By John LaForge
On its 8th anniversary, a brief rundown of Fukushima’s triple reactor catastrophe and the failed recovery schemes is in order.*
Fukushima caused the worst dump of radioactivity to the Pacific Ocean in history. “This event is unprecedented in its total release of radioactive contamination into the ocean” wrote Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for PBS News Hour in March 2016. Buesseler has been recording Fukushima’s Pacific Ocean contamination since it started 3/11/11. While Fukushima is often called the “2nd worst” radiation accident behind Chernobyl, Buesseler said, “More than 80% of the radioactivity from the damaged reactors ended up in the Pacific — far more than reached the ocean from Chernobyl.” Buesseler reported this radiation gusher continues. “It is incorrect to say that Fukushima is under control when levels of radioactivity in the ocean indicate ongoing leaks, caused by groundwater flowing through the site and enhanced after storms,” he wrote.
- The worst airborne radiation spill in 25 years: Like the Chernobyl disaster that spread radiation across the Northern Hemisphere, Forbes reported March 28, 2011 that the US EPA recorded Fukushima’s radioactive iodine-131 in rainwater in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts at levels above the max allowed in drinking water. The EPA’s air monitoring also found Fukushima’s radioactive iodine-131 in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, and Nevada. Nothing close to this immense, hemisphere-wide radiation dispersal had happened since Chernobyl in 1986.
- Japanese foods were tainted widely. Traces of radioactive cesium were found in popular baby formula according to Japan Today, Dec. 7, 2011. How many hundreds of thousands of babies had eaten it? The Japan Times reported April 22, 2011 that Fukushima’s iodine-131 was detected in the breast milk women living near Tokyo, 150 miles from the meltdowns. The public demanded an investigation into the impact on mothers and babies. In April 2013, Japan’s Ministry of Health reported that cesium-137 and cesium-134 found in produce and rice crackers 225 miles away from Fukushima “are high enough to cause residents to exceed the annual radiation exposure limit in just a few months, or even weeks.”
- Fukushima is the world’s worst reactor disaster by volume of fuel melted and waste in cooling pools. Major reactor meltdowns at Santa Susanna in California (1959), Windscale in England (1957), Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), or Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986), involved a single fuel inventory. Fukushima’s meltdowns involve three reactors’ full of melted and mangled fuel rods, and an additional 1,573 uranium fuel rods in damaged condition in damaged pools of cooling water. The three masses of melted fuel may never be recovered much less containerized.
- Fukushima caused the largest evacuation in the history of nuclear power: 160,000 evacuated from the zone first set at 12, and later expanded to 19 miles. (116,000 were forced to leave Chernobyl’s dead zone.) Two weeks after the start of the meltdowns, people from between 12 to 19 miles away were encouraged to “voluntarily evacuate.” The US government recommended that US citizens stay 50 miles away.
- Of the colossal volumes of radioactive debris produced by the catastrophe, the New York Times listed these on March 2017: 400 tons of contaminated cooling water produced every day since March 11, 2011; 3,519 containers holding 60,000 tons of radioactive mud or sludge; 64,700 cubic meters of discarded protective clothing; branches and logs from 220 acres of deforested land; 200,400 cubic meters of radioactive rubble; and 3.5 billion gallons [17 million cubic yards] of radioactive soil. According to Greenpeace, 11 million tons of this radioactive soil is to be being incinerated, spreading new airborne contamination. (Will the resultant contaminated soil itself be collected and incinerated.)
- This most vexing of reactor disasters has seen ever-changing estimates of the amount of radiation released. The amount released to the air was “twice as large as previous estimates by research institutions both in Japan and overseas,” according to a Feb. 2012 report by the Meteorological Research Institute. The volume and variety of radioactive waste is astounding. Greenpeace reported in December 2017 that while heavily contaminated towns like Iitate and Namie had topsoil scraped off from populated areas, the problem remained because the soil removal left “islands … which are surrounded by forested mountains, for which there is no possible decontamination.” Consequently, the cleaned-up areas “are subject to recontamination through weathering processes and the natural water and lifecycle of trees and rivers.” Because of how long cesium-137 persists in the environment, “this will be an on-going source of significant recontamination for … 300 years.”
- The failed “ice wall” made to divert groundwater away from the reactors’ foundations — smashed and cracked by the earthquake — means that hundreds of tons of water keeps pouring every day into the wreckage of reactor chambers where it is contaminated by contact with the masses of melted uranium fuel, and either rushes out to sea or is collected for filtration in the failed Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS).
- The notorious failure of the APLS, intended to partially clean up highly contaminated cooling water and groundwater, means that one-million tons of waste water now held in 1,000 giant tanks near the coast is not cleaned up at all, and must be filtered again by an as-yet-unknown method that needs to be designed and engineered from scratch. Meanwhile the tanks are vulnerable to another earth quake that could happen any time. Japan Times reported March 29, 2018, “Seven years on, radioactive water at Fukushima plant still flowing into ocean.”
*Detailed well-documented reports by Greenpeace provide some of the best background and investigative information. See:
* Reflections in Fukushima: The Fukushima Daiichi Accident, Seven Years On,” March 2018 (https://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/publication/1657/reflections-in-fukushima-the-fukushima-daiichi-accident-seven-years-on/)
* Nuclear Scars: The Lasting Legacies of Chernobyl and Fukushima,” 9 March 2016 (http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/publications/reports/climate-energy/2016/nuclear-scars/)
* Fukushima Fallout: Nuclear business makes people pay and suffer,” 16 February 2013
* “Lessons from Fukushima,” February 2012 (http://www.greenpeace.org/slovenia/Global/slovenia/Dokumenti/Lessons-from-Fukushima.pdf)