3.11.2021. The 10 Year Anniversary of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: what it means to US

by Christopher Eddy (Grand Canyon University), and Eriko Sase (Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University)

Field trip to Aizu, Japan: radiation readings collected. Photography by EDDY.

The dreaded moment has suddenly fallen upon us, she thinks. A text message from her husband, the head nuclear engineer at “the plant,” and a simultaneous skipped heartbeat interrupts her nervous Twitter feed search. This polar vortex. Is it climate change or is it a returning cycle, naturally occurring? Neither really matter now. Seven year-old Sammy and his little sister are playing with the cat while reading X-Men and Avengers Marvel comic books, unconcerned about the loss of the TV. They are huddled near the flame-hot kerosene heater powered by Dad’s emergency generator, fed and comfortable. We are lucky, she thinks. Taking a concentrated deep breath through her nose as her Grandmother taught her, she opens the message. “Dose the kids with KI now. Things are worsening; the media is unaware of the fuel problems for now; evacuations may be tomorrow, the following day likely - but I will have advance notice; the press release is prepared; place the go-bags near the garage door. More soon. I am safe.”

What is KI? Potassium Iodide. From our paper published very recently:

“The release of radioactive iodine after a nuclear disaster, such as those that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan 10 years ago and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, increases thyroid cancer risk among people who are exposed. Certain populations are especially vulnerable, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, and neonates. Potassium iodide (KI) can effectively block radioactive Iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland if taken immediately after a radiation release…” Read the whole story here later: Lessons from Fukushima: Potassium Iodide After a Nuclear Disaster.

Back to Reality:

Do you live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant? If you live in the US, you likely live within a Nuclear Planning Zone — this first in a series about Fukushima and All-Hazards Readiness that explores why that matters. One in 3 Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. As we highlight in our new publication, Lessons from Fukushima: Potassium Iodide After a Nuclear Disaster, there are two Emergency planning zones (EPZ)s designated for each Nuclear Power Plant: 1) the 10 mile zone involves immediate life safety including sheltering, evaluations, and use of KI, and: 2) the 50 mile zone includes the ban of contaminated food and drink, including milk. Our new publication emphasizes the importance of protecting the developing thyroid glands of children while also being cautious about the provision of milk potentially contaminated by various forms of radiation, especially iodine-131 the typical early health hazard following a nuclear power plant accident/disaster.

Nuclear power plants in the United States, including boiling water reactors designed by General Electric that melted down in Fukushima, Japan due to coolant loss, have been previously problematic during polar vortices in the Quad cities, Illinois according to https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/atomicage/2015/01/27/polar-vortex-resistant-nuclear-not-so-resistant-after-all-via-nuclear-energy-information-service/ . As climate change continues to accelerate extreme weather globally, potential natural disasters, most of them resulting in flooding, will threaten the energy grid.

While the first paragraph above describes a well-informed individual’s fictional nightmare, like all things mechanical, extreme cold can causes failure. Through the record-breaking freezing temperatures of the polar vortex, a New Jersey nuclear power plant was shut down due to freezing of 4 of 6 water pumps. https://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/US-nuclear-plants-operate-through-polar-vortex

The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster human exposure consequences are equivocal but contaminated areas may not be reoccupied for decades. Our analysis utilizing a public health-based approach found similarities to the Three Mile Island disaster; e.g., poorly managed evacuations and disparities in availability and accessibility of KI. In Japan, following the triple Disaster, the massive release of radiation due to loss of reactor and other nuclear fuel cooling capacity, was triggered by the double natural disaster, an earthquake that caused the tsunami. From our article, “In several locations, nurses and other health officials worked tirelessly to ensure KI dosing occurred. In one town, for instance, nurses were able to obtain KI for more than 7,200 residents from the disaster management headquarters. A retrospective study found that the KI dosing rate among children was 63.5%. There were no reported side effects among those who dosed with KI.”

As we highlight in our paper, “Japanese nurses played important leadership roles in KI dosing during the midst of disaster chaos. We presented evidence to support the pre-event distribution of KI within a 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone of a nuclear power plant. Nurses should participate in emergency planning, utilize the hazard vulnerability analysis tool, and participate in emergency exercises to develop prevention capacity that protects health, life, and human rights of at-risk populations.”

US Policy Implications:

The 1979 Three Mile Island partial reactor meltdown was the most significant nuclear accident in US history. TMI Disaster planning was inadequate; only 39% of the community evacuated and people expressed “confusion and uncertainty” about the risk from the radiation hazard according to Cutter & Barnes, 1982, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2011. The re-visitation of TMI community disaster behavior and agency planning shortfalls shows striking similarities to the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: 1) the “Kemeny Report” to President Carter stated, “…no commercially available thyroid-blocking agent for human use was available in large enough quantities to protect the general public at the time of the TMI accident;” and 2) uncertainties about risk and unclear information about evacuation surrounded an ambiguous advisory evacuation statement made by the Governor.

We also point out in our paper that “there are 105 operational nuclear reactors at 65 U.S. sites, many of which are concentrated along the Mississippi River and Eastern Seaboard, as well as the Great Lakes.” Legislation and agency policy regarding the provision of KI to US populations residing within Emergency Planning Zones has been equivocal and there has been a dramatic reversal in federal requirements for the distribution of KI in the US since the TMI disaster. Previous legal requirements included a 10–20 mile evacuation zone with KI provision responsibilities shared by state and federal entities. Legislative revisions reduced the zone to 10 miles with the power plant operator responsible for KI allocation and distribution. Pres. George W. Bush delivered waivers from the burden of federal KI provision, requiring individual states to make requests to US government for KI surpluses.

Some US jurisdictions have moved to provide KI to their constituents: on February 4, 2019, the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan followed Canadian KI distribution procedures (established post-Fukushima Nuclear Disaster) by signing a resolution with the goal to “minimize the risk to public health and property from manmade and natural hazards.” The resolution cites the American Thyroid Association call for international harmonization of stockpiling and pre-distribution of KI to the public located within a 50 mile Emergency Planning Zone. Ann Arbor is located within the 50 mile Emergency Planning Zone for the Fermi-2 nuclear power plant. https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?D=3847933&GUID=E0199E0C-3EC1-4813-9665-FC695AFAD72B&Options=&Search=&FullText=1

The Massachusetts emergency management agency routinely pushes emergency planning information through social media to their constituents (Twitter): direct and specific information regarding evacuation processes, potassium iodide distribution site locations, and even guidelines for pet care is provided. “People that live, work, or vacation within the 10 mile EPZ should be prepared for an emergency at Seabrook and be familiar with the EPZ’s emergency plans and procedures.” mass.gov 2020

Conclusion: Many lessons learned regarding the benefits and risks of nuclear power, both in Japan and the United States, include well-documented “dirty” supply chain realities, from mining and transportation through processing. Last February, the US EPA awarded over $200 million to the Navajo Nation to clean up hundreds of former uranium mines that exposed Navajo families to environmental radiological hazards including contaminated drinking water https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2021/02/12/epa-awards-220-million-for-uranium-mine-cleanup-on-navajo-nation/. Additionally, although economic challenges include storage and treatment capacity for highly radioactive waste streams globally and nationally (the Yucca Mountain repository remains in limbo) and nuclear power plants are largely reliant upon government subsidy, nuclear power will remain a viable component of future energy balancing tabulations. Regardless, All-hazards readiness rubrics compel us to consider not only potential future crises with high probability consequences, but also low probability consequences that can bring devastating loss and harm. The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster is presently estimated to cost $750 billion by the time the entire cleanup is accomplished, which is projected towards year 2061. In comparison, Hurricane Katrina damages were estimated to be less than $150 billion, Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster damages less than $250 billion. For now, in considering all global health consequences, to environmental health and humans and animals, part of the prevention equation must also include the availability and distribution of potassium iodide to communities within 50 mile 10 mile nuclear planning zones.

Pictures from Field Trip to Aizu, Japan. Radiation readings. Photography by EDDY.

Global Public Health; Scientific/Medical Writer; Author; Wellness; Marvel