There’s not much new to say about Fukushima. It remains an out of control disaster with as yet unmeasurable dimensions that continue to expand. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that everything new about Fukushima is just the same-old same-old getting worse at an uneven and unpredictable rate. Either way, it’s not good and, while it’s worse in degree, it’s not yet apparently worse in kind, so that’s one reason you don’t hear that much about it in the news these days.
Whatever the full truth is about Fukushima, it’s probably unknowable at present. And it might remain unknowable even if there was total transparency, even if there were no corporate, institutional, governmental, and other layers of secrecy protecting such enemies of the common good as profit, capital investment, and weapons development.
Secrecy and false reassurance have always been an integral part of the nuclear industry in all its manifestations. In January 2014, Tokyo Shimbun reported yet another example of nuclear opposition to honesty: theFukushima prefecture government and the government-run Fukushima Medical University signed a secrecy agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a United Nations agency that “is committed to applying the highest ethical standards in carrying out its mandate,” or so it claims. The IAEA’s press release about the agreement is bland and inoffensive. According to Shimbun, each party to the agreement has the right to designate any information as confidential, specifically mentioning data about thyroid cancer in children or other facts that might “stir up anxiety of residents.”
Here are some other elements of SNAFUkushima that might stir up anxieties of residents and non-residents alike:
RADIOACTIVE WATER is beyond control and unmeasured
Clean groundwater has been flowing into the Fukushima nuclear plant complex since before the earthquake/tsunami of March 11, 2011, led to the meltdown of three of the four reactors at Fukushima Daiichi and the cold shutdown of the two reactors at Fukushima Daini at the same site. Once clean groundwater enters the site, some portion (or perhaps all) of it is contaminated by radioactivity, primarily from the three melted down reactors.
Additional clean water is pumped into the site to keep the melted down reactors from further melting down, as well as to keep the nuclear fuel stored in fuel pools from starting to melt down. All of this water is radioactively contaminated.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Japanese government, essentially co-owners of the Fukushima complex, together with their subcontractors, have been collecting some of the radioactive water in steel tanks on site. Some, perhaps hundreds, of the 1,000-plus tanks have leaked.
Radioactive water has flowed from the Fukushima complex into the Pacific Ocean continuously since March 11, 2011. The flow rate varies, most likely, but no one knows what the rate is and there is no reliable system in place to measure the flow. There is also no reliable system in place to measure the intensity of the radiation, which also most likely varies.
TEPCO’s plan since 2013 has been to use an Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to treat the water in the holding tanks before releasing it into the Pacific. The processing system reduces the water’s radioactivity, but does not remove it all. After treatment, 62 nuclides including Strontium and Plutonium are supposed to be removed, but the water retains high levels of Tritium. As of May 2014, the ALPS treatment plan has not been implemented, has suffered several breakdowns, and is now more than six months behind schedule.
RADIOACTIVE WATER DUMPING began at Fukushima on May 21
TEPCO, in a press release, said “we have commenced operation of the groundwater bypass.” TEPCO said it was releasing 560 tons (more than 150,000 gallons) of groundwater that is within “safe” radiation levels directly into the Pacific. TEPCO hopes to divert and release 100 tons (26,900 gallons) of groundwater every day. The Shanghai Daily reported that:
TEPCO said the levels of radioactivity of the groundwater being released were within legal radiation safety limits and will follow the World Health Organizations guidelines that groundwater for such releases should contain less than 1 becquerel per liter of cesium-134 and cesium-137, 5 becquerels of beta ray-emitting radioactive material.
Groundwater flowing into the disabled reactor buildings is estimated at 400 tons (over 107,000 gallons) per day.
TEPCO and Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) consider this bypass release process less dangerous than collecting contaminated water in tanks that leak. Despite approving the start of TEPCO’s plan, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Sunichi Tanaka, has reportedly slammed TEPCO for:
incorrectly measuring levels of radioactive materials in groundwater at its Daiichi facility. Tanaka has said that even though three years has passed since the reactor meltdowns at the plant, TEPCO is still “utterly inept” when it comes to taking accurate readings of radioactivity at and around its facilities and “lacks a basic understanding of measuring and handling radiation.”
THE UNIT 4 SPENT FUEL POOL still has disaster potential
In March 2011, the unit 4 reactor didn’t melt down because all its nuclear fuel rod assemblies had been removed for re-fueling, so they were stored in the unit’s spent fuel pool. But the fuel pool was about 100 feet above the ground and the earthquake/tsunami and subsequent explosions at the Fukushima left the fuel pool’s 1535 fuel assemblies in a precarious situation in an unstable building. An accident as bad as a meltdown, or worse, hasn’t happened yet, but remains possible as long as the fuel pool holds a substantial number of fuel assemblies.
TEPCO started to remove fuel assemblies in late 2013, moving them to safer fuel pools on the ground. Removal is scheduled to be complete before the end of 2014. But TEPCO said it had removed only 9 percent of the spent fuel so far and the delicate, dangerous process continues.
[On May 20-21, the internet was rife with reports of an explosion and fire at unit 4 on May 20, a claim that was based on a less than persuasive video. As of this writing, there seems to be no credible confirmation of an explosion or fire at unit 4.]
RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATION spreads, but threat level uncertain
Reports of radioactively contaminated fish have increased during the past two years, but there is as yet no systematic testing by any government or corporate or even no-profit program that comprehensively measures the threat in any reliable manner (hardly an easy task since the fish and the water in the Pacific are in motion all the time). Anecdotal reports of Fukushima fish and other anomalies include:
• ALBECORE TUNA caught off Oregon and Washington state from 2008 to 2012 suggested a tripling of tuna-borne radiation in post-Fukushima fish, according to an April 30, 2014, report. But one researcher said that even the elevated level was only one-tenth of one per cent of the level for concern set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
• CALIFORNIA COASTAL COMMISSION issued a report April 30 that both minimized the current threat of radiation from Fukushima and also called for further research into the effects of low level radiation on humans and for reliable radiation monitoring supported by government. The report noted that the release of radiation from Fukushima continues with no end in sight. The report also said, without apparent irony, that people on the west coast were still in less danger from Fukushima radiation than from the residual radiation from nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific 50 years and more ago.
• MUTATION AND PREMATURE DEATH in butterflies caused by Fukushima levels of residual radiation was demonstrated by Japanese researchers, in a report published by Nature, as reported May 15 bySmithsonian.com. The researchers wrote: “We conclude that the risk of ingesting a polluted diet is realistic, at least for this butterfly, and likely for certain other organisms living in the polluted area.” A field study around Fukushima has shown a decrease in the population of these butterflies and other insects.
• THYROID CANCER in children from Fukushima has reached a higher than normal level. A May 19 story reported that 50 newly documented thyroid cancer cases represented about a 50% increase since February.
* DENIAL IN JAPAN surfaced in the form criticism of “Gourmets,” a food-oriented comic that included a storyline in which characters, who are culinary writers, visited the Fukushima complex and then fell ill and developed nosebleeds. According to Art Review on May 19, the food comic editor said the story “was a well-meaning attempt to highlight the fact that parts of Fukushima were dangerous, and that people were reluctant to complain themselves.” Criticism of the story was based on the fear that it would damage the Fukushima region’s people and products, food products especially. The corporate publisher, Shogakukan Inc., has suspended the comic series indefinitely. Japan Times reports on a nuclear researcher:
Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, says that from a medical point of view the connection between nosebleeds and radiation exposure can’t be entirely ruled out….
he adds: “The government is not only indifferent to taking responsibility for the accident, but determined to erase it from people’s memory.” Such irresponsibility, he insists, is “almost criminal.”
Meanwhile, municipalities including Osaka and Fukushima prefectures and the town of Futaba have lodged complaints with the publisher.
• HONESTY IN JAPAN appeared in The Asahi Shimbun May 20, with a previously suppressed, 400-page report that some 650 workers at Fukushima Daiichi fled the complex in the midst of the crisis. These 650 workers represent about 90 per cent of the workforce. Prior to this revelation, the official story, promulgated by media worldwide, had created the impression that workers at Fukushima remained on site, showing great personal courage during the crisis. Even after the official story was exposed as 90% false, TEPCO refused to criticize any of its workers.
Commenting on this story May 21, a Shimbun columnist noted that: “If the facts are hidden and treated as if they never happened, the Fukushima crisis will never be understood in its entirety, and no real lessons can be learned from the disaster.” The same day, a Japanese court ruled against re-starting two nuclear reactors at Fukui in western Japan. The court ruled that the two reactors represented a serious risk to the public in the event of an earthquake. The power company said it would appeal the ruling. The prime minister said the ruling would not change his plans to re-start all Japan’s nuclear reactors.
Who actually wants to learn any “real lessons” from Fukushima?
The struggle between lying and telling the truth about SNAFUkushima seems likely to continue for a long time, especially with the Japanese government pressing to re-start its nuclear reactors and with few countries or world organizations willing to close the curtain on the nuclear age. But truth still has a constituency. In April, Katsutagka Idogawa, former mayor of Futaba in Fukushima prefecture, spoke out against the government’s efforts to force former residents to return home despite radiation contamination:
Fukushima Prefecture has launched the Come Home campaign. … Air contamination decreased a little, but soil contamination remains the same. And there are still about two million people living in the prefecture, who have all sorts of medical issues. The authorities claim this has nothing to do with the fallout….
I remember feeling so deeply for the victims of the Chernobyl tragedy that I could barely hold back the tears whenever I heard any reports on it. And now that a similar tragedy happened in Fukushima, the biggest problem is that there is no one to help us. They say it’s safe to go back… while in reality the radiation is still there. This is killing children. They die of heart conditions, asthma, leukemia, thyroiditis… Lots of kids are extremely exhausted after school; others are simply unable to attend PE classes. But the authorities still hide the truth from us, and I don’t know why. Don’t they have children of their own?
Idogawa described his own symptoms, consistent with radiation poisoning, symptoms that persist even though he’s moved to another prefecture. He says he’s not getting treatment now and there’s no place to go for help: “The nearest hospital refused to treat me. So I’m trying to restore my health through nutrition.”
The Japanese government allowed Fukushima residents to start returning to their homes as of April 1, saying that it was safe. It was not safe. The government lied. On April 16, Asahi Shimbun reported some of thegovernment’s lies that put people at risk.
“The same thing happened with Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Idogawa said: “The authorities lied to everyone. They said it was safe. They hid the truth…. Japan has some dark history.” And so does the rest of the world.