“The two stations in the Fukushima region reportedly produce the world’s largest joint amount of energy. If complete meltdown occurs in any of the Fukushima reactors, this may lead to a much worse contamination of the atmosphere than the one that was caused by the Chernobyl disaster.” – Dr. Romy Quijano, toxicologist.
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
Stop underplaying the possible effects of worsening nuclear trouble in Japan.
This was the call made by one of the country’s leading toxicologists and the scientist group Agham (Advocates of Science and Technology for the People) to the Philippine and Japanese governments in the wake of the escalating problems concerning Japan’s nuclear power plants.
Dr. Romy Quijano said government officials and the dominant media should stop downplaying the possibility that the nuclear radiation from Japan will reach the Philippines. He said to say that the radiation leak is minimal and pose no significant health risks is “a gross misrepresentation of facts.”
Quijano is also the president of the Pesticide Action Network Philippines.
Agham for its part said that both the governments of the Philippines and Japan should issue clear guidelines and information regarding the nuclear hazards resulting from the accident in Japan.
Both Agham and Quijano said the growing industrial disasters in the Fukushima reactors in Northeastern Japan should prompt both governments to be transparent in reporting the incidents in order to avoid panic and disruption for both Japanese and Filipinos alike.
“The government of Japan should be transparent and open about telling the world about the updates regarding the nuclear accident,” said Agham in a statement posted on its website.
“Because of rapid developments in the situation of the Fukushima nuclear power plants; and because the Filipino people have had very limited experience in facing nuclear hazards, we call on the Philippine government to plan in advance possible scenarios that could result from the ongoing accident.”
The group said that there should be available data for the public about three- to five-day wind forecasts and the current level of radioactive emissions in the atmosphere.
It pointed out that without clear and official information, it is easy for the public and the media to speculate about the possible effects of this nuclear accident.
“We are also urging citizens to be critical of information being received especially through SMS, social networks and email regarding this matter. We should be responsible in not forwarding unverified information,” the group said.
Radioactive Food Imports
According to reports, President Benigno Aquino III has already instructed authorities to check for radioactivity in food imports from Japan.
“Just as a precaution, imports from Japan, mostly foodstuffs, will be checked for their level of radiation,” Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said.
Hong Kong’s Food and Health Secretary York Chow has said that the most at-risk articles are fresh products, including dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Carandang said the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute has the capability to test imports for radioactivity. He also said that the country would continue to import products from Japan and there is no call for a ban against said imports.
In the meantime, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile urged Malacañang to call for a meeting of Philippine scientists to discuss the potential threat from the nuclear plant’s radiation. Enrile said the president should form a group of scientific and economic experts to discuss the possible effects of the radiation.
Problems with the Nuclear Reactors
Based on reports, the problems in the Fukushima reactors range from fires, exposed fuel rods and potential cracks in the nuclear containment structures. The massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck last March 11 caused the reactors to automatically shut down but cooling systems failed leading to the series of disasters that is still unresolved as of now.
There had already been radiation exposure of around 190 people in Fukushima and the danger zone has been increased to 30 km around the plant site. The radioactive emissions are reported to range from isotopes of cesium and iodine as well as radioactive nitrogen and argon. Radioactive iodine can cause thyroid cancer in young people near the plant and cesium accumulates in tissue that could affect the individual later on.
The pump that circulates coolant within the reactor failed to operate after the earthquake. The reactor then continued to heat up despite the control rods that were in place to prevent runaway nuclear reactions.
The heat boiled the water and corroded the coating and structure inside the reactor prompting a chemical reaction that produced hydrogen gas. The plant workers tried to vent it outside the reactor but the pressure was too great that the structure itself collapsed.
For some plant units, such as Fukushima unit 2, the workers failed to fill the vessel due to failures in the seawater pump causing fears that the fuel rods could have melted. Explosions in the same unit caused damage in the suppression pool that could possibly release radioactive materials to the surroundings. Last Tuesday, March 15, Yukiya Amano from the IAEA said there was a “less than five percent” probability that there was core damage in the No. 2 unit.
Agham said these events could still escalate as the problems are still unresolved as of today.
“There are indications that this crisis could become greater than the Three Mile Island accident in 1979,” it said, referring to the worst nuclear power accident in the United States. The crisis lasted four days and was caused by a combination of personnel error, design deficiencies and component failures.
Quijano for his part said there are already unmistakable signs that the situation in Japan is getting out of control.
“ Earlier, dose rates of up to 400 millisievert per hour have been reported, more than enough to cause acute radiation sickness. Radiation levels in Tokyo has been reported to be 10-23 times the normal levels and in Saitama, near Tokyo, the levels were reported to be 40 times normal. These levels have been erroneously proclaimed to be “safe,” he said.
Quijano insisted that theoretically, no level of radioactivity is “safe.” He explained that while the reported radioactivity levels are still quite low compared to levels known to be clearly associated with various illnesses due to exposure to radiation, there is a real risk that over time, additional cases of cancer, birth defects, immune disorders, and other illnesses would occur among the population exposed to these low level radiation, especially the more susceptible population groups such as women and children.
“It is not unlikely that the actual levels of exposure are higher than what is officially reported and given the fact that the situation is far from being controlled, more releases of radioactivity to the open environment is of high probability,” he said.
The toxicologist explained that Japanese reactor is reported to be one hundred times more powerful than the Chernobyl power plant, which exploded in 1986 and which resulted in worldwide radioactive contamination which continues until today and which would continue for many years to come.
“The two stations in the Fukushima region reportedly produce the world’s largest joint amount of energy. If complete meltdown occurs in any of the Fukushima reactors, this may lead to a much worse contamination of the atmosphere than the one that was caused by the Chernobyl disaster,” he said.
Agham said the PNRI and the Department of Science and Technology should immediately launch a massive information campaign regarding these as well as the probable scenarios and tell the public the necessary interventions to mitigate any potential disaster.
For their part, both the DOST and the PNRI have said that they are continuously closely monitoring the situation of the Fukushima-Daiichi Power Plants.
It also advised the public access the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) website for the latest development of the incident. The IAEA is considered the international watchdog which issues verified information about the events happening in Fukushima.
The DOST said that it maintains a 24/7 link-up with the IAEA which it says is the highest authority on nuclear matters for advice on the current situation regarding the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It reiterated that available data do not indicate any immediate threats to the Philippines.
At the present, the IAEA has classified the nuclear emergency as level 4 which means that the accident has effects of a local nature.
Even as media reports go against what scientists are now fearing to be a nuclear situation swiftly deteriorating, Quijano said, the government should begin to put together a disaster preparedness program to address the potential health, environmental and socio-economic consequences of the nuclear disaster in Japan.
“The government claims to have a radiological preparedness plan but an “alert zero” declaration indicates an inappropriate plan with erroneous assumptions and interpretation of facts. Rather than downplaying the seriousness of the situation and nonchalantly dismissing the risks, the government should expand its radiation monitoring, immediately mobilize resources and implement precautionary measures to prevent or at least mitigate the potential effects of radioactive contamination,” he said.