Narrative perspective

So much of the on-going Fukushima incident is confusing. Whether this confusion is put down to poor reporting, fear mongering or the operator's lack of transparency is dependent on who you talk to. For what it is worth I am leaning mostly towards the poor reporting viewpoint. Of course this is not the only factor nor to say all the reporting is bad thou certainly most of the mainstream reporting is pretty vague, unhelpful and alarmist. I know a fair bit about some aspects of this scenario and it can take me a few minutes googling to uncover the severity and sometimes even the actual news1 behind an article.

For example take the recent widely reported story that measurements had revealed a very high radiation reading of 1800 mSv/hr somewhere around the waste water tanks. This news was discussed on BBC radio 4 on the 1st September with a somewhat baffling statement that went something like "... and now rates have been detected that will be lethal within 4 hours of exposure". This is wrong and not in a small ignorable way. Let me explain.

Firstly the measurement of 1800 mSv/hr is definitely high by any reasonable scale. That said if you were exposed at this rate for 30 minutes or less it is unlikely you would actually feel any symptoms at all. Blood tests would reveal changes and your risk of lifelong cancer risk would have significantly increased but you would not suffer any obvious ill effects assuming you were healthy to begin2 and you most certainly would not die within 4 hours. I can be so sure as radiation exposure does not kill people this quickly. Consider the Polonium 210 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Despite him ingesting very radioactive material (he received a dose estimated to be up to 520 Gy on his bones' surfaces) it took poor Alexander 22 days to die3. The highest radiation exposure I have ever heard about outside of explosions, which obviously have serious complicating factors, happened to Cecil Kelley who received a pretty uniform 45 Gy to his whole body (equivalent to over a day within the Fukushima hotspot) and even Cecil lasted 35 hrs before dying.

Now some might say I am being overly critical of a single statement which can arguably be read two ways4. However this was a statement given in public that was meant to inform the listeners about risks. I accept that of course many people who work in a radiation based field would have heard this particular statement and realized the obvious mistake or loose wording. However the vast majority of listeners would know practically nothing about risk from radiation. So when a news outlet, especially a high quality one like the BBC5, makes such a statement people assume it is totally true. I absolutely guarantee that many listeners to that BBC program would have left with the impression that if you ran past the leaking water tank 4 hours later you would die from the exposure. To reiterate the point this is utter nonsense. The "correct" fact is that if you were exposed for 4 hrs at the rate of 1800 mSv/hr you would die.

Now for an incredibly crucial detail that the BBC and damn near every other media organisation left out of their articles on this high measurement. The reading of 1800 mSv/hr is a Beta radiation dominated measurement of a small hotspot. Beta radiation is very short ranged so a few centimetres of Aluminium or even a few 10s of cms of air block it and it is easy to block/avoid given we are talking about a hotspot and not a vast area. So even if you were somehow naked ~2 metres/6 feet from the hotspot you would still be very well protected by the shielding provided by the air alone. Another measurement taken 1 m above the hotspot (at which point only the more penetrating Gamma ray radiation is contributing to the reading) was "only" 1-1.5 mSv/hr. This value is low enough that an entire group of people could lie there for 4 days and still not receive enough dose to have any measurable lifetime risk increase whatsoever. Naturally this is still a high reading that does need addressed but obviously it is at very least a thousand times less worrying than the repeatedly headlined figure.

To correct the BBC announcement it would have to be stated as ".. and now rates have been detected at one point sufficient that if you sat in the water for 4 hours at that point you would probably die within a month". This statement is not so interesting but has the novel quality that it is actually true and not needlessly scary to an already frightened populace.


FootNotes


1. Normally when they are so concentrating on scaring people and declaring how bad nuclear power is that the writers/editors drop crucial details on the "new" aspect the articles are supposedly highlighting.
2. I am ignoring the psychosomatic symptoms when you realized about the exposure.
3. Many people might suggest this was intended and part of the message his assailant(s) wished to send. I however am not so brave to comment on this.

4. You can read it as "you will die 4 hrs after a previous undefined exposure" or the correct form "that you will die after 4 hrs of continuous exposure".
5. No major news organisation covered this story well. Some fully embraced out and out fear mongering but even the best only managing faux balance ie A trending prime time terrifying prose laden article by someone with no knowledge of the field "balanced" by a barely promoted boringly factual article on a report from scientific experts released at 3 in the morning.