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The Nuclear Neighborhood - Our Collective Creation

Kristi McCracken, April 26, 2011

Four tectonic plates converge near Japan. Consequently, people there live on the brink of disaster, in a country that is one of the most seismically active places on the planet. It’s not easy to look in the face of fear, but as the trio of disasters in Japan continue to unfold, we see the need for compassionate action toward our neighbors.

The Japanese stoically faced the 9.0 earthquake that shook their island country and the 30 foot waves from the tsunami that swept homes, cars and loved ones into the sea. Luckily, tens of thousands of people were saved with early warning systems. Over 12,000 are still missing, perhaps swept into the sea or buried under the 25 million tons of rubble. The death toll has risen to over 14,300.

The threat continues as silent invisible particles of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants now threaten an ever expanding danger zone. When the quake hit, the three operating reactors shut down as designed. When the wave topped the seawall, backup generators used to cool the rods flooded and died. The outer buildings of the reactors began exploding one by one to release the pressure that was building up from the overheating.

The incredible power stored inside the nucleus of a tiny atom is hard to contain. Splitting the atom, a process called fission, releases huge amounts of energy. Lise Meitner, the scientist who first discovered the process, never intended for this knowledge to be used to create the atomic bombs such as the US dropped on Japan in WWII, and which triggered the fears during the cold war of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Using fission for peaceful purposes, such as generating electricity, the chain reaction must be controlled. Special control rods in nuclear reactors absorb the free-flying neutrons so they don’t split other nuclei. The vaporized water produces steam energy that spins turbines which generate electricity.

When the excessive heat generated by the fuel rods can’t be adequately cooled, meltdown begins and potential radioactive leakage is heightened. Meltdown is a term used to describe a severe nuclear reactor accident producing overheating that results in damage to the core. Nuclear scientists from around the world are assisting Japan in an attempt to minimize the meltdown effects. Of the over 400 nuclear power plants around the world, two have become infamous due to meltdowns.

In a reactor accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania during 1979, the containment structure fortunately never ruptured, and it kept the radioactive release from the nuclear reactor’s partial meltdown to a minimum. This spared thousands of people from the nightmare of a more serious nuclear accident.

April 26, 2011 was the 25th anniversary of a nuclear accident at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. In 1986, at this site, the worst disaster in the history of nuclear energy released radioactive material into the atmosphere estimated to be hundreds of times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The uranium rods did not have a containment structure, and the explosion sent a cloud with 50 tons of radioactive particles into the air - exposing thousands of local residents.

Hundreds were hospitalized with radiation poisoning in the first couple of months. Many of those directly exposed, such as plant workers and fire fighters, died. Radiation poisoning can kill in 30-60 days for those sustaining ongoing exposure. However, radiation poisoning is more likely to show up later in the form of various cancers, especially thyroid cancer in children. Estimated deaths attributed to the radiation fallout from the Chernobyl disaster range from 4,000 to nearly one million people.

As the wind expanded the radioactive radius of Chernobyl, millions of people in neighboring European countries fearful of contamination faced various dreadful predictions. Romanians were told not to drink rainwater. Polish officials stopped the sale of cow’s milk, fearing contamination. Scandinavians didn’t feed their kids fresh fruits or vegetables. Only one reactor was damaged in Chernobyl, whereas Fukushima has four out-of-control reactors. It is highly likely that Fukushima will far surpass Chernobyl in terms of its environmental damage and human death toll.

Fearing danger from a nuclear accident, the recent global resurgence of interest in nuclear power has stalled. Although increasing nuclear energy could mean that dwindling fossil fuel supplies such as coal, oil, and gas might not be depleted as quickly as feared, private investors are not yet willing to foot the $10 billion bill per reactor, given the current devastating problems.

Radioactivity is once again sending ripples of fear around the planet. Nuclear energy, considered by some to be a clean, inexhaustible energy resource, continues to be plagued with the very real issues of nuclear waste and safe containment. These unstable isotopes break down at a constant rate, releasing radioactivity until they are neutralized, a measure of time known as half-life. Depending on the type of uranium, it has a half-life between 700 million and 4 billion years.

Our understanding of radioactivity became clearer when Marie Curie discovered that some elements have naturally unstable nuclei that break down, giving off radiation. She was a brilliant scientist who died young due to overexposure to radiation in the form of X-rays. Curie’s daughter figured out how to create the artificially unstable nucleus used by medicine to stop the growth of cancer by using rays to irradiate them.

While the use of radiation can be beneficial, great caution and wisdom are required. It is highly dangerous to living cells of all kinds, not just cancer cells. The destructive potential of radiation depends on which unstable elements are exposed. Nuclear power plants typically emit four kinds of radioactive elements. Exposure to radioactive iodine often leads to thyroid cancer, while exposure to radioactive strontium is taken up in the bones and teeth, often leading to leukemia. Plutonium is the most toxic of all; when inhaled, it can lead to lung cancer and other tissue damage. When cesium enters the body, it circulates everywhere - causing cancer of the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. To date, there are 27 different types of cancer associated with exposure to radioactive isotopes.

Technically, the fuel rods in the Fukushima nuclear power plant where the isotopes are stabilizing are still contained. However, it is doubtful that the meltdown which has begun can actually be stopped, since cooling only slows the process. The system pumps are so damaged it appears that only radical acts like dowsing with sea water can mitigate the problem - which is not even a solution, but rather an interim step. These attempts to cool the reactors using sea water have resulted in overflow ditches that are dumping thousands of tons of highly contaminated radioactive water into the ocean off the coast of Fukushima.

Due to high radiation levels, restrictions have been placed on the distribution and consumption of a sea fish known as the sand lance found in these waters. Since fish migrate and ocean currents circulate, it may be only a matter of time before radioactive contamination crosses the Pacific. It is as yet uncertain what the net effect will be to the living ecosystem of the sea.

This unknown, invisible and often non-obvious radiation threat can be frightening. Japan’s epic quake has shaken us all, and her aftershocks continue to leave us rattled. The force of the tsunami's crushing blow claimed inestimable amounts of property, possessions and thousands of lives, for which many still grieve. The radiation remains as a lingering threat. We watch in horror at the continuing effects arising from man's "harnessing" of the atom.

Prayers for the Japanese workers who are at greatest risk are indeed merited. Despite sleep deprivation, poor food supplies and heightened radiation exposure, they continue to valiantly attempt to hold the greater negative possibilities at bay.

The dramatic events in Japan have allowed us to touch the untouchable in our minds, and to think the unthinkable. We must respond with compassionate engagement. We would do well to emulate the resilience and calm determination of the Japanese people to overcome what cannot be controlled. Natural disasters lay bare the best and worst in people. While Japan’s grief is quietly restrained, the shock of the loss continues to reverberate as fear escalates. In Emperor Akhito’s first-ever televised address he said, “Pray for the safety of as many people as possible.”