Jay Cullen never expected the world of hate he encountered when he began to post scientific information about the impact of the Fukushima accident on the Pacific Ocean.
Criticism was anticipated – but then he started getting death threats.
After the Japanese nuclear reactor melted down in 2011, following an earthquake and tsunami, fears arose that radiation would pollute the Pacific and spread to Canada's West Coast.
To address those concerns, which didn't go away even after ocean scientists reported relatively low levels, Dr. Cullen started a radionuclide-monitoring program in 2014.
The Integrated Fukushima Ocean Radionuclide Monitoring project (or InFORM, as he optimistically called it) worked with a broad network of scientists to gather the latest research and distribute it to the public.
"The goal and motivation … was that people were asking me, family and friends and the public at large, what the impact of the disaster was on B.C. on the North Pacific and on Canada," he said. "I started looking for quality monitoring information so I could answer those questions as honestly and accurately as I could."
Dr. Cullen thought the public would appreciate knowing what the scientists knew.
Shortly after he began blogging about the findings, which showed just about zero risk to the environment and to the public in North America, he became the target of a hate campaign. The attacks went far beyond fair criticism. He was not only called a "shill for the nuclear industry" and a "sham scientist" but he was told he and other researchers who were reporting that the Fukushima radiation wasn't a threat deserved to be executed.
In a blog post, one critic likened the fight with the scientific community to "a cold war, against the highest, and most powerful of the elites in this world."
Dr. Cullen said he was taken aback by the vehemence of his critics.
"I knew there were lots of individuals who felt strongly about nuclear power. So it wasn't a surprise that there were those who didn't accept what the scientific research was showing," he said. "But I have to admit the hatred and the threats I received, that was somewhat of a surprise."
The research by Dr. Cullen and many other scientists has shown that despite the high levels of contamination in Japan, the levels across the Pacific are so low they are difficult to detect. Even in Japan, he says, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation have determined the doses of ionizing radiation "are low enough that there will be no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related illness in them or their descendants."
Of course this does not fit the narrative of those who think the Fukushima accident has poisoned the Pacific and is responsible for a wave of cancer deaths across North America.
Dr. Cullen said he frequently hears from people that his science simply can't be right because the Pacific Ocean is dying. It is adrift with tsunami debris and plastic waste and its stocks have been overfished, but it has not been killed by nuclear radiation.
Dr. Cullen said he understands that people are afraid of radiation, that they distrust governments and are wary of scientists. Despite that, he's still hoping to reach out to them with scientific facts.
"I feel that the education system has failed these individuals in certain respects," he said. "I feel their motivations are genuine and their desire to understand is laudable, but I think [the reaction of hate and fear] highlights the need for scientists to engage more directly with the public, to explain what we do, how we do it."
Dr. Cullen is right. The scientific community does need to do a better job of talking directly to the public. The unfair attacks he's experienced may make others reluctant to do that. But without their voices, we are left listening to the less informed – and to the haters.