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People Suffering? Yippee!!!

by Brian Dunning, Mar 31 2011

A hydrogen explosion destroys the outer shell of a reactor building at Fukushima Daiichi. Hydrogen, which is normally properly vented, is the natural product of the interaction of cooling water and the material encasing the fuel rods.

Skeptics tend to take their personal ideologies pretty seriously. And so do others, as it turns out. Perhaps a little too seriously.

The recent nuclear crisis in Japan, triggered by a 9.0 earthquake that caused the plant to quickly & properly shut down, but was followed by an unprecedented tsunami that destroyed the equipment needed to maintain the shutdown status, brought this to the foreground. I’ve spent the time since posting updates on Twitter. It’s been bad, it’s been scary, and there have been some frightening setbacks; but they’ve managed to keep a lid on things about as well as can be hoped for. Although two people at the plant were killed and a number were injured by the tsunami and by a couple of subsequent hydrogen explosions, there have (so far) been no serious injuries from the radiation. So far we don’t predict any future cancer cases, but the crisis is far from over and it’s too early to know the extent of the radiation that will ultimately have been released. So this number may change. I really hope that I won’t be looking back at this blog post a year from now and ruing how wrong this prediction was at the time, but it’s entirely possible.

I’m a big supporter of modern nuclear reactors, as many readers know. Fukushima Daiichi was not a modern reactor; its design is a half century old. It’s terribly obsolete and nobody today would ever think of building anything that was so fragile. Even still, its generation of reactors — in use all over the world — has to date never injured anyone (knock on wood, as aforementioned). This stands in stark contrast to the oil and coal fired power plants in much wider use that routinely kill tens of thousands every year from lung cancer.

Nevertheless, a lot of people strongly disapprove of such nukes. I fully respect their right to do so. I don’t think such an opinion is based on very sound science, but if we have to crucify everyone who doesn’t understand everything about science, or who has an interpretation that differs from our own, we’d have to thin out our ranks pretty much to zero. Anyway it’s a debate people have, and everyone has their right to their opinion. I totally understand their point of view.

What I don’t understand is the reaction some of them expressed to me on Twitter every time the situation got worse at Fukushima Daiichi. The worst of it was, quite literally, joyful gloating.

Lives were in great danger. People worldwide were terrified. There was a presumed possibility of widespread contamination, cancer, burns, illness, death. To react to that with glee and an arrogant “I told you so,” simply because it supposedly bolsters your anti-nuke ideology, disgusted me. What kind of a sicko would have such a reaction?

Not to put myself on a pedestal, but I can’t think of a single time I’ve taken joy in the misfortune of innocent victims because it made me feel good about my politics.

By all means, stick to your guns, and support the ideologies you feel strongly about. Difference of opinion is what makes the world go around (this claim not supported by scientific evidence). But please don’t let it turn you into a bottom feeder.

[I know some of you will ask for examples of these tweets, and I should have saved them. Obviously, this post should cite them. For some reason Twitter is not letting me search far back enough to find the ones I'm looking for. If I can find them later I will add them here.]

93 Responses to “People Suffering? Yippee!!!”

  1. Beelzebud says:

    I think this reaction stems from the fact that a lot of pro-nuke advocates spent that early first week proclaiming that these reactors were perfectly safe, and that this “can’t be another Chernobyl”. I saw many pro-nuke people making unrealistic claims about the safety of these reactors. Then the hydrogen explosions started happening, and partial melt downs occurred.

    The truth, like with most things, is somewhere in the middle. Nuclear technology has advanced a great deal, but it’s foolish to make bold proclamations about how they are 100% safe.

    Hearing only your side of the story, and having no examples of tweets from either side, it’s hard to say what those people were reacting to. Were you one of those saying that it was “impossible” for this reactor to melt down? I know I saw a lot of people making bold claims like that.

    The fact that you framed it as them cheering for the melt downs, tells me you’ve allowed their comments to get to you personally. That’s why it’s important to have everything in context to see what you were tweeting, and what the responses were. Right now it just sounds like you’re venting because you got attacked on twitter.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Chernobyl didn’t get hit by a tsunami, so this incident is hardly comparable.

      Even still, there’s no reason not to take issue with comments such as Brian described. In lieu of tragedy, claiming “I told you so” is the last thing anyone should give a damn about.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Yes but everything here is out of context. What was Brian tweeting, and what were the replies people were tweeting back?

        Forgive me for be skeptical here, but after the DDT issue, I can’t just take the situation at face value.

    • steve says:

      I agree. We’ve got to investigate the possibility that these gloating tweets were justified. Also, we’ve to investigate the possibility that they were imagined. Basically, we must investigate every possible way Brian might be wrong. It is the Skeptics’ way.

      But what if they were both imagined, and justified? That would be nuts.

  2. Dale Sheldon-Hess says:

    Quick note about your image caption: hydrogen isn’t generated (in any significant quantities) or vented during normal operation. It was only because the water level in the core dropped, and steam was allowed to interact with the over-heated fuel casings, that significant amounts of hydrogen was generated, released, and exploded.

    As for future cancer cases: so far, only some of the workers at the plant have been exposed to enough radiation to have a statistically-higher chance of contracting cancer at some point in their lifetimes. If there are no additional problems (and green leafy vegetables and milk (which concentrate these radioactive elements) grown in the area are properly scanned) then no one else will be in any danger. And even if someone does contract cancer because of this disaster, thyroid cancer is the most common type, and it is one of the most survivable cancers when it is identified early (for instance, of the ~6,000 cases officially attributed to Chernobyl, only 15 were fatal.)

    Speaking of Chernobyl, in reply to Beelzebud: for a lot of people “meltdown” is synonymous with “Chernobyl”. But while people who said “this can’t be another Chernobyl” were right, people who said “they can’t melt down” were wrong. It’s hard to know who was flat-out wrong and who was wrong because they don’t know the proper meaning of the words they were using.

    Chernobyl involved a steam explosion that instantly pulverized and launched into the air a 2,000 ton steel-and-concrete plate, and destroyed all the control and cooling apparatus, and which was followed seconds later by a nuclear explosion that threw several tons of uranium and uranium by-product dust into the environment. Within days, dozens had died. Something of that scale was never a possibility at Fukishima, where even three weeks later, zero have died. And as time passes the possibility of even a smaller-scale version of that occurring drops from “exceedingly unlikely” toward “physical impossibility”.

  3. Max says:

    What does a denier do when he can no longer deny that the “scaremongers” were right about some risk?
    1. Argue that the alternative would be even worse.
    2. Accuse critics of politicizing the tragedy or taking pleasure in people’s suffering. For example, could be accused of gloating over death and suffering.

    • Mat says:

      Talking about risk is pointless without talking about benefits. Max, as a self-confessed “scaremonger” !-), will only talk about risk.

      The balance of risk vs. benefit will be assessed in due course, in less emotionally charged arenas. I suspect, under those conditions, nuclear power will still seem preferable to the higher carbon options of power production.

    • I cannot agree that there’s anything remotely resembling “gloating” at

      You’re calling me a “denier”; what am I denying? I welcome intelligent discourse.

      • Max says:

        This isn’t about your position on nuclear energy. This is about your sentiment that saying “I told you so” after a tragedy is taking joy in people’s suffering. This appeal to emotion can be used by quacks as well. The gist of is “I told you this stuff is harmful,” so they can just as easily be accused of gloating. In reality, of course, they sympathize with the victims and wish to prevent suffering. I think the same is true for those who say, “I told you nuclear power is unsafe.”

      • I first have to take issue with the lake of skepticism in the second half of this sentence, Brian:

        It’s been bad, it’s been scary, and there have been some frightening setbacks; but they’ve managed to keep a lid on things about as well as can be hoped for.

        Given that TEPCO comes under more scrutiny by the day for releasing incomplete, PR-flacked “information,” we simply don’t know for sure whether that’s true or not. It may be, but it may not be.

        Second, in light of that, your lack of skepticism seems to extend, by inference, to the nuclear power industry in general. I think nuclear plants are, generally, safe. but a LOT hinges on their administration/management. And, people who worry about nuke plants based on sound social science or political science therefore have good reason to do so.

        Next, we have a straw man:

        To react to that with glee and an arrogant “I told you so,” simply because it supposedly bolsters your anti-nuke ideology, disgusted me. What kind of a sicko would have such a reaction?

        Sure, some percentage of people have done so; my own anecdotal observation says they’re a small minority, though.

        Finally, a smug and possibly untrue statement:

        Not to put myself on a pedestal, but I can’t think of a single time I’ve taken joy in the misfortune of innocent victims because it made me feel good about my politics.


        Your “let’s all smoke DDT” Skeptoid and post here at the least came close to that.

      • Oh, and as I noted below, you got into a bit of, or more than a bit of, race-based concern trolling over the DDT posts. Perhaps not quite schadenfreude, but it was smug, at the least. And, more than off-putting, it was kind of disgusting.

  4. gfunkusarelius says:

    @Max, I think you make some valid points, and while the intent of might be good, I too feel it is too easily interpretable as exploitative for me, but if you are saying Brian is a “denier”, I don’t really know what you are referring to (might be some history I am missing).

    All I have heard from him re: nuclear power is that it’s cons are far lower than that of the alternative power sources like coal. There is a risk in nuclear, and a large mishap has very large consequences, but the record speaks for itself in terms of our real world experiences, which are now stretching over 50 years, and new generations of reactors are getting safer and safer.

  5. Max says:

    Fukushima Daiichi is terribly obsolete today, and anything we build today will be terribly obsolete tomorrow. Assurances about the safety of modern nuclear reactors were probably made about Fukushima Daiichi back when it was modern.

    • Eric says:

      Saying “reactors we build today will be terribly obsolete tomorrow” is like saying “treatment for cancers today will be terribly obsolete tomorrow.” Are you not going to buy a new car with safety features today because they will only be better on newer cars some point in the future? How exactly are we supposed to improve as a species if we do not use the best of what we have at the moment?

    • Nick Johnson says:

      Possibly that’s the case, but I’m pretty sure nobody ever asserted that the Fukushima design was robust against total coolant failure. Modern reactors are.

      You seem to be claiming that because technology is constantly advancing, and people are always promoting the latest, it never actually gets any better – which is pretty nonsensical.

      • Max says:

        The technology gets better, but rarely as good as advertised.

      • Eric says:

        I must have been unclear. I am saying technology does advance and we should use the best of what we have at the moment even if something better will come along in the future.

        The way Max words the question it sounds like he is saything we should not build something slightly more efficient/safe than that which already exists today because at some point it in the future it to will be surpased by something even more efficient/safe. What I draw from this is that we should not improve ourselves with what we have because we will never achieve perfection (for him nuclear safety), which of course I disagree with.

  6. Max says:

    “I can’t think of a single time I’ve taken joy in the misfortune of innocent victims because it made me feel good about my politics.”

    How about this?
    “My advice to everyone involved in network marketing: Simply stop now. Stop convincing yourself that profits are just around the corner if you just buy a few more cases of expensive product. Just stop now, walk away, consider it a lesson well learned, and don’t give them another dollar.
    One final tidbit I’ll leave you with. On average, 99.95% of network marketers lose money.”

    Oh Brian, you’re so cruel to take joy in the misfortune of innocent MLM victims. How dare you exploit their personal tragedy to promote skepticism!
    See how that works?

    • Mat says:

      I think I can hear the sound of a barrel being scraped…

    • Hey, at least Brian wasn’t talking about the thousands who got malaria just because evullll environmentalists have “banned” DDT!

      That said, I don’t know if the MLM example was scraping the barrel, but damn, Max, you’ve got Dunning down cold.

      That said, if Dunning had said, after the part you quote:

      Instead of investing money in an MLM scheme, why don’t you give your money to me, Brian Dunning, since I’m a venture capitalist?

      THAT would be schadenfreude on his part indeed.

      And, yes, for those of you who don’t know (I’ll bet Max already did), that IS what Brian does in his day job:

      That said, I will honestly indulge a bit of schadenfreude over coming years as “red” states in the U.S. are the ones most hit by global warming and climate change.

      • Jason M says:

        A nice ad hominem here. What relevance does Brian being a venture capitalist have to do with his views on DDT or MLM?

        Also, your example of shadenfreude also doesn’t make much sense. Shadenfreude is defined as pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. How would Brian asking people to invest money with him instead of in a MLM scheme be an instance of shadenfreude? Unless you mean “pleasure” in a very broad sense, in that Brian could eventually derive pleasure from the money in the future… but that’s still not shadenfreude.

      • Actually the software investing is not something I’ve been involved with for several years now. I do still do a bit of strategic consulting on the side.

      • Jason, on DDT, you’ve either read Brian’s post here, and his Skeptoid post on DDT, and seen comments by people like Max and I [or not]. I don’t want to rehash that issue if you’re not familiar, but, it’s arguable that Dunning not only got close to schadenfreude, but also veered into “race-based concern trolling,” which I found off-putting, at the least.

        And, if Dunning wanted people to feel pain so as to spend money on him as a venture capitalist, it would be schadenfreude.

      • I remember more precisely what it was, tho I can’t remember whether it was in his original Skeptoid on DDT or his response to Deltoid.

        This is not a direct quote, but, it’s in the vicinity.

        Brian said that white U.S. liberals didn’t really care about sub-Saharan African blacks’ suffering due to malaria because they were more worried about scoring environmental points on banning DDT. (Which, of course, hasn’t been banned, which Brian got wrong and I’m not sure ever admitted.)

        Anyway, a comment like that is bullshit, especially in connection with Shermer having two known racialists (Miele and Sarich) still involved with Skeptic. And, yes, I’ll continue to bring that one up from time to time, too.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I fail to see exactly what Shermer has to do with Dunning’s article. What is this connection you speak of? The fact that they both blog at the same site? It seems like you’re just dipping into your old Bag-o-Shermer-Hatred looking for something else to discredit Brian with.

        It’s like, competitive skepticism or something.

      • No more than you dipping into your bag of Shermer or Dunning loving ricks, Robo.

        That said, with the changes on the masthead, we now have 2 people who put libertarianism ahead of skepticism; an occasionalsquish, I fear, ion Novella; a generally good guy (Loxton) who ought to move on, since his “talk nice to the libertarians” hasn’t gotten them to put skepticism in front of libertarianism; Mark Edward, largely unknown to me where he stands on these issues; and Prothero, whom I shall keep my eye on.

        And, Brian does a good enough job discrediting himself at times. He doesn’t need my help; just Max’s encyclopedic memory of previous Dunning posts.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Hey, I might enjoy their articles but I have no bias here. All I’m saying is that from an outside perspective, you appear to be more concerned with pushing this anti-libertarian agenda than being objective.

        I could be wrong, you could have a valid point every time, but it seems like every time Shermer posts you start reaching for whatever stick you can poke him with. Then when Dunning posts, you put him in bed with Shermer.

        Ok, I think we all could have gone without that picture in our heads. Time to go cry in the shower.

    • Max says:

      Or from this very blog post:
      “Even still, its generation of reactors — in use all over the world — has to date never injured anyone (knock on wood, as aforementioned). This stands in stark contrast to the oil and coal fired power plants in much wider use that routinely kill tens of thousands every year from lung cancer.”

      How dare you exploit the misfortune of innocent victims of oil and coal burning to promote nuclear power.
      It’s an appeal to emotion fallacy.

      P.S. Are oil fired power plants still in use?

      • Max says:

        Just to be clear, the “How dare…” is the appeal to emotion, which is analogous to the gist of Brian’s blog entry.

      • Jason M says:

        You’re missing the point here Max with your two examples.

        What Brian was criticizing is people engaging in “joyful gloating” when the situation at the reactors got worse. When Brian was writing about MLM victims and people who died from lung cancer because of oil and coal fired power plants (yes, the former still do exist) he was sympathizing with that loss. He wasn’t gloating that people had got swindled by MLM or killed from lung cancer, and that this somehow proved his point. Plus, these examples are not really cases of an appeal to emotion either, because Brian was doing a logical pro-and-con analysis.

    • No Max, I don’t see how it works. You have an amazing ability to see whatever satisfies your desperate I’M SMART BECAUSE BRIAN IS WRONG appetite in virtually anything I’ve ever written, to an almost comedic degree. If you feel I’ve ever expressed joy or gloating in people being victimized by MLM schemes, share it. The quote you gave above does not remotely express joy in anyone’s misfortunes; indeed, it advises them to avoid the scheme to begin with.

      • Max says:

        You don’t get it. I gave an example of how an MLM proponent could WRONGLY accuse you of expressing joy in people’s misfortune, just as I suspect that you WRONGLY accused your critics of taking joy in the Japanese people’s suffering.

        If we go down that route, then only those who correctly predict positive outcomes will be able to take credit for being right, since those who try to take credit for correctly predicting negative outcomes will be accused of gloating over misfortune.

      • Jason M says:

        I don’t think an MLM proponent could even conceivably wrongly accuse Brian of expressing “joy” over MLM victims. You’re drawing a false equivalency here between Brian and the people on Twitter with anti-nuclear views.

        It’s you who are taking the extreme stance, by staying that Brian cannot even raise the issue of MLM victimhood without him being open to the same accusation of gloating over misfortune. This absurd position is simply to cover up the fact that you have no real argument here.

      • Max says:

        Ok, let me make it REAL clear. I think the accusation of gloating over misfortune is bullshit.
        Saying that the Japanese deserve the nuclear disaster for, say, supporting Iran’s nuclear program, THAT would be gloating over misfortune. But saying that Fukushima shows that nuclear power is unsafe is not gloating over misfortune, just as citing Chernobyl isn’t gloating over misfortune.

        Brian can’t take criticism, and responds with strawmen, ridicule, and slander. The Skeptoid listener feedback episodes are nothing but ridicule. In his follow-up to the DDT episode, Brian dismissed almost all criticism as a political attack on libertarianism. Earlier, he lashed out against a critical blogger for dragging the boat instead of paddling. Now he’s calling his critics “arrogant sickos” and “bottom feeders” for saying “I told you so.”
        To tell deniers from skeptics, I look at how they handle criticism, and Brian’s record is spotty.

      • Max, interesting.

        First, Dunning doesn’t identify this blogger, doesn’t link to a post URL or do one damned thing that would let US (hey, Brian, if we’re skeptics, you have to let us in your fucking boat in the first place) check out the claim.

        Second, since I have returned to reading here (on the recommendation of an actual skeptical friend who said Shermer had stopped posting so much libertarian bullshit) I have yet to see any poster here stand out as a partisan of Democratic politics. But, again, you don’t name your fellow member of this blog, let alone cite examples, so we can’t get in your fucking boat to paddle or drag either one.

        Third, with Shermer, and you, peddling the libertarianism, you’re
        A. Not THAT skeptical;
        B. Sure as hell not “my best allies.”

        Damn, Max, I wish we had a “like” button here. I’d be voting you up til the cows come home.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        The very phrase “Libertarian bullshit” reaks of bias. You guys are becoming less and less credible with each comment.

      • Robo, read that column to which Max linked before you make another comment back at me.

        Dunning comes off as a high priest or archbishop of he Church of Libertarianism, pre-Reformation, telling the parish peasants not to question him.

        And, he again does this without providing any background on the blogger about whom he rants, just like he doesn’t post any Twitter links here.

        Evidence-free argumentation? Yep, that’s the “Church of Skepticism.”

        Are you an altar boy?

      • Robo Sapien says:

        You’re right, I’m a misinformation agent on the payroll of “Big Bullshit” with Brian Dunning signing my checks.

        I’m not debating you on the nuclear issue, even though I do disagree, but I take issue with this massive libertarian strawman of yours. The hypocrisy is overwhelming.

        You are making a lot of really good points, then tainting your comments with “anti-libertarian bullshit.”

      • Tyler says:

        Pardon the tangent, but I’d just like to say that I think skeptics as a whole (particularly in inter-skeptical debates) need to abandon the sarcastic retort “of course, I’m on Big (somethings)’s payroll” unless someone has actually accused you of being on someone’s payroll.

        First, simply because you aren’t on someone’s payroll doesn’t mean you’re argument isn’t biased or incorrect. Someone can (and I’m not saying this is the case here) make an incorrect argument with an agenda behind it without actually being affiliated with or influenced directly by some monolithic idea controlling entity.

        Without taking a stance in the argument here, Gadfly said Mr. Dunning comes across AS a hight priest such-and-such, using figurative language to try and relate a point. I think it’s clear he wasn’t trying to insinuate that there is literally some secret alliance of ideology within the skeptical community with Mr. Dunning and Mr. Shermer at its fountainhead. Furthermore, Robo, even in the post you responded to, Gadfly directs almost all of his ire at Mr. Dunning, never really accusing you of anything remotely close to being on Brian’s payroll. So I think the use of this (in my opinion) tired response is entirely frivolous. Even if Gadfly is indeed employing a straw man, the first part of your reply seems little better.

        Again, I’m not trying to take a side on this argument here, and I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m singling anyone out, because I see both sides of various arguments often use this particular retort. I just think it flies to freely and too often. Unless someone directly criticizes someone else of advocating a position because they are a schill, i think we should all try to avoid this.

  7. rafael says:

    People usually tend to ignore something that is not clear danger , like smoking for instance. What we need to do is to educated people on scientific method so as they can understand that our senses are not quite good to analyse data.
    Petrol fuel is deathly dangerous, but people dont realize that the product of this combustion spread throughout the atmosphere, poisoning are family and ourselves
    Ps: Try to use bicycle instead of a car

    • Andiis says:

      Well said rafael, on ya bike Brian.
      I have seen most of Brian’s tweets and have never seen him gloating over the suffering of others. I have never seen a blog entry or a talk he’s given, or a pod he has cast that wishes another human ill.
      I have never heard or seen him promote the use renewable or sustainable energy either. Perhaps if the money spent since those old reactors were made had been spent in pursuit of other forms of starting motors and lighting the night we would not be having this debate.
      Nuclear energy being safer than oil and coal fired power stations is not an argument in their favor, but instead another form of reducing mined non-renewable ore to it’s base form to light the way for a stumbling few.
      So please, in the name of all that is science, investigate the alternative as many are doing and supply a renewable power source for those billions in need in the sub-Sahara, India and China who have never and will never know of your wonder science of the nuclear age.

  8. Maria says:

    You really need to be more slective about who you follow on Twitter.

    For the record, I agree about nuclear power. It makes sense.

  9. Mario says:

    I would recommend to watch the debate about nuclear power in TED, people are always afraid of what they don’t understand and sadly they don’t take the obvious way that would be to read more and inform yourself putting aside your prejudices; instead they end up following and regurgitating headlines from “experts” that in some way support their fear, that is in a nutshell what Terror Management Theory says.

    By far, nuclear technology is safer than most of the ones we use today, its like comparing a plane crash with a car crash, yes the former is more dramatic and bears more deaths at once, but it’s undeniable how flying is safer than driving, but as long as you keep mixing beliefs with badly read info this will keep happening. There is no 100% secure technology and you would be stupid if you believe in someone that claims that.

    • Max says:

      The plane versus car crash analogy is one I’ve used as well. It’s low-probability/high-cost versus high-probability/low-cost. The former is where black swans come from.

      As I recall, flying has fewer deaths per passenger mile, while driving has fewer deaths per passenger hour.

      • tmac57 says:

        Speaking of Black Swans,one thing about this event that has been troubling me,is that every time that I have heard an interviewer ask a nuclear expert what would happen if a melted core were to breach the containment building,they avoid the question.Often they will say something like “well that’s a very low probability” or well let’s hope it doesn’t get that far” or “that would be very bad,but they just need to focus on containment”.While I understand that they don’t want to panic people,and would rather address what the current situation is,I am concerned that they either think that the breach scenario would be catastrophic in a way that they wouldn’t want to say in public,or that they honestly really have no idea what would happen (or a combination of both).Either way it is pretty unnerving.Maybe that is why some people are averse to nuclear power;they know that it has a relatively good safety record so far,but they can’t get a straight answer about what the real worst case scenario would be.Without a clear point of reference, how do you assess a relative danger?

      • Mario says:

        Yeah but do you really need that much info? to give you an analogy; you should never perform a CT scan on your head unless is necessary, cause changes are that you’ll find some defects, but most of those are neither important nor fatal, but just the fact that you know you have something weird that nobody can give you a 100% assurance that won’t kill you, is enough to keep you worry for the rest of your life, and chances are that you’ll die from something totally unrelated with the defect you found, same goes with genetic testing. Do you really need to know that 1 in a million users of Tylenol could get a sudden hepatic failure and die before even getting to the hospital?

        Unless you’re an expert in a given field and you can actually do something or help, official statements is all our mind should need; it’s kind of the point of the lyrics from Vicarious by Tool.

      • tmac57 says:

        Well,since the crisis is now in motion,it might be hard for officials to come out and admit that there could be a major catastrophe looming that could kill untold amounts of people without causing an unmanageable panic.Let’s hope that this is NOT the case!My point is that it has always been presented by the industry that a core melt down that could breach the containment vessel,was an event so unlikely that it could be ruled out.Now it is looking like in this case it can’t be ruled out,and I’m not sure that they really know what would be the consequence if it did.For people to understand and put risks of a power generation technology into perspective,they need to know what those risks are.If the experts aren’t sure,then how can they reassure us?If they are sure,why can’t they say so?Like I said,this makes me very uneasy.

      • Max says:

        Remember the growing estimates of the BP oil leak?

        Here’s a graph:

        April 23: 200 barrels per day.
        April 24: 1000 barrels per day.
        April 28: 5000 barrels per day.
        May 27: 12,000-19,000 barrels per day.
        June 10: 20,000-40,000 barrels per day.
        June 15: 35,000-60,000 barrels per day.

      • I’ve used it to, specifically on nuclear (planes) vs. fossil fuels (cars). So, while Dunning might be appealing to emotion, and the nuclear industry has its issues … nuclear still needs to be an important part of the power equation.

  10. Trimegistus says:

    It sounds like some of the commenters here are struggling to avoid saying “But we LIKE gloating!”

    • Max says:

      I like holding people accountable for bad predictions, especially when they try to sweep them under the rug. For example, Sylvia Browne’s prediction that the Sago miners would be rescued.

  11. DeLong says:

    OK, so it has been reported that 2 people were killed by the nuclear plant incident in Japan. At the same time, 10,000+ people were killed by the tsunami. In addition, 250,000 people are estimated to have been killed by the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004. Also, 1,700+ people were killed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Now, add to this all of the people killed in oil drilling accidents (the 11 killed on the oil rig in the Gulf Coast last year) and mining accidents (too numerous to mention) and what is safer? Nuclear energy or all of these other industries?

    I will maintain that living within 2 miles of the ocean, at less than 100 foot elevation, is more dangerous than living near a nuclear reactor.

    Finally, NPR reported today that there were 32,788 deaths in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. in 2009. How many people died from nuclear plant accidents in the same year? Oh, the answer is ZERO.

    Everyone needs to look at the total risk. Nuclear plant incidents are far less risky than driving a car, living near an ocean or other factors (smoking, drinking, unprotected sex).

    I am not a proponent of or involved in the nuclear power plant industry. I just think it is totally hypocritical to single out this industry as a source of fear when many other human pursuits are statistically far more dangerous.

    • Max says:

      It makes sense to compare the risk of nuclear energy to the risk of other sources of energy, but comparing it with the completely unrelated risk of unprotected sex is dumb. Nobody is choosing between nuclear energy and having unprotected sex.

      • JJ says:

        “Nobody is choosing between nuclear energy and having unprotected sex.”

        Maybe not at the parties YOU attend…

  12. Jeff says:

    Call me a Fanboy but Brian’s been a great source of IMO clear and calm information. I appreciate it. As for the predictions people were making about the plants right after the Tsunami, they were pumped for information, by the media and they did their best NOT to instill panic given the very LIMITED information at their disposal.

    I totally agreed modern nukes should be built. But they won’t. Because the public does not have the education required to understand the difference. They are math and statistical idiots that do not understand the risks of driving a car versus squatting on top of a reactor vessel. Fukushima probably is the final nail in the coffin of nuclear power. But what is sad, is far far far more people died in the Tsunami than will ever die, in the next century, because of Fukushima. The tragedy is in Sendai not Fukushima.

    Fukushima is a media freakshow / ratings winner built on the ignorance of the public and ignores the true devastation of the quake/tsunami.

    • Trimegistus says:

      You’re wrong about one thing, Jeff: lots of people will die because of Fukushima. Coal miners, people caught in rolling blackouts, people whose lives are poor and short because they live in an impoverished, energy-starved civilization — all because a bunch of Luddites used this near-disaster to discredit nuclear energy.

      • Andiis says:

        Those miners you speak of were dying before Fukushima and will die after it. They spend their days in wretched conditions and take home only pain and suffering to their families. As it was in New Zealand, China, Argintina, Australia and any where men go underground to mine ore.
        The answer to the need for power is not nuclear, because the poor will not reap the benefit as the cities suck the power to light empty buildings and light streets to entertain the rich.
        We had an alternate industry, but the funding was cut to the university I worked in. We were making advances but too often we were stopped to divert funds for political exigencies such as tax cuts. This whole debate makes me very sad.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Oh, please. “The rich” are going to hog all the electricity if it’s cheap? So we have to make it scarce and expensive? That’s not just illogical, it’s anti-logical.

      • Andiis says:

        Trimegistus your ignorance of the needs and solutions to third world power are breath taking. Smaller simpler power generation in remote villages has been available for generations. We do however need more investment by science in the generation and distribution of sustainable local power sources. e.g solar, tidal, geo-thermal and the like. I suggest you come out to see how it’s done in remote regions of the planet, and by remote I do not mean Kansas Dorothy.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        You are right. If we have cheap, abundant power, it will all get used up by Al Gore to power his mansion made from recycled dolphins.

        I can see him now, chuckling under his breath as he sips on tea made from melted glacier water.

  13. Luke says:

    Still waiting for you to answer Brian’s last question Max. What predictions did he make?

  14. xanadu says:

    Coal vs. Nuclear energy sounds like a false dichotomy. Oh yes, nuclear meltdowns may be bad but are not statistically as bad as coal mining. But what about oil, wind, solar. Of course, we need to keep those out of the question.

    All of the modern reactors built today will be obsolete eventually. Apparently, scheduling a date to stop using them is not a great solution as Fukushima’s was scheduled but this tragedy happened just before it was disposed. As mentioned there is no 100% safety. The problem which I think is not a good idea to ignore is that the worst-case scenario in nuclear is more devastating than it in coal. This is not game theory in which we can multiply the low probability with the large destruction and get a damage estimate of 1.0. This is reality, and the worse case will cause widespread damage not only to lives but to the whole environment. I do not think it is scientific to downplay this just by shielding on statistics and probability.

  15. Max says:

    “This stands in stark contrast to the oil and coal fired power plants in much wider use that routinely kill tens of thousands every year from lung cancer.”

    If you’re talking about the U.S. rather than worldwide, then I think that’s exaggerated.
    The Skeptoid episode cited an article that said, “A 1994 study by Pope estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Americans died yearly from the effects of outdoor particulate air pollution.”

    First, not all particulate air pollution is from power plants, and second, not all deaths are from lung cancer.

    Compare with this article from 2004:

    “Health problems linked to aging coal-fired power plants shorten nearly 24,000 lives a year, including 2,800 from lung cancer, and nearly all those early deaths could be prevented if the U.S. government adopted stricter rules, according to a study released Wednesday.”

    If I’m reading it right, then it’s less than the 3000 annual lung cancer deaths from secondhand smoke.

    I don’t know if stricter rules have been adopted yet.

    • Max, the coal-nuclear death ratio is 4,000-1.

      This is one issue where I just don’t agree with you, sorry.

      • Max says:

        What don’t you agree with? I didn’t say that coal is safer, just that the stats are distorted.
        Also, I think that the 4000 projected deaths from Chernobyl is an underestimate. The UN projected 9000 cancer deaths, and Greenpeace projected 93,000 cancer deaths and 200,000 total deaths.

      • Max, it sounded like you were still questioning the degree of difference between coal-related deaths and nuclear-related ones.

        I agree that 4,000 deaths at Chernobyl is in all likelihood an underestimate.

        Re your comment below, coal, et al, kill in many ways besides cancer: COPD, asthma, etc.

      • Max says:

        If Chernobyl shortened 200,000 lives instead of 4000, then that might change the coal-nuclear death ratio to 80-1, assuming the coal stats were right.

        The above MSNBC article says, “aging coal-fired power plants shorten nearly 24,000 lives a year” from all causes, and “the study concluded that 22,000 of those deaths are preventable with currently available technology.”

        Brian’s distortion of lung cancer stats reminds me of his claim that Newcastle disease killed millions of pelicans. There, he read “birds” and assumed pelicans. Here, he read “deaths” and assumed lung cancer deaths.

  16. Steve says:

    I would like to point out focusing on lung cancer leaves out the much more prevalent issues generated by burning fossil fuels and high levels of particulates. Asthma, COPD. secondary respiratory infections. Pediatric asthma, damage to environment indirect and direct. You must consider all factors when comparing, not just the ones that selectivly support your argument. Cancer is low hanging fruit for nuclear power and easily distorted unless carefully and statically compared.

    • Max says:

      “Cancer is low hanging fruit for nuclear power and easily distorted unless carefully and statically compared.”

      Well I just pointed out one such distortion. Brian’s claim that “oil and coal fired power plants… routinely kill tens of thousands every year from lung cancer” was suspicious because there are 160,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the U.S. and 90% are from smoking, so that only leaves thousands, not tens of thousands, from air pollution. And researching this further, we find that “nearly all those early deaths could be prevented if the U.S. government adopted stricter rules.”

      If you want to consider all factors, then consider all factors of nuclear radiation leaks: nonfatal cancers, birth defects, infertility, weakened immune systems, environmental damage, etc.

      • And, consider all deaths of fossil fuels, too: coal, et al, kill in many ways besides cancer: COPD, asthma, etc.

        I’m not sure exactly how skeptical you are of nuclear vs. fossils, but … look seriously at the deaths we get every year from fossil fuels. (And, the link I had earlier doesn’t even account for on-the-job deaths from mining, drilling, etc.)

  17. Chris Howard says:

    I’ve a friend who always brings up the “UFO/Earthquake ‘connection’ ” everytime a tragedy like this happens. This friend is very compassionate and caring, but when it comes to UFO’s, is obsessed with proving their existence. He even calls it his cause. I know he’s not being malicious, or even, necessarily inconsiderate, just not aware of the “poor taste” of the timing of said claims/remarks.

    Sometimes, the passion of his beliefs cloud his, otherwise, excellent sense of judgement.

  18. Alan says:

    there have (so far) been no serious injuries from the radiation. So far we don’t predict any future cancer cases, but the crisis is far from over and it’s too early to know the extent of the radiation that will ultimately have been released

    I have a “source” that is actually on site who says that there have been extreme cases of radiation exposure that, if they haven’t already led to deaths, soon will. Likewise, others have definitely received heavy enough doses to cut their life expectancies down quite a bit (as in the single digit years). The numbers involved would be in the tens to low hundreds at worse, but it is certainly not the case that there have been “no serious injuries.”

    I assure you this source is not some crank website or conspiracy monger, but one that knows his stuff. He’s an expert in the field actually in the field (so to speak).

    This is not another Chernobyl, but it is likewise not just another Three Mile Island.

  19. Adam Onymouse says:

    Brian,i’ve listend to all skeptoid podcasts and i am like very much you powers of deductive reasoning and logical thinkning. but i still do not understand how you can be pro nuclear power. you have a strong background in computerscience, and you know how debuging and so on works. in a nuclear plant (as you should know) there is no debugger. at many stages you can not tell exactly what is going on. you can not attach a debugger and see what bits are set and what values are in in memory, what is on the stack an so on. in a nuclear power plant, you have often only indications. you cannot watch inside a core. in harrisburg it took 6 years to determine that there was a core meltdown, because that was the earliest point in which someone could look inside. no camreas no senors no nothing told them before. and to my knowledge there is not a single reator type that has a level of control to it that is around that of a normal diesel engine or a computer program. my question is: how can you be pro nuclear power? and i am not only talking edgecases (accidents) here. even in normal circumstances a lot of the information the prople get in the controlroom is based on conjecture. i think what i am trying to say is this: i am strongly urging you to reevaluate your thinking. go back look at the facts, talk to physics people people. what i am not arguing is safety and controls and human error and so on. that is the same for every other method of haresting energy. look at the technology and look at the fact that you cannot not for certain what is going on in any reactor at any given time because you cannot look inside and you cannot measure at the precise points, and that when push comes to shove you have to rely on _guessing_ instead of actual data, because there is no data, just date of effects that can be measured and you have to guess that this or that is the reason for the data. ( you could even argue that for a given set of data in the control room there is an infinite number of problems/normal functionality which could give this readings and you do not know which is which, and you cannot let a computer calculate which is it…). so i hope i have gotten somewhere with my argument…

  20. Michael Morrisson says:

    I got a good portion of the way through these comments, but I just give up. Max and SocraticGadfly, you’re way off base on this one. I was with you guys on the Scientology blog, but you’re completely off the rails here. You’re responding to Brian but have nothing to comment on as he hasn’t posted the tweets that this is all about. Should he have? Sure, that’s a reasonable thing to want, but without them you too have no basis for the responses you’re giving to him. You’ve just assumed he’s lying and mischaracterizing these tweets. You’ve even pulled old episode quotes out to compare the two to show Brian he’s wrong, but you’ve NOTHING TO COMPARE THEM TO! For all you know, the tweets said, “Boy Brian, this is hilarious! All this misfortune makes me joyous as it proves you wrong.”

    Look, you want to jump all over the guy when he makes actual mistakes, be my guest. When you base your arguments on information you don’t have access to, it just makes you look as biased against him as you claim he is about certain things, and greatly reduces any credibilty you may have. Just wait for him to post the tweets, if he can find them, and then comment away. Until them, stick to what you actually know.

    • Max says:

      Yes, there are plenty of trolls on Twitter, and it’s possible that someone tweeted, “People suffering? Yippee!!!”
      But given Brian’s record of twisting criticism, I think it’s more likely that the tweets needled Brian about his overly optimistic assessments of nuclear power, and he responded by essentially calling them sadistic.

      It’s not much different from gun advocates who cry, “Don’t politicize the tragedy” whenever there’s a shooting, to prevent calls for gun control.
      Or right/left-wingers who cry “Don’t politicize the tragedy” after a right-wing or Muslim terrorist act.

      To quote P.Z. Myers, “Screw that. Now is the time to politicize the hell out of this situation.”

      • Michael Morrisson says:

        Yes, I understand that. That’s why I object to what you guys were saying. It’s one thing to put your opinion out there like you just did. It’s another matter entirely when you take that personal assumption and begin asserting it as truth to find more things to attack Brian about. Look, I’m not happy with how he’s responded to criticism in the past either but if you’re going to call the guy out, why not wait until you’ve got something solid. If you’d just measured you’re earlier statements more I’d be ok.

      • As I note below, this previous post of Brian’s that Max cited earlier is quite “solid”:

      • Max, right. I read that 2009 post of Brian’s to which you linked. I wish everybody who criticizes you or me for criticizing Brian would read that first.

        He comes off as a pre-Reformation village priest, telling the peasants to stop questioning him.

  21. John Mayer says:

    MAYBE the newest nuke reactors will be completely safe, but I doubt it. Even if the design is flawless, the human factor can overcome the design. I had friends who worked on the Watts-Bar reactor who told me about coworkers hiding favorite tools in the ductwork at the end of the workday and then forgetting about them. The meltdown at Chernobl was, it seems, more human error than design flaw. And is there any way, really, to prevent the sort of deliberate, suicidal sabotage that caused human deaths in worst US nuke reactor accident?

    I can’t say whether the dangers of nuclear reactors outweigh their advantages over the alternatives in health terms, but I’m very dubious they can on a financial basis; utility rates in the Tennessee Valley skyrocketed as a direct result of trying to cover the costs of TVA’s nuclear build-up. As for their “guaranteed” safety—nothing can go wrong—well, we HAVE heard that before. This doesn’t mean that there have been no advances, just that the nuclear industry doesn’t have a compelling record when it comes to candor.

    You say no one has died from radiation at Fukushima Daichi? That’s disingenuous; the hydrogen explosions were a direct result of the reactor’s design. That no one has been harmed from radiation there is not a given, either, just because they didn’t drop dead on the spot.

    This is not to say that I am 100% against nuclear power. It may well be the worst of a number of very bad options as our population increases and our oil runs out. I remain skeptical, though, that it can be both safe and economically practical. One measure will reassure me that I’m sure that you, as, unless I miss my guess, a libertarian, will endorse. Eliminate the Price-Anderson act and let private industry accept the full risks along with the profits.

  22. John Mayer says:

    One more point: I am not persuaded that comments like, “Oh, my God, I KNEW something like this was going to happen” can be defined as gloating.

  23. Randal Foley says:

    Just on a side note to this discussion….i live in china and recently it was impossible to buy salt. Someone told the people that eating more salt could protect them from absorbing radioactive iodine through their thyroid gland. A quick search showed that you would need to ingest about 5 cups of salt per day to saturate your thyroid with ‘good’ iodine.
    What would that do to your internal organs?
    Also, there are reports from north china of people who could source iodine tablet actually overdosing on them.
    Whatever, this is a terrible tragedy. There should be no gloating about this but perhaps some careful consideration about how to safeguard against another catastrophe like this.

  24. Sheri Kimbrough says:

    I don’t want to argue about who is right or wrong in this nuclear thing. I just want to say that I was truly embarrassed and ashamed to admit I lived in a country where after a huge, deadly earthquake and tsunami, the biggest interest our news media had was in promoting hysteria about nuclear reactors. How can anyone do that? Thousands died and we’re worried about nuclear reactors that may or may not be melting? I don’t mean to minimize the problems of a possible melt-down, but thousands dead and suffering and all our scientists and new people care about are four reactors? There was finally a compassionate physicist on CBS who kept reminding everyone of this. Melt-down or no, the earthquake and tsunami killed thousands and destroyed everything in its path. That should have been our primary concern.

  25. Bob says:

    Can I ask how many people with strongly-held opinions of nuclear power (pro or con) have any actual direct experience with nuclear power, i.e. working at a plant, for a consultant, contractor, or regulator?

  26. Constantinos Galilei says:

    You know, as the news of the earthquakes and tsunamis hit, I was pouring over news and posts about it, worried about the people of Japan. Almost immediately, a terrible thought occurred to me and, try as I might to ignore it, I became evermore irritated about it. I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I heard of pronouncements from gloating Christians. I didn’t see the “Haitians sold their souls to the devil” thing coming because Haiti is a mostly Christian country. But Japan? Even aside from not having a lot of Christians, Japan has the problem of having a lot of Japanese people in it, something which also bothers some American Christians.

    As everyone knows, my prediction bore fruit quickly and abundantly. I tried desperately to only look for information from more serious channels, but was unable to avoid witnessing at least a little of the sheer gleeful excitement from these people.

    When news of problems with the reactor became known, I expected it there, too, this time from some of the same sources and some different ones, as well. I saw that, too. I will also predict that any further damage and especially human casualties will elicit further joy from such people.

    At this point, I should say that I have my own problems with nuclear energy. I do think it’s a very good solution in some countries, but I would not support a bigger push for nuclear energy here in the US. While I am aware that the arguments for its safety are fairly convincing, if it became common here in America, it would become far less regulated than it currently is as energy industry lobbyists paid more attention to it, more shortcuts would be used and I simply don’t trust that the current arguments about the safety of nuclear plants would hold up under market focus. They might. It might actually turn out that there are no ways of making the process cheaper that makes it more dangerous. I don’t know enough to say so or not. But I’ve yet to hear that discussed at any length and I’ve no idea how to go about finding out, so I’d rather err on the side of caution.

    Now that that’s out of the way, I don’t see why Mr. Dunning’s post surprises people. There are some, on whatever side of the fence you’re on as well as the other, who respond to some disasters completely inappropriately. I don’t say that all Christians were overjoyed about the disasters in Japan and Mr. Dunning did not say that everyone who opposes nuclear energy reacted that way in the comments to his posts. Those he speaks of I have not read, but I have seen and heard enough that I take his words at face value. I would hope that he would also speak against some who is for nuclear energy and crows when people working in the oil industry get hurt, but I do not need evidence of that to agree with his point.

    • M167A1 says:

      Thanks you for the well thoughtout post. I think you are headed in the right direction.

      One thing did rub me a bit wrong though.

      Where did you dig up the:
      “Japan has the problem of having a lot of Japanese people in it, something which also bothers some American Christians.”

      I’m certain there are some whackos out there like that but isn’t even using the qualifier “some” excluding the middle a bit? This is akin to trotting out Madam Cleo as a spokesperson for the APA.