The timeline for catastrophe has shifted. We used to fear "once-in-a-lifetime" floods. Today we face epochal calamities like climate change and intergenerational traumas like the Bhopal chemical explosion and the BP oil spill, which, according to the latest reports, is once again leaking toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
What lessons can we draw from our latest atomic angst? One consistent lesson from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima is clear: plant operators and government officials inevitably cover-up and lie. The Japanese utility TEPCO lied when it insisted its reactors were "under control." Instead, full meltdowns occurred at three of the six reactors, 600,000 spent fuel rods were at risk of burning off into the atmosphere, and the fallout was ten times greater than officially reported. Plutonium rained down 28 miles from the plant and strontium-90 turned up 155 miles away – well outside the official 12-mile "Evacuation Zone."
Wolfgang Sterneck photo
"They lied to us," Professor Michio Kaku told CNN, "TEPCO isn’t in cold shutdown and won’t be for another year. And, if there’s another quake, it could start all over again." On August 15, steam was reported spewing from cracks in the earth surrounding the plant. On October 11, hydrogen gas was accumulating in the pipes at Reactor 1.
The London Guardian has revealed that just two days after the Fukushima quake (about the time the first wave of fallout hit Sacramento, CA), British officials "approached nuclear companies" to fashion a PR strategy "to play down" the accident lest it undermine "public support for nuclear power." The Government-Nuclear Complex worked closely "with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse."
Meanwhile, Japan was in shock. Rice, mushrooms, tea, fish, cows and whales were contaminated with cesium-137. Some land will remain uninhabitable for generations, while 100 million cubic acres of poisoned soil must be scraped off 2,000 square kilometers of real estate. With much of the fallout absorbed by trees, vast tracts of northern forests face clear-cutting. Come spring, radioactive pollen blowing from city trees will pose cancer risks.
Tokyo’s tap water is tainted and schoolyards show troubling levels of radioactivity. After the government responded by increasing the level of "permissible" radiation exposure for children 20-fold (and approved a ten-fold increase for schoolyard exposure), Japan’s Radiation Safety Advisor resigned, calling the new rules "inexcusable."
The US followed Tokyo’s example, increasing "permissible" exposures as Fukushima’s hot breath (Iodine-131, Cesium-134 and -137) blew across North America, contaminating strawberries in California, milk in Vermont and automobile air filters in Seattle. Researchers at the University of California’s Nuclear Energy Department in Berkeley complained that the EPA "rigged" its RadNet monitors to show lower radiation readings and called the system "severely flawed." The EPA now only tests milk and drinking water once every three months and has refused to test the Gulf of Alaska for fallout. (Note: While the EPA’s "safe exposure" level allows for one death per million Americans, the FDA’s "safe exposure" level permits 2,000 deaths per million.)
An invisible tsunami of airborne fallout is only one cause for concern. The failure of General Electric’s Mark I reactors forced TEPCO to dump a million gallons (11,500 tons) of seawater with radiation levels 7.5 million times the legal limit into the Pacific Ocean. Nearly 13,500 terabecquerels of cesium-137 were expected to pass the Philippines before turning north and heading east along the Kuroshio Current. Computer models indicate the huge swirl of radioactive water is heading for Hawai‘i and could reach the West Coast of North America within two years.
In August, China’s State Oceanic Administration reported nearly 100,000 square miles of the Pacific were tainted with radioactive iodine, strontium and cesium at levels 300 times above normal. Cesium-137 is absorbed by phytoplankton, zooplankton and kelp that are ingested by fish, marine mammals and humans. Because all the world’s oceans are connected, TEPCO’s irradiated waters eventually will mix with the plastics in the Pacific Garbage Patch and the oil that still seeps from the Gulf of Mexico.
Nuclear mishaps, minor and major, can create deadly legacies that outlive even the great-great-grandchildren of the engineers that designed the plants. Our short-term failings now have long-term consequences. Each year, our planet grows increasingly more radioactive. Global Warming’s new companion is Global Glowing. If 350ppm is the maximum sustainable concentration of atmospheric CO2, what is the "tipping point" for radioactive isotopes? Hot particles released at Chernobyl are still being detected on radiation monitors around the world and 200 years from now, the same will still be true of the isotopes escaping from Fukushima.
A nuclear accident lasts forever.