Information in times of stress

I’ve just been told that one Paul Flynn, MP for Newport in Wales, had a go at me in the Commons a couple of months ago for my comments during the first days of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm150617/halltext/150617h0001.htm).

On looking the good Mr Flynn up I find that by all accounts he appears to be on the Left of the Labour Party. Yet, oddly, he seems to be a kind of antimatter version of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has approached the Labour leadership contest saying he will only focus on the substance of the arguments and will absolutely refuse to indulge in personal attacks: Flynn seems determined only to attack the integrity of anyone who holds a different view and will absolutely refuse to indulge in reasoned debate on the issues. I can only hope they do not end up in the same room together as the annihilation explosion could be devastating.

I am not too fussed as I don’t imagine many people will be interested in the views of an obscure backbencher but I have written to him in the following terms.

Dear Mr Flynn,

I note that in Hansard a couple of months ago you are quoted saying that at the time of the Fukushima accident I was on TV indulging in “ludicrous PR spin” and “praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit”.

I wonder if you are in a position to offer me a reference for this quotation, as I do not recognise it? If I recall correctly, after the hydrogen explosion at Unit 1 at Fukushima I said something along the lines of “Bizarre as this may sound, in the context of what is happening at the plant the hydrogen explosion wasn’t a terribly important event”. I stick to this statement – indeed I did not realise it was anything particularly controversial. Presumably, given your attack on me, you take the opposite position – i.e. that the hydrogen explosion was more serious than the threats offered by the risk of the containment vessels being breached at Units 1-3 or of serious uncovery of the spent fuel in the ponds especially of Unit 4 but also of the other five units at various times. I do not agree with this point of view – in my opinion either of these latter events would have been immeasurably more serious. The hydrogen explosions resulted in very little release of activity in the context of the accident as a whole and very little if any structural damage to either cores or fuel ponds – but of course as a scientist I am always happy to change my mind if new information comes along. I would be interested to know your reasons for holding that opposite view.

But in any case I cannot believe that I “praised the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit” in the way you state and certainly have no recollection of doing so. It is indeed my opinion that the alternative to venting the hydrogen and risking its exploding in the outer containment – which was to let the hydrogen pressure build up in the reactor pressure vessels until the seals blew, releasing vastly more radioactivity – would have been far worse. From this point of view the action made operational sense. But surely that is not “praising” these explosions in the way you seem to imply? (Again, I presume had you been in charge you would have taken the opposite course?)

Once again, then, I would be grateful if you could provide me with the source of the quote so I can check whether you have provided an honest and balanced reflection of my comments. In return, below I offer a couple of references for things I actually did say.

As a final point, I am not saying I got everything ‘right’ during that first month – information and misinformation were coming thick and fast and commentating was at times sheer guesswork (as I frequently made clear when commentating live – recorded soundbites rarely allow such uncertainty to be expressed of course). As one example, I said (it’s still on the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13017282): “At Reactor 4, where there was an unusually large amount of spent fuel in the pond, there seems to have been damage to the zirconium fuel rods, and, possibly, a release of hydrogen – there was at any rate another explosion, which damaged the outer building.” As events subsequently showed this was far too pessimistic – the spent fuel was fine and the hydrogen had come from Unit 3 through a shared vent – and I have to accept that in making this point and unjustifiably ‘talking up’ the seriousness of the situation I may have caused fears that later proved unfounded. No doubt at other points I may have said things that proved too optimistic: I do recall at one point saying I thought they may have turned the corner on controlling Unit 1 which turned out not to be the case.  Though I did not set out to exaggerate (or understate) the effects of the accident but to give a balanced picture as I saw things, such ‘errors’, if that they be (I think they made sense given the information at the time), are inevitable in real time. If the standard needed to avoid having one’s integrity impugned under the cloak of parliamentary privilege is 100% accurate foresight then I suspect very few would venture to give their honest opinion of unfolding events.

Incidentally, since you did not make reference to it in your Commons speech I presume you missed it but this is what I told Channel 4 News on March 30 2011 (still on Channel 4 website at http://www.channel4.com/news/fukushima-clean-up-will-take-decades-and-cost-billions). “Malcolm Grimston, energy specialist at think tank Chatham House, told Channel 4 News that the process [of decommissioning the reactors] could take years and cost billions – but stressed the Japanese would be entering uncharted waters. ‘This is uncharted territory, a lot of new technology will be developed to deal with these reactors. The closest to this we have is Three Mile Island, where there was a partial core meltdown – I think about 40 per cent. The clean-up process lasted from 1979 to 1993, so almost 15 years, and cost £1 billion. That was £1 billion in 1993 money, so obviously a lot more now,’ he said. ‘Also now we have got four reactors damaged, not just a single one like at Three Mile Island, and the complicating factor of what state the spent fuel is in the ponds. At the moment there are huge imponderables, but whatever happens, the answer is long and expensive.’ Apart from exaggerating the problem again – we haven’t really got four ‘reactors’ damaged as the reactor itself in Unit 4 is fine – I don’t see how you can describe this as “ludicrous PR spin”, even though I did work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority over 20 years ago.

An academic’s reputation is vital to their standing: I believe you have made a very unbalanced and unfair attack on mine, offering me no right of reply – I think you should at least justify that I actually said what you attribute to me.

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