“When The Radioactive Genie Gets Out Of The Bottle, It Can Be Awfully Hard To Stuff It Back Inside.”
There are few environmental dangers that spook people more than radioactivity. And there is surely no country in the world that comes by that fear more rightly than Japan — which, alone among nations, has felt the pain of a nuclear conflagration first hand. So it's understandable that the Japanese public is terrified by the danger posed by their crisis-sticken nuclear power plants. But is all the fear justified? Is the risk as great as it seems? Yes — with caveats.
There are four kinds of isotopes that are likeliest to be emitted by the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as the other three that have been taken offline: iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium-239. Iodine-131 is, in many ways, the most dangerous of the four, because it can lead to cancer — specifically thyroid cancer — in people exposed to it in the shortest time. Epidemiologists estimate that there were 6,000 to 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer that never would have occurred as a result of the 1986 Chernobyl explosion in Russia. Most of the victims were people who were children at the time of their exposure and developed the disease later.
Strontium and cesium are the next up the danger scale. While iodine tends to concentrate its damage to the thyroid, those two are not nearly so selective. "Strontium is chemicaly similar to calcium," says Dr. Ira Helfand, a board member for Physicians for Social Responsibility. "So it gets incorporated into bones and teeth and can stay there, irradiating the body, for a long time." Strontium is most commonly linked to leukemia.
Cesium works in other ways, behaving more like potassium when it's inside the body — which means it circulates everywhere and can contaminate anything. Cesium doesn't linger as long as strontium does — it gets excreted in urine over the course of months or years — but that's more than long enough to cause cancer of the liver, kidneys, pancreas and more. "Basically all of the solid tumors," says Helfand.
More troubling, cesium and strontium linger not just in the body, but in the environment. Strontium has a half-life of 29 years; cesium's is 30. A radioactive isotope is generally considered dangerous for 10 to 20 times its half life, which in these cases tops out at about 600 years.
Most worrisome of all is plutonium-239 — for a number of reasons. First of all, the vast majority of a fuel rod is made of plutonium, which means there's just more of it in play. What's more, says Helfand, "It's extraordinarily toxic." Plutonium exposure usually comes from inhalation rather than ingestion, so it's mostly associated with lung cancer. What's more, plutonium's half life is 24,000 years, which means anything released in Fukushima today could be around at dangerous levels for up to half a millon years.
The key question is what, exactly, constitutes a dangerous level — and here is where fear and science part ways a little bit. One of the most talked-about numbers being batted about yesterday was that the radiation levels outside the reactor were eight times normal. But, says Helfand, "eight times is not something you would think of as a great public health hazard. It would take a fair amount of time to get a dangerous whole-body dose." Still, if some of that exposure was to iodine-131, it might still be enough to cause thyroid cancer.
More alarming still was the radiation level inside the Fukushima control room, which was reported to be 1,000 times above normal. Even that might not be immediately fatal, depending on what normal is, but it wouldn't do to hang around and find out.
Radiation levels are measured in units called rems — for "Roentgen equivalent man." The average background exposure that most people absorb simply by living on Earth is 130 to 150 millirems (mrem, or thousandths of a rem) per year. The figure may change depending on location and elevation. Such a low does does not do most people much harm, but it may well account for some of the cases of cancer that appear in the general population that have no other evident causes like smoking.
People exposed to 100 full rems begin to experience nausea, one of the first signs of radiation sickness. At 200 rems and up you suffer loss of hair, suppression of the immune system, vomiting and bleeding. A dose of 300 rems is fatal to about 50% of people exposed. At 600 rems, nobody survives. In some cases, the timing of the dosing matters. It's much worse, for example, to absorb 300 rems in an hour than over the course of a year.
For the Japanese, the best precaution is the one that the government is already putting into play: evacuation. Wherever it is that a power plant is leaking radiation, you want to be somewhere else — preferably a very distant somewhere else. Doses of nonradioactive iodine can also help prophylactically. There is a limit to how much of any kind of iodine the body can absorb and if you reach your maximum with the safe kind, you shut out the dangerous kind. But it can also be risky to take iodine without knowing the right dose and having it administered by a professional. "There are government guidelines that explain how it must be done," says Helfand.
It's a hard truth of the modern age that controlled nuclear power may be essential for an industrial economy that doesn't have a lot of other energy resources. But, as the Japanese are tragically learning again, when the radioactive genie gets out of the bottle, it can be awfully hard to stuff it back inside.
Read more: http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2011/03/12/japans-radiation-exposure-how-serious-is-it/#ixzz1IaTwusoB
Soldiers long ago shot the dogs and cats. Today, the only sound on Lenin Avenue is a chill wind blowing dead leaves. In the summer, thick vegetation obscures six-story apartment blocks, once homes for the city’s 50,000 residents. Once a model Soviet community built for Chernobyl’s nuclear power station, Pripyat now looks like a post apocalypse film set.
Tourists, some wearing face masks, pick their way carefully through dimly lit corridors, boots crunching on broken glass. They walk down debris strewn sidewalks, keeping an eye out for missing manhole covers. Side streets have narrowed into tunnels as bushes and trees have grown unchecked for a quarter century.
Alex, the guide, says visits after dark are forbidden. Packs of wild boars and gray wolves roam the ruins. I roll my eyes with skepticism. Then, I see stretches of dirt freshly torn up by wild pigs rooting for food after a long winter.
Like archeologists exploring the lost city of the Soviets, visitors peer through the underbrush and make out heroic statues and monuments, raised when Chernobyl was designed to be the largest nuclear power station in Europe.
Twenty five years after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, Pripyat gives mute testimony to the “downside” of nuclear power.
In the heart of Central Europe, an expanse of land larger than the American state of Rhode Island – about 4,300 square kilometers – is off limits to human habitation.
In the heart of Central Europe, an expanse of land larger than the American state of Rhode Island – about 4,300 square kilometers – is off limits to human habitation.
Old Soviet news reports show Pripyat, model bedroom community for workers at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, designed to be the largest nuclear power complex in Europe:
This was not empty Siberian tundra. To create the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, authorities forcibly moved 330,000 people from an area that overlaps parts of modern day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Few ever returned. Once a year, families are allowed back to tend ancestral graves, Russian Orthodox and Jewish. Records of human habitation on Chernobyl’s once fertile lands along the Pripyat River stretch back to 1,000 AD. This human history stopped in May 1986.
Given current limits of scientific knowledge, no one can reliably predict when human settlement can safely resume. Work is starting on a new, $2 billion containment “sarcophagus” for the stricken power plant. It is to keep the 200 tons of highly radioactive material sealed – for another century.
The lessons of Chernobyl seem clear to Japan, Russia and the United States.
Time and time again, nuclear safety is sacrificed for cost cutting.
Soviet era footage of the accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the April 1986 evacuation of Pripyat, a modern city of 50,000 people:
For the first part of the 2000s, I lived in Tokyo. I happily enjoyed the cheap electricity provided by Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear reactors up the coast in Fukushima. Reports (some written by me) of safety short cuts, of radiation accidents, of poor maintenance of the aging American-designed reactors never got much traction.
The Christmas Eve 2004 tsunami that devastated the coasts of Indonesia and Thailand should have sent a clear wakeup call about the fragility of structures built on the shores of the Pacific’s “Rim of Fire” earthquake zone. A week after the 2004 tsunami, I picked through the ruins of destroyed beach hotels in Phuket, Thailand. Nearby, Japanese television crews filmed stand up reports for news shows back home.
On another reporting visit, this time to Shimoji Shima, one of Japan’s southernmost islands, I stared at a lovely beach, oddly littered with boulders the size of Toyotas. A local explained: “That was from the Yaeyama tsunami of 1771. It killed 12,000 people.”
With this kind of collective memory among the people who invented the word tsunami, it is strange that critics of nuclear power safety are ostracized as Chicken Littles – nitwits who run around squawking that the sky is falling, the sky is falling.
With Chernobyl looking more and more like a mysteriously abandoned city of the Mayas, it is clear that technology does fail. The radioactive rain does fall.
If Russian, American, and Japanese engineers – arguably among the most scientifically sophisticated on the planet – cannot get nuclear safety right, who can?
WASHINGTON--(ENEWSPF)--April 4 - Friends of the Earth warned today that plans by the Japanese utility TEPCO to dump some 11,500 tons of radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean pose substantial threats to people and the environment.
Given U.S. government involvement in efforts to control the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Friends of the Earth called on the Obama administration to intervene to stop this dumping of nuclear waste.
“Dumping this nuclear waste directly into the Pacific is dangerous and unacceptable,” said Damon Moglen, Director of the Climate and Energy Project at Friends of the Earth. “It’s incredible that while an international treaty forbids the dumping of even a barrel of this nuclear waste from a ship, Japan intends to send thousands of tons of that waste into the ocean. This dumping poses a direct threat to humans and the environment, and fisheries and industries depending on a clean Pacific could be devastated.”
TEPCO announced today that it will immediately begin dumping 11,500 tons of radioactive waste water left from hosing down the four reactors and additional spent fuel ponds at Fukushima that have been involved in explosions, fires, and venting of radioactive material. While not providing data on the exact content and nature of the contamination contained in the nuclear waste water, TEPCO authorities have reportedly stated that the water is at least some 100 times beyond legal limits.
Japan is a signatory to the London Convention, which forbids countries from dumping nuclear waste at sea. But, under a loophole in that treaty, nuclear waste can be released from land-based sources. The Japanese government and TEPCO appear poised to use that loophole to pump the 11,500 tons of waste from the shore at Fukushima into the ocean. This waste cannot legally be dumped from a ship at sea.
“As the Obama administration has sent experts from numerous U.S. agencies to assist in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, we have a right to know whether or not our government supports this nuclear waste dumping when alternatives are available,” Moglen said. “Given that ocean currents will likely bring some of this radioactive contamination onto our shores, and given that contaminated seafood could find its way into the U.S. market, we demand to know what the U.S. government is doing to stop this dumping and to force TEPCO to retain this nuclear waste at the company’s expense.”
Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of the world's largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 77 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has fought to create a more healthy, just world.
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TOKYO (Nikkei)--Hitachi Ltd. (HIT) and General Electric Co. (GE) plan to enlist the aid of two U.S. firms in their efforts to resolve the problems at the quake-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, The Nikkei reported early Tuesday.
GE is Hitachi's tie-up partner in the nuclear power business. They are looking to form medium- to long-term technological partnerships with Exelon Corp. (EXC) and Bechtel Corp. to restore cooling functions and eventually scrap the reactors altogether.
Top U.S. electric utility Exelon, which operates a number of nuclear plants, drew up recovery plans and handled the scrapping of the No. 2 reactor in the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
Bechtel, meanwhile, played a leading role in the efforts to contain the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It also handled cleaning and other tasks at the Three Mile Island site.
In a meeting here Monday, Hitachi President Hiroaki Nakanishi and GE Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt told Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda of the decision to seek help from Exelon and Bechtel.
Hitachi itself and a joint venture with GE have deployed roughly 1,000 employees to support the effort to resolve the Fukushima crisis. Of these, 240 have worked on-site.
GE has been shipping gas turbines and other power generation systems to help alleviate electricity shortages in eastern Japan, Immelt told reporters after meeting with Kaieda. But when asked about GE's responsibility as the manufacturer of the Fukushima plant's No. 1 reactor, he didn't give a clear answer.
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