Japan Update 6/10: Radiation Concerns

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | June 10, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Unfortunately, the mainstream media is reporting increasingly less on the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan. Nonetheless, radioactivity continues to be released into the air and water at the severely damaged facility. Most notably, the Japanese nuclear safety agency announced that actual radiation levels were likely more than double what was initially reported. Clearly the situation is far from under control. In fact, the highest levels yet were recently measured at reactor Unit 1 – 4,000 millisieverts per hour were detected by a robot last Saturday, rendering it unsafe for workers to enter the area. This means that the radiation is so high now that any worker exposed to it would absorb the maximum permissible dose of 250 millisieverts in only about four minutes. According to recent reports from the Japanese government, fuel has melted through the base of reactor Units 1, 2 and 3, and is “pooling” in the outer containment vessels. The report, which has been given to the International Atomic Energy Agency, was revealed by the Yomiuri newspaper, which described a “melt-through” as being “far worse than a core meltdown” and “the worst possibility in a nuclear accident.”

Water remains a primary complication; 15 million highly radioactive gallons await proper treatment and storage. That’s equivalent to about thirty highly contaminated Olympic-sized swimming pools. It is unclear how much of this water has already been released into the Pacific Ocean, but it is likely in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of gallons. A multi-national government panel including Korea, China, Japan, and 14 neighboring countries has been established to monitor the resulting radiation over the next four years. Current research is showing radiation levels hundreds of times above normal off the coast of Japan. This will undoubtedly affect seafood safety and potentially human health. Some scientists estimate that the amount of radiation released into the ocean has already surpassed Chernobyl levels. Soil research findings are also showing contamination levels as high as those found after Chernobyl in some parts of the 230 square mile area of affected land.

Determining exactly how much radiation has been or is continuing to be released is a difficult task that also complicates the situation. Add Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco) lack of transparency, the Japanese government’s apparent dishonesty and the reality that the earthquake and resulting tsunami disabled on-the-ground radiation monitoring, and it becomes nearly impossible to understand how much radioactivity has been released. Recent charges imply that the Japanese government knowingly withheld radiation readings that indicated a meltdown the day after the earthquake, and intentionally deceived the public by claiming that the nuclear fuel was intact. An interesting interview with environmental scientist and engineer Marco Kaltofen by Fairewinds Associates provides some background on radiation and the releases from the Fukushima nuclear facility.

This withholding of information raises the ire of a public whose trust in their government has already been fundamentally shaken. Had the government been honest about the situation, more could have likely been done to protect children from the high levels of iodine-131 that were detected in the days following the quake. Children are more vulnerable to cancers caused by the radioactive element and have been at the center of a growing movement of parents taking action to protect them.

This movement began when the Japanese government increased allowable child exposure limits to 20 times previous levels, equivalent to the international standard for adult nuclear power workers. Concerned parents organized and started petitioning through Green Action Japan. They collected signatures from over 53,000 individuals and 1,074 organizations from 61 countries at the beginning of May. They also began decontaminating school grounds, having given up on the government’s ability (or lack thereof) to take action. After continued pressure, the Japanese government finally conceded by reducing allowable levels to the previous standard of 1 millisievert per year and allotting funds to pay for soil decontamination at schools. Parents are now a few steps closer to ensuring the safety of their children.

Many Japanese citizens are rightly concerned about radiation and its effects. Nearly 5,000 nuclear workers that traveled to Fukushima after the quake now have internal radiation exposure, prompting consideration of testing residents in the Fukushima Prefecture. Two of the emergency workers may have have received radiation doses double the current legal limit of 250 millisieverts. It’s important to note that the original limit of 100 millisieverts was increased for workers at the plant after the disaster began. A group of elderly citizens called the Skilled Veterans Corps believe that they should be the ones to clean up Fukushima, since their advanced age makes them less likely to suffer from cancer after they are exposed to radiation.

Given that one-third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor, the National Academy of Sciences will finally conduct a long overdue study on cancer rates in relation to nuclear facilities in the United States. For more resources and information on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, U.S. nuclear policy or the health impacts of radiation, please visit our Learn About page.

An interesting World Blog by NBC News authored by Robert Bazell describes Japan’s radiation as “a monster you can’t see.” Perhaps this lack of visual impact, lack of a “wow” factor, or absence of billowing clouds of darkened pollution or rivers of fluorescent green liquid spewing forth has caused the nuclear power industry to operate “under the radar” for decades, so to speak. (Images from the aftermath of Chernobyl are conveniently deemed not acceptable to share publicly.) It seems that more than ever, public attention and awareness should focus on the real threat that this power generation source can cause — Germans have made this their focus, and now the Swiss and others are following suit. Where will the United States and our individual states, utilities, local governments and individual citizens fall? An inadvertent and tragic disaster such as Fukushima Dai-ichi should not have to catalyze such evaluation, but it has, and now is the time to decide what will happen next. Which path will we follow?

Guest Blog
My Profile