RADIATION AND PROBLEMS WITH NUCLEAR ENERGY

CRITICS OF NUCLEAR POWER

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radiation monitor
Joschka Fischer, the former head of Germany’s Green Party, wrote in Project Syndicate: Nuclear power is neither clean nor safe nor cheap.Indeed, the opposite is true. Nuclear power is saddled with three major unresolved risks: plant safety, nuclear waste, and, most menacing of all, the risk of military proliferation. Moreover, the alternatives to nuclear energy---and to fossil fuels---are well known and technically much more advanced and sustainable. Taking on nuclear risk is not a necessity; it is a deliberate political choice. [Source: Joschka Fischer, Project Syndicate, April 30, 2011]

“About 90 million people worldwide live a nuclear “danger zone” within 30 kilometers of nuclear reactors, equivalent of the exclusion zone round the Fukushima nuclear power plant in which people were ordered to evacuate in Japan. When the figure is expanded to 75 kilometers the number in the zone reaches half a billion people. Of these more than 110 million are in the United States , 73 million are in China, 57 million are in India and 33 million are in Japan and Germany respectively. [Ibid]

Nuclear Power Plant Costs

Michael A. Levi wrote in the Washington Post: “Safety is certainly a critical issue, as the tragedy in Japan is making clear. But for years, the biggest challenge to sustainable nuclear energy hasn’t been safety, but cost. In the United States, new nuclear construction was already slowing down even before the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979; the disaster merely sealed its fate. The last nuclear power plant to come online started delivering power in 1996---but its construction began in 1972. Today, nuclear power remains considerably more expensive than coal- or gas-fired electricity, mainly because nuclear plants are so expensive to build. Estimates are slippery, but a plant can cost well north of $5 billion. A 2009 MIT study estimated that the cost of producing nuclear energy (including construction, maintenance and fuel) was about 30 percent higher than that of coal or gas. [Source: Michael A. Levi, Washington Post, March 16, 2011]

Bjorn Lomborg of Project Syndicate wrote: “New nuclear power plants have high up-front costs (which can be politically challenging), including a very complicated, slow, and fraught planning process. When completed, the total cost of nuclear power is significantly higher than the cheapest fossil-fuel source. And society must bear significant additional costs in terms of the risks of spent-fuel storage and large-scale accidents. Moreover, in most parts of the world where energy consumption is expanding, nuclear proliferation is an issue. [Source: Bjorn Lomborg, Project Syndicate, April 13, 2011]

Levis wrote in the Washington Post: “Of course, cost and safety aren’t unrelated. Concerns about safety lead to extensive regulatory approval processes and add uncertainty to plant developers’ calculations---both of which boost the price of financing new nuclear plants. It’s not clear how much these construction costs would fall if safety fears subsided and the financing became cheaper---and after the Fukushima catastrophe, we’re unlikely to find out. [Ibid]

Lomberg wrote: “Then there is the question of maintaining existing plants. Decommissioning nuclear reactors may make us feel safer, but we should acknowledge that this will often mean compensating for the lost output with more reliance on coal, meaning more emissions that contribute to global warming, and more deaths, both from coal extraction and air pollution. Moreover, given that the plants are already paid for, waste facilities are already in place, and the high decommissioning cost will have to be paid regardless of timing, the actual operating costs are very low---half or lower per kilowatt-hour than the cost of the cheapest fossil fuels. [Ibid]

“Nuclear industry advocates argue that safety concerns have been solved and are no longer a worry. They also say reactors will become easier to absorb financially as simpler, cheaper designs become approved and the regulatory review more streamlined. [Ibid]

Nuclear Power Plants and Terrorism

One of the biggest concerns with nuclear power is a terrorist attack. The proliferation of nuclear material and the possibility of it falling into the hands of terrorists is also a concern. Michael A. Levi wrote in the Washington Post: “It’s easy to get scared about terrorist attacks on nuclear plants. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a cottage industry sprung up around the threat, with analysts imagining ever-more horrific and creative ways that terrorists could strike nuclear facilities and unleash massive consequences. [Source: Michael A. Levi, Washington Post, March 16, 2011]

“There are certainly real risks: Nuclear expert Matthew Bunn of Harvard University has pointed out that well-planned terrorist attacks probably would produce the sort of simultaneous failures in multiple backup systems that Japan’s reactors are experiencing. But it’s much harder to target a nuclear power plant than one might think, and terrorists would have great difficulty replicating the physical impact that the March 11 earthquake had on the Japanese plants. It also would be tough for them to breach the concrete domes and other barriers that surround U.S. reactors. And although attacks have been attempted in the past---most notoriously by Basque separatists in Spain in 1977---none has resulted in widespread damage. [Ibid]

“Certainly, the water pools in which reactors store used fuel, which reside outside the containment domes, are more vulnerable than the reactors and could cause real damage if attacked; there is a debate between analysts and industry about whether terrorists could effectively target them. [Ibid]

Nuclear Waste

Low-level waste includes items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation. This waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipments and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues. The radioactivity can range from just above background levels found in nature to very highly radioactive in certain cases such as parts from inside the reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant. Low-level waste is typically stored on-site by licensees, either until it has decayed away and can be disposed of as ordinary trash, or until amounts are large enough for shipment to a low-level waste disposal site in containers approved by the Department of Transportation. [Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)]

“High-level radioactive wastes are the highly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors. High-level wastes take one of two forms: 1) Spent (used) reactor fuel when it is accepted for disposal; 2) Waste materials remaining after spent fuel is reprocessed Spent nuclear fuel is used fuel from a reactor that is no longer efficient in creating electricity, because its fission process has slowed. However, it is still thermally hot, highly radioactive, and potentially harmful. Until a permanent disposal repository for spent nuclear fuel is built, licensees must safely store this fuel at their reactors. Reprocessing extracts isotopes from spent fuel that can be used again as reactor fuel. Commercial reprocessing is currently not practiced in the United States, although it has been allowed in the past. [Ibid]

“Because of their highly radioactive fission products, high-level waste and spent fuel must be handled and stored with care. Since the only way radioactive waste finally becomes harmless is through decay, which for high-level wastes can take hundreds of thousands of years, the wastes must be stored and finally disposed of in a way that provides adequate protection of the public for a very long time. [Ibid]

Uranium mill tailings are primarily the sandy process waste material from a conventional uranium mill. This ore residue contains the radioactive decay products from the uranium chains (mainly the U-238 chain) and heavy metals. As defined in Title 10, Part 40, of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR Part 40), the tailings or wastes produced by the extraction or concentration of uranium or thorium from any ore processed primarily for its source material content is byproduct material. This includes discrete surface waste resulting from uranium solution extraction processes, such as in situ recovery, heap leach, and ion-exchange. Byproduct material does not include underground ore bodies depleted by solution extraction. The wastes from these solution extraction facilities are transported to a mill tailings impoundment for disposal. [Ibid]

Nuclear Waste Disposal

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Greenpeace workers at work
Spent nuclear fuel refers to uranium-bearing fuel elements that have been used at commercial nuclear reactors and that are no longer producing enough energy to sustain a nuclear reaction. Once the spent fuel is removed from the reactor the fission process has stopped, but the spent fuel assemblies still generate significant amounts of radiation and heat. Because of the residual hazard, spent fuel must be shipped in containers or casks that shield and contain the radioactivity and dissipate the heat. [Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)]

“In the United States thousands of shipments of commercially generated spent nuclear fuel have been made throughout the United States without causing any radiological releases to the environment or harm to the public. Most of these shipments occur between different reactors owned by the same utility to share storage space for spent fuel, or they may be shipped to a research facility to perform tests on the spent fuel itself. In the near future, because of a potential high-level waste repository being built, the number of these shipments by road and rail is expected to increase. [Ibid]

“There are two acceptable storage methods for spent fuel after it is removed from the reactor core: 1) Spent Fuel Pools - Currently, most spent nuclear fuel is safely stored in specially designed pools at individual reactor sites around the country. 2) Dry Cask Storage - If pool capacity is reached, licensees may move toward use of above-ground dry storage casks. [Ibid]

“Low-level waste disposal occurs at commercially operated low-level waste disposal facilities. The facilities must be designed, constructed, and operated to meet safety standards. The operator of the facility must also extensively characterize the site on which the facility is located and analyze how the facility will perform for thousands of years into the future. There are no high-level waste disposal sites in the United States. These have to have to hold materials for perhaps millions of years and no place has been found that meets all the criteria for a place that can house the materials for that long. [Ibid]

Radiation Emitted by Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear power plants are fueled by uranium, which emits radioactive substances. Most of these substances are trapped in uranium fuel pellets or in sealed metal fuel rods . However, small amounts of these radioactive substances (mostly gases) become mixed with the water that is used to cool the reactor. Other impurities in the water are also made radioactive as they pass through the reactor. The water that passes through a reactor is processed and filtered to remove these radioactive impurities before being returned to the environment. Nonetheless, minute quantities of radioactive gases and liquids are ultimately released to the environment under controlled and monitored conditions. [Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)]

“The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has established limits for the release of radioactivity from nuclear power plants. Although the effects of very low levels of radiation are difficult to detect, the NRC's limits are based on the assumption that the public's exposure to man-made sources of radiation should be only a small fraction of the exposure that people receive from natural background sources . [Ibid]

“Experience has shown that, during normal operations, nuclear power plants typically release only a small fraction of the radiation allowed by the NRC's established limits. In fact, a person who spends a full year at the boundary of a nuclear power plant site would receive an additional radiation exposure of less than 1 percent of the radiation that everyone receives from natural background sources. This additional exposure, totaling about 1 millirem (a unit used in measuring radiation absorption and its effects), has not been shown to cause any harm to human beings. [Ibid]

Nuclear Meltdowns

Nuclear fuel rods normally are kept submerged in water inside reactor cores, thus preventing the rods' temperature from exceeding a certain limit. However, if the water level goes down and the fuel rods are exposed, the cooling system's efficiency rapidly deteriorates, causing the reactor core's temperature to rise. If the core's temperature exceeds a certain level, the fuel rods melt--in other words, a meltdown occurs.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

“According to Wikipedia: Nuclear meltdown is an informal term for a severe nuclear reactor accident that results in core damage from overheating. The term is not officially defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency or by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, it has been defined to mean the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor, and is in common usage a reference to the core's either complete or partial collapse. "Core melt accident" and "partial core melt" are the analogous technical terms for a meltdown. [Source: Wikipedia]

“A core melt accident occurs when the heat generated by a nuclear reactor exceeds the heat removed by the cooling systems to the point where at least one nuclear fuel element exceeds its melting point. This differs from a fuel element failure, which is not caused by high temperatures. A meltdown may be caused by a loss of coolant, loss of coolant pressure, or low coolant flow rate or be the result of a criticality excursion in which the reactor is operated at a power level that exceeds its design limits. Alternately, in a reactor plant such as the RBMK-1000, an external fire may endanger the core, leading to a meltdown. [Ibid]

“Once the fuel elements of a reactor begin to melt, the primary containment has been breached, and the nuclear fuel (such as uranium, plutonium, or thorium) and fission products (such as cesium-137, krypton-88, or iodine-131) within the fuel elements can leach out into the coolant. Subsequent failures can permit these radioisotopes to breach further layers of containment. Superheated steam and hot metal inside the core can lead to fuel-coolant interactions, hydrogen explosions, or water hammer, any of which could destroy parts of the containment. A meltdown is considered very serious because of the potential, however remote, that radioactive materials with long half-lives could breach all containment and escape (or be released) into the environment, resulting in radioactive contamination and fallout, and leading to radiation poisoning of people and animals nearby. The amount of radioactivity released into the environment due to a core melt is measured in becquerels or curies. [Ibid]

“At Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The detection of traces of a nuclear substance called cesium outside the Fukushima nuclear power plant led the agency to infer that a possible meltdown occurred. Cesium is formed after uranium, which is used for nuclear fuel at the plant, undergoes fission. However, nuclear fuel is kept in a pellet form covered by a special metal. It is impossible for cesium to leak from the shell unless the metal melts--which occurs when the temperature reaches 2,700 C to 2,800 C, according to the agency, an affiliate of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.” The detection of cesium indicates the temperature of the reactor core has reached a seriously high level. If the water level does not rise enough to stop the reactor core from overheating, the reactor core's stainless steel cover could melt. In the worst-case scenario, the reactor core itself might explode due to a build-up of excessive pressure.” [Ibid]

Radiation, Radioactivity, Radioactive Material and the Dangers They Pose

Radioactive material is a term that comprises unstable elements that discharge radioactivity and heat in nuclear fission. There are many kinds of such material found in nature. Uranium and plutonium are two kinds that are used as fuel in nuclear power generation. The level of risk they pose to humans varies. If radioactivity harms the genes in human cells or other organs, the risk of cancer and leukemia increases. In a worst case scenario, people may suffer from acute radiation poisoning. [Source: New York Times]

“The radiation initially released by the explosions at leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was mostly isotope iodine 131, which is not that dangerous in the long term because it decays relatively quickly. Iodine 131 has a half life of only eight days and disappears completely from the environment within a couple months. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “Iodine 131 is dangerous because it concentrates in the thyroid gland, resulting in high radiation doses to that vulnerable organ. The thyroid is such an iodine magnet that a week after a nuclear weapons test in China, iodine 131 could be detected in the thyroid glands of deer in Colorado, although it could not be detected in the air or in nearby vegetation.” [Ibid]

“More serious worries were raised when a long-lasting radioactive element, cesium 137 were measured at levels that pose a long-term danger at one spot 25 miles from the Fukushima plant. Cesium 131 has a half life of 30 years. The amount of cesium 137, measured in one village 25 miles from the plant by the International Atomic Energy Agency exceeded the standard that the Soviet Union used as a gauge to recommend abandoning land surrounding the Chernobyl reactor. Using a measure of radioactivity called the becquerel, the tests found as much as 3.7 million becquerels per square meter; the standard used at Chernobyl was 1.48 million. This lead to concerns that a large chunk of land might to have to be abandoned for years. [Ibid]

“The New York Times reported: “In contrast to iodine 131, which decays rapidly, cesium 137 persists in the environment for centuries. The reported measurements would not be high enough to cause acute radiation illness but far exceed standards for the general public designed to cut the risks of cancer. The Japanese authorities and the anti-nuclear environmental group Greenpeace have reported similar readings from the area; Greenpeace and some other groups are pressing for the affected area to be evacuated.” More than 15 years after the Chernobyl accident in what is now Ukraine, studies found that cesium 137 was still detectable in wild boar in Croatia and reindeer in Norway, with the levels high enough in some areas to pose a potential danger to people who consume a great deal of the meat. [Ibid]

“One of the critical factors determining the extent of the danger posed by radiation releases has been wind direction. Most of the time the prevailing westerlies carried the radiation out to sea, where it didn’t pose much of a threat to human life and largely dispersed before it reached inhabited areas in the Americas. Most worrisome for Japan were northerly winds that pushed the radiation south towards Tokyo and other densely populated areas of Japan. [Ibid]

Radiation Studies

Studies on radioactive fallout date back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War period when the United States and the Soviet Union conducted a large number of nuclear tests. In 1962 alone, at least 178 nuclear tests took place, dispersing plutonium and other radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

“The only precise data on radiation expose comes from studies of survivors of the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It shows that exposure to 1,000 millisieverts of radiation per hour increases the chances of developing cancer by 150 percent. The lower the exposure, the lower the risk of cancer. About 28,000 people who were exposed to levels of up to 100 millisieverts were monitored over a 40-year period. About 4,400 of them developed cancer. This figure, however, is less than 2 percent--81 people--higher than the average for people who have not been exposed. There is almost no difference. Even nuclear experts are divided over the correlation between exposure to less than 100 millisieverts of radiation and higher risks of cancer. Because of this, the risk line is set at 100 millisieverts. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

“The worst case of radioactive contamination was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, in April 1986. About 7 tons of radioactive materials--about 400 times what was released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima--were released across the Northern Hemisphere. [Ibid]

“Areas within 30 kilometers of the Chernobyl plant were incredibly contaminated--as much as 1.48 million becquerels per square meter in some areas. Residents in these areas were evacuated. In parts of Germany and other nations, more than 70,000 becquerels per square meter were detected. In Belarus and Moldova, also Soviet republics at the time, and other nations such as Austria and Finland, the average amount of fallout exceeded 10,000 becquerels per square meter.” [Ibid]

“Douglas Almond, a Columbia University economist, has done research that suggests that children in Sweden who were exposed, in utero, to low levels of radiation from Chernobyl “experienced significantly lower cognitive function later in life. He wrote to New York Times to express concern about possibly inadequate warnings to pregnant women in Japan. Mr. Almond wrote: “Discussion of the likely public health impacts of nuclear crisis in Japan omit the evidence on developmental impacts, i.e. radiation exposure to pregnant women that damages the fetus and is not resolved/addressed by iodine supplementation. For this reason, we think pregnant women might be targeted for relocation/remaining indoors at greater distances from the reactors than the non-pregnant population.” [Source: Robert Mackey, New York Times March 16, 2011]

Radiation, Life, Limits and Dangerous Levels

Radiation is all around us. It is part of our daily life and impossible to escape. Gautam Naik wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Radiation is in the ground, at the doctors' office and even from the sun and stars. While large doses can be harmful, these smaller doses are part of everyday life. Television sets, smoke detectors and luminous watches can also contribute tiny amounts. Natural radioactivity even occurs in foods such as carrots and bananas, and in beer.” [Source: Gautam Naik, Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2011]

“Radioactive materials are made of unstable atoms. Such atoms give off excess energy until they become stable; the emitted energy is known as radiation,” Naik wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “An American will receive an annual radiation dose of about 620 millirem, or 6,200 microsieverts, a dose that isn't deemed to be harmful, says the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Half of this radiation exposure comes from natural background sources, such as radioactive materials that naturally exist in rocks, soil and other sources, as well as cosmic rays. Reactor Monitor The other half originates from human sources, mainly diagnostic medical procedures such as computer tomography scans, which emit roughly 1,500 microsieverts of radiation, or a full set of dental X-rays, about 400 microsieverts.” A sievert is a unit to quantify the biological effects of radiation.[Ibid]

“To put the reports coming out of Japan in perspective, the NRC limits occupational radiation exposure for adults working with radioactive material to 50,000 microsieverts a year. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan said that on Monday morning, a radiation level of 3,130 microsieverts per hour was recorded at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, about six times the legal limit. Later in the morning, a radiation level of 326 microsieverts was recorded there.” [Ibid]

“Significant radiation exposure boosts cancer risk. Damage that occurs at the cellular or molecular level can disrupt the body's natural control processes and allow an uncontrolled growth of cells, or cancer. Ionizing radiation can bring this about by breaking chemical bonds in atoms and molecules. The NRC says there are no data to reliably estimate the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and dose rates below about 100,000 microsieverts. But high doses are dangerous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to five to 10 rems of radiation will alter a person's blood chemistry, while 55 rems will also bring on nausea. and fatigue. (One rem is equal to 10,000 microsieverts.) Vomiting and hair loss occur at 70 rem and 75 rem respectively, while exposure to 400 rem can mean possible death in two months. With even higher doses, the onset of death is quicker. [Ibid]

“Doses of radiation in our daily life (in microsieverts): 1) 6,900 from a CT scan of the chest; 2) 4000 from an X-ray film mammogram or a year of living in high-altitude Denver; 2) 3000, the annual exposure of the average American from natural sources of radiation ; 3) 2000 annual exposure to radon in an average American home (more than half of the radiation Americans are exposed comes from radon, a gas made by the natural decay of soil, Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer); 4) 600 from a single stomach X-ray; 5) 200 from a round-trip Tokyo-New York flight. [Sources: the U.S. EPA; Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences]

“Doses of radiation that can affect human health (in microsieverts per hour): 1) 10,000 to 20,000, the estimated radiation workers were exposed to who died in the 1999 accident at the Tokaimura fuel reprocessing plant; 2) 7,000 to 10,000, fatal in all cases; 3) 3,000 to 5,000, fatal with 60 days in half of cases that receive no medical treatment; 3) 500, blood cell production weaken; 4) 100, health damage risk increases. [Source: Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences]

“The he risk line is usually set at 100 millisieverts. But during emergencies, such as an accident at a nuclear power plant, this level is often increased. The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan has said people should stay indoors if the annual radiation dose exceeds 10 millisievert, The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) in 2007 issued an advisory saying the annual radiation limit for ordinary people can be raised to 20 millisieverts to 100 millisieverts during an emergency. The ICRP's suggestion of this temporary level is based on lessons learned from the Chernobyl disaster and other incidents. "Even if people are exposed to 20 millisieverts of radiation in a year, they wouldn't experience any symptoms such as nausea or burns. Raising the upper limit could increase the risk of cancer, but if there are other merits, such as avoiding the need to evacuate, it might be a feasible option," according to Yasuhito Sasaki, an executive director at the Japan Radioisotope Association. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Distribution of Radiation on Land

Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “Experts hesitate to predict where the radiation will go. Once radioactive elements that can harm health are released into the outdoors, their travel patterns are as mercurial as the weather and as complicated as the food chains and biochemical pathways along which they move. When and where radioactive contamination becomes a problem depends on a vast array of factors: the specific element released, which way the wind is blowing, whether rain will bring suspended radioactivity to earth, and what types of crops and animals are in an exposed area.” [Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, March 21, 2011]

“Research related to the 1986 Chernobyl accident makes clear that for decades, scientists will be able to detect the presence of radioactive particles released by the crippled Japanese reactors thousands of miles away. Scientists and doctors in Japan and abroad will be monitoring the results to see if those measurements reach dangerous levels. So far there is no indication that anyone has been harmed by eating contaminated food.” [Ibid]

“When radiation is released with gas, as it was at the Japanese reactors, the particles are carried by prevailing winds, and some will settle on the earth. Rain will knock more of the suspended particles to the ground. “There is an extremely complex interaction between the type of radionuclide and the weather and the type of vegetation,” Dr. Ward Whicker of Colorado State University, who developed a model for following food chain, said. “There can be hot spots far away from an accident, and places in between that are fine.” [Ibid]

“Initially, some plants will collect more radiation than others: those with big leaves like lettuce, spinach and other greens will naturally collect more radiation than apples, oranges or potatoes, he said. Foods like rice and corn whose edible portion is protected by husks or leaves are relatively safe in this early stage. But over a period of weeks, the radioactivity particles enter the food chain when they are ingested by animals or settle into dirt where they can be absorbed by the roots of growing plants. Soils with high clay content tend to bind radioactive elements and hinder their travel, while sandy soils allow more of the radiation to pass into growing food.” [Ibid]

“Long-lasting particles of cesium 137 can cycle through an ecosystem for decades, entering plants when they are taken up by root systems and returning to the earth when the plant dies. But iodine 131 also carries dangers. After the Chernobyl accident, some relatively distant villages were contaminated with fallout of iodine 131, and local cows ate grass that contained the radiation. Children who drank milk from those cows ended up with high rates of thyroid cancer.” [Ibid]

Health Effects of Radiation

Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax wrote in Bloomberg, “No one, including personnel who worked in the buildings, died from radiation exposure. Most experts agree that future health risks from the released radiation, notably radioactive iodine-131 and cesiums-134 and - 137, are extremely small and likely to be undetectable. Even considering the upper boundary of estimated effects, there is unlikely to be any detectable increase in cancers in Japan, Asia or the world except close to the facility, according to a World Health Organization report. There will almost certainly be no increase in birth defects or genetic abnormalities from radiation. Even in the most contaminated areas, any increase in cancer risk will be small. For example, a male exposed at age 1 has his lifetime cancer risk increase from 43 percent to 44 percent. Those exposed at 10 or 20 face even smaller increases in risk -- similar to what comes from having a whole-body computer tomography scan or living for 12 to 25 years in Denver amid background radiation in the Rocky Mountains. (There is no discernible difference in the cancer rates between people who live in Denver and those in Los Angeles or New York.)” [Source: Robert Peter Gale & Eric Lax, Bloomberg, March 10, 2013. Robert Peter Gale, a visiting professor of hematology at Imperial College London, has for 30 years been involved in the global medical response to nuclear and radiation accidents. Eric Lax is a writer and author of “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know.” Gale helped treat the worst cases of radiation poisoning at Chernobyl and has been involved with the follow-up in the years since the accident. He has been involved in Japan since the catastrophe and worked with Japanese scientists to estimate health risks. <+>]

“Exposure to radiation isn’t always what it seems. Of course, people in the path of a radioactive cloud may receive a dangerous dose of radiation, depending on the concentration of radionuclides, atmospheric conditions and their location -- indoors or outside -- when the plume passes. Immediate countermeasures are essential. In Japan, laudably, most people were sheltered in place and then evacuated in a relatively controlled manner. Some people received iodine tablets.<+>

“An independent commission found considerable confusion among Japanese government officials, personnel at the nuclear power facility and executives at Tokyo Electric Power Company in Tokyo. Furthermore, emergency authorities didn’t share or use some important data on radioactive contamination, and that caused some people to be evacuated to zones of higher radioactive contamination. And some children remained in high- radiation areas far too long. Nevertheless, official actions largely protected the public, and most continuing fears of health risks from radiation have little basis in fact. <+>

Although immediate and long-term health risks of nuclear accidents are often exaggerated, social, psychological and economic consequences are obviously enormous. Citizens of Japan are understandably traumatized by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But to make intelligent decisions about radiation, it’s best to rely on facts -- and not let emotional or illogical fears get in the way.

Radiation, Iodine, Thyroid Cancer and Children

The health hazards of radioactivity are far deadlier to children than the effects of radiation on adults. Radiation is more dangerous for infants because their cells are dividing more rapidly and radiation-damaged RNA may be carried in more generations of cells, Stephen Lincoln, a professor of chemistry at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, told Bloomberg. With cesium the risk for children depends on the quantity of radioactive cesium they consume or are exposed to, he said. If contaminated milk powder is consumed for only a few days, most of it will likely be eliminated within a month, he said. [Source: Kanoko Matsuyama and Yuriy Humber, Bloomberg, December 7, 2011]

“Children and pregnant women are particularly sensitive to radioactive iodine, which can harm the thyroid, studies after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 have shown. According to research presented at a 2006 global conference, at least 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer among children have been linked to Chernobyl’s fallout. Several years after the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the incidence of thyroid cancer rose among local children. Local authorities have recognized only thyroid cancer as being caused by the nuclear accident. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, October 10, 2011; Yomiuri Shimbun, October 12, 2011]

“The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland is located just below the Adam's apple and is attached to the trachea. The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone by absorbing iodine, which is contained in foods such as kombu seaweed. If a person breathes in or absorbs radioactive iodine through food and drink, 10 to 30 percent of this iodine is said to accumulate in the thyroid. From about five years after the Chernobyl accident, an increasing number of children began to develop thyroid cancer. It is believed they fell ill because they consumed milk and other food contaminated with radioactive material. Before the accident, the chance of a child living in the vicinity of the nuclear power plant developing thyroid cancer was about one in a million per year. After the accident, however, at one point this incidence increased 100 fold--to about one in 10,000--in some areas. [Ibid]

“According to surveys conducted by the United Nations and other organizations, 6,848 local residents who were younger than 18 years old at the time of the Chernobyl accident developed thyroid cancer over the 15 years from 1991 through 2005, of whom 15 were confirmed to have died. On the other hand, it is unclear whether adults have suffered from radioactive contamination of their thyroids, as there has been no apparent increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer among them. [Ibid]

“However, some grown-ups who were exposed to radioactive material as children at the time of the accident have developed thyroid cancer. Because it is difficult to estimate how much radioactive material each resident was exposed to after the accident, experts are unable to agree on the level of exposure that would cause people to develop thyroid cancer. It is highly possible, therefore, that follow-up examinations of people affected by Chernobyl may yet reveal adverse effects. [Ibid]

Nuclear Accidents

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: There are four hundred and thirty-two nuclear power plants around the world. The closest America has come to a disaster was a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant, near Middletown, Pennsylvania, in 1979. It did not produce any deaths or public-health problems, but it chilled the advance of nuclear power in America: a series of “No Nukes” concerts, led by Bonnie Raitt and others, helped galvanize opposition, and since Three Mile Island no new projects have been planned. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

“A big accident becomes a laboratory for studying how to prevent the next one. When Charles Perrow, a Yale sociologist, studied the events at Three Mile Island, he discovered that problems had accelerated beyond what even skilled operators could handle: pumps failed, because of a maintenance error; a warning light was hidden behind a dangling paper repair tag. In all, four safety systems failed within thirteen seconds. Perrow observed that, as technological systems become ever more complex, disasters that appear to result from a confluence of bad coincidences become, in fact, unavoidable, as a failure in one part causes a failure in another and another in ways that no designer could predict. Extraordinary disasters become, in Perrow’s words, “inevitable.” He called these collapses “normal accidents.” [Ibid]

Impact of Fukushima Disaster on Nuclear Power

The New York Times reported: “The Fukushima disaster damped the nuclear industry’s hopes for a worldwide revival of reactor building. With demand for electricity and concerns about global warming both growing, the industry had projected rapid expansion, but Japan’s nuclear crisis had already caused several countries to become skittish about nuclear power. After the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant there large protest against nuclear energy in places where nuclear power plants are scheduled to be built in India, Taiwan and other places. Italy proposed halting its plan to develop nuclear power. Germany, for instance, declared a temporary moratorium on building new plants. [Ibid]

“Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “In the aftermath of the disaster, the European Union decided to put all nuclear plants within its jurisdiction under review to check their earthquake resistance and other safety arrangements. In Germany, where 17 nuclear plants are in operation, seven that were built in 1980 or earlier have suspended operations for three months. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government previously had decided to extend the lifetime of the existing nuclear reactors, in a reversal of the previous administration's policy. After Fukushima Germany reversed itself again and said it would phase all of its nuclear reactors. In a regional elections the Greens, an ecologically oriented party, made major headway against a backdrop of a surge in antinuclear public opinion. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 29, 2011]

“At the time of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear crisis and also after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, misgivings about the safety of nuclear power plants became widespread in the United States and European countries, forcing them to put construction plans for new nuclear power plants on hold. From the standpoint of protecting energy security and fighting global warming, however, nuclear power plants, as long as they are managed safely, are certain to remain an important source of electric power. [Ibid]

“In the United States, which has more nuclear power plants than any other nation, some members of Congress have called for a freeze on the construction of new nuclear power plants. U.S. President Barack Obama, however, has remained committed to his policy of encouraging nuclear power generation, saying Washington needs to "take lessons learned from what's happening in Japan." France, which has the second largest number of nuclear power facilities, has vowed to go ahead with its construction plans for new facilities. Its sale of reactors to other countries also is continuing as scheduled. South Korea also has kept its posture of encouraging nuclear power generation unchanged. [Ibid]

“According to the New York Times: “Experts and nuclear industry representatives said that they expected demand in two important markets---China and India---to remain strong even though those counties had said they would proceed more cautiously. Both nations have rapidly growing demand for electricity, and neither has nearly enough domestic fuel to meet its needs. A downturn in reactor construction would hurt Japanese companies that export nuclear plant designs and components, including Toshiba, which owns Westinghouse, and Hitachi, which is in a worldwide partnership with General Electric. Companies in France and South Korea also have a big stake in reactor building. [Ibid]

“After the Fukushima nuclear power plant U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a review of all nuclear power plants in the United States. Within two months the U.S. Nuclear regulatory Commission gave all U.S. nuclear power plant the all-clear. In Europe stress tests for all nuclear power plants were ordered. Stress tests are designed to measure how force nuclear power plants can bear during an earthquake and tsunami or other disaster. In many cases they are carried out using computer models with specs and other data from the nuclear power plants as well as on site tests of steam generators, pumps and other equipment. [Ibid]

Impact of Not Having Nuclear Power and the Expense of Building New Reactors

Bjorn Lomborg of Project Syndicate wrote: “While America’s commitment to nuclear power was quickly reaffirmed by President Barack Obama, some European governments took the knee-jerk decision to freeze all new nuclear-energy projects immediately, and, in the case of Germany, not to extend the life of existing reactors. For Germany, this will leave a gap that it cannot fill with alternative energy sources, leaving it little choice but to rely more heavily on coal power. [Source: Bjorn Lomborg, Project Syndicate, April 13, 2011]

“We see coal as a polluting but reasonably “safe” energy source compared to nuclear energy. Yet, in China alone, coal-mining accidents kill more than 2,000 people each year---and coal is a leading cause of smog, acid rain, global warming, and air toxicity. As a result of Germany’s decision, its annual carbon emissions are now expected to rise by as much as 10 percent---at a time when European Union emissions are rising as the continent shakes off the effects of the financial crisis. Germany doesn’t have a low-carbon alternative if it shutters its nuclear plants, and the same is true of most other countries. Alternative energy sources are too expensive and nowhere near reliable enough to replace fossil fuels. [Ibid]

Case for Nuclear Power After Fukushima

Mark Lynas wrote in the, Los Angeles Times; In the messy real world, countries that decide to rely less on nuclear will almost certainly dig themselves even deeper into a dependence on dirty fossil fuels, especially coal. In the short term, this is already happening. In Germany -- whose government tried to curry favor with a strongly anti-nuclear population by rashly closing seven perfectly safe nuclear plants after the Fukushima crisis began -- coal has already become the dominant factor in electricity prices once again. Regarding carbon dioxide emissions, you can do the math: Just add about 11 million tons per year for each nuclear plant replaced by a coal plant newly built or brought back onto the grid. [Source: Mark Lynas, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2011]

“In China the numbers become even starker. Coal is cheap there (as are the thousands of human lives lost in extracting it each year), and if the hundred or so new nuclear plants previously proposed in China up to 2030 are not built, it is a fair bet that more than a billion tons can be added to annual global carbon dioxide emissions as a result. [Ibid]

“Japan is also heavily dependent on coal, so it is a fair bet that less nuclear power there will add substantially to the country's emissions. No wonder the Japanese are insisting on backing off from the Kyoto climate treaty. Looking at the entire global picture, I estimate that turning away from nuclear power could make the difference between whether the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius (bad but manageable) and 3 degrees Celsius (disastrous) in the next century. [Ibid]

“Those debating the future of nuclear power also tend to focus on out-of-date technology. No one proposes to build boiling-water reactors of 1960s-era Fukushima vintage in the 21st century. Newer designs have a much greater reliance on passive safety, as well as a host of other improvements. Fourth-generation options, such as the "integral fast reactor" reportedly being considered by Russia, could be even better. Fast-breeders like the IFR will allow us to power whole countries cleanly by burning existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, depleted uranium and military-issue plutonium. And the waste left over at the end would become safe after a mere 300 years, so no Yucca Mountains needed there. IFRs exist only on paper, however; we need to urgently research prototypes before moving on to large-scale deployment. [Ibid]

Image Sources: U.S. Department of Energy; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, U.S. Department of Energy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012


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