“Denial is not an option.”
FUKUSHIMA FUBAR by William Thomas
After 14 days of radioactive emissions from three wrecked reactors and a fuel storage building at Fukushima, Japan, on March 24 smoke and steam still rising from two of the reactors damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami indicate that hundreds of tons of atomic fuel rods are still deteriorating, still being exposed to air, still submitting deadly radioactive isotopes to the prevailing winds… Two more workers at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant have been hospitalized for radiation exposure suffered on Thursday March 24 in Japan. (March 23 here.) The workers were exposed to between 170 and 180 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation while attempting to restore electricity urgently needed to run cooling pumps in the critical No. 3 and No. 4 reactors. (Number 3 containment is holed, exposing lethal plutonium fuel to the atmos-fear, while damaged Number 4 has no containment and is stuffed with burning radioactive fuel rods.) Radiation levels in the plant are believed to be “extremely high," reported Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Yet the workers’ official radiation risk is less than the new unsafe maximum 250 mSv exposure limit raised by the government since the disaster. The maximum radiation reading reported so far at the nuclear plant is 500 millisieverts per hour. This means that anyone in the vicinity will receive the newly raised maximum allowable dose in 30 minutes. [Bloomberg.com Mar 24/011] In Australia, 50 mSv is the highest exposure allowed by regulation in any one year of occupational exposure. Normal background radiation exposure is 2 mSv per year. [phac-aspc.gc.ca] On Thursday (North American time), three more men suffered radiation burns, While working in water 30 centimeters deep to lay a power cable, Beta radiation burned the feet of two of the workers after radioactive water seeped into their boots. Even when electricity is eventually restored, vital cooling pumps cannot simply be turned on. Electricity now lights the inactive reactor No. 5 and some parts of reactor No. 2 – but not their critical cooling systems. On March 21 Tokyo Electric announced that key cooling system pumps are inoperative and replacement parts will have to be brought in and installed in a high-radiation environment. No timeline was given. Tokyo Electric says 17 Fukushima workers have received more than 100 millisieverts of radiation since the crisis began on March 11. Sakae Moto, a company vice president, announced that due to continuing worker casualties Tokyo Electric has now suspended work to restore electricity inside the stricken plant. [Bloomberg.com Mar 24/011] In the absence of in-plant reactor cooling, Japanese Self-Defense Force cargo helicopters outfitted with lead plates to partially shield crewmembers continue to drop seawater through holed rooftops. NOT COOL Nuclear reactors are normally cooled with fresh, filtered, de-ionized water. Flash-heated by exposed fuel rods, thousands of tons of helo-dropped and fire truck-sprayed seawater are rapidly corroding any remaining serviceable cooling pumps and pipes in the plant. All will have to be replaced in the face of extreme Gamma and X-ray radiation before the highly-reactive reactor fuel can be re-submerged and stabilized… for the next several hundred years. “The reactor cooling systems are plumbed with stainless steel pipes, which degrade rather rapidly on contact with sea water because of the chlorine in it, especially if they are hot (which they are),” explains Soviet collapse expert, Dimitri Orlov. “Once these pipes disintegrate (a process that might take a few days to a few weeks) the containment vessels will become riddled with holes, letting in outside air and, if by then there is any zirconium left to burn, possibly causing hydrogen explosions inside the reactors, compromising them further. Their radioactive contents will then be carried to the atmosphere in aerosol form. We will probably know when that happens because the Geiger counters in the area will peg out.” [cluborlov.blogspot.com]  “So much radioactivity is already out there,” worries Philip White of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo. “You have spent fuel pools in at least two of the reactors that are burning and exploding. You’ve got a hole in… another containment vessel. In one day, you can get your average [yearly] dose of radiation if you go out 30 kilometres from this site.” [Democracy Now! Mar 18/11] Referring to exposed nuclear fuel that is reacting to the air and releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said in Tokyo, “We’re trying to prevent further deterioration…” The No. 4 reactor pool is holed. The pool contains 130 tons of uranium fuel. Exposed to the air, it is combusting dozens of radioactive isotopes. The zirconium fuel cladding  burns at 1,800 degrees Celsius. Cooling the No. 3 reactor remains Tepco’s top priority. Why? Because it contains plutonium. The deadliest substance on Earth, this human-made toxin will still be deadly hundreds of thousands of years from today. The containment vessel in reactor 3 has ruptured, leading to large-scale releases of plutonium, uranium and other radioactive material. Fuel rods in at least three of the six reactors are partially melted. To prevent more explosions, plant operators are courting death to vent radioactive gases before more explosions occur from the build- up of hydrogen gas. (Think Hindenberg.) Fuel-rod cooling is still kaput for reactors 1 and 3. Water levels are covering about half of the fuel in reactors 1, 2 and 3. Exposed nuclear fuel emits highly energetic Gamma and X-rays that easily penetrate “radiation suits” meant only to ward off direct particle contamination. Photographs taken by helicopters and a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk drone confirm that sprayed  seawater is quickly draining from the Number 4 storage pool, suggesting a major breach in the pool holding the fuel rods. "Water in the pool serves as shielding and cooling, and when that water is gone, that direct Gamma radiation is very high," confirmed radioactive waste management consultant, Marvin Resnikoff. " The heat values will be high for months – high enough to cause an exothermic reaction [in the oxidizing fuel cladding]. So this is going to be a continual problem." If this fuel is “spent”, we are all bankrupt.
“Radiation levels were up, then down, then up. The situation is under control, they told us, but workers are being evacuated. There is no danger of contamination, but stay inside and seal your doors,” Chip Ward observes. “Spent fuel” from Japan’s burning reactors “remains super hot and dangerous for hundreds, if not thousands of years… Such used fuel is hardly ‘spent’. In fact, it can be even more radioactive and dangerous than reactor cores. “Spent fuel continues to pile up in a nuclear waste stream that will have to be closely managed and monitored for eons, so long that those designing nuclear-waste repositories struggle with the problem of signage that might be intelligible in a future so distant today’s languages may not be understood. You might think that a danger virulent enough to outlast human languages would be a danger to avoid, but the hubris of the nuclear establishment is equal to its willingness to deceive.” Ward was a founder of HEAL Utah, a grassroots group that has led the opposition to the disposal of nuclear waste in Utah and the construction of a new reactor next to Green River. He is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. [TomDispatch.com Mar 24/11] The NRC is recommending that U.S. residents and military personnel stay at least100 kilometres from Fukushima.  Japan has 54 nuclear reactors. [Scientific American Mar 11/11]
DISASTER NATION Meanwhile in the surrounding region where fresh-water washdowns are imperative to sluice radioactive clothing, vehicles and appliances, 1.6 million households still do not have running water. More than 250,000 people are still living in 1,913 evacuation centers after one of the strongest quakes in world history and the largest ever recorded in Japan was followed immediately by tsunamis that devastated Japan’s northern coastline. [Bloomberg.com Mar 24/011;  Reuters Mar 21/11] Japan's national police agency now says that 21,381 people are confirmed dead or missing and presumed dead. About 100,000 children were displaced by the quake and tsunami, and signs of trauma are evident among young survivors as the nuclear crisis and countless aftershocks fuel their terror. "We found children in desperate conditions, Save the Children spokesman Ian Woolverton said "They told me about their anxieties, especially their fears about radiation," mentioned the U.S. atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Reuters Mar 21/11]
RISING RADIOACTIVITY Levels of radiation exceeding Japanese safety limits have been found in milk collected 8 1/2 miles from the plant, and spinach harvested 65 miles to the south. That’s almost halfway to Tokyo, where iodine and cesium have been detected in tap water drunk by 14 million people. Canola and chrysanthemum greens have also been contaminated. Elevated iodine and cesium levels in water and food have triggered bulk buying at Tokyo supermarkets. “This is an evolving crisis and we don’t know whether the problem of radiation has reached its peak,” said Yoshimasa Maruyama, senior economist at an Osaka- based trading company that sells food. “The challenge will be whether the government can continue to manage the situation to keep people from panicking.” Government authorities insist that health risks are minimal – while handing out bottled water and telling parents not to use tap water to mix baby formula. Radioactive iodine measured in a water treatment plant is double the recommended limit for infants. According to the Tokyo city government, iodine-131 levels in the huge city’s tap water rose to 210 Becquerels per kilogram. The recommended limit is 300 for adults and 100 for infants. The level has since fallen to 79 at the same sampling site. The World Health Organization warns that children are especially susceptible to iodine radiation poisoning, which can accumulate in the thyroid and cause cancer. Readings of even deadlier strontium from Fukushima’s burning plutonium fuel rods have not been released.
TEPCO’S RADIOACTIVITY GOES GLOBAL Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia have banned imports of vegetables and fruits harvested in five quake- stricken prefectures in Japan. Singapore has also suspended imports of milk and milk products, seafood and meat from those areas. Air freight landed in Chicago, and air breathed in Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada have all registered above background radiation levels. Echoing radiation levels detected in Los Angeles and Seattle, small amounts of radiation from the wrecked Fukushima reactors have been picked up 4700 miles away by radiation monitors in British Columbia. “These amounts are negligible and do not pose a health risk to British Columbians. These are not cause for concern, and are smaller than the normal day-to-day fluctuations typically seen in BC,” the BC Centre for Disease Control has reported. There is no need for people to take potassium iodide, which should only be taken when recommended by medical professionals.   The amount of radiation detected so far in B.C. is 0.0000005 millisieverts – much less than background radiation from rocks and soil, ultraviolet radiation from the sun and cosmic radiation from space. [Vancouver Sun Mar 22/11] Named after Rolf Sievert, the basic unit for radiation effects is the sievert. Much smaller background radiation doses are expressed in millisieverts (mSv). One millisievert is one-thousandth of a sievert. “A chest X-ray can expose a patient to an estimated 0.1 millisieverts of radiation. An abdominal CT scan gives a radiation exposure dose of about 10 mSv,” soothes the Vancouver Sun. [Vancouver Sun Mar 22/11] In other words, here’s the biggest nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl and nobody’s really getting hurt! This “proves” that even wrecked nuclear plants are “safe”. At least, this is what the North American corporate media and the U.S. nuclear industry wants you to swallow – along with a “little” strontium-90. In fact, “low” radiation from CT coronary scans statistically causes cancer in one of every 270 40-year-old women who receive the scan. Twenty-year-olds have double that rate. Annually, 29,000 cancers are caused by the 70 million CT scans done in the USA. “Low-dose” dental x-rays more than double the rate of thyroid cancer. [Inhal Toxicology May 27/10; Critical Care Medicine Apr/09; Internaitonal Journal Epidemiology 2010; Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers Nov/10; JNCI Journal National Cancer Institute Volume102; Archives Internal Medicine Dec 14-28/09; International Commission on Radiological Protection; truthout.org Mar 24/11] NO BIG DEAL? So far, airborne radiation levels around Japan have not spiked drastically. Even the two top readings in Ibaraki and Toshigi prefectures near Fukushima are well below what's considered dangerous to humans and have fallen in recent days. [CNN Mar 19/11] Authorities everywhere insist that radioactive fallout – the gift that keeps on giving – poses “little risk”. They’re right. At least on a one-shot, single low-dose exposure basis. Chronic exposure to low-level radiation in air and water, and bio-accumulating radioactive particles in plants, livestock and sealife can lead to a range of health problems, including lowered immunity and cancer. “The danger posed by low-level radiation and the possibility of cancer and other chronic illnesses [is] down the road from this episode,” Dr. Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility told Democracy Now! “The radioactive material coming out of the plant is made up of about 200 different radioactive isotopes, and particles of these radioactive materials can travel great distances with the wind it is important to emphasize that there is no safe level of radiation – any radiation exposure increases your risk of cancer.” [Democracy Now! Mar 18/11] “Administration spokespeople continuously claim ‘no threat’ from the radiation reaching the US from Japan, just as they did with oil hemorrhaging into the Gulf. Perhaps we should all whistle ‘Don't worry, be happy’ in unison,” writes MD Brian Moench. “The Japanese reactors hold about 1,000 times more radiation than the bombs dropped over Hiroshima. Every day, the jet stream carries pollution from Asian smoke stacks and dust from the Gobi Desert to our West Coast, contributing 10 to 60 percent of the total pollution breathed by Californians, depending on the time of year. Mercury is probably the second most toxic substance known after plutonium. Half the mercury in the atmosphere over the entire US originates in China. It, too, is 5,000 miles away. A week after a nuclear weapons test in China, iodine 131 could be detected in the thyroid glands of deer in Colorado, although it could not be detected in the air or in nearby vegetation. “Epigenetic changes can be caused by unimaginably small doses - parts per trillion - be it chemicals [in plastics, for example], air pollution, cigarette smoke or radiation. Furthermore, these epigenetic changes can occur within minutes after exposure and may be passed on to subsequent generations. “Low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses. Many epidemiologic studies show that extremely low doses of radiation increase the incidence of childhood cancers, low birth-weight babies, premature births, infant mortality, birth defects and even diminished intelligence. Just two abdominal x-rays delivered to a male can slightly increase the chance of his future children developing leukemia. “Even properly functioning nuclear plants emit a steady stream of radiation into nearby water and atmosphere, which can be inhaled directly or ingested from soil contact, plants or cows milk. Many studies confirm higher rates of cancers like childhood leukemia, and breast and thyroid cancer among people who live in the same counties as nuclear plants, and among nuclear workers. “By damaging proteins anywhere in a living cell, [low level] radiation can accelerate the aging process and diminish the function of any organ. Cells can repair themselves, but the rapidly growing cells in a fetus may divide before repair can occur, negating the body's defense mechanism and replicating the damage. “When low risk is accepted for billions of people, there will still be millions of victims.” [Inhal Toxicology May 27/10; Critical Care Medicine Apr/09; Internaitonal Journal Epidemiology 2010; Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers Nov/10; JNCI Journal National Cancer Institute Volume102; Archives Internal Medicine Dec 14-28/09; International Commission on Radiological Protection; truthout.org Mar 24/11]
RADIOCACTIVITY ROULETTE “The innards of atoms also follow probabilistic patterns. At that scale, cause and effect cannot be linked in straight lines. No one can say just which subatomic particle will be ejected from which atom with what amount of energy, or who will absorb how many of those particles, or which of a person’s cells will be hit by them, or whose immune system will be unable to repair the damage done by these tiny loose cannons rocketing through their tissues,” writes American nuclear industry radiation casualty Valerie Brown. “Everywhere I turn, I hear that unless radiation levels get improbably high, nobody will get sick, as if acute radiation sickness is the only consequence of exposure… There is no such thing as a guaranteed ‘safe’ level of exposure to ionizing radiation… Sure, you can swallow some potassium iodide to prevent your thyroid gland from absorbing I-131, although it won’t protect you from the cesium-137 or the strontium-90 or the plutonium. “The official focus on high short-term doses is deceptive. Emerging science suggests that low doses of radiation exposure can have numerous long-term effects, possibly passed from one generation to the next. And almost all the discussion about – and the scientific research on – radiation exposure focuses on cancers thought to result from energetic particles striking DNA, breaking strands, and interfering with gene replication. But there may also be [epigenetic] changes in the way normal genes are organized and allowed to function – and these may result in disorders other than cancer, such as thyroid diseases, autoimmune problems, and hormones gone haywire. “Prenatal insults including chemical and radiation exposure can create epigenetic patterns of gene expression that will stay with you forever, even if your actual genes are undamaged. And it can take 50 or more years for the timer set in the womb to trip the fuse and trigger a full-blown disease.” “Our understanding of the biological effects of low dose exposure has undergone a major paradigm shift,”  write Canadian researchers Carmel Mothersill and Colin Seymour. “This means that previously held views about safe doses or lack of harmful effects cannot be sustained.” “Downwinders deserve to be told the truth, and allowed the chance to protect themselves,” Brown concludes. “For our own part, we must open that blind eye we’ve been casting on the dark side of our energy gluttony.” [Phoenix Sun Mar 21/11] SIGNIFICANTLY SCREWED Local contamination from Japan's quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant will be a problem for “for decades and decades”, declares France's Nuclear Safety Authority, ASN. Releases of radioactivity from the plant “are now significant and continuing”, says the agency’s chief, Andre-Claude Lacoste. “Ground deposits of radioactive particles are significant,'' addsJean-Luc Godet, in charge of ionising radiation management at the ASN. “Given the weather… it is likely that contaminations have occurred beyond that, up to 100 kilometres or so.'' "Experts are now saying the Fukushima crisis could rival the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union," the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes reports. [theoildrum.com] The editors are not exaggerating. The amount of fuel lost in the core melt at Three Mile Island in 1979 was about 30 tons; the Chernobyl reactors had about 180 tons when the accident occurred in 1986. The Daiichi complex has 1,760 metric tons of fresh and used nuclear fuel on site. The most damaged reactor, number 3, contains about 90 tons of fuel, and the storage pool above reactor 4, which has lost its cooling water, contains 135 tons of spent fuel. [Science Insider Mar 17/11] Nuclear expert Robert Alvarez, who advised President Clinton on nuclear matters, observes that a single spent fuel rod pool in Fukushima, or Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California, or Indian Head near New York City holds more cesium-137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined. An explosion in such a pool will blast "perhaps three to nine times as much of these materials into the air as was released by the Chernobyl reactor disaster." [Counterpunch Mar 18/11] In 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences published Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. The definitive 327-page study was compiled by scientists. One of them, Alexey Yablokov, summarizes “Mortality After the Chernobyl Catastrophe,” saying flatly, "The calculations suggest that the Chernobyl catastrophe has already killed several hundred thousand human beings in a population of several hundred million that was unfortunate enough to live in territories affected by the fallout." “There will be approximately 250,000 excess cancer deaths, ultimately, as a result of the Chernobyl accident,” confirms Dr. Ira Helfand. [Democracy Now! Mar 18/11] Reactors at Fukushima may have released as much as 20% of the radioactive iodine and up to 60% of the much longer-lived radioactive cesium that resulted from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. After contaminating wide swaths of farmland, stricken harbours, inland rivers and drinking water reservoirs, changing weather systems on March 26 are expected to drive radiation still issuing from the Fukushima plant over the Pacific Ocean, Austria’s Meteorological and Geophysics Center reported. Meanwhile, ill winds will continue carrying radionuclide particles – including plutonium – for a “short while” inland, the center posted on its website. Charts used to guide aircraft around military exercise areas, storms and active volcanoes now carry a red radioactive sign to denote the no-fly zone over the crippled Dai-ichi reactors. Flight dispatchers are also issuing coordinates over the Pacific where airborne concentrations of radioactivity greatest concern to high-flying passengers an pilots already being zapped by x-rays, gamma rays and cosmic radiation from the sun and space. Officials have also admitted that heavy runoff from the seawater being sprayed on exposed radioactive fuel is flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This reporter has sailed that coast extensively and can report that Japan’s alongshore currents flow north like a Pacific Gulf Stream, before curving across the top of the North Pacific to Alaska and the Americas. An inshore counter-current returns some of this flow south. These two ocean rivers will ensure that the entire Honshu coastline – including ports, inland bays and estuaries packed with oyster, nori (seaweed) and other seafood farms – will be contaminated for generations with Fukushima’s long-lived radioactive runoff. Additionally, wide swaths of the North Pacific will be poisoned. Though levels of contamination may or may not be initially “low”, radionuclide fallout will continue to concentrate in the organs of fish, shellfish, as well as in sea plants and crops in many Japanese farming regions for many decades to come. How will Japan feed itself?
GOING HUNGRY In Ichinomaki, women with feet wrapped in plastic bags and unshaven men dig in the winter rubble for scraps of food. “I am so ashamed,” says 43-year-old construction worker Kazuhiro Takahashi. “But for three days we haven’t had enough food. I have no money because my house was washed away by the tsunami and the cash machine is not working. I have a place in a rescue centre in the Aka’i Elementary School, but the food they are giving us is not enough. My parents are in their 70s and we receive a tiny bowl of plain rice twice a day, with nothing else, just a pinch of salt. We are hungry, so have come to look for food.” So far, he has scored two packets of defrosted prawn dumplings and a handful of vacuum-packed seafood sticks. “Don’t take my photograph!” barks a man in blue overalls with at least three days’ stubble on his chin. “This is so shaming, but I have given up on the government. We cannot rely on them so we have to help ourselves.” “They are desperate, they have no other food to eat,” says a policeman guiding some emergency traffic at a nearby intersection. “You could call it stealing, but we understand that at these times there is perhaps no other choice.” “Finding petrol remains impossible, leading many to take to their bicycles, slithering through the mud-caked streets until they have to stop, clear their mudguards, and then slither on,” reports the Telegraph’s Peter Foster, “Down in the docks, which were almost obliterated by the tsunami, people could be found climbing through the wreckage, trying pull out usable bicycles and siphoning petrol from cars that had been picked up and dashed against houses and harbour walls.” “There’s no food, tell people there is no food,” says a man filching petrol, who declined to be named. “They say on the television that aid is being delivered, that food is coming, but you can see for yourself it is not. You must tell people what is happening here because the Japanese media is too frightened to tell the truth.” In what might be an epitaph for complacent North Americans, he adds, “I thought we were a wealthy country, but now I don’t know what to think.” [Telegraph Mar 24/11] OUT OF FUEL Along with food is the fuel issue. Because I had to continually dodge them, this sailor can also attest to the nonstop stream of tanker traffic along Japan’s coasts needed to supply a 24-7 petroleum transfusion to that island nation. At least they were. "What we urgently need now is fuel, heavy and light oil, water and food. More than anything else, we need fuel because we can't do anything without it. We can't stay warm or work the water pumps," pleads Masao Hara, the mayor of Koriyama city in Fukushima prefecture. The northeast coast ports of Hachinohe, Sendai, Ishinomaki and Onahama are so severely damaged that they are not expected to return to “normal” operations for months. With no place to offload tankers, oil shipments from the Middle East, which supplies 80% of Japan’s need, have now been curtailed until the situation becomes clearer. By the end of March, Japan will still be some 1 million barrels a day short of the refined fuel it needs. [Los Angeles Times Mar 18/11] Stay tuned. If you dare.
Fukushima Reactors: backup generators in basement...