Tag Archives: Ny Times

4/19/2012 Congress tells DOE and EPA clean up Navajo abandoned uranium mines & impact to public health

4/19/2012 Congress tell DOE &EPA Clean up uranium mines & protect health of the people“>

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.

8/23/2011 NY Times: 5.8-Magnitude Earthquake Strikes East Coast

8/23/2011 NY Times: 5.8-Magnitude Earthquake Strikes East Coast By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE: A 5.8-magnitude earthquake based in Virginia sent tremors from the nation’s capital to New York City and New England Tuesday afternoon, officials said. Buildings throughout major metropolitan centers in the northeast were evacuated after the quake, and tremors were felt as far north as Bath, Me., and as far south as Hampstead, N.C., with some limited reports of damage reported near the quake’s epicenter in Virginia, where a nearby nuclear power plant was taken offline. Amtrak trains were temporarily halted, and cellphone service was disrupted as calls flooded cellular systems.

While there were only limited reports of damage, the breadth of the quake rattled nerves along the Northeast. The streets of downtown Washington filled with thousands of people on Tuesday afternoon as buildings from the Capitol to the White House were evacuated following the 1:51 p.m. quake, which lasted by varying accounts anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds.

Andre Smith-Pugh, a 25-year-old carpentry worker, was high above the Eisenhower Executive Office Building when he felt the shaking.

“It felt like the scaffolding was coming down,” he said in an interview. “It felt like a big truck slammed into the side of the building right here at the White House.”

He and his work crew climbed down and gathered outside the White House. None were injured, he said, but all were rattled. Reuters quoted Richard Weinberg, a spokesman for the National Cathedral in Washington, as saying “at least three pinnacles on the central tower have broken off” because of the earthquake.

Several buildings in New York City were evacuated, with employees standing in the streets in midtown Manhattan. Rumbles were reported on Twitter from places as far-flung as Martha’s Vineyard, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

“Our townhouse started shaking a short time ago and branches started to fall off trees and hit our windows and hit our roof like crazy,” said Bill Parks of Hummelstown, Pa. “It lasted about 10 seconds and was as bad as the Northridge after shock I had experienced while visiting in California. I ran outdoors and found my neighbor calling a friend in Virginia who also felt the profound quake. This quake was like none I ever experienced in the East in my life and I am 76 years old.”

Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam, head of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Division of Seismology, said the earthquake occurred in a part of Central Virginia that is known as an area of geologically old faults, created several hundred million years ago when the Appalachian Mountains were forming. The area has frequent small earthquakes; the largest previously recorded was one of magnitude 4.8 in 1875.

“We do expect earthquakes to occur here,” he said. “Not as frequently as in California, but this is not a surprise.” He described the Central Virginia earthquakes as “kind of a randomized reactivation of these geologically old structures” as opposed to the tremors that occur along an active fault such as the San Andreas in California.

In Mineral, Va., a town about of about 500 people located four miles from the quake’s center, residents reported extensive damage to items inside homes. China shattered and pictures fell off walls. The Virginia epicenter was just miles from a decades-old nuclear power plant, the North Anna, operated by Dominion Power in Richmond, where two reactors were taken offline, although there were no reports of damage there.

Sherry Gibson, 42, owner of Sherry’s Snip & Style in Mineral, had popped home for a few minutes when the earthquake hit.

“The whole ground just shook and shook and kept on shaking,” she said. The noise was so loud, she said, that it sounded like a plane falling out of the sky. China blew out of the cabinet, and her mantle pulled away from the wall.

Some of her neighbors have cracks in their walls, she said, but she had not heard of any injuries and she said the town had not lost electricity.

The tremors were even felt in Boston, where John D. Tuerck said he felt “a discernible swaying on the 18th floor” of his office tower. He added: “Not something one expects here, for sure.”

In downtown Manhattan, police officers ordered the evacuation of New York’s City’s Hall a few minutes before 2 p.m., sending Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his staff scurrying out of the building.

Mr. Bloomberg, standing in front of the grand Renaissance-style building, said he had felt the tremors but assumed they stemmed from extensive renovations underway inside City Hall. “I did feel a little bit of shake,” he said.”And then it got greater.” “So far,” Mr. Bloomberg said, “we have no reports of any damage.”

In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, calls of “did you feel that?” could be heard on nearly every street corner.

“I’m from California and I thought, ’that feels like an earthquake, but no, it can’t be an earthquake!’” said Matt Flammer, 23, who was standing in Bespoke Bicycles, the shop where he works on Lafayette Avenue, when the bikes on the wall began to sway.

In Washington, the tremor caused strong shaking in the Capitol, which was quickly evacuated for a structural evaluation. Chandeliers swayed and one short burst shook the centuries-old building. With a pro forma Senate session scheduled, Senate officials gathered across Constitution Avenue to determine how to proceed.

President Obama was in Martha’s Vineyard during the quake and Vice President Biden spent Tuesday in Japan, coincidentally touring areas that were devastated by the earthquake and attendant tsunami earlier this year.

But the biggest jolts occurred closer to the quake’s epicenter in Virginia.

Chuck Thies, 46, a political consultant who lives in Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C., was writing an email on his computer on the top floor of his four-story building when the shaking started. It lasted a harrowing 15 to 20 seconds, he recalled, and within 10 seconds or so of the temblor subsiding, Mr. Thies had folded up his laptop and was barefoot on the sidewalk — standing among dozens of other stunned neighbors.

But before Mr. Thies, who was home alone in his office, bolted his building, which is more than 100 years old, he suspected it was an earthquake or perhaps a major explosion.

“My five-year-old son’s Matchbox trucks started falling off the shelf in succession, and that’s when I realized it was an earthquake,” he said. “And in the kitchen, some dishes that were in the drying rack started rattling loudly against one and other. This place really shook.”

Jeff Zeleny, Carl Hulse and Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington; Elizabeth Harris, Henry Fountain and Serge Kovaleski contributed reporting from New York City, and Abby Goodnough contributed from Brattleboro, Vt..

6/29/2011 NY Times The Fear of a Toxic Rerun

6/29/2011 NY Times The Fear of a Toxic Rerun By KEITH BRADSHER: KUANTAN, Malaysia — A $230 million refinery being built here in an effort to break China’s global chokehold on rare earth metals is plagued by environmentally hazardous construction and design problems, according to internal memos and current and former engineers on the project. The plant, which would be the world’s biggest refinery for rare earths — metals crucial to the manufacture of a wide range of technologies including smartphones, smart bombs and hybrid cars — has also become the target of protesters who fear that the plant will leak radioactive and toxic materials into the water table. Weekly demonstrations have drawn crowds since March, and someone recently threw gasoline fire bombs at the gated home of a senior project manager.

Some risks had been expected from the plant, which would refine rare earth ores into manufacturing-grade materials. Although rare earths are not radioactive, in nature they are usually found mixed with thorium — which is.

That is why the Lynas Corporation, an Australian company, promised three years ago to take special precautions when it secured the Malaysian government’s permission to build the sprawling complex here on 250 acres of reclaimed tropical swampland. It would be the first rare earth processing plant in nearly three decades to be finished outside China, where barely regulated factories have left vast toxic and radioactive waste sites.

Lynas has an incentive to finish the refinery quickly. Export restrictions by China in the last year have caused global shortages of rare earths and soaring prices. But other companies are scrambling to open new refineries in the United States, Mongolia, Vietnam and India by the end of 2013, which could cause rare earth prices to tumble.

Lynas officials contend that the refinery being built here is safe and up to industry standards, and say that they are working with its contractors to resolve their concerns.

“All parties are in agreement that it is normal course of business in any construction project for technical construction queries to be raised and then resolved to relevant international standards during the course of project construction,” wrote Matthew James, an executive vice president of Lynas, in an e-mail on Wednesday night.

The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report Thursday that said the Lynas project’s overall design and planned operations procedures met international standards. The report did not examine construction details or engineering decisions involved in turning the design into a building; a program for the report’s authors showed that they were shown around the big site in an hour.

Nicholas Curtis, the executive chairman of Lynas, strongly denied at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday that the refinery had any construction problems. He said that there were no more than routine discussions among engineers about technical questions.

But the construction and design may have serious flaws, according to the engineers, who also provided memos, e-mail messages and photos from Lynas and its contractors. The engineers said they felt a professional duty to voice their safety concerns, but insisted on anonymity to avoid the risk of becoming industry outcasts.

The problems they detail include structural cracks, air pockets and leaks in many of the concrete shells for 70 containment tanks, some of which are larger than double-decker buses. Ore mined deep in the Australian desert and shipped to Malaysia would be mixed with powerful acids to make a slightly radioactive slurry that would be pumped through the tanks, with operating temperatures of about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

The engineers also say that almost all of the steel piping ordered for the plant is made from standard steel, which they describe as not suited for the corrosive, abrasive slurry. Rare earth refineries in other countries make heavy use of costlier stainless steel or steel piping with ceramic or rubber liners.

The engineers also say that the concrete tanks were built using conventional concrete, not the much costlier polymer concrete mixed with plastic that is widely used in refineries in the West to reduce the chance of cracks.

Documents show that Lynas and its construction management contractor, UGL Ltd. of Australia, have argued with their contractors that the cracks and moisture in the concrete containment walls are not a critical problem.

Memos also show that Lynas and UGL have pressed a Malaysian contractor, Cradotex, to proceed with the installation of watertight fiberglass liners designed for the containment tanks without fixing the moisture problem and with limited fixes to the walls. But Cradotex has resisted.

“These issues have the potential to cause the plants critical failure in operation,” Peter Wan, the general manager of Cradotex, said in a June 20 memo. “More critically the toxic, corrosive and radioactive nature of the materials being leached in these tanks, should they leak, will most definitely create a contamination issue.”

Mr. Wan said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he believed Lynas and UGL would be able to fix the moisture problem but that he did not know what method the companies might choose to accomplish this.

The fiberglass liners are made by AkzoNobel of Amsterdam, one of the world’s largest chemical companies. AkzoNobel says it, too, worries about the rising moisture.

“We will not certify or even consider the use of our coatings if this problem can’t be fixed,” Tim van der Zanden, AkzoNobel’s top spokesman in Amsterdam, wrote on Monday night in an e-mail reply to questions.

Memos show that the refinery’s concrete foundations were built without a thin layer of plastic that might prevent the concrete pilings from drawing moisture from the reclaimed swampland underneath. The site is located just inland from a coastal mangrove forest, and several miles up a river that flows out to the sea past an impoverished fishing village.

An engineer involved in the project said that the blueprints called for the plastic waterproofing but that he was ordered to omit it, to save money. The plastic costs $1.60 a square foot, he said.

Lynas disputes that the design ever called for using the plastic. Nicholas Curtis, the executive chairman of Lynas, said in a telephone interview from Sydney on Monday that the project here met local environmental standards and that he believed those were consistent with international standards. “I have complete confidence in the Malaysian environmental standards and our ability to meet the requirements,” he said.

Mr. James, the Lynas executive vice president, said in a separate telephone interview from Sydney on Monday that the steel piping used in the plant was carefully engineered and would not pose problems. On the record, he declined to discuss issues with the concrete except to deny that rising moisture was a problem and to say that the tanks had been engineered to meet all safety standards.

In a second interview, on Tuesday, Mr. James said the company had not cut corners. “Lynas is well funded,” he said. “We would never compromise our standards for a cost savings.”

UGL declined to comment, citing a corporate policy of not discussing its customers’ construction projects. Lynas started the project here three years ago, but had barely begun when it ran short of money during the global financial crisis. The company resumed the project last year after Chinese export restrictions on rare earths prompted banks and multinational users of the materials to offer generous financing.

Malaysia had reason to be cautious in allowing Lynas to build the plant. Its last rare earth refinery, operated by the Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemical, is now one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites. That plant, on the other side of the Malay peninsula, closed in 1992 after years of sometimes violent demonstrations by citizens.

Despite the potential hazards, the Malaysian government was eager for investment by Lynas, even offering a 12-year tax holiday. The project is Australia’s largest investment in Malaysia, intended to produce $1.7 billion a year in rare earths, or nearly 1 percent of Malaysia’s entire economic output. Lynas agreed to pay 0.05 percent of the plant’s revenue each year to the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board for radiation research.

Protests against the plant started in Malaysia after an article on Lynas’s project was published in The New York Times in early March.

Although Lynas has forecast repeatedly in recent months that it will start feeding ore into kilns by the end of September, engineers here said that it would take nine more months to install electrical wiring. They also said that pipe shipments were far behind schedule because of a six-month delay in ordering.

Mr. James insisted on Monday that the project remained on schedule, but he cautioned that Lynas was waiting to see whether the I.A.E.A. panel recommended any changes.

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