Dahr Jamail / Al Jazeera – 2011-04-10 00:48:38
Fukushima: A ‘Nuclear Sacrifice Zone’
Some experts believe Japan’s nuclear disaster could become worse than Chernobyl
Dahr Jamail / Al Jazeera
(April 8, 2011) — Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that was heavily damaged by the tsunami from the massive March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake continues to spread extremely high levels of radiation into the ocean, ground, and air.
Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the company that operates the plant, said on April 5 that radioactive iodine-131 readings taken from seawater near the water intake of the No. 2 reactor reached 7.5 million times the legal limit. The sample that yielded this reading was taken just before Tepco began releasing more than 11,000 tonnes of radioactive water into the sea.
The radioactive water discharged into the Pacific has prompted experts to sound the alarm, as cesium, which has a much longer half-life than iodine, is expected to concentrate in the upper food chain.
“The situation is very concerning,” Dr MV Ramana, a physicist specializing in issues of nuclear safety with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University told Al Jazeera, “They are finding it very difficult to stabilize the situation.”
Operators of the plant are no closer to regaining control of damaged reactors, as fuel rods remain overheated and high levels of radiation are being released. Until the plant’s internal cooling system is reconnected, radiation will flow from the plant.
Nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama on April 3 offered the first sense of how long it might take to bring an end to the nuclear crisis.
“It would take a few months until we finally get things under control and have a better idea about the future,” said Nishiyama, “We’ll face a crucial turning point within the next few months, but that is not the end.” Ramana explained to Al Jazeera that he sees the current situation as being the “best case scenario,” because “the wind has been largely over the ocean, there havenâ€™t been any more major explosions, and none of the spent fuel areas have had a major fire.”
“There could be a core that gets molten, and we could have an explosion,” Ramana said of what he believes would be a worst-case scenario, “This isn’t likely, but it is possible.”
Mary Olson is the director of the Southeast Office of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), a group that describes itself as the information and networking center for citizens and environmental organizations concerned about nuclear power, radioactive waste, and radiation. Olson shares Ramana’s concerns about the worst-case scenario.
“The worst-case scenario is still out there, it could happen,” Olson told Al Jazeera, “And that would be some kind of explosive force that mobilizes the fissile material on the site into a wider sphere.”
Olson, who is also an evolutionary biologist with a double major in Biology and History of Science, including studies of chemistry and biochemistry at Purdue University, expressed concern over the fact that in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the United States, “All the contaminated material generated from that was released to our environment in a planned and ‘regulated’ way. It was dumped in rivers or boiled off into the atmosphere.”
Olson sees the same thing already happening now with the Fukushima disaster, and thinks the situation could eventually be worse than even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that left some 200,000 people dead, according to a study from the environmental group Greenpeace.
“All of those [Fukushima] reactors have been in a catastrophic level of radioactive release that exceeds Chernobyl,” she said. “Two of these have exploded, No. 2 is in meltdown, and we believe it has gone back into criticality and that there is a nuclear chain reaction coming and going.”
She also pointed out that the fuel core in reactor No. 4 was offloaded for refueling at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, “So none of the fuel was in containment and was all in the pool and that’s why it’s gotten hotter faster and there has been very little attention to this. All of these are catastrophic in themselves. Having them in one place in one month is truly catastrophic.”
Dr Ramana warned that it would likely take several months without any more setbacks before the crisis can be declared stable. “What we’re seeing is a lot of the systems were taken out during the tsunami and explosions,” he added, “The lack of power to circulate the water is a problem, so there arenâ€™t going to be any quick fixes for these things.”
Olson also fears that if the core meltdowns get to the groundwater under the plant, “You have an explosive force that is like putting dynamite under the site. The problem is if you get this molten fuel into that water it could cause a steam explosion.”
“Since unit two is showing signs of fission happening, the chances of something more catastrophic happening at that site are increasing,” Olson added, “People are acting like the worst is over, and that is just not understanding the real issues here as far as the radiological impacts.”
She also pointed out that the fuel pool in reactor No. 3 “is gone, according to recent photos. There is no fuel there. The reactor fuel pool in No. 3 is gone. Where did it go?”
On Thursday, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said the current 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the plant may need to be enlarged due to the original parameters having been established in relation to short-term exposure. “Current evacuation orders apply to areas where people are in danger of having received 50 millisieverts [of cumulative exposure]. We are now looking into what to do with other areas where, with prolonged exposure, people may receive that amount,” Edano said.
A 50-millisievert amount is the exposure limit for a nuclear-plant worker for a full year.
“The regions the Japanese government has evacuated have been declared to be long-term, and these are regions of several hundred square kilometers and they are finding local hotspots that are further out,” Ramana told Al Jazeera, “There is going to be an area around Fukushima that is going to be off-limits for human habitation for decades. The same thing happened with Chernobyl.”
Olson agrees, and believes the mandatory evacuation area needs to be increased. “Two hundred thousand people are now out of their homes,” she said, “But the government needs to enlarge the evacuation area. Much of that area, to the north and west will become permanent interdiction, meaning nobody will be going home. There will be a fairly large area where nobody will be going home.”
Taking ‘Safety’ with a Grain of Salt
Recently disclosed documents show US regulators doubt that some of the nation’s nuclear power plants can withstand a disaster akin to Fukushima’s.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) members have questioned back-up plans to maintain cooling systems in case main power sources fail, and a July 2010 memo assessing Exelon Corporation’s Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Delta, Pennsylvania, concludes that contingency plans, “have really not been reviewed to ensure that they will work to mitigate severe accidents.”
A Union of Concerned Scientists statement by nuclear expert Edwin Lyman said, “While [regulators] and the nuclear industry have been reassuring Americans that there is nothing to worry about â€¦ it turns out that privately NRC senior analysts are not so sure.”
Possibly answering Olson’s question about the missing fuel pool in Fukushima reactor No. 3, the document suggests that fragments of nuclear fuel from spent fuel pools above the reactors were blown “up to one mile from the units” during one of the plants earlier hydrogen explosions. This ejection of radioactive material could indicate far more extensive damage to the radioactive pools than has been previously disclosed.
Ramana, the Princeton University physicist, is clear in what he believes needs to happen within the nuclear industry to correct these myriad and potentially catastrophic problems.
“At the minimum you probably want to stop all nuclear construction until we get a much better understanding of what happened at Fukushima and what problems occurred,” he said. “Even though the reactors shut down as they are designed to do, the problem was cooling water. In Chernobyl, it took years to really get a better understanding of what happened. Until that happens, all construction should be put on hold.”
Ramana points to another problem — that of building several reactors on the same site.
“There are six reactors on the same site at Fukushima, and what happened was that all of them were affected by one common cause, the tsunami. We also saw that when there were hydrogen explosions in one reactor, that affected the spent fuel at another reactor, so we have cross-effecting problems. Then when one started getting out of control, it impeded emergency steps that needed to be taken at other reactors. So building multiple reactors at one site is a bad idea, and should be stopped.”
He said that previous accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have been dismissed by the nuclear industry. “Chernobyl was explained away due to Soviet operator errors and operators who had bad training, etc.” he said, “So the argument for many years is that as long as we are using western built light water reactors we are perfectly safe.”
“Now, however,” he added, “Fukushima blows that idea out of the water. We are going to be told that new reactors are safer and that has to be taken with a grain of salt.”
A Nuclear Obama
The Obama administration has proposed $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to jump-start the construction of nuclear power plants in the US. Nuclear operator Exelon Corporation has been among Barack Obama’s biggest campaign donors, and is one of the largest employers in Illinois where Obama was Senator. The company has donated over $269,000 to his political campaigns. Obama also appointed Exelon CEO John Rowe to his Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Energy Future.
Illinois, where Obama began his political career, gets approximately half of its electricity from nuclear power, more than any other state. It currently has 10 operable reactors at six sites. The Quad-cities Nuclear Power Plant, located on the banks of the Mississippi River, is a GE Mark One plant, with the identical design and nearly the same age as the Fukushima reactors.
Olson said that even with Japanese and US government so-called acceptable limits of radiation exposure, “we’re still getting excess cancer.” She says it’s too soon to say if the fallout from Fukushima will compare to cancers borne of the Chernobyl disaster, where two thirds of the excess cancers occurred outside of the Belorussia area.
“We are creating radioactive sacrifice zones on our planet,” she said, “And these zones will persists for hundreds of thousands of years, and our genetics will be effected. Ionizing radiation, especially when it is internalized in our bodies, randomizes DNAâ€¦ so when cells are damaged, that is when cancer starts. And every single time radiation exposure occurs, there will be additional cancers.”
Olson also pointed out that there is likely little Tepco can do to prevent the Fukushima plant’s radiation from being released into the environment.
“All of that radioactive water they are holding will be diluted and released or evaporated into the air. The water is going off as radioactive steam or runoff, and all of that will end up in our environment because there is no place to put it. They treat it like dilution is the solution, but the more you spread it out the more human and animal tissue is exposed and the more cancer there is.”
‘No Safe Levels’ of Radiation in Japan
Experts warn that any detectable level of radiation is “too much”
Dahr Jamail / Al Jazeera
(April 4, 2011) — In a nuclear crisis that is becoming increasingly serious, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency confirmed that radioactive iodine-131 in seawater samples taken near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex that was seriously damaged by the recent tsunami off the coast of Japan is 4,385 times the level permitted by law.
Airborne radiation near the plant has been measured at 4-times government limits.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, the company that operates the crippled plant, has begun releasing more than 11,000 tons of radioactive water that was used to cool the fuel rods into the ocean while it attempts to find the source of radioactive leaks. The water being released is about 100 times more radioactive than legal limits.
Meanwhile, water that is vastly more radioactive continues to gush into the ocean through a large crack in a six-foot deep pit at the nuclear plant. Over the weekend, workers at the plant used sawdust, shredded newspaper and diaper chemicals in a desperate attempt to plug the area, which failed. Water leaking from the pit is about 10,000 times more radioactive than water normally found at a nuclear plant
Thus, radiation from a meltdown in the reactor core of reactor No. 2 is leaking out into the water and soil, with other reactors continuing to experience problems.
Yet scientists and activists question these government and nuclear industry “safe” limits of radiation exposure.
“The US Department of Energy has testified that there is no level of radiation that is so low that it is without health risks,” Jacqueline Cabasso, the Executive Director of the Western States Legal Foundation, told >o?Al Jazeera.
Her foundation monitors and analyzes U.S. nuclear weapons programs and policies and related high technology energy, with a focus on the national nuclear weapons laboratories.
Cabasso explained that natural background radiation exists, “But more than 2,000 nuclear tests have enhanced this background radiation level, so we are already living in an artificially radiated environment due to all the nuclear tests.”
“Karl Morgan, who worked on the Manhattan project, later came out against the nuclear industry when he understood the danger of low levels of ionizing radiation-and he said there is no safe dose of radiation exposure,” Cabasso continued, “That means all this talk about what a worker or the public can withstand on a yearly basis is bogus. There is no safe level of radiation exposure. These so-called safe levels are coming from within the nuclear establishment.”
Risk at Low Doses
Karl Morgan was an American physicist who was a founder of the field of radiation health physics. After a long career in the Manhattan Project and at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he became a critic of nuclear power and weapons. Morgan, who died in 1999, began to offer court testimony for people who said they had been harmed by the nuclear power industry.
“Nobody is talking about the fact that there is no safe dose of radiation,” Cabasso added, “One of the reasons Morgan said this is because doses are cumulative in the body.”
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a report in 2006 titled Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) report, VII Phase 2. NAS BEIR VII was an expert panel who reviewed available peer reviewed literature and wrote, “the committee concludes that the preponderance of information indicates that there will be some risk, even at low doses.”
The concluding statement of the report reads, “The committee concludes that the current scientific evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that there is a linear, no-threshold dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of cancer in humans.”
This means that the sum of several very small exposures to radiation has the same effect as one large exposure, since the effects of radiation are cumulative.
For weeks engineers from Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) have been working to restore power to the plant and have resorted to having seawater sprayed on radioactive fuel rods that have been at risk of meltdown.
Despite this, Japanese officials conceded to the public on March 31 that the battle to save four crippled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has been lost. On March 29, a US engineer who helped install the reactors at the plant said he believed the radioactive core in unit No. 2 may have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on to a concrete floor.
Tepco’s chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, said they had “no choice” but to scrap the No’s 1-4 reactors, but held out hope that the remaining two could continue to operate, despite the fact that he admitted the nuclear disaster could last several months. It is the first time the company has admitted that at least part of the plant will have to be decommissioned.
But the government’s chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, repeated an earlier call for all six reactors at the 40-year-old plant to be decommissioned. “It is very clear looking at the social circumstances,” he said.
Even after a cold shutdown, scrapping the plant will likely take decades, and the site will become a no-man’s land.
Tons of nuclear waste sit at the site of the nuclear reactors, and enclosing the reactors by injecting lead and encasing them in concrete would make it safe to work and live a few kilometres away from the site, but is not a long-term solution for the disposal of spent fuel, which will decay and emit fission fragments over tens of thousands of years.
Near the plant, the radiation levels dangerously escalated to 400 milliseiverts/hour. Considering background radiation is on the order of 1 milliseivert per year, this means a yearly background dose every 9 seconds, based on industry and governmental “allowable” radiation exposure limits.
That compares with a national “safety standard” in the US of 250 millisieverts over a year. The US Environmental Protection Agency says a single dose of 1,000 millisieverts is enough to cause internal hemorrhaging.
Meanwhile, more than 168 citizens organizations in Japan submitted a petition to their government on March 28 calling for an expanded evacuation zone near the Fukushima nuclear disaster site. The groups are also calling for other urgent measures to protect the public health and safety.
Residents of evacuated areas near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant have been warned that they may not be able to return to their homes for months as Japanâ€™s nuclear crisis stretched into a third week.
The neighbourhoods near the plant will remain empty “for the long term,” Yukio Edano, the country’s chief cabinet secretary, said on April 1.
Though he did not set a timetable, he said residents would not be able to return permanently “in a matter of days or weeks. It will be longer than that.”
The official evacuation zone remains only 20 kilometres, while the government has encouraged people within 30 kilometres to evacuate.
Yet levels of cesium-137 in the village of Iitate, for example, have been measured at more than twice the levels that prompted the Soviet Union to evacuate people near Chernobyl. Iitate is 40 kilometres northwest of Fukushima. Radioactive Iodine has already been found in the tap water in all of Tokyoâ€™s 23 wards.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission had already recommended an 80-kilometre evacuation zone for US citizens in Japan.
Fukushima as Chernobyl
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“There are still no-go areas there, and the workers town has long since been abandoned, and we are seeing radioactive refugees from there, like we are now seeing generated in Japan,” Dr Kathleen Sullivan, a disarmament educator and activist who has been engaged in the nuclear issue for over 20 years told Al Jazeera, “Tepco is trying to cover their rear-end, and the Japanese government is being cagey about it, and I believe people don’t understand that radiation is a major problem and issue.”
Dr Sullivan, cited Albert Einstein, who said, “The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man’s mode of thinking; thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”
“So we don’t understand this mistake because of the timeless invisible nature of the problem that radiation is,” Sullivan, who has been an education consultant to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, added.
Some experts have warned of a nightmare scenario where clouds of radioactive material could spread lethal toxins across the planet for months on end if the spent fuel rods catch fire due to lack of coolant.
The Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics of Vienna told New Scientist on March 24:
“Japan’s damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima has been emitting radioactive iodine and caesium at levels approaching those seen in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors — designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests — to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 percent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 percent of the amount released from Chernobyl.”
The same group of scientists stated, “The Fukushima plant has around 1,760 tonnes of fresh and used nuclear fuel on site,â€ while, â€œthe Chernobyl reactor had only 180 tons.”
According to a report from the New York Academy of Sciences, due to the Chernobyl disaster, 985,000 people have died, mainly from cancer, between 1986-2004.
Monitors have detected tiny radioactive particles which have spread from the reactor site across the Pacific to North America, the Atlantic and even Europe. Andrea Stahl, a senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, told Reuters, “It’s only a matter of days before it disperses in the entire northern hemisphere.”
Tens of thousands of people living near the plant have been evacuated or ordered to stay indoors, while radioactive materials have leaked into the sea, soil and air.
Last week also marked the 32nd anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Middletown, Pennsylvania, in the United States.
250,000 Years of Radiation
Sullivan explained that when dealing with long-lived radioactive materials, in addition to carcinogens there are inter-generational effects that include the mutation of the genetic structure of life.
“This is permanent and irreversible,” she added.
Sullivan uses Fukushima reactor No. 3 as an example, because it is fueled with Mox fuel uranium and plutonium. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, which means it is carcinogenic and mutagenic for up to 250,000 years, or 12,000 human generations.
A radioactive half-life means that in this case, in 24,000 years, half of the ionizing radiation will have decayed, then in another 24,000 years half of that radiation will decay, etc.
“That’s not really understandable or explainable in a conventional sense of knowing,” Sullivan said, “We have to apply our moral imagination to 12,000 generations to even begin to understand what we are doing in this moment.”
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