20 March 2011

We Are All in This Time Capsule Together…The Japan Nuclear Crisis at Fukushima

By Dvija Michael Bertish

Of the many images the world has seen in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, one stands out as a powerful symbol of the vulnerability of humans on this planet. A 60 year-old man was swept nine miles out to sea, floating on the rooftop of what had once been his house. His village of 10,000 people had been obliterated. He watched as his wife disappeared in the tidal surge. He floated for two days on the ocean, surrounded by debris, unnoticed until he was finally spotted and rescued by a passing military ship. The man thought the day of his rescue would have been the day of his death. It is a humbling and sobering image.

As a child I was very interested in learning about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the advent of nuclear weaponry during World War II, and warnings written by Albert Einstein about these quantum devices. Einstein also warned about the potential extinction of honey bees and the subsequent collapse of the global food supply within four years' time. Heavy thoughts for a ten-year-old, but it stuck with me. Currently, the United Nations has issued a warning that Colony Collapse Disorder of honey bees has become a pandemic that could impact the global food supply. The cause of the disorder has not been formally identified. One theory was that the bees were oversensitized by cellphone transmissions, another theory pointed to the possibility of a bacteriological pathogen. I wonder if the decline of honey bees could be attributed to advancing background radiation that continues to escalate in the global environment.

Radioactive smoke arising from Fukushima Nuclear Plant
At the time of this writing, the Fukushima plant has suffered various explosions and radiological releases. Some reports say that Chernobyl was far worse, others say the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant exceed Chernobyl without the confirmation of a total nuclear meltdown. Individual radiation exposure due to natural sources amounts to about 2.4 millisievert (mSv) per year. Those evacuated from around Chernobyl experienced 350 mSv per hour. Fukushima levels exceeded 400 mSv per hour, and spiked at the reactor site to 10,000 mSv per hour. However, there are reports that the disaster has corrupted the monitoring equipment. It appears Japan officials plan to dump tons of sand and cement on a leaking reactor in an attempt to seal off the radiation.

For an easy to understand guide to what the radiation doses being found in Japan mean in terms of health risk, and potential for fallout in the US are, see the Heart of America Northwest homepage http://www.hoanw.org/

It is estimated that 400 million human beings were exposed to Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout. According to agencies with the United Nations, Chernobyl caused 4,000 related deaths and 4,000 thyroid cancers (mostly in children, with a very high cure rate) [1] , and some 200,000 people have developed illnesses caused by radiological exposure. Other assessments are much higher: “The International Agency for Research on Cancer, another UN agency, predicts 16,000 deaths from Chernobyl; an assessment by the Russian academy of sciences says there have been 60,000 deaths so far in Russia and an estimated 140,000 in Ukraine and Belarus…” [2] 
The Fukushima crisis has not yet reached full meltdown status, but the cooling systems have failed, the reactor cores are exposed and are venting radioactive smoke, and millions of people in Tokyo wonder if the air will shift, causing the radiation to drift toward the city instead of out to sea. Millions of people are at risk. A measurable radiation plume reached California, and there has been no mention of the cumulative impacts to the environment, though officials are quick to say there is no impact to human health. I guess its better to say something like that to avoid public hysteria and panic.

Also at the time of this writing, people are stampeding to vitamin shops to purchase potassium iodide pills in hopes of fending off thyroid cancer from radiation exposure, but no other organs are protected with this therapy. Doctors are warning the public not to take this supplement, but fear drives consumers to seek out the pills. News reports indicate cargo and luggage at US airports that originated in Japan show measurable levels of radiation, though US officals claim the levels are not enough to be dangerous. Japanese health officals discovered radiation in milk and spinach near Fukushima, and in tap water in Tokyo and five central prefectures.

Senators are asking if US nuclear plants are at risk from major earthquakes, yet one plant in California is built atop a major faultline on the coast. A representative of the San Onofre Nuclear Plant was interviewed on national news, wearing a powder blue shirt and sport jacket, saying repeatedly that his power plant could withstand a 7-point quake, and that the plant was protected by a 20-foot tsunami wall. Really? Doesn’t he know that the Japan quake was a 9-pointer, and the tidal surge swallowed whole towns at greater heights? Does he know that the US coast is comprised of the very same type of subduction zones that triggered the Japanese quake? Has he not seen the devastation from recent quakes in New Zealand and Chile, all within the Pacific Ring of Fire?

The Japan crisis led to Germany’s immediate shuttering of its pre-1989 nuclear power plants, costing billions of dollars, and Sweden is to follow this example. And yet, in this climate of global crisis, our own domestic nuclear industry is suing the US federal government in an attempt to stop nuclear waste long-term storage management fees, and an east Tennessee plant recently applied to import and treat 1,000 tons of radioactive waste to be imported from German nuclear facilites. The Chistian Science Monitor reports, “Nuclear plants in the United States last year experienced at least 14 "near misses," serious failures in which safety was jeopardized, at least in part, due to lapses in oversight and enforcement by US nuclear safety regulators,” the report produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group. The Wall Street Journal reports that “dozens of nuclear reactors operate in earthquake-prone regions around the world, including at least 14 in high-hazard areas.” Go figure.

The collateral damage in this crisis is extensive. The city of Tokyo is at a standstill. American medics have been evacuated from Japan due to rising radiation levels. The Japanese stock market has tumbled, causing a cascade of economic downturns in countries around the world that were already weakened by the great recession. US automakers and electronic fabricators could become unable to produce their products since many components are made in Japan. General Electric, the company that made the Fukushima nuclear reactor, as well as the reactor at Hanford, is suffering from a devaluation of its stock due to the Japan crisis.

Reactor number 3 at the Fukushima plant was operated with experimental Plutonium “MOX” fuel -- reactor fuel mixed with weapons grade plutonium that increases the severity and danger of radioactive releases. Within the past few weeks, Heart of America Northwest discovered that Energy Northwest, the consortium of publicly owned utilities (formerly called WPPSS), made a secret deal to be the first commercial nuclear reactor in the US to use Plutonium fuel at the Hanford reactor without public consent or knowledge.

The Plutonium fuel at Fukushima Reactor 3 is being acknowledged by the US government and nuclear experts as posing the highest risks from partial meltdown and fire amongst the reactors. It melts more readily, and releases more radiation than uranium fuel rods.

Seattle Times front page story (March 19, 2011) on Heart of America Northwest filing suit this week over Energy Northwest’s effort to keep its plan to use Plutonium fuel a secret. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2014539881_plutonium19m.html

Americans are wondering if a nuclear meltdown in Japan would result in mass exposure to radiation through the atmosphere. Simultaneously, Japanese workers are experiencing extensive radiation exposure at the reactor site, and are sure to develop cancer from it. Washington State declares that there is no danger from radiation exposure, and EPA has deployed additional Radnet monitors to collect air samples in order to determine radiation levels in the atmosphere.

One question comes to mind in light of these developments – was it all worth it to pursue nuclear energy?

Of the 104 nuclear reactors in the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranks the Hanford reactor 39th at risk of catastrophic failure caused by earthquake. The San Onofre reactors in California are ranked 46th, which indicates that Hanford is more at risk.

Another thought comes to mind. A very small number of people (nuclear regulators in the US) are making policy that can and may very well endanger the population in our own country. And this small number of regulators doesn’t seem to be phased at all by fears raised by the public that radioactive waste is dangerous, that nuclear reactors are prime targets for disaster (natural or terrorist types), and that the health and well being of all people is at risk because of the nuclear industry.

The US is the leader in nuclear energy use, and has the most reactors. And just today, 25 years after Chernobyl, more than 30 years after Three Mile Island, the federal government is just now wondering if US nuclear reactors are sturdy enough to withstand major earthquakes and tsunamis. Stress tests for US facilities are just now being ordered. There is something dramatically wrong with this picture.

At the time of this writing, Japan’s future is uncertain. Our collective futures are uncertain. Will there be a full meltdown? Will there be a nuclear explosion? Will parts of Japan become uninhabitable? However this crisis plays out, one thing is for certain – its not just Japan’s problem. Everyone in the world will be impacted by this crisis.

1983, Sculpture, Cast Cement, Steel & Shattered Glass

My childhood fascination with nuclear issues led to an art project during my college years. I created a sculpted rock base, a sort of cliff. Out of this cliff arose a steel aperture that formed a large question mark shape. I gathered many panes of tempered glass and flung them into metal garbage cans so they would shatter. I reached into this garbage can bare-handed to retrieve hundreds of shards of glass. I glued the glass in spiral forms around the aperture with aquarium glue, coating the question mark with ultra sharp spikes of glass. I never cut myself. The sculpture was placed on display in a student art show, set upon a large platform to avoid direct contact with the glass shards. It took 6 people to move the sculpture, and they all wore protective gloves because they feared being cut by the glass. The sculpture was wheeled about on a metal trolley, and the glass made strange noises as it was heaved into place. People were very nervous around this sculpture and kept their distance. They were afraid of it.

The sculpture was entitled “There Were Once White Sands Near Alamagordo in 1945.” The first nuclear exposion test took place in New Mexico in 1945. The desert sand beneath the test site was fused into a giant crator of glass shards. The sands of New Mexico constantly move -- vast white dunes that undulate in the winds like glistening snakes. I often wonderd if the nuclear radiation from the test site moved around with the white sands near Alamagordo. The first Nuclear bombs were dropped at Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 to end World War II. Was it the end, or just the beginning of a larger war? What is the legacy of the nuclear age? I guess time will tell.

To discuss your concerns about how this relates to Hanford, and plans to use Hanford as a national waste dump, please come to public meetings at 7:00pm: March 29th in Seattle at Seattle Center's Northwest Rooms, March 31st in Portland at the Red Lion Hotel at Jantzen Beach, and a May 19th hearing in Portland (6:30pm Lloyd Center Doubletree Hotel) on US Department of Energy's latest plan to use Hanford as a national radioactive waste dump for extreme radioactive wastes from reactors and weapons.

[1] UN agencies and the government of the Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine with UN agencies: International Atomic Energy Agency and WHO, joint report; 2005 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/index.html
[2] The Guardian, UK, January 10, 2010:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/10/chernobyl-nuclear-deaths-cancers-dispute Meanwhile, the Belarus national academy of sciences estimates 93,000 deaths so far and 270,000 cancers, and the Ukrainian national commission for radiation protection calculates 500,000 deaths so far. The mismatches in figures arise because there have been no comprehensive, co-ordinated studies of the health consequences of the accident. This is in contrast to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where official research showed that the main rise in most types of cancer and non-cancer diseases only became apparent years after the atomic bombs fell. With Chernobyl there have been difficulties in gathering reliable data from areas left in administrative chaos after the accident. Hundreds of thousands of people were moved away from the affected areas, and the break-up of the Soviet Union led to records being lost.”

Some progress seen in Japan's nuclear crisis, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mar 20, 2011

Lessons From Chernobyl for Japan, NY Times, Mar 19, 2011

Radioactive contamination of food risks, Khaleej Times, Mar 20, 2011
Officials: Pressure rises again in Japan reactor, Chigaco Sun Times, Mar 20, 2011

Radiation Plume Reaches U.S., but Is Said to Pose No Risk, NY Times, Mar 18, 2011

Dozens of Reactors in Quake Zones, Wall St Journal, Mar 19, 2011

Nuclear power report: 14 'near misses' at US plants due to 'lax oversight', Christian Science Monitor, Mar 18, 2011

Fear's Price Tag; The High Price of Merkel's Nuclear About-Face, Spiegel International, Mar 16, 2011

Charting the Human Cost of Different Types of Energy, Pro Public Blog, Mar 18, 2011

Radiation Fears and Distrust Push Thousands From Homes, NY Times, Mar 17, 2011

U.S. nuclear officials suspect Japanese plant has a dire breach, Los Angeles Times, Mar 18, 2011

Fukushima Crisis Worsens as U.S. Warns of a Large Radiation Release, NY Times, Mar 17, 2011

Japan Races to Restart Reactors’ Cooling System, NY Times, Mar 18, 2011

Obama urges review of U.S. nuclear plants, reassures Americans on radiation from Japan, Los Angeles Times, Mar 17, 2011

Regulators aware of years of understated seismic risks to nuclear plants, Center for Public Integrity, Mar 18, 2011

Report faults U.S. nuclear oversight, Asbury Park Press, Mar 18, 2011
Three ways Japan's nuclear crisis could end, USA Today, Mar 17, 2011

Radioactive particles arriving in the Bay Area, but pose no risk, say scientists and health officials, Mercury News, Mar 17, 2011

Trace radiation at airports determined OK, but highlights concerns about spread from Japan, Chicago Tribune, Mar 17, 2011http://timesfreepress.com/news/2011/mar/18/radioactive-waste-may-be-bound-state/
Radioactive waste may be bound for state (Tennessee), Times Free Press, Mar 18, 2011

Senators Question Safety of Nuclear Reactors in California and Vermont, Environmental News Service, Mar 16, 2011

WRAPUP 4-U.S. shows growing alarm over Japan nuclear crisis, Reuters, Mar 17, 2011

With Quest to Cool Fuel Rods Stumbling, U.S. Sees ‘Weeks’ of Struggle,Mar 17, 2011

Reactors on Fault Lines Getting Fresh Scrutiny, Wall Street Journal, Mar 17, 2011

Plutonium fuel could be used at Hanford power plant, Seattle Times, Mar 18, 2011

San Onofre nuclear plant can withstand up to 7.0 quake, is protected by a 25-foot tsunami wall, Edison, LA Times, Mar 15, 2011

Nuclear power and earthquake zones overlap in the U.S, Mother Nature News, Mar 15, 2011

Nuclear Industry Sues to Lift Reactor Fuel Management Fee, Environmental News Service, Mar 10, 2011

Stocks hurt as GE, utilities hit by nuclear doubts, Wall Street Journal, Mar 14, 2011

Japan's nuclear crisis: regulators warned of reactor risks, UK Guardian, Mar 14, 2011

Decline of honey bees now a global phenomenon, says United Nations, The Independent, Mar 10, 2011