Unhealthful News 71 – Gone fission

The leading health news story of the day generated two or three orders of magnitude more headlines (as measured by a google news search) than most stories I write about.  The variety of headline alone is worth writing about.

The standard theme:

Fear in Fukushima: What Are the Health Risks of Radiation? – ABC News
Radiation exposure poses range of potential health problems for Japanese – Washington Post
Danger Posed by Radioactivity in Japan Hard to Assess – New York Times

Less punchy, but just in case someone is perhaps reading this sometime in the future and does not recall the story (let’s hope this becomes forgettable!):

Japanese Nuclear Reactor Releases Radioactive Vapor Following Earthquake – Energy Digital

(Also note that as I write this, alarming stories are hitting the news, about a new major problem at one of the reactors, so something very bad might have happened by the time you read this.  Or perhaps the media was trying to hype it for a few hours and will have relegated to a footnote by tomorrow.  Such behavior has been known to happen on occasion.)

Many U.S. news sources from the Washington/Oregon area (the closest point downwind from Japan), albeit many thousands of miles away:

State health officials: little or no nuclear-exposure risk here – Seattle Times
Nuclear event in Japan poses no health risk in Oregon at this time – KMTR NewsSource
DOH: No Signs Of Radiation In Washington- KIRO Seattle

Seriously, guys?  Do you have any idea how bad the mess would have to be near the plants for there to be substantial exposure in Seattle?  North Korean bomb tests are a much bigger worry.

Naturally, the usual suspects chimed in, on one side of the science policy political spectrum…

Beware the fear of Nuclear….FEAR! – Scientific American
Immediate Health Risks Appear Minor – Wall Street Journal
Health risk from Japan reactor seems quite low-WHO – Reuters
Meltdown “most unlikely,” nuke industry rep says – CBS News

…and the other.

Nuclear reactor meltdown narrowly averted at the Fukushima power plant near Tokyo – Natural News.com
Greenpeace questions readiness of Canadian reactors – Vancouver Sun
At Crippled Japanese Nuclear Plant, ‘Last-Ditch Effort’ To Prevent Meltdown – NPR
French greens call for end to nuclear energy – Reuters
Fukushima Radioactive Release Should Serve as Warning Greens Urge Obama to Withdraw Loan Guarantees for Nukes – Green Party US press release

And, again, seriously guys?  You are the “greens”, nuclear power is still the only currently viable alternative to coal and hydrofracking on a large scale, and you want to trash it.  Yes, there are important worries, but why do you have to be such a self-satire.  Oh, and did you happen to see the pictures of a burning petroleum refinery?

And I know humor about this is dangerous, but…

Thousands flee nuclear fallout – New Zealand Herald

(fallout, of course, being something that results from a nuclear explosion, not a nuclear material leak)

Nuclear agency posting updates on Japan plants on Facebook – Los Angeles Times

(relationship status:  It’s Really Really Complicated)

Greenpeace worried about Japan nuke plant collapse impact – Sify

(um, no, everyone is worried; Greenpeace is just excited by the mileage they might be able to get out of it)

The only one I am going to give a link to is a thoughtful piece about how authorities can better communicate and manage, to avoid the fear and mess that surrounded the Three Mile Island accident.  (The author, Christine Russell, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.  It is vaguely reassuring to see that over 20 years after I took classes from them – way before her time – the science and international affairs people at the Kennedy School are still fixated on Three Mile Island.)

A Japanese Three Mile Island? – The Atlantic

As a related aside, I have to take back my laudatory comment from yesterday, about the press showing rare understanding that the hour-to-hour mortality estimates were not meaningful.  No longer content to report on individual observations of deaths accurately, as tiny bits of information lacking a big picture, the media today started talking as if the current summed counts were meaningful.  They were reporting on how many hundreds of people died juxtaposed with stories reporting that tens of thousands of people had not been accounted for.  Health statistics innumeracy only took one day off, it seems.
[Update:  The next morning, CNN was running a graphic that said something like “1217 dead, 1123 missing” even while reporting that a town of 10,000 people is mostly missing.  I may be remembering that second number wrong, but the point is they were reporting down to the last digit when it is not clear that the first digit is right — i.e., they are reporting down to the last person when we do not know how many thousands.  New reporter innumeracy has returned in force.]
[Another update, 14 March:  Today I saw a news blurb graphic in one of those awful elevator displays (could the company that does those — “captivision” — be better named?) that I think came from CNN again: “3002 missing”.  Really?  That is so absurd that I start to wonder if some master computer was watching me and played that in the elevator just to taunt me.]

Finally, in case you were wondering, like I was, whether the events were evoking the classic pop-culture artistic Japanese reaction/zeitgeist to nuclear worries (or, if you prefer, the pretentious semi-scholarly interpretation of some really bad movies that some of us watched dozens of times as kids):  A search of recent appearances of “Godzilla, nuclear” in the news turned up only a few brief mentions, mostly in a series of comments at one blog at Huffington Post.   Searching just “Godzilla” yielded primarily a story where a CNN anchor was semi-falsely accused of making light of the tsunami damage itself by comparing it to an attack by Godzilla.  Apparently she just made a comment likening the images of the tsunami devastation to something out of a monster movie – kind of dumb, but not worthy of intense scorn (though it is easy to see why a rumor about a CNN anchor making inappropriate light of something serious might have instant credibility).  What she should really be criticized for is not knowing that the appropriate invocation of Godzilla was with regard to the nukes. 

I am not joking when I say that there is some significance to this.  For better or worse, people barely remember what most everyone thought and felt about nuclear power and weapons thirty or forty years ago.  They have become everyday hazards, just another weapon that terrorists might use and another bit of infrastructure that can break and cause problems.  This is partially a sensible reduction in over-worrying, but it is no small part the standard complacency about something that almost never hurts anyone, so is easily forgotten, but in a worst case scenario can hurt a lot of people.  This combination that leads to irrational confidence as well as irrational fear of health risks.  It will be interesting to see which of those is ascendant after this plays out.

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