Fukushima: Meltdown on the Ring of Fire
- The following article was published in the Spring, 2013, edition of GREEN HORIZON, a quarterly put out by several members of the US Green Party. The article was written at the beginning of the year and scheduled for publication in April, but due to delays at the printer, has only just been mailed.
As I indicate at the end, I will be glad to send a complete list of sources for the article to anyone who wishes.
The website of Green Horizon is at http://www.green-horizon.org/.%c2%a0 I urge you to check it out!
Fukushima: Meltdown on the Ring of Fire
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. Japan Standard Time, the strongest earthquake known to have hit that nation struck. The magnitude 9.03 Tohoku earthquake, with an epicenter approximately 43 miles off the northeast coast of the main island of Honshu and 20 miles down, was one of the five most powerful in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. As the Pacific Plate dug underneath the neighboring Okhotstk Plate, the quake displaced portions of the main island of Honshu as much as 2.4 meters, moving it closer to North America, and shifting the Earth's mass ever so slightly, thereby changing its tilt, its spin and its wobble, and thus shortening the day by a small but measurable 1.8 microseconds.
The earthquake generated a tsunami which spread out across the Pacific, causing widespread damage, but nowhere more so than in Japan itself, which lost twenty thousand human beings in the combined earthquake and tsunami, mostly by drowning. Tsunamis often do not arrive as one single wave, though, but as a series of waves, increasingly high. The first one did not overtop the protective wall at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, designed to withstand waves of 5.7 meters in height, but the second one did. The wave that crashed the plant was reportedly 15 meters high. Tsunamis damaged reactors at Fukushima Ni as well and the waves threw a storage tank across the road to Fukushima Daiichi, making it impossible to bring water by truck to cool the reactors.
It was the earthquake itself, though, which caused the most damage to Fukushima Daiichi. Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), owner of the power station, tried to conceal this from the public, fearing that it would become obvious that the reactors it owns cannot sustain earthquake damage and continue to operate. Geologists had warned of a previous disaster, the Jogan Sanriki earthquake and tsunami which devastated the Fukushima region in 869. The reactors at Fukushima were built between 1967 and 1973, and as critics point out, the pipes in reactors throughout the industry become brittle with age due to intense radiation. Anti-nuclear activists have long contended that both Japanese and American regulatory agencies have failed adequately to address geological and other hazards when licensing nuclear plants, but TEPCO lobbied to hide the risks, and from the beginning of nuclear power in Japan, government officials colluded in the deception, and smoothed over
regulatory concerns about the industry. Their complicity and lax oversight was rewarded with lucrative employment in the company when they retired from Japan's regulatory agency, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency. Japanese routinely call the relationship between government and industry a "nuclear village," implying that pro-nuclear advocates throughout society, especially in the utilities, big business, the government bureaucracy, the Diet (Parliament), the media and academia, had a common agenda to promote nuclear power, not to regulate it.
Immediately after the disaster, the wind blew towards the east, taking radiation from the reactors out to sea, but on the afternoon of 14 March the winds swung around towards shore, spreading radioactive particles over much of the country, including Tokyo. On 12 April, the Japanese government raised the radiation severity level to '7', the same as the Chernobyl catastrophe.
As TEPCO shirked responsibility and shifted blame for the disaster, Fukushima released in the first week of the meltdown more radioactive cesium than Chernobyl in 1986 and all nuclear weapons detonated during testing combined. The latest analysis indicates that xenon-133 also began to vent from Fukushima Daiichi immediately after the quake, but before the tsunami, suggesting to experts that even without the devastating flood, the earthquake alone was sufficient to damage the plant. The Japanese government acknowledged that the shaking at Fukushima Daiichi exceeded the plant's design specifications.
Last January, the Japanese government also admitted that in the days following the disaster it had feared an evacuation of up to 250 kilometers from the plant, including central Tokyo, would be necessary. It had discussed evacuation protocols similar to the Chernobyl disaster, but crucial information about radiation dangers was mishandled. At that time the chief of the Japan Energy Commission, Dr. Shunsuke Kondo, had argued that with no workers to control the situation, the cooling systems at reactors 1, 2 and 3 would be lost and the spent-fuel pool in reactor 4 would collapse as the rods melted through its concrete walls. In July, 2011, TEPCO confirmed that the 100 ton fuel cores of Units 1, 2 and 3 melted through the containment and fell into the basements of the reactor buildings. It is most likely that the radioactive cores went through the concrete basements and entered the soil and water tables.
Scientists, activists, and the public have been frustrated with the Japanese government‘s mishandling of the crisis, continuing collusion with the industry, and backtracking on commitments to phase out nuclear power. In October, TEPCO admitted that the accident was caused by overly optimistic risk assessments, a longstanding resistance to international safety standards, and the typical institution tendency to cut costs by cutting corners which jeopardized safety. Whether this confession, and the creation of a new nuclear watchdog agency (the Nuclear Regulatory Authority) headed by an acknowledged member of the "nuclear village" will lessen the power of the nuclear power lobby remains to be seen. The government has proved adept at blurring responsibility and accountability for regulating an influential and aggressive industry.
Reactor Number Four and the "Spent" Fuel Pools of Fukushima
One of the most appalling of all problems of nuclear power is what to do with the waste, the "spent fuel rods," which are the most radioactive of any material in the "nuclear cycle." The industry has yet to find a place permanently to bury this waste, or a procedure to ensure that it will remain isolated for the millions of years it poses a danger to living organisms. Here in the United States, a permanent dump planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada was opposed by a powerful politician, Senator Harry Reed, and the plan was abandoned.
At Fukushima, there are thousands of the spent fuel rods. As in many other nuclear facilities, they are housed in "pools," located above the reactors a hundred feet from the ground. At Reactor Four, there are 1331 used (radiated) fuel assemblies (consisting of 50-70 fuel rods each) and 204 unradiated fuel assemblies. Each assembly weighs about half a ton and contains plutonium, the most deadly substance on Earth, which is produced in nuclear reactors. If the fuel rods are not continually covered with water and the zirconium cladding on them burns, around ten times the amount of cesium released at Chernobyl will escape, and that's only one of many dangerous radioactive elements, such as plutonium, in the rods. "I'm sure there's a lot of damaged nuclear fuel in Fukushima spent fuel pools--the tubes are cracked--maybe completely severed," says Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with decades of experience in the industry. The spent fuel is so
highly radioactive that not only will it kill workers who attempt to handle it, but it is impossible to manipulate with robots. At Chernobyl, intense radiation interfered with electronic circuitry, making remote controlled equipment inoperable.
Engineers predict that the building which houses the Reactor Number 4 fuel pool will collapse in the event of a magnitude 7 earthquake. Since Japan is still experiencing aftershocks from the 2011 event, this is not unlikely. Scientists predict chances of major earthquake in the next four years at around 75%, some scientists think the likelihood in the next three years is more than 90%. Earthquakes of magnitude 6 and higher have already occurred in the area.
Gundersen worries TEPCO will not get such a building erected until the beginning of 2014 at the earliest. So, he says, "We all gotta pray... that the [present structure] holds intact." The situation is deemed so ominous that Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon appealed in April, 2012, to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for international assistance to Japan to prevent an international catastrophe that would dwarf Chernobyl. As this article goes to press, the international community has yet to stabilize the fuel pools at Reactor Number Four, and according to experts, cleaning up Fukushima is beyond current technology. The Japanese are planning to rid themselves of the waste, estimated to fill 33 stadia, by incinerating it and dumping the ash into Tokyo Bay. This procedure will not lessen the radioactivity in the ash.
Knowledgeable observers such as former UN diplomat Akio Matsumura envision disaster if the fuel pools spill onto the ground. He says it will force Tokyo and Yokohama to close, creating a gigantic evacuation zone. "All the scientists I have talked with say that if the structure collapses, we will be in a situation well beyond where science has ever gone. The destiny of Japan will be changed and the disaster will certainly compromise the security of neighboring countries and the rest of the world..." Matsumura warns.
International Response to the Fukushima Disaster
Public opposition to nuclear power increased in the wake of the disaster at Fukushima. Throughout much of Europe and Asia, plans for new plants have been scaled back or scrapped.
But not so in the United States. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission--like everyone else--saw the disaster unfold in Japan, but the collusion of industry and government regulators still continued, as it did there also. The lone voice of reason on the NRC, Chairman Gregory Jaczko, was harshly criticized by his fellow commissioners. Jaczko publicly advised the NRC to examine the causes of the Fukushima disaster to learn from them, but the backlash within the NRC and the nuclear power industry to his concerns was so great that he finally resigned last May.
Jaczko had been against the waste dump at Yucca Mountain; Senator Reid says he was the first NRC chairman who had never been a part of the nuclear industry. Another of the commissioners, however, Bill Magwood, ran a consulting firm before he was on the NRC. The client of that firm was Tokyo Electric and dozens of environmental groups had opposed his appointment to the agency. Reid calls Magwood, "a consummate liar and... a tool of the nuclear industry." Magwood led the cabal that unseated Jaczko.
Nonetheless, nine states have banned construction of new nuclear power plants until the issue of waste is resolved, but according to Gundersen, the NRC is not making the US nuclear power industry learn from the lessons of Fukushima. He points out that the NRC assumes that design measures to correct these problems have a zero probability of failure, plainly an erroneous assumption. No changes have been made to the cooling of the fuel pools in reactors the NRC is licensing now, in spite of the Commission's having urged the industry to do so. Problems easy for the layman to foresee, such as rubble from the explosion of one reactor affecting the cooling systems of nearby reactors, are completely ignored by regulators.
Governments worldwide have been covering up "incidents" at nuclear plants for fifty years to protect the industry, which in the US is insured by the taxpayer under the Price-Anderson Act. Gundersen charges that the NRC has refused to look at reports by independent experts pointing out potential problems. "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission uses something called 'risk-informed decision-making,'" he says. "Fukushima shows this is wrong. They are using improper probabilities that are ... too low, so that they... rationalize decisions that really put the risk on [the public] and minimize the costs to the people that are building these reactors... What's the rush at the NRC? ...America doesn't need the power... It doesn't make sense except for the political pressure that's being applied."
In February, 2012, the NRC approved construction of two reactors in Georgia after a moratorium of nearly thirty years following the Chernobyl disaster.
Now and for millennia to come, Fukushima will emit dangerous radiation into the soil, atmosphere and ocean. France's Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute has called the disaster, "The largest release of artificial radionuclides into the marine environment ever observed." Yet in April 2011, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a secret agreement with the Japanese government to continue to buy fish from Japan. Experts like marine chemist Ken Buesseler want a ban on fishing in Fukushima-impacted waters. Groundwater from Fukushima is flowing into rivers and thence into Tokyo Bay and the ocean, and freshwater fish in Japan and saltwater fish in the Pacific now test positive for radiation from Fukushima; the levels have not declined since March 2011, but the US government stopped monitoring radiation levels on the West Coast in late April 2011, claiming its equipment didn't work. Before the EPA stopped testing, radioactive iodine, cesium,
and uranium were measured in the US at hundreds of times their legal limit, which is already unconscionably high. Radiation many times the limits set by the EPA has been detected in water and fish, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and beef. After years of decline, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have seen a 35% rise in infant mortality rates, thought to be due to atmospheric radioactivity from Fukushima.
The Fukushima disaster has many components, but two stand out: the predatory nature of the capitalist system which demands profit at all cost, and the corollary which is its corruption of government. As in Europe, US Greens must continue to oppose the nuclear power industry.
Sources for this Article included Robert Alvarez, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Dr. Helen Caldicott, Robert Duffy, Arnie Gundersen, David Lochbaum, Joseph Mangano, Grigori Medvedev, Iori Mochizuki, Tim Shorrock, Washington's Blog, and Harvey Wasserman among others. In Washington, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Congressmen Edward Markey and Ron Wyden are enlightened on this issue. The Asia-Pacific Journal, Beyond Nuclear, ENEnews, the Green Party, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service are also trustworthy sources in this field which is rotten to the core with industry and government disinformation. Email me at bluesapphire48@... for a complete list of sources.
Romi Elnagar's interests include geology, and fiction writing. Her history degree from UC Davis focused on colonialism in the Third World. She lives in Louisiana with her husband, a research chemist.
Photos: Spent Fuel Pool, Reactor Number 4, Fukushima
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