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As radiation leaks, truth is slow to follow

Matt Frei | 22:07 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Police man a checkpoint in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, about 20km (12-miles) from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

It is cruelly ironic that as we approach the first anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the world should once again be transfixed by the inability of humans to plug a poisonous leak created by our need for energy.

Last year it was the spewing orifice at the bottom of the sea brought to us 24/7 courtesy of the dozen or so "spillcams" that became a fixture in the corner of just about every cable news TV screen.

This year we have the unseen wafts, leaks and seepages of radiation from the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The fact that the threat level of this crisis has now been raised - one month later - to seven - the highest possible - is alarming.

The fact that Japanese authorities insist the radiation level is still one-tenth that of Chernobyl - the only other nuclear disaster that has earned a seven - is puzzling.

The leaking information has made the leaking radiation all the more perplexing. Not surprisingly, the patient people of Japan are getting angry. They feel - not for the first time - that their government and Tepco, the power company, have been economical with the truth.

The oil leak in the Gulf was terrifying because of its relentless filthy incontinence. The leak of radiation is terrifying because it remains unseen and is in part dependent on the whim of the wind.

Though the casualty figures from the nuclear disaster have been mercifully low - so far - I still wondered whether that cool breeze caressing my face was a potential kiss of death.

When I was in Tokyo last month, nervously fingering my very own personal BBC-issued Geiger counter, I too was mugging up on some nuclear basics that I thought I would never need.

The fear of the unknown is complemented by a hunger for solid information. In both leaks - oil and radiation - the truth about the true extent of the disaster flowed as reluctantly as molasses.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    We should really consider Thorium as an energy source.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium

  • Comment number 2.

    "The fear of the unknown is complemented by a hunger for solid information. In both leaks - oil and radiation - the truth about the true extent of the disaster flowed as reluctantly as molasses."

    Point taken -- but the BP disaster never really posed a life-or-death scenario to a large population, where the Japanese disaster does.

    And that, I think, raises the broader question: is full transparency and disclosure ALWAYS the right choice, or are there cases where the authorities -ought- to be circumspect?

    We all know the story (apocryphal?) for example, that Churchill new that Coventry was going to be bombed, but kept silent to protect Britain's secrets.

    I suspect that you have to have been in a position to make such a choice to really understand the problem. But it seems to me that under some circumstances, withholding information serves the greater good. Certainly not the case in the Deepwater Horizon example -- possibly the case in the Fukushima disaster.

  • Comment number 3.

    "The fear of the unknown" is echoed in Curt Carpenter's response:

    "BP disaster never really posed a life-or-death scenario to a large population, where the Japanese disaster does."

    I ask Curt Carpenter, Matt Frei and the millions of people in Japan and elsewhere this: do you actually know that the Japanese disaster poses a threat to the population at large? The answer is likely to be no, but you will probably feel the scenario is realistic- regardless of what experts (myself included) say. The effects of exposure to high levels of radiation are always considerably smaller than the public perceives; take Hiroshima and Chernobyl for example. (citations available on a popular wiki site)

    Unfortunately speculation in the media (popular blogs included) is fueling the misconception that the nuclear crisis could realistically eclipse the earthquake/tsunami disaster.

  • Comment number 4.


    I agree with the above comments, that the potential hazards of atomic radiation are largely unfamiliar to most people, but could be understood to include genuine danger by substances which cannot be seen, invisible yet potentially deadly, and that the government of Japan does well to not promote panic by keeping the reports minimal.

    Chernobyl remains locked down today, 25 years later, and so there will be plenty of time to evaluate this Japanese tragedy as the years, decades and centuries go by.

  • Comment number 5.

    There are lots of important differences between Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima. A good one is that oil pollution will eventually disappear (how long depends upon who you talk to), whereas radioactive pollution can be around for 1000's of years or more.

    And of course oil pollution cannot create monsters - whereas radioactive pollution in the seas around Japan resulted in Godzilla.

    [And why haven't we seen any superheroes ? ]

  • Comment number 6.

    3. At 04:23am 13th Apr 2011, kd88 wrote:
    "I ask Curt Carpenter, Matt Frei and the millions of people in Japan and elsewhere this: do you actually know that the Japanese disaster poses a threat to the population at large?"

    Like many others, I am obliged to rely on experts (other than yourself, of course) who seem to feel that steps like "exclusion zones" are necessary to protect the population at large in places like, for example, Chernobyl. Non-expert that I am, this is pretty compelling evidence to me.

    So based on that evidence, I'd say yes -- I actually "know" this about as well as I can know anything.

  • Comment number 7.

    It's odd, don't you think that we can get upset by Japan radiation or the BP spill when you think the Americans and Israel have been dropping depleted uranium and white phospherous on defenceless people for years. Babies get still-born or deformed; other, older persons, die painfully of cancer. (And then there was that Agent Orange debacle in Vietnam.)
    The truth? You want the truth? Can you handle the truth?
    Mistakes are bad enough; lies make them worse, but WORST OF ALL is the intentional, purposeful, murderous destruction of human beings for no reason except hatred, greed, or the attitude - well, the bombing is over there; we don't have to worry about these horrendous consequences here!

  • Comment number 8.

    Continuation of #1

    From :

    http://www.thoriumenergy.org/lftradsrisks.html


    Waste--In theory, LFTRs would produce far less waste along their entire process chain, from ore extraction to nuclear waste storage, than LWRs. A LFTR power plant would generate 4,000 times less mining waste (solids and liquids of similar character to those in uranium mining) and would generate 1,000 to 10,000 times less nuclear waste than an LWR. Additionally, because LFTR burns all of its nuclear fuel, the majority of the waste products (83%) are safe within 10 years, and the remaining waste products (17%) need to be stored in geological isolation for only about 300 years (compared to 10,000 years or more for LWR waste). Additionally, the LFTR can be used to "burn down" waste from an LWR (nearly the entirety of the United States' nuclear waste stockpile) into the standard waste products of an LFTR, so long-term storage of nuclear waste would no longer be needed.

    Supply--Thorium is abundant in the Earth's crust. It is the 36th most plentiful element in the crust--four times as common as uranium and 5,000 times as plentiful as gold. According to the U.S. Geological Survey's 2006 Mineral Yearbook, the United States is estimated to have 300,000 tons of thorium reserves (about 20% of the world's supply), more than half of which is easily extractable. Considering only the readily accessible portion, this national resource translates to nearly 1 trillion barrels of crude oil equivalent--five times the entire oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. In addition to the naturally occurring reserves, the United States currently has 3,200 metric tons of processed thorium nitrate buried in the Nevada desert. That supply is roughly equivalent to 21 billion barrels of crude oil equivalent when used in an LFTR with only minimal processing effort.

    Secondary Products--Because an LFTR is so energy dense, the electricity and excess heat from the reactor can be used to fuel other industries beyond electricity production, including economical desalinization of water, cracking of hydrogen from water or hydrocarbons, generation of ammonia for fertilizer and fuel cells, and extraction of hydrocarbons from oil shale and tar sands. Additionally, the nuclear waste products from the LFTR include stable rhodium and ruthenium, rare elements needed in modern electronics; technetium-99, which offers great promise as a catalyst similar to platinum; iodine-131 and cesium-137 for medical applications; strontium-90 for radioisotope power; and xenon, used in commercial products and industrial processes.

  • Comment number 9.

    Why does virtually every thread-no matter what the subject- end up with comments detrimental to Israel??
    For goodness sakes....

  • Comment number 10.

    It is much easier to ask rhetorical questions than it is to answer questions factually.

    The confirmable truth will always lag behind the competitive needs of the "news industry" to be first to ask an unanswerable question.

  • Comment number 11.

    9. At 15:12pm 13th Apr 2011, mscracker wrote:

    "Why does virtually every thread-no matter what the subject- end up with comments detrimental to Israel??
    For goodness sakes...."

    Because its politics and actions are causing its allies many problems and it is ignoring our pleas to cool it -- more negatives than positives !

    ---do you mean a greater Israel ?

  • Comment number 12.

    At 04:23am 13th Apr 2011, kd88 wrote:
    "I ask Curt Carpenter, Matt Frei and the millions of people in Japan and elsewhere this: do you actually know that the Japanese disaster poses a threat to the population at large?"

    Yes, it does pose a threat to the population at large. There is an established link between radiation exposure and an increased risk of cancer. This increased risk, given the levels of radiation exposure which have already occurred, is very real but, on a per person basis, slight. But a .001% increase in fatal cancers (1 in 100,000), when applied to 128 million persons (approx population of Japan), is an additional 1280 deaths. I am confident that this is the range we are looking at - far fewer than 10,000 deaths but far more than 100. Even here in the United States, I believe there will be a small (and likely undetectable) increase in cancers due to this accident (on the order of one hundred). The United Kingdom should see much less of an impact, but there will be on the order of 1000 additional deaths over time as a result of this disaster.

  • Comment number 13.

    Apologies to Curt Carpenter, but what I really want to communicate is that it is normal for scientific or industrial nomenclature to be misunderstood, but you shouldn't panic because of it. If you really want an accessible translation from science jargon then listen to the Japanese government who are interpreting this very well.

    Unfortunately people are becoming frustrated with the perceived disparity in the nomenclature and the government's interpretation- even though they are the same!

  • Comment number 14.

    #9

    mscracker,

    If the Arabs in Gaza can do this to their friends, what do the paranoid Israelis have to worry about?

    Off-topic, apologies.

  • Comment number 15.

    Wil: Even here in the United States, I believe there will be a small (and likely undetectable) increase in cancers due to this accident (on the order of one hundred). The United Kingdom should see much less of an impact, but there will be on the order of 1000 additional deaths over time as a result of this disaster.
    ----------
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110416/ap_on_bi_ge/as_japan_earthquake
    An excerpt:
    Levels of radioactivity have risen sharply in seawater near a tsunami-crippled nuclear plant in northern Japan, signaling the possibility of new leaks at the facility, the government said Saturday. But the government said Saturday that radioactivity in the seawater has risen again in recent days. The level of radioactive iodine-131 spiked to 6,500 times the legal limit, according to samples taken Friday, up from 1,100 times the limit in samples taken the day before. Levels of cesium-134 and cesium-137 rose nearly fourfold.
    ----------
    What goes around comes around and I know on our local news in Illinois they have already told us the radiation is here...

    If its in the middle of our country, that means it is surely but slowly spreading across...

    The BP leak was horrendous- all we could do was watch as our environment was slowly being destroyed and they could not stop the leaks and this is similar that we are watching our enviroment slowly being destroyed and there may still be more leaks...

  • Comment number 16.

    "The oil leak in the Gulf was terrifying because of its relentless filthy incontinence.". It remains trrifying because, after all this time, we still do not have the whole truth, Gulf people are still suffering, yet BP is back to making profits.
    Only 17 months before BP's Deepwater Horizon rig suffered a deadly blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, another BP deepwater oil platform also blew out; BP kept the full story under wraps. In fact, it was so far under wraps that Congress & US safety regulators have kept it that way.
    The earlier blowout occurred in September 2008 on BP's Central Azeri platform in the Caspian Sea. A memo marked "secret" says: "Given the explosive potential, BP was quite fortunate to have been able to evacuate everyone safely and to prevent any gas ignition." (There were 211 riggers.)
    This catastrophe too involved BP's controversial "quick set" drilling cement.
    So, someone should be asking:
    If BP had been candid about all facts to Congress & safety and regulators, would those 11 Gulf workers have died, would the Gulf Coast have been spared oil-spill, toxic poisons?
    Of course the bigger question is: Why is there no law demanding disclosure?
    Despite BP's knowledge re the Caspian blowout, the company told the Senate Energy Committee that BP's methods are, "both safe and protective of the environment."
    I am not writing specifically about BP; I am writing about a system that condones silence, even if that silence withholds life-and-death information.
    The solution: Corporations should be required to disclose events that threaten people and the environment...not just the price of their stock.
    Regulation is not a foul word. Andrew Jackson said, "Corporations have neither bodies to kick nor souls to damn."
    Regulators must impose an affirmative legal requirement to tell all, especially when people might be endangered.

  • Comment number 17.

    President Obama and Congress have not yet made appropriate laws concerning the oil drilling, making sure its safe, hiring people to police and regulate the inspectors, clearly much more should be done if we want to protect our shores...

    Will it take another BP oil disaster for us to wake up and make safety laws?

    Let's hope it doesn't come to that, but what we are putting at stake here is our nature which is priceless...

  • Comment number 18.

    I come from the place that is 80 miles from Chernobyl. I know what it is when the truth is hidden. Many innocent people died in 1986 and after that because of the authorities saying "everything is alright, you have nothing to worry about, there is no radiation". Chernobyl exploded on April 26 and on May 01 everyone knew nothing about it, people went to march down the streets as they do every year to celebrate a USSR holiday of all the workers, The First of May.

    now I live in the US, and I think that we might have got some radiation from Fukushima, but nobody told us about that. I don't know for sure I am just making guesses, based on my life experience.

    My point is nuclear energy is great but it is dangerous. For now electricity is the most common energy which is very reliable, especially when you have a standby generator at your home (like one of these for example: http://www.houstongeneratorcompany.com ). The first commenter said he hopes that Thorium will become the energy of the future but I read that article and the very first sentence scared me: "Thorium is a naturally occurring RADIOACTIVE chemical element,". I think we should make use of Nikola Tesla's discoveries, who said that the energy is around us, and it is not radioactive.

    So sorry that thing happened to people in Japan....

 

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