The Medical And Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident March 11 & 12 2013

The New York Academy of Medicine New York City

 The Helen Caldicott Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility

       There were some 200 in the audience in rapt silence as many videographers recorded more than twenty-five presentations about the March, 2011 meltdowns of the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactors. The catastrophe was examined by leading world experts in radiation biology, epidemiology, oceanography, nuclear engineering, and nuclear policy. The talks were insightful, well-researched, poignant, and based on solid science and medical practice. And quite understandable for some in the audience, like me, who have none of these backgrounds.

        Both days started promptly at 9 AM and ended promptly at 6:30 PM. During each morning and afternoon coffee break, there was a great buzz as we met people from all over the world, including Ukraine, Australia, Japan, Canada, and all over the US.

       The conference opened with a video sent by and featuring former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan who was in office when the catastrophe of the Fukushima meltdowns occurred. Mr. Kan stressed that design flaws and human error caused the meltdowns. Mr. Kan stated emphatically that nuclear power cannot coexist with human life and must be abolished worldwide. Mr. Kan said releases of cancer-inducing Cesium-137 amounted to 400 to 500 times the releases of the Hiroshima bomb and that radioactive releases continue from the site. Despite TEPCO’s wish to the contrary, Mr. Kan said he made the difficult decision to require workers to remain on site in order to contain the catastrophe. 

        Mr. Kan emphasized that Fukushima is a man-made catastrophe which was engineered by GE and sold to Japan by the US

       Dr. Alexey Yablokov of the Russian Academy of Sciences drew a standing ovation as he explained his unique methodology for assessing cancer incidence from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown and his book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.

        Dr. Yabloko has concluded that official estimates including the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) and Soviet and Russian governments underestimate both mortality and cancers caused by radiation from Chernobyl.

      Before Monday’s lunch, we heard testimony from two US Navy veterans, Jaime Plym and Maurice Enis, who are among 5,000 sailors caught in Fukushima’s radiation fallout aboard the USS Ronald Reagan just off shore of the meltdowns for 80 days. The veterans were given no protective gear, no potassium iodine pills, and no information that they were being exposed to high levels of radiation. Before disembarking the ship, they were ordered to sign papers saying they were in good health and agreed they would not sue the US for any heath problems they might experience in the future. They say they now suffer serious health problems and no health insurance to cover their medical bills. With other Navy personnel who accuse TEPCO of providing “false and misleading information” about Fukushima while being “aware that the potential health risk was greater than its agents were reporting.” (See CBS News report: Navy Vets Say Fukushima Meltdown Made Them Sick 3/11/13).

       During Tuesday’s lunch break, we heard from several Japanese women about societal and medical effects of Fukushima on Japanese family and culture. The women cite the Japanese government’s failure to inform citizens of the real dangers and further note the Japanese government’s failure adequately to compensate citizens for loss of property. Further, the Japanese media failed to investigate and report on the Fukushima disaster in timely fashion. The women are worried about their health and the health of their children since the meltdowns.

       Many speakers pointed out that there was little planning for the possibility a disaster of the magnitude of the Fukushima meltdowns. There will undoubtedly be long-lasting and serious health effects incurring DNA damage going forward for many, many generations.

       The consensus of speakers acknowledges no possible remediation of widespread high levels of contamination. Any genuine cleanup would be impossibly expensive and time consuming. It is clear that there is nowhere to put enormous amounts of contaminated soil, water, and debris. In addition, the 80% of radiation that leaked into the Pacific is irretrievable: even if we COULD clean things up, it is too late. The horse is out of the barn.

       The physicians stressed their oath, “Above all, do no harm.” Prevention is the most important thing. Nuclear energy’s capacity to do damage is beyond human control, and the only way to prevent harm is to abolish nuclear power.

       Others spoke of the failure of US engineers when they sited the Fukushima reactors in a high-level earthquake area with a long history of tsunamis, some of them measurable at considerable height. To provide easier road access to the reactors, Fukushima developers blasted a natural cliff sea wall down from 30 feet to 10 feet with a 14-foot man-made sea wall. The 2011 tsunami crested to 46 feet and flooded basement diesels so that they could no longer provide auxiliary power, thus leading to the meltdowns.

       Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen spoke of economic pressures to curb costs, thus undermining the stringency of inspections, oversight, and maintenance. As in the United States, Japanese oversight agencies often draw from the nuclear industry. Oversight agencies are, therefore, corrupted by close ties. Mr. Gundersen also mentioned that spent fuel rods stored at Fukushima in dry casks on site were unharmed by the effects of the earthquake and tsunami. Spent fuel stored in pools high above the ground portend much more danger, but as at United States nuclear plants,TEPCO resisted putting rods in casks because of the cost: about $1.2 million each.

       Mr. Gundersen further reported that Fukushima radiation monitors recorded 30,000 times the usual background radiation yearly dose in 10 minutes on March 12, although those readings were not made public at that time. Mr. Gundersen visited Tokyo in November, 2012, and took soil samples. He found the soil he measured contained radioactive hot spots.

       Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum called Fukushima a foreseeable disaster in large measure because of its flawed design. Because of the flawed design, including basement back-up generators flooded by the tsunami, Fukushima’s reactors were without necessary auxiliary power for 9 days. Therefore, fuel rods heated up to meltdown without pumps to circulate cooling water. 

       In the immediate wake of the meltdowns, there was a muddled chain of command and climate of profound cover-up.

       Many speakers noted the acknowledged flawed design of Fukushima’s GE Mark 1 boiling water reactors. GE itself described the design’s deficiencies in the early 70s, but reactors modeled on the prototype were nevertheless installed in many places, including Fukushima and more than 30 US sites, many of them still operating. Akin to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Japan’s oversight agency is corrupted by the industry it purports to regulate, according to many of the symposium’s speakers.

       It is notable that if the Japanese government acknowledged the true extent of radiation contamination, compensating the millions of affected people and businesses would bankrupt Japan.

       Presenters observed that the US has 63 military installations throughout the Japanese islands with some 60,000 military dependents including men, women, and children. These people, too, are potentially eligible for compensation and evacuation if the extent of contamination were to be honestly acknowledged.

       Maps of radiation from Fukushima demonstrate a variable path because of prevailing winds, uneven concentrations, and fickle meteorological conditions. One thing is clear: more radiation will leak from Fukushima and, if Reactor 4 is not contained, future leakage will occur.

       Some speakers shared studies of radiation exposure demonstrating that women, children, and especially fetuses are much more vulnerable than young men to damage and possible cancers from radiation exposure, although the standard for measuring harm from radiation is young men. Other studies show high infant mortality rates in both Japan and the US west coast at almost precisely nine months after the disaster, a phenomenon also observed within nine months of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

       Presenters also charged that International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization statistics from the Fukushima tragedy understate its extent.

      “The Fukushima crisis is actually an issue of global public health,” said Dr. Caldicott in her concluding remarks. “We are already observing a demonstrable, increased incidence of thyroid abnormalities in children in the Fukushima Prefecture. This may be an early indicator of an eventual increased incidence of thyroid cancers.

      “Further, plumes of radioactivity from Fukushima are currently migrating in the Pacific Ocean towards the West Coast,” Dr. Caldicott added. “The crisis is far from over . . . and worst of all, Fukushima Daichi’s Building #4, which holds 100 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel, was seriously damaged in the earthquake and could collapse in another quake. This would cause the fuel pool to burn, releasing even more massive amounts of radiation. All of these have profound medical and public health implications.”

       Dr. Caldicott implored her audience to work for a renewable energy future well within our ability to achieve. “Within nine months of Pearl Harbor,” she observed, “the United States completely retooled its industry to make war. It would be entirely possible within nine months, for the US to completely retool its industry to make and install solar panels and wind turbines to replace fossil-fuel and nuclear energy sources.”

       Dr. Caldicott also encouraged conservation and urged people to examine their life styles, turning off their dryers, hang clothes on clotheslines, and develop mindfulness of energy-hogging lifestyles.

Hattie Nestel


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