The Japanese government’s intention to dispose of contaminated debris and topsoil from Fukushima in storage facilities in other prefectures is misguided and will not reduce health risks, according to nuclear waste disposal expert Michael Sailer, 58, who spoke at the Global Conference for a Nuclear-Free World held on Jan. 14-15 in Yokohama.
“It doesn’t matter whether you give a small number of high doses to a small number of individuals or you give the same total amount in low doses to a lot of individuals because the amount of fatalities by cancer would be the same,” said Sailer, who is the CEO of the Öko-Institut for Applied Ecology, a research and consultancy agency based in Berlin.
“So dilution does not mean more fatalities, but it does not mean less fatalities, unless you dilute most of it in the Pacific Ocean in the hope that most of that will disappear somewhere.”
Sailer also thinks that efforts to decontaminate areas contaminated by the fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant are likely to be less effective than hoped.
“It’s mission impossible. You just clean your window. And then the wind blows down from the mountain, the rain comes, a lot of dust from the street comes and after one or two years you will have a similar level of contamination… decontaminating the whole area means to decontaminate all roads, all open fields, all housing areas, all forests, all mountains. You will see that it’s impossible,” he said.
The government’s plan to redraw the boundaries of the evacuation zone after further assessments also drew criticism from the engineer, who has been researching nuclear power and the effects of radiation for 30 years.
“There is not enough information on the real situation. [There needs to be] continuous measuring of gamma-emitting isotopes in a dense mesh in the respective areas and periodic checks of the alpha and beta emitting isotopes,” he said, adding that there needs to be a better understanding of how the isotopes are behaving in the environment, and particularly within the food chain.
The Fukushima accident will have many unforeseen consequences, according to Sailer, because of unique environmental factors in Japan.
“The Japanese eat a lot of seafood: shellfish, seaweed, or even jellyfish, and nobody knows how the radioactivity behaves [with these foods], it’s a big experiment,” he said. ”My fear is that there are a lot of unknown paths and therefore it’s absolutely necessary to control all those paths and control them for many years because some of these processes [have] just begun to evolve and in some years there will be other effects.”
While he worries that current tests for radiation in the food supply are insufficient, Sailer believes that most governments would have acted in a similar way to the Japanese government after the nuclear accident. However, the political system in his native Germany gives local powers more leverage.
“Germany is a confederacy of tribes, not a nation. We have these very strong states. If you have a convincing scientific base, then the states and federal level will work at the same time. But if the federal level has no convincing argument, the state will behave in another way,” he said.
This system allowed some states to set limits for radiation in milk and other foodstuffs after the Chernobyl accident in 1986 that were one-sixth of the federal government limits. Independent advisors shook the public’s faith in the government, and swelled the ranks of the anti-nuclear movement. Last year, it finally achieved its aim when the government shut down eight reactors overnight and announced a roadmap to phase out all nuclear power by 2022.
According to Sailer, the Fukushima crisis was a catalyst for the move—which was an abrupt about-face for a conservative government that had decided to expand the lifetime of Germany’s nuclear reactors just the year before.
“They feel cheated by the nuclear industry because the nuclear industry always said ‘Okay, an accident cannot happen’,” he explained. “That was the trick after the Chernobyl accident: they always argued in a specific way the Russians are not good technicians and therefore it can only happen in Russian reactors… We have similar reactors to Fukushima and the U.S., so this was the big shock: this old argument from 25 years ago was not true.”
The German public, hundreds of thousands of whom took to the streets to protest against nuclear power following the Fukushima crisis, were particularly shaken because they identified with Japan as a fellow leading industrial country with similar levels of safety and knowledge.
“If such a thing could happen [in Japan] then it could happen in your own country,” he said.
Germany has another ten years to ensure that it doesn’t. Sailer admits it is difficult to “pull the plug” on all nuclear reactors at once, and that a gradual phase-out is necessary.
“It’s a technological challenge,” he said. “But if the country does not change to this technology, then it loses contact with technological advances.”