• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous CounterPuncher has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Radiation and the USS Ronald Reagan

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.

More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 17, 2019
Steve Early
The Irishman Cometh: Teamster History Hits the Big Screen (Again)
Jonathan Cook
Israel Prepares to Turn Bedouin Citizens into Refugees in Their Own Country
Stan Cox
Healing the Rift Between Political Reality and Ecological Reality
Jeff Klein
Syria, the Kurds, Turkey and the U.S.: Why Progressives Should Not Support a New Imperial Partition in the Middle East
George Ochenski
The Governor, the Mining Company and the Future of a Montana Wilderness
Charles Pierson
Bret Stephens’ American Fantasy
Ted Rall
The First Thing We Do, Let’s Fire All the Cops
Jon Rynn
Saving the Green New Deal
Ajamu Baraka
Syria: Exposing Western Radical Collaboration with Imperialism
Binoy Kampmark
A Coalition of Support: Parliamentarians for Julian Assange
Thomas Knapp
The Down Side of Impeachment
Harvey Wasserman
What Really Happened to American Socialism?
Tom Engelhardt
American Brexit
October 16, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
How Turkey’s Invasion of Syria Backfired on Erdogan
Chitrangada Choudhury – Aniket Aga
How Cotton Became a Headache in the Age of Climate Chaos
Jack Rasmus
US-China Mini-Trade Deal: Trump Takes the Money and Runs
Michael Welton
Communist Dictatorship in Our Midst
Robert Hunziker
Extinction Rebellion Sweeps the World
Peter A. Coclanis
Donald Trump as Artist
Chris Floyd
Byzantium Now: Time-Warping From Justinian to Trump
Steve Klinger
In For a Dime, in For a Dollar
Gary Leupp
The Maria Ramirez Story
Kim C. Domenico
It Serves Us Right To Suffer: Breaking Down Neoliberal Complacency
Kiley Blackman
Wildlife Killing Contests are Unethical
Colin Todhunter
Bayer Shareholders: Put Health and Nature First and Stop Funding This Company!
Andrés Castro
Looking Normal in Kew Gardens
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail