Jim Green’s recent Punch piece on Fukushima accuses Barry Brook and I of having an “indifference to human death and suffering”. This is offensive and false.
Green’s attempt to support his accusation by cherry picking sections of the recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report into the radiation induced health impacts at Fukushima displayed considerable ignorance and bias.
Presumably Green considers the cancer risk figures calculated by the 35 authors of the WHO report as credible. Presumably, that’s because he understands that they are seriously expert in such matters. So why didn’t he present their judgement about what the numbers actually mean?
The first sentence of the associated WHO press release summarises their findings, but I prefer a shorter simpler sentence from the Summary and Conclusions in the body of the report (p.92): The present results suggest that the increases in the incidence of human disease attributable to the additional radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident are likely to remain below detectable levels.
What? Say that again ... “below detectable levels”?
Today is the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster and it promises to be another silly-season for Australia’s nuclear apologists.
They have form. While the crisis was unfolding in March 2011, Ziggy Switkowski advised that “the best place to be whenever there’s an earthquake is at the perimeter of a nuclear plant because they are designed so well.” Even after the multiple explosions and nuclear meltdowns, Adelaide-based nuclear advocate Geoff Russell advised: “If you are in a quake zone and have time to seek shelter, forget hiding under door jambs and tables, find a nuke.”
Even as nuclear fuel meltdown was in full swing at Fukushima, Adelaide University’s Prof. Barry Brook reassured us that: “There is no credible risk of a serious accident… Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces. I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong ... but I won’t be.” Eggs, anyone?
The Dark Knight Rises, the last and final instalment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, packs a serious punch. For almost three hours audiences are held captivated by the reluctant return of the Caped Crusader to save Gotham City from a neo-fascist Nemesis in the guise of the megalomaniacal Bane. The political subtexts are not standard Hollywood fodder.
Nolan not only fesses up to the corruption at the heart of the otherwise civilized veneer of modern liberal Democracy, he also tackles head-on themes such as the inevitable compromise and capitulation to following orders intrinsic to carrying out state sanctioned authority, and ultimately, the darker impulses that may lay at the heart of the nuclear industries push into promoting itself as the clean energy solution of the future.
It is on this second score that The Dark Knight is at its most prescient, timely and cutting. One of the major arms of the Wayne Empire’s commercial interests is in developing Nuclear Fusion energy – the silver bullet often touted by the real world nuclear industry as the answer to the impending climate change crisis.
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The story behind the corporation that owns the Beverley uranium mine in north-east South Australia is scarcely believable.
Heathgate Resources − a 100 per cent-owned subsidiary of General Atomics (GA) − owns and operates Beverley and has a stake in the adjacent Beverley Four Mile mine. Over the years GA CEO Neal Blue has had commercial interests in oil, Predator drones, uranium mining and nuclear reactors, cocoa, bananas and real estate.
Radioactive spills and gas leaks at a uranium processing plant in Oklahoma led to the plants closure in 1993. The plant was owned by a GA subsidiary, Sequoyah Fuels Corporation, and processed uranium for use in reactors and for use in depleted uranium munitions. A nine-legged frog may have GA to thank for its dexterity.
A government inquiry found that GA had known for years that radioactive material was leaking and that the radioactivity of water around the plant was 35,000 times higher than US laws permitted.
The damage to Japan’s Fukushima reactors has probably ended any risk of Australia going down the nuclear path.
In fact, despite some uninformed commentary, there has been no international renaissance of nuclear energy, only a resurgence of pro-nuclear talk. In the years 2008 and 2009, the world retired 3000 MegaWatts of old nuclear capacity and only 1000 MW was brought on line. In the same two years, about 60,000 MW of new wind power was commissioned.
When I was a young physicist, nuclear power was seen as cheap, clean and safe. I went to the UK in 1968 and accepted support from their Atomic Energy Authority for research on a problem affecting the useful life of fuel elements in power reactors. Since then, despite huge public subsidies, nuclear power has proved to be very expensive.
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When David Gonski fronted up to his first day of work as the new Chairman of the Future Fund this week, he walked into a flurry of controversy from unexpected quarters.
Not only was Gonski’s appointment ungraciously questioned by Peter Costello (who felt entitled to the position himself) but he was also subjected to a small band of gas-mask wearing demonstrators outside the Fund’s Melbourne office demanding that the Australian tax-payers money should not be channeled through the Future Fund into companies that manufacture nuclear weapons.
By midweek, online activist group GetUp! had send an email to hundreds of thousands of Australians about the future fund’s activities and, by Thursday, over ten thousand had signed an online petition. It was clear that Gonski may have inherited more toxic skeletons in the Future Funds closet from its former Chairman David Murray than he had bargained for.
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If a week is a long time in politics then 106 of them must be close to an eternity.
That’s how long it has taken Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson to steer his controversial nuclear waste legislation though both Houses of Parliament.
Introduced as an urgent matter with Coalition support in February 2010, the law passed the Senate this week. While the delay might cause frustration to an impatient Minister, in the timeframe over which radioactive waste remains a serious human and environmental risk it is but a blip.
When Julia Gillard rises at the ALP national conference Sunday week to urge uranium exports to India she will anger some of her closest supporters - women.
She will also rile the ALP left who will argue against yellowcake to the sub-continent, but it is a long time since Julia Gillard has been considered a leftie.
Of greater importance might be the response of women voters in general, a significant number of whom have stuck by Gillard since she toppled Kevin Rudd, bungled an election campaign and scraped together a ragged agenda of her own.
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Prime Minister Julia Gillard would do well to consider some bigger issues than the praise of conservative political insiders when it comes to plans to sell uranium to India, a country not bound to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Aptly enough on the same day she announced her position reversal, the Times of India reported on a trial of a nuclear-ready Agni 2 ballistic missile, capable of traveling over 3000 km to reach its target.
We know that the more uranium India can source from foreign exporters, the more its own uranium supplies can be directed toward its rapidly expanded weapons program, fueling already simmering regional tensions in East Asia.
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Early this year, with minimal fuss, the government-owned Future Fund made a principled choice to divest taxpayers’ dollars from companies that produce cluster bombs and land mines – pernicious devices that kill and maim long after a conflict has ended. Their victims, overwhelmingly, are civilians.
Based on this decision, one might assume that the fund – which was set up in 2006 to cover the pension costs of retiring politicians, judges and public servants – has also excluded nuclear weapon companies. After all, these have grave humanitarian consequences too.
But not so. Documents obtained by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in May revealed that the Future Fund owns $135 million worth of stocks in 15 companies that build nuclear arms for the United States, Britain, France and India.
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As a scientist who studies natural climatic disruptions of the distant past and finds disturbing parallels with the vast changes that we’re setting in motion with today’s fossil fuel emissions, I’ve long favoured a switch to alternative energy sources.
But having been an anti-nuke protester back in my college days, I’ve also been reluctant to support nuclear power thanks to the unresolved problems of meltdowns, waste storage, bomb proliferation, and terrorism.
Nonetheless, my attitude changed several months ago after a chance conversation with a geologist friend whose son is training to become nuclear engineer. “He’s working on a new kind of reactor,” my friend explained, “It can’t melt down, it makes only minimal waste, and it can’t be used for making bombs. Instead of running on uranium, it uses thorium instead, which is a lot safer to work with.”
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The more things change…
On this day in 1979 a general emergency was called at Three Mile Island after a water pump broke and radioactive steam leaked into the atmosphere.
Welcome to Monday at The Punch. What’s on your mind?
The after effects of the quake and tsunamis in Japan will cause clear and on-going pain and suffering for years, while the risks from the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors look to be subsiding - see here for the latest updates. Meanwhile, Geoff Russell argues that any and all risks need to be put in perspective.
Residents living in the vicinity of the Fukushima nuclear plant face some considerable cancer risks during coming decades. They will come primarily from cigarettes, red meat, alcohol and salty foods. These should hardly be called risks, since each will definitely cause tens of thousands of new cancer cases every single year throughout Japan.
An additional possibility, a potential risk, hardly visible in comparison, may come from radiation as a result of the quake and tsunami damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
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The situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors seems to be improving, but the long-term fallout remains unclear. The Punch spoke to Associate Professor Haydon Manning - head of politics and public policy at Flinders University and a man with a particular interest in nuclear power - and asked him what it means for the political future of nuclear.
What’s the history of nuclear fear in Australia?
In the Australian community we’ve never had to confront the stark reality - like the French, the Japanese and South Korea have - of real energy shortage. Given our abundance of coal and gas we’ve never had to focus on any of the positive arguments for nuclear power as the answer to a problem or energy security.
Rather, we associated nuclear power with weapons. This is certainly true of someone like me, who as a student marched on the streets in opposition to Olympic Dam in the late 70s. Then in 1979 we had the ‘icing on the anti nuclear cake’ when Three Mile Island had its minor meltdown.
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The Punch put some questions to one of the nation’s nuclear experts - Dr Gerald Laurence. Dr Laurence is a Radiation Safety Adviser and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemistry and Physics.
Q) How scared should people in Japan be about the nuclear situation?
A) Not a great deal – the 20-year total of deaths from Chernobyl (from the UN 20-year report) suggests that the radiation related deaths are of the order of a few thousand at most; of the thyroid cancers, mostly in the young 99 per cent were treated & cured (note all the data in the report are strongly disputed by environmental and progessive groups who claim that WHO & IAEA are under the influence of the nuclear industrial complex).
In Japan so far it is spent fuel rods that were removed from the core in November, so iodine-131 (which has an eight-day half life) is not a major risk. The most serious fission product that will be released will be caesium-137 with a 30-year half life.
The possibility of food (rice, milk, etc.) being contaminated because of contaminated fields is real, but public health measures (testing and so on) should mean such produce should not reach the public. Local contamination (houses, towns) will clear at rates dependent on the weather (dissolved in rain, etc.). Local weather also disperses & dilutes the plume (and I assume the Japan Met Bureau can model this very well).
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Some parts of the environmental movement will be quietly high-fiving each other this week, as the nuclear industry’s progress over the past decade looks certain to take a massive step backwards.
They have been quick to proclaim ``I told you so’’ and make the fallacious analogy that the incidents in Japan mean that Australia and indeed all other countries should not consider nuclear as part of the energy mix.
Incidents which, it should be kept in mind, involved an unprecedently large earthquake and decades-old technology.
The image of a child surrendering to be tested for radiation poisoning in Japan is heartbreaking.
It reminds me of the iconic picture of Kim Phuc, running naked along the road after being burned in a napalm attack.
In 1972, that picture brought home the horrors of the Vietnam War.
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If you’re a science or nuclear energy buff, you’ll have to excuse us for starting pretty much at the bottom of the knowledge tree here. First of all, let’s define a meltdown: basically it’s when the core of a nuclear reactor is unable to cool, because of some kind of system failure like, oh, a 10 metre wall of sea water crashing into a nuclear power plant. Radiation can then be released, and that’s when things get really dangerous. So is it happening in Japan? Latest reports say no, not yet and hopefully not at all.
Click this link for an incredible series of graphics on the internal workings of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, pictured above. This really is some amazing work the New York Times has done at short notice. There’s another really helpful infographic here:
Despite what appears to be an easing - or at least a temporary containment - of the threat of a major radiation leak, let’s dwell briefly on the worst case scenario. Could we be facing another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl? The answer, according to the Science Media Centre of Japan, is almost certainly no. Read a full Q&A at the SMCJ website here. Highly informative, yet accessible, material. Well done them.
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Clive claims that nuclear power is “a debate Labor desperately doesn’t want us to have” and David says “our dominant politicians are determined to not even allow a debate” on the issue.
Clive and David ought to spell out exactly what they want from the government.
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