Japan’s Nuclear Disaster: Radiation Still Leaking, Recovery Still Years Away?

If nuclear power is so ‘safe,’ why is it that nuclear power stations are not placed where the power is most needed – in or very near large cities? Because they are dangerous. OK, if they’re dangerous, why is it the operators are not terribly interested in safety measures?

— Tony Boys, Can Do Better Blog1

Over six months have passed since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. What progress if any has been made to deal with what is surely one the worst industrial accidents in history?

The situation at the Fukushima No.1 power station site is far from being resolved. Although Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has said a “cold shutdown” of some of the reactors may be “within reach.”2 Although a drastic reduction from the trillions of becquerals of radiation that were released during the darkest days of March, retired nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson who has supplied us with a steady source of reliable analyses, roughly estimates that the damaged reactors are still emitting a billion becquerals per day.3 Recently Professor Hiroaki Koide, a radiation metrology and nuclear safety expert at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, relayed the frightening assessment that:

The nuclear disaster is ongoing…. Without accurate information about what’s happening inside the reactors, there’s a need to consider various scenarios. At present, I believe that there is a possibility that massive amounts of radioactive materials will be released into the environment again. At the No. 1 reactor, there’s a chance that melted fuel has burned through the… floor of the reactor building, and has sunk into the ground. From there, radioactive materials may be seeping into the ocean and groundwater…. Recovering the melted nuclear fuel is another huge challenge. I can’t even imagine how that could be done… there is a possibility that nuclear fuel has fallen into the ground, in which case it will take 10 or 20 years to recover it. We are now head to head with a situation that mankind has never faced before.4

Could Professor Koide be worried that the corium (melted fuel) may reach the ground water, resulting in the classic China Syndrome?

Some nuclear experts are more optimistic, stating that “[e]fforts seem to be making smooth progress.” But there is still a catch-22 at work here: “Before the Fukushima crisis can be said contained, the holes and cracks from which the water and fuel are escaping must be located and sealed. But this extremely difficult task could take years because the radiation near the reactors is simply too high to let workers get near them.”5

The Japanese government has finally decided to take nuclear safety seriously, as evidenced when the Ground Self-Defense Force held a drill within the evacuation site “in preparation for any further large-scale emission of radioactive materials from the plant.”6 Could this be in preparation for Professor Koide’s scenario of possible “massive amounts of radioactive materials”?

Although some people have elected to risk their health and stay inside the evacuation zone,7 a 30 km up to 100 km radius around the stricken site looks to be dangerous if not uninhabitable for years to come.8 Decontaminating the site would cost billions of dollars and disposing of contaminated soil–estimated now to be at least 100 million cubic meters9 — a formidable challenge. Recently it was learned that the “Tokyo Metropolitan government has been dumping [radioactive] sludge from its water purification plants and burned ashes from the sewer sludge from the sludge plants in its landfill in Tokyo Bay at least since late May. The huge landfill is right near the Haneda Airport.”10

Over 100,000 people have been displaced by the accident and have little hope of returning to their homes11 and “[m]ore than a third of residents of Fukushima Prefecture would move to avoid radiation if they could.” But those 600,000 people who would choose to move do not have the economic means to do so, and the government is not offering help.12 An example of government schizophrenia is how health and economic issues conflict. While ecologists are studying the extent to which heavily forested Fukushima prefecture is contaminated with radioactive fallout,13 at the same time “Seiji Maehara, who lost his bid to become the party leader and the prime minister of Japan, has nonetheless landed on a very powerful party position as the chairman of the DPJ’s [Democratic Party of Japan] policy bureau.” Maehara is trying to promote an “eco forestry” scheme so that the stricken region can regain their economy.14 How the very area, Iitate, that received the lion’s share of radiation is going to sell “green” timber is puzzling, especially given that up to this point the government’s regime for testing of food and other materials has proven to be superficial and unreliable.

There are a number of maps over recent months that have tracked the deposition of radiation, namely cesium. My assessment from studying various charts, maps and readings from a variety of internet sources is that by far the worst is Fukushima, especially the “red band” northwest of the nuclear site. However, the eastern half of Fukushima; along with large swaths in Miyagi to the north; the eastern corner of Yamagata; most of Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures have been hard hit; with radiation even spread into the beautiful mountains of Nagano. Yet many of these maps are still incomplete as the most likely contaminated areas are being measured first. There have been any number of hot spots located all over the Kanto region, including Saitama, Chiba and Tokyo, and even further to the south. These assessments do not take into account the considerable amount of radiation that went into the ocean (or to North America), both from the airborne explosions and contaminated water.

Recently I spoke with a Japanese housewife who has a five year old child and closely follows the radiation issue on Japanese internet sites. She believes the entire East Coast of Japan in the Pacific Ocean from Hokkaido well down to Shikoku or Kyushu is now contaminated with radiation. This rings true with what Arnie Gunderson said months ago: Don’t eat the fish if it comes from Japan’s Pacific coastal waters. A recent Greenpeace study found a variety of radioactive elements in seaweed 30 km south of Fukushima.15

The spread of radiation has been documented by the Japanese-American blog hero, “Ex-SKF (ex-skf.blogspot.com),” who by translating Japanese news stories into English has devoted himself to exposing government corruption. The heading at the website in Japanese translates to: “Good luck Japan, don’t give up! Don’t rely on the government!” A perusal of the archives shows a trend of denial and coverup on the part of Tepco, the government and many businesses. For months we have been jarred by one scandal after another, from radioactive green tea to beef being sold all over the country without proper testing.16

Just the other day Ex-SKF wrote about a typical story:

The willful ignorance, or the determination to carry on with their lives they knew before March 11, of many Japanese is driving me crazy. A nursery school in Akita Prefecture bought turf from Ibaraki Prefecture, which is located south of Fukushima Prefecture and was doused with radioactive materials by downwind from Fukushima I Nuke Plant creating areas with high radiation, in middle of July. Small children were playing on the freshly installed turf. Then the city came and measured the air radiation level. Guess what. It was high. Duh.17

The extent of radioactive contamination depends on how you define “contaminated,” but as little as one-seventh18 up to about half of the entire eastern part of Fukushima prefecture has been doused with radiation.
For example, a “survey of 2,200 locations within a 100-kilometer (62-mile) radius of the crippled plant found that those 33 locations had cesium-137 in excess of 1.48 million becquerels per square meter, the level set by the Soviet Union for forced resettlement after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Another 132 locations had a combined amount of cesium 137/134 over 555,000 becquerels per square meter, the level at which the Soviet authorities called for voluntary evacuation and imposed a ban on farming.”19

Another source found that “[a]n extensive area of more than 8,000 square kilometers has accumulated cesium 137 levels of 30,000 becquerels per square meter or more…. The affected area is one-18th of about 145,000 square kilometers contaminated with cesium 137 levels of 37,000 becquerels per square meter or more following the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union. The contaminated area includes about 6,000 square kilometers in Fukushima Prefecture, or nearly half of the prefecture. Fukushima Prefecture, the third largest in Japan, covers 13,782 square kilometers.”20 Although less extensive damage than from Chernobyl, the future of safe farming in Japan’s narrow bread basket is now in question.21 Nevertheless, recent news claims that rice grown this season is “below 10 becquerals/kg” and therefore safe to eat.22 But how proper were the tests, and does anyone in their right mind think rice from northwest Fukushima is advisable to eat? How about a mad cow burger and secret cesium sauce with your coke, sir?

North Americans are also worried about unwelcome radiation traveling by wind and ocean currents as a Swiss map based on computer modeling clearly illustrates.23 In a recent video Arnold Gunderson points out that a “tent” is being built over reactor no. 1 “to reduce the amount of radiation on site.” However, “[t]he radiation inside that tent is still going to have to go somewhere, or else it is going to build up and become lethal. So what is going to have to happen to that radiation, is it is going to be exhausted up the stack.”24 This means radiation will be guided upwards into the wind where it may travel near or great distances: out of sight is out of mind. Since the winds generally blow to the west, a steady stream (for how many months or years?) is going to land in the ocean or in North America. The philosophy is: The Solution To Pollution Is Dilution, but no one can agree on what a safe dose of radiation really is. Most likely, even small doses are harmful.

Which raises the question as to just how much radiation has been, and, is still being released. As Tokyo University Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama famously testified to the Japanese Diet in late July, the radiation released from the Fukushima reactor explosions was equivalent to 20 Hiroshima atom bombs.25 Estimates as to the amount of radiation that have been released vary widely. One mainstream science source has claimed “5–6% of the total from Chernobyl” yet notes that “ ‘there are still more questions than definite answers’…. High radiation levels make it impossible to directly measure damage to the melted reactor cores. Perhaps the greatest uncertainty is exactly how much radiation was released in the first ten days after the accident, when power outages hampered measurements.”26 Tepco recently admitted that the amount of highly radioactive water released into the sea shortly after the accident was three times higher than previously thought.27

A more realistic estimate would put the total releases at 10-20 percent of Chernobyl.28 Yet for many reasons, researchers such as Arnie Gunderson, a former nuclear engineer, and Chris Busby, radiation expert for the European Union, have both said that based on various criteria: “Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl.” If total releases are not has high as Chernobyl (Busby has suggested they may be much higher), other factors such as that the crisis is ongoing; the huge amount of nuclear fuel stored at the site; the power station’s siting which is not far above the ground water and in close vicinity to the ocean; proneness to further earthquakes/tsunamis; and nearby population density are all reasons for grave concern.

Scientific uncertainty, technological ineptness and political cover-up in the case of most nuclear accidents is par for the course, as anyone who has critically examined the history of the nuclear power industries in both the USA and Japan can attest. But as more people find out the truth, government and industry take actions to prevent the unwashed masses from becoming involved in substantive policy decisions.29 Recently pro-nuke politician “(LDP) Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara stated, ‘Geiger counters costing between 40,000 and 50,000 yen ($500-600) provide patchy measurements. We have to try and stop citizens from taking their own radiation measurements.’ ”30 The Global Nuclear Crime Syndicate (GNCS) is on the attack warning that “media coverage” about radiation from Fukushima could upsetting to the public. One conference egghead hooted, “[w]e’ve got to stop these sorts of reports coming out.”31 Oh dear me. In other words, don’t worry the people over the fact that they or their children may die an early death from cancer due to the carelessness of the GNCS.

On the other hand, I have seen some wildly inaccurate interpretations on the internet, including that “hundreds of millions of people will die” from Fukushima; that “much of northern Japan” is now uninhabitable (please consult a map); or the most crackpot idea to date — that the situation at the Fukushima power station is so serious that we must literally “nuke it” to terminate the problem. Yet, most coverage of the issue, even from many mainstream sources, has been well intentioned if not always perfectly accurate or is overly self censored.

Tepco would be happy for everyone to forget all about Fukushima so they can get back to the business of making lots of money. Their cover-up of important information was made obvious when a Diet science committee received a “heavily censored [redacted] copy of a nuclear accident operating manual for the Fukushima No. 1 power station.”32 Their message is clear: “Fuck you; we own you people and we can get away with bloody murder.”

That Tepco has huge influence and control over the media and politicians is well documented.33 Their bribes and payoffs are legion, spending hundreds of millions of dollars “on payments known internally [to the company] as ‘funds to deal with local communities.’ ”34 Tepco arrogance and greed knows no bounds, as this Asahi News editorialist writes: they intend “to raise electricity rates by a uniform 15 percent for three years starting next fiscal year [while] its employees are [only] taking a pay cut of 5 percent… I am appalled that the company is also paying bonuses, although the amount is down by half. Once the period of the rate hike is over, it intends to resume paying bonuses in full.”35

In the meantime, although many folks have volunteered to help in the stricken northeast region, the majority of Japanese people have pushed the issue to the back of their minds. The fate of Fukushima residents is just their tough luck– lifestyle consumerism and self preservation take precedence. If given a choice I don’t think the Japanese would have chosen nuclear power as an energy source, that decision was foisted on them in the post WWII period. There is still a hard core group of a few thousand anti-nuke protesters who consistently make their voices heard, and we keep hearing squeaking noises from top politicians that nuclear power must be phased out and renewables phased in — hopefully the sooner the better.36

  1. Tony Boys, Can Do Better Blog []
  2. No. 3 reactor cooling down: Tepco []
  3. Nuclear Engineer: Fukushima reactors continue to emit significant quantities of radioactive gases []
  4. Radiation expert says outcome of nuke crisis hard to predict, warns of further dangers []
  5. Plugging leaks will end crisis, not cold shutdown: analysts []
  6. GSDF holds emergency evacuation drill near stricken Fukushima nuclear plant []
  7. Fukushima man opts to be guinea pig []
  8. Inside Japan’s nuclear ghost zone []
  9. Fukushima clean-up may require removal of 100 million cubic meters of soil []
  10. Radioactive Landfill: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Has Been Doing It Since May []
  11. Over 100,000 Fukushima Prefecture residents can’t return to hometowns []
  12. A third of Fukushima residents would move if they could []
  13. Contamination of Fukushima forests being studied []
  14. Potentially Radioactive Lumber to Be Promoted with “Eco-Point” Incentive? []
  15. Radioactive manganese-54, silver-110m and cobalt-60 found in seaweed sample 30km south of Fukushima []
  16. Ex-SKF blog []
  17. Radioactive Turf in Nursery School in Akita Prefecture []
  18. Up to one-seventh of Fukushima may be contaminated []
  19. Survey Finds Radiation Over Wide Area in Japan []
  20. Fukushima cesium contamination widespread but less than Chernobyl []
  21. Cesium absorption through roots may have long-term effect on farming
    Effect of contaminated soil on food chain sparks fears
  22. Radioactive Rice? ND, Says Fukushima Prefecture []
  23. “NEW!” atmc.jp now posting Fukushima radiation forecast maps from Swiss Meteorological Bureau []
  24. New Data Supports Previous Fairewinds Analysis, as Contamination Spreads in Japan and Worldwide []
  25. Prof. Kodama Angry about Japanese Gov.’s Gross Negligence (Part 1) []
  26. Fukushima Crisis Is Still Hazy []
  27. Radioactive release into sea estimated tripled []
  28. Nuclear Power’s Future In Doubt Amidst Fukushima Crisis []
  29. Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant Trial Wraps Up []
  30. Japanese gov’s trying to stop citizen measuring radiation []
  31. Fukushima media coverage ‘may be harmful’ []
  32. TEPCO submits heavily redacted copy of Fukushima nuke accident manual []
  33. Censorship in Japan: The Fukushima Cover-up []
  34. TEPCO quietly paid 40 billion yen to areas near nuclear plants []
  35. TEPCO doesn’t deserve to be called a public interest company []
  36. Japan to reduce reliance on nuclear power? []
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.