Nuclear Power: Safe No More

The myths of atomic energy have been dealt a fatal blow by the growing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant

Emergency workers walk past survivors sitting near debris in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, where the earthquake and tsunami hit March 11. This photo was taken the following week, March 18, 2011| Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song

The huge scale of the disaster that has struck in Japan since the earthquake on Mar. 11 almost defies comprehension. The numbers are constantly being nudged upwards but at the time of writing, the latest count of the dead and missing has reached 25,000 and ten times that number have been left without shelter in a period of great cold. But there has been another, more global, consequence of the disaster: The 9.0 tremor knocked out the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant and the huge tidal wave flooded back-up generators. So the reactor began to overheat.

The supposedly impossible has happened – one of Japan’s quake-proof nuclear plants has faced melt-down. Radiation leaks were already having implications for the health of the immediate population and for the future of the global nuclear industry that had been enjoying a renaissance, as the world looks for alternatives to fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The disaster at Fukushima has been described as the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl blaze in Soviet Ukraine in 1986.

Science writer Ian Sample of The Guardian says the situation for the workers still battling to contain the disaster face is “grave and immediately dangerous.” On Mar. 24, three cable-layers at the Fukushima power plant were hospitalized after being exposed to high levels of radiation. They had apparently stepped into contaminated water. Government officials have insisted that outside the 30km evacuation zone the health effects of the radiation would be minimal. Radiation experts point out that the amount of radiation drops off very quickly from its source on what is called an inverse-square law.

Yet they have been forced to ban the sale of leafy vegetables and milk products from the countryside around Fukushima after they were shown to be contaminated and in the capital Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, parents were warned not to dilute their babies’ milk with tap water which showed iodine levels twice the legal safe limit for infants (who are more sensitive to potential genetic damage). Scientists say such limits err on the side of caution, but tell that to a worried mother. In short, Japan is a high developed, hi-tech nation that had told its population that its nuclear power stations were totally safe.

They were wrong.

So out of human tragedy has risen a pressing political issue of the future of global nuclear power that, although it seems disproportionate, has pushed the huge struggle to find survivors and protect them from the cold to the inside pages in European and U.S. newspapers. Many residents in the worst hit area of Japan, around Sendai, have expressed their frustration over this to international journalists. They are still grieving losses and hoping beyond hope that the missing can still be found under the cold and the rubble. In this state of emergency, our obsession with possible health implications for workers and residents many years down the line can seen disproportional.

When on Mar. 13, in the first days of the crisis, Austrian environment minister Nikolaus Berlakovic opened a press conference by reassuring the public that Austria was safe from the radiation from Fukushima, it seemed crass to many. But he was reacting to real fears; the Austrian daily Kurier reported on the same day that Austrians had been going to their local chemists to ask for anti-radiation stable iodine tablets. The crisis in Japan revealed deep-seated fears about nuclear energy.

Austria may have no nuclear power plants of its own, but it is surrounded by them. Like Japan, Europe as a whole remains very dependent on nuclear power. As in Japan, our politicians have declared them disaster proof.

It has been a rude awakening.

A library left untouched since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 | Photo: Yves Marchand

Faced with an alarmed populace, many governments far from Japan have already reacted to the nuclear crisis. In what Time magazine called a “stunning volte-face” on Mar. 15, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been previously described as mildly pro-nuclear, ordering the closure of seven of the country’s oldest nuclear plants for at least three months, while the government subjects them to stress tests. This followed a 72-kilometer-long human chain formed in protest between Stuttgart and the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant. With regional elections coming up, it seems she decided this was the only way she could react.

“Stress-testing” seems to be the European word of the month. At the behest of Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Belakovich, tests are to be held on all European nuclear power stations, although the vague wording of the EU resolution makes it unclear what effect other than reassurance they are designed to have. Europe is still very reliant on nuclear energy, with France garnering around 80% of its energy from fission. But public horror at the events in Fukushima has confronted many European politicians with questions about future energy production that they are unable to answer convincingly.

Realists say that, in spite of the drawbacks so vividly illustrated by Fukushima, nuclear power will remain part of our energy strategy for the foreseeable future. The Financial Times has called the chances “infinitesimally small” that Japan would ever abandon nuclear power all together. So understanding the real risks involved is essential.

Nuclear proponents are calling for perspective. They say calls for a ban are rooted in fear rather than fact. Although Fukishima is already more dramatic than the U.S.’s most serious nuclear disaster at Three Miles Island, even the worst case scenario in Japan won’t be nearly as destructive as Chernobyl, a reactor that the West had deemed unsafe before the accident and which lacked the containment walls that have stopped more serious radiation leaks despite the hydrogen explosions.

According to the Chernobyl Forum, a group including the Vienna based International Atomic Energy Agency as well as seven other UN agencies, 4,000 people will eventually have died of causes directly related to the Chernobyl. Many of them children at the time, who later developed thyroid cancer after being denied the iodine tablets that would have drastically reduced contamination levels. Nuclear proponents ask us to compare that with the 600,000 people who die annually from passive smoking, a health toll that some governments appear to find acceptable.

To understand the health risks it is important to understand the way radiation affects health. Andy Coughlin of New Scientist says the risks to workers depend on for how long the leaks continue, with the amount of radiation being multiplied by the time to which they have been exposed to it. Available scientific evidence does not indicate any cancer risk or immediate effects at doses below 100 mSv a year. We are all exposed to around three millisieverts (mSv) of background ionizing radiation every year, from the rocks, the earth and the sun. A head scan in hospital will expose you to around two mSv.

The maximum radiation level measured around the plant so far has been 400 mSv per hour.Workers have been taking on short shifts in the areas of radiation – shorter than an hour. On Mar. 15, for example, authorities say one worker received a radiation dose of 106 mSv. According to Professor Richard Wakeford, an expert in radiation exposure at the University of Manchester quoted by the BBC, that dose was likely to raise the lifetime risk of fatal cancer by 1%. The workers who stepped into the contaminated water are said to have received a dose 170 mSv and 180 mSv of radiation. The legal limit of exposure for a nuclear power worker used to be 100 mSv per year, but after the crisis unfolded a new limit of 250 mSv was signed into law in order to allow the workers to continue to work.

Why has a dose that was dangerous a week ago suddenly become safe? It might be true that levels are conservative, but it is hard for the layman to judge. Many people don’t believe the official reassurances, and for good reason. The Soviet’s secretive reaction to Chernobyl – it was actually Swedish researchers who alerted the wider world to the problem several days later – meant people didn’t have time to take the precautions that could have saved lives and when it comes to secrecy the Soviets hardly have a monopoly. The Japanese authorities have also been accused in the past of underreporting leaks and malfunctions.

On Mar. 14, the Japanese government was assuring the world that no radiation had escaped, while an American military ship with sensitive radioactivity sensors was detecting low levels of radiation 100 miles off the Japanese coast. The navy said the amount detected was not dramatic – less, in fact, than the exposure from a month of natural background radiation. But the point of the story was, that even before the explosion, the openness of the Japanese authorities was in question.

In a second example, a Wikileaks cable has revealed that in 2008, Japanese MP Taro Kono warned U.S. diplomats that the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade had been “covering up nuclear accidents and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry.”

And many believe the true health impact of radiation leaks has never been properly acknowledged. Greenpeace has called the official UN sanctioned Chernobyl death toll a “gross underestimate” and has put the figure to at least 100,000 fatal cancers.

The situation at Fukushima is still volatile and workers still battling a more severe radiation leak. The fear is that the worst is still to come. As The Guardian’s Sample has explained, any explosion could launch uranium and plutonium fuel into the air – fears raised by speculation on Mar. 25 about serious cracks in the reactors containment walls.

“These would remain as particles and would settle near the plant. They are grim environmental contaminants, and could see vast areas ruled out of bounds,” he says, but adds that, “they are only a serious problem to people if they are ingested or inhaled.’ Once again, the message seems to be that the danger is unlikely to extend beyond the immediate area.

So what to conclude in this most complicated and emotive of issues? One thing is that we don’t know enough about radiation, and that has caused hysterical reactions outside Japan. In the United States, food supplement outlets, including a company calling itself “nuke-pills,” have run out of the potassium iodine, because they just haven’t been able to keep up with the massive surge in demand. Doctors have advised that taking such pills when not exposed to large doses of radiation could be detrimental to the thyroid gland. Chinese supermarket shoppers have been scrumming to get hold of simple iodized salt which experts say wouldn’t help against radiation poisoning anyway.

In Austria, eight times zones away from the disaster area, shoppers have reportedly been buying Geiger counters to measure the risk they face.

This is ridiculous and can be dangerous too. When I visited Belarus on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, doctors told me some of the biggest challenges were the mental health problems, of people who were sure they were contaminated and thus “doomed”.

We need to understand what radiation is.

In the end, with radiation it all comes down to the dose, says The New Scientist’s Andy Coughlin. “Life has evolved on this planet with lots of radioactivity around the place. We are pretty hardy,” he says. But he adds that when you are using nuclear reactors to generate power you are creating material in amounts that you wouldn’t find in nature, “so we have to be very careful how we handle it.”

Japan thought it had been careful, so the lesson that many people have taken away from this crisis is that you simply can’t be careful enough. Nuclear proponents might tell us that the risks are not as big as we believe. But many are asking, why take those risks at all? Europe is unlikely to be struck by a 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, but there are other potential dangers including airplane-based terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament that her goal was “to reach the age of renewable energy as soon as possible.” Her words might have been partially aimed at shoring up support ahead of regional elections, but many Europeans will be hoping that that goal can be reached before the next disaster strikes.

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