Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl—and now Fukushima. This latest and hopefully last nuclear disaster has struck the land first devastated by two U.S. atomic bombs. The six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, like all others around the planet, were deemed safe and robust. Every possible problem that might arise would be checked by the nuclear industry's vaunted "defense in depth." If the first safety system failed, there was another to back it up and yet a third should the second fail as well. The plants' reactor buildings, nestled along Japan's northeastern Pacific shoreline, were designed to survive a 7.0 earthquake, and a tall safety wall protected the plant from any tsunami.
Then on March 11, multiple explosions ripped apart massive reactor buildings, fires fueled by melting nuclear fuel rods erupted, and massive releases of radiation followed, soon to circle the world.
The Fukushima disaster actually began nearly six decades ago, when the U.S. government started its Atoms For Peace Program. To counter horrific images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, promises of atomic cars, planes, homes, and cities went out. Walt Disney Studios contributed its film Our Friend the Atom to the campaign. On Labor Day 1954, President Eisenhower waved a magic wand in Washington in a nationally televised event. The wand supposedly started a bulldozer that initiated construction of the nation's first nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.
The U.S. government heavily subsidized construction of commercial nuclear plants across the U.S. and enlisted nuclear weapons allies France and the UK to build nuclear plants too. Japan didn't get into the act until 1967, when Tokyo Electric Power Company broke ground for the first of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant. General Electric played a large role in their creation. Unit 1 started up in 1971 and by 1979 all six units were operating. Together they comprised 4.7 gigawatts of generating power, making Fukushima one of the 15 largest nuclear power plants in the world. TEPCO actually had plans to build two more reactors at Fukushima, each a 1,380 Megawatt monster. The company cancelled those plans last February, but that same month received approval to operate the 40-year-old Unit 1 for 10 more years.
Over time TEPCO grew to be a powerhouse, both literally and politically. But along the way evidence of arrogance and a poor safety record grew. For example, in 1990 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission pointed to the risk of loss of cooling at nuclear plants in "seismically very active areas" as one of the most likely risks facing nukes plants. Without continuous cooling, nuclear reactor and spent fuel will heat up and begin to melt, releasing great amounts of heat and radiation. Spent fuel is nuclear fuel that is commercially worn out, but remains very hot and very radioactive. Japan's nuclear safety agency repeated the NRC's warning, but not until 2004. According to a whistleblower who had worked as a scientist for the nuclear safety agency, TEPCO brushed off the warnings without making any safety improvements at Fukushima.
A 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Japan (released by WikiLeaks) revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency castigated Japan's nuclear industry at a meeting of the G8's Nuclear Safety and Security Group in December of that year. The IAEA charged that "safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised" by the industry "three times in the past 35 years," and that recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants and is a "serious problem."
The reactors at Fukushima sat idle from 2002-05 during an investigation into charges of TEPCO's falsifying records relating to safety systems at its nuclear plants. In 2010, TEPCO admitted many of the charges.
Anatomy of a Meltdown
On March 11, when the earthquake hit Fukushima Daiichi, units 1-3 automatically shut down. Safety systems went into effect to remove heat from the reactor buildings. Units 4-6 had already been shut down for maintenance. The earthquake took down the outside electrical power grid. Ironically, the primary cooling system depends on outside electrical power. Without it the plant went dark. Then the tsunami flooded the reactor buildings, rendering the backup "defense in depth" safety cooling systems inoperable. Without cooling power, nuclear fuel rods in the reactor and spent fuel pools began to heat up. Some were uncovered and soon began to melt.
The nuclear fuel inside the Fukushima reactors was encased in stainless steel containers called reactor vessels. Surrounding the vessels were larger structures known as containment buildings. When the reactor fuel melted, it released hydrogen gas that raised pressure inside the containment buildings beyond what they were designed to withstand. On March 12 this caused an explosion in Unit 1 that blew off the roof and the upper walls of its containment building. Fortunately, the reactor vessel remained intact. On that same day, TEPCO announced it "had lost the ability to control pressure in some reactors," Reuters reported. The article also reported that radiation levels at the plant control unit were already thousands of times above normal. In addition, Reuters reported that the IAEA stated, "20% of nuclear reactors around the world are operating in areas of significant seismic activity." The evacuation area was extended to 12 miles around the plant, affecting hundreds of thousands.
Also on March 12, the Associated Press reported that a top Japanese government official said, "a partial meltdown is likely underway." Without fresh water available to cool down the reactors and spent fuel pools, TEPCO turned to gushing seawater into the reactor buildings. This had never been tried before. The seawater certainly had cooling power, but was highly corrosive. In fact, its harmful effects played into TEPCO's subsequent decision to permanently shut down Units 1-4. The massive amounts of seawater in the buildings soon became highly radioactive. The only solution seen was to dump it in the ocean. A large leak in one unit added to this catastrophe.
In fact, the entire situation was unprecedented. The nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl each involved a single reactor, while Fukushima involved at least four. After the blast at Unit 1, the Washington Post reported that 23 reactors in the U.S. have the same design as those at Fukushima. Former NRC commissioner Victor Galensky was quoted as saying about the fate of Unit 1: "We're past worrying about it," he said. "It's gone." Two more explosions followed the first, one of them again at Unit 1. On March 15, the AP reported that a blast at Unit 2 blew a "26-foot hole in the building and damaged a vessel below the reactor, but not the nuclear core." The AP also reported a fire had broken out in Unit 4's spent fuel pool. A Japanese official told the IAEA, "radiation is being released directly into the atmosphere."
In the midst of this nuclear madness, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told reporters on Capitol Hill, "construction license applications pending at the NRC" to build new nuclear plants in the U.S. "should proceed." The Obama administration wants $3.6 billion in loan guarantees for new nuke utilities. If the utilities fail to pay back the loans, the U.S. taxpayer would pick up the tab. This is like a prepaid bailout.
Half Lives, Half Lies
Less than a week after the disaster began at Fukushima, its radioactive releases began showing up far beyond the immediate vicinity. Reuters reported on March 15 that, "radiation in Tokyo was 10 times above normal." Japan's capital is over 100 miles from Fukushima, yet NRC spokesperson David McIntyre said, "Right now it's possible that there could be some radiation floating over the U.S." That same day, according to msn.com, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan reported that low level radiation had spread from the plant along Japan's northeast coast. "The possibility of further radiation is heightening," Kan added. Just south of Fukushima, "up to hundreds of times" normal levels of radiation were found. "Please do not go outside," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told local residents. "Please close windows and make your home airtight. Do not turn on ventilators. Please hang your laundry indoors." Bloomberg news reported on March 18 that "small amounts of radiation were detected in Tokyo's water supply, along with above-limits amounts in milk and spinach." The story also reported "South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore have started screening food imports from Japan."
By the end of March, the Chinese language newspaper Sin Chew reported that low level radiation had spread to most of that nation: "The Minister of Environmental Protection said the radiation had been detected across the country's heavily populated areas." The first Fukushima radioactive plume reached the west coast of North America around St. Patrick's Day. In the San Francisco Bay Area, substances said to provide protection from radiation disappeared from store shelves with lightning speed. Potassium iodide, which provides protection from radioactive iodine, was nowhere to be found by the time the plume arrived. In the food co-op where I work, sea vegetables and miso, also said to provide protection from radiation, flew off the shelves. The March 18 Sacramento Bee reported EPA detection of Fukushima there. Subsequently more was detected in ten states. The EPA and local public health officials found radioactive iodine in 18 U.S. cities, including Denver, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Boston. San Francisco is not on this list, though a sample of rainwater from March 23 taken by nuclear engineers from a roof at UC Berkeley showed levels of radioactive Iodine 181 times above federal limits for drinking water. The arrival of the first Fukushima plume in the Bay Area coincided with a week of drenching rains. Rain is known to bring down radiation in clouds.
Around this same time, Joseph Mangano of the Radiation and Public Health Project provided more evidence of radioactive contamination on the West Coast. On March 24, Mangano released a report finding "sharply rising levels of radiation in the air in several U.S. cities. From March 16-21, radiation in air rose steadily in several cities, nearly doubling in Portland, Oregon (up 83 percent) and Seattle, Washington (68 percent)." The increase for San Francisco was 30 percent, Mangano reported.
Authorities reporting these findings took pains to assure the public that the amounts of radiation detected were inconsequential and no threat to human health. And the media by and large played along. A March 31 article in the San Francisco Chronicle used the words "extremely small," "levels barely reach limits of detection," "so low," and "traces."
When the Boston Globe reported on March 27 on radioactive iodine found in rainwater there, it left unchallenged a reassuring claim by a state public health official who stated that the radioactive chemical detected, Iodine 131, has a half life of only eight days, implying that is the only period of concern. What was left out is that the significant life of a radioactive chemical is 10 times its half life, which for I-131 is 80 days. During that period, I-131 is intensely radioactive. If it enters our bodies by contaminated water or milk, it will lodge in our thyroid glands and irradiate them, increasing the risk of thyroid cancer and other thyroid diseases. The Globe didn't report this significant fact either.
No Nukes Redux
Fortunately there are other voices. In 2005, the National Academy of Science released a study finding, "A preponderance of scientific evidence shows that even low doses of ionizing radiation are likely to pose some risk of adverse health effects." Richard Monson of the Harvard School of Public Health that chaired the committee which conducted the study said, "The scientific research shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be shown to be harmless or beneficial." Monson continued, "The health risks and particularly the development of solid cancers in organs rise proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk." And some preliminary studies have already come up with disturbing findings that highlight how much the Fukushima disaster has already increased that risk. A March 24 examination of Fukushima's radioactive releases published by New Scientist concluded, "Japan's damaged nuclear plant has been emitting radioactive iodine and cesium at levels approaching those seen in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986."
New Scientist reported, "Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of detectors to show I-131 being emitted at daily levels 73% of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of Cesiium-137 is around 60% of the amount released from Chernobyl." And a March 25 report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research stated that Fukushima had released 2.4 million curies of I-131, about 160,000 times the amount estimated released by Three Mile Island (15 curies). With the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster approaching, sobering news came from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, as reported on March 17 in New Scientist. A study of Chernobyl area children found "thyroid cancer risk for those who were children and adolescents when they were exposed to (Chernobyl) fallout has not yet begun to decline." And in a study released March 21 by Mangano of the Radiation and Public Health Project, "Concern That Japan Could Harm Americans Emerges," the epidemiologist asserted, "increased rates of disease and death could soon occur among fetuses and infants, as the radioactive plume now moving across the Pacific Ocean enters the American diet, similar to what occurred after Chernobyl. "Chernobyl fallout reached the U.S. just nine days after the meltdown, and then entered the U.S. diet. Medical journal articles show American infants and children suffered from higher rates of infant deaths, leukemia, thyroid cancer, and under-active thyroid glands. Similar studies should be conducted in the U.S. to measure effects of radiation from Japan." Mangano went on to cite the studies he referred to, reporting where and when they appeared.
The world has already been more than sufficiently warned, once again, of the dangers and risks of nuclear power by the ongoing disaster at Fukushima. The call to unite to shut down existing nuclear power plants and prevent new ones from being built is also circling the planet, from Japan to Germany, California to New England. If ever there were a time to act, it is now. This may be our final warning.
Michael Steinberg is a veteran activist, writer, and author of Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation.