The case of the failure of Mexico’s Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, nestled on the jagged Veracruz seacoast, reveals the need to nix nukes and fortify public right-to-know mechanisms.
With Latin American countries still turned off to nuclear power two years after Japan’s monumental Fukushima meltdowns dispersed radioactive fallout across the ocean to them, events inside a similar facility in Mexico have fueled mounting skepticism over the potential for developing the energy technology.
Fissures, leaks, shutdowns, government secrecy, a failed upgrade, alleged bid-rigging and contract fraud at Mexico’s lone atomic power station, the state-run Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, were vetted during the 9th Regional Congress on Radiation Protection and Safety held in Rio de Janeiro in April.
The audience of Latin American experts eager to share the information at the professional association forum starred scientists from Argentina and Brazil, which also have nuclear power plants, as well as from Venezuela, Chile and Cuba, which had made tentative moves toward establishing atomic energy stations before the Fukushima catastrophe stymied aspirations.
The irregularities at Laguna Verde came to light thanks to a courageous group of anonymous high-level employees inside the power plant and to the public information requests by their spokesperson, Mexico’s National Autonomous University Physics Professor Bernardo Salas Mar, a former plant employee and valiant whistleblower.
Some of Salas Mar’s most recent research was accepted at the International Radiation Protection Association congress in Brazil, but his university did not provide him with travel expenses to attend in person.
Salas faces high-level attempts to have him fired as a result of his persistent efforts to make public his discoveries of dangerous faults and cover-ups at the Laguna Verde plant. But Salas’ achievements speak for themselves. Were it not for his ceaseless hammering on the doors of the 10-year-old Federal Information Access Institute (IFAI), perhaps no one ever would have known about the latest incidents at Laguna Verde until it was too late.
Based on his freedom-of-information requests to the institute, Salas and Laguna Verde’s own technicians revealed in an April 19 letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto that Mexico has been defrauded to the tune of more than a half-billion dollars by the international companies that won the bid for the federal contract to uprate the two reactors at the plant located near the Caribbean port of Veracruz.
“Uprating” is industry jargon for boosting the capacity of nuclear reactors so they can generate more electricity.
The letter to the President alleges the Federal Electricity Commission purposely botched the bid letting by omitting the usual requirement for a contractor to abide by the Review Standard for Extended Power Uprates. Apparently the CFD did this to favor the Spanish company Iberdrola Ingenería and the French company Alstom Mexico, which lacked the capability to carry out the changes to the nuclear steam supply system according to standard specifications.
Employees in key positions at Laguna Verde had alerted the two previous presidential administrations to the issue as far back as 2006, communicating their “worry over the capacity-boosting work contemplated for this nuclear plant, considering it to be unreliable, risky and overpriced,” according to the letter. Still Iberdrola and Alstom got the $605-million contract to increase the plant’s power output by 20 percent.
Iberdrola announced the successful conclusion of the five-year, $605-million modernization project in February, noting that it overhauled equipment dating back to 1990, in the project that created more than 2,000 jobs.
The president of Alstom in Mexico, Cintia Angulo, was arrested a week after the announcement of the upgrade conclusion on charges of giving false testimony in an unrelated French case of non-payment.
However, the more spectacular fraud for both firms will prove to be the Mexican uprate contract, which not only failed to accomplish the goal of boosting Laguna Verde’s power output, but also left the reactors in worse condition than before, Salas and employees charge.
The Federal Electricity Commission responded to Salas’ inquiries, saying that Reactor Unit 2 would be operating at 100 percent of planned output in April and Unit 1 would be at 100 percent in May.
Nonetheless, after further information requests, Salas revealed that the National Nuclear Safety Commission has denied both reactors the licenses to operate at higher output in the aftermath of the contract, due precisely to the fact that the guidelines for the nuclear steam supply system were not followed.
Employees say the failure to follow the guidelines during the uprate cracked the jet pumps that inject the water to the core of the General Electric boiling water reactors, the same kind that melted down due to a generator system crash at Fukushima.
“The situation of the reactors is not serious yet, but operating with fissures could cause a major problem to the extent that it could endanger national security. (Remember Fukushima and Chernobyl.)” the letter to President Peña Nieto says. The employees consider it “risky and unacceptable for both reactors to continue operating with the fissures that have been encountered.”
Simultaneous suspension of operations at both reactors in September 2012 and related confusing news releases, some blaming the pump fissures, caused alarm in the communities around the installation.
Authorities first said a diesel generator breakdown was at fault for the interruption in service of one reactor, while fuel-cell restocking was the reason for a stoppage at the other.
The next day they said a clogged seawater intake was part of the reason for removing both reactors from service. An escape of hydrogen gas from a condenser was posited. And finally, officials stated to the public that the fissures in both reactors’ water pumps were to blame.
Government secrecy about details surrounding the event accentuated longstanding worries in the population near the plant. The fear of accidents and serious concerns over the ongoing situation was highlighted by an NGO’s court appeal arguing that people should be exempted from paying their light bills due to the fact that their civil rights had been violated by the lack of safety measures and accountability at Laguna Verde.
In response to Salas’ information requests, the Energy Secretariat, in charge of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and the National Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSNS), said it didn’t have the answers to his questions.
Its commissions presented incongruous replies. The vagueness of the answers provided by the Federal Electricity Commission prompted the researcher to appeal to the IFAI to require revised responses.
After his second round of questioning, he was able to deduce that the cooling water intake channel had indeed filled with sediment and it had been dredged, so it did not present a hazard and did not cause the reactor operations’ interruption.
He also then could determine that the hydrogen had been released from the ductwork into the cooling water of the main generator, during the month of August. While the amount of gas was unknown, the escape was not to the atmosphere, and neither presented a danger nor was cause for halting operations.
The CSNSNS responded that the diesel generator failed when a piston stuck due to lack of lubrication resulting from a bearing problem on Sept. 12. The event did not endanger life and limb, according to Salas.
Simultaneous reloading of fuel cells at both reactors was the most likely reason for the concurrent stalling, Salas concluded after the numerous freedom-of-information requests.
While the main present dangers appear to be the fractures in the cores’ water pumps, a Jan. 11, 2013 scram (emergency reactor shutdown) remains to be inspected under the looking glass of the IFAI.
The institute created by decree in 2002 has provided important tools for shedding light on the machinations of the nuclear plant, among other formerly opaque federal operations.
Yet, as this case underscores, IFAI should strengthen its own processes in order to avoid the kind of inconsistent and self-belying responses that ensnared this most recent of many investigations into the lack of security at Laguna Verde.
Even so, that won’t protect the population from the specter of accidents or deteriorating health and safety in the advent of air and water pollution from the facility, which is located on a part of the coast with only poorly maintained roads to offer escape routes.
If Peña Nieto and company are to be more responsive to community needs than their predecessors, one way to show good intentions would be to comply with demands for conducting an emergency public evacuation drill, something that never has been done in the history of the 17-year-old nuclear plant. Another would be to take the irresponsible parties to court to establish accountability.
- A sad week for the nuclear industry: 6 reactors to go
- Nuclear station insider says San Onofre should stay closed
- Fukushima decommissioning to last for up to 40 years – IAEA
- Potential Cost Of A Nuclear Accident? So High It’s A Secret!
- ‘Irreparable’ safety issues: All US nuclear reactors should be taken out of commission
A proposal in the U.S. Senate has advocates concerned that Illinois could become a leading contender for storing nuclear waste from around the nation.
The discussion draft of a Senate bill released April 25 and open for public comment until May 24 launches a process to create a “centralized interim storage” site (CIS) for nuclear waste that is currently stored at reactors nationwide.
And a June 2012 study [PDF] by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory using spatial modeling suggests that northern Illinois would be among the top possibilities.
Many nuclear energy critics oppose the concept of centralized interim storage, saying that the long-distance transport of nuclear waste to such sites would pose serious risks, and that interim storage sites could become financial and safety burdens especially if a long-term waste repository is never created.
“It would be a radioactive waste shell game on roads, rails and waterways,” said Kevin Kamps of the Maryland-based watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, talking by teleconference with anti-nuclear activists in Chicago gathered at the Nuclear Energy Information Service office last week. “We could have de facto permanent parking lot dumps.”
The draft bill, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013, is meant to carry out the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future [PDF], convened by the Department of Energy in 2010. Sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the bill deals with various nuclear waste issues including, centralized interim storage.
Public comments are also being accepted on additions proposed by Feinstein and Alexander specifically regarding centralized interim storage.
“There is no question that Illinois generally and Chicago specifically would see a high volume of [nuclear waste] traffic if the nation opts for centralized interim storage facilities,” said Dave Kraft, executive director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago. “We’re not merely at risk, we’re the bullseye.”
A ‘flawed plan’?
Currently most nuclear waste is stored on-site at plants, in the form of rods housed either in dry casks or pools. Critics say the pools pose serious potential danger in the case of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or accident, including a loss of electric power.
Kamps and other nuclear watchdogs advocate improving waste storage at the site of nuclear plants, including removing fuel rods from pools and storing them in dry casks.
“Waste needs to stay as close to the point of origin as possible, as safely as possible,” said Kamps. “There is no easy answer.”
Eventually, Kamps and other activists want to see a long-term storage site created in a geologically and geographically appropriate place. That was the idea behind the proposed long-term repository at Yucca Mountain, but that plan collapsed in the face of political opposition and complaints that it was not a suitable location.
Many industry critics see the interim storage plan pushed forth in the draft bill as a distraction, rather than a step in the process of finding a satisfactory long-term repository.
In a statement about the draft bill, the national watchdog group Public Citizen stated it “does little to correct the fundamental flaws in our country’s approach to nuclear waste management…Consolidated interim storage is an old plan that didn’t work when it was first introduced 30 years ago, or any of the myriad times it’s been proposed, because it does nothing to address broader storage and disposal issues.”
But Feinstein, in a statement released by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill “establishes a desperately needed nuclear waste policy, employing a consent-based approach that will expedite waste removal from at-risk locations and decommissioned plants.”
While Yucca Mountain appears to be off the table, government and industry actors have long been exploring the idea of long-term storage at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River, South Carolina site or at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where defense industry radioactive waste is currently stored.
The push for centralized interim storage is driven in part by the risks and public concerns posed by waste stored onsite at reactors. Sen. Wyden’s constituents are particularly concerned about risk from nuclear plants along the Columbia River, including the closed-down Hanford site upstream in Washington.
The Blue Ribbon Commission’s January 2012 report proposed legislative changes which are enshrined in the proposed act. The commission noted that under current law one interim storage facility can be built, and only after a long-term repository is licensed. A similar provision was included in the 2012 Nuclear Waste Administration Act, which did not pass. The current proposal calls for multiple interim sites to potentially be built, and does not require a long-term repository be in the pipeline.
The discussion draft of the bill lays out a process for choosing a site, including creating evaluation criteria for sites, holding public hearings and “solicit[ing] states and communities to volunteer sites,” as noted in a Department of Energy summary. Sen. Alexander called for additions to the draft including a requirement the government issue a request for proposals for pilot storage sites within 180 days.
The Oak Ridge study includes various maps with proposed storage locations based on different factors including population along routes and transportation distance. In every scenario, northern Illinois is a likely contender.
The bill notes that consent from local officials, communities and Native American tribes is mandatory; and that any plan must be approved by Congress. Kamps said, however, that the definition of consent is vague, and the industry is known to have much influence with Congress.
“At least there’s some talk of consent,” he said. “But nuclear power is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.”
The bill would also create a new federal agency, the Nuclear Waste Administration, that would take responsibility for the waste. Utilities with nuclear plants would continue paying into a capital fund meant to finance nuclear waste storage. Currently, about $765 million annually is paid into the fund, according to the Nuclear Energy Information Service.
However, if no long-term repository is identified by 2025, utilities could be released from the capital fund obligation.
In Kamps’ words, this means that “[utility] ratepayers and taxpayers, otherwise known as the American people,” will be paying for the waste storage for many years to come.
“The nuclear industry has a few lawyers on its team,” Kamps said. “If they can get out of paying into the capital fund, I think they will.”
- Hanford nuclear waste tanks at risk of explosion (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Congress needs to focus on how nuclear waste is stored now (thehill.com)
The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has released papers under the freedom of information act, revealing that radioactive materials have gone missing from businesses, hospitals and universities more than 30 times in the past 10 years.
The papers revealed by the HSE, the UK government’s safety watchdog, list some big names in British industry as amongst the culprits including Rolls-Royce Marine Power Operations in Derby, which makes the reactors for Britain’s nuclear submarines, it was reported in The Guardian on Monday.
Small pellets of highly radioactive Ytterbium-169 were lost from the Rolls-Royce marine division, while a 13kg ball of depleted uranium went missing from the Forgemasters steel works in Sheffield, The Royal Free hospital in London lost caesium-137 used in cancer treatment. A report into the incident found that it “had the potential to cause significant radiation injuries to anyone handling [it] directly or being in the proximity for a short period of time.”
In another case, materials containing caesium-137 were lost on a North Sea oil rig by the oil services firm Schlumberger.
While at the site of the former atomic energy research center at Harwell near Oxford, cobalt 60 was found under a tube store under a machine during clearance.
Earlier this year a small canister of iridium-192 was stolen from a van in Lancashire, but was later found at a nearby retail park almost a month later.
“The unacceptable frequency and seriousness of these losses, some with the potential for severe radiological consequences, reflect poorly on the licenses and the HSE regulator. I cannot understand why it is not considered to be in the public interest to vigorously prosecute all such offences,” John Large, an internationally consultant to the nuclear industry, told The Guardian.
“Such slack security raises deep concerns about the accessibility of these substances to terrorists and others of malevolent intent,” he said.
While the HSE successfully prosecuted the Royal Free Hospital, Shlumberger and the massive Sellafield nuclear plant, other organizations have got away with written warnings.
In the case of Sellafield, the nuclear reprocessing facility pleaded guilty at Workington magistrates to sending mixed general waste, such as plastic, paper and metal from controlled radioactive areas to the Lillyhall landfill site in Workington when it should have been sent to the low-level waste repository [for low level nuclear waste] at Drigg, Cumbria.
The science departments of York and Warwick universities were luckier; they received written advice over losing radioactive materials during science demonstrations.
While the Loreto high school in Manchester is being investigated over the loss of americium-241.
“Some of these radioactive sources are very persistent, for example the Royal Free hospital’s lost caesium-137 has a half-life of around 30 years, so it remains radio-toxic for at least 10 half-lives or about 300 years,” said Large, who led the nuclear assessment risk for the raising of the destroyed Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in 2001.
It could take 30 to 40 years to fully decommission the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant due to complexity of the task, UN nuclear watchdog IAEA has reported. However, the plant’s infrastructure may not last that long.
An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection last week of the ruined Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma has exposed certain bottlenecks in the plan to clean up the nuclear disaster. A statement by the IAEA released Monday criticized TEPCO’s progress on the cleanup.
Experts of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology believe that a chain of equipment failures of the plant’s essential systems that took place over the last few weeks could become a serious problem in the future. The IAEA called on to TEPCO to maintain plant’s equipment properly to avoid potentially hazardous situations, especially disconnections of the cooling systems of the shutoff reactors and fuel storage pools.
“As for the duration of the decommissioning project, it will be nearly impossible to ensure the time for decommissioning such a complex facility in less than 30 to 40 years as it is currently established in the roadmap,” said Juan Carlos Lentijo, the IAEA’s Director of the Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology (NEFW).
The IAEA statement stressed that Japan must still develop technology and equipment to locate and remove melted uranium fuel, given the harsh conditions and strong radiation levels at the Fukushima facility.
Fukushima saw a chain of incidents over the last five weeks, at least three of which were caused by rats that damaged wires in critically important electrical equipment. And on Monday, TEPCO personnel conducted an emergency shutdown of the cooling system of one of the fuel storage pools after two dead rats were found inside a transformer box.
Lentijo, who headed the IAEA delegation to Fukushima, explained that water management is “probably the most challenging” task for the plant at the moment.
Another issue was the multiple leakages of radioactive water from storage tanks and cooling systems, which are not only further contaminating the area around the plant, but may also be expelling radioactive pollution deep underground, where it could pollute underground water tables.
Earlier, TEPCO reported that a steady inflow of groundwater in the basements of the damaged reactor buildings resulted in about 400 tons of contaminated water daily. With the Fukushima nuclear plant’s storage tanks already housing 280,000 tons of liquid radioactive waste, this means the amount of contaminated water would double within just a few years.
Lentijo urged TEPCO to “implement additional countermeasures to regain confidence.” IAEA experts also noted that TEPCO needs to step up protections against “external hazards” similar to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that followed it, which devastated the plant on March11, 2011. “It is important to have a very good capability to identify as promptly as possible failures and to establish compensatory measures,” he said.
“You have to adopt a very cautious position to ensure that you always are working on the safe side,” Lentijo added.
A final report by the 12-member IAEA delegation to Fukushima is expected to be published in May.
Catastrophic nuclear accidents, like Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima No. 1 in 2011, are very rare, we’re incessantly told, and their probability of occurring infinitesimal. But when they do occur, they get costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with cost estimates, kept them secret.
But now the report was leaked to the French magazine, Le Journal de Dimanche. Turns out, the upper end of the cost spectrum of an accident at a single reactor at the plant chosen for the study, the plant at Dampierre in the Department of Loiret in north-central France, would amount to over three times the country’s GDP. Financially, France would cease to exist as we know it.
Hence, the need to keep it secret. The study was done in 2007 by the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), a government agency under joint authority of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Environment, Industry, Research, and Health. With over 1,700 employees, it’s France’s “public service expert in nuclear and radiation risks.” This isn’t some overambitious, publicity-hungry think tank.
It evaluated a range of disaster scenarios that might occur at the Dampierre plant. In the best-case scenario, costs came to €760 billion—more than a third of France’s GDP. At the other end of the spectrum: €5.8 trillion! Over three times France’s GDP. A devastating amount. So large that France could not possibly deal with it.
Yet, France gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. The entire nuclear sector is controlled by the state, which also owns 85% of EDF, the mega-utility that operates France’s 58 active nuclear reactors spread over 20 plants. So, three weeks ago, the Institute released a more politically correct report for public consumption. It pegged the cost of an accident at €430 billion.
“There was no political smoothening, no pressure,” claimed IRSN Director General Jacques Repussard, but he admitted, “it’s difficult to publish these kinds of numbers.” He said the original report with a price tag of €5.8 trillion was designed to counter the reports that EDF had fabricated, which “very seriously underestimated the costs of the incidents.”
Both reports were authored by IRSN economist Patrick Momal, who struggled to explain away the differences. The new number, €430 billion, was based on a “median case” of radioactive releases, as was the case in Fukushima, he told the JDD, while the calculations of 2007 were based more on what happened at Chernobyl. But then he added that even the low end of the original report, the €760 billion, when updated with the impact on tourism and exports, would jump to €1 trillion.
“One trillion, that’s what Fukushima will ultimately cost,” Repussard said.
Part of the €5.8 trillion would be the “astronomical social costs due to the high number of victims,” the report stated. The region contaminated by cesium 137 would cover much of France and Switzerland, all of Belgium and the Netherlands, and a big part of Germany—an area with 90 million people (map). The costs incurred by farmers, employees, and companies, the environmental damage and healthcare expenses would amount to €4.4 trillion.
“Those are social costs, but the victims may not necessarily be compensated,” the report stated ominously—because there would be no entity in France that could disburse those kinds of amounts.
Closer to the plant, 5 million people would have to be evacuated from an area of 87,000 square kilometers (about 12% of France) and resettled. The soil would have to be decontaminated, and radioactive waste would have to be treated and disposed of. Total cost: €475 billion.
The weather is the big unknown. Yet it’s crucial in any cost calculations. Winds blowing toward populated areas would create the worst-case scenario of €5.8 trillion. Amidst the horrible disaster of Fukushima, Japan was nevertheless lucky in one huge aspect: winds pushed 80% of the radioactive cloud out to sea. If it had swept over Tokyo, the disaster would have been unimaginable. In Chernobyl, winds made the situation worse; they spread the cloud over the Soviet Union.
Yet the study might underestimate the cost for other nuclear power plants. The region around Dampierre has a lower population density than regions around other nuclear power plants. And it rarely has winds that would blow the radioactive cloud in a northerly direction toward Paris. Other nuclear power plants aren’t so fortuitously located.
These incidents have almost no probability of occurring, we’re told. So there are currently 437 active nuclear power reactors and 144 “permanent shutdown reactors” in 31 countries, according to the IAEA, for a total of 581 active and inactive reactors. Of these, four melted down so far—one at Chernobyl and three at Fukushima. Hence, the probability for a meltdown is not infinitesimal. Based on six decades of history, it’s 4 out of 581, or 0.7%. One out of every 145 reactors. Another 67 are under construction, and more are to come….
Decommissioning and dismantling the powerplant at Fukushima and disposing of the radioactive debris has now been estimated to take 40 years. At this point, two years after the accident, very little has been solved. But it has already cost an enormous amount of money. People who weren’t even born at the time of the accident will be handed the tab for it. And the ultimate cost might never be known.
The mayor of Futaba, a ghost town of once upon a time 7,000 souls near Fukushima No. 1, told his staff that evacuees might not be able to return for 30 years. Or never, for the older generation. It was the first estimate of a timeframe. But it all depends on successful decontamination. And that has turned into a vicious corruption scandal. Read…. Corruption At “Decontaminating” Radioactive Towns In Japan.
German journalists have found barrels of radioactive waste in an underwater valley in the English Channel, which were dumped there half a century ago. Politicians in Germany have called for the potentially harmful containers to be removed.
28,500 containers of low level radioactive waste were dumped into the English Channel by the British and the Belgians between 1950 and 1963. Most of them were sunk in an underwater channel near the island of Alderney, known as Hurd’s Deep. Several barrels were found by a team of the joint Franco-German public broadcaster ARTE in an investigative report set to air later in April.
As part of the investigation, the German Public broadcaster SWR sent an unmanned remote controlled submarine into the Channel’s depths. The team discovered two barrels just 124 meters deep, a few kilometers from the French coast.
Experts had assumed that the sea had rusted open the barrels and the contents had dissipated throughout the ocean, thus making the hazard innocuous.
According to the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the containers hold an estimated 17,224 metric tons of low-level radioactive waste. The British barrels are estimated to contain the equivalent to 58 trillion becquerels (units of radioactivity), while the Belgian barrels are thought to hold 2.4 trillion becquerels. The European Unions’ limit for drinking water is 10 becquerels per liter.
“We think that there are still many more undamaged barrels below,” Thomas Reutter, a SWR journalist, told Spiegel Online. He added that it was likely there were other containers that the expedition hadn’t located.
Members of Germany’s Green Party have called for the barrels to be removed from the channel.
“I believe that at such shallow depths these barrels pose a high potential for danger. And it’s not for nothing that dumping in the ocean has been forbidden in the last 20 years,” Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, a Green Party member of parliament and nuclear policy spokesman, told SWR.
- nuclear waste barrels discovered in English Channel (translate.google.de)
All 104 nuclear reactors currently operational in the US have irreparable safety issues and should be taken out of commission and replaced, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory B. Jaczko said.
The comments, made during the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, are “highly unusual” for a current or former member of the safety commission, according to The New York Times. Asked why he had suddenly decided to make the remarks, Jaczko implied that he had only recently arrived at these conclusions following the serious aftermath of Japan’s tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daichii nuclear facility.
“I was just thinking about the issues more, and watching as the industry and the regulators and the whole nuclear safety community continues to try to figure out how to address these very, very difficult problems,” which were made more evident by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, he said. “Continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem.”
According to the former chairman, US reactors that received permission from the nuclear commission to operate for an additional 20 years past their initial 40-year licenses would not likely last long. He further rejected the commission’s proposal for a second 20-year extension, which would leave some American nuclear reactors operating for some 80 years.
Jaczko’s comments are quite significant as the US faces a mass retirement of its reactors and nuclear policy largely revolves around maintaining existing facilities, rather than attempting to go through the politically hazardous process of financing and breaking ground on new plants.
Though the US maintains a massive naval nuclear program, all of the country’s current civilian reactors began construction in 1974 or earlier, and a serious incident at Three Mile Island in 1979, along with an economic recession, essentially caused new projects to be scrapped.
A modest revival of enthusiasm for nuclear power emerged in the early part of the last decade, leading to the construction of four reactors at existing facilities within the last three years, slated to be completed by 2020. Despite the lack of new projects, the US is still the world’s biggest producer of nuclear power, which represents 19% of its total electrical output.
Fittingly, Jaczko’s comments came during a panel discussion of the Fukushima incident, which has brought greater attention to aging US reactors – some of which were quite similar to the General Electric-designed models overwhelmed by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011.
In response to those comments, Marvin S. Fertel, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told the Times that the country’s nuclear power grid has, is, and will operate safely.
“US nuclear energy facilities are operating safely,” said Fertel. “That was the case prior to Greg Jaczko’s tenure as Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman. It was the case during his tenure as NRC chairman, as acknowledged by the NRC’s special Fukushima response task force and evidenced by a multitude of safety and performance indicators. It is still the case today.”
Since the first nuclear reactor went operational in the US, there have been very few fatal incidents at nuclear power facilities, though there were a number of high profile stories written over the inherent dangers of large nuclear reactors during the mid-1970s. One of the most recent incidents at a US reactor was in April of 2013, when an employee was killed at the Arkansas Nuclear One plant while moving part of a generator.
Jaczko served as chairman of the nuclear regulatory agency since 2009, and according to the Times resigned in 2012 following conflicts with colleagues. He was seen as an outlying vote on a number of safety issues, and had advocated for more stringent safety improvements during his tenure.
Another leak has been discovered at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, only a few days after two similar incidents and a major power failure at the facility, Reuters reported.
The new leak was detected in pool No.1 while water from the leaking pool No.2 was being transported, according to the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The water transfer has been halted.
The plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) indicated they were “losing faith” in temporary storage pits for the radioactive water, but did not have anywhere else to put it.
“We can’t move all the contaminated water to above ground [tanks] if we opt not to use the underground reservoirs. There isn’t enough capacity and we need to use what is available,” Tepco general manager Masayuki Ono explained at a news conference.
Meanwhile, the nuclear watchdog IAEA has announced its experts are set to come to Fukushima to inspect the situation at the nuclear plant.
A day earlier, the operator admitted that they are running out of space to store radioactive water from the facility.
The company is still dealing with the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, as it attempts to keep reactors and spent fuel pools in a safe state known as ‘cold shutdown.’
On Saturday, as much as 120 tons of contaminated water seeped from an underground tank; a new leak was spotted on Sunday. The cooling system for the plant has also failed twice over the past three weeks.
- Tepco finds second pit leaking in Fukushima (japantimes.co.jp)
- Fukushima: at Least Three of Seven Underground Chambers Leaking Radioactive Water (cryptogon.com)
Workers at a China National Nuclear Corporation (SinoU) uranium mine in northern Niger have gone on a 72-hour strike, trade union officials say.
On Tuesday, Boubacar Mamane, a spokesman for the Syntramines labor union, said 680 workers at SinoU have gone on strike to demand better wages and bonus payments, Reuters reported.
“Management refused to pay our allowances and production bonus despite having promised to do so last year. If nothing is done, we will launch an unlimited strike,” Mamane said.
SinoU officials and the Nigerien government, which owns 33 percent of the mine, were not available to comment on the action.
SinoU and its partners have a majority stake in the 700 ton-per-year SOMINA mine, whose production kicked off in 2011 and is expected to increase its output to 2,500 tons annually in 2015.
In 2007, SOMINA was established 160 kilometers southwest of Arlit and 150 kilometers northwest of Agadez, in the Agadez region of northern Niger.
Niger is the top supplier of uranium to the nuclear power industry of France.
A record quantity of radioactive cesium – 7,400 times the country’s limit deemed safe for human consumption – has been detected in a greenling fish in the waters near the crippled Fukushima plant, two years after the nuclear disaster.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which runs the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, discovered a record 740,000 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium in the fish, Kyodo News reported.
The operator installed a net on the seafloor of the port exit near the plant to prevent the fish from escaping.
The bottom-dwelling greenling fish was found in a cage set up by TEPCO inside the port next to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a utility official told AP on condition of anonymity.
The company also indicated that the previous record of cesium concentration in fish was 510,000 becquerels per kilogram detected in another greenling caught in the same area, TEPCO said.
In January, a fish containing over 2,500 times Japan’s legal limit for radiation in seafood was caught in the vicinity of the nuclear plant, the facility’s operator reported.
The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant, causing meltdowns that spewed radiation into the surrounding soil and water. The disaster forced the evacuation of 170,000 local residents.
Some experts have speculated that radioactive water may be seeping from the plant into the ocean; this may have been confirmed after bluefin tuna caught off the coast of California tested positive for radiation poisoning at the end of February.
Most fish along the Fukushima coast are banned from market.
- Record cesium level detected in fish caught near Fukushima nuclear plant (japantimes.co.jp)
Don’t be so sure
The March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused the deaths of approximately 16,000 persons, left more than 6,000 injured and 2,713 missing, destroyed or partially damaged nearly one million buildings, and produced at least $14.5 billion in damages. The earthquake also caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s eastern coast. After reading the first news reports about what the Japanese call “3.11,” I immediately drew associations between the accident in Fukushima and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 in what was then the Soviet Union. This was only natural, since studying the cultural fallout of Chernobyl has been part of my life’s work as an anthropologist for the past 17 years. Knowing rather little about Japan at the time, I relied on some fuzzy stereotypes about Japanese technological expertise and penchant for tight organization and waited expectantly for rectification efforts to unfold as a model of best practices. I positioned the problem-riddled Chernobyl clean-up, evacuation, and reparation efforts as a foil, assuming that Japan would, in contrast, unroll a state-of-the-art nuclear disaster response for the modern age. After all, surely a country like Japan that relies so heavily on nuclear-generated power has developed thorough, well-rehearsed, and tested responses to any potential nuclear emergency? Thus, I expected the inevitable comparisons between the world’s two worst nuclear accidents to yield more contrasts than parallels.
But as reporting on the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP unfolded, an unsettling story of stonewalling and sloppiness emerged that was eerily reminiscent of the Chernobyl catastrophe. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), which operates the Fukushima Daiichi NPP, and the plant’s head, Masao Yoshida, proved to be masters of understatement. Yoshida characterized radiation levels nearly 100 times higher than normal as “higher than the ordinary level,” and he used the wholly inadequate phrase “acute danger” to describe two explosions and the meltdown of three of the reactor cores1 (how about “catastrophic meltdown necessitating immediate evacuation?”). One is reminded of the first official statement acknowledging the Chernobyl accident, which only appeared in a Kyiv newspaper three days after the disaster, and was hidden on the third page in the Weather section: “From the Cabinet of Ministers of the USSR. An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl atomic electrostation; one of the atomic reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to liquidate the consequences of the accident. The victims are receiving assistance.”2
Recently-released video footage of the early days and weeks of the Japanese crisis reveals that some of the same mistakes made during the Soviet state’s blighted response to Chernobyl were repeated at Fukushima Daiichi. Military helicopters made futile attempts to douse flames inside the damaged reactors with water, a strategy already proven ineffective, dangerous, and potentially counterproductive during the Windscale fire in Great Britain in 1957, and later at Chernobyl. Local Fukushima firefighters were called to the accident scene but not informed of the extremely high levels of radiation—the TEPCO video reveals an official at headquarters to say, “There’s no use in us telling the fire department. That’s a conversation that needs to happen at higher levels.” Recall the six firemen who lost their lives battling the fires at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4; along with 25 other plant workers and first responders the firefighters for years were the only Chernobyl casualties officially recognized by the Soviet state. The accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima alike have been traced back to lax safety controls and poor plant design or siting, and the emergency response after both disasters included a muddled chain of command, the intentional withholding of vital radiological data and health directives, and the privileging of economic concerns and saving face over the well-being of human beings and the environment. Did we learn nothing from Three Mile, Selafield, Windscale, and Chernobyl? Will the Fukushima accident finally jar us out of complacency, or will the accident be successfully “socially contained,” enabling humankind to “stagger on toward our next disaster?”3
Thanks to colleagues at the Japan College of Social Work in Tokyo, during October and November 2012 I visited Japan to participate in interviews, informal meetings, and conference roundtables with Fukushima evacuees, social workers, medical professionals, and community activists. It was an enlightening though sobering experience: many of the Fukushima stories I heard echoed nearly word-for-word narratives I have read and collected among persons affected by the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union. Just like people who survived Chernobyl and the Soviet Union’s “rectification efforts,” Fukushima-affected persons and their advocates complain of government secrecy and misinformation, top-down decision making, generalized disorganization, and the social ostracism of nuclear accident “victims.”
No one knows what really happened here”
I traveled through northeast Japan with an esteemed group of scholars: Dr. Yukio Yamaguchi and Dr. Takashi Fujioka, professors at the Japan College of Social Work; Dr. Masumi Shinya, a professor of sociology at East China University of Science and Technology’s School of Social and Public Administration; Dr. Decha Sungkawan, Dean of the Faculty of Social Administration at Thammasat University in Bangkok; and Dr. Charles Figley, professor and Chair of the Tulane University Trauma Institute.
We traveled by trains and taxis, making research stops in cities like Nihonmatsu and Yamagata City, which received thousands of disaster evacuees, and Otsuchi (Iwate Prefecture), a coastal town devastated by the 3.11 tsunami. Before the disaster Otsuchi had a population of 15,262. At least 800 residents were killed in the tsunami that carried away most of the city’s infrastructure; nearly 500 residents are still missing. Today there are 10,000 people living in Otsuchi, 5,400 of who still live in cramped temporary housing units.
Our guide in Otsuchi was Mr. Ryoichi Usuzawa, a community organizer. Mr. Usuzawa drove us around the city, much of which now consists only of partial concrete foundations where buildings once stood. The entire city administration of Otsuchi (more than 20 persons) drowned in the tsunami—they had been called by the mayor to the town hall at the time of the earthquake. Mr. Usuzawa drove us up a steep hill to an area overlooking the town, just above the now-destroyed Buddhist temple and the adjoining hillside cemetery, which is still intact. On 3.11, hundreds of residents watched from this vantage point as the massive wall of water rolled in and mowed down their town (including their own homes, some with people still inside), the buildings collapsing “like dominos.” The devastation resulted in huge amounts of debris that caused further damage in turn, as tanks of propane gas bobbed along, became entangled in debris, and ignited fires and explosions “bubbling on top with smoke.” Mr. Usuzawa says, “It was like a huge washing machine was spinning the whole town. Everything was moving clockwise.”4
One of these hilltop spectators captured the scene on video, and we watched the terrifying footage on Mr. Usuzawa’s laptop as we looked down over the now-leveled city.5 He explained that hundreds of residents, many of them elderly, fled to the Buddhist temple for refuge from the water and drowned inside. As the tsunami was rolling over Otsuchi, some 200 kilometers away a wall of water invaded the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, destroying the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the surrounding towns. Yet the impact on residents’ health is harder to calculate, because it consists not only of physical destruction but radiation contamination.
As cultural geographer Shiloh Krupar notes, “Embodied knowledge…take[s] on a particular significance in the presence of large-scale technological -environmental disasters…, where the variability and duration of harmful waste and its biological effects are uncertain and never closed.”6 Measuring radiation exposure and absorbed dose requires specific, often hard-to-access technologies, and laypersons are dependent on experts and their expert knowledge for interpretation of these measurements. Individuals’ ability to know and assess their risks is severely curtailed when expert knowledge—produced by agents usually beholden to states and powerful industrial interests—is the only form of knowledge recognized as valid, even as states and industry intentionally withhold information on hazards and their biological effects. Meanwhile, embodied self-knowledge is discredited.
Fukushima evacuees and their advocates report egregious examples of misinformation, negligence, and cover-up that have exacerbated their health risks. After the earthquake and tsunami the United States Department of Defense and the Department of Energy conducted environmental and radiological monitoring of air, water, and soil on DOD installations in the region.7 According to Professor Yukio Yamaguchi of the Japan College of Social Work, when this valuable data was shared with Japanese authorities they shelved it for two weeks instead of immediately informing the population about radiation risks. Further, the Japanese government failed to provide the Japanese public with data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI)—data predicting the location and extent of radioactive contamination after the nuclear accident—until March 23, nearly two weeks after the disaster. Because the SPEEDI data was not available, some families evacuated themselves to locations that actually were more contaminated than where they were living.8 Perversely, the Japanese authorities provided the SPEEDI data to the U.S. military on March 14 but waited a full nine days before releasing it to the Japanese people.9
As happened in the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl accident, after the Fukushima accident the government quickly raised the “acceptable” level of individual radiation exposure. In Japan, the pre-nuclear accident maximum “safe” exposure was one millisievert (mSv)/year.10 After the Fukushima disaster, suddenly exposure of 20 mSv/year was deemed safe. Some medical professionals went so far as to suggest that 100 mSv/year was a safe level of exposure.11 Such inconsistencies made it difficult for those living near the Fukushima Daiichi NPP to make informed choices and take actions to minimize their risk of exposure to damaging radionuclides. In this context of uncertainty, a common phrase among Fukushima accident-affected persons is that, “No one knows what really happened here.”
In an age where sophisticated radiological monitoring is possible and information technology facilitates the rapid evaluation and dissemination of radiological data, the Japanese government’s crude “mapping” of the radiation fallout baffles the innocent and informed alike. Environmental contamination after a nuclear explosion or accident is uneven and patchy. We have known this since the 1950s, when radioactive fallout from bombs detonated in Nevada was carried by rain clouds all the way to New York state. Similarly, radiation maps of the area around Chernobyl (not released until years after the disaster) show an irregular contamination pattern around the NPP with “anomalous” hotspots of contamination hundreds of miles away caused by rains —biochemist and journalist Mary Mycio describes it as a “hand” with a dark palm six miles around the plant and 20-30 mile-long “fingers” caused by radiation carried by the wind.12 Why, in the immediate wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, did the authorities not apply this knowledge? Why was the contamination not mapped according to the actual radiological data? Instead, in a move strangely reminiscent of the initial Chernobyl “mapping” of a 30-kilometer “zone of alienation,” a 20-kilometer “planned evacuation zone”13 of compulsory evacuation was drawn around the Fukushima Daiichi NPP. The Japanese Cabinet Public Relations Office announced that the cumulative radiation level in those areas could reach 20 mSv/year. People living outside this artificially-drawn zone have been provided no state support to evacuate from their homes, even if the levels of contamination are actually higher there than in some places inside the planned evacuation zone.
Consider for instance the town of Namie. Namie, which was affected by both the tsunami and the NPP accident, is located inside the exclusion zone, and its roughly 20,000 surviving residents were evacuated to the city of Nihonmatsu.14 However, levels of contamination in Namie are lower than in some towns outside the zone,15 whose residents have not had equitable access to evacuation assistance, medical care and social services. Evacuees from Namie face their own set of very difficult circumstances in Nihonmatsu: they are tired of living in hastily-built, cramped temporary housing quarters; unemployment, boredom, and feelings of lack of control over the future fuel anomie. Long-term reliance on social welfare is demoralizing, and evacuation is especially frustrating for elderly persons who just want to go home. According to a community leader at NPO Namie in Nihonmatsu, evacuees are experiencing serious psychological problems; now that they are not in “emergency mode,” he said, they increasingly dwell on their memories of the devastating tsunami. Many suffer from survivor guilt, asking themselves why they lived when others perished. Social workers report high levels of depression and anxiety, alcoholism, gambling, and marital discord among residents of temporary housing units.
Temporary housing site for Namie evacuees in Nihonmatsu. Located in a former athletic field, this site accommodates 240 families (550 persons), including 75 children under 15 years old, and 78 solitary elderly persons. Photo by Charles Figley.
Realizing that returning to Namie is only a distant prospect, and concerned about reports of Namie children being bullied in local schools, in fall 2012 a group of community activists founded Namie Elementary School in Nihonmatsu. The school has enrolled just 30 students so far, but organizers hope it will grow and serve to cohere the community of Namie evacuees in Nihonmatsu, who one community leader described as having been “scattered like sesame seeds.”16 Indeed, loss of community is one of the consequences of 3.11 and the resulting evacuations and resettlements of paramount concern to social workers and NPO leaders. Social work specialists in Japan point out that loss of communities was a major problem after the Great Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake in 1995, but the lessons of that tragedy have not been applied after 3.11.
Living apart is too difficult”
The experiences of the Nakamura family illustrate the difficulties faced bt many Fukushima accident-affected families. Before 3.11, Miki Nakamura, a nutritionist, lived with her husband and three young daughters in Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, 58 kilometers from the damaged NPP. The Nakamuras evacuated temporarily immediately after the accident. However, being understandably reluctant to uproot their young family, they returned to Fukushima as the new school year began in April. As in other locations close to the damaged nuclear power plant, the schools in Koriyama stayed open even though neither radiological monitoring nor decontamination efforts were underway.17 During an informal interview in October 2012, Miki Nakamura recalled that she and other parents were told “very firmly” by their children’s schoolteachers that children should continue to attend school; children were advised to wear masks, windbreakers, and hats to protect them from radiation. Trusting in the judgment of the teachers—and in the reassurances issued by the then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the Secretary General that “there will not be immediate health impacts”—the children in Koriyama continued going to school.
The young families who at the time of the Chernobyl accident were living in Pripyat—the workers’ city built 2 km from the NPP—would find this tragedy familiar. Although news of the accident began to circulate informally hours after the Chernobyl explosion, the authorities did not warn the 49,000 residents of Pripyat to take precautions until a full 36 hours after the accident. Children enjoyed playing outside on the warm April day, unaware that their young bodies, especially their young thyroid glands, were soaking up radioactive particles. The thyroid gland is the organ most sensitive to radiation exposure; this is particularly true for children and for those with iodine deficiencies. Local health workers were instructed not to distribute prophylactic potassium iodine pills, for fear of “causing panic.” (Subsequently, around 6,000 cases of thyroid cancers—and many more cases of thyroid anomalies—have been documented among children who at the time of the Chernobyl accident were living in contaminated areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.18) Incredibly, a similar scenario unfolded after the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Although health workers themselves took prophylactic potassium iodine, it was not given to children.19
On March 15, it snowed in Fukushima, and the snow contained radioactive materials. Radioactive particles landed on the surface of the soil. In April, the air dose rate exceeded 3.8 microsieverts (/hour at “hot-spots” in Koriyama, and 8 microsieverts/hour at some points along the school route.20 Meanwhile, during the days following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the Nakamuras’ dosimeter registered radiation levels of 1.5 microsieverts /hour right outside their home. It was not long before the eldest Nakamura daughter (age nine at the time) started having uncontrollable nosebleeds that her mother says “persisted even after going through a box of tissues.” The child’s nosebleeds were the first key factor in the family’s decision to leave Koriyama.
The second factor was the resignation of Professor Toshiso Kosako, an expert on radiation safety at the University of Tokyo and a nuclear advisor to the Japanese Prime Minister. In late April 2011 Kosako resigned in protest of the Japanese government’s decision after the Fukushima Daiichi accident to raise the official acceptable level of radiation exposure in schools from 1 to 20 mSv/year, a decision that allowed “children living near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to receive doses of radiation equal to the international standard for nuclear power plant workers…a level [that is] is far higher than international standards set for the public.”21 Professor Kosako said he could not endorse this policy change from the point of view of science, or from the point of view of human rights.
The Nakamura family made a difficult decision: Miki and the children would move to Yamagata City, about an hour’s drive across the mountains from Koriyama. Mr. Nakamura would remain behind for his job, and the family would get together on weekends. Thus, Miki Nakamura and her three girls joined approximately 4,200 evacuees from Fukushima prefecture who moved to Yamagata. Like the Nakamuras, around 2,500 of these evacuees are from Fukushima City and the surrounding Nakadori area that were not under mandatory evacuation.22 As “voluntary” evacuees, these citizens are hardly entitled to the same state entitlements that mandatory evacuees receive. Some voluntary evacuees did receive two-part reparation payments from TEPCO, the first for the months up until December 2012, and the second for the months from January to August 2013.
The financial stress on voluntary evacuees—many of which find themselves running two households (one back home, one in Yamagata)—is enormous. Rent is free for evacuation housing, but families spend approximately 100,000 Yen ($1,110) per month on moving costs, utilities for two residences, and children’s kindergarten and school fees outside their place of official residence. (The latter obstacle compels some voluntary evacuee families to transfer their official place of residence, a decision that produces its own set of complications.) Costs of transportation are also high for these split families, who travel frequently to spend time together; also, unlike mandatory evacuees, voluntary evacuees must cover the costs of their own medical check-ups. Reparations from TEPCO do not even begin to offset these expenditures: the Nakamura family received the first compensation payment of just 400,000 yen for one child, 80,000 yen for each parent “for their unnecessary radiation exposure that could have been avoided,” and another 200,000 yen “for minor and additional costs.” The second payment consisted of only 80,000 yen for a child, 40,000 yen for an adult, and 40,000 yen for additional costs.
Miki Nakamura notes that, lacking appropriate entitlements and compensation, among voluntary evacuees “ there are so many children and mothers across the country that live each day by digging into their savings set aside for children’s education and their own retirement.”23 Over time, despite their continuing concerns about radioactive contamination, the financial and emotional burdens of voluntary evacuation have compelled a number of these families to return home against their better judgment. Miki Nakamura predicts that a number of families will return to Fukushima Prefecture from Yamagata in spring 2013, “not because Fukushima will be safe, but because living apart is too difficult.”
I am not a doctor but I know my children are sick”
In Yamagata City, the Nakamura girls continue to have health problems such as sore throat, canker sores, swollen lymph nodes, and dark circles under their eyes, which their mother believes to be related to the nuclear accident. The 10-year-old’s nosebleeds continue, but doctors—state employees who likely do not have the freedom to admit a Fukushima accident-related diagnosis—continue to discount radiation effects. One doctor who examined the eldest Nakamura child suggested that the girl’s nosebleeds were “caused by the stress of the mother.”
This readiness to attribute bodily complaints of disaster-affected persons to psychological and emotional stress is all too reminiscent of the diagnoses of “radiophobia” doled out by medical professionals and experts in the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl disaster. Not surprisingly, many people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia who believed that Chernobyl fallout had compromised their health balked at the suggestion that their ailments were caused by “fear of radiation,” not radiation itself. They had good reason to be skeptical. Anthropologist Adriana Petryna’s ethnographic study of the Chernobyl medical assessment and compensation system has revealed that system to be anything but objective.25 Petryna documents how the invention and application of radiation-related diagnoses in Soviet medicine were as political and social as they were scientific. Further, only half-hearted attempts were made to systematically collect health data from Chernobyl-affected persons (plant workers, clean-up workers, evacuees), making any firm conclusions about biological effects of radiation exposure versus psychological effects of “radiophobia” impossible.
During 1997 I shadowed medical professionals working at the clinic in Kyiv that houses the “Chernobyl registry.” Persons with a “Chernobyl tie” from across the country (those deemed partially or fully disabled due to Chernobyl’s effects on their health) were offered regular examinations at the clinic—some were required to undergo these checks to retain their benefits—and personnel were supposed to enter patients’ data into the clinic’s computer database. The doctors and nurses I shadowed were harried and underpaid, and saw the data entry task as a nuisance. Often data was never entered, or it was entered helter-skelter. It is well known that after Chernobyl some data concerning individual exposure to radiation (particularly among clean-up workers) was actively destroyed or changed.26
I also in 1997 assisted with a WHO-funded study of children’s thyroid health in Chernobyl-contaminated areas whose planned evacuation was scuttled due to lack of funds. The research team exerted a yeoman’s effort, but the desperate conditions of local infrastructure made our tasks extremely difficult. We worked in hospitals without running water or electricity, and thus our ability to do blood draws and perform ultrasounds on children’s thyroids was limited. Local medical personnel were skeptical of our team and the study’s motives and we suspected they actively discouraged sick villagers from participating. Qualitative questionnaires were not tailored to local ways of life. For instance, youngsters who spent hours each day working in the fields and walking long distances to school were never sure how to answer the ill-phrased question, “Do you exercise or do sports regularly?”
Observing these problematic data-collection procedures makes me question research conclusions that purport to definitively assess Chernobyl’s health impacts, and especially those that downplay the medical effects of radiation exposure (e.g. the 2003-2005 Report of the Chernobyl Forum).27 The same critical eye should be applied to Fukushima accident health studies, since reports from Japan indicate that health monitoring of persons exposed to radiation after the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident has been far from systematic or problem-free. The affected population is skeptical that doctors in the state system of medicine can offer objective diagnoses. This distrust means they may be compelled to pay out-of-pocket for private health care, in which case their medical data may not make it into official databases. In the future, these persons will not be eligible for public compensation for their Fukushima accident-related health problems.
Skepticism of official health pronouncements is reflected in people’s desire to have their personal levels of radiation exposure checked. Whole body counters (a device used to identify and measure the radioactive material in the body) are in deficit in Fukushima City, and the waiting list to be checked is some six months long.28 Even though Yamagata hosts the largest group of Fukushima evacuees in Japan, there is not a single whole body counter in the city.29 And as with Chernobyl, the chaotic evacuation of residents after the Fukushima accident complicates exposure assessment and health monitoring. Additionally, in early Feburary 2013 at a private meeting of the research and survey committee on residents’ health, it was suggested that the Fukushima Prefectural Medical College, the institution entirely responsible for examining radiation and its health effects, has attempted to delay the thyroid check-up for evacuees outside the prefecture.30
Not surprisingly, “radiophobia” has made its way into the Fukushima accident lexicon.31 It becomes convenient and somehow perversely comforting to focus on the psychological impacts of nuclear disasters, with their many “unknowns.” The victim-blaming Miki Nakamura encounters (“the child’s health complaints are caused by the stress of the mother”) would be familiar to many Chernobyl-affected persons I have interviewed in Ukraine. Of course, this is not to discount the real psychosocial stresses associated with evacuation and the multiple forms of Fukushima’s fallout (radioactive, economic, social, psychological), many of which are being tracked by the Fukushima Health Management Survey.32
Miki Nakamura has met with other forms of stonewalling in her efforts to monitor her children’s health. Like all children living near the disaster site, the Nakamura girls are entitled to thyroid screenings. After her daughters’ thyroid checks at the Fukushima Prefectural Medical College, Miki received a brief notice in the mail that lacked any details or explanation of the test results. When she phoned the Medical College to ask for an explanation of the test results, personnel told her, “We are so very busy…” and discouraged her from getting a second opinion, which in the words of the doctors, “just causes confusion.” Despite the deficit of whole body counters, Miki managed to arrange whole body counts for her daughters. However, without regular follow-ups to track the dynamic—whether their counts are going up or down—the information is of limited utility.
Miki Nakamura sums up her frustrations: “I am not a doctor but I know that my children are sick. And I saw that other children from Fukushima and in the greater Kanto region had the same health problems as my daughters, though I do not hear about it anymore…” Recent health studies show that Miki’s concern about her daughters’ thyroid health is far from unfounded. According to the April 2012 Sixth Report of Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey, which included examinations of 38,114 children, 35.3% of those examined were found to have cysts or nodules of up to 5 mm (0.197 inches) on their thyroids. A further 0.5% had nodules larger than 5.1 mm (0.2 inches).33 Contradicting earlier reports, the National Institute of Radiological Sciences admitted in July 2012 that children from Fukushima had likely received lifetime thyroid doses of radiation.34 The Health Risk Assessment from the Nuclear Accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2013 states that in the most affected regions of Fukushima Prefecture the preliminary estimated radiation effective doses35 for the first year after the disaster ranged from 12 to 25 mSv. According to the report, in the most contaminated location the estimated increased risks over what would normally be expected are as follows:
*all solid cancers – around 4% in females exposed as infants;
*breast cancer – around 6% in females exposed as infants;
*leukemia – around 7% in males exposed as infants;
*thyroid cancer – up to 70% in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.50%).36
The future is what we are looking at right now”
Miki Nakamura spends time with other evacuee families every day as founder and director the Yamagata Association of Mothers in Evacuation (YAME). The association is a resource base and support system for families like the Nakamuras who are voluntary evacuees often split between two households. YAME has a liaison council to help mothers get necessary information, provides babysitting services and a “mothers’ morning out,” offers free legal consultations, and sponsors a regular “children’s plaza” where mothers can socialize and exchange advice while their children play. Miki Nakamura and her association worked with a local politician to draft the Fukushima Child Victims’ Law, which was passed by the Diet. But this is just a resolution without enforceability, and specific measures to protect victims’ rights (e.g. the right not to return to Fukushima) have not been determined.
As a nutritionist, in a context of radiological uncertainty Miki Nakamura draws on her knowledge of food properties and the complexities of the food supply to regulate her children’s diet. She shares and publishes recipes that contain “radioprotective” ingredients. Foods that contain beta carotene and vitamin C, for example, can help rid the body of radionuclides.37 One food that people in the Fukushima-affected areas have not enjoyed since 3.11 is persimmons (a crop for which the region is famous), which actively absorb radionuclides and thus are highly contaminated. The Yamagata countryside is adorned with scores of persimmon trees laden with ripe, juicy, entirely inedible fruit. Just as apples have become the key symbol of the Chernobyl accident (the forbidden fruit, original sin, humankind’s folly in seeking to control nature through science)38, perhaps the quintessential symbol of the Fukushima Daiichi accident will be the persimmon, which in Buddhist thought symbolizes the transformation of humans’ ignorance (the acrid green persimmon) into wisdom (the sweet, ripened fruit).
Miki Nakamura has lost all trust in the authorities. Before the disaster she always believed the government and she never thought twice about living near a nuclear power plant. Today she demands justice. She said: “The Fukushima disaster is not just an economic problem, but a problem of our children’s future. The future is what we are looking at right now. Our kids have the right to safety and to a good and long, peaceful life. These are not ‘poor kids.’ They have a future. The most important part of reconstruction after the accident is the restoration of people’s trust and sense of security.”
Was nuclear technological failure—the Chernobyl disaster—the “straw that broke the camel’s back” of the Soviet Union?39 The botched handling of the accident and its aftermath—and especially the central government’s overt failure and disinterest to protect the safety of citizens—confirmed what many citizens strongly believed: their government did not care for them and the system had become thoroughly corrupt and untrustworthy. While widespread protest against nuclear energy and its environmental and health risks was not possible in the authoritarian Soviet state, even in those conditions of a muzzled press and lack of freedom of speech a green movement emerged in response to Chernobyl. Chernobyl’s political fallout was one factor contributing to Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness), and in a limited way anti-nuclear sentiment also fueled the Ukrainian independence movement.
Similarly, Japanese citizens have lost trust in the government and in engineers and physicians who previously commanded such respect and authority. Community leaders strongly feel that Japan lags behind other industrialized nations in democratic governance; they are particularly concerned about lack of press freedom. Indeed, in December 2012 the World Audit on corruption, democracy, and freedom of press gave Japan a democracy ranking of 29 (1 is most democratic, 150 least democratic). This puts Japan in the Audit’s “Division 2” list, along with Ghana, Panama, and Israel. Of the 26 OECD countries, Japan ranks 19th in democratic governance.40
The sound defeat of the Democratic Party by the Liberal Democratic Party in the national parliamentary elections in December 2012 reflected dissatisfaction with the status quo. But the elections were a referendum on the DP, not nuclear power; the LDP is pro-nuclear and does not plan to scale back nuclear energy production. Indeed, traveling through Japan I was struck by the relative lack of anti-nuclear discourse, even in Fukushima Prefecture. Few politicians criticize nuclear power. A notable exception is Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies who lost a bid for governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture in elections in July 2012. The anti-nuclear Tomorrow of Japan Party—formed less than a month before the national parliamentary elections in December 2012—garnered scant voter support and disappeared. Reportedly the party’s calls for nuclear power draw-down failed to gain traction “amid concerns that electrical shortages could hurt the already shrinking economy.”41
Indeed, one gets the impression that response to the disaster has centered primarily on short-term economic, not human, concerns. Before the accident at the Fukushima NPP, Japan relied on nuclear power for 30% of its energy needs and was planning to increase that to over 50% within two decades. According to Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, scrapping nuclear power would result in losses of $55.9 billion for power companies, at least four of which would likely face insolvency.42 With these economic stakes, it is not surprising that TEPCO and the Japanese government have been stingy with information about the disaster, the radioactive fallout, and the potential health consequences. My acquaintances who hoped Japan would abandon nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster fear that the chance to “change the country’s direction” has already passed by.
Haruhiko Fukase, a resident of Yamagata City who worked as a shelter volunteer and coordinator during the evacuation effort, said that the nuclear accident-affected people have been forgotten not just by the international community, but by many of their fellow Japanese citizens. “For people in Tokyo and other big cities,” he said, “the evacuees don’t even register anymore. Their problems have been forgotten.” But for thousands of families, the Fukushima nuclear disaster will never end. Community leaders repeat this refrain: “The reactor is still hot; the situation is still unstable.” Miki Nakamura and like-minded community leaders are not giving up on the democratic process. They continue to speak justice to power. As Nakamura said during the December 2012 Japanese elections, “ To give up on Japanese politics is, to me, to give up on Fukushima.”43
Fukushima is Chernobyl. Independent of the system (Japanese, Soviet), nuclear technology requires disregard for the public, misleading statements, and obfuscation in multiple domains (medicine, science and technology, governance). As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson notes, “The disaster at Fukushima has generated cracks in what we might call the ‘social containment vessels’ around nuclear energy—the heavily scientized discourses and assumptions that assure us nuclear reactors are safe neighbors.”44 Comparing the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima shows that “peaceful” nuclear technology is anything but.
I am grateful to Miki Nakamura, Satoko Hirano, Yukio Yamaguchi, Paul Josephson, Marvin Sterling, and Charles Figley for their contributions to this article.
Sarah D. Phillips is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is author of Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation (2008, Indiana U Press) and Disability and Mobile Citizenship in Postsocialist Ukraine (2011, Indiana U Press). Her website is at http://www.indiana.edu/~medanth/.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fukushima’s Nuclear Casualties (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Public Pays for Fukushima While Nuclear Industry Profits (ipsnews.net)