Arnie Gundersen’s Fukushima hot particle myth

Arnie Gundersen’s Fukushima hot particle myth

Hot particles are produced by nuclear weapon detonations, and do not come from nuclear power plant accident releases. However, prolific antinuclear pundit Arnie Gundersen is making a concerted effort to have the world think that hot particles also come from nuke plants, especially Fukushima Daiichi. His latest “evidence” comes from a professional civil engineer in Massachusetts who has been trying for three years to use this contrived hot particle notion as a basis for getting a PhD…without success. Further, Gundersen makes one of the most convoluted conspiracy theory claims to yet come out of the Fukushima realm of distorted journalism.

A hot particle is a tiny, discrete radioactive fragment measuring less than 1 millimeter in size and can cause extremely high exposures to localized areas in a short amount of time. It is produced by the shattering of materials that are either naturally radioactive or have become radioactive by exposure to neutron radiation. Hot particles are almost always associated with nuclear weapon detonations, but can be caused by machining, cutting or grinding radioactive metals. (1)  With bomb blasts, the earth and any structures beneath the explosion are literally pulverized. With bombs, the cloud of pulverized material is blasted upwards and engulfed by the intense field of neutrons in the expanding fireball. Neutron is the only type of radiation that can make non-radioactive substances radioactive. This is called “neutron activation”. This is how the pulverized particles thrown up by the blast become highly radioactive. Included in the cloud are tiny fragments of the Uranium or Plutonium core of the bomb itself, and become a part of the hot particle matrix. Most of the hot particles are too large and too heavy to be carried very far by the wind. Nearly all of them fall out of the dissipating cloud within 50 kilometers of the blast’s center. The smaller hot particles, no more than 1 mm in size, can be carried up to 100 kilometers. (2) Also, by definition, hot particles are not soluble; they cannot dissolve in water.

Hot particles emit Alpha (α) radiation. Alpha particles (they are not “rays” like gamma and x-ray radiation) are actually the nuclei of helium atoms with two neutrons and two protons, but no electrons spinning about the nucleus. This is a form of radiation that cannot penetrate much at all and even the most powerful α cannot make it through a single sheet of toilet tissue. Hot particle α radiation cannot go through skin and irradiate living tissue. Thus, hot particle exposure is primarily specific to the skin due to the rain-out of the material from the high-altitude cloud of material. For the most part, hot particle research has focused on Uranium and/or Plutonium metal fragments found downwind of bomb blasts. It is unusual to find fission products in hot particles, and only in tiny concentrations relative to the matrix of activation products and/or bomb core fragments. The only nuclear accident that has previously been connected to hot particles is Chernobyl, which was caused by a massive steam explosion immediately followed by at least one significant hydrogen detonation sufficient to dislodge the 1,000 ton upper biological shield which fell into the reactor compartment itself and crushed the core. But, the Chernobyl hot particles were found within the 30 kilometer evacuation radius, almost entirely tiny Uranium and Plutonium fuel fragments, and in miniscule concentrations. For all intents and purposes, hot particles are quite specific to bomb blasts and facilities that process nuclear materials for bombs.

Ever since the Fukushima accident resulted in traces of Plutonium isotopes found outside the site’s property boundary at F. Daiichi, Arnie Gundersen has been spouting that hot particles were expunged and could be found far, far away. In October of 2011, a civil engineer from Massachusetts, Marco Kaltofen, posted the claim that he had found Fukushima hot particles in American soils and in various dust filters from Japan. (3) Kaltofen has been trying to use his findings to get a PhD, but has not been successful. Regardless, Gundersen has recently posted a new Fairewinds video featuring Kaltofen called “The Hottest Particle”, (4) and makes two preposterous claims. First during the introduction, Gundersen says if it was produced in Japan “the State Secrets Law would likely prevent us from issuing this video.” Second at the end of the video, Gundersen says “Fairewinds has long said that there will be significant increases in cancer in Japan as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and this video describing just one hot particle confirms our worst fears.”

In the first case, Japan’s new secrecy law would not prevent the video from being disseminated. There are a myriad of antinuclear websites in Japan (not to mention the majority of the popular Press) that have gone further over the edge that this convoluted video. Perhaps the most bizarre claim was made by a Tokyo professor who claimed the aftershocks at F. Daiichi in 2011 were not aftershocks at all. He claimed they were really hydro-volcanic explosions deep in the earth caused by molten Fukushima cores burning their way into underground aquifers, and Tokyo was covering it up. There have been a number of other such preposterous claims released to the Japanese internet since then, all of which are at least as provocative as Gundersen’s hot particle fantasy, and none of them were stopped by Tokyo! Besides, the only aspect of nuclear power plants which seems applicable to the secrecy law would be plant security measures to stop terrorists and such. Gundersen is actually making a veiled appeal to common conspiracy theory, and does no more than cement this observer’s view that he is nothing less than a street corner prophet.

The second claim of verification of a future cancer epidemic in Japan deserves a deeper look. To begin, Gundersen’s “expert”, Marco Kaltofen, changes the definition of hot particle to fit his agenda. He defines them as highly radioactive dust particles from a nuclear accident. He adds that if they are carried by the air, they must be included in internal exposure estimates, even if they are not ingested. The “hottest particle” he focusses on is not a fragment caused by an explosion of any kind. He found a clump of dust inside a vacuum cleaner bag sent to him from a home about 460 kilometers southwest of F. Daiichi. Kaltofen says this one glob is so radioactive that the full bag registered 300 Becquerels of activity. By using a crude partitioning methodology and an Exacto-knife, he found the dust clump which he says measured so highly that if there were a kilogram of it, the activity would be 40 million-trillion Becquerels. He says the dust clump by itself has a 70% chance of killing a person ingesting it.  

The “hottest particle” was said to contain mostly three isotopes Cs-134, Cs-137, and Radium-226. Of course Cesium isotopes do not qualify as actual hot particle constituents because they are fission products, and not due to neutron activation. Further, they do not emit Alpha radiation. They give off weak Betas and Gammas. On the other hand, Ra-226 doesn’t qualify either because it is (1) naturally-occurring and found everywhere around the world, (2) is a highly unlikely isotope to be released from a nuclear reactor meltdown, and (3) is too heavy an isotope to be carried more than a few kilometers regardless of weather conditions. Kaltofen also mentions there was some Cobalt-60, which is also naturally-occurring and not produced by nuclear reactor fuel fissioning. Plus, he says there is “a whole zoo of isotopes that you’ll probably never hear about on CNN but you’d have to be a physicist to understand.” Regardless, the “hot dust clump” he picked from the vacuum cleaner bag in no way qualifies to be a hot particle by anyone’s definition other than the Kaltofen and antinuclear fear-salesmen like Gundersen.

Let’s face it, the dust clump was probably squeezed together by numerous vacuuming operations over a period of weeks and concentrated by the process itself. For all we know, the clump was compacted by Kaltofen’s makeshift Exacto-knife procedure. In addition, the huge activity number cited by Kaltofen (4X1019 Becquerels) is an enormous extrapolation. There would have to be an entire kilogram of the stuff to reach that huge activity level, however it is but one tiny glob. What the dust clump itself has for specific activity is not stated. Clearly, Kaltofen uses the all-too-routine posting of a huge, (in this case) concocted number to make it seem extremely significant. No wonder he has not been granted a PhD in the last three years! This is a clear case of pseudo-science.

Now, here’s the part that really sets me off. Gundersen ends the video by saying, “It is solid scientific material like this that you will not see or hear via traditional news stories, TEPCO, or the IAEA. Fairewinds has long said that there will be significant increases in cancer in Japan as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and this video describing just one hot particle confirms our worst fears.” (Emphasis added) First, the video as evidence is about as solid as overly-cooked noodles…if that. Second, the reason you don’t find this anywhere else is because it is absolute balderdash. The Press around the world might have a strong antinuclear agenda, but they draw the line at pure nonsense. And, finally, Kaltofen’s folly in no way confirms Gundersen’s worse fears for a major cancer increase in Japan’s future. But, it does confirm that Gundersen will grasp even the most flimsy straw to try and keep his fantastic Fukushima forecasts alive.

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