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.



  1. Hi Harry
    here is my daily report about the situation in Japan and Fukuyama

    Greetings from Japan
    Daruma Museum, Okayama


  2. Dear friend Harry,
    Congratulations on this great painting,she is
    very expressive,it is very good and important work addressing a very polemic topic
    and it is extremely important to call attention of the
    world population and the authorities responsible in
    their respective countries of the importance of caring properly maintaining the reactor already installed and rethink about the costs, and benefits of new facilities to new
    nuclear reactors, eg (under study) installation of new nuclear power plants in the coastal city of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
    I take this opportunity to highlight and support the recent decision taken by Germany in order to deactivate gradually its 17 nuclear reactors by the year 2022, as per the information announced on May 30, 2011, announcement after a meeting that ended just before dawn of day May 30, was given by Minister of Environment Norbert Röttgen.
    I believe that given the consequence of the tragedy of Nuclear Fukshima, many countries followed the good example set by Germany's coalition government to gradually disable its nuclear plants
    Mr Harry congratulations for your excellent work
    Big Hug

  3. This just blows me away. Once again it is soft and seductive while communicating something fearful. Nuclear power is a failed technology. It is too toxic in its complexity and materials. After reading an account of the Three Mile Island accident I knew that those who promote, build, and manage it are too greedy, too untrustworthy and too incompetent to ever make it safe. Let no one convince you otherwise.

    Because of its half-life, the poison spewed into our environment by this catastrophe or any other nuclear facility will never go away. It will only become more concentrated as it works its way through the food chain.

  4. It is worse than I thought or could have imagined. Hard to witness, but necessary. As is your new work, Harry. Chemicals make us who we are and can also unmake us, and those who are supposed to be in charge of protecting us, sacrifice us instead.

  5. Thank you, Gabi, and welcome to my blog. And thank you for your most informative web-site.

  6. Hi Paulo. It is interesting how much the events at Fukushima have touched bloggers around the world. No-one seems exempt from the issue. I respect your passion.

    Keep painting, friend.

  7. I'm blown away that youre blown away, Davida, someone with your background and experience in the visual arts.

    Yes, youve hit the nail on the head: "too greedy, too untrustworthy and too incompetent to ever make it safe".

    The technology is totally amazing. It's promise immeasurable. But its issues insurmountable.

    And the greatest of these is human fallibility.

  8. I'm sort of sorry that my discussion blows out so long and becomes so deatiled, but as i read about i become more and more incredulous ta the mighty cock-up (as we say in Oz) that is Fukushima. Thanks for reading and bearing with me. And being willing to confront the issues. Cheers, Gabriella.