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News and Comment

Misreporting Fukushima?

20 February 2012

Why did global reporting shift from one of the biggest earthquakes in history into a story of nuclear risk?
We hold a session at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Shortly before 3pm (JST) on Friday 11th March 2011, the Tohoku earthquake – magnitude 9 and the most powerful ever known to have hit Japan – sent devastating tsunamis onto the coast of Honshu, sluicing away whole towns and villages. By the next day, reports of thousands dead or missing and thousands more displaced and in peril, were being rapidly overtaken by fears of a nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima power plant. In the following days, rumours of global radiation risks spread, sales of salt and potassium iodide tablets soared, the European Commissioner for Energy predicted an ‘apocalypse’ and seven countries declared that they will delay or cancel planned programmes to replace fossil fuel use with nuclear power.

At the scientific meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver today, nuclear physicists will debate the reporting of what happened at Fukushima with other members of the international scientific community, policy-makers and journalists. They will set out the information that was missed and their proposals for making a better job of communicating the science and risks of nuclear energy and the effects of failures in its infrastructure. Further details of the AAAS session here.

Proposals include:

  • That radiation measurement is better understood by policy makers and communicated to the public.

Paddy Regan, Professor of Nuclear Physics, University of Surrey, UK: “One thing we should have got across better is that most of the radioactive material that came from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has decayed already and we can use well understood gamma-ray measurement techniques to evaluate the radiation levels at present and in the future.”

  • That policy-makers should not rely on immediate high-profile media reports for nuclear incidents.

Michael Hanlon, UK science journalist and co-organiser of the session: “Policy-makers should wait until there have been preliminary investigations on site before making public announcements about the implications for other energy infrastructure. The reaction of the European Commission preceded any considered scientific assessment of what was happening at Fukushima. When those scientific assessments came, for example the Weightman Report in May 2011, they provided a calm and measured assessment of the situation, a world away from the panic-stricken one made by some politicians and officials.” 

“The public’s and media’s assumption is that officials have scientific insight. They should make it clear when they don’t.”

  •  That the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) improves its nuclear incident scale. 

Labelling nuclear incidents on a 1-7 scale is resulting in non-comparable emergency situations being grouped together as Level 7. Fukushima was described as being on the same level of disaster as Chernobyl. The 24-hour global news agenda creates an appetite for such official designations, which means that no matter how well the limitations of this system are understood, it will be used in a misleading way. A different scale should be developed.

  • That the European Commission adopts an evidence-based and more considered approach to public communications about risk and energy.

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science and chair of the session: “On Tuesday 15th March, the EU Commissioner for Energy, Gunther Oettinger said of the situation at Fukushima: ‘There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come.’”

“This comment created headlines all over the world and was followed by Germany’s announcement to cancel its nuclear power plans. Sense About Science has made repeated requests for clarification of the Commission’s response, and reassurances that it takes seriously the responsibility for sound risk communication. Regrettably, the Commission has responded by dismissing the matter as ‘semantic details’. It needs to look at its responsibilities again.” 

  • That policy-makers and scientists are aware of the propensity for public panic-buying and pseudoscientific claims in response to emergencies.

Albert Yuan, science journalist, China: “China has a history of pseudo-seismology, funded by Government. And after the earthquake, thousands of Chinese citizens cleared supermarket shelves of salt in the false belief that it would protect them against a threat from radiation. Similar problems arose in California, with the mass purchase of potassium iodide pills after Surgeon General Regina Benjamin made an ill-judged comment about taking precautions.”

  • That governments and the nuclear industry relate their communications to the scientific evidence and are clear and open about the risks from nuclear energy.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell, President and CEO, Council of Canadian Academies: “How to meet our ever-increasing energy needs in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way is one of the most vexing social and technological conundrums we face. We have to make decisions in a complex world of uncertainty, but the decisions are apt to be more effective, accepted and sustainable if they systematically consider scientific facts and evidence and the genuine engagement of citizens.”

Dr Pieter Doornenbal, nuclear physicist, RIKEN, Japan: "Every form of energy production exposes humans and the environment to certain risks. Despite being one of the safest forms in terms of casualties per produced energy unit and being CO2 free, nuclear energy is the only one potentially making large areas uninhabitable for decades. Therefore, the highest safety standards have to be promoted by the nuclear energy and supervised by governmental institutions independently. Furthermore, countries sustaining nuclear power and the nuclear industry itself must educate the population about risks of radiation exposure and their consequences on a better and higher scientific level." 

Paddy Regan, Professor of Nuclear Physics at the University of Surrey, will show results from a gamma-ray spectroscopic analysis of the fission fragments which are present in soil around Fukushima and compare this with results from 'normal' naturally occurring radiative material present in the wider environment. He will show how this technique is used to identify and quantify the specific radioisotopes which were released from the reactors at Fukushima and how this information can be used to evaluate the radiological risk associated with their release. This will be compared with other 'every day' risks, such as driving a car.

Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Oxford, and author of Radiation and Reason: "The reporting of Fukushima was guided by the Cold War reflex that matched radiation with fear and mortal danger.  Reactors have been destroyed, but the radiation at Fukushima has caused no loss of life and is unlikely to do so, even in the next 50 years. The voices of science and common sense on which the future of mankind depends were drowned out and remain to be heard in the media, even today. The result has been unnecessary suffering and great socio-economic damage."

Media Coverage

Mike Hanlon, The Telegraph The world has forgotten the real victims of Fukushima 


Follow the discussion on Twitter from beginning to end. 

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