Tag Archives: Chernobyl

10/14/2011 NY Times ASIA PACIFIC: Citizens’ Testing Finds 20 Hot Spots Around Tokyo

Toshiyuki Hattori, who runs a sewage plant in Tokyo, surrounded by sacks of radioactive sludge. By HIROKO TABUCHI 10/14/2011 New York Times: Citizens’ Testing Finds 20 Hot Spots Around Tokyo: TOKYO — Takeo Hayashida signed on with a citizens’ group to test for radiation near his son’s baseball field in Tokyo after government officials told him they had no plans to check for fallout from the devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Like Japan’s central government, local officials said there was nothing to fear in the capital, 160 miles from the disaster zone.

Then came the test result: the level of radioactive cesium in a patch of dirt just yards from where his 11-year-old son, Koshiro, played baseball was equal to those in some contaminated areas around Chernobyl.

The patch of ground was one of more than 20 spots in and around the nation’s capital that the citizens’ group, and the respected nuclear research center they worked with, found were contaminated with potentially harmful levels of radioactive cesium.

It has been clear since the early days of the nuclear accident, the world’s second worst after Chernobyl, that that the vagaries of wind and rain had scattered worrisome amounts of radioactive materials in unexpected patterns far outside the evacuation zone 12 miles around the stricken plant. But reports that substantial amounts of cesium had accumulated as far away as Tokyo have raised new concerns about how far the contamination had spread, possibly settling in areas where the government has not even considered looking.

The government’s failure to act quickly, a growing chorus of scientists say, may be exposing many more people than originally believed to potentially harmful radiation. It is also part of a pattern: Japan’s leaders have continually insisted that the fallout from Fukushima will not spread far, or pose a health threat to residents, or contaminate the food chain. And officials have repeatedly been proved wrong by independent experts and citizens’ groups that conduct testing on their own.

“Radioactive substances are entering people’s bodies from the air, from the food. It’s everywhere,” said Kiyoshi Toda, a radiation expert at Nagasaki University’s faculty of environmental studies and a medical doctor. “But the government doesn’t even try to inform the public how much radiation they’re exposed to.”

The reports of hot spots do not indicate how widespread contamination is in the capital; more sampling would be needed to determine that. But they raise the prospect that people living near concentrated amounts of cesium are being exposed to levels of radiation above accepted international standards meant to protect people from cancer and other illnesses.

Japanese nuclear experts and activists have begun agitating for more comprehensive testing in Tokyo and elsewhere, and a cleanup if necessary. Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert and a former special assistant to the United States secretary of energy, echoed those calls, saying the citizens’ groups’ measurements “raise major and unprecedented concerns about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.”

The government has not ignored citizens’ pleas entirely; it recently completed aerial testing in eastern Japan, including Tokyo. But several experts and activists say the tests are unlikely to be sensitive enough to be useful in finding micro hot spots such as those found by the citizens’ group.

Kaoru Noguchi, head of Tokyo’s health and safety section, however, argues that the testing already done is sufficient. Because Tokyo is so developed, she says, radioactive material was much more likely to have fallen on concrete, then washed away. She also said exposure was likely to be limited.

“Nobody stands in one spot all day,” she said. “And nobody eats dirt.”

Tokyo residents knew soon after the March 11 accident, when a tsunami knocked out the crucial cooling systems at the Fukushima plant, that they were being exposed to radioactive materials. Researchers detected a spike in radiation levels on March 15. Then as rain drizzled down on the evening of March 21, radioactive material again fell on the city.

In the following week, however, radioactivity in the air and water dropped rapidly. Most in the city put aside their jitters, some openly scornful of those — mostly foreigners — who had fled Tokyo in the early days of the disaster.

But not everyone was convinced. Some Tokyo residents bought dosimeters. The Tokyo citizens’ group, the Radiation Defense Project, which grew out of a Facebook discussion page, decided to be more proactive. In consultation with the Yokohama-based Isotope Research Institute, members collected soil samples from near their own homes and submitted them for testing.

Some of the results were shocking: the sample that Mr. Hayashida collected under shrubs near his neighborhood baseball field in the Edogawa ward measured nearly 138,000 becquerels per square meter of radioactive cesium 137, which can damage cells and lead to an increased risk of cancer.

Of the 132 areas tested, 22 were above 37,000 becquerels per square meter, the level at which zones were considered contaminated at Chernobyl.

Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said most residents near Chernobyl were undoubtedly much worse off, surrounded by widespread contamination rather than isolated hot spots. But he said the 37,000 figure remained a good reference point for mandatory cleanup because regular exposure to such contamination could result in a dosage of more than one millisievert per year, the maximum recommended for the public by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

The most contaminated spot in the Radiation Defense survey, near a church, was well above the level of the 1.5 million becquerels per square meter that required mandatory resettlement at Chernobyl. The level is so much higher than other results in the study that it raises the possibility of testing error, but micro hot spots are not unheard of after nuclear disasters.

Japan’s relatively tame mainstream media, which is more likely to report on government pronouncements than grass-roots movements, mainly ignored the citizens’ group’s findings.

“Everybody just wants to believe that this is Fukushima’s problem,” said Kota Kinoshita, one of the group’s leaders and a former television journalist. “But if the government is not serious about finding out, how can we trust them?”

Hideo Yamazaki, an expert in environmental analysis at Kinki University in western Japan, did his own survey of the city and said he, too, discovered high levels in the area where the baseball field is located.

“These results are highly localized, so there is no cause for panic,” he said. “Still, there are steps the government could be taking, like decontaminating the highest spots.”

Since then, there have been other suggestions that hot spots were more widespread than originally imagined.

Last month, a local government in a Tokyo ward found a pile of composted leaves at a school that measured 849 becquerels per kilogram of cesium 137, over two times Japan’s legally permissible level for compost.

And on Wednesday, civilians who tested the roof of an apartment building in the nearby city of Yokohama — farther from Fukushima than Tokyo — found high quantities of radioactive strontium. (There was also one false alarm this week when sky-high readings were reported in the Setagaya ward in Tokyo; the government later said they were probably caused by bottles of radium, once widely used to make paint.)

The government’s own aerial testing showed that although almost all of Tokyo had relatively little contamination, two areas showed elevated readings. One was in a mountainous area at the western edge of the Tokyo metropolitan region, and the other was over three wards of the city — including the one where the baseball field is situated.

The metropolitan government said it had started preparations to begin monitoring food products from the nearby mountains, but acknowledged that food had been shipped from that area for months.

Mr. Hayashida, who discovered the high level at the baseball field, said that he was not waiting any longer for government assurances. He moved his family to Okayama, about 370 miles to the southwest.

“Perhaps we could have stayed in Tokyo with no problems,” he said. “But I choose a future with no radiation fears.”

Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting from Washington, and Kantaro Suzuki from Tokyo.

10/10/2011 NY Times: After Fukushima, Does Nuclear Power Have a Future?

10/10/2011 NY Times: After Fukushima, Does Nuclear Power Have a Future? By STEPHANIE COOKE: A couple of months after the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant March 11, an American nuclear expert posed an interesting question. “The post-Fukushima public sentiment is surprisingly low-key isn’t it? What a difference between this event and TMI or Chernobyl,” he wrote in an e-mail, using an abbreviation for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. “What do you think is going on? Why so quiet?”

I was not convinced. What he said was certainly true in the United States, but the accident had a profound effect in Germany, China and several other countries, serving as a fearful reminder of what can go wrong with nuclear power plants. Phase-outs were the order of the day in Germany (where Chancellor Angela Merkel also demanded immediate shutdowns of eight of the country’s oldest reactors) and Switzerland. China suspended approvals for new reactors pending a safety review, which is now reportedly completed. This has resulted in a downward revision of China’s unofficial pre-Fukushima goal to install 86 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2020. It now looks like that will be set around 60 gigawatts (up from around 12 currently) or just a little higher.

Italy said no to new reactors for the second time, ending a relatively brief flirtation with nuclear planners after a long post-Chernobyl freeze. “I think there is now less than 0.01 percent chance for nuclear in Italy,” said Luigi De Paoli, energy economy professor at the Bocconi University in Milan, according to Reuters.

Taiwan appears on the brink of some kind of phase-out involving four reactors, although it is likely to allow a recently constructed fifth unit to operate. Venezuela and Israel, both countries that had harbored nuclear power ambitions, decided they could do without after all. “I think we’ll go for the gas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN. “I think we’ll skip the nuclear.”

In Japan, of course, the effect was most dramatic. Thirteen units were automatically “scrammed” when the earthquake struck, and a 14th was already out for maintenance. With 15 others offline because of previous quakes or for mandatory inspection and refueling, the country’s fleet of 54 operating reactors was cut to 25. In May, the government ordered a shutdown of three additional units (one of which had already been down for maintenance) at Hamaoka, situated in a particularly vulnerable seismic zone near Tokyo.

The nuclear “capacity factor” — a measure of how much electricity reactors generate as a percentage of what they could provide — had dropped precipitously, from 71 percent in February to 51 percent in May, but it would plunge even further in subsequent months.

Facing the prospect of broad electricity failures over the summer, Japan’s leadership did not dare order more plants shut down, but it hardly needed to. Because of the requirement for inspections every 13 months, more reactors were taken offline, one after the other. Now only 11 are operating. (The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum stopped publishing monthly capacity factors after July, when the figure stood at 34 percent, with 19 units operating.) While there certainly were electricity shortages, Japan survived the summer without the extensive blackouts that had been predicted.

Normally the reactors would have been restarted within several weeks of shutdown, but these are not normal times in Japan. Restarts require approvals from local and prefectural governments, and these have not been received since the disaster. The 11 reactors still in operation are due to go down for maintenance between now and next September, and that in theory could leave Japan with zero nuclear-generated electricity — although that is unlikely, given the pro-nuclear sentiment of governors in some prefectures and the intense pressure for restarts from Tokyo.

However, the Japanese government has ordered a gradual phase-out of the country’s reactors, reversing a previous policy of increasing nuclear’s share of the generating mix to 50 percent by 2030. (Japan’s reactors were generally credited with supplying about 30 percent of the electricity mix, but the figure was debatable, given the frequency of power failures even before Fukushima.) “To build new reactors is unrealistic, and we will decommission reactors at the end of their life spans,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in his first policy speech Sept. 2.

Despite this relatively dismal outlook for nuclear energy, the London-based World Nuclear Association predicts a 30 percent increase in global nuclear generating capacity over the next decade; it foresees 79 more reactors online by 2020, for a total of 514, even taking Fukushima into account. And it sees a 66 percent increase by 2030, with capacity additions in China, India, South Korea and Russia outnumbering projected declines in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Curiously, it assumes Japan will restart all but the six units at Fukushima Daiichi and continue to build new reactors to replace aging ones, for a net number of operating reactors in 2030 more or less the same as before Fukushima.

While the nuclear association is obviously bullish, it is less so than it was in its last forecast two years ago. And the projected increase would only keep nuclear energy treading water. As a percentage of global generation it would account for just 14 percent, the same amount the association says it currently contributes. (Other experts say the figure is lower.)

In the United States, currently home to the world’s largest reactor fleet, only one proposed project, in Texas, was effectively canceled after Fukushima, but it had been teetering for more than a year since its largest backer, NRG Energy, decided to pull the plug. Plans for about 30 new reactors in the United States already had been whittled down to just four, despite the promise of large subsidies and President Barack Obama’s support of nuclear power, which he reaffirmed after Fukushima.

Perhaps most interesting to watch will be France, whose dependence on nuclear energy is the highest in the world, with nearly 80 percent of the country’s electricity produced by 58 reactors, a fleet second in size only to that of the United States.

A poll by the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique in May, published in Le Journal du Dimanche, found 77 percent of the public favored some kind of nuclear phase-out. That is not completely surprising, given past polls showing French opinion toward nuclear energy to be lukewarm. What is clear is that Fukushima is prompting a major rethinking of the country’s energy policies and that the nuclear issue promises to be a big factor in the presidential election next year.

Against this background, it is not surprising that in the World Nuclear Association’s midcase scenario, both the United States and France show a gradual decline in the number of operating reactors over the next two decades.

It has been evident for some time that nuclear energy’s future increasingly lies in Asia. Whatever the reasons for the muted response to Fukushima, the European phase-outs prompted by the tragedy would make this trend even more pronounced. But even in Asia, a nuclear future is no certain thing. Twenty-five years apart, Chernobyl and Fukushima were events that nuclear plant designers assumed would never happen. Any further major accidents could spell the industry’s doom.

Stephanie Cooke is editor of the Energy Intelligence Group’s Nuclear Intelligence Weekly and author of “In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.”

8/1/2011 Common Dreams: Record High Radiation at Crippled Japan Nuke Plant

8/1/2011 Common Dreams: Record High Radiation at Crippled Japan Nuke Plant: TOKYO — Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said Monday it had monitored record high radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crippled by the March 11 quake and tsunami. TEPCO said radiation levels reached at least 10 sieverts per hour near the debris left between the number one and number two reactors of the plant at the center of the ongoing nuclear crisis. The previous record was three to four sieverts per hour monitored inside the number one reactor on June 3.

“Three plant workers were exposed to a dosage of four millisieverts while they were monitoring radiation,” a TEPCO spokeswoman said. “We are still checking the cause of such high levels of radioactivity.”

The government and TEPCO say they remain on target to bring the reactors to a safe state of cold shutdown by January at the latest now that a water circulation system has been established.

Efforts to stabilize the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago have continued since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami, sparking reactor meltdowns at the plant and spewing radiation into the environment.

The government has said radiation levels around the plant, which lies 220 kilometers (136 miles) from Tokyo, had fallen to “two-millionths” of the peak recorded March 15.

Tens of thousands of people remain evacuated from homes, businesses and farms in a no-go zone around the plant.

© 2011 Agence France-Presse

5/1/2011 Boston Globe: A nuclear cautionary tale turns 25

A nuclear cautionary tale turns 25. By Katharine Whittemore Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2011 “They’re safer than samovars!” Soviet propagandists once crowed about the country’s nuclear power plants. “We could build one on Red Square.” That’s how things rolled before Chernobyl, recalls Arkady Filin. And as one of 600,000 “liquidators,” or cleanup workers, sent in after the April 26, 1986, disaster — who dropped, from helicopters, tons of sand and lead atop the molten core, then built a concrete sarcophagus over the reactor and plowed under countless acres of radioactive topsoil, all the while soaking up immense doses themselves — he’s realistic (Chekhovian?) about what happened.  “People who weren’t there are always curious,” says Filin, who appears in a gut-punching oral history called “Voices from Chernobyl’’ by Svetlana Alexievich (Dalkey Archive, 1997). But “it’s impossible to live constantly in fear,” he adds. “[A] person can’t do it, so a little time goes by and normal human life resumes.” A little time has gone by, but lately normal life feels not so normal. We are thinking hard about nuclear power again, in rising panic about radiation contamination. It’s all a terrible coincidence, isn’t it? This spring marks the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe — just as the severity of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant gets rated at the highest level. The level, that is, of Chernobyl.

Many (including President Obama) still plug for nuclear power amid our falling stores of fossil fuels, but trust me, it’s hard to go there after you read about the event that brought Ukraine and Belarus to its knees. Then again, the genie’s out of the bottle; the European Nuclear Society currently lists 442 power plants in 30 countries. Five are operating right here in New England. Are they all safe as samovars? As long as there is human error (see: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island), you have to say no. As long as there are natural disasters (see: earthquakes, Japan), no again.

So let’s brave the Chernobyl literature, and see what it really means to live with a calamity. I chose to focus on titles published after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. That’s because later authors had access to declassified material and could craft a fuller story. The best of these is 1993’s “Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl’’ by Piers Paul Read (Random House). Read, the author of “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,’’ is a robust narrator who provides unblinking, abundant context from the Soviet archives and his own interviews. His chronicle of the dying victims in Hospital No. 6 in Moscow left me utterly shaken.

Read also parses the factors of the accident and stresses that the fault must be spread broadly. Workers were paid bonuses to finish the reactor ahead of schedule, and thus took shortcuts. Equipment and materials were often substandard. The Communist Party, broke and on its last legs, forced the men to also build hay storage facilities, distracting them from their first priority. It’s the tragic trifecta: hubris, error, scarcity.

“Chernobyl is the catastrophe of the Russian mind-set,” explains historian Aleksandr Revalskiy in “Voices from Chernobyl.’’ Maybe, but you must honor the sacrificial heroics of those same Russians. If the workers and liquidators hadn’t sacrificed their health and their lives by shoveling burning graphite into pits and fixing valves in radiation-laced water, the scourge might have spread to all of Europe. “Voices’’ teems with piteous details: how thousands of the 200,000 residents, just before evacuation, wrote their names on fences, houses, asphalt. How one of the hunters hired to shoot radiation-exposed dogs and cats (the fear was they’d stray outside the contaminated zone) says, “[I]t’s better to kill from far away so your eyes don’t meet.”

There may be few dogs or cats left in what has become Europe’s largest de facto nature sanctuary. But in the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Zone of Alienation around the plant, there are eagles, bears, moose, lynx, storks, wild boars, and more. Surprisingly, it turns out that humans are a greater threat to animals than cesium and strontium. With us gone, nature thrives, as you learn from Mary Mycio’s eerily gripping “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl’’ (Joseph Henry, 2005).

But aren’t there six-eyed mutants or something? Actually, no, though animal reproduction rates are lower. And pine trees grow out like bushes, rather than up. Mycio, a Ukrainian-American biologist, also tells us about the 3,000-plus workers (all part-time, it’s the law) who maintain the zone. They’re able to be here because much of the radiation-contaminated material has since been buried. In fact, shockingly, tourists can now visit certain areas. And in 300 years, your descendants can move back to the inner 30-kilometer region. As for The Ten, as the 10-kilometer hot spot by the reactor is called, people can live there one day too. In 24,110 years.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.
© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.