How Josef Oehmen's advice on Fukushima went viral
On 13 March, an essay entitled "Why I am not worried about Japan's nuclear reactors" appeared on a new and unknown blog. Within hours the post had
gone viral – a testament to the power of hyperlinking and social media.
The article echoed across Facebook and Twitter, where CNBC's Jim Cramer recommended it as the "best piece on the nuke issue". The high-profile
sites The Telegraph and Discover cited the essay and Business Insider reproduced it in full, with a headline proclaiming, "You Can Stop Worrying
About A Radiation Disaster In Japan – Here's Why".
Pro-nuclear websites also seized upon the post, including theenergycollective.com and bravenewclimate.com.
Then the web changed its mind.
By 15 March, two articles in particular had emphasised that the author, Josef Oehmen – whom the original blog identified as a research scientist at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – had no background in nuclear science: Salon published an article debunking the essay, and the blog
Genius Now even questioned Oehmen's motives for writing.
So who exactly is Josef Oehmen and why did he write about the nuclear accidents in Japan? Oehmen agreed to tell New Scientist his side of the story
– and it suggests that a minimum of research by the mainstream journalists who quoted his essay could have established much earlier that it was not
the definitive account they thought it was.
Josef Oehmen readily admits that he is not a nuclear scientist. He says he has a PhD in mechanical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology Zurich. He currently works as a research scientist, studying risk management at MIT's Lean Advancement Initiative and, according to his
online profile, he wrote his PhD thesis on supply-chain risk management with a focus on China. People who study risk management learn to identify and
mitigate anything that might compromise a business's efficiency or profit.
Oehmen explains that his father worked for a national nuclear research centre in Germany, and that over the years he has built up a basic
understanding of how nuclear power plants work. "I grew up with a family that was exposed to the issues surrounding nuclear power, because my father
worked on nuclear energy and instrumentation," he says. "We would always discuss the pros and cons of nuclear energy at dinner and have our opinion
of what was reported in the news. And I personally always had a curiosity for the technical details."
On 11 March, Oehmen says he received a phone call from his cousin, Jason Morgan, who lives with his wife and daughter in Kawasaki, Japan, not too far
from Tokyo. Morgan needed advice. He explained that his mother, panicked by the threat of a nuclear crisis in Japan, insisted that he return home to
Australia. But Morgan, immersed in a frothing stew of conflicting media reports, could not decide whether he was in enough danger to merit an
evacuation. So he did what anyone might do – he called up the best-informed person he knew to help him make sense of it all.
Oehmen told his cousin that he would need to do some research before he could offer any advice, and he began sifting through online articles. He says
he was appalled to discover that "people had not the least bit of understanding about nuclear physics", and describes much of what he read as
He turned to online resources like the website of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to learn more about boiling water reactors – the type of
reactors at Fukushima – and used that scientific context to evaluate the news reports and the threat to his cousin. Oehmen returned Morgan's call
and, after explaining some of the mechanics of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, said that in his opinion dangerous levels of radiation would not
Morgan was relieved and asked Oehmen to write up an email he could send to his worried mother in Australia. Oehmen obliged and worked on the email
from 10 pm on 12 March to 3 am the next morning. It was a long message with detailed and technical descriptions of how Fukushima's boiling water
But instead of simply emailing the essay around the family, Morgan started up a new blog and posted his piece there so other family members and
friends could access it. He also tweeted the article to the fewer than 50 followers he had at the time.
Later on that Sunday morning, Oehmen awoke to the incessant quivering of his cellphone, which was quickly filling up with messages. "Dude, check your
email," read one text message from Morgan. The blog adaptation of Oehmen's email had gone viral, gaining more than 50,000 views.
"It hit me in the gut," Oehmen says. What he maintains was originally intended for a few family members was suddenly an internet phenomenon. "I
wanted to be absolutely sure what I wrote was as accurate as possible so I wasn't adding to all the confusion," he says. So he contacted several
people at MIT, including Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering. Lester worked with his department to set up a
website run by MIT students in nuclear science and engineering with guidance from their professors. They revised and reposted Oehmen's original
essay, editing it to ensure accuracy.
Using an online tool such as diffChecker to compare Oehmen's original essay with the version edited by the MIT's department of nuclear science, it
appears that – with the exception of minor corrections – his explanations of how boiling water reactors work remains largely intact.
But Oehmen's predictions regarding radiation leakage have been cut. His original assertion that "there was and will *not* be any significant release
of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors" was bold even at the time he was writing – and has since proved incorrect. For anyone in and
around the Fukushima reactors, the radiation is certainly "significant" – although nuclear experts have repeatedly stated Fukushima will not be
Oehmen's account of events suggests he wrote his essay with a very specific concern in mind: the radiation risk to his cousin in Kawasaki. He
maintains that his missive was not written as an expert's account for the media: the original essay included no allusions to Oehmen's nuclear
credentials and, as Salon and Genius Now quickly discovered, the simplest of Google searches could confirm that they were lacking.
Unfortunately for Oehmen, by the time anyone in the media had bothered to check his academic background two things had happened: first, his words had
been widely reported as the best account of the unfolding events in Japan, and second, those events had begun to move in a direction that his original
post had clearly declared impossible. Consequently, the revelation of the simple fact of Oehmen's education was treated as a fine piece of
Oehmen says the whole thing has been a nightmare – albeit one that he readily acknowledges is nothing to the nightmare that many Japanese are facing
at the moment. He hopes his essay has at least helped people learn more about how nuclear reactors work. "I'm happy to take a lot more crap if it
helps the people in Japan," he says.