2012/01/30

America Syndrome



In the 1970s the term “China syndrome” became a well-known term to explain the meltdown of an American nuclear reactor that would, theoretically, continue to melt through the earth all the way to the opposite side of the world. The term implies a focus on the danger of nuclear energy in America, but I've reversed the term here to flip this perspective.
The anti-nuclear movement is full of accusations against the nuclear military and industrial complex of cover up and secrecy, but critics have to reluctantly admit that the information is out there for those who want to look for it. The fact that there is so little awareness of nuclear hazards probably has more to do with the the public’s tendency to want to drive horrifying facts deep into the collective subconscious.
For those who want to learn about the issues, plenty can be discovered with Internet searches or a trip to the local library. The hazards range from minor accidents such as canisters of isotopes found in a garbage dump, accidents at experimental labs and reactors, acts of war, minor incidents at power plants, weapons testing fallout, a bomber crash and plutonium spill in Spain or Greenland, to finally the big disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Many of these accidents and deliberate events are known by the shorthand of the places where they occurred: Alamogordo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini, Marshall Islands, Nevada Test Site, Aleutian Islands, Mururoa, Fangataufa, Three Mile Island, Semipalatinsk and so on.
The curious omission on this list is the absence of a Chinese place name. The Chinese nuclear program has existed since the 1960s in almost complete secrecy, un-cracked by slightest internal dissent and almost impenetrable to external critics. The Wikipedia page entitled “Nuclear Accidents by Country” (as of 2012/01/29) has a completely empty listing for China, while the entries for other major nuclear players are long and well-known.
At the recent Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohama, there were hibakusha and activistst from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US and French weapons testing programs in South Pacific, and the Chernobyl disaster. As much as these people have suffered great injustices to this day, the governments of France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the former USSR have never had a total lock on information and dissenting interpretations of nuclear history. It is worth something that, for example, an anti-nuclear journalist like Anna Yaroshinskaya was elected to governing bodies in the USSR and Russia, travelled in the Chernobyl zones, and wrote freely about her concerns. No such person could have emerged out of in China.
Of course, the Chinese government would say that there aren’t any accidents to report in the list mentioned above, but it would be hard to believe that the Chinese nuclear program advanced without the long list of minor and major accidents that plagued the other nuclear states. One of the few scientists or journalists to look into this matter is Dr. Takada Jun, a professor at the Sapporo Medical University and a representative of the Japanese Radiation Protection Information Center.
An article about his work appeared in The Epoch Times in March, 2009. In it he describes how the Lop Nur test site in Xinjiang, northwestern China (on the ancient Silk Road) was used for dozens of surface and atmospheric tests between 1964 and 1982, one of which was a 4-megaton bomb in 1976 that was 10 times as big as the largest before that in the USSR (however, other sources contradict this number saying the Tsar Bomba hydrogen device detonated by the USSR in 1961 was 50 megatons. In any case, any megaton bomb is huge). Underground tests continued until 1996.
Takada alleges that these large bombs involved massive fallout that fell on the local population, without there having been any effort to warn or protect. He estimates the fallout of the one largest bomb caused 190,000 deaths and 1,290,000 people suffered from radiation poisoning within an area 136 times the size of Tokyo. In total, he estimates 750,000 died prematurely. He could only estimate fallout by studying soil in the bordering areas of Khazakstan, and by what is known about the size of the blasts. No outside experts have ever visited the area to carry out studies on the soil or the population. If the Chinese government has done it, the studies are top secret.
A British Channel 4 documentary made in 1998, called Death on the Silk Road, found evidence of the suffering described by Dr. Takada. The crew (including a physician) travelled along the Silk Road as tourists, filming clandestinely, and finding a surprisingly large number of birth defects in villages they visited.
A Scientific American article in 2009 covered Dr. Takada’s work and included the perspective of a Uygur refugee, Enver Tohti, who lived in the Lop Nur region during the testing era, then became a doctor, and now works with Dr. Takada in Sapporo on their Lop Nur Project. They hope, of course, to increase international awareness of the issue so that China may one day recognize the need for a proper acknowledgement and research of the problem, not to mention assistance for the victims.
Another aspect of nuclear issues in China is the concern about the safety of its nuclear reactor fleet. Thanks to Wikileaks, the world now knows that diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Beijing stated that China has a "vastly increased" the risk of a nuclear accident because it opted for cheap technology that will be 100 years old by the time dozens of its reactors reach the end of their lifespans. China passed up the opportunity to go with more advanced “passive” reactor designs that are much safer than older reactors. The US cables also raise concerns about the “secrecy of the bidding process for power plant contracts, the influence of government lobbying, and potential weaknesses in the management and regulatory oversight of China's fast-expanding nuclear sector.”
Just imagine it as Japan without the democracy (such as it is) and without the forty-year-old anti-nuclear citizens’ movement, which in any case couldn’t stop the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. Or consider how long (not very) China’s brand new shinkansen train lines existed without a major accident. Some people take heart that China regularly metes out severe justice to a few officials after disasters, but China’s record of disastrous accidents, botched fireworks displays, and tainted food scandals provides no evidence that such punishment is a deterrent or an effective solution to a systemic problem.
This month The Telegraph reported that China’s Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) stopped generating electricity in October following an accident. Ironically, it was Japan's Atomic Energy Agency raising the alarm about a nuclear hazard outside Japan. Perhaps they were in the mood to deflect attention away from their own problems at home. China did not report the accident that necessitated the shutdown. The director of the Chinese Institute of Atomic Energy (which houses the CEFR) denied there had been an accident and stated that the CEFR had been shut down since July, so no accident in October was possible.
Regardless of what has happened in this case, the scale of China’s nuclear program and its history of secrecy in its weapons testing suggest that it’s time for the world to pay closer attention. Historians and scientists need to record what happened on the Silk Road in the late 20th century, and the Chinese nuclear industry should be open to independent domestic and international monitors. It doesn’t bode well that China is repeating the policy of Japan in the 1970s - making a massive, rushed investment in nuclear energy, built upon a questionable regulatory system, just to supply a small percentage (6% in China’s case) of the nation’s electricity needs.

Further reading:

Cooke, Stephanie. (2010) In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. Bloomsbury.
Takada, Jun. (2005) Nuclear Hazards in the World: Field Studies on Affected Populations and Environments. Springer.

2012/01/26

Amateur Food Testing and Evidence of Post-Decontamination Recontamination

My Terra-P dosimeter is capable of giving estimations of "surface contamination" of beta emitting radionuclides, in addition to taking readings of gamma radiation. This means that it can give a consumer some assurance about the level of cesium 137 contamination in food. The beta particles are measured as "beta flux density." The unit of measurement is particles/square centimeter.minute, and the manufacturer's recommended limit for food consumption is 0.020.

Bananas are famous for being a common food that everyone eats without concern, but which also contain a measurable amount of naturally occurring radioactive potassium. I took this as a standard of comparison. Bananas are also good for comparison because they are imported. The reading on the latest batch of bananas was 0.003 - about 7 times lower than the recommended limit of 0.020. The bananas we had last week measured 0.007.

mikan 0.001
Next I measured some other food from our kitchen, all of it purchased in Chiba, Japan. All of the levels were very close to that found in the banana.

yogurt 0.001
domestic pork - 0.001
imported pork (if you can trust the label) - 0.002
dog food - 0.002
backyard soil - 0.004
For other comparison, I measured the soil and the concrete patio in our small backyard. It was just slightly higher than the food.

backyard patio - 0.004
the scene in August 2011
The really interesting comparison was with the hotspot I found near our house last summer. This is on a pedestrian path, in place where rain washes sand down from higher ground and collects it at the curb side. Last summer I found the collected sand was giving off a gamma dose of 0.50~0.60 microsieverts / hour, while the common readings on open ground were about 0.14 microsieverts/hour (pre-disaster background radiation used to be 0.05~0.07). I "volunteered" to clean this up (chronicled in an earlier post), partly as a good deed for the community, but also for selfish reasons of just wanting this stuff to not blow in the wind near our house. We complained to city hall, and some parks and recreation workers reluctantly came around to haul away what I had put in bags, even though at the time officials told us they had not yet worked out a plan for where to store such waste. 

gamma dose rate of the hotspot 0.62 microsieverts/hour,
January 26, 2012
beta flux density of the hotspot 0.107
At the time, I had naively thought that this solution would last, but recently I found that sand and soil have collected in the same spot again, and it is just as contaminated as before. Last summer I didn't measure beta flux density, but this time I did, just to compare this soil with the food in our kitchen. The soil gave a reading of 0.107, 35 times as high as the banana, five times above the safety limit. The gamma dose rate on the soil today was 0.62 microsieverts/hour. The only good thing about this finding is knowing that this is soil in a mini hotspot at a curbside. No one is going to grow food in this. The same cannot be said of the highly contaminated rice paddies 200 hundred kilometers north of here, where farmers, lacking government compensation or restrictions, intend to plant rice for the coming season.

What is better than my small-scale amateur measurements is the monitoring done by Greenpeace Japan. Such independent, non-government monitoring is an essential part of establishing food safety. The large supermarket chain AEON has eagerly got on board with Greenpeace, seeking its stamp of approval for adopting high standards of monitoring the food sold in its stores. 

2012/01/25

New research revises the conventional wisdom about potassium iodide?

A recent article in Archives of Internal Medicine would seem to have some serious implications for the long-held wisdom about using potassium iodide to protect humans against accidental releases of the radioactive isotopes of iodine. The findings suggest that this prophylactic treatment is itself likely to cause almost as much damage as it is supposed to prevent.
The research was not concerned at all with nuclear accidents. It focused instead on the use of iodide contrasts used in some medical imaging tests. A New York Times report on the research paper states that worldwide, annually, 80 million iodide contrast doses are administered for CT scans. The typical dose of the contrast agent contains between 90 and hundreds of times the daily dose that people get through a normal diet. The researchers found that among people who developed thyroid diseases over a 20-year period, they were 2 to 3 times more likely than others to have had an iodide contrast agent administered in the past.
The relevance to the nuclear energy debate seems obvious to me, but the authors of both reports mentioned here don’t make the connection. They are more concerned with the millions of CT scans that are being done, many of them non-essential, considering the trade-off presented by these new-found risks.
In the nuclear accidents that happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima, local residents were exposed to doses of radioactive iodine far above the typical dietary intake of stable iodine. Because radioactive iodine behaves chemically in the same way as stable iodine, a large dose of it would have the same effect as the large dose of iodide given for CT scans. This would be in addition to the harmful effects caused by radioactive decay of these isotopes.
The negative health impact would also occur even if the population received potassium iodide in a timely manner. The doses given are, like those given for CT scans, hundreds of times the daily dietary intake, so these too would have the negative impact of iodide given for CT scans. I suspect this downside was known long ago because in history’s two big nuclear accidents, authorities hesitated to distribute potassium iodide. Once they had data on releases and wind direction, they had to make decisions, knowing that what might be seen later as an over-reaction would cause many future cases of thyroid dysfunction. The new research shows that there is some wisdom in delaying, in telling people not to take potassium iodide unless they know it is absolutely necessary, but this knowledge of the effects of massive doses of iodine, stable or radioactive, is a severe blow to the nuclear industry that has always said that potassium iodide was a sure way to protect people during an nuclear emergency. Obviously, it is has its downside.
The victims and liquidators of the Chernobyl disaster have always claimed that they suffered severely from non-cancerous diseases of the thyroid, but for decades their governments and the United Nations have denied that metabolic diseases are related to the disaster. This new research on the effects of high doses of iodide contrast indicate that it is time to admit that exposure to large amounts of any isotope of iodine involves serious risk to future health.

Hyperthyroidism can cause:
Hypothyroidism can cause:
Difficulty concentrating
Fatigue
Frequent bowel movements
Goiter (visibly enlarged thyroid gland) or thyroid nodules
Heat intolerance
Increased appetite
Increased sweating
Irregular menstrual periods in women
Nervousness
Restlessness
Weight loss (rarely, weight gain)
Other symptoms that can occur with this disease:
Breast development in men
Clammy skin
Diarrhea
Hair loss
Hand tremor
Weakness
High blood pressure
Itching - overall
Lack of menstrual periods in women
Nausea and vomiting
Pounding, rapid, or irregular pulse
Protruding eyes (exophthalmos)
Rapid, forceful, or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
Skin blushing or flushing
Sleeping difficulty
Being more sensitive to cold
Constipation
Depression
Fatigue or feeling slowed down
Heavier menstrual periods
Joint or muscle pain
Paleness or dry skin
Thin, brittle hair or fingernails
Weakness
Weight gain (unintentional)
Late symptoms, if left untreated:
Decreased taste and smell
Hoarseness
Puffy face, hands, and feet
Slow speech
Thickening of the skin
Thinning of eyebrows

Sources:

Connie M. Rhee, MD; Ishir Bhan, MD, MPH; Erik K. Alexander, MD; Steven M. Brunelli, MD, MSCE. “Association Between Iodinated Contrast Media Exposure and Incident Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012;172(2):153-159. http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/172/2/153
doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.677

O’Connor, Anahad. “Iodide Heart Scans Linked to Thyroid Disease.” The New York Times. January 23, 2012. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/23/iodide-heart-scans-linked-to-thyroid-disease/

2012/01/24

Critique of the PBS documentary Nuclear Aftershocks

The recent PBS documentary Nuclear Aftershocks had the appearance of being an in-depth report on the energy crisis, but it failed in many ways to address the concerns of nuclear accident victims who are living with the risks of future health effects, and it also left viewers with no hopeful message that conservation and new technologies might offer a way out of the grim choice between carbon and nuclear or freezing in the dark. There was a lot I wanted to write about this, but someone else has already done an excellent job of it: Aftershocking: Frontline’s Fukushima Documentary a Lazy Apologia for the Nuclear Industry. Thanks to Gregg Levine, at the blog Capitoilette.

2012/01/22

Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment - Disturbing parallels between Chernobyl and Fukushima

Book Review
Yaroshinskaya, Alla, A. (2011) Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment. Transaction Publishers.

The Chernobyl catastrophe was largely forgotten and dismissed by the world as soon as the smoldering mess was contained in the famous sarcophagus, but those who have paid attention to the issue since then have been aware of the strangely divergent views of the human toll of the disaster. One view claims that a million people have died, and millions more have had their health ruined, while the other side says there was only a small increase in cancer deaths and “generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.”[1]
If anyone still doubts the more pessimistic view, they need only read the recently published Chernobyl: Crime Without Punishment to lay the question to rest. This is a translation of a book written by Ukrainian journalist, politician and winner of the 1992 Right Livelihood Award, Alla A. Yaroshinskaya. In this powerful condemnation of injustices suffered by Chernobyl victims for the past quarter century, the author provides volumes of evidence about their suffering – and it is the only kind of evidence we should really need; that is, the stories of the victims and witnesses that reveal the health effects of the world's worst radiological catastrophe. Scientists can debate among themselves whether small amounts of radiation stimulate genetic repair, or make positive changes to chromosome telomeres, but anyone who chooses to “remember his humanity, and forget the rest,” (to quote the famous line on this topic pronounced by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell) will be convinced by the corroborating evidence given by millions of victims. Doubting these accounts has started to sound a little like someone who would say that something nasty is rumored to have occurred in Germany in the 1940s, but more research is needed. Ms. Yaroshinskaya’s writing demonstrates that it is time to get over the senseless false controversy about the effects of nuclear accidents and look squarely in the eyes of people affected.
This is an important book that should be translated quickly into Japanese so that Japan might be able to reverse the harm that has been done by successive government failures to deal with the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. This book also clears up some of the misunderstandings about the Soviet handling of the situation.
This year, many critics of the Japanese government have pointed to the evacuation of Pripyat in 1986 as a model of effective government response. They ask why a dying communist dictatorship did so much better than an advanced and wealthy democracy. This view would amuse Ms. Yaroshinskaya. The truth is that the Soviet disaster was a much larger contamination – all of it fell on land; whereas in Fukushima, 70-80% of it fell on the ocean. The evacuation of Pripyat came too late, and in Kiev (only 100 kms. away) the regular May Day parade was held a few days after the explosion in a cloud of heavy radiation, as if in an x-ray machine, as the author puts it. While high party officials waved to the crowds, their loved ones had been spirited away to safer locations. One scientist quoted in the book estimated that 15,000 dying victims were turned away from Kiev hospitals in the days after the explosion, never to be officially recognized as radiation victims.
After the establishment of the permanent exclusion zone, it became obvious that large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia were of questionable fitness for habitation, but the people on these lands were ignored and essentially left to their own devices. There would be no further evacuations. The city of Gomel, Belarus (population 480,000 – my nominee for a sister city relationship with Fukushima City) and the surrounding region are still dotted with zones of the highest contamination levels, and some scientists believe the gene pool of the population has been permanently damaged.
Ms. Yaroshinskaya presents the victims' case in their own voices, and what emerges are stories that resemble the experiences of rape victims. First there is an assault on the body (by radiation) then there are the insults and humiliation experienced in the pursuit of justice. A typical letter is this one:

"I am not yet 32 years old, but I find myself in a hospital bed several times a year. And all of my four children (under 12) are also ill most of the time (they feel weak and listless, they have joint pains in arms and legs, their hemoglobin is below normal, they have enlarged thyroid and lymph nodes, headaches, stomach pains, constant colds). And it is the same in every family. 
We want to live. We want our kids to live and grow up healthy, and have a future. But through heartlessness, callousness and cruelty of those on whom our lives and the lives of our children depend, we are condemned to the worst possible fate, and we are only too well aware of that.... We have had to eat, drink and breathe radiation for years, waiting for our last day."
- Valentina Nikolaevna Okhremchuk, mother of four little boys, and all the mothers of Olevshchina.

One letter like this would prove nothing. Hundreds of them signed by thousands of petitioners sharing the same experiences nails the case shut.
As a victim herself who was living in an area of heavy fallout, the author pursued the story as a journalist immediately after the disaster. She made unauthorized and clandestine trips to the villages where people were living on contaminated soil, and there she collected their stories. At a time when photocopiers were scarce, and accessible only with official approval, she spread the word via hand-typed copies through a network of sympathetic supporters – a way of evading the censorship of the era known as samizdat. When the glasnost period arrived, she was elected to the The Congress of People’s Deputies, the first democratically elected body that was created during Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness, reform) period. During her work as a journalist and a politician, she collected the letters that her readers and constituents sent to her. They begged for justice and relief from living in a radioactive environment.
These letters are heart-wrenching testimony to the contemptuous neglect that victims suffered at the hands of their governments, as well as the scientists and doctors who defended the official view that claims of declining health were caused by radiophobia and social factors.
In the aftermath of the disaster, residents in contaminated zones were quickly relocated, and there were hasty decisions made about where to rebuild. Money flowed to construction projects, new villages sprang up, and only then they discovered that this land too was almost as contaminated as the towns that had been evacuated. This was in the days before one could buy a cheap, hand-held Geiger counter. Even qualified scientists needed government permission to take measurements, so these villagers were at the mercy of a government that wished they didn’t exist.
The one saving grace of the Fukushima disaster is that it happened in the age of the Internet when citizens could share information. Some Japanese legislators made vain calls to make it illegal for citizens to measure radiation, but nothing came of it.
One subgroup of relocated citizens was the staff of the Chernobyl power plant itself. Incredibly, two other reactors on the site remained in operation until the year 2000, and staff commuted to the plant every day to work in the radioactive environment. The former company town of Pripyat was evacuated and a new town was built in Slavutich, but it too was on contaminated land and not fit for normal life. Outdoor recreation was not possible, and workers felt sick and demoralized.
By late 80s, the Soviet Union was unraveling, money for relocation had been exhausted, and no one in official positions wanted to admit to past mistakes and fix them. In addition, promises of “clean” food supplies were broken. During periods of shortages and inflation, the allowances given for buying this clean food became a joke. There was no clean food to buy, and if there had been, it would have been unaffordable. The food allowance became known as a pittance of “coffin money.”
Another category of victim was made up of the 800,000 liquidators who battled the reactor fire and built the structure that sealed off the danger from the environment. Chernobyl is regarded now as a war, and the liquidators are rightly referred to as veterans of an epic struggle against a new kind of enemy. They are undoubtedly responsible for saving all of the Eurasian landmass from becoming uninhabitable. These young men and women answered the call to save their country without hesitation (as if they had a choice anyway!), and one would think that the just reward would have been guaranteed hero status, disability pension, and health care with special provisions for the effects of radiation that they would suffer. Such benefits were promised, but in reality the Chernobyl veterans were forgotten. A population of this size, exposed to high levels of radiation, could have provided valuable knowledge about the effects of nuclear accidents, but the veterans were ignored by official studies inside and outside of the former Soviet Union.
The common understanding of radiation effects predicted that the Chernobyl liquidators would get cancer at some time decades later, but instead the most common observation was generalized premature aging. Men who went into battle in the prime of their youth were dying ten years later from heart attacks and strokes. They suffered from immune and digestive disorders – generally, a decline in every aspect of biological function. Since these disorders could be classified as health conditions normally found in the general population, the official stance was that they were not related to radiation exposure. Complaints were dismissed as radiophobia, and declines in health were linked to the social upheaval and economic decline of the times. One victim quoted in the book snarled sarcastically that yes, he was getting radiophobia. He was afraid to turn on the radio and listen to the nonsense spouted from official media sources.
The truth is something that is known by people who have a theory of human nature that says all people want dignity, health and the chance to contribute to society. These victims and veterans, like all people, did not want to live life as moochers. They wanted to work with the same vigor they put into working the land, or (in the case of the liquidators) into resolving the crisis at the reactor. Rather than having a fear of radiation, they waved it off with bravado until it was too late to save their health.
As protest movements gathered strength in the 90s, governments were forced to listen to complaints of victims and veterans, but still they gained little. At one time, a cynical move was made to monetize the meager benefits that these groups received. Instead of guaranteeing them free transportation, free medical exams and various other benefits, the value of these benefits would be pegged to a monetary value and paid out on a regular schedule. In a time of high inflation and rapid economic change, the ruse was obvious. Without a guaranteed index that defined benefits, the monetizaton scheme was just a way to get beneficiaries off the government ledgers.
Ms. Yaroshinskaya concludes that the victims in the villages and the Chernobyl veterans were totally marginalized and abandoned by successive governments. I haven’t read such refreshing bluntness in a journalist since Hunter Thompson wrote about Richard Nixon. She condemns the villains, and has a willingness to name names and describe them with the vitriol they deserve. She points out the essential fact that what little the victims managed to gain was won only when the movement grew strong enough to turn into solidarity strikes all over Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. One has to wonder if Japan, the apparently prosperous, developed democracy, would be capable of mounting a solidarity strike to support the families in Fukushima who want to evacuate.
As I write this after having watched Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, Ms. Yaroshinskaya's book reads like a manual of how a society reacts to a large-scale nuclear accident. So much is unfolding in Japan exactly as it did in the Soviet Union. I have the feeling that she has described a situation that will play out wherever there is a nuclear accident next time, so readers can learn from this and know what to expect if it strikes close to home.
With four hundred nuclear reactors still in service on the planet, most of them nearing the end of their lifespans, and few countries following Germany’s sensible lead to shut down nuclear power, it’s a safe bet to say that somewhere in the next decades there will be one or more major accidents. What’s it going to take to make people understand we can’t manage this technology? Chernobyl and Fukushima (as well as numerous lesser accidents at military and experimental reactors) should have been enough, but it seems like an accident will have to happen near a place that counts for global power holders: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, Paris. If it happens somewhere else, well, it just seems like it’s happening to people who don’t matter. Note to Japan, content to have bought into enriched uranium technology and General Electric reactor design: In case you haven’t figured it out, you still don’t matter in this sense.
Readers can read the list below of parallels between the Soviet and Japanese responses to their nuclear disasters, then they will know what’s in store if the same scene plays out close to home.

1.     In the initial days there is lying, misinformation, and a deliberate attempt to avoid causing a panic.
2.     Data on fallout, wind direction and so on is gathered but kept secret. Government claims to have experienced breakdowns and chaotic conditions that made data collection impossible.
3.     Reports go out that potassium iodide has been given to the population at risk, but in fact most people who need it don’t get it.
4.     The tolerance level for radiation is increased.
5.     Leadership is surprisingly ignorant about the science and the pre-existing state of the nation’s reactors. Government seems impotent, incompetent, paralyzed and unable to direct resources to the problem.
6.     Evacuation is delayed, then months later residents are pressured to return to contaminated land. Officials go into deep denial about the extent of the damage and pour resources into hopeless efforts at decontamination and remediation.
7.     National wealth is invested in restoring communities in contaminated areas, then when the mistake is realized, governments cannot acknowledge it or repair the damage.
8.     The solution to pollution is dilution. Radioactive debris and food are diluted and spread far and wide to all corners of the country.
9.     There is no large-sum settlement fee offered to those who want to resettle far away. 9-11 widows got million-dollar settlements to restart their lives, but there is no such luck in this case. Instead, various cynical schemes like vouchers and monthly allotments are given in such a way as to tie impoverished people to the land that the government wants to declare “remediated.”
10. Funds donated by individuals are misappropriated and used in ways that would outrage the donors. The funds raised by the first public charity ever allowed in the USSR were redirected away from victims then put toward funding visits by foreign scientists who were ushered through the disaster zones by officially appointed obfuscators. In Fukushima, funds from the German Red Cross are being used to build a kindergarten in one of the highly contaminated towns just outside the exclusion zone.
11. Reactor designers, electrical utility management and regulators will all escape liability and prosecution. In the case of Chernobyl, station staff were scapegoated and sent to jail, but no one else was prosecuted for the ultimate causes of the accident or the failure afterwards to protect citizens.
12. Scientific and medical opinion is controlled through state support to such an extent that the official conclusions become unassailable. The disaster is declared to have had overall minimal effects on public health, and this becomes the consensus view accepted throughout the world, including by United Nations agencies. Numerous Japanese “experts” on Chernobyl visited the area repeatedly, but their interpretations of the catastrophe were shaped by the state-sponsored scientific and medical community that filtered their interpretations. When disaster struck Fukushima, these misinformed experts repeated the insulting nonsense about radiophobia, and they were put in charge of managing the public health crisis and leading the government public relations campaign.
13. In the absence of efficient measures to protect the public and compensate all losses, citizens are left to fight among themselves over their rights. Mothers claim the right to compensated evacuation, while farmers, bankers and businesses demand that everyone should stay, buy the local food and support the local economy. Husbands and wives split up over disputes about the risks. The old want to stay, the young want to leave. Senior citizens complain that their grandchildren don’t want to visit anymore. The pressure to keep children on the land - the most vulnerable people to radiation - is particularly cruel, but essential for those who want to revive the area. They know that without children communities will decline. 
14. There is a deep, widespread denial of the nuclear disaster’s ability to destroy the environment and the social fabric, and society is helped along in this delusion by the global nuclear industry and the United Nations. (Japanese media actually covered this in a 1993 report condemning the IAEA adoption of of the official Soviet lie.)
15. Yet to come for Fukushima? The market talks and people vote with their feet. Despite efforts to restore the area, it is going to have an image problem for a long, long time. Economic decline may be inevitable, and money spent on restoration may be better spent on something else.
16. Yet to come for Japan? Just as Chernobyl was a major cause of the collapse of the Soviet system, perhaps the collapse of the Japanese industrial / government / bureaucratic system is in store.

Chernobyl: Crime Without Punishment is an essential, powerful wake-up call to the human race to pull out of its state of denial over global nuclear hazards. Chernobyl was supposed to have been “the final warning,” but we’ll have to say this now about Fukushima. One line that stuck with me after putting the book down was a Russian proverb that Ms. Yaroshinskaya uses to comment on the neglect of Chernobyl victims: Deception can take you wherever you want to go, but it can’t bring you back. It applies equally to self-deception. Keep that in mind if you think the nuclear waste scattered over the planet - some of it “safely” contained in temporary storage, some of it in the soil and water, some in your bones - is an issue we can safely ignore once again.


[1] This endnote can be best appreciated after reading this review to the end, or the book in question. In 2008, the United Nations report on the Chernobyl disaster confirmed the findings of its own 2000 report. It reads as a most convoluted and strained attempt to deny contrary reports that Chernobyl had serious health consequences for millions of people living in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. At one point the authors acknowledge studies showing that liquidators suffered increased rates of cardiovascular and neurological diseases, but they dismiss such findings simply because they contradict previous research. By such logic, Einstein was wrong because he contradicted Newton. The report concludes with a kiss-off that would leave Chernobyl victims, and anyone with a shred of sympathy for them, utterly disgusted:

“The vast majority of the population were exposed to low levels of radiation comparable, at most, to few times the annual natural background radiation levels and need not live in fear of serious health consequences [As usual with UN reports, the complaints of internal radiation damage are completely ignored]. This is true for the populations of the three countries most affected by the Chernobyl accident, Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine… Lives have been disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.”

Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation
United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
UNSCEAR 2008 Report to the General Assembly, Volume II, Scientific Annexes C, D and E

The Solution to Pollution is Dilution

I wrote previously about the varied pricing of rice in Japan this year, and the varied availability of rice from regions near and far from the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. I found this interesting difference yesterday at a local supermarket in Narita, Chiba Prefecture.

This is Koshihikari Blended Rice, a 5 kg. bag consisting of year 2011 harvested rice originating in "various prefectures" as indicated on this label. Mmm, yummy.
The price on the blended rice is 1,880 yen, about US$23.




For comparison, 5 kgs. of non-blended rice from Chiba Prefecture sells for 2,680 yen, about US$35. Even the soil in Chiba is contaminated, but much less so than the soil of points 100 kms. north. In this store there was no rice available from farther away in Western Japan.

For more background on Japanese citizens' anger at the failure to safeguard the food supply, see the recent article by Martin Fackler in the New York Times: Japanese Struggle to Protect their Food Supply.

2012/01/19

The IAEA Loves Women

The IAEA, having suffered a terrible year for its image, has taken refuge under the petticoat of gender politics to sell the notion "Women: A Driving Force in Nuclear Power Programs." Perhaps they have noticed that it is more often women who are the driving force in protecting their children and the human race from nuclear pollution. Something must be done about this gender gap!
If the IAEA wants to play this game, it is important to remember the female voices that have gone unheard by the IAEA and the global nuclear industry since the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986. Here is one such voice:

"I am not yet 32 years old, but I find myself in a hospital bed several times a year. And all of my four children (under 12) are also ill most of the time (they feel weak and listless, they have joint pains in arms and legs, their hemoglobin is below normal, they have enlarged thyroid and lymph nodes, headaches, stomach pains, constant colds). And it is the same in every family. 
We want to live. We want our kids to live and grow up healthy, and have a future. But through heartlessness, callousness and cruelty of those on whom our lives and the lives of our children depend, we are condemned to the worst possible fate, and we are only too well aware of that.... We have had to eat, drink and breathe radiation for years, waiting for our last day."

- Valentina Nikolaevna Okhremchuk, mother of four little boys, and all the mothers of Olevshchina.

Letter written to Soviet Union People's Deputy, Alla A. Yaroshinskaya, published in: 
Yaroshinskaya, Alla, A. (2011) Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment. Transaction Publishers. p. 197-198.

The situation would be a little less worrisome if the international community recognized the moral failure of the past, but it continues now with no expression of remorse. The Japanese government is working from the same playbook as the Soviets in their dying days of empire. Mothers in Fukushima are asking for the right to compensated evacuation, and this perfectly reasonable claim has been thoroughly ignored by the Japanese government. The international community, Japan's friendly allies and the IAEA give their quiet assent to this woeful neglect.

2012/01/12

Shakespeare on Fukushima

Credit for concept of this posting goes to David Ritchie, a resident of South Korea who has been writing about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster from the other side of the Sea of Japan, or, as they call it in South Korea, the East Sea.

Living in South Korea, David Ritchie seems to be more concerned with local contamination than most people here in Japan. Some might think that indicates an over-reaction, but he has blogged about recent news in South Korea that locally harvested seaweed is contaminated above safety levels – and that’s seaweed not offshore from Fukushima, but to the west, across the Japanese islands and across the Sea of Japan. How did it get over there?

David’s best posting was his use of Shakespeare’s words to describe events in Northern Japan this past year. He has these first four citations on his blog. I took up the game and added the rest that follow. 

Shakespeare was definitely writing about other things besides nuclear disasters, so it is a bit dubious to put his words in another context like this, but I do it to underscore the power of his language. The extraordinary nature of a nuclear disaster requires extraordinary powers of expression, and Shakespeare's words seem to fill this need.

On radioactive plumes: 
The storm is up, and all is on the hazard
Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 1

On radionuclide uptake: 
Yet have I something in me dangerous
Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1

On the beauty of Fukushima, despoiled by invisible dust:

Never came poison from so sweet a place.
Richard III, Act 1, Scene 2

And on post-3/11 realities:
Let me embrace thee, sour adversity,
For wise men say it is the wisest course.
Henry VI, part 3, Act 3, Scene 1

***************

My additions:

On the government regulators, and General Electric and TEPCO executives who hid themselves during the crisis:
Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2

On the fallout and black rain that fell on Northern Japan, March 2011:

Now is the winter of our discontent
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Richard The Third Act 1, Scene 1

Something wicked this way comes.
Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1

What, will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?
Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1







On the health effects of radiation:
Out, damned spot.
Macbeth Act 5, Scene 1








Fukushima Daiichi, Reactor 3 explodes on March 14, 2011 (off by a day, but damn close):

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Julius Caesar Act 1, Scene 2

And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
Twelfth Night Act 5, Scene 1


On the colossal hubris of Japan’s nuclear industry:
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
A Midsummer Nights Dream Act 3, Scene 2















Merciful heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Measure For Measure Act 2, Scene 2

On the confusing and contradictory scientific information about nuclear hazards, and the general abandonment of the irradiated people of Fukushima and beyond:
Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent
Much Ado About Nothing Act 2, Scene 1


On citizens left begging for protection from their perpetrator of the damage:
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg.
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 4

On hope lying only in people standing up and rejecting those plans where “expectation failed:”
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises; and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits.
All's Well That Ends Well Act 2, Scene 1

We all were sea-swallow'd, though some cast again
(And by that destiny) to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come,
In yours and my discharge.
The Tempest Act 2, Scene 1

On the wisdom of leaving Fukushima to be uninhabited:
What's gone and what's past help
Should be past grief.
The Winter's Tale Act 3, Scene 2

Using those thoughts which should indeed have died
With them they think on? Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what's done, is done.
Macbeth Act 3, Scene 2


On the profits to be had by a few in the senseless reconstruction and decontamination on poisoned land:
Ill blows the wind that profits nobody.
Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 5

On the likelihood of Japanese nuclear plant operators following lawful, sensible and ethical procedures:
...it is a custom more honor'd in the breach than the observance
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4

On the illusory promise of a technology that could fulfill all our “energy needs:”
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say "Behold!"
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 1, Scene 1

And the final question

To be or not to be?
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1