15 Mar Post from GREEN L.A. COALITION on the Nuclear Disaster in Japan by Jonathan Parfrey
Green LA Coalition – SPECIAL MEMORANDUM
Thoughts on the Nuclear Disaster in Japan
March 14, 2011
Last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan was a tragic reminder of the earth’s destructive power. The death toll is expected to be in the tens of thousands.
What is occurring, however, at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is no natural disaster, but a human-made one.
You are no doubt reading reports of the situation in Japan. As of late-afternoon today, at unit two, an explosion has ruptured the primary containment vessel, and at two other units there have been partial meltdowns; emergency personnel have been evacuated; over 200,000 people have been evacuated from the area; radiation from damaged reactors has set off radiation detectors seventy-five miles away; the American fleet, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, is moving to safer waters, after 17 personnel tested positive for radiation exposure.
The environmental community must be able to speak credibly about nuclear power, so, at minimum, a cursory knowledge of physics and medicine is helpful.
In a nuclear reactor, heat is harvested to create steam, in turn, the steam spins the turbines that create electricity. The heat is created by an atomic chain reaction of neutrons striking and dividing uranium atoms. Fission divides atoms into small atomic components, thereby releasing tremendous energy in the form of heat. Loads of heat. A core of a nuclear reactor reaches temperatures of 5000 degrees Fahrenheit — half the temperature of the surface of the sun.
This super hot chain reaction cannot be turned-off like a light-bulb. Once ignited, the atomic chain reaction keeps going. At Fukushima, the heat exchange between seawater and the uranium fuel rods is expected to continue over many years. But that’s not the end of the story, the radioactive decay of uranium fuels rods continue for hundreds of thousands of years, and remain deadly for the duration.
Back to today. The reports are sketchy, but thus far it appears that there has been a full meltdown at unit two, and other radiation releases from the deliberate venting of vaporized coolant. Unfortunately, highly dangerous radioisotopes have been released into the environment, including cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-131 and plutonium-239.
In a failed effort to prevent a meltdown, utility workers had dipped fire hoses into the ocean and pumped in seawater to cover the reactor core. (Apparently, at unit two a valve stuck, leaving the rods are fully exposed, leading to a full meltdown.) The containment vessel has been breached. A horrible witches brew of radioactive contaminants is being unleashed. (The mixed-oxide fuel in Unit 3, uranium blended with weapons-grade plutonium, is also troubling.) Another worry is the decades-worth of spent fuel rods stored on site — these pools appear to be failing.
The Fukushima meltdown not only impacts Japan but the entire world as well. The Chernobyl plume traveled around the globe and especially affected Scandinavia – over a thousand miles away the site. Chernobyl was responsible for tens of thousands of cancers.
Here’s the problem — radioisotopes enter the food chain. The radioactive variety of iodine, I-131, is readily absorbed by the thyroid. It is a strong gamma emitter, and once perched in the thyroid, I-131 slices-up the DNA of healthy cells, converting them to malformed cancer cells. Other isotopes pose a threat. Strontium is metabolised in the body as calcium and cesium is absorbed as potassium. Once ingested, these cancer-causing radioactive agents become part of our bones.
With the news of a full meltdown, wind patterns will likely deliver radiation to the West Coast in about five days. As I-131 has a toxic life of 80 days it is advisable for pregnant women and children to ingest potassium iodine (KI) to flood the thyroid with “good” iodine, thus keeping radioactive iodine out of the body. It’s important to note that KI only defeats I-131 and not the other deadly isotopes.
On television this weekend we’ve seen a parade of nuclear industry spokespeople and medically-ignorant physicists downplay the health ramifications. The experts like to say it’s “fear” we have to worry about, not the radiation. Some are even bemoaning the loss of nuclear power as a means of thwarting climate change. (Never mind that virtually every environmental group opposes nuclear power and prefers safe clean renewable energy.)
The fact is that radiation is never healthy. Rather than take industry’s word on it, I encourage you to read what medical researchers and physicians have to say. The National Academy of Science’s latest report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, BIER-VII, says that the smallest dose of low-level ionizing radiation has the potential to cause health risks to humans.
Nuclear technology is so fraught with some many hazards, can we honestly engineer our way out of them? The answer is no. We’re dealing with 5000 degree temperatures, atomic chain reactions, and radiation that remains deadly for hundreds of thousands of years. Even Prometheus couldn’t handle this fire.
For background on the unfolding incident I suggest the following websites:
Washington Post backgrounder
Union of Concerned Scientists blog
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
What can you do?
If you wish to stay apprised of the crisis, please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Activists along the Pacific coast are monitoring for radiation — let me know if you wish to participate.
Encourage local health officials to safely distribute KI pills in orderly fashion: email@example.com
– Jonathan Parfrey
Jonathan Parfrey is executive director of the Green LA Coalition. For thirteen years he served as executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles and currently serves on the board of directors of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.