Monday, April 21, 2014

What Is a Uighur "Refuge"?

To understand the context of this tweet from Human Rights Watch's Ken Roth:

' 17h
Growing number of trying to flee to Southeast Asia speaks to severe repression in . Refuge needed.

it might be useful to understand that the United States maintains a refugee channel through Nepal for Tibetans from inside the PRC's Tibetan Autonomous Region to make their way to Dharmsala.

The PRC is not happy with this arrangement, since most of the adults return to Tibet after their visit (the children stay in school in India).  

The benign explanation is the parents got a shot of religious exhaltation by obtaining an audience with the Dalai Lama and go home to go on with their quotidian occupations.  The explanation that the PRC government probably leans toward is that these Tibetans are receiving training and resources in Dharmsala to make the PRC occupation of Tibetan regions more difficult.

A similar arrangement for Uighurs is pretty unlikely since no neighboring countries seem inclined to attract the PRC's anger by granting refugee Uighurs an official haven.  There are unofficial havens across the Karakorum Pass, but they produce Uighur terrorists (or, if you prefer, Uighur freedom fighters;  the Uighurs at Guantanamo were considered combatants, but "non-enemy combatants", therefore worthy of release since their intention was to target the PRC, not the US) as well as Uighur activists.  As far as I know, the PRC has not yet exercised its regional power prerogative to raid these camps; but the existence of camps and militants inside Pakistan and Afghanistan are the subject of frequent representations to Islamabad and Kabul by the Chinese government and its security services.

In the incident referenced by Mr. Roth, a group of PRC Uighurs (men, women, & children) were being returned to the PRC from Vietnam after entering illegally (the term of art here is "refoulement", something that the Nepalese government is not supposed to do with Tibetan refugees); the men apparently seized some weapons from the Vietnamese border guard.  Two guards and five Uighur refugees were killed in the ensuing fracas.

This is unlikely to increase the enthusiasm of Vietnam for providing the refuge Roth is proposing.  Nor is the fact that the perpetrators of the knife attack that killed 27 in Kunming were apparently trying to exit the country thataway before they returned to Kunming for their rampage (the local PSB said they were trying to leave the country through Guangdong Province, which appears unlikely; they may have been trying to double back through Guangxi to Vietnam).

Given this context, and the continued acquiescence of the Obama administration to the "terrorist" designation for Uighur separatists (granted, apparently with some good reason, by President George W. Bush), it seems unlikely that any government will throw itself behind Mr. Roth's proposal.

Below is an excerpt from a piece I wrote on the Tibetan refugee arrangement for Asia Times in 2011 (the full piece, with links, can be read here):

China tests Nepal's loyalty over Tibet
By Peter Lee

Nepal is caught in a tug-of-war between India and China that threatens to tear it apart.

The big picture is dominated by the rivalry of Asia's two great rising powers; but how and why that rivalry plays out in Nepal has a lot to do with the Tibetan issue and China's anxiety over the potential for increasingly militant Tibetan emigres in Nepal and India to cause problems for Beijing.

A potentially exacerbating factor is the so-called "gentleman's agreement" that has informally governed the treatment of Tibetan refugees within Nepal for over a decade. 


Nepal is home to 20,000 Tibetan refugees, the second largest Tibetan exile community; it is also a key link between the Tibetan diaspora and the Chinese-controlled homeland.

Treatment of Tibetan refugees residing in and transiting through Nepal is the subject of a long-standing "gentleman's agreement" between the West, India, the UN, and Nepal.

The "gentleman's agreement" allowed for the de facto refugee status for Tibetans fleeing the TAR. Per the agreement, Tibetans who make it across the border are supposed to be escorted by Nepalese police to Kathmandu, turned over to the Department of Immigration, passed on to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center in Kathmandu, processed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), and dispatched to India on a one-way transit visa.

Nepalese policemen were paid a modest stipend funded by the UNHCR office (largely through the financial support of the United States State Department) for this time-consuming and - when the Maoist insurgency was at its height - dangerous duty through the Nepalese Department of Immigration, the DofI.

As of 2008, after the embarrassment of mass Tibetan demonstrations in Nepal against its hosting of the Olympics, China significantly tightened its control of the border. It also became more demanding of Kathmandu, the Nepalese government became more compliant, and the Department of Immigration became less tolerant of refugees. Police interpreted the "border" more loosely, as a zone rather than a line, and began chivvying Tibetan refugees back to the TAR even if they were several days walk inside the borderline. This process, known as "refoulement" or forcible repatriation, is illegal treatment of acknowledged refugees; however, in the murky world of Nepalese immigration, the issue was not that clear-cut.

In addition to tightened controls on the China side of the border and concerted Chinese pressure on the Nepalese government, the Chinese government allegedly deployed financial incentives: it was rumored to pay bounties to Nepalese policemen to take refugees back to the border instead of to Kathmandu. [2]

The number of refugees appearing at the Kathmandu reception center has decreased significantly, from a peak of almost 3,000 per year in 2006 to 2008 (when the Maoist insurgency plunged border enforcement in disarray) to 770 in 2010. [3]

In this fraught situation, friction has arisen between the Nepalese government and the UNHCR. By 2010, the majority of Tibetan refugees reaching the reception center were coming in directly, not through the Department of Immigration. According to an article in Republica, a leading local English-language paper, the UNHCR had taken to paying bounties of around $350 to policemen bringing Tibetan refugees to them directly, instead of through the DofI, perhaps to counter an unstated government tilt toward refoulement and to compete with Chinese bounty payments. [4]

Presumably this did not sit well with the Nepalese government. From the perspective of the Department of Immigration, the UNHCR bounty was dividing the loyalties of the police and incentivizing a flow of Tibetan refugees that was diplomatically onerous to the Nepalese government, while depriving the DofI of a revenue stream.

In April 2010, the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu detained nine Tibetan refugees and gave each a fine of 2,600 Nepal rupees for illegal entry - less than $40 per head. If the fine could not be paid, the nine would be detained for 107 days. However, it does not appear that the Nepalese government was prepared to deport the refugees back to China after the fine was paid or the period of incarceration ended.

According to TibetInfoNet, a European advocacy and news site, the Chinese embassy took a close interest in the nine, indicating that China is engaged in enhanced, systematic intelligence gathering as part of its investment in intensifying and modernizing TAR border enforcement ... but found that cooperation from the Nepalese government still had its limits:
A representative of the Chinese embassy, who presented himself as a security officer but wore plain clothes, visited the immigration office three times. On his first visit, he spoke with the Tibetans in Chinese, trying to convince them to go back to Tibet and promising them immunity if they did so. However, the Tibetans refused to speak to him or simply ignored him. On his second visit, the Chinese officer asked the Nepali immigration officers to copy photos and the files on the detained Tibetans onto a USB memory stick that he had brought especially for this purpose. This was refused to him. The Tibetans had, in any case, provided fake names to the Nepali immigration, as is common practice. On the third visit, the Chinese officer appeared with a camera and the intention of taking photos of the detained Tibetans. Also in this case, permission was refused to him. [5]
As the story made it into the key issue appears to have been resentment of the Department of Immigration towards the UNHCR.

The UNHCR declined to pay the fine to spring the nine; instead of $360 for the DofI, an embarrassing wave of diplomatic pressure hit the Nepalese embassy in Washington:
The detention evoked so much diplomatic pressure from Western countries, mainly the US, that the Tibetans were released after five days in jail.

The pressure was so intense that officials at the Nepali embassy in Washington DC had to call up the Immigration Office in Nepal, asking it to release the arrested.

Following the release, Nepali immigration authorities have not detained any more Tibetans though there is a sustained flow of Tibetans to Kathmandu. The DofI these days quietly hands over Tibetans illegally coming to Nepal to UNHCR-Nepal without taking legal action as it used to in recent years. [6]
There is a barely suppressed note of indignation in the reporting that the Tibetans couldn't pay the $40 fine, even though they had reportedly each paid the equivalent of US$2,000 to get smuggled into Nepal for "the promise of a comfortable life".

This intense US commitment toward maintaining a channel to Dharamsala for less than 1,000 Tibetan transit refugees per year invites scrutiny of another alleged element of the "gentleman's agreement": the West's apparent acquiescence to the Nepalese government's suppression of "anti-China" political activity by members of the 20,000 or so "resident refugee" Tibetan exile community.

Tibetans who made it to Nepal before 1989 are given formal refugee status, distinguishing them from later arrivals, who fall under the "gentleman's agreement" as transit refugees.

Formal refugee status has yield resident Tibetans in Nepal little more than the opportunity to reside on land in the outskirts of Kathmandu, Pokhara and other towns in the Kathmandu Valley arranged through the Swiss Red Cross - land that they cannot own - and to occupy a socially marginalized position as non-citizens in Nepalese society.

Many Tibetans residing in Nepal fled Tibet as China took over in the 1950s. Some of the residents belong to families relocated from Mustang when the Central Intelligence Agency and the Dalai Lama shut down the secret war against the Chinese in Tibet in the 1970s. The community is organized by activist emigre groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress and Tibetan Women's Association; and it reliably turns out to condemn historical and current crimes of the Chinese government against the Tibetan people.

An in-depth analysis of the plight of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, prepared in 2002 by the Tibet Justice Center, contained this admission by the US Embassy in Kathmandu:
In the Embassy's view, the paramount objective of its policies in Nepal is to ensure that Tibetans can continue to escape persecution in China through Nepal, even if this sometimes means restricting the rights of Tibetan refugees who reside more permanently in Nepal. "... [I]t is more important morally to have the open border than to have every form of cultural freedom of expression." The tradeoff, in other words, is that Nepal will continue to permit the gentleman's agreement to operate provided the political expression of Tibetans within Nepal does not jeopardize Nepal's relationship with China. The gentleman's agreement therefore must remain low-profile. "Protesting in Nepal,"... is "counterproductive." [7]
In sum, the price of the "gentleman's agreement" appears to be a hands-off attitude toward Nepal's vigorous and frequently violent police action against this none-too-popular minority.

This policy has not been publicly reaffirmed in recent years; however, the low-key Western response to highly visible clashes between resident refugee Tibetans and the Nepalese authorities in anti-Chinese protests implies it is still in effect.

In the last month, Nepal has witnessed two incidents of forceful government suppression of resident Tibetan political activity in Nepal.

On March 10, perhaps 1,000 Nepalese Tibetans gathered at a monastery in Kathmandu to hear the broadcast of a speech by the Dalai Lama on the 52nd anniversary of the anti-Chinese uprising in Lhasa. According to a photo-essay by Dharamsala-based journalist Rebecca Novick, the Nepalese government turned out 1,000 riot police (their high-tech equipment allegedly "a gift of the Chinese Embassy") to quash any political manifestations, including display of the Tibetan flag. [8]

The Tibetan flag was defiantly displayed and the police duly moved in, triggering a series of angry confrontations. The police responded with South Asia's signal contribution to public order, the lathi (baton or stick) charge.

Despite the presence of numerous international observers and some spectacular video footage, Western governments apparently were uninterested in making an issue out of the plight of Nepal's resident Tibetan refugees. [9]

The Nepal government followed up on this incident with another apparently high-handed action against the resident Tibetan community on March 20: stopping Nepalese Tibetans from voting in the epochal elections for the new Kalon Tripa - prime minister - who will serve as the Dalai Lama's successor as the political leader of the Tibetan diaspora.

There are 84,000 registered Tibetan voters worldwide; about 10% of these voters reside in Nepal, and have been successively disenfranchised to some extent in the national primary (October 3, 2010) and local (February 12) elections, as well as the national elections held on March 20 by Nepalese government interference in balloting. [10]

In contrast to the rapid and massive application of pressure upon the Nepalese government in the virtually invisible matter of $360 in squeeze to free nine transit refugees, the wholesale and highly publicized thrashing of dozens of Tibetan activists in the streets of Kathmandu and, subsequently, the seizing of ballot boxes in the most important election in the history of the Tibetan diaspora, apparently at the behest of the People's Republic of China, excited little conspicuous official interest or comment from Tibet's traditional government defenders in Europe or the United States.


A WikiLeaks 2010 cable from the US Embassy in New Delhi provides the basis for some intriguing speculation as to the higher (transit refugee) and lower (resident refugee) priorities of the West's Tibet policy. Over half of the Tibetans arriving in Dharamsala cannot, by any interpretation, be classified as genuine refugees. Why? Because after they escape from Tibet ... they go back to Tibet:
XXXXXXXXXXXX [source blanked out in the cable] told PolOff on February 4 that an average of 2,500 to 3,500 refugees from Tibet typically arrive in Dharamsala each year, with most returning to Tibet after receiving an audience with the Dalai Lama. XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed that from 1980 to November 2009 87,096 refugees were processed by the Dharamsala Reception Center (RC) and that 46,620 returned to Tibet after a short pilgrimage in India. Most of those who do stay in India are children who then attend schools run by Tibetan Children's Villages. [11]
That this reverse flow exists passes through Nepal is documented by the exasperated attempt of the Nepalese government to extract fines and fees from the ostensibly impoverished transit refugees they detain while passing through Nepal on their way back to Tibet, as the Tibet Justice Center's 2002 report notes:
Finally, it should be noted that Nepalese officials emphasized that, today, the government's largest concern about Tibetan refugees is not necessarily those in transit to India; it is rather the growing number of Tibetans who return to Tibet through Nepal after visiting India and thus reenter Nepal from India. The government apparently fears that these Tibetans will remain in Nepal. Director-General Mainali said that Tibetans caught reentering Nepal from India, while eventually returned to UNHCR custody, at times will be arrested, fined, and jailed.
In late 2000, the government detained 19 Tibetans for this reason, charging them with high fines and imprisoning them for inability to pay. On the basis of this "precedent," in August 2001, the government detained several other Tibetans seeking to return to Tibet after visiting India and assessed fines - totaling several thousand dollars, comprised of visa fees, late visa fees, and fines for each day of alleged illegal residence - on the presumption that these Tibetans had been resident in Nepal illegally for the duration of their visit to India. Because none of the Tibetans could afford to pay, the Nepalese Department of Immigration imprisoned them.

UNHCR is reportedly negotiating with the Ministry of Home Affairs to ensure that this practice does not continue and to develop a means for "Tibetans coming from India [to] safely cross Nepal on their way to Tibet in [the] future." [12]
This amazing exercise in religious tourism is, one would expect, rather suspicious to the Chinese government.

Tens of thousands of Tibetans spend thousands of dollars apiece to smugglers, risk their lives crossing the Himalayas, endure the hostile ministrations of the Nepalese police, make it to Dharamsala, receive the Dalai Lama's blessing - and then run the same gauntlet of danger, abuse, and expense in reverse to return to the well-advertised living hell of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Only the children stay, to be educated in Dharamsala.

The intense Chinese interest in assembling detailed dossiers on the nine detainees in April 2010 was perhaps related to a desire to be able to identify them as anti-China activists inside Tibet for possible extradition requests.

However, it does not appear likely that Nepal will agree to extradite Tibetan refugees back to the TAR in the near future. It would also not appear to be a priority to document who was leaving Tibet permanently to join the emigre community railing, for now impotently, against the PRC.

It appears most likely that Chinese security wanted to know exactly who the nine detainees were because many of them were expected to return to Tibet after a visit to Dharamsala.

Plans to return via Nepal - and the need to prevent unfriendly security services from acquiring their true identities - probably also explains why the detainees engage in the "common practice" of providing false identities to the Department of Immigration.

A 2009 profile of refugees in Dharamsala in the Tibet Post International, while describing the mistreatment suffered with the TAR and the hardships endured along the route, also touched on the motivations of some refugees, and why the people leaving Tibet are assumed to be probable returnees and a threat to Chinese rule:
Topjor's cot is next to 32-year-old Tenpa Dhargye, who arrived from Tibet three days ago. This is his second time in India, in 2000 he came for the first time and upon his return to Tibet was caught carrying political [sic], documents for which he received a four year and 10-month prison sentence. [13]
The author also interviewed four 15-year old boys who made the arduous trek out of Tibet, reporting "They all plan to return to Tibet at some point in the future".

The director of the reception center roughly confirmed the situation described in the cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, telling the Tibet Post, "Every year 300-400 refugees return to Tibet from India, but this too is dangerous, and the number changes based on the political situation inside Tibet and the security on the border area."

The gentleman's agreement provides a humanitarian service by providing a path to freedom for Tibetans who find it impossible to continue to live under Chinese rule, and for young people seeking an education and environment more in keeping with their Tibetan identity than what they can get in the TAR.

But a majority of the so-called "refugees" use the facility to pay brief visits to Dharamsala to obtain the blessing of the Dalai Lama before returning to the TAR; of these returnees, an unknown number are activists whose motives and mission for making the round trip are no doubt the subject of the most unfavorable speculation by Chinese security services.

In the most generous interpretation, the United States supports the Nepalese facility so that every year a few hundred Tibetans from the TAR are able to achieve direct contact with their revered leader.

In the worst case, China could envisage the Nepal conduit as a conveyor belt for activists transporting information, advice, and money between Dharamsala and Tibet - and delivering Tibetan youth for indoctrination in Dharamsala - a mechanism knowingly enabled by the United States through its diplomatic and financial support of the UNHCR operation in Nepal, and through its direct and intense pressure on the Nepalese government to protect the anonymity of these peripatetic refugees from attempts by China's security apparatus to learn their identities.

The truth is perhaps somewhere in between, more towards the humanitarian end of the spectrum, since the Indian government is serious about discouraging anti-PRC activities by the Tibetan exile community within its borders.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Now Trending: FBI Informants

Lot of talk about bad guys being FBI assets recently.  Thanks to his lawyers, the Interwebs are ahum with speculation that the FBI neglected to hoover up Tamerlan Tsarnaev a.k.a. the Elder before the Boston marathon bombing because the Bureau was already in touch with him and trying to turn him as an asset, not because the Russians withheld crucial information.

Today it also transpired that Glenn Miller, the white supremacist linked to the shootings in Overland Park, had allegedly worked with the FBI as an informer.  Over at CounterPunch, James Ridgeway quotes an aggrieved white supremacist outlet that accused Miller:

“In the 1980′s Glenn Miller was a self-styled KKK leader in North Carolina. He made contact with The Order, which was famous for armored car heists. Apparently he convinced The Order to make him part of an “above ground/legal” wing of the group. He then provided information to the FBI and testified against other members of the “legal” wing that were receiving money obtained from the armored car heists.

This sort of risky business looks suspiciously like FBI standard procedure.

Reading Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy’s biography of Whitey Bulger, the notorious—and notoriously protected—Boston gangster who parlayed his FBI relationship into legal impunity and a municipal crime empire, one learns that this sort of arrangement spanned generations in the Bureau:

[Boston crime figure Frank] Salemme claims [FBI agent Paul] Rico’s animosity toward the McLaughlin gang stemmed from the McLaughlins’ typically careless and insulting ways—specifically their bawdy claims that Rico and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover were lovers…Rico…got even by helping [rival gang] Winter Hill pick off the Mclaughlin gang, one by one.  He helped Winter Hill set up the 1964 murder of Ronnie Dermody….But Dermody was small change.  

It might be worth noting that Dermody, while being small change, was also Rico’s informant.  But in order to ingratiate himself with a higher level gangster, Rico set up the hit by booking a meeting with Dermody, but arranging for the gunman to show up instead…and then let the gunman lie low at his house for a couple days. 

And there’s more:

Rico and [his partner Dennis Condon] wanted …”Punch” McLaughlin…in the grave…Rico followed Punch…then told [gangster Steve] Flemmi that Punch was taking the bus…Flemmi fired six times into Punchy’s chest as he was boarding the bus.  The next time Flemmi saw Rico, the FBI agent told him, “Nice shooting”.[Cullen and Murphy Whitey Bulger W.W. Norton & Co., 2013 pp. 78-79]

This was several years before Flemmi became an FBI official informant and his case would presumably subject to some kind of formal supervision.  Before then, apparently, orchestrating gang hits off the books was simply part of the creative, improvisational side of Paul Rico.   After Rico and Condon retired, John Connolly took over as the FBI Boston office go-to guy for handling informants.  He gave Whitey Bulger free rein in return for suspiciously meager tips and suspiciously large handouts, a combination that landed Connolly in federal prison for racketeering and, in 2011, confinement in Florida state prison to serve the rest of a 40-year sentence for second degree murder as an accessory to a Bulger rubout.

In Boston, the justification was always that the FBI was using “good” (or not-as-bad) gangsters to take down worse gangsters—the McClaughlin gang for Rico and Condon, and the New England Mafia for John Connolly.

If this reminds you of something, well it should.  For the edification of readers, here is the Wikipedia entry for Tsarist Russia’s Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order, colloquially known as the Okhrana:

The Okhrana used many seemingly unorthodox methods in the pursuit of its mission to defend the monarchy; indeed, some of the Okhrana’s activities even contributed to the wave of domestic unrest and revolutionary terror that they were intended to quell…The exposure of Yevno Azef (who had organized many assassinations, including that of Plehve) and Dmitri Bogrov (who assassinated Stolypin in 1911) as Okhrana double agents put the agency's methods under great suspicion…

And, in the category of Nobody Could Have Foreseen:

Just as the Okhrana had once sponsored trade unions to divert activist energy from political causes, so too did the secret police attempt to promote the Bolshevik party, as the Bolsheviks seemed a relatively harmless alternative to more violent revolutionary groups. Indeed, to the Okhrana, Lenin seemed to actively hinder the revolutionary movement by denouncing other revolutionary groups and refusing to cooperate with them.  To aid the Bolsheviks at the expense of other revolutionaries, the Okhrana helped Roman Malinovsky, a police spy who had managed to rise within the group and gain Lenin’s trust, in his bid to become a Bolshevik delegate to the Duma. To this end, the Okhrana sequestered Malinovsky’s criminal record and arrested others candidates for the seat.  Malinovsky won the seat and led the Bolshevik delegation in the Fourth Duma until 1914, but even with the information Malinovsky and other informants provided to the Okhrana, the police were unprepared for the rise of Bolshevism in 1917.

Don’t be surprised if the US government is keeping tabs on and, indeed, keeping in touch with bad guys.  And, I suppose, when a bad guy predictably does something bad, don’t be surprised if the US government isn’t particularly eager to reveal everything it actually knew.

It’s a long tradition.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Radiation and the Ronald Reagan

I have an article in the current CounterPunch print edition (Subscribe!NOW! ) concerning the contamination of the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan by Fukushima fallout during the post-tsunami relief operations in 2011.

The Ronald Reagan is in the news because several dozen crewmembers of the Reagan are trying to sue TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, for concealing the radiation release and thereby damaging their health (unsurprisingly, members of the armed services are precluded from suing the US military for damage to their health, so redress must be sought elsewhere).

I try to tiptoe between the two extremes of radiation alarmism and, I guess, radio-blasé-ism, but in the end I come down on the side that the contamination was pretty serious.

The Ronald Reagan was caught in a washout.  As the Fukushima plume was passing overhead, a snowstorm brought radioactive nasties down to the ship, and the water surrounding the ship.

The “nothing to see here” position is that the Reagan was exposed to the equivalent of an extra few weeks of background radiation.

Trouble is, washed-out fallout isn’t distributed in a neat, uniform radioactive haze.  It’s lumpy, sticky, filled with hot particles, and prone to “hot spots”.

It is not terribly reassuring to Sailor A that measured radioactive contamination is averaging out to a gentle buzz if he or she is worried about standing on or next to a hot spot.

The Ronald Reagan spent a couple months at sea after contamination trying to clean itself up; then, according to a lawyer for the sailors claiming injury, it was decontaminated at port in Washington State for another year and a half before returning to service.

On the washout issue, I draw on a circumstance that is perhaps not widely known: that Albany, NY, thanks to wash-out of the plume from a shot at the Nevada Test Site in 1953, was one of the most heavily irradiated areas in the United States outside of “downwinder” counties in Nevada and Utah. 

The only reason we know about Albany is because the fallout was measured by a local association of scientists from Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute and General Electric, and because a local journalist, Bill Heller, wrote about it.  Suffice to say that radiation levels were highly variable, and in certain locations very high.

Accidents at nuclear reactors can release a lot of radiation.  

A reactor might be loaded with over 25 tons of fuel and at any given time contain several hundred kilos of plutonium; for comparison purposes, critical mass for a nuclear weapon involves about 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium.  The amount of radioactive material liberated by the airburst of a nuclear weapon is predicted to the milligram; how much goes out the top of a shattered reactor, on the other hand, is pretty much guesswork, as is the rather imperfect art of using post-accident forensics and atmospheric measurement and capture tools to extrapolate total radiation released. 

Nobody really knows how much radiation is released in an accident when containment is breached, throw in wind and washouts, there’s also really no way of telling where it ends up.

I also address the tendency of governments to minimize/mislead/suppress information concerning radiation releases from nuclear accidents and the overall uncertainty pervading their efforts. 

The ex-USSR is the recognized world champion in this regard, thanks to its energy in covering up the mess created by Chernobyl, and the efforts by Alla Yaroshinskaya, a journalist-turned-activist-turned Duma representative to bring the truth to light.  The United States, through the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have also been keen to keep the atomic business going by minimizing the extent of radiation releases.  In the Albany case, the AEC deliberately understated the radiation levels it had detected in its public statements.  As for Fukushima, I was unfavorably impressed by an NRC PowerPoint briefing released under the FOIA, which significantly understated the total radiation release at Chernobyl.

The biggest minefield in the issue of nuclear accidents is the issue of the health effects of radiation exposure.  The international standard for nuclear safety is the “Linear No Threshold” or LNT model, which argues that the negative health impacts of low-level radiation exposure are, well, low.  People who give credence to claims of extensive radiation-related illness as a result of nuclear accidents are frequently dismissed as cranks.

Interestingly, the only place that is serious about emphasizing the health hazards of radiation is a country very much in the news today, Ukraine.  Doing the right thing by Ukrainian citizens after the injustices inflicted by the Soviet Union on the Chernobyl front has been an important part of Ukrainian national identity, and claims of radiation-related illness are given a hearing largely denied to them in the West, Japan, or Russia.

The international pushback against academics trying to make the statistical and biomedical case for extensive Chernobyl-related illnesses has been intense, including the attempt to explain any statistically significant health effects as a combination of “radiophobia” (the debilitating fear occasioned by radiation exposure) and the overall decline in public health in Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In 2005 a symposium conducted by the IAEA, WHO, and UN concluded that only 50 people had died because of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl accident; that’s quite a distance from estimates of critics who think the toll might be as high as 50,000.

In response, scientists such as Russia’s Elena Burlakova have carefully monitored the health of the sizable cohort of Chernobyl “liquidators” (the hundreds of thousands of workers who were exposed to high levels of radiation during cleanup at the plant and in the Chernobyl district) and conducted research to attempt to qualify the LNT standard for measuring the health effects of radiation exposure. 

In addition to the detection of statistically significant levels of certain illnesses among the liquidator cohort, they have made the argument that, instead of being linear, radiation health effects are “bi-modal” at certain low dose levels i.e. more harmful than the linear model predicts.  Backhanded support for this challenge to the LNT model comes from a school of thought—“radiation hormesis”—now enjoying a certain vogue in the pro-nuclear crowd in Japan, that draws on the experience of inhabitants of Ramsar, a community of the Caspian Sea with high background radiation levels and low cancer rates, to argue that low levels of radiation are beneficial.

Challengers to the LNT model seem to be making some headway—the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently devoted a special issue to the subject—but there is considerable resistance to qualifying LNT and thereby admitting the possibility of rethinking and perhaps acknowledging the likelihood of extensive health problems from the release of low-level radiation by a nuclear accident.  

Cleanup for a nuclear accident is expensive.  In an ironic recapitulation of the uncertainty surrounding the magnitude and destination of Fukushima’s radiation releases, the total cleanup bill has been estimated in a range from $10 billion to $50 billion to $250 billion. 

To paraphrase Everett Dirksen, ten billion here, ten billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money and the possibility that even rare and occasional nuclear accidents will push up the total cost of nuclear power to unacceptable levels.  

Understandably, the nuclear industry and people who have staked their hopes on nuclear power as a greenhouse-gas free alternative to carbon-based electricity generation resist the idea of expanding the accepted definition of significant radiation-related health effects, and with it the cost of any accident.

There is also, perhaps, the temptation to let the radiation illness problem take care of itself i.e. shy away from investigations of radiation sickness that might yield inconvenient or perhaps politically or financially catastrophic conclusions while demographics does its grim work of culling the irradiated herd.

The sailors of the Ronald Reagan may not make a lot of headway with their legal challenge; but expect the scientific, popular, and political clamor concerning radiation-related illness to increase.