By Clive Wakely. The extent and intensity of radioactivity following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster is greater than first supposed according to recent reports.
It is reported that Japanese government scientists have claimed that the amount of contamination from a key radioactive caesium isotope from Fukushima equates to that emitted by 168 Hiroshima-size bombs.
The amount of caesium-137 released since the three reactors were crippled by March’s earthquake and tsunami has been estimated at 15,000 tera becquerels, compared with the “mere” 89 tera becquerels released by “Little Boy”, the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Caesium-137 has a half-life of around 30 years and is commonly used in the irradiation of food and radiotherapy of cancer.
The Japanese government, defensive of the country’s nuclear industry and no doubt conscious of its previous support for it, has claimed that such comparisons are “meaningless”.
Its spokesmen has retorted that whilst the Hiroshima bomb claimed most of its victims in the intense heat wave of a mid-air nuclear explosion and the highly radioactive fallout from its mushroom cloud, no such nuclear explosions hit Fukushima.
This, of course, is true – but fails to answer the question as to whether deaths, over time, from radiation-induced cancer will be comparable.
Only time, of course, will tell.
Following the Fukushima disaster the Japanese government imposed a 12-mile radius evacuation and no-go zone around the wrecked plant.
A recent government survey showed that some areas within the zone are contaminated with radiation equivalent to more than 500 millisieverts per year, which is 25 times more than the government’s annual safe limit.
If that was not bad enough the discovery of radiation hotspots well beyond the zone has forced the Japanese government to increase its monitoring from 6 to 22 prefectures (local government administrative areas) in the east of the country.
Furthermore, in a surprise development, elevated levels of radiation have been found as far as 125 miles from the power plant.
Officials in the city of Tokamachi, in northwest Niigata Prefecture, have recorded 27,000 becquerels of radioactive caesium per kilogramme of waste in a school compost heap; by law, any waste containing just 8,000 becquerels per kilogramme must be treated as radioactive waste.
Experts and residents allege that the Japanese government should have begun monitoring further afield immediately after the plant began leaking radioactivity.
In March a senior minister announced the government’s decision to ban shipments of milk from the immediate region and spinach from several surrounding prefectures.
This arising from the detection of radioactive iodine-131 in the food products from farms within 90 miles of Fukushima; a list that was subsequently extended to 11 different vegetables, including cabbage, radish, parsley, cauliflower and broccoli.
This was followed by bans on imports of Japanese agricultural produce by the US and other concerned countries.
Also in the same month it was reported that elevated radiation levels had been found in tap water as far away as Tokyo.
A British scientist working in Japan has commented, in response to criticism that the government has been slow to institute effective and comprehensive monitoring, that: “Since the first week of the disaster, authorities have slowly been announcing that they would start checking fish, seaweed, vegetables for radiation.”
As well as being slow to broaden monitoring another criticism of the Japanese government is that its official radiation count figures are “extremely inconsistent.”
As an example: Japan’s education ministry, responsible for compiling data relating to the disaster, has stated on its website that the maximum level of radiation in Fukushima Prefecture was 2.3 microsieverts per hour, while elsewhere on the same site showed a reading of 16.2 microsieverts in the hamlet of Nagadoro, on the edge of the exclusion zone.
In the case of Nagadoro not only are the figure extremely high, they are not decreasing as originally thought.
Under the circumstances the official line that residents will be able to return to their homes in two years time appears very optimistic, the experts claim.
It would, perhaps, be helpful to project the Fukushima disaster onto the UK, to put it in a context that most readers can identify with.
We reported recently on plans to build a new nuclear reactor on the Somerset coast at Hinkley Point; if that were our Fukushima then what would have been the impact here in line with the Japanese experience?
First of all almost 200 square miles of largely rural Somerset, comprising, roughly, a semi circle stretching from Weston-super-Mare in the east, down to Taunton in the south and up to Minehead in the west, would have been evacuated and largely designated a “no-go” zone.
Most agricultural produce, particularly brassica and dairy, would either have ceased production or be destroyed; hundreds of farmers would be ruined and tens of thousands of acres of farmland contaminated.
Water supplies to Somerset towns would be suspect at best, dangerously contaminated with radioactivity at worse.
Indeed – based on the Tokyo revelation, increased radiation levels could well be found in Birmingham and London drinking water, and almost certainly in Bristol – which is situated in the prevailing southwesterly wind shadow of Hinkley Point.
Only the longer term would reveal the true human cost, in terms of cancer and birth defects, occurring both in and beyond, the county of Somerset.
Perhaps needless to say, were Hinkley Point to experience a Chernobyl, rather that a Fukushima scale event – then it wouldn’t be just a huge tract of Somerset “written-off” but most of the West Country, South Wales and the southwest Midlands.
But we here in Britain are fortunate in that our nuclear industry neither operates unsafe Soviet era reactors nor locates its plants in known earthquake zones – so a nuclear accident in Britain is clearly impossible isn’t it!
Besides, widespread radioactive contamination spanning decades, if not centuries, is a price well worth paying for “cheap/clean” electricity should the “impossible” happen, don’t you think?