The operator of Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactor was sharply criticized – in a 26 July 2013 article published in the New York Times – for delaying news of the release of nuclear contamination into the Pacific Ocean. To keep the highly radioactive nuclear rods and waste cool, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has been pumping water into the ruins ever since the 11 March 2011 seaquake and tsunami caused the Fukushima nuclear power reactor to meltdown. In the Times article, Dale Klein, a nuclear expert hired by TEPCO to recommend “changes in corporate culture,” described the reporting lapse as “incompetence rather than a cover-up.”
That description may be a bit too kind. Neither incompetence nor the hiding of important information is acceptable to first responders themselves, nor to any group of citizens anywhere in the world who are suddenly exposed to radioactivity, or to those authorities who are responsible for making fully informed life-or-death decisions.
A Fukushima-Like Threat on U.S. Soil
Of particular interest in the United States is the operation of the Indian Point Nuclear Reactor located on the Hudson River 25 miles north of New York City (NYC), the most heavily populated metropolitan area in the United States. A comprehensive study conducted – at the request of the State of New York – in 2003 by James Lee Witt Associates outlined the many risks posed to NYC residents by the Indian Point plant. Those risks include, but are not necessarily limited to: (a) the plant’s age (40 years); (b) its proximity to two earthquake fault zones; (c) the on-site storage of a massive quantity of spent but still radioactive fuel; and (d) the complicated if not impossible difficulties involved in planning safe and viable evacuation routes out of the area.
The start of almost any large-scale disaster – whether it be a violent storm, a building collapse, a serious disease outbreak, a major fire, or a sudden flood – requires that decision-making authorities possess timely and accurate information in order to properly place trained first responders and abundant supplies where needed. With a nuclear disaster, however, the presence of high levels of radiation at the source and the dispersal of radioactive isotopes through a much larger area, well beyond Ground Zero, exponentially raise the risk of death, injury, and property damage. Three of the six Fukushima reactors melted down, a fuel pool failed, and there were hydrogen explosions and a large number of fires. As was initially done following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine on 26 April 1986, the Fukushima firefighters poured massive quantities of water onto the reactors’ spent uranium fuel rods to prevent and control nuclear reactions.
According to a 30 July 2013 article published by Reuters: (a) an estimated 440+ tons of fresh water are required daily to cool the Fukushima reactors; and (b) about 85 percent or so of the 1,000 tanks in the meltdown area, which collectively hold 380,000 metric tons of wastewater, have already been filled. These hastily constructed tanks are on the reactor property, above sea level, and water runs downhill – in this situation, to the Pacific Ocean.
The Immutable Laws of Physics, Chemistry & Biology
A myriad of nuclear isotopes have been released from the Fukushima plant. Those posing the greatest risk to human life are tritium, strontium, cesium, and iodine, all of which are absorbed by the living tissue of plants, insects, fish, birds, and mammals (including humans, of course). These isotopes move steadily up the food chains: from plankton to invertebrates, fish, and mammals; from plants to insects to birds; and into the plant and meat food chains of humans. The contamination pathways have been well documented since the Chernobyl incident. Unless the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are rescinded, the basic information about these chemicals has been known for nearly a century, and are addressed individually as follows:
Physics – When uranium is split, as in a reactor or bomb, it releases massive amounts of heat and energy, as well as multiple radioisotopes. Once radioisotopes are released, the process of decay cannot be stopped. It takes approximately 10 half-lives for an isotope to fully decay. Considering the fact that the half-life of both cesium and strontium is approximately 30 years, it will be about three centuries or so before returning to pre-contamination levels. The incineration of the contaminated Fukushima materials is already underway in Japan, but the burning of such materials – whether in an incinerator or a forest fire – spreads the pollution. Moreover, isotopes in air, soil, water, food, plants, or animals cannot be detected by sight, taste, or smell. Radiation-measuring devices can detect the alpha, beta, and gamma emissions of the materials, but only if appropriate tests are carried out – and, when they are, the results are not useful if the information is not released to the public in a timely manner.
Chemistry – All elements, radioactive or not, belong to groups best shown in the Periodic Table of Elements. Radioactive strontium belongs to the same chemical family as calcium and, like calcium, becomes deposited in the bones and teeth of all animals, including humans, fish, and birds. Like potassium, radioactive cesium is deposited in the muscle; radioactive iodine is taken up by the thyroid gland and causes significant damage, particularly to unborn and/or young animals and humans. Decaying isotopes release high-energy radiation that causes damage to the surrounding tissues, including mutations.
Biology – As radioactive isotopes are dispersed over land and water, they eventually become deposited on land and water, but in a non-uniform manner – depending on wind direction, weather, and elevation. Life process of plants results in the uptake of radioactivity, which is released as plants die or become dormant, and leaves fall to the ground, to seep into the soil to be taken up again the next season. In the interim, the fruits, vegetables, and grains eaten by wildlife, livestock, and humans become contaminated. As isotopes fall on both fresh and seawater, they are absorbed by plankton, crustaceans, fish, mammals, etc., and spread throughout the food chain.
After the Chernobyl disaster, not all of the life systems were actually examined, but all of those that were examined – wild and domestic animals, birds, insects, plants, fungi, fish, trees, and humans – were damaged to some extent, many of them permanently. To dismiss the findings of Chernobyl and to think that life in and around Fukushima will somehow be spared is inconsistent with nearly a century of accumulated scientific data.
The adverse effects already recorded in insects, birds, plants, and animals with relatively short-term life spans is predictive of those with longer life spans. Professors Anders Pape Møller of the University of Paris-Sud and Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina – and many of their Japanese, Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian colleagues – have conducted extensive field research at both Chernobyl and Fukushima. At Fukushima, they have documented adverse effects in organisms with relatively short life spans – for example, birds, rodents, and insects (which have completed as many as 25 generations) – that are comparable to the long-term effects seen after Chernobyl. Unlike the organisms studied with shorter life spans, humans are now just entering their third generation since Chernobyl.
The uniqueness of Japan – a relatively small country with a high population density – bears mention. The population density around the Fukushima nuclear plant is greater than the density around Chernobyl. The land in and around Fukushima was, and still is, a major crop-producing area. Moreover, the Japanese diet is high in seafood, vegetables, and rice, and the level of radioactive cesium detected in vegetables and fish continues to increase.
As was demonstrated following a number of other types of disasters – Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, for example – the need for full and prompt information in order to carry out effective evacuations, communications, and medical assistance, and to provide food, water, sanitation, and housing all must be properly addressed and fully integrated. First responders and citizens at large, in other words, need and deserve timely, accurate, and honest information.
Janette D. Sherman
Janette D. Sherman, M.D., specializes in internal medicine and toxicology with an emphasis on chemicals and nuclear radiation that cause illness, including cancer and birth defects. An author of many scientific articles, she also was contributing editor of, “Chernobyl – Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. She graduated from Western Michigan University with majors in biology and chemistry and from the Wayne State University College of Medicine (www.janettesherman.com).
Joseph J. Mangano
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA, is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project and an author of multiple scientific articles and books, including, “Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment,” published by OR Books in 2012, and “Low Level Radiation and Immune System Disorders: An Atomic Era Legacy.” He is a public health administrator and researcher who has studied the connection between low-dose radiation exposure and the subsequent risk of diseases such as cancer and damage to newborns.