The calamity at Fukushima keeps ratcheting up.
Following the announcement that plutonium has been found in soil close to the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors, Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister announces that the country is on “maximum alert.”
The Guardian in UK reports that a former GE engineer, Richard Lahey, who helped install the GE boiling-water reactors in use at Fukushima, says he believes a meltdown is underway at reactor no.2. Will either the Japanese government or TEPCO agree? Don’t hold your breath. Please note: It took the nuclear industry four years to admit that there had been a partial meltdown at the Three-Mile-Island plant.
Meanwhile TEPCO announces it’s seeking the “advice” of the huge, French-state-owned company, AREVA. And the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is due to visit Tokyo. High stakes appear to be getting a lot higher.
During the last several weeks, the world has watched the extraordinary response of the Japanese people to the one-two-three punch of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. The immense courage and resilience of hundreds of thousands huddled in relocation centers, often without heat or water, has been magnificent.
Watching the scenes of the refugees hunkered down in their tiny cubicles of cardboard with neatly folded blankets in schools and gyms, of others doggedly digging for mementos through mountains of mud-encased debris or seeking warmth from an impromptu bonfire of wooden sandals (donated by Buddhist monks), one is filled with admiration.
Unfortunately, the actions and words of TEPCO, the Japanese utility that owns the stricken plants, have not been so praiseworthy.
Albeit this is a remarkably complex and challenging situation, but TEPCO’s continued re-iteration of bromides is sickening. Just like the radiation coming off of the site, the obfuscation never seems to stop. Day after day various spokesmen opine, “Well, a little setback here…a puff of steam there… uhh, we-don’t-know-where-the-radiation-is-coming-from… oops, that radiation reading was off… but not-to-worry…all-that-pesky-radiation-is-going-to-dissipate-in-the-ocean-and-anyhow-it’s-no-worse-than-an-X-ray.”
TEPCO’s latest admission: plutonium has been found in five locations near the stricken reactors. As usual, the company says it does not know where the plutonium is coming from, but, on Monday, March 28 the utility says, “plutonium found at this time is at a similar level seen in a regular environment.” (By Tuesday, the narrative is adjusted by the Japanese government. The chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, admits that the make-up of the plutonium was such that it probably was coming from the reactors.)
The TEPCO statement hangs in the air. “Regular environment”? The TEPCO spokesman, using one of the company’s many smoke-screens, murmurs something about possible pollution from atmospheric tests.
Contrary to TEPCO’s implication, plutonium is not naturally found in the environment. Indeed, there is nothing “regular” about pollution from the hundreds of atmospheric tests conducted by the US and Russia, up until a ban in 1963. (France and China ignored the ban, continuing atmospheric testing up until, respectively, 1974 and 1980.). Furthermore said depositions from atmospheric testing are of considerable concern; the tiniest speck of plutonium can, if inhaled, cause lung cancer.
At the same time TEPCO announces the presence of plutonium, it also says it will be seeking “advice” from the French-government-owned energy conglomerate, AREVA.
Given TEPCO’s inept handling of the Fukushima crisis, any outside help seems a plus.
AREVA is the world’s largest utility. With its workforce of 58,000, the company has hundreds of nuclear engineers and nuclear safety experts at its beck and call. Indubitably, TEPCO and the Japanese government desperately need help in coping with the disaster.
It’s fair, however, to ask, Is there a sub-text, such as the health of the international nuclear industry, particularly AREVA’s? And what is President Sarkozy’s agenda? A quick look at the scope of AREVA’s nuclear investments is informative.
AREVA recently celebrated its 100th reactor order – a reactor currently under construction in Normandy, France.
Through its various subsidiaries AREVA is involved in every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle. It owns mammoth open-pit uranium mines in Niger and Canada.
Rapidly expanding into the Asian market, AREVA is building two large nuclear reactors in Guangdong province, China. The company has described the contract as the “largest international commercial contract signed in civil nuclear history.” Just a few months ago the conglomerate signed a $9.3 billion agreement to build two nukes in India and to supply – for 25 years – fuel to the plants. Involved in South Korea as well, AREVA plans to construct a uranium enrichment facility there.
The giant conglomerate also has major construction projects under-way in the United States, including a $3.3 billion uranium enrichment facility near Idaho Falls in Idaho and a $2.7 billion MOX-fuel fabrication facility at the US Department of Energy’s Savannah River site in North Carolina.
AREVA is one of the world’s largest makers of MOX fuel, sometimes referred to as plutonium-based fuel. Over the last several years, the company has been pushing hard to have TEPCO use this fuel.
A small amount of this fuel is in the core of reactor no. 3 at Fukushima. Due to the diligence and opposition of Japanese environmental organizations, such as Green Action Japan, the use of MOX fuel at the Fukushima was delayed until the end of 2010. This means there is no MOX fuel in the damaged irradiated fuel pool at reactor no. 3. This is a plus. But, since plutonium is generated by the fissioning process, there still are significant quantities of the toxin, inside all the reactor cores and all the irradiated fuel pools at the Fukushima site.
As China and India announce delays to re-evaluate the safety of their proposed fleets of new nuclear reactors and other cautionary ripples circle the globe, AREVA’s world-wide, multi-billion dollar business is threatened by the disaster in Japan.
Would the company, concerned by the threat to the Japanese people of partial and/or full meltdowns in multiple reactors and irradiated fuel pools, work diligently to try to control the unfolding disaster of Fukushima? Undoubtedly.
What about transparency?
The Japanese government has chastened TEPCO on this score, pleading for more transparency. Will the involvement of AREVA encourage the openness that the Japanese government says is missing? Is the French conglomerate (it’s 90% owned by the French government) just sending in its nuclear engineers? Or is the company going to be involved in the public relations, media-damage-control effort?
Invariably, when billions and billions of dollars, euros, yen and renminbi are at stake, and governments are threatened, truth gets shredded. If the facts get glossed over – the first to suffer will be the workers at the plant, then the Japanese citizens already thoroughly traumatized by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster – and then the biosphere.
The Japanese people and the world deserve better.