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Fukushima top story of 2013

Off the beach
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My son Mike phoned me from Red Deer on New Year’s Eve to ask if I’d seen the news reports of steam rising from reactor three. I knew what he was talking about.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had announced several “sightings” of steam from reactor three in late December. There had been similar announcements earlier in the year. It wasn’t a good sign, but the latest releases sparked warnings of an impending meltdown, with one sketchy online news site in the U.S. advising readers to buy duct tape and get ready to seal their homes and “wash obsessively.”

I told Mike not to be alarmed. There was nothing new. It’s the same old nightmare. Just keep following it.

Unlike Toronto’s crack-smoking slob of a mayor, the Fukushima disaster was not tagged by Canadian media as a major story in 2013. Many Canadians, and presumably many reporters and editors, are not aware that the three nuclear reactors that melted down almost three years ago are still out of control, spewing radioactive waste into the air and the ocean.

Yet there were some major developments in the story last year, none of them good.

The initial explosions in March 2011 created an airborne radioactive plume that crossed the Pacific within about a week, hitting the western part of North America hardest before spreading across the northern hemisphere. Our federal government said there was nothing to be concerned about. Data released since then suggest there was significant radiation in the air.

In fact, an investigative report in Georgia Straight by Alex Roslin said the Health Canada monitoring station in Sydney, B.C. had detected levels of radioactive iodine-131 that were up to 300 times normal background levels.

Is that important?

A study published in late November in the peer-reviewed Open Journal of Pediatrics found that cases of hyperthyroidism among babies in California shot up by 21 per cent after the March 2011 meltdowns due to exposure to radioactive iodine-131. The numbers in Fukushima are at least double that, and last month an epidemiology professor, Toshihide Tsuda of Okayama University, said the incident rate of thyroid cancer in Fukushima children is “from several times to dozens of times higher than usual.” He called for “a countermeasure.”

Last year also saw TEPCO admit that radioactive groundwater was pouring daily into the Pacific. The company estimated the amount at 300 tonnes per day, but many are skeptical and believe the discharge is much higher.

Then there was David Suzuki, issuing what Huffington Post called “a scary warning” that the west coast of North America might have to be evacuated if another major earthquake triggers a nuclear explosion.

While Suzuki, like many others, called for an international team of scientists to tackle this unprecedented catastrophe, reports out of Japan say homeless people are being recruited by Yakuza to work on the cleanup effort.

What little news did come out about Fukushima last year was mainly focused on the highly dangerous task of removing the spent fuel rods from the reactor four building. But BBC Tokyo correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes called that process “a bit of a distraction,” since the real long-term problem is dealing with reactors one, two and three, which are still so hot that no one can approach them.

Russian media reported last month that the radiation coming from a pipe outside one of those reactors was lethal enough to kill a person in 20 minutes.

Really, was there any story last year more important than Fukushima?


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