Caution, propaganda at work in “Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe?”

Annabel Gillings, “Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe?” (2011)

Eminently likeable scientist-presenter Jim al-Khalili goes on a trip to Fukushima – the infamous site where three nuclear reactors suffered explosions and the release of radiation after being hit by earthquake tremors and tsunami waves in March 2011 – to get a first-hand look at what happened there and how bad the disaster was, to find out how local people are coping with its aftermath and to consider the likely long-term consequences it has for Japan’s future energy policy, in this BBC documentary. Acting as a reassuring presence for viewers, al-Khalili presents the case that nuclear power is much safer than people think and that the long-term effect on public health from the Fukushima incident, based on what is so far known from the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion on people in Ukraine, is likely to be more harmless than harmful. He briefly considers the possibility of thorium instead of uranium as the fuel for nuclear reactors, referring to 1950s pioneer Alan Weinberg in this area, and concludes that the Fukushima accident should not stop governments from considering nuclear energy as an alternative source of energy to fossil fuels in an age in which climate change and Peak Oil are very pressing problems.

Yours truly had the feeling that this documentary was carefully constructed so as not to step on sensitive toes and that information favourable to the nuclear energy industry was selected for the program. The fact that al-Khalili, who admits up-front that he is a professor in nuclear physics, was chosen as narrator and to visit Japan and Ukraine as an investigative reporter to give the documentary an immediate current affairs look is suspicious; after all, he has a stake in wanting research and production of nuclear energy to continue. (He says he is a husband and a father as well in case our heart-strings need pulling.) He draws the viewer’s attention to the upheaval of residents in the areas surrounding the Fukushima plant and the ongoing trauma and stress they still suffer as though it were the evacuation itself and the separation of the residents from their homes and livelihoods that caused their distress, and not the Japanese government’s botched rescue and evacuation efforts and its incompetence in cleaning up the site and keeping people fully informed as to what it’s doing to solve the mess and ensure it never happens again.

Al-Khalili suggests that the design of the reactors contributed to the disaster; the reactors are the oldest and apparently the least modified of their kind, having been commissioned in the early 1970s. All other similar models of the Fukushima plant vintage in other countries have been decommissioned or updated. One would like to ask, why didn’t the Fukushima reactors get the same treatment as these others? If the Japanese government values nuclear energy that much, why did it allow Fukushima to go to pot? Perish the thought that the government values business and profit over safety and people’s well-being!

Al-Khalili’s remark that no-one died as a result of radiation exposure at Fukushima, compared to the 20,000 deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami, is breathtakingly naive given that the majority of radiation-linked deaths usually occur decades after the affected persons were exposed to the cause. No-one knows what the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident’s effect ultimately will be on the general public as there are many young people whose mothers there were exposed to radiation while pregnant with these youngsters and any radiation-linked diseases they are likely to get won’t develop until they are in their fifties and sixties; how will Fukushima be any different from Chernobyl? The film’s concentration also on thyroid cancers in children seems suspicious; might it be that thyroid cancers actually make up a small proportion of health problems caused by exposure to radiation? There is also the phenomenon known as the Piatkus effect in which low doses of radiation, especially if continuous and cumulative, can cause more cancers and other health problems than high doses of radiation do and this issue is ignored completely.

The section in the documentary where a young man is persuaded to film his moments in his abandoned home in the nuclear exclusion zone smacks of manipulation and cheap sensationalism. Al-Khalili’s apparent sympathy for residents of Fukushima and surrounding areas, forced to evacuate their homes and still living in uncertain limbo at the time the documentary was filmed is worked into an argument that ungrounded fears for their health, not the possibility of radiation-linked health effects, are responsible for prolonging the people’s misery and anxiety about their future health. Nothing is said about the Japanese government’s handling of the evacuation and of how badly it may have treated locals. The effect of al-Khalili’s suggestion that misguided humanitarianism is the cause of the evacuated residents’ anguish is to pit well-meaning do-gooders against the unfortunate refugees while absolving the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the firm responsible for operating and managing the Fukushima reactors, of responsibility for compensating the affected people so they can find new homes and jobs.

No consideration is given to investigating alternative energy sources such as geothermal energy – Japan does have hot springs which suggest that that potential exists – and the BBC documentary suggests Japan has no other choices of energy extraction. There is no consideration as to whether Japan has been living beyond its means or if its society even needs as much electricity as it has used in the past. Natural gas supplies could replace the use of electricity in some areas of industry, agriculture and household use. Buildings could be re-fitted and building standards changed to encourage energy conservation and efficiency. It can also be argued that heating water to create steam for electricity generation is a poor excuse for using nuclear power; geothermal or solar thermal energy could be used to heat water instead, or wind, solar (in the form of photovoltaic panels) or tidal power could be used to create electricity directly.

In all, this is not a very informative documentary. The focus is made so narrow that the film suspiciously comes across as propaganda for the nuclear energy industry. I am sorry that al-Khalili agreed or let himself be used to shill for nuclear energy.

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