Workers at Fukushima nuclear plant. (photo: Getty/AFP)
26 March 15
Fukushima’s fourth birthday brings little encouraging news
he world’s worst nuclear power disaster continues to release radiation into the sea and air around Fukushima, Japan, where the site remains only partially controlled and is still years, if not decades, from any sort of safe shutdown. The March 11, 2011, multiple-meltdown has already cost billions of dollars to mitigate, with no end to spending in the foreseeable future. And the unwillingness of the Japanese and other governments around the world to deal honestly with the growing catastrophe is creating an expanding, global sacrifice zone.
The Fukushima site owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has spent about $3 billion to date, with little progress to show for it. The company’s ineffective site cleanup program has wasted more that $500 million on useless equipment and failed techniques, according toJapanese government auditors.
The Japanese government had allocated more than $15 billion for radioactive waste cleanup outside the plant site, in Fukushima Prefecture and elsewhere. This program has made little progress while creating new mounds of radioactive waste that needs to be stored somewhere, but there’s nowhere to store it yet.
The government’s current plan is to create a vast radioactive waste dump near the Fukushima nuclear site. The plan was adopted despite fierce objection from Fukushima residents, some 2,300 of whom will lose their land to the 16 square mile waste dump that is supposed to be only temporary (30 years). The Japanese government has promised the prefecture $2.5 billion per year in subsidies in exchange for local cooperation. The cost of building, maintaining, and dismantling the waste dump will cost unknown billions more.
The government plans to build a more permanent waste dump, also in Fukushima Prefecture, over the next 30 years. Japan, like the US, has so far failed to create a permanent nuclear waste storage site anywhere.
Nuclear “security” secrecy protects government from accountability
In December 2014, Japan put into effect a strict new state secrets law that critics, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, fear will make Japan more like Russia, China, or North Korea. The Japanese government adopted the law in order, it said, to give the US and others confidence in sharing intelligence with Japan. The law makes a wide range of government activities secret, including much that relates to nuclear power and, by extension, activities at Fukushima.
Despite TEPCO’s demonstrable failures from plant design to cleanup, the Japanese government has doggedly kept outside nuclear experts uninvolved in Fukushima’s disaster aftermath, preferring to leave the faltering but lucrative cleanup in the hands of TEPCO and its Japanese nuclear industry allies. Adding fiscal insult to radiation injury, the Japanese government also compensates TEPCO for its partly self-induced losses with some $1.2 billion in tax dollars a year.
The Japanese government has embarked on a controversial and expensive project to build or rebuild some 440 sea wallsalong 240 miles of the northern Japanese coastline. At an estimated cost of $6.8 billion, the completed sea walls will not protect the inland from predicted massive tsunamis. Already the government has allocated this sea wall funding to other, less critical parts of the country, including some $5 million to Okinawa.
Radioactive water flows constantly into the Pacific Ocean
With virtually no effective means of controlling the flow of groundwater into the plant or controlling the flow ofradioactive water out of the plant and into the Pacific Ocean, TEPCO remains the world’s leader in radioactive pollution. Unmeasured and unchecked, the radioactive runoff from Fukushima will continue to accumulate in the Pacific with unknown consequences farther into the future than anyone can predict. The estimated water flow into and out of Fukushima’s damaged reactors is 300 tons, or 80,700 gallons every day (roughly 3,300 gallons an hour, or almost 30 million gallons a year) just from uncontrolled groundwater.
TEPCO has been reassuring the public that radiation levels have been dropping in the water released into the Pacific. On February 22, however, TEPCO sensors identified a new leakfrom the Fukushima complex. Water from this leak tested at 50 to 70 times higher than the usual contaminated water going into the Pacific. Within a day, the level dropped quickly to only 10 to 20 times above normal. In the course of several days in mid-March, Tritium levels in groundwaterjumped by as much as 17 times over previous readings. TEPCO did not offer an explanation for the increases, nor did the corporation analyze the water for Cesium or Strontium.
Even the present consequences of this radioactive water flow are disputed, as most Pacific nations do little or nothing to assess the impact accurately, scientifically, or comprehensively. In Peru this year, a massive die-off of more than 500 sea lions was attributed by some to Fukushima radiation, while Peruvian officials looked to fish nets or ocean plastic as causes. Along the US west coast, scattered die-offs of starfish are a topic of debate as to whether they are caused by Fukushima radiation. So far, the only certainty is uncertainty, although the evidence includes a reality of dead sea creatures covering 98 per cent of California’s nearby ocean floor, a phenomenon that was at only one per cent of the ocean floor before Fukushima.
Plumes of radioactivity from Fukushima have reached the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States, with little government curiosity as to their impact – even though such plumes will keep coming as long as Fukushima keeps leaking, and the continuously-renewed radionuclides in the water will remain toxic for years, decades, in some cases centuries.
Government ignorance rooted in denial continues to be massive
Radioactivity in the air is largely ignored, although there are credible assertions that Fukushima continues to emit airborne radiation at least intermittently. Over the past four years, much of the airborne radiation from Fukushima has settled on the ground around the region and become ground contamination that remains in places dangerous for humans, as well as agriculture (hence the ban on Fukushima produce). Now scientists are hoping that salt-loving bacteria might be effective in cleaning the ground of radioactive elements such as Cesium and Plutonium, but this is still in the experimental stage.
At the Fukushima site, TEPCO has performed an examination by a muon detection system that confirms what was already well known about the reactor in Unit 1: that the fuel had mostly melted and fallen to the bottom of the reactor containment vessel. The fuel in Units 2 and 3 also melted in a similar manner. A separate muon scan by Nagoya Universityalso appears to confirm that the Unit 2 core has also melted down completely.
This muon exercise is another example of evasion trying to pass as forthrightness. TEPCO’s scan confirms conclusions long since arrived at by informed observers, but ignores a far more dangerous – and critical – question: where is the core now? As Japan Times posed the problem:
However, the scan — based on tomography imaging that made use of elementary particles called muons — did not look at the bottom part of the reactor, where the molten fuel would have pooled. So some experts suggested that it was not possible to tell whether the fuel had indeed been contained.
The three cores in Units 1, 2, and 3 remain radioactively hot, lethal to humans, and unapproachable by anything but special robots. For the cores to become safe in any practical sense, they need to be isolated from human contact for a period longer than humans have yet existed on Earth, an engineering, security, and cultural problem for which there is no known answer, or cost. If one or more of the cores has, indeed, melted through the reactor containment (the so-called China syndrome), there is no known remedy for, or means to control that event.
Hundreds or more reactor fuel rods remain unsecured at Fukushima
Fukushima Unit 4’s reactor was in the midst of re-fueling and was empty at the time of the accident. The new and spent fuel had been stored some fifty feet above ground, in a fuel pool that was damaged by the earthquake. That fuel pool was structurally unsound and in danger of collapse, risking yet another meltdown, this time outside any containment. On March 24, TEPCO announced that it had completed removal of all 764 fuel rods from the elevated fuel pool and stored them in a safer, ground-level fuel pool.
The spent fuel pools in the other three reactors remain unsecured. When Unit 3 exploded in 2011, the explosion knocked a crane into the fuel pool and TEPCO had been removing the crane in sections. In late February, an oil leak from the crane still in the fuel pool led to the temporary shutdown of the fuel pool cooling system.
The reactor explosions of 2011 reportedly sent radioactive debris, including parts of fuel rods, as far as 60 miles in all directions.
Radioactively contaminated food products from the Fukushima region continue to reach public markets in Japan and elsewhere. In Taiwan, health authorities have seized more than 283 banned food products that were deliberately mislabeled by corporate distributors to conceal their origins in the Fukushima region. Counterfeiting food labels is a crime in Japan punishable by fines up to $900,000 and/or two years in jail. Japanese regulators did not intercept the Fukushima food from being exported to Taiwan, even though Japan prides itself on strict monitoring of food product radioactivity. That pride is based on only periodic test samples (every three months for beef, for example). TheJapanese Health Ministry recently announced plans to eliminate another 20 food products from testing, and to increase the testing period to one year. The Ministry willcontinue to test beef, milk, and 43 other products.
When Taiwanese officials caught up with the corporate fraud, they seized more than half a ton of illicit produce. By then an unknown amount had already been sold to consumers. Taiwanese health officials have promised a crackdown on importers and promised to force corporations to make refunds to consumers with receipts for illegal goods.
Hong Kong recently reported detecting Cesium 137 in powdered green tea from Japan, but the radiation was well below the legally allowed maximum. The importer withdrew the tea from the market. In 2011, Hong Kong also reported “unsatisfactory” levels of radioactive contaminants in three samples of vegetables. Occasionally since then, other samples of Japanese food have shown low levels of radioactivity.
In early March, a United Nations conference on disaster relief met in northern Japan, where Fukushima food products were discussed. Not all Fukushima products are contaminated, but the mere name of their source region is associated with contamination in much of the public mind. Without providing supporting data, Voice of America reported:
At the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center, workers put fish, chicken, and vegetables in radiation detectors made in the United States. All food from the area is tested for radiation. Officials say Japanese safety standards are ten times stricter for levels of radioactive cesium than American or European standards.
Japanese residents affected by Fukushima are getting little help
Fukushima prefecture’s population was about two million in 2012. About 1,800 residents are dead or missing as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. In 2015, at least 120,000 residents are still alive in Japan, but internal refugees fromtheir contaminated homes. According to Green Cross International, more than 30 million Japanese residents are continuously exposed to radiation from Fukushima. A Kyoto University professor points out that there is a heavily contaminated area outside the Fukushima evacuation zone where people continue to live. Professor Hiroaki Koide of the Research Reactor Institute said on the Nuclear Hotseat program:
Because of the radiation dispersed due to the accident a large area of Japan … has been contaminated.… It looks like the national government is simply going to abandon these people. Moreover, surrounding the 386 square mile evacuation zone where these people live, there is a 5,400 square mile [14,000 square kilometer] area that is heavily contaminated.
If Japan were a country under the rule of law, this would be a restricted access area where people should not be allowed to live due to radiation. The several million people who live there have been cast aside and told if you want to leave, go ahead and do it on your own. The government feigns ignorance. These millions of people, including children and infants, go about their daily lives in this area being exposed to radiation as if there’s no problem at all.… I think this is very bizarre. [emphasis added] Additionally there has been no resolution at the accident site … from my vantage point, the accident is not under control at all.
Additionally there has been no resolution at the accident site … from my vantage point, the accident is not under control at all. [emphasis added]
Neither the Japanese government nor TEPCO has yet carried out comprehensive health assessments of the estimated 20,000 emergency workers who worked at the Fukushima site while it was most radioactive in 2011. TEPCO and its sub-contractors reportedly overexposed many workers to radiation at the site. In March 2015, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a Japan-US institute based in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, initiated a project aimed atassessing the health of all 20,000 Fukushima workers. Among the first sample of 2,000 workers targeted, only 704 responded and agreed to health assessments.
Neither TEPCO, its subcontractors, nor the Japanese government is actively participating in the health assessment effort. During the cleanup period, the government more than doubled the “safe” limit of radiation exposure above the previous – and current – “safe” levels. News reports at the time said that TEPCO and its subcontractors exposed their cleanup workers to much more than the doubled “safe” limit. TEPCO mostly prevented news coverage on-site, except for official tours.
With the Fukushima disaster continuing, perhaps slowly but largely out of control, the Japanese government has announced plans to reopen the nuclear plant on the island of Kyushu as well as 42 other plants that have remained shut down since 2011. And TEPCO says it plans to decontaminate some 54 million gallons of radioactive water stored on the Fukushima site and discharge it into the Pacific.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
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