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Fukushima Radiation: Some Difficult Truths
As radiation counts elevate in Japan, news of nuclear contamination spreading across a widening spectrum of life and its necessities, official pronouncements continue to play down events’ gravity. While some have questioned whether this is being pursued to promote calm, or perhaps the nuclear industry, the result has left many either skeptical of official claims or simply reassured by them. It seems time for some difficult facts.
Reports of false ‘nuclear rain’ warnings have made it to the news; but, just recently, so did valid rain warnings from local Japanese officials. And during the Chernobyl accident radioactive rain did occur, particularly striking some areas in Sweden.
It’s been estimated that “five percent of the released caesium-137 from the Chernobyl accident was deposited in Sweden due to heavy rainfall on 28-29 April 1986”.
Since Chernobyl, assorted scientific studies have demonstrated what one such effort termed the “serious impact of the Chernobyl accident on the environmental conditions in Sweden.” To this day, in some areas of the country Chernobyl’s legacy does remain a concern. And Sweden is a long way from Chernobyl.
While numerous proponents of nuclear power pursue what seems an exercise in surrealism, continuing to yet extoll ‘the benefits’ of ‘clean and safe’ nuclear energy, perhaps we should consider why so many trust that ‘the unthinkable' can never occur...at least until it does.
It was 27 April 1986 when radiation alarms sounded at Sweden’s Försmark nuclear power plant, radiation upon workers’ clothing being the cause, though it would soon be discovered that the source of this radiation was not a local one. Hours after the alarm, the then USSR began revealing Chernobyl’s nuclear accident, an accident across the Baltic Sea and many hundreds of miles to the southeast. Meanwhile, not far up Sweden’s Baltic Coast from Försmark sat the city of Gävle, a city almost a thousand miles from Chernobyl, but soon a place to be lastingly impacted by it.
It was twenty-one years after the Chernobyl fire, in May 2007, when one Swedish paper headlined “Swedes still dying from Chernobyl radiation”, Gävle and what is occurring there figuring prominently in the english-language article. A heavy rainstorm had struck the small city in 1986, doing so as a cloud of Chernobyl’s fallout was overhead.
Prevailing winds at that time had driven radioactive clouds from Chernobyl over parts of Scandinavia, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) providing a report upon the early amounts of radiation registered in Chernobyl’s aftermath, a report where Gävle is again significantly featured. A recent article on Time.com, “Fukushima: Chernobyl Redux?”, describes the immediate effect Chernobyl had upon Gävle.
Quoting from Time: “I remember that after Chernobyl there was a town in Northern Sweden called Gavle. The radioactive cloud went over the town and it started raining heavily and there was a lot of deposition of radioactive particulate material that was caught into surfaces of roads and buildings. There was a high level of cesium-137. When we went there and waved our Geiger counters about the counters maxed out--it was that bad.”
According to a 2006 Swedish study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, it appears Sweden experienced approximately a thousand excess cancer fatalities because of Chernobyl, the number expected to increase, the cases concentrated proportional to the levels of radioactive exposure. As might be imagined, there were other health effects as well, such as effects with an impact upon unborn children.
A 2007 study performed by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Reasearch, a Cambridge Massachusetts based think tank, examined the cognitive effects of Chernobyl’s radiation upon Swedish children. It found evidence that: “fetal exposure to ionizing radiation damages cognitive ability at radiation levels previously considered safe.”
Notably, this journalist lives about a ninety minute drive from Gävle, and I only heard of the cognitive problems through a chance meeting while food shopping. I was told that an unusually high number of pregnancies during the peak radiation period had resulted in children with cognitive issues, the above report suggesting the accuracy of that information. But only some years ago, I personally had lived in Gävle; though, I had no idea of its relationship to Chernobyl until I took up residence there.
Initially, one of the places I had lived was on the shore of a picturesque lake, the village it was in being about a half hour from the city’s center. I was struck by how lovely it was, until I learned one couldn’t eat the fish, and it wasn’t a good idea to do too much swimming, radiation being a problem.
Twenty years after Chernobyl, in 2006, Swedish National Television (SVT) did a news piece titled “Chernobyl still affects Gävle every day” (Tjernobyl påverkar ännu Gävle-vardagen). Among other items, it discusses how wild game is checked for radiation, and how residents now often travel to pick the wild berries or mushrooms that they once collected locally.
The effects of radiation proved lasting, and recent news reports revealed radiation has entered Japan’s food chain, affecting farm produce and milk, many levels of contamination being high multiples of the regulation limits.
Emphasizing what many perceive as a substantive part of the ongoing problem, The New York Times quoted Japan’s deputy chief cabinet secretary, Tetsuro Fukuyama, as observing that he would let his own children “eat the spinach” from Fukushima. But such ‘understatement’ has not been confined to Japan, the IAEA itself stating that only “up to four thousand” cancer fatalities will result from Chernobyl.
In contrast to IAEA fatality figures, a 2006 Greenpeace report forecast 100,000 cancer deaths, and a 2010 book by leading Eastern European scientists utilizing original ‘Slavic language’ documents ("Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment"), claims a death toll of 985,000.
While some uncertainties exist, there are hard facts. The recent findings of contamination in Tokyo’s water supply is one of them, another being a New York Times report that Japan’s broader “contamination levels are well beyond what you’d expect from what is in the public domain”. The report added that this suggested problems “were deeper than had been publicly acknowledged.”
Gävle is about a thousand miles from Chernobyl, and the amount of nuclear fuel present at Chernobyl during the 1986 accident is reported as about 180 tons, none of which contained plutonium, an element much more toxic than the uranium used in standard reactor fuel. Estimates of the amount of nuclear fuel present at Fukushima are roughly in the 2000 ton range, dwarfing Chernobyl, and one of the six reactors (number 3) does use a mixture of plutonium and uranium, ‘mox’.
If nothing else, it would appear nuclear power is not the ‘clean, safe, inexpensive and reliable’ energy source some claim. As to what nuclear power is, both its past and ongoing catastrophes seem to amply define it.