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“Fukushima Fallout” is a wakeup call about “nuclear safety”

June 9, 2011

The staff of Representative Edward J. Markey, a member of the US Congress from Massachusetts, have produced an important and disturbing evaluation of the failed nuclear safety systems that led to the Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis in March. While Fukushima Fallout: Regulatory loopholes at U.S. nuclear plants is primarily an indictment of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has  protected the economic interests of the nuclear industry at the expense of the health and safety of the American public, the report is essential reading if you live in a country (hello, India) that is still being seduced by industry giants such as General Electric and Westinghouse into signing up for a “nuclear renaissance” that would more accurately be called a descent into a new nuclear dark age.

The report documents the ways in which nuclear safety regulations—inadequate to begin with—have been based on flawed assumptions, outdated seismic data, and underestimated risks. To make matters worse, already lax regulations have been made even weaker as a result of decades of industry lobbying and NRC duplicity. Here, in a nutshell, is what Rep. Markey’s staff found out:

•    There are 65,193 metric tons of spent fuel stored at US nuclear plants; 49,620 metric tons (76%) are in spent fuel pools, yet despite a near consensus among NRC scientists that dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel is far safer than storage in spent fuel pools, the agency has not made that a requirement for plant operators.
•    The NRC has never required nuclear plant designs to incorporate technologies to prevent hydrogen explosions such as the ones that reportedly occurred at spent nuclear fuel pools in Fukushima. Regulatory requirements for such technologies in reactor containment structures have been removed at industry insistence, “even as NRC officials repeatedly and inaccurately asserted that such technologies were absent in Japan but are required in the US.”
•    The NRC “does not require emergency diesel generators to be operational at times when there is no fuel in the reactor core, even though this could leave spent nuclear fuel pools without any backup cooling systems in the event of a loss of external electricity to the power plant.” The loss of such generators during the tsunami was probably the determining factor that prevented plant operators from shutting down the damaged Fukushima reactors at the outset of the crisis.
•    Standards for earthquake resistance at US nuclear plants are based on decades-old geologic data and foolishly [my word] optimistic assumptions about earthquake severity; updated seismic data , discoveries of new active fault lines near nuclear plants, and recalculations of potential earthquake magnitudes were apparently not considered by the NRC when it approved the license extensions for the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts (38 miles from Boston) and Indian Point (25 miles from New York City).

If there’s a bright note in this report, it’s a chart compiled by Markey’s staff documenting what may be the beginnings of a sea change in attitudes toward nuclear energy among some high profile countries. Germany and Japan have shut down some reactors. They have been joined by China, Italy, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Venezuela in halting new plant construction (at least temporarily). China, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the UK have all signalled that nuclear energy will play a reduced role in their energy futures.

We’ve seen this before, of course, when Chernobyl led to a worldwide aversion to nuclear power and the near abandonment of new nuclear plant construction, only to see the industry rise from its own radioactive debris with cynical, manipulative claims that nuclear energy was the answer to climate change. The US, Russia, France, Australia, Canada, and some others are looking to protect their major investments in nuclear plant exports, fuel reprocessing industries, and uranium exports. India, unlike China, which has at least stopped to look around, appears too caught up in its own fantasies of nuclear-fueled economic miracles—fantasies cheerfully nurtured by GE, Westinghouse, and, sadly, the Obama administration—to appreciate the real lessons of Japan’s tragedy.

For those of us who have been closely following the health and environmental consequences of Fukushima, the following paragraphs from Rep. Markey’s report are especially important:

The radiation released from the Daiichi reactors has already caused considerable damage. The Department of Energy has projected what the dose could be to people living around the plant up to about 50 miles away over the first year of the nuclear disaster based on aerial radiation survey data. People are expected to be exposed to about 2,000 millirems in the first year in a swath of land extending about 30 miles to the northwest of Fukushima Daiichi. The exposure estimate assumes that people did not evacuate and do not heed advice to shelter indoors throughout the year. The Japanese government has evacuated people out to 19 miles, and advised evacuation in selected places beyond that distance because of high localized fallout. Thousands of farmers have had to dump tons of produce and millions of gallons of dairy across a swath of north-central Japan where the government has determined radiation makes the food unsafe.

“Residents in Tokyo, about 150 miles from the Fukushima reactors, were warned temporarily not to allow infants to drink tap water because it contained unsafe levels of radioactive iodine. On April 2, seawater leaking from a crack near unit 2 had levels of radioactive iodine-131 that were 7.5 million times Japan’s legal limit, and radioactive cesium-134 at a concentration 2 million times that was allowed. As seawater used to cool the reactor was released back to the ocean, radioactive iodine in the ocean 30 miles from Fukushima Daiichi spiked to 2800 times the legal limit on April 7th, while radioactive cesium-134 levels were at 1100 times the legal limit, and cesium-137 at 760 times the limit. Radioactive cesium-134 remained at twice the legal limit at the same sampling location on May 6, 2011.

“While radioactive iodine rapidly decays, with a half life of 8 days, other radioactive elements being released are longer-lasting. The three plutonium isotopes found in Japanese soil samples have environmental half-lives of 87 – 24,000 years. Cesium-134 has a half-life of 2 years, and cesium-137 a half-life of 30 years. Cesium is also absorbed by marine organisms. As of April 28, radioactive cesium has been detected in 41 species off the coast of Japan. In the Pacific sandlance, radioactive cesium has been found at levels as high as 14,400 Bequerels per kilogram, about 29 times the legal limit. The Pacific sandlance is eaten by many in Japan, and additionally serves as food for other fish, and cesium tends to bio-magnify, becoming increasingly concentrated as it moves up the food chain. The Pacific sandlance is eaten by many migratory species, including other fish (salmon, bluefin tuna, skates, cod), seabirds (murres, auklets), and marine mammals (minke whales, seals). When present in a person or other animals, plutonium and cesium continue, for years or even decades, to expose surrounding tissue to radiation that can lead to cancer.

“In recognition of the high levels of radiation emitted, on April 12, Japanese authorities raised their assessment of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown to a Level 7 ‘Major Accident.’ According to the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale of the International Atomic Energy Agency, level 7 means ‘A major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures.’ Only once before, during the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986, has there been such a severe nuclear disaster that rated this highest possible classification.”

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