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.

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