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Fukushima: A Case Study in Getting it Wrong

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

We all make mistakes. If we’re lucky, we make them quietly and they are soon forgotten. In the age of the Internet, however, it is possible to make loud mistakes – even when we don’t intend to – and to have them live essentially forever.

Consider the case of Dr. Josef Oehmen, an MIT researcher who responded to a request for information from a relative in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami with an e-mail entitled, “Why I’m Not Worried About Japan’s Nuclear Reactors.” Sent on March 12, the day after those tragic events, Oehmen’s e-mail began:

“I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. …

There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.

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.”

We now know, of course, that those words of reassurance turned out to be stunningly wrong. The situation in Fukushima was not “under control” then and is not under control now, as the recent discovery of yet more major leaks of radioactive water at the plant demonstrates. 

“Significant” amounts of radioactivity were in fact released – including airborne discharges now estimated to have covered 8 percent of Japan and what is now estimated to be the largest discharge ever of radioactivity to ocean waters.

The reason that we know of Oehmen’s errors was because his private e-mail to a relative was posted to a blog and quickly went viral. At a time when people were hungry for any credible information about what was happening at Fukushima, the reassuring words of a Ph.D. associated with a major research university appeared to fill that gap, with the e-mail ultimately being viewed several million times.

The irony is that, in attempting to, as he later put it, “take a stand against mass hysteria,” Dr. Oehmen did something of the opposite – providing false reassurance at a critical time to millions of people around the world. 

I dredge up this history not to pick on Dr. Oehmen, who is accomplished in his field and to whom I hold some sympathy. After all, he did not originally intend for his e-mail to be seen by millions of people in Japan and around the globe.

Rather, I bring it up to underscore the fact (which we discussed in our own blog post written just a couple of days after Dr. Oehmen's) that when it comes to highly complex, inherently hazardous technologies such as nuclear power or deepwater oil drilling, overconfidence is a hazard in and of itself.

In this vein, Nuclear Regulatory Commission head Gregory Jaczko recently warned against complacency in the U.S. nuclear industry, as the industry faces a host of backlogged safety issues that it must address and comes off its most difficult year for safety-related shutdowns in more than a decade.

No one can anticipate or prepare for all of the various ways that highly complex systems can fail, or predict the true impacts when those failures occur in inherently dangerous processes like nuclear power production. 

Understanding that even smart people – university professors with an technical background, engineers with BP or TEPCO – can get matters so spectacularly wrong should give policy-makers pause when they are assured by the nuclear industry that a repeat of the events at Fukushima is nearly impossible, or that new nuclear reactor designs are inherently safe. One hopes, for all our sakes, that the nuclear industry's plant designers and engineers don't believe the PR departments' or lobbyists' hype.

We know much more today, nine months later, than we did when Dr. Oehmen fatefully hit the “send” button on his e-mail on March 12. But we may never know the full story about what happened at Fukushima and its impact on human health and the environment. The impossibility of fully comprehending the complexity either of the technology or its impacts is, to me anyway, the most frightening thing of all.