Fukushima’s Forever Quagmire of Radiation Hazards

The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Earthquakes routinely threaten reactor site

The dumping of radioactive wastewater from the rubbished Fukushima nuclear reactor site in Japan was suspended for a day last March, after a 5.98-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the site, the Malaysia Star and Arab News Japan report. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) said through a spokesperson that it halted operation of its liquid waste filtering system (“APLS”), but that “no abnormalities were detected,” and no leak of radiation “was detected.” The comic choice of words implies that dumping radiation-emitting liquid waste into the Pacific Ocean is not abnormal and that the waste’s radioactive tritium, strontium, carbon, and cesium can’t be detected. The filtering system was restarted later the same day after Japan’s Meteorological Agency said there was no threat of a tsunami. The shutdown was the first time Tepco’s waste dispersal was interrupted by earthquake activity.

Radioactive wastewater leaks lead to promises of improvement

On Feb. 7, 2024, Tepco’s faulty wastewater filtering system leaked over 1.5 tons of highly radioactive cooling water which spread across the ground. The worker-caused spill forced Tepco to promise in April that it would install piping and ventilation intended to make any future spewing of wastewater fall inside the building. The plan puts workers in danger, and the vent ports would release radioactive gases to the open air. Last October, an accident at the same liquid processing site sprayed five workers, directly exposing them to radioactive materials likely including tritium, carbon-14, strontium, cesium, iodine, cobalt, and other deadly radionuclides. China’s Xinhjua News Agency reported: “Amid raging credibility and safety concerns among the Japanese public following a series of accidents at the crippled plant, [Tepco] and the Japanese government have been frequently challenged for the ocean discharge as the decommissioning process remains ambiguous.”

Extracting melted fuel and wreckage from radioactive hellscape

Destroyed reactors 1, 2, and 3 at Fukushima — wrecked by the 2011earthquake, a devastating tsunami, and a string of explosions — have about 880 tons of melted fuel which has burned into or through the reactors’ foundations. Tepco and Japan’s government intend to remove this fiercely radioactive wreckage and abandon it somewhere else. According to the Arab News in Japan, the melted fuel and the surrounding structures are so ferociously hot and radioactive that remote-controlled robots have repeatedly broken down in the harsh, underwater environment. (Water is continually poured over the melted fuel to keep it from overheating further.) Last March, Japan’s Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corp. came forward with a few ideas for removing the wrecked fuel, etc., something never before attempted at a site devastated by the world’s first-ever earthquake-tsunami-meltdown. This government “wrecking crew” has recommended: 1) removing the lethal debris while exposing it in the air, and 2) solidifying the wreckage in place using a “filler” like concrete. The government also suggested a plan to submerge entire reactor facilities under water after constructing a giant pool-like structure around them. Theoretically, robots would then approach, grasp, and withdraw the deadly debris while the surrounding water partially shielded workers from radiation.

G-7 Leaders Offer Political Cover for Japan’s ocean dumping

In an off-agenda move widely seen as a winking promise to protect the nuclear reactor industry, the Group of Seven corporate capitalist states (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US) endorsed Japan’s dumping of radioactive wastewater into the ocean at its summit in Italy June 15, the Nippon News Agency reported. “We support Japan’s safe, transparent and science-based process to responsibly manage the discharge,” the G-7 statement said. Millions of people and more than 20 countries on the Pacific Rim and beyond have objected to Japan’s dumping — set to last another 40 years — of over 1.3-million tonnes of radioactive wastewater into the global commons. The discharge is so patently unsafe, so shrouded in long-term unknowns, and so clearly in violation of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s own scientific guidelines (which the IAEA itself is ignoring), that the G-7’s nod can be seen as industrial push-back against dumping protests in Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the Pacific Island Forum of 17 states. 

Landslide Threat Endangers Cooling Pool

Earthquakes routinely strike the Fukushima area of northeast Japan, threatening 1,000 large tanks holding 1.3 million tons of contaminated wastewater, and endangering the structural integrity of cooling pools holding extremely radioactive used fuel rods (often called “spent” fuel). In January 2024 alone, there were over 18 earthquakes in the region with magnitudes of between 2.8 and 3.7. In February there were at least 23, with one measuring magnitude 6.1.

Quakes pose another threat to the six-reactor site. According to Nuclear Engineering International for April 17, a possible landslide off of massive mountain slope could shut down the large waste fuel cooling pond next to the slope. The pool holds 5,197 waste fuel assemblies the article notes, and Akira Ishiwatari, a geologist and federal Nuclear Regulation Authority commissioner, told the magazine, “A landslide could occur on the slope in the event of a minor earthquake or even without any tremor.” The authority “is concerned that if sediment from a landside flowed into the pool, the nuclear fuel would no longer be cooled and, in the worst-case scenario, could eventually melt,” the magazine said.

Tepco has said a landslide would not affect the cooling pond, but to avert the danger its announced plans to excavate 100,000 cubic meters from the slope over the next ten years.

Ibaraki prefecture wants halt of edible tree shoot shipments after radioactive cesium found

Another prefecture in Japan has asked for a halt to shipments of a popular edible wild food after it was found contaminated with high levels of cesium-137, a radioactive toxin dispersed in large quantities by the triple Fukushima meltdowns of March 2011. Cesium-137 stays in the environment for 300 years and was spread long distances from the disaster site, Mainichi Japan reported April 13. Kitaibaraki town in Ibaraki prefecture is 134 miles from Fukushima, and the government found cesium contamination in angelica tree shoots at twice the level allowed by Japanese authorities. Restrictions on shipping wild mushrooms and koshiabura, a species of edible flowering plant, are still enforced across wide areas of Ibaraki. Cesium testing began after the meltdowns that followed the record-breaking 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami which left 19,000 dead or missing. In our Spring 2024 Quarterly, Nukewatch reported that edible foods up to 292 miles from Fukushima were still being found highly tainted with cesium-137, which emits beta and gamma radiation and accumulates in muscle and reproductive organs.

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