The latest surge in radiation at Fukushima nuclear plant may suggest not only additional water leaks at the site, but could also mean fission is occurring outside the crippled reactor, explains Chris Busby from the European Committee on Radiation Risk.
The increase in radiation reading is too significant to be blamed on random water leaks, believes Busby.
RT: Just how serious is the situation now in Japan?
Chris Busby: I think this is an indication that it has actually deteriorated significantly, very suddenly in the last week. What they are not saying and what is the missing piece of evidence here is that radiation suddenly cannot increase unless something happens and that something cannot be leakage from a tank, because gamma radiation goes straight through a tank. The tank has got very thin metal walls. These walls will only attenuate gamma radiation by 5 per cent, even when it is 1 cm thick.
Although they may think this is a leak from the tank, and there may well be leaks from the tank, this sudden increase of 1.8 Sieverts per hour is an enormously big dose that can probably kill somebody in 2 to 4 hours.
Today there was another leak found at 1.7 Sieverts per hour in more or less the same place. This huge radiation increase, in my mind means something going on outside the tanks, some radioactive fission is occurring, like an open air reactor, if you like, under the ground.
RT: What impact will this have on the clean-up operation and those who are involved in that operation?
CB: First of all it is clearly out of control and secondly no one can go anywhere near it. Nobody can go in to measure where these leaks are or do anything about them, because anybody who is to approach that sort of area would be dead quite quickly. They would be seriously harmed.
RT: Then presumably, someone who was there earlier, not knowing that the radiation levels were so high, are at risk now?
CB: I think many people are going to die as a result of this just like liquidators died after Chernobyl. They were dying over the next ten years or so.
RT: Why has TEPCO failed to contain the radiation?
CB: I think no one has actually realized how bad this is, because the international nuclear industries have tried to play it down so much, that they sort of came to the idea that somehow it can be controlled. Whereas all along, it could never be controlled.
I’ve seen a photograph taken from the air recently, in which the water in the Pacific Ocean is actually appearing to boil. Well, it is not boiling. You can see that it’s hot. Steam is coming off the surface. There is a fog condensing over the area of the ocean close to the reactors, which means that hot water is getting into the Pacific that means something is fissioning very close to the Pacific and it is not inside the reactors, it must be outside the reactors in my opinion.
RT: Surely the international nuclear industry should have come to TEPCO’s help before this?
CB: Yes. They should have done that. This is not a local affair. This is an international affair. I could not say why it has not. I think they are all hoping that nothing will happen, hoping that this will all go away and keeping their fingers crossed. But from the beginning it was quite clear that it was very serious and that there is no way in which this is not going to go very bad.
And now it seems to have suddenly got very bad. If that photograph I’ve seen is true, they should start evacuating people up to a 100 kilometer zone.
RT: So not only those that live in the vicinity but also those that live within 100 km could be at risk?
CB: I say that this might be a faked dubbed photograph, but if that is real and these levels of 1.8 Sieverts per hour are real, than something very serious has happened and I think people should start to get away.
RT: Since the radiation is leaking into the ocean, will it not have a major ecological impact elsewhere?
CB: Of course. What happens there is that it moves all the radioactivity up and down the coast right down to Tokyo. I’ve seen a statement made by Tokyo’s mayor saying this will not affect the application of Tokyo to be considered for the Olympic Games. I actually thought they ought to consider evacuating Tokyo. It is very, very serious.
I recently pointed out, this operation has to go on forever – a long sickness, but at least not a sudden death. However, this week begins a new development in the potential sudden death department.
There is a curious and bizarre reversal of the natural at Fukushima: a looking-glass world inversion. Unlike the standard marine catastrophe, for example the Titanic, where the need is to manically pump water out of the ship to stop it sinking, at Fukushima the game is to madly pump water in, in order to stop it melting down and exploding.
Probably because it is now clear that the saturation of the ground from all the pumping water for cooling the several reactors and spent fuel pools has destabilized the foundations of the buildings, TEPCO is bringing forward its operation to try and deal with what is perhaps the most dangerous of the four sites, the spent fuel pond of Reactor 4. For this pond contains a truly enormous amount of radioactive material: 1,331 spent fuel grids amounting to 228.3 tons of Uranium and Plutonium buried inside a swimming pool which has already dried out once and exploded. That explosion blasted a significant, but unknown, quantity of lethally radioactive bits and pieces of fuel element around the site (where I heard they were bulldozed into the ground – who knows?), but it also blew the top off the building, covered the fuel elements under the water with rubble and pieces of crane machinery, and no doubt twisted and melted a large proportion of the remaining spent fuel.
The operation involves the kind of game that we are all familiar with in those machines in penny arcades. You know the ones. You stick in some coins. You have levers which manipulate a claw which you position over a teddy bear or a doll and then you let this down, pick the item up and drop it down a chute to win it. In the TEPCO version of this game, you build a crane over the spent fuel tank (or what’s left of it) and manoeuver a grab down into the rubble to deftly pick out a spent fuel assembly, like a 4.5meter long and 24cm square birdcage containing the zirconium metal clad fuel elements, each unit weighing about one third of a ton.
Of course, to make the game more interesting, they are not just sitting there like they were when the tank was being used. They are under water (sea water), covered in debris, corroded, busted, twisted, intertwined and generally impossible to deal with. And here is the really scary thing: if you manage to bust a fuel element, the best outcome is that huge amounts of radioactivity escape into the air and blow over Japan, just like before. The worst outcome is when two of these things get too close, perhaps because in pulling one out it breaks and falls against another one in the tank. Because then you suddenly have lots of fission, a lot of heat, a meltdown, possibly a big blast like before, and the destruction of the entire cooling pond. Or else the water boils off and the whole thing catches fire.
Then what happens? Not quite Armageddon, but as far as Japan is concerned, almost. I bet they have contingency plans to evacuate the northern island to Korea, China, anywhere. A lot of this radiation will end up in the USA, a long way downwind, admittedly, but then there is an awful lot of radioactivity involved.
Let me lead you through what the spent fuel pond of Reactor 4 contains in the way of radionuclides. I was taken to task after my last article for not listing enough of the radionuclide contaminants. So for the record, though some may find it boring, let me remedy that. It is an impressive list of lethal material:
Strontium-89, Strontium-90, Yttrium-90, Zirconium-95, Niobium-95, Ruthenium-106, Rhodium-106, Antimony-125, Iodine-131, Xenon-133, Caesium-137, Caesium-134, Cerium-144 (loads of this), Protoactinium-147, Europium-154, Plutonium-238, 239, 240, 241, Americium (Yes)-241 and 243, Curium-242,243,244, and of course Uranium 238,235 and 234.
These are the main ones. There are a lot more, and decay daughters of these also. It is a scary amount of invisible death. The total quantity of all these in the spent fuel pool of reactor 4 is about 1021 Becquerels, if we leave out the noble gases and iodines maybe 1020 (that is, 1 with 20 zeroes). Maybe 50 to 100 Chernobyl accidents worth, or more depending on what you believe came out of Chernobyl.
I list these because it should be made quite clear that the concentration of the media on the radio-caesiums and plutoniums and iodines is a very partial story. More discourse manipulation.
What lies within
Which brings me to another aspect of this grim piece of contemporary history. My expertise is in the health effects of internal radionuclides: what happens when these substances I list above get into human beings. Just after the Fukushima catastrophe I made a calculation and a prediction based on the scientific model of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR). I presented it at the German Society for Radioprotection/ ECRR conference in Berlin in May 2011.
This showed that there would be some 200,000 extra cancers in roughly 10 million population in the 200km radius of the site in the next 10 years, and 400,000 over 50 years. The current risk model adhered to and employed by the Japanese government is that of the International Commission of Radiological Protection, the ICRP. This predicts that no detectable cancers will be seen as a result of the “very low doses” received by the population.
It is this nonsense that allows them to say it is safe to live in contaminated areas so long as the annual “dose” is lower than about 20mSv and to refuse to evacuate the children from such places. The ECRR has predicted and explained all the increased rates of illness seen after the Chernobyl accident in the contaminated territories and of course predicts that the first effects will be increases in thyroid cancer in children, just like Chernobyl. But the ICRP and those employing its model deny there are such effects in Chernobyl: the problems there are due to vodka, radiophobia etc. Or that the children in Belarus who did develop thyroid cancer were iodine deficient. So in effect, Fukushima is a test of the two models. A test which has now begun.
It was reported recently that a survey of thyroid conditions in young people age 0-18 by Fukushima Medical University found 12 confirmed cases and 15 suspected cases of thyroid cancer in 178,000 individuals screened. This is in a two-year period. The 2005 Japanese national incidence rate for thyroid cancer aged 0-18 is given in a recent peer reviewed report as 0.0 per 100,000. That is to say there are no cases. Let me be generous and say that the annual rate per 100,000 is 0.05. That means in the last two years we would expect 0.18 cases: we actually see at minimum 12 cases but most likely 27 cases.
In epidemiology we calculate the excess risk as 27/0.18 which is 150 times the expected rate. Japan Times tells us “Researchers at Fukushima Medical University, which has been taking the leading role in the study, have said they do not believe the most recent cases are related to the nuclear crisis.” Right, that’s OK then. This must have been a random cluster, unluckily, but coincidentally near Fukushima, a source of radioiodine which is a known cause of thyroid cancer.
The risk model
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, UNSCEAR would agree. Also the World Health Organization (since 1959 part of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] as far as research into radiation and health is concerned). In its preliminary report on Fukushima Health effects, issued in 2012, it states that the maximum thyroid dose was 35mSv and that most received a lot less. On the basis of the ICRP model you would not expect (says radiation and health supremo Dr. Wolfgang Weiss) to see what is clearly happening: an accelerating thyroid cancer epidemic, worse than and earlier than the Chernobyl thyroid cancer epidemic.
It is one more piece of evidence that the current ICRP risk model, employed by the Japanese (and all other world governments) is totally wrong and unsafe and must urgently be abandoned. Internal radiation exposure, as the ECRR approach shows, cannot be assessed by the simple concept of ‘Absorbed Dose’. For those who want a more technical explanation you can see my recent article.
I met Weiss in 2011 at a conference of radiation research in Paris which he was running. At this MELODI conference I took the microphone and told the 650 delegates that the ICRP model was dead in the water and its use continued to kill the people it was intended to protect. I was pursued up the aisle by the Chair, Dr. Sisko Salomaa (of the Finnish Radiation Protection organization STUK), to wrestle the microphone away from the dangerous lunatic Busby.
But Weiss, Salomaa, and the other radiation agency apparatchiks well know that the ICRP and the other global radiation protection agencies UNSCEAR, IAEA and WHO are run by people (like themselves) who are not experts on internal radiation pollution and health, and rarely have any real hands-on research expertise. They rely exclusively on the Hiroshima bomb studies which ignored internal radiation, the black rain of uranium that affected the controls outside the city and the control entrants after the bomb.
I have checked out their research publications: it is just the case. Ask them. Their job has been – and still is – to protect, not the public, but the nuclear industry and the military. After Chernobyl, some of them turned up in Kiev when I was there in 2000 and talked down the effects of the radiation. Watch them in action here. By 2005, these Chernobyl cancer effects were turning up in Europe. One study in Sweden by Martin Tondel found an 11 percent excess cancer risk for every 100kBq/sq metre of caesium-137 contamination. Tondel was swiftly dealt with by his boss, Lars Erik Holm, one-time head of ICRP and now Medical Officer of Health of Sweden (Yes).
Again and again, these agencies and their spokespersons have denied what was in front of their very eyes. Billions of dollars are poured into cancer research, research on radiation, but any attempt to carry out epidemiological studies of those exposed to internal radiation, from depleted uranium in Iraq, to Chernobyl contamination, to the shores of the massively-contaminated Baltic Sea have been turned down for funding. I know. I applied with colleagues from Latvia Technical University and from the Karolinska Institute to look at cancer on the shores of the Baltic; no way were we going to be allowed to even get the data, let alone be funded.
As more evidence emerges from this ghastly inadvertent Fukushima experiment, we will see more and more that we have governments and radiation agencies who are wielding unsafe and incorrect scientific assessments of reality. Additionally, we have what might become one of the most serious global public health events of human history being overseen by a private profit-making company, TEPCO, with no good track record of competence or believability.
And appropriately, in this looking-glass world, in a bizarre echo of these two inversions of justice and democracy, we have a sinking ship that can only be saved by pumping water into it.
What are we going to do with these people who have let us down, who are letting us down? They all should be put into a court and tried and sent to jail for what are effectively war crimes, in this new war, the invisible genetic poisoning of the planet and its innocent inhabitants.
- Fukushima apocalypse: Years of ‘duct tape fixes’ could result in ‘millions of deaths’
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- Pump and pray: Tepco might have to pour water on Fukushima wreckage forever
- Fukushima radioactive groundwater leak an ‘emergency’ – Japan’s nuclear watchdog
- Fukushima leaking radioactive water for ‘2 years, 300 tons flowing into Pacific daily’
Even the tiniest mistake during an operation to extract over 1,300 fuel rods at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan could lead to a series of cascading failures with an apocalyptic outcome, fallout researcher Christina Consolo told RT.
Fukushima operator TEPCO wants to extract 400 tons worth of spent fuel rods stored in a pool at the plant’s damaged Reactor No. 4. The removal would have to be done manually from the top story of the damaged building in the radiation-contaminated environment.
In the worst-case scenario, a mishandled rod may go critical, resulting in an above-ground meltdown releasing radioactive fallout with no way to stop it, said Consolo, who is the founder and host of Nuked Radio. But leaving things as they are is not an option, because statistical risk of a similarly bad outcome increases every day, she said.
RT: How serious is the fuel rod situation compared to the danger of contaminated water build-up which we already know about?
Christina Consolo: Although fuel rod removal happens on a daily basis at the 430+ nuclear sites around the world, it is a very delicate procedure even under the best of circumstances. What makes fuel removal at Fukushima so dangerous and complex is that it will be attempted on a fuel pool whose integrity has been severely compromised. However, it must be attempted as Reactor 4 has the most significant problems structurally, and this pool is on the top floor of the building.
There are numerous other reasons that this will be a dangerous undertaking.
- The racks inside the pool that contain this fuel were damaged by the explosion in the early days of the accident.
- Zirconium cladding which encased the rods burned when water levels dropped, but to what extent the rods have been damaged is not known, and probably won’t be until removal is attempted.
- Saltwater cooling has caused corrosion of the pool walls, and probably the fuel rods and racks.
- The building is sinking.
- The cranes that normally lift the fuel were destroyed.
- Computer-guided removal will not be possible; everything will have to be done manually.
- TEPCO cannot attempt this process without humans, which will manage this enormous task while being bombarded with radiation during the extraction and casking.
- The process of removing each rod will have to be repeated over 1,300 times without incident.
- Moving damaged nuclear fuel under such complex conditions could result in a criticality if the rods come into close proximity to one another, which would then set off a chain reaction that cannot be stopped.
What could potentially happen is the contents of the pool could burn and/or explode, and the entire structure sustain further damage or collapse. This chain reaction process could be self-sustaining and go on for a long time. This is the apocalyptic scenario in a nutshell.
The water build-up is an extraordinarily difficult problem in and of itself, and as anyone with a leaky basement knows, water always ‘finds a way.’
‘Trivial in light of other problems at Fukushima, water situation could culminate in the chain reaction scenario’
At Fukushima, they are dealing with massive amounts of groundwater that flow through the property, and the endless pouring that must be kept up 24/7/365 to keep things from getting worse. Recently there appears to be subsidence issues and liquefaction under the plant.
TEPCO has decided to pump the water out of these buildings. However, pumping water out of the buildings is only going to increase the flow rate and create more of these ground issues around the reactors. An enormous undertaking – but one that needs to be considered for long-term preservation of the integrity of the site – is channelling the water away, like a drain tile installed around the perimeter of a house with a leaky basement, but on an epic scale.
Without this effort, the soils will further deteriorate, structural shift will occur, and subsequently the contents of the pools will shift too.
Any water that flows into those buildings also becomes highly radioactive, as it is likely coming into contact with melted fuel.
Without knowing the extent of the current liquefaction and its location, the location of the melted fuel, how long TEPCO has been pumping out water, or when the next earthquake will hit, it is impossible to predict how soon this could occur from the water problem/subsidence issue alone. But undoubtedly, pumping water out of the buildings is just encouraging the flow, and this water problem needs to be remedied and redirected as soon as possible.
RT: Given all the complications that could arise with extracting the fuel rods, which are the most serious, in your opinion?
CC: The most serious complication would be anything that leads to a nuclear chain reaction. And as outlined above, there are many different ways this could occur. In a fuel pool containing damaged rods and racks, it could potentially start up on its own at anytime. TEPCO has been incredibly lucky that this hasn’t happened so far.
‘One of the worst, but most important jobs anyone has ever had to do’
My second biggest concern would be the physical and mental fitness of the workers that will be in such close proximity to exposed fuel during this extraction process. They will be the ones guiding this operation, and will need to be in the highest state of alertness to have any chance at all of executing this plan manually and successfully. Many of their senses, most importantly eyesight, will be hindered by the apparatus that will need to be worn during their exposure, to prevent immediate death from lifting compromised fuel rods out of the pool and placing them in casks, or in the common spent fuel pool located a short distance away.
Think for a moment what that might be like through the eyes of one of these workers; it will be hot, uncomfortable, your senses shielded, and you would be filled with anxiety. You are standing on a building that is close to collapse. Even with the strongest protection possible, workers will have to be removed and replaced often. So you don’t have the benefit of doing such a critical task and knowing and trusting your comrades, as they will frequently have to be replaced when their radiation dose limits are reached. If they exhibit physical or mental signs of radiation exposure, they will have be replaced more often.
It will be one of the worst, but most important jobs anyone has ever had to do. And even if executed flawlessly, there are still many things that could go wrong.
RT: How do the potential consequences of failure to ensure safe extraction compare to other disasters of the sort – like Chernobyl, or the 2011 Fukushima meltdown?
CC: There really is no comparison. This will be an incredibly risky operation, in the presence of an enormous amount of nuclear material in close proximity. And as we have seen in the past, one seemingly innocuous failure at the site often translates into a series of cascading failures.
‘The site has been propped up with duct tape and a kick-stand for over two years’
Many of their ‘fixes’ are only temporary, as there are so many issues to address, and cost always seems to be an enormous factor in what gets implemented and what doesn’t.
As a comparison: Chernobyl was one reactor, in a rural area, a quarter of the size of one of the reactors at Fukushima. There was no ‘spent fuel pool’ to worry about. Chernobyl was treated in-situ… meaning everything was pretty much left where it was while the effort to contain it was made (and very expeditiously I might add) not only above ground, but below ground.
At Fukushima, we have six top-floor pools all loaded with fuel that eventually will have to be removed, the most important being Reactor 4, although Reactor 3 is in pretty bad shape too. Spent fuel pools were never intended for long-term storage, they were only to assist short-term movement of fuel. Using them as a long-term storage pool is a huge mistake that has become an ‘acceptable’ practice and repeated at every reactor site worldwide.
We have three 100-ton melted fuel blobs underground, but where exactly they are located, no one knows. Whatever ‘barriers’ TEPCO has put in place so far have failed. Efforts to decontaminate radioactive water have failed. Robots have failed. Camera equipment and temperature gauges… failed. Decontamination of surrounding cities has failed.
‘If and when the corium reaches the Tokyo aquifer, serious and expedient discussions will have to take place about evacuating 40 million people’
We have endless releases into the Pacific Ocean that will be ongoing for not only our lifetimes, but our children’s’ lifetimes. We have 40 million people living in the Tokyo area nearby. We have continued releases from the underground corium that reminds us it is there occasionally with steam events and huge increases in radiation levels. Across the Pacific, we have at least two peer-reviewed scientific studies so far that have already provided evidence of increased mortality in North America, and thyroid problems in infants on the west coast states from our initial exposures.
We have increasing contamination of the food chain, through bioaccumulation and biomagnification. And a newly stated concern is the proximity of melted fuel in relation to the Tokyo aquifer that extends under the plant. If and when the corium reaches the Tokyo aquifer, serious and expedient discussions will have to take place about evacuating 40 million people from the greater metropolitan area. As impossible as this sounds, you cannot live in an area which does not have access to safe water.
The operation to begin removing fuel from such a severely damaged pool has never been attempted before. The rods are unwieldy and very heavy, each one weighing two-thirds of a ton. But it has to be done, unless there is some way to encase the entire building in concrete with the pool as it is. I don’t know of anyone discussing that option, but it would seem much ‘safer’ than what they are about to attempt… but not without its own set of risks.
And all this collateral damage will continue for decades, if not centuries, even if things stay exactly the way they are now. But that is unlikely, as bad things happen like natural disasters and deterioration with time… earthquakes, subsidence, and corrosion, to name a few. Every day that goes by, the statistical risk increases for this apocalyptic scenario. No one can say or know how this will play out, except that millions of people will probably die even if things stay exactly as they are, and billions could die if things get any worse.
RT: Are the fuel rods in danger of falling victim to other factors, while the extraction process is ongoing? After all, it’s expected to take years before all 1,300+ rods are pulled out.
CC: Unfortunately yes, the fuel rods are in danger every day they remain in the pool. The more variables you add to this equation, and the more time that passes, the more risk you are exposed to. Each reactor and spent fuel pool has its own set of problems, and critical failure with any of them could ultimately have the end result of an above-ground, self-sustaining nuclear reaction. It will not be known if extraction of all the fuel will even be possible, as some of it may be severely damaged, until the attempt is made to remove it.
RT: Finally, what is the worst case scenario? What level of contamination are we looking at and how dire would the consequences be for the long-term health of the region?
CC: Extremely dire. This is a terrible answer to have to give, but the worst case scenario could play out in death to billions of people. A true apocalypse. Since we have been discussing Reactor 4, I’ll stick to that problem in particular, but also understand that a weather event, power outage, earthquake, tsunami, cooling system failure, or explosion and fire in any way, shape, or form, at any location on the Fukushima site, could cascade into an event of that magnitude as well.
‘Once the integrity of the pool is compromised that will lead to more criticalities’
At any time, following any of these possible events, or even all by itself, nuclear fuel in reactor 4′s pool could become critical, mostly because it will heat up the pool to a point where water will burn off and the zirconium cladding will catch fire when it is exposed to air. This already happened at least once in this pool that we are aware of. It almost happened again recently after a rodent took out an electrical line and cooling was stopped for days.
Once the integrity of the pool is compromised that will likely lead to more criticalities, which then can spread to other fuel. The heat from this reaction would weaken the structure further, which could then collapse and the contents of the pool end up in a pile of rubble on the ground. This would release an enormous amount of radioactivity, which Arnie Gundersen has referred to as a “Gamma Shine Event” without precedence, and Dr. Christopher Busby has deemed an “Open-air super reactor spectacular.”
This would preclude anyone from not only being at Reactor 4, but at Reactors 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, the associated pools for each, and the common spent fuel pool. Humans could no longer monitor and continue cooling operations at any of the reactors and pools, thus putting the entire site at risk for a massive radioactive release.
‘At least the northern half of Japan would be uninhabitable, and some researchers have argued that it already is’
Mathematically, it is almost impossible to quantify in terms of resulting contamination, and a separate math problem would need to be performed for every nuclear element contained within the fuel, and whether or not that fuel exploded, burned, fissioned, melted, or was doused with water to try to cool it off and poured into the ocean afterward.
Some researchers have even ventured to say that other nuke plants on the east coast of Honshu may need to be evacuated if levels get too high, which will lead to subsequent failures/fires and explosions at these plants as well. Just how profound the effect will be on down-winders in North America, or the entire northern hemisphere for that matter, will literally depend on where the wind blows and where the rain falls, the duration and extent of a nuclear fire or chain-reaction event, and whether or not that reaction becomes self-sustaining. At least the northern half of Japan would be uninhabitable, and some researchers have argued that it already is.
This is already happening to the nuclear fuel in the ground under the plant, but now it would be happening above ground as well. There is no example historically to draw from on a scale of this magnitude. Everything is theory. But anyone who says this can’t happen is not being truthful, because nobody really knows how bad things could get.
The most disturbing part of all of this is that Fukushima has been this dangerous, and precarious, since the second week of March 2011. The ante will definitely be upped once the fuel removal starts.
‘The mainstream media, world governments, nuclear agencies, health organizations, weather reporters, and the health care industry has completely ignored three ongoing triple meltdowns that have never been contained’
An obvious attempt to downplay this disaster and its consequences have been repeated over and over again from ‘experts’ in the nuclear industry that also have a vested interest in their industry remaining intact. And, there has been a lot of misleading information released by TEPCO, which an hour or two of reading by a diligent reporter would have uncovered, in particular the definition of ‘cold shutdown.’
Over 300 mainstream news outlets worldwide ran the erroneous ‘cold shutdown’ story repeatedly, which couldn’t be further from the truth… [it was] yet another lie that was spun by TEPCO to placate the public, and perpetuated endlessly by the media and nuclear lobby.
Unfortunately, TEPCO waited until a severe emergency arose to finally report how bad things really are with this latest groundwater issue… if we are even being told the truth. Historically, everything TEPCO says always turns out to be much worse than they initially admit.
‘Unfortunately there is no one better qualified to deal with this than the Russians, despite their own shortcomings’
I think the best chance of success is… that experts around the world drop everything they are doing to work on this problem, and have Russia either lead the containment effort or consult with them closely. They have the most experience, they have decades of data. They took their accident seriously and made a Herculean effort to contain it.
Of course we also know the Chernobyl accident was wrought with deception and lies as well, and some of that continues to this day, especially in terms of the ongoing health effects of children in the region, and monstrous birth defects. Unfortunately there is no one better qualified to deal with this than the Russians, despite their own shortcomings. Gorbachev tried to make up for his part in the cover-up of Chernobyl by opening orphanages throughout the region to deal with the affected children.
But as far as Fukushima goes, the only thing that matters now is if world leaders and experts join forces to help fix this situation. Regardless of what agendas they are trying to protect or hide, how much it will cost, the effect on Japan or the world’s economy, or what political chains this will yank.
The nuclear industry needs to come clean. If this leads to every reactor in the world being shut down, so be it. If the world governments truly care about their people and this planet, this is what needs to be done.
Renowned theoretical physicist Michio Kaku stated in an interview a few weeks after the initial accident that “TEPCO is literally hanging on by their fingernails.” They still are, and always have been. The Japanese have proven time and time again they are not capable of handling this disaster. Now we are entrusting them to execute the most dangerous fuel removal in history.
We are extremely lucky that this apocalyptic scenario hasn’t happened yet, considering the state of Reactor 4. But for many, it is already too late. The initial explosions and spent fuel pool fires may have already sealed the fate of millions of people. Time will tell. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not being honest, because there is just no way to know.
- Pump and pray: Tepco might have to pour water on Fukushima wreckage forever (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Cleanup Attempt At Japan’s Fukushima Plant Could Release 14,000 Times As Much Radiation As Atomic Bomb (businessinsider.com)
Contaminated groundwater accumulating under the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant has risen 60cm above the protective barrier, and is now freely leaking into the Pacific Ocean, the plant’s operator TEPCO has admitted.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which is responsible for decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on Saturday said the protective barriers that were installed to prevent the flow of toxic water into the ocean are no longer coping with the groundwater levels, Itar-Tass reports.
The contaminated groundwater, which mixes with radioactive leaks seeping out of the plant, has already risen to 60cm above the barriers – the fact which TEPCO calls a major cause of the massive daily leak of toxic substances.
Earlier on Friday, the company announced it started pumping out contaminated groundwater from under Fukushima, and managed to pump out 13 tons of water in six hours on Friday. TEPCO also said it plans to boost the pumped-out amount to some 100 tons a day with the help of a special system, which will be completed by mid-August. This will be enough to seal off most of the ongoing ocean contamination, according to TEPCO’s estimates.
However, Japan’s Ministry of Industry has recently estimated that some 300 tons of contaminated groundwater have been flowing into the ocean daily ever since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disaster.
TEPCO also promised it will urgently reinforce the protective shields to keep radioactive leaks at bay. The company has repeatedly complained it is running out of space and has had to resort to pumping water into hastily-built tanks of questionable reliability, as more than 20,000 tons of water with high levels of radioactive substances has accumulated in the plant’s drainage system.
Water samples recently taken at an underground passage below the Fukushima nuclear plant showed extreme levels of radiation comparable to those taken immediately after the March 2011 catastrophe. The tested water, which had been mixing with ground water and flowing into the ocean, contained 2.35 billion Becquerels of cesium per liter – some 16 million times above the limit.
Fukushima is a nightmare disaster area, and no one has the slightest idea what to do. The game is to prevent the crippled nuclear plant from turning into an “open-air super reactor spectacular” which would result in a hazardous, melted catastrophe.
On April 25, 2011 – one month after the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the anniversary of Chernobyl – I was interviewed by RT and asked to compare Chernobyl and Fukushima. The clip, which you can find on YouTube, was entitled, “Can’t seal Fukushima like Chernobyl – it all goes into the sea.” Since then, huge amounts of radioactivity have flowed from the wrecked reactors directly into the Pacific Ocean. Attempts to stop the flow of contaminated water from Fukushima into the sea were always unlikely to succeed. It is like trying to push water uphill. Now they all seem to have woken up to the issue and have begun to panic.
The problem is this: the fission process in a reactor creates huge amounts of heat. Of course, that is the whole point of the machine – the heat makes steam which runs turbines. Water is pumped through channels between the fuel rods and this cools them and heats the water. If there is no water, or the channels are blocked, the heat actually melts the fuel into a big blob which falls to the bottom of the steel vessel in which all this occurs – the pressure vessel – and then melts its way through the steel, into the ground, and down in the direction of China. Well, not China in this case, but actually Buenos Aires, Argentina (I figured out).
I have been keeping an eye on developments, and it is quite clear that the reactors are no longer containing the molten fuel – some proportion of which is now in the ground underneath them. Both this material and the remaining material in what was the containment are very hot and are fissioning. Tepco is quite aware – and so is everyone else in the know – that the only hope of preventing what could become an open-air super reactor spectacular is to cool the fuel, the lumps of fuel distributed throughout the system, mainly in the holed pressure vessels, and also in the spent fuel tanks and in the ground under the reactors. That all this is fissioning away merrily (though at a low level) is clear from the occasional reports of short half life nuclides like the radioXenons. The game is to prevent it all turning into the open air super reactor located somewhere under the ground. To do this, they have to pump vast amounts of water into the reactors, the fuel pond and generally all over the area where they think the stuff is or might be. This means seawater since luckily they are near the sea. But they are also unluckily near the sea – since you cannot pump the sea onto the land without it wanting to flow back into the sea.
Now a good proportion of the radioactive elements, the radionuclides, are soluble in water. The Caesiums 137 and 134, Strontiums 89 and 90, Barium 140, Radium 226, Lead 210, Rutheniums and Rhodiums, Silvers and Mercuries, Carbons and Tritiums, Iodines and noble gases Kryptons and Xenons merrily dissolve in the hot seawater. There is also a likelihood that the normally insoluble Uraniums, Plutoniums and Neptuniums will dissolve in seawater to some extent, because of the chloride ions. And if they don’t, the micron and nano-particles of these materials will disperse in the water as colloidal suspensions. So a lot of this stuff gets into the sea. Of course, most of the fuss is being made by the Americans who are on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. How unfair that the USA should suffer from the Japanese affair, they think. And also feel a level of fear, underneath all this. As perhaps they should since it is their crappy reactors that blew up.
We hear that 400 tons of highly radioactive water is now escaping the barriers that Tepco erected and is reaching the sea. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said on August 7 that “stabilizing Fukushima is our challenge.” Tepco said, “This is extremely serious — we are unable to control radioactive water seeping out of the Fukushima plant.” CNN quoted “industry experts” saying that “Tepco has failed to address the problem…[the experts] question Tepco’s ability to safely decommission the plant.”
There are some things I want to say about all this. First is the inevitable discourse manipulation – something that we have seen in the media ever since this disaster occurred. “Decommission the plant” suggests some calm and ordered scientific process akin to shutting down and defueling an old reactor which has reached the end of its design life. It sparks images of a wise nuclear engineer in a lab coat consulting a document, discussing some issue with a worker in brilliant white overalls with a Tepco logo, wearing a white hard-hat. The reality is that this is a nightmare disaster area where no one has the slightest idea what to do and which has always been out of control. All that they can do is continue to pump in the seawater to hope that the various lumps of molten fuel will not increase their rate of fissioning. And pray. The water will then pick up the radionuclides and flow downhill back to the sea. Of course, they can put up a barrier; surround the plant with a wall. But eventually the water will fill up the pond and flow over the wall. All that water will create a soggy marsh and destabilize the foundations of the reactor buildings which will then collapse and prevent further cooling. Then the Spectacular. All this is predictable enough.
Let us look at some numbers. Four hundred tons of seawater a day are flowing into the sea. That is 400 cubic meters. In one year, that is 146,000 cubic meters. That is a pond 10 meters deep and 120 meters square. This will have to go on forever, a new pond every year, unless they can get the radioactive material out. But here is the other problem. They can’t get close enough because the radiation levels are too high. The water itself is lethally radioactive. Gamma radiation levels tens of meters from the water are enormously high. No one can approach without being fried.
‘Anyone living within 1km of the coast near Fukushima should get out’
But I want to make two other points. The first is that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for this level of release not to represent the global catastrophe that some are predicting. Let’s get some scoping perspective on this. The volume of the North Pacific is 300 million cubic kilometers. The total inventory of the four Fukushima Daiichi reactors, including their spent fuel pools, is 732 tons of Uranium and Plutonium fuel which is largely insoluble in sea water. The inventory in terms of the medium half-life nuclides of radiological significance Cs-137, Cs-134 and Strontium-90, is 3 x 1018 becquerels (Bq) each. Adding these up gives about 1019 Bq. If we dissolve that entire amount into the Pacific, we get a mean concentration of 33 Bq per cubic meter – not great, but not lethal. Of course this is ridiculous since the catastrophe released less than 1017 Bq of these combined nuclides and even if all of this ends up in the sea (which it may do), the overall dilution will result in a concentration of 1 Bq per cubic meter. So the people in California can relax. In fact, the contamination of California and indeed the rest of the planet from the global weapons test fallout of 1959-1962 was far worse, and resulted in the cancer epidemic which began in 1980. The atmospheric megaton explosions drove the radioactivity into the stratosphere and the rain brought it back to earth to get into the milk, the food, the air, and our children’s bones. Kennedy and Kruschev called a halt in 1963, saving millions.
What we have here in Fukushima is more local, but still very deadly and certainly worse than Chernobyl since the populations are so large. And this brings me to my second point, and a warning to the Japanese people. The contamination of the sea results in adsorption of the radionuclides by the sand and silt on the coast and river estuaries. The east coast of Japan, the sediment and sand on the shores, will now be horribly radioactive. This material is re-suspended into the air through a process called sea-to-land transfer. The coastal air they inhale is laden with radioactive particles. I know about this since I was asked in 1998 by the Irish State to carry out a two-year study of the cancer effects of releases into the Irish Sea by the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. We looked at small area data leaked to us by the Welsh Cancer Registry covering the period of 1974-1989, when Sellafield was releasing significant amounts of radio-Caesium, radio-Strontium, and Plutonium. Results showed a remarkable and sharp 30 per cent increase in cancer rates in those living within 1km of the coast. The effect was very local and dropped away sharply at 2km. In trying to discover the cause, we came across measurements made by the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Using special cloth filters, they had measured Plutonium in the air by distance from the contaminated coast. The trend was the same as the cancer trend, increasing sharply in the 1km strip near the coast. We later examined cancer rates in a higher resolution questionnaire study in Carlingford, Ireland. This clearly showed the effect increasing inside the 1km radius in the same way. The results were never published in scientific literature but were presented to the UK CERRIE committee and eventually made it into a book which I wrote in 2007 entitled, “Wolves of Water.” Make no mistake, this is a deadly effect. By 2003, we had found 20-fold excess risk of leukemia and brain tumours in the population of children on the north Wales coast. The children were denied of course by the Welsh Cancer Intelligence Unit that supplanted the old Welsh Cancer Registry – which had been shut down immediately after the data was released to us. We did publish this in scientific literature.
Nevertheless, the sea-to-land effect is real. And anyone living within 1km of the coast to at least 200km north or south of Fukushima should get out. They should evacuate inland. It is not eating the fish and shellfish that gets you – it’s breathing.
And what about the future? The future is bleak. I see no way of resolving the catastrophe. They will either have to pour water on the wreckage forever, and thus continue to contaminate the local sea, or find some more drastic immediate solution. I was told that US experts had the idea at the beginning of bombing the reactors into the harbour. Not so stupid in my opinion. That at least may enable them to get sufficiently close to the pieces to pick them up, and should also solve the cooling problem. Apparently (my contact said) the French argued them out of it because of the negative effect on nuclear energy (and Uranium shares).
Professor Christopher Busby from the European Committee on Radiation Risks for RT.
The rate at which contaminated water has been pouring into the Pacific Ocean from the disabled Fukushima nuclear plant is worse than thought before, an Industry Ministry official said as PM Shinzo Abe pledged to step up efforts to halt the crisis.
“We think that the volume of water is about 300 tons a day,” said Yushi Yoneyama, an official with the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, which regulates Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO).
Abe put the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry in charge of the situation, while demanding that the plant’s operator, TEPCO take the necessary steps to deal with the cleanup, which is anticipated to take more than 40 years at a cost of US$11 billion.
On Wednesday TEPCO confirmed the leak but refused to confirm the quantity being emitted from the plant.
“We are not currently able to say clearly how much groundwater is actually flowing into the ocean,” Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Noriyuki Imaizumi told Reuters when asked for an estimate.
Japanese authorities are working in crisis mode, attempting to assure the public both at home and abroad that the situation will not further deteriorate into a widespread environmental catastrophe.
Yoneyama said the government plans to reduce the leakage amount to 60 tons per day by as early as December, but given the Japanese government’s progress in the cleanup to date that goal may be difficult to achieve. Removing 300 tonnes of groundwater, however, would not necessarily halt leakage into the sea, he said.
The nuclear plant was severely damaged in an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011. About 90,000 people within a 20km radius of the plant were forced to evacuate their homes due to the possibility of a full-scale nuclear meltdown.
Nearing boiling point?
Earlier, TEPCO said it detected 2.35 billion becquerels of cesium per liter in water that is now leaking into the groundwater through cracks in the plant’s drainage system. This radiation level is roughly the same as that measured in April 2011.
The normal level is 150 becquerels of cesium per liter of water.
For the past two years, TEPCO has claimed that it managed to siphon off the excess water into specially-constructed storage tanks. However, the company was forced to admit late last month that radioactive water was still escaping into the Pacific Ocean. These consistent failures are testing the patience of Japanese authorities.
“You can’t just leave it [disposing of radioactive waste at the plant] up to TEPCO,” Shinji Kinjo, head of a Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) told Reuters. “Right now, we have an emergency.”
Earlier this month, TEPCO was forced to go on the defensive after a scathing first-page article appeared in The Asahi Shimbun daily criticizing the company’s cleanup efforts.
“TEPCO did nothing for more than two years despite having pledged to seal a leaking hole between a turbine building [the leakage source] and an underground pit [a trench] in April 2011 when water contaminated with radioactive materials…was found to have leaked into the ocean; and the company only began preparing for shielding tests this summer after contaminated water was found to be leaking into the sea this time,” the newspaper stated on August 1, 2013.
TEPCO fired back with its own version of events, saying that despite “technical difficulties and a severe work environment” the company has been working to implement a plan “in order to further reduce the risk of having outflow of contaminated water beyond the trench.”
Although TEPCO engineers have constructed a barrier between the destroyed facility and the ocean, it only extends 1.8 meters below the ground, thus water continues to accumulate inside the plant vaults.
“If you build a wall, of course the water is going to accumulate there. And there is no other way for the water to go but up or sideways and eventually lead to the ocean,” Masashi Goto, a nuclear engineer who has worked at several TEPCO plants, told Reuters. “So now, the question is how long do we have?”
TEPCO has pledged to begin pumping enough radioactive seepage to stop the water level from rising. But the company faces limitations, as its storage tanks are 85 percent full.
“New measures are needed to stop the water from flowing into the sea,” emphasized Kinjo, who accused TEPCO of failing to implement long-term solutions for a crisis that has been continuing for more than two years.
Not only is TEPCO running up against technical problems associated with the cleanup efforts, it must also deal with the unpredictable force of nature, specifically in the form of earthquakes.
On Sunday, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Miyagi prefecture, the same northeastern region of the island country that was devastated by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which resulted in 15,000 people killed and more than 3,200 missing.
No damage or injuries were reported in the latest earthquake, but some roads and railways were temporarily closed for safety inspections.
Embattled Fukushima operator Tepco has been accused of a “weak sense of crisis”, as its failing battle to prevent radioactive water from seeping into the seawater near the plant has become an “emergency”, according to the country’s nuclear watchdog.
“You can’t just leave it [disposing of radioactive waste at the plant] up to Tepco,” Shinji Kinjo, head of a Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) told Reuters. “Right now, we have an emergency.”
Daily, 400 tons of groundwater percolates into the basements of the plant, which was decimated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The seepage mixes with water used to cool down the damaged reactors, before accumulating, and escaping out into the Pacific Ocean.
For the past two years, Tepco claimed that it managed to siphon off the excess water into specially built storage tanks, but late last month admitted that toxic water was not contained.
The energy company, which is under financial pressure after being handed an $11 billion clean-up bill for Fukushima, has simultaneously hardened the earth around the plant with a special chemical, creating an impenetrable barrier on the side of the plant adjacent to the ocean.
But the shell is not complete: the technique only works 1.8 meters below the ground and further down.
So, water continues to build up inside the plant vaults, and will eventually reach the unprotected subsoil and topsoil, as more water goes in each day than is pumped out.
“If you build a wall, of course the water is going to accumulate there. And there is no other way for the water to go but up or sideways and eventually lead to the ocean,” Masashi Goto, a nuclear engineer who has worked at several Tepco plants, told Reuters. “So now, the question is how long do we have?”
Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that the toxic water could begin spilling over within three weeks.
Kinjo refused to speculate about the exact timing, but said that any radioactive water that escapes that way “will flow extremely fast”.
Tepco is constructing a bypass that should decrease the groundwater inflows into the plant.
It has also promised to begin pumping enough radioactive seepage by the end of the week to stop the water level from rising. But the company faces limitations, as its radioactive liquid storage tanks are 85 percent full, and it has no clear plans to construct more, or to turn the current makeshift facilities into permanent ones.
“New measures are needed to stop the water from flowing into the sea,” emphasized Kinjo, who accused the energy giant of failing to implement long-term solutions for a crisis that has been going on for more than two years.
The impact of the radioactive water that has and will be released into the Pacific is hard to estimate, as Tepco has been slow to conduct studies and reluctant to release results to the public.
Last week, the company announced that it tested the release of radioactive isotope tritium, and said that it was within the legal limit. It now plans to test the sea water for cesium and strontium, which are considered much more dangerous for humans and the environment.
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.
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)
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)
A fish containing over 2,500 times Japan’s legal limit for radiation in seafood has been caught in the vicinity of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, the facility’s operator reported.
A ‘murasoi’ fish, similar to a rockfish, was caught at a port inside the plant, according to AFP. Plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) indicated that the amount of cesium measured 254,000 becquerels per kilogram – 2,540 times Japan’s legal limit for radiation in seafood.
In October, TEPCO admitted that radiation leaks at the plant had not fully stopped.
In 2011, after a March earthquake and tsunami devastated the region, Japan barred beef, vegetables, milk, seafood and mushrooms grown near the affected area from both domestic markets and exports over safety concerns.
Science magazine published an article revealing that the levels of cesium in seafood around the disaster-battered area had not decreased since 2011. In October 2012, around 40 percent of bottom-dwelling marine species demonstrated elevated radiation levels, with cesium-134 and 137 levels above Japan’s legal limit. August samples collected by author Ken Buesseler had cesium levels 250 times what Japanese authorities consider safe.
Seafood from the area near Fukushima has turned out to be a health hazard abroad, as well as within the country.
In July, Russia expressed concern over fish caught off its coast near Japan. In May, a contaminated tuna was found near the California coastline. Japan stressed that they understood the numbers of contaminated seafood are “extremely high,” but also pointed out that radiation was detected only in the kinds of fish found closest to the plant.
In October 2012, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, announced that it would relax regulations on imports of Japanese food starting on November 1. The restrictions were introduced after the quake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, with many countries such as the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, France and the UK either halting food imports or starting additional inspections of Japanese imports.
- National › Record high radiation level found in fish caught near Fukushima plant (japantoday.com)
- Fukushima deception confirmed by UN (alethonews.wordpress.com)