The confusing crisisLast Friday came the alarming news from Japan's nuclear agency that the amount of radioactive cesium that has so-far leaked from the tsunami ravaged Fukushima nuclear plant is equal to 168 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Apparently, the damaged plant has released 15,000 tera becquerels of cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years and causes cancer, compared with the 89 tera becquerels released by the American World War II bomb.
On the other hand, in the same report, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said the March 11 Fukushima disaster is likely to have released only about 15 per cent of the radiation that went into the air in the 1986 Chernobyl accident, although this equates to roughly seven times the amount of radiation produced by Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979. Then, a couple of days ago, rice grown close to the Fukushima power plant was rather surprisingly declared fit for consumption by the Japanese authorities.
What are we to make of it all?
The Japanese credibility crisis
After significant dithering after the tsunami in March, the Japanese government eventually banned people from entering an area within a 20 kilometre radius of the crippled power plant, which led to between 80,000 and 130,000 people being evacuated from this precinct. Since then, in large part, local residents outside this area have been left to clean up by themselves, because the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) is still struggling to bring the damaged reactors under control. TEPCO now plan to have the reactors, three of which went into melt-down, finally turned off cold by January, if you can believe their latest reports, which many experts do not.
The problem is that the reliability of claims from TEPCO, NISA and the Japanese Government are – as we have reported before – highly questionable. All three bodies have a major credibility crisis, with clear evidence that they colluded to cover up evidence that they knew the nuclear reactors melted down within hours of the March 11 tsunami. The reason for this seems to be that Japan is highly dependent on nuclear energy for its power needs, such that NISA has become more or less a branch of TEPCO – with staff perenially shuffling between the two bodies – and with a Japanese Government that is primarily concerned with talking down the extent of the crisis to avoid widespread panic amongst the Japanese population and allay rumblings about the viability of nuclear power.
For instance, the Japanese Government has recently been under attack for raising the maximum exposure limit for both adults and children from 1 to 20 millisieverts per year, matching the maximum exposure level for nuclear industry workers in many countries. This was lowered back to one millisievert on Friday after outrage in the community. Naoto Kan, the Japanese prime minister at the time of the crisis, has now resigned.
In an article entitled 'Why the Fukushima disaster is worse than Chernobyl', UK's The Independent newspaper expresses the bewilderment and widespread lack of confidence felt by many people, including those in Japan, about the official Japanese reports and responses to this dire calamity:
Some scientists say Fukushima is worse than the 1986 Chernobyl accident, with which it shares a maximum level-7 rating on the sliding scale of nuclear disasters….Chris Busby, a professor at the University of Ulster…said the disaster would result in more than 1 million deaths. "Fukushima is still boiling its radionuclides all over Japan," he said. "Chernobyl went up in one go. So Fukushima is worse."
On the other side of the nuclear fence are the industry friendly scientists who insist that the crisis is under control and radiation levels are mostly safe….Slowly, steadily, and often well behind the curve, the government has worsened its prognosis of the disaster. Last week, officials finally admitted something long argued by its critics: that thousands of people with homes near the crippled nuclear plant may not be able to return for a generation or more.
….The official line is that the accident at the plant is winding down and radiation levels outside of the exclusion zone and designated "hot spots" are safe.
But many experts warn that the crisis is just beginning. Professor Tim Mousseau, a biological scientist who has spent more than a decade researching the genetic impact of radiation around Chernobyl, says he worries that many people in Fukushima are "burying their heads in the sand." His Chernobyl research concluded that biodiversity and the numbers of insects and spiders had shrunk inside the irradiated zone, and the bird population showed evidence of genetic defects, including smaller brain sizes.
"The truth is that we don't have sufficient data to provide accurate information on the long-term impact," he says. "What we can say, though, is that there are very likely to be very significant long-term health impact from prolonged exposure."
One of the outspoken critics of the official handling of the crisis and the way the world nuclear industry has attempted to downplay the significance of the Fukushima crisis is the Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist Dr Helen Caldicott.
Dr Caldicott said that the official response to the disaster was slow, that the evacuation was far too limited and that there has been no consistent monitoring of Japanese food and radiation levels in the wake of the Fukushima disaster — something which draws into sharp focus today’s decision on Fukushima rice.
“The number of people evacuated is nothing compared to the total number of people at risk in Fukushima, which has a population of around two million or so in the prefecture,” said Dr Caldicott.
“People left there are at grave risk of developing cancer and leukaemia,” she said.
“Though, mind you, they have already been contaminated by now, but they will continue to be further contaminated because the material has landed on the soil, is concentrated in the food and will continue to be taken in through the air as large amounts of radiation continues to leak out through the three damaged reactors and the four damaged fuel cores.”
In recent weeks two earthquakes have rattled Fukushima – a 5.9 on August 11 and a 6.8 on August 19 – though, luckily, without any further damage being reported. Dr Caldicott raised the spectre of another significant earthquake causing further damage to the crippled reactors, and thereby releasing “massive amounts of radiation”.
She described two cataclysmic possibilities:
“If there is another major earthquake, the three reactors that have had total meltdown or melt through, could have molten lava dropping down through into water underneath the reactor causing a massive hydrogen explosion, releasing massive amounts of radioactivity. That’s number one.”
“Number two is building four. They have reinforced the bottom of the fuel pool, but not the building itself, which is very unstable after the earthquake. And that fuel pool is very dangerous, it is full of a whole load – a core – of fresh fuel. So if that building should collapse, as it could with another earthquake, then that is another catastrophe.”
Dr Caldicott said that people living north-west of Fukushima may have been exposed to much more radiation than Chernobyl and should be evacuated at once.
“People are living in areas north-west of Fukushima where there is massive amounts of radiation. The levels at which the Russians evacuated Chernobyl was at 500,000 becquerels; they have measured in these areas levels of between 3.5 and 14.5 million becquerels.”
“And of course children that are living in these areas of contamination are at tremendous risk, as they are very sensitive to the harmful effects of radiation. They all should be evacuated immediately.
“You can’t tell me Japan doesn’t have the money to evacuate millions of people, they do. Unfortunately it all comes down to money. Governments should not be able to put people’s lives at risk just to save money.”