Cutting Through Fukushima Fog: Radiation in U.S.?
By Bernard Weiner,
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
March 3, 2014
Governments cite "national security"
concerns and "official secrets" as their justification for withholding
information from the public. Corporations rationalize their secrecy behind
concerns about "patent infringement," shielding their trademarked
"proprietary" secrets from competitors. But most of the time, such
obfuscation is really derived from the time-honored villains of systemic
corruption and what is politely known as CYA in military and bureaucratic
Which brings us to Fukushima.
From the very beginning of this
catastrophic emergency -- the earthquake/tsunami off the Japanese coast in
March of 2011, when nuclear reactors at a power plant were flooded and then
exploded and began their meltdowns -- the public in Japan and around the
world have not been told the full story of what's been happening at the Dai-ichi
nuclear-power plant in Fukushima province.
The utility that runs the plant, Tepco
(Tokyo Electric Power Company), is notoriously close-mouthed about its
operation. To this day, aided by a recently passed "government secrets" act
in Japan, we have no confirmable idea of the extent of the damage: how much
radiation is really leaking out into the Pacific Ocean and where the
currents are taking it, the density and direction of the radioactive plumes
carried by the wind, the radioactive effects up and down the marine
food-chain. Not only is there precious little data-reporting released to the
public -- journalists who violate the "state secrets" law can be thrown into
prison for 10 years -- but what little information that does appear, both in
Japan and in the U.S., seems to be hidden inside a different language, with
a vocabulary ("bequerelles," "millisieverts," "millirems," the difference
between "radiation," "radioactive" and "radiation dose," and so on) that is
utterly confusing to most non-nuclear scientists.
BEWARE THE HYPERBOLE
Each side of the argument tends to go
hyperbolic when presenting its version of the Fukushima catastrophe. Tepco
officials regularly suggest that all is proceeding well at Dai-ichi, and
that the radiation effects are mostly localized and things should go back to
normal in the foreseeable future. But other scientists and journalists have
concluded that the situation is critical, getting worse and is increasingly
dangerous to humanity.
The issue of radiation on the loose is a
scary one, and has an economic component as well as a social-psychological
one that could convince governments to tone down news that carries with it
the possibility of instigating mass panic and anxiety-induced mass
migrations. A lot is at stake -- economic stability, the U.S.-Japan
alliance, cancer clusters, etc. -- so it's not surprising that each side is
passionately trying to capture and control the narrative.
Tepco, for example, often dispenses
flat-out lies, whoppers that have to be "corrected" much later; for example,
earlier this month, Tepco admitted that the strontium-per-liter level
leaking from Dai-ichi reactor #1 was five times higher than its earlier
estimate. (Note: "Strontium-90's half-life is around 29 years.
It mimics calcium and goes to our bones.")
And here's an example from the
Fukushima-as-immediate-danger side: There's a going-viral You Tube video of
an unidentified guy with a hand-held geiger counter walking around a beach
just south of San Francisco, watching the clicking numbers going up,
presumably because of Fukushima radiation. There is no context presented in
this video, no base level of radiation at that location, no consideration of
naturally occurring radiation, etc. But this video is cited as "evidence" of
wind- or ocean-born radiation from Japan. Millions watch the video on
YouTube and ratchet up the fear level. Belatedly, scientific tests were done
recently at this same beach, which established that what was registering on
the handheld geiger-counter were naturally occurring fluctuations as a
result of existing minerals in the sand.
A NEWS BLACKOUT
As a San Franciscan quite familiar with
large earthquakes, I have been curious about what was happening in Japan
since the 2011 reactor explosions. Up until the past several months, there
was virtually no news about Fukushima published by respectable U.S. news
outlets. We did hear that several villages near the Dai-chi plant had been
evacuated after the reactor meltdown started, but Tokyo was OK and the
emergency measures didn't seem bad enough to take matters much beyond that.
Like most people busy with their own lives
and with local concerns. and because the mainstream and many alternative
news services in the U.S. by and large were ignoring Fukushima, my attention
went elsewhere. I assumed that no news was good news.
Deficient thinking. Tepco is a for-profit
company. Bad news would hurt the corporation. No news is better for the
bottom line. It became evident even in the early hours and days of the
meltdown that the utility spokesmen and their government supporters were
telling lies, withholding key facts about nuclear dangers and radiation
leakages, putting the best face on a momentously dangerous situation. But
even from a distance, and still true today, the meager information that was
gleanable from Dai-ichi seemed to indicate an ad hoc, chaotic and
incompetently-managed plan to contain the crisis. At the very least, public
safety concerns cry out for an international (United Nations? IAEA?) body of
radiation experts and engineers to run the dangerously-damaged power plant,
but there is little action, or even a sense of urgency expressed, for such a
To stem any such public anxiety, Tepco and
Japanese government officials minimized the damage at Dai-ichi and assured
its population that the situation was certainly not another Chernobyl.
Untrue. In important ways, the Japan situation is worse: the Chernobyl
reactors were housed inland and eventually were buried within a cement
sarcophagus; Dai-ichi, with its reactors melting down, is still actively
releasing radiation into the air and into the bay/ocean (and probably the
aquifer) where it sits, and there is no known plan for how the leaking
reactors might be encased. In addition, thousands of spent fuel rods at
Dai-ichi, still highly radioactive, are being moved, one by one over several
years, to a "safer location," in a project never before tried anywhere on
earth. One bad accident and/or another major earthquake in the vicinity, and
a radiological cataclysm could occur.
U.S. SAILORS RADIATED
Japan (a buffer to China's ambitions in
Asia) is a key ally of the United States, and the U.S. has exercised a
hands-off approach to Fukushima matters for most of the past three years. In
the days right after the earthquake/tsunami in 2011, the U.S. Navy provided
humanitarian and logistics help, including observations and damage reports
to the Japanese government from helicopters over the wrecked reactors and
nearby farms and villages. The U.S. offered to provide more onsite help, an
offer that was rejected by Tepco. Other countries offered onsite help as
well, with the same response. Clearly, Tepco did not want its citizens and
stockholders to know how bad things really were at Dai-ichi.
But some news did get out in public.
According to recently revealed U.S. Navy documents,
more than 70 sailors on the Navy helicopters or among those who serviced
those copters on the aircraft carrier USS Reagan suffered major radiation
exposure, even after the ship was moved 100 miles away from Fukushima. The
sailors' health complaints are consistent with victims who have suffered
major radiation exposure. Neither the Japanese nor South Korean nor Guam
governments would permit the Reagan to dock as it was radioactively "hot."
The affected members of the crew have an ongoing civil suit for
one-billion-dollar damages pending against Tepco.
For the past three years, those interested
in getting updated news from Fukushima have had to rely on bits and pieces
of information in search of a coherent puzzle-picture. Just a few examples
where further research would be required.
There was reporting about
die-off of starfish all across the Pacific.
Was this weird event because of the warming of global oceans or was this
possibly related to the reported 300,000 gallons of radioactive water
pouring daily into the Pacific from the leaking reactor pools? Or was it a
rare virus? There also were reports of Pacific dead zones in what were
traditionally rich fishing areas; could this be connected to Fukushima?
There were reports of bluefish tuna
from the Fukushima area caught in the waters off San Diego in Southern
California with high levels of radiation. A connection? (See the study
published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the
United States of America, which concludes: "We report unequivocal evidence that Pacific
bluefish tuna, Thunnus orientalis, transported Fukushima-derived
radionuclides across the entire North Pacific Ocean…Other large, highly
migratory marine animals make extensive use of waters around Japan, and
these animals may also be transport vectors of Fukushima-derived
to distant regions of the North and South Pacific Oceans."
According to Oceanus Magazine, the
total amount of cesium-137 that has been released into the Pacific Ocean
from Fukushima is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than the amount released
into the oceans by the Chernobyl disaster or by the
nuclear-weapons tests from the 1960s.
Fukushima radiation could affect
seafood for many generations, because of the food chain of fish and other
marine fauna: plankton and vegetation are eaten by small fish, which are
eaten by slightly larger fish, which are eaten by larger fish, and so on.
One study reports: "Even if only one-hundreth of the radioactivity…were
to enter the recirculation pattern, the collective whole body ingestion
dose over many generations would…be
sufficient to kill more than 1,000,000 people."
Since no institutional body is in charge
at Dai-ichi other than the utility company that has a clear conflict of
interest, how to sort out the scary truths from the scary fictions?
EFFECTS ON U.S. WEST COAST
Since most of my family and friends reside
in the American West, my immediate worry-focus was on how the West Coast of
North America was faring when it came to radiation by air and water. In the
days immediately following the March 2011 explosions at Dai-ichi, there were
scattered reports of higher-than-normal radiation in the air and grasses and
cows milk of Western North America, but after that early period, it's been
mostly a blank.
Willy nilly, those of us trying to follow
the Fukushima story were forced to become freelance investigative reporters
because, so far as we could tell, there were no news outlets or governmental
agencies that were passing on any ongoing, reliable information about
Fukushima's possible effects on the West Coast of America and Canada;
certainly no agency was taking a holistic view of what might be happening in
the air and water. (Experts can't even agree on the existence of radiation
monitoring. A Woods Hole scientist and a nuclear engineering professor at
UC-Berkeley both concluded that there is no systematic radiation testing in
the U.S. for air, food and water. But local and state public-health
officials point to something called "RadNet,"
a system of air monitors at 11
I started my information-hunt in October
of last year in San Francisco. At that time, I wrote a four-page citizen
letter to our local Public Health Department as well as to the Public
Utilities Commission, the governmental body responsible for public health
and safety with regard to drinking water. I made no accusations and provided
no definitive subjective opinions; my goal was to ask questions, to find out
if there was ongoing monitoring and testing and, if so, what the results
were. In short, was there anybody at the monitoring switch? At the bottom of
the letter, I cc'd copies sent to a variety of local, statewide and federal
politicians and governmental bodies.
Two months went by with -- surprise! -- no response at all.
Working with a number of friends and
fellow activists, calling ourselves the Bay Area Radiation Group, we then
rewrote the original letter in December of 2013 to make it tighter and more
focused, and sent it off to named members of the Public Utilities
Commission, and to various environmental institutions (the federal EPA,
Sierra Club, etc.). Further, instead of just my name, I included under my
signature that I was co-editor of a website (crisispapers.org)
-- as a way of alerting these officials that the story could make its way
into internet conversation.
THE ART OF BUREAUCRATIC DEFLECTION
Well, lo and behold, the S.F. Public
Utilities Commission on January of 2014 finally responded to the original
letter, with a narrow, highly-spun reply, which can be summed up roughly as:
"All is in order. We're monitoring the water. RadNet monitors the air. We've
got it covered. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, please."
Shortly thereafter, the California
Department of Public Health, on my cc list, responded with the first real
information about ongoing monitoring relating to Fukushima radiation. Their
PDF press release, they indicated, came about due to a number of inquiries
by California citizens on this issue. I took that to mean that perhaps
questioning from ordinary citizens like our activist group was getting
through to the point where some answers had to be provided. Their findings
-- that all was in order, with nothing to worry about -- dealt mostly with
monitoring from March 2011 to March 2012. Apparently, there was little if
any followup monitoring.
Thankfully, a few days ago,
the San Francisco Chronicle
provided an updated time-line when it finally published its first
self-generated article on the Japanese disaster and the expectation of
radiation levels rising in the Bay Area in the next few months when
radioactive Fukushima plumes make their way to the West Coast:
"Radiation from the
Fukushima nuclear disaster has not yet reached ocean waters along the
Pacific coast, but low levels of radioactive cesium from the stricken
Japanese power plant could arrive by April, scientists reported Monday….
"Ken Buesseler, a chemical
oceanographer at the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass.,
reported (at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union) that four
coastal monitoring sites in California and Washington have detected no
traces of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant destruction --
'not yet,' he said during a telephone press briefing.
"Buesseler said no federal or
international agencies are monitoring ocean waters from Fukushima on this
side of the Pacific, so he has organized volunteer monitors at 16 sites
along the California and Washington coasts and two in Hawaii to collect
seawater in 20-liter specialized plastic containers and ship them by UPS to
his Woods Hole laboratory."
GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS
The good news is that there is some
movement as citizens, news media and public officials are starting to demand
answers about Fukushima radiation. The bad news is that it's difficult to
pry out proven facts from Tepco and/or the Japanese government as both
continue to stonewall requests for information. (And Japan's government is
talking about re-opening more than 30 nuclear reactors across Japan.)
Despite the informational blackout, the
following admission came five months ago from Tepco executive-level fellow
"I'm sorry, but we consider the situation is not under
control." Another Japanese nuclear engineer, Yastel Yamada, said that Tepco
is way over its head:
"The cleanup job is too large for their capability."
One would hope that such statements might
convince the Obama Administration and the international community in general
to move toward a united front in demanding accurate information, and that a
world body of nuclear experts be given the responsibility to take
operational control of the melting-down reactors at Dai-ichi.
WHAT THE U.S. COULD DO
It's possible that the situation is not as
dire and immediate as all that at Dai-ichi and that the radioactive
meltdowns will turn out to be a localized disaster -- bad for the Japanese,
better for those of us geographically distant -- with radiation levels going
down as the radionuclides are diffused over the coming years in the vast
ocean waters between Japan and the West Coast of North America.
A Los Angeles Times article
concluded that "radiation detected off the U.S. West Coast from the
Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan has declined since the 2011
tsunami disaster and never approached levels that could pose a risk to human
health, seafood or wildlife, scientists say," and a recent Alaska survey
reported that Pacific seafood is registering no levels of radiation from
"that are of a public health concern."
But it's also possible, indeed maybe even
more likely given the active earthquake zone off the Japanese islands, that
there will be a large or medium-size earthquake near Fukushima that will
help complete the meltdown at Dai-ichi. "If that were to happen," said Dr.
David Suzuki, one of Canada's leading environmental scientists, "It's
bye-bye Japan, and everybody on the West Coast of North America should
evacuate. Now, if that's isn't terrifying, I don't know what is." Nuclear
engineer Arnie Gundersen has called the Fukushima disaster "the biggest
industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind." Nuclear physicist Michio
Kaku calls Dai'ichi "a ticking time bomb." These dire descriptions and
prognostications are echoed by Paul Gunter, a nuclear power-industry
watchdog at Beyond Nuclear: "We have opened a door to hell that cannot be
easily closed — if ever."
Given the diametrically conflicting views
of the Fukushima disaster, it's way beyond time for a full-court-press
approach by the U.S. and global community to challenge what may be a
whitewashed coverup, and with intensified scientific research and accurate
figures and diagnosis, to get to the bottom of what's happening at the
Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. Doing nothing is not an option. #
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in American
politics and international relations, has taught at universities in
California and Washington State, worked as a writer/editor with the San
Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of
The Crisis Papers (crisispapers.org).
Copyright 2014 by Bernard Weiner