Monday, August 19, 2013

The Ongoing Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima

Today is Monday, August 19, 2013. 

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake hit Japan, resulting in a tsunami with waves reaching 133 feet that traveled as far as six miles inland.  The earthquake moved the main island of Japan (Honshu) eight feet east, and even shifted the Earth on its axis.  Whole coastal towns were washed away or severely damaged in a matter of minutes.  Nearly 16,000 deaths were reported, and over 6,000 injuries.  Over 2,600 people were missing.  Structural damage to buildings was estimated at tens of billions of dollars.

But the most far-reaching disaster was the meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).  The earthquake and tsunami resulted in level 7 meltdowns in three of the nuclear plants in the complex.   At this point, there is no reliable estimate of deaths caused by the nuclear leakage.

The disaster at Fukushima is now considered to be much more serious than the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.    The Chernobyl disaster resulted in almost one million deaths, mostly from cancer.  The problem is this: it's not just Japanese who have been and will be affected by the Fukushima incident.  You and I are very likely in danger.

Each day, 300 tons of radioactive water seeps into the ocean from Fukushima.  That's right - the contamination has been ongoing ever since the explosion and meltdown that occurred in March of 2011.   For two-and-a-half years, radioactive water has been running in to the Pacific Ocean.

Many people in the United States have been under the impression that the leaks had been stopped, but that is not the case.   The cleanup is ongoing, and there are some buildings that workers have not yet been able to enter.  The radiation alarms have been turned off, because otherwise, they would be sounding constantly.  That should scare you, folks.  It scares me!  As of July 2013, it is estimated that the leakage from Fukushima is 80 to 100 times more expansive and more intense than that of Chernobyl.

Why did TEPCO wait until now to tell people about the leaks?  The only answer I can think of is that they have been in denial.  But now, they have to say something, because another explosion is imminent, and if that happens, it would release thousands of times more nuclear material into the environment. 

The map showing the path of the contaminated ocean water should give you some idea of how we will be affected here in the United States.  If you can't figure it out for yourself, here's a quote that should interest you:  “Hazardous radioactive elements being released in the sea and air around Fukushima accumulate at each step of various food chains (for example, into algae, crustaceans, small fish, bigger fish, then humans; or soil, grass, cow’s meat and milk, then humans). Entering the body, these elements – called internal emitters – migrate to specific organs such as the thyroid, liver, bone, and brain, continuously irradiating small volumes of cells with high doses of alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation, and over many years often induce cancer”. (Helen Caldicott, Fukushima: Nuclear Apologists Play Shoot the Messenger on Radiation, The Age,  April 26, 2011)

Enormous amounts of tritium, cesium and strontium are being released and carried by wind, rain and ocean currents all over the northern Hemisphere.  When you drink water or eat seafood that has been contaminated with these radioactive particles, there will be health consequences.  Cesium can do a great deal of damage to the body. Once it is ingested, it gets distributed uniformly throughout the body.  It can affect the eyes and the reproductive system (if you live that long), and can result in death by bone marrow failure.   It has been estimated that each spent fuel pool at the Fukushima nuclear complex could have 24,000 times the amount of cesium that was produced by the nuclear bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War 2.

Meanwhile, the good old FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has reported that American seafood is safe from contamination.  How would they know?  They are not currently testing any fish for radiation! (Canada isn't testing fish, either.)  Since the incident in 2011, Greenpeace has claimed that in 34 of 60 seafood samples bought from various stores in eastern Japan contained radioactive cesium-134 and -137, meaning the seafood is contaminated.
And what did our EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have to do when the explosion happened?  They raised acceptable radiation levels!

An American nuclear engineer, Arnie Gundersen predicted last year that the Fukushima incident would eventually lead to 40 million cancer deaths.  He said deaths from the Three Mile Island incident in the United States were under-reported, and cited the work of Steve Wing, an epidemiologist (medical researcher who finds causes of diseases and tracks their spread) who tracked 10,000 extra deaths from lung cancer in the first six to seven years after that accident.

Gundersen also stated that about 2 million people are still under permanent medical monitoring, quarter of a century after the Chernobyl disaster, and that some reports estimate that nearly 36 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have cysts or nodules on their thyroids from iodine poisoning as the result of the explosion and leak of radioactive material.

Pediatrician Helen Caldicott said, "We’re going to see an incredible increase in cancer, leukemia, and — down the time track — genetic disease. Not just in Japan but in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly North America."   Meanwhile, there is already some evidence that residents of Portland, Seattle, and other coastal cities have begun to feel the effects of radiation poisoning.  

Now, two-and-a-half years after the initial meltdown, scientists are planning a major cleanup effort.  They will remove 400 tons of highly irradiated spent fuel beneath the damaged Reactor No. 4.  They will have to remove 1,300 used fuel rod assemblies from their cooling pool.  These rods pack radiation 14,000 times the equivalent of the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima.  Independent experts warn that each of the 1,300 rods has to be handled very delicately, because even one error could set off "a catastrophe greater than any we have ever seen."  The problem is that this type of operation has only been done before with computers.  Because of the damage to structures and equipment, everything will have to be done manually. The operation is set to begin in November, and TEPCO predicts that it will take at least a year to complete the process. 

"They are going to have difficulty in removing a significant number of the rods," Arnie Gundersen told Reuters, especially given their close proximity to each other, which risks breakage and the release of radiation.   Removing the fuel rods is only one part of the cleanup operation, which is  expected to take around four decades, during which any number of other problems could arise.

TEPCO now projects that the cost of the cleanup will be more than $10 billion.    The company has already spent 3 billion.   They are now in the process of asking the Japanese government for financial help.  (Does this sound familiar, folks? Companies spill oil, tar sands, etc., and the government is expected to pitch in for the cleanup.)

Time will tell what the full effect of the Fukushima nuclear disaster will be in terms of human lives lost, affects on unborn generations, and poisoning of our water and food supply.  It doesn't look very pretty. What can you do about it?  Almost nothing, except cut down on your consumption of ocean fish. And stay aware.   :-/

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