Stuck in the Middle: Fukushima to the West, Hanford to the East

What's in the dust? A haboob blows through Phoenix, Arizona
One of the few American politicians to be alarmed by the ongoing dangers posed by the Fukushima Daiichi ruins is US Democratic Senator for Oregon, Ron Wyden. He visited the site and became alarmed by the perilous state of Fukushima Reactor 4 building's spent fuel pool. The earthquake-damaged structure that holds the spent fuel could collapse in another strong earthquake, and if that happens there is a strong possibility that the fuel could catch fire and create a global disaster much bigger than Chernobyl or Fukushima. There is a sad irony in the fact that it is an Oregon senator who had to sound the alarm because his state is already threatened by the massive radiological contamination that has been left on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. Since the 1980s, billions of dollars have been spent to clean up the site, but it is questionable how successful decontamination will be. Radioactive plumes are migrating through the soil toward the Columbia river, so there is a danger that the contamination of the river (and of downstream cities like Portland, as well as the Pacific Ocean) will be worse in the future than it has been in the past.

Back in the day at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Richland, Washington, USA

After living in Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and after reading about the contamination of the American West during the Cold War, I'm not sure which calamity Senator Wyden should be more concerned about. It is impossible to comprehend the tremendous numbers and terminology that are used to describe radiation hazards. All the reported numbers appear to be horrifyingly large. There are millions of terabecquerels and petabecquerels reported, and other numbers multiplied by 10 with double digit exponents indicating a long series of zeros on the quantities given. These are said to be outrageously harmful, or nothing to be concerned about at all, depending on whom you talk to. It is a matter of counting the number of atoms undergoing radioactive decay, after all, and atoms exist in numbers beyond normal intuition. Even though the exponent is the key number to notice, at a certain point, the difference, for example, between 1015 and 1018 (a multiple of 1000) doesn't register for the average person. Confusion about the meaning of radiation data occurs also because of the way we describe radioactive material. It is created by man or it exists in nature. It is left in the environment, or it is released, contained, or disposed of. The earth and living things are contaminated and then possibly decontaminated. Depending on whether one is pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear, radioactive material can be disposed of or contained, or it can only be moved from one place to another, if there is any meaning at all in trying. Radionuclides vary in their duration (half-life), energy level, and the role that they play in biochemistry. Even the stable isotopes of uranium poison us chemically as heavy metal toxins. How we perceive the hazards of radiation depend on how we choose to understand and define the characteristics and terminology of radiation. There is no agreement about what the actual hazards are.
Hanford is the gray area northwest of the "A" marker.
After the Fukushima disaster, I had to make a decision whether to stay in Japan or return to Canada, and my decision to stay reflected an assessment that there were possibly no uncontaminated places to flee to. In addition, any place I might flee to could soon be impacted by climate change. A place that is relatively safe now may not be in the future. Zones contaminated by radiation exist in Central Asia, (weapons production and testing by China and the former Soviet Union), South Asia (India and Pakistan), the Arctic (Soviet Union and USA), the South Pacific (imminent collapse of the Murorua Atoll because of bomb tests by France?), Australia (British bomb tests), Sellafield in the United Kingdom and La Hague in France (both for plutonium processing), Chernobyl, Fukushima, Algeria (French weapons testing), uranium mine sites in Africa, Australia, Canada, and Kazakhstan. The places that are not radioactive have numerous other chemical hazards that one must contend with. I'm still not sure if it was the right judgment to stay in Japan, but much that I've learned in the meantime confirms my opinion that few places are safe anymore. The Fukushima disaster is just part of a nightmare that began a long time ago and will continue long into the future. The only questions now are whether we are going to stop adding to the harm already done, and whether we will take some mitigating actions, to the extent they are possible, to reduce harm to future generations. Unfortunately, much of the harm has already been done to past, present and future generations, and it can be undone only to a limited degree. One of the urgent things to do is simply to teach the history and put up the warning signs to present and future inhabitants.

This dilemma is explained well in the book The American West at Risk, by Howard Wilshire, Jane Nielson, and Richard Hazlett. Their chapter concerning radiation hazards in the American West is also published here. It's a long chapter about the contamination left at numerous sites where nuclear weapons were made and tested. It describes the hubris of government scientists who assumed without evidence that contaminants would dilute in the environment rather than accumulate in the food chain. They also erroneously expected that radionuclides would not travel underground and reach water tables. In other aspects, the weapons program became a disaster just because of bureaucratic mismanagement, and the mistaken belief that people would always do what safety manuals said they were supposed to do. In some instances, the program engaged in the deliberate sacrifice of the ecosystem and the health and lives of civilians and soldiers – crimes which were condemned later by US court decisions that finally acknowledged the harm done.
To put the problem of the American West in perspective with the well-known disasters of Fukushima and Chernobyl, and as a way to summarize the chapter in The American West at Risk, I've excerpted below sections of the chapter that contain the data for the radioactive legacy, and I hope that the figures have been arranged in such a way that they start to make the relative dangers of the hazards comprehensible. Making sense of these numbers depends on how they are embedded in the language we use to comprehend the problem. One figure is shocking because it represents an amount of hazardous material sitting “safely” in containment pools, or embedded deep in the earth over a large area as a legacy of underground tests. These places are often nearby, but not touching, a source of drinking water. For now, such places may be harmless, but for future generations, they may be a gift that keeps on giving. For some people, the fact that this material was ever created represents an unforgivable “release” of hazardous radionuclides. For others it is not a “release” but rather a “ shielded inventory,” a “containment,” a “proper disposal” or a problem that can be resolved. How frightening the numbers are depends on how one perceives the danger posed by the existence of nuclear waste in the various ways it has been left in the environment.
The American West at Risk, is, of course, not the last word on the legacy of nuclear weapons production in America. An extensive study of iodine fallout (funded by the US government Centers for Disease Control) in the Hanford area found no harmful effects in the population. It concluded, “The HTDS [Hanford Thyroid Disease Study Team] found no evidence that exposure to Iodine 131 from Hanford atmospheric emissions between 1944 and 1957 was associated with an increased cumulative incidence of thyroid cancer, benign thyroid nodules, hypothyroidism, or autoimmune thyroiditis.” However, elsewhere in the report the authors add, “Nevertheless, there was considerable uncertainty associated with the individual dose estimates. Consequences of this uncertainty are considered in more detail elsewhere.” Thyroid disease was found in the study participants at the same rate (about 13%) as it is found in the rest of the American population, and there was no dose response relationship. This leaves open the possibility that there was no control group.
According to another government-mandated study (Estimating Thyroid Doses of I-131 Received by Americans From Nevada Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Test ), all of the American population was exposed to 150 million curies (5.55 x 1018 Bq) of Iodine 131 during the 1950s from 90 tests at the Nevada Test Site, and it made a wildly divergent guess about how many cases of thryoid cancer this caused: anywhere from 11,000 to 212,000. Furthermore, the incidence of thyroid cancer has increased greatly since the 1970s, and there is no certainty about whether this finding comes from better diagnosis or environmental causes. The amount of fallout that all Americans were exposed to would seem to cloud results of the HTDS study which assumed that the Hanford releases contributed only 1/150th of the releases from bomb tests. The control group, the entire American population, was likely to have been affected as much as people near Hanford.
The HTDS study also leaves questions as to who consumed the milk and other produce of the region. It is unlikely that it was all consumed by the local people who participated in the study. The study also omits mention of stillbirths, infant mortality, other cancers and birth defects in humans and livestock. These are described only in eyewitness testimony of persons who lived through the period in question (1944-1957) – the type of accounts that historians use to understand what happened in social upheavals (the Nazi Holocaust, for example), but which are dismissed pejoratively as “anecdotal” in scientific research.
Wilshire et al, citing a book (Atomic Harvest, by Michael D'Antonio) that related subjective experiences of Hanford fallout victims, describe the effects of the Green Run experiment this way:

Following the Green Run, a very large number of sheep died on farms in Franklin County, Washington, near the Hanford Reservation - and a large number of ewes delivered deformed or stillborn lambs. Both before and after the Green Run, families on those farms gave birth to babies with deformities and other birth defects, and later suffered from multiple health problems, including sterility. In the thinly-populated area closest to Hanford, which came to be known as the "Death Mile," more than 60 men and women began dying of heart attacks or cancers before reaching the age of 60. After more than three decades, Hanford downwinders finally learned about the Green Run and the probable cause of their hair losses, anemias, unexplained fatigue, and reproductive disasters, all common symptoms of radiation poisoning.

Another eyewitness account related by Wilshire et al documents the problems suffered by one person immediately after the Green Run experiment.

Many Hanford victims lived far from the Reservation - one is June Stark Casey. In 1949 June Stark was a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, 50 miles from the Hanford Reservation. That year, fatigue and chills suddenly struck her during Christmas break, followed by permanent loss of her long, natural curly hair. Throughout her life, she has suffered from severe hypothyroidism, a miscarriage and a stillbirth, multiple tumors in various organs, skin and breast cancers, and a chronic degenerative spine disorder. Not until 1986 did she discover that Green Run radiation had blanketed Walla Walla on December 2, 1949.

Such exceptional cases may be rare and escape the notice of researchers, but heavy contamination could happen to only a few people because fallout is not distributed evenly. Some unfortunate people may consume a heavily contaminated dust particle or leaf of spinach. By the methods of the HTDS study, June Stark Casey's health conditions, and the timing of their onset, were irrelevant. She would be just one of the many research subjects whose condition was assumed to be a “natural occurrence” of thyroid problems.

Some Perspective on the radiation hazards presented in The American West at Risk

Many of the cited figures in the list below are estimates. There are conflicting reports, as expert opinion and official records are not always in agreement, and estimates are constantly being debated and revised. The estimate of the Chernobyl release, for example, depends on knowing how much fuel is left in the ruins of the reactor building, but this has never been accurately measured. Where sources are not given, readers can easily confirm or find conflicting estimates given by various reliable internet sources.
Units of measure: 1 curie = 3.7 x 1010 becquerels. In recent research, becquerels (Bq) are cited more commonly than curies, so figures in curies have been converted. Other units of measure have been converted to metric. One Bq is defined as the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second.


  1. Total atmospheric release of Chernobyl: 5.2 x 1018 Bq.
  2. Fallout from bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site, Iodine 131 only, during the 1950s: 150 million curies (5.55 x 1018 Bq). (Source: National Cancer Institute Study Estimating Thyroid Doses of I-131 Received by Americans From Nevada Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Test ).
  3. Worldwide releases of cesium 137 from all sources: 270 million curies (9.9 x 1018 Bq). (Source: Robert Alvarez).
  4. Fallout of Strontium 90 from worldwide weapons testing until 1980: 16.8 million curies (6,216 x 1017 Bq) (Source: UNSCEAR).
  5. According to TEPCO's estimate of May 2012, 5.38 x 1017 Bq (14.5 million curies) of iodine-131, caesium-134 and caesium-137 were released into the ocean (80%) and atmosphere (20%).
  6. Three Mile Island releases of Iodine 131: 13 to 17 curies (4.81 x 1011 Bq to 6.29 x 1011 Bq).
  7. Releases of Iodine 131 from Hanford 1944-1957: 1.1 million curies (4.07 x 1010 Bq).

For reference, the number of atoms in the human body is 7 x 1027 (Source: Jefferson Lab Science Education). This is a number enormously larger than the numbers above indicating atoms undergoing nuclear decay, which suggests that fallout has been spread very thinly among millions of human bodies. However, the numbers tell us nothing about the damage that these quantities of nuclear decay may have done to living things. The exiled Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in Britain in 2006 with an estimated 10 micrograms of polonium 210. This was 200 times the median lethal dose of 50 nanograms that was needed to kill him. One gram could, theoretically, kill 50 million people. Not all radioactive isotopes are, by mass, this harmful, but the point is that it takes only a relatively small number of atoms to render lifeless an organism consisting of 7 x 1027 atoms.

Relatively contained:

  1. At the Hanford and the Idaho (INEEL) site, there are approximately 65 million gallons (246,051,766 liters) of high-level wastes with a total radioactivity of 399 million curies (1.2543 x 1019 Bq) (Source: The American West at Risk).
  2. Estimate of spent fuel inventory at Fukushima Daiichi: 336 million curies (1.2 x 1019 Bq) (Source: Robert Alvarez).
  3. Radioactive wastes buried in landfills and boreholes in the American West amount to nearly 10 million curies (3.7 x 1017 Bq). (Source: The American West at Risk)
  4. Estimate of plutonium on the earth awaiting a permanent storage solution: 200,000 – 300,000 tons (Source: the film Into Eternity).

  1. Both radioactive and non-radioactive but toxic materials from weapons production and testing currently contaminate buildings, soil, sediment, rock, and underground or surface water within more than 2 million acres [8,903 km2, 0.08% of total national land area] administered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in the 11 western states. Bomb tests created vast quantities of contaminated soils, rock and water that are not identified as waste and do not appear in contaminant inventories...
  2. Nuclear science has never found a safe way to deal with long-lived radioactive wastes. DOE sites and facilities store more than 1,000,000 tons of hazardous nuclear and non-nuclear materials just from nuclear bomb production, enough to fill more than 11,000 railroad cars of a train 100 miles long...
  3. The nation as a whole harbors at least 1.3 billion cubic feet (36,811,900m³) of radioactive wastes, emitting 1.01 billion curies (3,737 x 1019 Bq) of radioactivity [most of it shielded and contained, one would assume or hope – the authors don't make the distinction], 10 times the amount of radiation released in the Chernoybl accident...
  4. In addition, DOE manages lands containing more than 67 billion cubic feet (1,897,228,707m³) of contaminated water, sediment, soil, and rock, and the sites of approximately 5,100 contaminated facilities...
  5. Some 3 billion cubic feet (84,950,539m³) of radioactive uranium mill tailings - also containing toxic heavy metals - are lying about on the ground, mostly in the 11 western states...
  6. Hazardous contamination from either bomb making or testing - or both - directly affects 44 areas in the western U.S. The largest threats lie on and under contaminated areas close to population centers, such as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, next to the city of Richland, Washington, and surrounded by farmland on both sides of the Columbia River...
  7. Initially operated by DuPont, the General Electric Corporation ran the 360,000 acre (1,456.86 km2) Hanford Reservation from 1946 to 1965, the period of its worst intentional and accidental radiation releases...
  8. The radioactive pollution from Hanford's bomb fuel production is in the form of 25 billion cubic feet (707,921,159m³) of dangerously radioactive wastes - more than enough in liquid form to fill two Great Salt Lakes, and equivalent to the worst contamination at notorious Russian bomb factories...
  9. Hanford recorded approximately 270 other unplanned releases and spills but information about them is scanty - one spill involved dumping an estimated 25,000 curies (9.25 x 1014 Bq) of radioactive cesium-137 into the ground.
  10. One 1949 Hanford program, the so-called "Green Run," purposely released radiation over parts of western Washington state, Oregon, and Idaho, irradiating farms, towns, and people - not to mention the soil and water. The Green Run's actual radioactive release is unknown, but reconstructions suggest as much as 11,000 curies (4.07 x 1014 Bq) of iodine-131 and 20,000 curies (7.4 x 1014 Bq) of xenon 133 - more than 700 times greater than the Three Mile Island accident, and 11,000 times the threshold for human radioactivity exposures at that time...
  11. At Hanford and the Idaho (INEEL) site, approximately 65 million gallons (246,051,766 liters) of high-level wastes with a total radioactivity of 399 million curies (1.2543 x 1019 Bq) - nearly 4 times the officially-reported Chernobyl release - are still stored in tanks as liquids, part-liquid and part-solid sludge, and solids...
  12. One hundred and seventy-seven radioactive-waste-filled underground tanks are buried at the "200 East and West sites," near the Hanford Reservation's geographic center...
  13. Sixty-seven of the tanks have leaked, draining between 600,000 and 900,000 gallons (2,271,247 to 3,406,870 liters) of radioactive pollution into the ground - enough to fill 4 to 6 railroad tanker cars.
  14. Adding to the accidental leaks, between 1946 and 1966 Hanford bomb makers ran out of storage room in tanks and intentionally poured more than 120 million gallons (454,249,413 liters) of liquid wastes from the tanks directly into the ground...
  15. Dumped into ditches called "specific retention trenches," these wastes contained more than 150 million pounds (68,038,900 kilograms) of corrosive chemicals, enough to fill 75 railroad cars, along with materials having total radioactivity of more than 65,000 curies (2.405 x 1015 Bq)...
  16. The result of all these disposal and storage failures is an estimated 370 billion gallons (1,400,602,358,600 liters) of groundwater with various radioactive and other hazardous contaminants beneath the Hanford waste site - enough to fill the Great Salt Lake nearly 5 times...
  17. By 1983 the tritium-containing plumes had entered the Columbia River, demonstrating that groundwater actually takes a maximum of 10 or 20 years to move the 14 miles from the 200-site contamination source to the river. The time for ruthenium to migrate 14 miles is now estimated at 7 to 8 years, while the faster-traveling tritium takes only 6 to 7 years. These pollutant "travel-times" require speeds of about a half a mile to 2.5 miles per year, much faster than the "thousands of years" estimates that DOE scientists had calculated before finding tritium in the Columbia River...
  18. Largely to save money, the Cold War's atomic bombing relocated to U.S. soil, at the 865,000-acre (3,500 km2) Nevada Test Site (NTS), adjoining World War II Nellis Air Force Base. More than 800 underground tests have turned tracts into a whole-earth version of Swiss cheese. Another source of extensive radioactive contamination - both above and below ground - comes from failed radioactive waste "disposal."
  19. In all, radioactivity contaminates approximately 565 million cubic feet (15,999,018m³) of soil, sediment, and rock on the riverless NTS and 280,000 cubic feet (7,929m³) of groundwater.
  20. Radioactive wastes buried in landfills and boreholes amounted to nearly 10 million curies (3.7 x 1017 Bq) by January 1996 - 4 times the minimum amount of radioactivity released in the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant melt downs.
  21. An unknown amount of radioactive and chemical wastes also are buried at 1,800 so-called "industrial sites," including leach fields, sumps, disposal wells, leaking tanks and others. DOE expects to identify another 1,500 industrial-site disposal areas.
  22. In addition, 828 below-ground nuclear tests blasted out subterranean cavities, which remain thoroughly permeated with radionuclides.
  23. At least 33 early NTS nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, called "safety" or "equation of state" experiments, now seem as unbelievable as plot devices in horror films. Experimenters blew up packages of plutonium and uranium with high explosives "...to determine the size and distribution of plutonium particles which might result from fires and conventional explosive accidents involving nuclear weapons." Although the scientists could have traced plutonium dispersal patterns using a non-radioactive material with similar physical characteristics, they chose instead to dust more than 3,000 acres (12 km2) with plutonium and other dangerous contaminants, having radioactivity in excess of 40 picocuries (1.48 Bq) per gram... A level of 10 pCi/g (0.37 Bq/g) is considered a lethal dose.
  24. Inventories of radioactivity in surface soils as of January 1, 1990, suggest a total greater than 2,000 curies (7.4 x 1013 Bq) within the NTS.
  25. An estimated 110 million curies (4.07 x 1018 Bq) of radioactive contaminants, about equivalent to the minimum Chernobyl release estimate, melted into the rocks surrounding explosion cavities, both in water-saturated rock below and unsaturated rock immediately above the water table...
  26. The other 512 underground blasts left nearly 200 million curies (7.4 x 1018 Bq) of tritium and plutonium fission products, and approximately 4,400 pounds of unfissioned plutonium, in unsaturated rock and soil...
  27. In addition to radionuclides, the bomb tests added huge amounts of hazardous nonradioactive materials to NTS rock and soil. No comprehensive inventory is available, but a single underground test can involve more than 125,000 pounds of lead, along with a wide variety of other toxic metals, plus smaller amounts of other inorganic and organic chemicals...
  28. At the other major atomic sites, principally Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), Idaho; Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, Colorado; Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico; and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, more than 12 million cubic feet (339,802m³) of radioactive waste lie buried in trenches or pumped into the ground.
  29. The only comprehensive attempt to track historical records on buried transuranic waste at INEEL revised a prevailing estimate of 73,300 curies (2.701 x 1015 Bq) upward to an uncertain figure between 640,000 and 900,000 curies (2.368 x 1016 to 3.33 x 1016 Bq) - in comparison, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs together produced 1 million curies (3.7 x 1016 Bq) of radiation...
  30. Tests showed that the soil over more than a 19 square mile (49km²) area around the Rocky Flats reservation can have plutonium concentrations as much as 380 times above natural background levels...
  31. More than 2 million people live within a 50 mile (80km) radius of the Rocky Flats site, and new towns such as Superior, Colorado, are springing up within sight of Rocky Flats. DOE's proposed cleanup standard for Rocky Flats could leave "unprecedented levels of plutonium - at the site," but would require preventing all future public access.

This astounding litany of numbers leaves us feeling numb and confused, and in the end, they don't help much with the task of interpreting phenomena and drawing conclusions. The effect of all this radiation on human populations remains unconfirmed by scientific studies, but there is no disagreement about what radiation can do to individual organisms. It is also clear that rates of cancer and many other diseases have increased since the mid-twentieth century. Since we know that chemical pollution, poor diet, lifestyle changes and radiation are all contributing and confounding factors, it makes sense to stop worrying about the numbers, to no longer expect that research will confirm what we want to know. Instead, it would be better to follow the sensible course of not making any more poison and cleaning up what exists. And, oh yeah, we have to do this while shifting the global energy system toward something that will mitigate the additional harm that is being done by climate change.

Additional note:

There are some grounds for optimism in the fact that American activists were able to push the government to react and deliver some degree of justice to the victims of nuclear weapons production and testing. The victims of Chinese weapons tests never got any from their government. The curious thing about the American case is that both the US government and activists expressed almost no concern for the fallout that landed on Canada and Mexico. Internet searches on this topic come back empty. Only this brief report from Beyond Nuclear mentions how it is strange that the American fallout maps stop at the border. Canada is only 290 kilometers from Hanford, and the American desert tapers northward into the Okanagan Valley of central British Columbia. If the US government felt an obligation to carry out research and eventually offer compensation to victims, it should have done the same for neighboring countries that were affected. The Canadian government seems to have never expressed any concern over the issue, aside from testing some caribou meat in the Arctic, and it is likely the Mexican government never did much, either.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, Richard W. Hazlett. The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery. Oxford University Press. 2008.
  2. Scott Davis, Kenneth J. Kopecky, Thomas E. Hamilton, Lynn Onstad and the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study Team. “Thyroid Neoplasia, Autoimmune Thyroiditis, and Hypothyroidism in Persons Exposed to Iodine 131 From the Hanford Nuclear Site.” Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). 2004; 292(21):2600-2613. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=199905
  3. National Cancer Institute. Estimating Thyroid Doses of I-131 Received by Americans From Nevada Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Tests. 1997.
  4. Michael D'Antonio. Atomic Harvest. Crown Publishers. 1993.
  5. Senator Wyden on the problems at Hanford.
  6. Senator Wyden on the problems at Fukushima.
  7. B.L. Tracy and G.H. Kramer. Radiocesium Body Burdens in Northern Canadians. Bureau of Radiation and Medical Devices. Department of National Health and Welfare, Ottawa, Canada. www.irpa.net/irpa8/cdrom/VOL.2/M2_169.PDF
  8. Keith Schneider. “Dying Nuclear Plants Give Birth to New Problems.” The New York Times. October 31, 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/31/us/dying-nuclear-plants-give-birth-to-new-problems.html
  9. Enformable.
  10. Radioactive Fallout from Nevada Test Site Impacted Canada. Beyond Nuclear. January 27, 2012. http://www.beyondnuclear.org/canada/2012/1/27/radioactive-fallout-from-nevada-test-site-impacted-canada.html
  11. Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization
  12. The US government's information site for Hanford
  13. Hanford Watch
  14. Hanford Challenge


Adequate Design?

Looking back more than a year after the event, it is clear that the Fukushima reactor complex, though nowhere close to state-of-the-art, was adequately designed to contain radiation.”                   
- Dr. Richard Muller, physicist, University of California Berkeley, August 2012.

Take your time. Go back and read that again: “The Fukushima reactor complexwas adequately designed to contain radiation.”
While a recent official Japanese report on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster confirms the view that it was a tragedy with enormous environmental, social and economic effects, there is still commentary appearing in the media claiming that the real danger was minor, while all the harm it did was caused by irrational panic. Sadly, the event is said to have needlessly caused nuclear power to fall out of favor at a time when we need it as an alternative to carbon-based energy. This week, The Wall Street Journal published The Panic Over Fukushima, the latest example of such an essay, by University of California Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.
While Dr. Muller is chosen to speak on this issue in the mass media because of his expertise as a physicist, his opinion piece has an unfortunately narrow view of the issue from the viewpoint of medicine, engineering and ethics. Most of what he writes is correct, but his conclusions are doubtful if what he omits is taken into consideration.
All scientists who have tried to downplay the seriousness of nuclear accidents choose to discuss only cancer and external radiation exposures. However, people who are concerned about environmental contamination in Fukushima are mostly worried about the effects of particles that will get into their bodies, and other ailments that are not as frightening as cancer but a serious concern. The earliest studies of the health effects of radiation were focused on internal contamination, and the hazards were well known before there was a nuclear power industry that preferred not to talk about them. Every health physicist knows that cesium in living organisms is absorbed in the same way as potassium, and strontium fills the role of calcium. The former goes to muscles and the latter goes to bones. Dr. Muller’s argument doesn’t mention internal contamination, but it seems to rest on the assumption that the levels of these toxins in the environment around Fukushima will have a negligible impact, whether they are inside or outside living things. Yet considering the complexity of the problem, how could anyone know with any certainty what the health effects will be?
Other omissions are the topic of non-cancerous health effects, and the greater vulnerability of fetuses and children. These are conveniently not discussed. One reason might be the common assertion that no official support has ever been given to the claim that radiation causes non-cancerous health effects. Indeed it is difficult to find any government compensation or any legal decision that has favored claimants who said they suffered non-cancerous health effects from exposure to radiation. But there is one little-known precedent from a forgotten corner of nuclear history. The U.S. government has awarded Marshall Islanders, who were exposed to nuclear weapons test fallout, with compensation for several non-cancerous diseases and benign tumors, among them non-malignant nodular thyroid disease, hypothyroidism, autoimmune thyroiditis, severe mental retardation, and unexplained bone marrow failure. Internal exposure is implicitly admitted in the recognition of these conditions.
One quarter of the 36 conditions listed for compensation are non-cancerous or include benign tumors. It was not easy to get these conditions recognized, but when they were added to the list they were described as being “medical conditions which are irrebuttably presumed to be the result of the Nuclear Testing Program.” Skeptics would probably say that it was all just sympathy money, politicking and liberal guilt caving in to pressure from victims. There is no convincing some people.
Many of the admitted conditions are related to thyroid malfunction, which can be a primary cause of other health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and hypertension. Furthermore, research by Bandazhevskaya et al has shown that heart disease later in life can be caused by the absorption of the radioisotope cesium 134 and 137 by heart muscle during embryonic development and during childhood. The Marshall Islands has some very poor statistics in world rankings for death caused by ailments related to heart disease (listed in the table below.) If they have never been recognized as effects of radiation it is because the world authorities in health physics (WHO, UNSCEAR, IAEA, ICRP) refuse to acknowledge Bandazhevskaya’s work on heart muscle absorption of cesium, even though they also seem reluctant to conduct research that would settle the matter. Also, the diseases in the table are all secondary effects of thyroid malfunction, and they are parts of a single condition known as metabolic syndrome which is caused by a combination of environmental, dietary and cultural factors. It would be impossible to determine precisely how much nuclear weapons testing contributed to the present health condition of Marshall Islanders, but undoubtedly it is a factor in the dismal statistics of a place that should be a tropical paradise full of healthy people. The list below shows world ranking for rate of death for various diseases, along with the rate of death within the Marshall Islands. Since these five causes of death are problematically inter-related, they could be totaled as one cause labeled metabolic disease. In this way, we can say that 52.35% of Marshall Islanders are dying from this preventable condition, with radiation exposure being a highly probable contributing factor.

cause of death
world ranking
% of deaths in the Marshall Islands
endocrine disorders
heart disease


But this is medicine, not physics. Perhaps it is too much to expect a physicist to learn this information that is outside his area of expertise. This is a job that can only be done, apparently, by amateurs who take the time to read research papers from various fields in their free time.
Dr. Muller wrote in his conclusion, “Looking back more than a year after the event, it is clear that the Fukushima reactor complex, though nowhere close to state-of-the-art, was adequately designed to contain radiation.” I doubt there are many nuclear engineers who would agree with this statement because most of them, even ones who are still staunchly pro-nuclear, must be ashamed and appalled by how badly this complex was maintained and how badly it failed to contain radiation. To take just one example of inadequate design, TEPCO workers on the site found it impossible to vent the pressure that caused the explosions and led to the catastrophic release of radiation. It is peculiar that anyone could call this “adequately designed to contain radiation.”
Of course, if you believe there are no serious environmental or health consequences from the massive releases of radiation that occurred, then the complex was adequately designed. There will be no problems if other reactors of the same design fail in the same way because there are no health effects. Don't worry. Be happy.
Furthermore, this statement about “adequate design” shows no awareness of the ongoing dangers posed by the melted cores and the spent fuel pools – the main reasons people are reluctant to re-inhabit the area.
In his discussion of the risks of nuclear power, Dr. Muller declares the obvious in stating, “Nothing can be made absolutely safe.” Then he asks a question that actually gives his opponents a clear reason to not change their minds. He asks, Must we design nuclear reactors to withstand everything imaginable? What about an asteroid or comet impact? Or a nuclear war? No, of course not; the damage from the asteroid or the war would far exceed the tiny added damage from the radioactivity released by a damaged nuclear power plant.” Well, actually, these are good reasons not to build nuclear power plants in the first place. There are other crises less severe than nuclear war that could be worsened by the involvement of nuclear power plants and spent fuel pools. If nuclear power plants had existed at the time of WWII, their destruction by conventional bombing would have left Europe uninhabitable. A small war or terrorist attack with non-nuclear explosives aimed at nuclear power plants would be enough to cause widespread damage.
Most of Dr. Muller’s essay is devoted to a discussion of how the risks of cancer are calculated for a radiological emergency, and how these risks compare with natural sources of radiation and other risks we face from nature or from other man-made threats. The long mathematical explanation becomes a condescending lecture to the non-specialist who, it is presumed, is too dimwitted to understand the simple point that radiation exposure produces relatively few additional cancers compared to all the cancers that occur in a population. We get it, but those who dwell on this point fail to address the ethical issues of the discussion.
If the extra cancer cases caused by a radiological accident amount to only a 1% increase, the crime of imposing this burden on people is the same no matter what the risk is. If, in addition to the cancers that will be caused by radiation from Fukushima, there are 99 known carcinogens sold legally and scattered throughout the environment, the producer of each one can say that his product contributes only an additional 1% lifetime risk of getting cancer. And he’ll say that this is, of course, an acceptable trade-off considering the benefits the product brings to society (sterile toilet bowls, perhaps). But, of course, the net result of everyone using this rationale is a 100% chance for everyone of an untimely death by cancer.
For some reason, the moral outrage is easier to perceive if you consider the risk of harm by criminal activity. If a sociopathic killer is paroled, the murder rate will increase only incrementally, while there is a benefit to society in the saved cost of incarceration. My overall risk of dying by violence hasn’t changed too much by the release of this one criminal. High-income people, such as university professors, choose to not live in neighborhoods with higher crime rates, even if living there would only increase their lifetime risk of dying by violence by less than 1%. Their “irrational” fear and discomfort with living with the uncertainty would be the deciding factor, and most people find this to be natural value system. Psychological comfort matters.
To take another example, if a real estate agent knowingly sells someone a house that was used as a methamphetamine lab, he can rationalize his action in the same way the criminal rationalized making the drug. He can say that there is only a small increase in the risk to the health of the sucker who buys the house. If he already has poor health and some bad habits, so much the better. In these cases, the answer to the moral question seems clear: risks can only be imposed with informed consent, and individuals have the right to decline risks for reasons that may seem irrational to others. This will all become much clearer to you when it is the radionuclides falling on your property and not on the homes of abstract strangers on the other side of the world. In my neighborhood, soil deposition of cesium went from a few hundred Bq/m2 to about 20,000, but this, we are told, is nothing to worry about because in the exclusion zone 200 kilometers away the figure is 500,000 ~ 1,000,000, or more. And the optimists say even that will have a negligible impact. I didn’t panic and I haven’t evacuated because the doctor is right, lifetime risks of cancer haven’t increased much at all, and quitting my job at the age of 53 would have a serious downside. But I still claim my right to be rationally outraged.
Furthermore, it does not matter whether the person declining the risk agrees with others about how dangerous it is. If my wife has a phobia about butterflies, it would be sadistic of me to mount framed specimens of them on the wall and tell her to just get over it. In contrast, the fear of radiation is not completely irrational. It is a known poison. Radioactive particles should not be in the human body, but to some degree people are, admittedly, irrational about the risks, sometimes. But so what? If they choose not to live on land contaminated with 500,000 Bq/m2, that’s their prerogative. If the land becomes economically depressed and depopulated, too bad. If the electorate no longer wants nuclear power, that’s democracy in action. If the insurance liabilities of nuclear power make it too expensive to finance with private money, again, too bad. The market has spoken. This is the consequence of badly managing nuclear safety, not of the general population’s panic and irrationality.
In spite of these moral arguments, I regret to say that Dr. Muller is probably right about the numbers and the long-term effects of Fukushima. It amounts to just an incremental addition to the health disasters that have been unfolding for a long time, and, as a civilization, we appear to be too dumb to understand why people are dropping all around us. Rates of metabolic diseases and cancer have been increasing steadily, and the increase in cancer is not occurring just because life expectancy has increased. According to Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., the chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition,

 [Since 1971] … childhood cancers have increased by 26% overall, while the incidence of particular cancers has increased still more: acute lymphocytic leukemia, 62%; brain cancer, 50%; and bone cancer, 40%. The federal National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the charitable American Cancer Society (ACS), the cancer establishment, have failed to inform the public, let alone Congress and regulatory agencies, of this alarming information. As importantly, they have failed to publicize well-documented scientific information on avoidable causes responsible for the increased incidence of childhood cancer.

If society doesn’t wake up to the causes of cancer and start preventing it, then nuclear accidents like Fukushima, occurring amid all the other causes of disease, will continue to be wrongly perceived as inconsequential.
Dr. Muller makes a couple additional assertions that are worthy of attention. Invited to write for a major media company as an expert, he is allowed to make assertions that don’t need to be supported by as much as a hyperlink to a credible source. Nor does he have to admit that his assertions are controversial within the scientific community.
He claims that nuclear power is an abundant resource, but doesn’t explain that there are many uncertainties about the world supply of uranium. Specialists who have looked into the question admit that the supply of uranium depends on many factors that can’t be predicted. The World Nuclear Association is optimistic about a technological solution in a post-carbon world in which nuclear energy produces hydrogen fuel which powers the heavy machinery to mine and transport uranium. This presumption conveniently avoids the fact that global warming will do catastrophic damage before carbon energy supplies are depleted. Other experts are not so sure, regardless of the recently exploited deposits in Kazakhstan that have temporarily dampened talk of  a shortage of uranium. An article in Live Science described the situation this way:

Now it seems that mining uranium, which nuclear power depends on, could be even less environmentally friendly and more costly than critics say, according to a new analysis led by Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer at Monash University in Australia.
On average, supplies of high-quality uranium ore have been steadily declining worldwide for the past 50 years, and will likely to continue to wane in the mid-to long-term, Mudd said. Any new uranium deposit is likely to be deeper and harder to extract, and getting uranium from lower-quality deposits involves digging up and refining more ore, according to their analysis of government and industry reports.
"I have often found that the numbers used by many in industry, government or green groups are guesses rather than extensive, measured data sets," Mudd said. "The main thing is to understand the environmental costs of mineral production in terms of land disturbance, energy and water inputs, greenhouse outputs and that this will gradually climb up over time."

Another questionable claim of Dr. Muller is in his reference to the gold standard of radiation studies – the studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims – to make conclusions that may be flawed. Critics of the official studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have pointed out for a long time that their basis is questionable. For one thing, a very important group of radiation victims died in the instant the bombs detonated, or shortly afterward from burns. That takes about 200,000 people out of the studies from the start. Another problem is that the official studies left out people who were living at a distance of more than 2.5 kilometers, and people who entered the cities after the detonations. These groups received significant internal doses and low-level external doses. Another physicist, Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake, studied these groups and said in a recent interview, “What I found was that the death rate from leukemia and respiratory and gastrointestinal cancers was above the national average, and that the incidence of thyroid cancer, leukemia, and breast cancer among women were 1.5 times to 4.1 times higher.” That’s a higher rate than just a few cancers added to the millions that occur “naturally,” but Dr. Schmitz-Feuerhake is just a member of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), a group accused by the nuclear establishment (the IAEA, ICRP, UNSCEAR and industry organizations) of being politically motivated and fringe – not to be taken seriously. It is interesting that these groups of scientists and engineers always see these traits in those who disagree with them, but view themselves as rational, neutral Dr. Spocks who have no skin in the game.
Dr. Schmitz-Feuerhake goes on to say,

Meanwhile, in the past several decades, various studies on nuclear accidents, nuclear facility workers, medical x-rays, and natural radiation have shown the effects of low-level radiation exposure on health. However, the research has been largely ignored, primarily because they contradict data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ICRP's risk assessment, in particular, underestimates the effects of long-term low-level radiation exposure, and also lacks awareness of its effects on illnesses other than cancer… Similar things [official denial of the effects of internal exposure] are happening in many other countries. It's because once a public organization acknowledges internal radiation exposure, they would be forced to acknowledge their responsibility for the risks to the health of nuclear plant workers. Nuclear plant workers are burdened with the same problems as the people of Fukushima who have been exposed to radiation.

I hope that Dr. Schmitz-Feuerhake and others in the ECRR might find that the above-mentioned recognition of Marshall Islanders constitutes a rare official acknowledgement of non-cancerous diseases and internal exposure. As for commentators such as Dr. Muller, I am reminded of something I was told by a friend who took the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1989. A few times he saw graffiti on dilapidated buildings that screamed out, “Eat here, Gorbachev.” This is food for thought for anyone who thinks the exclusion zone in Fukushima is fit for human habitation.

References and Other Resources