Japanese nuclear plants: Some thoughts on how to stay informed without going crazy

Breaking information about what is going on at the two Fukushima nuclear power plants—Daiichi (where most of the trouble is) and Daini—has often conflicted with other reports, points out Cristine Russell in The Atlantic. She's criticizing the round-the-clock cycle of cable news coverage for confusing the public, and adding more fear and stress to an already fear-and-stress-filled situation. A big part of the problem: Knowing which sources to trust. Here's two recommendations from Russell that earn big thumbs up from me:

Some of the most reliable information is coming from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to which Japanese authorities must report. Reports involving unnamed "officials," which CNN and others used frequently this weekend, should be handled with caution.

I'd add to that a recommendation for World Nuclear News. They are an industry publication&mash;funded by the World Nuclear Association, which is a professional organization that does education within the nuclear industry, and promotes nuclear power to the general public. Given that, I wouldn't rely on them as an only source. But they are doing a really good job of regularly (but not too regularly) updating what is happening at the various reactors and, more importantly, keeping that information in context, so that it's easy to keep track of how many reactors are involved, and what is happening at each.

That's a pretty important feature for anyone trying to follow this story from home. Better yet, when new news comes in, they've been updating directly in the previous story, and making notes at the top of the page about what was updated. It seems like a small thing, but it can help a lot if, like me, you've been feeling a bit like you're drowning in information. Keep in mind, though: They seem to be abandoning article pages at the end of each day, and starting a new page, which then gets all the new updates. So if you're looking at an article from Sunday, you're seeing everything that happened that day, but not what's happened since then.


  1. This is a piece in “The Register” on why the current accidents show that Nuclear Power can be trusted. It’s tricky to know what to think on this (and whether it’s too soon to tell) – but it has some interesting talking points. I’d love to know your opinion of it Maggie.

  2. Thanks for the links (and for the reassurance that it may not be completely quixotic to want to understand what’s happening).

    I also appreciate both the inclusion of the industry sources and your sensible caveat about (not) relying on them alone. I mention this in particular because i have the grim impression that there exists a distressing tendency among many well-meaning (‘activist’) folks to act as though any information source with ties to industry (or ‘capitalism’) must never be consulted or taken seriously at all. This is not only very silly of course but, i believe, sharply counter-productive — especially given that people who work in a particular field (such as nuclear power) are likely to understand technical details that can easily become important in a crisis.

  3. TEPCO is also posting updates directly here.

    The best advice I’ve read for dealing with the news about this is from this guy:

    1. Ignore ambiguous statements from Japanese government officials. Pay attention to specific facts they provide because those will be verifiable in the future and will not be provided lightly.
    2. Presume the headlines are deceptive. Do not trust paraphrasing.
    3. Treat with skepticism any pronouncement from a “nuclear energy expert” if he/she is affiliated with an advocacy or agenda-driven organization.
    4. Most importantly, remember that very little information is actually known. Media organizations get scraps and tidbits, and these are recycled endlessly.

    1. “3. Treat with skepticism any pronouncement from a “nuclear energy expert” if he/she is affiliated with an advocacy or agenda-driven organization.”

      Just wondering, does “advocacy or agenda-driven organization” include anyone involved in the nuclear power industry, or is skepticism to be limited only to DFHs who oppose nuclear power?

  4. I have more trust in unnamed “officials” and independent professionals, than in Japanese authorities who have been already caught lying about severity of these incidents as well about security situation in previous decades:


    “Japan’s nuclear power operator has checkered past

    (Reuters) – The company at the center of a nuclear reactor crisis following the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history has had a rocky past in an industry plagued by scandal.

    The Japanese government said on Saturday that there had been radiation leakage at Tokyo Electric Power’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi plant following an explosion there.

    The blast came as TEPCO was working desperately to reduce pressures in the core of a reactor at the 40-year-old plant, which lies 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

    In 2002, the president of the country’s largest power utility was forced to resign along with four other senior executives, taking responsibility for suspected falsification of nuclear plant safety records.

    The company was suspected of 29 cases involving falsified repair records at nuclear reactors. It had to stop operations at five reactors, including the two damaged in the latest tremor, for safety inspections.

    A few years later it ran into trouble again over accusations of falsifying data.

    In late 2006, the government ordered TEPCO to check past data after it reported that it had found falsification of coolant water temperatures at its Fukushima Daiichi plant in 1985 and 1988, and that the tweaked data was used in mandatory inspections at the plant, which were completed in October 2005.

    And in 2007, TEPCO reported that it had found more past data falsifications, though this time it did not have to close any of its plants.

    (Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by John Chalmers)”

  5. Thanks for these links. It’s been challenging to find alternate sources of calm, direct information.

  6. With all of the speculation and worry it is worth remembering that at the University of Chicago nuclear pile under the bleachers there was no containment just a literal stacked pile of uranium and graphite. That university is still open BTW.
    Being realistic a melt down ruins the reactor, it gets sealed and thrown away in a toxic waste reservation or entombed on site. If they are cooling the core with sprayed water the runoff is radioactive, but especially if it makes it to the open sea dilution is the solution to the pollution, the path there will have to be dug up and sealed away too as it will be peppered with some radionuclides.
    As long as the core doesn’t actually burn like at Chernobyl, and there is no wacky 40’s style graphite moderation in these modern reactors it is unlikely that anything beyond expensive cleanup, expensive repairs or more likely sealed entombed reactor cores and loss of those energy assets.

    The real issue is still the horrible earthquake and tsunami which has killed so many thousands, not the interesting but likely not deadly to anyone loss of these important power plants which could be used to assist in the recovery. In a way the reactor issues are less of a story at this point than the traffic mess trying to exit the disaster which has probably actually taken a few lives due to natural auto accidents which happen every day.

  7. Going on the recommendation of one of my friends in Japan, I’ve been following NHK World TV. Not sure how this news channel compares to other MSM outlets when it comes to spreading hysteria, but so far I’ve found it informative.

  8. Is someone working on an infographic, vidoe, map showing all the reactors and their ststus over time? I’d love to watch a neat concise presentation of the facts graphically. I do not want it with dranatic music and eight minutes of commercials for every three minutes of content on some American cable television network. Any help available?

  9. sooooooo… rebdav, um, what about the release of radiation into the environment? especially plutonium, as it has a considerable half life? there is no safe amount of radiation, only more and less safe. what about cancers down the line (as opposed to deaths now) for reference, what about all the deaths chernobyl has caused, is causing?

    i figured you would have responses; i ask you respectfully & out of desire for truth…. i do not think loss of life is balanced by ease of circumstance. that is where i have come to on the ethical question so far.

    (oh and btw @everyone: i must admit i’m freaking a bit over current events)

    1. Radioactive debris is a problem when it is spilled everywhere, but it can be dealt with, cordoned off, and cleaned up for a price.
      This could get worse but right now the problem is actually lack of clean water and shelter, dead human bodies and water around also cause epidemic issues.
      The reactor issues are an expensive and headline grabbing problem, but they are not as important right now as the actual humanitarian crisis.
      The potential exists for escalation should a reactor core burn but Americans lived with lots of radiation in the 50’s and 60’s; loose asbestos and Mad Men lifestyle probably cut more years off of their lives than all of the the fallout.
      We should focus on the real unfolding human crisis if we have the desire and resources to actually help, if not it is all just idle worry and infotainment.

      1. This could get worse but right now the problem is actually lack of clean water and shelter, dead human bodies and water around also cause epidemic issues.

        So because those problems exist, the radiation isn’t a problem anymore? They can handle both, especially with aid pouring in. We can worry about both.

        1. Sure can: but the remarkably equanimity of the Japanese people in the face of this daunting situation reminds me that that particular Nation has had more actual experience of the effects of radiation upon the health of human beings, than anybody else on the planet.

  10. Couple of points…

    1. The situation is very chaotic on the ground. There’s a good chance we will not know what’s really happened (amount of leakage, etc) until well after the event.

    2. You can’t take the industry’s word for what is happening. Same with associations that have the job of promoting nuclear power. They aren’t independent sources.

    My advice: Best to look at reliable news sources, check multiple ones, and wait at least an hour after a report to see if it is corroborated by multiple sources (not just repeated).

  11. followup — rebdav, reread your comment. hmm. are you saying that if the fuel does not burn, the health effect will be minimal?

  12. She’s criticizing the round-the-clock cycle of cable news coverage for confusing the public, and adding more fear and stress to an already fear-and-stress-filled situation.

    You can say that again. I’ve made the mistake of following new developments about the nuclear plants frequently, and I have been sleeping terribly because of it.

    It goes against instincts, but if someone you love is in Honshu right now do yourself a favor and do not seek out news constantly.

    Everyone I know is currently okay, and yet I’m still going half-mad from all the scary, unreliable news.

    1. … I really porked the tags on that and can’t edit it.

      The uh… the lower part was my comment.

  13. ummm yeah I sit about 200km away from Daiichi in Chiba and well I really cannot understand why everyone in the united states is freaking out about this.

    You will likely have NO impact from this situation even if it melted down. Take a chill pill!

    1. damageman, many of us care when others are suffering, so we donate money to help and follow the news. Since I worked in nuclear plant (and high energy physics lab before that), I can’t help but read between the lines of news releases and worry about failure modes.

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