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The nuclear crisis in Japan has now entered its third week. Despite claims over the weekend that “the tide had turned”, the news has once again shifted back to reporting on frequent evacuations, smoke plumes and radiation spikes. This crisis, it now appears, may go on for weeks or months. As the fallout begins to spread, now being detected all over the Northern Hemisphere, proponents of nuclear power are now having their own meltdown.
This storm of comment has come from every quarter. George Monbiot is reminding us that “renewables have impacts too”. Lawrence Solomon is stating that the radiation might even be good for people. Mark Lynas, an “environmental” author, warns that phasing out nuclear could be the difference between two and three degrees of climate change, and offers to eat contaminated food goods from Japan himself.
If there is one thing all of these writings and more have in common, it’s condescension. The overwhelming message is that people who oppose or fear nuclear power are ignorant, uninformed, “fear-mongerers” with an “agenda”. Those who favour nuclear power, in contrast, must be wise, educated and informed – and have a crucial public need to flout that and talk down to everyone. This kind of intellectual chest-thumping would be one thing in a debate, but with the amount of attention it’s received from our media, it begins to look as if it’s some sort of scientific consensus.
Science, though, isn’t so simple. Seeking answers, I cracked open a copy of Radiobiology for the Radiologist, from a friend who works in X-ray labs. After reading for a few days, scouring the internet, and running things by a couple of medical “experts”, what I’ve found doesn’t tend to line up with the rosy picture being painted. The long-term risks caused by radiation are widely known and don’t require doses above the Japanese Government’s “safe” level of 100 mSv.
“A Chest X-Ray”
When radioactive materials, like uranium, decay, they produce a fair bit of energy in the form of radiation. This takes various forms – alpha, beta and gamma are the three primary types (helium nuclei, electrons and photons). These are forms of ionizing radiation, as they are powerful enough to knock electrons off atoms in their path, which can be quite harmful to living tissue. The effects, though, are not so simple as taking a reading with a Geiger Counter. They depend on a wide number of factors: who is being affected, what kind of radiation they’re being exposed to, how much being exposed to it and how long that takes. Women are more vulnerable than men, and children are far more vulnerable than adults. Risks are most severe for unborn babies. Various kinds of radiation, likewise, affect the body far differently, even at equivalent dosage rates. And then, of course, there’s the matter of how long it takes to get a certain dose. In order to approximate the damage done by different kinds of radiation, dosages are calculated in Sieverts (Sv) with adjustments made for different kinds of radiation and exposure. Sieverts help us to put various kinds of exposure in perspective, and can draw paralells between chest x-rays and fallout levels. They don’t, however, give us any details on exactly what is going on, or what the particular risks may be from a certain case of exposure.
At high levels, the effects of radiation are easy to predict. Acute radiation poisoning in the range of several Sieverts or above is a very nasty way to die. However, this requires a very large dose, and would require an absolutely disastrous amount of environmental contamination to reach outside the current safe zone. Most risks of radiation come at far lower doses, and occur over a much longer term. You may never get enough smoke in a cigarette to die from smoke inhalation – they only give you a small fraction of that volume of smoke – but that doesn’t prove cigarettes aren’t dangerous. Like the dangers of smoking, low levels of radiation raise risks of disease which play out over lifetimes and even those who die of cancer in their wake may never really know if they would have otherwise. These dangers require far lower doses, in milisieverts (mSv), or thousandths of a Sievert, accumulated over a year. Above about two Sieverts the risk actually drops because of the amount of cell damage, so it’s clear that the dangers we’re facing don’t require large doses. And while 100 mSv is being touted as a maximum “safe” dose, it’s far from it. In my textbook readings, that’s the point where many doctors begin to advise therapeutic abortions to pregnant women.
The biggest fear that people have from the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant is not radiation, so much as it is the other products of fission: radioisotopes. When uranium fuel decays, it also produces other elements, which are generally unstable as well. These isotopes, such as Iodine-131, Cesium-137 or Strontium-90, can remain radioactive for days to thousands of years. When dispersed in a fire or steam release at an overheating reactor, they can travel as dust on the wind or on ocean currents until inhaled or eaten. Once inside our bodies, they can build up in areas like bones, tissues or glands, and are linked to many forms of cancer and other illnesses. Radiation received in this way is far more harmful than what you’d get from an X-ray, and while dosage estimates in Sieverts attempt to make up for that, these “adjustment factors” are likely an understatement.
This is what happened with Chernobyl, and why it was so much more devastating than nearly any other accident (or even weapons test) you can name. When the core breached it spewed radioactive materials into the air, which then floated on the winds across Europe. The threat wasn’t the direct radiation spewing from the reactor, but what people received later as the dust settled. Determining how many people died directly from Chernobyl is very difficult. Estimates range from about fifty to around a million. But because the effects take such a long time to set in, and because the dust cloud was dispersed over large parts of a continent, it’s very hard to get an accurate measurement. The effects of radiation can last a lifetime – people are still, over sixty years later, experiencing higher rates of cancer from Hiroshima.
The best known isotope at the moment is Iodine-131, a common by-product of uranium decay and often associated with fallout. It’s short-lived (a half-life of about a week), but quite radioactive and can build up in your thyroid the same way other types of iodine do, mainly in the thyroid gland. This can lead to thyroid cancer and other diseases, and is quite well documented. It’s also why iodine pills are given out in these situations, to build up your body’s natural supply and prevent the absorption of any more. Aside from this, Iodine does not protect you from radiation, nor does it protect you from other isotopes such as thorium or cesium. Iodine-131 is also a prime example of why using adult males to measure risk distorts data so much – an adult male has little or no risk of developing thyroid cancer from this kind of exposure, while women and children are at risk at quite low levels.
Almost all data we have on this type of danger comes from studies done of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. This is not only because we’ve seen enough time elapse to study the population over large parts of their lives, but because the doses were so concentrated over individual populations. It’s worth noting that Chernobyl put out a lot more fallout than either of these atom bombs, as did American nuclear tests, but the populations affected were far more spread out and hard to study. This type of research is very difficult, and much of what we know is based on assumptions. Nevertheless, current research seems to indicate links between the isotopes found in fallout and a wide range of cancers (thyroid, leukemia, breast, lung and bone). It also holds the potential for birth defects and hereditary mutations. Measuring rare cancers among large populations, though, can be very difficult, and getting statistically significant results is often impossible. Since harm is so often calculated in excess cases of cancer per 100 000, it can be difficult to measure effectively even with cities of several hundred thousand.
Most experts now base their estimates in what is known as the linear no-threshold assumption, which holds that damage caused by radiation is roughly proportional to the dosage (adjusted), and that no level of radiation is safe, but some produce less than we can measure accurately. This is based on the idea that while certain kinds of damage become less likely with lower dosages, a deadly cancer is still a deadly cancer, and only needs a single “hot particle” to create. So, as the theory goes, cutting the dosage in half would also cut the number of new cancers in half. And since cancer rates are so variable for many other reasons, below a certain number of new cases, it’s just not possible to achieve “statistically significant” results. Most studies, at this point, reflect this model, by finding strong links between low-level ionizing radiation and cancers, birth defects and other ills, just below statistically significant levels. The lowest dose, so far, that I’ve been able to locate which has been found to have “significant” links is 34 mSv and breast cancer, though the generally accepted rate for most cancers is around 100 mSv per year. At this dosage, in under a year, an estimated 800 new cancers are created in 100 000 people. There are a thousand times that many people living in Tokyo, so if the city were to receive a large dose, it would need to give cancer to a population of over 800 000 to be “significant”, statistically.
There are many obvious problems with any of these estimates, some of which have been greatly overplayed lately. The first is that we’re exposed to a fair bit of background radiation on a regular basis, and much more if we get X-rays or CT scans. This is totally true, but neglects to mention that ionizing radiation causes cumulative damage – every mSv you receive in a year or more counts. We’re not going to stop receiving background radiation any time soon, and unless we do, dumping half a year’s “safe” dose on us in a week or two is still going to risk pushing us over the edge. Also, it’s worth noting, that X-rays and CT scans aren’t exactly harmless. The second common criticism is that of the Horomesis theory, a rival of the linear no-threshold model, which states that low levels of radiation can be beneficial, and that even lower levels may actually be harmful. This point, too, neglects to mention that we’re already getting this ‘helpful dose’ from natural sources, and anything we receive from fallout happens on top of that dosage. And of course, while a certain amount of (some forms of) radiation may be beneficial in some ways, that doesn’t mean that those dosages can’t also cause cancer, especially when received from fallout. So far, most studies seem to indicate more cancers, not less than expected by the linear model at dosages in this range.
Traces of radioactive particles such as Iodine-131 have now been detected as far away as British Columbia, California, Colorado, Newfoundland, Hawaii and Iceland. Levels in these places are still very low, but it suggests that a large amount of them have been dispersed into the air, and are likely far more concentrated closer to the reactors themselves. Local levels in seawater have risen very high, and traces in tapwater, milk, spinach and mizuna are now also prompting warnings. What we now know about radiation in Japan is limited by what has been measured, and so far we have very few measurements to go on.
At this point, it’s unclear how many people beyond the immediate repair crews have been exposed to a serious dose, significant or otherwise. I have yet to find much to be worried about in microsievert-level doses (millionths of a Sievert), but it is enough to set off alarms. We can only hope that at this point, the warning bells have been just that – warnings. Even if not single member of the general public gets cancer, this disaster has painted the northern hemisphere with a frightening map of where this fallout could land. Fukushima could have already been far worse than what we’ve seen, and that doesn’t prove nuclear power is safe, it proves the exact opposite. It is only a matter of time until another disaster strikes, and it could be far worse.
After a few days of reading and research, I’d probably take pains to avoid exposing a population to anything which gave off any more than a milisievert, and work much harder if women or children were involved. You could top the yearly 100 mSv “safe” limit with as little as one every 3-4 days. A couple of doses of 5-10mSv in food, water and air, even over a few weeks, could easily mean cancer for tens of thousands of Tokyo residents, even by very conservative numbers. And yes, that’s about the equivalent of a few CT scans. To put that in perspective, across Japan, the quake’s official toll is just over ten thousand dead. The risks to an individual may not be high, but spread across a population of millions, these risks are deadly serious. I’m not writing this to inspire terror and panic, but to put these risks in perspective. Nuclear disasters like Fukushima are far from safe and there’s nowhere near the kind of data at the moment to assume that it is.
Japan’s nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant has now been officially upgraded to a “level 5″ incident by international standards, a “disaster with broader effects”, much like Three Mile Island. Passengers arriving at the Dallas Airport from Tokyo have reportedly set off radiation alarms. Workers at the site are now being described by news sources and others with terms like “sucide squads” and “death sentence”. There’s even been talk of bringing in retired workers. These workers, now reportedly rotating through 15 minute stays to limit exposure, are now all that stands between Japan and a total meltdown of multiple reactors. Unbelievable heroism, without a doubt, and we can only hope it will be enough.
People are becoming far less resistant to now drawing comparisons with Chernobyl. In many ways, it’s scarier. Fukushima is one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants, and has four simultaneous reactors in crisis at the moment. Chernobyl was far smaller, and only one. whether we’ll see a cloud of radioisotopes released that goes on to cut a swath across a continent, we sadly don’t know. In the end, Chernobyl was buried in sand and encased in concrete as an emergency solution. This is now being raised as an option.
The American Government has also continued its work in the last few days undermining the statements of the Japanese Government and IAEA, presenting a much grimmer picture. On the home front, though, they’re still refusing to revisit their vast array of nuclear subsidies in the light of this unfolding disaster. Still hoping to kick-start a “nuclear renaissance”, they expanded their plans in 2009, to include tens of billions in loan guarantees. For next year, there’s $36 billion budgeted for such loans – roughly ten times Wisconsin’s budget deficit. Other subsidies include a tax credit, $853 million to help develop nuclear waste strategies and a further continuation of the industry’s limit on liability for any disasters.
Where will things from here is anyone’s guess. The situation does not look good, and the potential for some very long-term consequences is clearly present. Japan is an incredibly densely populated country – Tokyo’s alone has over a hundred million. That’s three canadas. Even if things miraculously improve from this point onward, and the radiation leaks so far prove to be harmless to most, an incredible amount of damage will have been done in human terms. This is the last thing Japan needs right now, and neither it’s weary populace or shaky stock-market is responding well.
Nuclear disasters have so far typically happened apart from others. An incident like this amidst a quake and tsunami that has devastated a nation is something we’ve long known is possible, but not yet seen. This adds a whole new frightening dimension to the threat of a nuclear “incident” – not simply as an isolated threat but as a way in which a bad situation could get far worse. Not all of the world’s reactors lie on coasts or fault-lines, but many do. Others are in potential war-zones, or simply regions with legendarily corrupt governments and regulators, far worse than Japan’s. Many are ageing, and others no-doubt have design flaws similar to the “Mark 1′ at Fukushima. In the end, we won’t know for sure until it’s too late – but why risk it?
As the world watches in horror, at Japan’s current nuclear wars, we’re all being forced to ask ourselves: could it happen here? In a word, yes. Or perhaps something very much like it.
Today alone, we’ve seen an earthquake in the Ottawa area and leak at the Pickering Reactor (35km from Toronto) which released 72 000 litres of demineralized water into Lake Ontario. That’s just today.
Could a level five nuclear incident happen in Ontario? It already has, in 1952 at Chalk River, 180km up the Ottawa river from our nation’s capitol. A cooling failure and hydrogen explosion led to a containment failure and release of 30kg of isotopes into the surrounding environment. Another incident happened six years later when it underwent a ‘fuel failure’ during core maintenance. And though the nuclear laboratories there sit in a seismically active area, neither was caused by an earthquake, but rather insufficient safeguards and operator error. Since then, both the Chalk River site and have been beset by problems. Shut down in 2007 over safety concerns, the current reactor at Chalk River, was restarted in December on order of Parliament after a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes. Just shy of a year later, heavy water was found to be leaking from the reactor, and it was shut down again. But unable to find the source after it stopped on its own, they restarted it days later. By May of 2009, it had returned and was leaking much faster, leading to another shutdown which lasted over a year. As of last August, though, it is once again operational due to another shortage of medical isotopes, as most of the world’s other producing reactors were also currently offline at the time.
Continuing East from there, one finds Elliot Lake, former heartland of Canadian uranium mining, and home to roughly 200 million tons of un-remediated tailings from mining sites. As with more active mining sites elsewhere in Canada, we’ve also seen ruptures of tailings dams, like one in 1993 which released an estimated two million litres of radioactive liquids into surrounding environments.
Ontario also houses the Bruce Nuclear plant, the largest in North America, and others closer to us, like the Darlington or Pickering reactors. Hamilton houses our own reactor at McMaster University. At least two more proposed plants have been promoted recently for new development.
And of course, in any discussion of the Canadian nuclear industry, we need to mention the larger global role it played. Since the Manhattan project, we’ve been involved in weapons programs, and still are today. AECL has been a major exporter of nuclear technologies, and therefore a major enabler of foreign nuclear weapons programs. We’ve sold reactors to India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Romania (while a member of the Warsaw Pact) and Argentina. Canadian technologies were found to have played a large role in India’s nuclear weapons program, and we certainly haven’t hindered those of others. Our CANDU reactors and other heavy-water types lend themselves easily to producing weaponized materials. In an age where many are urging the sales of reactors to large numbers of new nations in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the consequences of these sales need to be considered. Not exporting these technologies in the first place is far easier than invading and occupying nations like Iraq or Iran in order to get them back under our control.
Japan isn’t unique and niether is Ontario. Regions all around the world are now asking themselves these questions, and rediscovering their own ugly histories of nuclear mismanagement. Californians, wary of their reactors like Diablo Canyon, built right atop a fault-line. Germans have already reacted, shutting down seven of it’s seventeen reactors and facing a serious chance of a nationwide moratorium. News like this is rolling in from around the world.
I suspect that from this point onward, it’ll virtually require a cold day in hell to sell a new reactor anywhere that now receives news-feeds. Not that they’ll stop trying, but Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island led to a virtual 30-year freeze on new reactor construction in America and elsewhere. Most of those which exist now are close to or beyond their intended decommissioning date. Another similar freeze, lasting even a decade or two, would see the industry implode over large regions of the globe. And once there’s no reactors to point to as bright, shining examples of the atom’s potential, it’ll be even harder to build new ones. I’m not saying this is the definitive end of nuclear power, but if the industry does crash and burn, this will be the week that historians point to.
No fate is sealed. Those who stand to make fantastic profits off nuclear technologies will continue to downplay the costs and demand new stations, singing songs of progress. But now that we’ve all had a close-up look at what a disaster could look like, we’ve all got a very good reason to question those claims. I’ve seen lots of “direct action” in my day, and it ain’t hard. Show up, sit down, refuse to leave. Lock yourself to something if necessary, climb out of reach, dig in and camp – whatever it takes. If they drag you off, come back. We may not even need to go that far – a believable public statement from a few thousand people that we’re willing to may be enough. The day news of Japan’s crisis hit, 50 000 people showed up to protest at a site in Germany. The collective hopes and fears of the earth’s people may not be able to stop the current crisis in Japan, but we can stop it from ever happening again.
In the chaos and turmoil following yesterday’s earthquake, the residents of Japan are now grappling with a second horror: a potential meltdown of the the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Several plants have been shut down, and hundreds of thousands have now power after the quakes and tsunami, which may be the strongest ever measured by the Island nation. The Fukushima reactors, about 150 miles north of Tokyo, became a particular focus after the quake shook fuel rods into the core and the loss of power shut off cooling systems. Fears grew after a large explosion there in the early hours of this morning (our time). Authorities confirmed that fuel had melted and have now evacuated over 50 000 people (with some estimates reaching three times that). With the loss of power, cooling systems have been off since yesterday and gasses have been released from the Fukushima 1 plant in order to release the growing pressure inside – preparations to do the same are underway at Fukushima 2 as well. Radiation levels in the are have been rising and authorities are now stockpiling iodine and beginning to check for signs of radiation sickness.
It’s very difficult to tell what’s going on right now. I’ve been glued to newsfeeds for hours now, and every time the situation seems to calm something else pops up. We can all hope that this may not be as bad as Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, but the crisis is far from over. We don’t know how much radiation escaped when they released the pressure, nor do we know what kind of shape the reactor itself is in. As surely as we can expect that the media will overplay disaster fears, we can only expect the government and industry authorities to downplay fears in the public eye. We likely won’t totally understand this for weeks or even years.
The most recent news is stating that at least one more plant, the Fukushima 2 plant (with four reactors of its own, about 10 miles away) is also now at crisis point, and evacuations are expanding.. Attempts to vent gasses seem to have hit some snags, and one of the reactor buildings at Fukushima 1 is now missing its roof, though the reactor itself seems to be intact. Authorities are now attempting to use sea water to cool the reactors, and it seems the temperatures and radiation levels may be dropping.
For those of us who’ve long been highly critical of the nuclear industry, this is a pretty clear example of the kind of “worse case scenario” we’ve been warning about. A nuclear reactor is not an appliance that can be turned on and off. It requires a constant input of attention and energy to keep under control. Without extensive cooling systems and pressure management, a nuclear reactor can produce temperatures which quickly make any attempts to keep the reactor under control nearly impossible. A “meltdown” happens when the fuel rods and the reactor itself simply begin to melt under the stress.
The key to any nuclear technology is the fact that radioactive material gets more radioactive in larger amounts. The neutrons released by the splitting atoms split others, speeding up the pace of the reaction for all the atoms around it. With this principle, you can “breed” special isotopes, or regulate power in a nuclear reactor by inserting or withdrawing rods of feul. It also means, though, that once you have a certain amount of pure enough fuel (“critical mass”), it simply explodes. The difference between a nuclear reactor and a nuclear bomb is that in a reactor, you can control the pace of the reaction. Those lines start to blur when the reactor itself begins to melt.
Are we likely to see an atom-bomb style detonation? Probably not, no. What we’re looking at is a lot more like a cross between a pressure cooker and a dirty bomb. If the reactor cracks open, the high-pressure radioactive gasses will escape into the air. Many parts are in danger of melting or burning – nearly everything does at those temperatures. If the uranium burns, the smoke will carry it for untold distances. It may also simply melt down into the ground until it hits the water table. And any number of new and dangerous isotopes could be created in the process. In short, we don’t need to see a mushroom cloud for this to get really ugly. Chernobyl released a reported 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima bomb and may have killed over 200 000 people.
Thousands of demonstrators have already turned out in Germany to protest a local nuclear plant after hearing of this crisis, and many other questions are now being raised about how “safe” nuclear power can ever be.
If recent events in the Gulf of Mexico prove anything, it’s that the price we pay for big toxic industries is often far higher than it appears. The potential for disasters like this is something we live with every day, but seldom talk about. Oil spills from tankers and drilling rigs are one possible source of a disaster which could pose enormous damage to human life and the environment. There are many others, each one of them with the same level of horrific potential as exploding underwater drill rigs.
1.Tar Sands Dam Failure
Oil spills can happen on land, too. And they aren’t always only oil, either. In Northern Alberta there are some very nasty man-made lakes of tarry sludge, held back by some very sketchy dams. It’s been described as “an oil spill in slow motion”. These tailings ponds contain the waste from processing the “world’s dirtiest oil”.Birds often die as soon as they land – 7000 ducks and geese per year. Many of these are sitting a very short distance from rivers leading toward the Mackenzie Delta, with the potential to poison Canada’s largest river system.
2.Coal Mining Disaster
What do you get when you mix high explosives, fossil fuels, and pristine Appalachian landscapes? A war on mountains. Through a type of super-destructive strip-mining known as “mountaintop removal”, mining companies use amounts of explosives on par with the Vietnam War to blow apart entire mountains to get at the coal inside. This process literally remodels the landscape, flattening it. And this means that tailings ponds from the processing are sitting on very unpredictable land. On a small scale, these disasters are common – poisoning farms and waterways. But on a larger scale, it could be very threatening to communities downstream. One Tennessee disaster is said to have dwarfed the Exxon Mobil spill. And though Canada has a lot of potential for ruining lands the size of Western Europe this way, America has a far higher population density, meaning a lot more people would be affected.
3.Uranium Mining Dam Failure
What could be worse than a massive tailings pond full of the by-products of Tar Sands or coal mining operations? The by-products of uranium mining, of course. Canada is a world-leader in Uranium mining, especially in the North (Ont., Sask. and NWT). And we already have seen many dam failures, which led to massive radioactive waste dumps. One of these disasters would mean hundreds or thousands of years of radioactive toxicity for all areas exposed.
4.Nuclear Reactor Meltdown
It’s been said that nuclear reactors are the world’s most advanced tea-kettles. Despite all the high-tech measures used to keep them safe, they are ultimately just steam engines. By piling enriched Uranium together, it heats up and boils water. But if that temperature isn’t kept under control, all sorts of horrible things can happen. A “meltdown” occurs when the nuclear fuel begins to melt, usually melting any safeguards as well(pretty much everything melts and burns at these temperatures). And whether something burns, explodes, hits the water table, or simply just puts off enough of the fuel in smoke that it poisons everyone for hundreds of miles around.
For decades we heard stories about hijackings and plane crashes. The worst we thought could happen was a week or two of icy hiking and eating people. Then 9/11 happened. But while busy office towers during the weekday are terrifying targets, there are a lot of others. And say what you want about the construction of the Twin Towers, but would the average tenement apartment or condo tower stand up any better? How about power plants, especially nuclear ones? Did you know that virtually all of Ontario’s nuclear waste is still stored on site at power plants? And what if they hit a dam, or a water treatment plant? Whether it’s an accident or not, every single plane flying might as well be a cruise missile, and that is something we need to consider when building things which someone might want to hit.
Thanks to the massive amount of synthetic materials our society uses, there are massive stockpiles of them everywhere. Sometimes this means tire yards, and other times big warehouses full of plastic chips. As one friend who’d worked in local plastics recycling industry put it, “everything that has to do with plastics is super-highly regulated, until you use the word recycling, then you can do whatever you want”.
Plastics are basically oil hardened into solids. And that means they burn fast, hot and put out a lot of toxic smoke. This is a possibility that we in Hamilton know well, after the Plastimet Fire in 1997, one of the most toxic fires in history.
7.Chemical Plant Disaster
A few years ago a fire at a local pesticide plant dumped enormous numbers of toxic by-products into local waterways. This is a small taste of what a pesticide plant can do, as well as many similar chemical industries, if disaster hits at one of their plants. A worst-case scenario would look a lot like the disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed an estimated 20 000 people.
8.Mass Food Poisoning
Never before in history have so many people relied on foods processed in so few places. This massive industrial centralization of our food supply means that when dealing with high-risk foods like meat or sprouts, contamination can spread rapidly over the entire continent. Look at what happened with Maple Leaf sandwich meats. Food borne bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria kill about three Americans a day. There is no reason to centralize our food in this way except to generate massive profits for a few rich corporations.
The elements of our food supply, and especially our meat supply, which take extreme risks in this fashion go well beyond central processing. The Mad Cow scare showed how processing meat scraps into food for cows was putting the whole system at risk. And though it didn’t kill millions, it could have. Modern factory farming techniques concentrate far too many animals together in small, unhealthy spaces. They’re fed cheap industrial food (such as grain-based cattle feed) and given growth hormones and other drugs. And then there’s the massive number of very toxic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers) used in agriculture. I know many in the medical profession, and though the health dangers of pesticides have been disputed in public very effectively, If these products were safe, agricultural workers wouldn’t have the highest risk of cancers like Leukemia and Hodgekins’ disease
I was in New Orleans the winter following Hurricane Katrina. The scale of the destruction was like nothing I’d ever seen (especially Biloxi). It wasn’t that they couldn’t deal with it – every city has people to re-build homes and put lamp posts back up. But even with hundreds of new workers and volunteers, it was obvious that it would take years to get to all of them. In one of America’s most famous cities, the disaster response effort was like something out of Haiti or Malasia. Both Canadian and Mexican federal agents were on the scene before the American Government. Rebuilding it all is costing billions, and has dumped refugees all over the nation. It was like a nuclear bombing, but with black mold instead of fallout (I slept in a moldy squat while there – not nice to my lungs).
The wreckage was unbelievable. If this happened only a few times every decade to major American cities the entire nation would crumble. This kind of reconstruction effort takes for granted that the rest of the country isn’t suffering the same way.
We may never know if Katrina was caused by climate change or not. The climate is too complicated a system to make that kind of guess. But we do know that we are mucking around with the climate in very serious ways we don’t understand, and that one of the signs we’re seeing is a big increase in hurricanes. Whether this is “natural” or not, we really don’t know. But why take the risk?
10.Business as Usual
None of these disasters put out anywhere near as much toxic contamination, lay waste as many landscapes or kill as many people as the “normal functioning” of our capitalist system. None of them demand anywhere near the cost for eventual cleanup.
An estimated one billion gallons of tar sands tailings leak into groundwater each year. And stelco pumps out twice as many dioxins (one of the world’s nastiest pollutants) each year than the Plastimet fire. Countless corporations which operate in Canada have been linked to death squads in Latin America and elsewhere, such as Coca-Cola or Barrick Gold. More oil is spilled every year from leaky pipes and pumping stations in the Niger Delta than has been spilled in the BP oil disaster in the Gulf. Aging reactors like the infamous Chalk River Reactor near Ottawa regularly spill radioactive materials into waterways. Oh, and around five people die at work every day in Canada.
One way or the other, these processes cause death and destruction on a global scale. These disasters are only the worst and best publicized examples. And while they don’t often factor into the price (how do you insure a nuclear power plant?), they still filter down to every single one of us. And every additional day it goes on makes things worse.