It bears repeating. Government, industry, and major media reports downplay and deny Japan's unprecedented nuclear disaster, potentially able to kill millions now living and in future generations painfully.
Nuclear power is a real life Andromeda Strain. If uncontrollably unleashed, it's potentially able to destroy life worldwide under a worse case scenario.
In his latest article, nuclear expert Harvey Wasserman said "the most devastating thing about (Fukushima) is not what's happening there now. It's that until all the world's reactors are shut, even worse is virtually certain to happen again. All too soon." Fukushima, in fact, may be the nuclear nightmare he suggests.
Globally, 450 reactors operate, including 104 aging American ones, many with bad safety records caused by cost-cutting and shoddy maintenance. Poorly regulated, they're ticking time bombs, accidents waiting to happen, many plagued by near-meltdown misses.
According to Beyond Nuclear's Linda Gunter, American utilities have gambled since the dawn of the nuclear age, NRC regulators letting them get away with cutting corners, taking risks, and being lucky hundreds of times. However, it can't forever avoid a Fukushima-like disaster. From 1986 - 2006, Greenpeace estimates 200 near-misses. Any loss of power for any reason could cause one - an earthquake, tsunami, ice storm, or any number of accidents that can and do happen, including human error.
Even operating normally, reactors discharge enough radiation daily to contaminate food, water, air and earth. Further, if a large city like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles lies downwind of a meltdown, it would become uninhabitable forever.
Moreover, contrary to government and industry misinformation, nuclear power is neither efficient, reliable, cheap, clean or safe. Annually, it discharges significant amounts of greenhouse gases and hundreds of thousands of curies of deadly radioactive gases and elements.
They're also atom bomb factories, a 1,000 megawatt plant producing 500 pounds of plutonium annually. Ten pounds can destroy greater New York. Moreover, the link between radiation and disease is irrefutable, dependent only on the amount of cumulative exposure over time. As Helen Caldicott explains:
"If a regulatory gene is biochemically altered by radiation exposure, the cell will begin to incubate cancer, during a 'latent period of carcinogenesis,' lasting from two to sixty years."
As a result, a single gene mutation can and often is fatal. No amount of radiation is safe, cumulative exposure causing 80% of known cancers.
As long as the technology exists, humanity is playing an insane game of nuclear roulette it can't win. It's only a matter of where and when one or more devastating meltdowns will occur. At Fukushima, it's virtually certain now happening, full-scale damage control concealing it. The only unknown is how bad, whether multiple reactors are affected, and whether anything's able stop it.
According to an unnamed industry expert, Japanese engineers confirmed a serious leak in the floor and/or sides of Unit 4's spent fuel pool, making it impossible to keep its rods under water. As fast as it's sprayed in, extreme heat evaporates it. A Los Angeles Times report said a "breach in the pool would leave engineers with a problem that has no precedent or ready-made solution." According to Union of Concerned Scientists physicist Edwin Lyman:
"My intuition is that this is a terrible situation and it is only going to get worse. There may not be any way to deal with it." Most at risk are children and pregnant women.
EU energy head Gunther Oettinger's assessment bears repeating that "We are somewhere between a disaster and a major disaster." It's wrong to "exclude the worst. There is talk of an apocalypse, and I think the word is particularly well chosen."
Nuclear expert John Large called Fukushima's response "shambolic," saying advance preparations for disaster weren't made, adding:
"What this means is, accidents like we are seeing now where there are two breaches - one involving the reactors, and one involving fuel ponds outside the reactors - they don't have plans for it. They don't have a procedure in a book to turn to." What they're doing may not work. "This shows the fundamental omission in nuclear safety culture. What this shows is the basic confidence of nuclear engineers and operators is flawed."
It also shows a disdainful government/industry disregard for safety. Imagine the price future generations will pay, especially if unstoppable radioactive emissions spread globally. Moreover, entombing Fukushima like Chernobyl can't be done until spent fuel rods are cooled. Otherwise, they'll melt and burst through enclosure. As a result, restoring power is crucial, whether or not possible dependent on the extent of damage done that minimally is considerable after four explosions, fires and over a week of extremely high heat.
On March 19, New York Times writers Ken Belson and Hiroko Tabuchi headlined, "Japan Confirms High Radiation in Spinach and Milk Near Nuclear Plant," [updated] saying:
Above safe levels were found, "the first confirmation (that Fukushima contaminated) the nation's food supply," making none of it safe to eat. Claiming only milk and spinach were affected is false. Emitted radiation doesn't choose targets. It lands everywhere, poisoning everything it strikes. Nonetheless, cabinet secretary Yukio Edano claimed otherwise, adding that "levels (found) do not pose an immediate threat to your health."
He lied. Ingested irradiated substances cause considerable harm, depending on amounts consumed.
On March 19, Washington Post writers Chico Harlan, Joel Achenbach and David Nakamura headlined, "A week after disaster, doubts about Japanese government's grip on crisis," saying:
Sacramento, CA detectors registered Fukushima radiation, US officials, like their Japanese counterparts, downplaying the risks instead of warning of their harmful effects. Prime Minister Naoto Kan's "words came amid doubt that the nation's leaders have a firm grip on the nuclear crisis. The government and (Tokyo Electric) have issued a thin and fitful stream of information about the radiation-spewing plant," downplaying serious hazards.
Moreover, reactors besides Fukushimas are troubled. Others include a Tokai one and three at Onagawa. On March 13, a state of emergency was declared at the facility after high radiation levels were recorded. The Tohoku Electric Power Company said readings were 700 times above normal" but still low. In fact, normal ones are too high.
In his January 1982 congressional testimony, the Father of America's Nuclear Navy warned about nuclear power dangers, advocating its abolition, saying:
"I'll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on Earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn't have any life - fish or anything."
"Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet (reduced enough to) make it possible for some form of life to begin....Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible....every time you produce radiation, (a) horrible force (is unleashed), and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself. (We must) outlaw nuclear reactors. It is important that we control (destructive) forces and try to eliminate them."
"In this broad, philosophical sense, I do not believe that nuclear power is worth the present benefits, since it creates radiation. You might ask, why do I design nuclear-powered ships? Because it is a necessary evil. I would sink them all."
"From a long-range standpoint - I am talking about humanity - the most important thing we could do at present is to have an international meeting where first we outlaw nuclear weapons. Eventually, we could outlaw reactors too."
On November 8, 2010, nuclear expert Karl Grossman headlined, "The Push to Revive Nuclear Power," saying:
"I'd like to start with the bottom line: the problem with nuclear power is - in one word - radioactivity."
"Splitting (the atom) is called fission....If these fission products are let loose in an accident - or are released without an accident (including "routine emissions" explained above) - and they are absorbed by the body, they can (and often do) cause cancer and other diseases. They kill" painfully.
"Some of these poisons remain hot with radioactivity for thousands, some millions of years. During this time they must be isolated from life or they'll destroy" it.
"The extreme dangers of atomic energy were understood," yet development and proliferation happened anyway, too often cutting corners dangerously. As a result, all nuclear plants are unsafe. Why? Radioactivity. Released into the environment, it kills.
Can we "put the nuclear genie back into the bottle," asked Grossman. "We can and must," replaced by "energy we can live with." The alternative is too grim to imagine.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on March 19, 2011.