American nuclear officials are wary of Japan’s new nuclear push
Official Japanese policy on nuclear power has swung full circle since the Fukushima disaster of 2011 – from avidly pro-nuclear power then, to rejecting nuclear power as too dangerous, and now back to avidly pushing on to re-start old reactors and build new ones. Adding the chronic secrecy and denial of the nuclear industry to such politically-driven indecision making, Japan has created a funhouse of distorting mirrors from which emerging information about the on-going Fukushima disaster cannot be considered credible without reliable, independent verification. Reliable and credible information about Fukushima is just what authorities in Japan and around the world apparently do not want.
Before March 11, 2011, the Japanese prime minister was outspokenly in favor of Japan’s pro-nuclear power policy. Then the earthquake and tsunami combined with nuclear design flaws to destroy four of the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima, causing the accident that has continued ever since. And Prime Minister Naoto Kan, immersed in responding to the crisis, shifted his view. He ordered another aging plant closed and announced a freeze on plans for any future nuclear plants in Japan. In July 2011, with his popularity at its lowest point, the prime minister called for Japan to reverse policy and end its dependence on nuclear power. With the passage of a renewable energy bill that he supported, Kan, 64, resigned at the end of August, although still the first prime minister since 2006 to serve more than one year (451 days; his successor served 481).
The present prime minister, Shinzo Abe, completed his first year in office on December 26, 2013 (he previously served for less than a year in 2006-07, when he was the youngest Japanese prime minister since World War II). Prime Minister Abe has moved aggressively to expand Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, even though the country has no nuclear waste repository and already has more than 14,000 tons of spent fuel in cooling pools at 50 nuclear plants around the country. During a visit to Japan in early December 2013, the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison Macfarlane, cautioned Japan about nuclear expansion as long as there’s no place in the world to store nuclear waste safely.
Setting the stage for nuclear expansion, the prime minister in March 2013 had purged the membership of Japan’s nuclear advisory panel of all but two of its anti-nuclear members who had supported Japan’s non-nuclear energy policies. He reduced the 25 member panel to 15, of whom 13 are avidly pro-nuclear (some with bald conflicts of interest). The man chosen to head the panel, Akio Mimura, is an advisor to a company involved in nuclear construction, and he is the same man who headed a similar panel that shaped the policies that preceded the Fukushima meltdowns. Since then, all of Japan’s nuclear reactors have been shut down. The prime minister is pushing to re-start them as soon as possible despite polling last fall showing 60% of the population in favor of a zero-nuclear proposal.
Could Fukushima Fallout Lead Japan to Nuclear Weapons?Â Â
Adding an unsettling edge to Japan’s pro-nuclear policy, Prime Minister Abe has foreshadowed a growing Japanese militarism that has drawn outspoken disapproval from both South Korea and China, where the horrors of Japanese military occupation during the mid-twentieth century are far from forgotten. The offense Abe gave was to visit the 1869 Japanese Yasukuni Shrine that honors some 2.5 million war Japanese dead, 2.1 million of them from World War II, including more than 1,000 convicted war criminals. Once he was prime minister, Abe suspended visits to the shrine which had first caused him controversy in 2006. But in December 2013, Prime Minister Abe once again provoked an outcry with a visit to the shrine’s war dead. In early January the Chinese government continued to reject back channel contacts on the issue, as a Chinese spokeswoman said that Abe “needs to correctly view and deeply reflect on the Japan’s militarist history of external invasion and colonialism, show sincerity and make concrete efforts to improve ties with neighboring countries.” Even the United States expressed some concern: “the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”
Japan’s territorial dispute with nuclear-armed China over the Sensaku Islands off the China mainland has raised fears of armed conflict in recent years. Part of Japan’s response has included nationalizing the islands and raising its national defense spending. Three Chinese Coast Guard vessels sailed into the disputed waters for about two hours January 11, before leaving peacefully.
Further adding to the wariness of Japan’s neighboring countries presumably is Prime Minister Abe’s expand the Japanese military to allow Japan to defend itself. Japan’s large stockpile of Plutonium (44 tons, enough for more than 6,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs), puts Japan much closer to having nuclear weapons than Iran and most other non-nuclear nations. Ironically, the last Japanese Prime Minister to cause offense by visiting the shrine in 2006 is Junichiro Koizumi, who was once unquestioningly pro-nuclear, but is now a major proponent of a nuclear free Japan.
There is little comfort in knowing that the walls of secrecy Japan has been putting up around Fukushima and other nuclear power activities will surely make it harder to know what if any weapons programs the country undertakes. And there is even less comfort in knowing that no international body, no government, no non-governmental nuclear regulator is raising any active, public challenge to Japanese nuclear secrecy, civilian or military.Â
Does anyone in authority anywhere tell the truth about Fukushima?Â
If there is any government or non-government authority in the world that is addressing the disaster at Fukushima openly, directly, honestly, and effectively, it’s not apparent to the outside observer what entity that might be.
There is instead an apparent global conspiracy of authorities of all sorts to deny to the public reliably accurate, comprehensible, independently verifiable (where possible), and comprehensive information about not only the condition of the Fukushima power plant itself and its surrounding communities, but about the unceasing, uncontrolled release of radioactive debris into the air and water, creating a constantly increasing risk of growing harm to the global community.
While the risk may still be miniscule in most places, the range of risk rises to lethal in Fukushima itself. With the radioactive waste of four nuclear reactors (three of them in meltdown) under uncertain control for almost three years now, the risk of lethal exposure is very real for plant workers, and may decrease with distance from the plant, but may be calculable for anyone on the planet. No one seems to know. No one seems to have done the calculation. No one with access to the necessary information (assuming it exists) seems to want to do the calculation.
There is no moral excuse for this international collusion. The excuses are political or economic or social, but none of them excuses any authority for withholding or lying about information that has potentially universal and destructive impact on everyone alive today and everyone to be born for some unknown generations.
Japanese authorities may be the worst current offenders against the truth, as well as the health and safety of their people. Now the Japanese government has passed a harsh state secrets law that threatens to reduce or eliminate reliable information about Fukushima. The U.S. government officially applauded this heightened secrecy, while continuing its own tight control on nuclear information. Japanese authorities are already attacking their own people in defense of nuclear power: not only under-measuring and ignoring varieties of radioactive threat, but even withholding the iodine pills in 2011 that might have mitigated the growing epidemic of thyroid issues today. Failing to confront Fukushima honestly, the Japanese are laying the basis for what could amount to a radiological sneak attack on the rest of the world.
Just because no one seems to know what to do about Fukushima is no excuse to go on lying about and/or denying the dimensions of reality, whatever they might be.
There are hundreds, probably thousands of people with little or no authority who have long struggled to create a realistic, rational perspective on nuclear threats. The fundamental barrier to knowing the scale of the Fukushima disaster is just that: the scale of the Fukushima disaster.
Chernobyl 1986 and Fukushima 2011 are not really comparable
Chernobyl is the closest precedent to Fukushima, and it’s not very close. Chernobyl at the time of the 1986 electric failure and explosion had four operating reactors and two more under construction. The Chernobyl accident involved one reactor meltdown. Other reactors kept operating for some time after the accident. The rector meltdown was eventually entombed, containing the meltdown and reducing the risk. Until Fukushima, Chernobyl was considered the worst nuclear power accident in history, and it is still far from over (albeit largely contained for the time being). The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone of roughly 1,000 square miles remains one of the most radioactive areas in the world and the clean-up is not even expected to be complete before 2065.
At the time of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima plant had six operating reactors. Three of them went into meltdown and a fourth was left with a heavily laden fuel pool teetering a hundred feet above the ground. Two other reactors were undamaged and have been shut Â Â Â Â Â down. Radiation levels remain lethal in each of the melted-down reactors, where the meltdowns appear to be held in check by water that is pumped into the reactors to keep them cool. In the process, the water gets irradiated and that which is not collected on site in leaking tanks flows steadily into the Pacific Ocean. Within the first two weeks, Fukushima radiation was comparable to Chernobyl’s and while the levels have gone down, they remain elevated.
The plant’s corporate owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), in turn effectively owned by the Japanese government after a2012 nationalization, began removing more than 1,500 fuel rod assemblies from the teetering fuel pool in November, a delicate process expected to take a year or more. There are additional fuel pools attached to each of the melted down reactors and a much larger general fuel pool, all of which contain nuclear fuel rod assemblies that are secure only as long as TEPCO continues to cool them. The Fukushima Exclusion Zone, a 12-mile radius around the nuclear plant, is about 500 square miles (much of it ocean); little specific information about the exclusion zone is easily available, but media coverage in the form of disaster tourism is plentiful, including a Google Street View interactive display.
Despite their significant differences as disasters, Chernobyl and Fukushima are both rated at 7 – a “major accident” on the International Nuclear Event Scale designed in 1990 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That is the highest rating on the scale, a reflection of the inherent denial that colors most official nuclear thinking. Designed by nuclear “experts” after Chernobyl, the scale can’t imagine a worse accident than Chernobyl which, for all its intensity, was effectively over as an accident in a relatively short period of time. At Fukushima, by contrast, the initial set of events was less acute than Chernobyl, but almost three years later they continue without any resolution likely soon. Additionally Fukushima has three reactor meltdowns and thousands of precarious fuel rod assemblies in uncertain pools, any of which could produce a new crisis that would put Fukushima clearly off the scale.
And then there’s groundwater. Groundwater was not a problem at Chernobyl. Groundwater is a huge problem at the Fukushima plant that was built at the seashore, on a former riverbed, over an active aquifer. In a short video, nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson makes clear why groundwater makes Fukushima so hard to clean up, and why radiation levels there will likely remain dangerous for another hundred years.
Fukushima Unit #3 activity led to some panic-driven reporting in 2013
The Japanese government and nuclear power industry have a history of not telling the truth about nuclear accidents dating back at least to 1995, as reported by New Scientist and Rachel Maddow, among others. Despite Japan’s history of nuclear dishonesty, Japanese authorities remain in total control of the Fukushima site and most of the information about it, without significant objection from most of the world’s governments, media, and other power brokers, whose reputation for honesty in nuclear matters is almost as bad as Japan’s. In such a context of no context, the public is vulnerable to reports like this from the Turner Radio Network (TRN) on December 28:
** NEWS FLASH – URGENT ** STEAM SUDDENLY EMANATING FROM FUKUSHIMA REACTOR # 3 – WEST COAST OF NORTH AMERICA SHOULD BEGIN PREPARATIONS FOR POSSIBLE RADIATION CLOUD WITHIN 3 TO 5 DAYS
Five days after this story was posted, the “radiation cloud” had not developed despite the story’s assertion that: “Experts say this could be the beginning ofÂ a ‘spent fuel pool criticality (meltdown)’ involving up to 89 TONS of nuclear fuel burning up into the atmosphere and heading to North America.” The story named no “experts” and provided links only to TEPCO announcements in Japanese. The bulk of the story reads like an infomercial for “protective” gear of various sorts that TRN makes a point of saying it does NOT sell. Despite such obvious warning signs, others – such as The Ecologist and Gizmodo – reported the threat of “another meltdown” at Fukushima Unit #3 as imminent.
Clarification and reassurance quickly started chasing the “new meltdown” rumor around the Internet. ENENEWS (Energy News) promptly posted the TEPCO reports in English, demonstrating that there was nothing “sudden” about the steam releases, they’ve been happening more or less daily since 2011, but condensation caused by cold weather makes them visible. At FAIREWINDS (Energy Education), Arnie Gunderson posted on January 1:
“”¦ the Internet has been flooded with conjecture claiming that Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 is ready to explode”¦. Our research, and discussions with other scientists, confirms that what we are seeing is a phenomenon that has been occurring at the Daiichi site since the March 2011 accident”¦. While the plants are shutdown in nuke speak, there is no method of achieving cold shut down in any nuclear reactor. While the reactor can stop generating the actual nuclear chain reaction, the atoms left over from the original nuclear chain reaction continue to give off heat that is called the decay of the radioactive rubble (fission products)”¦. constantly releasing moisture (steam) and radioactive products into the environment.” [emphasis added]
In other words, Fukushima Unit #3 continues to leak radioactivity into both air and water, as Units #1 and #2 presumably do as well. But as Gunderson explains, the level of radioactivity has declined sharply without becoming benign:
“When Unit 3 was operating, it was producing more than 2,000 megawatts of heat from the nuclear fission process (chain reaction in the reactor). Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, it shut down and the chain reaction stopped, but Unit 3 was still producing about 160 megawatts of decay heat. Now, 30 months later, it is still producing slightly less than 1 megawatt (one million watts) of decay heat”¦. 1 megawatt of decay heat is a lot of heat even today, and it is creating radioactive steam, but it is not a new phenomenon.”
Reassurances about Fukushima are as misleading as scare stories
The reassuring aspects of the condition of Unit #3 Â– radioactive releases are not new, they’re less intense than they once were, the nuclear waste is cooling Â– while true enough, provide only a false sense of comfort. Also true: radiation is released almost continuously, the releases are uncontrolled, no one seems to be measuring the releases, no one seems to be tracking the releases, no one is assessing accumulation of the releases. And while it’s true that the waste is cooling and decaying, it’s also true that a loss of coolant could lead to another uncontrolled chain reaction. (“Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 is not going to explode,” says Gunderson in a headline, but he can’t know that with certainty.)
For the near future, what all that means, in effect, is that the world has to accept chronic radiation releases from Fukushima as the price for avoiding another catastrophic release. And even then, it’s not a sure thing.
But there’s another aspect of Fukushima Unit #3 that’s even less reassuring. Unit #3 is the one Fukushima reactor that was running on Mixed oxide fuel, or MOX fuel, in its fuel rods. MOX fuel typically uses Plutonium mixed with one or more forms of Uranium. Using Plutonium in fuel rods adds to their toxicity in the event of a meltdown. In part because Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 240,000 years and can be used to make nuclear weapons of “dirty bombs,” its use in commercial reactors remains both limited and controversial. Because it contains Plutonium, MOX fuel is more toxic than other nuclear fuel and will burn at lower temperatures. As Natural Resources News reported in 2011:
“The mixed oxide fuel rods used in the compromised number three reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi complex contain enough plutonium to threaten public health with the possibility of inhalation of airborne plutonium particles”¦. Plutonium is at its most dangerous when it is inhaled and gets into the lungs. The effect on the human body is to vastly increase the chance of developing fatal cancers.”
Reportedly, TEPCO plans don’t call for the removal of the MOX fuel in Unit #3 for another decade or more. Fuel removal from Units #1, #2, and #3 is complicated by lethal radiation levels at all three reactors, as well as TEPCO’s inability so far to locate the three melted cores with any precision.
There is ample reason to hope that Fukushima, despite the complex of uncontrollable and deteriorating factors, will not get worse, because even the Japanese don’t want that. But there is little reason to expect anything but worsening conditions, slowly or suddenly, for years and years to come. And there is even less reason to expect anyone in authority anywhere to be more than minimally and belatedly truthful about an industry they continue to protect, no matter how many people it damages or kills.
The perfect paradigm of that ruthlessly cynical nuclear mentality is the current Japanese practice of recruiting homeless people to work at Fukushima in high level radiation areas where someone with something to lose might not be willing to go for minimum wage.
“Why has this not made national headlines??? The Aircraft Carrier Ronald Reagan is nuclear powered. Radiation detection equipment did not pick up on this?? Why have these sailors and marines medical records been removed from permanent tracking. Criminal implications galore. This should be all over mainstream media. Someone please forward all these ene reports to the media”¦. Tepco is the lowest of snakes. Hari Kari for the lot of em!!”
Fukushima lawsuit of 2012 comes as news to too much of the public
The story referred to in the enenews.comÂ comment above has had some coverage by Energy News, Tuner Radio Network, Stars and Stripes and a few others, but coverage, if any, by mainstream media is scant to none. All the same, it’s a real story, with real villains (TEPCO, Japanese government, U.S. Navy for starters), and real victims (a growing number of American service personnel put in harm’s way and abandoned by their government when things got tough).
The core of this story is the lawsuit filed December 21, 2012, by attorney Paul C, Garner of Brooks & Associates of Encinatas, California, on behalf of nine plaintiffs (including a one-year-old), all of whom “were among the members of the U.S. Navy crew and attached to the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), whose home port was San Diego, California, when they were exposed to radiation off the coast at Fukushima prefecture, Japan, whereat the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is located, on and after March 11, 2011, during the mission known as ‘Operation Tomodachi.’”Â The plaintiffs are seeking $40 million each in damages as well as a fund of more than a billion dollars to be used for their future medical expenses, and requested a jury trial. On November 26, federal judge Janis SammartinoÂ dismissed the complaintÂ on narrow jurisdictional grounds and plaintiffs plan to re-file in January within the judge’s stated parameters.
The U.S.S. Reagan is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a crew of about 5,000 that arrived off the coast of Fukushima the day after the tsunami with other ships as part of Operation Tomodachi, or “friend” in Japanese.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake near Fukushima caused a tsunami that killed an estimated 19,000 people and swamped the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In the aftermath of the tsunami, three of the six reactors at Fukushima melted down, releasing radiation into the air, ground, and water. The precise sequence of events remains unclear, but the Japanese government and TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company, a wholly owned public benefit subsidiary of the government of Japan) were not being fully forthcoming about the danger as the disaster developed.
Japanese officials apparently lied to everyone about the damage
Although the potential seriousness of the Fukushima accident was widely apparent, Japanese officials publicly and privately minimized the danger for as long as they could, lying to their own people and rescue personnel from other countries alike. At the time, the first meltdown was thought to have happened on March 12. But on December 12, 2013, Naoto Kan, the former prime minister who was in office at the time, told a meeting of the Japan Press Club that his government had known that “the first meltdown occurred five hours after the earthquake” which hit at 14:46Â on March 11.
The U.S.S. Reagan and accompanying ships were coming into an environment where radiation levels in the air and water were far higher than the Navy was being told officially. That lying is at the heart of the lawsuit against TEPCO, which was exposing its own workers to even greater risks than U.S. Sailors. The lawsuit argues that TEPCO’s lies led the U.S. Navy to sail unknowingly into intensely and dangerously radioactive waters.
True as that may be, it fails to explain why the Navy would be so trusting and negligent in the first place. The Reagan is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Its officers and crew are or should be more sensitive than most to radioactive risk under all conditions, but especially when approaching a damaged nuclear power plant, and operating downwind of Fukushima.
For days (it’s not clear how many), U.S. sailors were going into the radioactive ocean to save people swept out to sea by the tsunami. Sailors were drinking and bathing in desalinated ocean water until someone figured out it was radioactive. Sailors washed planes and surfaces of the ship that were radioactive. How do the people in charge of the Reagan not know they’re in a radioactive environment without being negligent?
U.S. Seventh Fleet Public Affairs issues incredible press release
On March 14, 2011, without explaining what woke them up to the danger, which they minimized anyway, Navy officials issued apress releaseÂ that began:
“The U.S. 7th Fleet has temporarily repositioned its ships and aircraft away from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant after detecting low level contamination in the air and on its aircraft operating in the area. The source of this airborne radioactivity is a radioactive plume released from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
“For perspective, the maximum potential radiation dose received by any ship’s force personnel aboard the ship when it passed through the area was less than the radiation exposure received from about one month of exposure to natural background radiation from sources such as rocks, soil, and the sun.”
Why would anyone believe that, having failed to detect (they say) the radioactive plume, the Navy has any credible way of knowing what exposure any sailor may have received? The Navy also claimed the Reagan was 100 miles away fromÂ Fukushima “at the time,” not specified. The Navy further claimed that only 17 crew members in three helicopter crews were exposed, that the “low level radioactivity was easily removed”¦ by washing with soap and water,” and “no further contamination was detected.”
This impossible-to-believe narrative was then effectively contradicted by the next paragraph of the press release:
“As a precautionary measure, USS Ronald Reagan and other U.S. 7th Fleet ships conducting disaster response operations in the area have moved out of the downwind direction from the site to assess the situation and determine what appropriate mitigating actions are necessary.”
If no further contamination was detected, then it should be relatively easy to determine what appropriate mitigation actions were necessary.
Navy “supports the troops,” at least until they really need it
According to individual reports, the Navy passed out iodine pills to officers and pilots, but not to most of the crew. The Navy also required crew members, before they could go on shore leave later in Thailand, to sign papers stating that they were healthy and couldn’t sue the Navy. Clearly that would be mitigating for the Navy, even if it meant abandoning people whose potential radiation injuries wouldn’t be showing up for months or years.
That’s exactly what happened to Petty Officer 3rdÂ Class Daniel Hair, as reported in Stars and StripesÂ in July 2013. Hair is part of the lawsuit against TEPCO and, like the other plaintiffs, has classic symptoms of low level radiation poisoning. The article also minimizes the possible exposure on the Reagan, quoting a Navy spokesman who uses the exact same language as the 2011 press release to minimize Fukushima radiation levels.
According to Stars and Stripes, Hair was told that the Reagan was just 5-10 miles off the coast of Fukushima. The paper also reported that:
“Sailors were drinking desalinated seawater and bathing in it until the ship’s leadership came over the public address system and told them to stop because it was contaminated, Hair said. They were told the ventilation system was contaminated, and he claims he was pressured into signing a form that said he had been given an iodine pill even though none had been provided. As a low-ranking sailor, he believed he had no choice.
“The Navy has acknowledged that the Reagan passed through a plume of radiation but declined to comment on the details in Hair’s story.”
Most of the sick sailors are in their early twenties
There’s no apparent reason to doubt that there are sick sailors, not all of them part of the lawsuit, but all of them with a common source of exposure from Fukushima. Two other plaintiffs, Maurice Enis and his girlfriend, Jaime Plym, held a press conference on March 11, 2013, that was part of a symposiumÂ at the New York Academy of Medicine dealing with the medical and ecological consequences of Fukushima. Enis and Plym both served on the Reagan, as the Huffington PostÂ Â reported:
“The couple had been looking forward to leaving the military and starting a family. Now, Enis said, they don’t know if children will be an option due to health problems they’ve both developed since signing away government liability. They’ve both been honorably discharged from the military and don’t know how they will pay for medical treatment. Plym has a new diagnosis of asthma and her menstrual cycle is severely out of whack. Enis has lumps on his jaw, between his eyes and on his thigh. He’s also developed stomach ulcers and lung problems, and is losing weight and hair.”
In all, the Pentagon sent some 70,000 American military personnel to serve in or near Japan in response to Fukushima during the period from March 12 to May 11, 2011. And in 2011, the Dept. of Defense set out to do the right thing for these men and women who may have been exposed to harmful levels of radiation. The Defense Dept. announced plans to establish theOperation Tomodachi RegistryÂ to help these people track their health histories, an initiative pushed by Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. According to the Pentagon:
“The DOD may establish an environmentalÂ health surveillance registryÂ when: 1) occupational and environmental health exposures could cause illness, or 2) when the exposure is not expected to cause illness, but individuals need access to exposure data. In either case, these registries will contain the names of all the individuals who were known or believed to have been exposed along with estimates of their exposure.”
No radiation level is “safe,” and internal radiation is less safe
Since the Pentagon admitted it was unpreparedÂ to deal with radiation risk when the Fukushima crisis began, the creation of a registry was something of an after-the-fact means of making up for that initial unpreparedness. By the end of July 2011, the Pentagon reported that it had “already done ‘internal monitoring’ of radiation levels inside the bodies of 7,700 personnel who worked in parts of the disaster zone closest to the damaged power plant, including those who flew over the disaster zone”¦.”
But the same report went on to minimize the impact without addressing the timeframe in which the radiation was received: “The scans revealed that 98 percent of those personnel did not have elevated radiation inside their bodies”¦. among the 2 percent of service members (about 154 individuals) with elevated internal radiation levels the highest readings were about 25 millirems, equivalent to the dose that they would receive from 2 1/2 chest X-rays.”
The lawsuit against TEPCO has 50-75 plaintiffs, as new people continue to join. If the 2 per cent with elevated exposure levels found by the Pentagon is relevant, then there would be something like 1,400 potential plaintiffs among the 70,000 service members who were part of Operation Tomodachi. The lawsuit was filed in December 2012, before the radiation exposure registry was completed. In September 2012, the Pentagon put out another press releaseÂ touting the usefulness of the registry even though it asserted that “no Defense Department personnel or their families were exposed to radiation causing adverse health conditions following the nuclear accident in Japan last year.”
The Defense Dept. promised the registry would be finished in 2012. The suffering veterans filed their lawsuit December 21. Within a month, the Pentagon decided to drop the whole registry thing after an almost two-year effort, saying that it had decided that there was no serious contamination in the first place.
This decision means, as Roger Witherspoon wrote on his blog at the time, “there will be no way to determine if patterns of health problems emerge among the members of the Marines, Army, Air Force, Corps of Engineers, and Navy stationed at 63 installations in Japan with their families. In addition, it leaves thousands of sailors and Marines in the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group 7 on their own when it comes to determining if any of them are developing problems caused by radiation exposure.”
So as far as the government is concerned, officially, it doesn’t matter if Operation Tomodachi becomes, for some who served, a mission kamikaze.
If the end of the world hasn’t started yet, maybe it will start soon. Soon enough, if it hasn’t started already, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) will begin removing the first of more than 1,500 fuel assemblies from the Fukushima Unit 4 fuel pool that sits about 100 feet above the ground. Each assembly contains 50-70 radioactive fuel rods. If this removal procedure goes seriously awry or the plant is hit by another major earthquake, some scientists say, “It’s bye-bye Japan and everyone on the west coast of North America should evacuate.”
Fukushima is a continuing disaster, and the Japanese haven’t done that great a job keeping it from getting worse, but that’s not the bad news. The bad news is that nobody else in the world has a much better idea about what to do, and even less of an idea of how to do it, and that’s why the stampede of global rescue workers rushing to Japan isn’t happening now and isn’t likely to happen soon.
Fulminating over Fukushima is fun for the whole family, and lord knows there’s plenty to fulminate about, but when all the fulminating and fear-mongering and freak-out fomenting is done, the deteriorating disaster that is Fukushima continues to deteriorate unaffected. The only likely effect of the fussing is further deterioration of the ability to think clearly about a situation in which the future is even more unknowable and uncontrollable than the future usually is.
And now it’s turning out that nuclear power will also contribute to climate change, indirectly, at least in the short run, because Japan has announcedÂ that it can’t afford to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as promised, because taking care of Fukushima is too expensive and has led to a shutdown of all the rest of Japan’s nuclear power plants. In the short term at least, Japan will rely more on electricity produced by coal, oil, and gas-burning power plants.
As a metaphor, Fukushima now has familiar apocalyptic and terrifying implications, but the reality of the place itself is more complicated. After all, if the sky really is falling, what are you going to do about it anyway?
Fukushima will definitely get worse before it gets better, or worse still
When it was hit by an earthquake followed by a tsunami on March 11, 2011, Fukushima was a six-reactor nuclear power station. Units 1, 2, and 3 all melted down; at least 1 and 3 exploded, and an explosion tore off the roof of Unit 4, leaving its fuel pool precariously exposed. Units 5 and 6, although undamaged, have been shut down and pose no immediate threat.
Continuously since 2011, Fukushima has been releasing radioactivityÂ into the air, although that seems now to be minimized. The release of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean continues at varying intensities that appear to be still increasing, with little possible control in the near future. Groundwater flows into the plant and leaves contaminated. Water used as coolant is contaminated and flows out. And contaminated water that TEPCO collects in huge holding tanks leaks out.
There is broad agreement that the Unit 4 fuel poolÂ is the highest priority for making Fukushima safer, not that it will be actually safe for a long, long time. Even if the fuel removal goes smoothly, it is expected to take more than a year to complete.
In 1982, TEPCO damaged one of the fuel assemblies now in the Unit 4 fuel pool, and a reference to that damage – the assembly is bent almost at a right angle – was included in an August 2013 report. On November 12, Japan Times and Reuters reported this news, along with news from an April 2010 TEPCO report that: “it found two other spent fuel racks in the reactor’s cooling pool had what appeared to be wire trapped in them. Rods in those assemblies have pin-hole cracks and are leaking low-level radioactive gases”¦. “
TEPCO has the only plan in town
TEPCO knows what it wants to do with the 1500 assemblies in unit 4. The procedure, as described by Reuters, is straight-forward in concept: “The assemblies must first be lifted from their storage frames in the pool and individually placed in aÂ steelÂ cask – kept all the while under water to prevent overheating. The cask, weighing around 90 tonnes when filled, will then be hoisted by crane from the pool, lowered to ground level and transported by trailer to a common storage pool about 100 metres away.”
No one’s criticizing the TEPCO plan, and no one has come forward claiming to have a better plan. What TEPCO doesn’t know, and no one else knows, is whether they will be able to execute the plan according to plan. And what else TEPCO and everyone else doesn’t know is what will happen if and when the plan hits a glitch. And that’s where the panic-laden extreme scenariosÂ come in: “If something goes wrong this could be a global catastrophe that dwarfs what has happened in Fukushima Daiichi thus far,”Â says nuclear waste specialist Kevin Kamps with Beyond Nuclear, without suggesting a different approach.
Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds told radio station KZYX in September: “Tokyo Electric has admitted that the boron between these fuel cells — there’s a boron wafer in between the fuel to prevent something called an inadvertent criticality, you can have a nuclear chain reaction in the fuel pool, and that’s not a good thing — but they’ve admitted that all the boron has disintegrated. So the only thing preventing a chain reaction from occurring”¦ in the fuel racks themselves, is the fact they put all sorts of boron in the water. But if the rods get too close to each other, they can still fire up again and create a chain reaction in the nuclear fuel pool.”
TEPCO has confidence, is that reassuring? Â Â
TEPCO has produced a reassuring short video describing how the fuel removal process is supposed to go, mixing animation and documentary footage to soothe away any viewer’s worries. Arnie Gunderson calls it a “fantasy cartoon” and provides aÂ 17-minute podcastÂ showing excerpts from the TEPCO production followed by his own explanations of how TEPCO is misleading.
Not surprisingly, TEPCO is counter-alarmist, as Japan TimesÂ reported: “Asked if it’s possible for the spent fuel to achieve recriticality, Zengo Aizawa, vice president of Tepco overseeing the Fukushima crisis, said this is highly improbable since the removal process basically deals with one assembly at a time, and the utility has confirmed that one assembly alone cannot cause a nuclear chain reaction.”
The company’s confidence was shared by one of their consultants, Lake Barrett, an American whose four decades of experience in nuclear energy included overseeing much of the clean-up after the accident at Three Mile Island. Barrett visited the Fukushima site on November 13, and told Japan Times he was impressed with TEPCO’s preparations, including the reinforcement and cover at Unit 4 protecting the fuel pool: “Now I feel confident that they can complete this job properly,”
Meanwhile, at nearby Units 1, 2, and 3 – all of which melted down – the status of the molten cores has remained uncertain since 2011. Talking about this on Art Bell’s Dark Matter programÂ in October, Beyond Nuclear’s Paul Gunter said:
“We’ve got 3 reactors, the cores have left the vessel. They’ve burned through the bottom of the vessel. We don’t really know where they are, because the radioactive environment even fries robots that TEPCO’s been trying to send in there. They have been sending very innovative robotic machinery and sensors in there to get a picture, to get a reading, and these things don’t return. We have opened a door to hell that cannot be easily closed — if ever. We’ve got those 3 cores that are melting, they could be somewhere in the concrete base mat burning their way through, they could have already burned through and entered into the ground. They hopefully have formed a huge solid ‘elephant’s foot’ of highly radioactive material.”
Think it’s bad on the outside?Â Inside it’s instant death.
On November 14, Japanese media reported that, for the first time, a remote-controlled robot had found the locations in Unit 1 where radioactive water was leaking out of the reactor. TEPCO acknowledged that it was unable to do anything about these leaks any time soon, and they suspected there were similar leaks in Units 2 and 3. As long as TEPCO can keep the molten cores cooled, they will remain stable – and the flow of contaminated water into the environment will continue.
According to RT.com: “The radiation levels in the inspected area were reported at 0.9 to 1.8 sieverts an hour, while a typical release of radiation is generally accepted to be 1 millisievert a year.” In less technical language, a sievert is a unit of measurement for a radiation dose to humans – a dose of more than one sievert in a brief perion will likely cause radiation sickness and possibly death. A millisievert is one one-thousandth of a sievert. In other words, roughly calculated, the radiation level the robot found is about 9 million times greater than the so-called “safe” annual human exposure.
Beyond the confines of the Fukushima plant, in the partly evacuated Fukushima Prefecture, local officials are confirming anincrease in thyroid cancerÂ in children. The rate is more than 7 times higher than for the general population and reflects a similar pattern experienced around Chernobyl after the accident there.
The Indian government is meanwhile pressing ahead to complete aÂ nuclear cooperation agreementÂ with Japan that would clear the way for Japaneses nuclear energy companies to do business building nuclear power plants in India.
Another day, another potential disaster in the making at Fukushima. The support framework on a crucial ventilation pipe is cracked in several places, and may not be able to withstand another earthquake. The area around the pipe in highly radioactive, which makes fixing it deeply problematic.