By Jim Harding
It’s over two and one-half years since the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, Japan and the contamination hasn’t stopped. It is getting so serious that the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear body recently recategorized the situation as a nuclear event # 3 on its 7-point scale. Tepco, the company in charge, hasn’t been able to stop the radioactive contamination of groundwater pouring into the Pacific Ocean.
The company planned to reuse contaminated water to cool the damaged reactor cores. However, groundwater steadily came into contact with the leaking radioactive particles. An additional 400 tons of newly radioactive water is being created daily. Tepco tried to build storage tanks fast enough to keep up. It has tried to filter out enough of the radioactive particles so it could legally release the water. Their original idea to pump the radioactive water into an offshore super-tanker was rejected.
340,000 tons of highly radioactive water is already in storage tanks and Tepco is preparing to handle 700,000 tons. This is the largest pool of radioactive water ever created anywhere; it’s 40 times what accumulated during the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The nuclear industry likes to talk about how relatively small the volume of its spent-fuel waste is, graphically emphasizing that it can fit into a few swimming pools. But the highly radioactive spent fuel creates more waste, such as the contaminated water at Fukushima which already has the volume of 132 Olympic pools.
Tepco tried to keep up by building a 1,000 ton capacity tank each day. But it isn’t working and now some of the hastily constructed tanks are leaking putting workers and the marine eco-system at even greater risk. The radiation coming from the leaking tanks has been found to be 18 times higher than first reported: 1,800 not 100 mSv an hour, which can be a lethal dose in a short time. Meanwhile they are running out of space to safely locate hundreds more tanks.
This contamination could go on for decades; some now consider it a disaster of global proportions. Radioactivity released at Fukushima is already 20 to 30 times more from the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. One estimate is that one quadrillion Becquerels (Bq) of radiation (a lot) has already been released into the Pacific, to ultimately find its way into the global food web. These radioactive particles aren’t neutralized but accumulate in ocean pockets and currents.
One year after the disaster offshore bottom-feeders had 250 times the radioactive cesium that the government considered safe. There are now severe fishing limits offshore Japan; you can’t even take a boat within 5,000 meters of the plant. Ongoing mapping shows that radiation is being dispersed towards Canada’s West Coast. Will B.C. fishers one day also be stopped from taking the bounty from the coastal ocean?
The nuclear industry is playing Russian roulette with global food and health. The fission products spreading into the wider environment are readily absorbed in agriculture, the fishery and human bodies. One radioactive particle, Strontium-90, replaces stable calcium, while another, Cesium-137, replaces stable potassium. Our bodies are “tricked” and these new elements lodge in our bones and muscles and continue to irradiate us from within.
Industry apologists make calculations and claims about risk based mainly on one-time external doses, but the ingested radioactive particles can damage our DNA. It is these that present the greatest threat to our health. The long latency period for cancers enables the industry to obscure the causal connection between the growing toxic burden and future disease rates. They play an amoral numbers game. To comply with the UN’s nuclear promoter the IAEA, even the normally trustworthy World Health Organization or WHO downplays the risks.
Valid studies must calculate collective doses, such as to people within the Fukushima region, those exposed elsewhere in Japan or in other places in the northern hemisphere. A preliminary study, noted by the U.S. public interest group Beyond Nuclear estimates that 3,000 excess cancers could result in just the Fukushima Prefecture. Thyroid abnormalities have escalated among infants and children near Fukushima; some suggest these impacts reached North America.
Meanwhile the nuclear industry carries on, arguing that their next generation of reactors can avoid the disasters brought on by their present technologies. But the economic and ecological cost of learning by such disasters is too much for us to bear. Fukushima must be our global wake up call. However we still have some waking up to do in Saskatchewan
THE SASKATCHEWAN CONNECTION
We can’t approach the nuclear fuel system in tidy ethical, cost-benefit compartments. While the industry tells us that the expansion of uranium mining is good for the provincial economy and northern employment, the Fukushima nuclear disaster continues to unfold. Uranium mining here is directly connected to the ongoing global contamination. The radioactive particles spreading into the Pacific Ocean come from the splitting of uranium atoms that came out of northern Saskatchewan.
Japan’s fleet of 55 nuclear plants is the third largest in the world, after the U.S and then France, and Japan has to import all of its uranium fuel. It has been a significant part of the lucrative, global uranium market. Prior to the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster, Japan imported 20 million pounds of uranium annually.
Saskatchewan corporations have been the main suppliers. Saskatoon-based Cameco is the world’s third largest uranium producer, after Kazatomprom and Areva. The March 20, 2011 Globe and Mail reported that Tepco which operates the Fukushima plant is “one of (Cameco’s) largest customers for uranium”. Tepco has also been a partner of Cameco’s since the 1990s owning 5% of the massive Cigar Lake venture. Another Japanese company, JCU Explorations, is also Cameco’s partner, owning 30% of the proposed Millennium mine.
Saskatchewan was clearly to be Japan’s uranium hinterland as it pursued the planned expansion of its fleet from producing 30% to 50% of the country’s electricity. After Fukushima it’s not going to happen.
Japan’s massive nuclear plant shutdown after Fukushima had an immediate impact on the demand and price of uranium. In 2007 uranium spiked at $138 a pound; it is now $40. And Cameco’s share prices also dropped, especially after Japan’s previous government announced a full phase out of nuclear power by 2040. While Cameco hopes that the new pro-nuclear government will phase-in some nuclear plants, Japan will never return to its nuclear past. Always following its bottom line, which is not environmental health, Cameco shifted its exports to the nuclear market in China. It’s business-as-usual; out of sight out of mind.
Corporate profits and economic benefits will surely recede as uranium mined in Saskatchewan is no longer used to fuel Japan’s shrinking nuclear energy sector. In the meantime, with any hope for a nuclear renaissance quelled by the Fukushima disaster, Cameco had already found other ways to protect its profit line. Create a Swiss holding company which sells at a far higher price than it buys from you, and perhaps you can save $800 million in Canadian taxes. (The May 1, 2013 Globe and Mail reported Revenue Canada is investigating Cameco.) It’s then easy to give tax-deductible gifts to Saskatoon groups or northern communities and still look like a good corporate citizen.
But it’s not possible to phase-out the radioactive waste and contamination left from Japan’s nuclear era. The ecological and health burdens from the use of uranium mined here will carry on, ultimately affecting the food web that our children, as well as Japanese children, will depend upon. It’s time that Saskatchewan fully woke up and recognized the destructive outcomes that the toxic uranium industry creates. Are we going to put our heads and hearts back in the sand and go to sleep again until there is yet another, inevitable nuclear catastrophe, perhaps in China?