By Jim Harding
April 1, 2011
Cameco has taken a big hit since the nuclear disaster started at Tepco’s plants; its share value has dropped 20% and the demand for uranium could markedly fall as more countries become wary of nuclear power. Still, Cameco’s CEO Jerry Grandey isn’t sounding bitter, though he admitted to the Globe and Mail that Japan is “not living up to our standards of transparency”. Grandey himself may not want “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” to come out; he flippantly states that “in the long term all of this will demonstrate the strength of the industry”, a cavalier attitude in the face of such devastation.
While there have been periods of media blackout about the Fukushima reactors and the industry continues to try to normalize the disaster, things continue to spin more out of control since the disaster started three weeks ago. The New York Times is now reporting the disaster as “the worst atomic crisis in 25 years”, second only to Chernobyl in 1986, but information coming out of Japan remains sketchy. The 19 million people residing in Tokyo are told not to worry, even though the Fukushima reactors at risk of melt-down are only 150 miles away, the distance from Regina’s Legislative Buildings to Premier Brad Walls’ Swift Current riding. Meanwhile radioactive particles from Japan are being “found as far away as Iceland” and over Newfoundland. And though Tokyo residents are being told to “sit tight”, at one point mothers were told to not give their infants tap water. There was an immediate run on bottled water which some are also using for cooking.
The nuclear disaster was initially correctly reported as a global nuclear disaster. Then its profile receded, and enforcing the “no fly zone” over Libya gained the camera’s attention. But every day or two something more slips out. Tepco and government authorities try in vain to normalize the disaster, as though things are coming under control, but this has more to do with Japanese face-saving than scientific honesty. In a recent CBC radio interview the Japanese ambassador to Canada refused to respond to any questions about radioactivity and risk. When it was pointed out that the evacuation zone for Japanese was only 25 KM whereas the US had already pulled its nationals back 80 KM from Fukushima, he simply responded that America is a democracy and has a right to do as it decides.
Tepco officials are clearly scrambling to avert a full melt down. Ten days after the first hydrogen explosions that destroyed the containment buildings the company still hadn’t hooked electricity back up to their six reactors. (Meanwhile it was reported that an offshore wind farm survived the earthquake and continued to produce electricity after the tsunami.) With no power to pump water to cool the core (or the overheating spent fuel bundles stored outside four reactors), Tepco officials have regularly vented radioactive gases into the air to avert a core explosion and possible meltdown. Tepco brought in helicopters which desperately dropped sea water onto the reactors, often missing the targets altogether. Then fire trucks were brought in to spray seawater onto the reactors, in what seemed another futile though symbolically heroic gesture.
And then, not surprisingly, the other shoe fell and it was reported that milk had 27 times the acceptable radioactivity and that vegetables had 17 times the allowable. And then, as if it wasn’t expected, that the sea water offshore from the reactors had radioactivity more than 1,000 times the normal. This continues to rise; it’s now up to 4,000 times.
A full two weeks into the disaster Japan’s Prime Minister admitted that the situation was still “grave and serious” and that we “can’t be optimistic”. But even this was a face-saving understatement, as the water coming from reactor # 3 was soon to be 10,000 times as radioactive as permissible. The fuel in this reactor was what’s called MOX fuel, which is a mixture of plutonium and uranium. Then we heard that another 10,000 people were being relocated as the evacuation zone was enlarged by 10 KM. The next day a government spokesman said things were still “very unpredictable” as they’d found that water from reactor # 1 was also 10,000 times more radioactive than allowable.
Nearly three weeks into the disaster Tepco clearly isn’t able to control what’s happening at their crippled reactors. Even more radioactivity is getting outside reactor # 2 and it is near certain its containment has been breached. Workers are reported fumbling around in the dark trying to hook up electrical cables while standing in highly radioactive water, with only plastic bags tied around their shoes; such is nuclear energy in the trenches. In late March Tepco officials apologized for erroneously reporting that water leaking from reactor # 2 was 10,000,000 times the norm. They later reported the more correct figure was 100,000 times the radioactivity, which remains a seriously dangerous level. The Washington Post just reported that this amounts to 1,000 millisieverts (mSv) per hour, an exposure that would give a worker a yearly dose in just 15 minutes, and will most certainly be life-threatening to Tepco workers.
All of the radioactive elements being spewed into the environment present health hazards to present and future generations. It is interesting that most reporting has been on the fairly short-lived Iodine 131. But what of radioactive Caesium 137, which will contaminate farmland for 400 years; or the more long-lived carcinogens that are most certainly being released, including Plutonium 239, which is toxic for 500,000 years? Plutonium is now contaminating the land and sea around Tepco’s reactors.
BACK TO SASKATCHEWAN
Ignorance, confusion and misinformation aren’t a sound way to deal with a catastrophic nuclear accident. When you see the twisted buildings left from earlier explosions and realize that there are no control rooms operating to reliably monitor what’s actually happening in the reactors, you get more compassionate for those making the face-saving statements and those sacrificing their health. Trauma as well as radioactivity will take its toll on the Japanese.
Prior to this accident Japan was considering expanding its nuclear power “arsenal” so that its nuclear-generated electricity would go from today’s 30% to 50% of the total by 2030. This won’t happen after Fukushima, and Cameco won’t be able to count on an enlarged uranium market from this contaminated country. Japan already has 55 nuclear plants squeezed onto its small, earthquake prone island and there’s no safe place to put its nuclear wastes.
And this brings us back to Saskatchewan, which is being targeted for a nuclear waste dump. Cameco is on record as supporting taking nuclear wastes back from countries that buy its uranium. Like Japan! When Saskatchewan’s Cigar Lake mine flooded, co-owner Tepco provided pumping technology to help Cameco deal with the problem. Well, their pumps have clearly now faced their Alamo. And what might Cameco now do to help its corporate partner Tepco? What might be Cameco’s quid-pro-quo? What about investing in renewable energy and leaving the toxic uranium in the ground?
Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. Other writings on sustainability, nuclear, renewable, etc. at: http://jimharding.brinkster.net