Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan's unfolding nuclear crisis

Five days after a magnitude 9 earthquake and a massive tsunami ravaged Japan, the country is still trying to pick up the pieces and wade through the debris in the search for survivors. By Wednesday the official death toll had risen above 10,000 but authorities admitted the number of dead was likely to rise significantly. Towns and villages all along the north-east coast of Japan have been virtually wiped off the map and more than half a million people are living in temporary shelters.

Japan is not only reeling from the humanitarian disaster and the widespread destruction. The economy has been severely affected and on Monday’s open the Nikkei dropped significantly with record falls of nearly 14% seen on Tuesday. This is despite massive injections of cash from the Japanese government. Meanwhile authorities are struggling to contain a growing nuclear emergency after explosions, fires and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear power plant.

Unfolding nuclear crisis

While the humanitarian disaster is on a massive scale, media coverage has mainly focused on the events unfolding at the Fukushima reactors. On the day of the earthquake there was some heightened concern after authorities admitted there may be some damage at the Fukushima plant. But it was at 15:36 the next day that the world’s attention became fixed on the nuclear plant after a large explosion tore through the building housing No.1 reactor. Television pictures showed the building shrouded in a cloud of grey smoke which later dissipated to reveal much of the housing stripped away.

Authorities blamed the explosion on the ignition of hydrogen gas that had built up as they attempted to relieve pressure inside the containment vessel housing the fuel rods. It had emerged that at least one reactor was at risk of a possible meltdown as the fuel rods were at least partially uncovered. A race was on to cool the rods and to relieve pressure at the plant.

After the explosion at reactor No.1 it was announced that problems also existed at reactor No.3. Power failures in back-up generators had resulted in an inability to keep water flowing around the fuel rods and on Monday 14th a massive explosion occurred at 11:15 sending a huge cloud of smoke some 600 metres into the air above reactor No.3. This raised greater concern amongst some observers as this was a MOX reactor, using a Uranium-Plutonium mix.

However, authorities insisted that radiation detected outside the plant was due to gases vented from the reactor core which had some traces of radioactive elements. Officials insisted that there had not been a core breach and only a partial meltdown may have occurred. But with a further blast at reactor No.2 at 06:14 on Tuesday and a fire in No.4 reactor where spent fuel rods had been stored, concerns amongst the general population were mounting as to how serious the situation was getting.

Already the authorities had begun to evacuate nearly quarter of a million people in the area surround the plant and declared an exclusion zone extending at least 20 km. However, a BBC correspondent found himself stopped more than 60 km from the power station as early as Sunday. A no fly zone of some 30 km was also put in place and journalists were told by local police to evacuate from the area.

On Wednesday, Yukiya Amano, from the IAEA, said there was the possibility of damage to the bottom part of primary containment vessel at no 2 reactor. And in a confusing delivery of statistics the Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said radiation levels had risen, but were still not a major threat to the population at large.

Radiation levels

In his address Edano initially said levels around Fukushima measured at 800 milli Sieverts [mSv], however this was a mistake and should have been micro Sieverts [μSv]. The reported measurements of radioactivity levels near the plant have fluctuated over recent days and hit levels of 4 mSv or 4,000 μSv. There have been reports that rising radiation levels in several towns and cities across Japan. On Tuesday the Kyodo news agency reported that radiation levels in the city of Maebashi, 100 km NW of Tokyo, and 200 km SW of Fukushima, were up to 10x normal levels [Reuters]. In Tokyo itself there were reports of a minute rise in radiation levels and that radioactive iodine and caesium had been identified, but authorities stressed there was no cause for concern [Reuters].

It is not just Japanese authorities that have measured a rise in radiation. On Monday CNN reported that 17 US navy personnel had been decontaminated after becoming exposed to radiation levels during rescue missions. The USS Ronald Reagan which had been stationed off the coast some 160 km north-east of Fukushima also reported measuring slight increases and moved their position. On Tuesday, two US bases issued advisories to troops after low level radiation was detected at Yokosuka & Atsugi bases in Kanagawa, Japan. The US military recommended personnel & families take precautions according to reports.

The US Department of Defense said Americans on the two military bases south of Tokyo were advised to stay indoors as much as possible. "While there was no danger to the public, Commander, Naval Forces Japan recommended limited precautionary measures for personnel and their families on Fleet Activities Yokosuka and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, including limiting outdoor activities and securing external ventilation systems as much as practical," a US Navy statement said [Fox News].

Russia has also raised concern  after very small increases to background radiation levels elevated. In Vladivostok, a city of 600,000 people some 800 km north-west of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, radiation levels rose to 13 micro-roentgens an hour at 04:00 GMT before falling back to 12 later in the day. According to a spokeswoman for the regional emergencies ministry, up to 30 micro-roentgens an hour is considered safe.

The reported rises in radiation levels, however slight, has prompted many people to buy up stocks of potassium iodide tablets which can saturate the body with iodine making the absorption of radioactive iodine less likely and thus help protect the thyroid gland from the effects of radiation.

Pharmacies in Vladivostok said they had run out of potassium iodide tablets and there is said to be similar situation in pharmacies across Japan [Reuters]. Even as far away as the US sales of the pills have soared with many fearful radiation from the Fukushima plant could reach American shores [LA Times]. The risks may be low for those in the US, and there are also side effects for those taking potassium iodide tablets. In low doses people may see outbreaks of acne, loss of appetite, or upset stomach. More severe side effects which may require medical assistance include fever, weakness, unusual tiredness, swelling in the neck or throat, mouth sores, skin rash, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, irregular heartbeat, numbness or tingling of the hands or feet, or a metallic taste in the mouth. Ironically, some of these symptoms are similar to radiation poisoning.

Confusing statistics

Geiger counter sales have also risen in the wake of the nuclear emergency. But understanding the measurements is not easy. In his book Comments on the Society of the Spectacle the writer Guy Debord argues that the confusing use of opaque measurements set out to confuse and hide the truth.

“Nuclear practices, both military and civil, necessitate a far higher dose of secrecy than in other fields -- which already have plenty, as we already know. To make life -- that is to say, lying -- easier for the sages chosen by the system's masters, it has discovered the utility of changing measurements, to vary them according to a large number of points of view, and refine them, finally juggle them, according to the case, with several figures that are hard to convert. Hence, to measure radioactivity levels, one can choose from a range of units of measurement: curies, becquerels, roentgens, rads alias centigrays, and rems, not forgetting the humble millirads, and sieverts which are worth 100 rems. This evokes the memory of the subdivisions of British currency, the complexity of which foreigners could not quickly master, back in the days when Sellafield was still called Windscale.”

Published in 1988, the short 100 page booklet is perhaps a precursor to the conspiracy theories now being bandied about on the Internet. Whether deliberate or through ineptness, authorities have failed to calm people’s fears concerning the risks posed by the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Greenpeace have criticised the slow flow of information and some nuclear experts have thrown doubt on the accuracy of official information issued. Some have pointed to the pattern of secrecy and cover-ups employed in other nuclear accidents in Japan. "It's impossible to get any radiation readings," said John Large on Sunday. An independent nuclear engineer who has worked for the UK government and been commissioned to report on the accident for Greenpeace International said, "The actions of the Japanese government are completely contrary to their words. They have evacuated 180,000 people but say there is no radiation. They are certain to have readings but we are being told nothing." He said a radiation release was suspected "but at the moment it is impossible to know. It was the same at Chernobyl, where they said there was a bit of a problem and only later did the full extent emerge." [Guardian / Telegraph].

Figures did emerge slowly, but there is still confusion amongst the general public. "What we are seeing follows a clear pattern of secrecy and denial," said Paul Dorfman, co-secretary to the Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters, a UK government advisory committee disbanded in 2004. "The Japanese government has always tended to underplay accidents. At the moment the Japanese claims of safety are not to be believed by anyone. The health effects of what has happened so far are imponderable. The reality is we just do not know. There is profound uncertainty about the impact of the accident."

Even when radiation levels have been released different scales have been reported. Japanese authorities have tended to issue radiation levels measured in Sieverts, though there has been repeated confusion with micro being replaced by milli. Russian authorities in Vladivostok spoke of a 1 micro-roentgen per hour increase in radiation while the US military at bases in Japan and on board naval ship spoke only of slight changes and only one report referred to a 0.5 rem increase. Meanwhile, further muddying the issue one resident in Tokyo began broadcasting a video stream of a geiger counter which showed a CPM reading of 16 [twitpic].

Looming disaster?

Most experts do not believe the crisis will be as bad Chernobyl which was a different type of reactor. The accident which occurred there was also different. In Chernobyl there was an controlled chain reaction and a fire which burned for days sending vast quantities of radioactive material across western Europe.

So far radiation levels appear to have been contained with authorities saying dangerous radioactive levels only existing in the close proximity to the plant itself. The bigger danger is if any of the reactor cores were to be exposed, or a full meltdown were to occur. The fires that have affected reactor No.4 is of greater concern at present since it appears spent fuel rods have been involved and sent some radioactive particles into the air.

A meltdown poses different risks. Should workers remaining at the planting fail to keep the fuel rods cool, the nuclear material could melt and breach the core of the containment vessel. Should this occur there is there possibility the material might enter the water-table and create even greater hazards.


There are some scaremongers who suggest a core breach has already happened, that authorities are lying about actual radiation risks and that a meltdown may be occurring.

One such protagonist is Alex Jones who hosts a radio show from Austin, Texas. Jones who also runs a website called Infowars is well known for his outspoken criticism of governments and corporations who he accuses of covering up everything from poisoning the water supply with fluoride, swamping television networks with propaganda and of attempting to establish a New World Order.

There are some who have pointed to the so-called supermoon as being a cause of the Japanese earthquake. The moon is at its closest approach for nearly 20 years on March 19th and some are pointing to the coincidence of a similar occurrence in 2005 which followed the Boxing Day tsunami in late 2004 [NY Daily News].

"There were SuperMoons in 1955, 1974, 1992 and 2005," meteorologist Mark Paquette says. On his blog he says previous lunar perigees did coincide with extreme events but did not commit himself to a mega-event happening as a result of this years astronomical event.

Others were far more convinced. One user posted a video on YouTube on March 8th which pointed to her prediction that a planetary alignment might precipitate a massive disaster between the 11th and 15th March.

Beyond the conspiracy theories there has also been evidence of increased concern amongst other nations which have called for radiation checks on imported goods from Japan. Singapore, South Korea and China have all announced the checking of products originating in the country. Air China has also cancelled many flights to Tokyo and Chinese authorities have ordered that no planes may stay in Japan overnight. Other airlines have redirected operations to Osaka [Reuters].

Future of nuclear power

Internationally there has been heightened concern over the safety of the nuclear industry. Many countries are evaluating their own nuclear policy with some saying they will carry out safety tests.

Others are resolute in their continued nuclear energy policy despite the potential risks. Three years ago the British government gave the go ahead to build a new generation of nuclear power stations [BBC]. And the new coalition government has reaffirmed its commitment. Whilst nuclear power would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, environmental campaigners remain concerned the danger from nuclear waste management and risks of an accident outweigh any benefits. The concerns over safety is heightened after 4 major accidents in the short history of nuclear power.

Britain was the first country to suffer from a nuclear accident when a fire caused a major radioactive leak at Windscale in Cumbria. The Windscale fire, which struck the atomic plant on 10th October 1957, destroyed the core and released an estimated 750 terabecquerels (TBq) (20,000 curies) of radioactive material into the surrounding environment, including Iodine-131, which is taken up in the body by the thyroid. Consequently milk and other produce from the surrounding farming areas had to be destroyed. In 1979 a partial meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island in the US, and although there was no leak of radioactivity, the clean-up was slow and costly and resulted in a protracted decline in the public popularity of nuclear power, exemplifying for many the worst fears about nuclear technology.

Those fears were realized seven years later when a major accident at a Russian nuclear power plant at Chernobyl resulted in widespread radioactive contamination and many deaths. A 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra deaths due to cancer among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed and 5,000 among the 6 million living nearby. In fact even some twenty years on parts of Britain are still affected by the effects of Chernobyl [Guardian / BBC].

But aside of these high profile cases there has been over twenty significant accidents at civilian plants in the 50 year history of nuclear power [list]. Additionally there has been dozens of military accidents since the 1940s [list].

Proponents of nuclear power say that it is safer now than it has ever been. However there is still concerns over what to do with the low and high level radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power generation. The amount of High Level Waste worldwide is currently increasing by about 12,000 metric tonnes every year, which is the equivalent to about 100 double-decker buses or a two-story structure built on top of a basketball court. And the debate, as to how this waste might be dealt with, continues. With the half-life of some radioactive elements being in excess of millions of years, the problem is of great concern. Most of the isotopes produced have significantly shorter half-lives. Plutonium, 239Pu, has a half-life of 24,100 years, while at the low end of the scale Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days.

For many environmentalists, the damage has already been done. Since 1945, approximately 7700 kg has been released into the Earth’s atmosphere from nuclear tests [Further resources: / / nuclear mapsnuclear maps]

Kevin Kamps, a Nuclear Waste Specialist at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, says it was likely that any changes to the nuclear industry resulting from the Fukushima disaster would likely be only piecemeal and just a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis. "Obviously the Japanese, the most prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis than any country in the world, underestimated the potential of a 9.0 earthquake. Obviously there has to be a reappraisal of safety risks," said Kamps who also belongs to the radioactive waste watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. Kamps opposes licence extensions at more than 20 nuclear power plants in the US. "Fukushima Unit One at the Daiichi Plant was a 40-year reactor. It was the first one to go into crisis.  We have 23 reactors in the United States of the very same design," he said [VoA].

The debate over nuclear power is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Proponents of nuclear energy often point to the fact that there are far few deaths in the nuclear industry than in other energy industries and that it is cleaner. Statistics are difficult to verify as to how many Uranium miners fall victim to cancers, but the coal mining industry is known to kill hundreds every year. The use of fossil fuels indeed cause widespread environmental damage. The damage caused by radioactive waste is less clear, partly because the effects of radiation may not reveal themselves for many years. Even when links are made of increased leukemia rates near to nuclear plants, those who support nuclear power will dispute the claims as having no substantive evidence.

As millions around the world look at the flickering screen and watch the unfolding despair in Japan, there is a reflection once more from Debord’s observations.

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” Debord wrote in his 1968 book Society of the Spectacle. Indeed, as he repeats in his 1988 publication. The society of the spectacle, an autocratic reign of the market economy, has continued to advance, Debord maintains. And this is furthered by the use of the “new wealth of mass communication through mass media.” This is even more true today with the advent of the Internet. But while some might suggest the flow of information makes people more informed, Debord suggests society is hoodwinked. “What is communicated are orders; and with great harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.”

Beyond the politics is the very real and dreadful situation facing the nation of Japan. It will take many months for the country to pick itself up. Families have been torn apart, towns and villages may never be rebuilt and industry will be slow to recover. The economy will suffer in the short term, given the affected area accounts for only 7% of GDP, but the effects will be felt for many years.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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