There can be no doubt that the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan was one of the worst in history, rivalled only by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia in 1986. The damage to the power station was caused by a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11th, 2011, and the Japanese authorities have struggled to contain the situation at the plant ever since.
Even now, almost three years after the event, Fukushima is rarely out of the headlines, but an increasing amount of hype and disinformation has begun to circulate in the media, leaving the public bewildered and unsure of what to believe.
In any news report remotely associated with radiation, a connection to Fukushima is often implied, as in a recent report where levels of radiation on a San Francisco beach were found to be 1,400% above normal. These radiation levels were only detected because, post-Fukushima, geiger counters appear to have replaced metal detectors for beachcombers choosing to add a little extra interest to their walk on the sea shore, but it turns out that any connection to Fukushima has been definitely ruled out by Dan Sythe, CEO of International Medcom, truth-seeker and blogger at Geiger-Counter.com. Sythe found that the radiation at the beach contained different types of radioactive isotopes than those released into the environment as a result of the catastrophe at the Japanese plant. At Fukushima, it was primarily Iodine-131, Cesium-137, and Cesium-134, and also some Tellurium, Uranium and Strontium that escaped into the area surrounding the power plant, whereas on Surfer's Beach, San Francisco, it was the naturally occurring radioactive elements radium and thorium that were found. The mention of the word "radiation" immediately triggers alarm in the uninformed, yet it must not be forgotten that this phenomenon is normal and occurs in nature; the, albeit elevated, levels of radiation detected on the beach were roughly equivalent to those found in granite counter top material from Brazil.
Each ensuing event needs to be thoroughly and objectively investigated before any assumptions are made, but it can be difficult not to speculate when apparently unprecedented incidences of elevated radioactivity are discovered. Recently, snow containing double the usual levels of radioactivity fell in Missouri; this occurrence has again sparked fears that clouds of radioactive particles are being transported in the atmosphere to the U.S. from Japan. The reports originated from a video that shows YouTube user, DutchSinse, taking Geiger counter readings of the snow in St Louis. In his commentary, he suggests that ‘small particles of radioactive material are indeed coming down in the precipitation." It is not certain whether his report has been corroborated by the authorities or whether a definite link to Fukushima has been established, but if true, the elevated levels of radioactivity certainly warrant further investigation.
Other events that may have been wrongly linked to Fukushima include "star-fish wasting syndrome", an odd event whereby hoards of the dead and decaying creatures were recently observed lining the ocean floor off the coast of British Columbia. An analysis of the strange happening was undertaken by Deep Sea News, an online news site whose writers comprise a very credible and authoritative body of academics, and it was determined that this event could have nothing to do with the incident in Japan for a variety of reasons. Firstly, this type of occurrence had been noted before, pre-dating Fukushima by between three to fifteen years; it was originally seen in 1997 in southern California, and again in 2008 and 2009. Secondly, the same type of was also been witnessed on the east coast of the U.S. in the Atlantic ocean as well as the Pacific, which would also rule out any connection to Fukushima. Finally, no other creatures in the same area appeared to be similarly afflicted, which seems to rule out any environmental contamination.
There are some downright fantastic stories circulating about Fukushima, including one that claimed the Russian navy had detected two underground atomic explosions at the plant on Dec 31, prompting the Russian government to order protective measures. This was apparently a total fabrication by a well-known conspiracy theorist, but nevertheless, it provoked panic in many people and did nothing to ensure that a balanced approach to the issue is being maintained on the web.
The effects of media hype like this on public interest can be very damaging, as the claims become ever more fantastic but without any real foundation, and thus there is a tendency for us to disconnect from the subject and eventually dismiss all reports as "overblown." This is dangerous territory, as the threat from Fukushima could yet be very real but, in truth, without any real precedents other than Chernobyl, where the location and circumstances were not identical, nobody really knows what the future impact will be.
It is true that the inexpert handling of the aftermath of the disaster by the authorities has only served to fuel speculation and conspiracy theories, as it has become apparent that some important events have been obscured in an attempt to present a more positive image of the situation to the world. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and the Japanese government have been caught lying repeatedly in their efforts to downplay the scale of the Fukushima disaster. A tank leaked 300 tonnes of toxic water in August, causing groundwater radiation readings at the plant to rise to 400,000 becquerels per litre, the highest reading since the nuclear accident occurred. Later last year, in December, it transpired that further leaks were allowing radioactive waste water to be continuously leaked into the ground beneath the plant and into the Pacific Ocean. Now, in the past few days, Yoshitatsu Uechi, a former employee at the facility, has come forward with claims that the leaks were caused by cost-cutting measures applied by TEPCO, such as the use of astonishingly basic equipment including duct tape and wire nets to mend the leaking tanks.
Scientific studies do seem to suggest that there is contamination around the plant and some evidence of radioactive contamination in marine life has also been detected. This is no surprise: the incident at the Japanese nuclear facility was nothing short of catastrophic, and it is overly optimistic to believe that the planet will escape totally unscathed from the after-effects of that fateful day. There will undoubtedly be some fall-out but only time will tell what that impact will be on the rest of the world, and the public should continue to remain vigilant but objective as events unfold. There is nothing to be gained by circulating hoaxes that promote panic or fear; ultimately, all that is important is the truth.