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)
Exactly two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, perhaps the most crucial issue to be addressed is how many people were harmed by radioactive emissions.
The full tally won’t be known for years, after many scientific studies. But some have rushed to judgment, proclaiming exposures were so small that there will be virtually no harm from Fukushima fallout.
This knee-jerk reaction after a meltdown is nothing new. Nearly 12 years after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, there were no journal articles examining changes in local cancer rates. But 31 articles in publications like the Journal of Trauma and Stress and Psychosomatic Medicine had already explored psychological consequences.
Eventually, the first articles on cancer cases showed that in the five years after the accident, there was a whopping 64% increase in the cancer cases within 10 miles of Three Mile Island. But the writers, from Columbia University, concluded radiation could not account for this rise, suggesting stress be considered instead. While this was later contested by researchers from the University of North Carolina, many officials still subscribe to the slogan “nobody died at Three Mile Island.”
In 1986, after the Chernobyl catastrophe, officials in the Soviet Union and elsewhere raced to play damage control. The Soviet government admitted 31 rescue workers had died soon after absorbing huge radiation doses extinguishing the fire and trying to bury the red-hot reactor. For years, 31 was often cited as the “total” deaths from Chernobyl. Journal articles on disease and death rates near Chernobyl were slow and limited. The first articles were on rising numbers of local children with thyroid cancer – a very rare condition.
Finally, 20 years after the meltdown, a conference of the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, and other groups admitted to 9,000 cancers worldwide from Chernobyl. But this was a tiny fraction of what others were finding. A 2009 New York Academy of Sciences book estimated 985,000 deaths (and rising) worldwide from Chernobyl fallout. The team, led by Alexey Yablokov, examined 5,000 articles and reports, most in Slavic language never before available to researchers.
Fukushima was next. While estimates of releases remain variable and inexact, nobody disputes that Fukushima was the worst or second-worst meltdown in history. But predictably, nuclear proponents raced to assure the public that little or no harm would ensue.
First to cover up and minimize damage was the Japanese government and nuclear industry. John Boice of Vanderbilt University went a step further, declaring “there is no opportunity to conduct epidemiologic studies that have any chance of detecting excess cancer risk. The doses are just too low.” At a public hearing in Alabama in December, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official Victor McCree stated “there was no significant exposure to radiation from the accident at Fukushima Daiichi.” Just days ago, a World Health Organization report concluded there would be no measurable increase in cancer rates from Fukushima – other than a very slight rise in exposed children living closest to the site.
Others have made estimates of the eventual toll from Fukushima. Welsh physicist Christopher Busby projects 417,000 additional cancers just within 125 miles of the plant. American engineer Arnold Gundersen calculates that the meltdown will cause 1 million cancer deaths.
Internist-toxicologist Janette Sherman and I are determined to make public any data on changes in health, as quickly as possible. In the December 2011 International Journal of Health Services, we documented a “bump” in U.S. deaths in the 3-4 months after Fukushima, especially among infants – the same “bump” after Chernobyl. Our recent study in the Open Journal of Pediatrics showed rising numbers of infants born with an under-active thyroid gland – which is highly sensitive to radiation – on the West Coast, where Fukushima fallout was greatest.
It is crucial that researchers don’t wait years before analyzing and presenting data, even though the amount of available information is still modest. To remain silent while allowing the “no harm” mantra to spread would repeat the experiences after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and allow perpetration of the myth that meltdowns are harmless. Researchers must be vigilant in pursuing an understanding of what Fukushima did to people – so that all-too-common meltdown will be a thing of the past.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.
Kids in Fukushima Prefecture are becoming increasingly overweight, as they are denied daily exercise in schoolyards due to the risk posed by exposure to nuclear radiation in the area, governments’ health report reveals.
The report argues that an increasing number of kids are weighing 20 per cent more than their standard based on their height, reported Kyodo News.
The study was released by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
Since June 2011 more than half the public institutions in Fukushima, which is just under 450 schools, have limited their outdoor activities during school hours. As of September 2012, 71 elementary and junior high schools still adhere to such restrictions, according to the prefectural education board.
Their main concern is fear of exposure to radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi complex.
Earlier, alarming reports of children developing potentially cancerous abnormalities have been making news as early as July.
A report by Fukushima Medical University first published this April and updated in July revealed that 36 per cent of Fukushima children have unusually overgrown thyroid glands, and could be prone to cancer.
Of 38,000 children examined, 13,000 had cysts or nodules as large as five millimeters, the Health Management Survey stated, which made doctors around the globe rate Japan’s reaction to the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster as “ultimately medical irresponsibility.”
On top of that, fish caught off the coast of Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster are still contaminated, bringing speculation that leakage from the reactors has not been fully stopped. If true, it could threaten area marine life for decades to come.
The long-term consequences of the Fukushima disaster have yet to be estimated, and the possible radiation spread has been a subject of continuous dispute, with official and independent sources providing contrasting figures.
Since the day of the tragedy, Japan has seen many anti-nuclear demonstrations.
The Fukushima nuclear plant was hit in 2011 by a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the worst-ever disaster of its kind in Japan.
The disaster triggered a strong reaction in Japan itself and from May, 2011 to July, 2012 Japan managed to function without nuclear power plants, but later despite widespread protests, Ōi Nuclear Power Plant was restarted.
The disaster also had an awakening effect on several nations worldwide, with some deciding to shelve the use of nuclear energy, including European powerhouse Germany.
Having the Energy Department manage radiation health research makes as much sense as giving tobacco companies the authority to see if smoking is safe
The U.S. government is going out of its way to downplay radiation hazards in the aftermath of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.
Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) heralded an Energy Department-funded study indicating that evacuation zones around nuclear power stations might not be needed after a major nuclear accident. The study, which exposed mice to radiation levels comparable to those near the Fukushima nuclear disaster, found no evidence of genetic harm. “There are no data that say that’s a dangerous level,” says Jacquelyn Yanch, a leader of the study.
“Current U.S. regulations require that residents of any area that reaches radiation levels eight times higher than background should be evacuated,” according to MIT’s press release. “However, the financial and emotional cost of such relocation may not be worthwhile, the researchers say.”
It’s quite a leap to claim that evacuation zones around nuclear power plants might not be needed based on the chromosomes of 112 irradiated mice.
In a devastating critique, blogger Ian Goddard points out that the MIT study excluded extensive evidence of genetic damage to humans living in a radiation-contaminated environment. Although doses in a peer-reviewed study of 19 groups of children living near Chernobyl were consistently lower than the MIT mouse study, most showed lasting genetic damage. “MIT’s presentation of its study as the first scientific examination of the genetic risks of living in a nuclear disaster zone is pure science fiction, not fact,” Goddard concludes.
Even more troubling, the Obama administration reduced emergency preparedness in case of a major nuclear accident in a quiet announcement made six months ago, right before Christmas — virtually guaranteeing minimal media attention. Given that the number of people living near nuclear stations has grown four-and-a-half times larger since 1980, a move in the opposite direction would make more sense.
What’s going on? The United States remains a major pillar of nuclear support here and around the world. About 70 percent of the Energy Department’s $26.3-billion budget covers nuclear activities — and that’s not including $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors that are slated for construction in South Carolina and Georgia. Japan’s failing nuclear industry is supposed to build them.
The Energy Department is also the main source of funding for radiation health research. That’s like having the tobacco industry determine if smoking is bad for your health. And this conflict of interest is nothing new. Several prominent scientists on the nuclear payroll in the 1950s and 60s vigorously claimed that radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests was harmless. Some went so far as to claim that fallout might be beneficial because increased radiation-induced genetic mutations could weed out the weak.
This problem was not lost on congressional investigators over the past 35 years. They revealed the government’s suppression of incriminating data, blacklisting of uncooperative researchers, unethical human experiments, and submission of fraudulent research in federal court. By the late 1980s, the agency was forced to move funding for radiation research to public health agencies. This all changed a decade later, when the Republican-controlled Congress restored the Energy Department’s monopoly over radiation health research.
Things have gotten so bad that the agency gave MIT a $1.7-million grant last month to research, among other things, the “difficulties in gaining the broad social acceptance” of nuclear power. MIT also receives millions of dollars from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the company responsible for the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
This conflict of interest has tragic dimensions. The government and nuclear industry still have yet to deal with the costly disposal of enormous amounts of radioactive waste and profoundly contaminated “sacrifice zones” at the Energy Department’s nuclear sites. Or to resolve the issue of the tens of thousands of sick nuclear workers, uranium miners, military veterans, experiment victims, and nuclear test “down-winders,” who are receiving billions of dollars in compensation after being put in harm’s way on behalf of splitting the atom.
Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration. He authored the report Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage.
A year can be a long time in politics. But for the radioactive particles released from Fukushima’s damaged nuclear reactor, a year is just a moment in their life of hundreds or thousands of years.
So, what is the radiological situation at Fukushima one year after the disaster?
Thankfully, despite more than 9,000 aftershocks since the disaster – including more than 10 rating above seven on the Richter scale – there have been no major fires or explosions since March 2011 that could cause further catastrophic releases of radioactivity.
But the extensively damaged plants are still unstable and highly radioactive. This has restricted access and clean-up efforts, which will need to go on for many decades.
Though Japanese authorities declared they’d achieved a “cold shutdown” in December, an arbitrary definition was used: coolant water temperature was less than boiling, pressure inside the reactors was not raised, and the release of radioactive materials from the first layer of containment was below a specified level. But it didn’t mean the nuclear reaction inside the reactors had been stably shut down.
A number of investigations (some of which are still ongoing) have highlighted inadequacies in the design, prevention and response measures to deal with such a disaster. There is also a high level of dysfunction, cover-up, collusion and corruption in the nuclear industry – including its regulation and oversight.
How, for example, could sea walls designed to withstand a tsunami of only 5.5 metres be acceptable on a coast battered by a 38 metre tsunami in 1896 and a 29 metre tsunami in 1933?
How could cooling pumps, back-up generators and control systems not be required to be located on high ground?
How could spent fuel ponds, filled with vast amounts of long-lived radioactivity, safely be placed right of top of reactors? And without any special containment structures?
Independent, peer-reviewed research provides strong evidence that radioactive emissions from the Fukushima plants began after the earthquake and well before the tsunami struck. This is contrary to claims by TEPCO, the power company involved, and the Japanese government that it was the tsunami and not the earthquake that irrevocably damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant.
If leaks did begin as a result of the earthquake, as the evidence strongly indicates, this has profound implications for nuclear reactors everywhere – not only those located on coasts, within reach of tsunamis.
Serious gaps in measures to protect the population have also become evident.
One of the important protective health measures, which should be taken for those who have been or are likely to be exposed to significant reactor fallout, is the administration of stable iodine shortly before exposure, or within 24 hours. This blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine into the body, which causes thyroid cancer.
Yet the government admitted, in its June 2011 report to the IAEA, that because of dysfunctional decision-making, iodine was not administered to anyone in Fukushima, despite supplies reportedly being available.
Exposure to radiation
We now know the computer-based system designed to guide evacuations and sheltering (known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information or SPEEDI system) correctly predicted the initial path of the heaviest Fukushima fallout. The results were delivered to the government but not acted on, resulting in the people of some towns moving right into the path of the fallout.
Detailed mapping of the population’s radiation doses (from contaminants in the air, water and food) is still not publicly available. But hundreds of thousands of people still live in areas where they will receive doses higher – in some case several tens of times higher – than the world-wide recommended levels of no more than 1 milliSievert (mSv) of additional exposure per year.
The most contaminated areas were re-categorised by the Japanese government in December 2011. Residence is not precluded in areas where inhabitants would face radiation doses between 20 and 50 mSv per year.
Astonishingly, evacuation is not recommended from areas where residents are likely to be exposed to doses of up to 20 mSv per year. Even in the “bad old days” of the Soviet Union, those anticipated to receive more than 5 mSv annually after the Chernobyl disaster were resettled as a matter of priority. And those likely to receive more than 1 mSv annually had resettlement rights.
What happens next?
On January 26, 2012 the Japanese government released a roadmap of planned environmental remediation activities, to be completed over the following two years.
But the value of such measures has likely been oversold. Plans to remove the topsoil of farmland, for instance, will erode the viability of farming. And the problem of where to store, and how to isolate, vast amounts of contaminated material remains a major challenge.
One group particularly at risk of health harm is the large and growing number of workers required to help control, shut down and clean up the damaged nuclear plants.
By early December, more than 18,000 men had participated in clean-up work in Fukushima. These largely unskilled, inadequately trained, ill-equipped and poorly monitored day labourers performed the bulk of the dirty and dangerous work. Much of the contracting of these workers is dominated by criminal “yakuza” networks.
Even before the disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi complex was staffed by 1,108 regular employees and 9,195 day labourers. On average, the contracted day labourers receive two- to three-times the radiation dose of a regular worker but are not included in utility statistics. And there is no compulsory, centralised system for tracking cumulative radiation exposure or health outcomes of these workers.
Radiation levels are not always monitored. But when they are, and a labourer is known to be near the maximal permitted dose for workers, they may be sent away. The maximum dose is normally 20 mSv per year, but this was raised to 250 mSv after the Fukushima disaster. After the workers are despatched, there’s nothing stopping them from then going to work another nuclear plant.
On top of the many other health problems that the Fukushima disaster has caused, thousands of additional cancer cases will likely be diagnosed, but these will take some years to emerge.
This means, of course, that much of the radioactive fallout from Fukushima will continue to indiscriminately harm health for many generations to come.
- Tilman Ruff is an Associate Professor, Disease Prevention & Health Promotion Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health at University of Melbourne.
- Just in case you missed it, here’s why radiation is a health hazard (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Why Fukushima Is a Greater Disaster than Chernobyl and a Warning Sign for the U.S. (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Fukushima whitewash betrayed trust of NPR listeners (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Article on Fukushima contains factual errors (civisjournal.wordpress.com)
A year after the nuclear catastrophe began at the Fukushima Daiichi station in Japan, the world has a historic chance to put an end to one of the biggest frauds ever played on the global public to promote a patently unsafe, accident-prone, expensive and centralised form of energy generation based upon splitting the uranium atom to produce heat, boil water, and spin a turbine. Candidly, that’s what nuclear power generation is all about.
The lofty promise of boundless material progress and universal prosperity based on cheap, safe and abundant energy through “Atoms for Peace”, held out by US President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1953, was mired in deception and meant to temper the prevalent perception of atomic energy as a malign force following the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Eisenhower was a hawk committed to building up the US nuclear arsenal from under 1,500 to over 20,000 warheads and sought to “compensate” for this by dressing up nuclear energy as a positive force. “Atoms for Peace” camouflaged the huge US military build-up in the 1950s.
The nuclear promise was also based on untested, unrealistic assumptions about atomic electricity being safe and “too cheap even to meter”. The projection sat ill at ease with the subsidies, worth scores of billions, which nuclear received. The US navy transferred reactor designs developed for its nuclear-propelled submarines to General Electric and Westinghouse for free. The US also passed a law to limit the nuclear industry’s accident liability to a ludicrously low level.
Fifty-five years on, the world has lost over $1,000 billion in subsidies, cash losses, abandoned projects and other damage from nuclear power. Decontaminating the Fukushima site alone is estimated to cost $623 billion, not counting the medical treatment costs for the thousands of likely cancers.
All of the world’s 400-odd reactors are capable of undergoing a catastrophic accident similar to Fukushima. They will remain a liability until decommissioned (entombed in concrete) at huge public expense, which is one-third to one-half of what it cost to build them. They will also leave behind nuclear waste, which remains hazardous for thousands of years, and which science has no way of storing safely.
All this for a technology which contributes just two percent of the world’s final energy consumption! Nuclear power has turned out worse than a “Faustian bargain” – a deal with the devil. Even the conservative Economist magazine, which long backed nuclear power, calls it “the dream that failed.”
Nuclear power experienced decline on its home ground because it became too risky and “too costly to hook to a meter”. The US hasn’t ordered a single new reactor since 1973, even before the Three Mile Island meltdown (1979). Western Europe hasn’t completed a new reactor since Chernobyl (1986). As a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission put it: “The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of NRC-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes.”
Nuclear power is now on the run globally. The number of reactors operating worldwide fell from the historic peak of 444 in 2002 to 429 this past March 1. Their share in global electricity supply has shrunk from 17 to 13 percent. And it’s likely to fall further as some 180-plus 30 years-old or older reactors are retired. Just about 60 new ones are planned.
After Fukushima, nobody is going to build nuclear reactors unless they get a big subsidy or high returns guaranteed by the state – or unless they are China, India or Pakistan. China’s rulers don’t have to bother about democracy, public opinion, or safety standards.
Nor are India’s rulers moved by these considerations. They are desperate to deliver on the reactor contracts promised to the US, France and Russia for lobbying for the US-India nuclear deal in the International Atomic Energy Agency. Manmohan Singh has even stooped to maligning Indian anti-nuclear protesters as foreign-funded, as if they had no minds of their own, and as if the government’s own priority wasn’t to hitch India’s energy economy to imported reactors. Pakistan’s nuclear czars are shamefully complacent about nuclear safety.
Nuclear power is bound up with secrecy, deception and opacity, which clash with democracy. It evokes fear and loathing in many countries, and can only be promoted by force. It will increasingly pit governments against their own public, with terrible consequences for civil liberties. A recent BBC-GlobeScan poll shows that 69 percent of the people surveyed in 23 countries oppose building new reactors, including 90 percent in Germany, 84 percent in Japan, 80 percent in Russia and 83 percent in France. This proportion has sharply risen since 2005. Only 22 percent of people in the 12 countries which operate nuclear plants favour building new ones.
Nuclear reactors are intrinsically hazardous high-pressure high-temperature systems, in which a fission chain-reaction is barely checked from getting out of control. But control mechanisms can fail for many reasons, including a short circuit, faulty valve, operator error, fire, loss of auxiliary power, or an earthquake or tsunami.
No technology is 100 percent safe. High-risk technologies demand a meticulous, self-critical and highly alert safety culture which assumes that accidents will happen despite precautions. The world has witnessed five core meltdowns in 15,000 reactor-years (number of reactors multiplied by duration of operations). At this rate, we can expect one core meltdown every eight years in the world’s 400-odd reactors. This is simply unacceptable.
Yet, the nuclear industry behaves as if this couldn’t happen. … Full article
- No Nuclear Nirvana (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Japanese officials ask KEPCO to break away from nuclear energy (enformable.com)
- How Fukushima is leading towards a nuclear-free Japan (guardian.co.uk)
One Year and Counting
It’s been a year since the reactor meltdowns and catastrophic radiation releases from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor complex, and news of their far-reaching consequences still makes headlines the world over. Radioactive hot spots are still being discovered far beyond the official 13-mile “exclusion” and 18-mile “cautionary” zones surrounding the 6-reactor compound.
Recalculated estimates of massive radiation releases are repeatedly doubled, tripled or quadrupled. The National Science Foundation has said, “The release of radioactivity from Fukushima — both as atmospheric fallout and direct discharges to the ocean — represents the largest accidental release of radiation to the ocean in history.”
The list of radioactively contaminated foods, waters, soils, vegetation and export goods continues to grow longer, and government-established allowable contamination rates appear wildly arbitrary. For example, Japan intends in April to lower its permissible level of cesium in milk to 50 becquerels per kilogram from the 200 Bq/Kg that is permitted now. Evidently, an amount of contamination deemed permissible for both robust and vulnerable populations for the past year, will become four times too dangerous to consume — on April Fool’s Day.
Unprecedented and seemingly chaotic efforts to limit the spread of radiation are announced every few days. Contaminated topsoil and detritus from the forest are to be placed in metal boxes which may be stored “temporarily” in wooded areas. A plasticized wind barrier may be placed like a giant tent over the entire Fukushima Daiichi complex to retard further release of radiation to the air. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) began in March pouring tons of concrete from ships onto the seabed outside the destroyed reactors in an attempt to slow the spread of radionuclides that were dumped into the sea in the panicky early days of the crisis.
Broadly accepted but faulty government explanations for the meltdowns leave 400 reactors operating worldwide vulnerable to similar failures of emergency generators. Tepco is still dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the three uncontrolled reactors, and the waste fuel pool of reactor 4, all with extremely hot and ferociously radioactive fuel wreckage at the bottom of what used to be called “containments.” The unprecedented earthquake turned them into cracked and leaking sieves that are still vulnerable to Japan’s daily earthquakes.
A selective review of the news is all that space allows:
July 12-18: Beef contaminated, consumed, banned
Beef contaminated with cesium was sold at markets before a ban and recall was issued. Tests on straw at a farm in Koriyama city in Fukushima Prefecture showed cesium levels as high as 378 times the legal limit. Tokyo’s metropolitan government said high levels of cesium, nearly five times what’s permitted, were detected in meat from a cow shipped to a packing plant in Tokyo from a farm in Koriyama.
Sept. 9: Japan triples its radiation release estimate
Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency reported that radioactive cesium-137 and iodine-131 released into the Pacific Ocean by Fukushima’s operators between March 21 and April 30 amounted to 15,000 trillion becquerels, or “terabecquerels” — more than triple the amount (4,720 terabecquerels) earlier estimated by the Tepco. (See chart at end)
Oct. 2: Plutonium fell far beyond evacuation zone
Plutonium, was been detected 24 miles from Fukushima according to government researchers. The official exclusion zone is only 12.4 miles wide.
Oct. 15: Hot spots in Tokyo
Independent groups found 20 radioactive “hot spots” inside Tokyo, 150 miles from the disaster zone, that were contaminated with cesium as heavily as parts of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, in Ukraine, site of a similar radiation disaster in 1986. Kiyoshi Toda, a radiation expert and medical doctor at Nagasaki University told the New York Times, “Radioactive substances are entering people’s bodies from the air, from the food. It’s everywhere.”
Oct. 27: Worst oceanic contamination ever recorded
France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety reported that the amount of cesium-137 dispersed to the Pacific Ocean was the greatest single radioactive contamination of the sea “ever observed.” The institute estimated that 27 “petabecquerels” (27 million billion becquerels) of cesium-137 poured into the sea. This is equal to a staggering 729,000 curies.
Nov. 17: Sale of contaminated rice banned
The sale of rice from 154 farms in Fukushima Prefecture was banned after it was found contaminated with cesium exceeding
government limits. The same week, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences said that levels of cesium in the region’s soil would “severely impair” food production in all of eastern Fukushima and even neighboring areas.
Nov. 26: Cesium in fallout fell all over Japan
Radioactive cesium dispersed by Fukushima fell over the entire territory of Honshu, Japan’s largest and most heavily populated island, the major daily Asahi Shimbun reported.
Dec. 6: Cesium in baby food on shelves 7 months
The giant food company Neji Holdings announced the recall of 400,000 cans of its powdered baby milk formula after it was found poisoned with cesium-137 and cesium-134. Packaged in April, toward the end of Fukushima’s worst radiation releases, the baby food was distributed mostly in May and could have been repeatedly consumed by infants for seven months.
Dec. 12: Tokyo schoolyard’s 9-month cesium hazard
The concentration of cesium found in a Tokyo schoolyard, 150 miles from Fukushima was over 10 times the government-established level requiring disposal. From April to December, highly contaminated tarps were evidently left in a heap beside the school’s gym. The Environment Ministry gave official permission to incinerate the covers, but tons of radioactively contaminated incinerator ash has caused broad public protest because of objections to its being disposed of in forested areas.
Dec. 12: Sea contamination 50 million times normal
A study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Society published in Environmental Science & Technology found that concentrations of cesium-137 at Fukushima’s discharge points to the sea peaked at more than 50 million times expected levels. Concentrations 18 miles offshore were higher than those measured in the ocean after Chernobyl. Lead author and Woods Hole senior scientist Ken Buesseler told Forbes, “We don’t know how this might affect benthic [bottom dwelling and subsurface] marine life, and with a half-life of 30 years, any cesium-137 accumulating in sediments or groundwater could be a concern for decades to come.”
Dec. 19: Up to 14,000 U.S. deaths linked to fallout
The peer reviewed International Journal of Health Services reported that as many as 14,000 excess deaths in the United States appear linked to radioactive fallout from Fukushima. The rise in reported deaths after March 17 was largest among U.S. infants under age one. The 2010-2011 increase for infant deaths in the spring was 1.8 percent, compared to a decrease of 8.37 percent in the preceding 14 weeks. The study by Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention’s weekly reports, was the first on Fukushima health hazards to be published in a scientific journal.
Feb. 11: Scouring fallout from 8,000 square miles
The New York Times reported in its business section that Japan intends to “rehabilitate” contaminated areas that total over 8,000 square miles — an area nearly as big as New Jersey.
Feb. 26: One-quarter of U.S. reactors can’t survive likely quakes
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that 27 of 104 operating reactors in the United States face current earthquake magnitude predictions more powerful than the reactors were designed and built to withstand.
Feb. 28: Cesium limits for rice will not be enforced
The government said farmers would be allowed to plant rice on land with cesium contamination above the new 100 becquerels-per-kilogram limit for crop land. The new limit takes effect in April, long after Japan arbitrarily set a contamination limit of 500-Bq/Kg following last year’s massive radiation releases.
2011: Emergency backup generators ‘not designed to work’
The official explanation for Fukushima’s loss-of-coolant and radiation releases is that back-up diesel generators were wrecked by the March 11 tsunami. In his Nov. 2011 book Vulture’s Picnic (Dutton), Greg Palast smashes this theory — and highlights reactor vulnerability everywhere — writing that the diesels may have destroyed themselves just by being turned on. Since aerial photos now show that the buildings housing the diesels were not wrecked, Palast recounts that 30 years ago he and diesel expert R. D. Jacobs suspected problems with the diesels proposed for U.S. nukes. They forced the builder of New York’s Shoreham reactor to test its three generators under emergency conditions. One after another, all three failed when their crankshafts snapped, just ad Jacobs predicted. Shoreham never went online.
Interviewing another diesel engineer, Palast found that the diesels were “designed or even taken from, cruise ship engine rooms or old locomotives.” They need 30 minutes to warm up and time to build crankshaft speed, before adding the “load” of the generator. In a nuclear emergency, the diesels have to go from stationary to taking a full load in less than ten seconds, Palast reports. They’re not made for a “crash start.” He asked the expert, “You’re saying emergency diesels can’t work in an emergency?” His answer was, “Actually, they’re just not designed for it.”
— New resources: “Lessons from Fukushima,” Feb. 2012, by Greenpeace; and “Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response,” March 2012, by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Radiation amounts FYI:
1 becquerel = 1 atomic disintegration per second
37 billion becquerels = 1 curie
1 trillion becquerels (1 terabecquerel) = 27 curies
1 million billion becquerels (1 petabecquerel) = 27,000 curies
An area far beyond the official 18-mile restriction zone around Fukushima has been declared in need of decontamination. Besides power washing urban areas, this will involve removing about 2 inches of topsoil from local farms as well as dead leaves and other debris from radiation-laden forest floors. The government has announced it intends to clear about 934 square miles of soil — an area larger than greater Tokyo (above). “So far, nobody has any idea where any contaminated soil will be dumped,” reported The Economist, in “Hot spots and blind spots: the mounting human costs of Japan’s nuclear disaster,” Oct. 8, 2011.
John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly.
- TEPCO: Fukushima Radiation Isn’t Our Problem (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Media, Academia Join Forces to Downplay Dangers of Nuclear Power (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Is the nuclear drought over?
When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently approved two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, Georgia, the first such decision in 32 years, there was plenty of hoopla.
It marked a “clarion call to the world,” declared Marvin S. Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Nuclear energy is a critical part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy,” declared Energy Secretary Chu, who traveled in February to the Vogtle site where Westinghouse plans to build two new reactors.
But it’s too soon for nuclear boosters to pop their champagne corks. Japan’s Fukushima disaster continues to unfold nearly a year after the deadly earthquake and tsunami unleashed what’s shaping up to be the worst nuclear disaster ever. Meanwhile, a raft of worldwide reactor closures, cancellations, and postponements is still playing out. The global investment bank UBS estimates that some 30 reactors in several countries are at risk of closure, including at least two in highly pro-nuclear France.
And Siemens AG, one of the world’s largest builders of nuclear power plants, has already dumped its nuclear business.
Recently, Standard and Poor’s (S&P) credit rating agency announced that without blanket financing from consumers and taxpayers, the prospects of an American nuclear renaissance are “faint.” It doesn’t help that the nuclear price tag has nearly doubled in the past five years. Currently reactors are estimated to cost about $6 to $10 billion to build. The glut of cheap natural gas makes it even less attractive for us to nuke out.
How expensive is the bill that S&P thinks private lenders will shun?
Replacing the nation’s existing fleet of 104 reactors, which are all slated for closure by 2056, could cost about $1.4 trillion. Oh, and add another $500 billion to boost the generating capacity by 50 percent to make a meaningful impact on reducing carbon emissions. (Nuclear power advocates are touting it as a means of slowing climate change.) We’d need to fire up at least one new reactor every month, or even more often, for the next several decades.
Meanwhile, Japan — which has the world’s third-largest nuclear reactor fleet — has cancelled all new nuclear reactor projects. All but two of its 54 plants are shut down. Plus the risk of yet another highly destructive earthquake occurring even closer to the Fukushima reactors has increased, according to the European Geosciences Union.
This is particularly worrisome for Daiichi’s structurally damaged spent fuel pool at Reactor No. 4, which sits 100 feet above ground, exposed to the elements. Drainage of water from this pool resulting from another quake could trigger a catastrophic radiological fire involving about eight times more radioactive cesium than was released at Chernobyl.
Ironically, the NRC’s decision to license those two reactors has thrown a lifeline to Japan’s flagging nuclear power industry (along with an $8.3-billion U.S. taxpayer loan guarantee). Toshiba Corp. owns 87 percent of Westinghouse, which is slated to build the new reactors. Since U.S.-based nuclear power vendors disappeared years ago, all of the proposed reactors in this country are to be made by Japanese firms — Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and Hitachi — or Areva, which is mostly owned by the French government. According to the Energy Department, “major equipment would not be manufactured by U.S. facilities.”
For Southern Co., which would operate the Vogtle reactors, the NRC’s approval is just the beginning of a financial and political gauntlet it must run through. Over the strenuous objections of consumers and businesses, energy customers will shoulder the costs of financing and constructing this $17-billion project, even if the reactors are abandoned before completion. If things don’t turn out, U.S. taxpayers will also be on the hook for an $8.3-billion loan guarantee that the Energy Department has approved.
The Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office estimate that nuclear loan guarantees have a 50/50 chance of default.
Nearly four decades after the Three Mile Island accident, nuclear power remains expensive, dangerous, and too radioactive for Wall Street. The industry won’t grow unless the U.S. government props it up and the public bears the risks.
ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999. www.ips-dc.org