How have Australian scientists handled the difficult task of keeping us informed about the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan?
Only a few Australian scientists have featured repeatedly in the media. The most prominent have been Professor Aidan Byrne from the Australian National University, RMIT Chancellor Dr Ziggy Switkowski and Professor Barry Brook from the University of Adelaide.
A clear pattern is evident — those with the greatest ideological attachment to nuclear power have provided the most inaccurate commentary.
The best of the bunch has been Byrne. He has presented the facts as he understands them and has willingly acknowledged major information gaps.
Switkowski has been gently spinning the issue, repeatedly reassuring us that lessons will be learned and improvements made. However, history shows that nuclear lessons are not properly learned.
The OECD's NEA notes that “lessons may be learned but too often they are subsequently forgotten, or they are learned but by the wrong people, or they are learned but not acted upon”.
The NEA says the pattern of the same type of accident recurring time and time again at different nuclear plants needs to be “much improved”.
The situation in Japan illustrates the point — it has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that greater protection against seismic risks is necessary. But the nuclear utilities haven't wanted to spend the money, and the Japanese nuclear regulator and the government haven't forced the utilities to act.
Brook is a strident nuclear power advocate and host of the Brave New Climate website, which received more than one million hits in the first week after the crisis.
Brook has egg on his face. Make that an omelette. He has maintained a running commentary in the media and on his website insisting that the situation is under control and that there is no reason for concern.
His message remained unchanged: even as it was revealed that efforts to cool the nuclear reactor cores were meeting with mixed success; even as deliberate and uncontrolled radiation releases occurred; even as explosions occurred; even as 200,000 people were evacuated; even as a fire led to spent nuclear fuel releasing radiation directly to the environment; and even as radiation monitors detected alarming jumps in radioactivity near the reactors and low levels of radiation as far away as Tokyo.
On March 12, the day after the earthquake and tsunami, Brook came out swinging, insisting: “There is no credible risk of a serious accident.”
That afternoon, after the first explosion at Fukushima, Brook made numerous assertions, most of which turned out to be wrong: "The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero.
“There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure.
“Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces. I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong ... but I won't be.
“The only reactor that has a small probability of being ‘finished’ is unit 1. And I doubt that, but it may be offline for a year or more."
On the night of March 12, Brook said: “When the dust settles, people will realise how well the Japanese reactors — even the 40-year-old one — stood up to this incredibly energetic earthquake event.”
The dust is finally settling and it seems likely that four reactors will be write-offs.
On March 13, Brook said of the unfolding disaster: “I don't see the ramifications of this as damaging at all to nuclear power's prospects.”
Yet within days of the start of the nuclear crisis, Germany, Switzerland and China announced that their nuclear power plans would be reconsidered in light of Fukushima.
The Labor Party and the Coalition in Australia seem to have abandoned their interest in developing nuclear power here.
On March 14, when the second explosion at Fukushima occurred, Brook was still insisting that “the nuclear reactors have come through remarkably well”.
That evening, half a dozen people were banned from posting comments directly on the Brave New Climate website. True, some of their comments were silly and inaccurate, but by those criteria Brook ought to have banned himself.
With a fire at Fukushima spewing radioisotopes directly into the environment, Brook rallied the pro-nuclear lobby, arguing: “Now, more than ever, we must stand up for what we believe is right.”
But cracks were starting to emerge by the evening of March 15. Brook acknowledged an “ongoing crisis situation”, banned another 40-50 “random nobodies” from posting comments directly on his website, and quoted Rudyard Kipling: If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.
One contributor to Brook's website said: “Unfortunately, Prof. Brook has really abdicated a neutral position on this event. His clear support of nuclear power seems to have impacted his critical thinking skills. ... Every time he states something in this crisis is 'impossible', it seems to happen the next day.”
Finally, on March 17, with Brave New Climate web hits over the preceding week approaching one million, came a belated mea culpa.
Brook said on his website: “My initial estimates of the extent of the problem, on March 12, did not anticipate the cascading problems that arose from the extended loss of externally sourced AC power to the site, and my prediction that 'there is no credible risk of a serious accident' has been proven quite wrong as a result.
“It remains to be seen whether my forecast on the possibility of containment breaches and the very low level of danger to the public as a result of this tragic chain of circumstances will be proven correct.”
Yet even as he mea-culparised, Brook continued spinning.
In the same web-post, he uncritically reproduced this from the Nuclear Energy Institute: “Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, said earlier today a radiation level of 33 millirem per hour was measured about 20 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant earlier this morning. He said that level does not pose an immediate health risk.”
But that dose equates to almost 3,000 millisieverts a year, compared to the annual allowable limit for members of the public of just one millisievert per year. And keep in mind this is 20 kilometers from the Fukushima nuclear plant.
It is by no means a negligible dose and it seems increasingly likely that collective human exposure to radiation from Fukushima will be significant — a great deal less than exposure from Chernobyl fallout, but significant nonetheless.
Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun has been urging people to read the “marvellously sane and cool explanation” of the Fukushima crisis from “our friend Professor Barry Brook”.
Both Bolt and Brook claim that no more than 50 people died from the Chernobyl catastrophe. The scientific estimates of the Chernobyl death toll range from 9,000 to 93,000.
Brook has spread misinformation as far and wide as the Fukushima reactors have spread radiation over the past week. With the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster falling on April 26, he will likely continue spinning.
This sad situation proves yet again that some of the most unscientific, anti-scientific jiggery pokery comes from scientists themselves.
That history can be traced back to the British nuclear bomb tests in Australia, when ideologically-driven scientists peddled whatever nonsense their political masters asked them to about the radiation fallout.
[Jim Green is the national anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.]