Just when many of us were already asking “WTF is going on in Fukushima?” along comes venerated Canadian scientist David Suzuki with the most ominous warning yet.
“Fukushima is the most terrifying situation I can imagine,” the environmental broadcaster told a University of Alberta audience one day before Halloween. “You have a government that is in total collusion with TEPCO, the energy company. They're lying through their teeth.”
Adding to this year's revelations of massive radioactive leaks from the melted reactors to the sea—roughly 300 tons daily—Suzuki cited Tokyo University research pegging the chance of another 7+ magnitude earthquake by 2016 at 70 percent.
“If, in fact, the fourth plant goes under an earthquake, and those rods are exposed, it's bye-bye Japan,” he prophesied, “and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate. Now if that isn't terrifying, I don't know what is.”
Coming from a man voted one of the “Greatest Canadians,” it's no surprise the eco-guru's warning spread like a nuclear meltdown on social media. But given his background is in genetics, not nuclear physics or radiobiology, how alarmed should we actually be?
I wanted to get to the bottom of what's rumor and what's fact, so I went to the top. I spoke with Malcolm Crick, secretary of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). He called me a few hours before dawn recently from Geneva.
“My perception is that the effects of leaks, flushing, and getting to the sea is somehow being mixed up and probably being miscommunicated,” the radiation scientist told me. “This has led to people then fearing the situation perhaps more than they should in view of the radiation health effects, though definitely there are some things that we want to keep an eye on.
“Though such on-site problems need to be taken seriously and resolved, they do not increase the doses or associated health risks much as they are well monitored.”
Suzuki isn't the only one sounding the alarm, however. Australian physician Dr. Helen Caldicott has long-crusaded against the nuclear industry, which she believes has friends in high places and a vested interest in distorting the facts.
“I don't care if they criticize us,” she told me. “David (Suzuki) has hesitated to get into the whole nuclear debate, but he's a careful scientist.
“Pro-nuclear advocates [...] make guesses about radiation exposure using old data, not the newest scientific information we have. They underestimate it grossly to keep their industry going [...] The predictions are so dire that no one wants to face them. They want to practice psychic numbing.”
I also called a number of nuclear physicists to evaluate the fears. All of them raised their sciency eyebrows at the Greatest Canadian's disturbing claims. Most agreed: the reality at Fukushima is worrying enough.
“It's really hard to have a rational public discussion based on the known facts of radiation,” said University of British Columbia physicist Marcello Pavan, “when it is so ingrained in the culture that radiation at any level is a bad and terrible thing [...] It is a risk like any other, like chemicals.”
Let's break Suzuki's statements down one-by-one.
1. “Fukushima is the most terrifying situation I can imagine.” - Suzuki
David Measday, nuclear and particle physicist (University of British Columbia)
“People are really exaggerating this. I mean, over 20,000 people were killed in the tsunami. As far as we know, no one was killed by radiation.”
“As scientists talking around the lunchroom, we are more or less of a unanimous opinion that the hysteria around Fukushima is grossly overblown [...] With the supersensitive detectors we have at our disposal, [radiation] levels are way below anything that anybody has to worry about. We're subjected to background radiation from the moment we're born. I mean, every banana you've ever eaten has radioactive potassium in it.”
2. “They're lying through their teeth.” - Suzuki
“That is absolutely correct, at least from what I see. TEPCO has been minimizing the effects of what is happening. But here we have a large industrial concern lying to the government about an accident related to its business—is that news?”
“It's very difficult to find exact information, because of course they don't tell you everything. I've talked to a few Japanese physicists, but they don't know either. But now they have no reason to lie about the amount of radiation there is [...] The critical thing is, what is the level and how bad is it for humans?”
3. “...if there's another earthquake of 7 or above, that building will go and all hell breaks loose.” - Suzuki
“Chernobyl actually exploded half the reactor into the atmosphere. That's as bad as you can get. At Fukushima, there was nowhere near that level [...] I don't deny there could be a small chance that things could go wrong. An earthquake or tsunami would probably be the worst, but if it's of that magnitude the radiation would be a much lesser concern.”
4. “Thirteen-hundred rods of spent fuel [...] They're pouring water in but water's leaking out.” - Suzuki
“Radioactive isotopes are migrating into that groundwater and then towards the sea [...] The level of radionuclides in the harbor right there by the damaged plant seem to be increasing recently. But to give perspective, they're below the levels that WHO uses for determining the quality of drinking water.”
“There's clearly issues with radioactivity in the water. Cooling water is leaking into the groundwater and into the ocean. But the ocean's a big place; the levels of radiation are dispersed. It's completely negligible.”
5. “They don't know what to do [...] The Japanese government has too much pride to admit that.” - Suzuki
“TEPCO is trying to move those damaged rods by crane manually, which has never, ever been done before; usually fuel rods are moved by computer control. If two fuel rods happened to touch, there could be a fission reaction releasing huge amounts of radioactive gases. This would be a catastrophe. The radiation would circle the Northern Hemisphere.”
“The Japanese were very careful, they built all their reactors to very high levels. I don't think it would breach... They probably have done as well as you possibly could with their existing reactors. What they failed to do was to estimate the size of the  tsunami. But if there were another tsunami, they still haven't totally prepared for it. They could be in trouble again.”
6. “It's bye-bye Japan—and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate.” - Suzuki
“I'm sorry, but that is ridiculous. It's totally impossible! I can't believe he would say that. When he's in his own field, he's usually reasonable. But this is just crazy.”
“It doesn't in any remote sense seem plausible. It's contaminated material, yes, but certainly not on a scale that would devastate Japan, nor travel all way across the Pacific and cause an evacuation."
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