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)
When the Fukushima-1 reactor complex in Japan went into radioactive apoplexy on March 11, 2011, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. — like the Russians at Chernobyl before them — began minimizing the risks of radiation and the known and potential effects of radiological disasters.
The principle mouthpiece for this well-rehearsed minstrel show was Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano who told the world that evening, “Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak.”(1) Edano is now the Trade and Industry Minister and oversees federal cleanup and recovery efforts.
Independent observers like Dr. Chris Busby, scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk and a founder of the Low-Level Radiation Campaign in England, warned four days into the disaster: “Reassurances about radiation exposures issued by the Japanese government cannot be believed.” Likewise, physicist Nils Bøhmer, with the Oslo-based environmental foundation Bellona, insists that throughout the crisis Japan has been withholding information about radiation dangers.
Even the New York Times reported Nov. 30 on “The gap between the initial assurances given by company and government officials, and the ultimate scale of the nuclear disaster…”
Deception confirmed by UN
Now 20 months later, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health has issued a draft report charging that Japan “has adopted overly optimistic views of radiation risks and has conducted only limited health checks” among contaminated populations, the AP and CBC reported. According to Anand Grover, the UN investigator, “Japan hasn’t done enough to protect the health of residents and workers affected.”(2)
Previous investigations found that monitoring data from the federal system that tracks plumes of radiation during disasters — called “Speedi,” for System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information — was kept secret when it was needed most. News reports in August 2011 said that the system forecast that Karino Elementary School in the town of Namie would be directly in the path of the radiation plume spewing from the smashed reactors. Yet the warning never reached decision-makers and neither the school nor the town was evacuated. Instead, they became evacuation centers where families even cooked and ate meals outdoors.
Bellona reports that documents obtained by the AP and the New York Times, its own interviews with key officials, and a review of other newly released data and parliamentary transcripts show that “… Japan’s system to forecast radiation threats was working from the moment its nuclear crisis began on March 11, after an earthquake and tsunami pummeled the Fukushima” reactor site.
The UN’s Grover severely criticized the government’s commitment to health care for exposed workers and people in contaminated areas, and complained that its ongoing health checks are “too narrow in scope because they are only intended to cover Fukushima’s two million people.” Surveys of health effects should extend to “all radiation-affected zones” Grover said, a vast area including much of the north-eastern half of Honshu, Japan’s main island.
But so far, only one-fourth of Fukushima’s population has been surveyed. Grover thinks it’s unwise to check only children for thyroid damage. Indeed, Dr. Helen Caldicott told Business Insider last summer that even when lesions are found on a child’s thyroid, they aren’t being biopsied. The lesions “should all be biopsied,” Caldicott warned.
Further minimizing the actual numbers of affected persons, thousands of reactor site workers with short-term contractors “have no access to permanent health checks,” Grover said, and Fukushima residents complain that they have not been allowed access to their own health-check results.
Last March, Human Rights Watch leveled the same charge.(3) “We are really not seeing basic health services being offered in an accessible way and we are not seeing accurate, consistent, non-contradictory information being disclosed to people on a regular basis” Jane Cohen, a researcher at the New York-based rights group, told Reuters. Of the 24,228 workers who risk radiation exposure at the reactor complex, only a mere 904 are eligible for free cancer screenings being provided by the government and Tepco, the daily Asahi Shimbun reported November 22nd. The authorities have limited the scope of the $600 checkups to workers who were exposed to over 50 millisieverts between March 11 and mid-December 2011, but thousands of workers are demanding that the time limit be abolished.
Disinformation and denials confounded by science
Official lullabies, denials and attempted cover-ups are desperate shields against the enormous economic and legal liability that would follow any acknowledgment of the depth and breadth of radiation’s likely effects. Tepco said November 6th that it may need 11 trillion yen, or $137 billion, to cover its damages. Tokyo already set aside ¥9 trillion in July as part of the federal bailout and takeover of the utility. Minister Edano hinted last May that the government may cover some of the costs of decontaminating certain limited areas. Comprehensive decontamination is not even being considered because, as the science ministry reported in November 2011, radioactive fallout from the triple meltdowns was found in every one of its 57 prefectures.(4)
The journal Science reported this fall that 40% of the fish caught off the coast of NE Japan are contaminated with radioactive cesium at levels well above what the government allows.(5) Author Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution concluded that there is either a source of cesium on the seafloor, or it is still being dumped into the ocean by Tepco.
Referring to the millions of gallons of cooling water still being poured into the three destroyed reactors and their waste fuel pools, Buesseler told Radio Australia Nov. 20, “Some of that water is getting back into the ocean, either actively being pumped out after some decontamination or through leaks in the building, so [Tepco’s] not able to contain all of the water that they use to cool.”
The government and Tepco moved quickly to deny Science. The federal fisheries ministry claimed that cesium from Fukushima’s wrecked cooling systems — about 16,000-trillion becquerels, what Science called “by far the largest discharge of radioactivity into the ocean ever seen”— is “sinking into the seabed” and no longer entering the food chain. (A becquerel is one subatomic disintegration per second) Tepco representatives just said contaminated water was not leaking from any of its wreckage.
Oceanographer Kanda at Tokyo University told the journal Nature that his analysis indicates the site itself is leaking about 300 billion becquerels into the sea every month.
(1) Evan Osnos, “The Fallout: Seven months later: Japan’s nuclear predicament,” The New Yorker, Oct. 17, 2011
(2) AP, “UN says Fukushima nuclear risks underestimated in Japan,” Nov. 26, 2012
(3) Reuters, “Japan too slow in Fukushima health checks-rights group,” Mar. 6, 2012
(4) Hiroshi Ishizuka, “Cesium from Fukushima plant fell all over Japan,” Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 26, 2011
(5) “Fishing for Answers off Fukushima,” Science, Oct. 26
- Fukushima Medical University Hospital cover up -An interview with Kazihiko Kobayashi (nuclear-news.net)
- TEPCO, Japanese government denying Fukushima radiation reaching ocean fish (japandailypress.com)
- ABC Radio: “Who’s to blame for radioactive fish? Tepco denies cesium contamination is from Fukushima” (enenews.com)
- AND NOW: ‘TEPCO Considers Net In Fukushima Nuke Plant Port To Prevent Irradiated Fish From Heading Seaward’ (infiniteunknown.net)
A pair of fish captured near Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant have shown to be carrying record levels of radiation. The pair of greenlings are contaminated with 258 times the level government deems safe for consumption.
The fish, which were captured just 12 miles from the nuclear plant, registered 25,800 becquerels of caesium per kilo, according to Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
TEPCO says the high levels may be due to the fish feeding in radioactive hotspots. The company plans on capturing and testing more of the fish, as well as their feed, and the seabed soil to determine the exact cause of the high radiation.
The findings were surprising for officials, who had previously seen much lower levels of radiation in contaminated fish.
Fishermen been allowed to cast their reels in the nearby waters on an experimental basis since June – but only in areas more than 31 miles from the plant.
Previously, the highest recorded radiation seen in the captured wildlife was 18,700 becquerels per kilo in cherry salmons, according to the Japanese Fisheries Agency.
The radiation was caused by a meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima power plant after it was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The disaster was so intense that contaminated fish were caught all the way across the Pacific Ocean, on the California coast.
But it’s not only aquatic life that is suffering from side effects of the leaked radiation.
According to researchers, the radiation has caused mutations in some butterflies, giving them dented eyes, malformed legs and antennae, and stunted wings.
The results show the butterflies were deteriorating both physically and genetically.
But the harmful risks don’t stop with butterflies. The radioactivity which seeped into the region’s air and water has left humans facing potentially life threatening health issues.
Over a third of Fukushima children are at risk of developing cancer, according to the Sixth Report of Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey.
The report shows that nearly 36 per cent of children in the Fukushima Prefecture have abnormal thyroid growths which pose a risk of becoming cancerous.
The World Health Organization warns that young people are particularly prone to radiation poisoning in the thyroid gland. Infants are most at risk because their cells divide at a higher rate.
- Chernobyl Heart: The Future For Japan’s Children… (genuinewitty.com)
Having the Energy Department manage radiation health research makes as much sense as giving tobacco companies the authority to see if smoking is safe
The U.S. government is going out of its way to downplay radiation hazards in the aftermath of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.
Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) heralded an Energy Department-funded study indicating that evacuation zones around nuclear power stations might not be needed after a major nuclear accident. The study, which exposed mice to radiation levels comparable to those near the Fukushima nuclear disaster, found no evidence of genetic harm. “There are no data that say that’s a dangerous level,” says Jacquelyn Yanch, a leader of the study.
“Current U.S. regulations require that residents of any area that reaches radiation levels eight times higher than background should be evacuated,” according to MIT’s press release. “However, the financial and emotional cost of such relocation may not be worthwhile, the researchers say.”
It’s quite a leap to claim that evacuation zones around nuclear power plants might not be needed based on the chromosomes of 112 irradiated mice.
In a devastating critique, blogger Ian Goddard points out that the MIT study excluded extensive evidence of genetic damage to humans living in a radiation-contaminated environment. Although doses in a peer-reviewed study of 19 groups of children living near Chernobyl were consistently lower than the MIT mouse study, most showed lasting genetic damage. “MIT’s presentation of its study as the first scientific examination of the genetic risks of living in a nuclear disaster zone is pure science fiction, not fact,” Goddard concludes.
Even more troubling, the Obama administration reduced emergency preparedness in case of a major nuclear accident in a quiet announcement made six months ago, right before Christmas — virtually guaranteeing minimal media attention. Given that the number of people living near nuclear stations has grown four-and-a-half times larger since 1980, a move in the opposite direction would make more sense.
What’s going on? The United States remains a major pillar of nuclear support here and around the world. About 70 percent of the Energy Department’s $26.3-billion budget covers nuclear activities — and that’s not including $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors that are slated for construction in South Carolina and Georgia. Japan’s failing nuclear industry is supposed to build them.
The Energy Department is also the main source of funding for radiation health research. That’s like having the tobacco industry determine if smoking is bad for your health. And this conflict of interest is nothing new. Several prominent scientists on the nuclear payroll in the 1950s and 60s vigorously claimed that radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests was harmless. Some went so far as to claim that fallout might be beneficial because increased radiation-induced genetic mutations could weed out the weak.
This problem was not lost on congressional investigators over the past 35 years. They revealed the government’s suppression of incriminating data, blacklisting of uncooperative researchers, unethical human experiments, and submission of fraudulent research in federal court. By the late 1980s, the agency was forced to move funding for radiation research to public health agencies. This all changed a decade later, when the Republican-controlled Congress restored the Energy Department’s monopoly over radiation health research.
Things have gotten so bad that the agency gave MIT a $1.7-million grant last month to research, among other things, the “difficulties in gaining the broad social acceptance” of nuclear power. MIT also receives millions of dollars from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the company responsible for the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
This conflict of interest has tragic dimensions. The government and nuclear industry still have yet to deal with the costly disposal of enormous amounts of radioactive waste and profoundly contaminated “sacrifice zones” at the Energy Department’s nuclear sites. Or to resolve the issue of the tens of thousands of sick nuclear workers, uranium miners, military veterans, experiment victims, and nuclear test “down-winders,” who are receiving billions of dollars in compensation after being put in harm’s way on behalf of splitting the atom.
Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration. He authored the report Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage.
A year can be a long time in politics. But for the radioactive particles released from Fukushima’s damaged nuclear reactor, a year is just a moment in their life of hundreds or thousands of years.
So, what is the radiological situation at Fukushima one year after the disaster?
Thankfully, despite more than 9,000 aftershocks since the disaster – including more than 10 rating above seven on the Richter scale – there have been no major fires or explosions since March 2011 that could cause further catastrophic releases of radioactivity.
But the extensively damaged plants are still unstable and highly radioactive. This has restricted access and clean-up efforts, which will need to go on for many decades.
Though Japanese authorities declared they’d achieved a “cold shutdown” in December, an arbitrary definition was used: coolant water temperature was less than boiling, pressure inside the reactors was not raised, and the release of radioactive materials from the first layer of containment was below a specified level. But it didn’t mean the nuclear reaction inside the reactors had been stably shut down.
A number of investigations (some of which are still ongoing) have highlighted inadequacies in the design, prevention and response measures to deal with such a disaster. There is also a high level of dysfunction, cover-up, collusion and corruption in the nuclear industry – including its regulation and oversight.
How, for example, could sea walls designed to withstand a tsunami of only 5.5 metres be acceptable on a coast battered by a 38 metre tsunami in 1896 and a 29 metre tsunami in 1933?
How could cooling pumps, back-up generators and control systems not be required to be located on high ground?
How could spent fuel ponds, filled with vast amounts of long-lived radioactivity, safely be placed right of top of reactors? And without any special containment structures?
Independent, peer-reviewed research provides strong evidence that radioactive emissions from the Fukushima plants began after the earthquake and well before the tsunami struck. This is contrary to claims by TEPCO, the power company involved, and the Japanese government that it was the tsunami and not the earthquake that irrevocably damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant.
If leaks did begin as a result of the earthquake, as the evidence strongly indicates, this has profound implications for nuclear reactors everywhere – not only those located on coasts, within reach of tsunamis.
Serious gaps in measures to protect the population have also become evident.
One of the important protective health measures, which should be taken for those who have been or are likely to be exposed to significant reactor fallout, is the administration of stable iodine shortly before exposure, or within 24 hours. This blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine into the body, which causes thyroid cancer.
Yet the government admitted, in its June 2011 report to the IAEA, that because of dysfunctional decision-making, iodine was not administered to anyone in Fukushima, despite supplies reportedly being available.
Exposure to radiation
We now know the computer-based system designed to guide evacuations and sheltering (known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information or SPEEDI system) correctly predicted the initial path of the heaviest Fukushima fallout. The results were delivered to the government but not acted on, resulting in the people of some towns moving right into the path of the fallout.
Detailed mapping of the population’s radiation doses (from contaminants in the air, water and food) is still not publicly available. But hundreds of thousands of people still live in areas where they will receive doses higher – in some case several tens of times higher – than the world-wide recommended levels of no more than 1 milliSievert (mSv) of additional exposure per year.
The most contaminated areas were re-categorised by the Japanese government in December 2011. Residence is not precluded in areas where inhabitants would face radiation doses between 20 and 50 mSv per year.
Astonishingly, evacuation is not recommended from areas where residents are likely to be exposed to doses of up to 20 mSv per year. Even in the “bad old days” of the Soviet Union, those anticipated to receive more than 5 mSv annually after the Chernobyl disaster were resettled as a matter of priority. And those likely to receive more than 1 mSv annually had resettlement rights.
What happens next?
On January 26, 2012 the Japanese government released a roadmap of planned environmental remediation activities, to be completed over the following two years.
But the value of such measures has likely been oversold. Plans to remove the topsoil of farmland, for instance, will erode the viability of farming. And the problem of where to store, and how to isolate, vast amounts of contaminated material remains a major challenge.
One group particularly at risk of health harm is the large and growing number of workers required to help control, shut down and clean up the damaged nuclear plants.
By early December, more than 18,000 men had participated in clean-up work in Fukushima. These largely unskilled, inadequately trained, ill-equipped and poorly monitored day labourers performed the bulk of the dirty and dangerous work. Much of the contracting of these workers is dominated by criminal “yakuza” networks.
Even before the disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi complex was staffed by 1,108 regular employees and 9,195 day labourers. On average, the contracted day labourers receive two- to three-times the radiation dose of a regular worker but are not included in utility statistics. And there is no compulsory, centralised system for tracking cumulative radiation exposure or health outcomes of these workers.
Radiation levels are not always monitored. But when they are, and a labourer is known to be near the maximal permitted dose for workers, they may be sent away. The maximum dose is normally 20 mSv per year, but this was raised to 250 mSv after the Fukushima disaster. After the workers are despatched, there’s nothing stopping them from then going to work another nuclear plant.
On top of the many other health problems that the Fukushima disaster has caused, thousands of additional cancer cases will likely be diagnosed, but these will take some years to emerge.
This means, of course, that much of the radioactive fallout from Fukushima will continue to indiscriminately harm health for many generations to come.
- Tilman Ruff is an Associate Professor, Disease Prevention & Health Promotion Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health at University of Melbourne.
- Just in case you missed it, here’s why radiation is a health hazard (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Why Fukushima Is a Greater Disaster than Chernobyl and a Warning Sign for the U.S. (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Fukushima whitewash betrayed trust of NPR listeners (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Article on Fukushima contains factual errors (civisjournal.wordpress.com)
The radioactive inventory of all the irradiated nuclear fuel stored in spent fuel pools at Fukushima is far greater and even more problematic than the molten cores.
In the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear power disaster, the news media is just beginning to grasp that the dangers to Japan and the rest of the world posed by the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site are far from over. After repeated warnings by former senior Japanese officials, nuclear experts, and now a U.S. Senator, it is sinking in that the irradiated nuclear fuel stored in spent fuel pools amidst the reactor ruins may have far greater potential offsite consequences than the molten cores.
After visiting the site recently, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to Japan’s ambassador to the U.S. stating that, “loss of containment in any of these pools could result in an even greater release than the initial accident.”
This is why:
- Each pool contains irradiated fuel from several years of operation, making for an extremely large radioactive inventory without a strong containment structure that encloses the reactor cores;
- Several pools are now completely open to the atmosphere because the reactor buildings were demolished by explosions; they are about 100 feet above ground and could possibly topple or collapse from structural damage coupled with another powerful earthquake;
- The loss of water exposing the spent fuel will result in overheating [which] can cause melting and ignite its zirconium metal cladding – resulting in a fire that could deposit large amounts of radioactive materials over hundreds of miles.
Irradiated nuclear fuel, also called “spent fuel,” is extraordinarily radioactive. In a matter of seconds, an unprotected human one foot away from a single freshly removed spent fuel assembly would receive a lethal dose of radiation within seconds. As one of the most dangerous materials in the world, spent reactor fuel poses significant long-term risks, requiring isolation in a geological disposal site that can protect the human environment for tens of thousands of years.
It’s almost 26 years since the Chernobyl reactor exploded and caught fire releasing enormous amounts of radioactive debris. The Chernobyl accident revealed the folly of not having an extra barrier of thick concrete and steel surrounding the reactor core that is required for modern plants in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. The Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident revealed the folly of storing huge amounts of highly radioactive spent fuel in vulnerable pools, high above the ground.
What both accidents have in common is widespread environmental contamination from cesium-137. With a half-life of 30, years, Cs-137 gives off penetrating radiation, as it decays. Once in the environment, it mimics potassium as it accumulates in biota and the human food chain for many decades. When it enters the human body, about 75 percent lodges in muscle tissue, with perhaps the most important muscle being the heart. Studies of chronic exposure to Cs-137 among the people living near Chernobyl show an alarming rate of heart problems, particularly among children. As more information is made available, we now know that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi site is storing 10,833 spent fuel assemblies (SNF) containing roughly 327 million curies of long-lived radioactivity About 132 million curies is cesium-137 or nearly 85 times the amount estimated to have been released at Chernobyl.
The overall problem we face is that nearly all of the spent fuel at the Dai-Ichi site is in vulnerable pools in a high risk/consequence earthquake zone. The urgency of the situation is underscored by the ongoing seismic activity around NE Japan in which 13 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 – 5.7 have occurred off the NE coast of Honshu in the last 4 days between 4/14 and 4/17. This has been the norm since the first quake and tsunami hit the site on March 11th of last year. Larger quakes are expected closer to the power plant.
Last week, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revealed plans to remove 2,274 spent fuel assemblies from the damaged reactors that will probably take at least a decade to accomplish. The first priority will be removal of the contents in Pool No. 4. This pool is structurally damaged and contains about 10 times more cesium-137 than released at Chernobyl. Removal of SNF from the No. 4 reactor is optimistically expected to begin at the end of 2013. A significant amount of construction to remove debris and reinforce the structurally-damaged reactor buildings, especially the fuel- handling areas, will be required.
Also, it is not safe to keep 1,882 spent fuel assemblies containing ~57 million curies of long-lived radioactivity, including nearly 15 times more cs-137 than released at Chernobyl in the elevated pools at reactors 5, 6, and 7, which did not experience melt-downs and explosions.
The main reason why there is so much spent fuel at the Da-Ichi site, is that it was supposed to be sent to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which has experienced 18 lengthy delays throughout its construction history. Plutonium and uranium was to be extracted from the spent fuel there, with the plutonium to be used as fuel at the Monju fast reactor.
After several decades and billions of dollars, the United States effectively abandoned the “closed” nuclear fuel cycle 30 years ago for cost and nuclear non-proliferation reasons. Over the past 60 years, the history of fast reactors using plutonium is littered with failures the most recent being the Monju project in Japan. Monju was cancelled in November of last year, dealing a fatal blow to the dream of a “closed” nuclear fuel cycle in Japan.
The stark reality, if TEPCO’s plan is realized, is that nearly all of the spent fuel at the Da-Ichi containing some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet will remain indefinitely in vulnerable pools. TEPCO wants to store the spent fuel from the damaged reactors in the common pool, and only to resort to dry, cask storage when the common pool’s capacity is exceeded. At this time, the common pool is at 80 percent storage capacity and will require removal of SNF to make room. TEPCO’s plan is to minimize dry cask storage as much as possible and to rely indefinitely on vulnerable pool storage. Senator Wyden finds that TEPCO’s plan for remediation carries extraordinary and continuing risk. He sensibly recommends that retrieval of spent fuel in existing on-site spent fuel pools to safer storage in dry casks should be a priority.
Given these circumstances, a key goal for the stabilization of the Fukushima-Daichi site is to place all of its spent reactor fuel into dry, hardened storage casks. This will require about 244 additional casks at a cost of about $1 mllion per cask. To accomplish this goal, an international effort is required – something that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has called for. As we have learned, despite the enormous destruction from the earthquake and tsunami at the Dai-Ich Site, the nine dry casks and their contents were unscathed. This is an important lesson we should not ignore.
One Year and Counting
It’s been a year since the reactor meltdowns and catastrophic radiation releases from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor complex, and news of their far-reaching consequences still makes headlines the world over. Radioactive hot spots are still being discovered far beyond the official 13-mile “exclusion” and 18-mile “cautionary” zones surrounding the 6-reactor compound.
Recalculated estimates of massive radiation releases are repeatedly doubled, tripled or quadrupled. The National Science Foundation has said, “The release of radioactivity from Fukushima — both as atmospheric fallout and direct discharges to the ocean — represents the largest accidental release of radiation to the ocean in history.”
The list of radioactively contaminated foods, waters, soils, vegetation and export goods continues to grow longer, and government-established allowable contamination rates appear wildly arbitrary. For example, Japan intends in April to lower its permissible level of cesium in milk to 50 becquerels per kilogram from the 200 Bq/Kg that is permitted now. Evidently, an amount of contamination deemed permissible for both robust and vulnerable populations for the past year, will become four times too dangerous to consume — on April Fool’s Day.
Unprecedented and seemingly chaotic efforts to limit the spread of radiation are announced every few days. Contaminated topsoil and detritus from the forest are to be placed in metal boxes which may be stored “temporarily” in wooded areas. A plasticized wind barrier may be placed like a giant tent over the entire Fukushima Daiichi complex to retard further release of radiation to the air. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) began in March pouring tons of concrete from ships onto the seabed outside the destroyed reactors in an attempt to slow the spread of radionuclides that were dumped into the sea in the panicky early days of the crisis.
Broadly accepted but faulty government explanations for the meltdowns leave 400 reactors operating worldwide vulnerable to similar failures of emergency generators. Tepco is still dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the three uncontrolled reactors, and the waste fuel pool of reactor 4, all with extremely hot and ferociously radioactive fuel wreckage at the bottom of what used to be called “containments.” The unprecedented earthquake turned them into cracked and leaking sieves that are still vulnerable to Japan’s daily earthquakes.
A selective review of the news is all that space allows:
July 12-18: Beef contaminated, consumed, banned
Beef contaminated with cesium was sold at markets before a ban and recall was issued. Tests on straw at a farm in Koriyama city in Fukushima Prefecture showed cesium levels as high as 378 times the legal limit. Tokyo’s metropolitan government said high levels of cesium, nearly five times what’s permitted, were detected in meat from a cow shipped to a packing plant in Tokyo from a farm in Koriyama.
Sept. 9: Japan triples its radiation release estimate
Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency reported that radioactive cesium-137 and iodine-131 released into the Pacific Ocean by Fukushima’s operators between March 21 and April 30 amounted to 15,000 trillion becquerels, or “terabecquerels” — more than triple the amount (4,720 terabecquerels) earlier estimated by the Tepco. (See chart at end)
Oct. 2: Plutonium fell far beyond evacuation zone
Plutonium, was been detected 24 miles from Fukushima according to government researchers. The official exclusion zone is only 12.4 miles wide.
Oct. 15: Hot spots in Tokyo
Independent groups found 20 radioactive “hot spots” inside Tokyo, 150 miles from the disaster zone, that were contaminated with cesium as heavily as parts of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, in Ukraine, site of a similar radiation disaster in 1986. Kiyoshi Toda, a radiation expert and medical doctor at Nagasaki University told the New York Times, “Radioactive substances are entering people’s bodies from the air, from the food. It’s everywhere.”
Oct. 27: Worst oceanic contamination ever recorded
France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety reported that the amount of cesium-137 dispersed to the Pacific Ocean was the greatest single radioactive contamination of the sea “ever observed.” The institute estimated that 27 “petabecquerels” (27 million billion becquerels) of cesium-137 poured into the sea. This is equal to a staggering 729,000 curies.
Nov. 17: Sale of contaminated rice banned
The sale of rice from 154 farms in Fukushima Prefecture was banned after it was found contaminated with cesium exceeding
government limits. The same week, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences said that levels of cesium in the region’s soil would “severely impair” food production in all of eastern Fukushima and even neighboring areas.
Nov. 26: Cesium in fallout fell all over Japan
Radioactive cesium dispersed by Fukushima fell over the entire territory of Honshu, Japan’s largest and most heavily populated island, the major daily Asahi Shimbun reported.
Dec. 6: Cesium in baby food on shelves 7 months
The giant food company Neji Holdings announced the recall of 400,000 cans of its powdered baby milk formula after it was found poisoned with cesium-137 and cesium-134. Packaged in April, toward the end of Fukushima’s worst radiation releases, the baby food was distributed mostly in May and could have been repeatedly consumed by infants for seven months.
Dec. 12: Tokyo schoolyard’s 9-month cesium hazard
The concentration of cesium found in a Tokyo schoolyard, 150 miles from Fukushima was over 10 times the government-established level requiring disposal. From April to December, highly contaminated tarps were evidently left in a heap beside the school’s gym. The Environment Ministry gave official permission to incinerate the covers, but tons of radioactively contaminated incinerator ash has caused broad public protest because of objections to its being disposed of in forested areas.
Dec. 12: Sea contamination 50 million times normal
A study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Society published in Environmental Science & Technology found that concentrations of cesium-137 at Fukushima’s discharge points to the sea peaked at more than 50 million times expected levels. Concentrations 18 miles offshore were higher than those measured in the ocean after Chernobyl. Lead author and Woods Hole senior scientist Ken Buesseler told Forbes, “We don’t know how this might affect benthic [bottom dwelling and subsurface] marine life, and with a half-life of 30 years, any cesium-137 accumulating in sediments or groundwater could be a concern for decades to come.”
Dec. 19: Up to 14,000 U.S. deaths linked to fallout
The peer reviewed International Journal of Health Services reported that as many as 14,000 excess deaths in the United States appear linked to radioactive fallout from Fukushima. The rise in reported deaths after March 17 was largest among U.S. infants under age one. The 2010-2011 increase for infant deaths in the spring was 1.8 percent, compared to a decrease of 8.37 percent in the preceding 14 weeks. The study by Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention’s weekly reports, was the first on Fukushima health hazards to be published in a scientific journal.
Feb. 11: Scouring fallout from 8,000 square miles
The New York Times reported in its business section that Japan intends to “rehabilitate” contaminated areas that total over 8,000 square miles — an area nearly as big as New Jersey.
Feb. 26: One-quarter of U.S. reactors can’t survive likely quakes
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that 27 of 104 operating reactors in the United States face current earthquake magnitude predictions more powerful than the reactors were designed and built to withstand.
Feb. 28: Cesium limits for rice will not be enforced
The government said farmers would be allowed to plant rice on land with cesium contamination above the new 100 becquerels-per-kilogram limit for crop land. The new limit takes effect in April, long after Japan arbitrarily set a contamination limit of 500-Bq/Kg following last year’s massive radiation releases.
2011: Emergency backup generators ‘not designed to work’
The official explanation for Fukushima’s loss-of-coolant and radiation releases is that back-up diesel generators were wrecked by the March 11 tsunami. In his Nov. 2011 book Vulture’s Picnic (Dutton), Greg Palast smashes this theory — and highlights reactor vulnerability everywhere — writing that the diesels may have destroyed themselves just by being turned on. Since aerial photos now show that the buildings housing the diesels were not wrecked, Palast recounts that 30 years ago he and diesel expert R. D. Jacobs suspected problems with the diesels proposed for U.S. nukes. They forced the builder of New York’s Shoreham reactor to test its three generators under emergency conditions. One after another, all three failed when their crankshafts snapped, just ad Jacobs predicted. Shoreham never went online.
Interviewing another diesel engineer, Palast found that the diesels were “designed or even taken from, cruise ship engine rooms or old locomotives.” They need 30 minutes to warm up and time to build crankshaft speed, before adding the “load” of the generator. In a nuclear emergency, the diesels have to go from stationary to taking a full load in less than ten seconds, Palast reports. They’re not made for a “crash start.” He asked the expert, “You’re saying emergency diesels can’t work in an emergency?” His answer was, “Actually, they’re just not designed for it.”
— New resources: “Lessons from Fukushima,” Feb. 2012, by Greenpeace; and “Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response,” March 2012, by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Radiation amounts FYI:
1 becquerel = 1 atomic disintegration per second
37 billion becquerels = 1 curie
1 trillion becquerels (1 terabecquerel) = 27 curies
1 million billion becquerels (1 petabecquerel) = 27,000 curies
An area far beyond the official 18-mile restriction zone around Fukushima has been declared in need of decontamination. Besides power washing urban areas, this will involve removing about 2 inches of topsoil from local farms as well as dead leaves and other debris from radiation-laden forest floors. The government has announced it intends to clear about 934 square miles of soil — an area larger than greater Tokyo (above). “So far, nobody has any idea where any contaminated soil will be dumped,” reported The Economist, in “Hot spots and blind spots: the mounting human costs of Japan’s nuclear disaster,” Oct. 8, 2011.
John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly.
- TEPCO: Fukushima Radiation Isn’t Our Problem (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Media, Academia Join Forces to Downplay Dangers of Nuclear Power (alethonews.wordpress.com)