Nuclear Radiation: Our Planet is a Closed Loop System

The nuclear radiation emanating from Fukushiman, Japan, is moving people to re-think the risks involved in the use of nuclear power not only here in the U.S. but in Latin America.  Via the Council of the Americas’ website:

Japan’s earthquake-induced nuclear crisis didn’t stop Chile and Washington from forging a nuclear energy pact on Friday, days before President Barack Obama’s planned touchdown in Santiago on March 21. But what was intended to be an accord heralded by the U.S. head of state and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera instead became a point of contention among officials and environmentalists in earthquake-prone Chile. Despite the controversy, Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno and the U.S. Ambassador to Chile Alejandro Wolff signed the nuclear cooperation deal March 18. Following worldwide calls for a review of nuclear power as a safe source of alternative energy, countries across Latin America are examining their nuclear facilities and plans—even as Japan rushes to contain a disaster.

[...]

Three Latin American countries currently use nuclear power: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, with five operational plants between them. Brazil, which does not suffer from major earthquakes and has two nuclear reactors and is building a third—all in Rio de Janeiro state—announced it will continue expanding its capabilities, claiming its plants have more advanced safety measures than Japan’s. Argentina produces 6.2 percent of its electricity using nuclear energy, but is not vulnerable to earthquakes or tsunamis. Concerns have, however, been raised about aging infrastructure and a lack of institutional capability in the face of an emergency. Mexico, which is affected by seismic activity, says its sole reactor (in Veracruz state) passes safety requirements. The country is exploring the possibility of building up to 10 more reactors over the next 20 years in efforts to curb carbon emissions. Uruguay, like Chile, submitted its nuclear plans to the International Atomic Energy Agency in February as a result of ongoing power shortages.

Latin American countries considering nuclear power as part of their energy policy should ensure that they examine their options carefully and not fall for the media hype that is downplaying the overall risks of nuclear energy.  As Jonathan Parfrey of the Los Angeles-based Green L.A. Coalition recently highlighted in a special memorandum:

[...] it’s grating to see so much misinformation in the media. For example, on March 16, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta read his dosimeter live on camera from Tokyo, noting that it was four-times higher than background radiation, but saying that was okay because it’s “below a threshold where there is no impact on human health.”

Medical science disagrees. According to the National Academy of Sciences there is no threshold below which radiation has no effect. By itself, simple background radiation is responsible for many thousands of cancer deaths in the US each year. By adding more radiation, the risk is compounded.    

Along the same lines, the media is portraying Fukushima as an accident limited in territory and time — a one time event that will soon pass. Unfortunately, this is not true. The Earth is a closed loop system. Some of Fukushima’s radiation will disburse in the air, most of it will land nearby, some will travel a great distance. Some radiation will land in remote areas and not affect anything. Some radiation will fall on farmland. Some will run into the ocean and potentially affect sea life. And some of Fukushima’s radiation will aggregate up through the food-chain.

Effects from the Fukushima accident will not end next week nor next month whenever the radioactive venting finally ends. The radioisotopes already dispersed will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Like atmospheric nuclear weapons testing of the 1950s and the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Fukushima will leave a permanent cancer-causing scar on the planet.

Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles has published a superb background document. I suggest reading it — as well as this FAQ from the Centers for Disease Control Bulletin on Radiation and Health.

- Jonathan Parfrey

Jonathan Parfrey is executive director of the Green LA Coalition. For thirteen years he served as executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles and currently serves on the board of directors of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.

Not only is downplaying the risks involved in the use of nuclear power a troubling trend, but the media hype painting that source of energy as some sort of “alternative to reduce carbon emissions” is equally dangerous and unnecessarily expensive; as Ralph Nader (yes, that annoyingly pesky Ralph Nader) recently wrote over at CommonDreams:

1. Wall Street will not finance new nuclear plants without a 100% taxpayer loan guarantee. Too risky. That’s a lot of guarantee given that new nukes cost $12 billion each, assuming no mishaps. Obama and the Congress are OK with that arrangement.

2. Nuclear power is uninsurable in the private insurance market—too risky. Under the Price-Anderson Act, taxpayers pay the greatest cost of a meltdown’s devastation.

3. Nuclear power plants and transports of radioactive wastes are a national security nightmare for the Department of Homeland Security. Imagine the target that thousands of vulnerable spent fuel rods present for sabotage.

4. Guess who pays for whatever final waste repositories are licensed? You the taxpayer and your descendants as far as your gene line persists. Huge decommissioning costs, at the end of a nuclear plant’s existence come from the ratepayers’ pockets.

5. Nuclear plant disasters present impossible evacuation burdens for those living anywhere near a plant, especially if time is short.

Imagine evacuating the long-troubled Indian Point plants 26 miles north of New York City. Workers in that region have a hard enough time evacuating their places of employment during 5 pm rush hour. That’s one reason Secretary of State Clinton (in her time as Senator of New York) and Governor Andrew Cuomo called for the shutdown of Indian Point.

6. Nuclear power is both uneconomical and unnecessary. It can’t compete against energy conservation, including cogeneration, windpower and ever more efficient, quicker, safer, renewable forms of providing electricity. Amory Lovins argues this point convincingly (see RMI.org). Physicist Lovins asserts that nuclear power “will reduce and retard climate protection.” His reasoning: shifting the tens of billions invested in nuclear power to efficiency and renewables reduce far more carbon per dollar (http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/whynewnukesareriskyfcts.pdf).

Still think a nuclear disaster would never happen where you live?  It might be worth taking a second listen to what Harvey Wasserman, organizer of the anti-nuclear movement in the U.S., recently said over at Buzzflash:

For 25 years the nuclear industry has told us Chernobyl wasn’t relevant because it was Soviet technology. Such an accident “could not happen here.”

But today it’s the Japanese.  If anything, they are better at operating nuclear reactors than the Americans.  Japanese companies own the Westinghouse nuclear division, whose basic design is in place throughout France.  Japanese companies also own the GE nuclear division in Japan. Among others, 23 of the US reactors are extremely close or virtually identical in design to Fukushima I, now on fire.

Jeffrey Immelt, head of GE, is one of the many heavy corporate hitters now advising Barack Obama. Obama says (so far) that he has no intention of changing course in nuclear policy. That apparently includes a $36 billion new reactor loan guarantee giveaway in the 2012 budget.  Energy Secretary Steven Chu has made clear he considers the situation at US reactors very different from those in Japan. Essentially, he says, “it can’t happen here.”

Well golly if it can’t possibly happen here, maybe it’s also true that “a little radiation might even be good for yah!” like Ann Coulter has proclaimed.

Update: by the way, CREDO has an action alert here asking President Obama to reverse his support of risky nuclear power.