Monthly Archives: July 2014

Experts worry that radiation fears are leading to unnecessary surgery for children Experts question Fukushima thyroid screening

More than three years after the triple core meltdown in Fukushima Prefecture devastated the lives of thousands of residents, the effect that the radiation release is having on children’s thyroid glands still weighs heavily on residents’ minds.

The iodine-131 released into the air by the meltdowns accumulates in the thyroid gland, increasing the risk of thyroid cancer. The gland is responsible for regulating hormone levels in the body.

Children are considered especially vulnerable. After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, more than 6,000 children were diagnosed with thyroid cancer by 2005, according to the U.N. Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation.

Given the local anxiety, the Fukushima Prefectural Government in October 2011 started offering free thyroid screenings for everyone who was 18 or younger at the time of the disaster. The prefecture has 370,000 residents in that age group, and 300,000 had received voluntary checkups by the end of March.

The program may look good on paper, but it has drawn flak from medical experts who say it is far from adequate in determining a link between the cancers found and radiation exposure.

At the core of the criticism is the prefectural government’s policy of not releasing data on the results of the checkups, such as what stage of cancer the examinees are in.

This lack of disclosure — based on prefectural privacy policies — has made it hard for experts to accurately judge whether the abnormally high incidence of thyroid cancer in Fukushima is being caused the nuclear debacle or the higher screening rate.

In addition, the prefecture has no authority to follow up on children who test positive for cancer, meaning its data on the medical effects of the aftermath of the disaster will be limited.

As of March, the prefectural government found 90 children with suspected thyroid cancer after nearly 300,000 examinations. The prefecture was able to confirm that 51 of them opted to have surgery to remove part or all of their thyroid gland.

This figure is clearly high compared with a thyroid cancer registry rate of around one to nine per 1 million teens in Japan, experts say.

But because thyroid cancer often causes no symptoms and thus goes undiagnosed, experts point to the possibility that the ratio in Fukushima has turned out to be higher simply due to the widespread screening.

“The screenings may have ended up finding cancer that would have never have caused a health problem for their entire lives even if left unattended,” said Kenji Shibuya, a professor and chairman of the department of global health policy at the University of Tokyo.

The thyroid cancer rate among children near the Chernobyl plant started to rise four to five years after the catastrophe, mainly because they kept drinking highly contaminated milk and local produce, according to UNSCEAR.

But in Fukushima, several studies have confirmed that internal and external exposure levels were indeed much lower than those around the former Soviet power plant, which met a much more violent fate.

In April, UNSCEAR said that in Fukushima “the occurrence of a large number of radiation-induced thyroid cancers as were observed after Chernobyl can be discounted because doses were substantially lower.”

“Given the low radiation exposure levels, it is possible that detected cancers were the kind of cancers that would never do harm. But they were found because of the screenings,” said Shibuya, a member of a panel tasked with assessing the result of the thyroid examinations in Fukushima.
He added that there is also a possibility that patients underwent unnecessary surgery.

To examine the possibility of overdiagnosis— diagnosis of a malady that never causes symptoms or death — Shibuya and other medical experts have urged Fukushima Medical University, which is heading up the examination program, to disclose its findings on treated patients, such as the percentage of thyroid cancer cases that spread to the lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body.
The university refuses to disclose the data for privacy reasons.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government meanwhile says it doesn’t have the authority to track down and gather the information from medical institutions because treatment after diagnosis is outside its jurisdiction.

Fukushima official Yukio Kakuta acknowledged that the prefecture can’t track down all patients.
“Under the current system, we can’t follow up on all of the patients,” Kakuta said. “In addition to the issue of privacy, it’s my understanding that some patients and their parents are skeptical of the prefecture-led health checkup program itself, and that some people don’t trust Fukushima Medical University.

“I believe some of those people have gone to other hospitals to get their thyroid glands checked and treated,” which makes it difficult for the prefecture to find out what happens to them over the long term, he said.

Kakuta said the information disclosure issue will be discussed at the next meeting of a local committee in late August but will stay in place for now.

Shibuya of the University of Tokyo pointed out that the disclosure of information on the stages of the cancers does not violate patient privacy.
“They only have to disclose information on percentages of various cancer stages, such as the cases when the lymph nodes are infiltrated with malignant cells,” he said.
“If all of the treated cancers were such cases, then we would know (what’s happening in Fukushima) is not normal, and start discussions on the potential effects of the radiation,” he said. “But without disclosing the data, the suspicion (of overdiagnosis) will never go away.”

With the spreading use of sonography, overdiagnosis of thyroid cancer has become a concern worldwide. While the number of cases is on the rise, experts say the mortality rate remains unchanged.

Papillary thyroid cancer, the type that appears most prevalent among children in Fukushima, is known for having a slow growth rate and very low risk of death, the experts say. Therefore, many hospitals in Japan nowadays tell patients that long-term observation of their condition is an option to surgery.

Iwao Sugitani, a professor and chairman of the department of endocrine surgery at Nippon Medical School Graduate School of Medicine, said about 90 percent of thyroid cancer cases in Japan involve papillary thyroid cancer. While around nine out of every 10 patients with this type of cancer face no immediate threat to their lives, experts are divided on whether to perform surgery in such cases.

According to a study conducted by the Cancer Institute Hospital in Tokyo from 1995 to 2009, a total of 283 papillary thyroid cancer patients chose not to have surgery and opted instead to be monitored on a regular basis. None died nor saw the cancer spread, according to the study.

“Early detection and early treatment is recommendable for most cancers. But I don’t see much meaning in finding and conducting surgery on people with a small papillary thyroid cancer that would go undetected for their entire lifetimes” without screening, Sugitani said.

Shibuya of the University of Tokyo also questions whether the mostly benign nature of papillary thyroid cancer and the option of having no surgery are being fully explained to the children and their parents in Fukushima.
“Without such knowledge, it’s natural for most parents to ask doctors to perform surgery,” Shibuya said.

By going under the knife, “children will have scars on their necks, and they may suffer from the thought that they developed cancer due to radiation exposure,” he said. “Some of them might have to take hormone tablets during their entire lives. (The Fukushima government) must think harder on whether it should continue the program as it is now.”


India seeks Japan’s approval to reprocess spent nuclear fuel

Japan has been asked to approve reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in India as part of negotiations to conclude a nuclear power agreement between the two nations.

But though the Abe administration is eager to export nuclear power generation infrastructure as a pillar of its economic growth strategy, some Japanese government officials are cautious about approving the request from India.

The reprocessing produces plutonium that can be used as raw materials for nuclear weapons, which India already possesses.

According to officials of both the Japanese and Indian governments, India’s request is in line with the nuclear power agreement it reached with the United States.

Under certain conditions, the U.S.-India agreement allows India to reprocess within its borders spent nuclear fuel that was produced at nuclear power plants constructed with infrastructure exported from the United States.

The conditions state that the reprocessing must be conducted at newly constructed reprocessing facilities, which undergo inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. As it is not a member country of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the international community had long prohibited member countries of the treaty from concluding nuclear power agreements with India for civilian purposes, including exports of nuclear power generation infrastructure.

However, in recent years those countries began to regard India, where electricity demand is growing rapidly, as a promising market for exports of nuclear power generation infrastructure.

As a result, the United States concluded a nuclear power agreement with India in 2007. The next year, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which consists of 48 countries, including Japan and the United States, gave the green light to member countries to draw up nuclear power agreements with India by citing it as an exceptional country.

France and Russia are among countries that have since reached nuclear power agreements with India.
India, which plans to use plutonium in fast-breeder reactors that are under development, claims that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in the country is indispensable for nuclear power policies for peaceful purposes.

India wants to quickly reach a nuclear power agreement with Japan, which has key technologies on nuclear reactors. Though India is also considering taking on nuclear power plant construction projects with both the United States and France, there is a strong likelihood that it will use Japan-made products for pressure vessels and other key parts of those plants. Unless India concludes a nuclear power agreement with Japan, those projects will not make any progress.

As India plans to construct about 30 nuclear reactors, it will become a promising client for Japan. Some officials in the Japanese government say that Japan should conclude a nuclear power agreement with India as soon as possible.

However, Japan has not approved reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels or enrichment of uranium in nuclear power agreements it has reached with other countries. That is because plutonium, which is produced by the reprocessing, and enriched uranium can be converted for military use.

If Japan allows India to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, the approval would contradict the Japanese government’s efforts to prevent plutonium or enriched uranium from being converted for military use.

Some officials of the Japanese government are keen to avoid stoking more anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan, which has grown stronger since the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In 2010, the Japanese government started negotiations with India to draw up a nuclear power agreement. The talks were suspended after the Great East Japan Earthquake, but resumed in September 2013.

The nuclear power agreement is expected to be a topic of discussion in a summit meeting between Japan and India when the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Japan in late August or later.

Radioactive dust released during Fukushima cleanup reaches as far as Miyagi Prefecture

Airborne radioactive materials released during debris-clearing work at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were found in a town 60 kilometers away on seven occasions since December 2011.

Led by Teruyuki Nakajima, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, the team noted a surge in concentration of airborne radioactive cesium during clean-up activities that reached the town of Marumori in neighboring Miyagi Prefecture.

The researchers said the findings show that radioactive materials were repeatedly released into the environment and reached extensive areas during debris-clearing operations.

They called on Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima plant, to take more care to prevent the spread of radioactive materials during debris-clearing operations, even if it requires implementing more costly methods.

In conducting its research, the team placed a device to collect airborne dust at the town office of Marumori, 59 kilometers north-northwest of the stricken Fukushima plant. The device collected the samples at four- or five-day intervals between December 2011 and December 2013.

The team determined that there were eight cases in which the amount of radioactive cesium in the samples were at least 10 times higher than normal levels and the material likely originated from the Fukushima plant because of wind direction and speed.

The highest level of contamination was recorded in a sample collected between Aug. 16-20, 2013, reaching 50 to 100 times higher than normal levels.

TEPCO conducted large-scale debris-clearing work at the plant on Aug. 19, 2013. Previous research by the farm ministry and Kyoto University also showed that radioactive dust released during the work reached locations 27 km and 48 km from the plant.

In seven other cases, the amount of radioactive materials in the samples was about 10 times higher than normal. The research team reported the results of its findings to the farm ministry in May.

According to TEPCO, seven of the eight cases were recorded during the same period when the utility was doing debris-clearing work at the No. 3 reactor building.

The remaining case involved samples collected between Nov. 16-20, 2012, coinciding with an accidental water leak from a vent pipe of a cesium-absorption device at the plant.

A TEPCO official said it was unlikely that the accident caused a major release of radioactive materials like the August 2013 incident.

The utility had planned to dismantle a shroud over the No. 1 reactor building this month to start full-scale debris-clearing work around the reactor, but postponed the plan in order to strengthen measures to prevent the spread of radioactive materials during clean-up activities.

A worker at the Fukushima plant said that TEPCO has not discussed any drastic measures, such as covering the reactor with a container.

“It will likely resume debris cleanup when criticism calms down,” the worker said.

Do the Martu peoples want uranium mining?

Western desert-living Martu Elder, Thelma Rawlins said that many of her people remain opposed to the “go-aheads” given to uranium mining on Martu Country.
“Kintyre should be left alone, our Country left alone.”
“This is really bad stuff in the ground, and it will be really bad stuff if it comes above the ground. We are getting too close to bad stuff happening,” said Ms Rawlins.
“Country will be made bad, our water made bad. Our water is salty, the river bed is salty. We have to be careful with our water. The uranium out of ground will take our water away.”
“Leave the uranium in the ground. It is bad stuff that they want our people to be next to, this is not good.”
But Western Australia’s controversial Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has given the thumbs up for the CAMECO company proposal to mine uranium on Martu Country, at Kintyre which is next to the significant waterways of Kalmilyi National Park in the Pilbara. The EPA has been the subject of one controversy after another and most recently with the now defunct James Price Gas Hub proposal in the Kimberley where it had also have given the thumbs up despite widespread public opposition.
Two prospective uranium mine sites in Western Australia are nearing the likelihood of becoming operational in the next couple of years, both near Aboriginal communities – the other uranium site is near Wiluna and Toro Energy may have it operational by the end of next year. By the end of the century Western Australia will be transformed into one of the world’s largest uranium miners according to insiders in the industry. Western Australia is rich in easily accessible high grade uranium. The miners are chomping at the bit, investing in uranium mining research divisions within their multinational companies. It is no secret that the State and Federal Governments are supportive of mining uranium despite the litany of well-known risks.
The Conservation Council of WA has slammed the EPA approval.
“The proposal to mine uranium five hundred metres from a creek system that is part of a network of significant waterways in a national park is reckless and should not be approved,” said CCWA spokesperson, Mia Pepper.
Ms Pepper said the approval disturbingly followed the recent allegations by Martu man, Darren Farmer “that a former mine owner Rio Tinto made secret payments of around $21 million to silence Aboriginal concerns and opposition while it negotiated the project’s sale to current owner CAMECO.”
Former Western Desert Puntukurnuparna Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Bruce Hill has joined the chorus for independent inquiries into how decisions and dealings are made in native title dealings in the Western Desert. A few years ago, Mr Hill blew the whistle on a litany of alleged rorting and what most would have considered illegal activities within his organisation to the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations and to the Australian Senate but eventually the inquiries petered to a standstill.
Ms Pepper said the EPA approval puts at risk human life and also “our largest national park – and would impact on scarce water resources and a number of significant and vulnerable species including the bilby, marsupial mole and rock wallaby.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Dave Sweeney said that uranium mining is “a high risk, low return activity where proven risks far outweigh any promised rewards.”
“Uranium is currently trading at US$28 per lb. CAMECO has stated it will not mine unless the uranium prices reach upwards of $US75 per lb. The EPA is green lighting yellowcake when the company has stated the finances and the plan don’t stack up.”
But mining company insiders say Mr Sweeney’s arguments are naïve and that uranium prices will spiral upwards, and that for the mining companies it is all “about the expected return, which will be tenfold and then many times more before too many more sleeps.”
There are more than 70 nuclear reactors under construction around the world with more than 300 in the planning stages. There will be a couple thousand more by the end of the century.
Toro Energy managing director, Vanessa Guthrie said that there will be a swell of demand for uranium and that “the price will change – it is just a question of when.”
In wiser statements, Mr Sweeney said that the Western Australian Government has put unparalleled contamination risks for Australia “before the people.” The EPA is supposed to be the environmental watchdog but according to Ms Rawlins, Ms Pepper and Mr Sweeney the EPA is not a genuine environmental watchdog.
According to the EPA, CAMECO’s uranium mine plan at Kintyre has gone through rigid environmental impact assessments.
Just like the proposed Wiluna mine, with Toro Energy to truck uranium oxide to Port Adelaide, similarly so CAMECO expects to truck uranium oxide concentrate to Port Adelaide. The EPA will monitor radiological impacts to plants and animals along the route.
Ms Pepper said that it is “really disappointing to see that most of the conditions by the EPA are administrative and that the ones that do relate to environmental protection are somewhat deferred to the Department of Mines and Petroleum.”
“We will absolutely be putting in a submission and we will be supporting efforts by other people to put in appeals.”
“There is too much at stake with this project and we will challenge this mine at every step of the way.”
“Like the Wiluna project (which has also received EPA approval), the Kintyre project still has a long way to go.”
CAMECO Australia managing director, Brian Reilly said uranium will be mined once the market conditions signal for this. CAMECO produces about 15 per cent of the world’s usable uranium from mines in the United States, Canada and Kazakhstan.
Western Australian Mines Minister, Bill Marmion, who has the final say on the uranium approvals, said that the public opposition to uranium mining has decreased.
Minister Marmion said protesting about uranium mining has “dropped off” the list for activists.
“Three years ago when I was the Minister for the Environment, I think I had ten protestors on uranium outside my office on a Saturday, and I think the same ten were at Wiluna.”
“So I think they are just a rent-a-crowd, and I think they’ve run out of money, those ten people.”
Minister Marmion pointed to the State’s agenda saying that since the State ban on uranium had been lifted in 2008, more than $280 million had been spent on exploration.
Despite Minister Marmion’s claims of a small rent-a-crowd, many Martu have said to me that they oppose the uranium mining. Many Wiluna residents, including senior Elder Geoff Cooke also oppose the proposed uranium mining.
“We are the Custodians of the Land. It must come before all else,” said Mr Cooke.
“Uranium is a poison. Our rivers will be poisoned. Our trees will be poisoned. Our food will be contaminated. Our people will become sick.”
“Uranium mining can hurt us forever, hurt every generation of our children to come.”
Once Toro Energy’s project is operational, there will be two open-cut mines nearby Wiluna at Centipede and Lake Way, producing an estimate of 800 tonnes of uranium oxide a year – for at least 14 years.
The EPA confirmed that the Kintyre will have at least a mine life of 13.5 years.
A few years ago, I wrote about the extensiveness of uranium mining plans that one anti-uranium mining activist criticised at the time as not possible. She believed that the war against uranium mining in Western Australia had been won.
A well-placed insider in a major mining multinational had said, “For a long time the writing has been on the wall. Uranium mining will occur and it will be widespread. The nuclear age will come to Western Australia. The WA of 2030 will be different to the one of 2013.”
The insider said there will be a proliferation of uranium mine sites in Western Australia and nuclear reactors.
“People may get sick at uranium mines and in transporting uranium and in other future plants and sites that will depend on that uranium but that’s par for the course. No-one will be forced to work in them. People do know the risks. Governments know the risks. The resource sector knows the risks but I am telling you this is what will happen and it has been in the advanced planning stages for quite some time.”
Once the Kintyre and Wiluna mines are operational, every month three trucks will carry concentrated powdered ore sealed in drums and with a United Nations inventory numbers. The trucks will rumble thousands of kilometres to Port Adelaide.
Ms Guthrie has been reported in saying, “It is very safe.”
“The plastic-lined drums are sealed and locked in pallets and we monitor the (radiation) exposure to the drivers who would be closest to the product.”
Ms Guthrie said the occupational limit in reference to radiation exposure is 20 millisieverts and she said driver’s exposure “would be less than one millisievert a year.”
But First Nations anti-uranium campaigner, Kado Muir said that “uranium is radioactive and poses great risks to workers, communities and the environment.”
“Uranium oxide can be very dangerous if inhaled.”
“Breaking it down to radon gas is dangerous.”
“The biggest problem is that its impacts are long-term whether from leaks or mine waste. It can get into groundwater and into the food chain. Then what will we do?”
“Every uranium mine so far in Australia has a history of spills and leaks.”
“For our people nearby uranium mines, such as on Arabunna Country, or at Jabiluka in Kakadu, if radiation fallout impacts the environment then animals and food chains will be affected and so too our towns.”
“Uranium is the asbestos of the 21st century.”

Inquest panel calls for indictments against former TEPCO executives

Rejecting a decision by prosecutors, an independent judicial panel of citizens said July 31 that three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. should be indicted over the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution said charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury are warranted against former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and two former vice presidents, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro.
The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office had decided not to indict 42 people, including the three former TEPCO executives.
In response to the inquest committee’s decision, however, the prosecutors office will reinvestigate the case to decide whether to indict the three.
If prosecutors again decide not to indict them but the inquest committee maintains its stance that they should be held criminally responsible for the disaster, the three will be indicted mandatorily and stand trial.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami led to the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011, residents affected by the accident and citizens groups filed complaints with prosecutors against the 42 people. Those named in the complaints included not only the former TEPCO executives, but also former high-ranking government officials, including Naoto Kan, who was prime minister at the time of the disaster.
The groups said some inpatients died on their way to evacuation centers from hospitals while others were exposed to radiation from the nuclear power plant.
The prosecutors office accepted the complaints in August 2012. But after the investigations wrapped up, they decided in September 2013 not to indict any of the 42 people.
Prosecutors said the size and scale of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami could not have been predicted by experts. They also said evidence of negligence among the 42 people was insufficient.
But a group of people, including those affected by the nuclear accident, asked the prosecution inquest committee in October 2013 to examine the evidence against six former TEPCO executives, including Katsumata, Muto and Takekuro.
In the July 31 announcement of its decision, the inquest panel pointed out that before the nuclear accident, TEPCO estimated that a tsunami as high as “15.7 meters” could hit the Fukushima plant, based on a government organization’s forecast.
The actual tsunami was 15.5 meters at the highest point and inundated the reactor buildings that were located 10 meters above sea level.
“Assuming the arrival of such a tsunami, TEPCO should have taken countermeasures, although it is impossible to predict when it would arrive because a tsunami is a natural phenomenon,” the panel said.

Tokyo Electric Power : Ex-TEPCO execs merit indictment over nuclear crisis: prosecution panel


An independent judicial panel of citizens has decided that three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. merit indictment over the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, judicial sources said Thursday.

The Tokyo panel has voted in favor of the decision on Tsunehisa Katsumata, chairman of TEPCO at the time of the disaster, and two other executives.

Last September, Japanese prosecutors decided not to indict former leaders of the Fukushima plant operator, saying they lacked criminal responsibility.

Kyodo News

Govt. subsidies for Fukushima questioned

Jul. 30, 2014
There is more controversy over dealing with the aftermath of the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

NHK has learned the government notified the prefecture of a plan to provide a subsidy of more than 2.2 billion dollars, over 30 years for regional development. The pledge is connected with the construction of temporary storage facilities for highly radioactive waste.

Sources say the central government last week conveyed its idea to the Fukushima prefectural government and others.

The central government had been discussing with local municipalities a plan to purchase the land needed to build temporary storage facilities for radioactive debris.

The arrangement calls for the facilities to be built in the towns of Futaba and Okuma, which host the Daiichi plant.

Sources also say the government at the same time indicated that it would stop paying subsidies for the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant. Local people are calling for it to be decommissioned. The Daini plant, located 10 kilometers south of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi, has been offline since the 2011 disaster.

The government’s new plan would reduce the annual subsidies total for Fukushima by nearly 40 million dollars.

The Fukushima prefectural government has reacted sharply. Local officials are complaining of the new burden of the temporary storage facilities.