Protecting Their Children in Fukushima

Much has been said about the cooperation and trust in government shown by the people of Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Those were unstoppable natural disasters.

The man-made disaster at Fukushima is proving that parents everywhere are protective of their children..

A huge outcry is erupting in Fukushima over what parents say is a blatant government failure to protect their children from dangerous levels of radiation. The issue has prompted unusually direct confrontations in this conflict-averse society, and has quickly become a focal point for anger over Japan’s handling of the accident at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, ravaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

At issue are updated government guidelines that allow schoolchildren to be exposed to radiation doses that are more than 20 times the previously permissible levels. That dose is equal to the international standard for adult nuclear power plant workers.

Toshiso Kosako, the expert adviser to the prime minister, resigned in tears over the relaxation of radiation standards for children.

The people of Fukushima will not suffer quietly any more.

It’s hard to find information about radiation and children, I believe that is because there is little economic interest in uncovering hazards past and present except among advocates for communities that have been affected. Much of what’s out there is partisan. I’m going to write more about the anti-nuclear position, but in this post all the following references are from .gov websites. Our government has mostly promoted nuclear power and downplayed the risks– which gives these examples even more weight.

A COMPARISON: A study from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health recommends limiting children’s exposure to radiation from diagnostic imaging tests…

Radiation exposure is a concern in both adults and children. However, there are three unique considerations in children.

Children are considerably more sensitive to radiation than adults, as demonstrated in epidemiologic studies of exposed populations.

Children also have a longer life expectancy than adults, resulting in a larger window of opportunity for expressing radiation damage.

Children receive a higher dose than necessary when adult CT settings are used for children.

As a result, the risk for developing a radiation-related cancer can be several times higher for a young child compared with an adult exposed to an identical CT scan.

EPIDEMIOLOGY: The American Journal of Public Health has an article, History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. (not free to copy, but you can read it in PDF format)

The article does not address effects on children in the vicinity, but does describe a spike in lung cancer cases in uranium miners that began about ten years after Navajo men began to work in the mines. Confounding the issue is the fact that statistically the cancer rate was lower than for whites, because Navajo men on average were light or infrequent smokers compared to the white men studied. The research findings eventually led to better ventilation in the mines, and a drop in new cases of lung cancer. This was not obtained quickly or without effort, it was the result of decades of fighting the denial, inertia and vested interests that allowed mine owners to expose workers to a toxin recognized since the 1930’s.

This is also a reminder that ‘natural background radiation’ is not harmless because it is natural. Workers who spent their days inhaling uranium dust died needlessly for lack of protection.

Other Americans call themselves ‘downwinders’ because they lived in the path of fallout from nuclear testing during the Cold War…

Relatively few Iron County residents were aware of or concerned about nuclear testing when the first mushroom-shaped cloud rose into the western skies and drifted to the northeast in 1951, but the cloud figuratively remains over southern Utah and Nevada to this day. Residents live with every day what the cloud left behind that the eye could not see. There are no southwestern Utah neighborhoods or communities that have not been touched by the tragedy of cancer or birth defects or lingering bitterness over human and financial losses.

The parents of Fukushima are right to mistrust authorities that worldwide have motivations to downplay problems. They are not alone, and they might surprise the world with their determination to seek justice and demand the truth.

Children and Radiation

The Hindu reports that the special adviser to the Japanese prime minister has resigned over new standards raising the allowable radiation exposure for schoolchildren in Fukushima.

The standard set for schoolchildren’s exposure to nuclear radiation in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture has caused a political furore. In prime focus is an expert’s disapproval of the “high” permissible limit set for annual exposure, at 20 millisieverts, for outdoor activities at school.

Citing this limit and the government’s alleged track record of ad hoc responses to the continuing nuclear radiation crisis, Toshiso Kosako, special adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, resigned on Friday night. However, the Japanese government on Saturday downplayed this development and said Prof. Kosako “misunderstands the situation.”

I think ‘ad hoc’ is Latin for duct tape. The Japanese government has raised the acceptable limit of exposure for workers in an emergency.

The Health Ministry recently raised the legal radiation limit that workers can be exposed to in an emergency from 100 to 250 millisieverts.

This is clearly not based on science, but necessity, and today’s news reports that 2 workers recorded exposures close to the new limit.

It’s very ’70’s and not politically correct to point out the dangers of radiation, especially to children, but this story is not going away. For the sake of the future, we must stop creating new nuclear hazards and safely deal with what we already have.

Common Dreams has the numbers and essentially, the Japanese authorities have declared it acceptable for children to be exposed to levels of radiation that would normally only be allowed for adult nuclear plant workers. This is why the arguments that there’s no danger to the public have to be challenged. The real harm may not be seen for decades, but the time to act is now.

Cheap Labor in the Hot Zone

Alternet posts this article from the site The author, Russ Baker, cites a 1999 article from the Los Angeles Times exposing the unconscionable use of low-wage workers as a human resource to do the dirty and dangerous maintenance work that keeps nuclear power cheap.

Kunio Murai was a struggling farmer from the wrong side of the tracks when he was recruited to work as a day laborer in a nuclear power plant near this farm town. The pay was triple what he could make anywhere else, and he was told that the work would be janitorial.

One day in 1970, he and a co-worker were ordered into a room to mop up a leak of radioactive cooling water. They wore ordinary rubber gloves, but no masks or additional protection. Murai recalls wrapping a cleaning cloth around a pipe that was spewing steam. They worked for two hours, and afterward the needle on Murai’s radiation meter pointed off the scale.

“I thought it was broken,” Murai said. It wasn’t. Within six months, he said, his joints swelled painfully and his teeth and hair fell out.

Murai is one of tens of thousands of people who have worked over the years as subcontractors in Japanese nuclear power plants, doing the dirty, difficult and potentially dangerous jobs shunned by regular employees.

In the wake of Japan’s worst nuclear accident, a nuclear fission reaction Sept. 30 [1999] at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, ugly allegations have surfaced of labor abuses, lackadaisical attitudes toward safety, inadequate worker training and lax enforcement by regulators in the country’s nuclear industry.

Workers at the JCO Co. plant in Tokaimura, about 80 miles northeast of Tokyo, were mixing uranium by hand in stainless steel buckets to save time. The ensuing nuclear reaction exposed as many as 150 people to radiation, according to the final report issued this month by Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission. One worker died from a lethal dose of radiation, and another remains hospitalized.

As Russ Baker notes, this quote from the LA Times calls the accident in 1999 ‘the worst’. The accident has all the elements– expedience, exploitation of workers and neglect of safety– that took the life of Robert Peabody fifty years ago in Rhode Island. In fact, it is the same type of accident, a critical reaction caused by unwarned workers, leading to severe radiation exposure.

The proponents of nuclear power cite multiple safety systems, and the necessity for these systems is a measure of how potentially deadly the technology is– as we see today in Fukushima.

After Chernobyl, Russians who lived in the vicinity of the disaster were prey to panic and despair. They had not been honestly informed by the authorities, and had no way to measure the risk to themselves and their families. Substance abuse, abortion and even suicide followed. The people of Japan, whose suffering is so great, deserve an honest assessment of the damage. Measuring the effects of the accident on the population will require years of tracking a cohort of millions, and that is assuming that there is political will to obtain that information. The cancer statistics from Chernobyl and from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggest that the increase in cancer risk is real, but so variable and affected by other factors that it takes groups of hundreds of thousands to measure. There’s reason to be optimistic that most individuals who live in the track of the radiation release will not personally suffer health effects.

And of course, there’s no immediate risk.

In our fifteen-minute news cycle the nuclear industry just has to hope nothing more blows up. As in the case of the top scientists who assured the public that the tobacco industry would never put an unsafe product on the market, the nuclear industry is keeping a narrow focus on the health effects so far. Hey, it’s not as bad as Chernobyl– that’s the new safety standard.

Reading about the heroic efforts of workers at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, I wondered why top scientists, trusted authorities, and people much smarter than me, could get workers into the most dangerous areas, but not bring in food, blankets or protective equipment for them. Even in this dire emergency there are priorities. Perhaps you’ve read about the Fukushima Fifty, who expect to give their lives, now or later, to save the public.

A complete and honest accounting will reveal that the nuclear industry, like all human enterprises, is subject to human error, expediency, shortsightedness and corner-cutting. There have been accidents and near-misses since the beginning. Human nature is not something we can change. We have no business creating radioactive hazards that will last for thousands of years, or putting cities in harm’s way. And this, for lack of will and imagination to find better answers.

Long-Term Costs

The people of Japan have suffered greatly from the effects of a natural disaster. It’s humbling and frightening to see how inadequate human efforts are when people need food, water and blankets in places where roads are destroyed and the ground is still shaking. This blog has focused on the Fukushima nuclear disaster because nature gives us no choice except to work with her or endure her. We do have choices about what we build. When we build unwisely, the suffering from natural disasters is multiplied.

Since the tsunami damage to the nuclear plants, nuclear power advocates have been claiming that it can’t happen here, that nuclear power is cheap and green, and that the disaster– still ongoing– is not that severe.

We have a number of aging nuclear plants in the US, partly because the cost of decommissioning is so high, and it’s not popular to spend money on electricity we used years ago. Japan has to act now, but it will be at least a decade before the fire is put out.

From today’s BBC News…

Japanese reactor maker Toshiba says it could decommission the earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in about 10 years, a third quicker than the US Three Mile Island plant.

Radiation has been leaking from the Fukushima plant since a 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami on 11 March.

Its operator said it would stop pumping radioactive water into the sea on Sunday, a day later than expected.

If there is enough free press in the world to breach corporate sponsorship of the news, the long-term costs will be counted. We’ve been told that radioactive water in the ocean is nothing to worry about but time will tell.

If the most optimistic assessments of the health risks turn out to be true, which would be a good thing– the financial picture will give industry and governments reason to hesitate before forging ahead with new nuclear plants. It will be a tough sell in many places, when citizens contemplate their own back yards.

Small, local and smart power won’t come from corporations or governments. It will come from popular demand.

It’s estimated the next presidential campaign in the US will cost billions of dollars. We each have one priceless vote. Take the long view when you make your decision.

Nuclear Pollution in the Ocean

One nuclear expert said that time was on their side. It doesn’t look that way. Attempts to avert worse disaster at Fukushima have the look of desperate measures. Millions of gallons of radioactive water are being dumped into the sea, with the new rationale that radioactive water is no big deal. They have no better options, because there is worse contamination building up and it has to go somewhere.

Japan sets new standards for acceptable levels of radiation in seafood, and, as always, there is ‘no immediate risk’. I think you can eat lead paint for quite a while with no immediate risk. Makes me wish I smoked.

Also Tuesday, TEPCO announced that samples taken from seawater near one of the reactors contained 7.5 million times the legal limit for radioactive iodine on April 2. Two days later, that figure dropped to 5 million.

The company said in a statement that even those large amounts would have “no immediate impact” on the environment but added that it was working to stop the leak as soon as possible.

The readings released Tuesday were taken closer to the plant than before apparently because new measuring points were added after the crack was discovered and did not necessarily reflect a worsening of the contamination. Other measurements several hundred yards away from the plant have declined to levels about 1,000 times the legal limit — down from more than four times that last week.

Experts agree that radiation dissipates quickly in the vast Pacific, but direct exposure to the most contaminated water measured would lead to “immediate injury,” said Yoichi Enokida, a professor of materials science at Nagoya University’s graduate school of engineering.

He added that seawater may be diluting the iodine, which decays quickly, but the leak also contains long-lasting cesium-137. Both can build up in fish, though iodine’s short half-life means it does not stay there for very long. The long-term effects of cesium, however, will need to be studied, he said.

I’m counting on the uncontrolled news leak to continue.

We have to look at the enormous investment we are about to make in more nuclear plants and see what we could accomplish with conservation, local clean energy and coordinated use of what we have.

Epidemiology Map

Valerie Brown, of Alternet, takes apart the official reassurances that ‘no immediate risk’ of harm from radioactive exposure is the whole story.

On a spring day in 1975, the first words I heard as I rose through the fog of anesthetic were “it was malignant.” I was twenty-four years old. A couple of months earlier during a routine physical my doctor had found a mass on my thyroid gland. X-rays and ultrasound had failed to clarify whether the mass was a fluid-filled cyst or a solid tumor. The only choice was surgery. The tissue analysis during the operation confirmed a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. The surgeon removed one lobe and the isthmus of the barbell-shaped gland at the base of my neck. I was informed that I’d take thyroid hormone for the rest of my life because if my own remnant gland were to start functioning again, it might grow itself another cancer. And so I have taken the little pill every morning for thirty-six years. It took a long time for the screaming red scar around my neck – the kind that was later dubbed the “Chernobyl necklace” – to fade.

The rest of her post is worth reading
, especially as this subject is not easily reduced to sound bites and slogans.

The phrase, ‘Chernobyl necklace’ is a reference to the approximately 4,000 children and adolescents diagnosed with thyroid cancer who lived in the path of nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The International Atomic Energy Agency has a somewhat more upbeat take on this consequence than Ms. Brown.

This is not an attempt to speculate about numbers and relative risk. That requires epidemiological research. It’s just to say that today’s news photo of a Japanese woman wearing a mask as she feeds her infant from a bottle is an illustration of one of the deepest and most real concerns about this present crisis and nuclear power in general.