As radiation poisons areas around Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi complex, it also floats and falls across the planet.
Even the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with its dubious record of protecting public good over industry profit, allows that “There is no firm basis for setting a "safe" level of exposure above background for stochastic effects.”
A stochastic effect is a pattern that can be analyzed statistically but not predicted precisely. So if Fukushima’s fallout exposes, say, 1 million people to excess radiation, we know some will get cancer, but not who.
It is not even true–within limits-- that higher exposure equals greater likelihood of disease. “The risk of cancer from long-term exposure to low doses of radiation could be as much as 10 times higher … than has been seen in atomic bomb blast survivors,” according to a 1991 federally mandated study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that tracked 8,318 Oak Ridge National Laboratory employees over 40 years.
Sources of power plant radiation range from catastrophic accidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, to a steady stream of breakdowns and leaks around the world, to the enduring problem of waste. Three quarters of America’s 72,000 tons of commercial power plant-waste now sits in water-filled cooling pools like those at Fukushima.
Regulation has failed to ensure safety. When a Japanese whistleblower revealed in 2000 that Tokyo Electric had falsified inspection records and hidden cracks at Daiichi, two years passed before then-prefectural governor Eisaku Sato was informed. He recently told the New York Times: “An organization that is inherently untrustworthy is charged with ensuring the safety of Japan’s nuclear plants. So the problem is not limited to Tokyo Electric, which has a long history of cover-ups, but it’s the whole system that is flawed. That’s frightening.”
The same frightening flaws and cracks exist not only in US nuclear power plants, but in our own corrupted, pro-industry regulatory system.
And in neither democracy can citizens vote to shut a dangerous plant. Except, quite possibly, in Vermont where Vermont Yankee (VY) an aging, accident-prone plant owned by Entergy is nearing the end of its 40-year license. The General Electric Mark 1 boiling water model was discontinued in 1972, the year it was built in Vermont and one year after construction at Fukushima.
By 2002, Vermont Yankee’s poor safety record prompted the state to require Entergy to obtain a certificate of public good before it could extend its license past 2012.
Last year the legislature denied that certificate. With a new Democratic governor who campaigned on shutting the plant, and a legislature royally pissed at Entergy’s repeatedly lying about leaks, one last vote this year is expected to kill VY. Gov. Peter Shumlim is demanding that Entergy pay not only decommissioning costs, but storage fees for any waste left behind.
The nuclear industry and the feds will likely fight back. The NRC just rubberstamped Entergy’s renewal request, as it did with all 64 other requests, and odds are Entergy will sue Vermont all the way to the Supreme Court.
Vermonters believe a deal is a deal and that the legislature has the right under a democracy to uphold the contract and shut the plant. They also see the horror unfolding in Japan, and remember when Chernobyl’s radioactive plume, driven by ill winds, fell with spring rain onto freshening fields, tainting much of the state’s milk supply.
One reason I live in Vermont is the commitment to community and environment that have fueled the decades-long effort to shut VY. I also lived in Japan for almost seven years, and its ethical, social and aesthetic values shaped me, as did the generosity and kindness of strangers and friends there. It would be crass to put the terrible suffering from Japan’s man-made and natural disasters to service for a cause. But I would be sadder not to. The lesson of Fukushima is the corruption and stupidity inherent in entrusting governments and regulators in thrall to industry with safeguarding the public.
Japanese poets love to write about hakanai, the transience that is defines the human condition. The metaphor of ephemeral cherry blossom petals drifting gently in the wind is romantically sad; the reality of the millennia-long contamination is too cruel to bear.