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Nuclear Tag

Pushing Daisies

In June and July, one of the large trending articles revolved around a weird botanical phenomena that occurred in the fields surrounding the abandoned Japanese nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Daisies were popping up with weird mutations all over the place — namely, strange conjoined daises that seemed to be frozen in time like a pregnancy gone awry.

The bloggers (inherent irony) and social media warriors had a field day with this information, with some writers even claiming that these flowers are the

latest in the long-list of victims, which have experienced deformation over nuclear disasters.

That was quite a bold statement, but was it justified?

I waited to write an article on this topic because I wanted all of the evidence to pile in. And my patience has been rewarded. In short, yes, there are strange mutations occurring to the plants surrounding the fields of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But no, there is nothing to worry about. If anything, the virality of this topic is harming the progress and global acceptance of nuclear energy as a proper and viable means of meeting the world’s energetic demands (but I’ll get to that later).

Debunk 1: Radiation levels

Many of the articles showcasing the damaged daisies will happen to include the amount of radiation present in those fields. The original tweet was posted by @San_Kaido, where he stated that the levels of radiation were at 0.5μSv.

Wow, that’s a lot of numbers and symbols, look at that funky letter “u”, it probably means “extreme danger”. Without any context, that’s a common assumption. But because this scientific jargon can be overwhelming to the general populous, scientists have devised an easy way to compare radiation exposure levels to something more common and tasty… a banana.

That’s right, bananas, with their particularly radioactive isotope Potassium-40, deliver ionizing radiation with each mouthful (the fruit that keeps on giving). Scientists have taken note of the average dose in the average banana, and have realized that this can be used to express how dangerous the radiation level of any object is in comparison to a banana. Using what is called the Banana Equivalent Dose (BED), we can see how many bananas it would take to reach a given level of radiation. It sounds silly, but it puts things into perspective.

So how much radiation does a regular 150g banana give off? About 0.1μSv

That is to say, you will receive an equal amount of ionizing radiation from eating 5 bananas as the daisies have received from being in those grasslands. Essentially, this amount is small and negligible. Compared to the amount in those fields, you receive 80x the amount  of radiation flying in a plane, 140x from just living in a brick house, and 14,000x with each chest CT scan — not to mention that the maximum permitted dose for radiation workers in the U.S.A. is 100,000x greater than what is experienced in the crazy daisy meadows. Further still, a reading of 0.5μSv is classified as safe for “medium to long term habitation”.

I guess the obvious (and only) reasonable lesson you can get from this information is that bananas are harmful and scary and should never be eaten.

Only an evil, oppressive, radiation filled fruit could be shaped in such a way.

Debunk 2: Radiation mutation

The next major embellishment put forth was that the leaked radiation from the power plant is what caused these horrible mutations to arise in the poor helpless daisies. I can understand the thought process: mutated flowers + leaked radiation = radiation induced mutation. But all it took was a simple Google search (seemingly as difficult as pulling teeth) to get one’s facts straight.

The name of the condition affecting those daisies is known as “fasciation”, and is characterized by the meristem (growing region of the plant) elongating perpendicularly from its original growth path (which is usually upwards), causing flattened and large flowers to manifest. This particular phenomena arises through a few reasons: from physical damage during early development, a recessive gene (one which Gregor Mendel noted in his pea study), by random genetic mutation, or most likely through a hormonal imbalance that may be induced by a bacterial infection.

This is not some novel trait that has just arisen recently, Gregor Mendel knew about fasciation during his paramount study with peas, and that was back in the 1850s. Even Googling the term gives you pages upon pages of results showing pictures of the funny flowers.

Now, could fasciation have occurred in these daisies as a result of the ionizing radiation causing a de novo (new) mutation? Of course, there is always the possibility of that being the case. However, in my eyes, the odds are stacked against this scenario. Firstly, if radiation was to blame for this, we would have seen the physical effects years ago considering that the Fukushima disaster occurred in 2011 — not just now when radiation levels are akin to one having an oral fixation for bananas. Secondly, as professor Jeffery Doyle of Cornel University states:

this is a pretty common mutation in daisies that I’ve seen sporadically in various places not associated with radioactivity.

That is to say, it would be quite the coincidence that the radiation happened to spur daisies to mutate in a way that we already know occurs, rather than in some completely new fashion.

Sounds like some mighty-strong confirmation bias to me.

So why the original hoopla regarding this story? Why did scientists have to step in and let everyone know that this isn’t a big deal? Why did media outlets publish these unresearched and sensationalized findings, facilitating this story going viral?

We can never know for certain, but it seems to me that this is classic fear mongering. That is, the deliberate act of eliciting fear about a particular topic through public media. People don’t like the terms “nuclear” or “radiation”, they sound scary and we associate bad things to them (whether it be bombs or glowing green goo). Just look at an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine, the technique’s true name is NMRI. Take a guess what the “N” stands for… In the creation of the name, the “N” was left out due to the public’s fear of all things “nuclear”.

This is neither green nor glowing… what a disappointment.

The Fukushima disaster was one of the worst PR stints for nuclear power since the Chernobyl incident nearly a quarter century ago. Demonstrations reaching the hundreds of thousands were seen throughout Europe and in Japan. The German government even went so far as to permanently shut down 7 of their 17 operating nuclear reactors just 3 days after the Fukushima incident.

However, even after taking into account all the nuclear disasters to have occurred, only 31 people have ever died from nuclear contamination (all from Chernobyl, there have been 0 radiation related deaths from the Fukushima incident). And this number includes both short and long term mortality. Of course, there have been detrimental effects to the environment from these disasters — don’t think that I am trying to downplay that. Rather, I am trying to illustrate how many of the problems the media put forth are blown out of proportion (if even real) and are used to contrive fear.

Contrary to being a mass of glowing green evil, nuclear material is some of the most energy dense substances that we know of and can harness (comparison chart), and is the most plausible way for humans to sustain our quality of life from an energetic standpoint.

We are an energy hungry society, and unfortunately, renewable sources do not provide enough output to keep us satiated (that includes you, too, Tesla). Unless we are willing to take a step backwards in the progression of energy yield (which I severely doubt humans are), we will have to combine renewable methods with some other source to meet our demands — and this will likely be nuclear.

Oh, and in case you were unsure, the materials used to create atomic bombs are of different composition than the materials used in a nuclear reactor. A nuclear plant will never go “boom”.

So there will be no superpowers (unfortunately), no third arms, no laser vision, and likely no weird abnormalities. Nuclear energy is an amazing method of acquiring energy and bringing life to the objects that we use daily. The risks have always been minimal, but the accidents have always been sensationalized. The daisy malfunction fiasco was just one example of how fear mongering is used to bring about irrational phobias of the unknown. The best thing you can do to prevent the spread is simply spend 5 minutes on Google.

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Plant

Image sources

  1. Ask the ISU Experts.
  2. Photos: “Mutant Daisies” Found In Fukushima “Safe Zone” | Natural Society.
  3. Ask me about my banana | Did Someone Say Science?
  4. A billet of highly enriched uranium that was recovered from scrap processed at the Y-12 National Security Complex Plant.
  5. Nine Mile Point 2 nuclear power plant back online.