Fukushima is here, but harmless, experts say

10/31/2013

On a recent Saturday morning, nearly 500 people sprawled out on towels and tarps on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. As a helicopter flew overhead, they first remained motionless, then took to their feet and started waving their hands wildly in the air.

From ground level, the crowd didn’t look like much. The pattern was indiscernible, if colorful. But from higher up, through the dissipating fog, one could see a sentence writ  large in 40-foot letters: “Fukushima is Here.”

Organized by a coalition of environmental and anti-nuclear groups, the human mural was a perfect metaphor for the health risks these activists predict will soon reach the Bay Area: a seemingly tranquil beach scene, seen from another angle, could soon be the destination for waves of nuclear radiation.

After a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, multiple explosions and a meltdown of fuel rods caused reactors to leak an enormous amount of radiation into the environment. The contamination created a dead-zone of nearly 700 square miles that may not be safe for decades or even centuries. Radiation was detected in lesser doses along the West Coast after four days and as far away as Europe.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission assisted Japanese authorities in the immediate aftermath, but it no longer has an active role, said David McIntyre, an N.R.C. spokesman.

Radiation continued to be released into the atmosphere until a total cold shutdown of the plant roughly nine months later. Or at least that’s what everyone initially thought. Reports have since surfaced that tons of poisoned groundwater have leaked into the sea each day. 

Earlier this month,  employees at the power plant mistakenly dismantled a working pipe that dumped 10 more tons of radioactive water onto the ground and themselves. Last week, contaminated rainwater overflowed into the ocean.

Groups in the Bay Area and across the globe have partnered together to raise awareness and initiate a coordinated response to the ongoing crisis. In preparation for the planned removal of fuel rods from Unit 4, the reactor most significantly damaged by the earthquake, they have drafted petitions that will be sent to all levels of government.

Some local activists say their outlook has been permanently altered by the nuclear accident. John Bertucci, a member of the Sonoma-based Fukushima Response Network, said he has been anxious about fallout. “It’s like we’ve ripped the fabric of reality, and we don’t know how to mend it,” Mr. Bertucci said. “It’s not like spilling a bucket of paint in your garage that you can wipe up. It’s a bigger mess, a bigger spill, a bigger rip.”

With lessons in grassroots organizing from the Occupy movement, Fukushima Response Network began in May 2012 after Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and member of the Energy Committee, toured the area and found damage beyond his expectations. The only protection from another tsunami seemed to be “a small, makeshift sea wall erected out of bags of rock,” Sen. Wyden said at the time.

Mr. Bertucci took the most recent accident as a wake-up call to act more responsibly and respond to “a world emergency” of nuclear energy and weapons, he said. But after this summer’s reports, “one revelation after another of mismanagement and chaos,” the goal shifted to damage control from Fukushima, he said. With another 7.3 earthquake last week, Mr. Bertucci admitted that they have “surrendered the hope of a solution,” and are now focused on mitigating the effects of the disaster.

Mary Beth Brangan and her partner James Heddle, the co-directors of the Environmental Options Network in Bolinas, said they are setting up a network of individuals along the West Coast to monitor radiation in the atmosphere, the ocean and the food supply.

In the weeks following the meltdown, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected low doses of radiation in the air, but the levels were said to be far from a point that would threaten public health and safety. The E.P.A. has continued to monitor drinking water, precipitation and milk, but it does not test for radioactivity in ocean waters. (Air radiation levels are normal this week, a spokesperson from the San Francisco office said.) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has studied bluefin tuna caught off offshore and found them to be safe for consumption.

But other groups have found different results. Daniel Madigan, a professor at Stanford, found elevated levels of radiation in 15 bluefin tuna caught near San Diego in 2011: small amounts of cesium-137 and cesium-134 were detected in the fish, which spawn in the western Pacific. Dr. Madigan said the levels would likely have been much higher after the accident since the cesium is excreted on a daily basis and diluted as the tuna grow larger. Another bottom-dwelling fish found this February near the plant tested 7,400 times the government limit for cesium to be safe for consumption.

Another study found iodine-131 in giant kelp collected off Orange County in 2011, at levels 250 times higher than before the accident. Most of the radioactivity was gone within a month, presumably because the isotope has a very short half-life.

“This shows what happens half a world away does affect what happens here,” said Steven Manley, a California State University, Long Beach biology professor who worked on the study. “I don’t think these levels are harmful, but it’s better if we don’t have it at all.”

The coalition of groups want increased sampling and more scientific studies done to understand the effects of radiation, but they say the government and many regulatory agencies are easily swayed by money from the energy industry. So Ms. Brangan said she will be organizing the monitoring herself with Geiger counters to measure radiation levels.

Samples taken on Oct. 9 at Fukushima had significant increases in cesium, at least 330 times as high as the pre-accident levels before 2011.

Studies of atomic bomb survivors and in the wake of Chernobyl found that ingestion of cesium-137 can build up in soft tissue and result in cancer, and iodine-131 can increase the risk of thyroid cancer. But little is known about the impact of low doses, with some studies even suggesting that they may actually make people healthier by stimulating an immune response.

The initial accident has been compared with the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, which led to nearly 30 deaths from radiation poisoning within weeks and possibly thousands more from cancer in the years after. Both were rated level 7, the most serious nuclear accidents on the international scale.

Scientists concluded that the Fukushima crisis will not result in nearly as many deaths, since the amount of radiation was judged to be about one-tenth of Chernobyl, where an entire reactor exploded into a massive plume of fire and radioactive material. Much of the radiation from Japan has been dispersed into the ocean, where many scientists think it will be diluted and rendered harmless. Two engineers at Stanford, John Ten Hoeve and Mark Jacobson, estimated 130 cancer-related mortalities will result—90 percent projected in Japan—in addition to about 12 cancer cases among workers.

Local activists worry that repeated exposure—whether through a lifetime of tuna sandwiches or, more directly, contaminated water or air—may result in unprecedented health risks. They side with the N.R.C.’s statement that it “conservatively assumes that any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect.”

The Japanese crisis adds only another name to a growing list: Three-Mile Island, Saint-Laurent, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Radioactive material has escaped from 1.5 percent of the world’s 440 reactors, “suggesting that the risk of a meltdown is not small,” the study by Dr. Ten Hoeve and Dr. Jacobson said.

Ms. Brangan worries that list will only grow if we continue to rely on nuclear power. While the San Onofre power plant in San Diego County was permanently closed in July after its steam generators failed and leaked small amounts of radioactivity, almost 100 other nuclear reactors continue to operate across the U.S.

The Diablo Canyon Power Plant, run by Pacific Gas & Electric Company, sits atop the convergence of multiple fault lines in San Luis Obispo County, Ms. Brangan said.

The N.R.C. has completed an extensive analysis of the nation’s power plants in the wake of Fukushima and enhanced safety through several initiatives, Mr. McIntyre said. He disputed the notion that Diablo Canyon is a liability. A Fukushima-style tsunami could only occur at a fault line where one tectonic plate can slide under another, and the only fault line like it near the U.S. mainland begins in the northernmost part of California and extends to British Columbia. 

If an accident did occur at Diablo Canyon, Dr. Ten Hoeve and Dr. Jacobson estimated a release identical to Fukushima would actually cause 25 percent more deaths, as radioactivity would be transported over Los Angeles and San Diego before being diluted in the Pacific. Ms. Brangan added that Diablo Canyon has even more radiation in its pools for spent fuel rods, posing an even greater risk.

“We can’t do much now to stop Fukushima’s contamination, but what we can do is stop more Fukushimas from happening here,” she said. “People here in the U.S. can channel and focus their anxieties about this whole situation to do something about it.”

“Fukushima is here,” the protesters say. In the air and water, in our fish and kelp. At Diablo Canyon and every other nuclear reactor in the country. We’ve unleashed an invisible dragon, Mr. Bartucci said.

But their sentence was also meant as a statement of empathy. After the photographer in the helicopter had his shot, the crowd of 500 walked to the water’s edge, peaking at high tide. They gripped each other’s hands and looked out across the water. Between the rolling waves and the din of traffic on the Great Highway, there was only a stunned silence, one that slowly erupted as everyone stopped holding their breath.