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In addition to the risk of the nuclear waste burning up in the fire and sending radioactive materials into the atmosphere, Joni Arends of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety has pointed out that the fire could stir up the nuclear-contaminated soil on lab property where nuclear experiments have long been conducted. In either event, harmful radiation could pass into the jet stream to be distributed across the United States and beyond.
As a recent report from the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability documented, the site has been the disposal ground for some 18 million cubic feet of radioactive and chemical solid wastes since 1943, as well as 899,000 curies of so-called transuranic waste, including plutonium. Liquid wastes from the plant were discharged into the canyons, initially with little treatment whatsoever.
Winds have now shifted the fire away from the facility and initial air samples from the inferno have indicated there has so far been no catastrophic release of radiation in the area, but it is unclear why no basic precautions were in place to secure the nuclear waste at the facility prior to the fire or what such measures, if any, are being contemplated in the wake of this emergency.
Also last Sunday, flood waters from the Missouri River reached the containment buildings of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station. A levee protecting the site’s electrical transformers gave way and the plant was forced to switch on emergency generators in order to continue cooling the nuclear reactor.
Although officials are maintaining that the plant is still functioning and is not in meltdown, the incident has raised serious questions about the facility and its preparedness for just such an event. Just last October, nuclear regulators warned that the Fort Calhoun plant “failed to maintain procedures for combating a significant flood” and newly released documents reveal workers were still scrambling to plug holes where flood water could potentially get into the facility as late as last week.
It is unclear what, if any, punitive actions the plant’s operator will face for their negligence, or if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is even concerned. Commission director Gregory Jaczsko said last week that “all the plants in the U.S. have been been designed to deal with historically the largest possible floods,” seeming to imply that the Fort Calhoun situation was not dangerous by definition and that the NRC had full faith in the plant despite its documented safety violations.
This is in line with an AP investigation last month that found that American federal nuclear regulators have been working with the nuclear industry to ensure that reactors passed safety inspections by repeatedly lowering safety standards for the plants or failing to enforce existing standards. The investigation showed that a myriad of documented problems at nuclear power plants across the country, from failed cables and busted seals to broken nozzles, dented containers and rusty pipes, were routinely resolved by claiming that existing safety standards were too conservative. When valves were found to be leaking, for instance, the standards were simply changed to allow for more leakage, in some cases 20 times the original limit.
Meanwhile in Japan, where three of the reactors at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have been confirmed to have been in full meltdown since the very first days of the tsunami-induced disaster, the first series of health checks of area residents are already revealing suprising and troubling results about radiation exposure in the area. Tests of 15 Fukushima residents between the ages of 4 and 77 have revealed radioactive cesium and iodine in their urine.
The tests also indicate that residents have been exposed to between 1 / 5 to 3 / 4 of their yearly allowable radiation dose in just two months.
Now, documents are beginning to surface confirming what many have been alleging since the start of this crisis: that governments the world over have been conspiring with the nuclear energy industry to downplay the significance and ramifications of the Fukushima disaster.
Just last week, emails released under the Freedom of Inforrmation Act show how the Departments of Business and Energy in the UK government were coordinating their response to the Japanese disaster with companies like EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to ensure the accident did not interfere with plans to build a new generation of nuclear power plants in Britain.
The emails reveal how the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills was emailing the nuclear firms on the 13th of March, as the crisis was still unfolding, to assure them that “radiation released has been controlled – the reactor has been protected,” a surprisingly definitive description of the events at Fukushima that have now been shown to have been categorically wrong, as reactor 1 had in fact melted down in the first 16 hours of the disaster, with 2 and 3 also melting down in the following days.
They also show how the BIS intimated that comments from the nuclear industry would be worked into the departments briefs to ministers and government statements: “We need to all be working from the same material to get the message through to the media and the public.”
In other radiation-related news, an entirely different set of emails among government officials obtained under the Freedom of Information Act last week reveal that the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the very same organization that has refused to release the data that its model for the collapse of World Trade Center 7 was based on because it would “jeopardize public safety,” has accused the Department of Homeland Security of lying about its findings on the safety of the full body scanners being used in airport screening by the TSA.
The email reveals how NIST rebuked DHS head Janet Napolitano for claiming in a USA Today op-ed that:
“AIT machines are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety.”
According to the email, however, NIST was angry at this mischaracterization of their work, pointing out that “NIST does not do product testing. [And] NIST did not test AIT machines for safety.”
As it turns out, not only did Napolitano lie about NIST’s certification of the scanner safety, but she also lied about the Johns Hopkins backing of her position. An internal document produced by Johns Hopkins for the DHS shows that far from “affirming the safety” of the technology, the University in fact warned that the scanners as designed produces an area around the machine that exceeds the general public dose limit for radiation exposure.
Napolitano’s op-ed was widely criticized at the time because Dr. Michael Love, the head of an X-ray lab at Johns Hopkins warned just two days before the op-ed was published that “statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays.”