Researcher’s post goes viral
How Josef Oehmen’s email ended up in the global media’s spotlight
As the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific brought the world’s third-largest economy to its knees, millions of people around the globe watched with baited breath to see whether Japan’s damaged nuclear reactor, Fukushima I, would be the next Chernobyl. Two days later, a blog post entitled “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors” went live on http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/, a site which was registered that same day. Only hours later, Jim J. Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money called the post — after it was reproduced at http://bravenewclimate.com/ — the “best piece on the nuke issue,” via Twitter. The original author of the post? Josef Oehmen, a researcher at MIT’s Lean Advancement Initiative (LAI).
“I am writing this text to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors,” said the post. “There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity,” claimed Oehmen, who continued by explaining in detail the workings of the reactors at Fukushima and the events that had transpired there since the tsunami and earthquake hit. According to the post, the reactors at Fukushima suffered considerable damage, but the safety mechanisms in place and Japan’s response meant that the Japanese people did not need to worry about a radiation disaster.
And Cramer wasn’t the only one in the media to discover Oehmen’s essay: James Delingpole from The Telegraph cited Oehmen’s post on a news blog, and Business Insider republished the post under the headline “You Can Stop Worrying About A Radiation Disaster in Japan — Here’s Why.” The post also made the rounds on message boards and social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Oehmen is not a nuclear engineer. He has a PhD in mechanical engineering and studies risk management and product development at LAI. A March 15 article at Salon.com, “Debunking a viral blog post on the nuke threat,” picked up on this fact. A blog called Genius Now gained attention after postulating that the post may have been part of a campaign influenced by pro-nuclear industry.
According to Oehmen, however, the post began as an email to his cousin, Jason Morgan, who lives in Kawasaki, Japan, about 250 kilometers from the damaged reactors. Morgan turned to Oehmen — his most technically-inclined acquaintance — for guidance on how to react to media reports likening the crisis at Fukushima to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Though he was not a nuclear engineer, Oehmen responded to his cousin’s request and said he quickly found that accurate information on the reactor situation was hard to come by.
“There was absolutely no understanding of the context — what’s a nuclear reactor about? What’s nuclear engineering about?” said Oehmen about media reports at the time of the disaster. To explain whether his cousin was in any danger, Oehmen decided to include a brief, simple description of nuclear physics and how boiling-water reactors — like those at Fukushima — work.
After doing deeper research on the internet, Oehmen came to the conclusion that Morgan had nothing to worry about, even in “a reasonable worst-case scenario.”
“My conclusion was: you’re safe, don’t worry,” said Oehmen. He added that his email was specifically written with his cousin’s situation in mind, since Morgan lived far from the reactor site.
Morgan asked if he could share the email with friends and family who were also concerned, and Oehmen agreed. Morgan posted the email on a new blog at http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/ and tweeted it to his 27 followers, according to Oehmen.
Eight hours after uploading the essay at about 3 a.m. EST on Sunday, March 13, Oehmen said the post had garnered over 50,000 views. He said he awoke the next morning to a text message from his cousin: “You’d better check your email.”
Upon realizing that his email had gained traction, Oehmen said it “hit me in the gut.”
“I hope I did my homework one this one,” remembered Oehmen.
“I probably would have pulled the plug if I thought it was possible,” said Oehmen. But only hours after uploading, the post had already been widely disseminated, and even translated into multiple languages. Oehmen said he was also concerned that he had no way to keep the post’s information current, so he turned to MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) for help.
After Oehmen contacted Richard K. Lester PhD ’80, head of NSE, the department put in place a plan to edit Oehmen’s original post for accuracy and put in on a new blog — managed by NSE — where it could be easily complemented with more information about the nuclear crisis in Japan. By Monday evening, the blog went live at http://mitnse.com/.
According to the blog’s “About” page, it is hosted outside of MIT’s domain to take advantage of the Wordpress blogging interface and because it was suspected that high traffic could pose problems for NSE’s mit.edu domain.
According to an email from Lester, the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub is managed day-to-day by students in NSE, but faculty provide “reviews and technical support on specific topics.”
Oehmen’s original post appears on the new NSE site with edits. NSE removed Oehmen’s judgments about the safety risk posed by the reactor and his commentary on the general inaccessibility of reliable nuclear information. Oehmen’s technical explanation of how reactors work and the events at Fukushima remains largely intact, with some terminology and technical alterations.
“Thank god I didn’t write anything majorly stupid,” said Oehmen after NSE took over the post. Morgan’s original blog now directs users to the NSE post.
But the post has met with controversy. Genius Now’s Greg Burton speculated on March 15 that Oehmen’s original post, and the NSE website, may have had roots in a pro-nuclear campaign by German electronics and electrical engineering company Siemens AG. The Salon.com article also noted that a site which republished Oehmen’s post — TheEnergyCollective.com — is run by a PR firm which also works for Siemens AG. In an email to The Tech, Burton said that he is no longer concerned about the origins of NSE’s blog, but still thinks that MIT should have worked harder to ensure the blog “conform[ed] to university standards for publication.”
On his part, Oehmen says that the positive feedback he received about his post was “overwhelmingly” more abundant than the negative.
The media’s reaction to the post also caught Oehmen off-guard. “You’re just some average guy at some university somewhere doing your thing, and then suddenly there’s this incredible media interest — what do you do?” said Oehmen.
Oehmen said he received media requests from the BBC, CNBC, PBS, and Reuters, among others. He directed all media inquiries to the MIT News Office.