Radiation anyone?

Source:  Radiation anyone?    Tag:  positive effects of radiation
Beachgoers near San Diego with the San Onofre
power plant in the background
News coverage of the potential risks of radiation exposure is omnipresent these days thanks mostly to the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan.  For those of us who are not nuclear or radiation experts (and yes, that includes me), sorting through the news reports to determine what is hype versus what is real risk for us and our families is far more difficult.  I admit that I know just enough about the dangers of radiation exposure to be frightened by most any news report. Perhaps that comes from growing up in the shadow of the cold war.  Today disaster preparedness at my children's schools involves preparing for an earthquake.  When I was a child we prepared for a different disaster, potential nuclear war, by knowing the  route to the nearest fallout shelter.  After witnessing the Japanese earthquake that has turned into a nuclear disaster perhaps we should prepare for both.  Especially if, like me, we live on or near an earthquake fault line and also near a nuclear reactor.

Interestingly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Ready.gov website has zero information on preparing for a nuclear meltdown disaster such as Japan is currently experiencing even though there are more than 100 operating commercial nuclear power reactors in the United States.  Political pressure is on  now though to get the government to examine the safety of our nuclear power supply in the event of a natural disaster such as Japan's earthquake and tsunami, nowhere more so than in California, with its multiple earthquake fault lines and two operating nuclear power plants.  As reported in today's Los Angeles Times:

"The fundamental question is whether these facilities should be located next to active faults and whether they are operated safely," said state Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), who holds a doctorate in geophysics. "With what's unfolding in Japan, why would anyone approve a permit for these plants to keep operating until every question is answered?"

Federal regulators have cited Southern California Edison's 2,350-megawatt San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Clemente dozens of times in recent years for safety violations that include failed emergency generators, improperly wired batteries and falsified fire safety data, records show.

At Pacific Gas & Electric's 2,240-megawatt Diablo Canyon facility on the Central Coast, inspectors in late 2009 found that safety valves designed to allow cooling water into the reactor core in emergencies had been stuck shut for 18 months.

In light of the crisis at Japan's Fukushima reactors, some state and federal lawmakers are now questioning whether the two utilities have underestimated the severity of earthquakes that could strike the plants.

Less than three years ago, a previously unknown fault was discovered within a mile of Diablo Canyon, and although regulators have asked the companies to conduct further seismic studies, neither has sought permits necessary to do so.

Edison has said that its facility, which houses two reactors, could withstand the equivalent of a magnitude 7 quake and is protected by a 30-foot seawall that is higher than the calculated maximum tsunami for the area.

PG&E, for its part, said that Diablo Canyon's two reactors could survive a magnitude 7.5 temblor, noting that it's built on a cliff 85 feet above sea level."
Quite frankly, the statistics in this article don't make me feel very safe.  This US Geological Survey map shows that virtually all of California is near a major, if not a minor fault line.  California has a history of earthquakes greater than the magnitude 7.0 for which the San Onofre plant is prepared to withstand.  Earthquakes are impossible to predict and as the Chilean earthquake of 2010 and Japan earthquake have proven, preparation for the average earthquake provide no protection in the face of the historically large earthquake.  Could it happen in California? California is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is a 25,000 mile horseshoe or arc shape of an almost continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanoes, and constantly shifting tectonic plates.  The Pacific Ring of Fire is home to roughly 90% of the world's earthquakes and, more importantly, about 80% of the world's largest earthquakes, including the recent big ones in Chile and Japan. At least one expert believes that the next "big one" in California is unlikely to reach a magnitude of 9 like the Japan quake, but it could be a magnitude 8, which exceeds the margin of safety for both California nuclear plants.

Despite a record level of earthquake preparedness, Japan was surprised by the size of this temblor.  So too were the "expert" earthquake predictors who were blindsided by the ferocity of the quake and tsnuami.  A seismic risk assessment map of Japan shows that the area around the cripled Fukushima power plant was mostly in a relatively low-risk zone, partly green and partly yellow.  It looked like a relatively safe place to locate a nuclear plant.  The same is true of the San Onofre plant, which is located on the coast of California just North of San Diego, in a yellow zone on the seismic risk map that makes is look like a relatively safe place to put a nuclear power plant.  But is any place in California really safe enough?   The Daily Beast ranks the San Onofre plant as the second most dangerous nuclear plant in the U.S. because of its high risk for an earthquake and its location in a densely populated area of California, with more than 9 million people likely to be impacted in the event of a nuclear disaster at the plant.  And a future nuclear disaster in the U.S. may well be triggered by human error rather than natural disaster.  The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report last week questioning the safety of our nuclear power system and highlighting 14 nuclear "near misses" in 2010. Representative Eduard Markey (D-Mass) sent a letter to President Obama last week about our nation's lack of preparedness to deal with a situation such as the one Japan now faces.

Not only are we unprepared to deal with the disaster, we don't even know the extent of the potential danger to human health.  In less than two weeks the food chain in Japan has become contaminated with radiation although the World Heath Organization has said that for now this radiation poses no " short-term risk."  With no end in sight for this disaster though, the full extent of the long-term risk from both direct radiation exposure and indirect exposure through contaminated foods is unknown.  For now, what we do know is that the radioactive iodine found in these foods can cause thyroid cancer.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has stepped up to start the research and advocacy efforts needed to help avert a cancer crisis in the wake of this nuclear crisis.  Specifically, Komen has convened a panel of experts to evaluate the future cancer risks created by the disaster and to advocate for governmental release of all relevant information about the radiation release and where it has traveled.  Komen's press release says:
“It is imperative for the global cancer community to draft a plan of action for Japan to help plant workers, decontamination workers, and the residents of contaminated areas in every way possible, said Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founder and chief executive officer for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  'As someone who served on the National Cancer Advisory Board at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, I know the long-term implications of this type of nuclear tragedy. I encourage people to sign the petition and join in our efforts to help the people of Japan and those affected by radiation exposure.' ”  
Women who have BRCA mutations are at already elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer and are more susceptible to damage from ionizing radiation.  But if the effect of the radiation release on the general public is unclear, it is even more so for the high-risk breast and ovarian cancer community.  As a woman with a BRCA mutation who lives on a major fault line near a nuclear power plant, I sincerely hope that both the government's efforts and Komen's efforts include determining the effect of radiation exposure on women who are already at unfairly high risk for certain cancers, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, melanoma, and pancreatic cancer.  I further hope that the international focus on this disaster will bring greater preparedness to communities around the world and that the risk of such a disaster happening again is significantly reduced or eliminated.  In the meantime, my prayers are with the people of Japan who are imminently in harm's way and especially with the workers who are putting their own lives on the line to save others and avert an even greater catastrophe.

I have never been a big fan of nuclear power but in light of this disaster and the unquantifiable unknowns of living in the shadow of a nuclear power plant I am beginning to agree with CNN commentator Stephanie Cooke who argues that the cost of nuclear power, in terms of lost of human life, loss of human health, and loss of property due to radiation damage is too high to justify its continued use. As she says:
"In Japan, people of all ages living in the vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi plant could now spend the rest of the lives wondering whether they've inhaled invisible radioactive products that might cause cancer in themselves of their loved ones or genetic damage to the unborn. 
For an energy source once touted as too cheap to meter, the true costs may be too great to fathom."

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