A look at the latest IAEA report on decontamination

I first became familiar with the nature of IAEA reports when I was desperate for information on the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi, but it wasn’t long before I got a sickening feeling that these reports, written in bureaucratic, disembodied prose, were glossing over the seriousness of the event, as if they were written by accomplices to the crime. I didn’t quite know how to describe this impression until I saw it done very well in a forum posting written by R. Cromack of the Department of Nuclear Engineering, UC Berkley, shortly after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi:

The nebulous, nonspecific, perversely detail-averse insistence upon unhelpful platitudes, like "progress has been made" and the rote repetition of what minimally successful steps are being taken to avert further calamity, and the slow, unheralded release of absolutely nightmarish information.

Since then, the information flowing out of the IAEA hasn’t improved. I stopped taking this organization seriously and found much better analysis in just about any other source. Even the national and corporate broadcasters in Japan were becoming critical now that their TEPCO sponsorship money had melted away.

However, I had become so appalled recently by the haphazard radioactivity decontamination efforts in Japan that I was curious to see what the IAEA had to say about them. As it turned out, my faith in both the national and international management of the crisis sank even lower. In the paragraphs below I offer commentary on a few outstanding passages of the recent IAEA report on decontamination work in Fukushima prefecture.

"The decision making process shall provide for the involvement of a wide range of interested parties in the definition, implementation and verification of remediation programs and for regular public information exchange on the implementation of these programs."

This sounds wonderful, but somehow I doubt that the IAEA or Japanese regulators seriously believe the Japanese authorities should involve all interested parties. We can expect that interested parties will not include anti-nuclear groups and the numerous scientists around the world who disagree with IAEA-WHO conclusions about the health effects of low-level radiation.

"Managing expectations is essential."

Does this require further comment? Managing expectations! The arrogant, paternalistic assumption here is obviously that knowledge and power flow from the IAEA and other pools of expertise in the nuclear priesthood toward a public whose views have to be manipulated.

In areas below 20mSv per year "...the ultimate decision whether to remediate or not rests with the landowner."

Why? Custom and law already dictate that private property owners are restricted in many ways as to what they can do on their private property. Considering the density of Japanese cities, and even of villages, there is no reason why an individual should not demand that a neighbor make every effort to reduce radioactivity on his property.

"The team was impressed by the strong commitment to the remediation efforts shown by Fukushima prefecture and the municipalitiesThe team benefitted from visiting two school sites, from which the contamination to a large extent had been removed in a well-organized manner by volunteers, mostly parents and pupils. The Mission Team acknowledged the efforts of the city administration and large number of volunteers as an important and effective clean-up and self-help method.”

OK, a nice tip of the hat toward the spirit of the cleanup effort, but note the mention of “pupils.” Yes, the IAEA experts express no explicit rebuke that children were put to work cleaning up radioactive soil. However, in the rest of the report there are remarks (see below) hinting that this was unwise, but unfortunately they are veiled in such diplomatic, vague language that they may have no effect on the intended audience.

"The BSS [Basic Safety Standards] require that any measure taken is justified to ensure that it does more good than harm and it is commensurate with the risk… Usually, remediation actions also have social and economic implications and decisions have to take into account all aspects of a specific situation. The optimization of protection and safety - as required by the BSS - is a process for ensuring that exposures and the number of exposed individuals are as low as reasonably achievable... It requires both qualitative and quantitative judgments to be made."

"The team recognizes and values the strategy of involving local people to help themselves with the decontamination of their properties. However, it has been noticed that for more complex work the need of specialized services will be required... it is important to observe that appropriate training, supervision and technical assistance are given. Radiation protection and monitoring should also be in place when integrating local people in remediation work."

"...the exposure of workers undertaking remedial actions is controlled in accordance with the relevant requirements for occupational exposure… Remediation work may generate residues that contain enhanced levels of activities. According to the BSS, it is the responsibility of the government to set reference levels for the disposal of residues in municipal landfills or for landfills to be designed in particular for the disposal of those residues."

“Activities!” George Orwell would smile sardonically if he could see the contortions of language dreamed up in this report. Translation of “activites”: radiation emitting particles.

"...due to the strict activity limits for foodstuffs, the intake of food is very likely not an important pathway, its contribution to the doses should be explicitly assessed."

Again, the IAEA team seeks to rebrand radioactivity as merely “activity.” They show here that they are impressed with the Japanese government’s efforts to keep contaminated food off the market. This is completely at odds with the public’s extreme wariness about the safety of the food supply. The IAEA makes no mention here of the failure to intervene early with farmers in Fukushima prefecture to keep contaminated beef off the market – to mention just one example.

"Access to the 'Deliberate Evacuation Area' is free and unmarked. The team encourages considering the use of appropriate indications/markings in the routes and simple instructions for the public when entering or leaving these areas."

Good idea, but is there any way this could be said a little more forcefully?

"Since radiation is a natural part of our environment, the key issue is to establish reasonable and credible limits (reference levels) regarding exposures that need to be reduced... It is therefore important to avoid classifying those materials that do not cause exposures that would warrant special isolation measures as 'radioactive waste.'"

Here we go again with the condescending reminder that radiation is natural. Yes, we all know that by now. Some of us even know what IAEA experts know but refrain from saying: Many fission decay products are not found in nature. They didn’t exist on this planet before 1945. Naturally occurring radon is an inert gas that doesn’t play a role in biological mechanisms. On the other hand, strontium 90 did not exist on earth before 1945, and it behaves chemically like calcium in organisms and causes bone cancer and leukemia. However, it is hardly mentioned at all in the reporting of radionuclide data, even though every expert in the field knows it was emitted in significant quantities in a predictable ratio to the cesium that was released. Why the silence? It could be because the some of the most compelling evidence linking radiation to health effects is found in the studies of baby teeth of American children who were exposed to atomic weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s (see The Tooth Fairy Project). Other studies show that levels “below regulatory concern” emitted from nuclear power plants are also seen to accumulate in baby teeth.

"Several socio-psychological elements play an important role in the decision making process. Therefore, the key issues include stakeholder involvement..."

Here is another mention of stakeholder involvement, but the wording here hints that the psychological maladjustment of the public will need to be massaged into acceptance of a message handed down from above.

"...the main strategy adopted by the Japanese authorities relates to the concept of decontamination. At this stage, it is important to stress that decontamination is only one of the many available options to be used to achieve the reduction of doses..."

Bloggers have more aptly described the recent obsession with decontamination as desperate, pathetic, hopeless, dangerous, misguided, and other such terms. Perhaps this is what the IAEA experts were quietly thinking to themselves as they observed cleanup efforts. As usual, though, everything they write has to be couched in such diplomatic, face-saving language that it is doubtful that the urgency of the rebuke will register with the intended target.

"The major strategy being considered is the removal of top soil (up to 5 cm of the soil layer) due to the well-known behavior that radiocesium accumulates in this part of the soil.... [but this]... also involves the risk of generating unnecessarily huge amounts of residual materials. If removal of the top layers of the soil is one of the selected options for wider use, a similar system would be useful that is in place for naturally occurring radioactive material residues... This would allow the removed material to be used in selected applications, e.g. together with clean material in the construction of structures, banks, reclamations or roads that will not pose undue risks to members of the public. This system is known as clearance.

“Used in selected applications!” “Clearance!” Again we see here the IAEA equating anthropogenic, biologically harmful radionuclides with naturally occurring radioactive isotopes that are found in soil at low levels. They suggest that cesium and strontium can just be diluted into concrete and landfill and used for roads and riverbanks, and this dubious practice can be called “clearance” to make it sound less revolting.

"It is important to avoid classifying as 'radioactive waste' such waste materials that do not cause exposures that would warrant special radiation protection measures… The measurements indicate that a large part of the contaminated material collected from clean-up actions at urban demonstration sites is only slightly contaminated. The adequate pathways for such material could be found outside of the category of radioactive waste."

This directly contradicts the IAEA’s adoption of the linear no threshold policy which states that there is no cutoff line below which radiation has no harmful effects on living things. Indeed, there are levels of cesium deposition below which a population seems to suffer few detectable harmful consequences. In the most pessimistic studies of Chernobyl, in the areas with more than 185,000 Bq/m^2 in the soil, poor people with no access to uncontaminated food developed many health problems, but below this level causal relations become less clear.

People in New York state might take some reassurance from this when they learn that weapons testing fallout left only a few hundred Bq/m^2 on farmland. Then again, we know that cancer rates have increased in recent decades, and we know that the cause of cancer can never be traced to a definite source.

People in Chiba prefecture (200 km south of Fukushima) might take some comfort from knowing that TEPCO dumped only 20,000 Bq/m^2 on the local rice farms. But there remains the theoretical possibility that one atom of cesium in my muscle tissue is enough to trigger the growth of a malignant tumor. As a stakeholder in this issue, whose input is so valued by the IAEA, I might want to say that I have zero tolerance for having to live with an “acceptable” level of these fission products in my neighborhood.

"The team draws the authorities' attention to the potential risk of misunderstandings that could arise if the population is only or mainly concerned with contamination concentrations [Bq/m^2 for surfaces, or Bq/m^3 for air] rather than dose levels. The investment in time and effort in removing contamination beyond certain levels from everywhere, such as all forest areas and areas where additional exposure is relatively low, does not automatically lead to reduction of doses for the public. It also involves the risk of generating unnecessarily huge amounts of residual material."

The IAEA makes a good point here. An effort to decontaminate all the forested areas of northern Japan would definitely be futile. The more practical solution is to keep people away from the contamination, but this forces the admission that these areas have been lost to society as places to enjoy and exploit.

"Since the provisional regulation value for radioactivity in rice is 500 Bq/kg, the conservative transfer factor of 0.1 implies that the limit of cultivation for the rice field soil is 5,000 Bq/kg. [converts variably, depending on soil, by a factor of 40-60 to give a figure in Bq/m^2, thus 200,000 Bq/m^2 is OK for rice farming]. However, the first preliminary results from the demonstration sites established by the Japanese authorities in the affected areas indicate that the actual transfer factor is likely significantly lower... The team is of the opinion that the conservatism in the transfer factor can be removed when the tests are completed and realistic factors have been firmly established."

The words “conservative” and “conservatism” are used throughout the IAEA report as a poor substitute for “sensible precaution.” Caution always seems sensible, while conservatism can sometimes be called into question. While the Japanese public seems to feel that its government has been too complacent about setting limits and monitoring the food supply, the IAEA suggests here that they have been engaged in too much “conservatism.” It is suspicious that previous studies on the transfer rate of cesium from soil to rice grains are now suddenly wrong. Japanese authorities have determined, after one experiment, that “the actual transfer factor is likely significantly lower.” How convenient that this result was obtained for the nation’s staple food supply.

"The team recognizes that in the early phase of the accident, conservatism was a good way to manage uncertainties and public concerns... For the next cropping season there is room for removing some of the conservatism..."

Again with the conservatism?! If there had been any conservatism, all farmers over a wide area of northern Japan would have been told to take the season off, and compensated for their losses. Instead, the public was sold the idea that they should support Fukushima by buying its agricultural products. In the worst case, heavily contaminated beef found its way into school lunches in Yokohama. By the time of the harvest, the public had lost confidence in the safety of the food supply, and most consumers sensibly engaged in “conservatism” by avoiding all products from northern Japan, regardless of claims as to their safety.   

"... validated models of urban decontamination were already developed by the international community and provided with sets of model parameters and practical measures for cleanup. The mission team was not in a position to understand to what extent these models are utilized."

Translation of the magnificent understatement: Japanese authorities have made no effort to learn about established protocols. The cleanup effort has been random, chaotic, improvised, and dangerous.

"The mission team encourages the Japanese authorities to continue the useful monitoring of freshwater and marine systems…. Remediation of these areas was not addressed in detail by the Japanese counterparts during the meeting with the mission team. However, the exposure to members of the public through this pathway generally is of minor importance."

What a relief. After all, it’s only the freshwater supply!

"The current waste management strategy is considering the collection of contaminated material in dispersed temporary storages prior to consolidation in a smaller number of interim storages, pursuing large scale incineration of combustible material in available municipal solid waste incinerators equipped with electro-static precipitators and bag houses.... It should be noted that a major proportion of the very large volumes of generated material that is to be collected will likely be only slightly contaminated.... The adequate characterization of collected material will then allow the distinction between material that can be unconditionally cleared, conditionally cleared and material that has to be managed as nuclear waste."

Again, the report mentions the foolishness of declaring all radioactive materials as radioactive waste. There has been much media coverage of the plan to burn organic materials and sewage waste which contain high levels of cesium (and of course, other dangerous radionuclides which are never mentioned). Critics have been alarmed by the apparent stupidity of such a plan because it would only “revolatilize” the radionuclides into the air so that they fall once again over the land. This IAEA report is the first mention I have seen of “electro-static precipitators” that can capture the fly ash which contains most of the radionuclides. Do they really solve the problem (assuming the fly ash will be stored properly as nuclear waste)? A couple of sources I checked were optimistic, but these come from studies favored by the energy industry.

Assuming that all of the uranium and thorium would be emitted into the fly ash and that the electrostatic precipitators would capture and remove 99% of the fly ash, the emissions of radioactive trace elements to the atmosphere from a 1000 MW coal-fired power plant would be 52 kg/yr of uranium and 128 kg/yr of thorium. The average annual radiation dose received by a person from all sources is 360 millirem. The annual radiation dose (from naturally occurring radioactivity in coal) received by persons living within 80 km of a coal-fired power plant is estimated to be 0.03 millirem.

The authors make some questionable assumptions without explaining the rationale for them. Another study on this technology found different figures for the efficiency of precipitators:

Electrostatic precipitators on the stack of Unit No. 2 of the Neal Station removed over 70% of the radionuclides entering the stack in association with fly ash, and thus the precipitators appear to be of value in controlling radionuclide emissions. Other particulate emission control devices, e.g., bag houses, should also be very effective in removing radionuclides that enter the stack in association with fly ash.

Shall I quibble over the difference between these studies? 70% is close enough to 99%, isn’t it? The crucial difference between these studies and the problem in Japan is that I suspect coal has levels of radionuclides that are orders of magnitude smaller than the what is found in the sewage sludge and organic waste in northern Japan. The 1 – 30% of the radionuclides (perhaps more if these studies are wrong) that might escape from smokestacks could still be a significant amount in terms of health impacts.

"Pursuing a management strategy for all of these contaminated materials as radioactive waste due to over-conservatism would lead to enormous challenges in the timely establishment of a completely new infrastructure with regard to human resources, transportation and large facilities for processing and storage... it would probably result in delays in the clean-up to allow displaced citizens to return and continue their lives as early as possible."

The gist of the IAEA report is that Japanese authorities have been thinking too much about decontamination and not enough about reducing exposure to radiation in practical ways. The report says overly ambitious decontamination efforts will get in the way of allowing “displaced citizens to return and continue their lives as early as possible," but this is a contradiction. In order for people to return, they will need to feel that decontamination has been thorough, cautious and complete. People will not want to return if they know that the effort has been constrained by the realities of limited public will to help them, or that it is just impossible. If the radiation around one’s home and the village school ground have been “mitigated,” that’s a partial fix. Yet the local farmers cannot grow food and people cannot walk in the local forests, or fish in the streams. The village doctor had the financial resources to retire early and leave, and no young doctor is likely to replace her. In various other ways, the village is not what it once was. How can this be construed as “the continuation of their lives?”

The report is correct for implying that a widespread decontamination effort would be ill-advised, but wrong for suggesting that people should return as early as possible. The questions the report raises are rather whether it is the radionuclides that can be practically removed from the land, or the people, and whether people should be forced to live a compromised life on damaged land. Perhaps it’s time to think about giving them homes elsewhere.

The report makes it clear that resources will be constrained by “socio-psychological elements” and “social and economic implications.” “Expectations will have to be managed;” that is, reduced. Why does this agency of the United Nations, which is normally so concerned with human rights and the dignity of the individual, promote this idea that victims of a nuclear disaster should go back to land that can now provide them with only a life much diminished from what it once was?

Aside from the IAEA’s concern for remediation of the situation in Fukushima, there is something else that the Japanese people and the world need more than platitudes about recovery and the continuation of lives. It would be nice to see an expression of contrition from this international agency for failing to press Japan to give up its nuclear industry before the Fukushima accident. It is now obvious to the world, and to many nuclear engineers, that the most seismically dangerous place in the world should not be home to dozens of nuclear reactors. All of these reactors, as well as the fast breeder Monju reactor and the fuel reprocessing site in Rokkasho, have been built upon wishful assessments of earthquake intensity, height of tsunamis, and location of fault lines. More than ineffectual reports on cleanup efforts, we need an international overseer who will speak frankly and harshly to Japanese reactor operators who will continue to take reckless risks. It was years of cautious, diplomatic hesitation to save Japanese face that led the IAEA not to openly criticize Japan for its long record of corruption and mishaps. This team encourages considering the abandonment of over-conservatism in criticism of the Japanese nuclear industry. This team favors the use of appropriately strong criticism, punishment, international humiliation and enforcement to prevent the next Japanese earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome, a real and present danger which could have a much greater global impact than the present catastrophe.


Read this book!

“When politicians come from abroad with the intention of helping, the result is no more than a revolting solidarity among politicians and a string of falsehoods tossed off to the media. If the Japanese people continue to believe this kind of low-level news reporting and keep their mouths shut, the world will pass on by and leave the country and its industry behind and isolated. If the people don’t come to grips with the seriousness of the danger of the ongoing nuclear disaster and show the decisiveness to put an end to the country’s nuclear power program immediately, the world will have no reason to believe in Japanese intelligence.”


If wolves could understand the risks

The American public broadcaster PBS recently aired a documentary called Radioactive Wolves. The film (the link goes to a youtube video) examines the flourishing wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), and raises fascinating questions about whether this land will ever recover from the worst industrial accident in history.

While pro and anti-nuclear activists have always had extremely different conclusions about the effects of long-lasting, low-level radiation, a comment by the director of Radioactive Wolves, Klaus Feichtenberger, offers a fundamental point that both sides should be able to agree on. An interviewer asked him:
"Q. We are expecting to see animals in trouble here, struggling with radiation poisoning and mutations. How is it that nothing seems to be wrong?

A. In the first few years after the accident, when high concentrations of various radionuclides dotted the land, there were, in fact, many casualties. In the wild, any sick animal will soon disappear. Twenty-five years down the road, much of the fall-out has been diluted by water or sand, washed away or blown away by the wind. The ambient radiation is not very high, although dirty spots with Plutonium in the ground remain and will remain for a long time. According to a very elaborate study by Belarusian scientists, 4 to 6 % of every new generation of small rodents suffers some sort damage from radiation. These individuals will usually not reproduce. If they do, they do not seem to pass on radiation-induced changes to the next generation. The overall population is not affected by a loss of 4 to 6 % per generation.
Q. Would we be more affected by radiation than the animals here? Why are people not allowed to return to the zone?
A. Simply because 4 to 6% of all babies being in some way handicapped would be a disaster for humans, even though a human population as a whole would continue to live."

So, while anti-nuclear activists could concede the point here that some animals appear to be thriving, by a revised definition of the word thriving, pro-nuclear activists have to admit that the finding means little to humans. The question is not whether a location is fit of habitation, or whether the local radiation is going to give me cancer, but whether it is fit for human procreation. The anti-nuclear side can admit that most adults can indeed tolerate fairly high levels of radiation, but the pro-nuclear side has to admit that fetuses and children can be severely damaged by very low levels of radiation. This is why the CEZ will remain uninhabited, and why people in Fukushima are justified in wanting compensation to leave the area. Despite government expenditures to prop up the economy of contaminated areas, these areas are probably doomed. The market will speak. No one will want to raise children in such areas, and it is impossible to imagine any revitalization plan that can succeed in the absence of young people.

In April, 2011, Wired Magazine covered the controversy over wildlife studies in the CEZ, discussing the conflicting research findings on whether wildlife really was recovering. The article was more supportive of the view that the bad effects have been exaggerated, but it mentioned one grim qualification that should give pause to the optimists who think this land is going to recover:

"While iodine-131 decayed long ago and the strontium and cesium are slowly becoming less potentially lethal, the hot particles of plutonium-241 scattered across the landscape are actually decaying into an even more toxic isotope, americium-241. A more powerful emitter of alpha radiation than plutonium, americium is also more soluble and can easily find its way into the food chain. Americium-241, in turn, decays into neptunium-237, another energetic alpha emitter that has a half-life of more than 2 million years. As of yet, the long-term effect of americium-241 on animals remains largely unknown."


The Fukushima disaster leads to the discovery of pre-existing threats

Mitsubishi Quietly Cleans Up Its Former Refinery
from the New York Times, March 8, 2011
BUKIT MERAH, Malaysia — Hidden here in the jungles of north-central Malaysia, in a broad valley fringed with cave-pocked limestone cliffs topped with acacia and durian trees, lies the site of the largest radiation cleanup yet in the rare earth industry
Residents blamed a rare earth refinery for birth defects and eight leukemia cases within five years in a community of 11,000 — after many years with no leukemia cases. Seven of the leukemia victims have since died.
The Bukit Merah case is little known even elsewhere in Malaysia, and virtually unknown in the West, because Mitsubishi Chemical quietly agreed to fix the problem even without a legal order to do so.

It was highly ironic that this report appeared on March 8, 2011, just three days before Japan was hit with a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, and it provides a window into an aspect of nuclear issues that lies beyond the sensational news of the recent catastrophic accident. That is, it illustrates how the extent of radioactive pollution has steadily increased and is only now coming to public awareness.
Defenders of nuclear energy constantly remind critics that life evolved with radiation, that there have always been variable levels of background radiation during the existence of our species. The problem with understanding the effects of normal background radiation is that our knowledge of it developed concurrently with the radiation added to the environment by human activities. As soon as we were able to measure radiation and begin global surveys of “natural” background radiation, large-scale mining and fossil fuel burning had already been underway for over a century. These activities are not normally thought of as connected to radiation contamination, but it is a fact that radon gas has been safely stored underground during the time that life evolved. When the Industrial Revolution began, we began to rip open the earth, releasing this gas by digging holes in the ground and by burning fossil fuels. By the 20th century, when we had the technology to measure radiation, we were also busy mining and enriching uranium, and testing hundreds of nuclear weapons. So there is no starting baseline with which to distinguish “natural” radiation from man-made radiation. Furthermore, it is reasonable to suspect that what we call natural radiation is now rapidly increasing as the pace of global development accelerates and we become more desperate to squeeze out the last joules of energy from the world’s carbon and uranium reserves.
Radiation has also become a part of our lives due to its uses in medical therapy and industrial applications. When hospitals use radioisotopes for diagnosis and treatment of cancer, they do their best to handle the materials properly, but these materials stay in the world until they decay, and it’s not possible to keep all of them isolated from the environment. After some treatments, patients are radioactive and they are told to stay home and avoid contact with children and pregnant women, but there have been several cases of them setting off radiation detectors as they moved through tunnels and airports. Even if they stay home while they eliminate radioisotopes from their bodies, doing so means that these materials travel through sewers and back into the environment.
Industrial applications of radioactive materials are just as problematic. Smoke detectors and other instruments use small amounts of radioactive materials. The irradiation of food and sewage is now a routine practice. Considering the many gross failures of government regulatory systems in recent years, it would be naïve to think that all of this material is properly handled through its life cycle from production to disposal.
The accident at Fukushima has brought this issue into focus because this is the first time a large scale nuclear accident has occurred in the age of the internet and inexpensive consumer grade geiger counters. Thousands of people have bought their own dosimeters, and since the accident they have always been one step ahead of official sources in finding hotspots and confirming or refuting official statistics. What is just as alarming as the fission products from Fukushima are the discoveries of radiation sources that have been with us for a long time.
Over the summer, several blog and Youtube reports were posted by people who were on the lookout for Fukushima fallout in North America. 
One intrepid reporter travelled through Western Canada and wiped down his windshield after every thunder shower, finding high levels of radiation in the paper towels he used. He even managed to set up an elaborate Youtube channel with advertising revenue and requests for donations, and he managed to promote a particular brand of geiger counter in his reports to finance his trip across Canada. The problem was that he was reporting on a phenomenon called radon washout, which has been written about in scientific papers since long before the meltdowns in Fukushima. Radon gas in the atmosphere becomes concentrated by the electrical charge of lightning, then rains down in heavy amounts in certain areas. The radiation from radon decays away in a few hours, something which wouldn’t happen if the rain contained fission products from a meltdown. Any commenters on this Youtube channel who pointed out the flawed assumption were quickly dismissed as trolls hired by the nuclear industry to monitor internet discussion. This shows how scientific skepticism has been pushed aside in favor of polarized ideology and sensational reporting.
Other bloggers and video posters found similar findings from rainwater in Toronto and St. Louis over the summer of 2011. A construction crew in Niagara Falls, New York found high levels of radiation in the soil under a road they were tearing up. A man from California riding a train in Chiba, Japan, found that his seat was giving off 10 microsieverts per hour. This level was much higher than even the alarming hotspots that have been found in Chiba since the Fukushima meltdowns, so the only plausible explanation was that someone who had recently undergone radiation therapy was on the train. In a residential neighborhood of Tokyo, citizens with Geiger counters found a radiation level that was much above the hottest hotspots that had been found in the Tokyo area. It turned out that there were vials of luminescent radium paint inside a nearby house, and evidence suggested they had been there since the 1950s.
All these cases point to the possibility that we are living in a world that has steadily increasing amounts of man-made radioactivity. We are becoming aware of it now only because there has been a large nuclear accident that caused thousands of citizens to obtain technology that was never available to them before. One can easily imagine, for example, that the political fallout of nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s would have been much different if citizens had been able to do their own monitoring and post results to shared databases on the internet. After Chernobyl and until the end of the Soviet system, it was illegal to measure radiation, even for scientists who had access to equipment to do it. In Japan this year there have been grumblings from some politicians about amateurs taking their own readings and publicizing them, but they seem to have given up trying to stop it.
These radiation findings also bring to public awareness the question of what it means exactly when we talk about “natural” background radiation. Radon gas is in the ground, and since we have been ripping open the ground and burning its contents (oil, coal, gas) at an accelerating pace for 200 years, it is logical that science would want to ask how this has increased the amount of radon that living organisms are exposed to. This question is especially relevant when we think of the scale of uranium and rare metal mining, open pit mining, the Alberta Oil Sands, and the large amount of electricity still generated by burning coal. All of these activities release radon into the atmosphere. Research on these emissions concludes that they make up a small amount of all the exposure one gets from medical x-rays and cosmic radiation. However, it seems there has been no research done to compare natural levels of radiation in the 18th century with natural levels in the 21st century, probably because there is no way to establish the baseline level that existed before the Industrial Revolution. In the meantime, it is reasonable to wonder if there may be nothing natural about the levels of radiation that can be detected in rainfall after a summer thunderstorm. The world may seem romantically refreshed and electrified after a summer squall, but don’t be tempted to drink from the rain barrel in your backyard.


“Tough” moral choices: Save the farmers or save the children?

A few years ago Harvard University launched an e-learning initiative in order to make the knowledge of Harvard accessible to a global audience. The most successful professor in this program has been philosophy professor Michael Sandel. His lectures, freely accessible over the Internet, have become enormously popular in Asia. He has appeared on television in Japan numerous times, and at a lecture series at Tokyo University there were scalpers selling tickets to get in.

In his lectures, Professor Sandel focuses on moral paradoxes, and he encourages students to comment and on dilemmas that cannot be solved according to rigid moral rules. For example, you are the driver of a runaway trolley car heading down a track toward a crew of five workers who are on the track. You can switch the trolley to another track where there is only one worker. In another scenario, you are on a bridge above the track watching helplessly as the train speeds toward the five workers. Beside you is a very large man leaning over the railing. You could push him over, making him land on the track and derail the trolley car. As in the first scenario, this would sacrifice one life to save five. In another scenario, a surgeon in an emergency room is faced with five patients who each have different organs failing. In the next room is a healthy patient who came in for a checkup. It occurs to the doctor that the healthy patient could be sacrificed. Five of his organs could be used to save five lives.

As Professor Sandel discusses these three scenarios, he lets students provide the answers and keeps his own views to himself. However, as he guides the discussion, it is obvious that he has led the audience to the realization that moral decisions have to be suited to the context rather than with strict adherence to rigid rules laid down before the unique circumstance was encountered. In the first scenario, most people say that the driver would be justified in choosing to kill one rather than five, but in the other two almost no one favors sacrificing one life to save five.

The curious thing about Professor Sandel’s work is that he is more famous in Asia than in America. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times noted in an article about Sandel “the hunger of young people [in Asia] to engage in moral reasoning and debates.” This appetite may exist in the young because the ruling generation has such a atrophied ability in these areas.

In one show that aired recently on Japan’s NHK, Professor Sandel led a panel in a discussion of the question of how the victims of the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi should be compensated. It turned out to be a rather shallow discussion of the obvious issues. Professor Sandel, the celebrity panelists and student participants from China, Japan and the USA were all able to hit on a few obvious ideas of where the money could come from. Students from China felt that the rich should voluntarily contribute to a fund. Others stated the obvious, that TEPCO (the utility) should pay, but it was quickly apparent that doing so would bankrupt the corporation several times over. So rates would have to increase, but is this fair? Perhaps everyone will have to pay through higher taxes. This was about as far as the discussion went.

No one really thought outside the box and asked whether any individual was criminally liable for action or inaction that led to the accident, or made it worse afterwards. No one discussed the role of insurance companies, or the idea that all electrical utilities in Japan could pool resources to compensate for accidents by a single utility. A stronger central government could get the heads of Japan’s top twenty corporations in one room and tell them there is going to be a one-time tax on their cash reserves to cover the enormous cost of this national tragedy. Or Japan could recognize that the disaster is too big for any single country to deal with, and also recognize that the global nuclear industry bears some responsibility. Japan, and the victims in a class action lawsuit, would be justified in making compensation claims outside Japan – regardless of whatever pre-existing deal there was to let General Electric off the hook for liability. Andrew Horvat researched the history of Japan’s entry into nuclear energy, and he describes how scientists were ignored while planners caved in to politics and trade pressure from the U.S. While there were better options such as heavy water reactors designed in Canada (natural rather than enriched uranium, low risk of meltdown), TEPCO went with the General Electric Mark 1 reactor, with its enriched uranium and faulty venting and containment systems that have been known about in the industry since the 1970s.

It is disappointing to see that Professor Sandel couldn’t have led the discussion toward these more provocative views. Here’s another moral dilemma for Professor Sandel to offer to the Japanese for discussion:

A major nuclear accident has just dumped a tremendous amount of nuclear fallout on 2,000 square kilometers of farmland, forest and urban areas (total size of Fukushima Prefecture: 13,000 square kilometers). The size of the area might be much larger, and the extent of the damage and the health effects will take a long time to determine with certainty. Scientific experts have wide disagreements about how dangerous the situation is. Estimates range from the most optimistic, which say countermeasures will cause more harm than the radiation, to the most pessimistic, which say that there will great human suffering and large health costs. There could be birth defects, immune diseases, developmental disorders, widespread increased morbidity (obesity, allergies, diabetes, hormonal disorders) and higher rates of cancer. Contamination in the food and water supply could spread the catastrophe to a much wider area.

If you are the government, you have to decide if it is better to save lives or to save livelihoods. Should you neglect the people in order to save the economy? It seems to be similar to the paradox of a counter-insurgency in which an army has to destroy a village in order to save it.

If the government chooses the precautionary principle this requires the admission that the whole region has to be abandoned. Evacuate everyone and get farmers to stop growing food for the market. Face the reality of the situation, and pay a big cost now in order to avoid the possibility of an enormous public health tragedy in the future.

An examination of government actions since March 2011 shows which way this question has been decided, and it also shows why the Japanese nation is in such desperate need of help from foreign experts in moral philosophy.
Since the nuclear catastrophe, government efforts have leaned heavily on throwing a lifeline to farmers and other economic interests in Fukushima prefecture. Professor Yukio Hayakawa is one of the few to renounce the notion that farmers are the victims that need to be supported by being allowed to sell contaminated food. School children have been fed local products in school lunches, often against their parents’ wishes, and food from Fukushima has been sold nationwide. It is true that much of the produce is not contaminated, but the government failed so badly in setting up an effective screening system that now the public rightfully mistrusts anything with the Fukushima label on it. The public also rightly suspects that because farmers were allowed to grow food, even when it is condemned at harvest it still exists. It is likely to flow into a black market of falsely labelled products. Food labeling scandals are a familiar part of the corrupt distribution system in Japan.

The government is also preparing to spend billions of dollars on decontamination and rehabilitation efforts that will most likely prove to be futile. Recently, people have found that areas that had been decontaminated are now recontaminated with fallout carried by the wind off of forested slopes. Cedar pollen next spring is expected to bring more. And huge amounts of spent nuclear fuel and melted cores are going to be unsecured for years to come. The situation has not been brought under control, no matter how the government decides to define “cold shutdown” in this case.

No relocation funds have been offered to families who want to leave with their children. The government is stuck in the same state of denial as the nuclear plant operators in the first days of the meltdowns. Within hours of losing backup power, it was obvious even to informed amateurs that full meltdowns would occur and the Daiichi site would never generate electricity again. Yet TEPCO management made the situation worse by refraining from emergency measures that would damage the reactors, even though their underlings could tell them they were already a lost cause. They were still under the delusion that the plant could be saved.

Seven months after the disaster, the national and prefectural governments are stuck in the same kind of denial about the destroyed regions of Fukushima. They still believe the contaminated areas can be saved, and they are willing to put citizens lives at risk to make this bet. Time may prove that everything I am saying here is wrong. Perhaps young children really can withstand 20-100 mSv of exposure annually, as well as high levels of internal radiation. Time will tell. But who would take the chance with his own child? There is enough evidence from sixty years of research on the question to suggest that these levels are much too dangerous. Even if an evacuation order proved in the future to have been unnecessary, one could never say that it was a mistake. It would be the wisest and most cautious decision made at the time with the information available. No shame. No regrets.

The population of Fukushima Prefecture is only 1.7% of the Japanese population, and there are some western parts of it are not contaminated. Compared to the enormous costs of reconstruction and decontamination being contemplated now, it would be cheaper and safer to close up every contaminated village and city (including the capital, Fukushima City, which, with numerous Chernobyl-level hot spots, is arguably uninhabitable for children and thus doomed to depopulation even if adults stay). 

If Japan can't handle this internal refugee problem, it can turn to G8 allies like Canada that already take in 250,000 immigrants and refugees annually. This is difficult to contemplate for a First World country like Japan, but completely feasible from an economic perspective when one considers the much larger cost of a hopeless attempt to save these communities. Recently, the government lifted an evacuation order on towns in the 20-30km zone around Fukushima Daiichi, but, as an article in The Economist reports, no one wants to return. They are stating the truth that the government cannot face up to. Even if it were safe to live in these places, the stigma and uncertainty attached to them has condemned them to a rapid decline.

This can be said not only of the small towns near the plant but of Fukushima City also. The residents of this city, representing 0.3% of the population of Japan, could easily be relocated. Let it be the world's second ghost city after Pripyat. Walk away from it and leave the buildings standing, like the dome in Hiroshima, as a museum and monument to the hazards of nuclear agewhich is, of course, precisely what the nuclear industry and its government backers do not want to create. In the future people may visit as tourists, or come to shoot dystopian science fiction movies, and they may marvel that fellow citizens ever contemplated letting the victims continue to live in their irradiated city. If we thought we couldn't afford to evacuate a small city like Fukushima, what would we do for Tokyo? These ruins could stand as a sobering reminder of what would follow a meltdown near a large city, or the atomic bombing of a modern metropolis. Remember that Fukushima was lucky – about 75% of the fallout went southeast over the Pacific.

Unfortunately, the judgment of Japanese leadership has failed. There is a powerful psychological denial in the face of a national trauma. The Japanese government is like an overly sentimental parent who can't consent to an amputation to save a child's life. But sentiment is not the only factor. In fact, the main influence on decisions may be cold-blooded calculation. Bankers don't want to write off mortgages, the Finance Ministry doesn't want to bail out bankers, and the bureaucracy is falling back on an old habit – turning the compensation effort into an engineering task and economic stimulus package of public works projects.

Thus it is the presence of Professor Sandel on Japanese television that makes me think that the cause of so many poor decisions is a truly diminished capacity for moral reasoning among the citizens who have put their heads in the sand, and the governing elite who cannot admit to the horrific costs of past mistakes nor see the best way forward. People seriously believe, and are being told by their government, that citizens of Osaka have a moral obligation to eat the food produced in Fukushima. Yes, it’s complicated, the ruin of farmland is one of the saddest aspects of the tragedy, but if you think it's a tough moral decision, your moral faculties need a workout. A person with intact moral capacity would quickly realize that the needs of the many take precedence over the needs of the few. The farmers can be compensated or given land elsewhere if there is truly a will to help them. It is a shame that the Japanese nation is not capable of imagining better solutions to this crisis.


One more thing to worry about

 MKS-1501M «Mangust» Bank dosimeter-radiometer (SNIIP, Russia)

"MKS-1501M Instrument is applied in banks in the course of cash money reception and distribution for detection of banknotes with radioactive contamination."
Safe storage of radioactive Series money KSZ-5 (Russia)
"KSZ-5. The container is used for moving and temporary storage of radioactive banknotes, roots and packages."

These odd devices are symbolic of numerous unexpected alterations to normal living that emerge after a nuclear accident. The world breathes a sigh of relief as the media and government pronouncements declare the emergency has been brought under control, but radionuclides dispersed by the meltdown and explosion seem to be an eternal gift that keeps on giving. They show up in the food, sewage sludge, fertilizer, corpses, smoke from burning forests, and banknotes that circulate through the forbidden zones!


Hollow arguments for continuing with nuclear energy in Japan

A large chunk of habitable and arable land in Northern Japan has been rendered unusable by what is, by some standards of measurement, the worst nuclear, industrial and environmental accident ever. A much larger area of the country has been contaminated with levels of fallout that leave it questionably habitable but undeniably degraded. Yet incredibly, the government and public opinion is still not quite sure if nuclear energy should be abandoned. The common argument is that the dangers of global warming force Japan to stay on the nuclear path, but this is an erroneous assumption for many reasons.

If Japan wants to consider global warming, it has to think about the situation globally. Japan has proven to the world that it is incapable of managing nuclear energy safely. It shouldn’t be given a second chance to prove itself in this regard. In fact, its past safety lapses would really make this something like its 10th chance, depending on how one rates the safety record. At this point it is not only the antinuclear forces that would like to see Japan abandon nuclear energy. It might also be the global nuclear industry itself that would like to have this embarrassing actor leave the nuclear stage. The IAEA leadership is too diplomatic to criticize members, and they all have their own record of imperfections, but we can hope that behind the bland IAEA statements made to save Japanese face, there is finally a realization emerging that nuclear plants should not be built in seismic zones, and all of Japan is a seismic zone. In fact, as this map shows, most of the world's nuclear plants have, sensibly, not been built in areas of known seismic activity.

If nuclear energy really is necessary to forestall global warming, then a globally planned use of nuclear energy would see that countries that are prone to earthquakes could continue to use fossil energy while nuclear reactors were operated safely elsewhere. This could be done in a way that still led to a global decline in fossil fuel consumption.

In any case, Japan may not have a great need for energy in the future. It’s population is declining, and industrial production was shifting overseas before the Fukushima disaster. It somehow managed to get through the summer of 2011 with almost no nuclear power being used. With a modest conservation attempt and rapid restart of fossil fuel generators, it did just fine. In the future, it will make further gains through solar and other emerging technologies.

The real reasons that Japan is slow to admit the end of its nuclear era are likely bureaucratic inertia, pride and investments in a technology that was supposed to be the way of the future. Japanese corporations are heavily invested in promoting reactor sales in Japan and abroad, and they resent having their plans disrupted by the incompetence of TEPCO in its misuse of a forty-year-old reactor design.

But the greatest fear is probably that no player in the nuclear game wants to face up to the back end cost of nuclear energy. The utilities never charged for this in their rates, and they haven’t put money aside for it, even though they knew that nuclear plants would need to be decommissioned after forty to sixty years of operation. Utilities all over the world have just kicked this cost down the road, hoping that the cost would be shifted to government budgets. Even if TEPCO had put money aside for decommissioning, the company would now have to spend it all on compensating the victims of their negligent crime.

The cost of decommissioning is huge, and there is no market demand for it. When consumers buy kilowatts they get something that they can use, but there is nothing for consumers to gain from in the billion dollar teardown of an aging reactor. The fact is that ratepayers and taxpayers of today will need to be forced to pay for the electricity sold too cheaply in the past. A nice gift for the generation that had not even been born at the time national policy went down the nuclear road. 


Putting it bluntly....


No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, by Dr Rosalie Bertell 
The Book Publishing Company, Summertown, Tennessee 38483 
ISBN 0-913990-25-2 
pages 15-63

"In 1964 Hermann Muller published a paper, Radiation and Heredity, spelling out clearly the implications of his research for genetic effects (damage to offspring) of ionising radiation on the human species... Muller predicted the gradual reduction of the survival ability of the human species as several generations were damaged through exposure to ionising radiation. This problem of genetic damage continues to be mentioned in official radiation-health documents under the heading 'mild mutations,' but these mutations are not 'counted' as health effects when standards are set or predictions of health effects of exposure to radiation are made. There is a difficulty in distinguishing mutations caused artificially by radiation from nuclear activities from those which occur naturally from earth or cosmic radiation. A mild mutation may express itself in humans as an allergy, asthma, juvenile diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, high blood cholesterol level, slight muscular or bone defects, or other genetic 'mistakes.' These defects in genetic make-up leave the individual slightly less able to cope with ordinary stresses and hazards in the environment. Increasing the number of such genetic 'mistakes' in a family line, each passed on to the next generation, while at the same time increasing the stresses and hazards in the environment, leads to termination of the family line through eventual infertility and/or death prior to reproductive age. On a large scale, such a process leads to selective genocide of families or species suicide."
(italics added)
source quoted:
H. Muller. "Radiation and Heredity." American Journal of Public Health, vol 54, no. 1, 1964, pp. 42-50.