NUCLEAR POWER: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Fukushima accident's long-term effects
, April 30, 2011
The release of radiation from the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactor — the first major failure of reactor safety anywhere in the world for many years — has adversely affected the future of nuclear power throughout the world, and will accelerate the introduction of natural gas-fired power stations, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere.
The quantity of radiation released from Fukushima has not, as far as is known, killed anyone. In contrast, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami ,which devastated the north-east coast of Japan on March 11, is expected to rise to close to 20,000.
The Japanese Government introduced an exclusion zone of 20km around the site. This was done as a precautionary measure because of the fact that the situation at the reactor was dangerous, and because there was a fear of a major release of radiation.
This has not eventuated. Nor has there been any significant spread of radiation to other parts of Japan or other countries.
The chairman of the US National Regulatory Commission, in evidence to a US congressional committee on April 12 this year, said: “Monitoring by nuclear-power plants and the [Environmental Protection Agency] EPA’s system has not identified any radiation levels that affect public health and safety in this country.
“In fact, natural background radiation from sources such as rocks, the sun and buildings, is 100,000 times more than doses attributed to any level that has been detected in the U.S. to date. Therefore, based on current data, we feel confident that there is no reason for concern in the United States regarding radioactive releases from Japan.”
The US Department of Energy (DoE) has also been conducting extensive monitoring of Japan following the Fukushima accident, and has published its findings.
In a presentation called “Radiological assessment”, dated April 4, the DoE said it had compiled a report based on 221 hours of aerial observations as well as ground reports from US and Japanese experts.
It said that measured radiation levels were consistently below actionable levels for evacuation or relocation outside of 25 miles from Fukushima, and radiological material had not been deposited in significant quantities since March 19.
It added that an assessment of measurements at US military installations in the Tokyo area up to April 3 showed that radiation levels were “far below actionable levels for evacuation or relocation”, and continued, “Monitoring of these locations will continue, although no increases in deposited radiation are anticipated.”
Since then, radiation levels in the area around the reactor have continued to fall.
It is a sad commentary on the media coverage of the accident that most people believe that the restricted area around the Fukushima plant is a contamination zone, when in fact it is an exclusion zone.
There has also been extensive reporting of discoveries of radioactive iodine and caesium in the vicinity of Fukushima.
These two substances present very different risks to health. Radioactive iodine is very dangerous, but because of its very short half-life of just eight days, the risk rapidly declines, and there is no danger of long-term contamination of soil. The treatment for radioactive iodine is also cheap and simple: taking iodine tablets flushes iodine from the body.
Contamination of fisheries by radioactive iodine is a short-term problem, which is diminished by both the decay of the element and by dissipation of the highly soluble salts in the sea.
Radioactive caesium has a 30-year half-life, so is not highly radioactive, however if ingested, it distributes throughout the body. The treatment for exposure to this element is to take a well-known paint pigment, Prussian Blue, which binds to caesium, and expedites its expulsion from the body. Prussian Blue is cheap to produce, is insoluble and is not toxic.
The alarming reports on the Fukushima accident have, however, created widespread fears, in Japan and elsewhere, of the safety of nuclear energy.
Yet some environmentalists, including the UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot, have looked at the evidence objectively, and concluded that nuclear energy is not the monster it has been portrayed.
Monbiot wrote recently, “You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
“A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.” (The Guardian, UK, March 21, 2011).
Yet the alarmists have won the day, paradoxically ensuring that the world relies for energy on CO2-producing fossil fuels such as natural gas into the indefinite future.