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
respected 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.
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.