5/10/15 From RadioEcoShock
DR TIMOTHY MOUSSEAU – EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST AND SPECIALIST ON IMPACTS OF NUCLEAR ACCIDENTS ON LIVING THINGS.
The largest fire in 20 years is burning near the crippled Chernobyl nuclear plant. The smoke will re-release radioactive contamination dropped in the forests during the 1986 melt-down of Reactor number 4, possibly the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
How can radiation remain and return? What is the real risk? Scientists have been hard at work studying this problem. Just this February, the journal Ecological Monographs published a paper titled: “Fire evolution in the radioactive forests of Ukraine and Belarus: future risks for the population and the environment.”
Dr. Timothy A. Mousseau is a co-author of this paper, and recommended to Radio Ecoshock by the lead author, Norwegian scientist Nikolas Evangeliou. Tim is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Mousseau joins us on Radio Ecoshock.
Here are my detailed notes, in the order each topic appears in the interview.
1. Mousseau started studying radiation effects on living things in the Chernobyl area in the year 2000, and has returned the area 3 to 4 times a year ever since.
2. I ask about the meme saying life is thriving in the highly radioactive Chernobyl closed zone. It is true that nature has returned. But everything from plants (such as trees) to animals (including birds) are suffering some impacts. (More about that later).
3. The Chernobyl radiation affected the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Northern Europe (including Britain) the most. But it went around the world and can still be found as a marker in oceans in the Northern Hemisphere as well. The areas of highest contamination are within a couple of hundred kilometers of Chernobyl.
Mosseau compares the fire that burned in the Chernobyl reactor for ten days to a volcano that erupts radioactive materials.
4. How does it work? How radiation enters the fibres of plants and cells of animals. “The dominant isotope at Chernobyl, and at Fukushima too for that matter, is Cesium 137. And Cesium 137 is a potassium analog. It behaves chemically much like potassium does. And so the plants actually mistake it, confuse if for potassium, and take it up as if they were taking up potassium. This Cesium gets taken up by the plants in the water, transferred to the leaves, and into the tissues.
And so it gets moved around. Even though most of the fallout is in the soil, it gets taken up in the water through the plant root system up into the leaves – and then redeposited on to the surface soil every year as the plants drop their leaves during the Fall.”
To me, the horror of this is partly that we expected radiation in the soil to gradually be buried by plant debris and subside, away from the surface. Instead, roots keep grabbing the Cesium 137 and recycling it to the surface with leaf litter each year. Find a BBC article about the impacts of Chernobyl on tree growth here.
5. Fires near Chernobyl at the end of April 2015. Estimates are a few hundred to a few thousand acres of forest have been burned. It appears in early May the fires are under control. While some of the fires are in high contamination areas, most of them happen to be in areas of lower contamination. Satellite photos show dozens of small fires in Ukraine and Belarus and parts of South Western Russia – all areas with signicant amounts of radiation from Chernobyl.
“Its an on-going condition that is likely to get worse in the future as global climate change raises the average temperatures and reduces the total amount of precipitation in the area as well.”
6. Tim is part of a large team of scientists from many countries who are studying the past records of forest fires, the record of radiation from Chernobyl, combined with climate change into models.
“What we’ve demonstrated is there is an enormous potential hazard from these forest fires because of the fact that they are likely to increase in size and intensity. And this has the power to basically lift the radioactive contaminants from the soil, from the plant material, and put it into the atmosphere and redistribute it.”
7. What kind of particles?
STRONTIUM 90 GOES UNDETECTED WHILE IT BIOACCUMULATES
“The concern is that several of these isotopes are potentially far more dangerous biologically than the Cesium 137.”
Scientists and the press have focused on the Cesium because it is cheap and easy to measure, even with a simple Geiger Counter, while others require sophisticated and expensive testing.
“Strontium 90 is really there in about equal levels to the Cesium. The Strontium 90, because it’s a Beta emitter, doesn’t give off any Gamma. This makes it much, much harder to measure it’s levels.”
For that reason, Strontium 90 is often not measured, and assumed to move as Cesium does.
“But Strontium is a calcium analog. And so it gets taken up the same way into plants and animals, the way the calcium would. And as a consequence it tends to be fixed into the teeth and into the bones. It can actually bio-accumulate and bio-magnify up the food chain to a much greater level than Cesium usually does. So this makes it [Strontium 90] a more hazardous isotope. It tends to be in the background because we can’t measure it very easily.”
OTHER ISOTOPES LIKE PLUTONIUM AND AMERICIUM ARE IN THAT SMOKE…
“There’s a significant amount of plutonium deposited in the ground around the [Chernobyl] reactor. This Plutonium is also decaying into something called “Americium”. Americium and plutonium are extremely dangerous if ingested. The dangers are well known and ever a threat.”
They [Plutonium and Americium] are heavier, they’re denser, and they’re less likely to be mobilized, but they are going to be mobilized if the fire is large enough. And of course, the half-lives of the Plutonium isotopes are measured in the tens of thousands of years, and the Americium is in hundreds of years. In fact the Americium levels are increasing in the area as a result of the decay of the Plutonium. So the hazards are actually going to increase over the coming decades with respect to those isotopes.”
8. HUMAN HEALTH RISKS
The biggest risks are for the firefighters. [Alex notes the many stories of poor equipment, no breathing protection, no decontamination for these firefighters.] They do wear masks and gloves, Mousseau says.
The air-borne hazards decrease as one moves away from Chernobyl, so breathing hazards diminish relatively quickly with distance. The problem is that scientists are not so concerned with an external dose, as ingesting cancer-causing radioactive particles. We’ve just heard about bones and teeth. Mousseau also points out mushrooms bio-accumulate radiation, so that wild boar in Germany who eat mushroom are too radioactive to be safe to eat. Mice also eat these mushrooms, and then other things eat the mice.
9. BIRDS AND INSECTS
Mousseau has been part of scientific studies, along with Andrew Mueller on birds and insects both at Chernobyl and around the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
Alex’s note: Andrew/Andres Pape Moller is a Danish ornothologist studying birds at Chernobyl with Mousseau, but Moller is not without controversy about his methods. Accused of manufacturing some facts, Moller was almost ostracized by other scientists. Tim Mousseau has kept up their friendship, and criticizes the attacks on his fellow scientists. During a long career, Moller has published at least 600 scientific papers. His work on barn swallows stimulated a generation of biologists.
For more on this controversy see this article, but also read the comments below.
Other scientists have joined the Chernobyl investigative team over the years. They have found unexpected consequences for the animals living in the contaminated areas. They’ve published papers over the years about this.
“We found repeatedly in both Chernobyl and Fukushima now that the numbers of birds drops off in the more contaminated areas….in Chernobyl we see that up to 40 percent of the male birds are completely sterile. They have no sperm, in the more radioactive areas.”
Birds in contaminated areas have higher incidents of eye cataracts. They have higher incidences of tumours and other developmental abnormalities.
In the last couple of years they’ve started new work with small rodents – mice and voles both in Chernobyl and Fukushima. They find very similar patterns of decline and disease.
10. DOES RADIATION CONTINUE TO CYCLE FOR GENERATIONS?
The half life for Cesium 137 is about 30 years, so it will eventually disappear. It’s a 29 year half life for Strontium 90. “Certainly after a century or two most of that will have decayed into either less radioactive or non-radioactive daughter products.”
Plutonium and Americium will be around for hundreds if not thousands of years.
11. MAIN MOTIVATION FOR STUDIES IS TO LEARN ABOUT ADAPTATION TO RADIATION
“The main motivation for the research we’ve been doing in these areas wasn’t so much to document all of these abnormal, these negative consequences of exposure to radioactivity – but in fact to determine whether or not there have been adaptive evolutionary responses of the organisms to this novel stressor.”
Just last year they published a paper showing a “handful” of birds had “managed to cope with the radiation in a way that was really quite striking. They do this by changing the allocation of some of their antioxidants towards defense against the radiation. “Now it’s not all rosy because this change in allocation probably incurs a cost in terms of they can’t use that antioxidant in terms of some other important function.”
The scientists hope that knowledge might help humans who have to respond to radioactivity as well.
ALMOST 30 YEARS LATER CHERNOBYL STILL NOT SAFELY ENCLOSED, AND NO ONE CAN APPROACH WHERE THE SPENT FUEL IS
12. We discuss the problem of the unfinished “safe confinement” project for the radioactivity at Chernobyl, which is still covered only by a hastily constructed “sarcophagus” of cement, which is deteriorating. Why after almost 30 years from the melt-down hasn’t this site been secured against further radioactive release?
The main hold-ups have been the complicated design, and the money. It’s costing about 2 billion US dollars (and may go higher). Without the new shelter, they can’t begin a more permanent remediation of the area, Mousseau tells us. The Ukraine can’t afford that big cost. The world community is stepping up to provide funding, but they are still at least a half billion dollars short. A meeting is taking place in London this past week, trying to find the missing funding needed.
Building a new roof is just the first step. The planned new building includes cranes that can be operated remotely. They hope to investigate the interior of the Chernobyl building. No one knows what is going on inside – it’s been too radioactive to approach the lower reaches of the reactor, where most of the spent fuel is, even almost 30 years later. Also, because the roof was leaking, Mousseau says, water has filled the bottom. This makes it impossible for people or machines to find out what is happening there.
Tim says as a much larger accident site, Fukushima will be even more expensive.
13. TIM RETURNING TO A CHAOTIC UKRAINE TO DO MORE RESEARCH
Things are very unstable in the Ukraine, “given the ongoing conflict between the Ukraine and Russia over the Eastern territories, and of course this has had an enormous impact on their economy. Their currency has been devalued considerably, by several factors, in the past few years, mostly in the past few months. And the unemployment rate has gone through the roof.”
They will continue their studies of the rodents in the most irradiated areas, and hope to study the endangered Przewalski’s horses, also known as the Mongolian wild horse, the last truly wild horse in the world. They were introduced to the closed zone near Chernobyl, but not monitored or studies well yet.
[See Wiki on Przewalski's horse here.]
14. HIS RESEARCH AROUND FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN
They have some parallel and comparative studies going on at Fukushima Japan. It’s currently at a smaller scale due to lack of funding.
They just published 3 papers in the last few months on the ways Fukushima radiation has affected the bird population.
“The bottom line is that many of the bird species are showing very dramatic declines in the areas of high radioactivity … what makes that particularly interesting is that it parallels what we’ve been finding in Chernobyl, ina completely independent area…again providing fairly strong scientific support for the hypothesis that it’s the radioactivity that’s the underlying cause of these drops in numbers.”
15. THE CONTENTIOUS ISSUE OF LOW-LEVEL RADIATION [20:05]
What about the contentious issue of the impacts of low-level radiation? Every time there’s an accident, the nuclear industry says eating a banana or flying in a plane is more dangerous. What do you say?
“The bottom line to all this discussion is that all radiation, of all sorts, generates damage to our cellular structures. It leads to damage to our DNA, damage to the membranes around the nulceus of our cells and the cell walls themselves.
Our bodies have evolved mechanisms to repair most of this damage over the eons. Radiation isn’t new. Mutagens in the environment aren’t new. In fact the very oxygen we breaths is a major cause of mutations in our bodies. And so we have all the machinery in place to deal with it, at least to some extent. But the fact that we grow old and die is actually in part the product of on-going mutational accumulation into our lives.
So radiation of all sorts, even small amounts contributes to that and so there’s no such thing as a little bit of radiation being good for you… the more you add, the more the effects will be.”
“One airplane ride is unlikely to be of much significance, given that we expose ourselves to many other mutagens in the environment. The same could be said for eating one banana. But if you fly an awful lot then you will be increasing the dose to your body and this has been demonstrated to increase rates of cataracts for instance in airline crews – which is one of the first signs of radiation exposure. We see it in the birds, we see it in humans as well. Certainly it’s just the first step. There are other consequences likely.”
16. CHECKING AGAINST NATURAL SOURCES OF RADIATION
Some places in the world have elevated radiation levels simply because radioactive materials, like uranium or radium come close to the surface. Mousseau et al did a meta-data study to comare what they found at Chernobyl and Fukushima to these sites.
In one example, the second largest cause of lung cancer in the U.S. and in China is radon, a colorless, odorless gas that can accumulate in basements. Radon leads to many thousands of extra lung cancer deaths in the U.S. every year. There is no such thing as a good amount of mutagens.
17. AFTER FUKUSHIMA RADIATION, WILL FOREST FIRES IN JAPAN BE DANGEROUS?
Japanese forests are in mountains, and there is more moisture. Mousseau isn’t sure about the fire hazards there. Japan has had years and years of forest management, largely restricting fires, which may add fuel if one arises.
“It is a significant concern for Japan, although I don’t think anybody’s started to think about it just yet. Given what we’ve found about the accumulation of dead plant material in more radioactive areas – the fact that the radiation impedes the normal decomposition process, leading to higher accumulation of what is essentially fuel for a fire, this is a significant concern.”
Along with Japanese collegues, they’ve just started research to see if the same kinds of accumulation of litter is happening in Japan. We may get an answer by this Fall.
18. NUCLEAR ACCIDENTS ARE NOT RARE AND WILL CONTINUE
Due to differences of views in the scientific and political communities, funding for basic research into the impacts of these nuclear accidents, and radiation in general, has not met the needs of what we should know.
“These nuclear accidents are not as rare as we used to think they were. There was a recent study published, highlighted by MIT, that suggested that nuclear accidents on the scale of Chernobyl are likely to occur in the coming years. You know, a Three Mile Island scale accident is likely to occur in the next ten years. Nuclear energy is not going away any time soon, so we really do need to know more, much more, about the consequences for both human health and the broader environmental impacts, if we’re going to continue down this path.”
Find a British newspaper article about the likelyhood of more nuclear accidents here. Original source: “Probability of contamination from severe nuclear reactor accidents is higher than expected” May 22, 2012. (lead author Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry).
CHERNOBYL FUNDING RESULTS (Alex’s notes, not in the interview)
Finance ministers of major developed countries met in London in early May, trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars needed to complete the “Safe Confinement” building over Chernobyl. This would be the largest movable structure in the world. Note they cannot say the radioactivity will be “contained” but it will be lowered, and thus “confined”. Read about the funding crisis here.
With new funding promises the project is stil short 85 million euros, but has enough now to continue without delay.
DECOMMISIONING UNITS 1-3
Remarkably, three reactors at Chernobyl that did not explode continued to be operated for years after the accident. Consider the whole area was evacuated, including the fully developed city of Pripyat, we have to wonder at the exposure to the workers inside the remaining reactors.
The last Chernobyl reactor shut down in 2000, but they still have their fuel and spent fuel in the highly radioactive building.
According to this article in the World Nuclear News…
“For the period between 2028 and 2046, the most contaminated equipment will be removed from the units, while the reactors themselves will be dismantled between 2046 and 2064.”
“For the decommissioning of units 1, 2 and 3, the international community is financing, through the Nuclear Safety Account, the Interim Storage Facility 2 (ISF2) at a cost in excess of €300 million and the Liquid Waste Treatment Facility (LRTP). The ISF2 facility is currently in the final phase of construction and will process, dry and cut more than 20,000 fuel assemblies and place them in metal casks, which will be enclosed in concrete modules on site. The used fuel will then be stored safely and securely for a minimum period of 100 years. The LRTP received an operating licence at the end of 2014.”
In other words, it will take about 80 years after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 to bring the whole site to a “decommissioned” state. I expect about the same time frame for Fukushima, taking operations there to about the year 2100, all the time draining the economy and threatening health and the environment. And governments wonder why we don’t trust nuclear power!
DR. TIMOTHY GARRETT UPDATES WORK ON CIVILIZATION AS A HEAT ENGINE, WITH 2 NEW PAPERS.
Here is an unusual plot for a story: an atmospheric scientist uses principles of physics to predict the global economy will slow to near zero growth. Then it’s fragility and exposure to natural disasters suggest a high risk of “accelerating collapse”.
That’s all part of an on-going discussion I’ve followed over the years on Radio Ecoshock, with University of Utah scientist and Professor Timothy J. Garrett. In two interviews in 2010, Tim Garrett explained his discovery of a formula that linked economic wealth to the amount of energy consumed. That sounds simple, maybe even obvious, but it caused a slight storm of criticism from old school economists. Tim’s work also predicts that only a precipitous crash in our economy could avoid a disastrous warming of up to 5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.