Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2016
Five years into the Fukushima-Daiichi triple reactor meltdowns and radiation disaster, officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co., its owners, have said leaks from the six-reactor complex with “at least” two trillion Becquerels of radioactivity entered the Pacific between August 2013 and May 2014. Relentless drainage of contaminated water from the site is estimated to be about 300 tons a day and has continued for 60 months. “[W]e should be carefully monitoring the oceans after what is certainly the largest accidental release of radioactive contaminants to the oceans in history,” researcher Ken Buesseler, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said Sept. 27.
However, Japan isn’t even monitoring seawater near Fukushima, according to The Ecologist. (“Japanese government and IAEA ignore radiation risks to coastal population,” Sept. 28.)
The Quarterly, in nearly every issue since the crisis began, has followed the deluge of accidents, leaks, faulty cleanup efforts, and widespread contamination of workers, citizens, food and water.* Our effort to inform our readers is in part a response to the lack of mainstream US news coverage of the disaster. It is also a reminder of the daily potential for catastrophic radiation releases in the United States stemming from the 23 Fukushima-clone GE Mark I reactors in this country.
Japanese media coverage of the catastrophe, along with analysis by independent scientists and researchers is mostly available online. We have relied on them extensively, along with several recent books, to analyse and report on Japan’s ongoing disaster response, water, soil and food contamination, cancer studies, lawsuits by US sailors, Japanese evacuees and others, and the government’s and industry’s ever-changing decommissioning and waste managment plans.
As Japan Times reported last October, “Extremely high radiation levels [inside the three destroyed reactors] and the inability to grasp the details about melted nuclear fuel make it impossible for [Tepco] to chart the course of its planned decommissioning of the reactors.”
Greenpeace to study disaster’s effect on Pacific
On February 26, Greenpeace International launched a major investigation into Fukushima’s effects on the Pacific Ocean. The gusher of radioactively contaminated water into the Pacific has continued unabated for five years.
In a press release, Greenpeace said its investigation will be conducted aboard a Japanese research vessel using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) with a sensitive gamma radiation “Spectrometer” and sediment sampler.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who headed the government when the disaster began, joined the crew of Greenpeace’s Flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, on the opening day of the study, and called for a 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 [from Tokyo and surrounds]… Instead, we should shift to safer and cheaper renewable energy with potential business opportunities for our future generations.”
In the press release, 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.”
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 … has no credible solution to the water crisis they created and is failing to prevent further contamination of the Pacific Ocean.”
Criminal charges leveled against reactor executives
Japan’s first criminal charges against executives of Tepco were filed February 29 against three former officials who are alleged to have refused to take precautionary measures that could have prevented the loss of off-site power (known as a “station blackout”) and the resulting out-of-control overheating and complete meltdown of reactor fuel in three units. The three are accused of professional negligence resulting in death and injury, specifically having ignored research and specific warnings about the inadequate height of the seawall protecting the reactors and about the improper location of emergency backup diesel generators which were destroyed by the surging tsunami.
Over 14,000 Japanese citizens filed the lawsuit which was initially dismissed and then reinstated on appeal.
Starting from scratch
Last October, then 4½ years into the unprecedented self-destruction of three reactors, Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency announced the opening of an institute to “develop” techniques to inspect and eventually decommission Fukushima’s three destroyed reactors.
Radiation levels inside the devastated reactor cores remain too high for workers to make inspections.
Because of the unprecedented complexity of the disaster, the new “Remote Technology Development Center” is starting from scratch. The daily Asahi Shimbun reported that “Experts hope…the facility will lead to a reduction in the number of failures of devices deployed.” All the robots sent inside to try and locate the melted fuel have been destroyed by the thermal heat and harsh radiation.
Naohiro Masuda, Tepco’s chief of decontamination and decommissioning, told the Associated Press Dec. 18, “This is something that’s never been experienced. A textbook doesn’t exist for something like this.”
The ultimate goal of Fukushima reactor dismantling work is to remove the melted uranium fuel rods. Researchers don’t yet know how to patch up the cracks in wrecked chambers under the failed reactor, and the new institute is tasked with inventing a first-ever technique to repair the leaking container. It needs to be made watertight, because removal of the melted fuel has to be done under water.
The planners also must invent a system of possible routes by which to remove the still-unseen melted fuel. Designers also need to develop methods to reduce the radiation doses that will inevitably be endured by workers.
Two mayors agree to host waste dump sites
After first opposing the central government’s plans, two local governments in Fukushima Prefecture have agreed to Tokyo’s proposal for permanent radioactive waste disposal. The sites, one at an existing facility in the town of Tomioka, and another at Naraha, have been chosen for disposal of “designated waste” in exchange for certain economic incentives, including the construction of an industrial park. The subsidies are reported worth about $81 million.
“Designated waste” is defined as material with between 8,000 and 100,000 Becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram. Oddly, the Japan Times called this material “low-level nuclear waste,” while the daily Asahi Shimbun called the same material “highly radioactive.”
Under the plan, the Tomioka facility, now run by a private group called Ecotech Clean Center, will be nationalized, and will then bury some 650,000 cubic meters of the designated waste. This waste, mostly incinerator ash, sewage sludge and rice straw, is a tiny fraction of the estimated 22 million cubic meters of waste that’s been collected in large black bags and stored outdoors at hundreds of sites in 11 different prefectures.
Wastes with higher levels of radiation are to be kept at temporary facilities being built near the doomed Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex. (Japan Times & Asahi Shumbun, Dec. 3, 2015)
A proposal floated a week later by the Ministry of Industry is to bury high-level radioactive waste under the seabed. Asahi Shimbun reported December 12 that an expert panel made the recommendation, saying the waste could be transported by ships.
What was unsafe yesterday called safe today
Following the start of the disaster in 2011, the permissible external radiation exposure limit was dangerously raised by the government. 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.
Robert Hunzinker reported in CounterPunch December 14 that the Physicians for Social Responsibility complained that the 20 mSv “allowable dose” means that for children there’s a 1 in 200 risk of getting cancer; and over two years the risk increases to 1 in 100.
Cesium found in 5% of Korean and Russian seafood
An analysis of 150 samples of fish, kelp and sea mustard sold in discount stores in South Korea found cesium-137 in eight, or 5.3%. The highest rates of contaminated fish in the survey were Russian cod (13%) and Russian pollock (11.5%). In December, South Koreans with the Citizen’s Radiation Monitoring Center called for a halt to imports of Japanese seafood.
Sea wall making matters worse
In October Tepco completed a long seawall dug into the shore between the ocean and the damaged reactor buildings. Intended to halt the flow of contaminated groundwater to the Pacific, the dam has cause groundwater levels to rise. Tepco had planned to dump less contaminated groundwater from newly dug wells into the sea, but has found the water to be so heavily poisoned with tritium that sea dumping was not allowed. Now the company is dumping the fast rising groundwater into highly contaminated reactor buildings—where the water is expected to become severely contaminated by coming into contact with the mass of hot melted uranium fuel inside. (Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 26, 2015)
2 more reactors set for restart
The Fukui District Court in western Japan has ruled that the Takahama reactor 3 and 4 may be allowed to restart, in spite of legal efforts by local residents who argued that an earthquake larger than the reactors’ defenses were built for could devastate the region much like the Great East Japan Earthquake that wrecked Fukushima. The reactors were to go back on line in late January 2016.
Singapore, European Union to weaken food import rules
The government of Singapore is set to follow the European Union (EU) in weakening food and farm product import rules that had been imposed following the start of the Fukushima disaster, which sent plumes of radioactive contamination broadly across farm land and into the Pacific Ocean.
The EU had required all Fukushima food to arrive with radiation inspection certificates. The EU still restricts rice, mushrooms and some seafood items. Kyodo News reported that after Japanese diplomatic efforts 14 countries have ended their import restrictions, but several dozen others have kept them in place.
*A hard copy compilation of Nukewatch Quarterly reports on Fukushima is available for $10.