Arnold “Arnie” Gundersen is in some ways the opposite of Michio Kaku. He’s not flashy, he avoids sounding over-the-top, even when he talks about grim scenarios, and he doesn’t wave his arms around like a mad scientist.
The first time I saw Gundersen, I thought he looked like the kind of man I could trust. He looks like somebody’s kindly grandpa. He was doing a demonstration in his back yard with a blow torch about the effect of heat on the cladding of a nuclear reactor fuel rod. It was informative and educational, and not at all dishonest, as far as I could tell.
I realized quickly that Gundersen was anti-nuclear power, but in the early videos that I saw, he was very cautious and said very few things that made me think he wasn’t being honest. It seemed to me that he was just interpreting the information coming out from Japan. I didn’t find his commentary particularly interesting, so I didn’t pay much more attention to him. I also missed his statement early on on “Russia Today” that the Fukushima incident was “Chernobyl on steroids”.
Then, on March 31, Gundersen posted a video claiming that the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 was dry and that the spent fuel rods were exposed to the air. He based this not on information released, but on his analysis of a low-quality video of the reactor building that he found on Ustream. This video started spreading on Facebook, and so Arnie Gundersen once again wandered into my field of view.
Something felt wrong. He was more slippery than Michio Kaku– he wasn’t saying anything that I as a non-scientist could pinpoint as factually incorrect. As far as I could tell, he was just extrapolating a little more than I felt comfortable with.
Over the days and weeks that followed, I found his videos being posted on Facebook and Twitter more and more, saying more and more scary things that just didn’t sound right. It was around this time that he started being interviewed as an expert by the mainstream media. So I did a little digging to see if this grandfatherly man who seemed so trustworthy was really what he appeared to be.
What I discovered was that Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates, is a for-profit company that hires him out to provide expert testimony and write research papers for anti-nuclear groups. He has a lot to gain then by making sure his appearances in the media make nuclear power sound dangerous.
Gundersen is the “Chief Engineer” of Fairewinds Associates, and is often introduced as such on news programs. That title is meaningless since Gundersen is the only engineer at Fairewinds: the company consists of just him and his wife.
On RT (“Russia Today”) in a clip that has been translated into Japanese and posted on YouTube, the host talks about Gundersen being “part of the nuclear industry” in what seems to be an effort to make Gundersen look more credible. “Oh!” thinks the viewer, “He works for the nuclear industry and he’s saying all these terrible things about Fukushima and nuclear power. He’s speaking against his own interests, since he won’t have a job if nuclear power is abolished, so he must be telling the truth!”
The truth is, as I’ve shown already, that Gundersen is a for-hire anti-nuclear consultant, and although he claims “39 years of nuclear power engineering experience” on his website, that is not the case. Since Gundersen has been an expert witness in several cases, his accurate resume is available online in the public record for anyone to see. According a version of his resume from 2006, Gundersen’s career did start 39-40 years ago in 1971, but he only worked in the industry until 1990.
In 1990 he was dismissed from his job in the industry. He claims that he was a whistleblower, his company claimed defamation, and they settled out-of-court. From that time until at least 2006 he seems to have worked full-time as a teacher at various private schools in Vermont, doing “expert” consulting in order to supplement his income. I don’t think either teaching or being paid as an “expert” witness count as “nuclear power engineering experience”.
Gundersen also claims that he was a licensed reactor operator (he calls himself a “critical facility reactor operator, instructor” on that portion of his resume), but some investigation reveals that the reactor in question was a 100 Watt “critical assembly” at a school. That reactor generated no power and cannot be said to have provided Gundersen with any experience in operating or maintaining an actual nuclear power plant.
A browse through the Fairewinds Associates website is also telling. There is no video content on the site that predates Gundersen’s March 15, 2011 appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. His first self-produced video appears on March 17. It appears very slick from the get-go, with good production values, and makes me wonder if Fairewinds, smelling money in the air, hadn’t suddenly hired a PR firm right after the Fukushima crisis began. I don’t have any information to prove this, but the timing is a bit suspicious.
So why am I picking on poor Grandpa Gundersen? Because as he got more media exposure, his international profile grew, and his statements were being accepted without question by the English-language media and then being spread around in Japan. And as time went on and less new and exciting information emerged from Fukushima, his exaggerations and distortions became easier to spot, even by a guy with a Fine Arts degree.
For instance, you’ll remember that Gundersen claimed the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 had gone dry. According to a June 15 story in the Associated Press, a new video emerged proving that the Japanese officials were right and the spent fuel pool had not gone dry, as the U.S. officials (and Gundersen) had insisted. Gundersen has not removed the video about the spent fuel pool going dry from his website, which is to be commended, but neither has he issued an apology or retraction now that evidence has emerged that contradicts his analysis.
On June 12 Gundersen released a video on the Fairewinds Associates site that I think is very illustrative of the kind of nonsense Gundersen is spreading into the media. He records about one “update” on Fukushima every week, but I thought this one is the most illustrative of how he is becoming bolder in his claims as time goes on.
- The stricken reactors had released more “hot particles” than TEPCO had originally thought and that people in Tokyo were breathing in 10 of these every day in April
- These “hot particles” are undetectable with a regular Geiger counter
- These “hot particles” were detected by “independent scientists” in Tokyo using air filters
- These “hot particles” are undetectable inside the body
- These “hot particles” latch onto tissue and irradiate a small area (he expanded on this in a June 14th interview on CNN) (this is “hot particle” theory)
- “People” in Japan are reporting a metallic taste in their mouths
- People also reported metallic tastes in their mouth near Three Mile Island, when undergoing medical imaging, after Chernobyl, etc.
These claims, particularly those of “hot particles” were repeated in interviews on CNN, Fox News, and other TV networks, as well as in many online articles.
As we’ve already discussed, “hot particle” theory is pretty solidly debunked, but more worrying in this case is that Gundersen has started being cagey about where his information is coming from. For instance, the “independent scientists” in Tokyo who were allegedly sending him data on “hot particles”. Who are they? There doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to hide their identities… unless they don’t exist.
Also, assuming for just a moment that any of what Gundersen said was true (I cannot find anyone other than him originating information on radioactive particles in air filters; all links about it lead back to him), my question would be: how many “hot particles” per day were we breathing in before this? Radioactive particles were already in the air, long before Fukushima Daiichi got hit by a tsunami: particles that were put there by other industry, from bomb testing during the cold war, etc. So the missing piece of information is what’s the difference now? But even at 10 particles per day– if we’re talking about particles with radiation levels so low that they cannot be detected, it seems odd to hit the panic button.
The whole story about people reporting metallic tastes in their mouths is also a bit of a shocker, coming from a scientist. There are many things that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth. Here is a partial list:
antibiotics and medications used for treatment of
- kidney stones
- prenatal vitamins
- anaesthetic ~ lidocaine
- heart failure ~ captopril
- giardiasis ~ metronidazole
- trichomoniasis ~ tinidazole
- CT scan ~ contrast medium
- chronic alcoholism ~ disulfiram
- rheumatoid arthritis ~ auranofin
- high blood pressure ~ captopril
- low calcium treatment ~ calcitriol
- weight loss, diabetes ~ metformin
- tooth infections
- food allergy
- peptic ulcer
- lichen planus
- marine toxins
- too much iron
- lead poisoning
- bleeding gums
- kidney disease
- eating pine nuts
- copper overdose
- selenium toxicity
- iodine intoxication
- mercury poisoning
- cadmium poisoning
- acute kidney failure
- burning mouth syndrome
Tokyo is a city of over ten million people. Given all the possible causes, surely every day a number of people experience a metallic taste in their mouths. Reporting on anecdotal evidence like this is not only unscientific, but unethical given the anxiety that it causes.
Gundersen has got a lot of play in the international media, and his videos have spread virally via bilingual Japanese people who have translated and posted them on the Internet. I hope that I’ve shown that Gundersen is not a trustworthy source of information about Fukushima for the following reasons:
- He has been dishonest about his qualifications and work experience
- He misrepresents himself (or at least allows others to misrepresent him) as part of the nuclear industry
- He has an undeclared direct financial interest in increasing his profile as an anti-nuclear power consultant in order to attract new clients
- He subscribes to a theory of low-level radiation damage that has been discredited
- He has made claims that have been proven to be false
- He has made claims that don’t stand up to investigation, are anecdotal, and are unfalsifiable
- As time goes on and Fukushima produces less dramatic news, Gundersen’s reports become more dramatic.
I hope this has been helpful. I wish that the media would be a little less credulous when dealing with experts, and challenge statements that sound wrong, but failing that, it’s our job to not take whatever an “expert” says at face value and to ask questions.
The information about Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates is mostly available on the company’s own website at fairewinds.com.
Gundersen’s 2006 resume is available online here: http://www.necnp.org/files/docs/NEC_March_8_2006_Appeal_re_Docket_6812_filings_3_8_06.pdf pages 26 – 29.
The information about his claims about running a reactor were first reported here: http://atomicinsights.com/2011/02/arnie-gundersen-has-inflated-his-resume-yet-frequently-claims-that-entergy-cannot-be-trusted.html
The information about the spent fuel pool not being dry originally came from a June 15/16 Associated Press article (date depends on your time zone). That article has now been taken down, but the text is still floating around on various news sites:
The list of conditions that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth were lifted directly from an article at Healthblurbs.com: http://www.healthblurbs.com/many-causes-of-metallic-taste-metal-taste-in-mouth-and-taste-of-metal-in-your-mouth-symptoms/
Other references are the same as the ones for Kaku.