What we’ve learned from disasters, like Chernobyl and the BP spill, is that “official” information sources face the daunting task of spinning information while stopping short of outright lying. The Powers that Be know that eventually some of the actual facts might emerge – so we have to read carefully to figure out what’s most likely happening at the core of Japan’s nuclear crisis.
What we do know at this point is that American military personnel have been exposed to radiation from the plume, which is growing and, according to experts, could continue to expand for months – spreading increasingly dangerous types of radioactive isotopes over land and sea. Crew members aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier have reported detecting radiation 100 miles off the coast of Japan. And according to a NYT article, “…17 military personnel who had been aboard three helicopters assisting in the earthquake relief effort had been exposed…”
We’re told that crew members on the aircraft carrier “are believed” to have been exposed to “about the same as one month’s normal exposure to natural background radiation in the environment.” We should note that “natural background” radiation is not exactly a hard-and-fast standard, but that’s another issue to be delved into later.
We also know that the West Coast of the United States should start detecting the radiation soon – and the White House is already trying to get out in front of that PR nightmare.
Beyond that, we have the sorts of “wiggle words” that spin the story. The radiation release and detection levels in Japan were first said to be “small” and “low” and then “within legal limits” – whatever that means.
Meanwhile, the New York Times and other sources report that the plume of radioactive material is indeed heading toward the United States. The NYT on Monday morning noted that “….more steam releases also mean that the plume headed across the Pacific could continue to grow.” On Sunday evening, the White House sought to tamp down concerns, saying that modeling done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had concluded that “Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”
Added the NYT: “But all weekend, after a series of intense interchanges between Tokyo and Washington and the arrival of the first American nuclear experts in Japan, officials said they were beginning to get a clearer picture of what went wrong over the past three days. And as one senior official put it, ‘under the best scenarios, this isn’t going to end anytime soon.’”
Anyone want to bet that the same Administration that helped BP lowball initial oil-spill flow rates will try to lowball radiation-contamination levels on the West Coast? Anyone at all?
The focus for both rescue efforts and the international media spotlight will be on helping survivors, as it should be. But as we’ve said before, we must remain vigilant of the radiation risk. We must protect people from exposure and immediately treat those in need.
From a political standpoint, at least in the United States, the nuclear industry is facing a serious challenge to its very existence. The myth of “safe” nuclear power is unraveling in prime time, much as the myth of safe deep-water drilling was destroyed by the BP disaster.
Already, some focus is turning to American nuclear plants, many of which were built by General Electric just like the Japanese plants and several built along the same designs.
Japan, of course, is a highly industrialized, highly sophisticated nation so expectations have always been that this type of disaster “could not happen” there. The Associated Press, in a solid and detailed report, cites Japanese officials on Monday stating that “…more than 2,800 people have been confirmed dead — including the 1,000 bodies found Monday — and more than 1,400 were missing. Another 1,900 were injured.”
From the AP report: “I never imagined we would be in such a situation” one victim said. “I had a good life before. Now we have nothing. No gas, no electricity, no water.” He said he was surviving with his family on 60 half-liter bottles of water his wife had stored in case of emergencies like this. He walked two hours to find a convenience store that was open and waited in line to buy dried ramen noodles.
Eventually – maybe not this week, but soon – this nuclear disaster will slide into context as the latest example that we need to take a serious look at how energy is produced and realize that the constant reassurances of industry and the governments it funds are not enough.
My guess is that when the Obama Administration begins to reassure Americans on the West Coast that the radiation plume is headed their way – but not to worry because it’s “within acceptable limits” – that the feds are going to wish they’d not squandered so much credibility during the BP spill. And somebody is bound to remember that those dead 9-11 workers had government assurances before heading into Ground Zero to cleanup the mess.
Eventually, the credibility chickens come home to roost.
Here’s the NYT piece that hits on the potential radiation risks:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/14/world/asia/japan-fukushima-nuclear-reactor.html?_r=1&hp