Surendra’s chilling update on the continuous radiation poisoning of the entire globe.
In approaching the sixth anniversary of the March 11, 2011 Fukushima catastrophe, February saw a bevy of updates appearing on the internet. As well as including a few general, timeless messages in this article, I have tried to highlight the implications of the latest news.
The flow of false information, from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and Japanese central and prefectural governments, about the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex, continues unabated. It aptly matches the flow of local groundwater as it gathers radioactive contamination on its journey from the mountains, via the Dai-ichi reactors, to the Pacific Ocean. Yes, the Pacific is still being contaminated on a daily basis while the prefectural government has surprisingly managed to kick-start the local fishing industry. Yet we should not fix our gaze on Japan as the only culprit in the cover-up.
The whole world is participating in the downplay of this disaster and the dangers of nuclear power in general. The multinational conglomerates involved in the nuclear industry are desperate to survive and world banks are already heavily invested in them. Inseparable from the financial situation is the rapid expansion of nuclear weapons production. Fuelled by the infantile ambitions of politicians for military power, this is a deadly version of the toddler’s, ‘I want to be bigger than you’, syndrome. We have to remember that without nuclear reactors there can be no nuclear weapons.
Storage tanks for contaminated cooling water, Fukushima Dai-ichi.
The problem with identifying damage caused by nuclear pollution is that it is odorless and colourless. Low doses take time, two to ninety years, to wreak havoc on living organisms and leave no obvious trace of their source. Doctors and scientists are now prohibited in Japan from linking sickness to radiation. In the few official studies being conducted, data is already being distorted to minimise the impact. Contaminated construction materials and produce from Fukushima are being distributed as widely as possible throughout the Japanese archipelago. Given these facts, it is difficult to assess the impact of the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns on the health of the Japanese population. We can just be certain that there is a negative one and it is ongoing.
Instead, we do have some other facts and hypotheses to consider. Organised largely by the Japanese mafia, or yakusa, roughly 6,000 workers are employed every day in maintaining safety and rudimentary clean-up at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Half of these personnel are either involved in spraying cooling water over the damaged plants to prevent them from over-heating, or collecting as much of the contaminated run-off as possible. In addition to pollution from groundwater, some of this cooling water inevitably ends up in the Pacific. The cooling water that does get collected continues to be stored in a burgeoning mass of huge, makeshift tanks that leak from time to time.
Little mention has been given of another hazard – the spent fuel rods removed from the reactors before the disaster. Apparently, some of these are still lying in open pools without much radiological protection and present additional dangers. Costly and treacherous, this has been the state of affairs for more than five years, in the face of false assurances from officials that everything is under control. Very recent data, however, is mind-blowing.
There are four defunct reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site. So far, the highly dangerous nuclear fuel has been removed from Reactor 4. As for Reactors 1, 2 and 3, nobody knows where their fuel is because their cores melted. It is assumed that the incendiary radioactive fuel burrowed through the bases of the concrete containment vessels into the soil below. Here it comes into contact with the groundwater and contaminates the local water table delivering radiation into surrounding rivers and the Pacific.
Irid Toshiba robot.
Japan is a world leader in robotics. Small robots, about the length of one or two school rulers, fitted with cameras and Geiger counters have been sent towards the heart of the damaged reactors to search for information on the whereabouts of the melted cores. They have all dropped dead before completing their missions as the levels of radiation were too intense even for machines. The last attempt in February did, however, retrieve information leading to an estimated radiation level of 650 sieverts per hour as it got closer to the centre of Reactor 2. It could be as much as 1,000 sieverts per hour at the centre itself. These levels would kill a human being, with or without protective clothing, within minutes.
The purpose of these robotic surveys was to help plan for decommissioning. While TEPCO prepares for its next foray, the true consequence of these astronomical figures has not been clearly broadcast. The fact is that unless unimaginable technical advances are made in protection from radiation, decommissioning can never happen in the foreseeable future. Neither humans nor machines will be able to get anywhere near the lethal centres of Reactors 1, 2 and 3 to even begin the process. Even if it were feasible, the estimated cost of decommissioning continues to grow and is currently half a trillion dollars. That is a lot of zeros: $500,000,000,000.
As Dr Helen Caldicott puts it in The Fukushima meltdown continues unabated, Independent Australia, February 13, 2017: “Bottom line, these reactors will never be cleaned up nor decommissioned because such a task is not humanly possible. Hence, they will continue to pour water into the Pacific for the rest of time and threaten Japan and the northern hemisphere with massive releases of radiation should there be another large earthquake.”
So, we are left with the likes of three undetonated atomic bombs sitting, or continuing to burrow, somewhere under the Fukushima Dai-ichi site, 300 kilometres from central Tokyo. Another earthquake in the vicinity could cause underground explosions and spew fresh plumes of radiation high into the atmosphere, as occurred in March 2011. It would also cause a fresh wave of additional contamination to the local area. In spite of this possibility, former evacuees are now being coerced into returning to their homes by the likely termination of displacement subsidies, of around $10,000 per year per person, by 2018. Although officials proclaim it is now safe for former residents to return to most areas, only ten per cent have volunteered to do so. In some designated ‘safe’ areas radiation levels are said to be the equivalent of having one chest x-ray every week for the rest of their lives.
In the danger zone, about fifteen centimetres of contaminated topsoil has been removed but only from around homes and the roadsides. The collected, contaminated soil sits in local fields in collections of large, black, plastic bags which are neither safe nor sightly and are yet to be disposed of. The rest of the land, including fields and forests, remains untouched. According to Greenpeace, in these untreated areas, radiation levels match those within the still uninhabited Chernobyl exclusion zone. Were former residents to return, not only would their movement be restricted to narrow strips, weathering is leeching contamination from the uncleaned parts back onto clean ground.
Contaminated topsoil gathers in plastic bags at many sites in Fukushima prefecture.
Even the original evacuation programme has been called fraudulent by some. Most of the paperwork detailing the process has mysteriously disappeared but it is known that there were serious mistakes. For instance, some evacuees were moved to rest centres more dangerous than their own homes because organisers had failed to pay attention to the direction of prevailing winds. This, in spite of warnings from international teams monitoring the situation from outside Japan.
TEPCO is already reneging on approved compensation payments to disrupted local businesses and the government refuses to intervene. Instead, the central and local governments are busy ‘normalising’ the effects of the disaster. Local officials have even been accused of exposing children to health risks for propaganda purposes by encouraging sporting events for them in polluted areas. Getting Fukushima food production and prices back to their former glory with national and international acceptance of contaminated produce is also a major priority. The Tokyo Olympics is coming soon, in 2020. Athletes will be offered training facilities in Fukushima and its produce will be fed to crowds of participants and visitors to the games.
More than fifty nuclear plants remain shut down in Japan. On average, one power station employs 700 people. None of these employees have been suspended. Wages are still being paid in full and probably cost around a billion dollars per year in total with nothing to show for it, as no power is being generated. The banks funding these payouts with loans are eager to see returns on their investments. This is another source of pressure on the government, in addition to the utility companies themselves, led by TEPCO, to see the closed power stations up and running again. Public suspicions still run high and the normalisation of the Fukushima disaster is hoped to allay their persistent fears.
From Hanford to Sellafield and beyond, the nuclear industry has never bothered to clean up its own mess. The recent, costly containment of the crumbling sarcophagus at Chernobyl was paid for by contributions from many nations and organisations, not by the, now non-existent, original power utility. Sellafield nuclear waste disposal site in Cumbria, UK, since the nineteen fifties, has been home to several ageing, ‘temporary’, cooling ponds whose contents are not entirely known, even to the managers at the site. France generates around three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power but despite decades of activity it is no nearer a solution for the accumulating waste.
The horrendous waste produced by all nuclear plants has yet to be stored safely anywhere in the world. Deep underground storage is proposed for hundreds of thousands of years but no country has ever built it yet. When the cost of producing electricity from nuclear power is compared with generation by renewables, the figures are usually made to come out slightly in favour of nuclear production but this is misleading. If we factor in waste disposal, let alone accident damage, then nuclear power is financially inconceivable. (See: Mark Brierly, The cost of decommissioning a nuclear power station. Conveniently ignored. New Statesman, 9 September 2013)
Cooling pond at Sellafield
Finally, the United Nations is beginning a debate this March on making all nuclear weapons illegal. Although long overdue, as these weapons have been around for more than seventy years, the start of discussions could be a nod in the right direction. Apparently, as has been the case with landmines, even banks can get jittery about investing in ventures once they are designated illegal.
As of this year, more than three hundred new nuclear reactors have been proposed and over sixty are currently under construction in fifteen different countries. However, costs continue to soar as the prices of materials and technology inflate and increasingly stringent safety standards add to the bills. In June 2016 Toshiba, having merged with the American giant, Westinghouse, announced its goal to win orders for forty-five, or more, nuclear reactors overseas by 2030. Earlier this year, just seven months later, the company declared it would not take any new construction orders for nuclear reactors. It would focus instead on maintenance and decommissioning operations. Toshiba incurred severe losses through its takeover of Westinghouse. To compensate, it has already had to sell its medical equipment leasing unit to Canon and put its lucrative memory chip business up for bids. Although the Fukushima disaster will never go away, in the end, the death of the nuclear industry might be all about money and lack of investment.
“The sooner the government and industry realize there is no future for nuclear power either domestically or in exports, the sooner they can concentrate on the energy technology of the future — renewables.”
Shaun Burnie, Greenpeace, quoted by Eric Johnston, Toshiba’s woes weigh heavily on government’s ambition to sell Japan’s nuclear technology. The Japan Times, February 15, 2017