WHAT THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA HASN’T TOLD YOU
By Karl Grossman
From HUSTLER MAGAZINE September 2011
Media coverage of the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear power plant, which was severely damaged as the result of an earthquake and resultant tsunami on March 11, 2011, has been outrageously poor. Rather than dig for the truth, mainstream journalists and their “experts” have simply parroted the assurances of Japanese and other officials that the amounts of radioactivity being released were low and thus posed “no health threat.”
Decades ago scientists thought there was a “threshold dose” of radiation. That’s because when nuclear technology began exposing people to radioactivity, they didn’t promptly fall down dead. But as the years passed by, it became evident that lower levels of radioactivity take time to manifest as cancer and other illnesses. In fact, there is a five-to-40-year “incubation” period.
Now most scientists acknowledge that any amount of radioactivity can lead to illness and death, especially in fetuses and children (whose cells divide more rapidly than those of adults). As the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself has stated: “Any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer.”
Reporters covering Fukushima have noted that potassium iodide pills being distributed in Japan “block radioactivity.” However, they work only on the thyroid gland, filling it with “good” iodine so radioactive iodine-131 cannot be absorbed and cause thyroid cancer. But there are hundreds of other fission products for which there is no magic pill. These include cesium-137 and strontium-90, two of the fission products discharged after hydrogen explosions rocked four of the Fukushima power plant’s reactor buildings.
The media has given voice to egregious errors. One example is the lack of understanding about the explosions that blew the roofs off the aforementioned reactor units. It was reported that zirconium fuel rods were to blame. Missed was the bigger picture: Zirconium is used in a nuclear plant’s fuel rods because it allows neutrons to pass freely so a chain reaction can be sustained. But the material is extremely volatile. It explodes at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Pound for pound, zirconium has the explosive power of nitroglycerine.
At lesser heat it emits hydrogen, which also can explode. That is what occurred twice at Fukushima. There are around 20 tons of zirconium in an average nuclear power plant. Using zirconium is like building a bridge with firecrackers.
Then there were the reports about three GE nuclear engineers who’d resigned in 1976 because of suspected defects in the GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor, the same type installed at the Fukushima Daiishi plant. This was in line with the spin that flawed design was the problem,not nuclear power itself. In fact, the Mark 1’s design was only one factor that prompted GE’s Dale Bridenbaugh, Richard Hubbard and Gregory Minor to leave the nuclear industry.
The main reason is summed up in their statement to Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy: “We did so [resigned] because we could no longer justify devoting our life energies to the continued development and expansion of nuclear fission power—a system we believe to be so dangerous that it now threatens the very existence of life on this planet.”
Then there were the over-the-top declarations. “I love nuclear power,”Fox’s Geraldo Rivera declared. Appearing on The O’Reilly Factor, right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter said that radiation is “good for you.” Even host Bill O’Reilly was taken aback. “You have to be responsible,” he cautioned her.
Coulter’s remark is based on a scientific concept known as hormesis, which holds that a moderate amount of a toxin can be beneficial. Therefore, some nuclear scientists believe that exposure to radioactivity, at least in small doses, exercises the recipient’s immune system. These scientists, many of whom are employed as health physicists in nuclear laboratories and other facilities, are supposed to protect people. Hormesis has been dismissed by national and international agencies involved with radiation protection.
Meanwhile, there was the disinformation about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former USSR. Reporters, commonly using it as a baseline in projecting the potential impact of radioactivity released from the Japanese reactors, have written that only several hundred people died as a result of the meltdown in Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Such a low figure ignores the most comprehensive study to date on the effects of Chernobyl: a book published in 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences titled Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. After studying health data, radiological surveys and scientific reports—some 5,000 in all—from 1986 to 2004,a team of scientists from Russia and Belarus determined that the accident actually caused the deaths of 985,000 people worldwide. More, they wrote, will follow.
That’s the real baseline for a major disaster at one nuclear power plant. Fukushima involves several reactors and a series of spent fuel pools. The radiation assessment was raised to a level seven—the highest international rating for a nuclear accident, equivalent to the Chernobyl disaster. But the potential toll might be far greater than Chernobyl’s—more than a million dead.
While covering the crisis in Japan, reporters have also been remiss by declaring that “no one died” as a result of the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. That myth was dispelled by the book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience With Atomic Radiation by Harvey Wasserman, Norman Solomon, Eleanor Walters and Robert Alvarez (a former U.S. Department of Energy official).
I did a TV documentary on the impact of the TMI partial meltdown, Three Mile Island Revisited. Besides addressing the increase of cancer cases and birth defects in the area surrounding the nuclear power plant, it revealed that TMI’s owner had quietly issued payouts, many for $1 million apiece, to settle claims involving residents who’d suffered health impacts or lost family members due to radiation exposure.
Data from the Radiation and Public Health Project, a nonprofit organization, claims that infant mortality near Three Mile Island increased by 47% in the two years after the accident and that cancer-related deaths of children under ten were 30% higher in 2004 than they were in 1979.
On March 11, 2011, CNN.com went even further than declaring “no one died”: It reported that the TMI “incident caused no injuries or significant releases of hazardous material.” Moreover, the media failed to mention that in recent years Japan has become a global giant in the selling of nuclear power plant reactors. Worldwide, about 80% of them are of GE and Westinghouse manufacture or design.
In 2006, Toshiba bought Westinghouse’s nuclear division. Meanwhile, Hitachi entered into a partnership with GE to run its nuclear division. How might this huge stake in selling nuclear reactors influence what Japanese officials have been saying about Fukushima? The disaster was certainly not good for business.
Then there was the media line that “we don’t have a choice but nuclear power.” The Christian Science Monitor asserted that “finding other forms of energy that can provide a stable base load of electricity—other than coal—remains difficult.”
Renewables Are Ready is the title of a 1999 book written by two Union of Concerned Scientists staffers. Today a host of safe, clean, renewable energy technologies are more than ready. Combined with energy efficiency, they render nuclear power unnecessary. Also in 1999, Scientific American—a conservative publication—ran a cover story titled “A Plan for a Sustainable Future.” Its author noted, “Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100% of the world’s energy,eliminating all fossil fuels.”
More recently, in October 2009, the British magazine New Scientist presented a United Nations report declaring that “renewable energy that can already be harnessed economically would supply the world’s electricity needs.”
But the mainstream media have continued to ignore the fact that safe, clean, renewable energy technologies are available to provide our energy needs. For example, wind power is less costly than the price tag of a nuclear plant, which can range from $12 billion to $15 billion.
A pioneer journalist on nuclear technology is Anna Mayo, who from 1969 to 1989 penned a Village Voice column titled “Geiger Counter.” Japan’s nuclear industry, Mayo recently commented, “is trying desperately to conceal the extent of radiation exposure, and they’ve wheeled out the same, old lies…as usual.” Unfortunately, the media have bought this deadly nuclear deception.
Regarding the impact of the disaster on the United States, Dr. Richard Webb—a nuclear physicist and author of the landmark book Accident Hazards of Nuclear Power Plants—said it will take a year for the Fukushima reactors to cool down. Yes, a year! And during that time “all kinds of things can happen” involving both the reactors and the spent fuel pools, Dr. Webb added. He is especially concerned that another severe explosion could release many tons of radioactive poisons.
What has happened already is a clear-cut disaster. But if there are even worse discharges ahead, a horrific catastrophe is in store. The jet stream blows in an eastward direction—toward the United States. Consider the fallout that affected so many Americans during the 1950s and 1960s thanks to atmospheric atomic bomb tests. At that time, the devices contained 15 to 30 pounds of uranium, and fission (the splitting of atoms) lasted for just a second.
There are 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of uranium in each of Fukushima’s reactors, and nuclear fission has been taking place continuously since the power plant was commissioned in 1971. A massive amount of lethal, radioactive poisons accumulated. The math is clear, and we are downwind from Japan.
Karl Grossman is an investigative reporter, board member of BeyondNuclear.org and professor of journalism at the State University of New York’s The College at Old Westbury. His six books include Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. Grossman, the longtime host of the nationally aired TV program Enviro Close-Up, has also written and narrated Three Mile Island Revisited, The Push to Revive Nuclear Power, Chernobyl:A Million Casualties and other documentaries.