Japan’s Fukushima Disaster, Echoes of Chernobyl and War
It’s an old saw in anti-nuclear campaigns that the worst thing that can happen is to be proven right. There is nothing but desperation in knowing that
On April 4, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) began dumping 11,500 tons of contaminated reactor cooling water—out of a total of at least 60,000 tons in need of “disposal”—directly into the sea. The deliberate contamination of the Pacific, whose currents move directly toward the Alaskan fishery, came after three weeks of uncontrolled gushing of radioactive water from an unknown number of broken pipes and cracked tanks, as well as from three potentially ruptured reactor vessels and waste fuel pools.
At least three large explosions of tritium gas, the radioactive form of what was universally referred to in the media only as “hydrogen,” were followed by major releases of radioactive steam and water from reactor structures. Forbes reported on April 11 that cesium from Fukushima had been found in milk in Vermont and that iodine-131—near the EPA’s recommended maximum level —was in drinking water in dozens of U.S. cities. The EPA found cesium and tellurium in
Even prior to the massive dumping of contaminated waste water, seawater samples taken April 2 found cesium-137 at a level 1.1 million times the legal limit. Iodine-131 concentrations were 5 million times the limit. On April 5, the iodine contamination rose to 7.5 million times the permitted level. Cesium is especially dangerous because it persists in the environment for 300 years, moves quickly up the food chain, and concentrates in muscle tissue and the liver.
On April 11, the disaster was declared a Level 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale of radiation releases—the worst possible. However, the designation is badly outdated because it was established after
The Institute for Energy & Environmental Research estimated that in the first several days about 2.4 million curies of iodine-131 and half-a-million curies of cesium isotopes had been released by the wreckage. On April 12, Japanese officials said 10 million curies had been released, but on June 7 it doubled this estimate to 20 million curies in the first week after March 11.
Beginning in April, some news groups stopped referring to “harmless,” “insignificant,” or “safe” levels of radiation and began saying that the cesium posed no “immediate” danger. Nicholas Fisher, a marine scientist at the State University of New York, was asked about eating cesium-contaminated fish: “You’re not going to die from eating it right away, but we’re getting to levels where I would think twice about eating it.” This is a reference to the incubation or “latency” period for cancer, which can appear 20 to 40 years after contamination.
Dr. Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility explains, “The press is reporting that 100 millisieverts (mSv) is the lowest dose that increases cancer risks. But, according to NAS, if you are exposed to a dose of 100 mSv, you have a one in 100 chance of getting cancer, but a dose of 10 mSv still gives you a one in 1,000 chance of getting cancer, and a dose of 1 mSv gives you a one in 10,000 risk. Those odds sound fairly low for one individual, but if you expose 10,000 people to a one in 10,000 risk, one of them will get cancer. If you expose 10 million people to that dose, 1,000 will get cancer.” Cesium-137 continues “to emit particles for centuries” the Times acknowledged March 22, three centuries to be exact. As it cycles through the food chain cesium concentrates in muscle and the liver.
A Forbes report misstated the EPA’s position on radiation risk. Noting that a
On April 14, the Japanese health ministry disclosed that cesium 25 times the legal limit, as well as radioactive iodine, had been found in young sand lance—a popular edible fish. “One sample of the tiny fish, whose sale has been halted, had a cesium level of 12,500 becquerels per kilogram, far exceeding the 500 becquerel/kilo limit,” the Kyodo News reported.
Fueling new allegations of government information control, the NRC announced May 16 that its 24-hour operations center had stopped monitoring the reactors at
But the Obama administration, the EPA, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and the FDA will be dismantling their emergency radiation monitoring. Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist at the group Beyond Nuclear, warns: “Now once every three months the government will look at the milk supply to report on contamination and once a month it will look at rainwater. The government doesn’t want to know what’s in the air, water, and food supply, and doesn’t want us to know.”
John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in