By Sadie Robinson
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Nuclear disasters: it’s not if but when

This article is over 12 years, 8 months old
The unfolding horror in Japan exposes one very stark truth—the extent to which our rulers are willing to let us die.
Issue 2244

The unfolding horror in Japan exposes one very stark truth—the extent to which our rulers are willing to let us die.

Guenther Oettinger, European Union energy commissioner, said last week, “There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen.”

The disaster is already ranked alongside the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, one of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophes. And it could get even worse.

But the terrible risk posed by Japan’s nuclear plants was predicted.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned Japan’s government two years ago that a strong earthquake could pose a “serious problem” for its nuclear plants.

The IAEA said that Japan’s reactors were designed to withstand earthquakes measuring up to seven on the Richter scale. The recent earthquake in Japan measured nine.

How did the government respond to this warning? It built an emergency response centre at Fukushima—but the plant remained only designed to withstand a level seven earthquake.

In 2006 Japan declared that tsunamis posed no danger to nuclear reactors—saying they would “not be significantly affected”.

Japan’s rulers decided that the risk the plants faced was a price worth paying.

Now the only hope of stopping radiation from spewing out of the Fukushima plant lies with workers—the engineers who are risking their lives to try to stop it.

Five are dead already. More are missing and injured.

Japan’s government is putting the workers at an increased risk of radiation poisoning. It has more than doubled the “safe” maximum radiation dose for workers, from 100 millisieverts to 250 millisieverts.

Most experts say that even a dose of 100 millisieverts can increase the risk of cancer.

Japan is putting those outside the plant at risk too. It insists that the only people who need to worry about radiation are those living within 30 kilometres of the Fukushima plant.


But high levels of radiation have been found well outside the evacuation zone. In Ibaraki, south of Fukushima, radiation levels were around 300 times the normal level by late Wednesday morning, according to officials.

As the mayor of Minimisoma, 12 miles from Fukushima, put it, “We weren’t told when the first reactor exploded, we only heard about it on television.

“The government doesn’t tell us anything. We are isolated. They’re leaving us to die.”

Attempts to use water cannon, helicopters and fire trucks to douse the reactors and cool temperatures are failing.

Japan’s government isn’t giving out much information—and no one trusts the things it does say. It has a history of covering up nuclear disaster.

But its behaviour isn’t unusual. Time and time again, governments have covered up the dangers inherent in nuclear power.

Some world leaders, under pressure from anti-nuclear sentiment, say they have put plans for nuclear plants on hold.

Others, along with the nuclear industry, have scrabbled to claim that “their” plants are alright.

So David Cameron has stressed that plans to build new nuclear reactors in Britain will go ahead—and claims that their design makes them safe.

But nuclear power can’t be made safe, even by sophisticated modern reactor design.

The history of the industry is one of leaks and lies, as the industry and the governments that back it try to hide the truth about accidents.

Pollution from Sellafield (see box) has made the Irish Sea “the most radioactively contaminated sea in the world”, according to Greenpeace.

Nuclear material kills people in “normal” times—before the leaks and explosions begin.

Cases of childhood leukaemia in the area around Sellafield have risen ten-fold compared to the British average. And plutonium dust has been found in houses along the Irish Sea coast.

The Sellafield plant’s history of leaks and accidents mean that some 60 percent of the buildings at the site have had to be classed as nuclear waste.

Overall the site has the highest concentration of radioactivity in a single place anywhere on the planet.

The other stark truth exposed by Fukushima is this: that all nuclear plants should be shut down now.

Weapons are real reason

Nuclear power is important for the rich because of its links to nuclear weapons.

Britain’s first nuclear plant was Windscale, which opened in 1956.

It was later renamed Sellafield—because the name Windscale was so associated with a 1957 disaster.

Right from the start, the aim was always to produce weapons.

Plutonium was produced there to fuel Britain’s atomic bomb programme.

The problems came fast. A serious fire in a reactor chimney in 1957 released radiation across the surrounding countryside.

At the time it was the world’s worst nuclear accident to date.

From the 1960s, Windscale began reprocessing spent nuclear fuel—which continues to this day in the now named Thorp reprocessing site at Sellafield.

Sellafield still dumps eight million litres of nuclear waste into the sea—every day.

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