By Michael Collins
The first reactor explosion Sunday left the top half of the built blown to smithereens. A second nuclear reactor building blew apart in earthquake and tsunami-devastated Monday blowing material high into the air. The blast could be felt 30 kilometers away.
Tuesday brought another blast in another reactor at the Fukishima site in northeastern Japan. And just as alarming, a fire erupted in the spent fuel rod pools in the fourth reactor the same day which has far more radiation in it than a reactor core.
Thousands are dead with an unknown number of radiological exposures. 200,000 civilians were told to evacuate because of the multiple nuclear meltdowns but the grim scenario got even worse.
The evacuation zone grew from ten to twenty to thirty kilometers around the hot zone as radiation levels are ten times normal in a city 100 kilometers north of Tokyo.
Emergency broadcasts on NHK television underscored the near-apocalyptic scenario that was unfolding at Fukushima.
“For those in the evacuation area, close your windows and doors,” said emergency broadcasts on NHK television. “Switch off your air conditioners. If you are being evacuated, cover yourself as much as possible and wear a facemask. Stay calm.
And it’s going to get worse. Much worse.
But according to the government, everything’s going to be okay in the US as of this writing with no heightened radiation and plenty of anti-radiation potassium-iodide, or KI, pills stockpiled here in California.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the county’s public health honcho, Jonathan Fielding, dismissed any problems with planning and said so today:
Fielding, in a news conference Tuesday, said his office has checked local government stockpiles of potassium iodide. If risk of radiation exposure became an issue, Fielding said, “there would be plenty of warning and opportunity to obtain the medication.”
That may not be the case, according to an expert panel at a March 12 press conference including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and EnviroReporter.com. Not only is the availability of KI questionable, people are finding that the relatively cheap compound is nowhere to be found at their pharmacies or over the Internet.
Even for the lucky folks who have KI pills, which should only be used during an actual nuclear event like heavy fallout over LA and under a doctor’s supervision, the press conference also revealed that California and the rest of the United States have very few static land-based radiation monitoring stations. We are radiation-blind on the ground.
If the unthinkable happens – a full Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown or multiple meltdowns with spent fuel rods on fire – and huge amounts of radiation is shot skyward in superheated groundwater steam, it is possible that Southern California could experience nuclear fallout.
But who would know? Even if the Air Force can track radiation plumes coming over the Pacific, that is if they do, once they make landfall, there is no network of readily-accessible live-time radiation detecting in the area.
Could an unseen and silent killer could move among us and we not even know it? Could Los Angeles be headed for a “soft disaster”? Certainly none of us want that to happen but short of having a nuclear radiation monitor, as EnviroReporter.com does, how could anyone know?
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Ira Helfand, a radioactive exposure expert and board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Quite frankly, the operators of the plants don’t either.”
Helfand explained that each of these reactors had enough radiation in their cores to be equivalent to that of 1,000 of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Ken Bergeron, a physicist and former Sandia scientist where he worked on nuclear reactor accident simulation. “We’re in a land where statistics tell us we shouldn’t be.”
But we are in this land together and the worsening news points to the possibility that radiation could flow on the jet stream across the Pacific to the west coast of the United States and Southern California.
“”The wind direction for the time being seems to point the [radioactive] pollution towards the Pacific,” said Andre-Claude Lacoste of the French Nuclear Safety Authority, briefing reporters in Paris on the burgeoning disaster this weekend.
But you would never know it from the now repetitious pronouncements of the California Department of Public Health including this one uttered to the Los Angeles Times today by CDPH spokesperson Mike Sicilia.
“It’s a matter of distance,” Sicilia told the Times. “Dangerous radioactivity could not cross the 5,000 miles of the Pacific without petering out.”
That is totally inaccurate and implies that somehow that the distance will completely dissipate the destructiveness of the radiation. It does not. We just don’t know at this point and to say that is not only ignorant but possibly dangerous because it could lull a already shell-shocked populace into complacency about the potential for fallout.
The fact that the explosions and fires at Fukushima have been spewing radiation at fairly low altitudes, however, does mean that most of this radiation will drift eastwards towards the U.S. and probably drop into the Pacific Ocean before getting here.
That may not be the case if the worst possible scenario plays out: multiple meltdowns including spent reactor rods in cooling ponds catch fire and burn out completely.
A meltdown would probably see the intensely hot radioactive goo burn its way through the earth until hitting the groundwater which would result in a huge explosion of radioactive steam which would shoot high in the atmosphere if the weather conditions are right.
If the prevailing winds of the jet stream take these toxins across the ocean towards America, this country could be looking at a “soft disaster” where the West Coast, and beyond into the heartland, could experience radioactive fallout that could last weeks or even months.
Would people in Southern California even know it? The Environmental Protection Agency says it tests the air, water and food for radiation though precisely where is not common knowledge. But will there this enough on-the-ground information that is accurate to give Americans a so-called ‘comfort level’?
Not according to Robert Alvarez who is a senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies where he is currently focused on nuclear disarmament and environmental and energy policies. Alvarez is also a former senior policy advisor for the U.S. Secretary of Energy where he coordinated the effort to enact nuclear worker compensation legislation.
“We just don’t know the magnitude of release might be if things really turn out to be the worst,” Alvarez said in response to a question of this reporter. “But in terms of answering part your question of ‘how would we know’ in this country; right now I’m very sure that the US Department of Energy and Department of Defense are deploying their assets around these reactor sites in terms of aerial radiological surveillance. If there are any major releases, especially those that would travel over great distances, there would be quite a bit of tracking of the plume particularly by the energy and defense department aircraft.
“On the ground, in terms of picking up radiological measurements, that becomes problematic because states have their own radiation monitoring systems but because of the tremendous problems of funding state functions now a lot of these activities in the United States are being curtailed. If there were to be a major release, then it would go over the United States in some way or form. It would be up to the federal government to warn the public and the actual on the ground reading would be very very sparse. That’s a concern.”
That’s a concern of ours at EnviroReporter.com as well. That’s why we’ve set up EnviroReporter.com’s Radiation Station which will go online soon. The station will also link to other Geiger Counters that are streaming via webcam should other Americans choose to monitor the air for the airborne goo.
Utilizing a RadAlert Inspector nuclear radiation monitor streaming via webcam, viewers will get a real time idea of whether any spikes in radiation are being detected in the Los Angeles Basin.
The monitor location on the border of West Los Angeles is well-placed as the prevailing sea breezes blow through Santa Monica and West LA before moving inland to Hollywood, Downtown and beyond. The readings at our office will be online 24/7 and accessible at EnviroReporter.com’s Radiation Station.
But what most viewers of this free information won’t see is where to get KI pills in case the unthinkable happens and the radiation levels start to soar in Southern California. By then, it will be too late to efficiently, and without panic, distribute the pills.
Health honcho Fielding should know this. The reporters questioning him and other responsible official might want to consider the logistics of these statements of preparedness when it comes to KI pill distribution.
It seems selfish to think about the potential needs of Americans when the Japanese have been so devastated by this triple disaster. But it would be unconscionable not to provide the public with as much information and resources to prepare for the hopefully slim chance that we’re headed for the hot zone. EnviroReporter.com can provide some information but it can’t provide the pills.
The situation is simple and time may be running out: the government has the KI pills and the people don’t. Give the people KI pills. Now.
If it’s all for nothing then we can thank our lucky stars. The government can produce more pills and the people pack them away to be handy the next time a big earthquake breaks a nuclear reactor sitting on top of or next to a fault.