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The Party Line – April 22, 2011
Radiation Nation

It’s April 22nd, Earth Day, and the question on everyone’s mind is “Can I drink milk anymore? Or eat spinach? And how long will it be before beans picked this month hit the market?”

What, you’re not asking those questions? Well, maybe you should be. . . or maybe you shouldn’t be. The fact is, I’m not entirely sure—and after weeks of googling till dawn, I feel just as infuriated as I do informed.

Let me backtrack just a little. Perhaps you caught me a few weeks ago talking about the evolving nuclear crisis in Japan and the discomfort I felt upon hearing President Obama assure us (or, rather, corporate America) that nuclear power was an integral part of our energy future. My initial concern grew from nuclear being a dirty, dangerous, non-domestic, non-renewable, and ridiculously expensive energy source—bad enough—but Obama’s rush to prop up an industry responsible for over a quarter-million dollars in campaign contributions, even when most other industrialized countries were taking this opportunity to reexamine nuclear energy, soon had me wondering about something else.

Within days of the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima facility, we were told (probably well after the fact) that some of the reactors had to vent radioactive steam. This was followed by news of explosions in reactor buildings, rising temperatures in fuel storage pools, possible breeches of containment vessels, pools of radioactive water, leaks of radioactive water. . . I have probably left out a few events. And, while, first and foremost, I felt sick over what the people of Japan were facing, I also started to wonder: If the US government is so worried about the political fallout from this disaster, how honest is it going to be about the actual, radioactive fallout?

And that’s a lousy feeling. . . because here is what I did not want to do—I did not want to sink into Threat Level Red (red is/was the highest, right?), start stockpiling canned goods, duct-taping my windows, and downing iodine tablets. That is really not my nature. My attitude is that life is inherently a bit risky; some risks you can control, and some you can at least assess and decide what you are willing to accept, and adjust your behavior accordingly.

Alas, in this case, I was having a really hard time gathering enough information to make an informed assessment.

The problems here are manifold. It is hard to trust what we hear from Japan and TEPCO. It is hard to find information on the amounts of Fukushima fallout now hitting North America. Once you find some of that information, it is hard for a layperson to sort it out. There is no obvious single source that breaks down the components of that fallout. There is no single government standard for radiation exposure, and it is extremely hard to figure out the differences.

US government officials do not speak with one voice, and neither do the non-governmental experts in the field. As much as there are distinctly different risks from external and internal exposure to radiation, there are different ways of assessing the immediate and cumulative dangers. And real measures of how various radioactive isotopes are dispersed or concentrated as they move up the food chain, what is called “bioaccumulation,” are spoken of more in terms of maybes than metrics.

I consider myself a pretty quick study, but dump all this on a guy that can’t really tell you the difference between picocuries and millisieverts, and you get anxiety and annoyance. . . .

And, now, you also get a brand new Firedoglake project: Radiation Nation.

Radiation Nation is an attempt to turn frustration into information. It is an effort to take all of the news, statistics, websites, and debates, and turn them into a useful, productive, dependable, and, above all, understandable resource. Radiation Nation may not start with all the answers, but it starts with the idea that we—me, you, other FDL contributors, and a wide variety of experts, authors, researchers, and journalists—will find ways to get the answers. And then we will take that information and put it in one place.

Firedoglake has already started this work in the context of our reporting on the larger crisis in Japan. I owe much to FDL regulars Scarecrow, Toby, and Kirk, and community members like Lobster for their contributions to our better understanding the realities and risks. In the coming weeks, FDL will add to the knowledge base with posts by and live chats with a variety of experts with a variety of viewpoints. And, because the disaster at Fukushima is still evolving, I expect this project will, too. (For instance, even with solid data in hand, should the proper focus be on behavior modification and risk avoidance, or is that a waste of energy that would be better spent on decreasing the risk of future Fukushima-like catastrophes?)

In the end, I hope to find a place that is neither doomsday nihilistic or naively nonchalant, that is about knowledge informing action rather than breeding cynicism, and is easy to access and understand. Radiation Nation will provide a central repository for FDL’s work, but also will include links to others’ articles, as well as sites that provide some of the raw data we will all try to process.

And I mean “we.” I freely admit this is not my area of expertise—I come at this wanting knowledge, not having it—but I expect others here have more experience with these subjects and/or the desire to dig along with me. As always, you will have the opportunity to comment and join in live chats with our guests, but I also encourage pointing us to other experts and sources and, if you have something you want to share in longer form, by all means post a diary on MyFDL (include the tag “Radiation Nation”).

As is abundantly clear, there is too much to consider in only one post, or on only one day—even if it is Earth Day—but with Radiation Nation, Firedoglake hopes to provide one place for all of us to continue the conversation.

More to come. . . .

[ed. note: Join us on Tuesday, April 26, at 3:45pm EDT for a live chat with Harvey Wasserman. Mr. Wasserman is the author of “Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth,” and a lifelong grassroots anti-nuclear activist who helped coin the term “No Nukes.” He edits the website, and recently wrote “’Safe’ Radiation is a Lethal Three Mile Island Lie.”]

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine