Saturday, March 26, 2011

Steve Featherstone on Inadequate Radiation Readings & the Politics of Fukushima Evacuation Decisions

Two years ago, creative nonfiction writer and photographer Steve Featherstone traveled to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the company of two evolutionary biologists who were doing experiments there. The feature story he wrote about that experience will be published next month in Harper's.

Featherstone is now covering Fukushima for Business Week and told us in an email, "I am utterly aware that things have not "improved" at Fukushima, and that we can't take our eye off the ball. For one, the radiological releases have not been adequately inventoried, and it's going to be a long time before anybody knows exactly what happened inside those reactors.

"One thing is clear: a lot of decisions concerning the health of Japanese citizens caught in the fallout zones will not be made solely on the basis of medical science; they will be political."

More on these points from his first article for BW, published March 24:
The fate of Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, where hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated, may lie somewhere between the outcomes at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. There were no evacuations during the Three Mile Island accident, which released about 50,000 curies of radioactive gas. Today you can picnic outside the gates of the plant without fear of lingering radiation.

Chernobyl, by comparison, was a nuclear volcano, churning millions of curies of radiation into the sky.. Twenty-five years later, only official workers are allowed within 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of the entombed reactor at Chernobyl, and radiation levels inside the zone exceed normal background radiation by factors of 100.

Decisions about when to return to Fukushima and how to mitigate any leftover fallout depend on the results of work to stabilize the pressure inside the reactor cores of units 1 through 3 at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, and to cool the fuel rods stored in the spent fuel pools. Until then the amount of radiation falling on the land and sea around the complex, and far beyond it, will continue to accumulate with every puff of steam and cloud of smoke issuing from the wrecked reactor buildings.

At best, evacuees from the exclusion zone won’t be able to return to their homes for months, according to Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear consultant and chair of the Vermont Yankee Public Oversight Panel, which oversees the nuclear power plant of the same name.

Gundersen, however, isn’t expecting the best. “I think there’ll be local contamination off the site, certainly out two or three or four miles, that will make that portion of the exclusion zone uninhabitable for 20 years,” he says...

If conditions aren’t so bad, decisions about a return will likely be as political as they are scientific, because no regulatory body has determined a “safe” level of radiation. The Japanese ban on milk, agricultural products, and drinking water in the four prefectures nearest to the Dai-Ichi plant suggest that radioactive fallout in levels potentially hazardous to human health has already contaminated areas far outside the exclusion zone.

Authorities have revealed few details about the particular radionuclides they’ve found in the food and water, and the situation changes daily. Yesterday, Tokyo officials announced contamination of tap water by iodine-131 and advised parents not to give tap water to infants. Radioactive iodine is linked to thyroid cancer. It’s not the only radioactive component in the fallout. Cesium-137 is also present...

According to Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar for nuclear policy at the Institute for Policy Studies, there’s enough cesium-137 in the spent fuel pool of unit 4 at Fukushima Dai- Ichi to equal all the cesium-137 released from Chernobyl’s shattered reactor core. Cesium-137 has a long half-life -- 30 years as opposed to eight days for iodine 131 -- and it persists in the environment at dangerous levels for many decades...

In a stabilized situation, the radiation levels that triggered bans of spinach and milk and other foods will likely diminish mostly because of radioactive decay, and as radioactive particles are washed by rain from plants and into the soil. Once contaminants such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 get into the soil, though, plants absorb them, and they enter the food chain...

In any event, Japanese regulators will be forced to make a range of hard decisions about how much radiation is safe for people to eat or be exposed to in their homes, playgrounds, and workplaces.

There is some comfort, but it is chilly indeed. Fukushima is already the second-worst nuclear accident in history, but it doesn’t yet begin to approach the total radiation released at Chernobyl. For such an event to occur, said Michael W. Golay, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “it would have to involve all the nuclear fuel at a multitude of sites within the overall power plant location, and with failure of everything the people there are trying to accomplish. I don’t really see a prospect for things occurring in such an awful form.”
Read Featherstone's entire article, "Politics, Radiation to Decide Fate of Land Near Japan’s Fukushima Reactor," here.

No comments: