Thursday, March 17, 2011

Final Warning

I am stunned, mesmerized, shocked, and appalled by what is happening at the Fukushima nuclear plant. No one knows how this will end: frantic efforts at restoring cooling and power are underway, worst case scenarios abound that make one shiver, along with what can only be considered willful blindness by nuke cheerleaders.

If after looking at these pictures of the Fukushima nuclear plant from digital globe anyone is still downplaying the problems and the danger, he or she ought to be moved by the potential fact that plutonium can be released into the atmosphere from reactor nr. 3.

I am holding in my hand a book called "Final Warning: The Legacy of Chernobyl" by Dr. Robert Peter Gale. It is a first hand account of his experiences at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, where he was invited as an expert to help with the clean up effort by the Soviet government. Here a quote from the end of Chapter two:

It's scary; a frightening game of numbers and chance. As a consequence of natural background radiation, all of us are struck by approximately fifteen thousand radioactive particles every second. What protects us is that the probability of any given particle decaying while in our body, irreparably damaging a cell, and causing cancer or some other abnormality is very low. But some particles are more dangerous than others, and some that science has created as by-products of nuclear weapons and nuclear power retain their potentially lethal properties for thousands of years.

The length of time a particular substance remains radioactive is measured by its "half-life." This is the substance's rate of decay, the time it takes half of its radioactive matter to convert to a more stable form by emitting waves and particles. For example, iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days. This means that one ounce of iodine-131 will turn into a half-ounce of iodine-131 and a half-ounce of more stable decay products after eight days. After sixteen days, a quarter-ounce of iodine-131 is left, after twenty-four days, an eight of an ounce. After 160 days (twenty half-lives), less than one-millionth of one ounce of radioactive iodine-131 remains.

However, other radioactive materials are longer-lasting. Strontium-90 has a half-life of twenty eight years, cesium-137, thirty-three. This means they arepotentially dangerous and must be contained for centuries. Twenty-seven different types of radioactive substances are created during the normal fissioning of uranium in a nuclear power plant reactor. Plutonium -- a mand-made element that dind't exist until uranium was fissioned to make nuclear weapons and nuclear power -- has a half life of 24,000 years.

Plutonium emits alpha particles. Each atom of plutonium, if inhaled, is capable of causing lung cancer. A plutonium atom released into the atmosphere at Chernobyl will remain potentially lethal for 24,000 years, a quarter until the year 50,000. No human intervention can hasten the decay process. This is the inherent difference between nuclear energy andother forms of power. When primitive man extinguished his fires, they were out. Modern-day blast furnaces and jet engines can be turned off at will. Nuclear fission goes on and on. Its benefits are obvious.It is also the most dangerous process known to man. This much was recognized by John F. Kennedy, who, in seeking approval for a treaty that would ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere, warned: "The number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life or the malformation of even one baby who may be born long after we are gone should be of concern to us all.... We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. And we are all mortal."

This is one of the most dramatic moments of our lives. Countless lives are at stake, not just those brave souls in Japan who have volunteered to continue trying to keep the rods covered with water in order to prevent further meltdowns; but also millions of affected people in Tokyo and the US, and around the world. This is not a drill. This is not panic being spread by anyone with an agenda. This is a defining moment for humanity, a time when we are humbled by nature and nature's laws, a time to reconsider our stances on nuclear power, and a time to reassess our priorities and how we live our lives.

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