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.

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