Fukushima: A Global Threat

The story of Fukushima should be on the front pages of every newspaper. Instead, it is rarely mentioned. The problems at Fukushima are unprecedented in human experience and involve a high risk of radiation events larger than any that the global community has ever experienced.

When we researched the realities of Fukushima in preparation for this article, words like apocalyptic, cataclysmic, and earth-threatening came to mind. But, when we say such things, people react as if we were the little red hen screaming “the sky is falling” and the reports are ignored.

Either way, it is clear that the problems at Fukushima demand that the world’s best nuclear engineers and other experts advise and assist in the efforts to solve them. For example, Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds.org, and an international team of scientists, created a 15-point plan to address the crises at Fukushima.

There are three major problems at Fukushima: (1) Three reactor cores are missing; (2) Radiated water has been leaking from the plant in mass quantities for 2.5 years; and (3) 11,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, perhaps the most dangerous things ever created by humans, are stored at the plant and need to be removed—1,533 of those are in a dangerous position. 

(1) Missing Reactor Cores

Since the accident at Fukushima on March 11, 2011, three reactor cores have gone missing—there was an unprecedented three reactor meltdown. These melted cores, called corium lavas, are thought to have passed through the basements of reactor buildings one, two, and three, and to be somewhere in the ground underneath.

It is an unprecedented situation not to know where these cores are. TEPCO is pouring water where they think the cores are, but they are not sure. There are occasional steam eruptions coming from the grounds of the reactors, so the cores are thought to still be hot. (Harvey Wasserman, who has been working on nuclear energy issues for over 40 years, tells us that during those decades, no one ever talked about the possibility of a multiple meltdown, but that is what occurred at Fukushima.)

The concern is that the corium lavas will enter or have already entered the aquifer below the plant and that would contaminate a much larger area with radioactive elements. Some suggest that it would require the area surrounding Tokyo, 40 million people, to be evacuated. Another concern is that, if the corium lavas enter the aquifer, they could create a “super-heated pressurized steam reaction beneath a layer of caprock causing a major ‘hydrovolcanic’ explosion.”

A further concern is that a large reserve of groundwater, which is coming in contact with the corium lavas is migrating towards the ocean at the rate of four meters per month. This could release greater amounts of radiation than were released in the early days of the disaster.

(2) Radioactive Water Leaking into the Pacific

TEPCO did not admit that leaks of radioactive water were occurring until July 2013. Shunichi Tanaka the head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, finally told reporters this July that radioactive water had been leaking into the Pacific Ocean since the disaster hit over two years ago. This is the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed, according to a report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety. The Japanese government finally admitted that the situation was urgent this September—an emergency they did not acknowledge until 2.5 years after the water problem began.

How much radioactive water is leaking into the ocean? An estimated 300 tons (71,895 gallons/272,152 liters) of contaminated water is flowing into the ocean every day. The first radioactive ocean plume released by the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster will take three years to reach the shores of the United States.

One month after Fukushima, the FDA announced it was going to stop testing fish in the Pacific Ocean for radiation. But independent research is showing that every bluefin tuna tested in the waters off California has been contaminated with radiation that originated in Fukushima. Daniel Madigan, the marine ecologist who led the Stanford University study from May 2012 was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “The tuna packaged it up (the radiation) and brought it across the world’s largest ocean. We were definitely surprised to see it at all and even more surprised to see it in every one we measured.” Marine biologist Nicholas Fisher of Stony Brook University in New York, another member of the study group, said: “We found that absolutely every one of them had comparable concentrations of cesium 134 and cesium 137.”

In addition, Science reports that fish near Fukushima have high levels of the radioactive isotope, cesium-134. The levels found are not decreasing, which indicates that radiation-polluted water continues to leak into the ocean. At least 42 fish species from the area around the plant are considered unsafe. South Korea has banned Japanese fish as a result of the ongoing leaks.

The half-life of cesium 134 is 2.0652 years. For cesium 137, the half-life is 30.17 years. Cesium does not sink to the ocean floor, so fish swim through it. When contact with radioactive cesium occurs, which is highly unlikely, a person can experience cell damage due to radiation of the cesium particles. Due to this, effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding may occur. When the exposure lasts a long time, people may even lose consciousness—coma or even death may then follow. How serious the effects are depends on the resistance of individual persons, the duration of exposure, and the concentration a person is exposed to.

There is no end in sight from the leakage of radioactive water into the Pacific from Fukushima. Wasserman is questioning whether fishing in the Pacific Ocean will be safe after years of leakage from Fukushima. The World Health Organization (WHO), however, is claiming that this will have limited effect on human health, with concentrations predicted to be below WHO safety levels. Some experts seriously question WHO’s claims.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation is in the process of writing a report to assess the radiation doses and associated effects on health and environment. When finalized, it will be the most comprehensive scientific analysis of the information available to date examining how much radioactive material was released, how it was dispersed over land and water, how Fukushima compares to previous accidents, what the impact is on the environment and food and on human health.

Wasserman warns that “dilution is no solution.” The fact that the Pacific Ocean is large does not change the fact that these radioactive elements have long half-lives. Radiation in water is taken up by vegetation, then smaller fish eat the vegetation, larger fish eat the smaller fish, and at the top of the food chain we will find fish like tuna, dolphin, and whales with concentrated levels of radiation. Humans at the top of the food chain could be eating these contaminated fish.

As bad as the ongoing leakage of radioactive water is into the Pacific, that is not the largest part of the water problem. The Asia-Pacific Journal reported in October that TEPCO has 330,000 tons of water stored in 1,000 above-ground tanks and an undetermined amount in underground storage. Every day, 400 tons of water comes to the site from the mountains and 300 tons of that is the source for the contaminated water leaking into the Pacific daily. It is not clear where the rest of this water goes.

Each day, TEPCO uses 400 tons of water to inject into the destroyed facilities to keep them cool. About half is recycled and the rest goes into the above ground tanks. They are constantly building new storage tanks for this radioactive water. The tanks being used for storage were put together rapidly and are already leaking. They expect to have 800,000 tons of radioactive water stored on the site by 2016.

The most recent news on the water problem at Fukushima adds to the concerns. On October 11, 2013, TEPCO disclosed that the radioactivity level spiked 6,500 times at a Fukushima well. “TEPCO said the findings show that radioactive substances like strontium have reached the groundwater. High levels of tritium, which transfers much easier in water than strontium, had already been detected.”

(3) Spent Fuel Rods

As bad as the problems of radioactive water and missing cores were, the biggest problem at Fukushima came from the spent fuel rods. The plant has been in operation for 40 years. As a result, it is storing 11,000 spent fuel rods on the grounds of the Fukushima plant. These fuel rods are composed of highly radioactive materials such as plutonium and uranium. They are about the width of a thumb and are about 15-feet long.

The biggest and most immediate challenge is the 1,533 spent fuel rods packed tightly in a pool 4 floors above Reactor 4. Before the storm hit, those rods had been removed for routine maintenance of the reactor. But now they are stored 100 feet in the air in damaged racks. They weigh a total of 400 tons and contain the radiation equivalent of 14,000 times the amount released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The building in which these rods are stored has been damaged. TEPCO reinforced it with a steel frame, but the building itself is buckling and sagging—vulnerable to collapse if another earthquake or storm hits the area. Additionally, the ground under and around the building is becoming saturated with water, which further undermines the integrity of the structure and could cause it to tilt.

How dangerous are these fuel rods? Wasserman explains that the fuel rods are clad in zirconium, which can ignite if they lose coolant. They could also ignite or explode if rods break or hit each other. Wasserman reports that some say this could result in a fission explosion like an atomic bomb others say that is not what would happen, but agree it would be “a reaction like we have never seen before, a nuclear fire releasing incredible amounts of radiation.”

These are not the only spent fuel rods at the plant, they are just the most precarious. There are 11,000 fuel rods scattered around the plant, 6,000 in a cooling pool less than 50 meters from the sagging Reactor 4. If a fire erupts in the spent fuel pool at Reactor 4, it could ignite the rods in the cooling pool and lead to an even greater release of radiation. It could set off a chain reaction that could not be stopped.

What to Expect?

What would happen? The workers who are essential to preventing damage at the plant would leave and we will have lost a critical safeguard. In addition, the computers will not work because of the intense radiation. You might have to evacuate not only Fukushima, but the entire population in and around Tokyo.

There is no question that the 1,533 spent fuel rods need to be removed. But Arnie Gundersen, a veteran nuclear engineer and director of Fairewinds Energy Education who used to build fuel assemblies, told Reuters, “They are going to have difficulty in removing a significant number of the rods.” He described the problem in a radio interview: “If you think of a nuclear fuel rack as a pack of cigarettes, if you pull a cigarette straight up it will come out—but these racks have been distorted. Now when they go to pull the cigarette straight out, it’s going to likely break and release radioactive cesium and other gases, xenon, and krypton, into the air. I suspect come November, December, January we’re going to hear that the building’s been evacuated, they’ve broken a fuel rod, the fuel rod is off-gassing.”

It is likely they used salt water as a coolant out of desperation, which would cause corrosion because the rods were never meant to be in salt water. The condition of the rods is unknown. There is debris in the coolant, so there has been some crumbling from somewhere.

The Japan Times writes: “The consequences could be far more severe than any nuclear accident the world has ever seen. If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks, or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire. Any of these situations could lead to massive releases of deadly radionuclides into the atmosphere, putting much of Japan—including Tokyo and Yokohama—and even neighboring countries at serious risk.”

TEPCO has been saying this is routine, but, in fact, it is unique—a feat of engineering never done before. As Gundersen says: “Tokyo Electric is portraying this as easy. In a normal nuclear reactor, all of this is done with computers. Everything gets pulled perfectly vertically. Well nothing is vertical anymore, the fuel racks are distorted, it’s all going to have to be done manually. The net effect is it’s a really difficult job. It wouldn’t surprise me if they snapped some of the fuel and they can’t remove it.”

Gregory Jaczko, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concurs with Gundersen, describing the removal of the spent fuel rods as “a very significant activity, and very, very unprecedented.”

There are no clear solutions, but there are steps that need to be taken urgently. The first thing that is needed is to end the media blackout. The global public needs to be informed about the issues the world faces from Fukushima. The impacts of Fukushima could affect almost everyone on the planet, so we all have a stake in the outcome. If the public is informed about this problem, the political will to resolve it will rapidly develop.

The second thing that must be faced is the incompetence of TEPCO. They are not capable of handling this crisis. TEPCO “is already Japan’s most distrusted firm” and has been exposed as “dangerously incompetent.” A poll found that 91 percent of the Japanese public wants the government to intervene at Fukushima.

TEPCO’S management of the stricken power plant has been a constant stream of mistakes made worse by constant false denials and efforts to minimize major problems. Indeed the entire Fukushima catastrophe could have been avoided: “TEPCO at first blamed the accident on ‘an unforeseen massive tsunami’ triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Then it admitted it had, in fact, foreseen just such a scenario, but hadn’t done anything about it.”

The reality is Fukushima was plagued by human error from the outset. An official Japanese government investigation concluded that the Fukushima accident was a “man-made” disaster, caused by “collusion” between government and TEPCO and bad reactor design. On this point, TEPCO is not alone, this is an industry-wide problem. Many U.S. nuclear plants have serious problems, are being operated beyond their life span and have the same design problems and are near earthquake faults. Regulatory officials in both the U.S. and Japan are too tied to the industry.

Then the meltdown was denied for months, with TEPCO claiming it had not been confirmed. The Japan Times reports that “in December 2011, the government announced that the plant had reached ‘a state of cold shutdown.’ Normally, that means radiation releases are under control and the temperature of its nuclear fuel is consistently below boiling point.” Unfortunately, the statement was false—the reactors continue to need water to keep them cool, the fuel rods need to be kept cool—there has been no cold shutdown.

TEPCO has done a terrible job of cleaning up the plant. The Japan Times describes some of the problems: “The plant is being run on makeshift equipment and breakdowns are endemic. Among nearly a dozen serious problems since April, there have been successive power outages, leaks of highly radioactive water from underground water pools—and a rat that chewed through enough wires to short-circuit a switchboard, causing a power outage that interrupted cooling for nearly 30 hours. Later, the cooling system for a fuel-storage pool had to be switched off for safety checks when two dead rats were found in a transformer box.”

TEPCO has been cutting financial corners, resulting in shoddy practices that cause environmental damage. Washington’s Blog reports that the Japanese government is spreading radioactivity throughout Japan—and other countries—by burning radioactive waste in incinerators that can’t handle such toxic substances. Workers have expressed concerns and even apologized for following orders regarding the clean-up.

Indeed, the workers are another serious concern. In October, the Guardian reported on the plummeting morale of workers, problems of alcohol abuse, anxiety, loneliness, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and depression. TEPCO cut the pay of its workers by 20 percent in 2011 to save money, even though the workers were doing very difficult work and facing constant problems. Outside of work, many were traumatized by being forced to evacuate their homes after the Tsunami and they have no idea how exposed to radiation they have been and what health consequences they will suffer.

Contractors are hired based on the lowest bid, resulting in low wages for workers. According to the Guardian, Japan’s top nuclear regulator, Shunichi Tanaka, told reporters: “Mistakes are often linked to morale. People usually don’t make  careless mistakes when they’re motivated and working in a positive environment. The lack of it, I think, may be related to the recent problems.”

In an open letter to the United Nations, 16 top nuclear experts urged the government of Japan to transfer responsibility for the Fukushima reactor site to a worldwide engineering group overseen by a civil society panel and an international group of nuclear experts independent from TEPCO and the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA). They urge that the stabilization, clean-up, and de-commissioning of the plant be well-funded. They make this request with “urgency” because the situation at the Fukushima plant is “pro- gressively deteriorating, not stabilizing.”

Beyond the clean-up, they are also critical of the estimates by the World Health Organization and IAEA of the health and environmental damage caused by the Fukushima disaster and they recommend more accurate methods of accounting, as well as the gathering of data to ensure more accurate estimates. They also want to see the people displaced by Fukushima treated in better ways and they urge that the views of indigenous people who never wanted the uranium removed from their lands be respected in the future, as their views would have prevented this disaster.

Facing Reality

The problems at Fukushima are in large part about facing reality—seeing the challenges, risks, and potential harms from the incident. It is about TEPCO and Japan facing the reality that they are not equipped to handle the challenges of Fukushima and need the world to join the effort.

Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time of the Fukushima incident says, “I’ve never seen a movie that’s set 200 years in the future and the planet is being powered by fission reactors—that’s nobody’s vision of the future. This is not a future technology.” He sees U.S. nuclear reactors as aging, many in operation beyond their original lifespan. The economics of nuclear energy are increasingly difficult as it is a very expensive source of energy. Further, there is no money or desire to finance new nuclear plants. “The industry is going away,” he said bluntly.

Ralph Nader describes nuclear energy as “unnecessary, uneconomic, uninsurable, unevacuable and, most importantly, unsafe.” He argues it only continues to exist because the nuclear lobby pushes politicians to protect it. Wasserman points out that there are nuclear plants in the U.S. that are near earthquake faults, among them are plants near Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC. And, Fukushima was based on a design by General Electric, which was also used to build 23 reactors in the U.S.

If we faced reality, public officials would be organizing evacuation drills in those cities. If we did so, Americans would quickly learn that if there is a serious nuclear accident, U.S. cities could not be evacuated. Activists making the reasonable demand for evacuation drills may be a very good strategy to end nuclear power.

Wasserman emphasizes that as bad as Fukushima is, it is not the worst case scenario for a nuclear disaster. Fukushima was 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the center of the earthquake. If that had been 20 kilometers (12 miles), the plant would have been reduced to rubble and caused an immediate nuclear catastrophe.

As Wasserman points out, “All of our world’s energy needs could be met by solar, wind, thermal, ocean technology.” His point is repeated by many top energy experts, in fact, a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy is not only possible, it is inevitable. The only question is how long it will take for us to get there.

Naoto Kan, prime minister of Japan when the disaster began, recently told an audience that he had been a supporter of nuclear power, but after the Fukushima accident, “I changed my thinking 180 degrees, completely.” He realized that “no other accident or disaster” other than a nuclear plant disaster can “affect 50 million people…no other accident could cause such a tragedy.” He pointed out that all 54 nuclear plants in Japan have been closed and expressed confidently that “without nuclear power plants we can absolutely provide the energy to meet our demands.” In fact, since the disaster, Japan has tripled its use of solar energy to the equivalent of three nuclear plants. He believes: “If humanity really would work together…we could generate all our energy through renewable energy.”


Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers co-host Clearing the FOG on We Act Radio 1480 AM, Washington, DC and on Economic Democracy Media. They also co-direct It’s Our Economy and are organizers of PopularResistance.org. This article was first published on Truthout.