A year ago, northeastern Japan was rocked by the fourth-largest earthquake ever recorded. It triggered a massive tidal wave that swallowed entire cities and swamped the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Three reactors melted down, causing explosions and fires that spewed radioactive contaminants that mostly headed east by air and sea toward North America.
Contaminated water continues to flow into the ground and ocean water as workers try to bring the situation under control, pumping water onto the still-hot reactor cores and spent fuel rods.
But thanks, American media, for moving on to newer news. You held our attention for a whole month even though the disaster is anything but over. Stories that went essentially untold include ones like coastal Japan being littered with stone warning markers dating back centuries to not build anything below certain points—points far up on hillsides. Fukushima Daiichi was constructed right next to the beach.
I attended the American Geophysical Union’s Ocean Sciences Conference held this year in Salt Lake City on Feb. 20 to 24. One session saw a day’s worth of presentations on the disaster’s effects on oceans. (Side note: Japanese academics move way too quickly through PowerPoint slides and refuse to use language interpreters even when needed.)
Any good news to report? The ocean is big, and currents tend to spread out and dilute the bad stuff coming out of the plant. And unlike airborne contaminants that end up in one layer on the ground, the ocean’s depth distributes nasty stuff. Seafood is being watched (kind of) and so far has been determined to be “within safe levels,” except that coming from close to the plant.
I tried months ago to write a feature-length article on Fukushima—and the editor of this publication surely hates me for taking this short and lazy route—but my fairly well-educated brain was swamped by isotopes (the various elements and their degree of radioactivity), half lives (the time it takes them to “decay” or break down to less dangerous forms, which ranges from a few days to hundreds of thousands of years), the various ways to measure radiation (becquerels currently being the most popular), its impact on living things, and even how various types of invisible radioactive contamination affect different tissues.
Even an individual’s health and state of nutrition factor in. For example, airborne Iodine-131 reached the Western United States within days of the disaster. Rain dropped it mostly in the Pacific Northwest (but also in Utah) including on cow feed. Iodine concentrates in milk, so humans who drank it and also had low levels of iodine had radioactive iodine lodge more easily in their thyroid glands where, like tiny microwave ovens, it bombarded and possibly mutated DNA for a couple of weeks, increasing their risk of thyroid cancer. Detected radiation in the United States post-Fukushima was deemed “within safe levels” by authorities, however.
Of course, that’s what they said back in the ’50s and ’60s when southern Utah’s “downwinders” were regularly hit with the fallout from nuclear-bomb testing in Nevada that fell in St. George like snowflakes. We all know how well that turned out for some folks.
Ignorance or outright lying by officials about nuclear stuff is a time-honored tradition. For the 1986 Soviet Chernobyl disaster, the official number of dead from the incident and cleanup is still about 100. Other estimates by sane researchers with three letters after their names say nearly 1 million earlier deaths in Europe are attributable to diseases caused or complicated by the incident. Hey, what’s a 10,000 to 1 difference among friends?
I’ve often observed that the truth lies somewhere between extremes, but even the possibility that “only” half a million people went to somewhat earlier graves due to a reactor blowing up is somehow not all that comforting.
Initial reports by the Japanese government and TEPCO power company about Fukushima’s severity also proved “less than factual,” which greatly undermined the traditional Japanese cultural respect for authority—perhaps a positive consequence. Citizens mobilized and started collecting data using their own radiation detectors and disseminating findings through online networks that continue to bring more openness to this ongoing story—in Japan, anyway.
Such efforts may lack “scientific rigor,” but having an area 25 percent bigger than the Salt Lake Valley with 80,000 evacuated residents (more than Sandy, Orem or Ogden) who may never be able to return to $800 billion of real estate, with perhaps more to come, tends to motivate people.
As America continues to contemplate more nuclear power as a solution to the energy and environmental crises, don’t forget that we still don’t have a way to get rid of nuclear waste so it won’t cause problems for future generations. The Finns are doing something halfway reasonable, entombing it in horrendously expensive shafts drilled deep into bedrock, with hopes that it’ll remain undisturbed for a hundred thousand years while it cools off.
Here, EnergySolutions wants to bury high-level but “blended” nuclear waste in poorly secured locations just west of Salt Lake City. Utah’s state engineer recently decided to give away a lion’s share of our limited water resources to operate a proposed nuclear power plant near Green River.
How quickly we forget that also in the past year, we almost had our own Fukushimas—in Virginia, where a nuclear plant had to survive an earthquake, and when the flooding Missouri River nearly inundated a nuke plant in Nebraska. So, to all the plans to build yet more nuclear plants and kick the can of worms down the road on what to do with their waste, I’ll continue being critical through two abbreviated words: Fuku and Dai.
Internet resources for Fukushima news
EneNews is one of the most comprehensive sites for perspectives not only from the anti-nuclear position but also from a wide range of opinions. http://enenews.com/ The site seems to go down occasionally but usually comes back within hours.
While the American press in general hasn't done stellar work covering the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, The New York Times has done some very good investigative reporting. You need to subscribe to the NYT site to see articles, and they don't have a convenient aggregation page for all of its articles on this topic. You can, however, do keyword searches of its database. If you can't access it from home, you can reach it through the city or county library systems. Ask a librarian how to use your library card for that.
The foreign press has been far more aggressive in covering Fukushima. One good source is Russia Today. Here's its site that aggregates its Fukushima articles: http://rt.com/trends/fukushima-nuclear-disaster/
This site is probably the best source of Japanese perspectives on Fukushima translated into English from the Japanese media and press. Overlook the hokey anime super-hero graphic to get to the good stuff: http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/
This site lists abstracts from Japanese alternative sources. The English translations are often very poor, but you can find some helpful information and can get full use if you read Japanese. http://fukushima-diary.com/