Fukushima: Monitoring the Invisible

In many ways, the nuclear threat has become a nuclear reality. In a time when decisive action is called for, it is hard to know who to believe and how. Many people lack the information necessary to evaluate the temporal effects of radiation. People are receiving contradictory messages regarding how to respond to the ongoing technological failures and releases of radiation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in northern Japan.

Questions arise such as: What do people need to know? What do radiation measurements mean? At what level does radiation exposure become dangerous to humans and other life forms? How do we mitigate the effects of radioactive exposure? What are the differences between immediate and long-term effects?

Making the Invisible Visible

Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, the father of health physics, was a long-time member of the nuclear establishment. He worked on the Manhattan Project and also at the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee. He later became an opponent of nuclear weapons and power production when he realized that the US nuclear industry was suppressing the dangers regarding radiation exposure. Dr. Morgan pioneered research that suggests there is no safe level of radiation. More recently, the National Academy of Sciences report on “Health Risks From Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation” (BEIR VII, 2006), asserted that there is no “safe” radiation dose and that any dose of radiation may be harmful.

If there is no safe level of radiation exposure and if human beings by nature make mistakes, then shouldn't we phase out technologies that exceed our physical and moral capacity to contain and control them?

We need to be aware that many people in the media and governments are confused about “safe levels.” It may be that this confusion does not stem from ill will, fear management or protection of assets, but from the reality that the majority of us simply do not understand radiation. Radiation is invisible to our senses, and for so long, has been invisible to our moral imaginations. We must learn to see it, contain it and guard it from the biosphere.

There are many conflicting reports in Europe, in the US and in Japan. US and UK officials are currently moving foreign nationals out of Tokyo. Japanese authorities have taken a different approach. These conflicting responses are creating suspicion, disorientation and fear.

The situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is still unfolding and we cannot yet know the outcome. If the reactor starts to suddenly release more radiation, and the winds prevail toward Tokyo, it might become more difficult for people to evacuate. Foreign nationals are leaving now because it is easier for their governments to get them out before a greater disaster occurs. Measurable levels of radioactive iodine have been detected in milk and spinach up to 65 miles from the Fukushima site, while trace amounts of radioactive iodine have been detected in the Tokyo metropolitan area's tap water. Given this exposure, it is imperative that parents with small children leave these areas, because children are more susceptible to radioactive iodine while their thyroid glands are developing.

It is true that we live with radiation everyday. Radiation naturally comes from the sun and from the earth. We are exposed through x-rays, on airplanes and through nuclear medicine, which can be life saving for those suffering from cancer. But natural radiation and the nuclear medicine of human-made radiation are not the same as the radioactive isotopes used for nuclear weapons and nuclear power production. Even though there was exhaustive (and often inhumane) research conducted on atomic bomb survivors after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we still don't fully understand the latent and direct effects of radiation exposure, let alone inter-generational anomalies. That is why we should always employ the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle, developed as an international environmental standard at the Wingspread Conference Center in the 1990s, states, “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Monitoring the Situation

Today, unprecedented quantities of data are easily available in cloud computing networks. The open-source movement is providing ever-expanding access to this data via dynamic new software and hardware platforms. At the same time, much important data in the world is also being privatized or withheld from public access.

The lack of public disclosure of radiation levels around many nuclear facilities is one such example. We believe this information must be made available to the general public so that these sites can be more effectively monitored.

Transparently publishing this data on open servers can accomplish this goal. In much the same way that the business sector is moving toward a uniform and open mechanism for publishing regulated financial data, radiation data should be similarly published. In that way, the power of an informed citizenry can be brought to bear on the crucial task of monitoring the inherent dangers of radioactivity.

Shortly after the Fukushima disaster, a real time Geiger counter for Tokyo was uploaded to the Internet on Ustream. It ran for several days with over two million followers, but at the time of writing, the channel has been taken offline.

Each link in the nuclear fuel chain releases radiation and creates nuclear waste. This process begins with mining for uranium, whether that is for the production of nuclear power or weapons. Uranium use in reactors creates fissile materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons. Grave accidents, such as the unfolding radioactive tragedy at Fukushima, can be avoided if nuclear power is phased out. To protect future generations and life on earth, we must abolish nuclear weapons, stop the production of nuclear power and become guardians of our radioactive legacy.

Here are some sites to help us understand the science and how we might mitigate the effects of radiation exposure with food and nutritional supplements:

Measurement language.

Radiation exposure, what it means.

Donations for those affected.