Japan’s nightmare-in-progress overshadowed by media mush

MAY 19, 2011

Biologist estimates 900,000 deaths

By Geoff Olson
Vancouver Courier

What a beginning to 2011. For the past few month’s it’s been a stomach-churning roller coaster of victory and defeat, with a detour through Malcolm Gladwell’s Funhouse of Tipping Points. It began with the pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which emboldened other Arab states to try out dictator whack-a-mole. In contrast, 40 per cent of Canadians optimistically chose to reelect a secretive leader charged with contempt of Parliament.

For comic relief, we had Charlie Sheen’s camera-friendly meltdown, bundled with his "Torpedo of Truth" tour. Osama bin Laden, cornered, killed, and given a counterintuitive burial at sea, supplied some couch-potato catharsis south of the border. The Royal Wedding enchanted some of Her Majesty’s subjects in the North. Locally, we had Christy Clark’s byelection bonding with the people of Point Grey, consummated by her close-lipped campaign.

Yet the biggest story of all, which has all but spiralled down the media memory hole, is the ongoing disaster in Japan following the March 11 tsunami. The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) are attempting desperate, finger-in-the-dike measures in the irradiated zone of Fukushima prefecture, after upgrading the crisis to a Chernobyl-level 7. This week, TEPCO admitted that reactor 1 experienced a meltdown within hours of the quake, and reactors 2 and 3 have likely melted down as well. Building number 4 threatens to collapse. Radioactive material is leaking into the Pacific, into the atmosphere and into Japan’s groundwater.

On top of this, there is the issue of the damaged cooling ponds with their spent nuclear fuel rods. In videos of the March 14 explosion at reactor 3, an immense amount of solid material is seen rising with the plume and falling to Earth. Fuel may have been ejected from the pool up to one mile from the plant, according to a leaked NRC report. The fuel rods were likely launched into the air out of their containment vessels "like the muzzle from a gun," believes Arnold Gundersen, a chief nuclear engineer with the energy consulting firm Fairwinds Associates. This would account for TEPCO’s discovery of plutonium in soil samples taken from outside the plant.

Plutonium is very nasty stuff. You may remember the protests leading up to the 1997 NASA launch of a probe containing 72.3 pounds of the lethal element. An accident would have been catastrophic, scientists argued. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku estimated up to 200,000 deaths from an accident. Other scientists predicted up to 40 million deaths in the event of a dispersal of plutonium from the Cassini probe in an Earth "flyby" accident. We’re talking about only 72 pounds of the material.

With the explosion of reactor 3, radioactive elements were "aerosolized" into a fine mist that can make its way across the Pacific, says Gundersen. Scientists have detected trace amounts of radioactive iodine, believed to be from Fukushima, as far away as Glasgow and Pennsylvania. So how much plutonium, the most toxic element of all, was in the Fukushima spent fuel? With an estimated 600,000 fuel rods in the entire complex, and six per cent of the fuel rods from reactor 3 containing a mix of uranium and plutonium, it’s certainly much more than that of the infamous Cassini probe. Who to believe? The estimates of nuclear health risks and fatalities are all over the map. In a recent debate on Democracy Now, Guardian columnist George Monbiot repeated the UN figures of 43 deaths in total from the Chernobyl disaster. Antinuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott responded with Russian biologists’ calculations of 900,000 deaths, with more to come due to the decades-plus half-life of nuclear isotopes, and the incubation period for cancers and other diseases. (A 2007 BBC documentary on Chernobyl quotes Russian military sources that of 500,000 emergency workers in the Chernobyl area, 20,000 have already died, and 200,000 are officially disabled. This doesn’t include other civilian numbers.)

I have to wonder, as the media flits from marrying royals to manic sitcom stars, why there isn’t more focus on what appears to be the worst ecological disaster in human history. The atmosphere doesn’t heed lines on a map, so how dangerous is the invisible threat issuing from Fukushima to the planet’s population? And how can Obama continue to endorse the much-hyped "nuclear renaissance" for atomic energy production in the U.S., with this nightmare-in-progress?

Has the unthinkable truly happened, and is there a global, institutional inability to address it properly?

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