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Fukushima Five Years On: Not a Comedy of Errors, a Calamity of Terrors

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shutterstock_286493465 (2)

Since it began March 11, 2011, thousands of freelancers have reported on the Fukushima-Daiichi triple reactor meltdowns and radiation gusher, the deluge of accidents, leaks, faulty cleanup efforts, the widespread contamination of workers, citizens, soil, food and water, and the long series of cancer studies, lawsuits, and ever-changing clean-up and decommissioning plans. As Japan Times reports last October, “Extremely high radiation levels and the inability to grasp the details about melted nuclear fuel make it impossible for [Tokyo Electric Power Co.] to chart the course of its planned decommissioning of the reactors.”

The journalism is partly a response to the lack of mainstream US news coverage, and partly a warning against similar radiation disasters risked in the United States every day by the operation of 23 identical GE reactors (Fukushima clones) in this country.

Japanese media coverage of the catastrophe in English, along with analysis by independent scientists, researchers, and institutes is mostly available online and much of it is reliable.

Five years into the crisis, officials from Tepco have said leaks from the wreckage with “at least” two trillion Becquerels of radioactivity entered the Pacific between August 2013 and May 2014. “At least” is vague enough to beg the question: Is the actual total 5 trillion; 25; 50? Relentless drainage of contaminated water from the site is estimated to be about 300 tons a day and has continued for 60 months. “We should be carefully monitoring the oceans after what is the largest accidental release of radioactive contaminants to the oceans in history,” researcher Ken Buesseler, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute said last September.

However, Japan isn’t even monitoring seawater near Fukushima, according to The Ecologist.

Greenpeace launches study of 300-year effect on oceans

On Feb. 26, Greenpeace International launched a major investigation into the gusher’s effects on the Pacific Ocean near the wrecked Fukushima complex in Northeast Japan. The group said in a press release that its investigation will employ an underwater vehicle with a sensitive gamma radiation “Spectrometer,” and a sediment sampler.

Greenpeace noted that, “In addition to the initial release of liquid nuclear waste during the first weeks of the accident, and the daily releases ever since, contamination has also flowed from the land itself, particularly nearby forests and mountains of Fukushima, and are expected to continue to contaminate the Pacific Ocean for at least the next 300 years.”

Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who headed the government in 2011, joined the Greenpeace crew aboard the Rainbow Warrior on the opening day of its study, and Kan used the occasion to call for a Germany-like total phase-out of nuclear power.

“I once believed Japan’s advanced technology would prevent a nuclear accident like Chernobyl from happening in Japan,” Kan said. “But it did not, and I was faced with the very real crisis of having to evacuate 50 million people… Instead, we should shift to safer and cheaper renewable energy.”

Shaun Burnie, Senior Nuclear Specialist with Greenpeace Germany said, “There is an urgent need to understand the impact this contamination is having on the ocean — how radioactivity is both dispersing and concentrating — and its implications.”

“Tepco failed to prevent a multiple reactor meltdown and five years later it’s still an ongoing disaster. It has no credible solution to the water crisis they created and is failing to prevent further contamination of the Pacific Ocean,” Burnie said.

Criminal charges leveled against reactor execs

The first criminal charges against executives of Tepco were filed Feb. 29 alleging that three officials refused to take precautionary measures that could have prevented the loss of off-site power (known as “station blackout”), and the resulting complete meltdown, or melt-through, of reactor fuel in three units. Specifically, the three are accused of negligence resulting in death and injury, having ignored explicit professional warnings about the inadequate height of the seawall, and about the improper placement (in basements) of emergency diesel generators which were destroyed by tsunami. Many of the 14,000 Japanese citizens who signed on to the lawsuit said their action was taken partly to force disclosure at trial of important information still kept secret by Tepco.

Starting from scratch with no textbook

Last October, four-½ years into the unprecedented self-destruction of three-reactors in one place, Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency opened an institute “to develop” techniques to inspect and eventually decommission the three leaky ruins. Because of the vast, daunting and novel complexity of three melted reactors, the new “Remote Technology Development Center” is starting from scratch. That’s right: No one now knows how to disassemble and safely containerize the ferociously radioactive wreckage — times three.

Naohiro Masuda, Tepco’s chief of decontamination and decommissioning, told the AP Dec. 18, “This is something that’s never been experienced. A textbook doesn’t exist for something like this.” Radiation levels inside the cores are too high for even for robots to make useful inspections.

The ultimate goal of dismantling work is to remove the melted uranium fuel. Researchers don’t yet know how to patch massive quake-caused cracks in chambers under the failed reactors, which release tons of highly contaminated water every day. The new institute is tasked with inventing a first-ever technique to find and plug the leaks. The chambers must be made watertight, because removal of the melted fuel has to be done remotely and under water.

Planners must also invent a system of possible routes by which to remove the hundreds of tons of still-unseen melted fuel, and they’ve been told to find new ways of reducing radiation doses to workers conducting the mission.

Two mayors agree to host waste dumpsites

After first opposing the government’s plans, two towns in Fukushima Prefecture have agreed to Tokyo’s proposal for using them for “permanent” radioactive waste disposal. The sites, one at an existing private facility in Tomioka, and another at Naraha, have been chosen for disposal of “designated waste” in exchange for bribes, including the construction of an industrial park and subsidies worth about $81 million.

“Designated waste” is rubbish with between 8,000 and 100,000 Becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram. Confusingly, the Japan Times called this deadly refuse “low-level nuclear waste,” while the Asahi Shimbun called it “highly radioactive.”

The Tomioka facility, now run by Ecotech Clean Center, will be nationalized and will then bury some 650,000 cubic meters of designated waste which is mostly incinerator ash, sewage sludge and rice straw. It is a small fraction of the estimated 22 million cubic meters of waste that’s been collected in large black bags and stored outdoors at thousands of sites in 11 prefectures.

Waste with higher radiation levels is to be kept at temporary facilities being built near the doomed reactor complex.

Another proposal from the Ministry of Industry is to bury high-level radioactive waste under the seabed. Experts who made the idea public said such waste could be transported by ship, but this raised alarms about transfer mishaps, transport accidents, groundings, breakups, and sinkings of cargo ships.

Pollution solution: Declare safe today what was unsafe yesterday

Following the start of the ongoing disaster, the government’s official allowable public external radiation exposure was arbitrarily raised. One milliSievert (mSv) per year was raised to 20 mSv for residents in areas affected with radioactive fallout. For radiation workers in the nuclear industry the annual limit was raised from 100 mSv to 250 mSv. This had the double effect of both saving the industry billions in cleanup costs, and increasing radiation-induced health effects — especially in women, fetuses, infants, and children.

Robert Hunzinker reported in CounterPunch Dec. 14 that Physicians for Social Responsibility has warned that the new “allowable dose” means there’s a 1 in 200 risk of children getting cancer in the first year; and over two years the risk increases to 1 in 100.

Sea wall making matters worse

In October, Tepco completed a deep seawall dug into the shore between the ocean and the wrecked reactors. Intended to halt the flow of contaminated groundwater to the Pacific, the dam has cause groundwater levels to rise behind the wall. Now, in an attempt to fix the problem caused by the wall, Tepco dug new wells to pump backed-up groundwater, planning to dump less-contaminated groundwater from new wells into the sea. But the water is so heavily poisoned with tritium that sea dumping was not allowed. Now the company is pumping and dumping the fast rising groundwater into severely radioactive reactor buildings — where the water will become even more contaminated by passing over the mass of hot melted fuel inside. It’s not really a comedy of errors, but a calamity of terrors.

Listen to John LaForge on this week’s edition of CounterPunch Radio!

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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