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On March 11 last year, Honshu Island of Japan was hit by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake at a subduction zone, followed by a horrendous tsunami that knocked out the emergency diesel generators and cooling pumps at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power station. The natural disaster resulted in a triple meltdown, two hydrogen explosions, and exposed spent fuel rods in at least one of the cooling pools. Massive amounts of radiation were vented into the atmosphere and discharged into the ocean, making it 10 times worse than the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe in the Soviet Union.
The entire northern island of Japan was thoroughly irradiated, along with North America as the plume wafted across the Northern Pacific. For weeks afterward, the Japanese people and the rest of the world stood by in trepidation as their government and TEPCO, the utility that owns the complex, struggled ineptly to get the situation under control. That has yet to happen since the facility is still leaking radiation into the environment, putting millions at extreme risk for prolonged exposure.
On the anniversary of the cataclysm, anti-nuclear actions occurred in Japan and around the globe, demanding an end to the nuclear nightmare.
The residents of Fukushima Province live in constant fear for their health, as do the 35 million living in Greater Tokyo, because neither the industry nor government have been forthcoming about the amounts of radiation to which they are being exposed. Their air, soil, water, and food are contaminated with dangerously high levels of radionuclides such as iodine, cesium, strontium, and plutonium.
In other words, the area is completely uninhabitable and should be abandoned, but to tell the truth would be to admit that there’s trouble in Nuclear Paradise, so the subterfuge continues. Everyone is living under great stress and anxiety about their health and that of their children. More than half the population of traditionally conformist Japan no longer trusts the corrupt government. Many have taken to self-monitoring with equipment donated by other countries.
The authorities have basically abandoned the people of Fukushima. Tsunami debris is still piled in heaps. In desperation, many have taken to scraping off the radioactive topsoil from their yards themselves and dumping it in parks, woodlands, and streams.
Liability for reactor operators is only a small fraction of the actual damages. Those who were among the 150,000 evacuated have lost everything—homes, possessions, livelihood, and communities—yet they have been denied adequate compensation (a mere $13,045) to start over and rebuild their lives. Those who left voluntarily have received far less—a one-time payment of $1043.
Therefore, TEPCO has largely managed to escape paying for the consequences of its misdeeds. To avoid decontamination costs, its attorneys are claiming that the radiation is now the problem of the landowners, not the company, so the financial burden for whatever remediation measures are taken will be born by taxpayers—which is always the case with environmental destruction by big corporations.
The health consequences
Health consequences will be devastating, with some experts predicting over a million cancers in future. These estimates are based on peer-reviewed epidemiological studies of the victims of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. And before the cancers appear, other medical problems will show up.
After massive radiation releases, the initial health impacts appear in the reproductive and developmental stages with decreased fertility, fetal viability, and increased metabolic defects that will become generational. For example, infant mortality (measured from birth to one year) in eight Pacific Northwest cities spiked 35% after the Fukushima plume reached our West Coast, according to toxicologist Janette Sherman and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano.
It is the young who are most vulnerable because of their rapid cell division and growth. Radioactive cesium is absorbed in the muscles, acting as potassium does in cellular metabolism. As a result, children near Chernobyl suffer from mal-formed hearts. Due to exposure to Iodine 131, one-third of Fukushima children tested already have lumps in their thyroids. Many parents are still waiting to have their kids tested.
Last year, the Japanese government cynically raised the acceptable level of radiation exposure to 20 milliSieverts (mSV) per year (in U.S. measurements, 2 REM) for all members of the population regardless of gender or age, claiming it was safe. This amounts to a one in 500 risk of cancer for the general population. Everyone will receive these high doses for every year they are in the radiation zone. Consequently, the effects are cumulative. However, children and women, compared to adult males, are at the highest risk. The cancer risk for young girls is five times as much as adult males, and one in 100 will get cancer.
In 2007, a worldwide study of 400,000 nuclear industry workers in 15 countries found a “significant association” between protracted, low-dose, ionizing radiation exposure and cancer. The average length of nuclear industry employment was 10.5 years with a total exposure of 19.4 mSV over that time span. The average yearly dose was only 1.95 mSV.
This is less than one-tenth of the “allowable” amount for Fukushima residents, who will be getting much more as long as the radioactivity persists in the environment. Radiation researchers have found that slow, low doses can cause even more harm than the fast, high ones, as in the case of the atomic bomb explosions.
Contamination of ecosystems
Not only are all the agricultural lands irradiated, but the forests as well. It is so extreme that when the male cedar flowers open this spring, their budding will unleash another wave of radioactive cesium into the environment. Populations of 14 bird species native to both Northern Japan and East Europe have experienced a decline two times higher in the Fukushima radiation zone than in Chernobyl’s, pointing to the much greater severity of the more recent accident.
Due to favorable winds last year, about 20 percent of the fallout from the radioactive plume fell on the Japanese mainland, 78% into the Pacific Ocean and 2% on North America, particularly the Cascades region. However, cedar buds in California proved positive for two cesium isotopes last year.
With millions of gallons of radioactive coolant deliberately discharged into the sea, researchers have found fish and crustaceans near Fukushima containing 10,000 times levels deemed “safe” by the government, and micro-algae at 19,000 times those levels.
Last summer, scientists from Woodshole Oceanographic Institution, investigating four months of radioactive discharges, discovered cesium levels in the Pacific at 45 million times pre-accident levels, meaning the ocean was not diluting the radiation as authorities claimed it would. Although it has leveled off since the peak discharges, it is believed that radioactivity is still flowing from groundwater and coastal sediments into the sea. As a remediation effort, TEPCO has begun pouring tons of concrete from ships onto the seabed to retard the spread of previously dumped radionuclides, turning the marine ecosystem into an utterly lifeless parking lot.
The sea provides a vast pathway for the spread of radioactivity via powerful ocean currents. In addition, it bioaccumulates up each chain in the food web. Despite widespread ocean contamination, the Japanese fishing industry continues to take large catches from near shore and out in the open sea, as do other nations, and to export seafood.
To ensure that Japan can function at a “full-scale” economy, Secretary of State Clinton promised the prime minister that the U.S. would continue to support its enterprises and not reject contaminated products. Both Canada and the U.S. are accepting Japanese imports, and our governments conveniently halted all radiation monitoring last spring to keep the lines of commerce running smoothly as well as to maintain public ignorance of how much radioactivity is in the environment. There is also the concern for North American consumers of the radiation levels in our migratory fish, such as salmon and tuna.
The tsunami generated 25 million tons of debris, a good portion of which (a quarter to a third) was sucked out to sea at least 24 hours before the radiation releases from the nuclear power plant. The stuff has begun arriving on the Pacific Northwest Coast, cluttering beaches, creating navigation problems, and spreading plastics and other toxins an entire year ahead of the predictions. It is expected that some of it will join the Northern Pacific garbage gyre, where it will pollute the marine habitat for years.
The horrors of the Japanese nuclear disaster are due to decades of perpetuating the cruel myth of the “absolute safety” of nuclear power. The propaganda from both industry and one subservient government after the other was cranked out to get the Japanese people to accept the “peaceful use of the atom” after experiencing the devastation of the murderous atomic bomb blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Consequently, just as with Big Oil and Big Pharma in the U.S., the nuclear industry has been allowed to write its own rules. In Japan, TEPCO executives, with a wink and a nod from corrupt agencies, chose to ignore 2000 years of earthquake evidence in the region, and then claimed that the magnitude 9.0 tremor and tsunami were “unanticipated” events. Both industry and government are guilty of collusion, lying to the public, incompetence, and criminal negligence.
The capitalist media and pro-nuke academics have chimed in, repeating ad nauseum that the radiation to which millions are exposed is no cause for alarm—when, in fact, there are no safe levels. All radiation is mutagenic and carcinogenic, and we are all exposed to background and medical radiation as well as that from the nuclear fuel cycle and weapons production. They have habitually lied about the dangers of atomic bomb fallout and the routine emissions of radioactive gasses and tritiated water from the daily operation of nuclear reactors.
They have also done their best to cover up the impacts of catastrophic accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima. We are told, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but more and more people are no longer accepting the Big Lie and are getting fed up. Their frustration and disgust are expressed in the words of one Fukushima resident, Kouta Miyazaki, who said, “We’re being told to get radiated and drop dead.” This is no longer acceptable.
The Japanese archipelago is peppered with 54 nuclear reactors. All but two have been taken off line for various reasons. Ten were knocked out by the tsunami, six are on active faults, and some were shutdown for refueling at the time of the earthquake.
Towns must approve the restart of reactors, so the utility has tried to scare people, claiming there will be a power shortage, especially in the summer months, if nuclear facilities remain shut down. They’ve even tried to pack town meetings to swing the vote in favor of restarting. As a result, there have been big clashes between townsfolk and company representatives. The anti-nuclear movement in Japan now constitutes 20 percent of the population, with swelling petitions and protests, saying, “Enough!”
Another round of radioactive roulette
Despite all kinds of rhetoric about safety, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not learned one lesson from the Fukushima debacle. It has been extending licenses on aging and decrepit reactors left and right, allowing them to expand their power outputs without, for what it’s worth, implementing a single new safety measure beforehand. This is occurring while their spent-fuel pools are perilously overloaded and their dry-cask storage is filling up with no safe, long-term way to sequester the deadly rad-waste.
Twenty-three reactors in 16 locations have the defective GE Mark 1 design used at Fukushima Dai’ichi, and 27 are situated on active fault lines. The operators of Diablo Canyon in earthquake-prone California claim it will be safe from a tsunami because the plant stands 100 feet above sea level on the coast. But as nuclear engineer and whistleblower Arne Gundersen points out, this is part of the delusion of nuclear safety since the emergency cooling pumps—the ultimate heat sink—have to be at sea level to access the water, and it was the tsunami that destroyed the pumps at Fukushima.
Make no mistake, all reactors are vulnerable to seismic activity and accidents, whether they are due to natural disasters, human error, equipment failure, or a combination of all three.
As part of the so-called nuclear renaissance—justified with greenwash about climate change—the NRC has recently approved two nuclear reactors (the first since 1978) to be built in Georgia and backed up with federal loan guarantees at taxpayers’ expense. The facility will consist of two AP 1000 pressurized-water reactors built by Westinghouse-Toshiba, despite numerous objections from engineers and scientists over design flaws, including an easily corrodible containment vessel, and other major safety issues.
April 26 marks the anniversary of the Chernobyl reactor explosion, which irradiated the entire Northern Hemisphere. According to a Russian study published by the New York Academy of Sciences, that terrible calamity caused 985,000 deaths between 1986 and 2004, with more to come. The fuel is still fissile and the temporary concrete-and-steel covering is leaking.
Immediately following the accident, there were numerous stillbirths throughout Europe, and the people of Ukraine and Belarus have been plagued by male sterility, female infertility, and reproductive cancers, along with thyroid cancers and other health problems in their children. Biologists have observed dramatic declines in wildlife in the exclusion zone, with mutation rates and developmental abnormalities up and fertility and survival rates down. West European livestock, because of irradiated pasture, as well as wild game, are still unfit to consume. Certain species of wild mushrooms, very effective at absorbing radiation, are banned from being collected and sold in markets 26 years later.
For the sake of private profit, the big corporations are playing radioactive roulette with our lives. With 435 nuclear reactors worldwide, the industry claims that the risk of major accident is very low with the probability of a core meltdown being one in 250 years. Experience has shown that this is complete rubbish since a significant nuclear accident has occurred approximately once every decade since the dawn of the nuclear age. We don’t like the odds, and we say, “No More Nukes!”
Solution: Nuke-free renewable energy
There is an alternative to this specter that haunts humankind. We must stop listening to the Orwellian doublespeak and cooperating in our own destruction in a state of passive acceptance, either blissfully ignorant or gripped by constant uncertainty and fear.
We must free ourselves from dependence upon this insane form of electrical generation that the human genius is clearly unable to control. There is no need for it, not with clean, renewable energy that is genuinely carbon-neutral—unlike nukes, which produce greenhouse gases at every energy-intensive stage of the nuclear cycle.
Even the UN’s conservative IPCC issued a landmark study stating that “Renewable energy can power the world.” Locally generated and distributed wind, solar, and geothermal power can be achieved through a crash program funded by the war budget. Also, industry can be retooled and converted for the green production of the necessities of life, including organically grown food, which can also feed the world.
If we are to put and end to environmental devastation and allow the deep wounds inflicted upon the planet’s ecosystems by capitalist exploitation and greed to heal, we must live in harmony with Mother Nature. It takes decades to decommission nuclear power plants.
In addition, global heating, due to the profligate burning of fossil fuels, is racing toward irreversible tipping points—so this great enterprise must begin immediately. It has to be done for the sake of humanity, Earth’s climate, and the other species with whom we humbly share this world.
Keeping in mind that the human economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mother Nature, this will require a mode of production that puts ecological and human needs before private profits, one that is based on communal decision making and cooperative action. Therefore, an eco-socialist revolution is the only way forward with the toilers of the world—in factories and on farms—in the lead. The future is in the hands of workers and farmers, who have the collective power to grasp the reins of production and put an end to capitalist rape and plunder.
> The article above was written by Christine Frank, and first appeared in the April 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.