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Three Mile Island expert: Fukushima could kill 200,000

Interview: The worst is "probably" past, but there’s a one-in-four chance Fukushima could deteriorate. Here’s how.

Japan nuclear interview 2011 04 15Enlarge
Anti-nuclear activists participate in a demonstration on March 17, 2011 in Sant Jaume square, in Barcelona. Thousands of anti-nuclear demonstrators, in reaction to the dramatic situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan, gathered in cities across Spain to protest the government-granted extension of the operational lives of Spain's older nuclear power plants. (Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

In the days after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident began, GlobalPost turned to Arnold Gundersen for an independent view of whether the reactors might melt down. A 39-year veteran of the nuclear industry, Gundersen has worked as a nuclear plant operator and served as an expert witness on the Three Mile Island accident. He is now chief engineer at Fairwinds Associates.

Back then, Gundersen said that the evidence suggested the accident was worse than authorities were revealing. This week, his assessment was shown to be accurate when Japan upgraded Fukushima to a 7, the worst possible rating for a nuclear accident.

So we contacted Gundersen again to get an update on Fukushima. In the following edited and condensed interview, Gundersen gives his expert view of what might happen, how authorities are handling the accident, and how Fukushima will affect health and the environment.

GlobalPost: Last month, officials said that the possibility of a large scale radiation release from Fukushima was “small.” You disagreed. You told GlobalPost that there was a “50-50 chance of a catastrophic release.” Now, nearly every day we hear about new releases. Has this added up to a catastrophic release?

Arnold Gundersen: Yes, Fukushima has released catastrophic levels of radiation. There hasn’t been a single Chernobyl size blast, but there have been three explosions, as well as radioactive venting that will continue into the future. And there are still potential bumps in the road. It’s not over yet.

“Fukushima is going to kill 200,000 from increased cancers over the next 50 years.”
~Arnold Gundersen, nuclear expert

This week the Japanese authorities elevated the crisis from 5 to 7. That suggests it’s on a par with Chernobyl. Is this accident as bad as Chernobyl?

It’s worse than Chernobyl. That accident involved a single reactor. Fukushima involves three reactors. Additionally, there are several years worth of fuel in the spent fuel pools of units 1 through 4. Added together, that’s roughly the equivalent of eight reactor cores.

Right now, I don’t think any single reactor is as bad as Chernobyl, but they have essentially eight different problems.

The Japanese government has said that Fukushima has released about 10 percent as much radiation as Chernobyl. Do you think that’s accurate?

I’d say that’s the minimum that’s been released. It’s possible that the accident has released as much as Chernobyl already. If not, we’re heading in that direction. I think the Japanese have wanted to avoid instilling fear. So as a result they are more likely to downplay than exaggerate the releases.

Estimating radiation releases is never easy. I’ve studied both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The statistics on how much radiation was released were made after the accidents were over, by scientists who have skin in the game. During a nuclear accident, all of the radiation detectors are blown to smithereens, so you’re not actually measuring the contamination, you’re calculating them based on sampling. When you do that you can introduce bias.

So if it’s worse than Chernobyl, is this the worst industrial accident ever?

I think this and the Bhopal accident in India [where hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to the toxic gas methyl isocyanate, killing thousands] are going to be neck and neck for that category. So it’s worse than Chernobyl but in the same category as Bhopal. But certainly from a cost standpoint, this is the most expensive one ever.

I absolutely disagree with the scientists who say that Fukushima’s not going to hurt anyone. The numbers I’ve seen, from reputable scientists, are that Fukushima is going to kill 200,000 from increased cancers over the next 50 years.

Is the evacuation zone big enough?

It’s not a question of size, but of timing. I was saying that it should be 19 miles (30 kilometers) a month ago. They’re now extending it to 19 miles, but they’re giving people a month to leave.

If there’s any good news from Fukushima it’s that the wind was blowing offshore most of the time. If the wind was blowing onshore, Japan would be cut in half. There would be an uninhabitable zone going right across the island if the wind was blowing the other way.

Are international organizations effectively keeping an eye on this?

The International Atomic Energy Agency has been behind in its analysis since the very first week. They were saying that 5 percent of the fuel was damaged when I was saying 70 percent. I don’t have any faith that the IAEA data is accurate.

How does an independent expert such as yourself get data?

I’m working with an informal network of independent university professors around the world. I’m actually hoping to get more people providing information through this network.

My experience with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island is that the government and industry will circle the wagons and try to prevent information from accumulating in private hands. The same happened with France, which gets much of its electricity from nuclear. The government there downplayed Chernobyl releases.

The difference now is that we have the internet. Independent scientists can more readily share information quickly, and bureaucracies don’t know how to respond to that. So I’m hoping that this will prevent governments from distorting information. Yet I do believe that they are getting away with downplaying the crisis right now.

This crisis is now labeled a 7, the most severe possible nuclear accident. Does this accurately represent how bad the accident is, or if there were an 8 or 9, would you rate it worse?