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Forum Post: A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive?

Posted 6 years ago on March 19, 2014, 3:57 p.m. EST by LeoYo (5909)
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A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014 12:24
By Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith, Center for Public Integrity | Report

Washington — A generation after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the world is rediscovering the attractions of nuclear power to curb the warming pollution of carbon fuels. And so a new industry focused on plutonium-based nuclear fuel has begun to take shape in the far reaches of Asia, with ambitions to spread elsewhere — and some frightening implications, if Thomas Cochran is correct.

A Washington-based physicist and nuclear contrarian, Cochran helped kill a vast plutonium-based nuclear industrial complex back in the 1970s, and now he’s at it again — lecturing at symposia, standing up at official meetings, and confronting nuclear industry representatives with warnings about how commercializing plutonium will put the public at enormous risk.

Where the story ends isn’t clear. But the stakes are large.

The impetus for Cochran’s urgent new campaign — supported by a growing cadre of arms control and proliferation experts — is a seemingly puzzling decision by Japan to ready a new $22 billion plutonium production plant for operation as early as October.

The plant will provide fuel for scores of special reactors resembling those canceled in America a generation ago. Critics of the Japanese project worry that its completion in just a few months will create a crucial beachhead for longtime nuclear advocates who claim that plutonium, a sparkplug of nuclear weapons, can provide a promising civilian path to carbon-free energy.

According to its builders, the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility, which has been undergoing testing since 2006, will be capable of churning out 96 tons of plutonium metal in the next dozen years, an amount greater than all the stocks that remain in the United States as a legacy of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. Rokkasho would be the fifth-largest such facility in the world, but the only one in a country without nuclear weapons.

The metal is to be burned by Japanese utilities in dozens of fast breeder reactors, so named because they have the capability to both consume and produce plutonium. The ambition is to make Japan, a craggy, energy-starved island, nearly self-sufficient in generating electrical power.

But there is a hitch, Cochran and his allies say. A big one.

A lump of plutonium weighing 6.6 pounds — roughly the size of a grapefruit — is enough to make a nuclear weapon with an explosive power of 1 kiloton, or 1,000 tons, of TNT. If the Japanese plan goes forward, the island nation in theory would in a year have plutonium sufficient to build around 2,600 bombs, or enough to compose the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

Japan has renounced any desire to make nuclear weapons, but Cochran and others worry that by creating a huge plutonium stockpile — and shuttling it all over the country — the utilities there will be creating a tempting, perhaps irresistible, target for nuclear terrorists.

And though Japan is perhaps closest to finishing such a massive plutonium factory, its ambitions are far from unique.

Iran is building a research reactor near the western city of Arak capable of producing enough spent fuel to make about 20 pounds of high-grade plutonium a year — the equivalent of nearly three bombs a year. Tehran says nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevents it from acquiring peaceful nuclear technology, but its plans have provoked widespread Western condemnation and are the focus of continuing international negotiations.

India recently completed a reprocessing plant capable of extracting new plutonium from about 100 tons of spent fuel yearly at Tarapur, north of Mumbai, in 2011. It joined three older plants that produced 3.8 to 4.6 metric tons of plutonium over the past 40 years.

Little is known about another plutonium plant under construction at Kalpakkam, south of Chennai on the Indian Ocean, but the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit group, says it “will likely surpass” Tarapur “as India’s largest plutonium producer.”

China is considering building a new civilian plutonium plant about the size of Rokkashoat the site of two decommissioned military plutonium plants at the Jiuquan Complex in Gansu Province. Even so, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Feb. 21 that the government had “grave concerns over Japan’s storage of weapon’s grade plutonium, and lodged representations to the Japanese side recently.”

South Korea has expressed a similar interest in plutonium production, pointing explicitly to Japan as a precedent. And Japan itself has embarked on campaign — in India and elsewhere — to market its nuclear proficiency and technology.

“You’re talking about spreading this technology [and scientific expertise] all over the world in non-weapons states, and trying to safeguard it, ” says Cochran. “It’s a recipe for weapons capability.”

So far, Japan’s pursuit of its ambitious plutonium program — using nuclear fuel and technology provided partly by the United States — has mostly been greeted by public silence among government officials in allied capitals.

But there is little dispute the consequences could be far-reaching. Standing by while Japan opens the Rokkasho plutonium factory could “make it impossible” for the U.S. to resist pressure from other countries seeking bomb-fuel technology, said Thomas Moore, who served for ten years as a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee expert on arms control.

Henry Sokolski, a former Defense Department official who now runs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, says that if Rokkasho opens, the United States will find it particularly hard to tell South Korea that it cannot make plutonium-based fuels — a goal that Seoul is strenuously lobbying for in Washington, as part of a bilateral nuclear trade agreement. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Indonesia, could also follow Japan’s example, Sokolski said. Others worry about Turkey, Vietnam or Egypt. The list goes on and on.

“It’s very hard,” says James Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, “to divide the world into states we like and states we don’t like, and say to one group it can do whatever it wants and say to members of the other group that they have to restrain their behavior.”

Already, the world has accumulated approximately 490 metric tons of plutonium, enough for about 81,600 nuclear weapons similar to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, in the 73 years since specks of plutonium were first synthesized at the University of California, Berkeley.

Japan, still reeling from the nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima three years ago this week, is proceeding with the Rokkasho plant, its atomic energy officials say, because abandoning it would kill jobs, bankrupt utilities, and undermine plans to reopen up to 50 of the nuclear reactors forced to shutter by Fukushima. Without Rokkasho to process their waste, the reactor sites would soon be overflowing with spent fuel.

But there’s more to it than that. Japan — like the United States before 1976, England from 1959 to 1994, and France from 1967 to 2009 — has long dreamed that the radioactive wastes created by nuclear reactors could one day be routinely “recycled” or burned as fuel to make electricity instead of being buried underground.

After spending tens of billions of dollars and decades on breeder-related programs, Tom Cochran said, countries find it hard to pull the plug.

“You have an entrenched bureaucracy and an entrenched research and development community and commercial interests invested in breeder technology, and these guys don’t go away,” Cochran said. “They’re believers … and they’re not going to give up. The really true believers don’t give up.”


Fixing the Facts To Create a Crisis With Iran

Wednesday, 19 March 2014 09:13
By Gareth Porter, Truthout | Book Excerpt

Fictitious WMDs created a pretext for launching the ill-fated and destructive war with Iraq. Gareth Porter, an investigative reporter and frequent contributor to Truthout, writes a compelling book, "Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare," that argues that similar tactics were created to justify a war with Iran.


Nukes Now: Obama Worse Than Reagan

Wednesday, 19 March 2014 12:25
By Steve Breyman, Truthout | Op-Ed

Heads-up, veterans of the nuclear freeze movement in the United States, the anti-Euromissile campaigns in Western Europe and the various anti-nuclear weapons efforts in New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Incoming.




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[-] 2 points by LeoYo (5909) 6 years ago

The Myth of Nuclear Safety: Fukushima Reveals That Nuclear Power Is Here to Stay

Thursday, 27 March 2014 00:00
By Donald G. Schweitzer, Truthout | News Analysis

Three years after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government has reversed its position of abandoning nuclear power and is developing new nuclear reactors - another example that neither nuclear-caused death nor nuclear-caused destruction can deter a corrupt power structure from the pursuit of its goals.


[-] 2 points by LeoYo (5909) 6 years ago

Japanese Government Squelching Efforts to Measure Fukushima Meltdown

Thursday, 20 March 2014 12:47
By David McNeill, The Asia-Pacific Journal | News Analysis


Tokyo - In the chaotic, fearful weeks after the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, in March 2011, researchers struggled to measure the radioactive fallout unleashed on the public. Aoyama Michio’s initial findings were more startling than most. As a senior scientist at the Japanese government’s Meteorological Research Institute, he said levels of radioactive cesium 137 in the surface water of the Pacific Ocean could be 10,000 times as high as contamination after Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Two months later, as Mr. Aoyama prepared to publish his findings in a short, nonpeer-reviewed article for Nature, the director general of the institute called with an unusual demand — that Mr. Aoyama remove his own name from the paper.

“He said there were points he didn’t understand, or want to understand,” the researcher recalled. “I was later told that he did not want to say that Fukushima radioactivity was worse than Chernobyl.” The head of the institute, who has since retired, declined to comment for this article. Mr. Aoyama asked for his name to be removed, he said, and the article was not published.

The pressure he felt is not unusual — only his decision to speak about it. Off the record, university researchers in Japan say that even now, three years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, they feel under pressure to play down the impact of the disaster. Some say they cannot get funds or university support for their work. In several cases, the professors say, they have been obstructed or told to steer clear of data that might cause public “concern.”

“Getting involved in this sort of research is dangerous politically,” said Otaki Joji, a biologist at Japan’s Ryukyu University who has written papers suggesting that radioactivity at Fukushima has triggered inherited deformities in a species of butterfly. His research is paid for through private donations, including crowdfunding, a sign, he said, that the public supports his work. “It’s an exceptional situation,” he said.

The precise health impact of the Fukushima disaster is disputed. The government has defined mandatory evacuation zones around the Daiichi plant as areas where cumulative dose levels might reach 20 millisieverts per year, the typical worldwide limit for nuclear-power-plant workers. The limit recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection is one millisievert per year for the public. Some scientists argue that below 100 millisieverts the threat of increased cancers is negligible. But as Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radiation risk and a former scientific secretary to Britain’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters documents here, there are numerous instances in which lower levels of emission have produced cancers.

In an effort to lower radiation and persuade about 155,000 refugees to return home, the government is trying to decontaminate a large area by scraping away millions of tons of radioactive dirt and storing it in temporary dumps. Experts at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology put the cost of this project at $50 billion — widely considered an underestimate.

The chance to study in this real-life laboratory has drawn a small number of researchers from around the world. Timothy A. Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina who has written widely on Chernobyl, studies the impact of radiation on bird and insect life. He has published papers suggesting abnormalities and defects in some Fukushima species. But he said his three research excursions to Japan had been difficult.

In one case, a Japanese professor and two postdoctoral students dropped out of a joint research paper, telling him they could not risk association with his findings. “They felt it was too provocative and controversial,” he said, “and the postdocs were worried it could hamper their future job prospects.”

Mr. Mousseau is careful to avoid comparisons with the Soviet Union, which arrested and even imprisoned scientists who studied Chernobyl. Nevertheless, he finds the lukewarm support for studies in Japan troubling: “It’s pretty clear that there is self-censorship or professors have been warned by their superiors that they must be very, very careful,” he said.

The “more insidious censorship” is the lack of funding at a national level for these kinds of studies, he added. “They’re putting trillions of yen into moving dirt around and almost nothing into environmental assessment.”

Long before an earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima meltdown, critics questioned the influence of Japan’s powerful nuclear lobby over the country’s top universities. Some professors say their careers have been hobbled because they expressed doubts about the nation’s nuclear policy and the coalition of bureaucrats, industrialists, politicians and elite academics who created it.

Mr. Aoyama, who now works at Fukushima University, sees no evidence of an organized conspiracy in the lack of openness about radiation levels — just official timidity. Despite the problems with his Nature article, he has written or co-written eight published papers since 2011 on coastal water pollution and other radiation-linked themes.

But stories of problems with Fukushima-related research are common, he said, including accounts of several professors being told not to measure radiation in the surrounding prefectures. “There are so many issues in our community,” he said. “The key phrase is ‘don’t cause panic.”’

He is also critical of the flood of false rumors circulating about the reach of Fukushima’s radioactive payload.

Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s department of marine chemistry and geochemistry, in Massachusetts, who has worked with Mr. Aoyama, said he has spent much of his professional energy fighting the rumor mill. The cause is not helped, he added, by institutional attempts to gag Japanese professors.

“Researchers are told not to talk to the press, or they don’t feel comfortable about talking to the press without permission,” Mr. Buesseler said. A veteran of three post-earthquake research trips to Japan, he wants the authorities to put more money into investigating the impact on the food chain of Fukushima’s release of cesium and strontium. “Why isn’t the Japanese government paying for this, since they have most to gain?”

One reason, critics say, is that after a period of national soul searching, when it looked as if Japan might scrap its commercial reactors, the government is again supporting nuclear power with plans moving ahead to open several reactors in 2014. Since the conservative Liberal Democrats returned to power, in late 2012, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has begun trying to sell Japan’s nuclear technology abroad.

Much of the government funding for academic research in Japan is funneled through either the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science or the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Proposals are screened by government officials and reviewed by an academic committee.

Shoji Yusuke, a spokesman for the ministry, cannot say how many proposals for studying the impact of radiation had been greenlighted, but he insists that the application system is fair. ‘‘The screening is conducted by peer review, so we don’t direct or don’t favor one particular research field,’’ he said. ‘‘We assess applications purely from the scientific point of view.’’ The Japan Society also says its applications process is not politicized.

Many independent scientists, however, contend that rather than simply defend what is a piecemeal approach to studying the disaster, the government should take the lead in creating a large, publicly financed research project.

That lack of official commitment pushes the responsibility for research and analysis entirely onto struggling professors, said a Japanese biologist – one of several who demanded anonymity for fear of reprisals from their university and the government. “It’s not that there is not funding for research into Fukushima. It’s that the state has not shown much support for research into evaluating the impact on living things,” he said.

Mousseau agrees: “If we’re ever going to make any headway into the environmental impact of these disasters, statistical power, scientific power, is what counts,” he said. “We get at it with massive replication, by going to hundreds of locations. That costs money.”

Recommended citation: David McNeill, "Japanese Government Squelching Efforts to Measure Fukushima Meltdown", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 12, No. 2, March 24, 2014.

This is a revised and expanded version of an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

[-] 3 points by LeoYo (5909) 6 years ago

Fukushima Fallout: Ailing US Sailors Sue TEPCO After Exposure to Radiation 30 Times Higher Than Normal

Thursday, 20 March 2014 09:27
By Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, Democracy Now! | Video Report

Three years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, scores of U.S. sailors and marines are suing the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, for allegedly misleading the Navy about the level of radioactive contamination. Many of the servicemembers who provided humanitarian relief during the disaster have experienced devastating health ailments since returning from Japan, ranging from leukemia to blindness to infertility to birth defects. We are joined by three guests: Lieutenant Steve Simmons, a U.S. Navy sailor who served on board the USS Ronald Reagan and joined in the class action lawsuit against TEPCO after suffering health problems; Charles Bonner, an attorney for the sailors; and Kyle Cleveland, sociology professor and associate director of the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo. Cleveland recently published transcripts of the Navy’s phone conversations about Fukushima that took place at the time of the disaster, which suggest commanders were also aware of the risk faced by sailors on the USS Ronald Reagan.