Choose: Help Or Show Concern

The Post has now given more media attention to damaged Japan nuke plants than to the entire rest of the earthquake, tsunami, etc. event.  I suspect lots of media worldwide act similarly. Yet, the tsunami was vastly more harmful. As MIT’s Josef Oehmen explains, there is very little chance that many will suffer much radiation harm.

There was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors. By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

In fact, the nuke media scare will itself cause far more harm!

Although radiation escaping from a nuclear power plant catastrophe can increase the risk of many cancers and other health problems, stress, anxiety and fear ended up in many ways being much greater long-term threats to health and well-being after Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and other nuclear accidents, experts said Monday.

“The psychological effects were the biggest health effects of all — by far.” … “After almost every radiological emergency, anyone or anything seen as or perceived as associated with the emergency came to be seen by others as tainted or something to be feared and even the object of discrimination.” … [After] a much less severe nuclear accident in 1999 in Tokaimura, Japan, … people in other parts of Japan refused to buy products from that region, and travelers were turned away from hotels and asked not to use public baths and swimming pools. … Studies of more than 80,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts have found that … only about 500 [cancer] cases could be attributed to the radiation exposure the people experienced. (more)

Now the media nuke emphasis does make business sense, since most ordinary folks I know seem quite eager to show each other their deep concern about those nuke plants. What sort of heartless person would not furrow their brow and express worry about those folks at risk? Some say this just shows nuke plants should not be built in earthquake zones.

Here is yet another example of where people tend to choose showing concern over actually helping. Shrugging your shoulders and saying this is no big deal, that would help. Loudly expressing deep “concern,” on the other hand, hurts.

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  • I’ve never understood the perceived achievement of such constant public emoting.
    Thank you for this well studied and backed up post.

  • Chris Gbekorbu

    I haven’t looked up the statsitics, but I’m pretty sure a lot more people die every year from motor vehicle accidents or diseases like AIDS than have died in a nuclear accident, yet people don’t seem overly concerned about those issues. And when you consider that nuclear energy provides a relatively clean source of energy for numbers of people (which helps to raise living standards), nuclear seems like one of the best choices despite the [infrequent] risks. What happened in Japan is tragic and there are lessons to be learned (e.g., the need to make reactors more resilient to disasters), but the technology has been engineered to be fairly safe and it provides significant benefits to humanity. Because we can see the reactor but we can’t see the people affected by the tragedy (there’s not much of a human connection there), it’s a lot easier to focus on the reactor and ignore what we can’t see.

    • mjgeddes

      Yes, why are people not more concerned about the fact they will soon become horribly frail and sick and die from natural aging and disease, something way more damaging to their bodies than a bit of extra radiation?

      Sierns should be wailing everywhere…everyone over 35 is facing a medical emergency from aging for starters. There are multiple existential emergencies in progress all around us, no one is lifting a finger.

      • mjgeddes,
        I share your point of view on this, I think of it as outlier rationality since we’re so deviant from the central tendency POV.

        You might be sympathetic to how I see almost all public planning discourse, as debates about rival death cult social aesthetics.

  • Telnar

    I’ll even suggest a potentially profitable way to express that “no big deal” sentiment: The Japanese stock market is down quite dramatically in the last 2 business days. If relatively little has happened, perhaps this is a buying opportunity. Of course, there is real damage to structures which occurred in addition to the trivial radiation risk, but if the real harm to Japanese companies is less than the stock market decline….

    Sometimes the prediction market you want already exists 🙂

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  • There are serious doubts whether Oehmen’s “explanations” are all that correct. Personally, I’ll say his first statement is flat-out wrong. The situation in Fukushima is NOT really under control and may yet turn into a Chernobyl-level disaster – or much worse, given the population density of Japan. Your statement that “the tsunami was vastly more harmful” is only correct *so far*.

    From the rationalist POV, everyone disparaging the media scare should ask themselves how much their own standpoint is influenced by all kinds of cognitive biases – or status moves.

    • jz

      I suppose you got that valuable insight from your physics degree and time spent in the field huh?

      • A physics degree is not necessary to spot someone making statements that are directly contradicted by readily available facts from multiple sources.

    • JL

      Sorry, but a Chernobyl type (level 7 INES) accident is impossible; it never was and never is a possibility with these types of reactors.

      At the moment it’s a level 4 accident.
      Three Mile Island (level 5) is the worst possible scenario: complete meltdown.

      It won’t reach level 6 or 7, even if everyone just went home and did nothing.

      Compared to the Tsunami itself, or the BP oil spill it’s nothing.
      Even the mass hysteria surrounding the accident is worse than the accident itself.

      • Sorry, but you’re wrong on all accounts. In fact, the French and Finnish nuclear authorities are already rating your “nothing” at level 6.

      • JL

        Well if (after the dust settles) it’s a 6, then I’ll stand corrected.

        But a Chernobyl is still impossible, so stop fear mongering.

        I didn’t say Fukushima is ‘nothing’, I said it’s nothing compared to the Tsunami or the BP oil spill. And that is a fact:

        Tsunami: 10,000 deaths. Fukushima: 0 deaths.
        BP oil spill: major environmental impact.
        Fukushima: only short lived isotopes released in environment, no significant radiation exposure.

        You are obviously biased against nukes.
        Note the title of the site, overcoming bias.
        Don’t be a troll, don’t scare quote me, and please make an effort to be rational.

      • Jacob Dalton


        Urging someone “to be rational” often indicates a desire for them to accept your axioms and scope rather than any irrationality on the part of the opposing arguer.

        brazzy indicated the future risk and death toll possibilities require continued attention and you (JL) urged him to be more rational on the grounds of current death tolls. Your both being rational but you’re not arguing about the same thing. What has happened thus far at Fukushima does not sufficiently limit what may happen in the future (and to which rationality is less useful in predicting).

        If your version of rational behavior resulted in fewer resources (media coverage, emergency resources, attention) being invested the situation which later resulted in an even greater disaster than rationality doesn’t really do you much good. And in the short run diminishes the value of “rational” behavior

        One can also rationally question the value of INES disaster ratings in regards to the future economic impact to humanity. It might not be useful, but it can certainly be rational.

        Rationality is a basis for argument and coming to a shared conclusion, not an end in itself. Rationality is relativism if you don’t accept the same axioms and argue at the same scope.

    • Sigivald

      Note that he said “significant” release of radiation.

      All the scaremongering and the rest in the media, even the evacuation zone, none of that tells us there has been a “significant” release of radiation.

      I assume, when someone with a scientific background is talking, that they use words like that deliberately; so we must decide what “significant” means.

      It plainly does not mean “measurable”. So what does it mean?

      I imagine it means sufficient to cause serious environmental or personal harm to people who are, well, not actually working in the power plant.

      I still haven’t seen any actual reason to believe that has occurred – note that the (politically reasonable) paranoid reaction of the Japanese government is based on avoiding the possibility of anyone getting the regulatory-maximum allowed dose for pregnant women and children, ever, by any means.

      That does not suggest that the amount of radiation released is what is “significant” by the above definition.

      (And that you imagine you can GET to a “Chernobyl” from a non-graphite-moderated reactor, even if the core *completely melted*, suggests that the problem here is not in his article, but your understanding of the issues involved.

      Even if there was a literal “Chernobyl” there, which is impossible due to the sort of reactor involved, it would not kill more people than the tsunami has – for the same reason the real Chernobyl didn’t, even accounting for population density.

      Almost all the long-term deaths from Chernobyl [not the immediate ones from acute radiation poisoning from the workers and military personnel fighting the fire, or those killed in the initial explosion] were due to the Soviet government not telling anyone to not eat contaminated food and the like in the area immediately near the reactor.

      Chernobyl as a giant killer is, even with that taken into account, a creation of folklore, not fact.)

      • Note that he said “will not be” – making a prediction that was clearly not certain when he made it. And it’s interesting how you’re already moving the goalpost from “no release of radiation” to “no-one gets dangerous exposition except the people working in the plant”.

        As for the rype of reactor: that the only reactor failure that led to a large area becoming irradiated *so far* did so mainly through burning graphite rods does not mean that’s the only way that can happen. If containment fails and the melted core reaches ground-water, the result could be similar. Or maybe not. We don’t really know because it hasn’t happened yet. Right now, the most worrying prospect actually seems to be not the melting cores but the spent fuel stockpiles – which are not secured nearly as well as the cores.

  • Matthew Fuller

    Brazzy, is the worst case scenario in Japan today worse than the measurable harm caused by other energy sources?

    One way is deaths per terawatt-hours of electrical generation.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not just deaths. Take disabilities due to genetic damage and non-lethal sicknesses into consideration. Include loss of quality of life + unpleasant experiences, compare with alternative methods of energy production and/or lower energy availability.

      • JL

        I would say that most of the loss of quality of life and unpleasant experiences are due to the public not understanding radioactivity and being irrationally afraid of it.

        That we can fix through education.

        But anyway, you to return to Matthews point. How does the total social costs of nuclear energy compare with other energy sources and energy savings.

        People have done these studies. Some surprising results are that burning coal releases more radioactivity in the environment than using nuclear energy.
        This disaster will likely not change the results of those studies, since those studies already factor in nuclear accidents. Indeed, they often cautiously assume much more accidents will occur than actually do occur.

      • Anonymous

        JL, source links?

    • Yes, the worst case scenario in Japan is *much* worse than anything else, because it involves densely populated areas with millions of inhabitants becoming uninhabitable.

  • Chris T

    Tens of thousands dead, 4.4 million without adequate food, water, or power, entire towns gone, and substantial damage to the world’s third largest economy. And what does the media focus on?

  • Oehman is a professor of management whose publication record does not indicate any special expertise on nuclear energy. Which is not to say he’s wrong, only that you are cherry-picking sources, giving the lie to the title of your blog, as is often the case.

    • lemmy caution

      “There was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors. By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight,…”

      They have already found radiation levels outside the the nuclear reactor at the 40 rem level. This is no joke. It is equal to 40,000 hours of flying. I wouldn’t be taking that guys advice.

  • Martin

    By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight.

    New York-Tokyo flights for airline crew (according to Wikipedia): 9 mSv/year
    Criterion for relocation after Chernobyl disaster: 350 mSv/lifetime
    The highest reading around one of the reactors is 400 mSv/hour

    • lemmy caution

      I didn’t see your comment here. you explain it better than me. Today isn’t a good day to be quoting MIT’s Josef Oehmen.

  • Aron

    Gotta love how Germany immediately made policy decisions as if they are going to update correctly on this evidence just in time for the next cataclysmic Bavarian beerslide.

    • Anonymous

      Those politicians are absolutely rational – given that their ultimate goal is personal career success. They rationally acknowledge their voters’ irrational and emotional approach to decision-making.

      • Those voters may ultimately be acting more rationally than all those “experts” falling over each other in their efforts to downplay the obviously very dangerous situation.

        The situation in Germany is rather special in that the policy decision being made is to implement the first steps of a decade-old plan for phasing out nuclear reactors, which a previous (social democrat) administration had made and the current (conservative) one had cancelled – a very unpopular decision even before last Friday.

        So the measures being taken are in fact neither hasty nor unplanned.

  • Matthew Fuller

    okay, so you perceive the risk of nuclear meltdown as very high.


    When we know there are real deaths by the tens of thousand directly and indirectly caused by coal and oil. I don’t dispute the value of solar and wind but they are not a constant supply, unlike nuclear.

    • Not “very high”, but “too high to acccept and aggravate by building more plants, given the consequences of failure”.

      As for why: human error, more than technical failure. Anyone remember the Tokaimura incident? Badly trained workers mixing nuclear fuel in a container not specced for it and triggering a chain reaction? It wasn’t the only incident of that kind. Technology that fails frequently with moderate consequences at least keeps people on their toes. Something that works for decades without obvious problems lulls people into complacency and is a prime candidate for cutting corners, skipping inspections, bypassing security measures, etc. – and that with a technology where a single bad enough failure can have global consequences.

      As for solar and wind, the “no constant supply” argument is weak. Over a large enough area, it averages out – to have all of North America covered in clouds or becalmed is just about as likely as all the Uranium in a reactor deciding to stop decaying for a while. And there are ways to buffer fluctuations; admittedly the only one viable right now (pumped-storage hydro) is too limited, but there are promising alternatives.

      • erm, leaving aside the poor probability calculation (when was the last time uranium spontaneously stopped decaying? How about the last time clouds covered the whole US? Which one happened THIS YEAR?), the logistics and technical challenges of transporting power in the face of uncertain weather patterns and demand are not trivial. And then there’s the regulatory hurdles of stretching power lines everywhere, and the much, much higher $/KwH of wind and solar. In the end, it’s just silly to say that we can use intermittent renewables in place of base load power.

        Of course, as you point out, new technology could change that. But unless you apply the same logic to nuclear tech you’re just falsely equivocating. This Fukushima reactor is 1 to 2 generations behind modern nuclear tech, and technologies such as thorium power, which are safe AND cheap, not to mention proven from a technical standpoint, are already on the horizon. If we simply assume all future nuclear power will suffer from the same problems as present day techniques we risk losing the opportunity to benefit from new developments.

      • Technology that fails frequently with moderate consequences at least keeps people on their toes. Something that works for decades without obvious problems lulls people into complacency

        If accidents are too rare, we can fix that. Just make the plant randomly catch on fire about once a year.

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  • This reminds me of a conversation I had about Three Mile Island. I was talking with a friend about how no-one died or was even injured in that disaster, which people fail to recognize because radiation is scary. She pointed out that people actually had died as a result of Three Mile Island, but only because our intense fear of nuclear power caused us to rely more on coal, which really does kill people, both through pollution and in the mining process. It’s important not to lose sight of these kinds of indirect effects.

    • Deaths from a coal mine collapse or a reactor leak are near.

      Deaths from pollution spewed into the air are far.

  • richard silliker

    toooo muuuch noiseeee….ah…….cheez whiz, where is pinky and the brain when we need them.

  • The nuclear accident does have interest to those interested in power generation in the rest of the world – due to safety being a PR issue for nuclear power stations. That explains some of the media interest.

  • JB

    Robin, I’m sure by now you have seen that the MIT post was completely wrong and will be putting an update in this blogpost?

    • Just in case anyone is too lazy to follow JB’s link: that Salon article does not actually show that anything about Josef Oehmen’s post (which Robin Hanson quote’s) was wrong. It all comes down to what’s considered a “significant” amount of radiation. The Salon article quotes the NY Times in saying that the ‘Fukushima Daiichi plant released “a surge of radiation 800 times more intense than the recommended hourly exposure limit in Japan,” leading to the evacuation of 750 workers.’ Which of course just means that, at it’s worse, the exposure upped the residents’ annual radiation exposure by 10%, which is probably equivalent to taking a few extra airplane flights. To me, that’s not “significant” in the context of a once-in-a-century Tsunami and talk of a nuclear disaster, but it’s all semantics. (I think it would be “significant” if these exposures were happening daily, for example.)

      Other than that, the Salon article just belabors the point that, while Josef Oehmen is in fact a MIT scientist, he doesn’t have expertise in nuclear power, which he doesn’t claim but which might be mistakenly assumed be a reasonable person.

      • JB

        That’s a fair point Jess. I guess my use of the phrase “completely wrong” was, well, wrong in itself. My comment was more to show that 1. Oehmen has no claim of expertise on this matter just because he is from MIT, and 2. It seems that Robin fell prey to automatically assuming this guy knows what he is talking about just because he is from MIT. Otherwise why say “As MIT’s Josef Oehmen explains…” instead of just “As Josef Oehmen explains…” I may be wrong, but it certainly seems like Robin put “MIT” in there specifically to show that this guy should be taken more seriously than others — even if it was subconsciously done. I wonder if it was just some random guy’s blog as opposed to a MIT-er that Robin would have made this same post.

  • Chris T

    Oehmen’s initial e-mail (it originated as a private e-mail to his family) has been taken and modified by MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering faculty:

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  • lemmy caution

    This is an interesting post about the economics of nuclear plants:

    It could be that nuclear plants are commercially viable if you have a carbon tax to properly deal with coal’s externalities. So lets get a carbon tax to deal with coal’s externalities and find out.

    • It is also my understanding that nuclear electricity is not economical in the USA. Additionally lately Natural gas prices have been falling IMO we will not need nuclear electricity for a long time. The longer we wait the better the technology.

  • The Monster from Polaris

    brazzy, on what do you base your claim that the Finnish nuclear safety authorities are giving the situation at Fukushima an INES rating of 6? I looked up their website ( and the only INES level I found there was the 4 that the Japanese themselves assigned.

    • Not sure about Finnish authorities, but this story quotes three experts, including president of France’s nuclear safety authority, saying that it’s already INES level 6, with two of them saying the situation may reach level 7.

    • I read that on a German news site (I think, but can’t find the article right now). Kudos for checking sources. The French rating seems to be verifiable though – and keep in mind that France has the world’s highest percentage of power coming from nuclear energy[1], so they’re about as far away from being rabit anti-nuclear environmentalist scaremongers as you can be without reagularly battling Captain Planet.


  • Anonymous

    Quoting JL

    “You are obviously biased against nukes.
    Note the title of the site, overcoming bias”

    Robin, how many times has that one been used? 🙂

  • John Horgan has a diavlog with Rod Adams on the issue here. John is worried, Rod is complacent. Since Rod is a big nuke-booster, I adjust my assessment accordingly.

  • Karl Hallowell

    Speaking of bias, it’s worth noting that rating systems such as the INES scale bring their own biases. For example, the INES scale caps out at 7. So even if your plant does a complete meltdown and spews large clouds of radioactive steam for a few decades, it’s still an INES 7 event like Chernobyl. In my view, the ratings system is deliberately set up to encourage people to think that there won’t be anything worse than Chernobyl. That’s a very substantial bias right there.

    Also there are three separate subrankings (according to Wikipedia) for off-site, on-site, and defense in depth degradation. The INES ranking is based on the highest of these three. So it is possible for two nuclear accidents to have the same level, but one be significantly worse because it achieves the same level in all three categories.

  • DJMoore

    I am currently following World’s Only Rational Man as my primary site for technical information on this accident. He’s a domain expert, a “health physics technician” with, evidently, lots of training in power plant accidents and much real experience.

    I can’t even point to a key post there; just start at the top and read down.

    Or if you’d prefer bottom up, start with “Incalculable Danger“. “Incalculable”, of course, because at the time, the danger of wide-spread devastation seemed too small to get out of the noise.

    But I’ll give the man this: he started out being absolutely confident the danger was incalculable, to apologizing to Japan for being lulled by “ten thousand” “shrieks of ”wolf”… over twenty-five years–with never, ever an actual wolf”.

    And still, still, he is remaining calm, reporting each bit of bad news, showing how this fits in with his experience and training, emphasizing that so far, the real disaster, the earthquake and tsunami, “the hand of Poseidon”, has killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, while nobody has yet died at Fukushima.

    Still: Lack of a death toll aside, he says he “feels like we’re witnessing a war.”

    You know the old trope, “fire is a living thing”? Hollywood uses it regularly in movies like Backdraft, crazed arsonists whispering intently about their beloved.

    Fire is hypnotic, but I never found it “living” even as a little pyromaniacal child. And I sure don’t see life in radioactive decay.

    But damn it, this feels less and less like a response and more like a war. A series of battles with an implacable foe. We win on one front and our enemy opens another.

    Now who knows, as I write this the good guys be routing that enemy on all fronts. But ever since the explosions in the fuel pools–more about them here–Fukushima has been like no emergency I’ve ever been in or even studied.

    Many, many links to useful, informative resources. Well worth the time.

  • DJMoore

    I meant to add:

    MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering group has a website based on Oehmen’s post (which they’ve taken over and tweaked for technical accuracy) that is also a good source of well-vetted information.

  • Farin

    >There was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors. By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

    I think this post offers a different lesson in rationality at this point, given recent events.

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