Failed Fukushima Fixes Falling Like Dominoes

Sign of radiation hotspot in Kashiwa, Japan 2022.

Radiation hotspot in Kashiwa, Japan 2022.

Japan’s breathtaking earthquake and tsunami waves of March 11, 2011— which first smashed the Fukushima Daiichi reactors’ foundations and the electrical grid, and then destroyed all its back-up power generators — led to a “station blackout” and the meltdown of three large reactors and to hydrogen explosion that blew apart four reactor containment structures.

Before the disaster, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) had refused to sufficiently upgrade its protective sea wall, although it had been warned of the risk of extreme tsunamis. The site was hit by a tsunami of a height of 46 feet, but Tepco had prepared for a wave of up to only 18 feet.  (Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster, Takashi Hirose, p. 30) The result was a catastrophic, unprecedented simultaneous triple reactor meltdown: an earthquake-tsunami-radiation event that had never before been seen on Earth.

Tepco’s cost-avoidance on its sea wall was only the first in a string of failures that have followed like dominos. The corruption led in July 2022 to convictions of four top Tepco executives for negligence and a fine of $95 billion.

In the 12 years since the meltdowns, Tepco’s disaster response efforts, always heralded as fixes, have been a series of hugely expensive failures: the “advanced” wastewater filter system “ALPS” has failed; the buried “ice wall” groundwater barrier has failed; containers made for the radioactive sludge produced by ALPS have failed; and plans to deal with millions of tons of collected debris — now kept in plastic bags — are being fiercely resisted by Japanese citizens.

Tons of cooling water is still being poured every day into Fukushima’s triple reactor wrecks to keep the hot melted fuel from again running amok. Additionally, groundwater gushes through the reactors’ foundations’ countless cracks and breaks caused by the staggering earthquake into what’s left of the structures’ sub-floors. All this water becomes highly radioactive as it passes over and through three giant masses — totaling at least 880 tonnes — of melted and mangled uranium and plutonium fuel.

You read that right. Fukushima’s destroyed reactor No. 3 was using fuel made partly of plutonium (see below), and so plutonium contaminates not just the ground and cooling water running over the melted fuel, but the ALPS apparatus, its filters, the containers used to store the radioactive sludge extracted by ALPS, and of course the sludge itself. You would think that the word plutonium would appear occasionally in news coverage of this ongoing disaster.

Failed ALPS means million-tonne do-over 

Tepco’s jerry-rigged system dubbed Advanced Liquid Processing System or ALPS has never worked as planned. As early as 2013 the machinery was stalled. “The ALPS system failed to reduce radioactive elements, as claimed by the owner,” Power Technology, reported June 2, 2021.

Tepco has repeatedly said ALPS would remove 62 radioactive materials — all but tritium and carbon-14 from the continuously expanding volume of wastewater. Documents on a government committee’s website show that of 890,000 tonnes of water held at Fukushima, 750,000 tonnes, or 84 percent, contain higher concentrations of radioactive materials than legal limits allow, according to Reuters, Oct. 11, 2018. Among the long-lasting and deadly isotopes picked up by the water runs that through melted fuel wreckage are cesium, strontium, cobalt, ruthenium, carbon-14, tritium, iodine, plutonium, and at least 54 others.

In a June 14 op/ed for the China Daily, Shaun Burnie, the Senior Nuclear Specialist at Greenpeace East Asia, reported that the ALPS “has been a spectacular failure” and noted that:

“About 70 percent or 931,600 cubic meters of the wastewater needs to be processed again (and probably many more times) by the ALPS to bring the radioactive concentration levels below the regulatory limit for discharge. Tepco has succeeded in reducing the concentration levels of strontium, iodine, and plutonium in only 0.2 percent of the total volume of the wastewater, and it still requires further processing. But no secondary processing has taken place in the past nearly three years. Neither Tepco nor the Japanese government [have] said how many times the wastewater needs to be processed, how long it will take to do so, or whether the efforts will ever be successful. Greenpeace reported on these problems and why the ALPS failed nearly five years ago, and none of these issues has been resolved.”

Consequently, Tepco says it will re-filter over 70 percent of the 1.37 million tonnes of wastewater stored in giant tanks on site. Approximately 875,000 tons of contaminated water must be put through the system again, a process that will leave behind more of the highly radioactive and corrosive waste sludge.

Hoping to slow the rush to dumping, Ryota Koyama, a professor at Fukushima Univ. in Japan, said in an interview with China Media Group last May, “If the Japanese government or the Tokyo Elec Power Co really wants to discharge contaminated water into the sea, they need to explain in more detail whether the nuclides have really been removed.”

Ice wall also melts

Tepco intended to reduce the volume of groundwater gushing into the reactor building foundations by digging a $350 million “ice wall” into the earth between the destroyed reactors and the mountains behind. The company placed 1,568 heavy pipes filled with coolant 90 feet deep. It was to freeze the ground to form a deep impenetrable barrier, diverting groundwater to either side of the destroyed six-reactor Fukushima complex and prevent it seeping inside. It has failed to do so, The Guardian reported. In 2016, the Times of London reported that the scheme had only a “minor impact” on the volume of groundwater rushing in, which at the time still averaged 321 tonnes a day. Tepco announced then that it would retrofit the system and fix the leaks, but Science/The Wire reported in January 2022 that the company had admitted that its ice wall was “partially” melting. About 150 tonnes per day still gushes in.

Filtered sludge burning through containers

The ALPS filter has produced over 4,000 large containers filled with highly radioactive slurry and sludge left from the treatment.

Like the use of the word “advanced” in the name of the failed ALPS machinery, the cylinders used for the caustic, highly radioactive sludge are called “High Integrity Containers” or HICs, but in fact they are made of plastic and have degraded far faster than Tepco anticipated.

By March 2, Tepco had filled 4,143 containers, according to the daily Asahi Shimbun. At 30 cubic feet each, the cylinders now store a total of about 124,290 cubic feet of the highly radioactive sludge that will soon require expensive repackaging and, eventually, isolation from the biosphere for thousands of years.

Over two years ago, on June 8, 2021, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced that 31 of the containers had “exceeded their lifespans” and were corroded badly enough by the harsh toxic material that they must be replaced. The NRA also warned that another 56 cylinders would need replacing within two years.

Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reported that the government regulators blamed Tepco for “underestimating the radiation the 31 plastic cylinders were exposed to.” The company then claimed it would start moving the contents to new containers.

The Asahi Shimbun reported April 27, 2023, that the HICs must be stored in concrete boxes that can block radiation evidently being emitted by the HICs.

Rad waste to be dumped, deregulated

As early as next month, Japan intends to begin dispersing 1.37 million tonnes of contaminated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. The government has steadfastly ignored fierce local and international opposition to the plan from the fishing community, marine scientists, Pacific Island nations, environmentalists, South Korea, and China. So far only South Korean politicians have suggested bringing international legal action against the dumping.

Since the 2011 meltdowns spewed radioactive materials broadly across Japan’s main island, some 14-million tonnes of cesium-contaminated soil, leaves, and debris have been scraped from the ground and stored in one-tonne bags.  Citizens are struggling desperately prevent authorities from using the radioactive waste in road building or burning it in incinerators. The bags are currently stacked in tens of thousands of piles all over the region.

Even more protest was raised last February 10 when the NRA said it would allow Tepco to severely weaken its monitoring of the wastewater’s radioactivity. The NRA said would but the number of radioactive elements to be measured from 64 to 34.

The environment minister of Hong Kong — a coastal metropolis of 7.5 million people — charged in June that Japan is “violating its obligations under international law and endangering the marine environment and public health.” Minister Tse Chin-wan wrote in the daily Ta Kung Pao that Hong Kong would “immediately prohibit imports of seafood caught off the coast of Fukushima prefecture.”

Plutonium Spread Long Distances from Fukushima

Very few reports of the Fukushima catastrophic releases of radiation have mentioned plutonium contamination. Yet plutonium was used in fuel rods in Fukushima’s reactor number 3 which was destroyed by meltdown and several hydrogen explosions. Plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known to science, and fine particles are far more biologically hazardous than larger particles.

Following the March 14, 2011 explosion, experts worried about the release of extremely dangerous radioactive substances, and then a week later, on March 21 and 22, Tepco announced that it had detected plutonium in soil collected from its compound. (Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster, Takashi Hirose, Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2011, p. 51)

Now, studies published in the journals Science of the Total Environment, Nov. 15, 2020, and Chemosphere, July 2023, report that researchers found that cesium and plutonium “were transported over long distances,” and that deposits of them were recorded in “downtown Tokyo,” about 142 miles from the meltdowns.

According to the authors, very high concentrations of radioactive cesium were released during the accident as particles referred to as “cesium-rich micro-particles” (CsMPs). The researchers say CsMPs they found are mainly composed of silicon, iron, zinc, and cesium, and minor amounts of radioactive tellurium, technetium, molybdenum, uranium, and plutonium.

The studies, involving scientists from six countries and led by Associate Professor Satoshi Utsunomiya, a researcher at Kyushu University, found that “plutonium was included inside cesium-rich micro-particles that were emitted from the site.”

Radioactive CsMPs released from Fukushima are a potential health risk through inhalation. “Given the small size of the particles, they could penetrate into the deepest parts of the lung, where they could be retained,” Utsunomiya wrote. “The route of exposure of greatest concern is inhalation,” the authors reported, because plutonium, lodged in the lungs, can “remain for years.”

Utsunomiya summed up his team’s work saying, “It took a long time to publish results on particulate [plutonium] from Fukushima … but research on Fukushima’s environmental impact and its decommissioning are a long way from being over.”

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