A Disease of the Mind”: Fukushima reveals the true risks of nuclear power

Protestors form words with their bodies on a San Francisco Beach, organized by Fukushima Response: http://www.fukushimaishere.info/


“Contamination of our food and land now affecting the way we think…disease of the mind has set in world leaders.”

—Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Statement by the Council of Elders to the UN, November 16, 2013

Seals with skin ulcers “never seen before” have been showing up in Alaska and also in Japan.  The sardine industry on the North Coast has collapsed. Herring are hemorrhaging from their gills. A sea star broke in two and then turned into goo. Northern whales, reputed “singers,” have become silent.  Birds have been washing up dead along the Alaskan coast showing “the radioactive isotope, C-137, which has been so prevalent in the Fukushima releases as to carry its signature.”

What can be the cause of a mysterious die-off of moose and deer in the western United States? Childhood cancers have increased by 28 percent in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington; in Japan, 58 thyroid cancers have been reported in young children, where one to two cases had been the norm. The Japanese government is no longer reporting the incidence of cancer.

Welcome to the new “Pacific rim”, two and a half years after the catastrophe at the huge Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant north of Tokyo, where, according to scientists, bluefin tuna from southern California were found to be contaminated with radioactive cesium after only a month in Japanese waters; “…absolutely every one of them had comparable concentrations of cesium-134 and cesium-137,” said marine biologist Nicholas Fisher at Stony Brook University in New York State. It had to be from Fukushima.

Protestors form words with their bodies on a San Francisco Beach, organized by Fukushima Response: http://www.fukushimaishere.info/
Protestors form words with their bodies on a San Francisco beach, organized by Fukushima Response: http://www.fukushimaishere.info/

Lake Barrett, former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official and now an adviser to  the Tokyo Electric Power Company that manages the plant (TEPCO) commented in March 30, 2011: “The environmental release is the growing challenge; you’re going to read more and more about it in the paper.  Wait until the first cesium-137 shows up in Alaska salmon, which is only a matter of time. You’re going to find it right back in the headlines.”

Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz, told Global Security Newswire: “We could have large numbers of cancer from ingestion of fish.”

But perhaps there’s nothing to worry about. According to the New Scientist, “even if all the waste from Fukushima was dumped neat into the Pacific, dilution would eliminate any radiation risks to distant countries like the US, says Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK.”

We better hope they’re right, because despite real concerns, the United States is not monitoring the amounts of contamination in fish and is unlikely to do so due to sequestration. The World Health Organization, which in 1959 entered into an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency giving the unequivocally pro-nuclear IAEA a veto over WHO research into the effects of radiation unsurprisingly reported in February of this year: A comprehensive assessment by international experts on the health risks associated with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP) disaster in Japan has concluded that, for the general population inside and outside of Japan, the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated.” Confusingly, the report also admits that “the estimated risk for specific cancers in certain subsets of the population in Fukushima Prefecture has increased.”

Whom should we believe? Judging from the listings that come up on my Google search, a great many people are in a high state of alarm, and not very many of them believe the assurances coming from the government.  The consequences of previous nuclear accidents, if they are ever revealed to the public, are usually minimized. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have caused far more deaths than projected. We’ve never had anything as big as Fukushima; nor have we had contamination of the ocean on such a huge scale. But it’s a big ocean. What harm can a tiny bit of strontium, cesium, plutonium or tritium do?

Says Dr. Helen Caldicott, a lifelong critic of the dangers of nuclear energy, “The extent of the cover-up tells you the size of the problem.” 

Ever since Hiroshima, scientists have debated the effects of “low-level” radiation such as that released by Fukushima into the Pacific. While there is no question of the consequences of a criticality event in the damaged fuel pool while the rods are being removed there has been widespread disagreement about the dangers posed by low-level alpha and beta radiation. Mainstream scientists and industry advocates have asserted, sometimes smugly, that low level radiation is no problem, while worthy independent scientists like Rosalie Bertell, PhD, Dr. John Gofman, Dr. Alice Stewart, and father of Health Physics Karl Z. Morgan have warned, to quote Morgan, that “there is no safe level of exposure and there is no dose of radiation so low that the risk of a malignancy is zero.” (Fact Sheet, “There is No Safe Dose of Ionizing Radiation,” from Beyond Nuclear.) Finally, in 1990, the U. S. Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation concluded that the frequency of cancer and hereditary genetic effects “increases with low-level radiation as a linear, non-threshold function of the dose.” (National Research Council BEIR V 1990, quoted in Beyond Nuclear Fact Sheet.) Since then, the idea of an exposure “threshold” has been continually challenged.

“Low dose” and “low level” are not the same thing. The dose, of course, is the amount received by the body. Low-level, on the other hand, refers to alpha and beta emitters; these do not penetrate the skin, but if ingested or inhaled: as Dr. Chris Busby (see below) writes, “they can have huge effects on cellular DNA at low average ‘doses’. It is like comparing warming yourself in front of the fire with eating a hot coal.”

While studies have shown that the bombings of Japan did not create the level of illness and death that had been expected, suggesting, as some believe, that radiation may not be as bad as we thought and may even be good for us in very small doses (the theory of hormesis, similar to the theory of homeopathy that poisons in small doses may be curative, has been applied to small doses of radiation, but that theory has been thrown out by all established scientific authorities on radiation), the fact remains that cancer rates have escalated ever since the bomb was first detonated near Alamogordo, as have genetic abnormalities, learning disabilities, fertility problems, reduced sperm counts, miscarriages, immune diseases and chronic disorders; and ionizing radiation is certainly a key factor in all of these. The health of the newborn in the United States has actually declined over this period despite medical advances that have made it possible to prolong life from birth to older age. Expensive treatments prolong life but do not necessarily restore health, and the cost of all these treatments has crippled health care delivery systems. The contamination of our environment and the deterioration of our food supply have certainly impacted our health in negative ways.

Dr. Chris Busby has worked on this question of the effect of low-level radiation and dosage for many years. After Fukushima, he worked with Joe Mangano and Dr. Janette Sherman of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York, which has been studying the impacts of radiation on children’s health for several decades, on a study of congenital hypothyroidism in California after the Fukushima meltdown. Sadly, the number of babies with this condition who were born between March 17 and Dec 31, 2011 increased by 28 percent as compared with babies born before the exposures, which supports the hypothesis that pregnant women were exposed to iodine 131 in water and in the air.

In an article posted at Counterpunch (and elsewhere on the Internet)  about the study, which has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Open Journal of Pediatric Medicine, Busby points out the possible link between these abnormalities and the plume of radioactive iodine-131 that reached the West Coast within four days of the Fukishima collapse and concludes that “there is really no possible alternative explanation” for the spike.The increase in congenital hypothyroidism in babies “is one more instance of the fact the current radiation risk model, employed by the governments of every nation, is massively insecure for predicting harm from internal radionuclide exposures.”

While low level radiation from an external source may do little damage to the body, once ingested or inhaled it sets off a chain of events analogous to a radioactive explosion; that is, one atom, robbed of one of its electrons by the ingested ion, creates havoc by seeking to replace that electron from a neighboring atom, and atom by atom the radioactive invasion spreads. The radiation risk model may work for external sources, writes Busby, but for internal contamination “it is like comparing warming yourself in front of the fire with eating a hot coal. Or comparing a punch to stabbing. Same dose, same energy. Very different effects.”

Plus, as Dr. Helen Caldicott repeatedly points out, when you get your cancer 20 years later, it does not carry a marker to indicate where you got it.

Even before Fukushima, there was cesium in the Pacific Ocean from so many bomb tests done in the Pacific Islands. (There were over 2000 bombs exploded since the first atomic explosion in Alamogordo, NM.) These substances—cesium 137, iodine 131, tritium, plutonium, and their daughters—remain dangerous for decades, and they bio-accumulate in the tissues of the body. Now they are bio-accumulating in the environment; and in that sense, Fukushima just adds insult to existing injury. Little by little, in the vast seas and the high stratosphere, these substances are steadily increasing. Every little drop helps add to the abnormal radioactive load we all carry; plutonium has been found in pregnant mothers and newborns and is said to be present in the body of every American. Embryos and young children are particularly sensitive to the effects of radiation because their cells are dividing rapidly. The consequences for human life and all biological creatures across generations could be significant, and, if so, the effects will be irreversible. Are well-lit shopping centers worth that risk? Can’t we reduce our need for electrical energy, and invest in existing alternatives?

The looming danger of Fukushima, meanwhile, is not limited to low doses contaminating the food chain. A plume of radioactive materials from the meltdown is on its way to the West Coast. It is expected to show up early next year. No one knows what effect that material will have on the algae, the fish, and the other creatures that will be exposed to it.

Worse yet, Reactor #4 is in great danger of collapse. It is listing to one side and could easily implode if a strong earthquake or tsunami occurs. Stored in the building are 1300 fuel rods, many of them bent or broken. If these fuel rods are exposed to the air, their zirconium cladding, the protective coating on the rods, could ignite, causing an atomic explosion estimated by nuclear engineer Arne Gundersen to be the equivalent of 15,000 Hiroshima bombs. Such an explosion could wipe out Japan completely, and send high-level contamination flying to the West Coast of North America, forcing its evacuation. Surely such intense airborne contaminants would then continue to make their way across the country, affecting food, water and soil in its wake.

To prevent such a catastrophe, the Tokyo Electric Company, TEPCO, is currently endeavoring to remove the fuel rods bundle by bundle. Any small error could lead to a criticality event of enormous proportions. Updates on the progress of this effort, which began November 18, may be found daily at the Tokyo News, the Japan Times, and an informative site, http://www.enenews.com/

According to anti-nuclear journalist Harvey Wasserman (www.nukefree.com) and Arne Gundersen (www.fairewinds.org), among others, TEPCO is not qualified to perform such a sophisticated operation. Says Gundersen, the company is not a nuclear engineering company; it is just the nuclear power plant operator.  A petition to engage the global community in overseeing the delicate work of removing the fuel rods was presented to the United Nations on November 7 with 170,000 signatures; as yet there has been no response. TEPCO had refused international assistance, but after a typhoon the following week doubled the amount of radioactive water being released on a daily basis, the company finally gave up its proud resistance and invited the world to help. IAEA scientists have been assisting the operation since then, but as they are promoters of nuclear power, it is by no means certain that their reports will be reliable.

In the United States, the media silence on this disaster has been deafening. President Obama has said nothing; critics charge that his inaction is due to the support he receives from Excelon, a major nuclear power company. It’s staggering that the world has not sounded a global call to stop using nuclear reactors entirely, whether for electrical power or for war. But there are hopeful stirrings below the surface. Since Fukushima, Germany and Japan have both taken steps to give up their nuclear power plants. In the United States, where there are 23 nuclear power plants built by General Electric on the same model as Fukushima’s faulty plant, a number of power plants are being closed: the Vermont Yankee, Dominion Energy’s Kewaunee in Wisconsin, California’s San Onofre, and Duke’s Crystal River plant in Florida have been closed, and New Jersey’s Oyster Creek is slated to close in 2019.

“The likelihood of someone else going ahead with a new nuclear plant today is very low indeed,” said Jonathan Arnold, a Deutsche Bank analyst. “They’re no longer the least- cost alternative in most circumstances.”

It’s possible that slowly and without fanfare, nuclear power will go the way of other experiments that failed, and slowly, over decades, nuclear bombs will follow the same happy path to extinction.

It’s possible.

In the meantime, it will be decades before the work wraps up at Fukushima at a projected cost of half a trillion dollars, says Gundersen. So it may be best not to eat the fish from the Pacific. It might give you “a disease of the mind.”

 Stephanie Hiller is an independent journalist and editor based in Santa Fe. She blogs at http://stephaniehiller.wordpress.com