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Radiation Checker: the gift that keeps on giving

Message Abby Luby
Guess what I got tucked in to my holiday stocking?   
A brand new, sleek-lined Geiger counter that plugs in to your iPhone or iPad and within seconds detects radiation levels. It  was the gift that topped my list - with its pencil-like probe (14 centimeters long) that plugs in to the iPhone and uses a special  app called "Geiger Bot."  My second choice for Christmas was the Geiger Camera app; same idea but works via the phone  camera. 
To easily check radiation levels right in our own backyard is more than a curious pastime. It's a survival check that became  imperative last March for hundreds of thousands of Japanese who lived near the TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company)  Fukshima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plants, reactors crippled by an earthquake and tsunami. The dual disasters ultimately caused  a triple meltdown that released dangerously high levels of radioactive substances. Today, almost ten months later, Fukushima  will go down in history as the worst nuclear disaster since the Chrenobyl meltdown in 1986. 
In the post Fukushima aftermath, the Japanese company, Sanwa, came up with "Geiger Fukushima" -- a name somewhat 
off-putting but leaves no doubt what this portable and light apparatus is for. This radiation detector and many other portable  Geiger counters are nifty, geeky gadgets that let you outfit yourself with glitzy, high-tech survival gear replete with a  not-so-subtle doomsday overtone. "Geiger Fukushima" is a perfect gift for someone like me living just a few miles from the  aging Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Westchester, New York; the twin reactors were built in the 1970's just 24 miles from  New York City and are known to routinely and accidentally release radioactive plumes into the atmosphere and leak  radioactive isotopes into the Hudson River.
Truly, these "smart' radiation detectors are the type of gift that keeps on giving. 
If you decide to own such accoutrements as a pocket Geiger Counter, you will not be an anomaly: you can belong to the 
growing grass roots Radiation Monitoring Network ( whose data is available to anyone in the 
U.S. and around the world. You yourself can contribute to the group's National Radiation Map where members have set up 
networks of stations that monitor radiation levels in real time. These high-tech tools and cyber networks are not only essential, they are empowering. 
"Impacts of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants on Marine Radioactivity," a report in mid-December, 2011, confirmed that  levels of radioactive cesium and strontium-90 reached 50 million times the normal levels in the ocean near Fukushima. 
Working on the study was the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Japanese Meteorological Research Institute and  the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.
In the months following Fukushima, multiple studies weighed in on how much radiation actually poisoned the areas surrounding  the Dai-Ichi plants and then wafted out to sea. In a report a few weeks ago by Hong Kong-Based environmental consultant  Yoichi Shimatsu ("The Death Of The Pacific Ocean Fukushima Debris Soon To Hit American Shores" 12-16-11, he estimates that "radioactive isotopes cesium and strontium are by now in the 
marine food chain, moving up the bio-ladder from plankton to invertebrates like squid and then into fish like salmon and 
halibut."  Shimatsu is clear about the critical interdependence between sea animals and land events: how aquatic life after the March  11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami were exposed to millions of tons of what could be contaminated biological waste that made  its way to the ocean from nearby farms. Other volatile chemical compounds can evaporate and form clouds unleashing rain  over Canada and northern United States, extending a long term threat beyond the Rockies "affecting agriculture, rivers,  reservoirs and eventually aquifers and well water." 
How much radiation has reached the United States? 
It depends on who you talk to. Reliable reporting on the spread of radiation from Fukushima can be interpreted in a variety of  ways. Government officials from Japan and the United States are skeptical of any real danger from Fukushima borne  radiation. Immediately after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government neglected to act on data showing the enormity  of radioactive plumes and failed to safely evacuate residents, exposing entire towns to harmful radiation. The Japanese  government's denial of widespread contamination justified their minimal effort to effectively contain spillage from the plants to  the Pacific; they even approved sea-dumping of nuclear and chemical waste from Fukushima No. 1 plant.   
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was no better saying that most of the radioactive water from Fukushima 
released into the Pacific was harmless, and that nuclear sea-dumping would have no deleterious impact on the environment  because radioactive isotopes would sink into the middle of the ocean. 
Does this mind-set sound familiar? 
Think the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who is emphatic about how Indian Point has little impact on the Hudson River,  incanting the NRC mantra "Dilution is the solution to pollution." 
The NRC response to Fukushima was equally disappointing. They hand-picked a five-member safety task force in October 
who later recommended seven safety actions to be enforced in U.S. nuclear power plants. But later in December the 
Commission did an about face and reserved the right to reject any safety upgrades the NRC staff chose to implement. 
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a new regulatory requirement by the NRC staff can be deemed non-essential  by the Commission unless the requirement passes a cost-benefit test -- a test the UCS says is based on a "post-Fukushima  understanding of risk." ("NRC's Post-Fukushima Response: Going in Circles"
Radioactive releases happen on a routine basis  - no surprise here and if you live near a nuclear power plant. But many aging  plants are accident prone. In February, 2000, reactor unit 2 at the Entergy owned Indian Point experienced a ruptured steam  generator tube that released 20,000 gallons of radioactive coolant into the plant and then into the atmosphere, causing the  plant to close for ten months. Indian Point's spent fuel pools have been leaking into the groundwater and tainting the Hudson  River where four species of fish were tested positive for the radioactive isotope strontium-90.  
In 2010, the Radiation and Public Health Project reported on the staggering rise of cancer cases near Indian Point over 15 
years and strongly suggested that radiation exposure from the plant was the cause. RPHP used data from the New York State  Cancer Registry (for county cancer rates) and from the National Cancer Institute (for national cancer rates). Over a 5-year  period there were about 9,000 residents diagnosed with cancer each year.
Knowing that invisible and odorless radiation could be lurking in our garden soil is better than not knowing at all. We don't 
need a major nuclear disaster to own  small, hand-held Geiger counters and iPhone apps -- just living near a nuclear power
plant is reason enough. Protecting ourselves and our community seems to be one way around unresponsive government 
agencies whose alleged claim is to protect the public's health and safety.
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Abby Luby is a freelance journalist who has covered the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York for over ten years, and the author of the new ebook "A Nuclear Romance." This novel is about living near a nuclear power plant in New York. Her (more...)
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