It was Valentine’s Day when the nation’s only radioactive nuclear waste facility first released radioactive particles including Plutonium and Americium into the atmosphere of New Mexico and beyond, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Mexico. Earlier that same day, the New Mexico Environment Department opened the public comment period on an application to modify and expand that nuclear waste facility, which the department said it planned to allow.
The first thing the U.S. government and the government contractor running the supposedly secure radioactive waste project did immediately when faced with the first-time-ever release of radioactivity from the underground site was – not tell anyone, anything. They told no one the truth for four days, even though the truth didn’t seem all that bad, as such things go. Unless contradictory data emerged, this would seem to be a brief release of a relatively small amount of very dangerous isotopes from nuclear weapons waste stored half a mile underground in a salt deposit. While the full scope of the release remains unknown weeks later, it seems clear that this was no Fukushima, except for the operators’ default to instant deceit.
The next day, February 15, 2014, the U.S. Dept. of Energy, which is responsible for the project issued “Event News Release No. 1,” a reassuring press release about “a radiological event” (not further defined), misleadingly stating that “a continuous air monitor detected airborne radiation in the underground” (NOT a release into the air). [emphasis added]
The press release expanded on its false reassurance by saying: “Multiple perimeter monitors at the [facility’s] boundary have confirmed there is no danger to human health or the environment. No contamination has been found on any equipment, personnel, or facilities.” No one was exposed, the press release implied, and added further details to reinforce the “no danger to human health or the environment” claim that is so often the first thing the nuclear industry says about any “event,” regardless of what people may or may not know to be true. Other press releases maintained this official story for several days.
Nuclear industry lies are rational in terms of protecting interests
According to that story, “there were no employees working underground at the time,” and the 139 employees at the surface had to be “cleared by radiological control technicians” and test negative for contamination before they were allowed to leave the site, something of an odd precaution for radiation that was reported only underground. The official story did not mention that the underground part of the facility had been closed down for the previous nine days, since February 5, when a 29-year-old salt truck had caught fire, forcing the evacuation of all 86 employees then working underground.
To be fair to the folks running the underground nuclear repository, which bears the anodyne name Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), when the continuous air monitoring system first detected radioactivity being released on February 14, 2014, the system automatically shut down air exchange with the outside, at least according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE), which describes the facility this way:
“WIPP, a cornerstone of DOE’s [nuclear waste] cleanup effort, is the nation’s first repository for the permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic radioactive waste left from research and production of nuclear weapons. Located in southeastern New Mexico, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, WIPP’s facilities include disposal rooms excavated in an ancient, stable salt formation, 2,150 feet (almost one-half mile) underground. Waste disposal began at WIPP on March 26, 1999.”
The waste isolation mine was designed to last 10,000 years without leaking. As of 2014, WIPP had more than 1,000 employees and a $202 million annual budget.
Among the details that remain unclear about this WIPP accident are how long it took the system to detect the release and how much Plutonium and Americium were released. The government’s initial position was none. That wouldn’t last long.
On February 17, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CERMC) posted on its Facebook page that it “is currently processing and analyzing ambient air filters from our air samplers located near the WIPP facility. We should have results by the end of the week which will give some indication as to whether any radiation was released into the environment. Hopefully CEMRC will get its filters from the exhaust air shaft at the WIPP site soon so we can analyze those for radionuclides as well. Lastly, remember that adults living within a 100-mile radius of the WIPP site can receive a free whole body count to see what types and levels of radiation are in their lungs and/or whole body…”
Government admits radioactive release, says: don’t worry, be happy
It wasn’t until February 19 that the Energy Dept. issued a press release acknowledging the reality of the airborne release of radioactivity. And this was only after that day’s edition of the local newspaper, the Current-Argus in Carlsbad, had already reported on the Carlsbad Environmental Center’s news release about higher than normal levels of radioactivity including Plutonium and Americium. The government belatedly confirmed the report, without apology, instead putting a positive spin on it, even though officials had been denying it (or perhaps had not known about it) for days. Under the headline “Radiological Monitoring Continues at WIPP” – even though the radiation was detected a half mile away – the new DOE release said:
“Recent laboratory analyses by Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC) found some trace amounts of americium and plutonium from a sampling station located on the WIPP access road. This is consistent with the fact that HEPA [high-efficiency particulate absorption] filters remove at least 99.97% of contaminants from the air, meaning a minute amount still can pass through the filters. As noted by the CEMRC, an independent environmental monitoring organization, the levels found from the sample are below the levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure public health is protected.”
The Carlsbad Environmental Center, a division of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University, is a quasi-governmental agency. Besides monitoring the waste project, the center has been a contractor for government labs – the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Sandia National Laboratory – as well as the Nuclear Waste Partnership, a private contractor. The center also works with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security on issues relating to conventional explosives used to spread radioactive materials (or, in the words of the website: “issues involving Homeland Security particularly those involving radiation dispersal devices (RDDs or dirty bombs).”
Radiation reached Carlsbad by February 24, but officials did not say this publicly until March 10. A week later they denied the report, saying the Carlsbad radiation came from somewhere other than the waste plant. They didn’t say where.
Dirty bomb or accident – different intent, same effects
Anyone making a dirty bomb would be delighted to use Plutonium as a terror weapon, because Plutonium is very deadly, and remains deadly for a long time (Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years). A lot of Plutonium will kill you very quickly at close range, especially if it’s been made into a bomb, which the U.S. proved pretty definitively at Nagasaki in 1945. But even a tiny amount of Plutonium, inhaled and lodged in your lungs, can kill you slowly. In that sense, what happened at the nuclear waste isolation facility was that its operators managed to set off a small dirty bomb. No wonder they claimed no one was exposed.
Talking about dirty bombs or even RDDs is not a preferred public relations approach for most of the nuclear industry, even when their facilities actually become radiation dispersal devices (RDDs). The spin is always about how safe everyone is and how trivial the level of radiation exposure is. The public relations pattern with the New Mexico waste project release is standard – and fundamentally dishonest, as it has been always. On February 24, the Energy Dept. produced another press release with the benign headline, “WIPP Reports New Environmental Monitoring Date” with text that included:
“Dose assessment modeling, which calculates potential radioactivity exposure to people, from the release data showed a potential dose of less than one millirem at each of the environmental sampling locations. A person receives about 10 millirems from a single chest x-ray procedure. The average person living in the United States receives an annual dose of about 620 millirem from exposure to naturally occurring and other sources of radiation.”
Even though the basic assertions here may be factually true in a narrow sense, the implied argument – that there’s nothing to be concerned about – is a lie. First note the use of “potential” – twice – which makes clear that the “dose of less than one millirem” – which could potentially be much more – has little meaning for understanding reality. The statement is careful NOT to use “maximum” or any other limiting word. The first sentence implies a full body dose, the next sentence executes a bait and switch, referring to a chest X-ray which delivers a targeted dose. The last sentence pretends to put it all in perspective by trivializing the earlier doses in the context of an average annual dose of 620 millirem.
Plutonium: one millionth of a gram, officially “safe,” can be lethal
In this press release and thousands like it, the government lies with an apparently reasonable tone, good enough to persuade the New York Times and others. But it’s a big lie, because governments know that no radiation exposure is good for anyone, that any exposure is a risk. The honest discussion would be over how much radiation a person can tolerate and remain healthy for a reasonable time. There are many correct answers to that depending on the particular conditions of exposure. It is dishonest to conflate “naturally occurring and other sources of radiation” because “other sources” are mostly from nuclear medicine, power plants and warheads – all sources created by deliberate human choice.
The deeper lie is in the suggestion that, since a person gets 620 millirem a year, what harm can come from a little bit (or a lot) more? The answer is that great harm can come from very limited exposure, although that’s not necessarily likely. The official “acceptable” body dose of Plutonium is less than one millionth of a gram, and even this amount can eventually be lethal, because Plutonium that gets into the human body doesn’t all come out. It tends to concentrate in the blood, muscle and bone. Americium behaves similarly in the human body. Another official lie embedded in government language is the suggestion that 620 millirem is somehow “safe.” It’s not. It’s already too great an exposure, and the effects of radiation are cumulative.
A particularly articulate internet post, Bobby1’s Blog of Februray 22 (and later revisions), challenged the official story as to both the amount of radioactive material released, how far it had spread, and the danger it posed.
But the official spin works. Matthew Wald of the Times has been writing about nuclear issues for years, yet on February 25 he still managed to start his piece with error-filled credulity: “Almost two weeks after an unexplained puff of radioactive materials forced the closing of a salt mine in New Mexico that is used to bury nuclear bomb wastes, managers of the mine are planning to send workers back in and are telling nearby residents that their health is safe.” The mine was already closed when the so-called “puff” of Plutonium and Americium created conditions that no one can honestly call “safe.” The rest of his piece reads like Wald is also on the DOE payroll.
Energy Dept. said no one was contaminated – that was false
On February 26, in a letter to residents of the Carlsbad area, DOE field manager Jose Franco made what appears to be the first official admission that workers at the waste pilot plant had suffered internal radioactive contamination. Franco wrote that “13 Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) employees that were on site the evening of February 14 were notified that they have tested positive for radiological contamination.” Previously the agency had said there were 139 employees on site at the time of the release, and no external radiation was detected on any of them.
“It is premature to speculate on the health effects of these preliminary results, or any treatment that may be needed,” Franco wrote, adding that the contamination was “likely at very low levels” and “predominantly americium-241, material which is consistent with the waste disposed of at the WIPP. This is a radionuclide used in consumer smoke detectors and a contaminant in nuclear weapons manufacturing.”
Franco said it would probably take weeks to establish a credible estimate of the contamination dose these 13 employees received. The Times of February 27 carried the story on page A16 and online with Matthew Wald downplaying its importance. Local media gave the development more scrutiny, since the implications were clear: among other things, officials had no idea why there was a Plutonium release, they had no idea how much Plutonium was released, they had no idea how far the Plutonium had traveled, and they had no idea how many people had been contaminated (the number of contaminated employees later rose to 17, and then to 21).
Actually the detected level of Plutonium was millions of times higher than officials first acknowledged
On March 2, another articulate online post, Pissin’ On The Roses, presented a cogent argument that the Plutonium release had been much greater than the official story allowed. Basing the conclusion on public and leaked documents, the blog argues that the numbers are inconsistent and make sense only by assuming that the radioactive release lasted about 33 minutes: “When we ‘followed the math’, the story didn’t square with what the public was told, ie ‘the release was less than EPA reportable requirements’ (supposedly 37bq/m^3 for Plutonium). In fact, the math showed levels thousands of times greater than EPA reportable requirements for Plutonium.” But there was no report to the EPA.
Almost a month later, Southwest Research and Information Center, an independent organization that focuses on health, environmental, and nuclear issues, used Energy Dept. data to reach a similar, but more extreme conclusion: that the release actually lasted more than 15 hours.
Asking questions is a problem: we might find the wrong answers
Actually, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) was stalling, apparently reluctant to get involved with protecting the environment around the government’s only underground nuclear weapons waste storage site, now that it had begun releasing radiation for the first time. On February 27, New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators wrote directly to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, asking for the EPA’s independent assessment of the “event,” as well as deployment of EPA assets to New Mexico to assess the situation independently. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both Democrats, noted that since “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary regulatory authority in regard to any releases of radioactive materials to the environment from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” the EPA should do more than merely monitor the Energy Dept. and other agencies involved.
The EPA stonewalled. In effect, the Democratic administration in Washington had this answer for two Democratic senators: Drop dead. The EPA said it at greater length, but not until March 5, and then in a letter from the regional administrator, not the administrator in Washington. “We are still evaluating the situation,” wrote Ron Curry, without ever saying why the primary regulatory authority was refusing to “conduct independent studies.”
“As you know, the EPA’s primary regulatory responsibility is to ensure that any releases of radioactive material from the WIPP facility are below the EPA exposure limits for members of the public,” the regional bureaucrat began, launching a paragraph of denial and irresponsibility. Curry said that the EPA would “inspect” the work of others and, so far, “it is very unlikely that any exposures would approach these regulatory limits or represent a public health
concern.” EPA doesn’t know this, EPA has no independent way of knowing this, and as of March 5, EPA had no interest in knowing this independently, even as the primarily responsible regulator.
Besides, Curry added, “we note that the available information supports the conclusion that nearly all of the radioactive material was retained within the filtration system… [and] that radiation levels have declined significantly….”
Translation: that’s what we’ve been told officially and that’s good enough for us.
Also on March 5, the Energy Dept. issued a press release asserting more apparently good news: “Follow-up testing of employees who were exposed… shows exposure levels were extremely low and the employees are unlikely to experience any health effects as a result…. [tests] came back negative for plutonium and americium, the two radioactive isotopes that were detected in preliminary bioassays.” The release does not offer an explanation for this reported atypical behavior of ingested Plutonium and Americium.
Area residents received a letter from DOE dated March 5 containing an identical reassurance. It also expressed hope that workers might be able to re-enter the mine the following week, for the first time since the February 5 salt truck fire.
Fear of more Plutonium? Expert says: Don’t lick your iPhone charger!
During February, in response to continued rising public concern, the Energy Dept. started holding regular public meetings. On March 6, five nuclear waste officials appeared at a sparsely attended public forum billed by the Energy Dept. as a “WIPP Recovery Town Hall Meeting” at the Civic Center in Carlsbad. The almost 90-minute session (recorded by DOE with low quality audio) featured David Klaus from the Department of Energy (DOE), David Huizenga from DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, Joe Franco from the DOE Carlsbad Field Office, Farok Sharif from Nuclear Waste Partnerships [he was later removed from the job and replaced] and Fran Williams from Energy Dept. contractor UCOR, who told the audience flatly: “There are no health impacts to you, to your family, the members of your community from the event.”
Williams, Director of Environmental, Safety, Health and Quality for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s contractor UCOR has 35 years of experience in her field, health physics and occupational medicine. Although the “Town Hall” received little coverage, Williams made the most news with her comments 57 minutes into the meeting, about radiation levels in the region: “They’re down at the levels of licking your iPhone charger. I’m not trying to be funny; I’m trying to equate radiation exposure to something that you can understand…. I hope that helps. ”
“Many left Thursday night’s meeting [March 6] with the Department of Energy uneasy,” reported Albuquerque TV station KRQE. “They pleaded for more information about the underground radiation leak last month that seeped radiation outside, but many remain frustrated and concerned for their safety.
The DOE tried to reassure people they are safe even though the underground storage areas remained sealed off.”
The next night (March 7) the local Republican Congressman, Rep. Steve Pearce, held his own town hall meeting. The long time backer of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (whose private contractors contributed to his campaigns) promised to ask tough questions. Pearce said, “I will hold their feet to the fire.”
Other than his meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and New Mexico’s two senators the day before, Pearce’s involvement in events at WIPP appears largely limited to cheerleading, as in his February 5 press release saying everything was fine after the fire and his February 15 press release saying everything was fine after the release of radioactivity.
Radioactive waste isolated for 10,000 years – until it’s not
More than three weeks after the detection of airborne Plutonium, no one had been able to re-enter the salt mine to assess conditions underground or to determine the cause of the accident. WIPP was built without underground surveillance cameras. Officials at the Energy Dept. and other agencies have refused to speak publicly about the issues or to answer reporters’ questions on the record. Even their public bromides began to diverge, with DOE suggesting that WIPP would be operational in the near future, while the NM Environmental Dept. issued a legal notice saying WIPP would “be unable to resume normal activities for a protracted period of time.”
On March 8, the Albuquerque Journal News published a story that said, “No one knows yet how or why a waste drum leaked at southeast New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Valentine’s Day, triggering alarms, exposing workers and setting off a cascade of events that could cripple the nation’s radioactive waste disposal system.”
Reviewing Dept. of Energy records, the Journal concluded that there were only two likely scenarios for the February 14 accident:
(1) If a waste drum’s contents overheated, that might cause a spontaneous explosion that spread radioactive debris. Planners in 1997 contemplated this possibility before WIPP opened, and gave odds of it happening as 10,000 to 1.
(2) If the roof in one of the salt cavern rooms fell, that might rupture one or more waste drums and lead to the spread of radioactive debris. Planners gave the odds of that happening as one in a million.
The most likely cause of an accident, planners thought, would be mishandling of waste drums by workers, but there were no workers underground on February 14.
The next day, March 9, DOE announced that remote testing of areas not in the path of the radiation release showed “no detectable radioactive contamination
in the air or on the equipment lowered and returned to the surface. Air quality results were also normal. These results were expected….” DOE suggested that workers might be sent down the mine before the end of the week.
The Energy Dept also announced that four more workers had been contaminated by ingesting Plutonium or Americium at “extremely low levels,” bringing the total to 17 workers contaminated. [On March 27, DOE would announce four more being tested for contamination, raising the total to 21.] The DOE also announced that there would be no workforce layoffs during “recovery efforts” for which there is no estimated end point.
A fire suppression system is useful when there’s a fire
One of the problems for the workers underground on February 5, when the 29-year-old salt truck caught fire, was that the truck’s onboard automatic fire suppression system had been deactivated. Emergency teams put out the fire and evacuated the tunnels without any injuries other than six workers needing treatment for smoke inhalation. Rep. Pearce promptly issued a press release calling it a “minor fire” that posed no threat to public health or safety, which appeared true at the time.
But the deactivated fire protection on the truck turned out to be just the first of a host of shortcomings and failures relating to the waste plant, problems that are still being uncovered.
“This accident was preventable” was the understated conclusion of the Accident Investigation Board in the Dept. of Energy in its 187-page report released March 13. The Board’s four-week investigation included at least two pre-accident visits to the mine, which has been inactive since February 5. The Board praised the workers and their supervisors for responding quickly, knowledgeably, and cooperatively to minimize the emergency. The Board found extensive fault with management’s performance over a longer period of time, finding that maintenance programs were ineffective, fire protection was inadequate, preparedness was inadequate, emergency management was ineffective – and that these criticisms had been made before, some more than once. According to one news report:
“At a community meeting in Carlsbad on Thursday to preview the report, the lead investigator, Ted Wyka, praised the 86 workers who were half-mile underground in the mine when the fire started, saying they ‘did everything they could’ to tell others to evacuate.
“But a number of safety systems and processes failed, Mr Wyka said. Emergency strobe lights were not activated for five minutes and not all workers heard the evacuation announcement. One worker also switched the air system from normal to filtration mode, which sent smoke billowing through the tunnels.”
New Mexico’s senators, in a joint statement, found the Board’s report “deeply concerning” and urged DOE management to take the critique seriously and fix the shortcomings. For his part, Rep. Pearce “applauded” the DOE for “a candid, transparent report” that demonstrated how poorly they had been doing their job for many years.
Senators Heinrich and Udall have written to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, asking why his agency has failed to carry out its responsibility under federal mine safety law, which requires the Mine Safety and Health Administration “to inspect WIPP no less than four times a year.” Records show that WIPP was inspected twice – instead of 12 times – in the past three years
With WIPP closed, Los Alamos waste has to be trucked to Texas
The Los Alamos National Laboratory has been a disaster waiting to happen for years, a disaster that almost happened in 2011 as wildfires approached the facility where radioactive waste was stored in roughly 20,000 steel drums above ground. The fires were held back, but the waste is still there, scheduled for “permanent” storage at the underground waste plant before the next fire season in the summer. Now that can’t happen because WIPP is leaking, and closed.
On March 20, the Energy Dept and its contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, announced plans to truck the Los Alamos waste to West Texas for temporary storage at Waste Control Specialists, another government contractor. DOE “has committed to the state of New Mexico to removing several thousand cubic meters of TRU waste from LANL by June 30, 2014. The waste will be moved to WIPP for final disposal once the site reopens. “
According to DOE, it has already moved most of the Los Alamos waste, which “consists of clothing, tools, rags, debris, soil, and other items contaminated with small amounts of radioactive elements, mostly plutonium.”
On March 21, the New Mexico Environment Department withdrew its temporary permit that would have allowed the waste plant to expand. That’s the same permit that the department said on February 14 that it would approve at the end of the 60-day public comment period. The permit would have allowed WIPP to build two new disposal vaults in the salt mine. According to the news release:
“NMED [NM Environment Dept.] cannot move forward on the WIPP’s request to open additional underground storage panels and for the other requested permit modifications until more information is known about the recent events at the WIPP,” said Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn. “Just as NMED needs more information to make informed decisions on permit modifications, the public also needs more information about the radiation release in order to provide informed input during the public comment period. Once NMED has all of our questions answered, we will proceed with consideration of a revised draft Permit.”
With so many other questions to be answered, the question of whether WIPP will ever re-open gets harder to answer with any certainty. There have been numerous reports, by DOE and others, of further radioactive leaks from the site – none of them known to be large and all considered officially “safe.” As Arnie Gundersen at Fairewinds notes, DOE says that when the WIPP ventilation system is set on filtration mode, its air filters collect 99.97% of all the radioactive particles headed for the atmosphere. Accepting that capture rate as correct, Gunderson points out that, mathematically, if the filters are 99.9% effective (which he doubts), that means that out of every 1,000 minutes there is one unfiltered minute. In other words, the radioactive leak continues, albeit slowly, even when the filters work at peak capacity (which is not a constant). Just since February 14, Gundersen calculates, perfectly functioning filters would still have allowed another half hour of contamination into the environment.
Nuclear supporters continue to minimize any danger. Plutonium and Americium are heavy elements, the argument goes, so they fall to the ground quickly. And they stay there unless there’s a lot of wind. No one knows now just how much Plutonium or Americium the waste plant has already emitted, or how much it will emit. But anyone who cares to know knows that this is spring in the southwest, when the winds pick up and dust storms have already happened this year.
Japan agreed to transfer a share of its highly enriched uranium and weapons grade plutonium stockpiles to the US as part of the global effort to secure nuclear materials. Other nations are also urged to deposit excess nuclear materials in the US.
On the eve of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, US and Japanese leaders arranged a deal on “final disposition” in the US of well over 300 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium and an unspecified quantity of highly enriched uranium (HEU) that will be “sent to a secure facility and fully converted into less sensitive forms.”
This quantity of plutonium is enough to produce 40-50 warheads. The total quantity of HEU currently stocked in Japan is estimated at approximately 1.2 tons. According to The New York Times, some 200 kilograms of HEU is currently designated for the US.
After Barack Obama announced in Prague in 2009 an ambitious agenda to seek “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” the American president has been pressing his foreign counterparts, both in Asia and Europe, demanding they either get rid of their excess nuclear materials via the US, or tighten security of stockpiles at home.
Two more countries, Belgium and Italy, have also agreed to hand over excess nuclear materials to the US and issued separate joint statements with the White House, Reuters reported.
“This effort involves the elimination of hundreds of kilograms of nuclear material, furthering our mutual goal of minimizing stocks of HEU and separated plutonium worldwide, which will help prevent unauthorized actors, criminals, or terrorists from acquiring such materials,” US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a joint statement released by the White House on Monday.
There is no information whether the deal between Japan and the US has a financial side; nuclear materials, of course, have a solid market value.
After the Russian-American HEU-LEU agreement came to an end in 2013, the US nuclear power generation industry is likely to face a sharp fuel price surge and shortage.
For two decades, the US was buying nuclear fuel from Russia for a dumping price. This fuel was made from down blended Soviet military grade highly enriched uranium, which constituted up to 40 percent of nuclear fuel for America’s 104 nuclear reactors (America’s 65 nuclear power plants generate over 19 percent of electric power in the country).
In the meantime, the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), the leading US nuclear fuel supplier remains in dire straits and plans to voluntarily file for bankruptcy in the first quarter of 2014 in order to restructure.
The US also has problems with producing plutonium, used not only in nuclear warheads, but for space exploration as well; only plutonium can produce enough power for long missions to distant planets in the Solar system.
Tokyo also reportedly possesses several dozen tons of plutonium-uranium hybrid fuel called MOX, which it intends to burn in 16 reactors the country plans to restart. All Japanese nuclear power generating facilities halted operation following the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in March 2011.
The nuclear materials designated for transfer to the US have been kept for decades at Japan’s research reactor site in Tokaimura, where it was used for research.
During the Cold War era, the US and UK reportedly handed over some 331 kilogram of plutonium to Japan to be used for developing breeder reactor technology.
After decades of research, practically all fast (breeder) reactor projects around the world, including Japanese ones, are now closed down. The only country that currently possesses operating breeder reactor power generation facility is Russia.
In 1999, the Tokaimura facility witnessed an accident involving a highly enriched uranium solution. Two workers mishandled radioactive fluid and died as a result, while over 300 were exposed to high doses of radiation.
The New York Times maintains that while the nuclear materials at the Tokaimura facility are of American and British origin, Japan also has vast stockpiles, up to nine tons of plutonium, created at the country’s nuclear power stations as a byproduct of burning uranium for electric power generation. Once Japan restarts some of its nuclear reactors, there will be even more plutonium generated.
Now that Crimea has voted to unite with Russia and Vladimir Putin has welcomed Crimea with open arms, the Western half of the world, especially the United States and the European Union, are talking at lengths about imposing sanctions on Russia in order to bring Vladimir Putin to his senses.
However, the task seems easier said than done. The United States is simply not in a position to impose long-term sanctions on Russia. Economic and political ties between the United States and Russia are surely not exemplary. Yet, one key American industry relies heavily on a particular import from Russia: fuel for nuclear power plants. American dependency on Russia for its nuclear fuel is not a new development. It dates back to the early 1990s, when the HEU-LEU scheme was launched after the demise of the Soviet Union. Under this scheme, highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Russian nuclear warheads is processed into low enriched uranium (LEU) for use as fuel for American nuclear power plants.
While there are plans of reducing the need for nuclear energy, the United States still receives 100 GW of its power from nuclear power plants (compare this with Russia’s nuclear energy production of 230 GW). As a result, during 2014, 48 million pounds of uranium will be needed to fuel America’s nuclear power plants. Going by data released by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the total uranium Oxide produced within the United States is roughly 4.8 million pounds. Barely 10% of the total demand.
Quite obviously, this is not a new trend. Back in 2012 as well, the United States had to purchase over 80% of its nuclear fuel from foreign sources. Acquisition of uranium (ore and/or concentrate) is just one side of the story. The bigger task is the conversion of the acquired uranium into usable nuclear fuel — a process popularly known as ‘enrichment.’
As of now, nuclear enrichment is the responsibility of private firms in the United States. However, among all such private firms, the American ones constitute no more than 20%. Foreign enrichment facilities constitute the rest. European firms and work units undertake approximately 35% of the total enrichment task, and the remainder lies in the hands of Russian enterprises. Quite simply there are not many “home” enrichment facilities in the United States, and nuclear enrichment is accomplished primarily with the help of foreign facilities such as those from Europe and Russia.
Therefore, even though the HEU-LEU scheme ended recently, the United States is set on extending its lifespan by means of renewal. The real details of the renewed HEU-LEU scheme remain to be seen. But by all means, it is highly doubtful that American dependency on Russian help will come to an end, especially because the capacity of America’s own enrichment facilities is limited, as per the data from World Nuclear Association. With uranium supplier USEC planning to file for bankruptcy, the role of foreign facilities in general and Russian facilities in particular will rise manifold.
If sanctions are imposed on Russia, the United States might choose to make up for the missing nuclear imports and enrichment services from Russia by increasing the amount it imports from rest of the world; but even that will help only in part. In a nutshell, when it comes to nuclear energy, America will have a hard time finding an alternative to Russian help. Thus, while the European Union can indeed deliver on its promise of imposing sanctions against Russia, the United States cannot because if mutual sanctions were to come into effect, the primary loser will be America’s own nuclear industry.
It wasn’t just people, animals and trees that were affected by radiation exposure at Chernobyl, but also the decomposers: insects, microbes, and fungi
Nearly 30 years have passed since the Chernobyl plant exploded and caused an unprecedented nuclear disaster. The effects of that catastrophe, however, are still felt today. Although no people live in the extensive exclusion zones around the epicenter, animals and plants still show signs of radiation poisoning.
Birds around Chernobyl have significantly smaller brains that those living in non-radiation poisoned areas; trees there grow slower; and fewer spiders and insects—including bees, butterflies and grasshoppers—live there. Additionally, game animals such as wild boar caught outside of the exclusion zone—including some bagged as far away as Germany—continue to show abnormal and dangerous levels of radiation.
However, there are even more fundamental issues going on in the environment. According to a new study published in Oecologia, decomposers—organisms such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects that drive the process of decay—have also suffered from the contamination. These creatures are responsible for an essential component of any ecosystem: recycling organic matter back into the soil. Issues with such a basic-level process, the authors of the study think, could have compounding effects for the entire ecosystem.
The team decided to investigate this question in part because of a peculiar field observation. “We have conducted research in Chernobyl since 1991 and have noticed a significant accumulation of litter over time,” the write. Moreover, trees in the infamous Red Forest—an area where all of the pine trees turned a reddish color and then died shortly after the accident—did not seem to be decaying, even 15 to 20 years after the meltdown.
“Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them,” says Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and lead author of the study. “It was striking, given that in the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground.”
Wondering whether that seeming increase in dead leaves on the forest floor and those petrified-looking pine trees were indicative of something larger, Mousseau and his colleagues decided to run some field tests. When they measured leaf litter in different parts of the exclusion zones, they found that the litter layer itself was two to three times thicker in the “hottest” areas of Chernobyl, where radiation poisoning was most intense. But this wasn’t enough to prove that radiation was responsible for this difference.
To confirm their hunch, they created around 600 small mesh bags and stuffed them each with leaves, collected at an uncontaminated site, from one of four different tree species: oak, maple, birch or pine. They took care to ensure that no insects were in the bags at first, and then lined half of them with women’s pantyhose to keep insects from getting in from the outside, unlike the wider mesh-only versions.
Like a decomposer Easter egg hunt, they then scattered the bags in numerous locations throughout the exclusion zone, all of which experienced varying degrees of radiation contamination (including no contamination at all). They left the bags and waited for nearly a year—normally, an ample amount of time for microbes, fungi and insects to make short work of dead organic material, and the pantyhose-lined bags could help them assess whether insects or microbes were mainly responsible for breaking down the leaves.
The results were telling. In the areas with no radiation, 70 to 90 percent of the leaves were gone after a year. But in places where more radiation was present, the leaves retained around 60 percent of their original weight. By comparing the mesh with the panty hose-lined bags, they found that insects play a significant role in getting rid of the leaves, but that the microbes and fungi played a much more important role. Because they had so many bags placed in so many different locations, they were able to statistically control for outside factors such as humidity, temperature and forest and soil type to make sure that there wasn’t anything besides radiation levels impacting the leaves’ decomposition.
“The gist of our results was that the radiation inhibited microbial decomposition of the leaf litter on the top layer of the soil,” Mousseau says. This means that nutrients aren’t being efficiently returned to the soil, he adds, which could be one of the causes behind the slower rates of tree growth surrounding Chernobyl.
Other studies have found that the Chernobyl area is at risk of fire, and 27 years’ worth of leaf litter, Mousseau and his colleagues think, would likely make a good fuel source for such a forest fire. This poses a more worrying problem than just environmental destruction: Fires can potentially redistribute radioactive contaminants to places outside of the exclusion zone, Mousseau says. “There is growing concern that there could be a catastrophic fire in the coming years,” he says.
Unfortunately, there’s no obvious solution for the problem at hand, besides the need to keep a stringent eye on the exclusion zone to try to quickly snuff out potential fires that breaks out. The researchers are also collaborating with teams in Japan, to determine whether or not Fukushima is suffering from a similar microbial dead zone.
Rachel Nuwer writes for Smart News and is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com. She is a freelance science writer based in Brooklyn.
Emails obtained by journalists at NBC News reveal that officials at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission — the government agency that oversees reactor safety and security — purposely misled the media after the Fukushima, Japan disaster in 2011.
On Monday this week — one day shy of the third anniversary of the Fukushima meltdown — NBC published emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act that for the first time exposes on a major scale the efforts that NRC officials undertook in order to diminish the severity of the event in the hours and days after it began to unfold.
“In the tense days after a powerful earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan on March 11, 2011, staff at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a concerted effort to play down the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis to America’s aging nuclear plants,” Bill Dedman wrote for NBC.
Through the course of analyzing thousands of internal NRC emails, Dedman and company unearthed evidence that proves nuclear regulators went to great lengths to keep the scary facts about the Fukushima meltdown from being brought into the public eye.
Even when the international media was eager to learn the facts about the Fukushima tragedy while the matter was still developing, emails suggest that the NRC’s public relations wing worked hard to have employees stick to talking points that ignored the actual severity of the meltdown.
“While we know more than these say,” a PR manager wrote in one email to his colleagues, “we’re sticking to this story for now.”
That story, Dedman wrote, was filled with “numerous examples…of apparent misdirection or concealment” waged by the NRC in an attempt to keep the true nature of the meltdown hidden, especially as concerns grew that a similar event could occur on American soil.
“The talking points written during the emergency for NRC commissioners and other officials were divided into two sections: ‘public answer’ and ‘additional technical, non-public information,’” Dedman wrote. “Often the two parts didn’t quite match.”
According to NBC, emails indicate that the NRC insisted on sticking to talking points that painted a much different picture than what was really happening three years ago this week. Japanese engineers employed by the NRC at American facilities were effectively barred from making any comments to the media, some emails suggest, and at other times those regulators rallied employees at the NRC to keep from making any comment that could be used to disclose the detrimental safety standards in place at American facilities.
In one instance cited by Dedman, spokespeople for the NRC were told not to disclose the fact that American scientists were uncertain if any US facilities could sustain an earthquake like the one that ravaged Fukushima .
“We’re not so sure about, but again we are not talking about that,” reads one email cited by NBC.
At other times, the report added, NRC officials were left in the dark about what was actually unfolding on the other side of the Pacific because access to social media sites had been blocked on their work computers, causing some regulators to only hear about information pertaining to Fukushima once it trickled down to a point where they could access it.
In one email, for example, NRC public affairs official David McIntrye wrote in apparent disbelief to his colleagues that scientist and actor Bill Nye was participating in “an incoherent discussion on CNN” about a potential hydrogen explosion at Fukushima.
“I’m not buying it,” McIntyre wrote.
Five minutes after that email was sent, a colleague responded by writing, “There is a good chance it was a hydrogen explosion that took the roof off that building, though we are not saying that publicly.”
Days later, McIntyre blasted his supervisor for hesitating during a CNN interview in which he was asked if US plants could withstand an earthquake on par with the one suffered by residents of Fukushima.
“He should just say ‘Yes, it can.’” McIntyre wrote, instead of hesitating. “Worry about being wrong when it doesn’t. Sorry if I sound cynical.”
The NRC did not respond specifically to emails published in Dedman’s report, but the agency’s public affairs director emails a statement ensuring that “The NRC Office of Public Affairs strives to be as open and transparent as possible, providing the public accurate information in the proper context.”
“We take our communication mission seriously. We did then and we do now. The frustration displayed in the chosen emails reflects more on the extreme stress our team was under at the time to assure accuracy in a context in which information from Japan was scarce to non-existent. These emails fall well short of an accurate picture of our communications with the American public immediately after the event and during the past three years,” NRC Public Affairs Director Eliot Brenner wrote in the email.
Arguably more disheartening than the NRC officials’ attempt to whitewash the disaster, however, are the facts of the matter addressed in secret by the agency but not disclosed publically. More than 30 of the nuclear power reactors in the US are of the same brand used in Fukushima, NBC reported, and some of the oldest facilities in operation have been in use since the 1970s. Despite this, though, the NRC instructed employees to not mention how any of those structures would be able to stand up against a hypothetical disaster.
On Monday, Fukushima expert and author Susan Q. Stranhan published an op-ed carried by the Philadelphia Inquirer which called into question the safety of the several nuclear facilities within the state of Pennsylvania, where a disaster in 1979 at Three Mile Island refocused national attention on the issue of nuclear safety.
“During Fukushima, the NRC recommended that Americans living within 50 miles of the plant evacuate, a wise call based on a dangerous radiation plume that spread about 30 miles northwest of the reactors. Despite that experience, the NRC today remains steadfast in its belief that the existing 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around US nuclear plants is adequate and that there would be plenty of time to expand that zone if conditions warranted,” Stranahan wrote.
“Three years after Fukushima Daiichi, the NRC and the nuclear industry continue to repeat a familiar mantra: The likelihood of a severe accident is so low there is no need to plan for it. That was what the Japanese said, too.”
Meanwhile, RT reported last month that a new lawsuit has been filed by crew members who sailed on the USS Ronald Reagan three years ago to assist with relief efforts off of the coast of Fukushima but now say they were poisoned by nuclear fallout. When filed, Attorneys said that “up to 70,000 US citizens [were] potentially affected by the radiation” and might be able to join in their suit.
Tens of thousands have marched in anti-nuclear protests across Taiwan, calling on the government to phase out nuclear energy. The protest comes ahead of the third anniversary of the Fukishima disaster.
Anti-nuclear protesters in Taiwan held four rallies across the country on Saturday, urging the government both to stop construction of a new nuclear power plant and to abandon nuclear power altogether.
Organizers said some 50,000 people attended the protest march and rally in the capital, Taipei, while three other events held simultaneously in other parts of the country drew a combined total of some 30,000.
The Taipei protest was attended by members both of opposition parties and the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).
Concern about the risks posed by Taiwan’s atomic power plants has been growing since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami unleashed a nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant on March 11, 2011.
Taiwan is also regularly hit by earthquakes, raising fears that its currently three nuclear facilities may be similarly vulnerable.
Protesters called on the government to cease construction work on a fourth plant that is being built in a coastal town near Taipei. The plant was originally scheduled to be completed by 2004, but the project has been delayed by political wrangling.
Several polls conducted last year showed that about 70 percent of Taiwanese oppose the building of the plant, which is situated near undersea volcanoes.
The existing plants furnish about 20 percent of the country’s energy needs.
The third anniversary of the Fukushima meltdown will occur on March 11th.
The news is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and major Japanese corporations want to re-open the 50 other nuclear power plants that closed when Fukushima blew up, calling them a friendly economic source of cheap power. Will this end up with business as usual?
We were recently asked if we thought that Fukushima could ever be cleaned up. We have to say “no,” based upon what we know of the biology, chemistry and physics of nuclear power and isotopes and the history of nuclear development.
Chernobyl melted down in 1986 and is still releasing radioisotopes. Not all life systems were examined around Chernobyl, but of those that were – wild and domestic animals, birds, insects, plants, fungi, fish, trees, and humans, all were damaged, many permanently, thus what happens to animals and plants with short-term life spans is predictive of those with longer ones. Worldwide, some 985,000 “excess” deaths resulted from the Chernobyl fallout in the first 19 years after the meltdown. In Belarus, north of Chernobyl, which received concentrated fallout; only 20% of children are deemed to be “healthy” although previously 80% were considered well. How can a country function without healthy and productive citizens?
Notable in the U. S. is the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State, built some 70+ years ago by 60,000 laborers, and currently leaching radioisotopes into the Columbia River. DuPont was the original contractor, but since, multiple corporations, each paid mllions of dollars and have yet to contain the leaking radioactivity. Every nuclear site is also a major industrial operation, contaminated not only with radioactive materials, but multiple toxic chemicals, such as solvents and heavy metals.
In 1941, the folk singer, Woody Guthrie was hired by the US government’s Department of the Interior to promote the benefits of building the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams to harness the power of the Columbia River, and to generate electricity and supplement irrigation. It is unlikely that Guthrie learned that the dams were to provide electricity to the Hanford nuclear site, then under construction to produce plutonium for bombs.
“Roll on, Columbia roll on
Roll on, Columbia roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on Columbia, roll on.”
Rather than turning darkness to dawn, we released nuclear weapons that made the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns” – the title of Robert Jungk’s prophetic book.
Guthrie’s monthly salary was $266 – compare that to the yearly $2 billion it is costing taxpayers now.
From 1946 until 1958, the U. S. tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, the most famous of which is Bikini Island. Stillbirths, miscarriages and thyroid gland defects were detected early in the islanders. 60 years on, decontamination of Rongelap, a small island, that lies about 180 km east of Bikini Atoll, continues. Only about 0.15 square kilometer of land has been decontaminated, or just 2 percent of the island’s area, at a cost of $40 million so far. In 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as “by far the most contaminated place in the world”.
Within the U. S., the Nevada Test Site, and countless other sites remain contaminated. The most recently reported releases occurred in Feb. 2014 at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, NM. Detected in the air were of plutonium-239/240 and americium-241, transuranic elements strongly linked to cancer. So far, thirteen federal contract workers have measured levels of internal radioisotope contamination. The release spread contaminants through more than 3,000 feet of tunnels, up a 2150-foot tall exhaust shaft, out into the environment, and to an air monitoring station approximately 3,000 feet northwest of the exhaust shaft.
Fukushima is still leaking large quantities of Cs-137 and Sr-90 into the Pacific Ocean, where all forms of marine life will absorb them - from algae to seaweed, to fish, to sea mammals and ultimately to humans who consume the contaminated sea life.
Our recently released peer-reviewed paper confirms hypothyroidism in newborns in California, whose mothers were pregnant during the early releases from Fukushima. Thyroid abnormalities were detected early in Marshall Islanders and in Belarus residents of Gomel located near Chernobyl. Radioactive iodine, known to interfere with thyroid function entered the U. S. from Fukushima in late March, shortly after the meltdowns, and was carried by dairy products resulting in damage to the unborn.
It takes ten half-lives for an isotope to decay. Sr-90 and Cs-137 have half-lives of approximately 30 years, which means three centuries will occur before the initial releases are gone, and the releases have not stopped.
There are some 26 nuclear reactors in the United States with the same design as those at Fukushima, and they pose a significant risk to people and the environment. The Indian Point Nuclear Power Reactors are located some 35 miles from mid-town Manhattan, with 18 million people living within 50 miles of the site. What would be the environmental, human and economic costs if the Indian Point reactors were to fail?
The current estimated price tag to “clean up” the TEPCO mess at Fukushima is $500 billion (that’s billion, with a “B.” For us who have trouble thinking of such numbers, it will take 96,451 years to spend $10.00 per minute.
Unless we close the existing nuclear power plants and build no new ones, we are destined to repeat the on-going stories of Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and the myriad other sites that have already caused untold environmental, health, social, and economic costs. So will it be sanity or business as usual?
Perhaps it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We must choose a sane path away from nuclear energy. Business as usual is Insane.
Janette D. Sherman, M. D. is the author of Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer and Chemical Exposure and Disease, and is a specialist in internal medicine and toxicology. She edited the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature, written by A. V. Yablokov, V. B., Nesterenko and A. V. Nesterenko, published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. Her primary interest is the prevention of illness through public education. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.janettesherman.com
Joseph Mangano, MPH MBA, is the author of Mad Science (pub. 2012) as well and many articles on the effects of nuclear power. He is an epidemiologist, and Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project and can be reached at: (www.radiation.org).
Jungk, Robert, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, Harcourt, Brace, New York. 369 pp., C. 1956. (worth getting second-hand.)
Mangano, J, Sherman, J., Busby, C. Changes in confirmed plus borderline cases of congenital hypothyroidism in California as a function of environmental fallout from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Open J. of Pediatrics. 2013, 3:370-376 http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojped.2013.34067 (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojped/)
Mangano, J. J., Sherman, J. D. Elevated airborne beta levels in Pacific/ West Coast U. S. States and trends of hypothyroidism among newborns after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Open J. of Pediatrics, 3:1-9, March 2013
Yablokov, Alexey V., Nesterenko, Vassily B., Nesterenko, Alexey V., Sherman-Nevinger, Janette D., Consulting Editor. Chernobyl – Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Vol 1171, 2009. Available at: email@example.com
Documents Say Navy Knew
A stunning new report indicates the U.S. Navy knew that sailors from the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan took major radiation hits from the Fukushima atomic power plant after its meltdowns and explosions nearly three years ago.
If true, the revelations cast new light on the $1 billion lawsuit filed by the sailors against Tokyo Electric Power. Many of the sailors are already suffering devastating health impacts, but are being stonewalled by Tepco and the Navy.
The Reagan had joined several other U.S. ships in Operation Tomodachi (“Friendship”) to aid victims of the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami. Photographic evidence and first-person testimony confirms that on March 12, 2011 the ship was within two miles of Fukushima Dai’ichi as the reactors there began to melt and explode.
In the midst of a snow storm, deck hands were enveloped in a warm cloud that came with a metallic taste. Sailors testify that the Reagan’s 5,500-member crew was told over the ship’s intercom to avoid drinking or bathing in desalinized water drawn from a radioactive sea. The huge carrier quickly ceased its humanitarian efforts and sailed 100 miles out to sea, where newly published internal Navy communications confirm it was still taking serious doses of radioactive fallout.
Scores of sailors from the Reagan and other ships stationed nearby now report a wide range of ailments reminiscent of those documented downwind from atomic bomb tests in the Pacific and Nevada, and at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. A similar metallic taste was described by pilots who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and by central Pennsylvanians downwind of Three Mile Island. Some parts of the atolls downwind from the South Pacific bomb tests remain uninhabitable six decades later.
Among the 81 plaintiffs in the federal class action are a sailor who was pregnant during the mission, and her “Baby A.G.,” born that October with multiple genetic mutations.
Officially, Tepco and the Navy say the dose levels were safe.
But a stunning new report by an American scholar based in Tokyo confirms that Naval officers communicated about what they knew to be the serious irradiation of the Reagan. Written by Kyle Cunningham and published in Japan Focus, “Mobilizing Nuclear Bias” describes the interplay between the U.S. and Japanese governments as Fukushima devolved into disaster.
Cunningham writes that transcribed conversations obtained through the Freedom of Information Act feature naval officials who acknowledge that even while 100 miles away from Fukushima, the Reagan’s readings “compared to just normal background [are] about 30 times what you would detect just on a normal air sample out to sea.”
On the nuclear-powered carrier “all of our continuous monitors alarmed at the same level, at this value. And then we took portable air samples on the flight deck and got the same value,” the transcript says.
Serious fallout was also apparently found on helicopters coming back from relief missions. One unnamed U.S. government expert is quoted in the Japan Focus article as saying:
At 100 meters away it (the helicopter) was reading 4 sieverts per hour. That is an astronomical number and it told me, what that number means to me, a trained person, is there is no water on the reactor cores and they are just melting down, there is nothing containing the release of radioactivity. It is an unmitigated, unshielded number. (Confidential communication, Sept. 17, 2012).
The transcript then contains discussion of health impacts that could come within a matter of “10 hours. It’s a thyroid issue.”
Tepco and the Navy contend the Reagan did not receive a high enough dose to warrant serious concern. But Japan, South Korea and Guam deemed the carrier too radioactive to enter their ports. Stock photographs show sailors working en masse to scrub the ship down.
The $4.3 billion boat is now docked in San Diego. Critics question whether it belongs there at all. Attempts to decontaminate U.S. ships irradiated during the Pacific nuclear bombs tests from 1946-1963 proved fruitless. Hundreds of sailors were exposed to heavy doses of radiation, but some ships had to be sunk anyway.
Leaks at the Fukushima site continue to worsen. Despite its denials, Tepco recently admitted it had underestimated certain radiation releases by a factor of 500 percent. A new report indicates that particles of radioactive Cesium 134 from Fukushima have been detected in the ocean off the west coast of North America.
Global concerns continue to rise about Fukushima’s on-going crises with liquid leaks, the troubled removal of radioactive fuel rods, the search for three missing melted cores, organized crime influence at the site and much more. The flow of information has been seriously darkened by the pro-nuclear Abe Administration’s State Secrets Act, which imposes major penalties on those who might report what happens at Fukushima.
But if this new evidence holds true, it means that the Navy knew the Ronald Reagan was being plastered with serious radioactive fallout and it casts the accident in a light even more sinister than previously believed.
The stricken sailors are barred from suing the Navy, and their case against Tepco will depend on a series of complex international challenges.
But one thing is certain: neither they nor the global community have been getting anything near the full truth about Fukushima.
TEPCO has revised the readings on the radioactivity levels at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant well to 5 million becquerels of strontium per liter – both a record, and nearly five times higher than the original reading of 900,000 becquerels per liter.
Strontium-90 is a radioactive isotope of strontium produced by nuclear fission with a half-life of 28.8 years. The legal standard for strontium emissions is 30 becquerels per liter. Exposure to strontium-90 can cause bone cancer, cancer of nearby tissues, and leukemia.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. originally said that the said 900,000 becquerels of beta-ray sources per liter, including strontium – were measured in the water sampled on July 5 last year.
However, the company noted on Friday that the previous radioactivity levels had been wrong, meaning that it was also likely readings taken from the other wells at the disaster-struck plant prior to September were also likely to have been inaccurate, the Asahi Shimbum newspaper reported.
The Japanese company has already apologized for the failures, which they said were a result of the malfunctioning of measuring equipment.
TEPCO did not mention the radioactivity levels of other samples of both groundwater and seawater taken from between June and November last year – which totaled some 140.
However, the erroneous readings only pertain to the radiation levels measured in water – readings taken to measure the radiation levels in air or soil are likely to have been accurate.
In the basement of the station, the drainage system and special tanks have accumulated more than 360,000 tons of radioactive water. The leakage of radioactive water has been an ongoing problem in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant.
TEPCO also said on Thursday that 600 liters of contaminated water – which had 2,800 becquerels of beta-ray sources per liter in it, leaked from piping leading to a tank at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
A record high level of beta rays released from radioactive strontium-90 was detected at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant beneath the No. 2 reactor’s well facing the ocean, according to the facility’s operator who released news of the measurements mid-January.
TEPCO measured the amount of beta ray-emitting radioactivity at more than 2.7 million becquerels per liter, Fukushima’s operator said as reported in the Japanese media.
In March 2011, an earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit Japan’s coast, damaging the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The catastrophe caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the facility, leading to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The water used to cool the reactors has been leaking into the soil and contaminating the ground water ever since. Some of the radioactive water has been escaping into the Pacific Ocean.
Fukushima’s missing melted cores and radioactive gushers continue to fester in secret.
Japan’s harsh dictatorial censorship has been matched by a global corporate media blackout aimed—successfully—at keeping Fukushima out of the public eye.
But that doesn’t keep the actual radiation out of our ecosystem, our markets … or our bodies.
Speculation on the ultimate impact ranges from the utterly harmless to the intensely apocalyptic.
But the basic reality is simple: for seven decades, government Bomb factories and privately-owned reactors have spewed massive quantities of unmonitored radiation into the biosphere.
The impacts of these emissions on human and ecological health are unknown primarily because the nuclear industry has resolutely refused to study them.
Indeed, the official presumption has always been that showing proof of damage from nuclear Bomb tests and commercial reactors falls to the victims, not the perpetrators.
And that in any case, the industry will be held virtually harmless.
This “see no evil, pay no damages” mindset dates from the Bombing of Hiroshima to Fukushima to the disaster coming next … which could be happening as you read this.
Here are 50 preliminary reasons why this radioactive legacy demands we prepare for the worst for our oceans, our planet, our economy … ourselves.
1. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), the U.S. military initially denied that there was any radioactive fallout, or that it could do any damage. Despite an absence of meaningful data, the victims (including a group of U.S. prisoners of war) and their supporters were officially “discredited” and scorned.
2. Likewise, when Nobel-winners Linus Pauling and Andre Sakharov correctly warned of a massive global death toll from atmospheric Bomb testing, they were dismissed with official contempt … until they won in the court of public opinion.
3. During and after the Bomb Tests (1946-63), downwinders in the South Pacific and American west, along with thousands of U.S. “atomic vets,” were told their radiation-induced health problems were imaginary … until they proved utterly irrefutable.
4. When British Dr. Alice Stewart proved (1956) that even tiny x-ray doses to pregnant mothers could double childhood leukemia rates, she was assaulted with 30 years of heavily funded abuse from the nuclear and medical establishments.
5. But Stewart’s findings proved tragically accurate, and helped set in stone the medical health physics consensus that there is no “safe dose” of radiation … and that pregnant women should not be x-rayed, or exposed to equivalent radiation.
6. More than 400 commercial power reactors have been injected into our ecosphere with no meaningful data to measure their potential health and environmental impacts, and no systematic global data base has been established or maintained.
7. “Acceptable dose” standards for commercial reactors were conjured from faulty A-Bomb studies begun five years after Hiroshima, and at Fukushima and elsewhere have been continually made more lax to save the industry money.
8. Bomb/reactor fallout delivers alpha and beta particle emitters that enter the body and do long-term damage, but which industry backers often wrongly equate with less lethal external gamma/x-ray doses from flying in airplanes or living in Denver.
9. By refusing to compile long-term emission assessments, the industry systematically hides health impacts at Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, Fukushima, etc., forcing victims to rely on isolated independent studies which it automatically deems “discredited.”
10. Human health damage has been amply suffered in radium watch dial painting, Bomb production, uranium mining/milling/enrichment, waste management and other radioactive work, despite decades of relentless industry denial.
11. When Dr. Ernest Sternglass, who had worked with Albert Einstein, warned that reactor emissions were harming people, thousands of copies of his Low-Level Radiation (1971)mysteriously disappeared from their primary warehouse.
12. When the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Chief Medical Officer, Dr. John Gofman, urged that reactor dose levels be lowered by 90 percent, he was forced out of the AEC and publicly attacked, despite his status a founder of the industry.
13. A member of the Manhattan Project, and a medical doctor responsible for pioneer research into LDL cholesterol, Gofman later called the reactor industry an instrument of “premeditated mass murder.”
14. Stack monitors and other monitoring devices failed at Three Mile Island (1979) making it impossible to know how much radiation escaped, where it went or who it impacted and how.
15. But some 2,400 TMI downwind victims and their families were denied a class action jury trial by a federal judge who said “not enough radiation” was released to harm them, though she could not say how much that was or where it went.
16. During TMI’s meltdown, industry advertising equated the fallout with a single chest x-ray to everyone downwind, ignoring the fact that such doses could double leukemia rates among children born to involuntarily irradiated mothers.
17. Widespread death and damage downwind from TMI have been confirmed by Dr. Stephen Wing, Jane Lee and Mary Osbourne, Sister Rosalie Bertell, Dr. Sternglass, Jay Gould, Joe Mangano and others, along with hundreds of anecdotal reports.
18. Radioactive harm to farm and wild animals downwind from TMI has been confirmed by the Baltimore News-American and Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
19. TMI’s owner quietly paid out at least $15 million in damages in exchange for gag orders from the affected families, including at least one case involving a child born with Down’s Syndrome.
20. Chernobyl’s explosion became public knowledge only when massive emissions came down on a Swedish reactor hundreds of miles away, meaning that—as at TMI and Fukushima—no one knows precisely how much escaped or where it went.
21. Fukushima’s on-going fallout is already far in excess of that from Chernobyl, which was far in excess of that from Three Mile Island.
22. Soon after Chernobyl blew up (1986), Dr. Gofman predicted its fallout would kill at least 400,000 people worldwide.
23. Three Russian scientists who compiled more than 5,000 studies concluded in 2005 that Chernobyl had already killed nearly a million people worldwide.
24. Children born in downwind Ukraine and Belarus still suffer a massive toll of mutation and illness, as confirmed by a wide range of governmental, scientific and humanitarian organizations.
25. Key low-ball Chernobyl death estimates come from the World Health Organization, whose numbers are overseen by International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations organization chartered to promote the nuclear industry.
26. After 28 years, the reactor industry has still not succeeded in installing a final sarcophagus over the exploded Chernobyl Unit 4, though billions of dollars have been invested.
27. When Fukushima Units 1-4 began to explode, President Obama assured us all the fallout would not come here, and would harm no one, despite having no evidence for either assertion.
28. Since President Obama did that, the U.S. has established no integrated system to monitor Fukushima’s fallout, nor an epidemiological data base to track its health impacts … but it did stop checking radiation levels in Pacific seafood.
29. Early reports of thyroid abnormalities among children downwind from Fukushima, and in North America are denied by industry backers who again say “not enough radiation” was emitted though they don’t know how much that might be.
30. Devastating health impacts reported by sailors stationed aboard the USS Ronald Reagan near Fukushima are being denied by the industry and Navy, who say radiation doses were too small to do harm, but have no idea what they were.
31. While in a snowstorm offshore as Fukushima melted, sailors reported a warm cloud passing over the Reagan that brought a “metallic taste” like that described by TMI downwinders and the airmen who dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima.
32. Though it denies the sailors on the Reagan were exposed to enough Fukushima radiation to harm them, Japan (like South Korea and Guam) denied the ship port access because it was too radioactive (it’s now docked in San Diego).
33. The Reagan sailors are barred from suing the Navy, but have filed a class action against Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), which has joined the owners at TMI, the Bomb factories, uranium mines, etc., in denying all responsibility.
34. A U.S. military “lessons learned” report from Fukushima’s Operation Tomodachi clean-up campaign notes that “decontamination of aircraft and personnel without alarming the general population created new challenges.”
35. The report questioned the clean-up because “a true decontamination operations standard for ‘clearance’ was not set,” thereby risking “the potential spread of radiological contamination to military personnel and the local populace.”
36. Nonetheless, it reported that during the clean-up, “the use of duct tape and baby wipes was effective in the removal of radioactive particles.”
37. In league with organized crime, Tepco is pursuing its own clean-up activities by recruiting impoverished homeless and elderly citizens for “hot” on-site labor, with the quality of their work and the nature of their exposures now a state secret.
38. At least 300 tons of radioactive water continue to pour into the ocean at Fukushima every day, according to official estimates made prior to such data having been made a state secret.
39. To the extent they can be known, the quantities and make-up of radiation pouring out of Fukushima are also now a state secret, with independent measurement or public speculation punishable by up to ten years in prison.
40. Likewise, “There is no systematic testing in the U.S. of air, food and water for radiation,” according to University of California (Berkeley) nuclear engineering Professor Eric Norman.
41. Many radioactive isotopes tend to concentrate as they pour into the air and water, so deadly clumps of Fukushima’s radiation may migrate throughout the oceans for centuries to come before diffusing, which even then may not render it harmless.
42. Radiation’s real world impact becomes even harder to measure in an increasingly polluted biosphere, where interaction with existing toxins creates a synergy likely to exponentially accelerate the damage being done to all living things.
43. Reported devastation among starfish, sardines, salmon, sea lions, orcas and other ocean animals cannot be definitively denied without a credible data base of previous experimentation and monitoring, which does not exist and is not being established.
44. The fact that “tiny” doses of x-ray can harm human embryos portends that any unnatural introduction of lethal radioactive isotopes into the biosphere, however “diffuse,” can affect our intertwined global ecology in ways we don’t now understand.
45. The impact of allegedly “minuscule” doses spreading from Fukushima will, over time, affect the minuscule eggs of creatures ranging from sardines to starfish to sea lions, with their lethal impact enhanced by the other pollutants already in the sea.
46. Dose comparisons to bananas and other natural sources are absurd and misleading as the myriad isotopes from reactor fallout will impose very different biological impacts for centuries to come in a wide range of ecological settings.
47. No current dismissal of general human and ecological impacts—”apocalyptic” or otherwise—can account over time for the very long half-lives of radioactive isotopes Fukushima is now pouring into the biosphere.
48. As Fukushima’s impacts spread through the centuries, the one certainty is that no matter what evidence materializes, the nuclear industry will never admit to doing any damage, and will never be forced to pay for it (see upcoming sequel).
49. Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, warned that it is a form of suicide to raise radiation levels within Earth’s vital envelope, and that if he could, he would “sink” all the reactors he helped develop.
50. “Now when we go back to using nuclear power,” he said in 1982, “I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.”
As Fukushima deteriorates behind an iron curtain of secrecy and deceit, we desperately need to know what it’s doing to us and our planet.
It’s tempting to say the truth lies somewhere between the industry’s lies and the rising fear of a tangible apocalypse.
In fact, the answers lie beyond.
Defined by seven decades of deceit, denial and a see-no-evil dearth of meaningful scientific study, the glib corporate assurances that this latest reactor disaster won’t hurt us fade to absurdity.
Fukushima pours massive, unmeasured quantities of lethal radiation into our fragile ecosphere every day, and will do so for decades to come.
Five power reactors have now exploded on this planet and there are more than 400 others still operating.
What threatens us most is the inevitable next disaster … along with the one after that … and then the one after that …
Pre-wrapped in denial, protected by corporate privilege, they are the ultimate engines of global terror.