You might still be hearing a bit of news now and again about radiation seeping into the ocean in Japan and about how they are finally getting around to removing those inconvenient fuel rods. If you are listening to the BBC, CBC, CNN and other major news networks around the globe then you are not too bad off because they don’t say very much about the largest man made release of radiation into the ocean, ever. I mean all that stuff happened on the other side of the world and almost three years ago, so why should we even be hearing about it anymore?
In stead, we should be asking ourselves why we have been subjected to almost three years of contradicting stories on the severity of damage at the nuclear plants and the spread of contamination after an earthquake and tsunami? Why physiological data on terrestrial and marine life collected from around the world since the tsunami and showing rapidly rising rates of cancers and blood diseases, are being denied and ignored by governments, industry scientists and medical professionals as having any relationship to the events at Fukushima?
Yet before answering all of the many questions arising out of the disaster, I need to understand why my (and your) body’s cellular and genetic structure can be altered by microscopic things flowing into the air and sea at this moment: I need to understand what ‘radioactive’ means.
When something ‘actively radiates’, it gives off energy in some form or another, most often invisible to the naked eye unless the speed with which that energy travels is within the range of our eyes (high infrared through low ultra-violet). Your wireless networks operate when power is applied to an antenna and it radiates that power outward allowing your phone and computer to communicate with the wide world. In fact if all of the radiation around us right now, both natural and man made were visible, we would be blinded by it. But what about things that radiate energy without any power applied to them?
There are a number of naturally occurring minerals that radiate energy on their own and we find them in the gravel under our feet, on the ocean floor and buried miles below the Earths surface. When all of their detectable, radiated energy is combined and measured in a certain spot on the globe we arrive at a ‘background radiation’ level for that spot, which is usually very small and relatively consistent with other spots around the world. Keeping track of background radiation is important when you want to know how much the amount of radiation has increased in your spot because your neighbours’ reactor is leaking or the last solar flare was strong.
Naturally occurring, radioactive minerals contain energy when we find them and this energy had to come from somewhere many years ago. Some scientists speculate that the energy was imparted to the minerals by the heat of the earth and some suggest that the energy is solar or even cosmic, in all cases occurring when the world was young. Just like your glow-in-the-dark wall hanging, which is painted in radioactive strontium or radium, energy from some source (light bulb, sun, flame) had to be transmitted to these minerals in order to activate them (get the atoms bouncing). Similarly as your glow-in-the-dark wall hanging begins to fade (atoms slow down) after the room light has been off for a while, important naturally occurring radioactive minerals loose their energy after a while too. This process is called ‘decay’ and it can take years, thousands of years, or as with Uranium, millions of years for the energy to fully diffuse.
We don’t know if the naturally occurring radiation is a contributing factor to illnesses in people but we do know that when that radiation level is “turned up” or when different kinds of radioactive isotopes collect inside of us, our bodies begin to absorb that energy just like a piece of meat absorbs energy in a microwave oven, and often with the same results. But how do you ‘turn up’ the level of radiation? How come we can’t tap into the energy radiating from the stones beneath our feet or on the sea floor?
Most of the radioactive mineral we dig out of the ground is Uranium and it has radioactive bits (U-235 isotopes) mixed with other, non-radioactive rocks, minerals and elements which dilute the amount of energy available from any one piece of rock. One must dig very deep and into the right vein of ore to find rock which emits substantially more radiation than ‘background’ and even then the amount of radiation is too small to capture and use but it is Not too small to harm biological organism, like us.
In the same way that oil coming out of the ground must have water and sand removed before we can use it in our cars and machines, radioactive elements must have all of the impurities removed before they are ready to use. This is the job of a centrifuge, which spins the tiny pieces of mineral very fast and for a long time until the individual components separate and the radioactive “isotopes” in the mineral are free to be collected (carefully) together in a fuel rod or an x-ray camera or a bomb. You may have heard the term ‘enrichment level’ in the news and this refers to the amount of time spent in the centrifuge: the purest radioactive material is that which has spent the longest in the centrifuge and is most enriched. As its purity (enrichment) increases, less material is needed to produce a useable amount of energy. Radioactive materials which still contain impurities are fine for x-ray cameras and for packing into atomic reactor fuel rods, because these devices need the energy to be released slowly and with less efficiency than a bomb which cannot afford to have space taken up by impurities.
As Uranium isotopes ‘decay’, they give off energy and they form new types of isotopes, like iodine-131, Caesium-134 and -137 and Strontium-90, to name a few. Because not all of the energy is used up during the decay, these newly formed isotopes also contain energy and are considered radioactive and highly poisonous to biological life forms like you and I. Since isotopes are microscopic in size, they can be carried easily by the wind and water and because they are heavy little beggars, these tiny bits begin to collect inside plants and the flesh and organs of animals which ingest them with food and water and air. As more and more isotopes collect inside an animal, the increased energy being radiated starts to affect individual cells (and genes) inside the animal, causing the cells and genes to split and multiply incorrectly, like a dancer who stumbles because she cannot hear her dance instructor over the loud music. When one animal consumes another, all of the radioactive isotopes are now taken up by the predator and before long there is a very high concentration at the top of the food-chain…us.
So how do you and I go from living happily surrounded by low-level background radiation, to living with the fear of cancer and infant deformities as the amount of radiation in our environment increases?
Increases in spot radiation levels occur where ever there is a concentrated amount of decaying Uranium (or other fissionable material) and/or the isotopes which result from that decay. In a functioning nuclear reactor of a design similar to those in Japan, the process of decay is occurring rapidly in a chain reaction and both the newly formed isotopes and the energy being released as heat are trapped by water which surrounds the radioactive material. This water is heated to the boiling point and (indirectly) steam is produced to run a steam turbine which is coupled to an electrical generator. As you can imagine, that water and the initial steam vapour created are dense with radioactive isotopes through intimate contact with the fuel rods, so a great deal of care is exercised in the design and operation of a nuclear power plant to keep that water and fuel rods cooled and contained. If the water temperature surrounding the fuel rods gets too hot it will boil away, turning into a pressurized, poisonous gas and without cooling, the fuel rods will themselves overheat to the point where they too begin to ‘melt. When the rods melt, the vapours released are not only poisonous, they are explosive too.
Which brings us to March 11, 2011 in the coastal prefecture of Fukushima, Japan, where at about 3 in the afternoon the background radiation grew several million times in the course of a day. Where four nuclear reactors lost their cooling water and the fuel rods in all four reactors began to boil away, releasing explosive gasses to the air and heated water to the ocean, both of which containing enough radioactive isotopes to kill an animal in minutes. Suddenly and then continuously, microscopic, radioactive isotopes were released into fast-moving ocean currents and wafted up by swift tropical breezes to carry their dangerous cargo around the world before dropping them in your rain barrel, fish pond and animal feed.
Fukushima Daiichi Reactors Number 1, 2, 3 and 4
These are boiling water reactors (BWR) designed over 47 years ago to generate electrical power from steam generated by the heat of decay of Uranium-235, exactly as described above. These were the first Hitachi Ltd. versions of a new design by General Electric Ltd. and when installed in 1975, they lacked the heavy ‘containment’ facility construction found in later versions of the plant.
From their beginning the design, construction and operation of these reactors have been plagued with material and workmanship issues, not the least of which include unauthorized changes to the cooling system design, inadequate shore protection, poor control and power system layout, weak metal in pressure containing walls, improper maintenance and poor oversight by inspection authorities. Reactors 2 and 3 were not designed for the ground acceleration induced during the earthquake but reactors 1 and 4 were designed to withstand it. None of the 6 reactors (reactors 5 and 6 were mothballed at the time) or the 10M tall shore protection had been designed for a 14M high tsunami wave.
When the earthquake struck around 2 in the afternoon, reactors 1, 2 and 3 contained fuel rods in the reactor vessel and possibly in secondary containment storage, while reactor number 4 only had fuel rods in secondary containment and was not operating. Automatically the control rods in reactors 1, 2 and 3 would have been inserted into their reactor cores to quickly reduce the amount of energy transmitted to the water and shut down steam and electrical production by the reactors. Stand-by electrical generators in the basement started up at that moment to supply electrical power for the cooling pumps and controls because external grid power was not available. For about fifty minutes the reactors operated in this emergency shut down mode while the plant operators frantically searched for electrical power and fuel to keep the generators going. At approximately 3 in the afternoon the whole of the North Pacific Ocean rose 14 meters (almost 50Ft) above the 10 meter tall shore defence, although watching from one of the reactor buildings, it would have seemed as thought the ground was dropping beneath you.
Water quickly overwhelmed the weakened reactor buildings, flooding the generators, destroying electrical and control distribution and stopping most of the critical flow of cooling water to the reactor cores. For half a day only batteries kept a small circulation of water passing through the reactors but the rate of decay in the cores had only been muffled, not stopped. Water temperature around the fuel rods rose and pressure in the containment vessel was released as radioactive steam to atmosphere. As the batteries died and the water flow stopped it was only a matter of hours before all of the water had boiled away from the fuel rods and they were left to overheat, releasing radioactive hydrogen gas into the reactor secondary containment areas and out to atmosphere.
Between March 12 and March 15, all four reactors experienced large hydrogen/air explosions which ripped apart their secondary containment structures and damaged or destroyed all of the cranes and mechanical equipment needed for rod replacement, equipment removal and maintenance. Reactor 3 suffered a severe blast which hurled debris 300 meters into the air and collapsed a portion of its secondary containment floor. The effects of these blasts were seen around the world as spikes in background radiation at New YorkState, Montreal, Alaska, California, Oregon, Hawaii and Austria.
Here, Now and Tomorrow
That was almost three years ago and since that initial release of radioactive gasses and water; our knowledge of events and conditions within the reactors has been stymied by the reactor operators, the Japanese government and by our own media. Initial denials of catastrophic levels of contamination by the plant operator have turned into tearful apologies for hiding the true scale of radiation leakage to the air, to the ground water table and to the ocean. Operator and government denials that sea water was being used to cool the reactors and then let out to sea were found to be outright lies as are the stories which Japanese medical professionals must tell their patients dying of cancer. Medication is given to the Japanese public not for radiation sickness, but for the ‘fear of getting’ radiation sickness.
In the last half of 2013 the west coast of North America has seen an array of strange marine behaviours; from the dying off of sea turtles and star fish to the beaching of rare, deep water Oar fish. Trash from the tsunami began to reach these shores after a year, and true to predictions the radioactive water has touched down after less than three years. When researchers plot the spread of radioactive caesium across the world by air and water, they are doing it assuming the leaks are going to continue for a long time to come.
So the horse is out of the barn and it is going to take decades to close the barn door. In that time the concentration of radioactive isotopes in the Pacific Ocean will spread into other seas and oceans, contaminating the food-chain and reaching inland through the evaporation of sea water and its condensation as rain. We cannot know what the end results will be, what species of life will die off or where pockets of cancer and deformity will strike, but we can take precautions and defend our own health through diet and awareness. Little things like making sure you get enough vitamin C and enough iodized salts. Checking the labels on food products to make sure they have not come from Japan. Cut down on the amount of Tuna and other sea foods, especially molluscs (oysters/mussels) that you consume. And most of all, become aware that you will not always be told the whole story unless you go looking for it yourself.
I did not write this for nuclear physicists; I wrote this for my land lady who loves smoked oysters and for my sons and family and friends who work and live along the west coast of North America and I wrote this for everyone who wonders why we still have to hear about Fukushima. However if you do happen to be a nuclear physicist and want to correct me on some points, I am all ears….a bad thing to say when talking about radiation mutations.