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Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant: science vs. business

I found the title of a CNN article written today to be morbidly humorous – “How bad is it? Depends on which nuclear expert you ask.”

No, I’m afraid not.

How bad it is is independent of someone’s OPINION of how bad it is. (Perception IS NOT reality.) So-called “experts” have opinions (as do all of us), but the situation at the reactors can be measured objectively. The opinions of experts, ESPECIALLY those who are funded by business, are quite literally “up for sale.” Experts in the U.S. who are associated with the nuclear power industry (which had expected a resurgence before Fukushima Daiichi [1]) might be expected to downplay the magnitude of the disaster, as some did during the Three Mile Island incident.

An explosion today elevated the level of seriousness of the accident to a “Level 6,” on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), which ranks incidents from Level 1 (very little danger to the general population) to Level 7 (a “major accident” with a large release of radioactive material and widespread health and environmental effects). A ranking of Level 6 was pronounced BEFORE news of a fire in the No.4 reactor building, and places the incident (a kindness) between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl on the scale, according to André-Claude Lacoste, president of France’s nuclear safety authority.

(Note added March 19, 2011: A couple of days ago, even the government of Japan raised the incident to a Level 5, equivalent to Three Mile Island’s event. The discrepancy between the official government statements and those of international experts causes confusion in the minds of the Japanese people, a very literate and “technosavvy” populace.)

One thing that I do not find in the news articles is the mention of plutonium. Plutonium, as a mixture of isotopes, is found in spent fuel rods, and mimics calcium (found in bones and teeth and other places) found in biological systems. (Note added March 19, 2011: I have since seen plutonium mentioned in ONE article, with misinformation [or “disinformation”] about plutonium being present only in a reactor core, and neglecting the spent fuel rods.) Plutonium is so dangerous because of the long half-lives of some of its isotopes and because it becomes integrated into bone, which does not “turn over” as rapidly as other parts of our bodies. Plutonium can remain in the human body for decades, irradiating surrounding tissue and causing cancer. Obvious, a fire in an area in which spent fuel rods are stored (as happened today in a building associated with the No. 4 reactor) could release smoke containing plutonium, a very serious situation.

Also today, the number of nuclear workers who remain on site was cut from 800 to 50 (workers also had to briefly abandon their efforts, because of high radiation levels today, before returning). These folks are true heroes and heroines, and sadly, may also be among the “walking dead.” Between Units 3 and 4, Japanese authorities measured radiation dosage levels of up to 400 millisieverts-per-hour, which is EQUIVALENT TO 2,000 CHEST X-RAYS PER HOUR, a high dose-level value.

On Monday, an explosion in a building that houses the No. 3 reactor (there are six in the complex) apparently damaged BOTH a water-filled container at the base of the reactor and the reactor containment unit itself. Cooling systems in reactors No. 5 and No. 6 are “not functioning well” and plant managers were considering the removal of panels in buildings to vent the trapped hydrogen gas, which is believed to be the cause of the other explosions at the site.

An indicator of the seriousness of the situation, for me, was the U.S. Navy response to increased radiation detected at low levels by the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, 175 miles (280 km) from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, including securing ventilation systems and limiting the outdoor activities of sailors. U.S. naval vessels were also repositioned, likely to avoid being close to a plume or potential plume of higher radiation. The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan also pulled back from the Japanese coast after detecting elevated levels of radiation.

The situation is far from over. You can read the articles and see if you agree with me that the situation is deteriorating. You folks in the United States can also contact your congressional representatives to let them know that you favor safe, renewable sources of energy.

Good luck, friends and allies in Japan. Some folks in California who are concerned about fallout from Japan are purchasing “KI” (potassium iodide) to protect their thyroids from radioactive iodine, according to local TV news. This is a news report, NOT a recommendation.

-Bill at

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