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Lessons From Chernobyl

Radiation and the USS Ronald Reagan

by PETER LEE

I have an article in the current CounterPunch print edition (Subscribe!NOW! ) concerning the contamination of the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan by Fukushima fallout during the post-tsunami relief operations in 2011.

The Ronald Reagan is in the news because several dozen crewmembers of the Reagan are trying to sue TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, for concealing the radiation release and thereby damaging their health (unsurprisingly, members of the armed services are precluded from suing the US military for damage to their health, so redress must be sought elsewhere).

I try to tiptoe between the two extremes of radiation alarmism and, I guess, radio-blasé-ism, but in the end I come down on the side that the contamination was pretty serious.

The Ronald Reagan was caught in a washout.  As the Fukushima plume was passing overhead, a snowstorm brought radioactive nasties down to the ship, and the water surrounding the ship.

The “nothing to see here” position is that the Reagan was exposed to the equivalent of an extra few weeks of background radiation.

Trouble is, washed-out fallout isn’t distributed in a neat, uniform radioactive haze.  It’s lumpy, sticky, filled with hot particles, and prone to “hot spots”.

It is not terribly reassuring to Sailor A that measured radioactive contamination is averaging out to a gentle buzz if he or she is worried about standing on or next to a hot spot.

The Ronald Reagan spent a couple months at sea after contamination trying to clean itself up; then, according to a lawyer for the sailors claiming injury, it was decontaminated at port in Washington State for another year and a half before returning to service.

On the washout issue, I draw on a circumstance that is perhaps not widely known: that Albany, NY, thanks to wash-out of the plume from a shot at the Nevada Test Site in 1953, was one of the most heavily irradiated areas in the United States outside of “downwinder” counties in Nevada and Utah.

The only reason we know about Albany is because the fallout was measured by a local association of scientists from Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute and General Electric, and because a local journalist, Bill Heller, wrote about it.  Suffice to say that radiation levels were highly variable, and in certain locations very high.

Accidents at nuclear reactors can release a lot of radiation.

A reactor might be loaded with over 25 tons of fuel and at any given time contain several hundred kilos of plutonium; for comparison purposes, critical mass for a nuclear weapon involves about 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium.  The amount of radioactive material liberated by the airburst of a nuclear weapon is predicted to the milligram; how much goes out the top of a shattered reactor, on the other hand, is pretty much guesswork, as is the rather imperfect art of using post-accident forensics and atmospheric measurement and capture tools to extrapolate total radiation released.

Nobody really knows how much radiation is released in an accident when containment is breached, throw in wind and washouts, there’s also really no way of telling where it ends up.

I also address the tendency of governments to minimize/mislead/suppress information concerning radiation releases from nuclear accidents and the overall uncertainty pervading their efforts.

The ex-USSR is the recognized world champion in this regard, thanks to its energy in covering up the mess created by Chernobyl, and the efforts by Alla Yaroshinskaya, a journalist-turned-activist-turned Duma representative to bring the truth to light.  The United States, through the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have also been keen to keep the atomic business going by minimizing the extent of radiation releases.  In the Albany case, the AEC deliberately understated the radiation levels it had detected in its public statements.  As for Fukushima, I was unfavorably impressed by an NRC PowerPoint briefing released under the FOIA, which significantly understated the total radiation release at Chernobyl.

The biggest minefield in the issue of nuclear accidents is the issue of the health effects of radiation exposure.  The international standard for nuclear safety is the “Linear No Threshold” or LNT model, which argues that the negative health impacts of low-level radiation exposure are, well, low.  People who give credence to claims of extensive radiation-related illness as a result of nuclear accidents are frequently dismissed as cranks.

Interestingly, the only place that is serious about emphasizing the health hazards of radiation is a country very much in the news today, Ukraine.  Doing the right thing by Ukrainian citizens after the injustices inflicted by the Soviet Union on the Chernobyl front has been an important part of Ukrainian national identity, and claims of radiation-related illness are given a hearing largely denied to them in the West, Japan, or Russia.

The international pushback against academics trying to make the statistical and biomedical case for extensive Chernobyl-related illnesses has been intense, including the attempt to explain any statistically significant health effects as a combination of “radiophobia” (the debilitating fear occasioned by radiation exposure) and the overall decline in public health in Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In 2005 a symposium conducted by the IAEA, WHO, and UN concluded that only 50 people had died because of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl accident; that’s quite a distance from estimates of critics who think the toll might be as high as 50,000.

In response, scientists such as Russia’s Elena Burlakova have carefully monitored the health of the sizable cohort of Chernobyl “liquidators” (the hundreds of thousands of workers who were exposed to high levels of radiation during cleanup at the plant and in the Chernobyl district) and conducted research to attempt to qualify the LNT standard for measuring the health effects of radiation exposure.

In addition to the detection of statistically significant levels of certain illnesses among the liquidator cohort, they have made the argument that, instead of being linear, radiation health effects are “bi-modal” at certain low dose levels i.e. more harmful than the linear model predicts.  Backhanded support for this challenge to the LNT model comes from a school of thought—“radiation hormesis”—now enjoying a certain vogue in the pro-nuclear crowd in Japan, that draws on the experience of inhabitants of Ramsar, a community of the Caspian Sea with high background radiation levels and low cancer rates, to argue that low levels of radiation are beneficial.

Challengers to the LNT model seem to be making some headway—the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently devoted a special issue to the subject—but there is considerable resistance to qualifying LNT and thereby admitting the possibility of rethinking and perhaps acknowledging the likelihood of extensive health problems from the release of low-level radiation by a nuclear accident.

Cleanup for a nuclear accident is expensive.  In an ironic recapitulation of the uncertainty surrounding the magnitude and destination of Fukushima’s radiation releases, the total cleanup bill has been estimated in a range from $10 billion to $50 billion to $250 billion.

To paraphrase Everett Dirksen, ten billion here, ten billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money and the possibility that even rare and occasional nuclear accidents will push up the total cost of nuclear power to unacceptable levels.

Understandably, the nuclear industry and people who have staked their hopes on nuclear power as a greenhouse-gas free alternative to carbon-based electricity generation resist the idea of expanding the accepted definition of significant radiation-related health effects, and with it the cost of any accident.

There is also, perhaps, the temptation to let the radiation illness problem take care of itself, i.e. shy away from investigations of radiation sickness that might yield inconvenient or perhaps politically or financially catastrophic conclusions while demographics does its grim work of culling the irradiated herd.

The sailors of the Ronald Reagan may not make a lot of headway with their legal challenge; but expect the scientific, popular, and political clamor concerning radiation-related illness to increase.

Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the exposure of sailors on board the USS Reagan to radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.