Japan’s Near Miss

Large Scale Nuclear Catastrophe and the Ongoing Crisis

Spring is finally here. Even in post-apocalypse Japan after days of cold rain and gloom, the veil has lifted. The blue sky came out the other day, and people enjoyed Tokyo’s central park for gentle weather and sunshine dancing on the leaves; the viewing of early variety cherry blossoms; young families had picnics with their children and played ball; college students had boisterous drinking parties; dog owners strolled their barking status symbols; joggers and cyclists made the rounds; comedians, artists, acrobats, musicians and frenzied bongo drummers entertained passersby. Everyone was happy, alas, little did they know the following story.

Reactor Unit No. Four

While it is true that we live in interesting times, they are perhaps, a bit too interesting. As I recently scanned the nuclear news, one item jumped out. Japan came “this close” to a large scale nuclear catastrophe, but was saved only by Tokyo Power Company’s (Tepco) mechanical mishap — not by their diligence!

The Asahi newspaper reported that at the time of the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactors:

A decrease in the water level [at unit four] could have caused exposure and overheating of the nuclear fuel and a massive discharge of radiation and radioactive substances. That would not only have made the entire Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant inaccessible, but also could have led to the abandonment of the Fukushima No. 2 plant and other nuclear power plants located nearby. Worst-case scenarios envisaged by the governments in Tokyo and Washington involved the evacuation of residents from the Tokyo metropolitan area. In reality, however, a displaced separator gate between the spent fuel storage pool and the adjoining reactor well apparently created an opening, allowing about 1,000 tons of water to flow from the reactor well into the storage pool, it was learned later. The injection of outside water into the storage pool began on March 20. As a result, the fuel in the [unit four] pool was kept at relatively safe levels during the crisis.

It is unclear to me why the fuel rods would not have been covered in water the entire time given they can never be exposed to air, but according to this account it was only by accident that water dribbled in due to the malfunctioning gate from the reactor well. Had the fuel rods not been cooled it would have caused a radiological fire and prevented water from being sprayed onto the other reactors. Waterless meltdowns at several reactors would have led to a chain reaction of events, which would have made Chernobyl seem like a tea party by comparison. In fact, the 3/11 earthquake led to a total of 14 reactors at 4 sites in Japan being directly affected.

Such a malfunction is not unusual for the nuclear industry, which excels in keystone cops antics, and worse, lying to regulators. In order to save money for Tepco, an engineer admitted he covered up “a manufacturing defect in the $250 million steel vessel installed at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 4 reactor… for a unit of Hitachi Ltd. (6501) in 1974. The reactor, which Tanaka has called a ‘time bomb,’ was shut for maintenance when the March 11 earthquake” hit. Tanaka noted about 3/11, “[w]ho knows what would have happened if that reactor had been running?” The technical problems prevented the restart of the defective unit four reactor which could have led to a full scale meltdown.

The “what if” scenarios are not behind us — despite what the International Nuclear Crime Syndicate (INCS) says, the crisis is far from over. As Japanese nuclear expert and critic Hiroaki Koide stated, it would not even take a large earthquake to cause havoc at unit four. Due to the weakened structure of the building and because of persistent earthquakes, the 1300-1500 nuclear fuel rods which are stored in an upper floor, 100 feet above ground, are in a precarious position.

If a large aftershock occurred and the wall here collapsed, the water in the pool would leak out and the spent fuel would not be cooled any more. Then, they would start to melt, probably completely. And the huge amount of radiation contained in the spent fuel would be released outside, with no walls to block it… that would be the end. The end for a wide area including Tokyo.

Koide’s fears are echoed by Yukitero Naka, a nuclear engineer featured in a German TV broadcast. Naka’s nuclear consulting company has been working to help fix the Fukushima No. 1 station, so he has intimate knowledge of the situation. “My biggest fear is that we soon won’t have any qualified staff who can work” at the site once most of them reach maximum radiation exposure. He is unsure where new engineers and workers will come from, and given that it will take decades to decommission the plant, this is an extremely worrisome point. He also believes the situation is still dangerous, especially unit four, “which has been strongly damaged by the earthquake.” The spent fuel rods in the cooling pool are stored along with “a lot of very, very heavy machinery…. If another earthquake occurs then the building could collapse and another chain reaction could very likely occur.”

Hideki Shimamura and his team of Tokyo University geologists told German TV that the chances of “a new big earthquake” in Japan are 75% in the next four years. If you look at a topographical map which shows the ocean depths, there is a giant trench that parallels the east coast of Japan, as if the entire country was about to fall off a ledge. Aftershocks in the northeast of Japan have been common since the 3/11 quake and Japan is one of the world’s most seismically active regions on the Asian Pacific Rim of Fire.1 ,2 ,3

The “Stop Hamaoka” website has been up for years to warn of the “big one” which could affect the Hamaoka nuclear station situated 200 km from Tokyo. They report that 66% of winds blow to the Tokyo Metropolitan area from Hamaoka throughout year. Crucially, Shimamura believes Japan has drastically underestimated the power of earthquakes in their building standards and nuclear plants are vastly under prepared for the magnitude of large quakes, having based their projections on now outdated and debunked data. In essence, it is impossible to build nuclear power plants to withstand major earthquakes. When the German TV reporters put this question to the Tepco managers, they admitted that while they are doing all they can to shore up the unit four building structure (which adds some comfort), they were basically dumbfounded. Given they are operating on an outdated paradigm, who can blame them?

US nuclear expert Robert Alvarez notes that if water drains from the unit four “pool resulting from another quake [it] could trigger a catastrophic radiological fire involving about eight times more radioactive cesium than was released at Chernobyl.”

In one of the most informative interviews given by now legendary nuclear expert, Arnie Gunderson, on June 5, 2011, he described the situation at unit four:

[T]here is no reactor running there. Everything has been taken out and it was put in the spent fuel pool. But that means there is no containment either, so the entire spent fuel pool is visible literally. When they have those helicopter fly-overs, you can look down into this blown out shell of a building and see the fuel in the spent fuel pool. It’s still relatively hot, because it only shut down in November. So there is still a lot of decay heat in that pool. Brookhaven National Labs did a study in 1997 and it said that if a fuel pool went dry and caught on fire, it could cause a hundred and eighty-seven thousand fatalities… The Chairman of the NRC said that the reason he told Americans to get out from fifty miles out was that he was afraid that Unit 4 would catch fire, that exposed fuel pool would volatilize plutonium, uranium, cesium, and strontium. And if the Brookhaven Study is to be believed could kill more than a hundred thousand people, as a result… my advice to friends [in Tokyo is] that if there is a severe aftershock and the Unit 4 building collapses, leave. We are well beyond where any science has ever gone at that point and nuclear fuel lying on the ground and getting hot is not a condition that anyone has ever analyzed.

Unfortunately the technology to safely remove the rods has not been invented. Because of extreme levels of radiation, workers can’t do the job, so we will first have to invent the robots to save the humans. The government has begun the process to decommission the wreckage at Fukushima. “Toshiba, Hitachi GE nuclear energy and Mitsubishi heavy industries are already supported by the government to develop the decommissioning technology” but are seeking help from smaller technology related companies. Mr. Koide is worried because the operation to remove fuel rods will not begin until December of 2013.

Gundersen remarked about the difficulty of the situation:

Unit 4 has me stumped. I think they will be forced to build a building around the building and then, because you need heavy lifting cranes – cranes that lift a hundred and fifty tons, which are massive cranes, to put the nuclear fuel into canisters, which then can get removed. That is sort of what happened at TMI, but all of the fuel at TMI was still at the bottom of the vessel. But it was a three-year process to get the molten fuel out of Three Mile Island – four years actually. So the problem here is that all of the cranes that do that have been destroyed, at least on units 1, 3, and 4. And you can’t do it in the air. It has to be done under water. So my guess is that they will have to build a building around the building to provide enough shielding and water, so that they can then go in and put this fuel into a heavy lift canister.

The present state of the other reactors is not so rosy either, recently unit two was found to be Hotter Than Hell and lacking proper water for cooling the 73 sievert corium glob. Units one and three are so radioactive there is no way to even assess their conditions with present monitoring technology. Technical problems and leakages of highly radioactive water constantly plague the disaster site.4 ,5 The logistical problems described by Naka and Gunderson are just mind boggling, why isn’t there an all-out international effort underway to save Japan and the world?

Present Extent of Radiation

Assuming the worst doesn’t happen, the situation is bad enough. We already know that Japan was lucky because most of the radiation from the accident blew out to sea (not lucky for whales), but that which did not has left a cesium-blanketed ecosystem throughout the Northeast and Tokyo regions. The amount of radiation released has constantly been revised upward with estimates of cesium now reaching as high as 50 percent of Chernobyl. A European researcher speculates that:

the accident could easily have had a much more devastating impact on the people of Tokyo. In the first days after the accident the wind was blowing out to sea, but on the afternoon of 14 March it turned back towards shore, bringing clouds of radioactive caesium-137 over a huge swathe of the country (see ‘Radioisotope reconstruction’). Where precipitation fell, along the country’s central mountain ranges and to the northwest of the plant, higher levels of radioactivity were later recorded in the soil; thankfully, the capital and other densely populated areas had dry weather. ‘There was a period when quite a high concentration went over Tokyo, but it didn’t rain,’ says Stohl. ‘It could have been much worse.’

But acting in typically secretive and arrogant fashion Japan’s political oligarchs and bureaucrats decided not to tell people about the radiation dangers:

The science minister and other top ministry officials decided to withhold radiation forecast data from the public four days after the March 11 earthquake… lawmakers serving as top ministry officials and top bureaucrats made the decision on March 15 to withhold data about the predicted spread of radioactivity, which included an assumption that all radioactive material would be discharged from the crippled plant.

Furthermore, important emails warning of the spread of radiation were “accidentally” deleted from government computers in order to cover their own tracks. Thanks to the spread of radiation, even the nastiest of all radio nuclides, plutonium, has been detected 20-30 kilometers northwest and south of the nuclear disaster site.

I have conducted random surveys with my own gamma radiation dosimeter. A normal baseline reading is between 0.05 microsieverts per hour (mcs pr hr) up to about 0.1 mcs pr hr. I assume it is measuring background gamma radiation fairly accurately because when I turned it on during an air flight at 30,000 feet it measured 2 mcs pr hr, which is normal for that altitude. I compared readings a meter above the ground in the US and Tokyo and they were the same, roughly 0.08.

The Japanese Ministry of Science and Technology (MEXT) measures radioactive fallout and water supplies. Airborne radiation is monitored from one or more building tops in central Tokyo. The chart for Tokyo and other regions generally reads a very low amount such as 0.05 mcs pr hr. However, when I measure from a building many meters above ground the reading is usually 0.1-1.3 mcs pr hr. I can’t account for the discrepancy except that different dosimeters measure different amounts. However, local officials in Tokyo took measurements at 5 cm above the ground at school yards and found only 0.1 mcs pr hr. This is odd because if you put the instrument on the ground, you sometimes get higher readings. In one park I measured 0.08 at 5 cm above but 0.15 when placed on the ground. At other locations on soil, sidewalks and gutters I have gotten on the ground readings ranging from 0.06 mcs pr hr up to 0.29. That’s quite a range. The local authorities did not even measure the school ground soil for radiation and there was no pressure from parents to look for it. Perhaps the government does not want to “needlessly” spend money even if children are playing on radioactive playgrounds. When Arnie Gunderson took five random soil samples around Tokyo he found them to be considered “radioactive waste” by US standards. Last year, the Radiation Defense Project published disturbing data of soil samples from the Tokyo region. Kashiwa City and Eastern Tokyo showed noticeable amounts of cesium with some extreme cases exceeding government limits for agriculture of 5,000 bq/kg.6

The government seems to be slowly improving their monitoring of the situation. MEXT recently published data showing considerable fallout of cesium and other nuclides over the Tokyo region. Presumably the fallout is from dust stirred up in Fukushima and not extensively from the nuclear site (although it is still emitting radiation). For example, in January of 2012 the fallout rate was 2 becquerals per sq meter of deposition on the ground in Tokyo, a total of 20 million bqs. The “silver lining in the uranium cloud” is that west of Tokyo there was very little radiation detected and food grown in those regions can be considered safer.

Human Health Impact

The Japanese government’s big lie that the nuclear disaster did “not pose an immediate health risk” after the reactor explosions should tell that to the 573 people who have now died because of the accident. Thanks mainly to independent media on the internet and a few honest newspaper reporters, we now know the full extent of the damage to the reactors and the spread of radioactivity, even though the government knew fully well at the time. No wonder “[o]ver half of Fukushima residents [are] ‘greatly worried‘ ” about their health due to the accident. A recent study by the French nuclear watchdog, ACRO, found “[w]hile the radioactive cesium levels in children in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Saitama were below detection levels, children in Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Chiba (Kashiwa City) were found with radioactive cesium in their urine.” ACRO’s website has published many results of tests conducted for radiation in Japan. As expected, house dust in the northeast has been found to be “contaminated with high levels” of cesium. In Chiba high levels of radioactive house dust were also found whereas in Osaka it was absent. In one prominent Tokyo school system it was found that for every time tested, the school detected low levels of cesium in the children’s milk supply. As people gain greater awareness of affected food they are avoiding purchasing food from Fukushima, thereby relegating Japan’s Ukraine, the breadbasket of the country, to destitution for its farmers.

For people worried about ingesting radio nuclides, here is a short list of detox methods suggested to me by a naturopath and a chemist:

Cesium and radio nuclide detox
Activated charcoal
French green clay
non oxidated magnesium
magnesium salt baths
bentonite clay baths

Estimates on the number of deaths to occur due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster vary from nil, according to the official apologists, into the millions.

I attended a lecture by Dr. Chris Busby in Tokyo during the summer of 2011. As an expert on the effects of low level radiation, he explained his methodology and criticized the nuclear establishment’s risk model as being inherently flawed for undercounting dangers. Just after the accident he wrote a paper in which he estimated:

[W]ithin 100 km of Fukushima Daiichi, approximately 200,000 excess cancers will occur within the next 50 years with about half of them diagnosed in the next 10 years, if the 3.3 million people in the area remain there for one year. He estimates over 220,000 excess cancers in the 7.9 million people from 100 to 200 km in the next 50 years, also with about half of them to be diagnosed in the next 10 years.

Given that the paper was written based on the original Japanese government estimates of radiation–which are now understood to be much higher–we could double the number from four to eight hundred thousand premature deaths. If we include areas outside the 200 km radius the number could go even higher.

I made a simple and very rough calculation of my own based on US safety guidelines for external radiation for nuclear workers. In my calculations I have tried to err on the side of possibility of danger rather than downplaying it. For example, if we assume that one in twenty, not one in a hundred, young girls will get cancer in the next twenty years in Fukushima due to external gamma radiation, we can extrapolate that model to other age groups and locations. According to Wikipedia, as of 2010, Fukushima prefecture had a population of 2,028,752. Assuming that Japan is an aging society and especially that countryside regions have older populations, I figured no more than one sixth of that number would be young girls. If we assume the chances are half as much for boys of the same age, then one in forty will get cancer. The total would be:

girls = 16,000
boys = 8,000
all adults = 24,000
total = 48,000

I randomly doubled the number for adults considering they would be a majority of the population though less vulnerable according to US guidelines. Other prefectures surrounding Fukushima have similar population levels, until you get to Chiba and Tokyo where there are many millions. If we use 48,000 for nine prefectures including Tokyo, the total amounts to 432,000 premature deaths, a number similar to or lower than other estimates.

However, this model depends on a set amount of radiation and eventual evacuation from dangerous areas–yet Fukushima is still emitting radiation; it does not assess risk from internal radiation from ingesting contaminated dust or food; or include other diseases or damage to DNA to future generations.

Another calculation would be to compare with Chernobyl. If we assume a million died from Chernobyl, but fifty percent of cesium from Fukushima, with about 20 percent of that landing on the land mass of Japan, but assume triple population density for Japan, the number may be around 300,000 deaths in Japan in the next 25 years.

A Culture of Corruption and Denial

By any reckoning, the handling of the nuclear crisis has shown the international nuclear establishment and the government of Japan to be unreliable at best and totally dishonest at worst. One of the latest scandals that puts profits over people is the determination to send radioactive debris all across Japan to be burned in incinerators. Instead of containing the problem to the already affected area, radioactive effluents and fly-ash will be spread to landfills as far away as Okinawa. The Ex-SKF blogger neatly sums up the economic reasons why local governments (in disregard to the wishes of local populations) are in favor of importing the debris:

The incinerators, if they are state-of-the-art, need more garbage even to operate, so the disaster debris is god-sent; The incinerators, if not state-of-the-art, badly need upgrading or even building new ones (or so they say), and by saying yes to the debris the municipalities will get the subsidy from the national government for the upgrade or building new ones..

Back in 2003, Junichi Sato of Greenpeace Japan told me that “[t]he waste incineration industry has a vested interest in the production and destruction of waste.” While the government claims that the latest generation of incinerators being built release safe levels of effluents (90% reduction in emissions compared to previous technology), they do not address the issue of dioxin in the highly toxic fly ash which must be buried in land fills.

The government is allowing fly waste to be recycled into building materials. This may prove dangerous to human dwellers living in close proximity to such toxic materials. Furthermore, this propagates the illusion of recycling as a solution to the waste problem…. Incineration technology is energy intensive, expensive to build and operate. Instead of waste incineration, we need to revive local community involvement in resource consumption decisions and move toward greater reuse of materials as opposed to short term recycling or waste production. But the government is promoting waste production and incineration by having municipalities sign 20 year contracts with incinerator companies. The contracts specify that a certain amount of waste must be delivered on an agreed upon time schedule [which] encourages profligacy. (p. 125-133).

This aspect of the nuclear crisis is rooted in Japan’s “Dokken Kokka” or “Construction State,” which has relied on pork barrel spending to build construction projects over the last twenty years in order to spur the economy. An example of what happens to politicians who object too strongly is the case of Diet member, Koki Ishii. Ishii spent ten years investigating Japan’s exploding public debt which was caused by misuse of tax money and shady government ties between the construction industry and organized crime. Ishii ended up being only the second Diet member to be assassinated since WWII– murdered by the “Construction State.” The links between universities and organized crime have lead to intimidation of young social activists questioning destructive social policies as well.7 This helps explain why the Japanese public has not stood up to the Nuclear Industry, youth are discouraged from getting involved in public policy. When I wrote a modest paper on the Fukushima nuclear crisis for an insignificant, small college journal, the article was rejected as it was deemed “too sensitive.” This is not surprising considering the function of institutions of higher education are to reinforce existing power structures, not to question established (no matter how fraudulent) practices and social norms. TV mind control and institutional oppression help may help to explain why some victims directly affected by the Fukushima disaster still support nuclear power. But many Japanese are standing up to the Nuclear Bullies. Righteous and angered citizens have questioned Osaka’s decision to restart reactors in disregard of public opinion.

One of the freshest voices from Japan has been Mr. Mochizuki of the Fukushima Diary website, who has supplied us with voluminous raw data translated from Japanese sources into English. In recent essays Mochizuki emphasized the following important points: there is a growing sense of helplessness among Japanese who are worried about radiation but are unable to muster the will to evacuate; the psychology of unspoken social pressure has much to do with their unwillingness to face the reality of the Fukushima disaster; although laudable, civic action in Japan has not impacted energy policies in a substantive way and this is leading to desperation and even the potential for violence.8 ,9 ,10

People have been programmed from birth to be cogs in the industrial machine. Japan ran very smoothly for quite some time with remarkable technological and economic success. But with that system disrupted the programmed populace has no way to reconfigure, so they just keep going on, pretending reality does not exist, or that radio nuclides won’t harm them. The public reeducation process that rare individuals like Mochizuki is undertaking is very courageous and noble.

Some scientists have suggested that geothermal energy is the way to go in volcanic Japan. “In addition to its ample geothermal resources, Japan has abundant wind, tide and solar resources.” But there is uncertainty over Japan’s economic future as nuclear reactors are shut down and expensive oil imports are increased. Some observers are worried that Japan might enter a severe recession before renewables are able to come up to speed.

American commentator Pat Buchanan points to a deeper issue for Japan, the demographics crisis:

How did this come about? The means are not in dispute. When millions of Japanese soldiers returned from their dead empire to start families, there was a population explosion. Under the U.S. occupation, Tokyo swiftly legalized abortion, and the nation embraced birth control. Japan did so before Europe, but Europe followed. Now all face demographic death, with Japan leading the way.

In recent months I have taken solace in listening to the lectures of Matt Johnson of the Orthodox Nationalist. His conservative philosophy of the simple and moral life based on agrarianism is a breath of fresh air amidst the vapidness of middle class values. The notion of the bourgeoisie as the “universal instrument of global destruction” propounded by great minds from past centuries is as relevant today with the Fukushima disaster, and the many other environmental armageddon’s that humanity faces, as ever.

  1. Seismic Monitor Map. []
  2. Earthquake Information
    20:07 JST 27 Mar 2012 20:00 JST 27 Mar 2012 Iwate-ken Oki M6.4 []
  3. Japan earthquakes 2011 Visualization map. []
  4. Japan reactor has fatally high radiation, no water . []
  5. Leak from the Pipe after Reverse Osmosis (Desalination) Treatment: 120 Tonnes, 80 Liters May Have Flowed into Ocean. []
  6. Tokyo Metropolitan Soil Testing Results. Chart. []
  7. Rumpus on campus: Prestigious university in Tokyo has become a battleground in a war over freedom of political expression. []
  8. Japanese politely giving up their lives. []
  9. Separated Japanese. []
  10. Japanese pushed to the corner to revolt. []

Richard Wilcox has a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies from a social science, holistic perspective. He teaches at a number of universities in the Tokyo, Japan area. His most recent interview with Jeff Rense is available. Many of his environmental articles are archived here. Read other articles by Richard.