Fukushima is closer than we think

Fukushima is closer than we think

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By Dr. Prof. Raúl A. Montenegro

Japan has 55 nuclear power plants, 14 located in the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Japan - the victim of that suicide - has just dealt a very hard blow to the nuclear myth.

Japan has 55 nuclear power plants, 14 of them located in the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami that occurred in mid-March. To understand why Argentina is not exempt from having a level 7 nuclear accident on the INES [1] scale –the worst possible- and why its citizens are not prepared to face it, we will take a brief tour of the nuclear realities of Japan, Germany and our country. If the governments of the nation and some provinces do not learn the lesson of Fukushima we will be doomed to repeat their mistakes. Only after major nuclear accidents, there is usually no second chance.


Before the March 11, 2011 earthquake, Japan's nuclear authorities and private operators (including TEPCO, responsible for Fukushima I) believed that the Fukushima I, Fukushima II, Onagawa and Tokai plants could withstand earthquakes and tsunamis of maximum intensity . That day at 14:46 JST (Japan Standard Time) an earthquake with 8.9 degrees of intensity on the Richter scale occurred on the northeast coast. At 3:41 p.m. the tsunami arrived. At Fukushima I reactors 1, 2 and 3 were operating (not units 4, 5 and 6, out of service). At Fukushima II power reactors 1, 2 and 3, at Onagawa another three reactors and at Tokai unit II, whose unit I has already been dismantled. All of them, but especially the Fukushima II reactors, collapsed. Then began the increasing leakage of radioactive materials into the environment, which continues at this time. Massive evacuations also began in the nearest communities. For the first time in human nuclear history, several reactors crashed at the same time. Originally, the situation in Fukushima was assimilated to a level 4 nuclear event on the INES scale (ranging from 0 to 7), but as the chain of events worsened, grades 5 and 6 were reached and quite possibly the dreaded level 7. The same level as Chernobyl.

The nuclear power plants in northeast Japan did not withstand the force of the earthquake and tsunami. Despite the repeated safety guarantees that Japan's nuclear authority and private operators have historically declared, the structures, operation and emergency devices of the reactors collapsed. Numerous crises then fueled each other: massive destruction, mortality, thousands of injuries, deteriorated road networks, interruption in the supply of fuel, electricity and food, transportation problems, faulty communications and intermittent aftershocks of the earthquake, which still continue. The preparation of civil society to face earthquakes, tsunamis and technological accidents explains why there were not hundreds of thousands of deaths in one of the most densely populated regions on the planet. Society responded, but the same did not happen with the government's nuclear authorities, who, in recent decades, failed to realize that concentrating many nuclear reactors on small areas and near large population centers was nonsense, especially in a country that endured historically strong earthquakes and tsunamis. The funny thing is that being the only country on Earth where the folly of an enemy detonated two nuclear bombs on innocent population, Japan developed the same technology that generated the bombs "Little Boy", based on Uranium 235, and "Fat Man "with Plutonium 239.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted swiftly to Japan's human, environmental and technological tragedy. On March 15, 2011, it postponed the extension of the useful life of 17 nuclear reactors for three months, and a day later it "temporarily" paralyzed the 7 oldest plants in Germany. He made this decision even though the country is not at risk of major earthquakes or tsunamis [2]. Similar decisions are being taken in different countries. Until March 17, 2011, 10 of the 31 countries that have nuclear power reactors announced the stoppage of new projects and ordered a thorough review of their safety.


Contrary to what happened in Germany, where a rapid preventive measure was adopted, the Manager of Institutional Relations of the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA), Gabriel Barceló, ruled out that what happened in Japan could happen in Argentina because our country "uses a different technology and we are not in a seismic zone "[3]. This statement is incorrect. The technologies are different but the radioactive materials that are handled are equally dangerous and earthquakes - on the other hand - are not the only cause of a nuclear accident. Any reactor can suffer a level 7 accident.

This maximum "possible" accident may be the result of several factors, isolated or acting simultaneously, as happened in Japan:

First, seismic activity. The Embalse plant in Córdoba is located on the Santa Rosa fault, in a region where important seismic movements have already been registered: magnitude 5.5 and intensity VII in 1947 and magnitude 6.0 and intensity VIII in 1934. The "fault of the western front of the Sierra Chica "extends from Carlos Paz to Berrotarán and Elena. Its potential to generate earthquakes is unknown. In the region there is also the Las Lagunas fault, near Sampacho - a locality destroyed by an earthquake in 1934 - that reaches Río Cuarto [4].

Second, human failures. On June 30, 1983, the Embalse nuclear power plant suffered a serious incident that did not discharge radioactive material into the environment. But it revealed "design flaws, errors in documents and procedures, and mistakes in internal organization." This crude diagnosis is contained in a document from the IRS, the Austrian-based United Nations office that centralizes incident reports. The CNEA, in addition to keeping it a secret, took three years to communicate what happened to the IRS. It only became known when the magazine Der Spiegel, which had access to 250 secret reports, published it in Germany in 1987.

Third, technical failures. The Candu reactors have inherent flaws in their design that explain, for example, the numerous discharges of radioactive heavy water discharged into the Embalse lake. For example, February-March 1986, August 1987, September 1987, December 1987, December 1995 and October 2003 [5]. The Candú are particularly sensitive to certain types of accidents [6]

Fourth, impact of a large commercial aircraft by accident or terrorist act against the reactor or against the spent nuclear fuel tank.

It is important to note that Embalse has two extremely dangerous sites, one highly protected by "engineering barriers", the heart of the reactor, and the other less structurally protected, the depleted nuclear fuel depot. The highly radioactive discard rods that were produced during its 28 years of operation (1983-2011) are deposited there. At the end of its useful life, it would accumulate more than 120,000 bars that remain dangerous for 1,000 to 1,500 centuries. The situation in Atucha I is similar. If a Boeing 767 were to hit these deposits, the nuclear fuel would fragment and the radioactive waste, carried overhead by the convective current of the fire, could spread. The wind would generate successive "pollution plumes" or clouds. Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown that this contamination can affect very large areas, even at great distances from damaged reactors [5].

Embalse and Atucha I routinely release radioactive materials

Argentina's nuclear power plants are only controlled by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (ARN), whose members have always maintained close relations with CNEA and NASA (Nucleoeléctrica Argentina S.A.), which operates the two reactors. The governments of the provinces of Córdoba and Buenos Aires - on the other hand - do not adequately control the nuclear reactors of Embalse and Atucha I, nor do they prepare local populations for the "worst possible accident" (INES level 7). In addition to the accidental release of radioactive materials - usually not reported to the public - both reactors routinely discharge a long list of radioisotopes into the environment.

Reservoir for example releases to the lake, among others, Tritium 3, Zirconium 95, Cesium 137 and 134, Strontium 90, Chromium 51, Niobium 95, Cerium 141 and 144, Gadolinium 153, Iodine 131, Ruthenium 106 and 103, Cobalt 60, Antimony 125, Barium 140, Manganese 54, Silver 110 M, Zinc 65 and Curium 51. The air -in the meantime- receives Tritium 3, Xenon 133, Xenon 135, Krypton 85, 85 M and 88, Niobium 95, Zirconium 95, Cerium 144 , Ruthenium 103. Cerium 141, Antimony 124 and 125, Cobalt 60, Iron 59, Silver 110m and Iodine 131. All are risky and given that some have long half-lives such as Tritium 3 (12.3 years), Cesium 137 ( 30.1 years), Strontium 90 (28.7 years) and Cobalt 60 (5.2 years) are very likely to have accumulated in the lake and soil food chains. Cesium 137, chemically similar to potassium, enters, for example, muscle tissue and Strontium 90 –similar to calcium- in bone tissue. Since the government of the province of Córdoba does not control NASA - the operator of the plant - what is happening is unknown. In Atucha I - where the main discharges go to the Paraná River - the situation is similar.

At the level of ionizing radiation there are no harmless levels

Ionizing radiation emitted by radioactive materials is harmful to cells, tissues, and living organisms. Even relatively low exposure to natural background radiation carries risks. Any increase in that fund increases the possibility of negative effects. Every citizen should know that no threshold of radioactivity is biologically safe. Maurice Errera from the University of Brussels puts it very clearly: "any increase in radiation, no matter how small, is liable to increase the incidence of hereditary diseases or cancer". The discovery of the Petkau effect changed the health impact story. Today we know that small doses of radiation can also affect living cells and their genetic material (DNA), and cause cancer. Radiation acts in two ways, directly when Alpha and Beta particles and Gamma rays reach living cells. Indirectly when the atoms "impacted" by that radiation lose their electrons, and these act as if they were harmful bullets on other cells and their respective genetic materials. The effects of radiation, however, usually appear long after exposure. Ionizing radiation, which has no odor, is neither seen nor touched, silently sickens and kills [5].

Córdoba, with more radioactive Tritium than Buenos Aires

In Córdoba, the Embalse lake receives the greatest impacts from the Embalse nuclear power plant. In addition to the several dozen radioactive materials that the plant routinely discharges, its tertiary circuit overheats the lake's waters by more than 3 degrees Celsius. One of the critical radioisotopes that overturns is Tritium 3, whose half-life is 12.43 years. Reservoir residents, for example, consume drinking water with 220 becquerels per liter of Tritium 3. For the CNEA this value is “below” their limits. But for Directive 98/93 of the European Community, approved on November 3, 1998, the acceptable limit for drinking water is 100 becquerels per liter. Why should an inhabitant of Embalse consume water with 500 times more Tritium 3 than an inhabitant of Buenos Aires or Rome, knowing what we now know about the effect of small doses? CNEA and other federal offices minimize this reality but without giving figures [7].

In Argentina the population is not prepared to face nuclear accidents

At Embalse and Atucha I, Argentina's three nuclear institutions, ARN, CNEA and NASA, organize "minor" nuclear accident drills only within a 10-kilometer radius around each nuclear reactor. Their evacuation plan for people is limited, in each case, to 3 kilometers around the plants. Fukushima and Chernobyl show how negligible these distances are. Tokyo, which has been preparing to reduce exposure to airborne radioactive waste, is located 224 kilometers from Fukushima. In Chernobyl, radioactive contamination reached places 700 kilometers away and even further.

Hence, in Argentina millions of people are marginalized from prevention systems. Citizen plans with slogans were never drawn up so that any inhabitant of the cities of Río Cuarto or Villa María in Córdoba, or Rosario in Santa Fe, or the city of Buenos Aires would know how to act in the worst possible accident. Joint tasks have not even been agreed with Uruguay so that its citizens are also prepared. CNEA limits itself to saying that the probability of a nuclear accident is low and that the Fukushima tragedy could not occur in our country.

By excluding most of the population from security slogans, Argentina's nuclear authorities are committing a tragic social mistake. To avoid possible criticism and fear, they prefer not to prepare the population that lives beyond the 10-kilometer radius around Embalse and Atucha I.

But they are not the only ones responsible. The governments of the provinces potentially affected by a level 7 nuclear accident on the INES scale - either in Embalse or Atucha I - also continue to look the other way. The case of Córdoba is particularly serious. The Foundation for the Defense of the Environment (FUNAM) delivered to Governor Juan Schiaretti, in November 2010, a Citizen Plan with slogans so that residents know how to act in the event of a nuclear accident. To date (March 2011) the governor has never responded. Hence, FUNAM is analyzing the possibility of taking legal action against the governor and has decided, unilaterally, to publicly distribute the Citizen Plan.

The limitations of Iodine tablets

During nuclear accidents, significant amounts of the radioisotope Iodine 131 are released, which has a half-life of 8.1 days [8]. Like all radioactive materials it is a carcinogenic substance. That is why stable (non-radioactive) iodine tablets are distributed among the population. As the thyroid gland becomes saturated and the person is exposed to radioactive iodine 131, the gland does not fix it and the radioisotope is eliminated, mainly, in urine and fecal matter. What is not clearly explained by the nuclear authorities is that the Iodine tablets only serve to stop the radioactive forms of Iodine. It does not help remove Cesium 137 or Strontium 90 or any of the other radioactive materials released during a nuclear accident. It also does not "absorb" radiation. Due to this confusion, many people believe that by taking Iodine tablets they are protected from all radioactive materials and radiation, which is not true.

Argentina already had its grade 4 accident on the INES scale

Argentina appears on the lists of major nuclear accidents due to the serious accident that occurred in the RA-2 research reactor at the Constituyentes Atomic Center in Buenos Aires (CAT). On September 23, 1983, an experiment was being carried out there that required changing the configuration of the "heart" of the reactor. A "critical excursion" (runaway reaction) then occurred, exposing the operator to 2,000 rad of Gamma radiation and 1,700 rad of neutrons, resulting in death two days later. Another 17 people located outside the reactor room received doses that ranged from 35 rad (0.35 Gy) to less than 1 rad (0.01 Gy). This accident was classified as level 4 on the INES [5] scale.

In Argentina, the nuclear program should be reviewed and the safety systems of its power and experimental reactors undergo an independent review

In our country, works are being defined that put vast geographic regions and highly populated cities in health and environmental danger. This is due to the high mobility of atmospheric pollutants in the event of an accident with a massive radioisotope discharge. In Japan, radioactive substances disposed of from Fukushima are reaching Tokyo, the most populous city on the planet (with 35.8 million inhabitants), which is 224 kilometers away. In Argentina, Atucha I and the proposed reactor "park" are located 120 kilometers from the city of Buenos Aires, while Embalse is only 35 kilometers from Río Tercero, Alta Gracia 86 kilometers, Río Cuarto 110 kilometers and Córdoba 120 kilometers.

The national government, together with that of Córdoba, decided - in open violation of current legislation - to extend the useful life of Embalse for 25 years. The nation and the government of the province of Buenos Aires, for their part, agreed to the installation of two new nuclear reactors in Lima (together with Atucha I and Atucha II, the latter under construction). In the northeast of the country, the nation and the government of Formosa intend to install a 60 MW CAREM reactor next to the Paraguay River. In no case have there been public environmental impact studies or consultations. In full democracy, the authoritarian mechanics of military governments, the main promoters of the nuclear program, are repeated.

By deciding to extend the useful life of the Embalse, they are openly violating the legislation on environmental impact assessment - Law 7,343 and Provincial Decree 2,131 - and without holding the public hearing provided for in National Environmental Law 25,675. It is clear that an extension would increase the risks of accident in a reactor that - despite the renewal of parts - would have many old and impacted elements. It would also increase the negative effect of its radioactive discharges to the environment, particularly on the Embalse lake and the Ctalamochita river, downstream of the lake. It is therefore urgent to suspend the extension of the useful life of the Embalse nuclear power plant and to investigate administratively and judicially why said extension was decided without respecting the laws and without a public hearing.

Argentina must rethink its costly nuclear program based on broad and informed debates and public consultations, in particular because the nation is promoting - unilaterally - the consolidation of the first nuclear reactor park in Latin America in Lima (Buenos Aires) when Fukushima showed, dramatically, how dangerous it is to concentrate in the same locality several nuclear reactors located –in addition- at a critical distance from large populated centers.

Likewise, the safety of all nuclear facilities, not only reactors (atomic centers, uranium enrichment plant, uncontrolled uranium mines, Dioxitek, etc.) must be subjected to an external review, and independent environmental and epidemiological studies must be undertaken to determine the negative impacts. that have already caused nuclear activities on ecosystems and health. For this it will be necessary to convene universities, research centers and civil society organizations. In this context, the construction of the 60 MW CAREM reactor in Formosa should be suspended indefinitely and the feasibility and safety of Atucha II should be analyzed. Finally, Argentina's nuclear activities cannot continue to be controlled by a body such as the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which has shown professional, technical and political ties with the CNEA itself and NASA.

Develop a State policy based on the participation of governments, political parties and different non-governmental actors to generate a long-term program that does not isolate the energy issue from the environment, from society itself and from the world scene. In this approach, saving behaviors, sustainable technologies and soft sources should take priority. It cannot be that decisions and investments in energy matters are decided in Argentina by a national ministry, large corporate interests and a total absence of consultation. What should be clear is that Argentina should not manufacture the trap that France has already fallen into, where more than 80% of the electrical energy consumed is of nuclear origin. In addition to numerous energy alternatives and soft sources (wind, solar, photovoltaic, residual biomass, etc.) there is an energy saving strategy, insufficiently developed in our country. All these alternatives are cheaper and less dangerous than nuclear, and do not leave radioactive waste that, due to its long half-life, compromises the health and environment of future generations. It is not reasonable that nuclear reactors with useful lives of just 30 years generate large volumes of waste that remain radioactive for 1,000 to 1,500 centuries.

Relying on absurdly expensive and dangerous technology instead of consolidating varied and more sustainable energy matrices is suicidal. Japan - the victim of that suicide - has just dealt a severe blow to the nuclear myth, a myth that was born out of militarism, suspicion and corruption.

If citizens and institutions fail to break the tradition of secrecy, secrecy and authoritarianism with which Argentina's lavish nuclear program was built - which barely provides 5 to 6% of electricity - then we must prepare ourselves to resist its unpredictable collateral effects. Let us not forget that a single serious nuclear accident can collapse an entire region for decades and centuries. Fukushima is closer than we think.

Dr. Raúl A. Montenegro, Biologist - Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the National University of Córdoba. President of the Foundation for the Defense of the Environment (FUNAM) and 2004 Alternative Nobel Prize Winner (RLA, Stockholm, Sweden).

FUNAM - Foundation for the Defense of the Environment - Córdoba (Argentina), Thursday March 17, 2011


[1] INES, International Scale of Nuclear Events. Grade 6 was assigned by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (El País, Madrid, March 15, 2011).

[2] In Europe, nuclear institutions have a very critical position on the accidents that occurred in Japan. The European Energy Commissioner, Günther Öttinger described the situation in Fukushima as "out of control" (El País, Madrid, March 16, 2011).

[3] "CNEA: what happens in Japan could not happen in Argentina". News from the TELAM Agency, March 14, 2011. G. Barceló's assertion is technically incorrect as Argentina has seismic zones.

[4] These faults are being studied by the National University of Río Cuarto. Geologist Guillermo Sagripanti –in charge of the studies- stated that the Río Cuarto area "is seismically active." See La Voz del Interior (Córdoba), March 15, 2011 and Puntal newspaper (Río Cuarto) March 16, 2011.

[5] Montenegro, R.A. 2007. "The nuclear program of Argentina and the creation of nuclear-free zones for reducing risks of nuclear facilities". In: "Updating International Nuclear Law", Eds. H. Stockinger, J. Van Dyke, M. Geistlinger, S. K. Fussek and P. Marchart, Ed. NW Verlag, BMW Berliner Wissenschaftsverlag & Intersentia, Wien-Graz, pp. 259-284.

[6] The Candú de Embalse nuclear reactor has problems of its own: 1) Greater probability of heavy water loss from the primary circuit given the complexity of its piping. 2) Refueling while the reactor continues to operate introduces additional risk factors. 3) The successive failures and breaks of the pressure pipes are related to the same Zirconium-Niobium alloy used in the Chernobyl pipes. 4) The natural uranium-heavy water combination has serious safety implications. The reactivity coefficient is positive, hence any accident that causes the loss of refrigerant can lead to energy leakage. 5) The use of heavy water generates large amounts of radioactive Tritium 3, and the generous use of Zirconium in the core results in a high Zirconium-water vapor reaction potential. 6) It is not designed to withstand the worst accidents involving extensive Zirconium-water vapor reactions, hydrogen and water vapor explosions, and disruption of the common modes of primary and secondary cooling cycles within containment.

[7] According to data from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (1998), the values ​​of Tritium 3 in the waters of the Río Tercero Reservoir, in Córdoba, are 32 to 520 times higher than those measured in the Paraná river in the vicinity of Atucha I. Tritium 3 figures in the drinking water consumed by the residents of Embalse, meanwhile, are 34 to 367 times higher than those recorded in underground (drinking) water from wells located 5 kilometers south of Atucha I (Buenos Aires province) . See [5].

[8] Each radioactive material has an observed half-life. When it is said that Iodine 131 has a half-life of 8.1 days, it implies the following: if I have 100 grams of Iodine 131 at 8.1 days, half will remain, that is, 50 grams; at 16.2 days half of half, 25 grams, and so on.

Video: How Japan Is Responding To Fukushima Five Years Later HBO (June 2022).