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Fukushima Daiichi reactors contain radiation equal to "a thousand Hiroshima bombs"

In a phone-based news conference entitled "Nuclear crisis updates" on Saturday,  four American scientists spoke of the unprecedented difficulties facing Japanese authorities attempting to contain radioactivity at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Ira Helfand, Robert Alvarez,  Ken Bergeron and Peter Bradford addressed different aspects of what Bradford termed a "show-stopping event" for nuclear development in Japan as well as for "the renaissance of nuclear energy" worldwide.

Calling nuclear facilities “weapons of mass destruction that we build ourselves and are subject to acts of man or acts of nature that we cannot control," Physicians for Social Responsibility Board Member Ira Helfand, MD said that after the near meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi,  nuclear plant  “there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty over what’s going on and what’s going to happen.  People operating the plants don’t know if they’re going to be able to contain the radiation inside.  What we do know is how much radiation is inside those reactors.  

“A thousand Hiroshima bombs,” he said.  “That’s how much radiation is inside a plant.”

Helsand was speaking at a phone-based news conference entitled "Nuclear crisis updates on Saturday.

“Evacuation is an intrinsically hazardous thing itself, “ said Peter Bradford, former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Bradford teaches energy policy and law at the Vermont Law School and was former chair of the Maine and New York  utility commissions. Bradford said the Japanese government would not evacuate the population around the plants, right after the cataclysm of the earthquake and tsunami. 

“The Japanese are facing unprecedented difficulties.  “Ordering several thousand people into motion so soon after an earthquake and tsunami was something no government would do if they could help it.  Only the gravest danger would constitute an evacuation of that nature.  Natural disaster was always a theoretical possibility, but now it’s real.”

Journalists asked about the implications of the release of radioactive materials at this point.

Robert Alvarez,a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he is focused on nuclear disarmament, environmental and energy policies, spoke of an “extraordinarily high dose rate.”  If this kind of dose rate were being experienced even in the 1950s at a nuclear plant, they would take extraordinary measures to protect workers.  In one hour, it represents the total amount the US government would allow a citizen to receive.  The presence of Cesium 137 is also a disturbing piece of information, assuming its verifiable, because it’s clear cut evidence its coming from debris from the reactor itself.  Whether the structural containments build into this plant have been compromised isn’t clear yet.”

Alvarez, who served at the US Department of Energy as a Senior Policy Advisor,  said Chernobyl wasn’t comparable. “It involved a much different reactor, and events.”  But it required more than a million emergency workers and clean up workers and the evacuation of more than 180,000 people and rendered an area half the size of New Jersey uninhabitable.  Hopefully none of that is going to come to pass in Japan. But if you were going to take this situation to a logical extreme, Chernobyl is the only experience we’ve had on the planet to tell us what the very worse consequence is.”

Ken Bergeron, physicist and former Sandia scientist who worked on nuclear reactor accident simulation,  said: “It could be worse than Chernobyl.  It had a greater release but it was released into the stratosphere far away from populations.  Exposure to people was much reduced. I don’t think the accident in Japan has gone far enough to represent a release of that type.  If it does, it will be a slow release due to the molten core melting through the pressure vessel and the containment vessel.  All of that radioactive material is going to be right on the surface of the earth and much more available to expose populations.  Bergeron is the author of "Tritum on Ice: The Dangerous New Alliance of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power."

Bradford turned the conversation to the matter of spent fuel.

”Not knowing what the inventory is of the spent fuel pool, one of the concerns I would have is whether the earth quake or hydrogen explosion impacted the ability to cool the spent fuel. Over some time, if the spent fuel, if the water is drained, especially in a way where the fuel is exposed to open air, this still take a considerable amount of time, but the risk of a Zirconium fire arises and then you have a very large release particularly of Cesium 137.  That’s another question that we need to have a better understanding of.”

Helsand spoke about the urgency of distributing iodine.  “People if they are given non radioactive iodine profylactically, it helps prevent cancer.  There are reports that the Japanese are about to distribute iodine.”  

Does this event have the effect of dousing the renaissance of nuclear in China and the rest of the world?

Berjeron said, “The situation has become desperate enough that they apparently don’t have the capability to deliver fresh water or plain water to cool the reactor and stabilize it.”

He called the use of seawater, “an act of desperation.”

“I would describe this measure as a Hail Mary pass.  But if they succeed, there’s plenty of water in the ocean and if they have the capability to pump this water at the necessary volume and rates they can stabilize the reactor. In terms of what this does to enthusiasm about nuclear power in China, I’m not prepared to speculate.  Certainly, it’s going to cause reappraisals.  This is what you call a show-stopping event.”

The scientists emphasized many times that:

  • The troubled Japanese reactors were not designed to deal with an earthquake and a tsunami.
  • Accidents are inevitable with technology as complex as nuclear reactors.
  • According to the National Academy of Sciences, any exposure to radiation increases a person’s risk of cancer.
  • Commercial nuclear reactors contain 1000 times as much radioactivity as was released by the Hiroshima bomb, which if released from a nuclear reactor can cause short term and long term illness and death.
  • The recent tragic accident indicates that this level of risk is "unacceptable."

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