The Brief Wondrous Life (and Long Dangerous Half-Life) of Strontium-90

Tooth to Science button2At roughly 5:30 in the morning on July 16, 1945, an implosion-design plutonium device, codenamed “the gadget,” exploded over the Jornada del Muerto desert in south-central New Mexico with a force equivalent to about 20,000 tons of TNT. It was the world’s first test of an atomic bomb, and as witnesses at base camp some ten miles away would soon relay to US President Harry Truman, the results were “satisfactory” and exceeded expectations. Within weeks, the United States would use a uranium bomb of a different design on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and three days after that, a plutonium device similar to the gadget was dropped on Nagasaki, about 200 miles to the southwest.

Though Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only instances where atomic weapons were used against a wartime enemy, between 1945 and 1963, the world experienced hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons tests, the great majority of which were above ground or in the sea–in other words, in the atmosphere. The US tested atom and hydrogen bombs in Nevada, at the Nevada Test Site, and in the Pacific Ocean, on and around the Marshall Islands, in an area known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. After the Soviet Union developed its own atomic weapon in 1949, it carried out hundreds of similar explosions, primarily in Kazakhstan, and the UK performed more than 20 of its own atmospheric nuclear tests, mostly in Australia and the South Pacific, between 1952 and 1958.

Though military authorities and officials with the US Atomic Energy Commission initially downplayed the dispersal and dangers of fallout from these atmospheric tests, by the early 1950s, scientists in nuclear and non-nuclear countries alike began to raise concerns. Fallout from atmospheric tests was not contained simply to the blast radius or a region near the explosion, instead the products of fission and un-fissioned nuclear residue were essentially vaporized by the heat and carried up into the stratosphere, sweeping across the globe, and eventually returning to earth in precipitation. A host of radioactive isotopes contaminated land and surface water, entering the food chain through farms and dairies.

The tale of the teeth

In order to demonstrate that fallout was widespread and had worked its way into the population, a group of researchers, headed by Dr. Barry Commoner and Drs. Louise and Eric Reiss, founded the Baby Tooth Survey under the auspices of Washington University (where Commoner then taught) and the St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information. The tooth survey sought to track strontium-90 (Sr-90), a radioactive isotope of the alkaline earth metal strontium, which 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.

While harvesting human bones was impractical, researchers realized that baby teeth should be readily available. Most strontium in baby teeth would transfer from mother to fetus during pregnancy, and so birth records would provide accurate data about where and when those teeth were formed. The tooth survey collected baby teeth, initially from the St. Louis area, eventually from around the globe, and analyzed them for strontium.

By the early ’60s, the program had 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 the US, UK and USSR. By the end of the decade, strontium-90 levels in newly collected baby teeth were substantially lower than the ’63 samples.

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 Baby Tooth 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.

But the perils of strontium-90–or, indeed, a host of radioactive isotopes that are strontium’s travel companions–did not cease with the ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. Many of the hazards of 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 born in “nuclear counties,” (PDF) the roughly 40 percent of US counties situated within 100 miles of a nuclear power plant or weapons lab.

Similar baby teeth research has been conducted over the last 30 years in Denmark, Japan and Germany, with measurably similar results. While Sr-90 levels continued to decrease in babies born through the mid 1970s, as the use of nuclear power starts to spread worldwide, that trend flattens. Of particular note, a study conducted by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize) found ten-times more strontium-90 in the teeth of children born after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster when compared with samples from 1983.

While radioactive strontium itself can be linked to several diseases, including leukemia and bone cancers, Sr-90, as mentioned above, is but one of the most measurable of many dangerous isotopes released into the environment by the normal, everyday operation of nuclear reactors, even without the catastrophic discharges that come with accidents and meltdowns. Tritium, along with radioactive variants of iodine, cesium and xenon (to name just a few) can often be detected in elevated levels in areas around nuclear facilities.

Epidemiological studies have shown higher risks of breast and prostate cancers for those living in US nuclear counties. But while the Environmental Protection Agency collects sporadic data on the presence of radioactive isotopes such as Sr-90, the exact locations of the sampling sites are not part of the data made available to the general public. Further, while “unusual” venting of radioactive vapor or the dumping of contaminated water from a nuclear plant has to be reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (and even then, it is the event that is reported, not the exact composition of the discharge), the radio-isotopes that are introduced into the environment by the typical operation of a reactor meet with far less scrutiny. In the absence of better EPA data and more stringent NRC oversight, studies like the Baby Tooth Survey and its contemporary brethren are central to the public understanding of the dangers posed by the nuclear power industry.

June and Sr-90: busting out all over

As if to underscore the point, strontium-90 served as the marker for troubling developments on both sides of the Pacific just this June.

In Japan, TEPCO–still the official operator of Fukushima Daiichi–revealed it had found Sr-90 in groundwater surrounding the crippled nuclear plant at “very high” levels. Between December 2012 and May 2013, levels of strontium-90 increased over 100-fold, to 1,000 becquerels per liter–33 times the Japanese limit for the radioactive isotope.

The samples were taken less than 100 feet from the coast. From that point, reports say, the water usually flows out to the Pacific Ocean.

Beyond the concerns raised by the affects of the strontium-90 (and the dangerously high amounts of tritium detected along with it) when the radioactive contamination enters the food chain, the rising levels of Sr-90 likely indicate other serious problems at Fukushima. Most obviously, there is now little doubt that TEPCO has failed to contain contaminated water leaking from the damaged reactor buildings–contrary to the narrative preferred by company officials.

But skyrocketing levels of strontium-90 could also suggest that the isotope is still being produced–that nuclear fission is still occurring in one or more of the damaged reactor cores. Or even, perhaps, outside the reactors, as the corium (the term for the molten, lava-like nuclear fuel after a meltdown) in as many as three units is believed to have melted through the steel reactor containment and possibly eroded the concrete floor, as well.

An ocean away, in Washington state, radiological waste, some of which dates back to the manufacture of those first atom bombs, sits in aging storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation–and some of those tanks are leaking.

In truth, tanks at Hanford, considered by many the United States’ most contaminated nuclear site, have been leaking for some time. But the high-level radioactive waste in some of the old, single-wall tanks had been transferred to newer, double-walled storage, which was supposed to provide better containment. On June 20, however, the US Department of Energy reported that workers at Hanford detected radioactive contamination–specifically Sr-90–outside one of the double-walled tanks, possibly suggesting a breach. The predominant radionuclides in the 850,000-gallon tank are reported to be strontium-90 and cesium-137.

The tank, along with hundreds of others, sits about five miles from the Columbia River, water source for much of the region. Once contamination leaks from the tanks, it mixes with ground water, and, in time, should make its way to the river. “I view this as a crisis,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, “These tanks are not supposed to fail for 50 years.”

Destroyer of worlds

In a 1965 interview, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s science director who was in charge of the Los Alamos facility that developed the first atomic bombs, looked back twenty years to that July New Mexico morning:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

“We knew the world would not be the same.” Oppenheimer was most likely speaking figuratively, but, as it turns out, he also reported a literal truth. Before July 16, 1945, there was no strontium-90 or cesium-137 in the atmosphere–it simply did not exist in nature. But ever since that first atomic explosion, these anthropogenic radioactive isotopes have been part of earth’s every turn.

Strontium-90–like cesium-137 and a catalog of other hazardous byproducts of nuclear fission–takes a long time to decay. The detritus of past detonations and other nuclear disasters will be quite literally with us–in our water and soil, in our tissue and bone–for generations. These radioactive isotopes have already been linked to significant suffering, disease and death. Their danger was acknowledged by the United States when JFK signed the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. Now would be a good time to acknowledge the perspicacity of that president, phase out today’s largest contributors of atmospheric Sr-90, nuclear reactors, and let the sun set on this toxic metal’s life.

 

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

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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.

The Party Line – November 4, 2011: Self-Styled Clean Energy President Embraces Future That’s Dirty, Dangerous, and Expensive

“Reeling from months of protests, President Barack Obama’s advisors are worried. . . .”

So begins a November 3rd story from Reuters assessing the potential political fallout from an administration decision to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada Corp’s plan to move crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas. Reading the whole piece, one can’t help but feel that Obama is still of a mind to go ahead and OK this dangerous and much-derided plan, it is just the Obama 2012 campaign that’s agonizing over how to spin it.

Back in 2008, Obama the candidate seemed to understand the threat posed by global warming, and he spoke often of moving away from carbon-heavy fuel sources like tar sands. Now, a good part of what is considered the president’s “base,” it seems, understands that the transcontinental pipeline is not only a danger to farmlands and aquifers, but also a betrayal of a campaign promise.

Don’t think this is the dynamic at play? Look at recent administration boasts about such “green” initiatives as raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, or just read Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt in the abovementioned Reuters story:

“The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” he said. “When Americans compare the president’s record promoting clean energy and America’s energy security to those of the leading Republican candidates, who don’t even believe that climate change is an issue that we need to address and would cede the clean energy market to China, there will be no question about who will continue our progress.”

Moving beyond the observation that this is the same “We suck less” positioning that performed so poorly for Democrats in 2010, there are indeed many questions raised by Obama’s apparent take on our energy future.

LaBolt’s claim, “The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” first begs the obvious fact-check: Alberta is not in the US, and tar sands crude is no one’s idea of clean energy. But it is not a big leap to read this statement as something more inclusive, something meant to refer to all of the Obama administration’s moves in the energy sector. Indeed, with references to clean energy, climate change and China, the Obama campaign is probably hoping for some to hear a commitment to solar power, while others might understand it as an embrace of nuclear fission.

Intent notwithstanding, administration moves have underscored the latter–a White House enraptured with nuclear power–just as events continue to lay bare the lie that US nuclear power generation could fit anywhere into a tale of clean, domestic energy advocacy.

A new stupid way to boil water?

On November 1, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a new design of what is called an Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) slated for construction in South Texas. The plan to build two 1,350-megawatt reactors was originally pitched five years ago, with the original plant operator, NRG Energy (so nice they named it twice!), requesting design certification for Toshiba’s version of ABWRs in 2007.

But in 2009, the NRC made mandatory what had previously been a voluntary requirement that plants would be able to withstand a 9/11-style aircraft attack and continue to cool the reactor and spent fuel pools. The ABWR design, and its certification, had to be amended. This amended design is what just received the NRC’s thumbs-up.

A funny thing, however, happened since the original request: NRG stopped investing in the project. NRG was the prime investor in the “South Texas Project Nuclear Power Co.,” which is the name of the body that originally submitted the amended design. Without NRG, Toshiba has been shepherding the certification request, the one just approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Just one hitch, though, foreign companies are not allowed to operate nuclear power plants in the United States–a point that seems to have been missed by the NRC (and by most establishment news reports about the certification).

This design certification without funding or domestic management in place provides an almost comic counterpoint to the funding-without-certification approach taken by the Obama administration for the AP1000 reactors proposed for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle.

The AP1000, a riff on a Pressurized Water Reactor design, is supposed to provide passive cooling inside a reactor in the event of a loss of power to the active cooling system. There are many questions about the AP1000, and it too had to be altered to comply with the 2009 9/11 rules, but the most recent delay in certification comes at least in part from concerns that the design should also account for a Fukushima-like seismic event. At this point, Vogtle’s operator, The Southern Company, and the NRC have not come to a meeting of the minds.

But these concerns–or, at least, delays–did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the White House. In February of 2010, without any design certification in place, none other than Barak Obama himself announced $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for Southern. This was done with fanfare at a public event (there’s even a YouTube of the announcement).

So, certification with no funding, or funding with no certification–to the US federal government, it doesn’t matter. And it spells out two points in bold type: The Obama administration stands squarely behind nuclear power. . . and the marketplace does not. Without help from what the campaign would have voters believe is the all-time greatest champion of clean, green, domestic energy, new nuclear reactors would not be built in the United States.

Uranium extraction is not clean and never has been. The US is still paying to clean up from mining in the southwest that ended half a century ago. And today, uranium is not really a domestic fuel source, either. A list of the world’s top uranium producers looks like this: 1) Kazakhstan, 2) Canada, 3) Australia, 4) Namibia, 5) Russia, 6) Niger, 7) Uzbekistan. The US comes in eighth, accounting for just 2.9 percent of the world’s uranium production. By contrast, the US ranks third in global oil production, extracting almost 11 percent of the world’s crude.

And uranium doesn’t jump out of the ground ready to go for a nuclear reactor. The processing of uranium ore into useable fuel is a dirty, costly and energy intensive endeavor requiring loan guarantees, waste storage and safety protocols all its own. (And as if to underscore this, House Speaker John Boehner has recently requested federal loan guarantees to build a new nuclear processing plant in his home state of Ohio.)

Fukushima: a case study

A pair of new stories out of Japan provide all the evidence any president would need to honestly evaluate the role of nuclear power in America’s supposedly clean, green energy future.

Fukushima isn’t a single event, it is an ongoing, ever-evolving, always metastasizing crisis. In case anyone thought otherwise, the detection of radioactive xenon in Fukushima Daiichi reactor 2 provided a chance to again pay heed to just how serious things remain at the crippled Japanese nuclear facility.

Though Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the nominal owners Fukushima Daiichi, contend that the trace of xenon gas does not represent evidence of a nuclear chain reaction inside the reactor previously thought closest to a so-called “cold shutdown,” they still pumped in boric acid–a substance used to mitigate nuclear fission.

Tokyo Electric may or may not be telling the whole truth in this instance, but evidence from throughout this disaster dictates skepticism. For example, scientists have again revised upwards their estimates of total radiation released from the plant, and a new study explodes TEPCO’s minimalist fairytale:

France’s l’Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, or IRSN) has issued a recent report stating that the amount of radioactive cesium-137 that entered the Pacific after 11 March was probably nearly 30 times the amount stated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in May.

According to IRSN, the amount of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 that flowed into the ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant between March 21 and mid-July reached an estimated 27.1 quadrillion becquerels.

Quadrillion is not a number that often comes up in polite conversation, but suffice it to say, it’s a lot. . . even for becquerels. Soon after the March 11 earthquake, Japan revised acceptable levels of radioactive cesium upward. . . to 500 becquerels per kilogram. Though even the 27.1 quadrillion number sort of redefines the phrase “a drop in the ocean,” the really disturbing notion is that with a relatively long half-life, the pattern of Pacific currents, and the principles of bio-accumulation and bio-concentration at play, it is possible that everyone who includes Pacific Ocean fish in his or her diet is now part of an informal, long-term experiment on the effects of low-level radioactive contamination. Or, as the same story as above snidely puts it:

The radioactive silver lining? Radioactive cesium-137 has a half life of roughly 30 years, so if the IRSN estimates are accurate, then [b]y 2041 the Pacific’s aquatic life will only be subjected to a mere 13.55 quadrillion becquerels of radiation.

But long half-lives and long-term health effects require long-range thinking, not to mention arguments about the relative value of human life. Perhaps another fresh release from Japan tells the nuclear story in numbers a deficit-obsessed DC elite can more easily comprehend:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. won approval for a 900 billion yen ($11.5 billion) bailout from the government after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe to avert bankruptcy and start paying compensation for the crisis.

Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano approved the support after the company known as Tepco committed to cutting 7,400 jobs and 2.5 trillion yen in costs. The utility forecast an annual loss of 600 billion yen, its second since the March earthquake and tsunami wrecked its Fukushima nuclear plant.

Eleven-and-one-half-billion dollars–and that only takes TEPCO through March 2013. Who here thinks the crisis will be over by then? It almost makes Obama’s $8.33 billion loan guarantee to Southern look like a bargain.

Almost.

Except that the loan guarantee is just for construction of a yet unapproved reactor design–should Southern, or whatever entity might eventually operate Plant Vogtle, experience an accident, that would likely be a whole other ball of bailout.

But what could possibly go wrong? Well, as repeatedly documented in this column, a lot. Beyond the level-7 sinkhole that is Fukushima, in the US, 2011 alone has seen manmade accidents and natural disasters that have scrammed and/or damaged more than a half-dozen reactors. And with each event, a process of shutdown, repair, inspection, authorization and startup costs time and money that does nothing to provide America with clean, safe, renewable, affordable energy.

Each event does, however, add costs to a variety of segments of the economy. Energy production and utility bills are obvious, but this nuclear obsession also drives up costs for healthcare, food safety, air and water quality, the yet-to-be-solved problem of long-term waste storage, and don’t forget the additional tax burden required to support all the bailouts, tax breaks and loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, has also called for a global study of the health effects of long-term radiation exposure as part of an international response to the Fukushima disaster. That, too, is an expense that should be factored into the real cost of nuclear power.

One thing, however, has gotten cheaper since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami gave the world its third top-level nuclear accident since 1979, and that would be uranium. Since March, world uranium prices have fallen some thirty percent. In fact, demand is so low, the French company Areva has decided to suspend its uranium mining in the Central African Republic–for two years.

The market is again speaking, but to those predisposed to cherish the siren song of nuclear power, cheap uranium could easily become the excuse to dash greener, safer alternative energy development.

Since the earliest days of nuclear power, that siren song has gone something like this: clean, safe, and too cheap to meter. Obviously, 2011 has proven none of that rings true, but when an administration believes it can greenwash away the political fallout from a tar sands pipeline, is it such a stretch to see them ignoring the financial and radioactive fallout of nuclear power in their attempt to package Obama as the cleanest, greenest energy president ever?

* * *

I am always happy to see the issues discussed in this column get attention from a broader audience, so I was thrilled to see Rachel Maddow take nine minutes out of her Wednesday show to call attention to what she sees as a scandal no one finds sexy enough to get excited about–namely the dangerous state of nuclear power plants across the US. But her contention that no one is paying attention irks me, at least a little. I have lost count of the number of posts I have devoted to this very subject this year, and I think, throughout, most would say I find much about this subject quite scandalous. So, Rachel, next time you want to talk about this stuff, the next time you want to share your excitement about this scandal, call me.