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Thursday 8 December 2011

After Fukushima: Enough Is Enough

December 2, 2011
After Fukushima: Enough Is Enough

The nuclear power industry has been resurrected over the past decade
by a lobbying campaign that has left many people believing it to be a
clean, green, emission-free alternative to fossil fuels. These beliefs
pose an extraordinary threat to global public health and encourage a
major financial drain on national economies and taxpayers. The
commitment to nuclear power as an environmentally safe energy source
has also stifled the mass development of alternative technologies that
are far cheaper, safer and almost emission free — the future for
global energy.

When the Fukushima Daiichi reactors suffered meltdowns in March,
literally in the backyard of an unsuspecting public, the stark reality
that the risks of nuclear power far outweigh any benefits should have
become clear to the world. As the old quip states, “Nuclear power is
one hell of a way to boil water.”

Instead, the nuclear industry has used the disaster to increase its
already extensive lobbying efforts. A few nations vowed to phase out
nuclear energy after the disaster. But many others have remained
steadfast in their commitment. That has left millions of innocent
people unaware that they — all of us — may face a medical catastrophe
beyond all proportions in the wake of Fukushima and through the
continued widespread use of nuclear energy.

The world was warned of the dangers of nuclear accidents 25 years ago,
when Chernobyl exploded and lofted radioactive poisons into the
atmosphere. Those poisons “rained out,” creating hot spots over the
Northern Hemisphere. Research by scientists in Eastern Europe,
collected and published by the New York Academy of Sciences, estimates
that 40 percent of the European land mass is now contaminated with
cesium 137 and other radioactive poisons that will concentrate in food
for hundreds to thousands of years. Wide areas of Asia — from Turkey
to China — the United Arab Emirates, North Africa and North America
are also contaminated. Nearly 200 million people remain exposed.

That research estimated that by now close to 1 million people have
died of causes linked to the Chernobyl disaster. They perished from
cancers, congenital deformities, immune deficiencies, infections,
cardiovascular diseases, endocrine abnormalities and radiation-induced
factors that increased infant mortality. Studies in Belarus found that
in 2000, 14 years after the Chernobyl disaster, fewer than 20 percent
of children were considered “practically healthy,” compared to 90
percent before Chernobyl. Now, Fukushima has been called the
second-worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl. Much is still uncertain
about the long-term consequences. Fukushima may well be on par with or
even far exceed Chernobyl in terms of the effects on public health, as
new information becomes available. The crisis is ongoing; the plant
remains unstable and radiation emissions continue into the air and

Recent monitoring by citizens groups, international organizations and
the U.S. government have found dangerous hot spots in Tokyo and other
areas. The Japanese government, meanwhile, in late September lifted
evacuation advisories for some areas near the damaged plant — even
though high levels of radiation remained. The government estimated
that it will spend at least $13 billion to clean up contamination.

Many thousands of people continue to inhabit areas that are highly
contaminated, particularly northwest of Fukushima. Radioactive
elements have been deposited throughout northern Japan, found in tap
water in Tokyo and concentrated in tea, beef, rice and other food. In
one of the few studies on human contamination in the months following
the accident, over half of the more than 1,000 children whose thyroids
were monitored in Fukushima City were found to be contaminated with
iodine 131 — condemning many to thyroid cancer years from now.

Children are innately sensitive to the carcinogenic effects of
radiation, fetuses even more so. Like Chernobyl, the accident at
Fukushima is of global proportions. Unusual levels of radiation have
been discovered in British Columbia, along the West Coast and East
Coast of the United States and in Europe, and heavy contamination has
been found in oceanic waters.

Fukushima is classified as a grade 7 accident on the International
Atomic Energy Agency scale — denoting “widespread health and
environmental effects.” That is the same severity as Chernobyl, the
only other grade 7 accident in history, but there is no higher number
on the agency’s scale.

After the accident, lobbying groups touted improved safety at nuclear
installations globally. In Japan, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. — which
operates the Fukushima Daiichi reactors — and the government have
sought to control the reporting of negative stories via telecom
companies and Internet service providers.

In Britain, The Guardian reported that days after the tsunami,
companies with interests in nuclear power — Areva, EDF Energy and
Westinghouse — worked with the government to downplay the accident,
fearing setbacks on plans for new nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power has always been the nefarious Trojan horse for the
weapons industry, and effective publicity campaigns are a hallmark of
both industries. The concept of nuclear electricity was conceived in
the early 1950s as a way to make the public more comfortable with the
U.S. development of nuclear weapons. “The atomic bomb will be accepted
far more readily if at the same time atomic energy is being used for
constructive ends,” a consultant to the Defense Department
Psychological Strategy Board, Stefan Possony, suggested. The phrase
“Atoms for Peace” was popularized by President Dwight Eisenhower in
the early 1950s.

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are one and the same technology. A
1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor generates 600 pounds or so of plutonium
per year: An atomic bomb requires a fraction of that amount for fuel,
and plutonium remains radioactive for 250,000 years. Therefore every
country with a nuclear power plant also has a bomb factory with
unlimited potential.The nuclear power industry sets an unforgivable
precedent by exporting nuclear technology — bomb factories — to dozens
of non-nuclear nations.

Why is nuclear power still viable, after we’ve witnessed catastrophic
accidents, enormous financial outlays, weapons proliferation and
nuclear-waste induced epidemics of cancers and genetic disease for
generations to come? Simply put, many government and other officials
believe the nuclear industry mantra: safe, clean and green. And the
public is not educated on the issue.

There are some signs of change. Germany will phase out nuclear power
by 2022. Italy and Switzerland have decided against it, and
anti-nuclear advocates in Japan have gained traction. China remains
cautious on nuclear power. Yet the nuclear enthusiasm of the U.S.,
Britain, Russia and Canada continues unabated. The industry,
meanwhile, has promoted new modular and “advanced” reactors as better
alternatives to traditional reactors. They are, however, subject to
the very same risks — accidents, terrorist attacks, human error — as
the traditional reactors. Many also create fissile material for bombs
as well as the legacy of radioactive waste.

True green, clean, nearly emission-free solutions exist for providing
energy. They lie in a combination of conservation and renewable energy
sources, mainly wind, solar and geothermal, hydropower plants, and
biomass from algae. A smart-grid could integrate consuming and
producing devices, allowing flexible operation of household
appliances. The problem of intermittent power can be solved by storing
energy using available technologies.

Millions of jobs can be created by replacing nuclear power with
nationally integrated, renewable energy systems. In the U.S. alone,
the project could be paid for by the $180 billion currently allocated
for nuclear weapons programs over the next decade. There would be no
need for new weapons if the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals — 95
percent of the estimated 20,500 nuclear weapons globally — were

Nuclear advocates often paint those who oppose them as Luddites who
are afraid of, or don’t understand, technology, or as hysterics who
exaggerate the dangers of nuclear power.

One might recall the sustained attack over many decades by the tobacco
industry upon the medical profession, a profession that revealed the
grave health dangers induced by smoking.

Smoking, broadly speaking, only kills the smoker. Nuclear power
bequeaths morbidity and mortality — epidemics of disease — to all
future generations.

The millions of lives lost to smoking in the era before the health
risks of cigarettes were widely exposed will be minuscule compared to
the medical catastrophe we face through the continued use of nuclear

Let’s use this extraordinary moment to convince governments and others
to move toward a nuclear-free world. Let’s prove that informed
democracies will behave in a responsible fashion.

Helen Caldicott, a pediatrician, is founding president of Physicians
for Social Responsibility. A native of Australia, she left her Harvard
Medical School post in 1980 to work full-time on anti-nuclear

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