America Syndrome

In the 1970s the term “China syndrome” became a well-known term to explain the meltdown of an American nuclear reactor that would, theoretically, continue to melt through the earth all the way to the opposite side of the world. The term implies a focus on the danger of nuclear energy in America, but I've reversed the term here to flip this perspective.
The anti-nuclear movement is full of accusations against the nuclear military and industrial complex of cover up and secrecy, but critics have to reluctantly admit that the information is out there for those who want to look for it. The fact that there is so little awareness of nuclear hazards probably has more to do with the the public’s tendency to want to drive horrifying facts deep into the collective subconscious.
For those who want to learn about the issues, plenty can be discovered with Internet searches or a trip to the local library. The hazards range from minor accidents such as canisters of isotopes found in a garbage dump, accidents at experimental labs and reactors, acts of war, minor incidents at power plants, weapons testing fallout, a bomber crash and plutonium spill in Spain or Greenland, to finally the big disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Many of these accidents and deliberate events are known by the shorthand of the places where they occurred: Alamogordo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini, Marshall Islands, Nevada Test Site, Aleutian Islands, Mururoa, Fangataufa, Three Mile Island, Semipalatinsk and so on.
The curious omission on this list is the absence of a Chinese place name. The Chinese nuclear program has existed since the 1960s in almost complete secrecy, un-cracked by slightest internal dissent and almost impenetrable to external critics. The Wikipedia page entitled “Nuclear Accidents by Country” (as of 2012/01/29) has a completely empty listing for China, while the entries for other major nuclear players are long and well-known.
At the recent Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohama, there were hibakusha and activistst from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US and French weapons testing programs in South Pacific, and the Chernobyl disaster. As much as these people have suffered great injustices to this day, the governments of France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the former USSR have never had a total lock on information and dissenting interpretations of nuclear history. It is worth something that, for example, an anti-nuclear journalist like Anna Yaroshinskaya was elected to governing bodies in the USSR and Russia, travelled in the Chernobyl zones, and wrote freely about her concerns. No such person could have emerged out of in China.
Of course, the Chinese government would say that there aren’t any accidents to report in the list mentioned above, but it would be hard to believe that the Chinese nuclear program advanced without the long list of minor and major accidents that plagued the other nuclear states. One of the few scientists or journalists to look into this matter is Dr. Takada Jun, a professor at the Sapporo Medical University and a representative of the Japanese Radiation Protection Information Center.
An article about his work appeared in The Epoch Times in March, 2009. In it he describes how the Lop Nur test site in Xinjiang, northwestern China (on the ancient Silk Road) was used for dozens of surface and atmospheric tests between 1964 and 1982, one of which was a 4-megaton bomb in 1976 that was 10 times as big as the largest before that in the USSR (however, other sources contradict this number saying the Tsar Bomba hydrogen device detonated by the USSR in 1961 was 50 megatons. In any case, any megaton bomb is huge). Underground tests continued until 1996.
Takada alleges that these large bombs involved massive fallout that fell on the local population, without there having been any effort to warn or protect. He estimates the fallout of the one largest bomb caused 190,000 deaths and 1,290,000 people suffered from radiation poisoning within an area 136 times the size of Tokyo. In total, he estimates 750,000 died prematurely. He could only estimate fallout by studying soil in the bordering areas of Khazakstan, and by what is known about the size of the blasts. No outside experts have ever visited the area to carry out studies on the soil or the population. If the Chinese government has done it, the studies are top secret.
A British Channel 4 documentary made in 1998, called Death on the Silk Road, found evidence of the suffering described by Dr. Takada. The crew (including a physician) travelled along the Silk Road as tourists, filming clandestinely, and finding a surprisingly large number of birth defects in villages they visited.
A Scientific American article in 2009 covered Dr. Takada’s work and included the perspective of a Uygur refugee, Enver Tohti, who lived in the Lop Nur region during the testing era, then became a doctor, and now works with Dr. Takada in Sapporo on their Lop Nur Project. They hope, of course, to increase international awareness of the issue so that China may one day recognize the need for a proper acknowledgement and research of the problem, not to mention assistance for the victims.
Another aspect of nuclear issues in China is the concern about the safety of its nuclear reactor fleet. Thanks to Wikileaks, the world now knows that diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Beijing stated that China has a "vastly increased" the risk of a nuclear accident because it opted for cheap technology that will be 100 years old by the time dozens of its reactors reach the end of their lifespans. China passed up the opportunity to go with more advanced “passive” reactor designs that are much safer than older reactors. The US cables also raise concerns about the “secrecy of the bidding process for power plant contracts, the influence of government lobbying, and potential weaknesses in the management and regulatory oversight of China's fast-expanding nuclear sector.”
Just imagine it as Japan without the democracy (such as it is) and without the forty-year-old anti-nuclear citizens’ movement, which in any case couldn’t stop the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. Or consider how long (not very) China’s brand new shinkansen train lines existed without a major accident. Some people take heart that China regularly metes out severe justice to a few officials after disasters, but China’s record of disastrous accidents, botched fireworks displays, and tainted food scandals provides no evidence that such punishment is a deterrent or an effective solution to a systemic problem.
This month The Telegraph reported that China’s Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) stopped generating electricity in October following an accident. Ironically, it was Japan's Atomic Energy Agency raising the alarm about a nuclear hazard outside Japan. Perhaps they were in the mood to deflect attention away from their own problems at home. China did not report the accident that necessitated the shutdown. The director of the Chinese Institute of Atomic Energy (which houses the CEFR) denied there had been an accident and stated that the CEFR had been shut down since July, so no accident in October was possible.
Regardless of what has happened in this case, the scale of China’s nuclear program and its history of secrecy in its weapons testing suggest that it’s time for the world to pay closer attention. Historians and scientists need to record what happened on the Silk Road in the late 20th century, and the Chinese nuclear industry should be open to independent domestic and international monitors. It doesn’t bode well that China is repeating the policy of Japan in the 1970s - making a massive, rushed investment in nuclear energy, built upon a questionable regulatory system, just to supply a small percentage (6% in China’s case) of the nation’s electricity needs.

Further reading:

Cooke, Stephanie. (2010) In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. Bloomsbury.
Takada, Jun. (2005) Nuclear Hazards in the World: Field Studies on Affected Populations and Environments. Springer.


Amateur Food Testing and Evidence of Post-Decontamination Recontamination

My Terra-P dosimeter is capable of giving estimations of "surface contamination" of beta emitting radionuclides, in addition to taking readings of gamma radiation. This means that it can give a consumer some assurance about the level of cesium 137 contamination in food. The beta particles are measured as "beta flux density." The unit of measurement is particles/square centimeter.minute, and the manufacturer's recommended limit for food consumption is 0.020.

Bananas are famous for being a common food that everyone eats without concern, but which also contain a measurable amount of naturally occurring radioactive potassium. I took this as a standard of comparison. Bananas are also good for comparison because they are imported. The reading on the latest batch of bananas was 0.003 - about 7 times lower than the recommended limit of 0.020. The bananas we had last week measured 0.007.

mikan 0.001
Next I measured some other food from our kitchen, all of it purchased in Chiba, Japan. All of the levels were very close to that found in the banana.

yogurt 0.001
domestic pork - 0.001
imported pork (if you can trust the label) - 0.002
dog food - 0.002
backyard soil - 0.004
For other comparison, I measured the soil and the concrete patio in our small backyard. It was just slightly higher than the food.

backyard patio - 0.004
the scene in August 2011
The really interesting comparison was with the hotspot I found near our house last summer. This is on a pedestrian path, in place where rain washes sand down from higher ground and collects it at the curb side. Last summer I found the collected sand was giving off a gamma dose of 0.50~0.60 microsieverts / hour, while the common readings on open ground were about 0.14 microsieverts/hour (pre-disaster background radiation used to be 0.05~0.07). I "volunteered" to clean this up (chronicled in an earlier post), partly as a good deed for the community, but also for selfish reasons of just wanting this stuff to not blow in the wind near our house. We complained to city hall, and some parks and recreation workers reluctantly came around to haul away what I had put in bags, even though at the time officials told us they had not yet worked out a plan for where to store such waste. 

gamma dose rate of the hotspot 0.62 microsieverts/hour,
January 26, 2012
beta flux density of the hotspot 0.107
At the time, I had naively thought that this solution would last, but recently I found that sand and soil have collected in the same spot again, and it is just as contaminated as before. Last summer I didn't measure beta flux density, but this time I did, just to compare this soil with the food in our kitchen. The soil gave a reading of 0.107, 35 times as high as the banana, five times above the safety limit. The gamma dose rate on the soil today was 0.62 microsieverts/hour. The only good thing about this finding is knowing that this is soil in a mini hotspot at a curbside. No one is going to grow food in this. The same cannot be said of the highly contaminated rice paddies 200 hundred kilometers north of here, where farmers, lacking government compensation or restrictions, intend to plant rice for the coming season.

What is better than my small-scale amateur measurements is the monitoring done by Greenpeace Japan. Such independent, non-government monitoring is an essential part of establishing food safety. The large supermarket chain AEON has eagerly got on board with Greenpeace, seeking its stamp of approval for adopting high standards of monitoring the food sold in its stores. 


New research revises the conventional wisdom about potassium iodide?

A recent article in Archives of Internal Medicine would seem to have some serious implications for the long-held wisdom about using potassium iodide to protect humans against accidental releases of the radioactive isotopes of iodine. The findings suggest that this prophylactic treatment is itself likely to cause almost as much damage as it is supposed to prevent.
The research was not concerned at all with nuclear accidents. It focused instead on the use of iodide contrasts used in some medical imaging tests. A New York Times report on the research paper states that worldwide, annually, 80 million iodide contrast doses are administered for CT scans. The typical dose of the contrast agent contains between 90 and hundreds of times the daily dose that people get through a normal diet. The researchers found that among people who developed thyroid diseases over a 20-year period, they were 2 to 3 times more likely than others to have had an iodide contrast agent administered in the past.
The relevance to the nuclear energy debate seems obvious to me, but the authors of both reports mentioned here don’t make the connection. They are more concerned with the millions of CT scans that are being done, many of them non-essential, considering the trade-off presented by these new-found risks.
In the nuclear accidents that happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima, local residents were exposed to doses of radioactive iodine far above the typical dietary intake of stable iodine. Because radioactive iodine behaves chemically in the same way as stable iodine, a large dose of it would have the same effect as the large dose of iodide given for CT scans. This would be in addition to the harmful effects caused by radioactive decay of these isotopes.
The negative health impact would also occur even if the population received potassium iodide in a timely manner. The doses given are, like those given for CT scans, hundreds of times the daily dietary intake, so these too would have the negative impact of iodide given for CT scans. I suspect this downside was known long ago because in history’s two big nuclear accidents, authorities hesitated to distribute potassium iodide. Once they had data on releases and wind direction, they had to make decisions, knowing that what might be seen later as an over-reaction would cause many future cases of thyroid dysfunction. The new research shows that there is some wisdom in delaying, in telling people not to take potassium iodide unless they know it is absolutely necessary, but this knowledge of the effects of massive doses of iodine, stable or radioactive, is a severe blow to the nuclear industry that has always said that potassium iodide was a sure way to protect people during an nuclear emergency. Obviously, it is has its downside.
The victims and liquidators of the Chernobyl disaster have always claimed that they suffered severely from non-cancerous diseases of the thyroid, but for decades their governments and the United Nations have denied that metabolic diseases are related to the disaster. This new research on the effects of high doses of iodide contrast indicate that it is time to admit that exposure to large amounts of any isotope of iodine involves serious risk to future health.

Hyperthyroidism can cause:
Hypothyroidism can cause:
Difficulty concentrating
Frequent bowel movements
Goiter (visibly enlarged thyroid gland) or thyroid nodules
Heat intolerance
Increased appetite
Increased sweating
Irregular menstrual periods in women
Weight loss (rarely, weight gain)
Other symptoms that can occur with this disease:
Breast development in men
Clammy skin
Hair loss
Hand tremor
High blood pressure
Itching - overall
Lack of menstrual periods in women
Nausea and vomiting
Pounding, rapid, or irregular pulse
Protruding eyes (exophthalmos)
Rapid, forceful, or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
Skin blushing or flushing
Sleeping difficulty
Being more sensitive to cold
Fatigue or feeling slowed down
Heavier menstrual periods
Joint or muscle pain
Paleness or dry skin
Thin, brittle hair or fingernails
Weight gain (unintentional)
Late symptoms, if left untreated:
Decreased taste and smell
Puffy face, hands, and feet
Slow speech
Thickening of the skin
Thinning of eyebrows


Connie M. Rhee, MD; Ishir Bhan, MD, MPH; Erik K. Alexander, MD; Steven M. Brunelli, MD, MSCE. “Association Between Iodinated Contrast Media Exposure and Incident Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012;172(2):153-159. http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/172/2/153

O’Connor, Anahad. “Iodide Heart Scans Linked to Thyroid Disease.” The New York Times. January 23, 2012. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/23/iodide-heart-scans-linked-to-thyroid-disease/


Critique of the PBS documentary Nuclear Aftershocks

The recent PBS documentary Nuclear Aftershocks had the appearance of being an in-depth report on the energy crisis, but it failed in many ways to address the concerns of nuclear accident victims who are living with the risks of future health effects, and it also left viewers with no hopeful message that conservation and new technologies might offer a way out of the grim choice between carbon and nuclear or freezing in the dark. There was a lot I wanted to write about this, but someone else has already done an excellent job of it: Aftershocking: Frontline’s Fukushima Documentary a Lazy Apologia for the Nuclear Industry. Thanks to Gregg Levine, at the blog Capitoilette.


Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment - Disturbing parallels between Chernobyl and Fukushima

Book Review
Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment by Alla, A. Yaroshinskaya

The Chernobyl catastrophe was largely forgotten and dismissed by the world as soon as the smoldering mess was contained in the famous sarcophagus, but those who have paid attention to the issue since then have been aware of the strangely divergent views of the human toll of the disaster. One view claims that a million people have died prematurely, and millions more have had their health ruined, while the other side says there was only a small increase in cancer deaths and “generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.” [1]
If anyone still doubts the more pessimistic view, they need only read the recently published Chernobyl: Crime Without Punishment to lay the question to rest. [2] This is a translation of a book written by Ukrainian journalist, politician and winner of the 1992 Right Livelihood Award, Alla A. Yaroshinskaya. In this powerful condemnation of injustices suffered by Chernobyl victims for the past quarter century, the author provides volumes of evidence about their suffering–and it is the kind of evidence that should really be emphasized over other types that serve the interests of the nuclear industry. The experiences of the victims and witnesses reveal the health effects of what may be the world’s worst radiological catastrophe (there are other contenders for this prize).
Scientists can debate among themselves whether small amounts of radiation stimulate genetic repair, or make positive changes to chromosome telomeres, but anyone who chooses to “remember his humanity, and forget the rest” (to quote the famous line on this topic pronounced by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell) will be convinced by the corroborating evidence given by millions of victims. Doubting these accounts is a little like denying what occurred in Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1940s. The evidence may be dismissed as “anecdotal” by researchers in the hard sciences, but not in the social sciences where witness testimony is a legitimate and indispensable type of evidence, and a radiological disaster is something that rightly deserves to be studied as a sociological phenomenon. Ms. Yaroshinskaya’s writing demonstrates that it is time to get over the senseless false controversy about the effects of nuclear accidents and look squarely in the eyes of people affected.
This is an important book that should be translated into Japanese so that Japan might be able to reverse the harm that has been done by successive government failures to deal with the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. This book also clears up some of the misunderstandings about the Soviet handling of the situation.
Since the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, many critics of the Japanese government have pointed to the evacuation of Pripyat in 1986 as a model of effective government response. They ask why a communist government did so much better than a supposedly advanced and wealthy democracy. This view would amuse Ms. Yaroshinskaya. The truth is that the Soviet disaster was a much larger contamination–most of it fell on land; whereas in Fukushima, 70-80% of it fell on the ocean, and it differed in other ways that make it worse in some respects. The evacuation of Pripyat came too late, and in Kiev, only 100 kilometers away, the regular May Day parade was held a few days after the explosion in a cloud of heavy radiation, as if in an x-ray machine, as the author puts it. While high party officials waved to the crowds, their loved ones had been spirited away to safer locations. One scientist quoted in the book estimated that 15,000 dying victims were turned away from Kiev hospitals in the days after the explosion, never to be officially recognized as radiation victims.
After the establishment of the permanent exclusion zone, it became obvious that large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia were of questionable fitness for habitation, but the people on these lands were ignored and essentially left to their own devices. There would be no further evacuations. The city of Gomel, Belarus (population 480,000, a sort of “sister city” of Fukushima City) and the surrounding region are still dotted with zones of the highest contamination levels, and some scientists believe the gene pool of the population has been permanently damaged.
Ms. Yaroshinskaya presents the victims’ cases in their own voices, and what emerges are stories that resemble the experiences of rape victims. First there is an assault on the body (by radiation) then there are the insults and humiliation experienced in the pursuit of justice. A typical letter is this one:

I am not yet 32 years old, but I find myself in a hospital bed several times a year. And all of my four children (under 12) are also ill most of the time (they feel weak and listless, they have joint pains in arms and legs, their hemoglobin is below normal, they have enlarged thyroid and lymph nodes, headaches, stomach pains, constant colds). And it is the same in every family. We want to live. We want our kids to live and grow up healthy, and have a future. But through heartlessness, callousness and cruelty of those on whom our lives and the lives of our children depend, we are condemned to the worst possible fate, and we are only too well aware of that... We have had to eat, drink and breathe radiation for years, waiting for our last day.
- Valentina Nikolaevna Okhremchuk,
mother of four little boys, speaking for all the mothers of Olevshchina

One might say that one letter like this would prove nothing, but the fact is that there were hundreds of them signed by thousands of petitioners sharing the same experiences, so the narrative becomes impossible to deny.
As a victim herself who was living in an area of heavy fallout, the author pursued the story as a journalist immediately after the disaster. She made unauthorized and clandestine trips to the villages where people were living on contaminated soil, and there she collected their stories. At a time when photocopiers were scarce, and accessible only with official approval, she spread the word via hand-typed copies through a network of sympathetic supporters–a way of evading the censorship of the era known as samizdat. When the glasnost period advanced, she was elected to the The Congress of People’s Deputies, the first democratically elected body that was created during Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika (openness, reform) period. During her work as a journalist and a politician, she collected the letters that her readers and constituents sent to her. They begged for justice and relief from living in a radioactive environment.
These letters are heart-wrenching testimony to the contemptuous neglect that victims suffered at the hands of their governments, as well as the scientists and doctors who defended the official view that claims of declining health were caused by “radiophobia” and the social factors that came with the decline of the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of the disaster, residents in contaminated zones were quickly relocated, and there were hasty decisions made about where to rebuild. Money flowed to construction projects, new villages sprang up, and only then they discovered that this land too was almost as contaminated as the towns that had been evacuated. This was in the days before one could buy a cheap, hand-held Geiger counter. Even qualified scientists needed government permission to take measurements, so these villagers were at the mercy of a government that wished they didn’t exist.
The one saving grace of the Fukushima disaster is that it happened in the age of the Internet and inexpensive radiation detectors. Some Japanese legislators made vain calls to make it illegal for citizens to measure radiation, but nothing came of it.
One subgroup of relocated citizens was the staff of the Chernobyl power plant itself. Incredibly, two other reactors on the site remained in operation until the year 2000, and staff commuted to the plant every day to work in the radioactive environment. The former company town of Pripyat was evacuated and a new town was built in Slavutich, but it too was on contaminated land and not fit for normal life. Outdoor recreation was not possible, and workers felt sick and demoralized.
By late 1980s, the Soviet Union was unraveling, money for relocation had been exhausted, and no one in official positions wanted to admit to past mistakes and fix them. In addition, promises of “clean” food supplies were broken. During periods of shortages and inflation, the allowances given for buying this clean food became an insult to the recipients. There was no clean food to buy, and if there had been, it would have been unaffordable. The food allowance became known as a pittance of “coffin money.”
Another category of victim was made up of the 800,000 liquidators who battled the reactor fire and built the structure that sealed off the danger from the environment. Chernobyl is regarded now as a war, and the liquidators are rightly referred to as veterans of an epic struggle against a new kind of enemy. They are undoubtedly responsible for saving all of the Eurasian landmass from becoming uninhabitable. These young men and women answered the call to save their country without hesitation (but they were conscripted and didn’t have a choice anyway), and one would think that the just reward would have been guaranteed hero status, disability pension, and health care with special provisions for the effects of radiation that they would suffer. Such benefits were promised, but in reality the Chernobyl veterans were for the most part betrayed. A population of this size, exposed to high levels of radiation, could have provided valuable knowledge about the effects of nuclear accidents, but the veterans were ignored by official studies inside and outside of the former Soviet Union.
The common understanding of radiation effects predicted that the Chernobyl liquidators would get cancer at some time decades later, but instead the most common observation was generalized premature aging. Men who went into battle in the prime of their youth were dying ten years later from heart attacks and strokes. They suffered from immune and digestive disorders–a general decline in every aspect of biological function. Since these disorders could be classified as health conditions normally found in the general population, the official stance was that they were not related to radiation exposure. Complaints were dismissed as “radiophobia,” and declines in health were linked to the social upheaval and economic decline of the times. One victim quoted in the book snarled sarcastically that yes, he was getting “radiophobia.” He was afraid to turn on the radio and listen to the nonsense spouted from official media sources.
The truth is something that is known by people who have a theory of human nature that says all people want dignity, health and the chance to contribute to society. These victims and veterans, like all people, did not want to live life as moochers. They wanted to work with the same vigor they put into working the land, or (in the case of the liquidators) into resolving the crisis at the reactor. Rather than having a fear of radiation, they waved it off with bravado until it was too late to save their health.
As protest movements gathered strength in the 1990s, governments were forced to listen to complaints of victims and veterans, but still they gained little. At one time, a cynical move was made to monetize the meager benefits that these groups received. Instead of guaranteeing them defined benefits such as free transportation, free medical exams and so on, the value of these benefits would be pegged to a monetary value and paid out on a regular schedule. In a time of high inflation and rapid economic change, the ruse was obvious. Without a guaranteed index that defined benefits, the monetizaton scheme was just a way to get beneficiaries off the government ledgers.
Ms. Yaroshinskaya concludes that the victims in the villages and the Chernobyl veterans were totally marginalized and abandoned by successive governments. She condemns the villains, and has a willingness to name names and describe them with the vitriol she thinks they deserve. She points out the essential fact that what little the victims managed to gain was won only when the movement grew strong enough to turn into solidarity strikes all over Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. One has to wonder if Japan, the apparently prosperous, developed democracy, would be capable of mounting a solidarity strike to support the families in Fukushima who want to evacuate.
As I write this after having watched Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, Ms. Yaroshinskaya’s book reads like a manual of how a society reacts to a large-scale nuclear accident. So much is unfolding in Japan exactly as it did in the Soviet Union. I have the feeling that she has described a situation that will play out wherever there is a nuclear accident in the future, so readers can learn from this and know what to expect if it strikes close to home.
With four hundred nuclear reactors still in service on the planet, most of them nearing the end of their lifespans, and few countries following Germany’s lead to shut down nuclear power, it’s a safe bet to say that somewhere in the next decades there will be one or more major accidents. What’s it going to take to make people understand we can’t manage this technology? Chernobyl and Fukushima (as well as numerous lesser accidents at mines, processing facilities and military and experimental reactors) should have been enough, but it seems like an accident will have to happen near a place that counts for global power holders: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, Paris. Note to Japan, content to have bought into enriched uranium technology and General Electric reactor design: In case you haven’t figured it out, you still don’t matter in this sense.
The list below shows some of the parallels between the Soviet and Japanese responses to their nuclear disasters:

1.  In the initial days there is lying, misinformation, and a deliberate attempt to avoid causing a panic.

2.  Data on fallout, wind direction and so on is gathered but kept secret. Government claims to have experienced breakdowns and chaotic conditions that made data collection impossible.

3.  Reports go out that potassium iodide has been given to the population at risk, but in fact most people who need it don’t get it.

4.  The legal tolerance level for radiation is increased.

5.  Leadership is surprisingly ignorant about the science and the pre-existing state of the nation’s reactors. Government seems impotent, incompetent, paralyzed and unable to direct resources to the problem.

6.  Evacuation is delayed, then months or years later residents are pressured to return to contaminated land. Officials go into deep denial about the extent of the damage and pour resources into hopeless efforts at decontamination and remediation.

7.  National wealth is invested in restoring communities in contaminated areas, then when this mistake is realized, governments cannot acknowledge it.

8.  The solution to pollution is dilution. Radioactive debris and food are diluted and spread far and wide to all corners of the country.

9.  There is no large-sum settlement fee offered to those who want to resettle far away. Surviving family members of the victims of the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York received million-dollar settlements that allowed them to restart their lives, but there is no such compensation after a nuclear disaster. Instead, various cynical schemes like vouchers and monthly allotments are slowly dripped out in such a way as to tie impoverished people to the land that the government wants to declare “remediated.”

10. Funds donated by individuals are misappropriated and used in ways that would outrage the donors. The funds raised by the first public charity ever allowed in the USSR were redirected away from victims then put toward funding visits by foreign scientists who were ushered through the disaster zones by officially appointed obfuscators. In Fukushima, funds from the German Red Cross are being used to build a kindergarten in one of the highly contaminated towns just outside the exclusion zone. [3]

11. Reactor designers, electrical utility management and regulators will attempt to escape liability and prosecution, usually with success. In the case of Chernobyl, station staff were scapegoated and sent to jail, but no one else was prosecuted for the ultimate causes of the accident or the failure afterwards to protect citizens.

12. Scientific and medical opinion is controlled through state support to such an extent that the official conclusions become unassailable. The disaster is declared to have had overall minimal effects on public health, and this becomes the consensus view accepted throughout the world, including by United Nations agencies. Numerous Japanese “experts” on Chernobyl visited the area repeatedly, but their interpretations of the catastrophe were shaped by the state-sponsored scientific and medical community that filtered their interpretations. When disaster struck Fukushima, these misinformed experts repeated the insulting references to radiophobia, and they were put in charge of managing the public health crisis and leading the government’s public relations campaign. [4]

13. In the absence of efficient measures to protect the public and compensate all losses, citizens are left to fight among themselves over their rights. Mothers claim the right to compensated evacuation, while farmers, bankers and businesses demand that everyone should stay, buy the local food and support the local economy. Husbands and wives split up over disputes about the risks. The old want to stay and the young want to leave. Senior citizens complain that their grandchildren don’t want to visit anymore. The pressure to keep children (the most vulnerable people to radiation) on the land is particularly cruel, but essential for those who want to revive the economy of the area. They know that without children communities will decline. 

14. There is a deep, widespread denial of the nuclear disaster’s ability to destroy the environment and the social fabric, and society is helped along in this delusion by the global nuclear industry and the United Nations. (Ironically, the Japanese state media, NHK, actually covered this in a 1996 report condemning the IAEA adoption of the official Soviet lie.) [5]

15. The market talks and bullshit walks. Capitalism is all about freedom and free markets after all. The post-Soviet republics became capitalist and Japan is supposedly capitalist, too. In spite of hypocritical efforts by the government to be a command economy in this instance, forcing people to live on contaminated land, people are free to move away, and they do. Despite efforts to restore the area, it develops a stigma that lasts for a long, long time. Economic decline is inevitable, and it is recognized too late that the money spent on restoration should have been spent on helping people relocate.

16. Just as Chernobyl was a major cause of the collapse of the Soviet system, the meltdowns in Fukushima may play a part, or be a symptom of, fundamental problems with modern capitalism.

Chernobyl: Crime Without Punishment is an essential, powerful wake-up call to the human race to pull out of its state of denial over global nuclear hazards. Chernobyl was supposed to have been “the final warning,” but we’ll have to say this now about Fukushima. One line that stuck with me after putting the book down was a Russian proverb that Ms. Yaroshinskaya uses to comment on the neglect of Chernobyl victims: Deception can take you wherever you want to go, but it can’t bring you back. It applies equally to self-deception. Keep that in mind if you think the nuclear waste scattered over the planet–some of it “safely” contained in temporary storage, some of it in the soil and water, some in your bones–is an issue we can afford to ignore once again.

[1] UNSCEAR 2008 Report to the General Assembly, Volume II, Scientific Annexes C, D and E, United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, 2008, http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/publications/2008_2.html .
In 2008, the United Nations report on the Chernobyl disaster confirmed the findings of its own 2000 report. It denies contrary reports that Chernobyl had serious health consequences for millions of people living in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. At one point the authors acknowledge studies showing that liquidators suffered increased rates of cardiovascular and neurological diseases, but they dismiss such findings simply because they contradict previous research. By such logic, Einstein was wrong because he contradicted Newton. The report concludes with these words: “The vast majority of the population were exposed to low levels of radiation comparable, at most, to few times the annual natural background radiation levels and need not live in fear of serious health consequences [As usual with UN reports, the complaints of internal radiation damage are completely ignored]. This is true for the populations of the three countries most affected by the Chernobyl accident, Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine… Lives have been disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.”

[2] Alla, A. Yaroshinskaya, Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment (London: Transaction Publishers, 2011).

[3] “Donation via German Red Cross Used to Build Library, Nursery School for Evacuees in Koriyama City in Fukushima,” EXSKF, January 12, 2012,
This blog post includes a translation of an article published by Kyodo News which is no longer online. The article gave this information about the use of the donated funds from Germany: “A facility with the library room and the nursery school opened on January 6 in the temporary housing in Koriyama City in Fukushima Prefecture where the residents from Kawauchi-mura live after having evacuated from their home after the nuclear accident. The facility was built with the money of about 40 million yen (about 408,000 euro, US$520,000) donated via the German Red Cross.

[4] Cordula Meyer, “Studying the Fukushima Aftermath ‘People Are Suffering from Radiophobia,’” Der Spiegel, August 19, 2011,

[5] NHK Special: TheTruth about a Contaminated Land: 20 Years After Chernobyl (NHK spesharu yogosareta daichi de cherunobiri niju nen go no shinjitsu) (NHKスペシャル 汚された大地で ~チェルノブイリ 20年後の真実~ ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGYj9XunnzY