Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Studio

light and chaos

Just so followers of this blog won't be left with a creepy Strontium-90 Hazmat head peering out at them on their blog, i'll post some pics of studio.

I work beside a bay window that looks out onto a terrace garden, with trees and lots of birds. But as you see, the window is filled with clutter. The studio is way too small for my needs and storage is a scarce commodity. Fortunately, it is not my only source of light. The ceiling over where i work has a large skylight and i work with the door open so that myriad skink lizards the run in, manic with sunlight,  can find their way back out again in their own good time.

easel and a lot more spilt paint

store and saw

drawing & watercolor desk

It's now semester break and in a couple of weeks i'm off to London and a cruise on the Rhone River - a chance to check out Vincent's Arle.

outside work area


So endeth Semester 1.

Post script: proof that i can also paint out of just a small box of paints! (Yes, it IS me!).

Monday, June 6, 2011

Strontium-90 and the poisoned earth

Strontium-90: poisoned earth, oil on paper, 42x30 cm

Strontium-90: poisoned earth is the third of a trilogy including Iodine-131: winds of change  and Cesium-137: bitter harvest .  This series can be seen as a form of Neo Arte Nucleare (a French art movement of 1950's Art Informel).

I won't write at length about how nasty strontium-90 is or document how it has been leaking from the Fukushima plant. Suffice it to say, i had always connected strontium-90 with nuclear weapons and leukemia and bone cancer. But i learn that it is present in those half a million spent and damaged fuel rods that were for some reason stored in the Fukushima reactor buildings, stored on the floor right above the reactors only to collapse into them.

From my youth i had always associated strontium-90 with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bitter irony that it is now being released in Japan once again but this time courtesy of Japanese industry and government.

This painting is the last of my experiments with monoprint, originally inspired by the wonderfully evocative small landscapes of John Stinson (visit his fascinating blog here) though he uses quite a different process than the one i have evolved for my more messy approach. It may also be the last of my Fukushima series. I am not sure what's next or where to from here, other than continue to work on large format works and revisit self-portraiture.

Thanks everyone for the interest you have shown in these Fukushima works. It is confronting subject-matter and they have been confronting images - not ideal fare for a relaxing browse among art blogs. But i have aimed to be relevant, current and expressive in my work, and the on-going events of Fukushima grabbed my imagination. So once again, thank you my bloggy friends.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Cesium-137 and the bitter harvest

Cesium-137: bitter harvest, oil on Fabriano paper, 58x38 cm

This image is part of my exploration of the artistic fallout of the bitter events at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It started life as an oil monoprint on Fabriano Artistico 300gsm cold press W/C paper. It is a companion piece to Iodine-131: winds of change and Strontium-90: poisoned earth. This series can be seen as a form of Neo Arte Nucleare (a French art movement of 1950's Art Informel).

Cesium-137 is a particularly nasty by-product of fission in nuclear power plants  - and of atomic weapons, of course. As it undergoes decay to barium-137m it emits strong gamma radiation which makes it extremely hazardous.

Cesium, as well as cesium-137, is a soft, silvery white metal that is chemically related to potassium. It's this chemical similarity that makes it so dangerous to life-forms, for we all need to constantly take up potassium to live. But plants and animals will take up cesium instead, mistaking it for potassium. It will then make its way up the food chain in growing concentrations.

Though the metal itself is silver, this pic (from here) of a mound of powdered Cesium-137 has the sickly radio-active green look of Kryptonite in old B class Sci Fi movies, and hence inspired  the fluro-green vapour enveloping the Hazmat-suited figure in the painting.

The USA Environment Protection Agency (EPA) explains that breathing in contaminated dust would result in internal exposure, which means leaving the contaminated site would not end the exposure. Drinking contaminated water would also place the cesium-137 inside the body where it would expose living tissue to intense gamma and beta radiation. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, which means it will contaminate soil for hundreds of years. Which is still better than the mildly radioactive cesium-135 which, however, has a half-life of 2.3 million years. Where do cesium-137 and cesium-135 come from around Fukushima Daiici? From exposed fuel rods.

But it's worse. These are not just the fuel rods involved in the melt-down of the reactors there. In a decision that defies the common sense of ordinary folk nuclear engineers decided to store old spent rod inside the reactor buildings, on the first floor right above the reactors. It is estimated that as many as 600,000 radioactive old rods were stored on site, 70% of which may be damaged and leaking.

But wait, there's more. Because they were stored on the floor above the reactors it meant that when the containment buildings of Units 1 & 3 exploded, thousands of old rods dropped into the reactors below. And the rest got blown sky-high, which is why bits of rod could be found up to 2km away! The rest are in the ocean and scattered in the surrounding terrain.

What makes TEPCO even more culpable is that it was known that Mark 1 reactors of the kind at Fukushima are vulnerable to explosion. Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing - the Mark 1 - was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.

"The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant," Bridenbaugh told ABC News in an interview. "The impact loads the containment would receive by this very rapid release of energy could tear the containment apart and create an uncontrolled release."

The Fukushima reactors were so old they had already exceeded their operational design life and were due to be mothballed. So why store those spent rods in there? This has nothing to do with abstruse nuclear physics and everything to do with sound risk management and responsible decision-making. Seems to me that too many managers, engineers and government officials were too complacent, too self-assured and cocky for too long and their luck ran out. As it has now, regrettably, for the people living in the region.

Chu-oni, in Japan, has blown the whistle on the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (MEXT) by revealing that the accumulated Cesium 137 on the land as far away as 80km from the plant was higher in May than the areas around Chernobyl which people evacuated. He concludes that "the Japanese government's intervention after the accident is much less humane than the former Soviet Union".

Cesium-137 was discovered at levels 100 times higher the usual in Osaka on 19 May. Authorities claimed these were trace amounts and had no implications from human health. But what were they doing there? Nuclear reactors should not be putting Cesium-137 into the environment unless a melt-down has occurred and the containment vessel has been breached.

Osaka is a long way from Fukushima. So maybe it is less surprising that 500,000 becquerels per kg of dust collected from the roof drains of Yamagata University, 70 kms away, is far less benign. The government measure to deal with this reality? Local high schools are allowing students to continue their winter uniform of long sleeves, although the summer season has now started, to prevent Cesium-137 landing on their skin.

A local mum has had enough and is moving away with her children. "We haven't believed the government from the start," Mrs Watanabe says. "When the explosion happened, they didn't say anything about it being dangerous. We don't trust the media either, since the nuclear plant operator sponsors many newspapers and television stations." Parents with their own radiation monitors believe the government has been under-reporting radiation levels. Already school gutters contain 60 times the level considered safe, and that's what is officially conceded.

Months later, in November 2011, reports were out that the area of eastern Fukushima had levels of the radioactive element that exceeded official government limits for arable land. Fukishima's neighbouring regions, such as, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, Niigata, Tochigi, Ibaraki, and Chiba are very likely  affected, though the government is producing contamination figures lower than those discovered by the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, US in a recent survey of 47 regions. A serious drop in food production in Japan can be expected.

But cesium-137 has also been found in milk in Vermont. Indeed, cesium-137 has been detected in drinking water and milk, albeit in levels well below the EPA's maximum contaminant level, in Boise, Las Vegas, Nome and Dutch Harbor, Honolulu, Kauai and Oahu, Anaheim, Riverside, San Francisco, and San Bernardino, Jacksonville and Orlando, Salt Lake City, Guam, and Saipan. Cesium-137 depositation over the USA is being tracked by numerous governmental, scientific, and academic organisations, and you can link to their results here.

I guess it's a small world after all.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Iodine-131 and the winds of change

Iodine-131: winds of change, oil on paper, 76x56 cm

Iodine is a mysterious element. At room temperature it appears to have no liquid state. It's dark crystals sublimate directly into violet fumes (watch it do that here). That is why this latest 'portrait' is not only a representation of a hazmat-suited Fukushima worker but also a personification of airborne iodine vapour. Hence the purple curling fumes and haze in the painting. This is a companion piece in a trilogy along with Cesium-137: bitter harvest and Strontium-90: poisoned earth. This series can be seen as a form of Neo Arte Nucleare (a French art movement of 1950's Art Informel).

We need trace amounts of iodine in our diet to keep thyroid growth normal. Maybe that's because we once came from the ocean (our blood serum is basically seawater) and ocean is the greatest source of iodine compounds. Countries far from the ocean experience the most iodine deficiencies for it seems iodine compounds are wind born in ocean spray and deposit on our crops, get ingested by cows, get concentrated in milk.

All good for us - until you substitute good old home-brand iodine for radio-active Iodine -131 that gets taken up by the thyroid in the usual way. But it leaves unusual results in its train - cancer.

As the American Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) explains, "The primary risk of concern with iodine-131 is thyroid cancer, with children more at risk than adults. A high enough intake of iodine-131 by children can also cause developmental problems and other thyroid diseases. Young girls are at greater risk than boys. Female infants have a risk of thyroid cancer 70 times greater than adult males for the same radiation exposure. Some iodine-131 deposits on land, including pastures. When contaminated grass is eaten by cows and goats, iodine-131 concentrates in milk. It has a half-life of about eight days, meaning that appreciable amounts will remain in the environment for a few months after large releases." One blogger has declared himself radiolactoseintollerant.

So in Fukushima prefecture during May there were restrictions on the distribution and consumption of fish, milk, turnips, bamboo shoots, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and shiitake mushrooms. But it's contamination has spread well outside of Japan.

Too late for Nagasaki staffers exposed to Fukushima radiation while on a mission there to assist. Blogger Gabi Greve in Japan reports that Nagasaki University Hospital says that at least 40% of the Nagasaki helpers sent to Fukushima Prefecture returned suffering internal radiation exposure from iodine-131 and cesium-137.

The Fukushima-meltdown dispersion cloud has deposited Iodine-131 onto Michigan and California. In Hawaii boron is being feed to cows and sprayed on crops to absorb radioactive iodine. Berkley has radioactive strawberries. It was reported that on 9 April iodine-131 had been found, albeit in levels well below the EPA's maximum contaminant level, in the milk of Oak Ridge, Chatanooga, Helena,  Columbia, Cincinatti, Pittsburgh, Painesville, Denver, Detroit, Trenton, Waretown NJ and Muscle Shoals, AL.

Meanwhile,  Réseau "Sortir du nucléaire" has asked permission to publish a painting or two in their tri-monthly magazine from my Fukushima series. I have agreed and have forwarded Fukushima Future, Fukushima Samurai I, Fukushima Samurai II, and Fukushima Samurai in the nuclear fires for them to choose from. My work is expected to appear in the July edition of the magazine.

Sortir du nucléaire is an anti-nuclear alliance of 874 organisations based in France. Their charter is to rid the world of nuclear weapons and power plants. With a membership of 50,251 individuals, Sortir du nucléaire publishes a monthly newsletter with a circulation of 20,000. You can visit their website here and see clips of some of their anti-nuclear activities here, herehere and here. Or follow them on Faceook here. One can subscribe to their monthly digital newsletter by emailing this web address.

But the last word today i will give i to French rappeur Duval Mc, his rap rage made chic by the seductive sibilants, exquisite edgy vowels, and cultured charm of French language on the attack. The spirit of Rousseau lives: "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains."