Friday, 31 October 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

We Are Being Nuked With False Information on Atomic Energy

Friday, 21 December 2012 00:00 By Gar Smith, Chelsea Green Publishing | Book Excerpt

Nuclear Roulette(Image: Chelsea Green Publishing)According to nuclear energy debunker Gar Smith, if we want the truth about nuclear energy, we won't be getting it from governments. That's a key message in Smith's new book,"Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth." You can learn more by reading "Nuclear Roulette." Receive a copy from Truthout with a minimum contribution. Just click here.

Below is an excerpt, Chapter 16, from Smith's wake-up call about "the most dangerous energy source on earth."


"Run! Run as fast as you can. Don't believe the government. The government will lie to you."

—Natalia Mironova, Russian nuclear engineer and Chernobyl "liquidator"

 

One consistent lesson from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima is clear: when the public is at risk, plant operators and government officials inevitably cover up and lie. "They lied to us," physicist Michio Kaku memorably told CNN on June 22, 2011. "TEPCO isn't in cold shutdown and won't be for another year. And, if there's another quake, it could start all over again." Behind the official reassurances from Tokyo, full meltdowns were under way at three of the six reactors, 600,000 spent fuel rods were at risk of burning off into the atmosphere, and the fallout burdens turned out to be 10 times greater than officially reported. Plutonium rained down 28 miles from the plant and strontium-90 turned up 155 miles away–well outside the official 12.5-mile "evacuation zone."

Immediately after the Fukushima accident, the Health Physics Society (HPS) joined the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in downplaying the danger. The HPS stated that "loss of life and future cancer risk are small, particularly in contrast with those resulting from the Chernobyl accident,"3 the ANS claimed that "no public ill health effects are expected," and the NEI echoed the view that "no health effects are expected among the Japanese people."

London's Guardian newspaper subsequently revealed that just two days after the Fukushima quake (about the time the first wave of fallout hit the US West Coast), British officials "approached nuclear companies" to fashion a PR strategy "to play down" the accident lest it undermine "public support for nuclear power." The government-nuclear complex worked closely "with the multinational companies EDF Energy, AREVA, and Westinghouse."

Infrastructures of Deceit

For more than 50 years, the creation, activation, and expansion of nuclear power has been accelerated, promoted, and protected by a vast infrastructure of deceit. From the earliest days of atomic power, the military-industrial-nuclear complex engaged in untruths and propaganda, from the false promises of electricity "too cheap to meter" to the depiction of atomic energy as "clean" when its proponents knew full well there was no effective long-term plan for safely dealing with tons of toxic nuclear wastes. The deceit continued with the creation of supposedly safe "threshold" exposures that ignored medical science and perpetuated the false notion that nuclear risks are manageable. The deception continued in 2011 as plumes of fallout blew across the Pacific, dusted Hawaii, and headed for the West Coast.

On March 15, 2011, President Barack Obama assured viewers of Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV that "the nuclear release from Japan will dissipate by the time it gets to Hawaii, much less the US mainland." By reassuring his audience (many of whom were still haunted by memories of Three Mile Island), the president was engaging in the kind of public relations subterfuge that has long been a staple of the nuclear industry and its government enablers.

In fact, the swirling cloud of radioactive gases that crossed the Pacific Ocean did reach the US mainland. Independent scientists monitoring the plume detected xenon-133 and "high concentrations" of cesium-137 in the United States and Canada. Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen estimates that, within four days of the Fukushima explosions, Seattle was exposed to xenon and krypton levels 40,000 times above normal, followed by slower-moving clouds of iodine, cesium, and strontium isotopes.

From March 15 to 19, radiation swept over Hawaii and the West Coast, covering all of western North America. While the Rocky Mountains blocked much of the fallout, rainwater was contaminated across New England. Two of three East Coast monitoring stations (including one in Boston) detected the presence of dangerous "hot particles."9 Air sampling traced the fallout all the way to Stockholm.

Although the Norwegian Institute for Air Research was reporting that fallout had blanketed most of the United States and Canada, little official alarm was demonstrated in either country. Three weeks after Fukushima's reactors began to overheat and explode, the US government still refused to publish any official data on radiation levels in the United States.

Nuclear expert Gundersen issued a call to form a citizen's brigade of radiation trackers. The procedure involved swiping a one-square-meter surface with a cloth following a rainstorm and placing the cloth next to a Geiger counter. Hundreds responded with photos and videos of Geiger counters clicking away from California to Connecticut. One volunteer in St. Louis monitored "rainout" levels 178 higher than normal following a storm.

The importance of monitoring fallout patterns would be dramatically underscored by a December 2011 report linking the Fukushima fallout to 14,000 "excess deaths" in the United States in the 14 weeks following the meltdowns. The authors, Joseph Mangano and Janette D. Sherman, reviewed weekly mortality records for 122 cities collected by the Centers for Disease and Control and reported that the greatest mortalities in excess of what would be expected were seen among children under the age of one. The findings echoed the 16,500 "excess deaths" recorded in the 17 weeks following the Chernobyl explosion. On February 23, 2012, Mangano updated the report, raising the excess death count to nearly 22,000.12 Industry pundits and pro-nuclear bloggers immediately dismissed the findings as "bogus."

The Government's Response

"It's not that government agencies aren't tracking the spread of radioactive material," the Seattle Times reported on April 5, 2011; the problem was that "they have so far released very little actual data on isotopes of concern to human health, including iodine-131 and cesium-137." The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a coast-to-coast, border-to-border network of stations, called RADNET, that monitor radiation in the nation's air, rain, and milk, but the agency failed to offer a full accounting of its findings. Similarly, the Department of Energy (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory declined to make its findings public. The EPA didn't come forth with news that it had found radionuclides in US drinking water until six days after a team at the University of California at Berkeley alerted the nation to the situation.

Robert Alvarez, a former DOE deputy assistant secretary for national security, was aghast. "If a university professor and his students can collect samples and turn them around in a reasonable amount of time and report it, you would think government officials could do the same," he declared.

At UC Berkeley, where nuclear engineering professor Kai Vetter and his students had been busy monitoring Fukushima fallout, there was also criticism of the government's failure. Referring to an array of monitors set up on the roof of a campus building, Vetter expressed amazement: "This is the only source of hard data out there—which is a surprise to me." Researchers at the university's nuclear energy department complained that the EPA had "rigged" its RadNet monitors to show lower radiation readings and called the system "severely flawed." In any event, RadNet tests only for iodine-131 and ignores radioactive isotopes from cesium, uranium, and plutonium.

On May 3, 2011, the EPA announced it was suspending its weekly radiation monitoring and would, henceforth, test milk and drinking water for radiation only once every three months. On February 7, 2012, the Washington Post confirmed that the NRC knew there was a good chance radioactive iodine would reach Alaska but chose to tell the public there was no health risk. The EPA refused to test the Gulf of Alaska for fallout.

Vetter's rainwater monitors began to detect the first traces of fallout on March 17, a week after the quake and tsunami. Levels of iodine-131 peaked on March 20 at 4.5 millibecquerels. This spike appeared to be linked to the hydrogen explosions that destroyed the reactor containment buildings. The monitors also detected radioactive isotopes of cesium and tellurium. On March 23, Vetter's monitors recorded iodine-131 levels at 181 times the EPA's maximum contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water. UC San Diego researchers reported similar readings as Fukushima's radioactive cloud swept over southern California. Meanwhile, milk and vegetables on sale in Bay Area markets during this period were found to be mildly radioactive.

Although some of the rainwater Vetter and his students harvested on the Berkeley campus contained iodine-131 concentrations 181 times greater than the EPA's MCL of three picocuries per liter, university scientists agreed with the government that short exposure to 543 picocuries per liter of iodine-131 would too low to pose any serious health threat to the public. (The MCL standard refers to a constant level of exposure for over a year.) Data subsequently released by EPA's RADNET laboratory analysis indicated that rainwater falling on Richmond, California, on March 22, 2011, contained 138 picocuries of iodine-131 and 5.96 picocuries of tellurium-132. On April 12, the same monitors recorded a deluge of stormwater laced with iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137. The high readings lasted until April 28, with iodine-131 levels peaking at 8.9 picocuries per liter—nearly triple the MCL's "safe" limit.

Hot Particles over Seattle

On October 31, 2011, Marco Kaltofen, a fallout specialist with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, informed the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association that his research had found "isolated US soil samples [containing] up to 8 nanocuries per kg of radiocesium." Kaltofen reported detecting cesium fallout in the soil of five California cities—Alameda, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and Sonoma.

After Fukushima's radiation levels peaked on March 20, garage operators in Seattle were warned that automobile air filters now qualified as "radioactive waste" that required special handling for disposal. But it wasn't just air filters that posed a risk. As nuclear energy expert Arnie Gundersen explained during a videotaped interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott on June 17, 2011, the air over Seattle during April and May was "loaded with hot particles. . . . We're seeing plutonium and americium . . . strontium and cesium." Gundersen extrapolated that, if the average resident of Tokyo was inhaling "ten hot particles a day . . . the average person in Seattle breathed in six."

Responding to evidence of widespread contamination, the EPA announced on April 3, 2011, "We did not expect to see radiation at harmful levels reaching the US from damaged Japanese nuclear power plants." While acknowledging that the danger was small, Robert Alvarez took issue with this argument. The nuclear industry "likens [radiation] to everyday life and it is not like everyday life," Alvarez stressed. "You shouldn't have radioactive iodine, even in tiny quantities, finding its way into your milk supplies."19 The EPA promised to move quickly to release its tests for radioactivity in rain and snow but failed to do so. Within a week of the EPA's reassuring advisory, independently tested milk samples in Phoenix and Los Angeles were registering iodine-131 at levels roughly equal to the EPA's MCL. (Note: While the EPA's MCL allows for one death per million Americans, the FDA's more lenient "safe exposure" level permits 2,000 deaths per million.)

As Fukushima's hot breath blew across North America—contaminating strawberries in California and milk in Vermont — word began to circulate that Washington was preparing to follow Tokyo's example by simply increasing "permissible" exposures. As it turned out, the nuclear-industry-backed plan to raise the "permissible" levels of radiation exposure started back in 2009. In the closing days of the Bush Administration, the EPA agreed to update the EPA's 1992 Protective Action Guides (PGA) to subject the public to vastly increased radiation exposures. The Obama Administration has not closed the door on raising exposure guidelines. On May 29, 2012, the EPA's Radiation Protection website reported that revisions to the PAG Manual "are under review."

According to investigators at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the new guidelines would "significantly increase allowable public exposure to radioactivity." The new guidelines would include a nearly 1,000-fold increase for exposure to strontium-90 and a potential 100,000-fold jump in exposure to iodine-131. "With the Japanese nuclear situation still out of control and expected to continue that way for months," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch observed, "this is the worst possible time for the EPA to roll back radiological protections for Americans." (At least nobody in Washington went as far as one cavalier Japanese politician who advised, "Smile and the radiation won't harm you.")

The industry benefits from radiation's long lag time. While radiation-linked leukemia can manifest in 5 to 10 years, solid cancers do not appear until 15 to 60 years after exposure. And since radiation-induced genetic mutations tend to be recessive, many generations may pass before the damage from Chernobyl and Fukushima eventually resurfaces in the misshapen form of stillborn fetuses or deformed and disease-ridden children. As Dr. Helen Caldicott emphasizes, there is no such thing as a "safe dose" of radiation, and all internal bodily exposures are cumulative.

In March 2011, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service filed a Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to discover the basis for the NRC chair Gregory Jaczko's remarkable recommendation that US citizens in Japan evacuate from locations within 50 miles of the Fukushima reactors. When the documents were finally released, nearly a year later, they further confirmed the government's practice of "safeguarding the truth" rather than safeguarding the public.

Among the documents was a 507-page transcript of NRC phone conversations revealing a multiparty discussion on March 17, 2011, about "the [radiation] doses they saw all the way out in California." One speaker states, "They were calculating doses, particularly for children—thyroid doses [that] . . . are showing millirem range doses, like one to 10 millirem." Later in the conversation, a speaker identified only as "Mr. Lewis" mentions a "dose estimate that was done for California . . . estimating what we believe to be very high doses to children." Referring to the accident in Japan, another NRC staffer notes, "The public doesn't know what percentage of core damage [inaudible]. We did not on purpose put that in the press release, because it's a little alarming."

Institutional Failures

On the first anniversary of the Japanese triple meltdown, Greenpeace International released a major report that identified the most critical lessons from Fukushima. Greenpeace concluded that the leading causes of the growing calamity were "institutional failures of political influence and industry-led regulation." In short, it was "a failure of human institutions to acknowledge real reactor risks, a failure to establish and enforce appropriate nuclear safety standards, and a failure to ultimately protect the public and the environment."

In page after page of analysis, the Greenpeace postmortem describes a pandemic of symptoms in Japan's nuclear cabal—symptoms that eerily echo patterns in the US government-nuclear complex. "The [Japanese] nuclear industry kept saying that the probability of a major accident . . . was very low. With more than 400 reactors operating worldwide, the probability of a reactor core meltdown would be in the order of one in 250 years." Instead, over the past 30 years, "a significant nuclear accident has occurred approximately once ever decade."

In Japan, emergency planning failed. It was impossible to coordinate the evacuation of so many people. People were told to "shelter in place," but their food and water ran out before the cesium-137 stopped falling from the skies. The 20-kilometer mandatory evacuation zone proved to be too small. A 50-kilometer zone would have been more advisable from a health standpoint (except for the fact that a larger evacuation would have been even more problematic).

Evacuation plans in the United States are no better. The challenges range from the impossibility of evacuating Manhattan to the plight of rural Americans living downwind from US reactors who would be expected to flee down unpaved dirt roads.

Greenpeace estimates that the total costs to compensate Japan's citizens for their losses, pay for the decontamination of the land, and cover the expense of decommissioning all six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi site could soar to $650 billion. The Greenpeace report states, "It is staggering to witness how the [Japanese] nuclear industry managed to build up a system whereby polluters harvest large profits, while the moment things go wrong, they throw the responsibility to deal with losses and damages to the impacted citizen." Sound familiar?

Greenpeace found that TEPCO and government agencies shared an "attitude of allowed deception" that was reinforced by "undue political influence" on the regulatory process. This "self-regulatory environment" was a key factor in Fukushima's failure.

Even on those occasions when regulators finally demanded modifications in the interests of public safety, TEPCO was permitted to go years without actually implementing the changes. (This echoes the situation in the United States, where the NRC spent a year devising a list of twelve post-Fukushima safety improvements but chose to demand only three and then gave the industry up to five years to comply.)

Ending on a positive note, the Greenpeace assessment celebrates the fact that the new renewable power plants that came online worldwide in 2011 were now churning out as much electric power as 16 large nuclear power stations. If that's not a renaissance, what is?

For a copy of "Nuclear Roulette," just click here. Free with a minimum contribution to Truthout.

Copyright by International Forum on Globalization. Reprinted with permission.

Gar Smith

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, a Project Censored award-winning investigative journalist, and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. He has covered revolutions in Central America and has engaged in environmental campaigns on three continents. He lives a low-impact, solar-assisted lifestyle in Berkeley, California. Smith is also the author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)


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We Are Being Nuked With False Information on Atomic Energy

Friday, 21 December 2012 00:00 By Gar Smith, Chelsea Green Publishing | Book Excerpt

Nuclear Roulette(Image: Chelsea Green Publishing)According to nuclear energy debunker Gar Smith, if we want the truth about nuclear energy, we won't be getting it from governments. That's a key message in Smith's new book,"Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth." You can learn more by reading "Nuclear Roulette." Receive a copy from Truthout with a minimum contribution. Just click here.

Below is an excerpt, Chapter 16, from Smith's wake-up call about "the most dangerous energy source on earth."


"Run! Run as fast as you can. Don't believe the government. The government will lie to you."

—Natalia Mironova, Russian nuclear engineer and Chernobyl "liquidator"

 

One consistent lesson from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima is clear: when the public is at risk, plant operators and government officials inevitably cover up and lie. "They lied to us," physicist Michio Kaku memorably told CNN on June 22, 2011. "TEPCO isn't in cold shutdown and won't be for another year. And, if there's another quake, it could start all over again." Behind the official reassurances from Tokyo, full meltdowns were under way at three of the six reactors, 600,000 spent fuel rods were at risk of burning off into the atmosphere, and the fallout burdens turned out to be 10 times greater than officially reported. Plutonium rained down 28 miles from the plant and strontium-90 turned up 155 miles away–well outside the official 12.5-mile "evacuation zone."

Immediately after the Fukushima accident, the Health Physics Society (HPS) joined the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in downplaying the danger. The HPS stated that "loss of life and future cancer risk are small, particularly in contrast with those resulting from the Chernobyl accident,"3 the ANS claimed that "no public ill health effects are expected," and the NEI echoed the view that "no health effects are expected among the Japanese people."

London's Guardian newspaper subsequently revealed that just two days after the Fukushima quake (about the time the first wave of fallout hit the US West Coast), British officials "approached nuclear companies" to fashion a PR strategy "to play down" the accident lest it undermine "public support for nuclear power." The government-nuclear complex worked closely "with the multinational companies EDF Energy, AREVA, and Westinghouse."

Infrastructures of Deceit

For more than 50 years, the creation, activation, and expansion of nuclear power has been accelerated, promoted, and protected by a vast infrastructure of deceit. From the earliest days of atomic power, the military-industrial-nuclear complex engaged in untruths and propaganda, from the false promises of electricity "too cheap to meter" to the depiction of atomic energy as "clean" when its proponents knew full well there was no effective long-term plan for safely dealing with tons of toxic nuclear wastes. The deceit continued with the creation of supposedly safe "threshold" exposures that ignored medical science and perpetuated the false notion that nuclear risks are manageable. The deception continued in 2011 as plumes of fallout blew across the Pacific, dusted Hawaii, and headed for the West Coast.

On March 15, 2011, President Barack Obama assured viewers of Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV that "the nuclear release from Japan will dissipate by the time it gets to Hawaii, much less the US mainland." By reassuring his audience (many of whom were still haunted by memories of Three Mile Island), the president was engaging in the kind of public relations subterfuge that has long been a staple of the nuclear industry and its government enablers.

In fact, the swirling cloud of radioactive gases that crossed the Pacific Ocean did reach the US mainland. Independent scientists monitoring the plume detected xenon-133 and "high concentrations" of cesium-137 in the United States and Canada. Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen estimates that, within four days of the Fukushima explosions, Seattle was exposed to xenon and krypton levels 40,000 times above normal, followed by slower-moving clouds of iodine, cesium, and strontium isotopes.

From March 15 to 19, radiation swept over Hawaii and the West Coast, covering all of western North America. While the Rocky Mountains blocked much of the fallout, rainwater was contaminated across New England. Two of three East Coast monitoring stations (including one in Boston) detected the presence of dangerous "hot particles."9 Air sampling traced the fallout all the way to Stockholm.

Although the Norwegian Institute for Air Research was reporting that fallout had blanketed most of the United States and Canada, little official alarm was demonstrated in either country. Three weeks after Fukushima's reactors began to overheat and explode, the US government still refused to publish any official data on radiation levels in the United States.

Nuclear expert Gundersen issued a call to form a citizen's brigade of radiation trackers. The procedure involved swiping a one-square-meter surface with a cloth following a rainstorm and placing the cloth next to a Geiger counter. Hundreds responded with photos and videos of Geiger counters clicking away from California to Connecticut. One volunteer in St. Louis monitored "rainout" levels 178 higher than normal following a storm.

The importance of monitoring fallout patterns would be dramatically underscored by a December 2011 report linking the Fukushima fallout to 14,000 "excess deaths" in the United States in the 14 weeks following the meltdowns. The authors, Joseph Mangano and Janette D. Sherman, reviewed weekly mortality records for 122 cities collected by the Centers for Disease and Control and reported that the greatest mortalities in excess of what would be expected were seen among children under the age of one. The findings echoed the 16,500 "excess deaths" recorded in the 17 weeks following the Chernobyl explosion. On February 23, 2012, Mangano updated the report, raising the excess death count to nearly 22,000.12 Industry pundits and pro-nuclear bloggers immediately dismissed the findings as "bogus."

The Government's Response

"It's not that government agencies aren't tracking the spread of radioactive material," the Seattle Times reported on April 5, 2011; the problem was that "they have so far released very little actual data on isotopes of concern to human health, including iodine-131 and cesium-137." The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a coast-to-coast, border-to-border network of stations, called RADNET, that monitor radiation in the nation's air, rain, and milk, but the agency failed to offer a full accounting of its findings. Similarly, the Department of Energy (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory declined to make its findings public. The EPA didn't come forth with news that it had found radionuclides in US drinking water until six days after a team at the University of California at Berkeley alerted the nation to the situation.

Robert Alvarez, a former DOE deputy assistant secretary for national security, was aghast. "If a university professor and his students can collect samples and turn them around in a reasonable amount of time and report it, you would think government officials could do the same," he declared.

At UC Berkeley, where nuclear engineering professor Kai Vetter and his students had been busy monitoring Fukushima fallout, there was also criticism of the government's failure. Referring to an array of monitors set up on the roof of a campus building, Vetter expressed amazement: "This is the only source of hard data out there—which is a surprise to me." Researchers at the university's nuclear energy department complained that the EPA had "rigged" its RadNet monitors to show lower radiation readings and called the system "severely flawed." In any event, RadNet tests only for iodine-131 and ignores radioactive isotopes from cesium, uranium, and plutonium.

On May 3, 2011, the EPA announced it was suspending its weekly radiation monitoring and would, henceforth, test milk and drinking water for radiation only once every three months. On February 7, 2012, the Washington Post confirmed that the NRC knew there was a good chance radioactive iodine would reach Alaska but chose to tell the public there was no health risk. The EPA refused to test the Gulf of Alaska for fallout.

Vetter's rainwater monitors began to detect the first traces of fallout on March 17, a week after the quake and tsunami. Levels of iodine-131 peaked on March 20 at 4.5 millibecquerels. This spike appeared to be linked to the hydrogen explosions that destroyed the reactor containment buildings. The monitors also detected radioactive isotopes of cesium and tellurium. On March 23, Vetter's monitors recorded iodine-131 levels at 181 times the EPA's maximum contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water. UC San Diego researchers reported similar readings as Fukushima's radioactive cloud swept over southern California. Meanwhile, milk and vegetables on sale in Bay Area markets during this period were found to be mildly radioactive.

Although some of the rainwater Vetter and his students harvested on the Berkeley campus contained iodine-131 concentrations 181 times greater than the EPA's MCL of three picocuries per liter, university scientists agreed with the government that short exposure to 543 picocuries per liter of iodine-131 would too low to pose any serious health threat to the public. (The MCL standard refers to a constant level of exposure for over a year.) Data subsequently released by EPA's RADNET laboratory analysis indicated that rainwater falling on Richmond, California, on March 22, 2011, contained 138 picocuries of iodine-131 and 5.96 picocuries of tellurium-132. On April 12, the same monitors recorded a deluge of stormwater laced with iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137. The high readings lasted until April 28, with iodine-131 levels peaking at 8.9 picocuries per liter—nearly triple the MCL's "safe" limit.

Hot Particles over Seattle

On October 31, 2011, Marco Kaltofen, a fallout specialist with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, informed the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association that his research had found "isolated US soil samples [containing] up to 8 nanocuries per kg of radiocesium." Kaltofen reported detecting cesium fallout in the soil of five California cities—Alameda, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and Sonoma.

After Fukushima's radiation levels peaked on March 20, garage operators in Seattle were warned that automobile air filters now qualified as "radioactive waste" that required special handling for disposal. But it wasn't just air filters that posed a risk. As nuclear energy expert Arnie Gundersen explained during a videotaped interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott on June 17, 2011, the air over Seattle during April and May was "loaded with hot particles. . . . We're seeing plutonium and americium . . . strontium and cesium." Gundersen extrapolated that, if the average resident of Tokyo was inhaling "ten hot particles a day . . . the average person in Seattle breathed in six."

Responding to evidence of widespread contamination, the EPA announced on April 3, 2011, "We did not expect to see radiation at harmful levels reaching the US from damaged Japanese nuclear power plants." While acknowledging that the danger was small, Robert Alvarez took issue with this argument. The nuclear industry "likens [radiation] to everyday life and it is not like everyday life," Alvarez stressed. "You shouldn't have radioactive iodine, even in tiny quantities, finding its way into your milk supplies."19 The EPA promised to move quickly to release its tests for radioactivity in rain and snow but failed to do so. Within a week of the EPA's reassuring advisory, independently tested milk samples in Phoenix and Los Angeles were registering iodine-131 at levels roughly equal to the EPA's MCL. (Note: While the EPA's MCL allows for one death per million Americans, the FDA's more lenient "safe exposure" level permits 2,000 deaths per million.)

As Fukushima's hot breath blew across North America—contaminating strawberries in California and milk in Vermont — word began to circulate that Washington was preparing to follow Tokyo's example by simply increasing "permissible" exposures. As it turned out, the nuclear-industry-backed plan to raise the "permissible" levels of radiation exposure started back in 2009. In the closing days of the Bush Administration, the EPA agreed to update the EPA's 1992 Protective Action Guides (PGA) to subject the public to vastly increased radiation exposures. The Obama Administration has not closed the door on raising exposure guidelines. On May 29, 2012, the EPA's Radiation Protection website reported that revisions to the PAG Manual "are under review."

According to investigators at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the new guidelines would "significantly increase allowable public exposure to radioactivity." The new guidelines would include a nearly 1,000-fold increase for exposure to strontium-90 and a potential 100,000-fold jump in exposure to iodine-131. "With the Japanese nuclear situation still out of control and expected to continue that way for months," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch observed, "this is the worst possible time for the EPA to roll back radiological protections for Americans." (At least nobody in Washington went as far as one cavalier Japanese politician who advised, "Smile and the radiation won't harm you.")

The industry benefits from radiation's long lag time. While radiation-linked leukemia can manifest in 5 to 10 years, solid cancers do not appear until 15 to 60 years after exposure. And since radiation-induced genetic mutations tend to be recessive, many generations may pass before the damage from Chernobyl and Fukushima eventually resurfaces in the misshapen form of stillborn fetuses or deformed and disease-ridden children. As Dr. Helen Caldicott emphasizes, there is no such thing as a "safe dose" of radiation, and all internal bodily exposures are cumulative.

In March 2011, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service filed a Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to discover the basis for the NRC chair Gregory Jaczko's remarkable recommendation that US citizens in Japan evacuate from locations within 50 miles of the Fukushima reactors. When the documents were finally released, nearly a year later, they further confirmed the government's practice of "safeguarding the truth" rather than safeguarding the public.

Among the documents was a 507-page transcript of NRC phone conversations revealing a multiparty discussion on March 17, 2011, about "the [radiation] doses they saw all the way out in California." One speaker states, "They were calculating doses, particularly for children—thyroid doses [that] . . . are showing millirem range doses, like one to 10 millirem." Later in the conversation, a speaker identified only as "Mr. Lewis" mentions a "dose estimate that was done for California . . . estimating what we believe to be very high doses to children." Referring to the accident in Japan, another NRC staffer notes, "The public doesn't know what percentage of core damage [inaudible]. We did not on purpose put that in the press release, because it's a little alarming."

Institutional Failures

On the first anniversary of the Japanese triple meltdown, Greenpeace International released a major report that identified the most critical lessons from Fukushima. Greenpeace concluded that the leading causes of the growing calamity were "institutional failures of political influence and industry-led regulation." In short, it was "a failure of human institutions to acknowledge real reactor risks, a failure to establish and enforce appropriate nuclear safety standards, and a failure to ultimately protect the public and the environment."

In page after page of analysis, the Greenpeace postmortem describes a pandemic of symptoms in Japan's nuclear cabal—symptoms that eerily echo patterns in the US government-nuclear complex. "The [Japanese] nuclear industry kept saying that the probability of a major accident . . . was very low. With more than 400 reactors operating worldwide, the probability of a reactor core meltdown would be in the order of one in 250 years." Instead, over the past 30 years, "a significant nuclear accident has occurred approximately once ever decade."

In Japan, emergency planning failed. It was impossible to coordinate the evacuation of so many people. People were told to "shelter in place," but their food and water ran out before the cesium-137 stopped falling from the skies. The 20-kilometer mandatory evacuation zone proved to be too small. A 50-kilometer zone would have been more advisable from a health standpoint (except for the fact that a larger evacuation would have been even more problematic).

Evacuation plans in the United States are no better. The challenges range from the impossibility of evacuating Manhattan to the plight of rural Americans living downwind from US reactors who would be expected to flee down unpaved dirt roads.

Greenpeace estimates that the total costs to compensate Japan's citizens for their losses, pay for the decontamination of the land, and cover the expense of decommissioning all six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi site could soar to $650 billion. The Greenpeace report states, "It is staggering to witness how the [Japanese] nuclear industry managed to build up a system whereby polluters harvest large profits, while the moment things go wrong, they throw the responsibility to deal with losses and damages to the impacted citizen." Sound familiar?

Greenpeace found that TEPCO and government agencies shared an "attitude of allowed deception" that was reinforced by "undue political influence" on the regulatory process. This "self-regulatory environment" was a key factor in Fukushima's failure.

Even on those occasions when regulators finally demanded modifications in the interests of public safety, TEPCO was permitted to go years without actually implementing the changes. (This echoes the situation in the United States, where the NRC spent a year devising a list of twelve post-Fukushima safety improvements but chose to demand only three and then gave the industry up to five years to comply.)

Ending on a positive note, the Greenpeace assessment celebrates the fact that the new renewable power plants that came online worldwide in 2011 were now churning out as much electric power as 16 large nuclear power stations. If that's not a renaissance, what is?

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Copyright by International Forum on Globalization. Reprinted with permission.

Gar Smith

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, a Project Censored award-winning investigative journalist, and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. He has covered revolutions in Central America and has engaged in environmental campaigns on three continents. He lives a low-impact, solar-assisted lifestyle in Berkeley, California. Smith is also the author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)


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