As radiation poisons areas around Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi complex, it also floats and falls across the planet.
Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with its dubious record of protecting the public good over industry profit, says 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 – like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima – to the enduring waste problem. Three quarters of America’s nearly 72,000 tons of commercial nuclear power plant-waste 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 U.S. nuclear power plants, but in our own corrupted, pro-industry regulatory system.
In both democracies, citizens cannot vote to shut down 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 Fukushima began operating.
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 repeated lies about leaks, one last vote this year is expected to kill the power plant. Gov. Peter Shumlin 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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission just rubberstamped Entergy’s renewal request, as it did with all 64 other re-licensing requests. Entergy will likely sue Vermont all the way to the Supreme Court. On April 18, Entergy filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Vt., to stop the state from closing the plant; the company claims states have no authority to license nuclear plants.
Vermonters believe a deal is a deal, and that the legislature has the right under a democracy to uphold the contract and shut down 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 Vermont fields, tainting some of the state’s milk supply.
One reason I live in Vermont is the commitment to community and environment that has fueled the decades-long effort to shut VY. I also lived in Japan for almost seven years; its ethical, social and aesthetic values shaped me, as did the generosity and kindness of strangers and friends there. Both places are now coming to terms with the inherent stupidity of trusting that governments and regulators in thrall to industry can safeguard the public.
Japanese poets love to write about hakanai, the transience that 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 from a nuclear meltdown is too painful to bear.
This article has been updated to note Entergy’s lawsuit to prevent the state of Vermont from forcing closure of the Vermont Yankee plant.