The earthquake off northeastern Japan late last week made for an eerie reminder that the crisis in the prefecture of Fukushima, particularly its power plant of the same name, is far from over.
Indeed, Japanese seismic experts said, the October 25 temblor was an aftershock of the 9.0-magnitude quake of March 11, 2011, which spawned a 372-mile-wide tsunami that devastated the northeastern part of the country. The dual disaster killed an estimated 10,000 people, though 15,000 more were never found. When the tidal wave came in, it breached the wall surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing a massive meltdown. Many of those who lived near the plant are forbidden to go back home, given the ongoing radiation contamination in the area.
Since July 2013, when the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) finally admitted it, we have known that radioactive water has been leaking from the plant into the ocean and possibly the aquifer in the two years since the catastrophe, “the most severe accident in the history of mankind,” as Naoto Kan, former Prime Minister of Japan, wrote on Huffington Post on October 28.
“At Unit 1, the fuel rods melted down in about five hours after the earthquake, and molten fuel breached and melted through the reactor pressure vessel,” Naoto wrote. “Meltdowns occurred in Units 2 and 3 within one hundred hours of the accident. At around the same time, hydrogen-air blasted in the reactor buildings of Units 1, 3 and 4.”
The effects of this are not only continuing to be felt, but also are largely unknown. Two investigative reporters delineated some of the most alarming developments stemming from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in an October 28 story on Counterpunch.org. Likewise The New York Times reported recently on the still-unfolding disaster and its “worrisome trends,” including a higher rate of contamination in recent water releases into the Pacific Ocean, and the continuing seepage of radioactive materials into the air.
“The story of Fukushima should be on the front pages of every newspaper,” the Counterpunch story begins. “Instead, it is rarely mentioned. The problems at Fukushima are unprecedented in human experience and involve a high risk of radiation events larger than any that the global community has ever experienced. It is going to take the best engineering minds in the world to solve these problems and to diminish their global impact.”
Below are five of the most alarming developments and challenges noted by reporters Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers as TEPCO prepares to begin cleaning up the mess in November. Activists are calling for two international days of action on November 9 and 10, to try and pressure world leaders to create a global solution to the cleanup.
1. Three reactor cores are missing.
Three reactors cores melted and disappeared, Counterpunch said. Experts believe they sunk through the basements of reactor buildings 1, 2 and 3 and are interred somewhere below ground. The problem, aside from the issue of their being there at all, is that authorities do not know exactly where they landed.
“It is an unprecedented situation to not know where these cores are,” Counterpunch said. “TEPCO is pouring water where they think the cores are, but they are not sure. There are occasional steam eruptions coming from the grounds of the reactors, so the cores are thought to still be hot.”
2. Radioactive water has been leaking from the plant in mass quantities for 2.5 years and will continue to do so until at least 2015.
In July 2013, TEPCO admitted to the world that an estimated 300 tons, or 71,895 gallons, of radioactive water is leaking daily into the ocean.
“This is the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed, according to a report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety,” Counterpunch wrote. In September, the Japanese government admitted that the situation was urgent.
Since then, other leaks have occurred that have increased the level of radioactive contamination in the water that is seeping into the Pacific Ocean, The New York Times reported on October 24. Most recently, rainwater collected behind concrete walls surrounding clusters of storage tanks at such depth that they overflowed, sending contaminated water into the surrounding environment. The barriers had been built, The New York Times said, to contain spills from within the storage tanks. But when intense rainstorms hit in the wake of a typhoon, the water collected in the contaminated area inside the 12-inch-high walls, then overflowed and made its way to the ocean.
TEPCO expects to complete an ice wall in 2015 that will hold back leaking water. Until then, though, it will continue to seep out apace.
3. Eleven thousand spent nuclear fuel rods, “perhaps the most dangerous things ever created by humans,” as Counterpunch put it, are stored at the plant.
Counterpunch calls this the biggest problem of all relating to the radioactive fallout from the disaster. Composed of plutonium, uranium and other highly radioactive materials, the 15-foot-long rods, the diameter of a thumb, are scattered throughout the site. About 6,000 of them are in a cooling pool not far from Reactor 4, close enough to be potentially ignited if Reactor 4 were to catch on fire. This could very well release huge amounts of radiation into the environment and “set off a chain reaction that could not be stopped,” Counterpunch said.
4. More than 1,500 of those 11,000-plus rods—1,533, to be exact—“are in a very precarious and dangerous position” and must be moved, Counterpunch said.
The question is how. Weighing a total of 400 tons, they are housed in damaged racks in a sagging building four floors above Reactor 4. Moreover, the ground underneath the building is becoming water-saturated, further undermining their stability. It wouldn’t take much more than an earthquake to collapse the building, which could jostle the rods. If they smack into one another and break, they could ignite or explode, Counterpunch said. And they are already jumbled. At the very minimum, if there were to be an explosion, the plant would have to be evacuated of the very personnel who are trying to fix the problems.
5. Cleanup is not only complex but also is being conducted by a stressed-out, demoralized, mistake-prone crew.
Speaking of that personnel, they are reportedly demoralized, depressed and making mistakes because of it, Counterpunch and others said. For example, six workers accidentally disconnected a pipe in a temporary cooling system on October 9 and got “sprayed with highly radioactive water,” The New York Times reported. They were wearing protective clothing and showered immediately, so did not suffer any adverse health effects, TEPCO told reporters. But a good 10 tons of tainted water were spilled, the newspaper said, though it did not drain into the ocean.
"Mistakes are often linked to morale,” said Japan’s top nuclear regulator, Shunichi Tanaka, according to the Guardian, quoted by Counterpunch. “People usually don't make silly, careless mistakes when they're motivated and working in a positive environment. The lack of it, I think, may be related to the recent problems."
The morale problems stem from a host of issues, starting with the trauma of having survived the initial disaster, lost their homes and now, living apart from their families as they work to help clean up. Such is the root of the depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse now plaguing many of the employees. On top of that is a 20 percent pay cut that TEPCO imposed in 2011.
“The history of TEPCO shows we cannot trust this company and its mistreated workforce to handle the complex challenges faced at Fukushima,” wrote Counterpunch. “The crisis at Fukushima is a global one, requiring a global solution.”