Potential Causes of Misunderstandings of Fukushima Reactor Problems

Editor’s Note: Joel M. holds a Ph.D. in Biology and currently resides in Tokyo, Japan. He has volunteered his time and insights to the RDTN.org blog. The panic in the media outside Japan, well, I can certainly understand that.  Totally aside of understanding the technical matters involved, I think a lot of the panic is honest misunderstandings due to translation problems. I cannot tell you how complicated translating from Japanese to English, and vice versa, is.  Nearly every single thing is out of order.  “eastnorth” instead of “northeast”.  They count in 10,000s, not 1,000s, so that conversion can lead to errors.  The subject is often omitted so must be supplied.  If directly translated, nuance can be completely off.  There is almost never any kind of correspondence between words in English and Japanese.  For example, I was at the supermarket and there was a sign “We do not exchange money”, which should be “No change without purchase”.  I think that will give you a sense of how nearly every single direct translation is likely to be wrong or misleading in some way.  Translating directly from English into Japanese is even more hilarious. Reading short news articles increases the confusion because of the lack of context.  After watching two hours of NHK documentaries with really detailed models and graphics explaining what was found and where, seeing pictures of the control room damaged like the bridge on Star Trek, and listening to other full explanations, when I see people abroad pick up a word or sentence and misunderstand what it means, panicking everyone, well, that is just not helpful in any way. When this first started, it seemed that even CNN had not one person who understood Japanese because the newscasters were looking at live feeds but didnt know what they were looking at.  Japan was the second, now third, largest economy in the world, with a population of 130,000,000, and I thought that was a little strange that …

Open Dialogue

From the start, we’ve known that a longer-form dialogue would be necessary for this site. We will be using this blog to help bring a bit of context to the site, what the data means and where it is going. We will have guest columns from nuclear experts in an effort to provide valuable analysis to the information. To start, we wanted to offer a bit of background. As we’ve watched the unfathomable footage of the tragedies in Japan unfold, we’ve recognized the critical role reliable information plays in helping people to understand and cope with what’s happened. This site, and the idea behind it, started with fear. In the past week, the world has been inundated with various reports of radiation. Several government agencies were issuing conflicting reports regarding radiation levels in and around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Our hope in launching this site is that clear, reliable data can provide focus on the critical relief efforts needed in Japan. It is not, nor should it be considered, a replacement for official information. This site supplements information by providing several data feeds. We’ve been working day and night to find and integrate new data sources that can help provide reliable data. For the time being, thankfully, it seems that levels are low enough that our friends in Japan can focus on recovery without worrying about increased radiation. In the event that the situation changes, our data will reflect those differences. Since launching on Saturday, we have been inundated with support alongside thoughtful critique. We are thankful for both, and welcome an open dialogue for how to improve the data, functionality and reliability of the site. In an effort to start that dialogue, we wanted to discuss some of the themes that have emerged. Crowdsourcing Though we’re extremely thankful for …

Guest Contribution: A Discussion on Radiation and Radioactive Material

Editor’s Note: Alan Stinchcombe is a retired physics teacher who resides in Suffolk, UK. He is currently collaboratively writing a school textbook on computer science. Radioactive fission or other decay processes occurring in radioactive materials can produce nuclear radiations such as gamma rays and neutrons that have substantial ranges in air.  Industrial or therapeutic exposure to such radiation can occur without any release of radioactive material from its container.  However, the currently raised levels of radiation dose rate in some parts of Japan are the result of environmental pollution by radioactive material following recent damage to several nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage facilities. The New York Times has been careful to distinguish between radioactive material and radiation (see, for example, its article on reactor status).  However, the BBC has been less scientifically literate in its reporting, using less scientifically-accurate terminology in an effort to simplify complex notions such as using the term ‘radiation’ to refer to both radiation and radioactive material.  For example, one BBC report states: ‘Tepco will have to compensate farmers for losses caused by the nuclear radiation leaking from its power plants’. Obviously, the two concepts are intimately related and radiation is the simplest method of detecting the presence of radioactive material. Yet we need to distinguish between radiation as a tell-tale marker of radioactive materials and the damaging dose of radiation that radioactive material can deliver once it contaminates our environment and ultimately finds its way into our bodies. Outside the evacuation zone around a nuclear accident, at a distance of tens or hundreds of kilometres, the intensity of even the most penetrating radiation from the accident is very low.  However, radioactive material ejected into the atmosphere or washed into waterways can travel long distances, although it becomes more and more diluted as it spreads.  A …