Citizen scientists are uncovering risks that governments would rather cover up
By Cindy Folkers
When reactors exploded and melted down at the Fukushima nuclear power complex in March 2011, they launched radioactivity from their ruined cores into the unprotected environment. Some of this toxic radioactivity was in the form of hot particles (radioactive microparticles) that congealed and became airborne by attaching to dusts and traveling great distances.
However, the Fukushima disaster is only the most recent example of atomic power and nuclear weapons sites creating and spreading these microparticles. Prior occurrences include various U.S. weapons sites and the ruined Chernobyl reactor. While government and industry cover up this hazard, community volunteer citizen science efforts – collaborations between scientists and community volunteers – are tracking the problem to raise awareness of its tremendous danger in Japan and across the globe.
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster began, one highly radioactive specimen, a particle small enough to inhale or ingest, was found in a private home where it should not have been, hundreds of miles from its source, in a vacuum cleaner bag containing simple house dust.
This “high activity radioactively-hot dust particle” came from a house in Nagoya, Japan – after it had traveled 270 miles from Fukushima. The only radioactive particle found in the home’s vacuum cleaner bag, it was an unimaginably minuscule part of the ruined radioactive core material from Fukushima – many times smaller than the width of a human hair. We know it came from Fukushima because it contained cesium-134, meaning that the particle came from a recent release, and we know it is a piece of core material specifically because it was so radioactive that it could not have come from any other material.
Most of the particle’s radioactivity came from cesium-134 and cesium-137. By the time it was collected, some of the particle’s radioactivity, mostly from iodine-131, had already decayed. Named “corium” by scientists, it was still thousands of times more radioactive (5,200,000,000,000,000 disintegrations per second per kilogram — that’s 5.2 quadrillion more than the average activity (26,000 disintegrations per second per kilogram) found in dust and soil samples collected through community volunteer efforts from across Japan — with a focus on areas around Fukushima — since the 2011 nuclear disaster began. By way of comparison, in the U.S., average soil and dust activity is thousands of times lower.
Due to privacy concerns, we are not permitted to know the identities of the Nagoya residents who participated in the dust sampling collection and in whose home the particle was found. Nor do we know how many people lived in the home; if there were children or babies present; or pets; or pregnant women. And we will never know if there were any other radioactive microparticles in the home that did not make it into that vacuum cleaner bag.
We do not know how the particle got there. No one in the home (nor the vacuum cleaner) had any connection to the Fukushima reactors or the exclusion zone. Was the particle transported by a car tire into their city? On someone’s shoes? Did it fly in through a window after being lofted by air currents? Did it arrive by a combination of forces? We do not know if other particles like this travelled just as far in all directions, or who may have taken a breath at just the wrong moment, so that a similar microparticle might be lodged in their lungs.
We do know the residents in Nagoya were notified about the particle’s presence, and that if it had been inhaled or ingested, it could have proven lethal over time. This corium particle would have destroyed tissue near it, potentially threatening the function of any organ that tissue was part of. But the particle’s additional danger would come from what it didn’t destroy – that is tissue that is damaged but survives and can go on to mutate into cancer or non-cancer diseases.
We also know that had scientists and citizens not worked together to collect samples, we would never have known a microparticle of corium existed at all at a distance so far away from the Fukushima meltdowns. If the presence of this particle – and its potential for inhalation – had gone unnoticed, any calculations of the doses to residents of this home would have been significantly underestimated. And while the Nagoya particle may simply be an outlier, it shows how inaccurate radiation risk assessment has turned out to be. All of these microparticles, even ones less radioactive, may pose significant health risks inside the body that are currently uncalculated.
Citizen and scientists collaborations show us that radioactive microparticles are a worldwide problem. Yet action by public health advocates and government officials has been slow to nonexistent in recognizing this danger, much less working to protect people against exposure from it. Detecting radioactive microparticles is extremely difficult, in part because detecting them and proving their danger requires specialized techniques and equipment. But this is no excuse for governments to ignore the problem altogether as they continue to do. When experts tell us what our risks are from radiation exposure, risks from these microparticles remain unaccounted for in every country in the world. Speculation swirls around these particles and whether the rapid-onset cancers occurring in Japan are possibly due to their presence.
Radioactive particles across the globe
Collections of various samples (home air filters, vehicle engine intake filters, soils, samples of dust from vacuum cleaner bags) have revealed radioactive microparticles from Fukushima made it as far as Seattle, WA and Portland, OR in the U.S.,and to the Western coast of Canada.
Not surprisingly, microparticles in Japan were much more radioactive than those that made their way to the U.S. and contained more varied radioisotopes, thus posing a much greater health risk. In the case of some filters in Japan, contamination was high enough to be classified as “radioactive waste.”
In addition to catastrophic releases from nuclear power facilities, these particles come from atomic detonations, other nuclear industry processes such as mining and atomic fuel fabrication, and nuclear facility releases of radioactivity, as well as leaking atomic waste dumps. Nuclear workers, First Nations Tribes, and local residents have submitted samples for testing around such facilities. Particles have been detected in the environment and in house dusts in communities around weapons facilities in Los Alamos, NM; Hanford, WA; and Rocky Flats, CO. Thorium, plutonium, and uranium from nuclear facilities were found “outside of radiation protection zones,” including workplaces, workers’ homes and cars. “Given the small respirable size of these radioactive microparticles, they are a potential source of internal exposure from inhalation or ingestion,” according to Dr. Marco Kaltofen of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
In some cases, radioactive particle releases can be higher from nuclear power catastrophes than disasters at atomic bomb facilities. In 1986, Chernobyl also released radioactive particles that still contaminate the environment today. . Forest fires are spreading them further. Current community volunteer citizen science efforts are underway in the environs of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) – a former reactor test site adjacent to Simi Valley, CA – and the site of several unanticipated and unmonitored nuclear releases, a meltdown, and the November 2018 Woolsey forest fire.
Similar work is being carried out in Pike County, OH, host to a uranium enrichment facility for military and civilian nuclear reactors that has spread radioactive contamination to a nearby middle school, the grounds of which have now been quarantined. The U.S. Department of Energy hid the school contamination for two years, prompting public outrage and calls for health investigations into the high incidence of local childhood disease.
Ignoring danger to human health, environment
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently has an existing 10-mile emergency planning radius around commercial nuclear power reactors, a zone the NRC does not place around other nuclear facilities. This 10-mile zone is not large enough to account for exposures that often occur well outside of it.
While the NRC is aware of the radioactive microparticle threat, its dose models fail to provide the extensive, detailed calculations required to actually protect anyone working at or living near these sites. Since radioactive microparticles remain a threat for generations after a catastrophe begins, the NRC should account for continuing exposure to communities and their people for the decades or centuries it takes for such materials to be safe for human or animal exposure.
Headline photo: “3S0578” by Billy and Lynn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0