By Steven Starr
There are 440 commercial nuclear reactors now in operation in 30 countries around the world. Each of these reactors creates and contains at least 100 times more long-lived radioactivity than was produced by the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus a catastrophic accident at just one of these reactors has the potential to release as much radioactive fallout as would a nuclear war fought with 100 atomic bombs.
In other words, a nuclear reactor is a sort of nuclear-war-in-a-can, without the blast and fire that nuclear weapons produce, but with all of the long-lived radioactivity. If you happen to be a terrorist, this makes every nuclear reactor a radiological target-of-opportunity.
Yet most of our political leaders join with the representatives of the nuclear industry to tell us that nuclear power is a “safe” and “clean” form of energy. Is it? This concept may be hard to explain to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to permanently evacuate their homes around Chernobyl and Fukushima, where radioactive fallout from previously “safe” and “clean” nuclear power plants has made the cities, towns and land uninhabitable.
In fact, the potential for enormous releases of radioactivity exists at all U.S. and Japanese nuclear power plants, which for decades have stored their used or “spent” uranium fuel rods on site. There are 30 million used fuel rods stockpiled at U.S. reactors in “spent fuel pools”, which together contain about 20 times more long-lived radioactivity than was released from all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests.
A spent fuel rod recently removed from the reactor is so radioactive that it would kill you if you stood next to it for only a few seconds. Once removed from the reactor, used rods must be completely and constantly submerged in water, otherwise their intense radioactivity will cause them to become so hot that they catch fire and burn.
Every U.S. and Japanese nuclear reactor has a “spent fuel pool”, which resembles a large swimming pool, where its used fuel rods are stored beneath 30 feet (10 m) of water. Each pool contains 5 to 10 times more long-lived radioactivity then the does the core of the reactor. These pools hold some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on Earth.
There are 31 spent fuel pools in the U.S, and many in Japan – such as those at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – that were built several stories above ground, inside secondary containment buildings, which are ordinary industrial structures and are flimsy compared to the concrete and steel containment structures that house the reactors. Thus these spent-fuel-pools-in-the-sky are much more vulnerable than reactors to both sabotage and accidents – they are all radioactive disasters waiting to happen.
Electric pumps and cooling systems must operate continuously to remove heat from a fuel pool. A loss of electric power, loss of pumps, loss of coolant, the breach of the pool, or extreme levels of radioactivity which prevent access to the site . . . each and all of these factors can lead to the loss of water in the pool and the subsequent fire and meltdown of the spent fuel.
Burning rods produce extremely small and intensely radioactive smoke particles, which are easily transported by the wind. Because spent rods contain large amounts of deadly, long-lived radionuclides, a fire in the spent fuel pools creates the worst imaginable sort of environmental pollution. This appears to have happened recently in Japan.
The magnitude 9 earthquake and huge tidal wave that struck the Fukushima nuclear power plant led to the meltdown of fuel inside at least three of its nuclear reactors and extensive damage to at least one, and probably two of the spent fuel pools adjacent to the reactors. Consequently, massive amounts of radiation have been released not only from the melted fuel rods inside damaged reactor cores, but also from hundreds of tons of highly-irradiated spent fuel rods, which have apparently burned, melted, and even been blasted miles away from their storage site next to the reactors.
Reactors 1 and 2 have each suffered complete core meltdowns; their uranium fuel has melted through the steel reactor pressure vessels and now sits at the bottom of the concrete containment vessels. The uranium is in a molten mass, with interior temperatures of 5000 degrees F, and is too hot to even cover with concrete.
Sea water is being dumped into the top of the reactors, in an effort to cool the uranium; the water comes into direct contact with the melted fuel, and then itself becomes highly radioactive, contaminated with particles of radioactive cesium, strontinum, uranium and plutonium, and is then is leaking out through bottom of the containment vessel, which apparently has been fractured.
High-level radioactive wastes continue to be released on a daily basis, with no technical solution to stop the releases in sight for 9 months or longer. Scientific American stated Fukushima has already created the largest release of man-made radioactivity into the oceans in history, and the accident is far from over. Enough radioactive fallout has been released from Fukushima that the accident there has been classified as having the same level of severity as the Chernobyl disaster.
Radioactive “Exclusion Zones”
A significant percentage of the radioactivity produced by nuclear reactors comes from long-lived isotopes, and regions massively contaminated by these types of radioactive poisons (cesium-137 and strontium-90) can remain dangerous or uninhabitable for centuries, or even hundreds of thousands of years (plutonium). Lands contaminated by this sort of pollution become radioactive “exclusion zones”.
Once cesium-137 and strontium-90 are allowed to escape into the biosphere, they actively migrate and accumulate throughout the ecosystems. They are incorporated into the soils, are absorbed by various plants, and in general become progressively more concentrated in plants and animals as they move up the food chains.
When ingested, radioactive cesium is stored in muscle tissue, and radioactive strontium is stored in the bones and teeth. People and animals living in contaminated ecosystems that consume foodstuffs containing these poisons will concentrate them in their bodies. As radioactive poisons build up in their muscles and bones, they can suffer many forms of illness and even death. Children, infants and the unborn are all especially vulnerable to the effects of radioactivity. Genetic damage inflicted by radiation is cumulative, and is passed on to succeeding generations.
Scientists studying the wildlife in contaminated regions around Chernobyl have found that many bird, mammal and even insect populations have suffered significant declines as a probable consequence of having “low-dose” cesium-137 radiation routinely in their diets. Half the bird species have disappeared, and only 1/3 of their original numbers remain in the most contaminated areas, as compared to areas with normal background radiation. All the birds living in these radioactively contaminated regions have smaller brains, and 28% of male birds have no sperm while another 12% have inactive sperm.
High levels of cesium-137 contamination led to the creation of a 1600 square mile (4000 sq km) uninhabitable exclusion zone around the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl. There are vast areas outside this zone which are also significantly contaminated. The entire nation of Belarus received fallout from Chernobyl. According to the Belrad Institute, less than 20% of the children living in the seriously contaminated lands of Belarus are now considered healthy, as compared to 90% being healthy before the Chernobyl disaster.
The Japanese government has created a 12 mile (20 km) exclusion zone surrounding the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant. Tens of thousands of people, including farmers and their families, have been evacuated from an area encompassing 230 square miles (600 sq km), and entry there is forbidden. If the exclusion zone is highly contaminated with cesium-137, then it is likely to remain permanently closed.
Investigators have also recorded very high levels of radiation far outside the Fukushima exclusion zone. Rather than expand the evacuation zone, the government instead advised the 130,000 people who live in a 10 km (6-mile) band beyond the current exclusion zone to either leave or “stay indoors”. However, it is neither healthy nor even possible to remain permanently indoors, and it is an inescapable fact that people who do remain in this contaminated region will be exposed to elevated levels of radioactivity.
If the Japanese government is unwilling to order further evacuation of its citizens from regions seriously contaminated with radioactive fallout, it should at least be willing to give an honest evaluation of the dangers of remaining in these zones to those people who live there. Furthermore, the Japanese government must not continue to hide information about ongoing crisis. Despite the fact that regular news coverage about the disaster has greatly decreased, the situation at the Fukushima power plant remains quite serious.
Nuclear Power is neither “Safe” nor “Clean”
The nuclear salespeople, who continue to tell us that nuclear power is “safe” and “clean”, need a reality check. They should visit the exclusion zones and stop by to see the children in the hospitals of Belarus and Ukraine, who suffer from genetic disorders, internal organ deformities and thyroid cancers. They should go explain the safety and benefits of clean nuclear power to all the refugees who have watched their homes and livelihoods disappear under clouds of nuclear fallout and their children play on radioactive Earth.
Do we really believe that we can endlessly produce nuclear wastes and forever manage to keep them from poisoning the Earth? Can we honestly promise to make nuclear reactors safe from every kind of natural disaster, from human error, terrorism and war?
Building and operating nuclear power plants will inevitably lead to the creation of more radioactive wastelands and “exclusion zones”. What are the human and economic costs of making large geographical areas of the planet uninhabitable? Surely this is a price we should not be willing to pay. It is time to admit that nuclear power is neither a “safe” nor “clean” method to produce energy.
Steven Starr is a senior scientist at Physicians for Social Responsibility and an associate member of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. You can read more of his work at his website, http://www.nucleardarkness.org