Summer Quarterly 2018
The World Nuclear Association says on its website that its goal is “to increase global support for nuclear energy,” and repeatedly claims that “there have only been three major accidents across 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of operation in 32 countries.” At least the lobby group acknowledges the catastrophes at Three Mile Island in 1979 (US), Chernobyl in 1986 (USSR), and at Fukushima in 2011 (Japan).
However, claiming that these three stand alone as “major” disasters cynically ignores the series of large-scale disasters that have been caused by uranium mining, nuclear power and weapons, radioactive waste, handling, and the nuclear fuel chain. The following is an abbreviated list of some of the world’s other major radiation accidents.
CHALK RIVER (Ontario), Dec. 2, 1952: A Canadian reactor’s loss-of-coolant caused a meltdown and an explosion and became the first major commercial nuclear reactor disaster.
ROCKY FLATS (Colorado), Sept. 11,1957: This Cold War factory that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons factory 16 miles from Denver caused 30 to 44 pounds of breathable plutonium-239 and Pu-240 to catch fire in what would come to be known as the second largest industrial fire in US history. Filters used to trap the plutonium were destroyed and it escaped through chimneys, contaminating parts of Denver. Nothing was done to protect its downwind residents.
WINDSCALE/SELLAFIELD (Britain), Oct. 7, 1957: The worst of many fires burned through one reactor igniting three tons of uranium and dispersed radionuclides over parts of England and northern Europe. The site was hastily renamed Sellafield.
KYSHTYM/CHELYABINSK-65 (Russia), Sept. 29, 1957: A tank holding 70 to 80 metric tons of highly radioactive liquid waste exploded, contaminating an estimated 250,000 people, and permanently depopulating 30 towns which were leveled and removed from Russian maps. Covered up by Moscow until 1989, Russia finally revealed that 20 million curies of long-lived isotopes like cesium were released and it was later declared a Level 6 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The long covered-up disaster contaminated up to 10,000 square miles making it the third- or 4th-most serious radiation accident ever recorded.
SANTA SUSANA (Simi Valley, Calif.), July 12, 1959: The meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment just outside Los Angeles caused “the third largest release of iodine-131 in the history of nuclear power,” according to Arjun Makhajani, President of the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research. Released radioactive materials were never authoritatively measured because “the monitors went clear off the scale,” according to an employee. The accident was kept secret for 20 years.
CHURCH ROCK (New Mexico), July 16, 1979: Ninety-three million gallons of liquid uranium mine waste and 1,000 tons of solid wastes spilled onto the Navajo Nation and into Little Puerco River, and became the largest radiological disaster in US history. Little Puerco feeds the Little Colorado River, which drains to the Colorado River which feeds Lake Mead—a source of drinking water for Los Angeles.
MONJU (Japan), Dec. 8, 1995: This sodium-cooled “breeder reactor” caused a fire and a large leak of sodium coolant that contaminated the Pacific. Liquid sodium coolant catches fire on contact with air, explodes on contact with water, and costly efforts to engineer commercial models of breeder reactors have failed.
TOKAI-MURA (Japan), Sept. 30, 1999: A uranium “criticality” or “neutron burst” killed three workers and dispersed radioactivity across the populated urban area surrounding the factory.
—Sources: Gar Smith, Nuclear Roulette (Chelsea Green, 2012); Joseph Mangano, Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment (OR Books 2012);Stephanie Cooke, In Mortal Hands, (Bloomsbury, 2009); Jinzaburo Takagi, Criticality Accident at Tokai-Mura (Citizens’ Nuclear Info. Center, 2000); Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Madness, Revised (Norton, 1995); Arjun Makhijani, et al, Nuclear Wastelands (MIT Press, 1995), and The Nuclear Power Deception (Apex Press, 1999); Catherine Caufield, Multiple Exposures (Harper & Row, 1989); John May, Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age (Pantheon, 1989); Anna Gyorgy, No Nukes (South End Press, 1979).
Summer Quarterly 2018
By John LaForge
Contrary to reports that only gaseous radioactive materials were released by the triple-reactor Fukushima meltdowns in Japan in 2011, scientists reported early on that highly radioactive “hot particles” were released and carried long distances by wind.
“Cesium found 375 miles from Japanese plant,” read the headline in the Japanese daily paper Yomiuri Shimbun — and reprinted in dozens of US papers March 17 and 18, 2012. The report noted that radioactive cesium-137 was found in plankton 375 miles east of the destroyed Fukushima reactors. Researchers at the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute warned that “the radioactive cesium is likely to have accumulated in fish that eat plankton.” The cesium then bio-accumulates and bio-concentrates as the fish continue to consume bad plankton, and as bigger fish (tuna, cod, haddock, pollock, carp) eat smaller contaminated fish.
According to a 2012 report from Bellona Foundation, “radionuclides from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant’s triple meltdown last year radioactively contaminated the entire northern hemisphere within days and the US west coast bore a significant brunt of so called hot particles, an independent scientific paper released yesterday claims.” (“Impact to US West Coast from Fukushima disaster likely larger than anticipated, several reports indicate,” Bellona, Sept. 19, 2012)
Earlier field sampling of vehicle air filters done in April 2011 by Marco Kaltofen, of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, discovered breathable hot particles contaminated with cesium-137 in Seattle, Washington. (“Radiation Exposure to the Population in Japan after the Earthquake,” Marco Kaltofen, MS, PE, Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Inst., October 31, 2011)
Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear reactor engineer with Fairewinds Associates, reported June 12, 2011 that, “Air filters in Seattle indicate that people there were absorbing five hot particles every day for the month of April . That means that that hot particle gets absorbed in your lung, or winds up in your intestines, or it winds up in your muscle, or it winds up in your bone [where it] constantly bombards a very narrow piece of tissue.”
On July 18, 2011, Dr. Chris Busby, scientific secretary of the Low-Level Radiation Campaign in England and co-author of Fukushima and Health: What to Expect (Green Audit, 2011), said in an interview, “When we put the elements from the air filter next to x-ray film and we develop the film, we see different light sources and flashes of light. These are called ‘hot particles.’ They are very small. You cannot see them — they are almost like a gas. If they are in the car filters, because cars ‘breathe’ air — then they are inside of people, inside the lungs, inside the nose, inside the guts… and they will be causing significant harm.”
The journal Science of the Total Environment reported December 31, 2017 on a more recent and lengthier study in which detectable levels of hot particles of cesium-134 and cesium-137 were collected across Northern Japan and analyzed over a five-year period, from 2011 to 2016. (“Radioactively-hot particles detected in dusts and soils from Northern Japan,”) The hot particles were found in dusts and soils in over 80 percent of the samples. The study’s authors, Marco Kaltofena and Arnie Gundersen, said, “Some of the hot particles detected in this study could cause significant radiation exposures to individuals if inhaled. Exposure models ignoring these isolated hot particles would potentially understate human radiation dose.”
Proponents of nuclear power still get away with denying that such inhaled or ingested exposures cause harm. This is because when the cancers begin appearing 10, 15 or 20 years from exposure, no one can to prove they were caused by Fukushima’s hot particles. “Got cancer?” they ask. “Not our fault. Nuclear power is safe.”
Photo: The cement tomb built in 1986 over the destroyed Chernobyl reactor No. 4 in Ukraine needed replacement by 1996. It finally got re-covered in 2016. Similar abandonment has been recommended for three wrecked General Electric reactors in Fukushima, Japan.
The radiation dispersed into the environment by the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima-Daiichi in Japan has exceeded that of the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, so we may stop calling it the “second worst” nuclear power disaster in history. Total atmospheric releases from Fukushima are estimated to be between 5.6 and 8.1 times that of Chernobyl, according to the 2013 World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Professor Komei Hosokawa, who wrote the report’s Fukushima section, told London’s Channel 4 News then, “Almost every day new things happen, and there is no sign that they will control the situation in the next few months or years.”
Tokyo Electric Power Co. has estimated that about 900 peta-becquerels have spewed from Fukushima, and the updated 2016 TORCH Report estimates that Chernobyl dispersed 110 peta-becquerels. (A Becquerel is one atomic disintegration per second. The “peta-becquerel” is a quadrillion, or a thousand trillion Becquerels.)
Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 in Ukraine suffered several explosions, blew apart and burned for 40 days, sending clouds of radioactive materials high into the atmosphere, and spreading fallout across the whole of the Northern Hemisphere — depositing cesium-137 in Minnesota’s milk.
The likelihood of similar or worse reactor disasters was estimated by James Asselstine of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who testified to Congress in 1986: “We can expect to see a core meltdown accident within the next 20 years, and it … could result in off-site releases of radiation … as large as or larger than the releases … at Chernobyl. Fukushima-Daiichi came 25 years later.
Contamination of soil, vegetation and water is so widespread in Japan that evacuating all the at-risk populations could collapse the economy, much as Chernobyl did to the former Soviet Union. For this reason, the Japanese government standard for decontaminating soil there is far less stringent than the standard used in Ukraine after Chernobyl.
Fukushima’s Cesium-137 Release Tops Chernobyl’s
The Korea Atomic Energy Research (KAER) Institute outside of Seoul reported in July 2014 that Fukushima-Daiichi’s three reactor meltdowns may have emitted two to four times as much cesium-137 as the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl.
To determine its estimate of the cesium-137 that was released into the environment from Fukushima, the cesium-137 release fraction (4% to the atmosphere, 16% to the ocean) was multiplied by the cesium-137 inventory in the uranium fuel inside the three melted reactors (760 to 820 quadrillion Becquerel, or Bq), with these results:
Ocean release of cesium-137 from Fukushima (the worst ever recorded): 121.6 to 131.2 quadrillion Becquerel (16% x 760 to 820 quadrillion Bq). Atmospheric release of cesium-137 from Fukushima: 30.4 to 32.8 quadrillion Becquerel (4% x 760 to 820 quadrillion Bq).
Total release of cesium-137 to the environment from Fukushima: 152 to 164 quadrillion Becquerel. Total release of cesium-137 into the environment from Chernobyl: between 70 and 110 quadrillion Bq.
The Fukushima-Daiichi reactors’ estimated inventory of 760 to 820 quadrillion Bq (petabecquerels) of cesium-137 used by the KAER Institute is significantly lower than the US Department of Energy’s estimate of 1,300 quadrillion Bq. It is possible the Korean institute’s estimates of radioactive releases are low.
In Chernobyl, 30 years after its explosions and fire, what the Wall St. Journal last year called “the $2.45 billion shelter implementation plan” was finally completed in November 2016. A huge metal cover was moved into place over the wreckage of the reactor and its crumbling, hastily erected cement tomb. The giant new cover is 350 feet high, and engineers say it should last 100 years — far short of the 250,000-year radiation hazard underneath.
The first cover was going to work for a century too, but by 1996 was riddled with cracks and in danger of collapsing. Designers went to work then engineering a cover-for-the-cover, and after 20 years of work, the smoking radioactive waste monstrosity of Chernobyl has a new “tin chapeau.” But with extreme weather, tornadoes, earth tremors, corrosion and radiation-induced embrittlement it could need replacing about 2,500 times. — John LaForge
 Duluth News-Tribune & Herald, “Slight rise in radioactivity found again in state milk,” May 22, 1986; St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, “Radiation kills Chernobyl firemen,” May 17, 1986; Minneapolis StarTribune, “Low radiation dose found in area milk,” May 17, 1986.
 Ian Fairlie, “TORCH-2016: An independent scientific evaluation of the health-related effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster,” March 2016 (https://www.global2000.at/sites/global/files/GLOBAL_TORCH%202016_rz_WEB_KORR.pdf).
 James K. Asselstine, Commissioner, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Testimony in Nuclear Reactor Safety: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, May 22 and July 16, 1986, Serial No. 99-177, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1987.
 Progress in Nuclear Energy, Vol. 74, July 2014, pp. 61-70; ENENews.org, Oct. 20, 2014.
This week’s explosive news from the “more bang for the buck” folks is that up to three barrels of unspecified “radioactive material” either ruptured or burst or exploded at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), near Idaho Falls, on April 11. “An exothermal event” is how Energy Department (DOE) spokesperson Danielle Miller described the prompt deconstruction of the rad waste drum(s).
“Exothermal” is a nice distraction that means “a chemical reaction accompanied by the release of heat.” The usage reminds me of the May 1996 “gaseous ignition event” involving hydrogen gas in a fully loaded high-level rad waste cask at Wisconsin’s Point Beach reactor site. The cask contained 14 tons of highly radioactive used reactor fuel, and the eruption of Public Relations inventiveness popped the container’s 4,000-pound lid right off.
The Idaho Lab accident was reported by ABC News, Associated Press, the Seattle Times, the Japan Times, and Fox Radio News among others.* PR people at INL have said three 55-gallon drums holding “transuranic” (heavier-than-uranium) radioactive sludge may have “ruptured.”
One theory about the cause, according to the AP, is that “radioactive decay made the barrel[s] heat up and ignite particles of uranium.” Unfortunately for those who put out the smoldering barrels, “When the firefighters left the building emergency workers detected a small amount of radioactive material on their skin,” the AP reported April 12.
The very next sentence in this story was that the DOE’s Miller said, “None of the radioactive material was detected outside of the building where the rupture occurred” — except for the contaminated firefighters who somehow don’t count.
Because of decades of “secretive record-keeping” it is hard to find out exactly what is in the burst barrels and got on the firefighters. INL officials do not “know the exact contents,” Joint Information Center spokesman Don Miley reportedly said.
Nuclear waste explosions are us
The ruptured Idaho Lab barrels reportedly contain a mixture of fluids and solvents sent from the long-shuttered Rocky Flats plutonium weapons production site near Denver, the AP reported April 13. The name Rocky Flats should have rung a bell for INL’s “they haven’t run into this” Don Miley.
Plutonium bomb fabrication at Rocky Flats caused the second largest industrial fire in US history, Sept. 11, 1957. The blaze howled for over 13 hours, consuming two tons of plutonium and destroying all 620 industrial filters designed to trap particles. Between 30 and 44 pounds of respirable plutonium-239 and plutonium-240 escaped through chimneystacks, drifting downwind to Denver. When smokestack monitors were reconnected, radioactive measurements were 16,000 times greater than “allowable” standards. No emergency response was taken to protect the people of Denver.
Exploding rad waste has been around a long time and has a sordid history. In September 1957 at Kyshtym in Russia, a tank holding 70 million metric tons of highly radioactive waste exploded and produced a massive plume that contaminated 250,000 people across 410 square miles. This risk always comes with high-level rad waste. It helped cancel the plan to use Yucca Mountain, Nevada for abandonment of commercial nuclear power waste, because physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory reported in 1995 that the material could erupt in a catastrophic explosion. In December 1993, DOE assistant secretary Thomas Grumbly told the New York Times that high-level rad waste in tanks at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the Hanford Site in Washington State, and at Idaho Lab could also “fly apart” if it fuel fell to the bottom of storage pools and caused a “critical mass” to accumulate.
At Hanford, hydrogen gas that builds up inside large tanks of high-level liquid rad waste could “possibly cause an explosion that would release radioactive material,” the AP reported in June 2013. In 1990, Ronald Gerton, then a director of waste management there said, “A spark could really set it off,” referring to 22 tanks that generate enough hydrogen gas to cause and explosion “powerful enough to blow them open,” the Milwaukee Journal reported. The Environmental Policy Institute had warned of this risk in September 1987, reporting that the probability of such an explosion may be as high as one-in-50.
Back at the Idaho Lab, spokesman Don Miley said, “They haven’t run into anything like this actually happening” but he has a short memory. It happened four years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2014, at the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. A barrel of plutonium waste exploded underground, contaminating the entire facility, including the elevator and ventilator shafts, and internally poisoned 22 workers who inhaled the plutonium-laced dust.
More recently, on October 18, 2015, a fire and explosions spurred by rainfall hurled 11 buried barrels of radioactive chemical waste from a trench into the air and spewed debris like a geyser 60 feet high, at a “US Ecology” site near Beatty, Nevada. This shocking fire in one of 22 shallow trenches of radioactive waste couldn’t be put out with water hoses because water started it in the first place. Authorities had to close US Highway 95, cancel school, and await more explosions while they let the fire burned itself out. US Ecology had its records seized by Nevada’s Radiation Control Program, which has never disclosed what sorts of radioactive materials were burned in exploded Trench 14 — although dump site is known to hold a total of 47 pounds of plutonium and uranium isotopes.
In the Idaho Lab accident, the first responders “got some radioactive contamination on their skin, but emergency workers washed it away,” the DOE’s Danielle Miller told reporters. And, she added, “The firefighters did not inhale any of the radioactive material.” Miller can’t possibly know this, but it could be true, someday, when our noses and mouths aren’t attached to our skin.
Keith Ridler, Associated Press, “Radioactive sludge barrel ruptures at eastern Idaho nuclear facility” (AP), April 13, 2018; and Keith Ridler, “Radioactive sludge barrel ruptures at Idaho nuclear site,” Seattle Times (AP), April 12, 2018;
Japan Times (AP), “Sludge barrel ruptures at Idaho nuclear site; no injuries or public risk reported,” April 13, 2018;
ABC News, “Radioactive material washed off 3 firefighters,” (AP) April 12, 2018;
Associated Press, “More Barrel Ruptures Possible at Idaho Nuke Site,” April 12, 2018;
FOX news radio (AP), “Incident Reported At Idaho Nuclear Site, Crews Responding,” April 12, 2018;
Danielle Miller, DOE Idaho Communications announcement, April 12, 2018, which noted, “Later, there were indications that a third drum may have been involved.”
— John LaForge