The shocking results of the latest epidemiological studies are in from Fukushima and they are not good. As summarized by Michael Kelly at Business Insider, the report indicates:
Of more than 38,000 children tested from the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, 36 percent have abnormal growths – cysts or nodules – on their thyroids a year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as reported by ENENews.
This is startling. The Chernobyl meltdown threw much more atmospheric contamination out but has had a much slower progression in poisoning its local children–only about 1.74 percent of tested children in the test area around Chernobyl’ had thyroid nodules five to ten years after the nuclear catastrophe! How to explain this much higher virulence of radiation contamination in Japan? Well, first, they received a very high dose of radiation–mostly radioactive iodine isotopes. This was to be expected given prevailing wind patterns and the reason why the US NRC advised American nationals to evacuate to a distance of 50 miles, not the 20 to 30 kilometers implemented by the Japanese government. That zone was not based on the clear computing modeling available to the Japanese government and it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that the government balked at evacuating the major city of Fukushima in the wake of the tsunami’s chaos. Frankly, even an evacuation zone of fifty miles was inadequate–ENENews has uncovered three children (4, 7, and 10) from one family with pre-cancerous cysts on their thyroids sixty miles from Fukushima Daiichi.
Moreover, the government–in an effort not to panic the population–failed to distribute iodine pills to block the uptake of iodine-131, which has a low half-life of only eight days. Ample stocks of the pills were available in the fallout zone and would have made a major dent in radiation contamination. Indeed, TEPCo did not even measure contamination by iodine-132, because of its short half-life of 2 hours, which meant its threat would dissipate within three days. However, scientists now estimate that 70 percent of the radiation initially released by Fukushima Daiichi was iodine-132. In other words, the failure to distribute iodine pills was governmental malpractice at the highest level.
The government certainly knew that the children of Fukushima were vulnerable–thus the ridiculous expedient of reclassifying the yearly maximum allowable exposure of radiation for children to that of nuclear power plant workers! To put it mildly, this bureaucratic reclassification of health standards was based on no scientific evidence (children, as their bones and other major organs are still growing are much more vulnerable to radiation exposure than adults) and provoked a major mothers’ protest against the government.
Although thyroid cancer is highly treatable and is operable, this level of exposure for Fukushima’s children is nothing short of catastrophic. There is a scientific consensus that at least 4,000 excess cancer deaths occurred in the wake of Chernobyl’ (a consensus, by the way, not shared by the nuclear industry–surprise!), but careful epidemiological studies sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimate as many as 25,000 excess cancer deaths. Using more conservative methodology than the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Health Organization found 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer among the children of Chernobyl’ in Belarus’, Ukraine and Russia (a suspiciously rounded number, by the way). Careful studies have also shown that the risk does not mitigate over time–in other words, for their three days of exposure to iodine-132 hundreds of thousands of Fukushima children have to look forward to three or four (if not more) decades of careful cancer monitoring and higher cancer mortality. And again, the levels of exposure for Fukushima children are at least an order of magnitude higher than at Chernobyl’. The health impact of Fukushima seems likely to be far more severe than Chernobyl’–an impact that might have been substantially mitigated by quick government action. So, for those keeping notes, the Soviet communist system, allegedly indifferent to human suffering, responded far more responsibly to the threat of radioactive exposure towards its children than capitalist and democratic (well, “managed” democratic) Japan.
In the weeks and months following the Fukushima fiasco (which is still not stabilized, despite PR reports to the contrary), many of the apologists for the nuclear energy and so-called advocates for “green energy” assured the public that Chernobyl’ had not been so bad (even disputing the highly conservative WHO reporting on increased mortality) and dismissing the long-term health threat of the accident. Indeed, the health threat of Fukushima, even with these shocking thyroid results known, is being systematically underplayed in the business press. For a good sample, let’s look at what Business Week has to say about a new study that puts the range of excess cancer deaths from twenty-four to 2,500 (now that’s precise!) with an average of 180:
“They have demonstrated there are no significant public health effects” from radiation exposure, said Evan Douple, associate chief of research at the Hiroshima Radiation Effects Research Foundation. “Their best estimate of 130 cancer deaths in Japan would be lost in the background wash of the hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths that would be occurring in the million or so people in the population exposed.”
I would note, though I am certainly no medical expert, that the assumptions of this study consider the majority of radiation to have fallen on the ocean thus cutting exposure by as much as ten times (a somewhat dubious proposition given what we now know from the computer modeling of wind patterns at the time–Fukushima city got a big dose) and they are only considering the 900,000 terabecquerels of the iodine equivalent of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137, without accounting for the massive release of iodine-132. So, color me skeptical. Even so, if the deaths were only twenty-four it seems a bit cavalier to term those poor victims as “lost in the background wash”–I don’t recall that we consider dead miners or oil rig workers as “lost in the background wash” of the industrial accident rate.
The thing is, there has been a consistent downplaying the likely health effects of the Fukushima accident and an over-hyping of nuclear power’s “green” energy profile. The simple fact of the matter is that nuclear energy is one of the most dangerous and polluting ways to boil a gallon of water–but that since its pollution is contained (mostly) its highly polluting nature is obscured (out of sight in a spent fuel rod pool, out of mind–well until the pool burns like Fukushima-Daiichi 4). But the effects of the earthquake and tsunami on Fukushima call into question assumptions that this deadly pollution can be contained. Remember, the thyroid problems at Fukushima are the results of relatively benign isotopes–the heavier radioactive isotopes such as plutonium (the demon in the box)–were not released in the accident in large amounts, at least not that we know. Radioactive strontium or plutonium exposure would have been a far different matter.
One of the pleasant fictions that allow us to continue not simply building new nuclear plants but re-commissioning obsolete ones with extraordinary levels of spent fuel in storage is a false assumption of risk. In a presentation before the California Energy Commission in July of 2011, a very experienced and respected nuclear engineer, Peter Lam, called into question these assumptions, as reported by Elizabeth Douglass of Inside Climate News. Lam argued that the industry’s habit of not planning for statistically improbably events was completely undermined by the Fukushima accident. His power point is extremely interesting. He notes that two of the five events deemed in nuclear risk analysis to be “extremely unlikely”–a station blackout and a spent fuel pool accident–in fact occurred at Fukushima Daiichi and of the three others, all might have occurred and one (reactor vessel rupture) is likely to have occurred. More telling, the “black swan” of nuclear risk management–an event assumed to be so extremely unlikely to be nearly impossible–multiple simultaneous reactor accidents, in fact occurred. This chain of events under existing risk management models should be like hitting the trifecta at the race tracks three times in a row! As Lam would somewhat dryly note, “Probability dismissal is not an exact science. By [using] it, one can be very, very wrong.” Lam was once a strong supporter of probability dismissal and has since urged “a simple dismissal [of extreme accidents] based on seemingly valid analysis should not be relied upon again.” Or simply put, the idea that “stuff doesn’t happen” is extremely suspect because as Fukushima has proven, stuff does happen.
Of course, not all potential catastrophes are due to Mother Nature. The second major assumption in adopting nuclear energy is its corporate owners and governmental regulators would be responsible stewards of the technology and put the public’s safety concerns in the forefront of their practices. Not to put it delicately, but the Japanese Diet’s comprehensive report on the Fukushima disaster makes it clear that both assumptions, in particular for TEPCo, were pure fantasy. The supposedly brilliant nuclear engineers who operate these nuclear plants, their sober-minded bosses and the watchdogs placed over them systematically cheated safety for profit margins and showed a remarkably arrogant lack of concern for potential problems such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and evacuations. Those guys at TEPCo are hardly unique in this. The NRC has finished its investigation of the catastrophic failure of a steam generator in January at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which released superheated radioactive steam and triggered a shutdown. In this case the safety precautions worked and the nuclear core scrammed, but despite the NRC’s finding that no one was at fault in this incident, its background calls into question our nuclear industry and its regulators criteria for “fault.” For one thing, the new steam generator was not designed for the existing piping system and literally shook the piping system to pieces, leaving hundreds of critical pipes in a weakened position. Now, the computer modeling of this major redesign failed to anticipate the levels of stress put on the piping since it underestimated the vibrations the new steam generators (there were two) would transfer to the system–vibrations higher than the existing equipment’s design tolerances. Within 18 months of the retrofit San Onofre began to literally shake itself apart. Now, one would like to think that smart guys in white jackets might have seen this coming, but in fact the smart guys in white jackets cut corners. They and their corporate masters as Southern California Edison classified the retrofit as not being a “major” redesign, which would have required a much more extensive evaluation and oversight process, though clearly adding major new equipment to thirty-year old equipment by a new purveyor (Mitsubishi) to increase efficiency fits the definition of a major redesign to any reasonably-minded observer. But not to the NRC, which in a stunning example of “regulatory capture” the likes of which the Japanese Diet blamed on the deficiencies of Japanese culture (as if!), simply signed off on what Southern California Edison wanted–no doubt to save some “shareholder value.” As the always astute Gregg Levine points out at Firedog Lake,
So, the major design changes at San Onofre were, to turn a phrase, very much by design. But to call them major design changes would have increased the cost, the time, and the amount of oversight required, so, as the NRC report seems to make clear, the rules are written to insure that such changes pass under the regulatory radar.”
Yup, pretty much. Actually, the San Onofre accident is an example of getting lucky. Had an earthquake hit the plant prior to the steam pipe rupture that alerted the plant’s operators of the piping problems, there might have been a catastrophic failure of the coolant system leading to meltdown. Oh, but let’s not worry about such “Black Swans,” it’s not like San Onofre is in a seismically active zone. Except that it probably is–thanks to the new Oceanside fault being discovered offshore. That the procedures were followed in San Onofre’s case and it left the plant susceptible to a systemic failure should warrant a major revision of the NRC’s and other nuclear regulatory agencies’ review process. Funny how the guy pushing precisely that line of prudence, former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, was pushed out of office in a shadowy campaign orchestrated by Darrell Issa (R-San Diego) the powerful chairman of the House Oversight Committee and recipient of much Southern Californian Edison cash, as well as a mutiny from his own more industry-compliant commissioners. Well, I’m sure we can trust Edison, right? It’s not like they’d do a slipshod retrofit on their nuclear plant that literally shakes the thing to pieces just to pursue more profits? Right? As the San Onofre case shows the level of arrogance, incompetence, corruption and regulatory passivity easily equals that of the same attitudes excoriated in the Japanese Diet Report on Fukushima. San Diego got lucky, Fukushima didn’t. And as Peter Lam warns us, luck (excuse me, “probability dismissal”) is no way to run a nuclear energy industry.
But who will pay for all this malfeasance? In the end, the children will pay–especially if the alleged grown-ups do not take easy steps to mitigate disaster, such as evacuation and the provision of iodine pills, in the wake of the inevitable next “Black Swan” event. Profits before people, including little people, is the motto of the nuclear energy industry and its putative regulators, as shown by its own clear actions. But don’t worry, since the resulting human suffering is “lost in the background wash,” we should all just accept thyroidectomies for children as the cost of doing business. Or something.