Fukushima, Cover-Up Amid Catastrophe

Fukushima:  It’s  Getting Worse

A week ago, Fukushima abruptly dropped out of  the news headlines. The NATO onslaught on Qaddafi took over. This came after an initial week – following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, of steadily escalating alarums about what the EU energy commissioner tactlessly called “apocalypse.”  Suddenly the down-column stories about the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant took on a tone of cautious reassurance: there were “improvements” in effort to keep units 5 and 6 at the Daiichi plant cool;  “progress” in efforts to reconnect the stricken plant to the electrical power grid were proceeding;  hydrogen explosions should be no cause for alarm; why, TEPCO workers could even switch on lights in a control room in Unit 1. Reports stressed the restraint and dignity of beleaguered Japanese citizens, thus implying that spreading alarmist reports was pretty much the equivalent of robbing refugees. Speaking personally, news of lynch parties of outraged Japanese prodding TEPCO executives into clean-up duty in the plant  alongside George Monbiot and the 50 Japanese worker-martyrs would have been most welcome.

TEPCO’s crimes and cover-ups go back to the dawn of Japan’s nuclear power industry. A Russian, Iouli Andreev  who once ran the Soviet Spetsatom agency involved in the Chernobyl clean-up told Reuters that  “corporations had deliberately ignored the lessons of Chernobyl” in the pursuit of profit and had been abetted by the negligence of of the IAEA and that “in order to cut costs, spent fuel rods at Fukushima had been too closely stacked in pools near the nuclear reactors. One of those pools caught fire, dispersing radioactivity into the atmosphere. The Japanese were very greedy and they used every square inch of the space. But when you have a dense placing of spent fuel in the basin, you have a high possibility of fire if the water is removed from the basin.”

Amid reasonable suspicions that  leading news media might have been in receipt of informal government advisories to stop creating panic, it became much harder to find credible bulletins on what was actually happening. In fact careful perusal of the daily briefings at the  Vienna hq of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna disclosed absolutely no substantive progress and indeed discreet admissions that “[this was on March 23)  the “Agency still lacks data on water levels and temperatures in the spent fuel pools at Units 1, 2, 3 and 4.”

The IAEA emphasized each day that the situation at Fukushima’s Daiichi plant remained “extremely serious.” Bulletins from other bodies such as France’s Autorité de sûreté nucléaire retained a similarly grave tone.

Meanwhile bulletins about  hazardous fallout and poisoning of air, earth and sea were similarly cast in a reassuring frame, even as the Japanese government issued warnings about eating spinach and other greens from Japan’s north east, and by the end of the week putting out an advisory for parents not to let small children drink tap water in Tokyo. On our own website, by contrast, several articles and interviews stressed what Hirose Takashi said:

“All of the information media are at fault here I think.  They are saying stupid things like, why, we are exposed to radiation all the time in our daily life, we get radiation from outer space.  But that’s one millisievert per year.  A year has 365 days, a day has 24 hours; multiply 365 by 24, you get 8760.  Multiply the 400 millisieverts by that, you get 3,500,000 the normal dose.  You call that safe?  And what media have reported this?  None.  They compare it to a CT scan, which is over in an instant; that has nothing to do with it.  The reason radioactivity can be measured is that radioactive material is escaping.  What is dangerous is when that material enters your body and irradiates it from inside.  These industry-mouthpiece scholars come on TV and what to they say?  They say as you move away the radiation is reduced in inverse ratio to the square of the distance.  I want to say the reverse.  Internal irradiation happens when radioactive material is ingested into the body.  What happens?  Say there is a nuclear particle one meter away from you. You breathe it in, it sticks inside your body; the distance between you and it is now at the micron level. One meter is 1000 millimeters, one micron is one thousandth of a millimeter.  That’s a thousand times a thousand: a thousand squared.  That’s the real meaning of “inverse ratio of the square of the distance.”  Radiation exposure is increased by a factor of a trillion.  Inhaling even the tiniest particle, that’s the danger.”

Both Arjun Makhijani and Robert Alvarez stressed that a Worst Case explosion at Fukushima Daiichi could be worse than Chernobyl. As Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Maryland, wrote:

“The mechanisms of the accident would be very different than Chernobyl, 4 where there was also a fire, and the mix of radionuclides would be very different. While the quantity of short-lived radionuclides, notably iodine-131, would be much smaller, the consequences for the long term could be more dire due to long-lived radionuclides such as cesium- 137, strontium-90, iodine-129, and plutonium-239. These radionuclides are generally present in much larger quantities in spent fuel pools than in the reactor itself. In light of that, it is remarkable how little has been said by the Japanese authorities about this problem.”

Now, by March 25 TEPCO and the Japanese government can’t keep the lid on any longer. They are admitting that the containment vessel in unit 3 is ruptured. Radiated water sloshing into workers’ boots is 10,000 times above safety levels. Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, announced that radiation from the mox fuel in reactor 3  — a combination of uranium and plutonium — could be escaping into the  atmosphere.

In other words, Japan and the rest of the world indeed face “the worst case”, as we have since March 11. There’s been no let up.

What the nuclear industry and the nuclear agencies have been aiming for is a kind of Mithridatization of the crisis. Mithridates was the king who took poison every day to immunize himself against poisoners.  Crisis becomes normalcy. Sure, radiation levels are way above the redline; the dirt around Fukushima and huge slabs of north east Japan is poisoned; the ground around Fukushima is radiated sludge; the seas show significant contamination, not least because  the seawater being sprayed on the units itself become poisoned and sinks into the dirt and back into the ocean after its detour to pick up toxicity.

Sure, this is all true, but “there’s no cause for alarm.” Never believe anything till it’s officially denied! The industry’s flacks lie steadily, as they have always done, about impacts on humans and the environment.

The fiercest defenders of nuclear power these days are greens like George Monbiot who wrote yet another insane hosanna to nuclear power in The Guardian (“Why Fukushima Made Me Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power … Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to nuclear power.” It was written on the 21st of March.) Greens like Monbiot, fixated on their increasingly discredited anthropogenic – humanly caused —  global warming (AGW) models, clamber even further out in their assertions that the nuclear industry’s official spokesmen.

On the recruitment of Greens to the cause of the nuclear industry, Martin Kokus sent us the following very interesting letter:

“Instead of saying that global warming rescued the nuclear lobby, I would say the nuclear complex invented global warming.  I was working on man-made climate change during the 70’s and I think that even the biggest conspiracy theorist is underestimating the role that the nuclear complex played in shaping the debate on AGW.  When I say nuclear complex, I am not just referring to the power lobby, but also the weapons manufacturers, the military, the nuclear labs, the academics who are funded by nuclear labs, and those who think that there is some huge geopolitical advantage for the west to go nuclear.

“The nukes were pushing AGW from my earliest political memory.  In 1973-74, the Hoover Institute funded a tour by Edward Teller where he described co2 as the real environmental problem and nuclear power was its only solution.  (I am sure that you are aware that the Hoover Institute is now espousing AGW as a liberal conspiracy.)  During the same time period Bernard Cohen, head of U of Pitt’s Nuke Labs, self-appointed expert on safety, and proponent of nuclear power was funded by Americans for Energy Independence (AEI) to do the same thing.  One of the organizers of AEI was longtime Cohen associate Zalman Shapiro who was the subject of a series of Counterpunch essays by Grant Smith in regards to the Israeli nuke program.  These speakers were not sponsored by climatology departments but by nuclear engineering departments.

“I was in the first US seminar on man-made climate change at UVA.  We were worried about particulates, land use, deforestation, and most of all the introduction of agribusiness into the third world.  My profs dismissed AGW in about 15 minutes.  But even then, one of our contract monitors from Oak Ridge AEC was pushing me to get interested in the greenhouse effect.  I also remember Outside magazine (which I always considered right wing and phony environmentalist) doing a series that considered AGW to be the most serious environmental threat.  I always found this interesting because there were absolutely no data behind it.

“The real money came into AGW after Thatcher got elected.  I am sure that you are familiar with the Centre for Policy Studies, a conservative British think tank, decision to hype AGW.  Well, the Reagan administration more than matched that money.  We funded half the Hadley Centre and the University of East Anglia’s climate group.  The UEA was the scene of the recent Climategate scandal. The Hadley Centre and the UEA were the incubators for the IPCC.  The money was monitored by what used to be the AEC lab at Oakridge which is now under DOE.  The older climatologists were ignored in this funding buildup.  In fact, existing funding for non co2 climate change research disappeared.”

One more email from CounterPuncher James Cronin:

“One important aspect of the current nuclear catastrophe is not being discussed in progressive media: the fact that radiation-induced cancers do not simply arise immediately following exposure.  It’s not as though it will be like the Black Plague, where one would see one’s neighbors being hauled out of their houses, dead. This damage to human life, these murders, will only be visible  — if they are allowed to be visible — in statistical data collected long years after the exposure event.

“In other words, there will be no evident epidemic that would stimulate citizen action.  So we may well be exposed to enough radiation, such as with Iodine-131, to give us thyroid cancer, but the distribution of these cancers will be over the entire population in the exposed areas, manifesting only as a statistic years after the fact.  Even if we know someone who develops thyroid cancer, we will be unable to identify the Japan catastrophe (at least at this point) as the cause. Thus the nuclear industry has a clear escape path at this point.

“I think we can be assured that the research exists. If we know the exposures or potential exposures, the number of cancers (and deaths) that will result can be estimated.  I think this  estimate should be found or done ASAP.  A table could be generated, if it does not already exist in the scientific literature somewhere.

“I have long distrusted many so-called progressive websites for their obvious promotion of Obama, and how they report this catastrophe should be looked at, as you have with Monbiot.”

“Keep up the good work, Counterpunchers.”

As I wrote last week, the New York Academy of Sciences report on Chernobyl, published in 2009 has a wealth of data on lethal health consequences surfacing years after the disaster. The report by Yablokov and the Nesterenkos, had as its consulting editor Janette Sherman-Nevinger whose commentary, on this site last week, is well worth reading.

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The newsletter also features Shaukat Qadir on why Davis was in Pakistan in the first place plus Larry Portis on how much the French loathe Sarkozy and, as noted above the role of Bernard-Henri Levi in getting him to declare war on Libya.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.