June 6, 2013

The Japanese Press has focused on Tepco’s recent discovery of trace levels of radioactive Cesium in the groundwater under F. Daiichi. Across the board, the news media claims the company has reversed its prior statement that groundwater contamination is negligible. Previously, all groundwater samples had been analyzed in the F. Daiichi laboratories. Because local fisheries balked at Tepco’s desire to pump groundwater away from the plant’s leaking basements due to fear of rumors that could hurt business, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority suggested the samples be re-tested at F. Daiini 10 kilometers to the south. The background radiation at F. Daiini is considerably lower than at the site of the March, 2011, nuclear accident and the lower detection level would be much less. The F. Daiini results show a trace of radioactive cesium in the groundwater, and the announcement has caused a tsunami of negative Press. Ordinarily something this trivial gets Press attention in Japan and little or no coverage internationally. But this time, Reuters covered it under the headline “Fukushima plant operator reverses claim groundwater not contaminated”. Did Tepco actually reverse its claim, or is the Press twisting the facts in the interest of further reducing Tepco’s reputation? A quick examination of the fact points to the latter possibility.

Three weeks ago when the groundwater issue emerged, Tepco said the level of radioactive Cesium was “negligible”. The dictionary meaning of the term is “…a value so small or unimportant as to be not worth considering”. Synonyms include “insignificant, trifling and trivial”. The concentration of Cesium in the groundwater is less than 0.4 Becquerels per liter, barely detectible even in the relatively low background at F. Daiini. (A Becquerel is one radioactive emission per second) The minimum level of detection at F. Daiichi is about 30 Becquerels per liter. By the numbers, the detected level is absolutely insignificant… trifling… trivial.

One might ask, “Trivial compared to what?” International limits for the open release of radioactive Cesium are typically in the 1000 Bq/l range. Japan, with the most restrictive radiation standards in the world, has a limit of 90 Bq/l. Japan’s drinking water limit for Cesium is 10 Bq/l, and Tepco’s self-imposed limit for release is one Bq/l. The concentration of Cesium in the F. Daiichi groundwater is less than half of the ultra-low limit Tepco has set for itself. In other words…trivial…insignificant…negligible! Does this is even remotely reverse Tepco’s original statement three weeks ago? Not at all. In fact, the new numbers have substantiated Tepco’s “negligible” assessment. When Tepco announced the new findings they said should prove the groundwater radiation levels are sufficiently low and no-one should oppose their pumping the groundwater to the sea.

Tepco is right, but it’s not presented that way in Japan’s Press. Millions of people in Japan have become conditioned to the idea that, with respect to radiation, detectible means “extremely dangerous”. The Japanese Press will always cater to the most profitable angle, and fear of radiation sells copy. Appealing to this no-safe-level-of-radiation misconception is good for the news media business. However, it seems Reuters has literally bent over backwards to find someone quotable in the effort to make Tepco seem inept. Atsushi Kasai, formerly of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, said “Once again, they’ve missed something they should be aware of. This shows again they lack the qualification to be managing the plant.” To the contrary, Tepco is the only organization to run the groundwater analyses and must have qualified people in order to do it. Tepco found the barely detectible concentration of Cesium and Tepco dutifully reported it to the world. How is this proof that Tepco’s staff can’t manage the plant? Obviously Kansai’s words are vacuous, if not contradictory to the reality of the situation…but that doesn’t stop the Press from posting his ponderous piffle as expert opinion.

To make matters worse, one Japanese-American newspaper, Japan Daily Press, added statements to their report openly intended to promote fear, uncertainty and doubt. The Daily Press posted, “Cesium is known to be highly reactive, even with water at low temperatures. It is also known to be very pyrophoric. Cesium-137 is particularly very mobile because of its water-soluble properties, thus imposing greater risk when released in the environment.” In actuality, Cesium is one of many elements with these properties. They are called “alkali elements” by chemists, which include Lithium, Sodium, Potassium and several others. It is misleading to post these common properties as reason to believe Cesium is singularly dangerous.  Then there’s the term “pyrophoric”. It means “liable to ignite spontaneously on exposure to air”. For any alkali to burn spontaneously, it must be in a pure state (not part of a compound), in powdered form and in air that’s hot and very humid. In other forms, all alkalis are exceedingly difficult to ignite. This is basic Chemistry. However, for something more attuned to the lay-person…were there any reports of burning in the air during the massive releases of Cesium from F. Daiichi during the early days of the crisis? Of course not! The pyrophoric allusion is as vacuous as it gets. Finally, Cesium has the same environmental “mobility” as all alkalis, which again makes it nothing uniquely problematic. Oh…did the Press mention that another alkali which is naturally radioactive is the essential nutrient Potassium? There is nothing unique or specifically threatening about Cesium itself, and at the trace radioactive levels in the F. Daiichi ground water it is unquestionably negligible! Clearly, The Japan Daily Press used Cesium’s chemical properties to add insult to injury, and showed their unethical agenda in the process.

What’s more, Japan Today says, “The announcement is yet another example of TEPCO initially downplaying a problem, only to revise its findings because of faulty procedures. It casts further doubt over its control over the cleanup.” Who are they trying to kid? There has been no down-playing by Tepco, by any stretch of the imagination. And, since when does a barely detectible level of radioactivity, several orders of magnitude less intense than bananas, potato chips and/or Brazil nuts, qualify as a realistic problem? Where is the evidence of faulty procedures? And, what does this have to do with “control over the cleanup”? The answer to each question is one and the same – nothing!

I guess the Japanese Press and Reuters would say I’m confounding the issue with facts. “Let the facts be damned” seems to be the order of the day. After all, we’re dealing with a pyrophoric element that is environmentally mobile and (worst of all) it has detectible radiation, all of which is reported to the world by a company that is too inept to be trusted! At least that is what the Press would have the world believe. Do they also expect us to believe that unicorns actually exist? It makes about as much sense! Tepco didn’t “reverse” its position by going the extra yard and finding just how trivial the Cesium concentration really is. They should be commended for scientifically proving the groundwater’s Cesium is categorically negligible!