Friday, December 6, 2013

Safeguarding Intellectual Research Capital: An Academic Priority

In her article with the title “U-Va. board approves basic framework of strategic plan - but not the plan itself ” published by The Washington Post online Nov. 15, 2013, Jenna Johnson reports on the University of Virginia (U-Va.)’s new mission revealed at last week’s board meeting and a five-year strategic plan, known as Cornerstone Plan, to implement the plan. The plan's implementation rests entirely on the provost's shoulders. In the plan’s second pillar, the institution recognizes its role as a public research university and sets a high priority on strengthening peer-reviewed funding, for which federal agencies provide the most common source.

However, U-Va.’s leadership did not supply a price-tag for the proposed plan. Jump-starting U-Va.'s scientific research enterprise will take a considerable investment. The revenue from tuition can never replace the revenue from federal agency funding.

Federally funded research adds more than knowledge.

Federal agencies allow universities hosting the research to recover indirect cost for infrastructure improvements, plant operations and administration. In 2010, U-Va. charged federal agencies 54 cents for overhead on the dollar directly allocated for research.

No doubt, federally funded research provides academic institutions with a substantial revenue stream. Even at public universities with extensive student enrollment, research revenue may rival tuition revenue.

Table I: U-Va.’s funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Fiscal year NIH awards
[million $]
2009 161
2010 134
2011 120
2012 120
2013 110

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that U-Va. received 110 million dollars in fiscal year (FY) 2013. This represents a third of what the University of California at Los Angeles was awarded in the same time frame. The paltry result seems the more shocking, because U-Va. had garnered 161 million dollars in FY 2009 (Tab. I). At uneven pace U-Va.'s NIH funding declined by 32 percent in just four years.

The downward spiral seems to continue. According to Nick Anderson's post with the title "Universities continue to lobby against sequester’s cuts of research funding" published online by The Washington Post Nov. 12, 2013, U-Va. may stand to lose at least another 7 percent in the current fiscal year because of sequestration-related across-the-board cuts in the NIH budget alone.

If U-Va.'s federal funding continues to decline unimpeded, the university's revenue stream from this source will slip below 100 million dollars by the end of the current fiscal year. It is difficult to conceive how an academic research university of U-Va.'s prominence with a teaching hospital can remain competitive under such condition.

The federal funding system is on its knees.

A decade ago, the NIH funded roughly 1 in 5 investigator-initiated research grant applications. Now the funding rate is closer to 1 in 10. Principal investigators, that is professors, may need two grants on separate renewal cycles to continuously support a laboratory. The grants substantially underwrite their salaries as well as those of research associates and research assistants involved in the research, that is 3,400 U-Va. employees.

Therefore, the drastic decline of federally funded research at U-Va. will be consequential and needs urgent action. Because the federal fiscal shortfall may not be addressed anytime soon and increases in the federal research budget cannot be expected in the near future, the implementation of short-breathed measures will not suffice.

Facilitating potentially stellar research may be less costly than the recruitment of stars.

Recruiting established faculty with multiple research grants from elite private schools may seem practical and promises quick improvement of the funding situation. However, the strategy is expensive. Success will be short-lived. Research awards usually last three to five years. Seven years, like the NIH Javits Awards, represent the absolute exception, and more often than not the recipients may fail in subsequent competitive renewals. Therefore, five-to-ten year funding life cycles are not uncommon for the stars.

A more viable, long-term strategy would invest in promising faculty at the beginning of their careers whose research will help push the next fundamental break-through in their area of expertise. The university needs to set up scientific councils, consulting outside experts who can guide the identification of future cutting edge issues and of the individuals whose research might make a substantial contribution. In-house search committees do not suffice. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in this country and the Max-Planck Society in Germany represent models for best practices.

One way out.

In the 1980s, the pharmaceutical giant Hofmann-La Roche used 11 percent of the company’s annual profits to sponsor fundamental biomedical research in house as well as at universities and academic research centers elsewhere. Hofmann-La Roche benefitted greatly from this investment.

In analogy, U-Va. may set aside a similar percentage of the returns from the university's endowment investments and dedicate the money exclusively to the protection of the its intellectual research capital, until federal funding regains sustaining levels.

The price may seem steep. But, the investment is vital to the university's stated mission of “advancing knowledge and serve the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation and the world through research, scholarship, creative arts and innovation.”


Cutting-edge teaching is impossible without cutting-edge research. The success of the university depends on it. The dire situation at the University of Virginia is not unique. Other research university's must confront this predicament. My advice applies to all.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Dark Hour & The Mind

“From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr., CBS News, Nov. 22, 1963.
Watch the full footage leading up to this announcement here.

Listen to reporter Robert MacNeil's first-hand account of that fateful moment (source: ‪MacNeil/Lehrer on the JFK Assassination; Newseum) below.‬

If Robert MacNeil's recalls the short succession of the second and the third shots correctly, the they could not have been fired at the president from the weapon the supposedly lonely gunman used. Carbine-type rifles cannot be reloaded and aimed that fast. Moreover, it seems incredible that a modest marksman with a modest rifle without a precisely sighted-in telescope could have a hit a person in a moving vehicle from the distance and the angle from which he was supposed to have accomplished this feat.

District Attorney Jim Garrison pursued valid leads, but his trails went cold. This country will not rest until satisfactory answers have been found.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fukushima Radiophobia Revisited

In his op-ed contribution to The New York Times with the title "Fear vs. Radiation: The Mismatch" published Oct. 21, 2013, Harvard lecturer David Ropeik weighs the potential threats posed by the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster to public health in Japan and the ramifications for radiological emergency planning. His arguments may be misused to broadly label people with legitimate fears after a radiological incident as suffering from irrational fears of radiation.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is located on the east coast of Honshu about 120 miles north of Tokyo. In the wake of the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami, Mar. 11, 2011, three of the station’s six reactors lost cooling and incurred fuel meltdowns. Powerful hydrogen explosions led to vast releases of hazardous radioactive material, rivaled only by the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident in the Ukraine. More than 100,000 people were evacuated. Despite decontamination efforts, radiation doses in parts of the government-imposed exclusion zone around the stricken station are still considered unsafe for habitation. Roughly 70,000 former residents are not allowed to return home permanently.
On a day visit back home in the exclusion zone, 2013 (source: Die Welt).
No particular cancer can be causally linked to ionizing radiation. Statistical correlations between cancer rates and exposure must be used to provide probabilistic estimates for the radiation impact. Ropeik cites research on Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors showing that within 6 miles off ground zero only 1 in 20 cancer deaths might be attributable to radiation. Furthermore, he notes that after the Chernobyl disaster “an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation”, known as radiophobia, exceeded recognized radiation-related illnesses. The author concludes that in present-day Japan radiophobia may pose a greater health threat to the public than the actual exposure to ionizing radiation emitted from the stricken Fukushima power station.

How realistic such inferences are remains to be seen. The situation in the former Soviet Union, also known as USSR, was distinctly different from Japan’s. The USSR had kept accidents in its nuclear effort secret. The protagonists of nuclear power had proclaimed the Socialist graphite-moderated RBMK reactors absolutely fail safe and superior to US reactors, particularly after one suffered a partial fuel meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.

We had passionate debates at my West German alma mater over the risks RBMKs might pose. The Communists were incessantly spinning how wonderfully accident-proof the design was. The reactors had to be safe, because they were designed by Socialist engineers who were not driven by profit thinking. The design was deemed so safe, they insisted, that the reactors did not need the protective containments Capitalist reactors in the West required. We remained unconvinced.

By contrast, citizens in the USSR more readily embraced the achievements of megalomanic Soviet technology. The horrible accident at Chernobyl would erode this trust deeply, particularly because the Soviet leadership did not acknowledge that it happened for several days. Confidence in the Soviet Union had been on the decline for some time. The inner resolve of the USSR was unraveling in face of the grinding war in Afghanistan. Loss of confidence in the authorities and lack of information may have exacerbated radiophobia around Chernobyl. Culture and political circumstance were unique. The Chernobyl experience may not be easily extrapolated to radiological disasters in other countries.

Moreover, irrational fears may be inseparable from rational fears of an uncertain future that the continuing emergency holds. Fukushima evacuees must worry about jobs, homes, farms, and fisheries. In a small country with a high population density like Japan starting over elsewhere is not trivial. Livelihoods are ruined. Parents fear for the health of their children.

In response to the crisis, Fukushima Prefecture invited families to enroll the children in periodic medical checkups. Enrollees have presented with thyroid nodules, that is abnormal growths with cancer potential. The authorities have not disclosed outcome in detail. The program remains opaque to patients and public alike. Assurances not to worry because the odds of developing cancer caused by the radiation are minuscule must seem callous and irrelevant to the parents.

So far, no one in Fukushima is known to have died acutely of high radiation doses. Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the stricken power station, has reported only one suspicious case of a cleanup worker who suddenly perished of leukemia. Some types of leukemia can be radiation-induced.

By contrast, a greater concern for public health in Fukushima poses chronic exposure to low doses of radiation externally and, through incorporation, internally. The variability of the effects of such exposure is high, the predictability of outcome low, and variations in circumstance hamper comparisons with other radiological incidents.

For example, the atomic bombs unleashed radioactive fallout in a single blast, whereas the stricken Fukushima power station has continued to emanate radioactive material into air and sea since the accident two and a half years ago. The public health risks associated with the ongoing contamination in Fukushima may thus not be estimable using atomic bomb data.

In addition to the known health effects of the exposure to ionizing radiation, hitherto unrecognized effects may yet be discovered. For example, domestic animals left behind in Fukushima's exclusion zone have presented with infectious diseases at alarming rate, suggesting a weakened immune response. Comparisons with unexposed feral animals are needed to test this hypothesis.

The temporal signature of radioactive emissions from the stricken power station may be more compatible with that of Chernobyl, where thyroid cancers began to increase in children three years after the accident (see my post with the title "Fukushima Radiophobia & The Mind" published Feb. 22, 2013). It is too early to predict at this time how Fukushima children will fare.

Ropeik concludes his op-ed with the idea that sheltering in place may protect public health more effectively in a radiological emergency than evacuation. MIT professor Jacquelyn Yanch suggested the same in a recent interview about her latest findings with MITnews (see my post with the title "Science, Media & The Mind" published Apr. 28, 2013).

However, sheltering in place may deliver only limited reprieve. Fukushima’s most immediate health threat emerged from early fallout of radioactive gases and dust. Gases permeate human dwellings. Dust penetrates cracks in walls, windows and doors. Residents in the plume’s path must evacuate as soon as permissible, using accurate and timely fallout forecasts. Ropeik’s proposal to change existing US regulation must be regarded with utmost skepticism.

According to TEPCO accident reports, no evidence could be found to date suggesting that ground shaking severely damaged the Fukushima reactors. Rather, the reactors incurred fuel meltdowns because power distribution panels and emergency diesel generators were flooded, disabling emergency core cooling systems.

About two dozen nuclear reactors of the Fukushima type are currently operating in the US. A number are sited in flood-prone areas. Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Forked River, New Jersey, 50 miles from downtown New York City and Philadelphia, resembles most closely in design and age Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1. Engineered by General Electric and completed in 1971, Unit 1 was the first commercial nuclear power reactor of this type in Japan and the first to melt down, taking less than a day.

A similar accident could be equally catastrophic in the U.S. The most recent large-scale industrial disaster in this country was the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. British Petroleum had to set aside 42 billion dollars for mitigation and compensation, and that amount needn’t cover losses and damages from permanent evacuations. According to Shigeru Sato, Tsuyoshi Inajima, Monami Yui and Emi Urabe's report with the title "Japan Mulls Plan for One Operator to Run All Reactors: Energy" published online by Bloomberg Oct. 22, 2013, the total cost of the Fukushima reactor disaster is currently estimated at 112 billion dollars, roughly equaling two Hurricane Sandies.

People touched by radiological disasters like Fukushima manifest legitimate, existential fears with little resemblance to radiophobia. These fears will not be dispelled merely because experts claim that the radiation doses are “relatively harmless” and Japanese officials fault “false rumor.” The Prime Minister of Japan’s demonstrative sampling of local foods on His Exellency’s recent visit to the region won’t help either. Only thorough radiation monitoring, health care, and effective cleanup will make a difference. Make no mistake, Fukushima fears aren’t all in the mind.

Related Post

The information used in this post was provided by

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Highend Restaurants, China & the Mind

Though I love good food, I confess it does not rank that high on my totem pole that I would spend a fortune on it. When I lived near a three-star restaurant of world renown called Girardet's, where patrons flew in for a lunch they had reserved many months in advance, we used to frequent other locations where the chef's apprentices were known to cook. The food there was excellent, cost a fraction, and we could visit at our leisure.

The other day I happened upon Frank Bruni's restaurant review with the title "China's Dining Acrobatics" published online by the New York Times Oct. 15, 2013. The author takes us through a number of breath-taking venues in the Peoples Republic of China that offer not only exquisite local cuisine, but also boast extravagantly creative ambiance. Price was no consideration.

I wonder whether a similar column would have appeared in this paper during the 1960s about top Moscow and Leningrad restaurants frequented by the wealthy nomenclatura in Soviet Russia. 

  • Is it because the US has become so profoundly dependent on China that Americans look at the symbols of economic progress over there with awe and glee? 
  • Is it because modern day China is spawning the same type of romanticized pioneering tycoons known over here from a gilded age a century ago?
Let us not forget, these restaurants represent emblems of success of a one-party communist state whose leaders discovered half a century ago that state-monopolized capitalism, StamoCap for short, may generate unfathomable wealth and whose children and grandchildren are feasting on its profits today.

Considering the present tribulations of our democracies, I imagine Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels celebrating in one of those culinary temples of good fortune broad smiles on their faces in the belief that the world was one step closer to communism.

Related Posts

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Morat-Fribourg 2013

Today, Switzerland held the 80th race from Morat to Fribourg. The race commemorates one of two cornerstone battles the Swiss Confederation won in the 15th century against the powers of the time, asserting Swiss independence from feudal taxation. Swiss commoners would remain free citizens unlike the subjects of surrounding countries who would struggle another 200 years to gain this privilege. I have written about the battle here.

In recent years, the race has been diversified into a multitude of events of varying distances and challenges. But the main event remains the course from Morat to Fribourg, roughly spanning the length of a half-marathon. The course leads the runners through beautiful countryside with distant view of the alps on small roads closed for traffic.

I remember three uphill grades of note. The last ascent had least grade, but was the longest and most taxing, passing through the medieval gates of the city of Fribourg and snaking up to the finish line in the city's heart. Make no mistake, the last half-mile was grueling. Plenty participants sickened at the finish.

Although the last leg has been rerouted since my day, the challenge remains. Regardless, as long as the runner households with strength, the course constitutes an enjoyable, memorable morning.

According to, this year's winners are:
Martina Strähl (1:03.02.2),
Chelangat Sang (1:03.27.2), and
Aline Camboulives (1:03.47.3)

Benart Bett (53.32.8),
 Shadrack Kimauyo (54.08.2), and
Joel Mwangi (54.15.6)

As in years before, Kenyans have been strong contenders. Shadrack and Chelangat represented Kenya. The world's best long distance runners seem to hail from the cradle of mankind. Congratulations!


Friday, July 12, 2013

Examples in Leadership: Masao Yoshida

山は動かない [武田 信玄]。
Last Tuesday, Jul. 9, 2013, Masao Yoshida passed away. He was 58. He had esophageal cancer.

Until his illness forced him to relinquish his post late in 2011, Masao Yoshida was superintendent of Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station on Japan's northeast coast less than 100 miles north of Tokyo. Yoshida led the power station through the most severe nuclear reactor crisis since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Four of six reactors lost all power as a result of the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami on Mar. 11, 2011; three were operating. The other was shutdown for inspection, and the fuel had been moved to an adjacent storage pool.

Despite heroic efforts of Yoshida and his crew, the three operating reactors lost cooling, and their fuel melted down. Vast quantities of hydrogen were released into the reactor buildings. Three were devastated by violent explosions. The fourth was spared, because Yoshida's men managed to open a blow out panel. Large quantities of radioactivity spewed into the air for days, contaminating a wide swath of Fukushima Prefecture and adjoining areas. The Government of Japan declared an exclusion zone around the power station. Roughly 160,000 residents had to be evacuated. At present, about half are still not permitted to return home permanently.

Confronted with the earthquake, flooding, aftershocks and the reactors spinning out of control, Yoshida sent most workers home, but convinced a crew of 50 essential operators to stay with him behind in a quake-resistent command center. The men attempted desperately to keep the nuclear fuel in the reactors and in adjacent storage pools cool and covered with water. After fresh water was exhausted, he ordered to use salt water for cooling against the wishes of TEPCO headquarters. The salt would render the reactors irreparable. TEPCO management had clung to the vain hope of being able to operate them again one day.

In a rare interview months later published online Nov. 13, 2011, by The Asahi Shimbun under the headline "Nuke plant director: 'I thought several times that I would die'", Yoshida admitted that he at times believed during the first days of the crisis that he and his men were about to die. He added that he felt that the worst was over only after three months. Despite, Yoshida ascertained that abandoning his post never crossed his mind. The fuel in the two remaining reactors could be cooled with jury-rigged electric pumps, because one emergency diesel generator had survived. Yoshida pointed out that the fuel in these reactors would have inevitably melted as well had the crew retreated from the site.

A power company is no military organization. Operators cannot be ordered to stay on their posts in the face of adversity. They could have walked away anytime. Without doubt, Masao Yoshida's exemplary leadership during the crisis and his sense of duty encouraged the crew to stay with him and fight a dangerously deteriorating situation, risking life and limb, if not cancer years down the road. Their motives were pure. They wanted to prevent the worst. Yoshida mentioned to a reporter that the families of most operators who stayed with him lived in the area.

At the time he had to take sick leave, Yoshida remarked that cleaning up and decommissioning the stricken power station was only at the beginning. The path ahead would lead through uncharted territory strewn with unprecedented challenges. He felt that the task before the operators would be colossal. One nation alone would not be able to cope with it. Rather, a concerted effort of the international community was needed to accomplish the job.

Against Yoshida's advice, little international collaboration has come forth to date. TEPCO, a company versed in selling electric power, has been struggling with containing radioactive effluent and removing radioactive debris. Sprawling tank farms have been erected to store the water contaminated by its use for keeping the reactors cool. Long rows of heavy-clad storage bins contain the collected debris. A decontamination facility has been set up for the stored water, but is not quite operational yet, while radioactivity is increasing in the groundwater near the reactors and is consistently detected in the ocean. Removal of the fuel elements from the storage pools has not even started. Nobody knows precisely where the melted fuel in the reactors resides and how to extract it.

In honor of Masao Yoshida and in memory of his advice, an international not-for-profit foundation should be created bearing his name. The foundation should provide expert advice facilitating the succinct and expeditious cleanup of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, using novel methods and best practices, with the aim that the residents of the villages and towns around the stricken power station can soon return home for good. The world owes this effort to Masao Yoshida and the Fukushima Fifty whose families used to live there.


I thank for keeping me up to date with recent developments at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fukushima (Un)vailed & The Mind member Dean Wilke only recently discovered Ora Cohen's article with the title "Israeli firm which secured Japan nuclear plant says workers there 'putting their lives on the line'" published online by Haaretz Mar. 18, 2011. In this article the author reports that the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station that incurred three reactor meltdowns after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, Mar. 11, 2011, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had hired the Israeli security firm Magna BSP to provide expert 24/7 security surveillance on the station's premises. The Magna system included a network of sophisticated video cameras canvassing the site from all angles and was active at the time of the accident. Per agreement, only TEPCO is able to access the data. To date, the company has not publicly acknowledged the existence of Magna's system or any footage that may have been recorded with it during the accident and its aftermath. Is TEPCO hiding valuable information pertinent to the accident?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Science, Media & The Mind

On April 25, The New York Times published Gary Gutting's essay with the title "What Do Scientific Studies Show?" written for The Stone. The author argues that much scientific reporting in the media suffers from journalistic misconceptions of the methodological limitations inherent in the reported studies. As consequence, the significance of the findings tends to appear disproportionately exaggerated in the news, particularly when advances in medical treatments are at stake.

Because epidemiological studies, as much as empirical social science studies, profoundly depend on statistical analyses of covariance and correlation, Professor Gutting admonishes that association is too easily confused with causation. He proposes that journalists ought to judge the value of the observations they wish to report, ranking studies by methodological rigor. Essentially, the author encourages the media to evaluate a study's scientific merit, before the implications of its findings are reported in the news. He squarely places responsibility with the news editors and journalists.

I agree with the author that quantitative studies commonly incur the risk of unrepresentative sampling (read my essay with the title "Representative Sampling & The Mind" dated Mar. 18, 2011) and that professional science correspondents should strive to understand the limitations of the empirical sciences and their statistical methods. Best practice and scientific integrity are of utmost importance because of the wide-spread skepticism of science we find in this country today.

However, in some cases unprofessional judgment by the media is not the sole culprit of the undue embellishment of the relevance of new research findings. Rather, the exaggeration may begin with the investigators and the public relation departments of the academic institutions they are affiliated with. Below I provide one example.

The Case
Since the catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdown near Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, which blanketed vast areas of Europe with radioactive fallout, the effects of low-level ionizing radiation on public health have been of particular interest of research. The three reactor meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, two years ago brought the importance of this topic even more into the awareness of public health professionals. Which levels of ionizing radiation can be considered safe continues to be hotly debated among scientists as much as in the public, while the US Environmental Protection Agency is striving to revise its guidelines on recommended limits (Radiation Protection; Protective Action Guide updates, Mar. 2013).

Roughly a year ago the journal Environmental Health Perspectives published a research study conducted with mice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (Olipitz and others, 2012). The authors could not find any statistically significant effect of low-level ionizing radiation in the mice. A discussion on brought this paper to my attention.

I found profound shortcomings in the design of the MIT study and the evaluation of the data. That is, the chosen time of exposure to ionizing radiation was shorter than that used in other studies showing dose-related chromosomal aberrations at low dose rates. Moreover, the investigators elected to integrate the results of separate experiments using different techniques, but no comprehensive statistical tests were carried out on the results. My concerns were published in a letter to the editor (Melzer P, 2012), to which the paper's senior authors responded (Engelward and Yanch, 2012).

Despite the study's shortcomings and of importance to the debate over Professor Gutting's stone of contention in The New York Times, the principal investigators brazenly chose to advertise their findings on MITnews as evidence that low-level ionizing radiation may be harmless to our health and that current emergency planning for radiological accidents may be too cautious in the assessment of the public health risks of ionizing radiation. I cite from Ann Trafton's post with the title "A new look at prolonged radiation exposure" published May 15, 2012:

“There are no data that say that’s a dangerous level,” says Yanch, a senior lecturer in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. “This paper shows that you could go 400 times higher than average background levels and you’re still not detecting genetic damage. It could potentially have a big impact on tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant accident or a nuclear bomb detonation, if we figure out just when we should evacuate and when it’s OK to stay where we are.” 
In my letter to the editor-in-chief of Environmental Health Perspectives, I explained in no uncertain terms why the findings of this study remain ambiguous at best. In their response, the senior authors conceded that they understood their study's limitations. Therefore, it remains difficult to comprehend why the authors made such extremely far-fetched claims with profound implications for public health policy in the MITnews release.

Sadly, news releases that recklessly misrepresent research findings may not seem unexpected. Federal funding vital to investigators and host institutions alike has been tight over the last decade, taking another significant cut with this year's sequestration. The National Institutes of Health currently fund fewer than 1 in 10 investigator-initiated applications for research grants. I have written previously about the crucial role of federal funding in US biomedical research in my post with the title "Research Funding & Lost Treasures of the Mind" dated Oct. 23, 2008.

Regardless of the difficult times, studies like the one discussed here should never be embellished to influence decision making in public health policy. Moreover, news releases like the one above ought never be used to inform the public.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Fukushima Radiophobia & The Mind

The disastrous nuclear reactor accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi (number one) Nuclear Power Station on the Pacific coast 120 miles north of Tokyo is nearing its second anniversary. As a consequence of the loss of all electric power after the Tohoku-Chihou-Taiheiyou-Oki Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011, nuclear fuel melted down in three of the station's six reactors.

Aerial view of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on March 24, 2011, after hydrogen explosions devastated the upper floors of the reactor buildings of Units 1 (background), 3 and 4 (foreground) in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Unit 4 was offline for inspection. TEPCO believes that hydrogen seeped into its building from Unit 3 via standby gas treatment system piping. The building of Unit 2 lost a blowout panel on the eastern side and was spared (courtesy

Destructive hydrogen explosions severely damaged the facilities. The amounts of radioactivity released into the environment has been surpassed only by the Chernobyl reactor accident of 1986. Residents near the plant were exposed to radioactive fallout while evacuating the area. The immediate surroundings of the power station and the region affected by the plume of airborne radioactivity remain highly contaminated today. Roughly 80,000 residents living in the government-declared exclusion zones are not permitted to return home permanently. Only daytime visits are allowed on occasion (see Chris Meyers' report with the title "A year on, only brief home visits for Japan nuclear evacuees" published online by Reuters Feb. 13, 2012). The International Medical Corps aptly summarizes the challenges the evacuees have faced on its Fukushima Prefecture Fact Sheet.

Gamma radiation-based contamination map (high: orange; low: blue; dose rates can be obtained from the IMC Fukushima Prefecture fact sheet) showing the plume area, radii of the 12- and 15-mile evacuation zones as well as of the 50-mile ingestion zone US citizens were advised to avoid (source: NNSA).
In the meantime, the devastated power station's operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has been arduously cleaning up the ruins, while keeping the stricken reactors cooled. Progress has been pain-staking slow. The molten fuel in the reactors has remained inaccessible because of forbiddingly high levels of radiation. Thousands of tons of nuclear fuel stored in water pools in and around the reactor buildings remain yet to be removed. Tank farms with contaminated cooling water have grown to vast proportions. Hisashi Hattori reports in his article with the title "High radiation bars decommissioning of Fukushima plant" published online Feb. 21, 2013, by The Asahi Shimbun: “Currently, there are nearly 500 storage tanks on the plant premises, many as tall as three-story buildings. TEPCO plans to add more by 2015 when it expects to have to store 700,000 tons of radioactive water.”

Birdseye view of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station in February, 2013. Unit 1 (top, left) has been enshrouded in a tent-like structure to control gassous radioactive effluents. The refueling floor of Unit 4 (top; right) has been cleared in preparation for a new roof structure. TEPCO is in the process of clearing debris off the refueling floor of Unit 3 (left of Unit 4). Note the sprawling tank farm for the storage of contaminated cooling water (source: House of Japan).
Despite TEPCO's strenuous efforts, significant amounts of radioactivity are still released into the environment every day (TEPCO press release with the title "Progress Status of the Long-and-mid Term Roadmap towards the Decommissioning of Units1-4 of TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station" dated Oct. 22, 2012). Not a single nuclear fuel rod, spent or still in use at the time of the accident, has been removed from the damaged reactors, and the company has been unable to determine the precise location of the molten fuel in the ruined reactors.

Now, that we are nearing the two-year milestone, the international media have begun to gauge the current state of affairs in Fukushima. In her article with the title "Unexpected Post-Fukushima Health Woes: Depression, Obesity" posted on CommonHealth Reform and Reality Feb. 15, 2013, guest contributor Judy Foreman writes that no noticeable direct effects on public health could be attributed to the exposure to ionizing radiation. She tells us furthermore that an international panel of experts concluded that the estimated effective absorbed doses were too small to warrant any concerns for public health. Rather, the experts warned that radiophobia is deeply affecting people, developing into the preeminent medical condition threatening public health. Ms. Foreman notes depression and obesity are on the rise in Fukushima Prefecture, while Geoff Brumfiel reported in his news feature with the title "Fukushima: Fallout of fear" published online by the journal Nature Jan. 16, 2013, that depression, anger and anxieties were prevalent among the displaced.

Phobia is defined as irrational, disproportional fear. Radiophobia represents the irrational, disproportional fear of ionizing radiation. This diagnosis does not seem to pertain to the evacuees from Fukushima who must face fears of the actual consequences of the radiological catastrophe every day. Their fears seem neither irrational nor disproportional.

Absorbed radiation dose estimates available to date for the people of Fukushima must be met with caution. No resident around the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station wore a dosimeter when the fallout rained down. In their preliminary Dose Assessment Report published last summer, radiation experts convened by the World Health Organization had to resort to computational models to estimate effective absorbed dose averages for the examined population. The averages were extrapolated from recordings of a handful of functional monitoring stations scattered across the prefecture. The recordings were incomplete. The available data did not cover the earliest hours of the accident (see The Mainichi article with the title "Fukushima radiation spread to residential areas hours before venting" published online Feb. 22, 2013). Moreover, it does not account for local variations and the contribution of human activity to individual effective absorbed doses.

Individual absorbed doses may depend profoundly on whether the person was indoors or outdoors at the time of the radioactive fallout, whether residents who stayed indoors were well insulated from the outside air, what produce a person consumed in the days and weeks after the releases, i.e. fresh home-grown groceries harvested in the garden and freshly-caught fish or prepackaged food bought in stores, as well as the source of water consumed. Moreover, medical predisposition, gender and age may have influenced how much radioactivity was incorporated and remains in the body.

Personal whole body counts were not performed early enough after the accident to directly capture the internal exposure to ionizing radiation emitted by incorporated short-lived radionuclides. By contrast, cesium-137 with a comparatively long half-life of 30 years is still concentrating in crops, vegetables, mushrooms and life stock and will persist to threaten the human food chain. A quarter century after the Chernobyl reactor accident, Bavarian wild boar stew must remain off the dinner table because the meat's radioactive cesium content is deemed unsafe for human consumption (see Charles Hawley's report with the title "A Quarter Century after Chernobyl: Radioactive Boar on the Rise in Germany" published by Spiegel International Online Jul. 30, 2010). In Japan, continuously emerging hot spots of cesium contamination may pose ever new local health risks for decades to come, requiring unrelenting, meticulous clean-up as well as persistent, diligent crop and life stock controls.

Thyroid cancer rates in Belarus after the Chernobyl reactor accident (source: S. Yamashita).
The health effects of the unleashed ionizing radiation may take more time to manifest themselves than two years. Demidchik and others (2007) showed that thyroid cancer rates in children began to increase noticeably three years after the Chernobyl reactor accident, though the cancers were attributable to iodine-131 from the accident with a half-life of only eight days.

Furthermore, yet unrecognized long-latency effects may progressively attain prevalence. Pets abandoned in the exclusion zone of Fukushima are frequently found ravaged by viral infections. Though the infections might have mainly been the result of the harsh living conditions in the zone (see Jenny Marder's post with the title "What's the Fallout for Dogs Near Fukushima?" published online by PBS Newshour's Rundown Nov. 10, 2011), high infection rates may suggest that immune responses have been compromised, possibly because of the protracted exposure to low-level ionizing radiation (Manda and others, 2012).

Cat rescued from the Fukushima exclusion zone showing symptoms of a severe viral infection around nose and eyes (source: Touhoku inunekokyuen).
In conclusion, it is too early to ascertain that the radioactive fallout from the stricken reactors will not directly affect public health. The anxieties the Fukushima evacuees harbor seem well grounded and will not be alleviated by official assertions, proclaiming the risk to health exists only in the mind. People's fears will dissipate only when government action effects palpable, lasting improvements.

I thank the contributors of without whom I could not have written this post.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog Day 2013

After the abysmal forecast of 2012 (see related post below), Punxsutawney overcast and Phil may have embraced climate change this year. Reuters reports today: "Groundhog predicts early spring."

  • At this moment, May 14, 2013, 6:18 a.m., we record 32 degrees Fahrenheit in central Virginia. Poor Phil!
Related Posts