Mariko Takahashi: Hatoyama’s questionable Nature article

Writing in the Dec. 15 issue of Nature magazine, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Lower House member Tomoyuki Taira, both from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, called for the disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to be nationalized.

The commentary in Britain’s prestigious scientific journal represented an extremely rare case of Japanese politicians making an appeal to a global audience.

I hope many scientists read the article. I’m sure many of them must have felt bewildered, because so many of the statements lacked any scientific basis.

The article said that “re-criticality,” “nuclear explosions” and “meltdowns” may each have taken place. It pointed out that information disclosure by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant operator, was woefully insufficient.

Thus, the authors argued that nationalization of the nuclear power plant was “inevitable.” By doing so, they said information could be gathered more openly.

The British Parliament has a body called the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which is tasked with drawing up reports on science and technology. David Cope, the POST director who visited Japan in January, said the Hatoyama and Taira paper was “strange.”

Cope said he could not understand why they were arguing that nuclear explosions may have taken place. Hydrogen was present, and it triggered the hydrogen explosions, he said.

He indirectly countered the authors’ view that the plant must be nationalized. In his opinion, the most important thing was to have an independent and powerful regulatory body.

The term “re-criticality” refers to the re-emergence of a sustained nuclear fission chain reaction. That word was a staple for much debate after TEPCO said in late March last year that it had detected radioactive chlorine-38, whose presence indicates re-criticality.

But experts said it was inconceivable. Some asserted that TEPCO’s measurement was flawed. TEPCO finally reviewed the data and acknowledged that the measurement was wrong.

With regard to that development, Hatoyama and Taira said: “Through NISA, we obtained and re-analyzed TEPCO’s data, which were measured with a germanium semiconductor detector. We concluded that chlorine-38 was indeed present, and at a level close to that initially reported.” But they did not present any proof for that argument.

No matter whether their argument is right or wrong, jumping to a conclusion without producing any proof goes against the rules of science.

I also don’t quite understand why the authors were so eager to argue that nuclear explosions may have taken place.

Although it remains unclear what precisely the authors meant by “nuclear explosions,” the word usually refers to a fast progression of a nuclear fission chain reaction, like when an atomic bomb explodes. If that had taken place, the nuclear reactor vessels would have been blown to pieces, and the way radioactive substances were spewed out would have been quite different from what we have seen.

An editorial in the same Nature issue questioned the lack of an independent scientific voice to advise the Japanese government.

Japan has no equivalent of Britain’s POST. I think the very quality of the Hatoyama and Taira article is evidence that creating such a body is essential.