What's On the Beach? Another danger from Fukushima that will be acknowledged too late

Chernobyl and Fukushima taught the world what
should have been on the back cover of this story
What’s On the Beach? The title refers to the famous 1957 novel (and later film adaptations) about the encroaching nuclear winter that comes to Australia after global nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifty years ago, everyone thought that this was the existential risk we faced, but the Cold War subsided and World War III was avoided. What caught everyone by surprise was Chernobyl and Fukushima, the risks of even greater accidents, and the lingering dangers involved in nuclear waste disposal, which really hasn’t even begun seventy years after the dawn of the nuclear age. Nuclear accidents have shown us that the threat all along was just as much in the slow motion nuclear war (a phrase coined by Robert Jacobs in this article) that accompanied the “peaceful” use of the atom.
This article asks not only “What’s On the Beach?” but also “What’s on the beach?” Now that the Japanese authorities have admitted the serious problems with leaking radioactive water from Fukushima Daiichi, and now that the world has grasped the risk posed by the site’s spent fuel pools, we may be ready to ask about the future implications of all this pollution spreading along Japan’s northeastern coast.
Much of the concern outside of Japan has been about the spread of radiation into fish stocks and across the Pacific Ocean. There have already been low levels of radionuclides measured in fish in California. While some scientist say the damage could be horrific, even some anti-nuclear critics are refraining from saying there will be an impact on health. Besides, the oceans have other problems such as acidification, over-fishing, nitrogen runoff from fertilizer, and the great Pacific garbage patch.
Chris Busby, well-known as a long-time critic of the nuclear industry, has said that people in California can relax. The ocean will dilute what Fukushima is dishing out. It would be better to consider how people are going to be impacted along the coast of Japan. In an interview with Russia Today, he described the problem:

The contamination of the sea results in adsorption of the radionuclides by the sand and silt on the coast and river estuaries. The east coast of Japan, the sediment and sand on the shores, will now be horribly radioactive. This material is re-suspended into the air through a process called sea-to-land transfer. The coastal air they inhale is laden with radioactive particles… We looked at small area data leaked to us by the Welsh Cancer Registry covering the period of 1974-1989, when Sellafield was releasing significant amounts of radio-cesium, radio-strontium, and plutonium. Results showed a remarkable and sharp 30 per cent increase in cancer rates in those living within 1km of the coast. The effect was very local and dropped away sharply at 2km… Make no mistake, this is a deadly effect. By 2003, we had found 20-fold excess risk of leukemia and brain tumors in the population of children on the north Wales coast… the sea-to-land effect is real. And anyone living within 1km of the coast to at least 200km north or south of Fukushima should get out. They should evacuate inland. It is not eating the fish and shellfish that gets you - it’s breathing.

So that’s something to think about for the Japanese government that wants to rebuild the communities that were destroyed by the tsunami. We might have to say now that the waves destroyed the towns, and the meltdowns made sure they would never come back. Or we have to say rather should never come back. The Japanese government is likely to ignore this hazard and encourage people to resettle the coast.
The problems with radioactive sand and silt are well-known near the old nuclear bomb and fuel factory in Sellafield, UK. The issue was covered by The Guardian last year. The article reports on the beach pollution that Dr. Busby discussed. It quotes a Health Protection Agency official as saying, "No special precautionary actions are required at this time to limit access to, or use of, beaches." A Sellafield spokesman concurred, saying, "… the overall health risk to beach users is very low and significantly lower than other risks people accept when using beaches. It should be noted that people visiting beaches in places on the south coast, such as Devon or Cornwall, will receive a far higher dose of radiation, from naturally occurring background radiation, than those visiting beaches close to Sellafield."
In these two brief quotes we see a rather stunning display of the moral confusion that is typical in the official dismissals of the concerns that the public has about man-made radiation. It consists of three features:

The conflation of natural, unavoidable risks with those imposed by human agency upon non-consenting populations.

If I walk into a cancer ward and light up a cigarette, I can’t object to being told to step outside with it. I can’t say that the cigarette is insignificant compared to the overall health risks that cancer patients accept when submitting to chemotherapy and staying in germ-filled hospitals. Yet somehow this way of thinking is allowable in the official rationalizations of man-made pollution. Imposed, unnecessary risks are considered equal to unavoidable risks.

Minimizing the effect of added man-made radiation by pointing to natural background radiation.

This is subset of point 1. It excuses a willful act of contamination by likening it to that which is not caused by human agency. The point is always made in a condescending way, as if the non-expert is too dim to understand the risks of the world he lives in. But it is actually the experts who have a diminished capacity here. A normal person can see that it is the same difference as between death by a lightning strike and homicide. We accept natural misfortunes but reserve our moral outrage for humans who commit deliberate harm.

Willful neglect of internal emitters of radiation, namely beta and alpha emitters, and neglect of the chemical effects of pollution from nuclear facilities.

The Sellafield spokesman referred to background radiation, which is normally a measure of gamma radiation that can be picked up by any cheap dosimeter. Any amateur who has learned a little about radiation will agree that the gamma dose on these British beaches is not the thing to be concerned about. The official health studies of atomic bombings, in Japan and in nuclear testing throughout the world, persistently ignored the damage done by internal contamination, and this comment by the Sellafield spokesman shows that the tradition is still alive. We can be sure that it will continue as people begin to ask troubling questions about what is blowing in the sea breeze on Japanese shores.

The article in The Guardian pointed out that the Health Protection Agency (not the Sellafield spokesman) did concede that there are uncertainties in the beach monitoring. The article pointed out that the HPA added:

… the latest equipment might miss tiny specks that could be inhaled, as well as buried alpha radioactivity that  could give rise to a significant risk to health if ingested. Documents released under freedom of information law show that in 2010 the Environment Agency agreed that monitoring for contamination on the beaches should avoid peak periods such as during bank holidays. This followed a complaint from St. Bees parish council expressing "strong concern that this would have an adverse impact on tourism.

Ah, yes. Save the economy. During the Vietnam war, US officers claimed with knowing irony that they had to “destroy the village in order to save it.” In peacetime, the phrase becomes “destroy the people in order to save their jobs.”

Further reading on the novel and the 1961 film On the Beach
Mick Broderick, "Fallout On the Beach," Screening the Past, 37, June, 2013.

Finally, a somewhat gratuitous reference to Neil Young’s On the Beach. I don’t think Neil was thinking of nuclear meltdowns, but some of the lines evoke my present unease about being on the beach.

On the Beach (1974)
Neil Young

On the Beach, track 6, 19:00~

The world is turnin', I hope it don't turn away,
The world is turnin', I hope it don't turn away.
All my pictures are fallin' from the wall where I placed them yesterday…
Though my problems are meaningless, that don't make them go away…
Now I'm livin' out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach…
Get out of town, think I'll get out of town.
I head for the sticks with my bus and friends,
I follow the road, though I don't know where it ends.
Get out of town, get out of town, think I'll get out of town.
'Cause the world is turnin', I don't want to see it turn away.

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