An interview with a Chernobyl scholar sheds light on the current nuclear crisis in Japan.
Mary Mycio is the author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl (2005), a first-hand chronicle of her travels through the radioactive wilderness surrounding the Chernobyl disaster site, including science of the 1986 disaster and its aftermath, and Doing Bizness (2013), a nuclear thriller based on true events surrounding the nuclear plant meltdown in Ukraine.
Mycio covered nuclear issues, government and politics among other related topics as a Kiev correspondent for the L.A. Times for seven years. Her recent articles on nuclear issues have appeared online on Salon and Slate.
Currently an international development consultant for Kipling Global Media LLC for the past six years, Mycio analyzes media issues in transitional and developing countries and provides legal advising and defense for censored journalists.
Mary Mycio has been to Chernobyl at least 25 times since she covered the disaster’s 10th anniversary for the L.A. Times.
“My first impression was shock that the place was so green. I had expected a dead moonscape,” she said.
She described the wilderness since her first visit:
“The wetlands and forests which were drained and cleared for Soviet agriculture continue returning to their natural state. When I first went in 1996, it would have been unheard of for an endangered species like lynx to be in the zone. Now they are common.”
As nature takes its course in reclaiming the dead man’s land surrounding the entombed Chernobyl power plant nearly three decades after the world’s worst nuclear disaster until Fukushima, Mycio offers lessons learned from the meltdown management in light of the current crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
“I think Fukushima is much, much worse than Chernobyl,” she said. “The severity of a nuclear accident isn’t only in the amount of radiation released – and Fukushima may exceed Chernobyl in the end. Chernobyl involved one explosion and one meltdown in one reactor. It was contained and covered with sarcophagus in nine months. Fukushima is three reactors and four fuel pools that still haven’t been stabilized. Fukushima can still blow, and more than once.”
Within the last month, the NRA raised the severity of radiation at the Fukushima plant to Level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the highest since its Level 7 in March 2011.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) said last Monday that 3,200 becquerels per liter of radioactive materials were found near a leaking water storage tank. Readings from the area have continued to rise since those announced on Aug. 22.
Mycio said that although she does not think the spike of radiation is dangerous to the general population, it is very dangerous to the cleanup workers and confirms the situations critical status.
“Worse still,” she said, “with radiation levels that high, no one can get close enough to do anything about it.”
The Japanese government needs to “stop lying to itself that it can handle this,” Mycio said.
When asked if Japan should have accepted cleanup help from Russia in 2011 following the triple meltdown, she said, “Japan should have accepted help from any country that offered it,” suggesting it was the Japanese governments’ pride that prevented them from doing so.
In addition, she said the Japanese government turned down Ukraine’s help two years ago, but as of recently, seems more open to its help.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visited Chernobyl on Aug. 25 to tour the wrecked nuclear power plant and gain insights into the cleanup there. He also sought information from Ukrainian officials on the country’s decontamination and resettlement efforts.
Far from alone in the global outcry for the Japanese government and Tepco to seek independent help, Mycio said “there’s a real need for an international body that can mobilize the necessary expertise in emergencies.”
“No country is equipped to handle a nuclear disaster of this magnitude,” she said. “Indeed, had they taken Ukraine’s assistance, they would have known that they needed radiation monitoring equipment that could measure high doses. Nuclear power plants – since they usually operate safely – need the opposite of mega-watt monitoring. They need equipment that will measure low doses, since those are 99.99 percent of the releases that might occur.”
Compared with Chernobyl, problems at the Fukushima power plant are varied and clearly long-term, as Tepco and the Japanese government have failed to stabilize the situation for two and half years. However much can be learned from the long-term radiation effects on people and environment surrounding Chernobyl.
In dealing with nuclear energy, Chernobyl has certainly taught us one thing, according to Mycio:
“Nuclear power plants must have back-up power generators located in waterproof places, preferably higher than the ground floor. Flooded generators almost led to a second meltdown at Chernobyl.”
Indeed, in March 2011 the auxiliary diesel generators in the basements of the Fukushima reactors failed due to flooding. Combined with a disrupted power supply to the reactors during the earthquake, the pumps, which supplied up to 1 million gallons of cooling water to each reactor at Fukushima No.1, failed. The radioactive cores in units one, two and three started to melt within hours.
Nuclear experts say that Fukushima has already released 10 times the amount of radiation than Chernobyl.
Some 300-400 tons of groundwater contaminated with the radioactive elements of strontium-90, cesium-134 and -137 and tritium empty into the Pacific Ocean each day. Estimates of radioactive elements released into the air vary, as researchers have found pockets of radioactive hot spots.
Radiation may be invisible, odorless and tasteless, but physical human sickness and rising cancer rates are more than enough evidence to warrant serious monitoring of radioactivity levels.
Regional authorities in Fukushima prefecture released information that 44 children have been diagnosed with or suspected of having cancer, up from 28 in June. Of the 44 children, 18 have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the remaining 26 are showing symptoms, including one child with a benign tumor.
Thyroid cancer rates in children in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine skyrocketed to nearly 7,000 cases by 2005.
Thyroid cancer in children after the Chernobyl meltdown did not occur until 1990-1991, according to Mycio. “Which was considerably earlier than expected based on the atomic bomb studies,” she said. “That could have been due to the regional iodine deficiency.”
In comparison, children in Chernobyl where diagnosed with thyroid cancer four to five years after the accident, while children from Fukushima are already diagnosed with cancer two and half years after the meltdown.
“Radiation induced thyroid cancers so soon after exposure, strikes me as very unusual,” Mycio said.
The number of cancer fatalities resulting from radiation released from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion are statistically undetectable. However, experts predict numbers of cases in the tens of thousands.
Despite the physical effects of radiation on people surrounding both Chernobyl and Fukushima, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains pro-nuclear, with a long-term plan to restart the 50 idle nuclear reactors in Japan.
Mycio stated her opinion on the use of nuclear energy:
“It depends on whether you want to pollute the planet with radiation or carbon. Both will make vast swathes of territory uninhabitable. Maybe the solution is for the occasional nuclear reactor to blow, evacuate the people and plant a wind or solar farm. Or just let it go back to the wild like Chernobyl.”by Melanie Pawlyszyn