Someone Still Wants to Embrace the Atom

Sixteen months after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster there is still occasional media commentary that claims that the meltdowns, explosions and exposed spent fuel pools are of no consequence. As information trickled out over the first year, and the dreadful lies of TEPCO and government agencies were exposed, these editorials decreased in frequency, and almost disappeared altogether. It seemed as if the public relations strategy of the nuclear lobby changed as it realized it was fruitless to go on downplaying the severity of disaster. By late in 2011, everyone, both pro and anti-nuclear lobbies, were sufficiently terrified by the situation. The majority of nuclear engineers and health physicists, no matter how pro-nuclear they were, had to admit that there was nothing to gain in appearing to be blasé about the consequences of Fukushima.
But this week the trend was back with a vengeance in a guest editorial in The Japan Times. Michael Radcliffe, a lecturer at Yokohama City University, seems to have not got the memo that the pronuclear PR machine has moved on. I suspect that he will feel very lonely as rebuttals pour in because the pro-nuclear lobby will be content to let him twist in the wind with the ideas he has put forward. The Japanese government, the IAEA, and the American NRC have recently shown a lot more contrition and seriousness about the Fukushima disaster. Nonetheless, the downplayers and minimizers keep coming back once in a while like the undead. I’m not sure this zombie is even worth the effort of responding to, but I’ll take out my pitchfork and do battle with the advancing beast one more time.
The first problem is that Radcliffe chooses as his title How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the atom which is, of course, an allusion to the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. This is a badly chosen title because readers who are familiar with this film know that the title is ironic. The film is a satire of the nuclear arms race and it did much to inspire the anti-nuclear movement. Thus, adapting the same phrase for the title of an essay about nuclear power sets up the reader to expect an argument against it. Instead, we get a long list of spurious arguments in favor of nuclear power:
1. No one died because of the Fukushima Disaster
This is not exactly true because several hospital patients died in Futaba City due to the chaotic conditions of the evacuation. And there are more deaths if you count the suicides of evacuees.
But still, OK, casualties were very low. Let’s grant that. However, this is like saying it’s alright that your house burned down because everyone got out alive. People who make this oft-repeated point that “no one died” make no mention of the devastating impact of the loss of agricultural land, destruction of business enterprises, the evacuation of 100,000 people, and the psychological and physical toll on them. The callousness of this argument is no different than telling a rape victim that all is well if she didn’t catch a disease or get pregnant.
As part of this argument, Radcliffe compares the situation with the casualties from the Bhopal chemical spill. OK, but the point is irrelevant. It was a chemical accident, involving not even a competing form of energy production. If Bhopal had never happened, the discussion of nuclear safety would be no different.
2. Mainstream Science
Radcliffe suggests that we should pay attention only to reliable “mainstream science” such as the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), or listen only to select pro-nuclear health physicists like Wade Allison. Unfortunately, it is not possible to define the limits of “mainstream science” or find a consensus even among the most established experts in health physics. There are large non-governmental organizations such as Physicians for Global Survival and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and there is the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR)  which all come to widely different conclusions than the UN bodies that are staffed by and subservient to the global nuclear industry. Putting one’s faith in the optimistic “mainstream” science is as sensible as it was to listen, before 2008, to mainstream economists and financial regulators who failed to see the crash of the US housing market. This is an age to be very skeptical of mainstream wisdom in any field where large financial stakes are in play.
3. Previous nuclear disasters
Radcliffe goes along with the “mainstream” view of the effects of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. In the case of TMI he says, “there were no reported health effects from radiation at all, regardless of what you may have heard.” In other words, if you heard otherwise, you should ignore this information simply because it disagrees with sanctioned government research.
In the case of Chernobyl, he cites the UNSCEAR report that said impact was minimal. Yet the research by scientists at the ECRR finds the UNSCEAR results to be serious underestimations of the effects of the disaster.
All that can be reasonably said about this issue is that no one knows the full extent of the effects of low level radiation and internal radiation. Officially sanctioned research is doubtful because it disagrees with mountains of anecdotal evidence given by the victims (in books like Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment, by a Ukrainian journalist and politician who lived through the disaster and its aftermath). Their stories can never be verified by “mainstream” science because official bodies don’t want to fund research that might give undesirable results.
4. Internal and External Exposure
The danger of internal exposure to radionuclides has been known since the dawn of the atomic age, but it is astounding to note how often the topic is ignored by mainstream health physicists and radiation experts. Those who downplay the hazards consistently talk about only external exposure. They constantly assure the public that background levels are only slightly elevated in the disaster area, and they trot out the familiar tropes of their argument: If you’re worried about radiation, don’t eat bananas. Ramsar, Iran has been inhabited for centuries with higher background radiation than any place in post-disaster Fukushima. Your dental x-rays are more dangerous. Radon gas in your basement is more of a worry than Fukushima, and so on.
The fact is that the anti-nuke people are not concerned too much about external radiation. 100 mSv per year may not cause any harm, but what they are really worried about is internal exposure to fission products such as muscle-seeking Cesium 134 and 137, bone seeking Strontium 90, various isotopes of plutonium, and several other exotic radionuclides and chemicals from the Fukushima explosions that rarely get mentioned (Telerium 129, Manganese 54, Silver 110, Cobalt 60, Americium 241, Neptunium 237, Rhodium 102, Iodine 131, Krypton-85, 86, Xenon133, 134, 135, 136, stable and unstable uranium, tritium…). Some of these decayed away quickly after doing their damage, while there are others remaining in uncertain amounts around Fukushima and nearby regions. No one knows how much got and will get into people’s bodies, and what the effects will be. No one can claim any certainty about these dangers, and so no one can discount the anxieties of people who have to live with them.
I have read commentary by people who work in the nuclear industry, such as the US NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko, who still think nuclear is a necessary part of the solution to the energy crisis, but they are humbled by the Fukushima disaster, mindful of the harm it has caused, and respectful of the lives that have been damaged by it. This is sharp contrast to the strident, shameless voices that say “So what? No one died.” They ignore the dangers, blame the media for hyping bad news “because it sells,” and label victims and opponents as hysterical naysayers. One can respect people who have differing views about the future role of nuclear power, but it is hard to comprehend the heartlessness that has appeared in some of the commentary of the last year, especially when it comes from medical doctors.
5. Why evacuate or decontaminate if there is no risk?
A curious thing about the minimizers is that they avoid saying too loudly that the government was wrong to declare an exclusion zone and attempt decontamination. The official line is that these are necessary public safety measures, but if radiation were as safe as they claim it is, these measures would be unnecessary. Radcliffe says, “In fact, a resident living anywhere in the prefecture, even within the evacuation zone, is likely to have received less radiation in 2011 than people living in areas of high natural background radiation around the world, such as parts of Iran and India.” Radcliffe is suggesting here that the government was over-cautious and should have done nothing at all in the aftermath of the disaster. All efforts at decontamination and evacuation were a colossal waste of money done only for show and political compromise, according to this view. Radcliffe can say it, but those in official positions cannot: all measures to mitigate a nuclear disaster – evacuation, decontamination, food monitoring – serve no practical purpose but are necessary for political expediency. They appease the public, save the industry’s image, and allow it to carry on after the situation gets “remediated.”
6. Food monitoring
Just as Radcliffe suggests that decontamination and the exclusion zone were unnecessary, he says the public obsession with food monitoring has been a needless concern. He states about the contaminated beef “scare” that a soothing authority on NHK news assured the nation that “you would have to eat a kilo of that beef a day in order for the radiation to have any measurable effect upon your health.” Radcliffe suggests that this fact is reason to say that the public reaction to the beef “scare” was unwarranted. However, he fails to see the justifiable reason for the public outrage. People were not worried that they were going to die from this one case of exposure. They were correct to be hyper-vigilant of the government’s food inspection program. The best way to pressure the government into setting up an effective, systemic approach to food monitoring was to be outraged at every lapse, whether or not it had real consequences.
7. “Massive amounts of CO2 released unnecessarily”
Finally, Radcliffe states that the sudden shutdown of nuclear power plants created an unnecessary reliance on fossil fuels that set back Japan’s trade balance and greenhouse gas emission targets. By saying this, he implies that there was an alternative, that nuclear power plants could have been kept open. However, everyone except Radcliffe, even the nation’s pro-nuclear lobby, seems to have understood that there was no alternative. Several nuclear power plants had been shut down before March 2011 because of scandals, earthquake damage, and breakdowns. Others were down for scheduled maintenance, or scheduled to go down later during 2011 and 2012. The remainder had to be shut down for rigorous safety inspections because Japan could not risk suffering another blow like Fukushima Daiichi. All of the seismic risks had to be reassessed, and power plants had to be put through more rigorous stress tests. Another meltdown would be a fatal blow to the country.
8. Not mentioned
At the end of the essay Radcliffe declares that the media and the anti-nuclear lobby were not sufficiently relieved when cold shutdown was declared. Instead, they were almost angry, as if asking, “How dare the crisis be over?” Media elements are “absurdly and tragically invested in the continuation of the crisis.” It is odd that Radcliffe does not discuss the actual content of the media reports where one can find the reasons for disagreeing that the crisis has been resolved. The destroyed reactors are still spilling massive amounts of radiation, no one knows where the melted cores are, or how they will be removed or sealed off from the environment. The damaged spent fuel pools in reactor buildings 3 and 4 contain massive amounts of radionuclides which cannot be removed to safe confinements. If they collapse in another earthquake, the whole site will be too radioactive for any human to work at. At best, the crisis will take 40 years to resolve and, like Chernobyl, be a contaminated no-man’s land for centuries. These are the facts of the situation which are uncontroversial at this point. It is difficult to comprehend why essays such as this one appear now when the frightening extent of the disaster is well understood.
9. Fossil fuels
Radcliffe laments that Japan has gone into a trade deficit because of the need to import fossil fuels. It is not at all clear why we should risk destruction of the country by another nuclear disaster just to pursue an economic goal, but the trade deficit argument may be spurious for other reasons. Some of the trade deficit was from firms moving sourcing and production overseas in the wake of the tsunami. Some of it might have happened anyway. In any case, nuclear energy is not cheaper just because uranium is less costly than fossil fuel per unit of energy produced. All of nuclear energy’s costs need to be accounted for. These include decommissioning of dozens of aging reactors, building future reactors, buying insurance for the associated risks, finding a long-term storage solution for spent fuel, as well as the aforementioned forty-year cleanup of Fukushima Daiichi. Finally, we cannot forget the opportunity costs of alternative energies not adequately developed and conservation programs not pursued.
10. Fossil fuel health effects
The only thing that Radcliffe gets right is in the point made about the anti-nuclear movement’s tendency to ignore the damage caused by fossil fuels, but he is wrong to suggest that the solution for solving one evil is to go with something that appears to be a lesser evil. An addict who switches from heroin to crystal meth really hasn’t solved his underlying problem. Anti-nuclear activists and global warming activists need to merge into a wider engagement with the energy crisis. These issues are part of the bigger problem which is the end of the global system based on economic growth and consumption. It is senseless to keep bickering about whether cesium or particulate smog is worse for us. As George Carlin said, we don’t have to save the planet. The planet is fine. It is indifferent to our existence and is not obliged to provide us with a solution to our perceived energy needs.
I end on this point by tipping off readers to the brilliant speech by Paul Gilding at the 2012 TED Conference. His talk called The Earth is Full left the crowd of wealthy techno-optimists speechless and twisting uncomfortably in their chairs. Give him seventeen minutes of your time.

Further reading: 
The Japan Times - Letters published in response to the editorial


The Very Young and the Reckless

I started this blog almost a year ago, motivated just to plant in the world the idea that it would be a good achievement for the human race to be rid of nuclear bombs and power plants by the time the centennial of the nuclear age rolls around. But I’ve come to see that it is impossible to advocate for such an idea without talking about related environmental problems and the dysfunction of so many political and business institutions.
It makes no sense to be pro-nuclear just because coal mining kills people and global warming threatens us all. In the opposite way, how can one be anti-nuclear while ignoring, for example, the horrors of mountain-top-removal coal mining in West Virginia? Elementary schools in the poorest and most polluted parts of this state have not one asthma inhaler in the nurse’s office, but rows of asthma inhalers. One has to be anti-everything that destroys innocent lives for the idea that some people are necessary sacrifices for others’ comfort.
From these diverse environmental and social problems, the one common theme that emerges is that knowledge of the non-life sciences (physics, chemistry, engineering) is always ahead of knowledge of the life sciences. We knew how to split atoms before we could splice genes.
US Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986) is credited with the development of the American nuclear submarine fleet, but he didn’t feel particularly proud of his achievement in his later years. He viewed his work as something that was inevitably necessary in the Cold War era, but in retirement he wished that he could trade in his career success for a world in which atomic energy were not known. In an address to the US Congress he said:

Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet… reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin... Now … we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible... Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years…  it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.

At the dawn of the nuclear age, no one realized that cellular reproduction was impossible on a radioactive planet because no one knew much at all about the molecular code of life.
A review of a few other important developments in the history of science reveals the same pattern: the understanding of non-life sciences is constantly outpacing the knowledge of life sciences.

A Few Milestones in the Industrial Contamination of Life

1556 to 1783:
Silver ore processing at Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia. The Spanish Galleon Trade established the global economy linking all the continents, and it rocked the world currency system with an unprecedented infusion of silver from a single mountain in South America. Indian slaves died in short rotation, not simply from exposure and brutal labor, but by mercury poisoning. Ore was cold-mixed with mercury (“fortuitously” found in large amounts on a nearby mountain) and trodden by the native workers with their bare feet. The mercury vapors were deadly. When the local supply of slaves was exhausted, African slaves were imported.

Radium Girls – A term given to thousands of factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning while painting radioluminescent watch dials. Even though the dangers were understood by the higher-ups, workers were sent to the factory floor without adequate protection. The “girls” (and some boys) fought a ten-year legal battle and established precedents for worker protection from poisoning on the job.

Marie Curie dies of aplastic anemia, brought on by years of radiation exposure.

Manhattan Project. Managers knew the history of the Radium Girls and set about their work with deep trepidation. They feared that the large number of workers needed would lead to health consequences that couldn’t be concealed. They worried about the ethical issues and that the secrecy of the Project would be blown if large numbers of workers got sick. Robert Stone, a medical officer on the Project, wrote in 1943, “The clinical study of the personnel is one vast experiment. Never before has so large a collection of individuals been exposed to so much radiation.”

Human populations were exposed to bomb blasts in acts of war in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nuclear fallout in a bomb test in New Mexico. Some scientists thought the atmosphere might catch on fire, but others thought, naaah, probably not.

Discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Like most discoveries, this was more of an incremental step achieved on the shoulders of previous researchers. For several years biologists had been slowly figuring out the genetic code and the structure of DNA, but it is striking to realize that at the time of the Manhattan Project, scientists knew only that radiation makes people sick but they didn’t know why.

Atmospheric testing of massive hydrogen bombs - the 15 megaton Castle Bravo test in the Bikini Atoll (1954, USA), the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba test in Novaya Zemlya, Arctic Ocean (1961, USSR), and other atmospheric tests by France, the United Kingdom and China until 1976. Gradually, the understanding of genetic effects was sinking in. Leaders everywhere paused, scratched their heads and said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Evidence is published showing that the artificial hormone DES, prescribed over previous decades to pregnant women, could cause deformities and future cancers in their children. Subsequently, other endocrine disruptors (dioxin, pesticides, flame retardants, uranium – for its chemical properties, not just a radioisotope - PCBs, bisphenol A, mercury, selenium…) were found to have the same cross-generational effects. Even when the case couldn’t be nailed shut, there has been a growing consensus of people opting for the precautionary principle, saying, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.”
More recently, there has been a study showing that the effects of endocrine disruptors can be passed on to the third generation.

1997 to present:
Fetal origins or “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis, increasing understanding of effects between environment and genes (epigenetics), and the prenatal origins of cancer and other diseases.
The “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis refers to what happens when a fetus is exposed to deprivation or chemical stress. This seems to set up a person’s metabolism in a particular and permanent way. The person is born ready for an environment of scarce resources. He will have a system of appetite control that is set to consume whenever food is available because its default setting is an expectation of shortages. Ergo, an obesity epidemic.

Research is published showing the effects of weapons test fallout on people who were exposed in utero in the 1960s. Compared to men born at the same time in the same city, and who are still alive, men who died of cancer in middle age had double the amount of strontium 90 in their baby teeth. Someone had the foresight to collect baby teeth from thousands of people!

Dying from the cure. Health physicists like to play down worries about radiation by repeating the comforting news that radiation is our friend because it cures cancer and helps doctors diagnose diseases. We will have to revise this view as medical science confronts its success and now meets the new dilemma of large numbers of cancer survivors succumbing to totally new cancers caused by previous radiation therapy and chemotherapy (famous case: the type of cancer suffered by writer Nora Ephron). There needs to be a revision of the public misunderstanding that these are harmless therapeutic or diagnostic exposures. This implies also that one cannot suggest that exposure from nuclear disasters is comparable to the “negligible” radiation we get from medical scans and radiotherapy.
This list of milestones shows that there has been a constant gap between knowledge of the non-life sciences and knowledge of the life sciences. For example, when we discuss one of the most serious contemporary health problems, the level of popular and professional ignorance is astounding. Most of the discussion about obesity is senseless moralizing about personal food and lifestyle choices, or discussion of which fad diet might work. Or perhaps large soft drinks should be illegal. It is said to be a disease of the poor because they aren't educated enough to make good food choices, but the poor also live in the most contaminated environments! Decades after the damage has been done, we are starting to figure out that obesity starts in the womb and that the solution lies in environmental decontamination and improvements in pre-natal health.
Listen to Dr. Jules Hirsch, emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University, who has been researching obesity for nearly 60 years. He was interviewed by a reporter and had this simple, blunt advice about losing weight:

What your body does is to sense the amount of energy it has available for emergencies and for daily use. The stored energy is the total amount of adipose tissue in your body. We now know that there are jillions of hormones that are always measuring the amount of fat you have. Your body guides you to eat more or less because of this sensing mechanism.
This wonderful sensing mechanism involves genetics and environmental factors, and it gets set early in life. It is not clear how much of the setting is done before birth and how much is done by food or other influences early in life. There are many possibilities, but we just don’t know.
So for many people, something happened early in life to set their sensing mechanism to demand more fat on their bodies?
What would you tell someone who wanted to lose weight?
I would have them eat a lower-calorie diet. They should eat whatever they normally eat, but eat less. You must carefully measure this. Eat as little as you can get away with, and try to exercise more.
There is no magic diet, or even a moderately preferred diet?

Sixty years of professional wisdom is reduced to eat less, exercise more! But the really important conclusion for public health policy is what Dr. Hirsch alludes to only cryptically. He says “something happened,” but he does not explain what it was. Whatever the “something” is, it is clear that there is a human tendency that needs to be corrected. The general rule is that ignorant and reckless risks are taken in the present while the effects are left to be understood only in the future. This is what has to change.



Last week the government of Japan released a major report on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The Official Report of the The National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission(NAIIC) was reported in the major media worldwide, and the general interpretation was that it was a shockingly brutal indictment. There was a feeling that now, finally, Japanese officialdom is facing up to the nation’s deep deficiencies.
This was my initial reaction, too, but as I read the executive summary of the report, I started to get a sinking feeling that this panel of independent experts was still way off the mark. Although they declared it was a man made disaster rather than an accident, this really wasn't news to anyone who has been paying attention. The report made me wonder if it, too, is just another set piece in the elaborate kabuki dance in which problems are things to kick around rather than solve.
The first failing is that the report "catalogues a multitude of errors and willful negligence" but it makes no suggestion that criminal prosecutions, or even a truth and reconciliation tribunal, are necessary. The chairman wrote, "...the goal is not and should not be to lay blame," but this begs the question, "Why not?" The commission preferred to find that the "…fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to sticking with the program; our groupism; and our insularity. Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same."
In other words, no one is to blame and everyone is to blame, so let’s just whip ourselves for a while, think about changing, then move on. Self-flagellation is pretty amazing to watch for a couple minutes – it has a good "wow" factor, but in the end, it doesn’t count for much in the way of concrete solutions.
The report’s conclusion overlooks the historical record of millions of Japanese who fought against the nuclear industry in Japan, sometimes fighting long, fruitless legal battles against a corrupt judiciary that backed the interests of governments and utilities every time. Had these people been in charge, or just been listened to, I would say, no, the result would not have been the same. It is a notable failing that the commission, as it admits to the gross deficiencies of the nuclear industry, had nothing to say about how this important branch of government failed for years to protect the interests of the citizens who tried to warn society about the disaster that came. And what is it doing now to prosecute those whom the commission finds to be guilty of negligence?
Another curious part of the report is the comment that Japan had a “disregard for anything not invented here.” This alludes to the well-known pride that the Japanese have in their technology, as well as to their isolationism. However, to say this about nuclear technology shows a lack of knowledge about how it came to Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors were made by General Electric, and all the early technology for splitting atoms was American. The decision to adopt the GE lightwater reactors, instead of safer heavy water reactors, was due to American pressure to correct the trade imbalance. I suppose that the Japanese don’t want to appear to be blaming foreigners, but it is not right that the global nuclear industry should escape liability here.
Blaming this disaster on culture is a cop-out in other important ways. Granted, we have to admit that the Japanese bureaucracy-government-industry complex took corruption, complacency, hubris, incompetence and isolationism to astounding heights, but these faults extended to the IAEA which also calmly watched Japan’s nuclear industry fall apart in repeated scandals and outrageous safety lapses during the twenty years previous to 2011. It would be a mistake to not see the commonalities with all cases of regulatory capture. The study of one case provides lessons on any other. This is about human universals more than cultural variation.
In previous posts I wrote about the global financial crises with regard to how they bear uncanny similarities to environmental disasters, with many of their metaphors even borrowed from nuclear disasters. We can see the universality of regulatory failures, and also see the various options for dealing with them - in any culture. These options are not obscure, sensitive adaptations to specific cultures. They are political and policy decisions that are applicable generally, with perhaps only a few necessary localizations.
Consider for example the way that Iceland reacted to its economic meltdown in 2008. It took a heterodox approach that was rejected by Western Europe and the US, and it is now recovering while the places that took the orthodox approach are still in danger of further crises, and financial crimes (i.e. the LIBOR crimes) are still rampant.
Iceland employed the measures in the column on the left. The column on the right lists corresponding measures that could have been followed after the nuclear disaster. Unfortunately, in Japan, blind adherence to orthodoxy and unimaginative, laughable solutions ruled the day.

let the banks go bankrupt
let TEPCO go bankrupt, nationalize it
have your own currency and central bank
don’t be tied to the opinions of international organizations – the situation is probably worse than they think, but they don’t have to live with it
currency depreciation
let land and asset depreciation hit bottom, don’t waste time propping up the value of land that has been rendered unsafe by radioactive fallout
conduct criminal prosecutions
conduct criminal prosecutions – the people will appreciate the sense of justice and be able to move on and trust their government again, future potential miscreants will be deterred
provide relief to debtors, not creditors
compensate the victims and rank and file employees, not the stockholders and executives, put money in people’s pockets so that they can move away
let foreign creditors, not tax payers, take the hit
TEPCO creditors made a bad bet, let them fail
do not repeat past mistakes
get out of nuclear – this is an earthquake zone – what were you thinking???
control on capital flight
force private and public resources to be devoted to the crisis
delay austerity measures, increase social spending during the emergency
invest quickly in a massive effort to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi site, mobilize the self-defense forces, direct aid to victims to help them relocate, give up on top-down stimulus measures that are a vain attempt to bring economic revival to contaminated regions
be creative – to deter real estate speculation, a home owner’s loan principal rises with inflation??!!  drastic, but maybe it works!
invest big time in alternative energy and conservation

NOTE: A similar analysis was published by Greg Levine in Capitoilette, July 13, 2012: Made in Japan? Fukushima Crisis Is Nuclear, Not Cultural

THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly man made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.
How could such an accident occur in Japan, a nation that takes such great pride in its global reputation for excellence in engineering and technology? This Commission believes the Japanese people and the global community deserve a full, honest and transparent answer to this question. Our report catalogues a multitude of errors and willful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11. And it examines serious deficiencies in the response to the accident by TEPCO, regulators and the government.
For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey especially to a global audience is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster.
What must be admitted very painfully is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to sticking with the program; our groupism; and our insularity.
Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.
Following the 1970s oil shocks, Japan accelerated the development of nuclear power in an effort to achieve national energy security. As such, it was embraced as a policy goal by government and business alike, and pursued with the same single-minded determination that drove Japan’s postwar economic miracle.
With such a powerful mandate, nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion. At a time when Japan’s self-confidence was soaring, a tightly-knit elite with enormous financial resources had diminishing regard for anything not invented here.
This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization. Carried to an extreme, this led bureaucrats to put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety. Only by grasping this mindset can one understand how Japan’s nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; and how it became accepted practice to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents.
It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.
This report singles out numerous individuals and organizations for harsh criticism, but the goal is not and should not be to lay blame. The goal must be to learn from this disaster, and reflect deeply on its fundamental causes, in order to ensure that it is never repeated.
Many of the lessons relate to policies and procedures, but the most important is one upon which each and every Japanese citizen should reflect very deeply.
The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset that supported it can be found across Japan. In recognizing that fact, each of us should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society.
As the first investigative commission to be empowered by the legislature and independent of the bureaucracy, we hope this initiative can contribute to the development of Japan’s civil society.
Above all, we have endeavored to produce a report that meets the highest standard of transparency.The people of Fukushima, the people of Japan and the global community deserve nothing less.

Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa


Nora Ephron, Silkwood and the Great American Romcom

When author, screenwriter, and film director Nora Ephron passed away in 2012, there were numerous homages in the media. At the time, I was struck by an omission within the abundance of obituaries. It indicated the way the American chattering class has abandoned class consciousness in favor identity politics.

Because this book is concerned with nuclear and environmental issues, the work that is of interest in Nora Ephron’s career is Silkwood (1983), which was her debut as a screenwriter (sharing a writing credit with Alice Arlen, to be directed by Mike Nichols) about the real life working-class hero of the atomic energy sector, Karen Silkwood, who died in 1974 in mysterious circumstances, leaving behind a body that was highly contaminated with plutonium.
Every film that Ephron wrote or directed afterward was substantially different. All of them were departures from the themes of working class and environmental justice found in Silkwood. They dealt instead with the career challenges and romantic foibles of the educated upper-middle class. In the 1970s there were many films that focused on the working class, such as Norma Rae, Blue Collar, Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, 9 to 5, but since the Reagan years there has been no market for films about the working poor, and Ephron was adept at writing scripts that followed the trend. This transition in Ephron’s career coincided with progressive politics moving away from workers’ struggles toward fractured identity politics, to the point that the struggle seemed to be all about professional women breaking free of their men and breaking through the glass ceiling. Working class Midwestern women like Karen Silkwood were yesterday’s news, too radical for Oklahoma and too unsophisticated for Manhattan.
It is Ephron’s later films that were remembered and commented on in the obituaries, while Silkwood received just passing mention as an early step toward her destiny: mastery of the great American romantic comedy genre. We easily forget Meryl Streep (as Karen Silkwood) having plutonium contamination scrubbed off her body, but we love to remember Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. Interestingly, however, the term “Silkwood shower” found its way into pop culture lingo in the way it became a metaphor for wanting to wash away the memory of a regrettable interpersonal encounter. Grim and deadly serious social problems got pushed into the collective unconscious while their faint memories emerged as this casual joking metaphor in which plutonium contamination is equated with any yukky experience.
Sleepless in Seattle took place in New York and Seattle, and this aspect of the film highlights in another way the abandonment of the themes and characters encountered in Silkwood. In Sleepless, we see exactly why everything between the coasts is known as “flyover country.” The characters fly over the country repeatedly, while nothing takes place in the great cultural wasteland in between. Silkwood, on the other hand, was set in Oklahoma in a nuclear fuel-processing facility. The work was menial, and the land outside the plant was a toxic dump where contaminated trucks had been buried. The staff, struggling to hold onto union certification, were exposed to health risks and not fully informed about the dangers of what they were handling. No romance here, and Tom Hanks isn’t going to ride into town to buy the company and capture the heart of the heroine struggling within.
Karen Silkwood appears not as sympathetic career woman stifled by a cheating husband or the glass ceiling, but as flawed and difficult to sympathize with. She has lost custody of her children, for reasons that the film does not try to portray as unjust. She shares a house with her boyfriend and a lesbian roommate. She is her own worst enemy. She drinks and smokes, makes lewd jokes, and thus has numerous traits sure to set her apart from the mainstream of rural Oklahoma. Nonetheless, the writers provide a hint of the romcoms to come by portraying her as thwarted by what was expected of young girls growing up in Texas.
She makes a gradual transformation into a union activist fighting to uncover safety violations that threaten to have the fuel processing facility shut down. This character development is the saving grace of the story, as it was Ephron’s and Arlen’s talent that made the characters sympathetic and the transformation believable. Toward the end of her life, Karen Silkwood is found to be contaminated with a level of plutonium that is too high to be accidental. The film ends ambiguously as her car goes off the road on the evening she was going to pass important information to a New York Times reporter. It is possible that she was contaminated by co-workers who didn’t want the plant to close, or by a supervisor who despised her for at first rebuffing him, and later for her activism. Or it could have been sinister elements within the corporation and the military industrial complex. She might have been forced off the road, or it might have been an accident. The film draws no conclusions.
Film critic Roger Ebert was glad that the film left these questions unanswered and that it didn’t turn out to be a boilerplate drama about evil corporate overlords. He wrote that Silkwood was a

…story of some American workers. They happen to work in a Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Oklahoma, making plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors. But they could just as easily be working in a Southern textile mill… or on an assembly line, or for the Chicago public schools. The movie isn’t about plutonium, it's about the American working class. Its villains aren’t monsters; they’re organization men, labor union hotshots and people afraid of losing their jobs. [1]

Ebert found that the acting and the growth of the characters were the finest elements of the story.
In contrast, another critic, David Sterritt, found this lack of specificity and focus on the personalities to be the film’s weakness. It was “a fine example of Hollywood's love-hate attitude toward timely and controversial subject matter... [it] browses so long through the dirty linen of Silkwood's personal life” to avoid being polemical and answering the questions about why she died. [2]
Sterritt, writing in 1984, was onto something here, but he could have added some information about what was really at issue: the hundreds of thousands of people affected since the 1940s by working with atomic weapons and nuclear fuel. Official recognition of the health disaster was just starting to emerge in the 1980s, and Silkwood really didn’t do as much as it could have for the cause. The pressure came from the victims themselves, with little help from the mass media. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in 1990. This was followed in 2000 by Executive Order 13179, and by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000, which has been amended a couple of times since to provide expanded coverage.
But you wouldn’t have known from watching Silkwood anything about the scope of the environmental contamination and the health impacts on thousands of American workers, soldiers and civilians. Millions of Americans who watched Silkwood didn’t have to contemplate the horrific scale of nuclear contamination. Nor did they have to contemplate the fact that EPA staff were, in the 1980s, coming to grips with “national sacrifice zones” [3] as big as some national parks that might be impossible to clean up (the stalled efforts at superfund sites like Hanford have proven this to be true [4]).
Although it is considered a “serious” film, or a “message” film by American standards, Silkwood is rather timid, but perhaps at the extreme of where a Hollywood film can go. The filmmakers would say that they told the story the way they wanted to tell it, under no obligation to make it a modern history lesson for the public.
It seems Ephron never wanted to go back to this dangerous edge. Her writing partner in this film, Alice Arlen, never achieved the same iconic status as Ephron (does anyone remember Alamo Bay, Cookie, The Weight of Water, A Thief of Time, or Then She Found Me?). Although Arlen went in the same direction toward romances and quirky comedies, Ephron went on to claim the mantle of the romcom genre.
Perhaps other writers have been too polite to mention this, or they miss the connection with the plutonium workers in Silkwood who had children dying of leukemia—one can never say anything definitive about the causes of a case of cancer, so it is perhaps tactless to bring this up, but it needs to be said. Nora Ephron died of leukemia, a disease known to be caused (not only) by radiation. The particular form of leukemia that she had was acute myeloid leukemia, and it was extremely rare. The New York Times reported that the cause in most cases is unknown, but 10% of cases are known to be caused by previous treatments of chemotherapy or radiation therapy for other kinds of cancer. [5] So, in other words, these are the only known causes. The remaining 90% of cases could always be dismissed as naturally occurring mutations, but it is reasonable to theorize that a good part of the remaining cases are caused by unidentified chemical and radiological contamination.
We should wonder whether Ephron herself absorbed some extra plutonium (above what everyone alive in the nuclear age has) years ago while she was on location in Oklahoma. Her story is an echo of the story of the making of the film The Conqueror in St. George, Utah, in 1953, when an unforeseen wind change brought bomb-test fallout on the town. Years later, about 90 members of the cast and crew fell sick with cancer, three times as many as statistically indicated for the crew’s size [6]. The Conqueror is known in some quarters as the movie that killed John Wayne. The story behind the making of The Conqueror would make an interesting film itself, but so far there hasn’t been a single Hollywood film about the veterans and civilians who were victims of nuclear weapons tests. It would surely be a story about much more than just “some American workers.”


[1] Roger Ebert, review of Silkwood, Chicago Sun-Times, December 14, 1983.

[2] David Sterritt, “Silkwood: good intentions are fogged by ambiguity,” Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 1984.

[3] Keith Schneider, “Dying Nuclear Plants Give Birth to New Problems,” New York Times, October 31, 1988.

[4] “At Hanford, Some of the nation’s dirtiest secrets not so secret,” Enformable, December 11, 2011. 

[5] Pam Belluck, “Ephron’s Leukemia Was Uncommon and Complicated,” New York Times, June 28, 2012.

[6] Rory Carrroll, “Hollywood and the downwinders still grapple with nuclear fallout,” The Guardian, June 6, 2015.

This post was updated on August 15, 2016.


Does Japan want nuclear weapons?

This is an update to a previous post regarding the question of whether Japan has the intention to maintain the capacity to quickly construct and deploy nuclear weapons.

As reported recently in an editorial of The Mainichi, The Japanese Diet has passed a significant amendment to laws related to national security and nuclear policy, without arousing public awareness or controversy. The changes to the Atomic Energy Basic Law require that Japan's nuclear energy “should contribute to national security.” Judging by how little public reaction there has been to this change, it's doubtful that the general public, or even the legislators who dealt with the issue, really understood what this ominous phrase means. 
For those who stop to think on it, the implication is obvious. This amendment turns Japanese policy into the most shameful hypocrisy. While pursuing nuclear weapons capability, Japanese leaders also love to spout fine words about maintaining its "three non-nuclear principles" that state that Japan Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory. This standard line has been repeated as recently as August 6, 2005 when Prime Minister Koizumi said these words in Hiroshima:

As the only nation in human history to be bombed with atomic weapons, Japan will continue to comply with its Peace Constitution and firmly maintain the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, with its strong commitment not to repeat the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan will lead the international community to promote international efforts for nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation and devote itself to abolish nuclear weapons.

According to the Mainichi editorial, “The Diet spent only four days deliberating the bill after it was submitted, and failed to thoroughly discuss whether Japan's atomic energy policy should contribute to the country's national security.”
The phrase, "contribute to Japan's national security," was also added to the Aerospace Basic Act of 2008. The use of this phrase in the context of nuclear policy and missile and rocket technology can be clearly understood as a reference to maintaining nuclear weapons capability. These changes to existing laws conform with a policy of not necessarily possessing nuclear weapons, but certainly with one of maintaining the ability to construct and deploy nuclear weapons on short notice. And Japan certainly has the plutonium and the technological capacity to do so.