Mar 30, 2011

Prospects of a radiant future: From Chernobyl to Fukushima

By: Jutta Schmitt

Less than a month away from the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, I remember it as if it had been yesterday. The cover-up was in operation from the point go. I was working for a German airline at that time, and on the 29th of April 1986, three days after the explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's infamous reactor 4, I was on duty on board a DC-10, covering the route from Frankfurt to Toronto. The captain called the crew into the cockpit, informing us that he had received information which confirmed that an accident had occurred a few days earlier at a nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and that it was feared radioactive material could have been released into the atmosphere to a considerable extent. However, there was no accurate information as to what exactly had happened and more than anything else, confusion reigned. On the ground in Toronto, the crew gathered in the lounge of the hotel, trying to catch up with the bits of information or rather speculation that the international media had begun to transmit about the incident. A mixture of fear and incredulity got hold of us. For a brief moment, we considered trying to find a way to prolong our layover in Toronto at least until we would have clarity about what was going on.

But it wasn't until way into the second week of the disaster that the silhouette of the real picture had begun to emerge. In the case of Germany, it was revealed that radioactive fallout from Chernobyl had reached the German South as soon as four days after the reactor explosion in Chernobyl, with much of it raining down on Bavaria. Although government authorities in Southern Germany had undertaken measurements of radioactive fallout in the days after news of the accident had transcended, results were deliberately withheld so as to avoid an "unnecessary concern" among the general public. As of May 6th, 10 days into the nuclear catastrophe, the values measured in Erding County near Munich - although admitted to be "relatively high" - kept being undisclosed to the public, (1) whereas the German Federal Government was quick to confirm it would hold the course of the nuclear energy option.

Uncertainty, fear and confusion spread amongst the population. On the initiative of Ekkehard Krueger, physicist and former staff member at Munich-Garching's famous Nuclear Research Reactor (dubbed the "nuclear egg" for its shape), a group of concerned environmental activists in Munich, tired of the silence from government authorities with regard to critical radiation fallout data, founded an independent research institute which was to measure radioactivity levels in the environment in order to unveil the plain and uncensored results to the public. The citizen-based Umweltinstitut Muenchen e.V. (Munich Environmental Institute -MEI-), was born. (2) The Institute focused specifically on measuring the radioactive contamination of food, making the results directly available to the people and to the media. In addition, by measuring the radioactivity of fencepost tops all over the region of Bavaria, the MEI had detected a method by which to determine the exact distribution of the radioactive fallout throughout Bavaria and thus elaborated a register of contaminated land in Southern Germany.

For taking a radical, zero-contamination stance with regard to food safety and for the mere fact of disclosing the results of their measurements to the public and the media, the Munich Environmental Institute became a headache for government authorities from its very inception. Both, the Bavarian State Office for Environment and the Federal Radiation Protection Office, waged an information war against the MEI, disavowing the accuracy of its measurements, whereas the latter, in turn, denounced the deliberate scaling-down of measured values or the arbitrary rising of 'legal' radiation thresholds as well as the overall disinformation campaign, practiced by government authorities.   

In 1989, the year my brother joined the MEI doing his community service, the radioactive contamination of food and land had not subsided. Milk and milk products, as well as mushrooms, berries, nuts, vegetables, fresh produce in general and processed food, too, all were radioactively contaminated beyond the established 'legal' limits. My brother used to call me several times a week to give me the latest "war report" on radioactive contamination, according to the items measured by the MEI, which often forced me to dispose of determined food items I had bought because their level of contamination was too hazardous. Given the different ways of radiation exposure, for example through inhalation of airborne particles and dust, food and water intake, contact with contaminated soil, etc., the team working at MEI, apart from food, tested everything ranging from air and soil samples to people's clothes and the contents of vacuum cleaner bags. And everything they tested was still considerably contaminated.

Also and due to my brother's work at MEI, we learned that a considerable part, that is, 20%, of the radioactive contamination of our environment is due to the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons conducted in the 50's and 60's, which caused the massive dispersion of radionuclides all over the planet and which have been identified as one of the causes for the world wide rise of cancer, along with medical radiation exposures and exposures from radiation in close range vicinities of nuclear power plants, where cancer rates in children are 60% up from 'normal'. (3)

Today and in spite of the massive cover-up that tried to bury the facts of the Chernobyl accident under a disinformation sarcophagus, we know that worldwide almost one million people died from exposure to the radiation released from the explosion of its infamous reactor block number four. (4) We also know, that radioactive emissions from the Chernobyl reactor may have been up to 200 times greater than initially estimated, exceeding by far the fallout from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. (5) And today, as we are nearing the 25th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, the catastrophe and cover-up are repeating themselves in Fukushima, in what can only be described as a kind of 'Chernobyl to the nth power'. Russian politician and leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, echoed later by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, may perhaps turn out to be the person who's had the most accurate foresight for things to come, when - flirting with the idea of benefiting from Japanese labor potential - he suggested to offer Japanese the chance to resettle in the underpopulated areas of Russia's Far East. (6)

Considering that Fukushima power plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese government have been downplaying the catastrophe and covering up the true scope of the disaster to avoid a mass panic amidst an already extreme situation, delaying critical information about damages to reactor cores, containment vessels, ongoing partial meltdowns, radiation levels in air, seawater and food, and considering that a scenario as bad as the release of plutonium into the environment has been unfolding ever since last week, the question arises indeed, if the whole of Japan could be rendered uninhabitable if things continue along this path. 

However, TEPCO and the Japanese government authorities are not the only actors involved in cover-up and downplay, engaging in a desperate effort of damage control of whatever is left to be 'controlled'. The March 26th online edition of Mainichi Daily News reported that the International Commission of Radiological Protection (ICRP) "has recommended the Japanese government temporarily raise the annual limit of radiation exposure for the general public in light of the ongoing crisis at the quake- and tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. The government stipulates that regular citizens in Japan should be exposed to no more than 1 millisievert of radiation per year, but the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) on March 21 recommended the limit be tentatively raised to 20 to 100 millisieverts per year, with the nuclear crisis showing no signs of abating. [...] it suggested, even after the power plant crisis is resolved, the government should keep the upper limit at 1 to 20 millisieverts per year before it gradually brings it back to its original 1, in order to prevent residents of Fukushima Prefecture from abandoning their hometowns." (7) Drastically put, in order to avoid having to accept the Russian offer of resettlement in its Far Eastern territories, all that the Japanese government has to do is raise the limit for radiation exposure and the problem is solved! Let the darn reactors spew a whole fireworks of highly radioactive and toxic particles, all you have to do is rise the legal threshold for radiation exposure and all will be just fine.    

It is along a similar line of 'damage control' that the European Union has begun to act with regard to imports from Japan. In a joint press statement of yesterday, March 29th, the Berlin-based organization Foodwatch and the already mentioned Munich Environmental Institute have expressed their criticism of Germany's 'information' policy with regard to radioactive contamination of food imports from Japan. The criticism is directed against the German Federal Consumer Affairs Minister, who talks about "reinforced control mechanisms" and "special protection standards" for imports from Japan, but has kept silent about the fact that the European Union has just recently raised the legal thresholds for radioactive contamination of food coming from the affected regions of Japan. The organizations warn that the EU has elevated the threshold for cumulated radioactivity from caesium-134 and caesium-137 from 600 becquerel per kilogram to 12.500 becquerel per kilogram for determined products imported from Japan, which amounts to an almost twenty-fold increase of the formerly established values. (8) With regard to the above mentioned "base threshold" of 600 becquerel per kilogram it must be said that any food item measured by the Munich Environmental Institute back in 1989 which would have amounted to 30, 20 or to even 15 becquerel per kilogram would already have been cause for concern, and anything beyond 100 becquerel per kilogram would have been considered unsuitable for consumption.

Meanwhile, The Guardian UK is reporting that the radioactive core of reactor 2 has melted through the containment vessel and fallen onto the concrete floor, which will conduct to a major release of radiation. The Guardian cites Richard Lahey, former head of safety research for Boiling Water Reactors at General Electric, as saying: "The indications we have, from the reactor to radiation readings and the materials they are seeing, suggest that the core has melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel in unit two, and at least some of it is down on the floor of the drywell, ... I hope I am wrong, but that is certainly what the evidence is pointing towards." (9)

It is beyond doubt that both, Chernobyl and now Fukushima with their respective, nefarious crisis mismanagements and their criminal disinformation campaigns, have paved the way for a radiant future. But we will not exactly be beaming with joy.


(3) See documents available on, and and respectively.
(6) and’s-offer-to-resettle-japanese-angers-nationalists-analysis-22032011/