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Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The talk I didn't give

Posted by Dr. Henry Rosenberg on August 12, 2011

I was supposed to be one of the speakers at the Nagasaki Day gathering at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Pouring rain just wasn't the right setting for lighting candles and setting them on Paradise Pond in little paper boats, so the event was cancelled. Here is what I had intended to say.
 
66 years ago today a plane called Bockscar set out to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Kokura. Scientists at Los Alamos were intrigued as to which type of bomb was better, a uranium based bomb which had shown its effectiveness three days earlier at Hiroshima, or the plutonium bomb which was intended for Kokura. As it happened, Kokura was under storm clouds on August 9, so the crew looked over its list of secondary targets and bombed Nagasaki.

No country on earth has suffered the way Japan has. In the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki between 150,000 and 250,000 people died instantly. The suffering continued for decades as people died of leukemia and other causes. Meanwhile, the Americans continued exploding bombs in a long series of tests.

On March 1, 1954, a 20-mile exclusion zone was announced around a test site in the South Pacific. Weather was unfavorable, but the decision was made to proceed with the test and to be safe, the observation ships were moved southward. Within seconds of the explosion, it was clear that the bomb was far more powerful than anticipated. The diameter of the resulting cloud was 62 miles.

A Japanese tuna boat called the Lucky Dragon No. 5 was 40 miles east of the explosion, well outside the announced 20-mile exclusion zone. The ship’s crew saw a flash brighter than the sun, and when they raised their hands to protect their eyes, they saw the bones of their fingers. The flash was followed by a shock wave, but everyone held on and survived it. Then white fallout came down like snow, clinging to the crew, to their clothing, and to the ship so that when crew members walked, they left footprints on the deck. During the 2 weeks that it took to sail back to port in Japan, many of the crew developed acute radiation sickness. They lost their hair, they developed sores, and they vomited. The 9 tons of tuna in the hold was sold and eaten. The men were hospitalized and after 14 months most of them were released, though not necessarily in good health. But the ship’s radioman, Aikichi Kuboyama, died of respiratory failure. In his last will and testament, he expressed the wish that he be the last person to die from an atomic or hydrogen bomb.

After the world saw the horrors of radiation sickness, there was a move to promote the peaceful atom, the use of nuclear fission to make energy "too cheap to meter." But things haven’t worked out as planned. There can always be an unforseen set of circumstances. At Three Mile Island it was a stuck valve. At Chernobyl it was operator error during a high power test. And in March of this year in Fukushima it was an unexpectedly powerful earthquake followed by a tsunami that took out the diesel generators needed to supply emergency equipment.

For 3 days hydrogen explosions spewed radiation into the air. A government computer system accurately predicted the spread of the radioactive releases - but the government in Tokyo did not publicize the data. As a result, thousands of residents of a nearby town were led north, believing that the usual winter winds would carry the radiation to the south. They fled with their children directly into the path of the radioactive releases. They prepared rice with contaminated water. Months later the government released the information that could have prevented much of the exposure to radiation.

The day after the tsunami, tellurium 132 was identified in the area of the Fukushima plant. The finding of tellurium 132 is telltale evidence of a nuclear meltdown. Three months later, the government officially announced that there had been a meltdown.

Radioactive elements do not pay attention to international borders. Here in Massachusetts, radiation from Fukushima has been detected in rainwater. That doesn’t mean that taking a stroll here on a rainy day will give you cancer. But it is a statistical certainty that there will be cases of cancer caused by the increase in background radiation caused by the Fukushima disaster.

And we are gathered here 35 miles from Vermont Yankee, a reactor identical to most of the Fukushima reactors. Vermont Yankee leaks tritium from pipes that the management initially said did not exist. It has released strontium 90 in at least 4 separate years. And the management claims that the strontium 90 recently found in a fish in the Connecticut River was not their strontium 90.

You have repeatedly heard comparisons between radiation release from a nuclear plant and medical exposure from a chest x-ray or CAT scan. But there is more than one kind of radiation. Alpha rays can be stopped by your shirt or by a piece of paper. But once an alpha emitter is ingested, say, by eating contaminated food, it is meaningless to compare the exposure to that from an x-ray study. Once the source of radiation lodges in bone, it can directly irradiate bone marrow or lung for years.

It isn’t clear what we ought to do about the huge pool of so-called spent fuel at Vermont Yankee, a quantity of radiation much greater than what is at Fukushima. But the first step is clear. We must stop creating more spent fuel and adding to that pool. We must shut Vermont Yankee down.

Comments

Daniel Kerlinsky MD said ..

Hundreds of tons of plutonium sit in so-called "spent" fuel rods sitting in open pools of water on top to GE-designed reactors. At Fukushima the hydrogen explosions broke the seals of the reactor core and blew the pipes off, drained the storage pools and threw hundreds of tons of fuel rods into the air. Clean up won't start for forty years. Only then will we know whether Fukushima exceeded Hiroshima and Nagasaki in longterm damage to Japan.

March 14, 2012

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