Heading for the Meltdown
by Gary Phillips
I don’t know if by the time this piece runs whether yet another explosion due to the build-up of hydrogen gas—having something to do with the zirconium in the fuel rods reacting to uranium-laced steam—will have happened at one of the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan, or yet another reactor core is breached, but it does give one more than pause when you keep hearing about leaking clouds of radiation and partial meltdowns. Especially when you’ve got cooling pumps breaking down, fuel rods exposed, and all the while Japanese authorities are trying to prevent a complete nuclear meltdown of plants not dissimilar to what we have here in California. Authorities in Japan initially evacuated 170,000 people in about a 12-mile radius around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and handed out iodine tablets (to thwart thyroid cancer) like Skittles. That radius was widened and people were told to stay indoors by Prime Minister Kan over the airwaves. It’s been decades since I saw The China Syndrome and I was never much of a student of science in high school, but when our local officials say there’s no worry about radiation exposure from wind drift here, you know you should be worried.
It was 32 years ago that the incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and 25 years ago the Chernobyl disaster happened. I heard this expert on the Madeline Brand show, Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation, on KPCC this past Monday saying the nuclear power plant problems in Japan, resulting from the 8.9 earthquake and the tsunami (apparently all of Japan’s 55 are all on or near the coast, given easy access to water) was worse than Three Mile Island (TMI) but not as bad as Chernobyl. TMI was a partial melting of its core and the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine was the meltdown mother of them all. During a test of its operating system, there was a power surge, a shutdown was attempted and failed, the shielding containing the reactor core was exposed, causing a series of fires and a massive radiation steam cloud that drifted all the way to parts of Western Europe into Scandinavia. Needless to say, exposure to radiation was most pronounced in the population areas closest to the plant. But it’s not like the then Soviet officials were forthcoming in the severity of this exposure. For that matter, the outfit that runs the Daiichi plant, Tokyo Electric Power, has a shady record as well. In 2002, its then president and several senior executives were forced to resign over allegations of falsifying safety records.
I remember at first not paying that much attention to the Three Mile Island incident, after all it was on the east coast and here I was in California—safe, right? But that changed in the weeks following with the accusations, at first voiced from the Left but picked up by the mainstream news sources, of a cover-up by our government of the severity of that failure. Maybe cover-up is too strong a word, I mean, it’s not like some whistle-blowing engineer at that plant was bumped off later to keep him or her from spilling the beans. Though there was the matter of Karen Silkwood, who was immortalized by Meryl Streep in the movie Silkwood. The real person had been a $4 an hour mother of three technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron River facility in Crescent, Oklahoma. She was a card-carrying member of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and her job was making plutonium pellets used in those fuel rods for nuclear plants.
That summer of 1974, Silkwood testified at an Atomic Energy Commission hearing in D.C. that Kerr-McGee had sped up production, safety standards weren’t being followed, and the workers were ill-prepared for certain tasks they were doing. She also alleged that safety inspection records and been doctored by the plant managers as well. That fall, Silkwood had become contaminated, somehow being exposed to unhealthy doses of plutonium. Kerr-Mcgee officials asserted she had purposely done this to make them look bad. Silkwood was said to have been gathering documentation supporting her claims and was on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter and a union official in Oklahoma City some thirty miles away from Crescent when she died—purportedly in a one car crash. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s autopsy showed traces of alcohol (she’d been at a union meeting at the Hub Café before heading to Oklahoma City) and methaqualone, which had been prescribed to her by a doctor. The theory was she’d fallen asleep at the wheel. Her union hired an accident investigator, A.O. Pipkin from Dallas, and after examining the skid marks on the roadway and her car, he concluded a car had hit her from behind forcing her off the road into a culvert. No documents were found in her car.
With that a relative recent memory, I remember official reassurances being issued during TMI about no radiation leakage. Then when it became clear there had been leakage, the danger was minimalized with statements like folks in the area were exposed to no more radiation than when you got a chest X-ray. Still, Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh evacuated pregnant women and children under a certain age to Hershey, home of the famous chocolate. But according to an article by Harvey Wasserman on AlterNet from March 30, 2009, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the incident, the city of Hershey also got fallout from the plant. I don’t recall any of their candy bars being recalled or any special edition Hershey Nuclear Kisses that glowed in the dark.
Today there is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a large area that in some places is 60 miles across, 1,100 square miles roughly the size of Yosemite. The inhabitants are gone, though 5,000 personnel work there as even a shut down nuclear plant needs maintenance, and then there’s the nuclear waste storage facility located there that also needs tending. But like in post-apocalyptic movie fashion, nature has returned. In a piece entitled “Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden,” for the online site of Outside magazine, Henry Shukman recounts his and his photographer’s travels in this area searching for mutated wildlife. He doesn’t encounter any snake-headed bears or giant ants as in Them! but the scientists he talked to said there were now field mice showing up with resistance to radioactivity and in the DNA of the roving bands of wolves and solitary boars, the suspicions is deep changes were occurring.
Prior to the recent events in Japan, apparently, at least according to the March 14 L.A. Times, we were in the midst of a Nuclear Renaissance. Who knew? Talk of more “clean” plants coming online, countering climate change concerns and easing us off our suckling of the teat of foreign oil. The House Energy and Commerce Committee looks to hold a hearing with Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on what we’ve learned initially after what’s happened in Japan and the condition of our nuclear facilities—particularly their abilities to as best as possible hold up in quakes and/or when hammered by tsunamis. No doubt there’ll be a lot of assurances tempered with recommendations for improved safety methods and changing specific policies with more nuclear plants being advocated by some of our politicians.
Me, I’ll be stocking up on my bottled water and iodine tablets, oiling up the AK for when the mutated wolves who walk on two legs come riding up on boars the size of horses.