast of western Japan. After the earthquake we spent a night in an evacuation centre, but our region was not to be touched by the devastation that struck Tohoku. In light of this it seems wrong to say that our world feels turned upside down, and yet it does. Images of Japan we knew we could see one day, but never believed we would. Such suffering. And questions. Why did so few people evacuate in our town? Why did my daughter’s school have no proper evacuation plan? Why were some people evacuated to buildings at sea level? From such questions, the nagging thought, indecent as it feels, that Tohoku might not have been so different in its organisation. And now the nuclear crisis. Memories of teaching English to engineers at a nuclear power station in Japan. Smart and decent individuals in a very worrying system. One engineer, actually a family friend, now scheduled to take his turn at Fukushima. We are told the pressure to do so is considerable, making talk of heroic volunteers seem not so much untrue as incomplete. And here everyday my own two daughters ask me if it is safe to play outside.

  16. Matt says:

    If you’d like to understand the numbers, and how they are confused by the media, please listen to a physicist:

    http://online.itp.ucsb.edu/online/plecture/bmonreal11/

    As pointed out so often, the big problem is to deal with the waste and clean up (contamination of environment and food with nucleotides with longer half-life, for instance), and that’s why we need to find alternatives.

  17. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    I bet in 15 yrs time there will be many claims against the nuclear companies, some hard to prove, others not.. Now for CND again.

  18. vigilanteteen says:

    great points made here already, so ill keep it simple n just thank john snow for his ‘tsunami diary’ which i thought was a decent piece of reporting in a mass of media speculation and rubbish.

  19. Ray Turner says:

    Ddon’t lose sight of the fact that it was a first-generation boiling water reactor, designed in the 1960’s and built in the 1970’s.

    Modern designs have passive safety systems, better safety systems, apparently, so would a modern plant have survived this natural disaster any better…?

    Maybe.

    But I’m not sure I would want to put it to the test.

    Best not to build Nuclear plants in earthquake zones I reckon…

  20. usapon says:

    I live in Tokyo. At first, I felt that Channel 4 News reports was overblown information. Then, I believed that Japanese news was reporting a correct situation.

    However, a plutonium was detected on the ground of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A situation seem to be worsening every moment. As a result, Channel 4 News’s report was correct.

    TEPCO, Japanese government and Japanese news are having an optimistic outlook now. If TEPCO, Japanese government and Japanese news continue to have an optimistic outlook regarding this serious situation, many people in Japan have to suffer major health damage.

  21. byrdele says:

    It is good to hear from people who are living in Japan – to get your perspective on things. Much has been said about energy resources – very good things. Therefore I won’t add to that discussion. Instead: please know this: many businesses, and not just aid agencies, are asking for donations of money that might help. American eBay has outright asked for donations and not only the eBay org itself, but individual sellers give an option of adding 1 USD to every purchase to aid Japan. Those solitary dollars add up. I hope this is happening world-wide – it probably is. I, myself, had to turn down a job in Japan because of the uncertainty of radiation – but one day hope to make a trip to Japan if possible. Any country that can industrialize in ten years when it took the rest of us is an amazing place full of amazing people. God go with you.

  22. Helen says:

    It’s clearly out of control despite their attempts. The leak into the sea is horrifying and getting worse in alarming rises in radiation. Good news that a team of experts are going from the US, and some from France but I can’t understand why there hasn’t been more international concern. The only viable action would appear to be concreting them but I know that is dangerous if they cannot be cooled. I think there is a way of addressing that and wish nuclear experts had from the outset been working on it. The statements made it wouldn’t travel far beyond the plant, it wouldn’t reach the US even if out over the ocean, were clearly untrue and downplaying the dangers hasn’t helped. The situation should have been recognised for what it was and dealt with as such before so much escaped into the sea, and increasing radiation across Japan.

  23. Nigel Correia says:

    And yet despite this care for the Japanese that you profess, less than 60sec of coverage was devoted to Japan in this evening’s edition of C4 News, despite 10,000 tonnes of radioactive water being disgorged into the Pacific.

    I consider this an acute dereliction of your journalistic responsibilities.

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