Chernobyl – A Human Perspective

Chernobyl – A Human Perspective

It’s been nearly 30-years since the tragic nuclear meltdown at the former Soviet Union Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine near the Belarus border. The massive amounts of radioactivity spewed during this catastrophe immediately destroyed thousands of lives, and the Soviet government’s inaction and cover-up of the amount of radiation has left thousands more with severe birth defects, cancers, and other life-long disabilities.

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Chernobyl Tragic Truth

Chernobyl Tragic Truth

I was an expectant mother here in the United States in 1986 when news of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster began to seep through the veil of secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union. Though the events leading to the meltdown began unfolding on April 26 of that year, news of any potential for international impacts was well-off the radar of average Americans like me until the warmth of approaching summer drew us into our gardens.

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Three Mile Island Opera

Three Mile Island Opera

I was startled in October 2011, when I received a phone call and email from Karl Hoffmann, a German Public Radio and Television (ARD) correspondent and freelance journalist, requesting an opportunity to interview and film Fairewinds’ chief engineer Arnie Gundersen for an opera about the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island (TMI).

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Cry Me A River Exelon

Cry Me A River Exelon

Who is providing for whom? The federal government has allowed nuclear plant operators to expect American taxpayers to foot the bill to build their facilities, subsidize their insurance to the advantage of their investors, and sympathize with their complaints that clean renewables are enjoying too much support in the energy marketplace. Meanwhile, we, the people, are supposed to ignore the dirty, dangerous fuel sourcing practices of the nuclear industry, the even more hazardous, unresolved issue of nuclear waste management, and the overarching potential for terrorist exploitation.

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Uranium Waltz

By Sue Prent

Unless you’re a science geek who routinely trawls YouTube for entertainment, you probably haven’t seen this fascinating clip that observes a small pellet of uranium as it just sits sealed in a lighted cloud chamber infused with vaporized alcohol.

To the strains of a Strauss waltz, puffy little trails begin to erupt from the uranium in staccato straight lines, shooting through the alcohol cloud and radiating in all directions like soft white fireworks. It’s a mesmerizing sight to behold.

It is also a sobering one, because what we are enabled to observe through that cloud of alcohol is the behavior of one of the most aggressive toxins on earth: radioactive decay.

This is the stuff that gives nuclear weapons their destructive energy; the instability that, in the course of things, has been somewhat inefficiently harnessed to generate simple electricity.

It takes a whole lot of uranium, a relatively low energy source of radiation, to produce a little bit of weapons-grade plutonium. Between the mine and the battlefield, turning uranium into reactor fuel is a convenient first step on the way to enabling nuclear weapons, which is a major reason so many countries want “nuclear power”.

The dependent relationship between nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations provides one of the biggest bones of contention in the world today.

Setting that aside for others to consider, and returning to the simple lesson that is so vividly illustrated by the video, one cannot ignore the fact that even the tiniest particle of uranium is alive with radioactive potential.

Imagine the environmental hazards associated with every stage of uranium processing, from extraction to waste disposal, when every tiny particle is literally bristling with projectile energy.

While uranium in minute amounts is a common enough component of rock and soils available almost everywhere, there are relatively few places on earth where concentrations of uranium rich mineral deposits are great enough to represent opportunities for cost-efficient mining.

The danger to mine workers is not so much from the uranium ore, which has low concentrations of pure uranium relative to the mass in which it is sequestered. The real danger lies in the fine particulates and radon gas that are released from the rock in the course of mechanical extraction.

This hazard threatens the surrounding environment and population as well, since slurry and waste from the mining operation find their way into groundwater and may be redistributed through the air as well.

Even decades after uranium mines have been exhausted for all practical purposes, surrounding populations must endure the continuing threat posed by tailings, a waste byproduct of uranium mining. For example, hundreds of residents of the Navajo communities of North Church Rock and Quivera, New Mexico, where two nearby uranium mines ceased to be profitable and were abandoned at the close of the Cold War have suffered enormous health risks due to the mountainous piles of waste that the uranium mines simply left behind.

Ever since these New Mexico mines closed, corporate owners of the two lethal stacks have been feuding with the federal government over who is responsible for the cleanup.

At least one of the waste piles is scheduled to move down the road to a tailings dump, which will distance it somewhat from the local population, if not from the greater environment.

That move in itself raises another point of contamination in the uranium fuel chain: transportation. To transfer the waste to a less objectionable location, it is estimated that 38 open dump trucks will be required. Loading the trucks will stir up so much harmful particulate matter that the government will relocate residents for up to five years following the move in order to allow the dust to settle again, and to monitor the grounds for remaining contamination.

Just imagine each of those tiny particles being energized like that uranium pellet in the cloud chamber, and small enough to be inhaled… Now imagine what happens on a cellular level when all that bristling energy lodges deep in the human lung and continues to radiate indefinitely.

As those loaded dump trucks wheel through the environment to their ultimate destination, it isn’t difficult to imagine that they will be seeding the air with radioactive dust and particulates, endangering all who live and work along the way.

These same hazardous scenarios play out on a daily basis around active uranium mines, and at the processing plants where uranium ore is refined into nuclear fuel. I would guess that the concentration of harmful radiation in millings and tailings might be even greater as the uranium undergoes further refinement in the fuel production process.

Even if none of the collateral contaminants distributed by mining are considered, when nuclear energy production is viewed strictly from the perspective of fuel sourcing, it is clearly far, far from a “clean” energy source.

Cited Links:

Fairewinds Nuke Truth at House of Commons

When Will They Ever Learn - The Lesson from Sir John Cockcroft

By Arnie Gundersen

My week in the UK was exciting and full of surprises. I spoke to hundreds of people in London and Cumbria who are committed to a new energy future for Europe. They know that the dated model of big business centralized electricity production is ending, and they see a clean, disaster free viable alternative in locally distributed generation. Still, it seems that the established British utilities are so fixated on nuclear power that they just offered to charge their customers twice the current market price for electricity for the next 35-years, so that a French nuclear company could build a fancy and untried new nuclear design at Hinkley Point. The United Kingdom is anything but united when it comes to how it will produce electricity in the 21st century!

Britain has experienced the dangers of nuclear power first hand as the site of the world’s first major nuclear disaster at Windscale, receiving huge amounts of contamination from Chernobyl fallout in Wales, and contaminating the Irish Sea with Plutonium at its waste reprocessing plant at Sellafield. With that background, I understand why the citizens of the UK embrace a nuclear free future. When I spoke at the House of Commons, it was clear that only a minority of the MP’s (like US Representatives) could envision an energy future different than the past. Similar to the US, the financially influential electric power monopolies have convinced a majority of the MPs that there is no alternative to nuclear power. Thankfully, many people in the UK disagree and see a nuclear free future!

Surprisingly, it was in Cumbria that I saw the most poignant reminder of how dangerous nuclear power is. There in the fog and rain stood “Cockcroft’s Folly”, a ventilation stack on the old Windscale reactor. Filters on that stack, thankfully, captured most of the radiation released during the 1957 Windscale catastrophe.

When Windscale was under construction, Sir John Cockcroft, a great engineer and Nobel Prize winner, insisted that filters be added to the ventilation stack. The British nuclear establishment laughed at him, but he was unyielding and persisted in his cause until the filters were added to Windscale. Naysayers nicknamed the filters “Cockcroft’s Folly”, and no one believed they were necessary. Then came the Windscale nuclear core fire and those “unnecessary” filters saved thousands of lives. Too contaminated even now to be removed, “Cockcroft’s Folly” stands in the middle of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, part of a more than $60 Billion cleanup planned for the neighboring stretch of coastline along the contaminated the Irish Sea.

Three new AP1000 reactors are proposed to be built in Cumbria within sight of “Cockcroft’s Folly”. Since 2010, I have repeatedly said that the AP1000 design suffers the same design flaw as the old Windscale reactor. Like Sir John, I believe that filters must be added to the top of the AP1000 shield building to prevent huge amounts of radiation from being released during a meltdown. I call this problem “the chimney effect” and wrote a paper about it entitled “Nuclear Containment Failures- Ramifications for the AP1000 Containment Design”. The Independent, a major newspaper in the UK, courageously wrote about my concerns with the headline: Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen warns of 'Chernobyl on steroids' risk in UK from proposed Cumbria plant .

Fairewinds received hundreds of tweets praising that story, and as can be expected, some of the 20th century paradigm pro-nukes pushed back, attacking my credibility. Sir John Cockcroft must be spinning in his grave, wondering “When will they ever learn?”

Related Video and Links:

Arnie’s Photo Journal – U.K. and Back!

Arrival at Heathrow Airport

Burlington, VT -> London, England

American ads – feels like home

The streets of London = Double Decker Buses and Telephone Booths

How-To Fight Jet Lag:

Sticky Toffee Pudding and a Pint

Some light reading before bed…

Hopped on the ‘Tube’ to make my way to the House of Commons for my presentation.

Inside the House of Commons

Excited for my presentation- the Ongoing Meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, 4-Years Later

Train to Cumbria

Not as high-speed as Japan, but sure has the United States beat

Castle Ruins at Penrith Train Station

Cumbria Host Marianne Birkby of Radiation Free Lakeland drove me around on the right side of the road – the left! Beautiful countryside with hopeful traces of renewable energy.

Keswick School refused to allow our public meeting which, “in the governor’s view, would disturb the ‘principles of community cohesion “

After a change of location to the Skiddaw Hotel, we got our meeting and the community turn out proved cohesive on our side.

Remembering the victims of Fukushima Daiichi’s triple meltdown at an ancient church, complete with Pagan ruins… and being questioned by local police.

Let’s call this police encounter #1

It’s ok, we made it inside.

No, that tree is not being lazy or toppling over. The winds from the Irish Sea blow so hard that the landscape adopts this laid-back posture.

It seems to me that Cumbria is ideal for alternative energy – wind turbines.

This picture was taken from the church, in the distance you can see Sellafield the nuclear waste reprocessing site. The land in between is the land proposed for the AP1000 nuclear reactors.

“X” Marks the Spot

The Road to Sellafield

Welcome to Sellafield…

…or maybe not.

There is a bike path that edges the Sellafield property, we were taking a misty stroll when approached by these armed “bobbies”.

Let’s call this police encounter #2

I didn’t let the police stop my walk, and I certainly wasn’t going to let the mud stop it either.

Police + Nuclear Waste + Mud = a Pint

Make that 2 Pints!

The Pigeon House

This house was owned by 2 ladies who loved feeding the local pigeons. The neighboring B&B did not love this bird feeding frenzy and the subsequent pigeon poop that accompanied it, so they complained to local authorities. When not hanging out on the lawn between the ladies’ pink house and the B&B, these pigeons would frequent the local nuclear waste reprocessing site at Sellafield. Scientists conducted tests on these notorious’ birds fecal traces and found their poop to be highly radioactive!

Martin and his Barn

My trip was blessed with the best hospitality

Real-Deal Shepherd’s Pie and Broccoli *my favorite!

Martin and his wife Janine provide a cozy, post-pie place for repose.

Back to London


Back to Big Ben

Back to the books

Then home again.

London, England -> Burlington, VT

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Sue Prent

When it comes to storage of spent nuclear fuel, the countries choosing to operate nuclear power plants are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

More than 50 years after the civilian population was persuaded to accept nuclear energy as a safe way to power modern living and commerce, nuclear scientists throughout the world have been unable to uncover a viable technological solution to the escalating problem of lethal nuclear waste.

According to a 2012 Congressional report, 67,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is being “managed’ on-site at 77 different U.S. reactors. And with no solution in sight, another 2,000 metric tons is currently being added every year.

While the fission process inside a nuclear reactor releases the radioactive potential of the uranium pellets in the fuel, what goes into the reactor comes out as a lethal cocktail of radioactive rubble millions of times more radioactive than the original fuel. Here we are generating the most lethal material on earth and blithely creating it by the metric ton simply to run our air conditioners and heat our swimming pools and Jacuzzi’s.

There is no magic process by which we can make this mountain of highly radioactive waste simply disappear. The nuclear industry and government have failed to create a permanent waste repository. The government’s plan had been to bury this highly toxic nuclear waste very deep within the earth, but those plans came to a standstill due to hazards created by seismic instability, the real potential for radioactive contamination of precious aquifers, and significant citizen opposition.

So now, we are left with only two choices: allow the highly toxic spent fuel to remain indefinitely in the unshielded and overloaded spent fuel pools, or remove the partially cooled fuel as soon as it is cool enough to move and place it into onsite dry cask storage.

Do we really have much of a choice?

Even though the nuclear chain reaction is finished, the radioactive waste and rubble left behind remains hot. Preventing a nuclear meltdown in a spent fuel pool depends entirely on successfully maintaining the spent fuel pool-cooling bath of water, 24-7, for as long as the fuel remains in the pool. Under arbitrary NRC approvals that have saved the energy companies millions of dollars, spent fuel has already remained in pools for many, many decades so that the pools now hold more fuel than they were designed to hold. These jammed past capacity fuel pools create a number of possible scenarios, including operator error, mechanical failure, terrorist action and a host of outside forces that could compromise the ability of the spent fuel pool to keep the fuel cool thereby creating a fuel pool fire or meltdown I mentioned earlier.

For instance, at the Dresden Unit 1 reactor in Illinois, pipes froze and broke in the abandoned plant and drained the spent fuel pool of 60,000 gallons of precious cooling water. Over in Michigan, an errant raccoon once caused loss of power to the cooling pumps at the Fermi reactor. The likelihood of such wildlife misadventures increases substantially once a stand-alone reactor has been retired but left in the SAFSTOR mode as proposed for the Vermont Yankee plant. [Think grammar school English for pronunciation and read SAFSTOR like Sapstor, not the NRC nukespeak moniker that tries to make a 60-year sitting carcass appear safe.]

Some reactors, and again, Vermont Yankee is one of those, have their spent fuel pool positioned above the ground – five stories above –, leaving them at particularly high risk as targets for an airborne terrorist attack.

What then is the alternative?

Disturbingly, in the absence of any real possibility for entombment deep in the earth’s rocky substrata, dry cask storage has emerged as the only remaining solution. While it removes the necessity of perpetually keeping the spent fuel water-cooled, it comes with its own set of alarming problems.

There are many components to a dry cask storage system, any one of which has unique potential for errors or defects.

  • The integrity of cask materials and their design and construction are a troublesome issue.
  • Quality control can suffer under the pressure of tight work deadlines and cost constraints.
  • Fleet buys that save corporations money may mean that a lesser quality cask or one not entirely appropriate for the storage site is used rather than one designed to protect the surrounding community.

The strength of concrete very much depends on high quality components and achieving a perfect chemical balance in the slurry; and some casks have been discovered as defective in that department.   If the defects are only discovered after the fuel loading has begun, it is not a simple matter to reverse the loading process and return the fuel to the spent fuel pool. Doing so introduces a number of new risks of radiation releases and toxic contamination of the surrounding communities.

As for the long-term viability of concrete casks, the nuclear reactor containment systems themselves are showing early signs of concrete degradation due to an area’s salt, mineral, or moisture content. And the question remains as to what consequences may result from undetected concrete failure in loaded casks.

There have already been occasions when serious design flaws in the casks have only been discovered during loading; once rather spectacularly when a chemical explosion occurred inside the cask. Other mishaps have involved loose bolts, faulty o-rings, flaws in the neutron shielding material, cracked welds, etc.

Most recently at the Waste Isolation Storage Pilot Project in New Mexico, plutonium waste that had been properly packed for long-term storage and according to existing protocols, was discovered to haveexploded into the storage environment. When the protocols were reviewed to determine what might have caused the explosion, the most likely culprit was a change in the type of kitty litter that had been used as an absorbent.

It is thought that this kitty litter change may have triggered a chemical reaction that “blew” the seal on a canister sitting in storage.

Mistakes do happen, and they seem to happen more frequently in this aging industry that still, after 60-years, has no viable or workable long-term waste storage technology at hand.

Even the weight of the casks that runs to more than 100 tons each when fully loaded, represents a hazard; particularly in the case of reactors that have their spent fuel pools located five stories above the ground, as is the case at Vermont Yankee.

The loading process for retrieving the fuel from the spent fuel pool and securing it in the dry cask necessarily involves lowering the cask into the pool and then raising it out again once it has been fully loaded, drained and welded shut. The work must be done in the presence of all the other exposed fuel assemblies, so it is rife with hazards.

A slip of the loading gear, due to operator error or mechanical failure, could cause the cask to suddenly drop, sending all that weight crashing through the fuel pool with tremendous force, damaging fuel assemblies, destroying equipment, and breaching the water-tight containment.   The result would most certainly be massive radiation release, with or without accompanying explosion and fire.  The brake on the crane at Vermont Yankee failed several years ago… luckily the cask did not crash and damage other fuel or the pool itself.  These aforementioned hazards are real, not made up.

The casks themselves have a limited life expectancy. If they cannot be consigned to deep earth entombment within the design life of the component parts, the spent fuel rods must be moved into new dry cask containers, which would involve a number of new risks for which no procedures or protocols exist.

Cask storage would represent more of an obstacle to terrorist exploitation than would storage in a spent fuel pool. However, if the goal was contamination rather than theft, even the strongest casks could be breached with high velocity armor piercing 50 caliber shells available on the Internet.

When you read that the NRC has determined that onsite cask storage is a safe method of spent fuel management, it must be understood that this is more of an actuarial judgment than an absolute scientific or engineering fact.

The NRC has simply weighed what it believes is the relatively small likelihood that a cask might be breached, or that a radiation release will occur due to an industrial accident or structural flaw, against the harsh reality that there truly is no other alternative for the hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel that the energy corporations have already accumulated.

We the people are powerless to change that bitter truth, but we have it within our power to draw a line under nuclear hubris, and promise our great-grandchildren that we will add no more to their toxic legacy.

Freewheeling Fission Products

By Sue Prent

The catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants has made many people throughout the world newly aware of the hazards posed by nuclear waste in conjunction with the ‘Age of Decommissioning’ that is unfolding in the wake of the triple meltdown.

Dozens of nuclear reactors will, for various reasons, potentially cease to generate power during the coming decade, leaving a legacy of highly radioactive spent fuel and debris that must be safely sequestered for hundreds of years.

What most people are surprised to know is that some of these highly radioactive reactor leftovers will represent a hazard to all living things for thousands and thousands of years.

That this problem has remained stubbornly unresolved while the industry grew up around it was brought home to me by the February 20 obituary of engineering physicist Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, whose distinguished career began at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington in 1947, where he exchanged ideas with Albert Einstein, and ultimately resolved on the issue of radiation disbursement and how it can be tracked by tracing evidence of strontium-90 in baby teeth.

Addressing a Senate committee that ultimately moved to ban the aboveground nuclear testing in the 1960’s, Dr. Sternglass testified to the hazards posed to infants and small children from exposure to the radioactive byproducts of such tests.

Now, fifty plus years later, Fairewinds is receiving many unsolicited requests from parents near Fukushima to have their children’s teeth analyzed for evidence of Sr-90.

Coincidentally, test wells in the soil surrounding the now idle Vermont Yankee have revealed the presence of this same telltale “tooth seeker,” evidencing the likelihood that still more fission products have been liberated into the Vermont pastoral landscape.

The NRC is singularly uncurious about this discovery and has recently decreed that VY owner-operator Entergy has no need to trace the source of the leak now before decommissioning begins, which may push out the possibility for any investigation decades from now.

The lesson here is that there is far more to caretaking nuclear waste than finds its way into estimates of tons of spent fuel or demolition debris.

In the exclusion zone surrounding the devastated and entombed Russian Chernobyl nuclear plant, trees that are reaching the end of their life cycle are not returning to feed the soil, as would normally be the case. Instead, they turn tinder dry and are prone to destruction by fire. So thirty years after the disaster at Chernobyl, investigators are discussing this new phenomena and its potential significance to the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi ongoing tragedy.

According to Science News, it is believed this failure to yield to the forces of normal decay is due to the loss of a critical sector of wildlife in the exclusion zone: insects and micro-organisms that play an important role in the life-cycle of trees, but readily succumb to even low-level radiation in their environment.

So, while nuclear industry apologists have been quick to celebrate the “renewed biodiversity” of a Chernobyl forest now free of human competition (‘Wolves of Chernobyl’), this apparent bounty disguises a “missing link” in the essential food chain that will inevitably take its toll.

Meanwhile those pest-free trees represent a renewed radioactive hazard that is unique to their situation.  The trees absorbed air-borne fission products that were released in the 1986 reactor explosion.  Unlike the bugs and bacteria, the trees were such large organisms that they continued to live and grow.

Safely ensconced in tree tissue,  “hot particles” like cesium-137 have remained sequestered until now, when the dead trees are ready to re-release these isotopes into the environment once again.

Because the trees cannot rot due to microorganic activity, they simply dry into firewood.  The liberated radioactive isotopes don’t fall to the ground incorporating themselves in the developing soil.  Instead, they are sent again heavenward in the smoke and ash from forest fires, where they can be carried thousands of miles for redistribution halfway around the world.

You might think of this as the “globalization of risk” from a reactor accident anywhere in the world.

While a fair amount of care can be enforced in the management of spent fuel, less can be expected from management of dry and volatile debris from the wreckage of a reactor site, particularly in a place where the gargantuan impact of storm damage has left undifferentiated waste everywhere to be seen, as has happened at Fukushima Daiichi.

Without clear-cutting on a truly epic scale, as the spontaneous wildfires that plague Chernobyl inevitably come to Fukushima, this cycle of “black rain” seems doomed to repeat.

Alone in the Zone

Review by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Energy Education Administrator

“Loneliness doesn’t quite capture it,” says Matsumura Naoto, the Fukushima farmer who will not leave his animals or his home and is the sole resident of his once bustling town. The post-apocalyptic, evacuated ghost towns of Tomioka and Iitate that are located within a 25mi radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor are featured in a 20-minute video 'Alone in the Zone' produced by VICE Intl. 

As a US citizen, watching this video brings to mind the havoc of Hurricane Katrina and its forced dislocation of so many people living in and around New Orleans. Destruction caused by Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown appears as visceral as the hurricane, but the greatest difference between the two is what no one can see. The highly toxic radiation released by Fukushima Daiichi lingers indefinitely and radioactivity will continue to contaminate once beautiful farmland for hundreds of years. Now, four years after the nuclear triple meltdown, slow decommissioning of everything in the reactor’s shadow continues without an end date in sight.

Naoto is a Tomioka farmer who has returned to his cattle farm where ostriches run free since the meltdown. With his arms hanging comfortably around one of these wild, long necked birds, Naoto recounts evacuating his family, living as a refugee, and being refused lodging from his sister-in-law who feared that they were contaminated and would bring radiation into the house. Two years after Fukushima Daiichi’s meltdown, Naoto returned to his farm despite the high cesium levels. Naoto says he opposes the killing of animals in radiation-controlled zones. While he believes that slaughter for consumption is reasonable, he says that slaughter because of contamination is senseless- “Would they kill people just as indiscreetly?” he asks.

You might think that Naoto is a simple farmer obsessed with his livestock however, in the words of Hasegawa Kenji another farmer from the area, “Everyone views cattle as all the same. But that’s not true. At all.” Kenji and his family of eight once lived in a stately home on land that supported his life’s work of farming. Now he resides with other refugees from the Fukushima Prefecture in temporary housing that looks like a chain of doublewide trailers. Kenji recalls scientists telling the mayor of Iitate, Kenji’s village, that they were in danger of radiation but the government continued to reassure residents that they were safe. Once it was clear that the scientists had been right about the significant radiation exposure and not the town officials, Kenji and his wife did all they could to care for their exposed and contaminated cows by milking them everyday and pouring out the toxic milk. Sadly, they were eventually forced to systematically slaughter all of their beloved animals.

Radiation Testing Clinic Director, Nihei Masahiko explains that the amount of exposure is irrelevant because if cesium enters the body, there will be damage. Radioactive substances leaked by the Fukushima Daiichi owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, have contaminated the soil of the Fukushima prefecture rendering the land unusable. Yet, according to Nuclear Physics Professor Koide Hiroaki, TEPCO still refuses to accept responsibility for its radioactive fallout because the land is ‘bona vacant’, an ownerless object.

Not being able to eat or drink without exposing oneself to contamination in a radiation-controlled zone makes Matsumura Naoto’s return to his farm unimaginable for most of us, but I would venture taking that risk is not so unfathomable for Hasegawa Kenji or anyone else who has been indefinitely displaced from their home. Remembering a time before the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Kenji recalls his grandchildren visiting him every day after school to say hi to their grandpa and the cows. That life is over now. All that remains are memories of happier times that Kenji says, “I almost wish I could forget.”

Los Alamos


Written by Sue Prent

There's been a lot of talk lately about the “1%” in America, and that has played havoc with the old notion of "how the other half lives."

Despite having reframed the time-honored ratio of rich people, we have lost none of our curiosity as to how and where they live.

As they are the ones who ought to know best about the comings and goings of America’s 1%, I bow to the superior sources of the Wall Street Journal who just gave us a tantalizing glimpse.

In answer to the rhetorical question, "Where Are America's Millionaires," WSJ reveals an unexpected fact:

“The region with the highest concentration of millionaires is better known for the Manhattan Project than Saks Fifth Avenue. Los Alamos, N.M., had the highest share of millionaire households in 2014 in a ranking of more than 900 U.S. metro areas, according to a report from research firm Phoenix Marketing International released Wednesday.

More than one in nine households in Los Alamos have more than $1 million in investable assets, giving the region a higher concentration of wealth than tonier locales such as Napa, Calif., or Martha’s Vineyard, Mass”.

Who'd've thunk it?

Perhaps fearing it might put readers off of their uranium stock and cornflakes, WSJ doesn't dwell on the Manhattan Project connection. We at Fairewinds need not observe the same delicacy.

Nestled in the bosom of Los Alamos is a warren of lucrative nuclear industry and government research and development operations.

Employees of the Los Alamos Lab, Sandia, and similar research facilities can jostle through the supermarket, elbow-to-elbow with their neighbors, secure in the knowledge that no one they are likely to touch is pulling down less than six figures, even if they are just shredding documents.

This bounty in the midst of a generally depressed New Mexican economy is thanks to the continued generosity of more than seventy years of federal funding for nuclear research.

Los Alamos’ ‘golden ticket’ has bought a legacy steeped in famous names like Robert Oppenheimer and infamous ones, like "Fat Man" and "Little Boy”. It is the place where it could be argued that modern day terror had its inception.

In case you were sleeping in seventh-grade History class, Los Alamos was the birthplace of the atom bomb: the original weapon of mass destruction.

Babcock and Wilcox (B&W) is the company that was transformed in that birthing from a humble boilermaker to the mighty conglomerate of uranium and nuclear technology it is today. Now holding the contract to manage the Los Alamos Lab for the U.S. government, B&W also designed and built the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant that melted down in 1979.

Judging from the WSJ story, the big boom business is still booming; and why not?

With a whole lot of help from federal funding, insurance waivers and an incredible postwar PR makeover, research to develop the first nuclear weapons was successfully repackaged for civilian consumption as America’s nuclear energy initiative through the Eisenhower administration’s ‘Atoms For Peace Program.’

One might even say that nuclear power enjoys a charmed "half-life" as, through all of its incarnations, the industry has maintained close ties to federal purse strings (our tax dollars), the military, and an extremely forgiving regulatory system.

Self-righteous nuclear industry voices remind us, whenever possible, that they have been beating swords into plowshares (or 'Megatons to Megawatts,' as they would have it) when they converted U.S. and soviet nuclear weapons into reactor fuel; but that ‘supply” has been exhausted and the industry must look elsewhere for its reprocessing opportunities.

Unless a nuclear arms race figures into your long-term business plan, the “Megatons to Megawatts” model was a pretty dubious platform on which to build future technology, even if you could come up with a way to safely sequester all of that stubborn nuclear waste.

…But nevermind.

There is still plenty of spent fuel piling up with no place to go but into risky new modes of energy release. Never mind the contamination, terrorism and proliferation hazards involved in storing, moving and reprocessing nuclear fuel.

Life couldn't be better in Los Alamos, the community that fission and federal funding built.

Fairewinds on the March

­­Now is the Time

No matter what one’s political persuasion, it is evident that the world’s weather patterns have intensified and are impacting people around the globe. To focus world attention on this issue, at least 400,000 people stepped out in New York City in the People’s Climate March on Sunday September 21st. This unified effort was the first gathering of this magnitude and meant to focus world attention on the dramatic consequences climate change is having on the world’s economy, environmental health, and the personal health of people throughout the world.

Fairewinds Board Member Chiho Kaneko and I were part of more than 1,000 marchers in the Nuclear Free, Carbon Free contingent.

“This is a movement embraced by young people, which is good – so different from whom we see in the anti-war & anti-nuclear movements,” Chiho reflected. “They are urged to DO something, so this had a different flavor and brought in a new generation of people.

Riding on separate buses from Vermont, we realized the importance of the Nuclear Free contingent well before we arrived. On the long trip from Vermont, we both spoke to staunch climate change activists, yet when the discussion changed to nuclear power, some were on the fence. They would say, “I read a new study saying new nuclear reactors and recycling spent fuel is so much better, and, isn’t nuclear power emissions free? Shouldn’t nuclear be part of the mix?”

Chiho and I believe it is vital to have an honest discussion about nuclear power and the future of energy policies, especially with the people spearheading the climate change movement. We want to hear an honest discussion between people like Arnie Gundersen and Bill McKibben.

When our buses were delayed in traffic, Chiho missed her engagement to sing at the rally. Even before we found the Nuclear Free contingent, two-dozen blocks from the bus drop off, we saw “Nuclear? No Thanks” smiling sun flags everywhere in the streets. NIRS (Nuclear Information Research Services) gave 650 flags away before the march even began. We wandered among the 1,000 plus nuclear crowd, greeting colleagues from around the country, and meeting nuclear campaigners from Indian Point, Pilgrim, Fitzpatrick, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Jersey, and more. Many people recognized Chiho from her Fairewinds media work, her translation work, and through New York City events in which she has participated. They expressed their gratitude to us for the work done by Fairewinds.

“'In the New York area, the Japanese community concerned with nuclear issues is relatively small,” Chiho said. “One young woman told me that it is very difficult for her to talk about Fukushima Daiichi with her peers especially mothers, because they don’t want to think about it, it is too disturbing” Chiho added, “She feels pretty isolated, and when she comes to a big march or rally, it is a consolation. That one is not alone is a huge value of public demonstrations. That recognition can encourage them to continue their work back home.”

I was on the logistics team for many of the Vermont Yankee events and on the team that organized the Nuclear Free Contingent for this march. Most people have a misconception about protesters. The people who I met mirrored what research has shown. They came out to protest because they have already educated themselves on issues, vote, contact politicians, attend hearings, and write letters to the editor.

Sunday’s march marked the beginning of a broad coalition of issues under one umbrella – climate justice. It also motivated tens of thousands of people who are new to public protest. The new marchers were activated by the outrage they feel and a well-organized broad event, one safe enough for these new activists to move from letter writing to marching in the street.

At times while we walked, I saw Chiho sketching what she witnessed. “It is the role of artists to really see the problems we face and articulate them, to find ways to think about things on a very basic level, not just issue by issue,” Chiho said when I asked her about it.

“If people say “lives matter,” that is a starting point. Without that, you don’t have a foundation to nurture sound judgments. It felt like this march was an occasion to be completely open and available to our fellow humans,” she said.

Chiho also noted that at one point, she was sketching while marching, there was a stop, and a policeman was looking over Chiho’s shoulder. He shook his head, as if saying, “I don’t know how you do that,” and they bumped fists. “It was a connection. That was the sweetest moment.”

To me, the most touching post-March moment was Tuesday when President Obama, in his speech to the United Nations, said, “Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”

By Leslie Sullivan Sachs

Should I Take Radiation Protection Pills?

Every day Fairewinds Energy Education receives many questions. The big question in the New Year is: “Should I take a ‘radiation pill’ to combat the radiation being given off by the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi?” First, lets start by defining a radiation protection pill is and what it does. A radiation protection pill is usually called potassium iodide because it consists of potassium iodide KI which is the scientific notation for this molecule consisting of the elements potassium (K) and iodine (I). Unfortunately, potassium iodide only protects against one type of radiation, radioactive iodine. It does not protect against the hundreds of other radioactive isotopes released in nuclear meltdowns.

How does a potassium iodide (KI) pill work?

Your thyroid routinely absorbs iodine (I), non-radioactive iodine that is! Natural [non-radioactive] iodine is added to ordinary table salt to help give your thyroid gland the iodine it needs to function correctly.

During a nuclear accident or meltdown like those at Fukushima Daiichi an enormous amount of radioactive iodine is emitted for 90-days and then it is gone from the environment, unless there is a new meltdown. When radioactive Iodine (I) is being released during a nuclear accident or meltdown, and at that time only, it is important to prevent your thyroid from absorbing the radioactive iodine, so it is a good idea to take potassium iodide (KI) pills. These pills will saturate your thyroid with good non-radioactive iodine and prevent the radioactive iodine from being absorbed.

To be effective, the KI pills must be taken shortly after the beginning of an accident. That way the good, non-radioactive iodine gets to your thyroid before the radioactive variety arrives.

How long should I take KI? Shouldn’t I continue forever since radiation lasts for 250,000 years? Two words of caution:

  • Radioactive iodine has a half-life of 8 days, so it completely decays away [dissipates] in 90 days or less. Taking KI pills for more than 90 days is a waste of money and is also potentially very dangerous to your health.
  • KI pills can have negative health side effects in some people and should not be taken unless a severe nuclear accident is in progress near where you live. We considered using KI in Vermont after the Fukushima accident, but chose not to because the risks outweighed the potential benefits. See side effects.

Many countries stockpile potassium iodide pills near nuclear facilities or nuclear weapon target areas in order to protect public health and safety. In case there is a nuclear accident or nuclear war, the pills can quickly be distributed to protect peoples’ thyroid glands. Unfortunately, after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, even though KI was readily available nearby, Japanese government officials did not release most of it in time to help or at all due to conflicting orders by different branches of government.

Stockpiling KI pills in the US has been an issue with the NRC for decades. Former NRC attorney Peter Crane was a hero when he petitioned the NRC to take action. It is only suggested that nuclear facilities, states, or communities near by, stockpile KI in case of an accident or meltdown. More...

Finally, there is no protection against the hundreds of other radioactive isotopes released following an accident or meltdown. White protective suits worn by the workers at Fukushima prevent hot particles from touching the workers’ skin. The gamma rays from the radiation on the site pass right through the suits and irradiate the workers. Moreover, the radiation plume moving offsite knows no boundaries and will meander wherever the weather pushes the radioactive plume, thus impacting many people considered outside the radiation path, until they have been exposed. Unlike oil or chemical fires that smoke and may been seen for miles, radiation cannot be seen, so people do not know they are being exposed.

Lastly, some medical doctors are working on ways of helping people recover from some radiation exposures. For example, Dr. John Apsley in Seattle, Washington, has been working with cancer patients to help them recover from medical radiation. He has applied that methodology to the possibility of radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown. Fairewinds Energy Education has listed his book on its website booklist: Fukushima Meltdown & Modern Radiation: Protecting Ourselves and Our Future Generations Dr. John Apsley, 2011. Dr. Apsley explains the health risks of nuclear power with emphasis on the implications of the Fukushima incident. He presents ways to protect and detoxify our bodies from the harmful effects of radiation.

Tokyo 2020: Q&A with Arnie Gundersen

FW facebook
FW facebook

By Fairewinds Administrator Samantha Donalds

After Saturday’s announcement that Tokyo had won the 2020 Summer Olympics bid, we thought it would be timely to post an old video on our Facebook page about radiation levels in Tokyo: The video, Tokyo Soil Samples Would Be Considered Nuclear Waste In The US, was first posted after Fairewinds’ February 2012 trip to Japan.  Since reposting this video on Facebook Monday morning in the wake of the Olympics announcement, the video has been seen by more than 10,000 people, shared by 200, and has sparked significant discussion on our Facebook page (including a few good “20-20 vision” jokes), along with some excellent questions. I sat down with Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen to discuss some of the issues and questions raised during the past few days by our viewers and followers. Ultimately, it is clear to us that Saturday’s Olympic Committee announcement has officially changed the conversation about Fukushima Daiichi.

Q: The Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown was in 2011, and your Tokyo soil samples were from 2012.  Do you think the Tokyo area is unsafe now, and do you think it will still be unsafe in 2020?

A: It’s crystal clear to me and to other scientists that the people in Tokyo and throughout Japan received high radiation doses during the months following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011. The data from a full year later, as seen in our 2012 video, clearly shows that much of that radiation had fallen and remained in unanticipated locations throughout Tokyo. Over time the radiation has been carried off with rainfall directly into Tokyo Bay; and indeed radiation levels in Tokyo Bay continue to increase. Data from air filters in Japan indicates that additional radiation, well above background levels still remains in the air, and it is unclear what the situation will be in 7 years.

Q: Is this decision to host the 2020 Olympics in Japan a good thing for the Fukushima Daiichi cleanup and for Japan? So far the Japanese government has been downplaying the risks of Fukushima radiation and not taking cleanup very seriously. Do you think that the Japanese politicians will start taking the cleanup seriously now that Japan has an international event to host on the horizon?

A: I think hosting the Olympics in 2020 is an attempt by the Japanese to change the topic. I don’t think people around the world are going to care until 2020 approaches. There is a seven-year window for the Japanese government to work to make Tokyo a showcase for the entire world to view. I think the Japanese government wanted to host the Olympics to improve the morale of the people of Japan after the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Unfortunately, it’s taking people’s attention off of the true cost of the accident, in terms of both money and public health. The radiation fallout in Tokyo and throughout Japan has been politicized by the Abe administration.Good Japanese scientists are simply afraid to measure what is in the environment as a result. Look at Fairewinds Demystifying Nuclear Power blog post by Art Keller. Keller details mismanagement of the cleanup, uncalibrated equipment that garners exceptionally low radiation readings, and a severe lack of training in radiation cleanup and monitoring for the Japanese personnel involved in the cleanup and radiation monitoring efforts.  What’s important is that we get good science to measure throughout Japan not just Tokyo, and good scientific inquiry should move forward without political influence.

Fairewinds Viewer Question: Although its impossible to tell where things will be seven years from now, what would Arnie’s advice be for anyone (athletes, press, builders, merchants, etc.) who has to make a commitment soon to participate in Tokyo 2020?

A: No one can say, because this is seven years in the future, that is simply too hard to predict. The environment will still be polluted in seven years, but it is impossible to currently determine by how much or whether the contamination would be enough to harm visitors who are only in Japan for two weeks. I will say that when I was in Tokyo in 2012, I was careful only to eat food from the southern islands and Australia. However, that was one year after the accident, not nine years. Good science during the next seven years is the key to making this determination.

Also, there is a huge difference between being in Tokyo for two weeks versus living there continuously.  Many people in Japan are being exposed to detrimental levels of radiation day in and day out for many years, so we should be much more concerned about the public health of the people living in Japan for extensive periods rather than the possible exposures for short-term visitors.

Q: Some people on our Facebook page said they didn’t think the 2020 Tokyo Olympics wouldn’t ultimately take place. As one commenter said, “Tokyo will be a ghost town by then.”  What do you think?

A: Fukushima Daiichi poses many problems and we have not heard the end of them. It’s not clear how future events will affect the rest of Japan.  The triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi is the largest industrial catastrophe in the history of the world, and the radiation releases are ongoing. Currently, no valid methodology is being applied to lessen these releases, nor is the proposed ‘ice wall’, which is more than two years out, a valid technology.

Fairewinds Viewer Question: Given the rate of radionuclide decay, what is risk of hot particles, rad-dust inhalation, etc. in 7 years? And how does the exertion of athletes in peak performance affect the likelihood of internal contamination from radionuclides?  

A: Cesium has a half-life of 30 years, which means it stays in the environment for 300 years. What’s more important is how much cesium the rain washes into Tokyo Bay, and we need good science to measure that.

Fairewinds Viewer Question: Is the air at Tokyo more dangerous than the air in London? Especially when one knows radioactive things can get re-airborne, such as radioactive pollen, black radioactive dust, etc?

A: Believe it or not, this is a question we are asked often; not necessarily the comparison between London and Tokyo, but the question of where it is safe to live. We answered that question on the FAQ page of our website, and we are reposting our answer to that here:

We cannot legally give specific advice on where it is safe to live or travel.  Every region has its own unique health and safety problems, nuclear and otherwise, and it is not within our area of expertise to evaluate specific geographic risks.  For more information on this topic, you can watch our 2011 interview with Dr. Steve Wing for a discussion on geographical risks and the problem of relocating. On our Fairewinds book list, we recommend “The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors” by Jay Gould, and “Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment” by Sandra Steingraber.

Related Material

Fairewinds Video: Tokyo Soil Samples would be Nuclear Waste in the US 

Libbe HaLevy interview with Arnie Gundersen: Olympic Insanity + If Gundersen were in Charge at Fukushima

Fairewinds FAQS: We answer questions about health concerns, radiation exposure, radiation testing, and more.

Fairewinds Video: TEPCO Believes Mission Accomplished & Regulators Allow Radioactive Dumping in Tokyo Bay

Demystifying Nuclear Power Blog Post by Art Keller: Cleanup From Fukushima Daiichi: Technological Disaster Or Crisis In Governance?

Japanese Street Art exhibit at the Japanese Foreign Correspondents Club addresses Fukushima Daiichi, government cover-up, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics