Japanese Meltdown

No, not the reactors, the press. Ghouls, most of them. They always wish for the worst. The only class of people (besides Communists and morticians) for whom death not only delights, but offers a chance for personal advancement. The only folk who can speak the word “heartbreak” with a lilt to their voices. Their first thoughts upon hearing of a disaster is how they, and not their colleagues, can get their face in front of a camera.

Narrating the nauseating particulars of mass death is not a horrible duty that must be stomached, but is instead an opportunity. Not one in a hundred while jetting to the calamity would think to interrupt their prayers with a plea “take away this cup from me.” Instead they paraphrase Lenin, “It does not matter if three-fourths of mankind is destroyed: all that counts is that I am there to report it.”

It is true that ignorance is what drives much (there are exceptions) of the reporting on the nuclear reactors. After all, most of these reporters learned their physics from Hollywood movies. Nuclear reactors, when damaged, melt down blow up: that is what they do. And then all but a minuscule minority suffer from reporteritis, an epidemic psychiatric disorder whereby journalists assume they become as knowledgeable and important as the people they talk to.

They invite a nuclear physicist to offer a thirty-second soundbite, and that fraction of fact becomes All There Is To Know. The reporter assimilates the information and then opines sagely upon it; not repeating it word-for-word, but by creating variations on a theme, weaving it into their baseline ignorance.

Of course, in this case we cannot just blame reporters. Our Surgeon General has contributed to the unnecessary panic by starting a run on “radiation pills” on the west coast. She said of the hoarding that it was “definitely appropriate.” (Has the person in this office ever fulfilled a useful purpose?)

An anonymous but highly knowledgeable source gave this lament:

It has gotten to the point where I can barely watch the news. The hysteria driven media consistently endeavors to one-up itself on the terrors of radiation. You know, “significantly increased levels of radiation have been detected…” Of course, they fail to provide a baseline dose rate before the earthquake/accident and then do not say what is the significantly increased dose, so that sane, rational people can actually make comparisons and draw reasonable conclusions. I especially liked one commentator’s lame response. It went something like, “Well, you know…any exposure to radiation… even small increases, are known to not be good for you…”

Just like reporting on global warming, where it is always, just always, “Worse than we thought”, the radiation levels are always, ever always, increasing and increasing. What reporters should be doing is obvious: take as much time as necessary and, using actual experts, give as many facts as possible, even at the very real risk of talking over the heads of most of their audience. Difficult but correct material always trumps simplistic summaries.

A major component of the story, relevant to us, is over-certainty. According the the Nuclear Energy Institute, the reactor damage occurred because of “extraordinary natural forces that were outside the plant’s required design parameters.” In other words, the events that did occur were not foreseen, or were given such a low probability of occurrence that none thought it worth the trouble.

The people who design these plants are, to use the common phrase, rocket scientists. They are exceedingly bright, but they are still human. If these men can make a mistake in estimating risk on what are, after all, simple structures, just how over-confident are we in our understanding of systems as complex as Nature or the interactions between people and nations?

The disclaimer I have to, but should not have to, add is that I do not seek to minimize reporting on the dangers to those who live near the plants. But our choice is not a dichotomy: because we do not minimize does not mean we must maximize.


  1. Apparently one of the design parameters for this particular nuclear power plant included earthquake protection up to a point. Their design point was an 8.5 earthquake. This earthquake was a 9.0.

    It’s just 0.5 more, right? Well, 0.5 on the Richter scale is about 3X (0.5 = log10(3)), so their design parameter was off by a factor of 3.

    A factor of 3 increase in capability would result in a >=3X increase in cost (anecdotally). Some accountant decided it was worth spending Y (note clever use of Y as the variable to trick the mind into thinking Yen) to build this plant but it wasn’t worth >=3Y, as the likelihood of such a large earthquake was miniscule.

    We now know P(earthquake >= 8.5) = 1 emperically, so a bean counter ~40 years ago was responsible for this disaster. Why aren’t the talking heads speaking to professors of accounting?

  2. jorge c.

    i don’t defend the press, but if Herr Ghünter Oettinger, Head of the European Energy Commission, spoke about “Fukushima’s Apocalypse”… the reporters are angels!!!

  3. a jones

    I merely repeat what I said on WUWT, the reactors are now cold, despite the hysteria there does not seem to have been any breach of primary containment, there are fires in the spent fuel stores but these are easily dealt with water: and radiation levels are safe.

    The hysteria chiefly comes comes from the efficient precautions taken by the authorities, for which they are well organised and equipped. It has been exacerbated by comments and advice given by the US and UK governments who should know better at a time when the whole episode is coming under control.

    Kindest Regards

  4. Briggs

    jorge c.,

    I didn’t know that. Make that two government officials long off the deep end.

    Ron C

    I would only correct your notation (all probabilities are conditional): Pr (Existence of Earthquake > 8.5 | Observations of all earthquakes) = 1.

  5. Jeremy Das

    Ron C,

    The facts of the earthquake and its consequences at Fukushima don’t necessarily mean that the risk assessment was mistaken or that the risk should have been considered unacceptable.
    Without knowing anything about the process of risk assessment and decision making I wouldn’t want to venture an opinion on who, if anyone, was at fault.

    Surely, the key questions are whether the risk assessment was done in an appropriate way and if so whether the balance of risks and benefits is considered acceptable in comparison with those of other means of generating electricity?

  6. Very good post! I liked this new word, reporteritis, it defines a planetary desease which engulfed even my country.

  7. Jeremy Das

    I’ve seen a lot of crass or ignorant reporting but the “winner” so far is last Sunday’s print edition of the Telegraph, one of Britain’s leading newspapers. Under the front page headline “DISASTER” there was a long subtitle that included “nuclear explosion feared” (or words to that effect).

  8. Bob Ludwick

    In regard to the ‘reporting’ on the reactors in Japan, it may be well to note that almost all of the ‘experts’ interviewed by the ‘talking heads’ have long histories as anti-nuclear activists. As are the talking heads themselves who, on camera, are nearly giddy at the prospect of using Japan as an excuse to drive a stake through the heart of nuclear power once and for all.

    Here is a link to a post on ‘Pajamas Media’ by Charlie Martin, which starts off with an interesting tutorial on nuclear plants and the situation in Japan.


    Near the end is a section entitled “Experts in the Media”, which names some of the more prominent of the experts and provides a bit of background on them.

    It is worth keeping in mind before mortgaging the ranch to buy iodine pills

    Bob Ludwick

  9. Briggs


    Thanks for that link. Charlie is a good guy, and as usual well informed. His post is required reading.

  10. PaulH

    I agree with your “anonymous but highly knowledgeable source.” I’ve had to turn off the TV, radio and twitter free, and I’m ignoring the newspapers. These so called experts aren’t providing anything of value, and that’s sad.

  11. George Steiner

    The plant survived the quake. For 55 minutes the diesel back up generators have worked, providing electricity to run the back up cooling systems. The 30 feet Tsunami did in the diesel generators. Even then if they can contain the heating of the resting ponds the result will mightily dissapoint the the vultures.

  12. Matt

    If I lived anywhere near the incident, I’d be following a lot closer, reporteritis or no. However, given the minute by minute changes, retractions, corrections, etc., I’ve adopted the attitude that I can wait to pay attention after it (and the accompanying hyperventilation) is over.

  13. Ray

    “The only class of people (besides Communists and morticians) for whom death not only delights, but offers a chance for personal advancement.”

    Wrong! Don’t forget the lawyers. Lawyers get rich off the misfortune of others.

  14. Alex

    Is anyone else incensed with the way the press fails to understand the difference between a sievert and a sievert per hour? This NYT plot is a particularly egregious example:


    How can you plot an annual radiation dose (measured in sieverts) and the rate of exposure (measured in sieverts per hour) on the same graph?

    This would be just another example of scientific illiteracy in journalism if the situation wasn’t so important. Instead, this kind of bad reporting makes it much more difficult for citizens to eventuate their own safety.

  15. Nomen Nescio

    Amen Brother. Who knew reporters could talk this long without taking a breath!

  16. Robert of Ottawa

    Totally on board with you Mr. Briggs.

    I search vainly for hard news. At one time there was “an increase in radiation”; how much? from what level to what level?

    The problem is even IF these reporters were told how many mS, etc., they would not understand. And revert to prejudice. But it is not clear they are being given the hard facts.

    I am astounded I still do not know what radiation levels are around the reactor. But, this may also be due to the people who do know being rather preoccupied at the moment. Of course, both the BBC and Australian ABC have had Greenpeace representatives on air to pontificate on these nuclear matters as “experts”.

    I do not watch the coverage now; it is nausiating. Can anyone suggest a sight wherre I can get up to the minute news which is intellectually meaningful?

  17. As a former nuclear engineer who worked on the design and construction of nuclear fuel rods, containment vessels, and “hydrogen recombiners”, I have had an opportunity to observe the media at its worst. Knowing a lot what they are talking about gives one an opportunity to see how ill informed they are about nuclear reactors and nuclear safety, and how unwilling they are to dig for the truth about the accidents in Japan and elsewhere in the world. I have had the same opinion about the media and global warming. Ignorance is not bliss when the information being conveyed is incorrect, biased by an political agenda, inflamed with exaggerated expectations, and aimed at scaring everyone into listening to their rants and so called experts. I have stopped watching before insanity steps in. They are held unaccountable for creating hysteria in so many areas of technology that one wonders if they want to destroy our way life.
    Several reporters have complained that the Japanese government has been withholding information because they know it worse than we thought. Maybe the reason that no one wants to give them any information is that they are reckless with the information and in ignorance of its real implications magnify it into a catastrophe when they are in no position to understand what it means. If they were told the magnitude to radiation release they would be able to say whether it is large or small so lets make large.

  18. Robert of Ottawa

    The reactors did go into automatic shut-down after the quake. The system worked. The carbon/boron rods are absorbing neutrons and keeping the reactors from going critical. They still are generating heat, and this needs cooling and the cooling systems were knocked out by the tsunami.

  19. Bruce Foutch

    A few days ago I saw, on TV or Internet, a news personality in Seattle interviewing who I believe was a geologist type guy and asked him how people would be warned to move to higher ground (I assume he was speaking about some official notification from the government) should Seattle experience a Mega Quake/Tsunami, as is very possible considering the tectonics of the Pacific Northwest. The geologist guy just looked the news personality in the eye and told him that an earthquake of this size IS THE WARNING!

    As I digested his statement of the obvious, I just wondered how many people just wait to be told what to do in their lives, especially as imminent death approaches them. Have we really given up so much of our free will to the State that we are unable or unwilling to make an obvious personal choice regarding our own survival?

  20. Eric Anderson

    If I understand the situation correctly, the structures survived the massive earthquake just fine (as a couple of prior commenters have noted). They shut down properly, etc. In fact the main structures seem to have also survived the tsunami intact. Unfortunately, there was an achilles heel, so to speak, in that the backup generators were located at ground level and were flooded by the tsunami. A design flaw? Absolutely, and one that seems pretty foolish in hindsight. But a flaw not directly related to the structural integrity of the facility and its ability to withstand both a massive earthquake and a tsunami.

    There are certainly lessons to take home in terms of risk analysis and best practices for future plants, but I don’t think the takehome lesson is that the facilities were wholly inadequate to survive an earthquate and/or tsunami.

  21. Leg

    I’m an old Health Physicist. I cannot remember a time that I did not deplore the media’s lack of knowledge and lack of concern that maybe, just maybe they are creating an unwarranted hysteria. I’ve seen them take a minor spill of radioactive material, which wouldn’t have hurt a soul, and make it a major environmental disaster. They would love seeing how many spills I cleaned up in the universities I worked at, including UCLA.

    However, this last week for the first time ever on TV I saw a really really good presentation on nuclear power and why we need it . Believe it or not, Glen Beck did a fantastic job on the issue. I was so excited to see someone in the media getting it and getting it right, that I felt like a beta particle leaving a neutron (yeah you need to understand how radiation works to get this analogy).

    Re iodine tablets. Not a magic pill for stopping radiation. The tablets do not stop cesium, tritium, uranium, plutonium and all the other fission products from getting into your body. Technically they do not even stop radioactive iodine from getting into your body. All the tablets do is prevent radioactive iodine from accumulating in the thyroid, and only if you take it before the exposure to the radioactive iodine. It does little or no good if taken after the exposure. Like most of our Surgeon Generals, our present Surgeon General focused on becoming a bureaucrat and left continuing education and common sense behind. Nitwit.

    Incidentally, a respirator with a charcoal filter is far superior to the iodine tablets. Unfortunately, they are difficult to mass produce like tablets, are expensive, and require some use training. I worked in a cloud of radioactive iodine at a radiopharmaceutical manufacturer for four years. Used a respirator and got no uptake of radioactive iodine. I never even considered the pills. However, if I was in the exclusion zone without a respirator, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the pill. It would be better than nothing. Anyone buying the iodine pills in this country in response to the Japan accident probably has reporteritis.

  22. Rich

    Bruce Foutch: “Have we really given up so much of our free will to the State that we are unable or unwilling to make an obvious personal choice regarding our own survival?

    I recall a report on a fire in a department store in which half a dozen bodies were found in the check-out queue. However you explain it – force of habit or submission to authority – it does argue a diminished sensitivity to one’s own safety or maybe diminished responsibility.

    Or perhaps, if the State spends billions telling us we’re helpless, we eventually believe it.

  23. TomVonk

    During the 80ies I have been working on nuclear power plant design . Safety systems .
    Some comments and precisions :
    Leg is completely right . The activity coming from a fission process is overwhelmingly beta radioactivity (the reason is simple if you think about it 5 minutes) .
    And those who still remember their physic lessons , remember that only a few mm of anything are enough to stop beta radioactivity . That’s why the by far best safety measure against fission product dangers is to prevent skin contact with it – masks , sealing doors and windows or , more sophisticated , sealed suits . This is really enough , beta is no big problem .
    Of course there are a few beasts like Cs137 (half life 30 years) that goes to Ba137 by beta but Ba137 relaxes by gamma . And gamma goes through everything . But then such products are only a small part of fission products (Cs137 <5%) .
    On the first day I told my wife that as long as there is water , there is hope .
    As the emergency shut down happens during seconds , what is left is the residual activity of around 2% of the power output . But even 2% of 1000 MW are still 20 MW .
    As those 20 MW are generated by mostly short half life products , they decrease exponentially on scales measured in days .
    So as long as one can provide water on scales of days , what will happen will be perhaps hydrogen venting with perhaps following exterior explosion but the reactor is (normally) designed to live happily through exterior explosions .
    Such an explosion can only blow the roof and after that not even that .
    They luckily had water during those critical first hours when the power peaks .
    Let's just remind that the Cernobyl accident went from "normal" at 200 MW (well kinda because they were in the unstable low power domain) to full divergent with all safety bars withdrawn (20 000 MW or so) within 30 seconds .
    All that for lack of water and being in the wrong domain because they had orders to do the test now and you don’t discuss orders in a communist country .
    So while water is everything, power is much too. Normally the emergency power system is designed in a redundant and independent way .
    On the plants I worked (also BWR like in Japan) , the system was doubled and each had enough water and power to cool down the reactor during the critical time – we are talking days here . Both were in bunkers able to withstand plane crashes , earthquakes and explosions . No tsunamis because we assumed that there will be no tsunami in northern Europe .
    Now the point where I connect to William’s expertise is that we used a “century seismic event” for the design . That means that for such or weaker event , the system must work with a probability better than 99,9 % .
    Then , because one really doesn’t know how far we should believe probability calculations we simply double the system . Why not triple ? It would be too expensive for a completely unknown improvement of probabilities .
    It is also technically on the feasability limits .
    You can’t imagine how unsolvable mundane problems like “There is no more space to put this additional necessary cable rack without compromising the structural integrity” sometimes are .
    The biggest fights I witnessed were between engineers fighting for place where one absolutely had to go with his pipe , the other had to put a pillar there and the third had a cable rack that was vital .
    Yet the system needed all 3 items 🙂
    The more safety devices , the less space and finally the less safety – it looks paradoxal but it is how things work .
    So coming back to Japan , the problem is that they had a much more than a century tsunami event which took out the power . The thing had nicely survived a 9 earthquake because it was properly designed for it but not the tsunami that went along .
    It’s not easy – if you put the systems high so that it doesn’t get flooded then it can be hit by planes or exterior explosions what is worse . So they’ll just put a higher anti tsunami walls .
    Untill the next millenium event when will happen something that has been neglected because it had a very low probability .
    If you have 1 million of installations with a hallucinatingly low failure probability of 1 ppm , you will have in average 1 failure every year somewhere …

  24. JJD

    For straight info on the reactor situation, see spectrum.ieee.org.

  25. Thanks for the kind words, Matt!

    Anyone with a malign interest in teh crazy is invited to read some of the comments on the “meltdown” piece and following stuff on PJ Tatler, which includes commenters like ‘a physicist’ who keeps talking about INES severity of 7+ on a scale that ends at 7 because it’s everything worse than a scale 6 accident (TMI was scale 5), and who proposes that the military is involved because of plans to blow up the reactors with atomic bombs — which sort of balances things out, because if there were a grade greater than 7, that’d be the way to make one.

  26. Francisco

    Now they are talking about radioactive food. Milk and spinachs are contaminated. Turns out, when put in perspective, that the level of radiation of these products, if consumed for one whole year, would be equivalent to one single CT scan.

    I like the banana equivalent to put some perspective on all these different units they use. This guy convets a long report in microsieverts to banana equivalents:

    “The radiation spiked up to 30 bananas a day (2 days ago) and then fell back down to 1 to 2 bananas per day.”


    is that it? One to two bananas a day?? I remember in my childhood in Spain there was a tv commercial for bananas featuring a 6 year old boy form the Canary Islands, munching on one. His line, delivered in a relaxed cuban-like accent, was: “Todo lo dia un plátano. Po lo meno.” (Everyday a banana, at least)

    From the previous link, I like the last paragraph too:

    “Note: This is not a “nuclear accident”. It is damage from an earthquake and tsunami. The reported sweeping away of four entire trains, including a bullet train which apparently disappeared without a trace, was not labeled “the third worst train accident ever”.”

  27. kdk33

    So, for all you nuclear engineering types out there: Why are the pressure vessels vented inside the building and not outside the building?

    Also, the probability in question should be the probability of a >8.5 earth quake and really big follow-on tsunami striking a Japanese nuclear facility during its useful life (one of the reactors was 1-month away from permenant shutdown). That probability is < 1. Just sayin'.

  28. MrCPhysics


    Pressure vessels are vented into the “building” so it can act as a brief containment, to let any short half-life radiation disappear before teh vented steam, etc. is released to the environment.

    Not a good design when the vented gas includes a lot of hydrogen.

  29. Craig from Belvidere

    I was in Costa Rica when the earthquake and tsunami happened and just got around to catching up on my reading so my comment is a bit late but here goes.

    On the theme of reporters being idiots:

    I was out for the day when I heard of the earthquake. When I got back to my room I turned on CNN to see what had happened in Japan. The reporter (in Hong Kong) was talking to an American civilian in Tokyo and asking what the disaster looked like, “right now from your window!” The civilian said that it was night and he was 70 or 80 miles from the disaster, the reporter kept asking the same question and getting the same answer from the American.

    Later a different CNN reporter interviewed a geophysicist and demanded an explanation of the link between Global Warming and the earthquake. The geophysicist told him there was no link. The reporter then interviewed 2 more geophysicists with the same question and got the same answer. The reporter was not happy.

    It is embarressing to be an American if people around the world think CNN is representative of my country.

    Kate is right, “The world is being run by crazy people.”

    I give up; the idiots have won.

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