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Socialism Today 148 - May 2011


Nuclear power: no room for safety complacency

EXACTLY ONE month after the devastating March earthquake and tsunami, a second quake hit the same area of Japan, this time with a lower, but still very powerful, 7.1 intensity. Power was temporarily disrupted at the Onagawa nuclear plant to the north of the epicentre, resulting in spent fuel rods being exposed to air in their containment ponds. Fortunately, there was no tsunami to follow, so the back-up diesel power generators kicked in and prevented a new disaster. Meanwhile, at the Fukushima atomic power station, wrecked by the first earthquake, radiation continues to pour out.

Officials now say that more radiation could eventually be released than at Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear incident to date, and are now calling Fukushima a maximum scale seven accident, the same as Chernobyl. Sixty thousand tonnes of radioactive water have already been pumped into the sea and engineers have been battling to prevent another explosion in the facility, caused by hydrogen gas build-up. The Japanese government has admitted it could take years to stop the radiation leaks from Fukushima.

Measurements by Japan’s ministry of science, analysed by New Scientist, have shown that concentrations of radioactive caesium 137 have reached levels similar to those after the Chernobyl catastrophe. Up to 50km from the plant, well outside the original exclusion zone, the figure was 6,400 kBq/m² – 6,400 times a thousand (k) Becquerels (Bq) of radiation per square metre. At Chernobyl, the most highly polluted areas had a concentration of 1,490 kBq/m² of caesium. Caesium 137 has a half-life of 30 years, meaning it is significantly radioactive for this period, and so is potentially dangerous for longer than the other chief radioactive isotope released at Fukushima, iodine 131, which has a half-life of eight days. In some respects, however, iodine 131 is a more serious threat as it presents a particular risk to children, accumulating very rapidly in their thyroid glands.

Overall, Chernobyl may still prove to have been a worse catastrophe because a broad cocktail of radioactive materials was released that spread far further, due to an uncontrolled fire that raged for weeks. At Fukushima, the radiation has come out more slowly because, unlike at Chernobyl, there were containment structures around the reactor cores. So far, most of the fallout has affected surrounding areas, rather than being blown round the world in large quantities. Nonetheless, if there were explosions near the ponds containing the spent fuel rods, there would be a real danger of a radioactive cloud forming because there are no containment vessels around the ponds. Furthermore, even if contamination remains relatively local, radioactivity on grass crops and water will pass into the food chain, affecting fish, meat and dairy produce, and can be spread more widely in this way.

Initially, the nuclear lobby claimed that the release of a significant quantity of radiation was highly unlikely in Japan due to the failsafe design of the reactors. They then retreated to a second line of defence when this was shown not to be the case. Their new position is that, even if large amounts of toxic material have been given off, the dangers to health are acceptable, particularly when compared to the risks associated with energy generation from fossil fuels. Leading this defence is George Monbiot, who previously had credibility among green activists as a campaigner against global warming. He has called the claims about the number of deaths associated with low-level radiation, such as that linked to caesium and iodine isotopes, as grossly exaggerated and ‘a fairytale’ (Guardian 6 April).

It is true that the estimates of deaths resulting from Chernobyl have varied wildly – from the UN report in 2008 which estimated a final death toll of 4,000, to the claim made in an article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science that nearly a million have already died. So far, 6,000 thyroid cancers have been recorded due to Chernobyl, and a recently published peer reviewed article, based on research funded by the US National Institute of Health, found that the number of new thyroid cancer cases linked to the Ukrainian disaster is not falling.

Elizabeth Cardis, from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, estimates that there will be 25,000 cancer cases by 2065, although the UN report says there is no persuasive evidence for this. Regarding the variability of the predictions, Cardis makes the point that the evidence is fragmented and contradictory, partly because research did not begin until many years after the accident.

She is calling for a new definitive study to be made, although it is unlikely that the true picture will ever be established due to the chaos that engulfed the collapsing Soviet Union in the years after Chernobyl. Many of the people affected dispersed over the vast area of the USSR, and subsequently the world, and will never be traced. This applies particularly to the tens of thousands of so-called ‘liquidators’, the army conscripts who were drafted in to fight the accident and who were exposed to very high levels of radiation without being told of the dangers.

Monbiot’s assertions of a relatively low death toll are based on the absence of western peer reviewed articles in the medical and scientific press confirming the higher figures, and continuing scientific controversy about the dangers of low-level radiation. Leaving to one side that research conducted in eastern Europe, but not published in peer reviewed journals in the west, is not necessarily wrong, the subsequent chaos in the region and the extremely belated start of systematic research means that it is going to be very difficult to satisfy the very stringent methodological criteria required by most western publications. Set against the lack of western published material, there have been a large number of local studies carried out in the areas affected pointing to a high eventual death toll, plus significant anecdotal evidence of the devastating effects on the health of the population in Ukraine and Belarus.

In the context of the uncertainty surrounding the eventual number of victims and the ongoing scientific controversy on the effects of low-level radiation, at the very least, a precautionary approach is required when assessing the dangers of a nuclear accident. Monbiot accepted such an approach when the evidence on global warming was still inconclusive and fragmentary, on the grounds that the potential danger was so large. Surely the same logic applies?

Also, when assessing the dangers of nuclear, a power station accident is only one factor. More serious in the long run is the problem of safely storing toxic nuclear waste, which will remain radioactive for more than 100,000 years. One reason Fukushima is so serious is that large numbers of spent fuel rods were kept in ponds on site, because no safe and acceptable method has been found to store them elsewhere. Existing toxic waste will have to be dealt with, but it is irresponsible to advocate creating even more in these circumstances.

Even if Monbiot’s unlikely claim is true about a final Chernobyl death toll of ‘only’ 4,000, this does not justify his support of nuclear energy. He invokes a balance of risk argument to compare this figure to the likely devastation caused by global warming. Coincidentally, nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases and is, therefore, a possible alternative to burning fossil fuels.

It is true that global warming could create more victims than even the highest estimate of the death toll at Chernobyl. But the implication of Monbiot’s position is that there are only two options: nuclear power or fossil fuels. He knows perfectly well that renewable energy can do the job, as he argued until recently. He has now rejected it as ‘unrealistic’ because governments are not willing to pay for it, preferring cheaper nuclear power. In his opinion, anyone who still advocates renewables is posturing.

What Monbiot is really saying is that advocating renewable energy challenges profit-driven capitalism, something he is not willing to do. He regards the present system as unchangeable – and preferable to the only real alternative, a democratically planned socialist economy. A deep irony of Monbiot’s ‘realism’ is that, after the 2008 economic crisis, many bourgeois governments are unlikely to be willing to stump up the money for a switch to nuclear, certainly in the short or medium term. Opportunistically, they will use the Japanese disaster to back away from it.

Pete Dickenson

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