Friday, March 18, 2011

A Scatological Explanation of the Nuclear Reactor Accident

UPDATE: My brother in Japan sent me this note in response to my publishing his letters on this blog. It turns out he isn't the only one using scatological metaphors for the nuclear reactor accident in Japan.

March 19:
Just wanted to let you all know that I don't at all mind getting emails about the nuclear power plant situation or the tsunami victims. Not at all.

Today I accidentally stumbled onto this video online.
Read the translation of this video HERE.

It was made to explain the Japanese nuclear power plant situation to small Japanese children using the metaphor of, can you believe it? Farts. (Poop, too.)

Anyway, don't be afraid to email me with news or with your concerns. It's not like I'm apathetic about the situation.

Everyone in Japan is waiting with bated breath to learn out how this thing will turn out.


Another letter sent the same day:
Here's and update on the situation in Japan...

We don't really know any more than you do about the nuclear power plant crisis. In Japan, people and organizations don't tend to air their dirty laundry in public, so it wouldn't be surprising to me if neither the power plant companies nor the government are telling the public the whole truth. However, I don't think most Japanese people naively believe everything they're being told.

From the conversations I've had with the Japanese people I know, they seem to suspect that they are only getting part of the truth about the nuclear plant situation, but they also assume that neither the power plant officials nor the government would lie to them outright. Japanese people generally feel uncomfortable challenging government officials and other people who hold positions of authority in a direct, confrontational way, so they're basically just watching, listening, and taking everything they hear with a grain of salt.

The media in Japan is handling the story very differently from the media in the West. The primary objective of the Japanese media is to keep people informed while quelling fear and avoiding panic. They don't want to scare anyone, and they jump on any news that offers encouragement, reassurance, or hope. In contrast to this, Western media coverage has tended to focus on worst-case scenarios, and has reported the situation in a manner that tends to exacerbate people's fears. American media is in the habit of doing that, not out of any particular malice, but because fear keeps people tuned in day and night. The more afraid people are, the more they watch the TV news. During a threatening crisis, many Americans stayed tuned in to the TV news from the time they get up in the morning until the time they go to bed. When their fears are finally quelled, they change the channel and watch something else.

The mood in Japan right now isn't terror, but rather sorrow. Those who have not been directly affected by the tsunami disaster share a profound feeling of tragedy, sorrow, and empathy. The mood rather resembles the one you'd find among family members visiting the hospital room of a critically ill sibling-- feelings of sorrow, tragic regret, worry, and above all helplessness. Standing nearby in sorrowful helplessness, hoping that things won't get too much worse.

One of the reasons for the difference in Western and Japanese media coverage concerns the fact that the Japanese have a very strong sense of group spirit and unified national identity. The Japanese people watching the news stories feel very intimately identified with the tsunami victims. No matter how depressing the images may be, they can no more change the TV channel than you or I could if we were watching a TV news story about one of our dying family members. Western people feel deep empathy for the suffering that's going on in Japan right now, but it's the empathy of a neighbor colleague from work rather than a brother or sister.

If the mood in Japan right now is one of sorrow and tragedy rather than terror, why isn't the foreign media accurately depicting that reality. The reason, I suspect, is that you and I can only watch scenes of horror, destruction, sorrow, and despair for so long. That kind of media coverage encourages us to change the channel, while stories focused on looming danger and fear for what will happen next encourages us to stay glued to their TV sets. Which slant would you expect the profit-driven American and European television news companies to take?

This is the reason why media fear-mongering is so common today. There's no real malice behind it, just practical business sense. Market share increases with fear, and news companies exist to make a profit.

Unfortunately, most viewers tend to exptect news reports to give an unbiased, objective depiction of world events in a commitment to "journalistic integrity." Unfortunately, that's just not true. It never was, and I don't think it ever will be. History is written by the victors, and journalism is conducted by people who have the necessary financial and political connections and affiliations to disseminate news at a national or international level.

Well, that's been the case up until now, but the Internet may change all that.


My brother lives in Nagasaki, Japan. Below are his eloquent letters in response to our constant worries about his health. I personally have radon in my home. Many of us do. I work from home and I'm exposed to it everyday. I need to get it vented, but first I need to re-do my roof and then I need to remove asbestos from the basement pipes. It's on my list. I understand what Alfredo is saying here. This is a serious tragedy, but most of us don't understand radiation. His explanation might be unconventional, but it is correct. - Cynthia von Buhler

March 18:
I don't have time to write very much of an update right now because it's 12:30 and I have to go to bed, but I've been watching American media coverage of the Japanese nuclear power plant situation over the Internet this evening, and I feel there's something very important that I should point out.

Completely setting aside the issue of media fear mongering (which is ubiquitous in the United States), a major distortion of the objective reality is being created by a very critical oversight in the way that the facts are being framed and presented. My sense is that this oversight is mainly unintentional-- the product of scientific ignorance on the part of both the media people and the audience that they're targeting. Given how few laypeople have a solid grounding in the principles of physics and biology, this oversight can lead to a gross misinterpretation of the real dangers inherent in a nuclear meltdown situation.

In the TV reporting that I've seen online, the journalists reporting on the story (and also writing the headlines) are constantly talking about what the chances of radiation leaking and spreading might be, but no one ever mentions anything whatsoever about concentration levels or lengths of exposure over time. This also creates a misrepresentation of the possible geographical scope of the threat as well, because if you take away the factor of relative concentration, a dire threat seems to loom over the entire planet.

Yes, if one of the plants melts down, and the escaping gases get into the Jet Stream, the radioactive contamination will spread throughout the world. But it's important to remember that our planet and everyone in it is already immersed in radiation. Radiation comes at us from all directions, all the time. From the sky, from the earth, from the technological tools that we've invented and built to make our lives more comfortable-- we're surrounded by radiation every minute of the day. The thing to fear isn't "radiation," but abnormally high concentrations of radiation-- especially if the exposure is extended over a long period of time.

"If Radioactive Material Hits the Jet Stream, Then We Share That With the World." "180 People are Trying to Save us All." "Scientist Say That Nuclear Radiation Could Spread Far Beyond Japan." "Worldwide Spread of Radiation Possible." These headlines, and the articles that flesh them out, present facts that are technically accurate, but at the same time extremely misleading. What's shocking (and tragic) to me is that virtually none of these TV reports or newspaper articles ever mentions the factor of concentration at all. Well,,, that's just stupid. Really. Just plain dumb. Unfortunately, not enough laypeople know enough about the physicas of radiation to recognize how dumb these stories really are. Here's the scoop. Everything you ever need to know about radiation, clear and simple.

Nuclear radiation is like farts. It's as simple as that.

If you're standng next to someone in an elevator, and they let a big smelly fart, you die-- in a matter of seconds. If you're sitting ten feet away and the windows are open, you may notice an odor but it's not going to bother you that much. And if you're three blocks away when the person farts, it won't affect you at all. You won't even know it.

If it's a beer fart, the lethality travels farther, but it still has practical limits. A carrot and celery stick fart probably won't affect you unless you happen to be bending over and sticking your nose in the other person's butt. Some kinds of radiation are more dangerous than others, but that's completely relative.

Finally, it's important to realze that there are over five billion people, and hundreds of trillions of animals, living on this planet. And at any given instant at least 250,000,000,000,000,000 of these creatures are farting or defecating. So it's not like the atmosphere around you was perfectly pristine before your friend Ed let a big smelly one.

Nuclear radiation is like farts. It's as simple as that.


Earlier messages:

March 18:
Yes, sure, you can post it. I'm going to send out another letter tomorrow to everyone, expanding on the issue of media coverage in the USA and Japan. Most people aren't scientifically knowlegable enough to gauge the dangers themselves, and aren't knowledgable enough about geography to even guess at the distances involved. So they depend on the media, and as you know more than just about anybody, the media goes after "a good story," preferably a scary one that will keep everyone tuned in five times a day. Right?

One of the science teachers here majored in nuclear science, and he agrees with me that the coverage of the nuclear power plant crisis outside of Japan has been out of proportion with the actual danger. He thinks they can easily prevent an uncontrolled meltdown. I don't know enough to make that judgment, but I can clearly see that the American media are blowing this whole radiation danger out of proportion. Theres a lot more sorrow and tragedy here in Japan right now than terror, but looking at tragic scenes tends to encourage people to change the channel, not sit glued to the set morning to night. So what slant on the news story do you think the TV stations are going to choose to cover?

If there is a total out of control meltdown, Tokyo may be in danger of exposure, and people may die. However, that doesn't mean that they'll die within seconds as they drive through Tokyo on the way to work. It means that the radiation will settle in the environment, and local residents will be exposed to it over the course of decades. That's the REAL danger, and it's much higher for the people who were hardest hit by the tsunami than Tokyo or anywhere else. Because they'd be exposed to the leaking gases before they have a chance to dissipate or head out over the ocean.


March 17:
I'm pretty far from the area with the nuclear power plants. Like the distance between you and Maine. I would expect that the contaminated steam dissipates extremely rapidly, diluting in concentration at an exponential rate. We're not talking about nerve gas, here, and the issue of radiation exposure is always a relative one. A question of how much exposure you have over how long a time, and normal radiation exposure from natural and unescapable manmade sources is equivalent to 50 or so x-rays a year.

If you're in the immediate area when the leak occurs, short term exposure could be lethal. But outside of the immediate area, once the vapors have started to dissipate and spread out, it's all about length of exposure. The farther away you are from the source of the leak, the more exposure is a function of time-- accumulated exposure over extended periods of time. Since I'm so far away, by the time the contaminated air got to me it would be tremendously diluted, and that's assuming that winds take it directly south-west, instead of carrying it out over the ocean. The good thing about living in an island nation is that, eventually, it's going to head out over the ocean anyway. (The sooner the better.)

What I'm most concerned about is the local residents in the area that was hardest hit by the tsunami. They live in the area, so if radiation leaks out and settles in the soil and water, they'll be exposed to it over the course of many years. That's the real danger, because exposure of even small amounts is cumulative. As if they haven't already got enough to deal with. The other worry is the people working in and around the nuclear plants attempting to stop a leakage. At that level of proximity it IS like nerve gas. I don't know how serious a danger the escaping gases would pose to Tokyo. My guess is that it could be very serious if the wind takes the contaminated air directly south-west to Tokyo. However, Japan is a very narrow island, with lots of air currents blowing across from the oceans, so the chances of escaping gases blowing out over the sea fairly soon are relatively good. Still, a significantly concentrated current of contaminated air were to blow across Tokyo, it could cause damage. Even if the concentration wasn't that bad by the time it reached Tokyo, there would be absolute panic. Shudder to even think of it. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

I can't imagine that California is in any real danger at all. The gases would have to traverse the Pacific to reach California, and by the time they got there they'd have dissipated tremendously. The fear is more a function of how much media coverage the crisis is getting. Double the media time and you double the fear. It really has little to do with objective dangers. Which isn't to say that there isn't a very grave danger to many people. My heart really goes out to the people in Miyagi and Iwate prefecture. What a horrible tragedy.

Let's just hope that the U.S. and Japanese governments quickly go in and control the problem before it gets completely and hopelessly out of hand. And let's hope, also, that when this is all over, someone asks whose great idea it was to build nuclear power plants on an active fault line.


March 16:
No need to be concerned about me.
Nagasaki people are experts on the health effects of radiation exposure, and they don't seem at all worried.

March 11:
Sorry for the delay in replying with updated news about the disaster. We held the junior high school's graduation ceremony this morning, and I couldn't get to a computer until now.

When I checked online this morning to get an update on the situation, I learned that it had been much worse than I'd originally thought. I'd mistakenly assumed that the epicenter of the quake was near Tokyo, due to what I'd heard from early online reports-- but worst-hit area was actually much further north, near Sendai. It appears that the damage and casualties there were vastly worse then they were in Tokyo.

Another reason why early reports seemed to indicate a less serious situation is that there were very few deaths due to the earthquake itself, although local residents got a severe shaking. Almost all of the deaths were the result of the tsunamis that followed the quake, and casualties from tidal waves and flash flooding can take several days to confirm. The sea water washes away the bodies while simultaneously breaking lines of communication and stranding survivors. You can't tell, at first, who's dead and who's just stranded without any mode of communication.

At this point, a couple of hundred deaths are confirmed, but well over 1,000 people are unaccounted for. Almost all of these deaths occurred far north of Tokyo, and the death toll in that area may actually go as high as 2,000. The tsunami damage was absolutely devastating.

The unprecedented destruction caused by the flooding was due to the severity of the earthquake-- one of the most powerful in Japan's history. Although the ports and harbors in the Sendai area are constructed to block and absorb normal tidal wave flooding, the strength of the tsunamis that hit the area yesterday was much greater than they were ever designed to handle.

Chiho's parents live fairly close to the area that was hit hardest, but they're well inland, protected by a string of mountains. Sendai is a huge city, though, and the coastline near it is very intensely settled. That's why there were so many deaths. We were hardly affected at all here in south-western Japan.

I'll see if I can contact Christina's friend in Tokyo by email. I'm sure it must be terrifying to be a newly-settled foreigner with limited language skills caught in the middle of such a crisis.

Please pass the word along that I'm safe.


March 11:
I'm fine. Please let everyone know.

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