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The Obama administration’s failure to alert Americans to the danger of Fukushima radiation is motivated by corporate politics and the interests of the nuclear power industry. The March 11, 2011 earthquake off the northwest coast of Japan wrecked a complex of nuclear power plants, throwing three units into meltdown and exploding high-level radionuclides into the environment. With the industry’s reputation and billions of dollars in financial arrangements hanging in the fire, the president chose expediency, saying there’s no threat to Americans.
These assurances were highlighted recently when Fukushima Dai-ichi’s operators reported that since the earthquake it has been spilling large amounts of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. While great efforts have been made to sequester hot water in tank farms, the tanks are leaking and the buildings are insecure. Among the toxics soaking coastal zone soils are fission products: cesium-134 and 137, strontium-90, iodine-131 and 129, along with various isotopes of tritium, uranium and plutonium. These elements and hundreds of others have escaped containment and are moving into the North Pacific at the rate that varies from 300-900 tons of water per day.
Following the president’s lead, most of the media has ignored the story, leaving many Americans in the dark. But the blinders are off in Alaska and the west coast of North America as more people figure the implications of tainted seafood. Pacific tuna ranges between California and Japan on its annual migration. Sampled by scientists from Stanford University in 2012 and 2013, tuna were found with elevated cesium-134 and 137 in their muscle tissue. A public health official in British Columbia is urging the federal government to monitor salmon and tuna. Last week the state of Washington said it will begin testing salmon and steelhead. The newspaper in Alaska’s capital, Juneau, is asking science to settle the question, writing “…Let’s be 100 percent sure our Alaska salmon are safe to eat.”
Distrust of safety assurances here and in Japan mounted when the plant operator, TEPCO, admitted that it had low-balled previous data and that actual releases were 20-30 percent greater than earlier claims. Numbers are being revised upward almost daily. Currently, while the totals remain in flux, independent observers suggest that Fukushima has surpassed Chernobyl in the amount of radiation released to the environment. Chernobyl spilled 85 quadrillion becquerels across Europe while Fukushima’s totals climb to 276 quadrillion in some estimates. Outliers put it as high as 690 quadrillion. Approximately half of the initial aerosol releases fell into the ocean. Maps show that 12,000 square miles of land has been contaminated with cesium and other isotopes. Of this area, 4,500 square miles exceeds human safety limits of 1 mSv (millisievert) per year. Nearly 200,000 Japanese have been turned into refugees.
The Japanese government, as expedient as Obama, quickly raised the allowable dose from 1 mSv to 20 mSv per year–20 times higher than the limit on March 11. People who should have been evacuated remain at home, soaking in cesium. According to Physicians For Social Responsibility, the dose exposes children to a 1 in 200 risk of getting cancer. “And if they are exposed to this dose for two years, the risk is 1 in 100. There is no way that this level of exposure can be considered “safe” for children.”
Radionuclides concentrate as they move along the food chain, from plankton, kelp and herring, and up the line to salmon, seals, bears and people. Cesium-contaminated food bio-accumulates in the heart and endocrine tissues, as well as kidneys, small intestine, pancreas, liver and spleen. Children, particularly girls, are many times more susceptible than adults to the effects of ionizing radiation.
When the exclusion zone boundaries were announced, at a place inside the red line the oldest man in the village—102—killed himself, rather than evacuate. “In front of the village hall, a machine that looked like an oversized parking meter flashed a real-time radiation reading in large red digits: 7.71 microsieverts . . . 8.12 . . . 7.57. Being there was equivalent to receiving a chest X-ray every twelve hours.” [The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]
At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, rainwater collected on March 23, 2011 measured iodine-131 radioactivity at 20.1 becquerels per liter. The federal maximum level of iodine-131 in drinking water is 0.111 becquerels per liter. The sample exceeded this level by 181 times. Fukushima radiation was further confirmed when Berkeley researchers discovered iodine-131 in California dairy milk and in a local waterway. Similarly high levels of iodine-131 were recorded in Portland, Olympia, Boise and points east.
The US government organized a multi-agency stealth response in the wake of the reactor meltdowns. Friends of the Earth and others filed FOIA requests to learn how the crisis was being managed in days after March 11. A trove of emails moving between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, its field agents in Japan and other agencies show efforts to downplay concern and withhold information. Within days of the event, federal manager’s emails tallied plumes of iodine-131 as they approached America. Supervisors demanded confidentiality while maintaining a press blackout, assuring that most Americans had no chance to prepare or mitigate.
James Mangano, an epidemiologist, and Janette Sherman, a toxicologist, are expert in calculating health effects from radiation exposure. Their review of US deaths before and after the March 11 event indicates that 18,000-22,000 Americans could die as a result of radiation from Fukushima. Carried east by the jet stream, and deposited as rain and snow, uptake into people, plants and animals is primarily through inhalation, ingestion and contact. Infants under the age of one had the highest increase in reported deaths in the 14 weeks after Fukushima’s initial explosions. Increased mortality was also seen in the aged, the infirm and immune compromised.
Today radioactivity washing out to sea is in a combination of seawater that’s being used to cool the wreckage and an influx of groundwater. The groundwater is rising at the toe of the slope behind the facility, threatening to inundate the complex. People working there say the surface is becoming unstable and that building foundations may fail.
Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, represents a growing consensus that speculates the nuclear fuel in the three melted units has burned through the containment vessels and the basement foundations. The molten fuel (about 360 tons) is now tunneling through geologic strata that underlay the Japanese archipelago. If true, TEPCO’s engineers have lost control; with no options for retrieval, this is an unprecedented catastrophe with no end in sight.
Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear engineer who leads the watchdog group Fairewinds Energy Education, says this is the last year he’ll eat fish from the Pacific, reasoning that Fukushima’s toxic stew has contaminated the ocean. Gundersen says that north of Hawaii, midpoint between Japan and North America, scientists are measuring cesium levels 10 times higher than normal. Background levels of 1 becquerel per cubic meter have been constant for years. It has now increased to 10 becquerels per cubic meter.
The Fukushima disaster is worse than Chernobyl, it’s ongoing. While the North Pacific is a big place, wind and currents move in Alaska’s direction. Dilution is not a solution. A declassified military report, written in 1955, concluded that seawater may not adequately dilute radiation from nuclear accidents and that it’s likely to travel in highly concentrated “pockets’ and “streams”.
While the radiation pouring out of Fukushima can’t be seen or smelled, its implications to Alaska’s fisheries, our economy and cultural resources are obvious. It’s past time to begin talking about the threat and planning for its consequences. We might begin by retrieving the president from the pocket of the nuclear power industry.
Douglas A. Yates is a writer and photographer who lives in Ester, Alaska.