Today marks the 7th anniversary since the devastating earthquakes and tsunami hit northern Japan, claiming up to 21,000 lives and triggering the second-worst nuclear disaster in history.
The multiple meltdowns and explosions at three of the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, which is located in the heart of the tsunami-hit region, resulted in the contamination of a wide area of land and sea and caused the evacuation of some 160,000 residents living near the plant.
Naturally, one of the biggest fears from nuclear "fallout" is the impact on health, most crucially the effect of radionuclides, such as radioactive iodine and caesium. Studies following the A-bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nevada nuclear tests and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, among others, showed an increase in prevalence of a variety of of cancers among survivors and residents. Of those cancers, thyroid cancer has been shown to be a concern, particularly because it has been shown to impact people under 18 the most -- including babies and unborn foetuses.
In the case of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, even the most conservative estimates -- including those made by US cancer expert Robert Peter Gale, who treated emergency workers who were irradiated (some of whom eventually died) by the explosion and massive release of radionuclides at ONE reactor at the Chernobyl plant -- say more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancers were found among children and adolescents as a result of ingesting large amounts of iodine.*** Since the Nevada tests, which were carried out between 1952 and 1957, up to 270,000 of the 170 million US residents alive at the time of those experiments developed extra thyroid cancers, according to Gale's 2013 book "Radiation."
In the case of Fukushima, tests on some 380,000 people who were under 18 at the time of the nuclear disaster have found some 200 "extra"** thyroid cancers (39 of them "suspected" cancers).
According to cancer experts, this is 10s of times more than the normally occurring thyroid cases in Japan's general population.
What is perplexing about the finds in Fukushima is that while in other historical cases such as Chernobyl, extra thyroid cancers believed to be tied to the radiation emitted by the nuclear plant did not begin to show up in residents until around a decade after the disasters, in Fukushima they started to show up just a few years after the disasters.
This has led scientists to believe they are not connected to the disaster itself.
One of them is Imperial College London cancer expert Geraldine Thomas. In one interview with Dr. Thomas I was told about something known as the "screening effect," where extensive tests on patients turn up "suspected" thyroid nodes/lumps that "almost certainly will be treated, even though treatment might not be required." What this means is that, many people who have lumps on their thyroids that are not necessarily tied to radiation and quite possibly not even to cancer go through life completely unaware that they exist. They are, in many cases, harmless. However, the moment they are tested and the lumps revealed, the "natural" result is that they will be treated, possibly through a surgical procedure that might actually have not been required (and potentially be of even more danger to the patient than the lump itself).
Kenji Shibuya, a public health specialist at University of Tokyo, is another specialist who would seem to agree with Thomas. According to a report in Science magazine, Shibuya said after the first thyroid cancers were detected back in 2011 that the extensive screenings were leading to an “overdiagnosis and overtreatment,” of dozens of children who were having their thyroids removed, perhaps unnecessarily.
Further clouding the issue is how/where the relevant radionuclide -- iodine-131 -- was dispersed following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. While government data showing where these radionuclides were dispersed was sadly lacking -- an issue I discuss in my book Yoshida's Dilemma -- it is widely believed that prevailing winds took them out to sea. Gale says in his book that even if that was not the case and the winds had taken them inland, the Japanese diet -- which is high in iodine due to the widespread consumption of fish, seaweed and other iodine-rich marine products -- "the danger would not have been as grave as one might think."
"The danger to people from iodine-131 released in the Chernobyl reactor meltdown ... was strikingly dissimilar from that released in the Fukushima explosions," Gale writes.
A major difference between the two is how quickly and efficiently the Japanese cut the food supply chain after the disaster, adds Thomas. "While Chernobyl children continued to consume contaminated milk and other dairy produce, Japanese children ate uncontaminated food brought in from elsewhere," she says.
A final word on this point: As reported in my book, independent tests of soil from rice paddies by local farmers and other residents living inland from the nuclear plant, showed fairly large deposits of radionuclides INCLUDING iodine. Are we to believe, then that these were already present in the soil?
Nonetheless, scientists such as Thomas are adamant that the occurrence of cancers among Fukushima residents will not take place for another three years at least.
And yet, I have personally interviewed residents, nuclear plant workers and disaster first respondents who have developed cancers that they believe, or have been told, were a result of the nuclear disaster. As one of the lawyers representing some of those first respondents (who are in the process of suing Fukushima plant operator TEPCO)* says, his clients were shown to be healthy and fit before the disasters. "So why are they getting cancer and other illnesses? That can only be because they were exposed to radiation. It can’t just be a coincidence.”
Thomas, Gale and other (often pro-nuclear) cancer experts seem to be in agreement about one thing: while it is impossible to incontrovertibly link nuclear plant radiation to cancers, it is also impossible to say that link does not exist. (No experiments to date have revealed a DNA marker connecting the two, according to Thomas). If science has been unable to provide 100 percent verification in this regard, does it make sense to assume that thyroid or other cancers that occur 10 years or more after a nuclear disaster are connected but those occurring under 10 years are not? It seems ludicrous to say something unprovable suddenly becomes provable at a certain point, and that point is 10 years, even if we have historical "evidence" suggesting that is the case.
*His clients are US sailors and other navy officials who were taking part in relief operations following the March 11 2011 disasters. They claim that their illnesses -- including thyroid and other cancers -- were the result of a plume of radiation from the Fukushima plant that passed over their boats when anchored in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles northwest of the plant.
**"extra" indicates "in addition" to what would be normally found in the population.
***If discovered at an early stage aught thyroid cancer is often cured by removing the thyroid gland. In the case of the 6,000 cases following Chernobyl, most were not life-threatening. Indeed, according to a 2006 UN report, there were just 15 childhood thyroid cancer deaths believed to be attributable to the Chernobyl disaster.
According to a report in the The Bangkok Post an environmental action group in Thailand is protesting the import of fish from Japan that was sourced in Fukushima and being served at restaurants in the Thai capital..
The Stop Global Warming group has demanded that the Thai Food and Drug Administration reveal both the name of the importer and the Japanese restaurants serving the imported seafood to make consumers aware about where the Fukushima fish is being served.
According to a report last week, Thailand made its first import of fish from Fukushima since the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which underwent multiple meltdowns and explosions following massive earthquakes and tsunami that struck the region on March 11 2011.
Up to 21,000 people lost their lives in the disasters in Japan’s Tohoku region and 160,000 Fukushima residents were evacuated from their homes following a massive release of dangerous radioactive materials from the Fukushima plant.
In the the Japan Times report, the recently imported fish was to be served at a dozen Japanese restaurants in Bangkok. Stop Global Warming is demanding the names of the restaurants be revealed to prevent consumers being put at risk of possible caesium contamination, the Bangkok Post reported.
Doubts were also expressed that the Thai fisheries department (FDA) had conducted tests on the fish shipment to confirm whether or not it was safe.
According to the FDA the shipment had undergone inspections and diners should not be concerned.
The report comes just a week after South Korea said it will maintain its 7-year restrictions on seafood imports from Japan as it prepared to appeal against a World Trade Organisation ruling vetoing bans on Japanese fisheries products that were introduced following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Since 2011, South Korea has banned 50 types of seafood caught in the waters near the Fukushima plant, though it has continued to import fish from Japan.
What’s more, another 24 nations still have some import restrictions on Japanese seafood products that were implemented as a result of the Fukushima disaster, according to news reports.
As we approach the 7th anniversary of the 2011 disasters in northern Japan, reports are coming through of a ball of caesium that has been found in a Fukushima river.
Caesium is one of the radionuclides that was emitted from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following the 2011 nuclear disaster.
According to broadcaster TBS the ball of caesium was found by a team of Tokyo University researchers in a river about 5 km north of the plant, which experienced multiple reactor meltdowns and explosions following massive earthquakes and tsunami that hit the region in March 2011.
Experiments have shown that exposure to radiation from caesium can result in malignant tumors and shortening of life.
The broadcaster reports that the find of the small glass-like ball of matter was made last year, but has only just been made public.
In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster a huge quality of radioactive caesium was one of a number of poisonous radionuclides that were emitted from the plant, causing the evacuation of some 160,000 residents. This caesium, however, was said to easily dissolve in water.
The recent find indicates that there are other clumps of the radionuclide that are insoluble in water. It is believed that this means they will remain in the atmosphere considerably longer.
The TBS report stated that this is the first time such caesium balls have been found following the nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture, which is located approximately 250 km north of Tokyo.
However, it is not the first solid material thought to have been emitted from the plant that has been found nearby. A recent study by a team of international scientists reported that among other non-gaseous materials emitted from the plant following the March 2011 disasters were uranium, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
A type of radioactive caesium called Caesium-137 has a much shorter lifespan of roughly 30 years, but its high fission yield means it is abundant even in spent nuclear fuel and can be harmful to human health for many years.
According to one Stanford University report: "Its half-life of about 30 years is long enough that objects and regions contaminated by cesium-137 remain dangerous to humans for a generation or more, but it is short enough to ensure that even relatively small quantities of cesium-137 release dangerous doses of radiation."
The recent find is reportedly only a small sample and not believed to be a major health hazard to the surrounding environment. However, experts remain unsure how it made its way into the river and remaining in an undissolved state."One high possibility is that caesium balls are carried by the river and into the sea," commented University of Tokyo Professor Yoshio Takahashi.
Further research will be carried out to understand the exact composition of the matter. However, it is believed that this is the first time for such a find to be made in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster and could provide further clarification as to the exact nature of the Fukushima disaster.
A recently released study indicates uranium and other solid radioactive micro-particles were among the dangerous materials that contaminated the environment following the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
Previous reports suggested that only volatile radioactive gases such as caesium and iodine had caused contamination following the multiple reactor meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which were triggered by massive earthquakes and tsunami on March 11, 2011 and led to the evacuation of some 160,000 residents.
The new study, which is a collaborative investigation by a team of international scientists, claims that additionally the likes of uranium and technetium were among the contaminants found in soil samples inside the nuclear exclusion zone that was set up following the disaster.
“Our research strongly suggests there is a need for further detailed investigation on Fukushima fuel debris, inside, and potentially outside the nuclear exclusion zone,” said Dr. Gareth Law, a lecturer in analytical radiochemistry at the University of Manchester and one of the authors of the report.
Uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years and can be lethal. Exposure to high doses can result in kidney failure and death once it enters the blood stream. It can also irreparably damage the immune system, as was the case during the 1999 nuclear disaster at a uranium reprocessing facility in Tokai, Japan, where two workers died and many more fell sick following an illegally conducted preparation of nuclear fuel using enriched uranium.
It can also lead to cancers, according to a website produced by Argonne National Laboratory for the US Department of Energy.
According to the new study on uranium and other deposits in Fukushima, nano fragments found in soil samples collected from paddy fields up to 4 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant provide proof that uranium was among the materials released during the disaster. The particles that would have been released from the Fukushima reactors would be a fraction of the width of a human hair, meaning they could easily have been inhaled by residents.
The study was conducted by experts from universities and research institutes around the world, including those in the UK , France , the U.S. and Japan and was published in the journal Environmental Science Technology.
“It was a shock to discover that nanoscale fragments of uranium dioxides were released into the environment from Fukushima Daiichi,” commented lead researcher Dr. Satoshi Utsunomiya of Kyushu University’s department of chemistry, who is an expert in engineered nanoparticles in the environment, and how they interact with biological material such as microbes and the human respiratory system. “Yet, there are still many unknowns when it comes to overall information about the debris within the reactors and the impact on the human body. Until the day comes when the nuclear debris is removed from the reactors, it is extremely important to persevere with the continued and careful examination of the debris samples (collected so far) and to accumulate accurate information.”
The new findings could mean the decommissioning of the Fukushima plant, which is currently estimated to take 40 years, could be an even bigger undertaking than originally believed.
“Having better knowledge of the released microparticles is also vitally important as it provides much needed data on the status of the melted nuclear fuels in the damaged reactors,” Utsunomiya was reported elsewhere as saying. “This will provide extremely useful information for the decommissioning strategy.”
The health impacts of the 2011 disaster has been widely debated among scientists. Some, such as Imperial College, London cancer specialist Geraldine Thomas, have praised the post-disaster management, particularly the evacuations and quick severing of the food chain. Unlike the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine, where delayed evacuations and failure to prevent residents consuming contaminated dairy products led to cancer and other illnesses, such an expeditious response at Fukushima ensured health consequences will be so low as to be inconsequential, Thomas says.
Others, however, have criticised the post-disaster response, pointing to the poor distribution if iodine tablets (to prevent thyroid cancers) and the failure to evacuate residents from some of the areas that were most heavily contaminated by the radiation (including Iitate Village). Indeed, up to 200 thyroid cancer cases have been detected in Fukushima children so far and according to one 2016 study, Japan can expect to see an additional 10,000 cancer cases in the region most impacted by the nuclear disaster.
Other issues that are often criticised include plant operator TEPCO’s failure to accurately report on the exact extent and nature of radioactive leaks from the plant — including leaks into the Pacific Ocean.
The latest findings will further concerns, particularly by those who fall in the anti-nuclear corner, about the true extent of the nuclear disaster, especially in light of the government’s continued attempts to return evacuees to their homes — which skeptics believe are merely an effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community about the true impact of the 2011 disasters.