Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's a hard rain that's going to fall



It's a hard rain that's going to fall


By Ritt Goldstein


For reasons one can only speculate upon, official pronouncements regarding the ongoing Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan have consistently either understated its severity, its potential consequences, or both. While this may benefit the nuclear industry and its backers, such a distortion of fact has left many either dubious of official claims or complacent because of them. Some difficult truths must be told.


It was April 27, 1986, when radiation alarms sounded at Sweden's Forsmark nuclear power plant, radiation 14 times normal the cause, though the radiation did not originate at Forsmark. Soon after, the then-Soviet Union revealed Chernobyl's nuclear accident, an accident across the Baltic Sea and many hundreds ofkilometers southeast of Sweden. Meanwhile, not far up Sweden's Baltic Coast from Forsmark sat the city of Gavle, almost 1,600 kilometers from Chernobyl, but soon to be lastingly impacted by it.


It was 21 years after the Chernobyl fire, May 2007, when one Swedish paper headlined "Swedes still dying from Chernobyl radiation", Gavle and what is occurring there figuring prominently in the English-language article. A heavy rainstorm had struck Gavle in 1986, doing so as a cloud of Chernobyl's fallout was overhead.


Prevailing winds at that time had driven radioactive clouds from Chernobyl over parts of Scandinavia, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) providing a report on the early amounts of radiation registered in Chernobyl's aftermath, a report where Gavle is again significantly featured. A recent article on Time.com, “Fukushima: Chernobyl Redux?”, describes the immediate effect Chernobyl had on Gavle in fairly plain terms. Quoting from Time:

I remember that after Chernobyl there was a town in Northern Sweden called Gavle. The radioactive cloud went over the town and it started raining heavily and there was a lot of deposition of radioactive particulate material that was caught into surfaces of roads and buildings. There was a high level of cesium-137. When we went there and waved our Geiger counters about the counters maxed out - it was that bad.


According to a 2006 Swedish study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, it appears Sweden experienced approximately a thousand excess cancer fatalities because of Chernobyl, the number expected to increase, the cases concentrated proportional to the levels of radioactive exposure. As might be imagined, there were other health effects as well, such as effects with an impact on unborn children.


A 2007 study performed by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a prestigious Cambridge Massachusetts-based think-tank, examined the cognitive effects of Chernobyl's radiation on Swedish children. It found evidence that "fetal exposure to ionizing radiation damages cognitive ability at radiation levels previously considered safe".


Notably, this journalist lives about a ninety minute drive from Gavle, and I only heard of the cognitive problems through a chance meeting while food shopping. I was told that an unusually high number of pregnancies during the peak radiation period had resulted in children with cognitive issues, the above report suggesting the accuracy of that information. But only some years ago, I personally had lived in Gavle; though, I had no idea of its relationship to Chernobyl until I took up residence there.


Initially, one of the places where I had lived was on the shore of a picturesque lake, the village it was in being about a half hour from the city's center. I was struck by how lovely it was, until I learned one couldn't eat the fish, and it wasn't a good idea to do too much swimming, radiation being a problem.


Twenty years after Chernobyl, in 2006, Swedish National Television (SVT) did a news piece titled "Chernobyl still affects Gavle every day" (Tjernobyl paverkar annu Gavle-vardagen). Among other items, it discusses how wild game is checked for radiation, and how residents now often travel to pick the wild berries or mushrooms that they once collected locally.


The effects of radiation proved lasting, and recent news reports revealed radiation has entered Japan's food chain.


In an article titled "Progress at Japan Reactors; New Signs of Food Radiation", the March 20 New York Times noted: "Spinach from a farm in Hitachi, about 45 miles [72 kilometers] from the plant [Fukushima], contained 27 times the amount of iodine that is generally considered safe, while cesium levels were about four times higher than is deemed safe by Japan. Meanwhile, raw milk from a dairy farm in Litate, about 18 miles from the plant, contained iodine levels that were 17 times higher than those considered safe."


Highlighting what many perceive as a substantive part of the ongoing problem, The Times quoted Japan's deputy chief cabinet secretary, Tetsuro Fukuyama, as observing that he would let his own children "eat the spinach" from Fukushima. The IAEA has stated that only "up to four thousand" fatal cancers will result from Chernobyl.


In contrast to the IAEA's fatality figures, a 2006 Greenpeace report forecast 100,000 cancer fatalities, and a 2010 book by leading Eastern European scientists utilizing original "Slavic language" documents ("Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment"), claims a death toll of 985,000.


While some uncertainties exist, there are hard facts.


Gavle is about 1,600 kilometers from Chernobyl, and the amount of nuclear fuel present at Chernobyl during the 1986 accident is reported as about 180 tons, none of which contained plutonium, an element considerably more toxic than the uranium used in standard reactor fuel. Estimates of the amount of nuclear fuel present at the Fukushima reactors are roughly in the 2000 ton range, dwarfing Chernobyl, and one of the six reactors (number 3) does use a mixture of plutonium and uranium, "mox".


If nothing else, it would appear nuclear power is not the "clean, safe, inexpensive and reliable" energy source some claim. As to what nuclear power is, Fukushima could well prove its defining moment.


Ritt Goldstein is an investigative political journalist whose work has appeared widely in the global media, including in the US Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Austria's Wiener Zeitung and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald.


Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. 


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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