Good News and Bad News

Reading between the lines in this Burlington Free Press article…

MONTPELIER — Fish in the Connecticut River near the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant are no more radioactive than fish far across the state, according to recent study results from the state Health Department.

The testing found signs of cesium 137 and strontium 90 in four smallmouth bass in Lake Carmi in Franklin County, said Bill Irwin, radiological health chief with the state Health Department.

The findings raise questions about whether Vermont Yankee is the source of strontium 90 found in fish in the Connecticut River last year. Lake Carmi and Vermont Yankee are 200 miles apart with no waterway connection.

The latest results indicate the overall environment contains radioactive material, Irwin said, possibly long-term fallout from nuclear weapons testing and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Irwin said the levels of radioactive materials are similar to what has been documented in American diets and do not pose a health risk.

“There’s good news and there’s bad news,” said House Fish and Wildlife Committee Chairman David Deen, D-Westminster, whose committee heard from Irwin on Friday afternoon. “The good news is it seems to be background levels. The bad news is it seems to be background levels.”

The US, Russia, and other nations conducted above-ground detonations of nuclear weapons for decades between 1945 and 1980. The bad news is that the radiation released over 60 years ago continues to move and concentrate in the environment, showing up in unpredictable ways.

While Vermont measures radioactivity from decades past, Japan faces uncertainty about their land and their food supply, with inadequate support from their government while the perpetrators wash their hands.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), privatized their profit, now they have socialized the loss. The Japanese people will have to bear the financial cost, when neither government nor industry protect them. Heroic individuals are acting on their own.

A Zen monk named Koyu Abe has dedicated himself to protecting the citizens of Fukushima from unrecorded and uncontrolled radioactive fallout…

Now he is trading his ceremonial robes for a protective mask, working with volunteers to track down lingering pockets of radiation and cleaning them up.

One participant is Masataka Aoki, a 65-year-old engineer at nuclear plant maker Hitachi for more than 40 years. None of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors were made by Hitachi.

Aoki had long been a believer in nuclear power, but he had a change of faith after the meltdowns and now seeks to assuage a sense of guilt.

“The thing I’d come to believe was good and useful to society turned out to be useless and caused everybody trouble,” Aoki said. “I feel a deep sense of remorse.”

On a recent weekend volunteers including Aoki looked for radioactive hot spots along a small path which local parents said was mostly used by children on their way to school.

Tests with hand-held Geiger counters yielded results of more than 9 microsieverts per hour, higher than in some areas of the evacuation zone near the plant itself.

Figures from government testing stations within the exclusion zone the same day read between 3.6 microsieverts and 13 microsieverts an hour. A typical chest x-ray is about 20 microsieverts a scan.

No one would put a child under an x-ray for an hour. No one would feed a baby radioactive milk. Not knowingly.

From the detonation of the first nuclear bomb at Los Alamos, NM, in 1945, there has been a persistent pattern of public risk, private profit and lying to the public. From the Americans in the path of the radioactive fallout from weapons tests, the innocent civilians whose way of life was wiped out by contamination,the Russians at Chernobyl, and now the citizens of Fukushima– government and industry shirk the responsibility of making nuclear power safe. Can nuclear power be made safe at all, for thousands of years into the future?

“the levels of radioactive materials are similar to what has been documented in American diets and do not pose a health risk.”

Based on what science? Acute radiation poisoning, as in the accident that killed Rhode Islander, Robert Peabody, is measurable in the short term. Long term effects- the possibility that some of those who tried to rescue Mr.Peabody died prematurely of radiation-caused diseases–are much harder to measure.

You can eat a couple of cigarettes and instantly poison yourself, but smoking them is harmless, possibly beneficial– in the short term. It took large-scale studies over decades to gather the evidence that tobacco causes cancer. It took even longer to alert the public.

For the same reason, it’s not correct to say that artificially created radioactive pollution in small quantities over a lifetime poses no health risks. There are too many unknowns. The evidence is accumulating but has not yet reached critical mass.

When government and industry are complicit, who will fund the research. Who wants to open that can of worms?

The US Department of Energy has approved the first new nuclear reactors in over 30 years.

Little has changed. The plants are still financed by public risk for private profit, the public is still placated by promises of safety broken again and again– but this time it’s different.

It’s time to really make it different. Shine some sunlight on the profit motive and incomplete science. In 1945 the Nazi threat hounded us into creating this menace to future generations. Now we have a crisis of climate change– as global and real as WWII and with no easy answers. But as they say, when you find yourself in a hole–first stop digging.

WWII has been called the ‘stimulus project’ that got us out of the depression. We are further along in progress toward clean, diverse, decentralized renewable energy than the scientists were at Los Alamos in 1945. What is needed is for all the information to be presented to the American public.

When that trust is not supported financially or politically, who will take it on?

It may be that the people of Japan, in the wake of the tragic natural disaster of the tsunami and the man-made folly of TEPCO will lead the way.

UPDATE: The #2 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi is heating up and has required extra cooling water.
Engineers are watching the situation. This is a ‘cold shutdown’.

Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality–Part I

This is in memory of Robert Peabody, a husband and father working a second job to support his family, assigned to a dangerous task in an unsafe workplace, poisoned by a nuclear reaction. There are lessons to learn, may we not forget them.

It’s been almost thirty years since the Three Mile Island disaster put a halt to the expansion of nuclear power in the US. Public opinion was already turning against the industry. Once promising cheap, clean electricity, the power plants in fact required massive taxpayer subsidies to build and a special exemption from liability in case the worst happened.

The worst almost happened at Three Mile Island

Although the TMI-2 plant suffered a severe core meltdown, the most dangerous kind of nuclear power accident, it did not produce the worst-case consequences that reactor experts had long feared. In a worst-case accident, the melting of nuclear fuel would lead to a breach of the walls of the containment building and release massive quantities of radiation to the environment. But this did not occur as a result of the Three Mile Island accident.

The worst-case accident occurred in 1986 at Chernobyl.

Today, a generation after the gas lines and bitter winters of the 1970’s, we’re again caught unprepared. We still depend on foreign oil and large, centralized power plants. Investment in alternative energy has been cut to a trickle since Ronald Reagan. The nuclear industry is portraying itself as a clean, green savior. Safety concerns are dismissed as a superstitious fear of radioactivity…

In more than 500 reactor years of service in the United States, there has never been a death or a serious injury to plant employees or to the public caused by a commercial reactor accident or radiation exposure. Says Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences: “Nuclear power is the safest major technology ever introduced into the United States.” link

In fact, a Rhode Island man was killed on the job by radiation exposure. In 1964 in Charlestown, Rhode Island, Robert Peabody was working the second shift at the United Nuclear waste processing plant. The training was minimal, supervision lax and written policies inadequate. Peabody, a Navy vet and mechanic, had picked up a second job to support his large family. When he came on the evening shift, no one warned him that a container full of radioactive water was more concentrated than what he usually handled. When he emptied it into a larger tank the highly concentrated sludge set off a fission reaction…

A blue glow filled the small room as the radiation charged the air with electricity. Peabody was blown flat on his back. The force of the blast also sprayed radioactive solution onto the tower ceiling, 12 feet above. Some of the volatile fluid gushed over the tank lip and onto the floor. The entire plant was instantly filled with the sound of screaming sirens.(Providence Journal, Sunday Journal Magazine ‘Chain Reaction’ 3/11/90)

[ ‘Chain Reaction’ is not available online free of charge. Yankee Magazine has an online article that covers the same incident, with more technical detail. This is some buried history that the Journal should re-publish.]

Two other workers who responded to the accident were exposed to a second, smaller fission reaction.

Robert Peabody was doomed in an instant, but it took him 49 hours to die. Turned away from Westerly Hospital, he was driven at top speed to Rhode Island Hospital by ambulance driver John Shibilio and placed in an isolation room. His widow attributes her cancer to the minutes she held her dying husband’s hand. Everything he touched had to be decontaminated or burned. His remains were cremated. He left nine children.

His death, and the corporate denial afterward, is an example of the weak regulation and lack of accountability that leaves workers unprotected. The danger to the public is not imaginary.

The nuclear industry likes to compare its safety record to coal. But much of the danger of coal mining is a matter of priorities. Worker safety is balanced against profit. A mine accident is a disaster for the miners and their community. A nuclear accident such as Chernobyl sends radioactive particles across national borders. Millions are unaware that they are exposed. These particles contain elements that do not degrade for many thousands of years, that accumulate in our bodies and concentrate up the food chain, capable of causing cancer and birth defects many generations after the accident.

The Peabody family was left bereft and in poverty. Robert Peabody was blamed for the accident that killed him.

EVEN AS PEABODY was admitted to the hospital, United Nuclear was working to discredit him, blaming “human error” and “ineptitude” in newspaper accounts of the accident. In addition to assuring the public that any radiation released into the atmosphere was insignificant, company officials said that Peabody had violated plant safety procedures by pouring the contents of the 11-liter “safe” bottle into the “unsafe” chemical tank. (Providence Journal 3/11/90)

No danger to the public. No blame to the corporation. They say it’s different now. Trust them.

For the aftermath of the accident, see Part II.

Once Again–No Nukes

I’m discouraged that President Obama is not putting more emphasis on renewable energy and conservation, and worse yet, proposing to give a huge loan and protection from liability to the nuclear industry.

Too busy to cover all the aspects of this, but I’m going to post a link to some earlier posts referencing the Providence Journal’s fine article about United Nuclear in Charlestown, RI.

Whenever I hear claims that no American ever died in a nuclear accident I think of Robert Peabody. I think of all the people exposed to radiation, and the enormous cleanup costs.

So here’s a link to ‘Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality’.

And a reminder that nuclear power is such a bad investment that banks won’t touch it unless the government underwrites it and the public takes the risk.

More on this here, including the unsolved question of where to put the waste.

Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality — Part II Collateral Damage

On July 24, 1964 an ambulance carrying a gravely injured man pulled up to Westerly Hospital only to be turned away in the parking lot by two doctors and a policeman. The driver, John Shibilio, set off on a desperate high-speed race across the state, bypassing South County and Kent County Hospitals to arrive at Rhode Island Hospital about thirty minutes later. There Robert Peabody was treated for radiation poisoning.

All the following quotes are from the article, Chain Reaction by Christopher Rowland, Providence Journal 3/11/90 —

Dr. Joseph Karas first heard about the accident from the emergency-ward nurse.

“There’s been a radiation explosion or something down around Westerly and they’re bringing someone in,” she told him. The ambulance arrived less than 10 minutes later.

Karas had never heard of the United Nuclear uranium processing plant, had no idea there was a radiation danger in Charlestown, and had no experience in treating radiation sickness. He just happened to be in charge of the Rhode Island Hospital emergency ward that Friday night. Except for one brief trip home, he would spend the weekend there.

…Karas cleared the emergency room halls. He also called Dr.Thomas Forsythe, the hospital’s radiologist, to distribute radiation-dose gauges for nurses and doctors. Staff members wore the lead aprons usually used by x-ray technicians, and they wrapped their feet in paper grocery sacks.

Realizing that Peabody’s skin was prickly with radiation, Karas worked fast to run water over his body. He had orderlies place Peabody on top of some plastic sheets and use a hose to wash him off. The radioactive water running off the plastic sheets was captured with towels, which were tossed into disposable bags.

The towels, blankets, sheets, pillows, clothing, gloves, masks, needles, syringes, utensils, drinking glasses, magazines, hair, body wastes — everything that came out of Peabody’s room during his last hours was placed in an unused x-ray room that was lined with lead. After the radiation levels subsided, the waste was burned.

Measurements taken when he was admitted to the hospital showed that he was emitting 40 millirems of radiation two feet above his head and upper chest, 18 millirems above his stomach, and 10 millirems above his feet.

The article goes on to describe the suffering and indignity Robert Peabody endured in the 49 hours from the accident till his death. His doctor and nurses did what they could to keep him comfortable with morphine. They allowed his wife into his room for a few minutes to hold his hand.

There is no reason for a corporation, a hospital or law enforcement to open doors when no one wants to know what is on the other side. Rhode Island Hospital — doctors, nurses, orderlies, support staff, all did an amazing job of responding to an emergency they were given no warning or preparation for. Just as in the Station Fire in 2003, the staff of RIH was there.

But this emergency was different. The hospital staff, despite radiation badges and improvised protective gear, were inevitably exposed to some level of radiation. Anyone who was near United Nuclear or Robert Peabody that night was exposed.

[Ambulance driver, John] Shibilio was checked with a Geiger counter after driving Peabody to Rhode Island Hospital, and he says the counter’s needle went to the top of the meter.

“I had never had a Geiger counter on me before,” says Shibilio. “I saw the situation with Mr. Peabody; the Geiger counter went up when it was near him. The Geiger counter went up when it was near me. I put two and two together and I felt fear.”

Doctors took his shirt and gave him a hospital smock to wear. Later that night, he was ordered to return to the United Nuclear plant, where he was swarmed by reporters battling “like a pack of ants” for information about the accident. He was then taken to University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus, where the school runs a small reactor for research purposes. Technicians there gave him a cold shower and a thorough examination, telling him that he would be fine.

While he was there, the ambulance had been scrubbed out by United Nuclear employees, but Shibilio scrubbed it out on his own again anyway.

Shibilio never found out how much radiation he received. He adds that he is not blaming United Nuclear for his physical problems. “I’m just asking the question,” he says.

A manager of the United Nuclear plant contacted by the Providence Journal in 1990 had this to say–

“This was a very unfortunate accident and it’s really a shame. But industrial accidents do happen,” Gregg says. The incident does not deserve special attention “simply because it’s got the word ‘nuclear’ attached to it.”

But there is a special hazard in radioactive poisoning. Radioactivity disrupts cells and damages DNA, raising the risk of cancer and birth defects. Exposure is cumulative, each exposure adds to the damage. That’s why your x-ray technician wears a lead apron and jumps behind a barrier as you lay under the x-ray. That’s why they ask you if you might be pregnant. A diagnostic x-ray is reasonable for a patient, but letting the technician be exposed to x-rays all day would be reckless and negligent.

A number of the people mentioned in the Journal article as being near the accident have developed cancer or other serious health problems as of 1990–

John Shibilio, the ambulance driver — low white blood cell count, child with birth defects who died shortly after birth

Clifford Smith, the shift supervisor on duty the night of the accident –died of prostate cancer

Robert Mastriani, plant worker present at accident — surviving lymph gland cancer

Anna Peabody, Robert Peabody’s wife — surviving throat cancer.

Unlike another environmental hazard, lead poisoning, radiation damage cannot be measured with a blood test. The causes of cancer are many, both hereditary and environmental, and it’s seldom possible to link one person’s cancer to one specific insult.

But evidence from Hiroshima through decades of accidents and mis-handling of radioactive materials shows that a population exposed to radiation will suffer an increase in cancer. That is why a nuclear accident does deserve “special attention.”

For the nightmarish cleanup, see Part III.

UPDATE: Dr. Joseph Karas wrote about the case in the N.E. Journal of Medicine, (Karas JS, Stanbury JB. Fatal radiation syndrome from an accidental nuclear excursion. N Engl J Med 1965;272:755–61)but the article is not available for free online. A link to an article that cites Dr. Karas is here, If you scroll down a few paragraphs you will find quotes from Dr.Karas’ article and some photos of Robert Peabody in the ER at Rhode Island Hospital. May his family find consolation and justice.