Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

The most dangerous game: disinforming the public

Posted by Charles II on March 16, 2011

Barry Ritholtz has provided an alarming example [confirmed by Justin Elliott at Salon] of what appears to be the nuclear industry using a post by an unqualified person to make a claim–now disproven by events–that a significant release of radiation from the Fukushima plant was impossible.

The basic story is this. A person calling himself Jason Oehmen, who appears to be an MIT research scientist with a MechE specialized in supply chain risk management, made a post expressing confidence that there would be no significant release of radiation from Fukushima. According to an author at GeniusNow (original post; currently unavailable to bandwidth, temporarily available via Ritholtz here), this appears to have been reposted at The Energy Collective, a site “powered by Siemens.”

The board of the Energy Collective (Scott Edward Anderson of VerdeStrategy and TheGreenSkeptic–and a FOX News commentator, Marc Gunther ex-Fortune magazine and a “compassionate capitalist“, Christine Herzog who is involved in the SmartGrid idea that we could be energy independent if we just had the right switches installed, Jesse Jenkins who is Director of Energy and Climate Policy at what appears to be a greenwasher, The Breakthrough Institute, Geoffrey Styles, Managing Director at GSW Strategies and “subkect area expert” of a Petroleum Council study devoted to showing that oil companies can remain profitable even with the introduction of alternative energy, and Dan Yurman, who writes for a nuclear indust) appears to be devoted to using climate change to argue for nuclear energy. Reading their bios is to understand how utterly corrupted and compromised is the mainstream US environmental movement. According to GeniusNow, links to the article has been reposted on Facebook 5000 times and 32,000 times overall.

The original post, however, is gone (edited Energy Collective version here appears to be a copy of a post from MITNSE–with different headers– of which more later). If you can read Spanish, German, or Japanese, you might be able to find it. To give you a flavor of it, here’s my flash translation of the introduction to the Spanish version, which the website has conscientiously edited, fully showing a long list of errors of fact by this author:

I am writing this text (12 March) to give you all some degree of secure peace regarding some of the problems in Japan, which is the safety of the Japanese nuclear reactors. That is to say, the situation is serious but under control. The text [i.e. of the post] is long! But after reading it, you will know more regarding nuclear centers than all the journalists of the world put together.

There have not been and “will” not be any significant release of radiation.

By “significant” I mean a level of radiation more than that which you would receive in–say, a long-distance flight or drinking a glass of beer which comes from certain areas with high natural levels of radiation.

I have been reading each notice published regarding the incident since the earthquake and there has not been even one(!) bit of news that was precise and free of errors. By “free of errors”, I don’t refer to journalism that tends to the “anti-nuclear” which is something normal nowadays but I refer to evident errors regarding the laws of physics and nature, as well as an enormous misinterpretation of the events, due to an (obvious) lack of fundamental and basic knowledge regarding how nuclear reactors function and are operated. I have read a 3 page report from CNN in which each paragraph contained an error.

Now, without defending the quality of journalism at CNN, such blanket assertions are pretty obviously complete bulls–t, which would lead any responsible website not to post them at all. But the errors in fact alleged by FullMyHenXu are so numerous that they should lead anyone with any degree of professional dignity to refuse to have anything further to do with the author.

But this is not what happened. MITNSE (a website which claims to be maintained by students of the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering and which is in fact linked from the official departmental website) chose to reprint an edited version without noting the numerous errors in the original. I don’t care about the disclaimer at the top, the failure to re-write the piece from scratch and the involvement of the Department in this bit of wretched scholarship–I suppose to provide its author with some fig leaf of respectability–should be a cause of concern. Does MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering have the standards to disown this and, I would suggest, to discipline whoever arranged for their department to be used in this manner?

To quote GeniusNow:

“So far, although I see a link to this site from NSE, I don’t see any discussion of it. And frankly, Mr/MS mitnse, as far as I can tell you’re actually Ismail Subbiah, graphic designer occasionally on contract to MIT. The links between Siemens AG, Dr Oethman, Barry Brook [The Energy Collective], and MIT/LAI (which has cleverly been avoided – lets do bring that up, shall we?) suggest that no matter why the article was written in the first place, it’s become a major piece of disinformation masquerading falsely as academic opinion.”

I can’t verify the bit about Subbiah, but there’s certainly a lot to suggest a Siemens role in spreading this disinformation.

Now, there’s no surprise to find that a nuclear power company would use Astroturf to spread pro-nuclear propaganda. But this is a crisis in progress. Japanese people who should be making every effort to leave the area have been told that they are at no risk. If a single one was persuaded to stay, then a crime of international proportions has been committed. In any event, the public has been lied to, and we need to know a great deal more about how this happened.

There are so many lessons packed into this one event. Here are a few:

  • * The Internet is a wonderful vehicle for propagating information. That also works for disinformation.
    * The gatekeepers against disinformation are us. The heartening news is that hundreds of posters rebutted the assertions.
    * Allowing corporations to engage in political matters is dangerous to public safety
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    8 Responses to “The most dangerous game: disinforming the public”

    1. Henxu said

      I translated that Oehmen post into Spanish.

      Yes, he may have been proven wrong, but, I past a quotation from Wires at the Salon post related to this matter:
      “If I were to sit down and do a percentage analysis of the ink/electrons/pixels spilled on this story my bet is that Dr. Oehmen post is more accurate than most.

      We have had media claiming:

      ** The outside structure of the reactor buildings are containment.

      ** A hydrogen explosion relieved the pressure in a reactor vessel.

      ** Japanese officials are in a wild panic.

      Never mind the OBVIOUS that there is ALMOST NO chance that whatever happens to the reactors the resultant radiation won’t kill/maim/make homeless as many people as the quake and tsunami have already. The media have been doing a disservice to the current victims by fixating on this sideshow instead of informing us about what happened and what is being done to help the existing suffering. Most stories are filtered through the nuclear lens, many times to the disbelief of the interviewees. Many of these victims have much more pressing issues than the possibility of radiation exposure.

      I am wrong and the nuclear aspect manages to eclipse the current disaster there will be plenty of time to tell that story. But NOW is the time to concentrate on the PEOPLE who are the story instead of a bunch of speculation about some hardware.”

      I’m not pro-nuclear or something like that. I’m just a student and this was a personal challange to try my own English level by translating that private e-mail Oehmen sent to his cousin (or whatever).

      I would judge what he has written by its content rather than who wrote it (I can be a physic student and know more than 99% of people about psycology just because I like it and I’m “studying” it). Btw, does even Ritholz know anything about nuclear-related things apart from the ones that can be read over newspaper/internet? The same can be applied to Justin Elliott.

      Best regards,
      Henxu.

      • Charles II said

        Henxu, I appreciate that you showed the whole post, including places where you believe there are errors. I also do not fault you for passing along what you believed to be a post by someone knowledgeable about nuclear engineering.

        However, I would ask you to consider the following:
        1) The disaster is not over. Although we pray it will not be so, it is possible that the nuclear fallout will harm many more people than the tsunami. Remember that the radiation from the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed about as many people as were killed in the blast, just more slowly and painfully.

        2) The mainstream media are certainly not staffed by geniuses, and may have made many errors. Their ineptitude does not excuse the ineptitude of someone claiming to be knowledgeable.

        3) Statements like calling the outside building “containment” or that a breach of the reactor relieved the pressure are ridiculous, but they are not entirely false. As for whether officials are in a panic, neither of us really knows. The media I have watched have included experts who did know what they were talking about, and so any errors by commentators were corrected.

        4) The concern is not so much over Oehmen’s statement, but over the efficiency and speed with which it was distributed–and whether that involved a company that has a financial interest in the nuclear industry. People say stupid things all the time. But usually corporations don’t turn their great wealth to spreading them. The subject of this post is the power of corporations to disinform people. Barry Ritholtz is not a nuclear expert, but he is an expert on corporate lying.

        5) Since you are a young student, there is an important matter that you may not yet have learned, and that is the weight of duty that an advanced degree places on the person who holds it. A person who has earned a doctorate has a duty to to the public, to truth, and to respect for his profession. Oehmen’s statement did not adhere to any of these. Not to the truth, because he represented himself as an expert in a field in which he is not. Not to the public, because he told people that there was essentially no risk, when the risk is unknown (but definitely not zero). And not to respect for his profession, because he has not come forward to accept responsibility for putting out a statement that is at least erroneous.

        I encourage you in your studies, and especially to learn the duties that education lays upon one.

    2. jo6pac said

      Yep and I’m sure we’ll be able to trust the Amerikan govt. to let us know how the air is a few more days. It’s safe trust us we’re from the govt. I’m sure glad I saved my roll of plastic and duct tape from the bush yrs;)

    3. Stormcrow said

      Jesus on a pogo stick, this has me rolling in the aisles.

      Where did they find this jackass? How many east coast looney bins did they have to trawl, in order to turn him up?

      In the first place, the news stories on this have made it pikestaff plain that the issue is the spent fuel, which can no longer be kept cool, even though its own decaying radioisotope content is raising its temperature to the point where the result is explosions and fires.

      You can shut down the chain reaction, and the engineers did this. But nobod on earth knows how to slow the rate of decay of a radioisotope. And the decay of the radioisotopes in the spent fuel is what’s jacking up the heat, resulting in explosions in three of the reactors and a fire at a fourth.

      So it’s pretty obvious that we can jolly well expect increased radiation dosages in areas close to the failed reactors. Those explosions and that fire are going to release radioisotopes from the spent fuel, since that’s what caused them in the first place.

      And that’s what we’re seeing, if the Guardian’s coverage of this can be believed. From the IAEA, as reported by the Guardian:

      As reported earlier, a 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour radiation dose observed at Fukushima Daiichi occurred between units 3 and 4.

      OK, you have to be smack dab on the site itself to get this sort of dose.

      But it is nontrivial, to put it mildly. The Wikipedia page on the Sievert:

      Symptoms of acute radiation (within one day):

      • 0 – 0.25 Sv (0 – 250 mSv): None
      • 0.25 – 1 Sv (250 – 1000 mSv): Some people feel nausea and loss of appetite; bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen damaged.
      • 1 – 3 Sv (1000 – 3000 mSv): Mild to severe nausea, loss of appetite, infection; more severe bone marrow, lymph node, spleen damage; recovery probable, not assured.

      Short version: the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi plant is receiving physiologically signicant amounts of radaition right now. It is most certainly not a healthy place to be.

      I may decide to listen to Jason Oehmen when he comes back safe and sound after a multiple-day campout at the Fukushima Daiichi site.

      Not until.

      • Oh, and reactors five and six are heating up too.

      • Charles II said

        There are two separate issues, which I think you have inadvertenly muddied. The fuel rods in the reactors are melting down. The storage pools in which spent fuel rods are kept are evaporating. A description of the two problems is given here. The fuel pools may be the most immediate problem, but the fuel rods are capable of causing great harm as well if the reactor is breached.

        I think the distinction you are trying to draw is between background radiation (generated by whatever form the fuel rods are in) and aerosolized (or otherwise dispersed) radioisotopes. It’s true that if background radiation were the only problem, everyone could just walk away from the site and come back in a few years when it has cooled down. The problem is that the heat and explosions tend to kick radioactive dust in the air. This is why the building surrounding the reactor is actually a form of containment. A pretty flimsy one, granted, but every bit of anything that keeps radioactive dust on site is containment.

        • Stormcrow said

          Bingo.

          The problem is that the heat and explosions tend to kick radioactive dust in the air.

          Or blows it all over the place, if the dispersion takes place by means of a hydrogen gas explosion.

    4. IzOPnYDe said

      Stormcrow, I couldn’t have said it any better. It’s really nice to hear from someone who is informed. But you haven’t described all the benefits of the feature in radiating our environment & ourselves. I can think of one right off. How about glow in the dark kids. Just imagine when the power goes out you’ll be able to spot ‘em right off. And food, it’ll last forever. I guess the grand kids would call that number two. So come on think positive. Gee, I wonder if there is a spot for me as a spin doctor somewhere? How about this, “Don’t be radiation go irritating!” Or is that the other way around? Yeah, well maybe it needs work. Fox are you listening? In this economy you have to take what you can get. IzOPnYDe

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