Two Years On, Fukushima Raises Many Questions, Provides One Clear Answer

Fukushima's threats to health and the environment continue. (graphic: Surian Soosay via flickr)

Fukushima’s threats to health and the environment continue. (graphic: Surian Soosay via flickr)

You can’t say you have all the answers if you haven’t asked all the questions. So, at a conference on the medical and ecological consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, held to commemorate the second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan, there were lots of questions. Questions about what actually happened at Fukushima Daiichi in the first days after the quake, and how that differed from the official report; questions about what radionuclides were in the fallout and runoff, at what concentrations, and how far they have spread; and questions about what near- and long-term effects this disaster will have on people and the planet, and how we will measure and recognize those effects.

A distinguished list of epidemiologists, oncologists, nuclear engineers, former government officials, Fukushima survivors, anti-nuclear activists and public health advocates gathered at the invitation of The Helen Caldicott Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility to, if not answer all these question, at least make sure they got asked. Over two long days, it was clear there is much still to be learned, but it was equally clear that we already know that the downsides of nuclear power are real, and what’s more, the risks are unnecessary. Relying on this dirty, dangerous and expensive technology is not mandatory–it’s a choice. And when cleaner, safer, and more affordable options are available, the one answer we already have is that nuclear is a choice we should stop making and a risk we should stop taking.

“No one died from the accident at Fukushima.” This refrain, as familiar as multiplication tables and sounding about as rote when recited by acolytes of atomic power, is a close mirror to versions used to downplay earlier nuclear disasters, like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (as well as many less infamous events), and is somehow meant to be the discussion-ender, the very bottom-line of the bottom-line analysis that is used to grade global energy options. “No one died” equals “safe” or, at least, “safer.” Q.E.D.

But beyond the intentional blurring of the differences between an “accident” and the probable results of technical constraints and willful negligence, the argument (if this saw can be called such) cynically exploits the space between solid science and the simple sound bite.

“Do not confuse narrowly constructed research hypotheses with discussions of policy,” warned Steve Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health. Good research is an exploration of good data, but, Wing contrasted, “Energy generation is a public decision made by politicians.”

Surprisingly unsurprising

A public decision, but not necessarily one made in the public interest. Energy policy could be informed by health and environmental studies, such as the ones discussed at the Fukushima symposium, but it is more likely the research is spun or ignored once policy is actually drafted by the politicians who, as Wing noted, often sport ties to the nuclear industry.

The link between politicians and the nuclear industry they are supposed to regulate came into clear focus in the wake of the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami–in Japan and the United States.

The boiling water reactors (BWRs) that failed so catastrophically at Fukushima Daiichi were designed and sold by General Electric in the 1960s; the general contractor on the project was Ebasco, a US engineering company that, back then, was still tied to GE. General Electric had bet heavily on nuclear and worked hand-in-hand with the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC–the precursor to the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to promote civilian nuclear plants at home and abroad. According to nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, GE told US regulators in 1965 that without quick approval of multiple BWR projects, the giant energy conglomerate would go out of business.

It was under the guidance of GE and Ebasco that the rocky bluffs where Daiichi would be built were actually trimmed by 10 meters to bring the power plant closer to the sea, the water source for the reactors’ cooling systems–but it was under Japanese government supervision that serious and repeated warnings about the environmental and technological threats to Fukushima were ignored for another generation.

Failures at Daiichi were completely predictable, observed David Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and numerous upgrades were recommended over the years by scientists and engineers. “The only surprising thing about Fukushima,” said Lochbaum, “is that no steps were taken.”

The surprise, it seems, should cross the Pacific. Twenty-two US plants mirror the design of Fukushima Daiichi, and many stand where they could be subject to earthquakes or tsunamis. Even without those seismic events, some US plants are still at risk of Fukushima-like catastrophic flooding. Prior to the start of the current Japanese crisis, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission learned that the Oconee Nuclear Plant in Seneca, South Carolina, was at risk of a major flood from a dam failure upstream. In the event of a dam breach–an event the NRC deems more likely than the odds that were given for the 2011 tsunami–the flood at Oconee would trigger failures at all four reactors. Beyond hiding its own report, the NRC has taken no action–not before Fukushima, not since.

The missing link

But it was the health consequences of nuclear power–both from high-profile disasters, as well as what is considered normal operation–that dominated the two days of presentations at the New York Academy of Medicine. Here, too, researchers and scientists attempted to pose questions that governments, the nuclear industry and its captured regulators prefer to ignore, or, perhaps more to the point, omit.

Dr. Hisako Sakiyama, a member of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, has been studying the effects of low-dose radiation. Like others at the symposium, Dr. Sakiyama documented the linear, no-threshold risk model drawn from data across many nuclear incidents. In essence, there is no point at which it can be said, “Below this amount of radiation exposure, there is no risk.” And the greater the exposure, the greater the risk of health problems, be they cancers or non-cancer diseases.

Dr. Sakiyama contrasted this with the radiation exposure limits set by governments. Japan famously increased what it called acceptable exposure quite soon after the start of the Fukushima crisis, and, as global background radiation levels increase as a result of the disaster, it is feared this will ratchet up what is considered “safe” in the United States, as the US tends to discuss limits in terms of exposure beyond annual average background radiation. Both approaches lack credibility and expose an ugly truth. “Debate on low-dose radiation risk is not scientific,” explained Sakiyama, “but political.”

And the politics are posing health and security risks in Japan and the US.

Akio Matsumura, who spoke at the Fukushima conference in his role as founder of the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders for Human Survival, described a situation at the crippled Japanese nuclear plant that is much more perilous, even today, than leaders are willing to acknowledge. Beyond the precarious state of the spent fuel pool above reactor four, Matsumura also cited the continued melt-throughs of reactor cores (which could lead to a steam explosion), the high levels of radiation at reactors one and three (making any repairs impossible), and the unprotected pipes retrofitted to help cool reactors and spent fuel. “Probability of another disaster,” Matsumura warned, “is higher than you think.”

Matsumura lamented that investigations of both the technical failures and the health effects of the disaster are not well organized. “There is no longer a link between scientists and politicians,” said Matsumura, adding, “This link is essential.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Lochbaum took it further. “We are losing the no-brainers with the NRC,” he said, implying that what should be accepted as basic regulatory responsibility is now subject to political debate. With government agencies staffed by industry insiders, “the deck is stacked against citizens.”

Both Lochbaum and Arnie Gundersen criticized the nuclear industry’s lack of compliance, even with pre-Fukushima safety requirements. And the industry’s resistance undermines nuclear’s claims of being competitive on price. “If you made nuclear power plants meet existing law,” said Gundersen, “they would have to shut because of cost.”

But without stronger safety rules and stricter enforcement, the cost is borne by people instead.

Determinate data, indeterminate risk

While the two-day symposium was filled with detailed discussions of chemical and epidemiologic data collected throughout the nuclear age–from Hiroshima through Fukushima–a cry for more and better information was a recurring theme. In a sort of wily corollary to “garbage in, garbage out,” experts bemoaned what seem like deliberate holes in the research.

Even the long-term tracking study of those exposed to the radiation and fallout in Japan after the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki–considered by many the gold-standard in radiation exposure research because of the large sample size and the long period of time over which data was collected–raises as many questions as it answers.

The Hiroshima-Nagasaki data was referenced heavily by Dr. David Brenner of the Center for Radiological Research, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Brenner praised the study while using it to buttress his opinion that, while harm from any nuclear event is unfortunate, the Fukushima crisis will result in relatively few excess cancer deaths–something like 500 in Japan, and an extra 2,000 worldwide.

“There is an imbalance of individual risk versus overall anxiety,” said Brenner.

But Dr. Wing, the epidemiologist from the UNC School of Public Health, questioned the reliance on the atom bomb research, and the relatively rosy conclusions those like Dr. Brenner draw from it.

“The Hiroshima and Nagasaki study didn’t begin till five years after the bombs were dropped,” cautioned Wing. “Many people died before research even started.” The examination of cancer incidence in the survey, Wing continued, didn’t begin until 1958–it misses the first 13 years of data. Research on “Black Rain” survivors (those who lived through the heavy fallout after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings) excludes important populations from the exposed group, despite those populations’ high excess mortality, thus driving down reported cancer rates for those counted.

The paucity of data is even more striking in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident, and examinations of populations around American nuclear power plants that haven’t experienced high-profile emergencies are even scarcer. “Studies like those done in Europe have never been done in the US,” said Wing with noticeable regret. Wing observed that a German study has shown increased incidences of childhood leukemia near operating nuclear plants.

There is relatively more data on populations exposed to radioactive contamination in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Yet, even in this catastrophic case, the fact that the data has been collected and studied owes much to the persistence of Alexey Yablokov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Yablokov has been examining Chernobyl outcomes since the early days of the crisis. His landmark collection of medical records and the scientific literature, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, has its critics, who fault its strong warnings about the long-term dangers of radiation exposure, but it is that strident tone that Yablokov himself said was crucial to the evolution of global thinking about nuclear accidents.

Because of pressure from the scientific community and, as Yablokov stressed at the New York conference, pressure from the general public, as well, reaction to accidents since Chernobyl has evolved from “no immediate risk,” to small numbers who are endangered, to what is now called “indeterminate risk.”

Calling risk “indeterminate,” believe it or not, actually represents a victory for science, because it means more questions are asked–and asking more questions can lead to more and better answers.

Yablokov made it clear that it is difficult to estimate the real individual radiation dose–too much data is not collected early in a disaster, fallout patterns are patchy and different groups are exposed to different combinations of particles–but he drew strength from the volumes and variety of data he’s examined.

Indeed, as fellow conference participant, radiation biologist Ian Fairlie, observed, people can criticize Yablokov’s advocacy, but the data is the data, and in the Chernobyl book, there is lots of data.

Complex and consequential

Data presented at the Fukushima symposium also included much on what might have been–and continues to be–released by the failing nuclear plant in Japan, and how that contamination is already affecting populations on both sides of the Pacific.

Several of those present emphasized the need to better track releases of noble gasses, such as xenon-133, from the earliest days of a nuclear accident–both because of the dangers these elements pose to the public and because gas releases can provide clues to what is unfolding inside a damaged reactor. But more is known about the high levels of radioactive iodine and cesium contamination that have resulted from the Fukushima crisis.

In the US, since the beginning of the disaster, five west coast states have measured elevated levels of iodine-131 in air, water and kelp samples, with the highest airborne concentrations detected from mid-March through the end of April 2011. Iodine concentrates in the thyroid, and, as noted by Joseph Mangano, director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, fetal thyroids are especially sensitive. In the 15 weeks after fallout from Fukushima crossed the Pacific, the western states reported a 28-percent increase in newborn (congenital) hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), according to the Open Journal of Pediatrics. Mangano contrasted this with a three-percent drop in the rest of the country during the same period.

The most recent data from Fukushima prefecture shows over 44 percent of children examined there have thyroid abnormalities.

Of course, I-131 has a relatively short half-life; radioactive isotopes of cesium will have to be tracked much longer.

With four reactors and densely packed spent fuel pools involved, Fukushima Daiichi’s “inventory” (as it is called) of cesium-137 dwarfed Chernobyl’s at the time of its catastrophe. Consequently, and contrary to some of the spin out there, the Cs-137 emanating from the Fukushima plant is also out-pacing what happened in Ukraine.

Estimates put the release of Cs-137 in the first months of the Fukushima crisis at between 64 and 114 petabecquerels (this number includes the first week of aerosol release and the first four months of ocean contamination). And the damaged Daiichi reactors continue to add an additional 240 million becquerels of radioactive cesium to the environment every single day. Chernobyl’s cesium-137 release is pegged at about 84 petabecquerels. (One petabecquerel equals 1,000,000,000,000,000 becquerels.) By way of comparison, the nuclear “device” dropped on Hiroshima released 89 terabecquerels (1,000 terabecquerels equal one petabecquerel) of Cs-137, or, to put it another way, Fukushima has already released more than 6,400 times as much radioactive cesium as the Hiroshima bomb.

The effects of elevated levels of radioactive cesium are documented in several studies across post-Chernobyl Europe, but while the implications for public health are significant, they are also hard to contain in a sound bite. As medical genetics expert Wladimir Wertelecki explained during the conference, a number of cancers and other serious diseases emerged over the first decade after Chernobyl, but the cycles of farming, consuming, burning and then fertilizing with contaminated organic matter will produce illness and genetic abnormalities for many decades to come. Epidemiological studies are only descriptive, Wertelecki noted, but they can serve as a “foundation for cause and effect.” The issues ahead for all of those hoping to understand the Fukushima disaster and the repercussions of the continued use of nuclear power are, as Wertelecki pointed out, “Where you study and what you ask.”

One of the places that will need some of the most intensive study is the Pacific Ocean. Because Japan is an island, most of Fukushima’s fallout plume drifted out to sea. Perhaps more critically, millions of gallons of water have been pumped into and over the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools at Daiichi, and because of still-unplugged leaks, some of that water flows into the ocean every day. (And even if those leaks are plugged and the nuclear fuel is stabilized someday, mountain runoff from the area will continue to discharge radionuclides into the water.) Fukushima’s fisheries are closed and will remain so as far into the future as anyone can anticipate. Bottom feeders and freshwater fish exhibit the worst levels of cesium, but they are only part of the picture. Ken Beusseler, a marine scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, described a complex ecosystem of ocean currents, food chains and migratory fish, some of which carry contamination with them, some of which actually work cesium out of their flesh over time. The seabed and some beaches will see increases in radio-contamination. “You can’t keep just measuring fish,” warned Beusseler, implying that the entire Pacific Rim has involuntarily joined a multidimensional long-term radiation study.

For what it’s worth

Did anyone die as a result of the nuclear disaster that started at Fukushima Daiichi two years ago? Dr. Sakiyama, the Japanese investigator, told those assembled at the New York symposium that 60 patients died while being moved from hospitals inside the radiation evacuation zone–does that count? Joseph Mangano has reported on increases in infant deaths in the US following the arrival of Fukushima fallout–does that count? Will cancer deaths or future genetic abnormalities, be they at the low or high end of the estimates, count against this crisis?

It is hard to judge these answers when the question is so very flawed.

As discussed by many of the participants throughout the Fukushima conference, a country’s energy decisions are rooted in politics. Nuclear advocates would have you believe that their favorite fuel should be evaluated inside an extremely limited universe, that there is some level of nuclear-influenced harm that can be deemed “acceptable,” that questions stem from the necessity of atomic energy instead of from whether civilian nuclear power is necessary at all.

The nuclear industry would have you do a cost-benefit analysis, but they’d get to choose which costs and benefits you analyze.

While all this time has been and will continue to be spent on tracking the health and environmental effects of nuclear power, it isn’t a fraction of a fraction of the time that the world will be saddled with fission’s dangerous high-level radioactive trash (a problem without a real temporary storage program, forget a permanent disposal solution). And for all the money that has been and will continue to be spent compiling the health and environmental data, it is a mere pittance when compared with the government subsidies, liability waivers and loan guarantees lavished upon the owners and operators of nuclear plants.

Many individual details will continue to emerge, but a basic fact is already clear: nuclear power is not the world’s only energy option. Nor are the choices limited to just fossil and fissile fuels. Nuclear lobbyists would love to frame the debate–as would advocates for natural gas, oil or coal–as cold calculations made with old math. But that is not where the debate really resides.

If nuclear reactors were the only way to generate electricity, would 500 excess cancer deaths be acceptable? How about 5,000? How about 50,000? If nuclear’s projected mortality rate comes in under coal’s, does that make the deaths–or the high energy bills, for that matter–more palatable?

As the onetime head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, David Freeman, pointed out toward the end of the symposium, every investment in a new nuclear, gas or coal plant is a fresh 40-, 50-, or 60-year commitment to a dirty, dangerous and outdated technology. Every favor the government grants to nuclear power triggers an intense lobbying effort on behalf of coal or gas, asking for equal treatment. Money spent bailing out the past could be spent building a safer and more sustainable future.

Nuclear does not exist in a vacuum; so neither do its effects. There is much more to be learned about the medical and ecological consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster–but that knowledge should be used to minimize and mitigate the harm. These studies do not ask and are not meant to answer, “Is nuclear worth it?” When the world already has multiple alternatives–not just in renewable technologies, but also in conservation strategies and improvements in energy efficiency–the answer is already “No.”

A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout; no version may be reprinted without permission.

Book Salon – Joseph Mangano, Author of Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment

[Note: On Saturday afternoon, I hosted FDL Book Salon, featuring a live Q&A with Joseph Mangano, author of Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment. This is a repost of that discussion.]

In December of 1962, Consolidated Edison, New York City’s main purveyor of electricity, announced that it had submitted an official proposal to the US Atomic Energy Commission (the AEC, the precursor to today’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission) for the construction of a nuclear power plant on a site called Ravenswood. . . in Queens. . . on the East River. . . directly across from the United Nations. . . within five miles of roughly five million people.

Ravenswood became the site of America’s first demonstrations against nuclear power. It inspired petitions to President John F. Kennedy and NYC Mayor Robert Wagner, and the possibility of a nuclear reactor in such a densely populated area even invited public skepticism from the pro-nuclear head of the AEC, David Lilienthal. Finally, after a year of pressure, led by the borough’s community leaders, Con Edison withdrew their application.

But within three years, reports suggested Con Ed had plans to build a nuclear plant under Central Park. After that idea was roundly criticized, the utility publicly proposed a reactor complex under Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), instead.

Despite the strong support of Laurence Rockefeller, the brother of New York State’s governor, the Welfare Island project disappeared from Con Ed’s plans by 1970. . . soon to be replaced by the idea of a nuclear “jetport”–artificial islands to be built in the ocean just south of New York City that would host a pair of commercial reactors.

Does that sound like madness? Well, from today’s perspective–with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima universally understood as synonyms for disaster–it probably does. But there was a time before those meltdowns when nuclear power still had a bit of a glow, when, despite (or because of) the devastation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, many believed that the atom’s awesome power could be harnessed for good; a time when dangerous and deadly mishaps at a number of the nation’s earlier reactors were easily excused or kept completely secret.

In Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment, Joseph Mangano returns to that time, and then methodically pulls back the curtain on the real history of nuclear folly and failure, and the energy source that continues to masquerade as clean, safe, and “too cheap to meter.”

From Chalk River, in Canada, the world’s first reactor meltdown, through Idaho’s EBR-1, Waltz Mill, PA, Santa Susana’s failed Sodium Reactor Experiment, the Idaho National Lab explosion that killed three, Fermi-1, which almost irradiated Detroit, and, of course, Three Mile Island, Mad Science provides a chilling catalog of nuclear accidents, all of which were disasters in their own right, and all of which illustrate a troubling pattern of safety breeches followed by secrecy and lies.

Nuclear power’s precarious existence is not, of course, just a story for the history books, and Mangano also details the state of America’s 104 remaining reactors. So many of today’s plants have problems, too, but perhaps the maddest thing about the mad science of civilian atomic power is that science often plays a minor role in decisions about the technology’s future.

From its earliest days, this supposedly super-cheap energy was financially unsustainable. By the mid-1950s, private insurers had turned their back on nuclear facilities, fearing the massive payouts that would follow any accident. The nuclear industry turned to the US government, and in 1957, the Price-Anderson Act limited a plant’s liability to an artificially low but apparently insurable figure–any damage beyond that would be covered by US taxpayers. Shippingport, America’s first large-scale commercial nuclear reactor, was built entirely with government money, and that is hardly an isolated story. Even before the Three Mile Island meltdown, Wall Street had walked away from nuclear energy, meaning that no new reactors could be built without massive federal loan guarantees.

Indeed, the cost of construction, when piled on top of the cost of fueling, skilled labor, operation and upkeep, made the prospect of opening a new nuclear plant financially unpalatable. So, as Mangano explains, nuclear utilities turned to another strategy for making their vertical profitable, one familiar to any student of late Western capitalism. Rather than build, energy companies would instead buy. Since the 1990s, the nuclear sector has seen massive consolidation. Mergers and acquisitions have created nuclear mega-corporations, like Exelon, Duke, and Entergy, which run multiple reactors across many facilities in many states. And the supposed regulators of the industry, the NRC, has encouraged this behavior by rubberstamping dozens upon dozens of 20-year license extensions, turning reactors that were supposed to be nearing the end of their functional lives into valuable assets.

But the pain of nuclear power isn’t only measured in meltdowns and money. Whether firing on all cylinders (as it were) or falling apart, nuclear plants have proven to be dangerous to the populations they are supposed to serve. Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist by trade, and director of the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), has made a career out of trying to understand the immediate and long-term effects of nuclear madness, be it from fallout, leaks, or the “permissible levels” of radioactive isotopes that are regularly released from reactors as part of normal operation.

As I mentioned earlier this week, Mangano and the RPHP are the inheritors of the Baby Tooth Survey, the groundbreaking examination of strontium levels in children born before, during and after the age of atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. The discovery of high levels of Sr-90, a radioactive byproduct of uranium fission, in the baby teeth of children born in the 1950s and ’60s led directly to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Mangano’s work has built on the original survey, linking elevated Sr-90 levels to cancer, and examining the increases in strontium in the bodies of children that lived close to nuclear power plants. And all of this is explained in great detail in Mad Science.

The author has also applied his expertise to the fallout from the ongoing Fukushima disaster. Last December, Mangano and Janette Sherman published a peer-reviewed article in the International Journal of Health Sciences (PDF) stating that in the 14 weeks following the start of the Japanese nuclear crisis, an estimated 14,000 excess deaths in the United States could be linked to radioactive fallout from Fukushima Daiichi. (RPHP has since revised that estimate–upward–to almost 22,000 deaths (PDF).)

That last study is not specifically detailed in Mad Science, but I hope we can touch on it today–along with some of the many equally maddening “experiments” in nuclear energy production that Mangano carefully unwraps in his book.

[Click here to read my two-hour chat with Joe Mangano.]

Barry Commoner, The First Guy I Ever Voted For, Dead at 95

I have been remiss in not writing this sooner. . . .

Dr. Barry Commoner, scientist, activist, educator and one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, died on September 30 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 95.

Commoner, raised in New York and educated as a biologist at Columbia and Harvard, spent a lifetime combining his grasp of science with his love of humanity, translating seemingly arcane concepts into basic principles that could inspire insight and action. He recognized early on the unexpected consequences of many post-World War II technological “miracles,” and was prescient in articulating connections between struggles for social justice and environmental health.

I met Dr. Commoner in 1980, when he brought his third-party campaign for US president to my university. Running as the candidate of the Citizens Party, which he helped found, Commoner didn’t command an auditorium (remember this was 1980, when Ronald Reagan sucked up most of the oxygen and Rep. John Anderson’s absurd “heart on the left, wallet on the right” rhetoric captured many young politicos’ third-party zeal). Instead, Commoner sat in what I remember as a smallish classroom, discussing the state of the world with an egalitarian equanimity. He knew he wasn’t going to win the election, but he had things he wanted to explain, and a level of participation he wanted to motivate.

(Years later, Commoner recalled his favorite moment of the campaign, when he was asked by a reporter, “Dr. Commoner, are you a serious candidate, or are you just running on the issues?”)

Even in that less-than-grand setting, it was still heady for a college freshman, for Commoner was not only a candidate on the national stage, he was a recognized activist and a public intellectual.

I was familiar with Barry Commoner before I got to college. As a national topic debater in high school, I had often encountered the neo-Malthusian arguments of Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. It was common to hear that an unpleasant consequence of a supposedly beneficial plan was a drop in mortality, and so a spike in population, causing resource shortages and environmental degradation. As a debater, I had occasion to argue both pro and con, but when it was my turn to refute Ehrlich, the evidence I pulled out of my ox box was most often from Dr. Commoner.

Commoner had himself debated Professor Ehrlich in the early 1970s, noting that the high birthrates in poor communities were a form of social security, and that, in turn, those communities were poor because others were so rich. Dr. Commoner argued that rather than blame the developing world for the coming “population bomb” and the disasters it would trigger, we should focus on the wealth and resources the developed world had taken from the underprivileged:

As Commoner argued, it is rich nations that consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. And it was their systems of colonialism and imperialism that led to the exploitation of the Third World’s natural resources for consumption in the wealthy nations, making the poor even poorer. Without the financial resources to improve their living conditions, people in developing countries relied more heavily upon increased birthrates as a form of social security than did people in wealthier nations.

As Commoner wrote, “The poor countries have high birthrates because they are extremely poor, and they are extremely poor because other countries are extremely rich.” His solution to the population problem was to increase the standard of living of the world’s poor, which would result in a voluntary reduction of fertility, as has occurred in the rich countries.

Or as it was explained elsewhere:

Reducing population, Dr. Commoner wrote, was “equivalent to attempting to save a leaking ship by lightening the load and forcing passengers overboard.”

“One is constrained to ask if there isn’t something radically wrong with the ship.”

It was Commoner’s attention to the means of production as the crux of the problem–instead of the labor or the consumers–that gave his ideas a common sense and a compassion that the neo-Malthusians’ lacked.

And it was that sense, that compassion, and that (dare I use this word?) simplicity that always carried the day with me.

Indeed, some have mentioned that it is hard to recognize Barry Commoner’s monumental importance today because so many of the ideas that once got him labeled a radical are now just considered basic fact. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a 1990 review of Commoner’s book Making Peace with the World that it “suffers the commonest of unkind fates: to be so self-evidently true and just that we pass it by as a twice-told tale.”

Baby teeth

Of particular note here would be Dr. Commoner’s seminal activism on nuclear weapons and nuclear power. As he explained in a 1993 interview, “The Atomic Energy Commission turned me into an environmentalist.” (The US Atomic Energy Commission, a sort of hybrid precursor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy, was responsible for not only America’s nuclear weapons program, but both the promotion and regulation of civilian nuclear power, as well. It was an unhealthy mix, to say the least.)

Between 1945 and 1963, the US conducted 206 tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere (100 in Nevada, 106 in the Pacific); the Soviet Union conducted 216 such tests. By the early 1950s, some scientists, Dr. Commoner among them, became acutely aware that fallout from those tests was sweeping across the hemisphere, eventually returning to earth in precipitation, and entering the food chain through farms and dairies.

To help make that point, Dr. Commoner (along with Drs. Louise and Eric Reiss) founded the Baby Tooth Survey. In order to demonstrate that fallout was widespread and had worked its way into the population, the project sought to track strontium-90, a radioactive isotope that occurs as a result (and only as a result) of nuclear fission. Sr-90 is structurally similar to calcium, and so, once in the body, works its way into bones and teeth. Commoner, through the auspices of Washington University (where he then taught) and the St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information, collected baby teeth, initially from the area, eventually from around the globe, and analyzed them for strontium.

The program eventually collected well over a quarter-million teeth, and ultimately found that children in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times more Sr-90 in them than children born in 1950. Armed with preliminary results from this survey and a petition signed by thousands of scientists worldwide, Dr. Commoner successfully lobbied President John F. Kennedy to negotiate and sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, halting atmospheric nuclear tests by both the US and USSR.

The initial survey, which ended in 1970, continues to have relevance today. Some 85,000 teeth not used in the original project were turned over to researchers at the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) in 2001. The RPHP study, released in 2010, found that donors from the original survey who had died of cancer before age 50 averaged over twice the Sr-90 in their samples compared with those who had lived past their 50th birthday.

Dr. Commoner also understood that many of the perils of radioactive fallout could also be associated with the radiological pollution that is part-and-parcel of nuclear power generation. The controlled fission in a nuclear reactor produces all of the elements created in the uncontrolled fission of a nuclear explosion. This point was brought home by the RPHP work, when it found strontium-90 was 30- to 50-percent higher in baby teeth collected from children that grew up near nuclear power plants.

The connection between radiological pollution and cancer will seem like a short putt to most readers here, but that is because of the pioneering work and public passion of Barry Commoner.

[Programming note: The director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, Joseph Mangano, will join me for a live chat on Saturday, October 13, at 5 PM Eastern time, to discuss his new book, Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment, as part of the FDL Book Salon at]

Everything is connected

The broad reach and broader implications of the Baby Tooth Survey are a good example of the principles that drove Barry Commoner throughout his life. The connectivity of issues and the connectedness of the world’s people made the fight against nuclear weapons and the fight for clean, renewable energy part of the same struggle. Dr. Commoner thought that if the ecology movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s equality movement and organized labor could work together, they could remake society. In later years, he lamented the economic and political divisions that prevented this cooperation from happening.

But it is perhaps best to view Commoner’s life’s work through what he called his “four laws of ecology“:

  • Everything is connected to everything else.
  • Everything must go somewhere.
  • Nature knows best.
  • There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Again, it seems so basic now, but when offered up against the technology-worshiping capitalist utopianism of the post-war era, it was actually quite controversial.

And again, with a particular mind toward nuclear power, those four laws should go without saying. But when the nuclear industry, its lobbyists, proxies and political cronies all make light of past evidence and future concerns in their effort to prop up a mythical “nuclear renaissance,” maybe a rereading of Commoner’s arguments is necessary:

In his best-selling book The Poverty of Power (1976), Commoner introduced what he called the “Three Es”—the threat to environmental survival, the shortage of energy and the problems (such as inequality and unemployment) of the economy—and explained their interconnectedness: industries that use the most energy have the most negative impact on the environment. Our dependence on nonrenewable sources of energy inevitably leads to those resources becoming scarcer, raising the cost of energy and hurting the economy.

Nuclear power is, of course, a massive consumer of energy and resources. It is a tax on the environment and the economy, and in the end only perpetuates inequality and suffering. And, as for the problem of nuclear waste, well, “everything must go somewhere.”

But back in high school, when I was but a curly-haired boy in a three-piece suit pulling four-by-six cards out of a file, I had only a vague notion of all that. What did seem clear, however, was that it wasn’t wrong to want a better life for yourself while still caring about the lives of others. What did seem clear was that suffering was not the fault of the poor, nor should it be their inescapable lot.

And clearer still, by the time I was of voting age, was that neither the policies of Jimmy Carter nor Ronald Reagan were going to get the US anywhere close to that ideal. Nor was it possible to honestly profess a love for social justice while singing the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism (à la John Anderson).

It would probably not be hard to imagine today just how depressing it was for a newly enfranchised, politically aware kid to be offered only those options on his first ballot. Thanks to Dr. Barry Commoner, back in 1980, this kid had another choice.

Aftershocking: Frontline’s Fukushima Doc a Lazy Apologia for the Nuclear Industry

There is much to say about this week’s Frontline documentary, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” and some of it would even be good. For the casual follower of nuclear news in the ten months since an earthquake and tsunami triggered the massive and ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, it is illuminating to see the wreckage that once was a trio of active nuclear reactors, and the devastation and desolation that has replaced town after town inside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone. And it is eye-opening to experience at ground level the inadequacy of the Indian Point nuclear plant evacuation plan. It is also helpful to learn that citizens in Japan and Germany have seen enough and are demanding their countries phase out nuclear energy.

But if you are only a casual observer of this particular segment of the news, then the Frontline broadcast also left you with a mountain of misinformation and big bowl-full of unquestioned bias.

Take, for example, Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien’s cavalier treatment of the potential increase in Japanese cancer deaths, courtesy of the former property of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO):

MILES O’BRIEN: When Japanese authorities set radiation levels for evacuation, they were conservative, 20 millisieverts per year. That’s the equivalent of two or three abdominal CAT scans in the same period. I asked Dr. Gen Suzuki about this.

[on camera] So at 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?

GEN SUZUKI, Radiation specialist, Nuclear Safety Comm.: Yeah, it’s 0.2— 0.2 percent increase in lifetime.

MILES O’BRIEN: [on camera] 0.2 percent over the course of a lifetime?


MILES O’BRIEN: So your normal risk of cancer in Japan is?

GEN SUZUKI: Is 30 percent.

MILES O’BRIEN: So what is the increased cancer rate?

GEN SUZUKI: 30.2 percent, so the increment is quite small.

MILES O’BRIEN: And yet the fear is quite high.

GEN SUZUKI: Yes, that’s true.

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] People are even concerned here, in Fukushima City, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation contamination is officially below any danger level.

There was no countervailing opinion offered after this segment–which is kind of disgraceful because there is a myriad of informed, countervailing opinions out there.

Is 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year a conservative limit on exposure? Well, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the average annual dose for those living in the United States is 6.2 mSv, half of which is background, with the other half expected to come from diagnostic medical procedures. And according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the maximum additional dose for an adult before it is considered an “unacceptable risk” is one millisievert per year.

Then, to assess the cancer risk, O’Brien, practically in the same breath, changes exposure over a single year to “over the course of a long period of time”–an inexcusable muddying of the facts. One year for those who must live out their lives in northern Japan might wind up seeming like a long period of time, but it would actually be a small fraction of their lifetimes, and so would present them with only a fraction of their exposure.

So, is Dr. Gen Suzuki assessing the increased cancer risk for 20 mSv over a lifetime, a long time, or just one year? It is hard to say for sure, though, based on his estimates, it seems more like he is using a much longer timeframe than a single year. But even if his estimate really is the total expected increase in cancer deaths from the Fukushima disaster, what is he talking about? Miles O’Brien seems almost incredulous that anyone would be showing concern over a .2 percent increase, but in Japan, a .2 percent increase in cancer deaths means 2,000 more deaths. How many modern nations would find any disaster–natural or manmade–that resulted in 2,000 deaths to be negligible? For that matter, how many of the reporters, producers or crew of Frontline would feel good about rolling the dice and moving their family into an area that expects 2,000 additional fatalities?

Further, the exchange doesn’t say anything about the person who is supposed to casually endure the equivalent of three abdominal CAT scans a year (something no respectable professional would recommend without some very serious cause). The effects of radiation exposure on children are quite a bit different from the effects of the same exposure on adults–and quite a bit more troubling. And young girls are more at risk than young boys. Though the Frontline episode features many pictures of children–for instance, playing little league baseball–it never mentions their higher risks.

Also missing here, any mention that in a country now blanketed north to south in varying levels of radioactive fallout, radiation exposure is not purely external. The estimates discussed above are based on an increase in background radiation, but radioactive isotopes are inhaled with fallout-laden dust and dirt, and consumed with food from contaminated farmlands and fisheries. Outcomes will depend on the isotopes and who consumes them–radioactive Iodine concentrates in the Thyroid and has a half life of a couple of weeks; Cesium 137 tends to gravitate toward muscle and has a half-life of about 30 years. Strontium 90, which concentrates in bones, lasts almost as long. The affect of all of this needs to be factored in to any estimates of post-Fukushima morbidity.

So, as one might imagine, Dr. Suzuki’s cancer estimate, be it from his own deliberate downplay or O’Brien’s sloppy framing, is widely disputed. In fact, a quick survey of the literature might call the estimate in Frontline an absurdly low outlier.

By way of example, take findings compiled by Fairwinds Associates, an engineering and environmental consulting firm often critical of the nuclear industry. Using data from the National Academy of Science’s report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR), Fairwinds explains that one in every 100 girls will develop cancer for every year they are exposed to that “conservative” 20 mSv of radiation. But Fairwinds believes the BEIR also underestimates the risk. Fairwinds introduces additional analysis to show that “at least one out of every 20 young girls (5%) living in an area where the radiological exposure is 20 millisieverts for five years will develop cancer in their lifetime.”

It should be noted here that five years of 20 mSv per year would equal 100 mSv lifetime exposure–the newly revised lifetime maximum set by Japan after the start of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And some cities in northern Japan, uncomfortable with this blanket prescription, have set limits for children at one millisievert per year.

None of this information was hard to find, and all of it stems from data provided by large, respected institutions, yet, for some reason, O’Brien and Frontline felt content to let their single source set a tone of “no big deal.” Worried Japanese residents featured just after the interview with Dr. Suzuki are portrayed as broadly irrational, if not borderline hysterical.

The dismissive tenor of the medical segment carries over to several other parts of “Nuclear Aftershocks.” Take Frontline’s assessment of the German reaction to the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has pledged to entirely phase out their reliance on nuclear power within the next decade. O’Brien call this decision “rash” and “hasty,” and he doesn’t qualify those adjectives as the viewpoint of one expert or another; instead, he uses them matter-of-factly, as if everyone knows that Germany is a nation of jittery, irresponsible children. The political reality–that the German government is actually pursuing a policy that is the will of the people–is treated as some sort of abomination.

Japanese anti-nuclear protestors get similar treatment from Frontline. That large demonstrations like those seen over the last ten months are a rare and special occurrence in Japan is not considered. Instead, the documentary, time and again, hints at a shadowy doomsday somewhere in the near future, a sort of end-of-civilization scenario caused by an almost instant cessation of nuclear power generation. Indeed, as the program ends, O’Brien declares that every nuclear plant in Japan will be shut down by May–and as he says this, the camera peers out the window of a slow-moving elevated train. The view is a darkened Japanese city, and as O’Brien finishes his monologue, the train grinds to a halt.

Ooh, skeddy. Was this Frontline, or Monster Chiller Horror Theater?

Yes, the end seemed that absurd. “Nuclear Aftershocks” paints a picture many members of both the nuclear and fossil fuels lobbies would love to have you believe: a sort of zero-sum, vaguely binary, cake-or-death world where every possible future holds only the oldest, dirtiest and most dangerous options for electrical power generation. You get coal, you get gas, or you get nuclear–make up your mind!

But the show, like the handmaidens of those out-dated technologies, perverts the argument by glossing over the present and omitting choices for the future. As much as many concerned citizens would like to see nuclear power disappear overnight, it will not. Germany is giving itself a decade, the US is looking to run its aging reactors for another twenty years, and even Japan, dream though they might, will likely not decommission every reactor in the next four months. There is a window–big or small depending on your point of view–but a decided period of time to shift energy priorities.

Even the nuclear advocates who appear on Frontline call nuclear power “a bridge”–but if their lobby and their fossil fuel-loving brethren have their way, it will likely be a bridge to nowhere.

“Nuclear Aftershocks” does mention Germany’s increased investment in a wind- and solar-powered future, but the show calls that shift “a bold bet” and “a risk.”

Likely the producers will argue they did not have time for a deeper exploration, but by allowing fissile and fossil fuel advocates to argue that renewables cannot meet “base load” requirements, while failing to discuss recent leaps forward in solar and wind technology, or how well Japan’s wind turbines weathered the Tohoku quake and tsunami–or, for that matter, how much Japanese citizens have been able to reduce their electrical consumption since then through basic conservation–Frontline’s creators are guilty of flat-earth-inspired editing.

Indeed, missing from almost every discussion of the future of power generation is how much we could slow the growth in demand through what is called efficiencies–conservation, passive design, changes in construction techniques, and the replacement and upgrading of an aging electric infrastructure. The Frontline documentary highlights some of the potential risks of an accident at New York’s Indian Point nuclear generating station, but it contrasts that concern with nearby New York City’s unquenchable thirst for electricity. Missing entirely from the discussion: that New York could make up for all of Indian Point’s actual output by conserving a modest amount and replacing the transmission lines that bring hydroelectric power from the north with newer, more efficient cable.

No single solution is a panacea for every region of the globe, but many alternatives need to be on the table, and they certainly ought to be in any discussion about the “aftershocks” of nuclear’s annus horribilis. It should be seen as impossible to evaluate nuclear energy without considering the alternatives–and not just the CO2-creating, hydrofracking alternatives that are the standby bugbear of those infatuated with atomic power. Coal, gas, and nuclear are our links to the past; renewables and increased efficiency are our real bridge to the future. Just as it is dishonest to evaluate the cost of any of the old-school energy technologies without also considering environmental impact and enormous government subsidies–and now, too, the costs of relocating hundreds of thousands or millions of people and treating untold numbers of future health problems–it is also misleading to treat energy funds as permanently allocated to entrenched fuels.

The billions pledged to the nuclear industry by the Obama administration dwarf the budgets and tax incentives for conservation, alternative fuels, and green technology innovation combined. Factor in the government-shouldered costs of cleanup and waste storage, not to mention the sweetheart deals granted to the hydrocarbon crowd, and you could put together a program for next-generation generation that would make the Manhattan Project look like an Our Gang play (“My dad has an old barn!” “My mom can sew curtains!”).

It is a grave disappointment that Frontline couldn’t take the same broad view. The producers will no doubt argue that they could only say so much in 50 minutes, but like Japan, Germany, and the United States, they had choices. For the governments of these industrialized nations, the choices involve their energy futures and the safety of their citizens; for the Frontline crew, their choices can either help or hinder those citizens when they need to make informed choices of their own. For all concerned, the time to make those choices is now.

It is a shame that “Nuclear Aftershocks” instead used its time to run interference for a dirty, dangerous and costly industry.