Two years after Fukushima: a tale of two symposiums

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With news today that Fukushima has sprung another radioactive leak, Noel Wauchope reports on two very different nuclear symposiums held last month.
The Japanese public have fallen out of love with nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster (Image courtesy EPA/KIMIMASA MAYAMA)

Symposium One:  The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident

JUST OVER two years ago, Independent Australia was first to break the news of the real urgency of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Governments, corporations, and mainstream media would have us believe that the Fukushima crisis is resolved — now for nuclear/uranium business as usual. It’s all over, really.

But is it?

On March 11th  and 12th, on the two year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear accident, some 400 people gathered at of the New York Academy of Medicine to hear 20 prestigious speakers discuss the meaning of this event for Japan and for the world.

I don’t think that there has ever been an international gathering quite like this, with at so many highly qualified speakers discussing the meaning of a critical world event.

So, I was a bit disappointed to find myself to be the only Australian there — apart from symposium co-ordinator, the eminent Dr Helen Caldicott.

The professionalism of this event was apparent — from the historic venue, The New York Academy of Medicine, to the calibre of the speakers, the organisation of the event, and the seriousness of the 400 or so participants.

Yet, amongst the people present, I did not feel the presence of the general scientific and political establishment.  Certainly there was no one in evidence from the nuclear industry, or any pro-nuclear group. I suppose they just might feel uncomfortable, listening to highly competent experts  like Dr Alexie Yablokov, who contradicted the official position about “few deaths” from Chernobyl. Or like nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson,with his incisive criticisms of nuclear power safety claims.

Then there’s Dr Helen Caldicott herself, with her unanswerable way of combining an encyclopaedic knowledge of nuclear issues, with formidable logic , passion, and even more impressive — plain speaking.

So, the mainstream media didn’t show up, either — except for that brief period at one lunch-time, when two American navy men from the USS Ronald Reagan spoke of their radiation exposure at Fukushima.

Anyway, if they thought that this symposium would be full of flag waving activists, and with anti-nuclear pamphlets and books everywhere — they thought wrong. The whole atmosphere of this gathering was serious, and the speakers emphasised the limitations  of research, and the need for critical thinking.

As epidemiologist Dr Steve Wing pointed out:
Not every study has to find excess cancers."
The content of the symposium kept pretty well to the topic listed in the title. So, participants learned  a great deal about the effects of ionising radiation and also about the complexities and problems in assessing those effects.

Japan’s former Prime Minister Naoto Kan opened the symposium by video. The seriousness of the Fukushima situation was explained by Dr Hisaku Sakiyama and diplomat Akio Matsumura. The Japanese presence and support for this event was strongly evident. A group of concerned Japanese mothers, spoke at an informal lunch-time meeting.

It is not easy to pick out the most significant speeches from this field of  speakers – covering radiation science, biology, cancer studies, paediatrics, epidemiology ecology, marine environments, oceanography, engineering, nuclear technology, public  health, public policy — I thought they were all significant.

Arnie Gundersen and scientist David Lochbaum elaborated on the design and safety issues of the Fukushima and American nuclear plants, and the needs for future safety design, as well as the costs of this.

Medical scientist Dr Steven Starr and marine biologist Ken Buesseler addressed environmental issues such as the spread of cesium 134 and 137 and  the continuing radiation release into the ocean. Biologist Professor Tim Mousseau's research into wildlife in Chernobyl – and now Fukushima – is revealing the genetic effects of radiation, on later generations of insects and birds. This has implications for human genetics — and the new and important studies into genomic instability.

On the subject of ionising radiation, Dr Sakiyama gave perhaps the most comprehensive explanation — leading to the conclusion that children and pregnant women are at greatest risk from exposure .

Dr Marek Niedziela's (video) presentation gave a timely account of radiation effects on thyroid glands, thyroid abnormalities and later cancers.

Radiation experts Dr Ian FairlieDr David BrennerDr Steve Wing, Joseph Mangano and Herbert Abrams  discussed methods of estimating radiation effects, particularly in relation to cancer. Brenner and Wing sounded notes of caution – about the incidence of cancer anyway –without exposure to radiation, and about the drawbacks in both risk assessment methods and epidemiological methods of doing this estimation.

The inadequacies of the Atomic Bomb Survivors Lifetime Study were explained, and speakers were scathing about the biases and assumptions made in early estimates of the Fukushima health effects. Dr Fairlie exposed the flaws in the World Health Organisation’s  radiation risk science.

Joe Mangano warned on
“...the greatest challenge to the research community – corruption – the corruption of the scientific method."
Steve Wing saw the main threats to scientific knowledge as “a lack of  critical thinking” and “a failure to question authority”.

A huge welcome was given to Dr Alexei Yablokov, Russian environmental researcher, who in 2009 first revealed to the world the magnitude of the health effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (the Establishment didn’t like this). He and Dr Wladimir Wertelecki  focussed on research areas ignored by the world’s scientific and health authorities: the effects of internal emitters of radiation — the radionucleides that are breathed in, or ingested, and lodge inside the body.

Both Yablokov and Wertelecki stressed the impacts on women, on foetuses, infants and children. Dr Werterlecki’s outstanding research on congenital malformations deserves a presentation all on its own. Alas, no space here to do justice to his account of the 10 year Ukraine program Omni-Net Ukraine Birth Defects Prevention Program. But, having listened to these speakers, one is left in no doubt that women and infants are in the greatest need of protection from ionising radiation. And also that the accepted radiation standards — based on an adult man, are a joke. This imbalance, the neglect of focus on the vulnerability of women, was emphasised by Mary Olson in discussing  “Gender Matters in the Atomic Age”.

While radiation was the main theme of the symposium, the second day shifted the focus to America’s nuclear waste problem. Robert Alvarez described the dangers of America’s cooling ponds of nuclear wastes. Kevin Kamps discussed this too in his overall look at the history of the nuclear industry and the secrecy and collusion in Japan, that is paralleled in America.

Cindy Folkers, radiation and health researcher. detailed another area that has been pretty much “taboo” in the media – the question of radioactive contamination of food – the monitoring, and the non-monitoring of this. Folkers recommends a limit of no more than 5 becquerels per kilogram in food, — though none is better. USA, as a point of comparison, permits 1200 becquerels and upwards per kg in food.

My favourite speaker was David Freeman, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority – because of his sense of humour and down to earth style. Freeman outlined the history of commercial nuclear power — born in war, always a cover for nuclear weapons, always uneconomic. The USA’s spread of nuclear technology leads inevitably to the spread of nuclear weapons. Freeman criticised the anti-nuclear movement for using sarcasm — which doesn’t work and doesn’t persuade anybody. He emphasised the nuclear waste problem, and nuclear costs, and pointed to the renewable energy movement as the way to a nuclear free future.

I worry about many other facets of the nuclear danger — the effect of climate change on nuclear reactors, the effect of the nuclear industry on water scarcity, secrecy, on indigenous peoples, weapons proliferation, civil liberties. This symposium could not, and did not try, to cover so many other aspects. But the focus on ionising radiation was timely, as the nuclear lobby pushes the idea that “low level” radiation is safe, and governments lift the standard  for “acceptable” radiation.

The public is not aware of the full implications of the radiation issue. We understand that an individual's  health risk, particularly the cancer risk, of added low level radiation is small. But even the rather conservative Dr Brenner emphasised the seriousness of the increased collective risk - which means a great many more cancers in the population as a whole.

David Freeman assessed nuclear power and climate change as “the most horrible threats that mankind faces”.  With two years having passed now, since the Fukushima accident, media, business and governments will no doubt tend to ignore its effects.

The impact of this symposium will go well beyond March 2013 because of the impression made on the participants, and because the lectures, documents and graphic illustrations  are available online  at Nuclear Free Planet. They  will also appear as a film Cinema Forum Fukushima and in book form.

The New York lectures will continue to play an important role in keeping the nuclear danger in front of the public.

(This symposium was a project of The Helen Caldicott Foundation, co-sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility.)

Symposium Two: The Lowy Institute's nuclear revivalist meeting

SOON AFTER Caldicott New York symposium, the Lowy Institute for International Policy put on a panel of its own to discuss nuclear power. Apparently, anything the USA can do, Australia can do better! Or perhaps worse.

The Lowy Institute's March panel discussion topic was Asia’s nuclear future after Fukushima. The role of nuclear industry. The panel was composed of leaders of Australia's nuclear industry — Michael Angwin, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Uranium Association, John Borshoff, CEO of Paladin Energy and Dr Selena Ng, Regional Director South East Asia and Oceanea, AREVA. The chairman was John Carlson, former Director General, Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office

I like enthusiasm and optimism, however, this panel went beyond enthusiasm. I tell you — it was like a religious revival meeting. And I think that’s just what it was. Just like a pastor exhorting a tiny remnant congregation, there seemed to be a more than  a hint of underlying desperation, combined with that touching faith in the Second Coming.

There was unanimous agreement on the inevitable booming future of nuclear power, especially in South East Asia. Yet, between the lines, we heard from Michael Angwin that
"...public perceptions of nuclear industry are now  less confident than before in the short term, but my expectation is that will return to confidence in the long term."
He also admitted:
"We know that people take a negative view of nuclear industry — see it as remote from them, and as the creature of big government and big industry".

John Borshoff  admitted that
"Fukushima a set-back in public opinion. But it does not in any way undermine the case for nuclear power."
However, faith in the nuclear industry's future being a given, all speakers moved on to three secondary themes, which were:
  • the problem of the media
  • the need for public education
  • the safety of the nuclear industry

All speakers, even the more restrained Dr Selena Ng emphasised that the big problem for the nuclear industry’s future is the media.

In his short  opening address, John Carlson stated:
"We have seen considerable unevenness in media reporting on  Fukushima. On most subjects, journalists are very careful about the credentials of the people that they interview On nuclear issues, anyone with an opinion can pass for an expert."
Michael Angwin also criticised the reporters:
"...the way media has reported Fukushima. They have focussed on the sensational and the immediate. The media has not informed public as well as it might have."
Borshoff bemoaned the 
“...media frenzy — hyperbole and imagination with very little leadership and a cool head particularly on  a global scale."

So, all speakers – again, even Dr Ng – stressed the need for public education to set people straight about nuclear issues.  Optimism returned to the discussion, because as Borshoff said
"Media interest in Fukushima is waning. The media jackals have moved on …. science has held true."
Curiously, however, Angwin spoke reassuringly about  the social media.  Apparently, the Twittersphere and blogosphere are making people become better informed about nuclear power. (Presumably he meant that the social media looks kindly on nuclear power. Angwin hasn’t been reading the same tweets and blogs that I have!)

It’s nice to see a panel in pretty much complete agreement on the facts of the future for nuclear power, especially for Asia, and for Australia’s uranium industry. All seemed to concur with Borshoff’s dogmatic predictions:
"China, India , Middle East Korea and Russia will build 250 reactors by 2030."  

"Uranium supply is in fundamental shortage.Uranium prices will go up".
All agreed that, besides public education, governments must stop worrying and learn to love nukes.

As Angwin said, they must:
"...demonstrate the economic and political reasons why they support nuclear power." 
He praised Barack Obama for re-endorsing America’s commitment to nuclear power:
"The continuation of nuclear power in USA will be much easier than in those countries where governments  have become coy about nuclear power."
"Inevitably those countries will return to the nuclear industry."

All said worthy things about the need for safety measures in nuclear reactors. But not a word about the cost issues involved. At the New York symposium, David Lochbaum estimated these as likely to be simply unaffordable.

Indeed, John Borshoff turned Fukusima into a positive:
"The Fukushima emergency demonstrates the resilience of nuclear technology …. Japan will learn from this, improve the industry and move on."
But, wait!  In their expressions of concern about nuclear safety, Dr Selina Ng stepped out of line, saying that Fukushima was 
"...a huge wakeup call for her generation."
Ng’s emphasis on the need for vigilance about safety sounded as though it might have come from the heart, and not just from AREVA’s script. And she quickly pulled herself into line at question time, again reiterating the safety of the nuclear industry.

So, these were the agreed themes of all speakers post Fukushima: South East Asia’s need for nuclear energy, the poor coverage by media, the continued safety of the nuclear industry, and the need for public education.

And who’s going to do that public education? Well, the industry!

So, in Australia, we have these same expert speakers. They really would have to do better than this kind of religious revivalism.

The panel completely ignored the crisis in nuclear in the USA, UK and Japan over nuclear waste disposal — which has paralysed the nuclear industry there.

They demonstrated their lack of interest in, and probably complete ignorance of, radiation issues.  Radiation was mentioned just once, by John Borshoff, speaking about Fukushima:
"No deaths have occurred. There were some releases of radioactivity. It is doubtful if this will be [sic] cause harm in the medium or long term."
Angwin stressed that
"...what we know from studies done at Chernobyl — the  major risk of psychological health risk [sic], caused by fear of radiation."
The cause of the Fukushima meltdowns was ascribed to the tsunami — yet latest evidence indicates  that in fact the earthquake was the initial cause, not the tsunami. But, anyway, nobody seemed particularly interested in Fukushima any more, as long as the media continues to put it on the back burner — that seems to be all that matters.

It seemed to me that all speakers stuck to those agreed themes, with an extraordinary lack of evidence, references, examples, or evidence, for the bald statements they made. Dr Ng was the only speaker who did go into some detail on the safety measures needed. She also spoke about Fukushima nuclear plant not being stabilised, and admitted to the dilemmas still faced with the radioactive water accumulating there.

What struck me most of all was that the other speakers showed no interest whatever in examining the after effects of Fukushima and questions about its future. I found their statements on this both puzzling and worrying.:

"In our industry we try to keep in the moment — to tell people what is happening right now.  We’ve tried to avoid forecasting, predicting or estimating  what might happen as a result of Fukushima ….  At this stage, without a clear idea, it’s too hard to predict what the consequences of Fukushima might be."
"I am not an expert on nuclear technology. So my comments are at a high level."
What high level? I honestly do not know what he is talking about. Borshoff gave an extraordinary comparison of nuclear safety with airline safety. As one questioner pointed out — the consequences of  a nuclear accident are more far reaching. Also, when we travel by air, it is an individual choice we make to take the known risk of an accident. In a nuclear accident, there is no individual choice, just a public disaster imposed on people without their consent.

Dr Ng spoke of the nuclear industry’s previous attitude of complacency – now shaken up by Fukushima – towards more vigilance about safety.

Listening to Australia’s nuclear “expert panel”, it seems that complacency still reigns. What a contrast to the professionally organised, meticulously referenced symposium in New York.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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