Fukushima controversies that the mainstream media ignores

Pub date October 10, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff
SectionPolitics Blog

This week, we wrote our annual analysis of the list of censored stories released by Project Censored. We wrote that “in one study that got little attention, scientists Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman found that in the period following the Fukushima meltdowns, 14,000 more deaths than average were reported in the US, mostly among infants.”

It’s true that the study got little attention in mainstream media, with a few exceptions including coverage in Al Jazeera. It was, however, the subject of scrutiny from multiple sources.

Sherman is a physician and former advisory board member for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxic Substances Control Act, and Mangano is an epidemiologist and public health administrator and researcher.

The debate that followed the release of their study got into important issues of the health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Both those defending and attacking the study, and the general principle of the health impacts of nuclear energy, had their say. But all this happened outside mainstream media, and in the wake of Fukushima, mainstream media has largely ignored health implications. That’s why the story was highlighted by Project Censored, which explores stories underreported by the mainstream media, in their book Censored 2013: Dispatched from the Media Revolution.

An article by Sherman and Mangano about their research was first published in June 2011 in Counterpunch, a left-leaning political newsletter. It was criticized then. Counterpunch came back with a response from their “statistical consultant” Pierre Sprey, who found that there was an increase in infant deaths, although not as stark as the increase Sherman and Mangano found. He found that the increase was amplified by including other cities in the Pacific Northwest in the set.

An updated version of the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of International Health Services, in December.

Sherman and Mangano came to their conclusions by comparing deaths in a set of US cities during a 28-week period during which the meltdown occurred on March 11 to the same 28-week period in 2010. They found that in the 14 weeks before March 11, deaths were up 2.34 percent in 2011, but in the period after the Fukushima disaster, they were up by 4.46 percent. They extrapolated this data and determined a “a projected 13,983 excess U.S. deaths”

Again, the study was widely criticized. One source of critique was Michael Moyer, who wrote an article in Scientific American lambasting the study. He said that the authors cherry-picked the data they used. Moyer wrote that “No attempt is made at providing systematic error estimates, or error estimates of any kind. No attempt is made to catalog any biases that may have crept into the analysis, though a cursory look finds biases a-plenty (the authors are anti-nuclear activists unaffiliated with any research institution).”

But aside from the Scientific American article and a few other instances of mainstream coverage, the critical response to Sherman and Mangano’s story was also underreported. The people who took another look at their numbers were writing for alternative press. Websites like nuclearpoweryesplease.org, whose creators are “are convinced that nuclear power is vital to securing energy production in a sustainable way until science can provide us with a truly limitless source of power.” and atomicinsights.com, written by self-described “pro-nuclear advocate” Rod Adams.

The whole incident raises interesting questions about what constitutes mainstream media and alternative media, the value of peer-review and fact-checking, and the way that corporate interests control news stories. Almost every person who weighed in on this story was likely biased in some way, from the researchers who set out to see if there was a correlation between US deaths and the Fukushima meltdown to the pro-nuclear activists who attacked their study.

The nuclear industry has plenty of mouthpieces. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying group for nuclear companies, releases its own press statements. A blog associated with the NEI, neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com, has been a part of the online debunking frenzy surrounding Sherman and Mangano’s work.

Does being associated with the nuclear industry make critiques incorrect? In this situation, it seems clear that the refutations are credible.

It does make them suspicious, as the nuclear industry’s profits rely on the belief that nuclear energy is perfectly safe.

Mainstream news is supposed to serve as a credible and reliable source of information. But coverage of the effects of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster have been mostly left up to bloggers and activists. And Sherman and Mangano’s flawed study is far from the only outcry. In Canada, concerns were raised about radiation levels in rainwater. A series of investigations into RadNet, the EPA’s radiological detection network, found that the system suffers from maintenance and reliability issues, and may have reported false low levels of radiation in the weeks following Fukushima.

In Japan, a strong protest movement insists that they and their children aren’t safe following the meltdown. The country announced plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040 following Fukushima. Strong anti-nuclear sentiment also exists in Germany, where the government has plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2022.

In the United States, the controversy over nuclear energy rages on. The nuclear industry is a powerful corporate interest, and likely has something to do with the suppression of mainstream coverage of nuclear hazards. At the same time, corporate flaks are just as capable of creating “alternative” media sources that twist stories to reflect a pro-nuclear agenda. Of course, so are anti-nuclear advocates, who may be equally willing to ignore facts to promote their agenda.
As Censored 2013 points out, that debate is largely underreported by the mainstream media. Nuclear power may not have led to 14,000 excess deaths in the US following the Fukushima disaster. But it has certainly led to a confused circus of less than reliable sources, competing to be believed as truth, while traditional credible reporting falls away.