This is a classic and unfortunately a typical example of how the media treat, well, all things nuclear in Germany. There is a story throughout German media these days about the nuclear waste repository in Gorleben. Randomly picked examples say that fewer girls than boys were born in the area, since nuclear waste was moved into the repository.
The first is very specific, too specific for its own good – if you think about what it says. However, the mere fact of universal reporting of this story implies that there is not a lot of thinking going on in those matters. Instead, a combination of incompetence and ignorance prevails in the media – if you want to pick an interpretation that doesn’t imply outright malice. And unfortunately the reporting translates into public opinion.
So, what does it say? It says that before nuclear waste was moved into the repository in 1995 more girls than boys were born in the area, whereas since then 120 boys and 111 girls were born in three nearby villages (Gorleben, Höhbeck and Trebel). The author of the study (Ralf Kusmierz) is quoted in the article saying that “damaging influences” were actively killing female embryos, leading to this result. In a former study near another repository (Asse/Remlingen) the same author found that there too, more boys than girls were born. Could this be a mere coincidence? Trust me, it’s not a coincidence.
Sounds scary? For many people, those stories are scary.
Here is the point: the author himself says that in Germany, the usual quota is 1055 boys per 1000 girls. That’s right. It is perfectly normal to have more boys than girls, it’s not a coincidence at all. The current quota in the area around Gorleben is slightly above normal at 1088. If anything at all is amiss in the area with the number of girls being born, then it must have been around the time before the nuclear waste came into the area – when there were fewer boys than girls and the quota for boys was below 1000. A deviation of over 55 instead of the current 33, which is obviously much closer to normal than before. (This is not to be taken too lightly. There is also a dump for “ordinary” toxic waste in the area that did leak at some point – but not being radioactive it didn’t stay in the news for long.)
Female-embryo-killing radiation? That’s bovine excrement. But just because it’s wrong doesn’t mean that the public will realize that or the media will stop reporting it (or even publish a correction).
You may argue that you can’t be careful enough in those matters. But too much of a good thing is still too much. (You may want to consult Aristotle on that matter.) And the recent earthquake in Japan has shown the problem with spreading fear and panic. After the tsunami hit the Japanese coast and the power station Fukushima Daiichi got into trouble, the area around it was immediately evacuated as a precautionary measure. That’s the story as it keeps being reported ad nauseam.
What it leaves out, is the destruction of the homes of half a million people who mostly ignored the tsunami warning – because people long since stopped believing in them, especially since the warnings were cranked up all the way to eleven after the Indonesian tsunami of 2004.
You won’t instinctively run for your life when the alarm is sounded because of some minor earthquake once a year or so and the tsunami consistently fails to materialize in any perceptible form at all (most recently in an Alaska earthquake), it doesn’t help that this was the case just two days before that and that Japan had in fact prepared for tsunamis by building coastal walls that could withstand the kind of tsunami you would expect once every couple of centuries – after the coast had been devastated by tsunamis in 1896 and 1933. There is no extra level of warning that would tell the people whether or not an alert is to be taken serious. (E.g. tsunami watch vs. tsunami alert) And unsurprisingly, people didn’t take it serious. Just look at the casual way people are acting on the parking lot in this video:
There were about 30 minutes between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami, more than enough to evacuate the coastal areas or to walk to higher ground. (A lot of people only started running when the wave was right behind them.)
What does that have to do with fear of nuclear power? Well, when a town is struck by a tsunami, not all people that fail to run away are dead. Search and rescue teams typically rescue people for at least another two days after such events. But when the government ordered the area to be evacuated when cooling of the first reactor failed, those people were basically left for dead.
It is not just that there were procedures to be followed. Those procedures are actually quite good when taken all by themselves. When cooling of a reactor fails, some radioactivity will be released and the general sentiment mandates that the public must not get into contact with any of it at all, if in any way possible – as if it was a major and immediate health hazard. (Don’t get me wrong, high doses for a long time are just that.) But this is of course a misperception based mostly on the spread of irrational fear.
The circumstances in Fukushima prefecture were very different from those the usual procedures assume. People were buried under rubble. This is a much more serious and much more dangerous situation than being a few kilometers away from a failing reactor (despite a litany of missing safety features). Deploying a few people with Geiger counters and listening to reports on the radio (especially wind directions and other developments) would have gone a long way towards making continued search and rescue possible without any undue risk. More people could have been saved than risked by a small exposure to radioactivity. Values along the coast barely reached sustained levels of 100 micro sievert per hour (starting about 3 days after the tsunami) – a level that would have allowed at least 200 hours (over a week) of continued, unprotected, search and rescue efforts in the area, before reaching 20mSv.
If you think that it is morally objectionable to risk exposing those people to radioactivity in any way, then let me tell you that this is a level for which no health consequences have so far been observed. The health consequences of being stuck in rubble without outside help are significantly worse. Further, I have yet to hear of moral objections against putting those people in immediate mortal danger who tried to stabilize the Fujinuma Dam in the Fukushima prefecture that was damaged during the earthquake – failed to do so and died.
A reasonable description of dangers involved with certain risks is necessary. There is no such thing as precaution by excessive warning of certain risks. It always leads to disastrous consequences at some point, when those risks clash and people immediately turn towards the higher risk option instead of the lower risk option, when the lower risk has been misperceived as being much higher. That’s a lesson yet to be learned anywhere, not just in the media.
1500 people additional died, for example, driving in cars instead of flying in airplanes after 9/11, when airspace had been closed and people avoided flying later on. It would have taken terrorists to crash another ten airplanes to reach that kind of casualty rate. People who die in car wrecks are no less dead than those in airplanes – and the fewer dead, the better. Sure that’s a moral question, but it’s an exceedingly easy one to decide.
Btw.: Traffic accidents in general are a hugely underestimated risk. Over a million people die each year in traffic accidents globally, tens of millions are injured. Which is something that people don’t realize. Because only train- and airplane accidents are reported globally – whereas car accidents are only reported if they are local, especially spectacular or involve famous personalities. It is easy to get reports in newspapers and TV about 44 people dieing in a high-speed train in China – but have you ever heard about any single one of the over 300 daily casualties in Chinese traffic?