Asia’s Nuclear Feeding Frenzy
By Clare BlumerOctober 30, 2012
How safe is the Pacific rim, where 100 reactors in 10 years are planned, some in earthquake-prone, developing nations? Ask the fish.
“You can’t decontaminate that forest,” says Australian radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos about Fukushima, the region of Japan hardest hit by last year’s deadly earthquake and tsunami.
“The stuff is on the ground — in the leaves, in the trees,” he says, referring to the radioactive matter that has blanketed the region since the disaster. Inside the 20 kilometre exclusion zone, radiation from the earth — known as “ground shine’’ — is so bad people are still not allowed to enter. It was August this year when he joined a small group from the World International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War Congress in Hiroshima to visit the heart of the disaster in Fukushima, where the nuclear power plant is still in meltdown damage-control.
The disaster has been given the highest rating of 7 (major accident) on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, a dubious honour shared only by Chernobyl’s 1986 meltdown.
Outside the exclusion zone the government has overseen a big cleanup of topsoil and other highly radioactive matter, enabling locals to return to their homes. But any physical demarcation between contaminated land and decontaminated land is undermined when it rains — when radioactive cancer-causing isotopes (caesium-134 and caesium-137) get washed into the waterways.
This trouble in nearby waters was evident in new research, published in Science Magazine’s October 26 issue, showing that fish off the coast of Fukushima — particularly bottom-dwelling fish — still have elevated levels of two types of caesium in their flesh, nearly 20 months after the disaster. The research categorically showed that radioactive matter is still leaking into the Pacific Ocean.
But researchers, analysing results released by the Japanese government at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, say consumers shouldn’t be too worried — because Japan’s guidelines are the world’s strictest.
Beyond the conscientious Japanese, however, and despite the Fukushima disaster, there is a growing boom in nuclear power development across the Asia Pacific.
Developing countries — including Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia — show a “keen interest in nuclear power”, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) director general, Yukiya Amano, said in September. There will be a steady rise in the number of nuclear power plants in Asia over the next decades, according to the IAEA, the United Nations agency responsible for overseeing the safe use of nuclear power of its 155 member countries.
There are already more than 100 nuclear reactors in Asia, with 100 more to either begin construction or reach completion in the next 10 years.
Japan, South Korea, China and India have the largest numbers of planned plants. Australia, with the world’s largest known uranium reserves of any country, already supplies uranium to all these countries except for India. This is about to change with Prime Minister Gillard’s government lifting the ban on exports to India last year, and Gillard’s beginning negotiations on a safeguard agreement with India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh in October.
India, which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, had 20 operating nuclear power reactors at the end of last year, with seven more under construction.
But the use of nuclear energy by developing countries in the Asia Pacific region — some of which are prone to earthquakes — worries Karamoskos, who also represents the public-health interests on Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority committees.
“The problem with nuclear power is it has the potential, when it goes bad, to go bad on a grand scale, as we’ve seen with Fukushima and Chernobyl,” he says. “It’s not good enough to build a nuclear reactor and then have a nuclear regulator that is inexperienced, or compromised, or lacks independence.”
Karamoskos points to an international transparency-and-corruption scale compiled by Transparency International (partially supported by AusAID) as a reasonable indicator of whether countries can take on the complex safety responsibilities of nuclear power. Indonesia doesn’t rate highly on this scale, coming in at 100 of 183 countries on the Corruption Perception Index; Vietnam and Bangladesh are worse, at 112 and 120 respectively. India ranks 95th.
“That’s my first and foremost concern — do these countries have the underlying principles … to foster a robust safety culture?” he asks.
Indonesia, for one, has been working hard at developing its relationship with the IAEA, and has put forward several sites for nuclear consideration, mostly on the less earthquake-prone side of its archipelago.
Although Japan rates extremely well on the same scale (14), its high ranking did not prevent the systemic failure in standards that contributed to the damage from the Fukushima disaster.
Nineteen months after the near-meltdown, TEPCO, the company which runs the Fukushima centre, still pumps seawater into the plant to cool the reactor, and contaminated water ends up back in the Pacific, mainly from seepage of the wastewater from land to ocean. Construction has started on an impermeable seawall to prevent this seepage, but is not expected to be finished until 2014, which means that the coastline will probably endure another year of oozing nuclear waste.
This raises questions about the damage to the marine environment, which provides the most important source of food for many Pacific nations — fish.
In Japan’s latest update on edible goods affected by radionuclides, restrictions were placed on consumption or export of marine life caught off the coast of Fukushima, and also off the neighbouring areas of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Ibaraki. Some of the flagged species are familiar to Australian seafood markets — species of cod, flounder, sea perch and trout.
These shipment restraints and Australia’s accompanying import-testing scheme mean that you won’t see this fish in your sushi roll any time soon; but fish swim and migrate, and tides and ocean currents cannot be contained.
A report released by Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority (ARPANSA) in mid-October, revealing the impact of the Fukushima disaster on Australia, puts it this way: “Nuclear accidents do not respect borders. Radioactive materials released into the environment can move around the world, and have the potential to reach Australia by both natural processes and human-influenced activities.”
Adding to the anxiety around the Pacific was research, published in May this year, that showed Pacific blue-fin tuna caught off the coast of California last year to have a specific type of caesium in their flesh that could only have been ingested in, and transported from, the waters of Fukushima.
Caesium-134 and caesium-137 are radioactive isotopes that, if ingested in large quantities, can lead to cancer.
American scientists found that the levels of isotopes in the tuna were still safe for human consumption, but the presence of caesium in any measurable quantity was surprising given the distance of California from Fukushima, more than 8,000 kilometres.
Much closer to Fukushima, small Pacific nations have extremely limited or no facilities or expertise to monitor the fish they catch, according to Australian marine-radiation expert Ron Szymczak.
The IAEA has tasked Szymczak with educating Pacific countries in how to test their marine environments, and in gathering reliable data. He emphasises that he is not speaking to The Global Mail on behalf of the agency, but as an independent consultant.
“Everything’s different because now it’s the tropical world that’s going nuclear. Whereas in the past it was the temperate world, the cold countries,” Szymczak says. “We don’t have a very good understanding of [what might happen in] the tropics at all.”
Szymczak says the project will enable Pacific countries to carry out their own meaningful research, including developing countries described by IAEA’s director general as “among those with advanced plans to build their first power reactors” — Vietnam and Bangladesh.
The agency included several countries in its project that are not members: Cambodia, The Cook Islands, Nepal, Fiji, Palau, The Marshall Islands and The Solomon Islands. Fiji has since become a member of the organisation.
For the past year Szymczak has travelled around the region, training local scientists in best-practice testing of seawater, sea creatures and ocean sediment.
“Asia is going nuclear, they’re going to have more than a hundred new nuclear reactors in the next 10 years. Many of them will be on the coast, and countries are worried about their capability to do assessments,” Szymczak says.
He explains the importance of localised testing: “The first time they ever walked in a room, I could tell them flat out ‘you will never see contamination of concern from Fukushima in any of your islands, nor will we in Australia — end of story’. But you can’t just say ‘trust me, I’m a scientist’.
“I wouldn’t accept a report from New Zealand,” he says, as an example of necessary scepticism of other nation’s research, despite its close ties with Australia.
The study of the ecological health of marine species involves testing not just the flesh of animals, but also their organs — which can contain many times the concentration of radioactive isotopes found in the flesh.
It’s laborious work, and often beyond the budgets of the countries he’s working with, as they do their national testing as an “in kind” contribution to the IAEA project. But Szymczak says the extra testing is an essential process if we’re to discover how sea organisms are affected by disasters like Fukushima.
Recent US research indicates that creatures hold larger concentrations of the naturally occurring radioactive isotope Polonium-210 in their organs than in their flesh, but we are still in the dark about how this affects the biology and genetics of sea creatures long term.
Szymczak says that naturally occurring radionuclides are in our bodies already and that the tiny concentrations of caesium in sea life far from Fukushima are comparatively insignificant.
Karamoskos agrees: “Forty per cent of the natural radiation dose we get each year comes from the Potassium dose within us. It’s like if I found a trace of mercury in your system. It’s more an indication that you’ve been exposed rather than that you’ve been in danger.”
He also points out that animals and humans naturally shed radioactive materials through their urine. “People assume that [caesium is] taken up and you’re stuck with it for years, but you flush it out. It’s certainly not like strontium and plutonium which are taken up by the bones and [do] stay there for decades.”
When Szymczak is asked whether we’ll see any deformities in fish attributable to the Fukushima disaster, he pauses. “That remains to be observed,” he says. “We will learn a lot from this. Like I say, it’s never happened before.”
Of course, fish are not the only foods affected by radiation. The caesium isotopes released by Fukushima are extremely soluble and can also be taken up by plants. After last year’s disaster, the Australian government began testing food imports from Japan using the expertise of a triumvirate of organisations: the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
Japan continues to limit agricultural and seafood exports that have been tested and found to have unacceptable levels of radionuclides. In September the Australian agencies moved to “refocus” their testing efforts of imported foods from Japan, eliminating testing of all products other than tea, mushrooms and all fish imported from particular areas.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries says that “to date, no foods tested under this monitoring program have exceeded these levels”, referring to the “safe’’ limit set by ARPANSA.
Dr Stephen Solomon, head of the radiation health services branch of ARPANSA, explains that even if a person ate 55 kilograms of food contaminated to this level, “no health effects are expected. Observable radiation-induced health effects would only be expected at hundreds or thousands of times these levels”.
ARPANSA’s assessment of the impact of the nuclear disaster on Australia tells a comforting story, revealing that Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has so far had limited effects on our food and environment.
Australia’s uranium deposits and exports leave it with extraordinary responsibilities. With many more nuclear reactors being built in Australia’s oceanic backyard, we may not be able to sidestep the environmental ramifications of the next major meltdown.
Karamoskos agrees Australians are unlikely to be affected by the disaster – but does worry about the impact of a meltdown closer to home.
With Japan slowly recovering from its dual disasters, Karamoskos speaks with admiration of the mayor of the village of Kawauchi, in Fukushima, who is encouraging his community to return to their homes by installing gamma detectors throughout the community. For example, next to the town’s medical centre stands a high-tech-looking gamma meter, offering a stark radioactivity reading.
It’s a level of transparency that the Japanese feel their national leaders have failed to provide, says Karamoskos, who approves of the rather morbid reminders of the invisible carcinogens.
“Fear is your enemy unless you know the facts,” he says.