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Unfurling the nuclear mystery after Fukushima

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Next, the temperature of the cooling water in the suppression pool increased and the water began to boil; when the containment hydrogen leak happened, all it took was a spark, and the first hydrogen explosion occurred. Later, Unit 3 exploded, with plumes up to 3,000 metres. The final explosion occurred at Unit 4, Gundersen said, at a building containing a large, highly radioactive, partially spent fuel rod pool. When Unit 4 exploded, the US State Department evacuated its citizens residing within 50 miles. Having travelled and worked in Japan as a US citizen, and having thought a lot about what my government did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was again stirred. 

Gundersen told us that, as with the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl (where the maximum detectable doses exceeded the instruments’ capacity to measure), no one immediately measured nuclear releases at Fukushima.  And the subsequent acquisition and use of data for the first two sites? Gundersen next horrified us with his knowledge that the judge for the Three Mile Island case limited the admissible scientific evidence to what she deemed would seem plausible, and that a scientist investigating in Chernobyl was jailed with a sentence of up to five years. 

As often is the case, Gundersen continued, the initial solution to Fukushima’s pollution was dilution—the wind was blowing out to sea, away from the vulnerable Japanese people. This was especially helpful for radioactive iodine pollution due to its short half-life.

But now, the solution to pollution seemed to be delusion. We learned that pollen from male cedar trees throughout northern Japan, and even as far from Fukushima as southern California, had bioconcentrated Fukushima’s cesium and would be re-released that very spring into our soils, rivers, and lungs.

He said our freshwater and ocean fish and mollusks were already showing evidence of cesium bioconcentration.

“We are looking at a long-term problem of cesium contamination,” he said, “. . . with the capability to destroy a nation . . . The government needs to tell people who lived nearby that they’re never going home.”

He estimated that 1 million cancers would result from the Fukushima disaster, in addition to other health effects like Chernobyl (cesium) heart syndrome, and worried that the Japanese government was prioritizing a small area of commerce over its people’s health. Distributed renewable power is the only sensible alternative, he concluded. 

I started thinking about all the eager fish-eaters (myself, eagles, and bears included), and about how (even if I can resolve to stop eating local fish) there will be carnivores who will unwittingly continue to eat it despite its toxicity. The flesh of these salmonids will be consumed by bald eagles in this region, those eagles the symbol of freedom of the U.S., the country of my birth, the country that continues to run Hanford Nuclear Reservation. According to Google Maps, I can drive the 584 kilometres from Vancouver to Hanford in six hours and seven minutes, or bike the 586-kilometre Iron Horse Trail (sounds fun!) in 33 hours. A plume from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, I suppose, could get to Vancouver more directly, and however fast the wind blew, and now I also knew that the radioactivity could come to my community through my supermarket, in a slower chain of events.

I realized that there was practically nothing I could do to stop the beloved bald eagles from riding through that plume, and from eating and bioconcentrating those fish. I thought of a morning in 2011 when I watched 26 eagles circling above my front door, riding a high vortex to gain altitude for better hunting. And then I thought about the scientific articles about German children living within five kilometres of a nuclear power plant having elevated rates of death from leukemia. And then I thought of the children who will be at increased risk of cancer if they eat these fish—and, indeed, during Gunderson’s question period, a woman in the audience from Fukushima poignantly asked, “How can we protect our children?”

I also asked Gundersen about risks to our children, and to all of us from eating wild salmon caught in British Columbia. 

After 2013, he explained, he is concerned that salmon will have swum through too many radioactive plumes and eaten too many radioactive smaller creatures in their migrations to be safe to eat.  Even more shocking to me as a public health specialist, he said that sufficient government monitoring systems would not be in place by 2013 to monitor whether wild salmon were safe to eat.

This question struck my emotions with a new kind of Fukushima heart syndrome and I resolved to convince the U.S. and B.C. Centers for Disease Control, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and others I know in the public health community to tell people loudly and honestly whether it is radioactively safe to eat wild salmon.  I felt and continue to feel frustratingly impotent to protect the eagles and the cedars and everyone and everything else that can’t get access to a don’t-consume-radioactive-molecules health campaign, but I knew what to do to protect humans.

Editor's note: This piece is an excerpt from Erica Frank's memoir-in-process, "Pandora's Furnace". 

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