With the news that radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Complex may eventually make landfall on the Pacific Coast of the United States, everyone’s scurrying to get their hands on potassium iodine, in the hopes of preventing their bodies from absorbing radiation.
I’ve got my name on the waiting list at the health food store along with everyone else. I have a baby, and staring at him playing with his toys on the floor was what finally made me call to get on the list. Chances are they won’t get any in before the radiation makes landfall. And even if they do: potassium iodine only protects against I-131, a radioactive isotope which causes thyroid cancer. Sure, no one wants thyroid cancer. But you’re probably not going to get it from Japan: I-131 has a half-life of 8 days, which will probably have expired by the time the wind carries it to our shores. There’s lots of other dangerous radioisotopes being released at Fukushima though, many with half-lives much longer than our memories. Potassium iodine won’t help us there.
Even if Super Supplements does call with my share of “radiation protection,” its a little late to start popping pills. This chain of events was set in motion over fifty years ago, and we’ve all received plenty of exposure already in the course of our six-decade dance with atomic arrogance. I’m not saying what’s happening in Japan isn’t horrendous, and extremely serious, and deeply and profoundly sad and frightening. Its all of those things. But its also a little late to run for cover. We’ve made ourselves exceptionally comfortable with the devil that is nuclear, and now the rest of us are discovering what downwinders have known for decades: its pretty hard to kick this particular lover out of bed.
Take Iodine 131, the isotope we’re hoping to protect ourselves against with Potassium Iodine. 40 years of domestic nuclear testing and nuclear testing around the world exposed everyone alive to plenty of I-131 between 1945 and 1992. See that little mushroom cloud at the top of the page? That’s Nuclear Test Grable, and those mountains in the background are Nevada, about 60 miles outside of Vegas. Grable went off at 15:30 hours on May 25, 1953, in Area 5 of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. Grable was a 15 kiloton nuke we shot out of a cannon (mostly just to see if we could) which detonated 524 feet above ground. (For purposes of comparison, the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima was somewhere between 13 and 18 kilotons.) Grable’s just one of 1042 beasts we built and blew up for the purposes of “national security.” I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a nuke going off in the heart of America doesn’t make me feel particularly secure. Over the years, it made a lot of the folks who lived near the test site feel sort of insecure too. They can tell you a thing or two about cancer.
After 1961 they tested most of those bombs below ground in Nevada, (lots of radiation still made its way into the water table and frequently vented into the atmosphere) but plenty of radiation had already made it into the food supply: specifically, milk. Radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in Nevada, the Pacific, and elsewhere around the world drifted down onto alfalfa crops, which were fed to cows, which produced radioactive milk loaded with I-131, which children were urged to drink wholesale throughout the 1950s, irradiating their developing thyroids. The National Cancer Institute estimates that as many as 230,000 extra thyroid cancers may have occurred as a result of this contamination of the milk supply in the United States alone, and a lot of epidemiologists think that’s a conservative estimate. Want to see what you or your parents were exposed to? Check out the NCI’s fallout exposure calculator. Tell it what year you were born, where you lived, and how much milk you drank, and it will tell you approximately how much I-131 you were likely exposed to. Remember, this is just one of dozens of radioactive isotopes that get released when nuclear reactions occur.
What about all these claims that nuclear power is a safe, renewable, clean alternative to fossil fuels, the answer to our energy crisis? If this was an academic paper, I’d use lots of scientific terminology to respond to that. But this is a blog post. So I’ll respond succinctly. Bullshit. To create nuclear reactions, and thus nuclear power, you need fissionable materials. Uranium is the fissionable material of choice. Its a mineral, and you have to dig it up out of the ground. For several decades, we got most of our uranium from mines in the 4 Corners area of the American Southwest. The Public Health Service knew uranium was pretty toxic, so they studied the guys who were digging it up. A lot of them died of lung cancer. After you dig up uranium, you have to mill it and process it to get yellowcake, the material used in nuclear reactions. Milling’s pretty nasty too. A lot of those workers got cancer also. Their families were exposed to ample radiation on the work clothing they wore home, and lots of the leftover rubble was used to make roads, and build foundations for schools and homes. Subsequent generations have experienced a spate of birth defects, just like the children of folks who grew up near the Nevada Test Site.
The radioactive sludge left over from the milling process is sitting all over the American Southwest in tailing ponds, several of which have failed and leaked thousands of gallons of radioactive waste into rivers, like the Rio Puerco Spill in 1979. Most of this took place on Indian reservations. Uranium caused so much suffering in Navajo country that in April of 2005, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley signed a ban outlawing all uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Reservation. A similar resolution was passed by the Havasupai, and the All Indian Pueblo Council, representing 19 tribes in New Mexico, has banned mining that would affect sacred sites. Incidentally, the Navajo and other indigenous nations are giving up substantial income by banning uranium development: Navajo country is known among mining companies as the “the Saudi Arabia of uranium,” in the words of Mark Pelizza, a vice president of Uranium Resources Inc. Of course, uranium is found in other places too, like Eastern Washington, where the Midnight Mine, a uranium mine near Spokane, has been designated a Superfund site.
So, getting the uranium you need to create nuclear power is a pretty nasty process. Of course, the mining companies say they’ve got new technology that makes it safer, and they feel real bad all those people got sick. (The U.S. Government feels sorta bad too: it pays a few thousand dollars in compensation money to the families of uranium miners and millers who have died, as well as a select few of the people most heavily exposed to radiation by domestic nuclear testing. Of course, it makes them jump through interminable bureaucratic hoops to get their money, which is a pittance compared to the cost of medical care and the loss of a family member.) Are you willing to take a chance on a uranium mine or mill in your backyard?
That’s just the raw material for nuclear power plants. Then we presume to “control” nuclear reactions to turn on our lights and power our refrigerators. Ordinary day-to-day nuclear power plant operation is supposed to be pretty safe, right? Wrong. Dr. John Gofman, one of the nation’s leading experts on radiation and medicine, once estimated that a nuclear reactor in an urban area would create adverse health effects “equal in the opposite direction to all the medical advances put together in the last 25 years.”
And then there’s that slim chance of natural disaster impacting a nuclear power plant, say an earthquake, or a tsunami. There’s also that tiny chance of human error, someone falling asleep at the switch (just picture Homer Simpson). Or… maybe that constantly talked about terror attack hits a nuclear power plant. There are over a dozen nuclear reactors in the United States that are identical to the ones melting down in Japan right now. Good old General Electric built them.
Nuclear power? Really?
Then, there’s the millions of pounds of nuclear waste the United States has already generated, waste we have no safe way of storing for the long term, much of it exceedingly dangerous and unstable.
What on earth makes us think we can harness a process that takes place inside the SUN? What on earth made us believe it was a sane idea to fool around with the most fundamental unit of matter—the atom? Arrogance, that’s what. It takes some crazy hubris to believe that its possible to manage nuclear reactions for the purposes of national security and energy generation, and some profound gullibility to go along with that. Meanwhile, cancer has gone up something like 30 percent in the last few decades. And while there have been profound advances in treating cancer, the “War on Cancer” isn’t really about preventing it, if you look closely. Its about treating it once you’ve got it, at a cost of millions of dollars.
Obama says that despite what’s happening in Japan, he’s still going to support nuclear power.
Potassium Iodine isn’t going to save us. We are. By standing up and demanding the following:
global disarmament, starting here in the United States (after all, we threw the first punch, its only fair that we take the lead)
an end to nuclear power,
and a responsible and immediate containment, cleanup, and storage plan for the nuclear waste we’ve already generated.
In the meantime… I’m making miso soup for my family every day. Its a folk preventative in case of radiation exposure. May or may not help. I’m not planning on taking any walks in the rain in the next couple weeks, and I’m going to hold off planting my veggie garden until I’ve got more information about what’s actually going on in Japan and what the wind is bringing. None of this is particularly based on science… its based on my need to take some sort of real action aside from signing petitions. I’m going to try and finish my book, Yellow Monsters and Mushroom Clouds: A Folk History of the Nuclear West. And lastly, I’m going to light a candle every night for the people of Japan, who’ve already borne so much of the tragedy of this atomic age.