Fukushima Roulette


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.

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