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After the 2011 magnitude 8.9 earthquake and resultant tsunami, the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in North East Japan has suffered core meltdowns, leaked thousands of tons of radioactive water into the ground water of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, and a series of other calamities. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) responsible for the plant has appeared incompetent, secretive and unfit to manage the most complex clean-up operation in the history of nuclear power.
TEPCO are about to engage in the removal of highly radioactive, unstable fuel rods (November 2013). If they make a mistake, we would witness the worst radiological disaster in history. The advice of Nuclear expert Arnie Gunderson in the case of such a mistake? Evacuate the Northern Hemisphere.
[Comment from Pamela: North American readers, that means the entire USA as well as other regions. Can you begin to comprehend the serious nature of this disaster?]
What’s Been Happening at Fukushima?
The boiling water nuclear reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant were not designed or planned by TEPCO. The world’s third largest corporation, American firm GE, designed the four main reactors, which stand at the Pacific Ocean side of the site.
A legal case in the 70’s revealed that GE knew these reactor designs were flawed and the reactors prone to explode due to insufficiently robust ‘pressure containment systems’ – meaning that in the case of a build-up of gas or other pressure, the containment system was not strong enough to hold in the radioactive contents. GE continued to sell them across the world anyway.
Not only this, but in the case of Fukushima, they designed the cooling pumps and reactors far too close to the Ocean, given the likelihood of seismic events, making the probability and impact of unsustainable pressure build-ups all the higher.
On March 11th 2011, the worst happened.
There are six reactors at the plant. Four in a row by the sea, and two slightly further back and higher. On March 11th, Reactor 4 had been defueled for planned maintenance, meaning the fuel was not in the containment area, but in the fuel pool. Reactors 5 and 6 were in cold shutdown for planned maintenance. Reactors 1- 3 were in normal operation.
When the quake hit, emergency protocols were implemented and 1-3 shut down and emergency generators kicked in to maintain the cooling systems. However, 50 minutes later, the tsunami hit.
A 13m wall of water crashed over the 10m high sea wall quickly the engulfing and crippling the low lying electricity generators, their diesel back-up and the cooling pumps themselves, all of which lay on the low land, right behind the sea wall, between the ocean and the reactors. This knocked out the power to the control room too.
Between March 12th and 15th, as the reactors overheated and gases built up to dangerous levels, all four reactors suffered hydrogen-air explosions, which resulted in their outer casing being blown off, exposing their spent fuel pools to the elements.
If the fuel pools empty of water, there is nothing to keep the fuel rods cool and they will heat up, become unstable and ultimately explode, releasing their radioactive payload immediately into the atmosphere.
There have been a number of legacy issues that TEPCO have been attempting to deal with ever since. TEPCO’s clean-up is estimated to take 40 years and cost £62bn. This however is just the latest estimate – earlier this year, the figures were 30 years and £50bn. Worse, it is still the best case scenario. The Japanese government has just admitted to the 160,000 evacuees of the 12 mile exclusion zone that they will likely never return home.
Contaminating Groundwater and the Pacific Ocean
The disaster in March 2011 pumped 733,000 Curies of radioactive cesium into the Pacific, the largest discharge of radioactive material into the ocean in history. Fifteen months later, 56% of all fish catches off Japan were contaminated. Since then, matters have steadily worsened.
Prior to the disaster of 2011, the basements of the reactors were kept free of groundwater (which would otherwise flood them daily) by evacuation pumps. When power was cut off during the tsunami, these pumps were lost.
So, ever since, groundwater runs down from the higher land behind the reactors, through the basements and contaminated groundwater around the tanks, and this newly highly contaminated water, then runs straight into the Pacific Ocean.
In efforts to refill the fuel pools and cool the plant, TEPCO workers poured thousands of tonnes of water onto the reactors. This water then became radioactive and needed to be stored until it was decontaminated. TEPCO now has 1,000 tanks and other containers, holding 370,000 tonnes of highly contaminated water on site.
Around a third of these tanks are easy-to-assemble light steel, with rubber-sponge seals tightened with bolts. Workers have reported some have no lids and are simply covered with masking tape.
“We were in an emergency and just had to build as many tanks as quickly as possible, and their quality is at bare minimum,” said Teruaki Kobayashi, an official in charge of facility control for the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Unsurprisingly, these tanks have been leaking – with 9 publicised leakages this year alone, contaminating the groundwater of the area.
Initially, TEPCO said that the groundwater radiation levels as a result were 100 millisieverts/hr (within safe levels). However, they were later forced to concede that the gauges they were using were not sufficient to provide a true reading. When proper equipment was used, radioactivity levels in the groundwater were found to be 18 times higher than TEPCO had stated – at 2,200msv/hr.
“1,000 mSv (1 sievert) in a short-term dose is about the threshold for causing immediate radiation sickness in a person of average physical attributes, but would be unlikely to cause death. Above 1000 mSv, severity of illness increases with dose.
“If doses greater than 1000 mSv occur over a long period they are unlikely to have health effects, but they may create some risk that cancer will develop many years later.”
Strontium-90 (a radioactive by product that is easily absorbed by the human body and causes bone cancer) has been found at 70 times higher than legal limits.
The tanks continue to leak.
Beaches surrounding the area have been closed and all fishing has stopped in this former fishing region. But concerns are that the contamination is being carried well beyond the exclusion zone, making it into the drinking water and food being consumed in Japan by rain water.
The biggest crisis at Fukushima though are the impacts of three meltdowns in reactors 1-3, and the fate of the fuel pools. After prolonged exposure the fuel rods melt, forming a boiling pool of radioactive fuel at the bottom of the vessel containing the reactor. Reactors 1, 3 and 4 are believed to be at this stage.
However, it is clear that reactor 2 suffered a breach of containment at its core. In fact, TEPCO still have no idea where the cores of the four reactors are. In the worst case scenario, the cores will continue to melt through all material below them until they reach the groundwater, where heat and steam will build until an explosion occurs, releasing the entire nuclear payload of the four stations into the atmosphere.
Without a steady coolant supply, the reactor cores boiled off the water around them, exposing the fuel rods – leaving them damaged and unstable. In the case of reactor 4, this was of an increased seriousness as the fuel pools were exposed to the elements, 18m in the air on a buckled and tilting structure.
Inside this fuel pool is 400 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel. The radioactive fuel rods are inserted into assemblies of 60-70 rods each. TEPCO need to remove more than 1,500 assemblies from the pool before it collapses.
The company have issued placatory statements on the matter, telling the Guardian:
“Removing spent fuel is done at any ordinary nuclear power plant, and the equipment and methods we’ll be using here are not that different.”
This statement is disingenuous in the extreme. Nuclear and fuel rod expert Arnie Gunderson uses an excellent metaphor to explain the issues.
“Now nuclear fuel is like cigarettes in a pack of cigarettes. If the pack is new, you can pull a cigarette out pretty easily. But if the pack is distorted and you pull too hard, you’ll snap the cigarette. Same thing can happen inside this fuel pool.”
Removing the rods from the pool is a delicate task normally assisted by computers according to Toshio Kimura, a former TEPCO technician, who worked at Fukushima Daiichi for 11 years.
“Previously it was a computer-controlled process that memorized the exact locations of the rods down to the millimeter and now they don’t have that. It has to be done manually so there is a high risk that they will drop and break one of the fuel rods,” Kimura said.
These spent fuel rods contain Plutonium, the most toxic material on earth – trace amounts of which can kill a human being.
“Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date,”, releasing three times the radioactive material of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, or 14,000 Hiroshimas.”
This piece of work starts this month. (November 2013)
If TEPCO, who have so far proven vastly incompetent, somehow manages to pull off this unprecedented activity without creating a nuclear holocaust, they still have to perform the same effort with reactors 1 and 2, which will be much more complex due to even greater damage to the buildings.
This is a Nightmare
It’s time for us to start focusing on what’s happening in Fukushima. It may seem a faraway matter, on a distant continent – but disaster at Fukushima could mean disaster for us all. If any of the reactors fully dispatch their toxic contents into the atmosphere, it is the end of Japan – and a global catastrophe.
The impacts are already being felt.
An average of 1.7 people per 100,000 in the general population between the ages of 15 and 19 contracted Thyroid cancer in 2007. This year, 12 per 100,000 people younger than 18 at the time of the disaster in Fukushima were diagnosed with the disease.
“The precise value of the abandoned cities, towns, agricultural lands, businesses, homes and property located within the roughly 310 sq miles (800 sq km) of the exclusion zones has not been established. Estimates of the total economic loss range from $250[iv]-$500[v] billion US.
“As for the human costs, in September 2012 Fukushima officials stated that 159,128 people had been evicted from the exclusion zones, losing their homes and virtually all their possessions. Most have received only a small compensation to cover their costs of living as evacuees. Many are forced to make mortgage payments on the homes they left inside the exclusion zones. They have not been told that their homes will never again be habitable.”
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