In the immediate aftermath of last year’s Fukushima triple meltdown, Japan’s government and pronuclear experts scrambled to dampen public concern. Experts waved away fears about radiation, cabinet ministers scoffed at comparisons to Chernobyl, and the word “meltdown” itself was effectively scoured from the media.

Some observers, however, were quick to hit the panic button. One of the best known was nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen, who predicted that the disaster would lead to 1 million extra deaths from cancer.

Eighteen months later, there is still no consensus on the eventual impact of the No. 1 plant’s payload, or even on the amount of radiation released, although the most bloodcurdling initial assessments seem to have largely evaporated. The final official tally for escaped radiation is 900,000 terabecquerels, about one-fifth the amount released by Chernobyl.

Gundersen, a nuclear engineer, says that’s an underestimate. He puts the release of cesium at about half that of Chernobyl, and says little attention has been paid to radioactive gases, Xenon and Krypton, which poured out of the No. 1 plant in quantities “two to three times” greater than the 1986 Ukraine meltdown. He is sticking to his original alarming estimate of cancer fatalities.

“The problem is there are 130 million people (sic) in Japan,” he said on a recent visit to Tokyo. “A third of them will die from cancer in the next 30 years. One million more is less than 2 percent — are you going to find it?”

Gundersen bases much of his assessment of Fukushima on what he learned from America’s worst nuclear accident, the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. As an expert witness during the probe that followed, Gundersen said the official estimate of radioactive releases there was also much too low. “You have to remember, we don’t know how much radiation was released. It’s guys like me who have to calculate it.” His assessment upped the official radiation figure for the accident by five times. “I’m dead sure that’s too low,” he says, adding that he believes the true figure could be 15 times higher than the industry estimate.

So where are all the cancers that might be expected from such a release? A 20-year statistical survey (1979-1998) by the Pennsylvania Department of Health found no evidence of elevated cancer deaths among residents within a five-mile radius of the plant, though it noted that the long-term impact still needed monitoring. A landmark 1990 Columbia University study found elevated lung cancer and leukemia rates downwind of the plant, but concluded that the results did not “provide convincing evidence that radiation releases … influenced cancer risk.” The research is disputed by Gundersen and others: He cites the work of Steve Wing, an epidemiologist who says he has tracked 10,000 extra deaths from lung cancer in the first six to seven years after the accident.

“The same gases (Xenon and Krypton) that caused those cancers leaked out of the containment vessel at the Daiichi (No. 1) plant,” he says. “Nobody is talking about it.” He says the gases quickly disperse and are notoriously hard to measure. Other emissions are more straightforward. Plutonium is heavy and does not widely disperse. Cesium is relatively easy to track. He also cites a recent reported study claiming that nearly 36 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have cysts or nodules on their thyroids as evidence of iodine contamination from the plant.

The insidious uncertainties of the impact of radiation are a feature of all three major nuclear accidents. About 2 million people are still under permanent medical monitoring, quarter of a century after the Chernobyl disaster. Among children, monitoring is recommended for about 400,000 who are believed to have received substantial levels of radiation to their thyroids. Debate on Chernobyl is framed by two startlingly different studies: a 2005 probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the WHO and the UN Development Program, which concluded that Chernobyl-related cancers were likely to result in fewer than 4,000 deaths; and a report published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which attributes 985,000 fatalities to the fallout.

Fairewinds Energy Education, the nonprofit organization that Gundersen runs with his wife Maggie and a team of volunteers, has become the go-to place for skeptics of the official nuclear line. He says Fairwinds’ website (www.fairewinds.org) has had 8 million hits in the last year. Some of the content has been translated into Japanese.

The site airs often little-publicized information, such as Gundersen’s claim that the Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture suffered a serious (though not dangerous) accident before it was closed last year. He says salt water flooded back into reactor 5, effectively making it useless. “Hamaoka 5 will never restart. That piece of equipment is just so severely damaged. The chlorine (in the salt water) attacks the stainless steel.”

Gundersen and his team use the site to reach people in Japan, who send samples for what he calls independent research into the Fukushima aftermath. “People started sending us air filters from cars in Tokyo and Fukushima Prefecture,” he says. “We now have five or six dozen. A car normally uses the same amount of air as a person, so this is what is inside people’s lungs.” He says the filters from Fukushima had so much cesium radiation they “turned X-ray film completely white in five days.”

“We used a spinning microscope to look at the size (of the cesium particles), and they’re in the order of two microns, which means that they float. Once they get into lungs they settle.”

An embassy in Tokyo — he declines to say which — sent his team filters from a rooftop system built to withstand a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. “The filters too were loaded with cesium, not as bad as Fukushima but still very serious.” He says Fairewinds is now asking ordinary Japanese householders to send vacuum-cleaner bags, to sample house dust. “We’ve found one that’s 120 km from the site and it’s 100,000 becquerels per kilogram. That’s the highest, but we’ve found many samples in the 20,000 to 30,000 becquerel range. In Japan, people sleep on the floor, so the internal exposure is significant. But the Japanese government and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) are not looking at this at all.”

Gundersen says the Fukushima crisis has triggered a huge amount of independent monitoring, citing Safecast, a nonprofit group that checks and publicizes radiation (blog.safecast.org), as the most striking example. “There is a lot of data out there. The government should take that data and back-calculate what came out of the plant. Nobody is doing that yet. They’re making assumptions about what happened.

“Whatever the number is, I think it can be reduced by 30 percent. There are simple public health things than can be done but because everyone wants to avoid public fear nobody is talking about it. If you talked about indoor care and high-efficiency filters on vacuum cleaners, wet dusting, not dry dusting, to keep down particles, that would help. If I were the Japanese government, I’d be telling people to do that.”

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