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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What the Fukashima? by Susan Corbett Chapter Chair

Susan Corbett, Chair,
South Carolina Chapter
What the Fukushima?
Since my last column in the Chronicle, the event so
many anti-nuclear activists were worried about most
has happened: a catastrophic series of unforeseen
events has led to a chain of multiple reactor-breakdowns, resulting in the
continued release of massive amounts of radiation and the contamination of large
areas of land, water and food supplies. The accident at Fukushima has brought
into sharp relief the myriad of problems inherent in nuclear power as it is currently
employed in this country and others. Designs are based on foreseeable events.
Too often, catastrophic events are completely unforeseeable. How can you plan
for what you cannot conceive could happen?
One must wonder how the best engineering minds in Japan, a country whose
engineering acumen has amazed the world, and who based their nuclear designs
on ours, came to believe that building nuclear reactors near major fault and
tsunami zones would be okay, and they would be prepared for any event. Clearly,
that is not the case. How many reactors are in similar situations in our country?
The answer, sadly, is too many. And the same ―we‘re ready for anything‖ mindset
is deeply ingrained in the industry here. But are we really ready? To answer that,
simply ask yourself which one of the 104 reactor sites around the country with a
large population around it is ready to be evacuated for twenty to thirty miles and
never allowed to be re-populated? How many of these reactors even have an
evacuation plan in place for the tens of thousands that would have to leave in case
of an accident, say at the Catawba plant outside Rock Hill/Charlotte? If you are
interested in evacuation plan details, please check out the Japanese disaster tab
on our website and look for the recent video on NRC plans for evacuating large
areas around U.S. reactors.
What is most disconcerting to many of us is how quickly this event fell from the
media‘s (and the world‘s) attention. While the reactors were still melting and
spent fuel pools were still boiling, the media attention shifted mercurially to Libya
and never looked back. Once that happened, the Japanese government, nuclear
industry and other agencies began in earnest to hush the event and curtail the
amount of information being released. And in response to the renewed criticisms
about nuclear energy, the nuclear boosters resumed an old chant: ―no one has ever
died from nuclear power.‖ This is the same cry they raised after Chernobyl and
Three Mile Island. Their assertions are both naïve, disingenuous and false. Every
radiation study ever done has affirmed that radiation, even in low doses, can cause
cancers of all types, birth defects and genetic damage. But what makes radiation
the perfect crime is that these effects may not become apparent for ten, twenty or
thirty years, or more. And unlike some carcinogens, like tobacco, or asbestos, you
cannot definitely say when radiation causes the cancer or other deleterious effect.
Except for acute radiation poisoning that is apparent from very high doses,
radiation leaves no definite fingerprint and cannot be conclusively blamed. It‘s a
very slick trick . . . expose the population, no one dies right away, so you can
claim it‘s all okay. And who‘s around thirty years later to make the correlation?
Actually, a few brave epidemiologists have begun looking into this: noted
researcher Steve Wing, Ph.D. from UNC Chapel Hill and his associates found two
to ten times higher rates of lung cancer and leukemias downwind of the Three
Mile Island accident than upwind. Their work has also led to revelations that the
industry lied or downplayed the amount of radiation released during the accident.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has admitted it was pressured by the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to spin the numbers from
Chernobyl.
Recent studies are showing that millions have or will be affected
from past exposures to the millions of curies still circulating the
globe from Chernobyl. And how many will be added from the
emissions coming from Fukushima?
We are seeing a similar syndrome occurring in Japan. The
amount of radiation still being released is being underreported,
(as we go to print, an evening news story reported the estimates
of radiation released are now two-times what was originally
reported) and the Japanese government has refused to let
independent or environmental groups perform any monitoring.
Here, in this country, we have stopped monitoring, even though
elevated levels of radiation have been found in Hawaii‘s milk
cows and other parts of the food chain. The insidious thing
about radiation is that none of us knows our own tolerance to it,
and how or when the ingestion or inhalation of alpha and beta
particles will affect us. To say no one has or will die from
Fukushima or other reactor emissions of radiation is a lie.
Many activists are concerned it‘s just a matter of time before it
happens here. If you plot a graph of reactor safety, it ends up
looking like a bathtub: high safety risk at the beginning of the
reactor‘s life (both TMI and Chernobyl were newly started),
relative lower risks in the middle, and high risks again at the end
of the reactor‘s life-cycle (Fukushima is currently over thirty
years old). We are in a period when many reactors have been
relicensed to operate far past their design; thus, we are increasing
our chances of an accident. Here in South Carolina, we have
four of the country‘s six most safety-challenged reactors: three at
Oconee in Seneca and one at H.B. Robinson in Florence.
These four have been cited by the NRC for repeated safety
infractions, events and violations. Around the country, under
heightened scrutiny, vulnerabilities are popping up, like the news
this past week that the Limerick plant, outside Philadelphia,
might not be ready to prevent damage from flood or fire if the
plant was struck by an earthquake. Even so, the NRC did its
cursory inspection and pronounced everything was fine. The
released report indicates that the inspectors concluded that ―the
licensee met the current licensing and design bases for fire
protection and flooding." This conclusion was reached despite
findings that "many of the (systems, structures and components)
relied upon to mitigate flood and fire events at Limerick are not
designed to meet seismic qualification standards. Therefore, a
design basis seismic event at the site could adversely impact the
plant's fire and flood mitigation capabilities."
If you think this situation is unusual—think again. The U.S.
nuclear fleet is awash with reactor close-calls, questionable
designs and locations and very scary backup systems.
Emergency Diesel Generators, or EDGs, that are the fall-back
when power goes out, are notoriously unreliable, and there are
multiple incidents of their failures. The fact that virtually every
reactor design must rely on EDGs when there is a power outage,
is frightening in and of itself, and sets up what engineers call a
―single point of vulnerability.‖ Of even more concern are the
spent fuel pools, awash in highly radioactive, thermally hot spent
fuel rods, which have been a major source of intense gamma and
other kinds of radioactive releases at Fukushima. Lest we forget,
an almost exact duplicate of the Fukushima Mark I reactors
continues to operate a scant fifty miles from Myrtle Beach, at the
Brunswick location, on the ocean, south of Wilmington, North
Carolina.
What will it take to protect the public from a Fukushima type
disaster? Sadly, the NRC, the agency created to protect us, has
proven itself to be a pawn of the very industry it promises to
regulate, not unlike the Minerals Management Service that
facilitated the BP Gulf oil disaster. And with both houses of
Congress dead set on going full speed ahead with the ―nuclear
renaissance,‖ it‘s not surprising they have hardly taken a breath
to truly study and learn from what exactly happened at
Fukushima, and how it could (and most likely will) happen in
the U.S and, indeed, other countries. Nuclear is an industry of
extremes: very safe, until it‘s a complete catastrophe. Radiation
is the perfect crime, and, now, like the scientific evidence of
climate change, the industry is trying to downplay or outright
deny the devastating effects of man-made radiation on life on
this planet. The fact that nuclear can crash the world‘s third
largest economy and our leaders do not blink an eye is testament
to the power of the industry and its invested interests. The
sooner we move away from nuclear, close down the aging
plants, secure the spent fuel, and find somewhere to bury to
60,000 tons of deadly waste we have created, the safer we, and
all life on the planet, will be.

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