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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 3/7/14

Cutting Through Fukushima Fog: Radiation in U.S.?

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Message Bernard Weiner

NRC Officials visit Fukushima Dai-ichi Complex, Dec. 13, 2012
NRC Officials visit Fukushima Dai-ichi Complex, Dec. 13, 2012
(Image by NRCgov)
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Governments cite "national security" concerns and "official secrets" as their justification for withholding information from the public. Corporations rationalize their secrecy behind concerns about "patent infringement," shielding their trademarked "proprietary" secrets from competitors. But most of the time, such obfuscation is really derived from the time-honored villains of systemic corruption and what is politely known as CYA in military and bureaucratic slang.

Which brings us to Fukushima. 

From the very beginning of this catastrophic emergency -- the earthquake/tsunami off the Japanese coast in March of 2011, when nuclear reactors at a power plant were flooded and then exploded and began their meltdowns -- the public in Japan and around the world have not been told the full story of what's been happening at the Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant in Fukushima province. 

The utility that runs the plant, Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), is notoriously close-mouthed about its operation. To this day, aided by a recently passed "government secrets" act in Japan, we have no confirmable idea of the extent of the damage: how much radiation is really leaking out into the Pacific Ocean and where the currents are taking it, the density and direction of the radioactive plumes carried by the wind, the radioactive effects up and down the marine food-chain. Not only is there precious little data-reporting released to the public -- journalists who violate the "state secrets" law can be thrown into prison for 10 years -- but what little information that does appear, both in Japan and in the U.S., seems to be hidden inside a different language, with a vocabulary("bequerelles," "millisieverts," "millirems," the difference between "radiation," "radioactive" and "radiation dose," and so on) that is utterly confusing to most non-nuclear scientists.


Each side of the argument tends to go hyperbolic when presenting its version of the Fukushima catastrophe. Tepco officials regularly suggest that all is proceeding well at Dai-ichi, and that the radiation effects are mostly localized and things should go back to normal in the foreseeable future. But other scientists and journalists have concluded that the situation is critical, getting worse and is increasingly dangerous to humanity. 

The issue of radiation on the loose is a scary one, and has an economic component as well as a social-psychological one that could convince governments to tone down news that carries with it the possibility of instigating mass panic and anxiety-induced mass migrations. A lot is at stake -- economic stability, the U.S.-Japan alliance, cancer clusters, etc. -- so it's not surprising that each side is passionately trying to capture and control the narrative.

Tepco, for example, often dispenses flat-out lies, whoppers that have to be "corrected" much later; for example, earlier this month, Tepco admitted that the strontium-per-liter level leaking from Dai-ichi reactor #1 was five times higher than its earlier estimate. (Note: Strontium-90's half-life is around 29 years. It mimics calcium and goes to our bones.)

And here's an example from the Fukushima-as-immediate-danger side: There's a going-viral You Tube video of an unidentified guy with a hand-held geiger counter walking around a beach just south of San Francisco, watching the clicking numbers going up, presumably because of Fukushima radiation. There is no context presented in this video, no base level of radiation at that location, no consideration of naturally occurring radiation, etc. But this video is cited as "evidence" of wind- or ocean-born radiation from Japan. Millions watch the video on YouTube and ratchet up the fear level. Belatedly, scientific tests were done recently at this same beach, which established that what was registering on the handheld geiger-counter were naturally occurring fluctuations as a result of existing minerals in the sand.


As a San Franciscan quite familiar with large earthquakes, I have been curious about what was happening in Japan since the 2011 reactor explosions. Up until the past several months, there was virtually no news about Fukushima published by respectable U.S. news outlets. We did hear that several villages near the Dai-chi plant had been evacuated after the reactor meltdown started, but Tokyo was OK and the emergency measures didn't seem bad enough to take matters much beyond that. 

Like most people busy with their own lives and with local concerns. and because the mainstream and many alternative news services in the U.S. by and large were ignoring Fukushima, my attention went elsewhere. I assumed that no news was good news. 

Deficient thinking. Tepco is a for-profit company. Bad news would hurt the corporation. No news is better for the bottom line. It became evident even in the early hours and days of the meltdown that the utility spokesmen and their government supporters were telling lies, withholding key facts about nuclear dangers and radiation leakages, putting the best face on a momentously dangerous situation. But even from a distance, and still true today, the meager information that was gleanable from Dai-ichi seemed to indicate an ad hoc, chaotic and incompetently-managed plan to contain the crisis. At the very least, public safety concerns cry out for an international (United Nations? IAEA?) body of radiation experts and engineers to run the dangerously-damaged power plant,  but there is little action, or even a sense of urgency expressed, for such a solution.

To stem any such public anxiety, Tepco and Japanese government officials minimized the damage at Dai-ichi and assured its population that the situation was certainly not another Chernobyl. Untrue. In important ways, the Japan situation is worse: the Chernobyl reactors were housed inland and eventually were buried within a cement sarcophagus; Dai-ichi, with its reactors melting down, is still actively releasing radiation into the air and into the bay/ocean (and probably the aquifer) where it sits, and there is no reported plan for how the leaking reactors might be encased. In addition, thousands of spent fuel rods at Dai-ichi, still highly radioactive, are being moved, one by one over several years, to a "safer location," in a project never before tried anywhere on earth. One bad accident and/or another major earthquake in the vicinity, and a radiological cataclysm could occur.


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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)
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