Tag Archives: Three Mile Island

Greenpeace and Arne Gundersen blow the whistle on Fukushima

Arnold Gundersen holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and is a former nuclear industry senior vice president. He coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the US, but later became an industry whistle-blower1, also serving as an expert witness for the investigation into the accident at Three Mile Island.2 He is currently the chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates, as well as co-author of the latest Greenpeace report, “Lessons from Fukushima”.

The report’s conclusions begin as follows:

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster has proven that the nuclear industry’s theory of nuclear safety is false. Historical evidence – Fukushima Daiichi, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – shows a major nuclear accident has occurred somewhere in the world about once every decade. The regular occurrence of reactor accidents contradicts the nuclear industry’s claim that such events would occur only once in 250 years.

CCTV Host Margaret Harrington speaks here with Maggie and Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds about Arne’s recent trip to Japan and their report for Greenpeace about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The closing section of the video also features Gundersen’s own theory on why Fukushima failed so catastrophically, and what this means for other nuclear reactors of similar design:

One year on from the Fukushima disaster, and both the British government and the Obama administration continue to call for an expansion of the nuclear power industry. On yesterday’s Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed Gundersen, who again spoke candidly about the long term legacy of Fukushima, the design failures of the Mark I type nuclear reactors used at Fukushima and also in operation elsewhere, and more generally, about how the economics of nuclear energy is distorted.

Here are a few extracts taken from what he had to say:

Well, I think the first—the first lesson is that this is a technology that can destroy a nation. I was reading Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoirs, and he claims that it was Chernobyl, not perestroika, that destroyed the Soviet Union. And as you look at the transcripts coming out of Japan, we see that the Fukushima accident was on the verge of causing the evacuation of Tokyo. And had the wind been blowing the other way, across the island instead of out to sea, Japan would have been cut in half and destroyed as a functional country. So, this is a technology where perhaps accidents don’t happen every day, but when they do, they can destroy a country.

The other things are the cost is astronomical. To fix this is going to be something on the order of half-a-trillion dollars. All of the money that Japan saved on oil over the 40 years that they’ve had nuclear plants just got thrown away in the half-a-trillion-dollar recovery effort.

And the other piece is the human issues. The health impacts to the Japanese will begin to be felt in several years and out to 30 or 40 years from cancers. And I believe we’re going to see as many as a million cancers over the next 30 years because of the Fukushima incident in Japan.

You know, left to Wall Street druthers—we subsidize their insurance, and we subsidize them on the front end, as far as their ability to build these plants. If it were up to Wall Street and this was a real capitalistic country, we wouldn’t be building nuclear. We’ve basically socialized the risks, but any profits flow to the corporations. […]

I’m on record as saying that we should close the 23 reactors with the Mark I design. Just three weeks before Fukushima, my wife and I were talking, and she said, “Where is the next accident going to occur?” I said, “I don’t know where, but I know it’s going to be in a Mark I design.” These containment vents prove to fail three times out of three. And the NRC’s response is, “Well, let’s make those vents better.” Well, if they just failed three times out of three, it’s hard to imagine how to make something like that better.

In addition, the fuel is stored on the roof, essentially, in unshielded, unprotected areas. And there’s more nuclear caesium-137 in the fuel pool at the plant in Pilgrim, Massachusetts, than was ever released by every nuclear bomb ever exploded in the atmosphere. So we have an enormous inventory of nuclear material way up on the roofs of these buildings, and I think it’s time to close these Mark 1s down, because of those two design features.

Click here to watch the interview and read the full transcript at the Democracy Now! website.

*

Greenpeace commissioned Dr. David Boilley, a nuclear physicist with the French independent radiation laboratory ACRO; Dr. David McNeill, Japan correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications; and Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Associates, to write “Lessons from Fukushima”. The report, peer reviewed by Dr. Helmut Hirsch, an expert in nuclear safety, reaches three important insights:

1) Japanese authorities and the operators of the Fukushima plant were entirely wrong in their assumptions about the risks of a serious accident. The real risks were known but downplayed and ignored.

2) Even though Japan is considered one of the best-prepared countries in the world for handling major disasters the reality of a large nuclear disaster proved to be far worse than what was planned for. Nuclear emergency and evacuation plans utterly failed to protect people.

3) Hundreds of thousands of people have been deeply affected by evacuations to escape radioactive contamination. They cannot rebuild their lives due to a lack of support and financial compensation. Japan is one of only three countries with a law making a nuclear operator liable for the full costs of a disaster. Yet, the liability law and compensation schemes are inadequate in Japan. Even a year after the disaster began, impacted people are essentially left on their own and Japanese taxpayers will end up paying much of the costs.

Taken from the official Greenpeace press release of February 28th which accompanied the publication of their report: “Lessons from Fukushima”.

Click here to read the Greenpeace report.

1 The following extracts are from a New York Times report about Arnold Gundersen published on February 12th,1995:

“FOR three years, Arnold Gundersen was awakened by harassing phone calls in the middle of the night. He became so concerned about his family’s safety that he bought a large dog for protection. The problem? He was a whistle-blower, one of those who take on the dismally unpopular role of exposing what they find to be unsafe or unlawful practices in the workplace, especially the nuclear workplace.” […]

“Mr. Gundersen, who lives in Warren, told of the day in 1990 when he discovered radioactive material in an accounting safe at Nuclear Energy Services in Danbury, the consulting firm where he held a $120,000-a-year job as senior vice president. Three weeks after he notified the company president of what he believed to be radiation safety violations, Mr. Gundersen said, he was fired.”

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/12/nyregion/paying-the-price-for-blowing-the-whistle.html

2 Click here to see Arnold Gundersen presenting evidence for what he calls “the three myths of Three Mile Island” and here to read Gundersen’s report on the Three Mile Island accident.

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why Monbiot protests too much

In response to criticism of his earlier articles, in which he’d argued that the dangers of nuclear power are being exaggerated, Monbiot’s most recent article now accuses his opponents within the environmental movement of having double-standards. He writes:

“If low-level radiation really was the problem that some environmentalists say it is, the focus of their campaign should be coal plants, not nuclear power. As Scientific American notes:
“The fly ash emitted by a power plant – a by-product from burning coal for electricity – carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”
This is because coal contains trace amounts of uranium and thorium, which are concentrated in the ash. Not only does this expose people living around coal plants to higher doses of radiation than people living around nuclear plants; but the regulations for disposing of fly ash are far weaker than the regulations for disposing of low-level nuclear waste.”

Now, Monbiot perhaps doesn’t imagine that many readers will bother to click to the link and read the original Scientific American notes, but any who do will find a footnote with the following caveat:

“As a general clarification, ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.”

Ah, well that’s not exactly a fair comparison then, is it really…

Aside from distorting the truth by cherry-picking his facts, the fulcrum of Monbiot’s argument depends upon on “the importance of the scientific consensus”, which he asserts to be firmly in favour of the industry. He writes:

“We emphasise, when debating climate change, the importance of the scientific consensus, and reliance on solid, peer-reviewed studies. But as soon as we start discussing the dangers of low-level radiation, we abandon that and endorse the pseudo-scientific gibberish of a motley collection of cranks and quacks, who appear to have begun with the assumption that it must be killing thousands of people every year, and retrofitted the evidence to match it.”

The problem with this kind of thinking is, however, that regardless of whether any such a consensus exists or not (and as an outsider I feel unqualified to know), consensus must never be confused with scientific truth. Indeed, whenever push comes to shove in any scientific discipline, and accepted theory is challenged by new findings, it is always the consensus that breaks first. Every scientist accepts this, even relishes it, fully aware that truth, and not agreement, is what finally counts. And every scientist also knows that certainty is a scientific rarity, as science itself merely tightens the gaps in our understanding; gaps that then grow larger again whenever disciplines become more complex.

In this case, we are concerned with the radiological and toxicological impact of nuclear pollution on biological systems. This requires an understanding of what happens when organisms are subjected to external sources of radiation, and also what happens when similar sources become absorbed into the body as poisons. To do justice, therefore, thorough research must involve the study of a varied range of harmful effects, from ones that are fairly immediate, such as death due to radiation sickness, to effects that may cause cancer and other illnesses in later years, and even in future generations. So here is a comparatively new area of study (almost all of the research carried out since WWII) that requires a detailed understanding of relationships between mechanisms that are chemical, physical and biological; given the circumstances then, we might reasonably expect results, and more importantly, the interpretation of results, to be complicated and perhaps even surprising. Basically, we are trying to understand something that is one heck of a lot more complicated than rocket science, which is only Newtonian physics after all, and so discovering the truth may take a little time.1

Intelligent skepticism is an essential and distinguishing feature of all scientific research, and yet Monbiot’s anti-scientific response is to immediately pour scorn upon just about anyone who deigns to challenge the currently accepted orthodoxy. Although, rather than attacking the dissenting view per se, he deploys an altogether cheaper form of assault: a sweeping ad hominem attack that is presumably intended to obscure and deflect attention from Monbiot’s own rather flimsy position as a radiological expert. Such an approach is quite frankly deplorable, but it also laughable…

Take for instance, Prof. Christopher Busby, who is one of the many supposed “cranks and quacks”. Busby, who trained as a chemist, subsequently researched chemical pharmacology and molecular drug interactions – which is obviously a useful platform to start from. By comparison, George Monbiot has a degree in zoology. Meanwhile, Busby, having spent twenty years researching the subject of radiological risk, has actually served as an advisor to both the UK government, and the European Parliament. He has also presented his concerns about the dangers of depleted uranium to the Royal Society. So when it comes to assessing the likely risks from exposure to radiation, and given such a vast gulf in comparative expertise, who is the more likely to be guilty of endorsing “pseudo-scientific gibberish”, Busby, Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risks, or Monbiot, a skillfully articulate journalist?

Here’s what Busby wrote a fortnight ago, with regards to Monbiot’s confidence in the safety of nuclear power:

“Most recently we have seen George Monbiot, who I know, and who also knows nothing about radiation and health, writing in The Guardian how this accident has actually changed his mind about nuclear power (can this be his Kierkegaard moment? Has he cracked? ) since he now understands (and reproduces a criminally misleading graphic to back up his new understanding) that radiation is actually OK and we shouldn’t worry about it. George does at least know better, or has been told better, since he asked me a few years ago to explain why internal and external radiation exposure cannot be considered to have the same health outcomes. He ignored what I said and wrote for him (with references) and promptly came out in favour of nuclear energy in his next article.”

In the same article, Deconstructing Nuclear Experts published on 28th March by CounterPunch, Busby continues:

“Joseph Conrad wrote: “after all the shouting is over, the grim silence of facts remain”. I believe that these phoney experts like Wade Allison and George Monbiot are criminally irresponsible, since their advice will lead to millions of deaths. …

In the meantime, I challenge each of them to debate this issue with me in public on television face to face, so that the people can figure out who is right. For the late Professor John Gofman, a senior figure in the US Atomic Energy Commission until he saw what was happening and resigned, famously said: “the nuclear industry is waging a war against humanity.” This war has now entered an endgame which will decide the survival of the human race. Not from sudden nuclear war. But from the on-going and incremental nuclear war which began with the releases to the biosphere in the 60s of all the atmospheric test fallout, and which has continued inexorably since then through Windscale, Kyshtym, 3-Mile Island, Chernobyl, Hanford, Sellafield, La Hague, Iraq and now Fukushima, accompanied by parallel increases in cancer rates and fertility loss to the human race.”

Committing ourselves to Monbiot’s leap of faith, and trusting in a consensus (one that is substantially informed by the vested interests of a powerful military-industrial lobby2), means pressing ahead with more and more nuclear power plants and dispensing with “the precautionary principle”, which, and especially in light of the unfolding disaster in Japan, at least exposes Monbiot’s own double-standard when it comes to the nuclear issue. If Busby is even broadly correct in his assessment of the spreading and invisible menace of radioactive pollutants, then moving away from our reliance on nuclear power will certainly save a great many human lives; or given the worst case, could, in the long run, quite literally save the planet… now, isn’t that what Monbiot believes in?

1 An open letter to George Monbiot from Low Level Radiation Campaign posted on Friday 25th March.

When nuclear apologists speak the language of dose they speak the language of deceit. If you speak it too, you become one of the liars you say you despise.

Dear George,
In your column in the
Guardian newspaper 22nd March 2011, you announced that the Fukushima disaster has made you stop worrying and love nuclear power. But you say you still hate the liars who run the industry. Unfortunately, ignorance (or maybe laziness) has led you to parrot the nukes’ favourite lie.

The basis of your argument is that as far as we know, no-one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation and you go on to reproduce an explanation of the range of radiation doses we are exposed to. It’s a simplistic classroom treatment which you found on the internet.

Like many simple explanations it is attractive, since it gives the impression that the ideas involved can actually be grasped, for once. This version is all the more attractive because its scope is large – it offers the reassurance that you have all the bases covered, like a dictionary, or a biblical concordance, or any kind of compendium. We have become used to comparisons between man-made radioactivity and natural and medical exposures; we have heard many dismissive statements like our pollution gives you a smaller dose than eating a banana or flying to Tenerife. Now, all of them are rolled up in one picture. How satisfying. And so, George, you picked out a few snippets to make us all feel stupid for being concerned about a few wrecked reactors.

The problem is that the concept of “dose” here is another simplification. For some kinds of radiation exposure it is even a fiction. This is because radiation “dose” is always an average, even for those kinds of radioactivity which only irradiate the DNA of a single cell, or which affect a few hundreds of cells very intensely but do not expose any of all the other trillions we have in our bodies.
The English king Edward II offers an analogy. His wife and her lover deposed him in 1327. They imprisoned him in Berkeley Castle and there he was, supposedly, murdered in the same year. I say supposedly because there is an academic dispute about even this – never mind radiation! Either way, the method his assassins allegedly used made his death the most famous in English royal history; a group of men pinned him beneath a mattress; they pushed a horn into his anus; through it they inserted a red-hot poker. In our analogy with the official view of radiation the King could have ignored the burning poker up his bum, reasoning to himself that the heat it was transferring into his body was, on average, far less than he’d absorbed in his nice warm bath earlier that evening. No-one supposes he did ignore it, but radiation risk practitioners ignore this issue of local exposure and localised damage. The fact that all competent scientific authorities now recognise that it is a challenge creates a paradox.

The Chernobyl disaster shows how big the challenge and the paradox are. Chernobyl contamination was global, but outside the areas nearest to the power station itself doses as calculated on the average dose model were about the same as natural background – say 2 – 3 milliSieverts. At this level there should be no observable increase in disease if the risk model is right. This dogma is repeated endlessly by apologists for nuclear power – After Chernobyl there was no increase in disease that could be attributed to the radiation. Spot the qualifier? They mean no increase that could be attributed to radiation on the bogus average dose model. In fact all are agreed there has been a massive breakdown in health.

The problem faced by radiation protection officials is that reactors create a massive cocktail of radionuclides with widely differing characteristics and different biochemistry. Some concentrate in muscle, some in bone, teeth and DNA, some in lymph nodes. Some don’t concentrate anywhere. Some cause localised damage, others don’t. Radioactivity is like poison – there are many different kinds and they operate by myriad biological mechanisms. Accurate modelling of the biological effects of either radioactivity or poison involves understanding the specific variations, but that makes regulation very complex. For convenience in the 1940s and early ’50s nuclear officials decided to treat the energy of the radioactive decays from all kinds of radionuclide as if they were a uniformly distributed dose. Then they quantified the expected disease, dose for dose, by reference to studies of the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima. These people in fact were exposed to a uniformly distributed dose – the flash of the bomb itself – and the effects of unevenly distributed internal radioactivity were excluded from the study by the clever trick of comparing the “exposed” bomb survivors with “unexposed” people (“controls”) who lived in the city but had been shielded when the bomb exploded. Thus the controls and the study group had equal amounts of radioactive fallout inside them.

It’s a plot so fiendish it is scarcely credible. But George, according to the Guardian, you are one of the UK’s foremost thinkers and environmentalists so you should be able and anxious to check it out. Will you? Consider; if someone asked you what dose of poison is safe wouldn’t you want to know what poison they had in mind – aspirin or arsenic, alcohol or aflatoxin? Wouldn’t you ask a toxicologist about the precise dangers of the particular substance? Don’t we deserve the same scientific specificity?
When you have checked it out, please tell us what you think the future holds for the people of Honshu.

2 If you decide to look up Christopher Busby then there’s a good chance that you’ll come across his biography on Wikipedia. Once there you will find the following:

“He served on the UK Government’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE), which operated between 2001 and 2004, ultimately disagreeing with the committee’s conclusions and publishing a ‘minority report’ with another committee member.”

A footnote, which you might presume would take you to the “minority report” in question, in fact does not. Instead it refers you to a document entitled “Reflections on CERRIE” by Richard Wakeford (2004) from the Journal of Radiological Protection 24 (4): 337–340. This document is highly critical of the committee and damning of Busby’s role in it:

“I felt that the first meeting of the Working Group had confirmed my suspicions that we had been brought together largely to consider (and, presumably, endorse) the views of Chris Busby.”

With regards to the ‘minority report’, Wakeford continues:

“I do not believe that a wholly separate document was supported by any scientific need; but I also believe that there exists a political dimension to the ‘minority report’, which cannot be ignored. Chris Busby is essentially an aspiring politician who happens to have scientific qualifications – he is the Green Party’s spokesperson on science and technology and has stood for election to the European Parliament – and, in my view, his actions must be seen in this light. It would be asking too much of him to make substantial concessions on the very issue that has brought the media publicity that provides the fuel to drive a political career.”

So the question you may be pondering now is who is Richard Wakeford. Well, for once, Wikipedia offers no answers – at least not immediately. However if you read the opening paragraph to “Reflections on CERRIE” there’s a clue (highlighted here in red):

“CERRIE membership was an eclectic mix of anti-nuclear campaigners (one each from Greenpeace, the Low Level Radiation Campaign (LLRC) and Green Audit), the National Radiological Protection Board (three members), the nuclear industry (me) and five scientists…”

Look a little further and you’ll discover that this outspoken proponent for scientific impartiality and apolitical neutrality was the CERRIE representative from BNFL (see “affliations” on page 2 of Radioactive Times Vol 6, no. 1. ) and is the current editor of Journal of Radiological Protection.

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