Japan’s Fukushima Disaster, Echoes of Chernobyl and War

The Japan earthquake of March 11 and its subsequent tsunami caused at least 21,000 fatalities and displaced over 600,000 people with 452,000 forced into shelters and another 170,000 forced to evacuate the radiation zone. Meltdowns or explosions occurred at 3 Fukushima Daiichi reactors—hit dead-on by a 50-foot tsunami, according to the New York Times. A waste fuel explosion and fire at a fourth dispersed severe and widespread radiation.


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 Fukushima is spewing carcinogens. An apparent government and industry cover-up of crucial information and official understatements regarding radiation hazards moved the prime minister’s highest science advisor to resign in protest. Angry Japanese parents demanded and won a major victory by forcing the government to abandon its plan to increase allowable radiation exposures for children and infants.


However, Japan is limiting evacuation around the smashed reactor complex to a 12-mile radius, even though cesium-137 was found in a village 25 miles from Fukushima in amounts over twice the evacuation standard used at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst radiation catastrophe. Japanese surveyors found up to 3.7 million becquerels of cesium per square meter. The abandonment standard used at Chernobyl was 1.48 million.


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 Idaho, Nevada, Hawaii, Florida, Utah, and the Marina Islands. It also found radioactive iodine in drinking water in Washington, California, Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, and Alabama.


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 Chernobyl and applies to radiation releases from a single reactor. Moreover, Chernobyl was located in sparsely populated rural Ukraine while Fukushima is in the midst of millions of residential households.


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. Chernobyl’s fires were largely doused after 40 days, but Fukushima’s four unapproachable masses of melted uranium fuel could vent radiation for months. Highly radioactive water gushed from reactor No. 2 directly into the sea at a rate of seven tons per hour for weeks. However, authoritative estimates of radiation releases might never be made because 22 of the 23 radiation monitors installed around Fukushima I and II were wrecked within 3 hours of the quake and tsunami, the Japan Times said.


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 Phoenix, Arizona water sample contained 3.2 picocuries-per-liter of iodine-131 and that the EPA’s maximum contaminant level is 3.0, the writer concluded, “EPA does not consider these levels to pose a health threat.” In fact, the EPA officially says, “there is no level below which we can say an exposure poses no risk.” The government’s “allowable,” “permissible,” or “legal” limits for radiation in food, water, soil, and air are not safe. The National Council on Radiation Protection says, “Every increment of radiation exposure produces an incremental increase in the risk of cancer.”


Fukushima’s potential impact on fish stocks is grave. A collapse of Japan’s fishing industry can perhaps be avoided, but this would probably require a weakening of contamination rules. Indeed, on April 6 Reuters reported that the Japanese government was preparing to revise upwards the allowable radiation limits that would permit “brief” exposure to high levels during disasters. Officials in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are currently promoting the same sort of allowable dose increases. Major ocean currents move from Japan into the fishery in the Gulf of Alaska, so the massive releases will be noted in seafood there too.


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.


Officers of Japan’s fishing industry have suggested that they may demand $120 billion in compensation for damages to seafood, a major source of protein for the island nation’s 127 million people. Likewise, the country’s major agricultural federation urged Tepco to compensate farmers ruined by the near collapse of the fresh produce economy across six prefectures. The Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives’ complaint harshly criticized Tepco’s disaster response and said that because of soil contamination and the government’s restrictions on planting, “It would be unavoidable (for farmers) to suspend farming over a long term and even to think about abandoning agriculture.”


Fueling new allegations of government information control, the NRC announced May 16 that its 24-hour operations center had stopped monitoring the reactors at Fukushima because conditions there “are slowly stabilizing.” Greenpeace experts aboard the Rainbow Warrior had complained April 28 that they were denied permission to carry out independent radiation monitoring in Japan’s territorial waters. Even the New York Times cautioned editorially two weeks earlier that, “Officials in Japan and around the globe will need to keep monitoring the air and water and the fish supply for many months, if not longer.”


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 Wisconsin, and edits its quarterly.