About fall­out – there and here

Auckland City Harbour News - - OPINION -

It was a neat one (or maybe two) liner. I re­mem­ber it well. I re­alise it mightn’t click with ev­ery­one – but I’ve got good rea­sons for giv­ing it a re­turn sea­son. It goes like this: ‘‘There was a guy who read so much about the dan­gers of smok­ing that he gave up read­ing!’’ Why did this slip into my re­call? Be­cause I’d just read the lat­est con­flict­ing spe­cial­ist re­ports on Fukushima.

Then – quite ac­ci­den­tally – I picked up a let­ter which again faulted Auck­land’s emer­gency ser­vices and re­jected the last con­fi­dent of­fi­cial as­sess­ment in this col­umn.

But first, those vary­ing views on af­ter­math of the Ja­panese tsunami and the wreck­ing of the atomic en­ergy plant in its path. Al Jazeera’s Steve Chao re­ports: Forests cov­er­ing 70 per cent of the Fukushima Pre­fec­ture have high con­cen­tra­tions of ra­dioac­tive cae­sium.

Not only in fallen leaves and soil, but in the trees them­selves. The find­ings sug­gest ra­di­a­tion is per­me­at­ing into the ecosys­tem.

The gov­ern­ment is spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars de­con­tam­i­nat­ing towns in Fukushima, but the forests con­tinue emit­ting ra­dioac­tiv­ity.

Ja­son Clen­field took up the anal­y­sis:

Ev­ery morn­ing, 3000 cleanup work­ers don hooded haz­ard suits, air-fil­tered face masks and mul­ti­ple glove lay­ers. Most gear is ra­dioac­tive waste by the end of the day. Ev­ery­thing that touches it be­comes toxic. It goes into thou­sands of waste bags stored in shielded con­tain­ers.

Rows of tanks hold enough ir­ra­di­ated wa­ter to fill 100 Olympic pools on the plateau over­look­ing Dai­ichi’s four ru­ined re­ac­tors. And the wa­ter keeps com­ing. It may be eight years be­fore ra­di­a­tion lev­els fall enough to let work­ers re­move 260 tons of melted nu­clear fuel.

That process took more than a decade at the US ac­ci­dent on Three Mile Is­land, a partial melt­down at a sin­gle re­ac­tor with one-fifth the amount of fuel at Fukushima.

The other re­port, from Ben Schiller, un­der a head­ing: ‘‘ For­get Fukushima, Nu­clear Power Has Saved 1.8 Mil­lion Lives’’ sums up:

Two re­searchers at NASA’s God­dard In­sti­tute of Space Stud­ies cal­cu­late the dam­age if the world hadn’t had nu­clear power for the last sev­eral decades, and what dam­age might be caused if com­mu­ni­ties don’t em­brace the tech­nol­ogy.

Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen es­ti­mate that 4900 peo­ple died through nu­clear power be­tween 1971 and 2009, mostly from work­place ac­ci­dents and ra­di­a­tion fall­out.

But, they say 370 times more peo­ple (1.84 mil­lion) would have died, had the same power been gen­er­ated from fos­sil fu­els.

The sci­en­tists’ fig­ures are based on es­ti­mates of mor­tal­ity caused by pol­lu­tion, which killed 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple in China in 2010.

Their re­search is that no deaths have been at­trib­uted in a ‘‘sci­en­tif­i­cally valid man­ner’’ to ra­di­a­tion from the other two ma­jor ac­ci­dents – Three Mile Is­land in 1979, where a 20-year com­pre­hen­sive sci­en­tific health as­sess­ment was done, and at Fukushima Dai­ichi.

But a United Na­tions study of the 1986 Ch­er­nobyl ac­ci­dent, the worst in his­tory, in­sists that only 43 peo­ple died, in­clud­ing 15 first re­spon­ders.

And while we’re at it, Auck­land has a sit­u­a­tion very much smaller in scale, the cru­cial fall­out is in fact and opin­ions.

The dif­fer­ence so far: Re­tired long-serv­ing civil de­fence man Gary West­bury high­lighted prob­lems in su­per-city cen­tralised emer­gency ser­vices, con­trolled from a cen­tral city HQ.

Civil De­fence supreme Clive Man­ley replied: All is well.

To­tally un­con­vinced, Gary now asks are we wait­ing for a ma­jor emer­gency to re­solve wor­ry­ing is­sues about the abil­ity of key ser­vices to cope with dis­as­ter?

His re­ac­tion, headed ‘‘Auck­land city’s grow­ing risk’’:

‘‘Warn­ings of prob­a­ble flaws in the emer­gency man­age­ment plan­ning for a ma­jor dis­as­ter in Auck­land have been fobbed off by the cur­rent Civil De­fence man­age­ment, but crit­i­cism has been sup­ported by many who are, or were, closer to re­al­ity. One ma­jor flaw is hav­ing all your eggs in one bas­ket with only one cen­tre for all com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

‘‘Re­spond­ing to, or even re­ply­ing to, ev­ery mes­sage at the start and dur­ing a dis­as­ter at all lev­els (lo­cal, re­gional, na­tional, and op­er­a­tional) is im­prac­ti­cal and ridicu­lous. They do not have the staff.

‘‘Gaps in their emer­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works are se­ri­ous (and se­cret) but have not, or can­not, be re­solved.

‘‘Lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties are an in­te­gral part of Civil De­fence but they will suf­fer as Auck­land grows, all ser­vices and the in­fra­struc­ture be­come over­loaded and re­sources di­min­ish.

‘‘They do not have any ac­tual bases to work from, clearly vis­i­ble iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, or au­thor­ity to man­age peo­ple be­fore or dur­ing a dis­as­ter.

‘‘Vol­un­teers dis­ap­pear­ing rapidly have not been re­placed fast enough. Lo­cal emer­gency re­sponse/res­cue teams have been iso­lated and must now op­er­ate sep­a­rately from emer­gency ser­vices – con­trary to what they told us about their so-called sup­port.

‘‘Lo­cal com­mu­nity sup­port has di­min­ished as lo­cal Civil De­fence op­er­a­tional cen­tres have been shut down or be­come in­ef­fec­tive un­der this regime. There’s a lot of lip ser­vice on how great things are but that’s far from the truth.

‘‘No real ma­jor train­ing ex­er­cises have been held for years. A few mi­nor and re­stricted ‘desk­top’ ex­er­cises were done at top level.

‘‘Al­though sat­is­fy­ing their man­age­ment ideas of ef­fi­ciency, these never re­ally tested the whole city civil de­fence sys­tem.

‘‘Pre­vi­ous plan­ning by lo­cal civil de­fence of­fi­cials has been ig­nored, again con­trary to what we are asked to be­lieve. There are no stan­dard pro­ce­dures across the su­per-city to get lo­cal as­sis­tance or al­ter­na­tive shel­ter.

‘‘De­cid­ing on the day is not good plan­ning.

‘‘To rely on cell­phones or in­ter­net in the early stages of a dis­as­ter would be a dis­as­ter in it­self. How ef­fec­tive would the alert be at night when most are sleep­ing? That is untested.

‘‘Lo­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions in any emer­gency are vi­tal, but changes here have weak­ened many longestab­lished and proven lo­cal net­works. How they ex­pect to get in­for­ma­tion rapidly from any of many in­ci­dent lo­ca­tions is now a se­ri­ous ques­tion and the com­mu­nity will suf­fer.

‘‘Not all dis­as­ters are vis­ual or vi­o­lent (like earth­quakes or tsunamis). If the su­per-city loses its power sup­ply for days or weeks, that will be a ma­jor dis­as­ter. Think about it: No wa­ter or sew­er­age pumps, no petrol, no re­frig­er­a­tion, no ATMs, no su­per­mar­kets, over­loaded com­mu­ni­ca­tions, crowded roads or high­ways, and more.

‘‘With the in­creas­ing city pop­u­la­tion, stretched in­fra­struc­ture, more high-rise hous­ing, and chang­ing cli­mate, the like­li­hood of real dis­as­ter is grow­ing.’’

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