Tag Archive: ASIOS

Jul 25

Arnie Gundersen – The Facade of Believability

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.

 

Gundersen talks a hot load of crap.

 

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.

 

Gundersen claimed:

 

  • 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
  • antidepressants
  • 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

dental problems

  • gingivitis
  • periodontitis
  • tooth infections

other

  • cancer
  • food allergy
  • peptic ulcer
  • lichen planus
  • marine toxins
  • too much iron
  • hypercalcemia
  • 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.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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:
http://articles.boston.com/2011-06-16/news/29666500_1_fuel-pool-nrc-fuel-rods

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.

Jul 24

Michio Kaku Rant – Bibliography

Just a quickie bibliography for my recent post about bullshit artist Michio Kaku.

 

On Plutonium toxicity:

Most of my points about plutonium can be found in the plutonium article on Wikipedia.

 

The quotation about 5000 respirable particles was sourced from a plutonium human health fact sheet published by the Argonne National Laboratory.

 

More info about plutonium toxicity, and the list of organizations who have dismissed “Hot Particle” theory was sourced from Bernard L. Cohen’s book The Nuclear Energy Option, chapter 13 (see the section on plutonium toxicity) and his paper The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity. The latter is also the source of my statement that a microgram of ingested plutonium will give you one chance in a million of getting cancer.

 

Bernard L. Cohen is a controversial figure in the Nuclear debate, but he uses the most conservative model of low-level radiation danger (the Linear No-Threshold Model) to come up with his figures.

 

Information about MOX fuel comes again from Wikipedia’s page on the subject.

 

When using Wikipedia, I have clicked through to the references and read the source material whenever possible.

Jul 23

Michio Kaku = Douche

Here’s a section of the book chapter I wrote for ASIOS’s upcoming book. Since it’s only going to be published in Japanese, I wanted to share some of it with you. Keep in mind that it’s written for Japanese readers, and for each person or media source I wrote about, I was asked to explain why Japanese people should care.
 
***
 
Michio Kaku, despite his Japanese name, is American, and not very well known over here. Kaku is a MichioKaku_commonsrespected theoretical physicist, professor, and the co-founder of string field theory. He also is a populariser of science, meaning that he works to communicate science to the general population by making it easier to understand. He is also a futurist, which means that he attempts to predict what life in the future will be like. He frequently appears on science and news programs in the west, and has a definite facility for making science sound exciting. He’s a very imaginative man and can paint very compelling images with his words.
 

The problem is that as far as I can tell, Kaku will accept any offer to appear in the media and comment on science stories, even when they are outside his area of expertise. Kaku has said that humans have stopped evolving (“gross” evolution, he called it, using a word he just made up); opposed the Cassini space probe launch because it had plutonium on board; and has stated that UFOs are real and that aliens have visited Earth (and they’re invisible).

 

Regardless of how silly these claims are, I will limit my analysis to his comments on the Fukushima incident and its aftermath. He appeared on many television shows (Late Night with David Letterman, Real Time with Bill Maher, Fox News Insider, CNN, NBC’s Nightline, ABC news, Democracy Now, and more…) in the days, weeks, and months following March 11, saying whatever he could to make the situation sound even more dramatic and dangerous than it was.

 

But isn’t he an expert? He is a physicist, after all. True, but he is a theoretical physicist, not a nuclear physicist. Aren’t they close enough? Not really. An anatomy lecturer and a neurologist are both highly trained people who hold doctorate degrees, but if you had a rare brain disease, you’d want to consult the neurologist, who actually practices medicine, and not the lecturer, who mostly deals with paper and the occasional dissection of a cadaver.

 

As a theoretical physicist, Kaku works on paper with ideas and mathematics. He does not work with things that exist in the actual, physical world, the way an experimental physicist or engineer would.

 

Of course, this isn’t enough to condemn his opinion as uninformed or dishonest on its own. To get a clear picture of Kaku’s style, you need to look at what he’s actually said:

 

 

[Reactor] 3 is so dangerous because it’s the only reactor containing what is called Mixed Oxide Fuel i.e., plutonium. Plutonium is one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. A dust particle that you can’t even see, inhaled into your lungs, could cause lung cancer.

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 26, 2011

 

“Plutonium is the most toxic chemical known to science! A speck of plutonium, a millionth of a gram, could cause cancer if it’s ingested.”

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 25,2011

 

 

Kaku has a habit of saying things that are inaccurate and therefore misleading. In this case, his words make Mixed Oxide Fuel– the same MOX fuel that the Natural News was hysterical about– sound as if it’s just another word for plutonium. In reality, MOX is generally manufactured with 5% – 7% plutonium, the other 93% – 95% being uranium. 30% of that plutonium is consumed when the fuel is used.

 

He also describes plutonium as “the most toxic chemical known to science”, which begs the question: “Really?” Kaku seems no more informed on this subject than the people he is being interviewed by. Especially since he claims that ingesting a millionth of a gram could cause cancer. He’s right: ingesting one millionth of a gram of plutonium can give you about one chance in a million of getting a radiation-caused cancer. So yes, it could cause cancer. So can a sunburn, but people still go outdoors.

 

 

Plutonium Toxicity

 

Because I am not a physicist or a chemist or a medical doctor, I will keep this as short and as simple as I possibly can.

 

Along with beta and gamma radiation, plutonium emits alpha radiation. The alpha radiation is the biggest danger in terms of toxicity, because most plutonium isotopes release only very low energy beta particles, and very little gamma radiation. Harmless before it enters the body (alpha particles cannot penetrate the outer layer of human skin; even a sheet of paper is enough to block them), once inside the body alpha radiation is the most destructive form of ionizing radiation.

 

However, unlike other radioactive isotopes which make their way into the food chain, Plutonium tends to form itself into large molecules which have difficulty being absorbed by plants or animals, either through roots or digestive tracts. This means that the greatest risk of plutonium toxicity is by inhalation. When inhaled, about 5% of the plutonium gets absorbed into the body and migrates mostly to the bones and to the liver, where it can sit for many decades, irradiating surrounding tissue, possibly causing cancer (usually lung, liver, or bone cancers).

 

Despite how bad this sounds, this information is gleaned in part from laboratory studies of animals given relatively high doses of plutonium. Epidemiological studies of human populations exposed to plutonium dust do not corroborate the observations reported in animals. In other words, the results from high dose experiments are not reflected in studies of low-dose exposures.  Rises in lung cancer throughout the United States, for instance, generally correspond to areas with high air pollution, whereas in communities downwind from the Nevada nuclear bomb-test site where one would expect to see an increase of (plutonium-caused) cancers, there has been no such increase.

 

Further, according to a fact sheet released by the Argonne National Laboratory in 2005: “…breathing in 5,000 respirable plutonium particles of about 3 microns each is estimated to increase an individual’s risk of incurring a fatal cancer about 1% above the U.S. average.”

 

Plutonium is dangerous, but certainly does not deserve the moniker “most toxic chemical known to mankind” or the like.

 

What about Kaku’s other claim? That a tiny particle of plutonium can give you lung cancer? This is a claim we hear over and over again from the likes of Helen Caldicott and Christopher Busby. It’s mostly based on the “Hot Particle” theory, which has been discredited for years.

 

“Hot Particle” Theory

 

A “hot particle”, has no precise definition, but is essentially a very small (microscopic), highly radioactive particle that due to its electrical charge, will “hop” from one surface to another.

 

The “hot particle” theory posits that the hot particles are more dangerous than previously thought because once ingested or inhaled, their electrical charge will cause them to stick in one place. This has led to claims that the particles give a much higher than average dose to just a few cells, increasing the chance of causing a cancer by 100,000 times more than mainstream science would predict.

 

This theory has not been backed up by actual studies. In fact studies by

 

  • the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
  • the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP)
  • the British Medical Research Council
  • the U.K. National Radiological Protection Board
  • the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
  • the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • the U.K. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

 

have investigated and rejected the “hot particle” theory of increased cancer risk.

 

Nor is theory borne out in real-life incidents. According to the theory, the 26 workers who breathed in significant amounts of plutonium dust at Los Alamos during the 1940s should have developed about 200 lung cancers between them. As of 1991, just three of them had developed lung cancer. Those three were also smokers (in the United States, 87% of lung cancer cases are estimated to be caused by smoking).

 

This theory is considered to be discredited by mainstream science.

 

 

The leadership [in Japan] is disconnected from reality. They’re not physicists, they’re not engineers… -Michio Kaku, In the Arena on CNN, March 18, 2011

 

As early as March 18 and well into early April, Kaku was making the rounds on news and entertainment shows, urging the Japanese government to “call in the military” and “bury the sucker!” (meaning the Fukushima reactors). He didn’t seem to realize that the JSDF were already deployed, or that burying the reactors was a bad idea while they were still generating heat. (So apparently, he’s not much of an engineer either…)

 

Why do people believe Kaku, and why do news shows keep asking him to comment? Partly because he is able to talk in very simple, direct, and above all, entertaining language (“…we could lose a good chunk of northern Japan!”) that appeals to newscasters and their viewers, and partly because he obviously makes himself available.  In my opinion, he is a shameless self-promoter who cares more about getting himself public exposure than the truth.

 

On the same episode of “In the Arena” quoted above, Kaku slyly seemed to accept credit for Prime Minister Kan’s statement that burying the reactors was a possibility once they were stabilized:

 

I was on national television, and it got picked up by NHK… and their Prime Minister finally got around to saying ‘And oh gee, maybe we should think about this option.’ So it’s seeping its way now into the highest levels of Japanese government.”

I could probably write a whole chapter just on Michio Kaku alone, but I hope that I’ve given an overview of why what he says should not be taken at face value. My impression is that his comments have not been directly reported much in Japan. The problem is that because he is so widely respected, and appears on television so much, on American networks of all political stripes (from Fox News to Democracy Now), what he has said has shaped the tone of the reporting coming out of the U.S. He was leading the charge of people shouting to bury Fukushima, he was giving the American networks many of the doomsday scenarios that flowed back to us over the Internet, and in general he was feeding the fear machine and enabling other doomsayers with his thoughtless “science”.

 

UPDATE: Have added a quickie bibliography in a follow-up post.