After Fukushima Meltdowns: 13 Years of Accidents, Quakes, Insults

Fukushima nuclear accident. (2024, February 9). In Wikipedia. 

The catastrophic earthquake, tsunami, and three reactor meltdowns that struck northeast Japan at Fukushima in March 2011 began a pollution disaster that keeps growing and surprising. From recent contamination of edible plants, and frequent earthquakes threatening new reactor fails, from accidents endangering workers, and non-enforcement of regulations, to lawsuits against Japan’s pollution of the Pacific, the worst ever reactor incident is still a present tense event. Even without going into the 20 million tons of radioactive debris piled in mounds of bags at 100,000 Japanese sites, failing plastic containers holding corrosive nuclear sludge produced by the wastewater filter system, or airborne dispersal of hot particles from incinerators all across Japan burning Fukushima debris, this issue’s update is still over-long. China and Russia have banned all Japanese seafood imports after Japan began disposing of contaminated wastewater in the Pacific. Between the deliberate dispersal of radioactive wastes, the accidental spills and leaks, and all in the most earthquake-prone country on earth, the dreams of clean, cheap nuclear power turn to nightmares immediately upon waking up.

Still Finding Broad Contamination of Wild Foods

Edible mushrooms grown in Narusawa village in Yamahashi prefecture, 227 miles from the Fukushima meltdowns, were found with high levels of radioactive cesium, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The ministry also reported higher than permitted contamination of mushrooms and edible plants (the popular greens called Koshiabura) in Miyagi prefecture (86 miles distant), Shizouka prefecture (292 miles away), and Nagano prefecture (147 miles out). Oddly, the media reported on only the Yamahashi contamination. The mushrooms in Narusawa (Cortinarius caperatus) had 50% more cesium-137 than permitted by regulations. The United States is more at ease with people eating cesium-137 than Japan, allowing twelve times as much in food, and doesn’t make an exception for baby food. Radioactive cesium was released in large amounts and traveled long distances during the three simultaneous reactor meltdowns and several explosions at Fukushima beginning March 2011.

January Earthquake Overstressed Reactors

The severe magnitude 7.6 earthquake that struck western Japan January 1st, killing 82 and leaving 31,000 homeless, shook and “inflicted stress” on parts of two nuclear reactors that “exceeded the limit” of their design capacity, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority said in a report. Both reactors at Shika in Ishikawa Prefecture on the west coast were offline when the quake struck, but Shinsuke Yamanaka, chief of the NRA, told reporters that jolts from undersea seismic faults which triggered the quake “must be factored in as new knowledge” when updating safety standards. Yamanaka urged operator Hokuriku Electric Power Co. to find out why the Shika reactors’ electric transformers have both broken down and have “partially prevented the [reactors] from receiving power supplied from outside.” The earthquake and tsunami-caused loss of offsite power at Fukushima-Daiichi in March 2011, resulted in the collapse of cooling systems and the catastrophic meltdown and explosive destruction of three large reactors there. Japan’s 54 reactors are all on its coastline and vulnerable to earthquakes which strike its islands nearly every day.

‘Cleanup’ Operations See Radiation Leaks and Spills

According to Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) which still operates the Fukushima site, ten of 16 valves mistakenly left open by workers spewed some 5.5 metric tons of highly radioactive wastewater onto the site in early February, China Global TV and Japan’s NHK television reported. The leak sprang from machinery used to remove radioactive cesium and strontium from wastewater severely contaminated after is passes through hundreds of tons of melted reactor fuel called “corium” amassed wreckage deep within the three destroyed Fukushima reactors. Tepco, the only source of information on the spill, later claimed that only 1.5 tons had spilled. The newly invented filtering system is said to remove many dangerous radioactive chemicals from the wastewater before the company dilutes it and disposes of it in the Pacific Ocean, dumping that has caused outrage and lawsuits around the world. An accident in October contaminated four workers who were sprayed with radioactive wastewater when a hose broke from a different waste treatment machine. Two were briefly hospitalized.

These wastewater accidents were international scandals and forced Japan’s Industry Minister Ken Saito to make a face-saving spectacle out of publicly shaming Tepco President Tomoaki Kobayakawa. On Feb. 21, the minister summoned the Tepco boss to his Tokyo office to demand more “safety awareness and preventive measures.” Minister Saito even told Kobayakawa to take the problems seriously and investigate the accidents. In classic Kabuki Dance style public relations, the Tepco man dutifully apologized to the minister, as reporters took notes filed reports of the theatrical scolding.

Hunsiker on Japan’s illegal radioactive dumping

Writing for Counterpunch last September, Robert Hunsiker noted two ways that Japan’s disposal of radioactive wastewater in the Pacific violates the law. First, the long-time president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Arjun Makhijani is quoted regarding the failure of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to enforce its global regulations. Makhijani writes, “[T]he author of this paper has been reluctant to criticize the IAEA. Yet, its outright refusal to apply its own guidance documents in full measure is stark. Its constricted view of the dumping plan has allowed it to evade its responsibilities to many countries. Its eagerness to assure the public that harm will be “negligible” has been carried to the point of grossly overstating well-known facts about tritium. The serious lapses of the IAEA in the Fukushima radioactive water matter have made criticism unavoidable.”

Second, Hunziker sited an article by Victoria Cruz-De Jesus in the American University International Law Review, quoting: “Japan’s policy to release wastewater into the Pacific Ocean constitutes a violation of Japan’s obligations under UNCLOS Article 192, which requires state parties to ‘protect and preserve the marine environment.’ Additionally, Japan’s pollution of the marine environment from land-based sources violates UNCLOS Article 207.” Hunziker concluded, “Adding insult to injury, Japan considered several available waste disposal measures that, in part, would have complied with some of its treaty obligations under UNCLOS Articles 192 and 207 but ultimately settled for the cheapest, easiest, most convenient, yet most harmful, policy, dumping it into the Pacific Ocean….”

Warnings About Failed Water Treatment

Tatsujiro Suzuki is the vice director of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University and one of Japan’s premier experts on nuclear power. He spoke to South Korea’s Hankyoreh English daily in February, and said in part: “Fukushima’s wastewater has been treated…. However in August 2018, Japanese media outlets reported that around 70% of the water stored in tanks at Fukushima contained higher-than-permitted levels of radionuclides like cesium, strontium, and iodine, which are extremely harmful to the body. I was genuinely shocked. Tepco had persistently claimed that they had reduced the level of radionuclides, excluding tritium…. To reduce the potential danger of the treated water and to confirm the effectiveness of ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System), it’s essential that we treat the water in those storage tanks a second time.”

“Not to mention there was no study done on the potential environmental impact. … Regarding an IAEA report that declared that the ‘treated water would have a negligible radiological impact to people and the environment,’ Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA, stressed that the report did not recommend or support the Japanese government’s policy in any way.”

Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution wrote two years ago: “[I]n 2018, Tepco … announced for the first time that the tanks also contain concerning levels of other, more harmful radioactive materials such as cobalt-60 and strontium-90, which are much more likely to end up on the seafloor or be taken up by sea life. Although Tepco regularly communicates with the public, the only data we have about non-tritium elements [in the tanks] come from a fraction of the tanks — about 200 — and don’t include other potential contaminants, such as plutonium.”

Japanese Court to Hear Lawsuit Vs Dumping

The case Citizens v. Tepco and the State of Japan was filed in Fukushima District Court in September last year. In it, 151 citizens appeal for an injunction to halt the release. Last November, more citizens including people from the fishing industry joined the suit. Grace Nishikawa and Dr. Marlies Hesselman reported on this legal action to halt Japan’s ocean disposal of its radioactive wastewater, writing Jan. 16, 2024 for Blog of the European Journal of International Law.

Among the claims of the plaintiffs is that the massive releases violate Article 4 of the “Protocol to the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matters.” Article 4 prohibits the “dumping” of wastewater into the sea, and the plaintiffs argue that the law applies to disposing of any and all radioactive waste in the oceans, including from pipelines. The legal bloggers report that “It is generally understood that the London Convention prohibits the dumping of all radioactive wastes.” The legal dilemma is that pipelines pump radioactive wastes into the sea, but Article 4 prohibits “dumping” as it was practiced during the Cold War by rolling barrels from ships.

The question at trial is whether Article 4 applies to Tepco’s land-based pipeline; whether the means of disposal qualifies, in Article 4 terms, as “man-made structures at sea” — a phrase that is used but not defined by the treaty. “Spain allegedly has defended [a broad] interpretation, arguing that: ‘it is the idea of destination and not that of origin which characterizes dumping “at sea” in accordance with the terms of the Convention and with its object and purpose’,” the bloggers wrote. And “At least one other Party to the treaty, China, argues that Article 4 prohibits discharges of radioactive waste into the sea from pipelines.”

Pacific Island States Condemn Rad Waste Disposal

The Polynesian Bloc called for a pause in Japan’s dumping of radioactive wastewater during the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in Cook Islands last November, according to Cook Islands News. The Bloc includes, Niue, Cook Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Tuvalu and Tonga. The Pacific Islands Forum has consistently objected to Japan’s ocean dumping. Besides the whole Polynesian Bloc, the Forum includes Australia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. In June last year the Forum declared that Japan’s sanctioned pollution of the Pacific “is not merely a nuclear safety issue. It is rather a nuclear legacy issue, an ocean, fisheries, environment, biodiversity, climate change, and health issue with the future of our children and future generations at stake.”

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