MIT Damage Control and Josef Oehmen’s “Why I Am Not Worried” About Fukushima

There’s  an essay making the rounds by Dr. Josef Oehmen of MIT. It’s called “Why I’m Not Worried About Japan’s Nuclear Plants.” I’ve now seen it posted about 10 times to various message boards discussing the Fukushima I disaster — often by what appear to be trolls, and often with laudatory remarks. In it, Oehmen rails against the media for inaccurate reporting. It’s been reposted on hundreds of message boards, picked up by Discover Magazine and The Telegraph, and I’m quite confident it’s been emailed all over the place.

The piece is presented as if Oehmen’s being at MIT means he’s a nuclear expert because people at MIT are, y’know, SMART. The piece “went viral,” including being posted on a site run by Siemens, a major nuclear-industry powerhouse. In it, Oehmen says that there has not been and will not be a significant release of radiation from the Fukushima I site.

Justin Elliot does a great and thorough debunking on Salon, but here are the high points. Not only is the piece days out of date at this point, but it’s fraudulent twaddle to begin with. It’s been posted, and Oehmen appears to have allowed it to be posted, with the strong implication that his being an “MIT scientist” gives him expertise in this issue. It doesn’t.

The essay was written before releases of radiation had been confirmed, but since some earlier radiation accident at the MIT lab rendered Doctor Happy capable of predicting the future, he may have gotten a bit confused about the benefits of being able to read by yourself at night (it does save on the  power bills, that’s for sure).

The essay, now posted to a site maintained by MIT’s nuclear engineering department, has been modified. Says Justin Elliott at Salon:

So does Oehmen actually work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Yes. But not in the nuclear engineering department. He works at an entity called the Lean Advancement Initiative, which focuses on business management issues. Is he a “research scientist”? Yes. But, again, not in any nuclear field. Oehmen’s research focuses on “risk management” with an eye to helping companies “take entrepreneurial risks.” He writes papers on things like “Human Resource Management in China.”

I e-mailed Oehmen to ask if he stands by the claims in the post. He referred me to the MIT press office, which in turn told me that Oehmen is not doing interviews.

An updated version of Oehmen’s blog post is now being hosted at a website set up by students in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Oehmen’s crucial claim — that there was no chance radiation would be released — has been cut. The title, which was originally “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors,” has been changed. An introduction pointedly says, “Note that the title of the original blog does not reflect the views of the authors of the site.”


Oehmen’s expertise in the nuclear industry is that his father worked in the German nuclear industry. And his area of expertise is…is that supply chain management?!?? I’m not totally sure what any of this means in the version of English spoken by non-academics. He sounds like a business/economics guy, I visited the damage-control site MIT set up.

I found Oehmen’s list of publications, which is all very educational but it’s not his CV. His bio basically spells out his academic studies, and indicates that he did study mechanical engineering, which is in no way shape or form nuclear engineering. It’s all a little obfuscating because high-end academic shit is frankly so filled with buzzwords as to be basically incomprehensible to us simple cavemen.

An actual CV would be more helpful.

So I hit the link for Oehmen’s CV, which is right there on the MIT damage-control site. I wanted to find out what his undergraduate and graduate degrees are in, specifically. guess what I got? THIS.

That’s right, it’s the same damage-control page — a fail-safe loop, leading me back to asking “Who’s on first?” Simple technical error, or has Oehmen’s actual CV been taken down? Who knows? Who cares? Why bother?

This one is actually getting tagged not just with “accidents,” just with “hoaxes.” MIT, an institution for which I have enormous respect, should never be allowed to live this one down.

[Salon Link via Daphne Gottlieb.]

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2 comments on “MIT Damage Control and Josef Oehmen’s “Why I Am Not Worried” About Fukushima
  1. Nothing has been debunked… It’s actually been confirmed… He works for MIT and is a research scientist. He never claimed to be a nuclear engineer. As far as I can tell there has been no attempt at disputing the technical aspects of his document, just some pretty weak attempts at character assassination. If you can find some real information that discredits the essence of his claims that would be much more interesting.

  2. It HAS in fact been debunked, and in fact it was out of date by the time most of the pro-nuke trolls who re-posted it, reposted it.

    I would like to dial down my accusation that it is “fraudulent twaddle;” my blood was up, a bit. If I wrote this today, I would assert that Oehmen committed a very stupid offense in inter-departmental academic politics, and he should have known better. I’d also say that the re-posting of the essay by pro-nuke trolls, and its continued defense (sound familiar?) sure looks suspicious. It demonstrates the dangers of social media, though plenty of other things in this situation demonstrate the benefits.

    For the record, I still support the use of nuclear technologies. And I would not have spoken quite so angrily were I to write this piece today. Calling it “fraudulent twaddle” is not a defensible or refutable argumentative position for me to take, so mea culpa there.

    But your saying “nothing has been debunked” completely ignores the context in which this piece got out there.

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