Self-Important Swine Ass

Saturday Night Live, May 14, 1979 (season 4, episode 19)
Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin debate the merits of nuclear energy in their famous satirical news program, Point/Counter-Point

The photo is from an episode of Saturday Night Live that aired in 1979. Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd did one of their famous Point/Counterpoint debates, which were a parody of the three-minute debates between James Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander that appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes program in the 1970s.

In this installment they debate the pros and cons of nuclear energy, at a time when the Three Mile Island accident and the plutonium poisoning of Karen Silkwood were in the headlines. As horrible as those events were, it now seems like a more innocent time, before the world knew of places called Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Plus ca change.... 34 years have passed and still no one has figured out what to do with nuclear waste--what Jane Curtin referred to as "... one pile you just can't flush down the toilet, Dan." It is remarkable to see how little the issues and the nature of the debate have changed. Both debaters hit on the same issues that have not been resolved to this day, and each paints the opposing side in the familiar demonizing strokes.

This video appears on YouTube occasionally, but NBC is very efficient about getting it pulled off. Readers who are familiar with the 70s version of SNL can recall the actors delivery as they read the transcript below.

Hello, I’m Dan Akroyd, station manager for Weekend Update. Yesterday a federal jury awarded 10.5 million dollars to the estate of Karen Silkwood, a 28-year-old laboratory technician contaminated by radiation in 1974 while employed at a Kerr-McGee Corporation plutonium plant. The verdict could have an impact on the future of the nuclear power industry, already clouded by the Three Mile Island incident. This will be the subject of tonight’s Point/Counter-Point. Jane will take the anti-nuclear point. I will take the pro-nuclear counter-point.


Dan, you self-important swine ass. There’s no future for nuclear energy because Three Mile Island taught everybody what some of us already knew: that nuclear power plants are time bombs ready to melt down, and even if nuclear power plants were safe, which they aren’t, there’s still the potentially more dangerous nuclear waste problem. But you don’t care about waste, Dan, you’re content to wallow in the short-term profits the corporate pigs reap for themselves. But unlike real pigs, the corporate animals haven’t learned that you don’t excrete where you eat. Their radioactive excrement will be with us for 250,000 years. That’s one pile you just can’t flush down the toilet, Dan.


Jane, you magnificently ignorant slut. Aren’t the gas lines in California proof enough that the energy crisis is for real? Nuclear energy provides 12% of our nation’s electricity, and who’d be the first to complain when the electricity goes out, Jane? You and your horde of promiscuous anti-nuclear harpies. I can just see you now sitting alone in your darkened apartment staring forlornly at your now useless vibrator. You’ll be humming a different tune then, Jane. But let’s talk about risks for a minute, Jane. Sure, nuclear power has risks, even though there has yet to be an industry-related fatality. But even so, this is not a risk-free society. Where is your liberal compassion when coal-miners die in the mines? And how about the 50,000 a year killed on our nation’s highways. You undergo a bigger risk of cancer taking one of your birth control pills, Jane, than you would living next door to an atomic plant, and all for the convenience of hopping indiscriminately from bed to bed with your fellow no nuke-niks. As for the waste problem, Jane, I, for one, have confidence in good old American technology. You just don’t understand the scientific mind. Let us thank God almighty that this country has dedicated sober scientists solving our problems through the long nights, while ignorant sluts like yourself writhe in coitus at anti-nuclear toga parties.


Japanda: Panda Nation

"I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every Panda that wouldn't screw to save its species."
- the protagonist of Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

The Japanese government has hit another low in its reaction to the triple disaster that struck northeast Japan this year. The news today is that Prime Minister Noda is backing a plan to spend money on building a panda facility at Sendai Zoo in order to cheer the local children after their ordeals this year. (Noda to lobby China for Sendai panda deal).

Some might think this is a nice idea, but really, we have to wonder about priorities here. I feel sorry for the thousands of people overseas who donated so generously to disaster relief because the Japanese government is ignoring its responsibility for giving the proper assistance to victims in the form of practical, material support for such things as heaters, housing, relocation expenses, or guaranteed income through a period of resettlement. Instead, it is wasting money on meaningless boosterism and giveaways to local construction firms to build panda shelters at zoos, or to “decontaminate” buildings with spray washers. In the most egregious case, money intended for disaster relief has been funneled to security costs for the Japanese whaling expedition to Antarctica. By some stretch of logic, the money is supposed to provide jobs and stimulus spending to “whaling communities” on the northeast coast.

In many ways, however, the obsession with pandas is perfectly fitting for Japan. The news today called to my mind the above line from the film Fight Club. I wouldn't wish the violence on the creature, but I feel the same way about a people that has lost the will, and perhaps the ability, to save itself. This forlorn, listless animal with a failing survival instinct is the perfect symbol for the occasion.


The New Normal

On Christmas Eve children around the world watch the weather forecast to see where Santa Claus is on his flight around the world. This year, Japanese children will see this image on the left, as they have every evening since last March. This is the radiation data for the Tokyo area broadcast by NHK at the end of the newscast. 
Numbers on the black background show natural background levels before the nuclear catastrophe, in microsieverts per hour. Numbers in red font show the readings for the present day. 
The numbers look encouraging when you consider that in Fukushima many areas are 10 to 50 times as high, but this map is misleading. The measurement for Chiba prefecture, for example, is taken always in a city in the south that escaped the fallout. In the northwest part of the prefecture, the city of Kashiwa has average levels ten times as high (0.5 microsieverts / hour), with some super hot spots scattered throughout the city where drainage made radionuclides accumulate. In the Narita area in the north, the level is 0.10 ~ 0.20.
In any case, the average external exposure of individuals in the Tokyo area is not much of a concern, even in the hotter zones not indicated by the map, but for those who are concerned, dosimeter badges (showing accumulated dose) are available in local drug stores.

Dosimeter badges sold in a local drug store in Chiba: about US$50

The purpose of putting the map up every night is to reassure the public that levels are close to the previous normal background radiation. It is a deceptive reassurance because the true hazards are:

  1. The internal contamination people are going to get over many years through the food supply, if proper precautions are not taken
  2. The problem of how to dispose of radioactive debris, incinerator ash, and sewage in which the fallout became highly concentrated
  3. The risk of another nuclear catastrophe caused by another earthquake - the Japanese nuclear industry is deliberately ignoring the evidence that the earthquake damaged the reactors before the tsunami hit and caused the station blackout. They don't want to consider this because it means the design basis for all nuclear reactors in Japan is built on shaky assumptions.
Regardless, this radiation broadcast is just another sign of the idiocy of the official response to this disaster. Someone probably thinks this is the honest disclosure that everyone wants, but everyone knows this data, and we no longer need to see it. Anyone who wants to check can use his own dosimeter (they are common possessions now), or check on the Internet. The display of this map every evening is just a depressing reminder that this is our new reality. If someone had told me thirty years ago that I would be living in a place where they broadcast the radiation levels on the weather report every night, I would have said that's straight out of a dystopian novel. 


25 October 2011 | Nature 478, 435-436 (2011) | doi:10.1038/478435a

"The latest analysis also presents evidence that xenon-133 began to vent from Fukushima Daiichi immediately after the quake, and before the tsunami swamped the area. This implies that even without the devastating flood, the earthquake alone was sufficient to cause damage at the plant."


The Endless Stand-off: ECRR vs. ICRP

There is a wide disagreement between two groups of scientists and activists over the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation. One would expect there to be controversies over minor points, or quibbling over how to quantify effects and so on, but the gap between the two groups is enormous.
On one side are people who generally align themselves with the conclusions of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), while on the other side are those who generally agree with the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). The ECRR has a more negative view of the effects of radiation, and it is supported by those who are against the use of nuclear energy. The ICRP is supported by the nuclear industry, the IAEA and others who believe radiation is much less harmful than the public has been led to believe. Both groups have a body of peer reviewed studies that they refer to for support of their claims.

In the table below I have created my general description of these two views that I have developed by reading arguments from both sides. I stress that the table is my interpretation, not the official view of either the ECRR or the ICRP.

Supporters of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR) tend to believe…
Supporters of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) tend to believe…
internal contamination needs to be considered as a separate, and often more serious danger than external radiation
external dose is the main consideration. There is no evidence that previous accidents have produced health effects caused by internal emitters such as cesium and strontium
non-cancerous health effects equal or surpass the suffering caused by cancer
cancer is the only proven health effect, but the effect in historical accidents is almost impossible to detect because cancer arises from so many other natural and man-made causes
Chernobyl caused 1 million deaths, millions more suffered severely diminished health
Chernobyl caused less than 10,000 deaths, most of them were among emergency workers, no other illnesses were proven as caused by radiation
Chernobyl had a massive environmental impact. Animals appear to be thriving only because we don’t see the shorter life spans, higher rate of stillbirths, and high infant mortality
wildlife in the Chernobyl area is thriving again

we should follow the precautionary principle while there is disagreement about the science after a nuclear accident, a wide evacuation area is needed, affected citizens need to be relocated and supported in every way
the precautionary principle is too costly and harmful to residents. Residents should be returned to their homes as quickly as possible after decontamination and remediation
relocation of residents will ultimately be less costly than treating diseases and remediating a contaminated territory
relocation of residents is more costly and harmful to residents. The urge to flee is based on emotion, not reason.
radiation poses a much higher and unacceptable risk to fetuses and children
There is no distinction between risks to adults and risks to fetuses and children
evacuation should be favored because human procreation will not be possible, or at least advisable, in the affected communities (unacceptable level of stillbirths, birth defects, higher rates of morbidity, poor health, genetic damage)
resettlement should be encouraged without taking account of whether human procreation will be desirable in the contaminated territory
we should take account of the damage to reputation of the contaminated land and people – they will face ostracism, discrimination, diminished property values, economic stagnation, regardless of, or in addition to, the actual effects of radiation
there is little need to compensate for the victims’ suffering and economic damage – the only harm that would count is a provable case of cancer
the catastrophe is a crime of negligence – guilty parties should face penalties and fully compensate the victims
the catastrophe is an accident – there are no criminal charges, no involvement of the courts or legal system in deciding compensation. Victims must be educated, taught to control their emotions, their expectations must be managed
the World Health Organization should be free of its subordination to the International Atomic Energy Agency
the present situation is acceptable - the IAEA should be the UN voice on the health effects of radiation and nuclear accidents
a large number of people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have suffered from internal radiation (birth defects, metabolic disorders, cancer), and this is evidence of a large-scale effect of a nuclear reactor meltdown – the denial of this nuclear holocaust is a failure of the scientific community to free itself of the biases of the nuclear industry
the assistance given by international charities to Chernobyl victims, and their sympathetic portrayals in documentary films, amounts to a massive fraud - people who are unwell for other reasons besides radiation poisoning have leapt at the opportunity to get assistance as Chernobyl victims

I started studying these issues and writing about them because of one simple question I had to ask myself: are my children going to be safe living 200 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi? I’ve come to agree more with the ECRR view that the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe amounts to a massive, long-term destruction of human habitat over roughly a 50 kilometer radius around the plant. The people there are being given a very raw deal, and this story is going to end badly because of the poor decisions made this year by authorities.

Nonetheless, I’ve also made an effort to study the ICRP view with an open mind. On many points, it’s sensible. There is some research that shows adults suffer no harm from radiation below 100 mSv/year, and yes, a small dose of radiation (given in controlled amounts in clinical or experimental settings) does stimulate DNA repair and strengthen the immune system (see studies on the phenomenon called hormesis), but the US government Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation does not feel that this research warrants a revision of their present recommendation that radiation exposure should be minimized in all situations.

If we had followed the doomsayers, my wife and I would have fled with our children and given up all the advantages of a home and stable employment that we had here. Instead, we stayed, but this was not to say that we were not mad as hell that there is cesium and strontium in the local parks (orders of magnitude lower than in Fukushima prefecture) and we had to go out of our way to obtain uncontaminated food. We could take some comfort in the fact that we were outside Japan until mid-April and thus didn’t have to breathe the heavy fallout that was in the air for the first few weeks after the explosions at the nuclear plant. Still, we won’t know if this was the right decision until decades have passed.

While we feel safe enough here in Chiba, for the time being (barring any further negative developments), the ICRP view of nuclear hazards and nuclear accidents still leaves me feeling cold. The findings that radiation isn’t as harmful as was once believed are not really that comforting to victims of a nuclear accident, even if they are correct conclusions.

The way the catastrophe is perceived by the nuclear industry, and other partisans who want to minimize its severity, calls to mind the most hideous rationalization for another kind of crime. In fact, this other crime is similar to human-inflicted radioactive contamination in the way that it is an assault on an individual’s genetic heritage and personal integrity, things which are, by the way, protected by UN charter (and lest I need repeat, the IAEA is an branch of the UN). Rape is a horrific crime because of its violence, and also because it deprives a woman of the right to control her genetic destiny. And likewise, an irradiated person has had her genes fucked with in a way she didn’t ask for. Sociopathic rapists have been known to say things like, “I understand she was afraid, but I’ve felt fear before, too. It’s no big deal.” They are incapable of understanding the suffering of the victim. In this rationalization, rape is seen as a crime with no apparent injury. In this view, if the victim didn’t get pregnant, didn’t get a disease, and recovered full physical function, no harm done.

I know that the people defending the nuclear industry, and others trying to minimize the perception of the harm caused the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, would not make this defense of rape, but I do think they haven’t realized the ugly nature of the rationalizations they are making for what has been done to the people of northern Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe is a crime of negligence. There was a promise that nuclear energy was safe, and the people in charge failed to keep it safe from known dangers. There are millions of victims, and their mental suffering and the damage to their land and their livelihoods should be compensated by the guilty parties. As it is, adherents of the ICRP view have often seemed to suggest that if no one gets cancer, all is well.

Yet, it is obvious that if an individual spilled nuclear waste on his neighbor’s property, he would be subject to criminal and civil punishments for all mental suffering and loss of value of that property, regardless of whether the nuclear waste ever caused disease in the future.

This is why it is generally understood that you can’t tell a rape victim to just go back to her life and get over it because the harm done was minimal, and the possible future harm will be minimal or with no proven causal link to the assault. You also can’t caution her against “over-reacting” by pursuing justice because it will be too costly herself, her family, and others drawn into the case. Advocates for the nuclear industry are, in a similar ways, too ready to exculpate the perpetrators of the crime and dismiss the victims with a message about the perils of over-reacting. Their expectations must be managed. They must be “realistic,” just go back to their previous lives and not complain if they don’t get cancer (like a rape victim who didn't get pregnant).

The excerpts below are from two recent studies that exemplify the views described in the table above. Links to the full articles are included. The bold highlighting has been added, and my comments appear in red font italics inside brackets [ ].

C. Busby, University of Ulster, European Committee on Radiation Risk
April 24, 2011. Green Audit

The two methods show approximately 492,000 [deaths] in the 10 years following exposure and 1.4 million incident cancers in 50 years [caused by Chernobyl fallout]. There is good agreement between the results. The yield of about 1.4 million cancers worldwide also agrees quite well with independent calculations by John Gofman, Rosalie Bertell and Alexey Yablokov… [The ECRR supporters could avoid the accusation of sensationalism and exaggeration here by adding that a good portion of the deaths and illnesses were among the emergency workers who stabilized the reactor. The general public was not as severely exposed as they were. Also, much of the damage could have been avoided with timely interventions and compensation after the accident (potassium iodide, food aid, a wider circle of evacuation, honest reporting to the public.]

This study has focused only on cancer. ECRR2010 also predicts significant harm from a wide range of conditions and causes of death, including heart disease, strokes, diabetes, congenital illness in children, infant mortality and loss of fertility as a result of damage to sperm and ova. In general it is now clear that radiation causes a general loss of lifespan through premature ageing and therefore, as in the areas heavily contaminated from Chernobyl, the overall increases in cancer predicted here on a linear basis may be truncated at higher doses by competing causes of early death. 

The agreement between the ECRR2003 method employed and real data on cancer from ex-Soviet Union areas contaminated by Chernobyl, from weapons fallout and Sweden after Chernobyl suggests that the current approach to modelling radiation risk based on the ICRP dependence on the external exposures of the Japan A-Bomb survivor cohorts is erroneous. The Committee has previously criticised the ICRP model. These matters have significant implications for policy in the case of Fukushima. 

Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems MIT,
July 26, 2011, p. 12-16
[One lesson that could be learned by the nuclear industry is that one should welcome criticism from the most apparently unwelcome critic. The earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome was predicted by anti-nuclear activists and scientists in other fields, but their warnings were dismissed.]

A few closing thoughts

The initial response of the nuclear industry and the U.S government to the Fukushima accident has been measured and rational (see Appendix B) [The Japanese bureaucracy and the prime minister’s office sat on their hands for the first week of the crisis because they didn’t like each other. American diplomats had to intervene to get them to work together. TEPCO and government agencies continually lied and concealed information from the public. How could anyone call this response measured and rational?]. However, the risk of over-reacting to an accident, particularly one as dramatic as Fukushima, remains high. The industry is concerned about the near-term effect of Fukushima on the process of life extension of current plants and the support for new construction projects. Under the pressure of the public and the media, the government may be compelled to push for sweeping policy and regulatory changes, which may ultimately prove to be unnecessarily onerous on existing and future plants. Decision-making in the immediate aftermath of a major crisis is often overly influenced by emotion. [This is patronizing. The authors assume here that it is they who are measured and rational, while those whom they must work against are likely to over-react and become too emotional. But the concern about the threats to support of nuclear power belies a certain emotionality on the part of people in the nuclear industry.]
Therefore, the following questions should be addressed after searching for vulnerabilities at existing plants, but before enacting significant changes in nuclear energy regulations and policy. Does an accident like Fukushima, which is so far beyond design basis, really warrant a major overhaul of current nuclear safety regulations and practices? The answer is country-dependent; for example, the design-basis selection process for tsunamis in Japan will likely require some significant changes, in particular regarding the use of historical tsunami “data” in estimating the risk of future large tsunamis. However, the critical question is: how, in the design-basis selection process, do we establish when safe is safe enough? Where do we draw the line? It seems that a rational approach to this question would ultimately need to be based on a risk-informed comparison of nuclear energy with other energy sources (particularly its most credible competitors, such as coal and natural gas), including their effects on climate change, global economy, stability and reliability of the energy supply, and geo-politics. But can the decision makers take a risk-informed approach to energy policy?

When it comes to safety, it is important to bear in mind that all engineered structures (e.g. power plants, bridges, skyscrapers, dams, highways) will fail if subjected to loads far enough beyond what they were designed for. Are the design basis selections of energy industry structures posing high environmental hazard, such as oil drilling platforms offshore, coal mines and water dams, consistent with those of nuclear plants? If not, are we as a society irrationally accepting higher risks from certain technologies than others? [The nuclear industry can hardly claim that it always behaves rationally while opponents do not. Here is a rational proposal: 15% of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear. Eliminate nuclear while stopping population growth, reducing consumption by 15% and investing in renewable and fusion energy. Other rational actions that are possible: arranging for long-term, safe storage of all nuclear waste, decommissioning aging nuclear plants, shutting down nuclear plants in zones of high seismic activity.]


Radionuclides of Concern

While there are many radionuclides that can be released at the time of a reactor accident, not all have the potential to impact public health because of issues related to: abundance, decay scheme, half-life, and chemistry (which ultimately affects route into the body, anatomical area of concentration, and residence time). Noble gases such as krypton and xenon rapidly disperse in the atmosphere; heavy elements are non-volatile so, if released outside the containment, tend to stay at the plant or in the near vicinity [One of these heavy elements, plutonium, identified as not from nuclear weapons tests, has been found several tens of kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi]. The isotopes of particular concern are 131I and 137Cs. Both decay by a combination of beta and gamma emission, which means they can represent both an internal and an external hazard. They are released in relatively high abundance and their half-lives (8 days and 30 years, respectively) are sufficiently long that they do not decay before being widely distributed in the local environment, yet are sufficiently short that enough nuclei will decay to result in significant and measureable doses in the time scales important to human life…

It is 137Cs that represents the most significant long-term hazard of a contaminated environment. Chemically it behaves like potassium which is found in all of our cells, so it is readily taken up and used if available. Like iodine it will settle out of the radioactive cloud onto fields and crops.

Since it binds tightly to moist soil it is not readily taken up via the root structures of plants;
however, it can enter plants upon falling onto the surface of leaves. Elevated levels of 137Cs in several foodstuffs required restrictions on consumption and prompted a number of countries to limit imports from Japan for some time. All drinking water interdictions were lifted in early May however several foodstuffs still showed radiation levels that exceed regulation values set by Japanese authorities.

Radiation Doses

Attempts are ongoing to keep the cumulative radiation doses to the Japanese public below 20 mSv in the first year following the reactor accident. (Doses will be substantially lower in subsequent years due to environmental dispersion and physical decay of residual 137Cs.) This effort involves (i) monitoring radioactivity levels in foodstuffs and water and prohibiting sale and consumption where necessary , (ii) recommending sheltering indoors in areas where cumulative dose-rates over one year are expected to be > 10 mSv, and (iii) relocation of residents from within a 20 km radius zone around the plant. [Wishful thinking. Japanese authorities failed on several occasions to take these precautions. Residents near the nuclear plant evacuated to a town farther inland which was actually known by the government to be more highly contaminated. Farmers were not stopped from planting on contaminated lands, highly contaminated beef went to market and got into school lunches, and false labeling of food is as common now as it was before the disaster] 70,000-80,000 residents were relocated in the first month after the accident but relocations are continuing in areas where residents are predicted to receive doses in excess of 20 mSv in the first 12 month period.

Doses to people living further from the Daiichi plant are much lower. In Tokyo, 240 miles away, residents can expect an additional cumulative radiation dose of 1 mSv from the first year, a 40 % addition to the 2.4 mSv they already receive from natural sources. As of the first week of May, external gamma-dose rates in Tokyo are 0.09 μSv/hr, a factor of almost two above natural gamma dose-rate levels (0.05 μSv/hr). Since external gamma dose contributes ~ 20% to the total background dose (the remaining dose components are cosmic rays, internal radionuclides, and radon daughters), this increase in gamma ray exposure added 16% to the daily radiation dose to Tokyo residents [This study omits any mention of the problem of disposing of massive amounts of radioactive sewage sludge and incinerator ash that are accumulating all over northern Japan].

Health Implications

The impact of low doses of radiation on our health is assumed to be an increase in the probability of being diagnosed with cancer. No other natural disease shows a significant elevation following exposure to low dose radiation and no unusual or unique diseases are created. [On this point, ICRP adherents are like the proverbial drunk who will look for his keys only under the street lamp. They won’t find out about a significant elevation of other diseases if they don’t pay attention to the studies that show it, or advocate for funding of the necessary research questions. Numerous scientific papers, documentary films and journalistic reports from Chernobyl have reported on a long list of health effects caused by low level radiation. International charities have been in operation for years which do such things as send children overseas for “discorporation of cesium,” while American surgeons have gone to Belarus to repair the “Chernobyl hearts” of children born with defects. It takes a willful effort to ignore this body of evidence that has accumulated over twenty-five years.] Radiation-induced cancers have a latent-period of 20-30 years (shorter for leukemia) and tend to appear at the same time in irradiated as in unirradiated populations. Since the cancers induced by radiation are the same types of cancers observed ‘naturally’, determining the number of additional cancers caused by a small dose of radiation when baseline cancer rates are already high has not been possible for doses in the 20 mSv range (or even higher) [But what if you’re only two years old when you get irradiated? It is uncontroversial that fetuses and children are much more prone to damage from radiation. Again, a scientist must be willfully ignorant to not mention this in a report on a nuclear disaster].

Although no data have ever demonstrated that 20 mSv over 1 year results in measureable harm, this dose range has long been relevant to the occupational radiation protection field and thus there has been a need to generate radiation risk estimates, even in the absence of actual data. These estimates come primarily from the long-term evaluation of the A-bomb survivor population and are a result of adopting a hypothetical model of extrapolating the risk per unit dose at high dose levels down to the low dose range. While some models incorporate a threshold dose below which no radiation-induced cancers will be diagnosed and others predict health benefits rather than health detriment from small doses delivered over time (eg. factors of several times natural background doses) the model adopted for use in occupational radiation protection is a simple linear model that assumes the risk of harm per unit dose is the same at all doses. Use of this extrapolation model in the generating of risk estimates incorporates a number of assumptions appropriate to radiation protection in the workplace but not appropriate to determining the hazards of an environment contaminated with a long-lived radionuclide. Accordingly, scientific bodies evaluating risk often specifically caution against extending these strategies to predicting the long term effects of small doses to a large population. Unfortunately, more applicable risk estimates do not exist and so this caution is routinely ignored when the potential impact of low doses is of interest. [This was a dumb move on the part of the nuclear industry. The allowable level for workers should be the same as the allowable level of long-term, low level radiation after an accident. If they did it this way, they wouldn’t be accused of rigging the levels for convenience after the accident has occurred. But this would be advisable only if the higher level really is safe for the workers].

The linear extrapolation model has long been viewed as a conservative approach to estimating radiation risk at low doses and, in particular, for low doses accumulated over long periods of time. It can be used, however, to generate an upper estimate of the risk posed by the radiation doses encountered from a contaminated environment. Using the linear extrapolation model, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences’ BEIR VII committee estimates that 1 cancer could result if 100 people received a single dose of 0.1 Sv (a risk of 0.01/0.1 Sv), with lower doses resulting in proportionally lower risk. Thus, a dose of 20 mSv (if delivered acutely) x 0.1 per 0.1 Sv =0.002. In other words, the 20 mSv dose ceiling pursued by the Japanese authorities represents a 0.2 % chance of being diagnosed with cancer later in life, in addition to a 42 % risk an individual already faces from ‘natural’ causes. [In other words, radiation is off the hook. As far as we know, it could be an additive cause in that 42% risk, but it gets hidden by other causes like smoking, dioxin, PCBs, endocrine disruptors, particulate exhaust, X-rays, ozone depletion, alcohol, pharmaceuticals etc… Even if their calculations are correct, they are cold comfort for the irradiated.] This estimate is expected to be high by a factor of 2-10 and possibly more, according to NCRP 64, to account for the reduced impact of protracted radiation delivery, relative to the same dose received all at once.

20 mSv over the course of a year represents a factor of 8 times the average natural radiation background level. It is the equivalent to 2-3 abdominal CT exams for a lean individual, or equivalent to one CT exam for someone who is overweight. However 20 mSv received over the course of one year is expected to have significantly less biological impact than the same dose received via medical imaging since the dose is protracted over time [This is a valid point, but still I’d want to avoid the CT scan anyway].

The Cost of Dose Avoidance

Permanent and long-term relocation can reduce exposure to radiation to essentially zero levels above natural background. What is gained is the elimination of any possibility of the tiny additional risk of cancer (maximum risk of 42.2 % instead of 42.0 % at 20 mSv) predicted by the linear extrapolation model. This cancer, if it appears, will be diagnosed many years, perhaps decades, in the future. But this gain comes with very significant costs. The costs include loss of home or farm (48,000 homes and over 400 livestock or dairy-farming households are in the evacuation region), loss of privacy (shelters are crowded and residence time is expected to be measured in months before alternative temporary housing will be available), and loss of community (whole towns and villages have been evacuated). Prohibition against consuming contaminated food and water results in no additional internal dose but, for a country already facing food shortages following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the loss of valuable foodstuffs and interdiction of farmlands are a significant price to pay. [This is all true, but this paragraph makes no mention of the tremendous cost of decontamination and economic revitalization of an area that is sure to be stigmatized, regardless of the actual harm done by radiation.  And, as mentioned above, it takes no account of mental suffering and the distaste victims have for living on land contaminated with cesium, strontium and various other dangerous radionuclides that don’t belong inside living organisms. The victims of this crime have the right to demand zero exposure to these substances, regardless of what the hypothetical risks might be. A just outcome would be subsidized relocation and compensation for lost assets, as well as for present and future lost income. But it is painfully obvious now that what has happened to Fukushima is not much different than what would happen after a nuclear bomb went off over a large city. Just compensation for all the victims is not possible.]

The costs of dose avoidance are high. A clearer understanding of the actual risks represented by, say 20 mSv, would help residents and government officials engage in a productive dialogue regarding how to make the tradeoff between dose avoidance and loss of important aspects of daily life (home, food, and community). [It is possible that this “productive dialog” might result in an angry but totally rational desire on the part of citizens to eliminate nuclear reactors from their communities.] It is also critical that the public gain a wider understanding of the bases on which our radiation risk estimates are derived. The inherent protection of radiation workers built into our estimates of radiation risk have been effective in ensuring that employers keep dose to their workers very low, and thereby the need to actually know the hazard from radiation levels that are 5, 10, or even 50 times background has been avoided. However, this approach is not useful in the situation of a contaminated background where conservative estimates of risk force residents to make significant sacrifices to avoid all dose.

It is also important that residents understand the manner in which protection limits are based on risk estimates. For instance, a limit imposed on employers to restrict exposure of the general public does not correspond to a declaration that doses below this limit are safe but above this limit are not. [Seriously, what would a rational person expect residents to conclude about this limit? The nuclear industry seems to have set itself up for a severe credibility problem by having to add these extra explanations after an accident has occurred.] Concerns have been raised regarding elevated dose-rates at schools in Fukushima prefecture, almost 170 of which have been forced to relocate or close. Raising the maximum allowed annual radiation limit from 1 mSv to 20 mSv in schools led to a significant uproar and prompted one government advisor to resign in protest. Governmental ministers defended the increase from 1 mSv to 20 mSv/year as a necessary measure to guarantee the education of tens of thousands of children in Fukushima prefecture. However many members of the public viewed this step as regulators changing their mind regarding what levels are safe, rather than seeing the situation as a choice between two undesirable situations. Given that the environment has been contaminated, the choice to residents of Fukushima prefecture involves accepting the possible 0.2% additional chance of getting cancer in 20-30 years, or delaying the resumption of normal schooling (and a normal life) for an extended period of time. [The calculation of 0.2% made above was based on one government study, but there are numerous studies of this question that conclude the cancer risk is higher (for example, The 15-Country Collaborative Study of Cancer Risk among Radiation Workers…) And then there is a risk of other ailments (denied by the ICRP), the much higher vulnerability of fetuses and children, which they always avoid mentioning (see, for example, the studies on the effects of in utero exposure to strontium 90), and the unknown effects of the unknowable amount of radionuclides an individual will absorb internally. Residents had always been told by the nuclear industry that nuclear energy was safe. Can they be blamed now for being suspicious of a habitual liar who now tells them that the new 20 mSv limit is safe? And why couldn't education be available to families if they were relocated to a clean environment? The writers of this report express no contrition for the failings of their own profession. Instead, they imply that it is the ignorant residents who need to be properly informed - by an industry that has betrayed them!]

In the United States the EPA recommends implementation of a return home dose rate that would lead to a maximum dose of 20 mSv in the first year following a reactor accident; many states have adopted this recommendation. This is the same level that has prompted such emotional response from frightened members of the public and even from advisors to the government during the on-going crisis in Japan. [Again, the authors attribute emotionality to the public with the word “frightened,” but I suggest that since March 11, 2011, it is the nuclear industry that has been running scared. Let’s just admit that there is no clear line between emotion and reason on either side of this debate. We all begin from emotions to protect our interests, and for these emotions we try to develop convincing and rational arguments. If we are wise, we are capable of seeing when our rationalizations make no sense. The authors have to get over their conception of themselves as being ruled by reason, while the public that they want to protect are ruled by emotion.] Once an accident has taken place and the environment is contaminated, we need to be equipped with the most accurate estimates possible of harm from living with elevated background radiation levels. These can then be weighed against the benefits and drawbacks of dose avoidance strategies. We are not there yet. [This we can all agree on. Definitely not there yet!]


Video summary of recent studies on low level radiation: Goddard Report

Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation
Board on Radiation Effects Research, Division on Earth and Life Studies
National Research Council of the National Academies
Washington, D.C.

Toxicologist Janette Sherman interviewed about the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Dr. Andrew Weil, best selling author of many books on health. He notes, "Throughout history, irresponsible politicians and commentators have cited the hormetic effect to justify reducing restrictions on pollution... This is dangerous nonsense. Hormesis appears to be of value only when dosages are very carefully controlled, which does not describe releasing random mixtures of toxins, especially synthetic ones, into general circulation."

Science 17 October 2003: 378.DOI:10.1126/science.302.5644.378

Hirose Takashi, 'Japan’s Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster Syndrome: An Unprecedented Form of Catastrophe,' The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 39 No 1, September 26, 2011.

Ishibashi, Katsuhiko, Why Worry? Japan's Nuclear Plants at Grave Risk From Quake Damage The Asia Pacific Journal, August 11, 2007.

Wald, Matthew, Study of Baby Teeth Sees Radiation EffectsNew York Times, December 10, 2010.

Mark J. Eisenberg, Jonathan Afilalo, Patrick R. Lawler, Michal Abrahamowicz, Hugues Richard, Louise Pilote. Cancer risk related to low-dose ionizing radiation from cardiac imaging in patients after acute myocardial infarction. CMAJ February 7, 2011, doi:10.1503/cmaj.100463


Is Japan LOST? (Part 2)

After I wrote the last post comparing the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe to the television series LOST, some news appeared on other blogs that made me see one other loose connection between the two.

Many observers of the catastrophe have wondered why the two "hydrogen" explosions at Units 1 and 3 look so different. The Unit 1 explosion shows white smoke billowing out laterally, not rising very high in the sky. The Unit 3 explosion involves a high, vertical column of black smoke, topped by a mushroom cloud, and it starts with a bright flash. There is speculation that the massive black cloud contains the contents of the spent fuel stored in the Unit 3 building.

This week, in an article in Nature, former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama states that he has been studying this issue with a degree of access to information and experts that his status afforded, and he believes the evidence suggests the strong possibility that a nuclear explosion occurred:

It is unlikely that a hydrogen explosion generated a high enough temperature that would melt steel. TEPCO initially announced that there was a white smoke from the Reactor 3 explosion. However, later investigation has revealed that the smoke was black, and a hydrogen explosion is considered to not generate such a black smoke. Our conclusion therefore is that it [explosion of Reactor 3] may have been a nuclear explosion.

(source: Nature vol. 480, 313–314 (15 December 2011) Published online 14 December, 2011 - available only to subscribers, cited from excerpts posted at ex-skf.)

TEPCO and other institutions in the global nuclear industry would prefer that no one ask questions about this. They have offered no explanation for the difference between these two explosions.

TEPCO has lied and concealed so outrageously since day one of this catastrophe that they might as well say it was the smoke monster from LOST.


LOST After an Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Meltdown Catastrophe

LOST After an Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Meltdown Catastrophe

“This city has to survive. It’s beautiful. People have to come back. They’ll come back one day. They have to. It’s a beautiful city. I was just at the stadium. There needs to be children here. There is no life without risks.” [1]

 (first posted in 2011, revised on March 30, 2017)

People who have been following Japan’s reaction to its nuclear crisis have had many moments of dumbfounded, slack-jawed amazement as they hear of plans to move people back into the disaster zone, clean up the enormous levels of radioactive fallout and restore life as it was before–all while three nuclear reactor fuel cores lie in a melted heap and tons more of spent fuel lies in a precarious, exposed state.
This situation is enough to make a person feel like she has awoken in an episode of the sci-fi drama LOST (2004-2010).  In that story, the traumatized victims walked dazed and confused in an island paradise that had been uncannily transformed by various technological interventions imposed by previous human intruders. They were slow to figure out that their lives were over, as they obviously must have been after their airplane crash. Several times over the seasons the lead character, Jack, was knocked unconscious and had to awaken each time and make sense of his surroundings while befuddled by each knock on the head. In fact, this was the defining aspect of his character. He was always slow to figure things out, always striving to deny reality, and thus knocking himself out for a lost cause and making poor decisions. He would have fit right in during the nuclear disaster aftermath on “the island” that is Honshu.
The Japanese government, and many of the residents of Fukushima who are going along with its plans, seem to be in the same state of traumatized denial. They are like a bloodied driver emerging from a car accident who is oblivious to what has happened. He stumbles around and stammers about being late for work and needing to go, becoming all the more confused by the perplexed reactions on people’s faces. For the first months, the trauma victims of Japan and Fukushima lived in denial about what had happened, aided in their delusions by the global nuclear industry, as well as by cynical financial interests and government officials who want to save the economy and the tax base. The pressure came from overseas as well, as the United States and other nuclearized nations needed Japan to continue with its nuclear program in order to sustain the international nuclear program.

The plans so far have all been about cleaning up and restoring the contaminated communities, regardless of how hopeless, expensive and dangerous this will be. These citizens ignore inconvenient facts, such as the fact that the young, educated and wealthy are not coming back, which assures that these communities will be populated only by the elderly. They are abetted by cynical exploiters in the bureaucracy who want to spend the nation’s finances on such an ill-advised “revitalization” that is most concerned with saving the corporations that build nuclear plants or sell electricity from them.
While there is much evidence that adults may be able to live in low level radiation with an “acceptable” risk of being affected, the risks for embryos are much higher. The people who are in a rush to rebuild communities in Fukushima haven’t stopped to ponder the futility of resettling in towns where the soil is condemned and procreation involves an unacceptable risk of birth defects and lifelong harm to health.
One can go on at length with a comparison of how the people of Japan are like the lost souls in LOST. The cleanup workers at the Daiichi plant resemble the bewildered workmen and the survivors who were enslaved into a legacy of 1970s technology and experimentation gone terribly wrong. They are down in the metaphorical hatch desperately pressing a button to save their world, or maybe just performing a fool’s errand, but they don’t dare stop pressing that button. They carry out compartmentalized tasks without knowing who is in charge, who to trust, or what the master plan is, if there ever was one. The survivors fight among each other about whether to leave or stay, while they simultaneously fight and form alliances with “others” and “other others” who come from afar with mysterious agendas. There are weird health effects and malevolent, intangible forces. Like radiation, the mysterious force on the island can heal or kill, but most crucially, it puts a stop to procreation by killing all pregnant women. There is a 19th century shipwreck in the middle of the jungle named the Black Rock, which, incidentally, is what Dene elders in northern Canada warned their people to stay away from. Their black rock is the black ore which the outsiders found was rich in uranium.
Alliances in LOST shift from day to day. Certain people are deemed expendable for the greater purpose of achieving the opaque goals of the competing groups. The original motivation for humans coming to the island was to master the limitless energy supply hidden within it, but one thing the inhabitants must do first is understand why humans cannot reproduce on the island. Whatever the secret of the energy source is, the problem must be resolved if humans are to have a future on the island. As the story proceeds, the survivors learn that in the 1950s the American military brought a hydrogen bomb to test on the island, but they were chased off, with their undetonated bomb left behind to cause future problems. They also learn in the final episodes that the island is a battleground between God and the Devil. God works on the island to contain the Devil on it, to keep him from breaking free to roam the world. He has his chosen representatives to intervene on his behalf and guide others, but God himself cannot intervene for the humans he has given free will. By the end of the tale, God is “very disappointed” in mankind. The intrusions by outsiders, who have come in pursuit of the island’s energy supply, have threatened to give the final victory to the Devil, now poised to finally get off the island. What started off looking like science fiction is now a religious parable as well.
In similar ways the people of Japan and the workers at the Daiichi plant are pawns in a game between competing powers that they cannot comprehend, in a battle with technology that has escaped human control. They must look at their various levels of government, the IAEA, the WHO, and corporations like TEPCO, Toshiba, Westinghouse, and Areva as a bewildering parade of suspicious strangers arrived from over the horizon. The similarities between “the island” and the island where Fukushima is located can be stretched too far, but they illustrate how LOST was more than just the usual light entertainment offered up on prime time television. It had moments of brilliance when, between advertisements for technological gadgets, it subverted the institutions that produce entertainment, depicting humanity’s tortured relationship with its technology.
LOST also managed to reflect the horrible direction of American foreign policy at the time in a way that mainstream television news wouldn’t. When the cunning Benjamin Linus, leader of “the Others” in the island’s multi-sided civil war, liked to declare, “We’re the good guys,” the allusion to President Bush’s use of the same phrase was clear to all. In several episodes, the characters resort to terror and torture to manipulate the behavior of their enemies. The debates held among them were a reflection of what was happening for real in American society.
Another analogy with LOST is in the way the survivors split over having false hope and blind faith or making rational choices to cut losses. An article in the New York Times in December, 2011 illustrated how the Japanese are slowly waking up the extent of the catastrophe that has fallen on them.
Critics of the revitalization effort were growing more vocal. They believed it “… could end up as perhaps the biggest of Japan’s white-elephant public works projects–and yet another example of post-disaster Japan reverting to the wasteful ways that have crippled economic growth for two decades.” [2] The trial cleanups had stalled because there was no place to put the removed soil, and even after “decontamination,” more radioactive particles blow down from the forests and hillsides. Levels remain above international safety standards for long-term habitation.
The director of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo, Tatsuhiko Kodama, said, “I believe it is possible to save Fukushima, but many evacuated residents must accept that it won’t happen in their lifetimes.” Thousands of buildings have to be scrubbed and people will have to wait while “… the topsoil from an area the size of Connecticut is replaced. Even forested mountains will probably need to be decontaminated, which might necessitate clear-cutting and literally scraping them clean.”
Japanese officials said that they don’t have the luxury of evacuating a wider area as was done in Chernobyl because the area covers 3% of the land mass of Japan. A reasonable question to ask here is “Only 3%?” If that’s all, people could easily move to the remaining 97%. Japan is a densely populated country, but its rural areas have been depopulated in recent decades. There is a lot of unused real estate, in big cities and rural areas, and room for the affected 2% of the population to move elsewhere. Besides, the decision to evacuate should be decided by the level of contamination, not the availability of land. If land really is so scarce, the logical next question is whether Japan can continue with the risks of nuclear energy.
Pride was on display in one quote in the NYT article that showed what will probably prove to be a fatal arrogance in the Japanese mindset. One man seems to suggest that those backward and impoverished Ukrainians and Russians were just not up to the task of dealing with Chernobyl. “We are different from Chernobyl,” said Toshitsuna Watanabe, 64, the mayor of Okuma, one of the towns that was evacuated. “We are determined to go back. Japan has the will and the technology to do this.” 
It is stunning that this senior citizen and community leader made an unfounded claim about the nation’s technological capacities and saw only his own need to return to his home, while he ignores the interests of young people who wisely choose to stay away. The young are expected to go along with the elders so that they can spend their old age on their native, radioactive soil.
The article mentions the long roots of local families in the land, and the sympathy they have gained throughout Japan, but now “… quiet resistance has begun to grow, both among those who were displaced and those who fear the country will need to sacrifice too much without guarantees that a multi-billion-dollar cleanup will provide enough protection. Soothing pronouncements by local governments and academics about the eventual ability to live safely near the ruined plant can seem to be based on little more than hope.”
In one town visited by the NYT writer, there was an obvious split in opinion between the old and the young, especially the young families with children. One old-timer said, “Smoking cigarettes is more dangerous than radiation. We can make Okuma a model to the world of how to restore a community after a nuclear accident,”–as if that would be something to be proud of. One might argue that the best demonstration of what happens after a nuclear accident of this scale is the establishment of an evacuation zone that cannot be inhabited for 10,000 years. One does not want to create a moral hazard or an impression that a nuclear disaster is a casual thing that can be cleaned up easily.
To conclude, the article quoted Professor Kodama saying, “… victory would be hollow, and short-lived if young people did not return… Saving Fukushima requires not just money and effort, but also faith. There is no point if only older people go back.”
As time has passed, it has become more obvious that young people are not going to go back. Rural communities struggle to retain the younger generation even under normal conditions. In addition, not only young people, but intelligent people, and people with any options to live elsewhere, will not go back.
There was one memorable scene in an early episode of LOST when Jack is desperately trying to save a patient who has been killed during a surgery botched by his drunken father. He labors over the patient long past the point when it has become obvious that she is gone. His father stands behind him insisting repeatedly, “It’s over, Jack. Call it.” In all other disasters, there comes a time to call it.
Yes, as Professor Kodama says, it’s a matter of faith, and I am losing faith that the Japanese people have the collective intelligence to save themselves and call it for what it is. Wake up, and give up on this notion that the contaminated regions of Fukushima can be restored or that this island nation can continue with its nuclear program. Accept the reality of what happens when you lose control of a nuclear power plant. As a foreigner watching on the sidelines, with a passport I can use to go live somewhere else, that is a harsh judgment to make, but Japanese critics have come to a similar conclusion. The long-time anti-nuclear critic Takashi Hirose wrote after the disaster:

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 nation’s nuclear power program immediately, the world will have no reason to believe in Japanese intelligence. [3]

That was written in 2011. It’s over, Jack. When is someone going to call it?


[1] Thomas Johnson (Director), The True Battle of Chernobyl, (M Way Films / Discovery Communications, 2006), 16:00 ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBAT13Bt9Ic or http://www.mwayfilms.com/en/films/the-battle-of-chernobyl . These words were spoken by one of the elderly evacuees from Pripyat on the day of departure. No one ever came back.

[2] Martin Fackler, “Japan Split on Hope for Vast Radiation Cleanup,” New York Times, December 6, 2011.

[3] Takashi Hirose, Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster (fukushima genpatsu merutodaun) (Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2011). The English translation was published independently and sold only as an e-book, with permission of the original publisher.