Cutting through Fukushima Fog: Radiation in U.S.?

Governments cite “national security” concerns and “official secrets” as their justification for withholding information from the public. Corporations rationalize their secrecy behind concerns about “patent infringement,” shielding their trademarked “proprietary” secrets from competitors. But most of the time, such obfuscation is really derived from the time-honored villains of systemic corruption and what is politely known as CYA in military and bureaucratic slang.

Which brings us to Fukushima.

From the very beginning of this catastrophic emergency — the earthquake/tsunami off the Japanese coast in March of 2011, when nuclear reactors at a power plant were flooded and then exploded and began their meltdowns — the public in Japan and around the world have not been told the full story of what’s been happening at the Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant in Fukushima province.

The utility that runs the plant, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), is notoriously close-mouthed about its operation. To this day, aided by a recently passed “government secrets” act in Japan, we have no confirmable idea of the extent of the damage: how much radiation is really leaking out into the Pacific Ocean and where the currents are taking it, the density and direction of the radioactive plumes carried by the wind, the radioactive effects up and down the marine food-chain. Not only is there precious little data-reporting released to the public — journalists who violate the “state secrets” law can be thrown into prison for 10 years — but what little information that does appear, both in Japan and in the U.S., seems to be hidden inside a different language, with a vocabulary(“bequerelles,” “millisieverts,” “millirems,” the difference between “radiation,” “radioactive” and “radiation dose,” and so on) that is utterly confusing to most non-nuclear scientists.

Beware the Hyperbole

Each side of the argument tends to go hyperbolic when presenting its version of the Fukushima catastrophe. TEPCO officials regularly suggest that all is proceeding well at Dai-ichi, and that the radiation effects are mostly localized and things should go back to normal in the foreseeable future. But other scientists and journalists have concluded that the situation is critical, getting worse and is increasingly dangerous to humanity.

The issue of radiation on the loose is a scary one, and has an economic component as well as a social-psychological one that could convince governments to tone down news that carries with it the possibility of instigating mass panic and anxiety-induced mass migrations. A lot is at stake — economic stability, the U.S.-Japan alliance, cancer clusters, etc. — so it’s not surprising that each side is passionately trying to capture and control the narrative.

TEPCO, for example, often dispenses flat-out lies, whoppers that have to be “corrected” much later; for example, earlier this month, TEPCO admitted that the strontium-per-liter level leaking from Dai-ichi reactor #1 was five times higher than its earlier estimate. (Note: Strontium-90’s half-life is around 29 years. It mimics calcium and goes to our bones.)

And here’s an example from the Fukushima-as-immediate-danger side: There’s a going-viral You Tube video of an unidentified guy with a hand-held geiger counter walking around a beach just south of San Francisco, watching the clicking numbers going up, presumably because of Fukushima radiation. There is no context presented in this video, no base level of radiation at that location, no consideration of naturally occurring radiation, etc. But this video is cited as “evidence” of wind- or ocean-born radiation from Japan. Millions watch the video on YouTube and ratchet up the fear level. Belatedly, scientific tests were done recently at this same beach, which established that what was registering on the handheld geiger-counter were naturally occurring fluctuations as a result of existing minerals in the sand.

A News Blackout

As a San Franciscan quite familiar with large earthquakes, I have been curious about what was happening in Japan since the 2011 reactor explosions. Up until the past several months, there was virtually no news about Fukushima published by respectable U.S. news outlets. We did hear that several villages near the Dai-chi plant had been evacuated after the reactor meltdown started, but Tokyo was OK and the emergency measures didn’t seem bad enough to take matters much beyond that.

Like most people busy with their own lives and with local concerns, and because the mainstream and many alternative news services in the U.S. by and large were ignoring Fukushima, my attention went elsewhere. I assumed that no news was good news.

Deficient thinking. TEPCO is a for-profit company. Bad news would hurt the corporation. No news is better for the bottom line. It became evident even in the early hours and days of the meltdown that the utility spokesmen and their government supporters were telling lies, withholding key facts about nuclear dangers and radiation leakages, putting the best face on a momentously dangerous situation. But even from a distance, and still true today, the meager information that was gleanable from Dai-ichi seemed to indicate an ad hoc, chaotic and incompetently-managed plan to contain the crisis. At the very least, public safety concerns cry out for an international (United Nations? IAEA?) body of radiation experts and engineers to run the dangerously-damaged power plant, but there is little action, or even a sense of urgency expressed, for such a solution.

To stem any such public anxiety, TEPCO and Japanese government officials minimized the damage at Dai-ichi and assured its population that the situation was certainly not another Chernobyl. Untrue. In important ways, the Japan situation is worse: the Chernobyl reactors were housed inland and eventually were buried within a cement sarcophagus; Dai-ichi, with its reactors melting down, is still actively releasing radiation into the air and into the bay/ocean (and probably the aquifer) where it sits, and there is no reported plan for how the leaking reactors might be encased. In addition, thousands of spent fuel rods at Dai-ichi, still highly radioactive, are being moved, one by one over several years, to a “safer location,” in a project never before tried anywhere on earth. One bad accident and/or another major earthquake in the vicinity, and a radiological cataclysm could occur.

U.S. Sailors Radiated

Japan (a buffer to China’s ambitions in Asia) is a key ally of the United States, and the U.S. has exercised a hands-off approach to Fukushima matters for most of the past three years. In the days right after the earthquake/tsunami in 2011, the U.S. Navy provided humanitarian and logistics help, including observations and damage reports to the Japanese government from helicopters over the wrecked reactors and nearby farms and villages. The U.S. offered to provide more on site help, an offer that was rejected by TEPCO. Other countries offered on site help as well, with the same response. Clearly, TEPCO did not want its citizens and stockholders to know how bad things really were at Dai-ichi.

But some news did get out in public. According to  recently revealed U.S. Navy documents, more than 70 sailors on the Navy helicopters or among those who serviced those copters on the aircraft carrier USS Reagan suffered major radiation exposure, even after the ship was moved 100 miles away from Fukushima. The sailors’ health complaints are consistent with victims who have suffered major radiation exposure. Neither the Japanese nor South Korean nor Guam governments would permit the Reagan to dock as it was radioactively “hot.” The affected members of the crew have an ongoing civil suit for one-billion-dollar damages pending against TEPCO.

For the past three years, those interested in getting updated news from Fukushima have had to rely on bits and pieces of information in search of a coherent puzzle-picture. Just a few examples where further research would be required.

** There was reporting about a massive die-off of starfish all across the Pacific.  Was this weird event because of the warming of global oceans or was this possibly related to the reported 300,000 gallons of radioactive water pouring daily into the Pacific from the leaking reactor pools? Or was it a rare virus? There also were reports of Pacific dead zones in what were traditionally rich fishing areas; could this be connected to Fukushima?

** There were reports of bluefish tuna from the Fukushima area caught in the waters off San Diego in Southern California with high levels of radiation. A connection? (See the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which concludes: “We report unequivocal evidence that Pacific bluefish tuna, Thunnus orientalis, transported Fukushima-derived radionuclides across the entire North Pacific Ocean…Other large, highly migratory marine animals make extensive use of waters around Japan, and these animals may also be transport vectors of Fukushima-derived radionuclides to distant regions of the North and South Pacific Oceans.”

** According to Oceanus Magazine, the total amount of cesium-137 that was released into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than the amount that found its way into the oceans from the Chernobyl disaster and by the atmospheric nuclear-weapons tests from the 1950s-’60s.

** Fukushima radiation could affect seafood for many generations, because of the food chain of fish and other marine fauna: plankton and vegetation are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by slightly larger fish, which are eaten by larger fish, and so on. One study reports: “Even if only one-hundredth of the radioactivity…were to enter the recirculation pattern, the collective whole body ingestion dose over many generations would…be sufficient to kill more than 1,000,000 people.”

Since no institutional body is in charge at Dai-ichi other than the utility company that has a clear conflict of interest, how to sort out the scary truths from the scary fictions?

Effects on U.S. West Coast

Since most of my family and friends reside in the American West, my immediate worry-focus was on how the West Coast of North America was faring when it came to radiation by air and water. In the days immediately following the March 2011 explosions at Dai-ichi, there were scattered reports of higher-than-normal radiation in the air and grasses and cows milk of Western North America, but after that early period, it’s been mostly a blank.

Willy nilly, those of us trying to follow the Fukushima story were forced to become freelance investigative reporters because, so far as we could tell, there were no news outlets or governmental agencies that were passing on any ongoing, reliable information about Fukushima’s possible effects on the West Coast of America and Canada; certainly no agency was taking a holistic view of what might be happening in the air and water. (Experts can’t even agree on the existence of radiation monitoring. A Woods Hole scientist and a nuclear engineering professor at UC-Berkeley both concluded that there is no systematic radiation testing in the U.S. for air, food and water. But local and state public-health officials point to something called “RadNet,” a system of air monitors at 11 California locations.)

I started my information-hunt in October of last year in San Francisco. At that time, I wrote a four-page citizen letter to our local Public Health Department as well as to the Public Utilities Commission, the governmental body responsible for public health and safety with regard to drinking water. I made no accusations and provided no definitive subjective opinions; my goal was to ask questions, to find out if there were ongoing monitoring and testing and, if so, what the results were. In short, was there anybody at the monitoring switch? At the bottom of the letter, I cc’d copies sent to a variety of local, statewide and federal politicians and governmental bodies.

Two months went by with — surprise! — no response at all.

Working with a number of friends and fellow activists, calling ourselves the Bay Area Radiation Group, we then rewrote the original letter in December of 2013 to make it tighter and more focused, and sent it off to named members of the Public Utilities Commission, and to various environmental institutions (the federal EPA, Sierra Club, etc.). Further, instead of just my name, I included under my signature that I was co-editor of a website, as a way of alerting these officials that the story could make its way into internet conversation.

The Art of Bureaucratic Deflection

Well, lo and behold, the S.F. Public Utilities Commission on January of 2014 finally responded to the original letter, with a narrow, highly-spun reply, which can be summed up roughly as: “All is in order. We’re monitoring the water. RadNet monitors the air. We’ve got it covered. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, please.”

Shortly thereafter, the California Department of Public Health, on my cc list, responded with the first real information about ongoing monitoring relating to Fukushima radiation. Their PDF press release, they indicated, came about due to a number of inquiries by California citizens on this issue. I took that to mean that perhaps questioning from ordinary citizens like our activist group was getting through to the point where some answers had to be provided. Their findings — that all was in order, with nothing to worry about, but they’d keep on top of things — dealt mostly with monitoring from March 2011 to March 2012. Apparently, there was little if any follow-up monitoring.

Thankfully, a few days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle  provided an updated time-line when it finally published its first self-generated article on the Japanese disaster and the expectation of radiation levels rising in the Bay Area in the next few months when radioactive Fukushima plumes make their way to the West Coast:

Radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster has not yet reached ocean waters along the Pacific coast, but low levels of radioactive cesium from the stricken Japanese power plant could arrive by April, scientists reported Monday….

Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceanographer at the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., reported (at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union) that four coastal monitoring sites in California and Washington have detected no traces of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant destruction — ‘not yet,’ he said during a telephone press briefing.

Buesseler said no federal or international agencies are monitoring ocean waters from Fukushima on this side of the Pacific, so he has organized volunteer monitors at 16 sites along the California and Washington coasts and two in Hawaii to collect seawater in 20-liter specialized plastic containers and ship them by UPS to his Woods Hole laboratory.

Good News/Bad News

The good news is that there is some movement as citizens, news media and public officials are starting to demand answers about Fukushima radiation. The bad news is that it’s difficult to pry out documented facts from TEPCO and/or the Japanese government as both continue to stonewall requests for information. (And Japan’s government is talking about re-opening more than 30 nuclear reactors across Japan.)

Despite the informational blackout, the following admission came five months ago from TEPCO executive-level fellow Kazuhiko Yamashsita: “I’m sorry, but we consider the situation is not under control.”  Another Japanese nuclear engineer, Yastel Yamada, said that TEPCO is way over its head: “The cleanup job is too large for their capability.”

One would hope that such statements might convince the Obama Administration and the international community in general to move toward a united front in demanding accurate information, and that a world body of nuclear experts be given the responsibility to take operational control of the melting-down reactors at Dai-ichi.

What the U.S. could do

It’s possible that the situation is not as dire and immediate as all that at Dai-ichi and that the radioactive meltdowns will turn out to be a localized disaster — bad for the Japanese, better for those of us geographically distant — with radiation levels going down as the radionuclides are diffused over the coming years in the vast ocean waters between Japan and the West Coast of North America. A Los Angeles Times article concluded that “radiation detected off the U.S. West Coast from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan has declined since the 2011 tsunami disaster and never approached levels that could pose a risk to human health, seafood or wildlife, scientists say,” and a recent Alaska survey reported that Pacific seafood is registering no levels of radiation from Fukushima “that are of a public health concern.”

But it’s also possible, indeed maybe even more likely given the active earthquake zone off the Japanese islands, that there will be a large or medium-size earthquake near Fukushima that could help complete the meltdown at Dai-ichi. “If that were to happen,” said Dr. David Suzuki, one of Canada’s leading environmental scientists, “It’s bye-bye Japan, and everybody on the West Coast of North America should evacuate. Now, if that’s isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.” Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen has called the Fukushima disaster “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind.” Nuclear physicist Michio Kaku calls Dai-ichi “a ticking time bomb.” These dire descriptions and prognostications are echoed by Paul Gunter, a nuclear power-industry watchdog at Beyond Nuclear: “We have opened a door to hell that cannot be easily closed — if ever.”

Given the diametrically conflicting views of the Fukushima disaster, it’s way beyond time for a full-court-press approach by the U.S. and global community to challenge what may be a whitewashed cover-up, and with intensified scientific research and accurate figures and diagnosis, to get to the bottom of what’s happening at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. Doing nothing is not an option.

Bernard Weiner has a Ph.D. in government & international relations, and has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer-editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Bernard, or visit Bernard's website.