Fukushima’s Nu­clear Mess Is Only Get­ting Worse

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Ja­pan’s anger over the tsunami-driven nu­clear dis­as­ter in Fukushima was far more in­tense than most out­side the coun­try re­al­ized. A ma­jor court de­ci­sion back in March found the plant’s op­er­a­tors and the state li­able for not tak­ing preven­tive steps to pro­tect the fa­cil­ity, and that was only the be­gin­ning.

The prob­lem started with the Tōhoku earth­quake, which hit off the coast of Ja­pan on March 11, 2011. That un­leashed a tsunami that rushed ashore to Fukushima. When it hit, it slammed into the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nu­clear Power Plant, caus­ing the ac­tive re­ac­tors op­er­at­ing there to au­to­mat­i­cally shut down their sus­tained fis­sion re­ac­tions.

Un­for­tu­nately, the tsunami also knocked out the emer­gency gen­er­a­tors that were in place to pro­vide power to con­trol and op­er­ate the re­ac­tor cool­ing pumps. With­out cool­ing, at least three nu­clear melt­downs, hy­dro­gen-air ex­plo­sions and ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial re­lease took place in the power plant’s Units 1, 2 and 3 from March 12-15, im­me­di­ately after the tsunami. The lack of cool­ing also caused the pool for stor­ing spent fuel from Re­ac­tor 4 to over­heat on March 15 as a di­rect re­sult of de­cay heat from the fuel rods.

Ja­pan called for an im­me­di­ate re­view of the cir­cum­stances be­hind the Fukushima mess. On July 5, 2012, that re­view body, the Fukushima Nu­clear Ac­ci­dent In­de­pen­dent In­ves­ti­ga­tion Com­mis­sion (NAIIC), is­sued its re­port. In it, the NAIIC said the causes of the ac­ci­dent had been ones the op­er­a­tors should have fore­seen. The com­mis­sion also said that Tokyo Elec­tric Power Com­pany (TEPCO) had ne­glected to meet such fun­da­men­tal ba­sic safety re­quire­ments as risk as­sess­ments, pre­par­ing for con­tain­ing col­lat­eral dam­age in the event of an emer­gency and de­vel­op­ing evac­u­a­tion plans.

Since that time, for most of the out­side world, every­thing associated with the Fukushima re­ac­tor, other than its clo­sure, had re­mained silent. Then, in Fe­bru­ary 2017, TEPCO showed images re­cently taken in­side Re­ac­tor 2 by a re­mote-con­trolled cam­era. The images showed a two-me­ter hole in the metal grat­ing un­der the pres­sure ves­sel in the re­ac­tor’s pri­mary con­tain­ment ves­sel – a hole that could have been caused by fuel es­cap­ing the pres­sure ves­sel.

Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions showed that the ra­di­a­tion deep in­side the Fukushima Re­ac­tor 2 had reached a max­i­mum ra­di­a­tion level of 530 siev­erts per hour, com­pared to the pre­vi­ous max­i­mum ra­di­a­tion level mea­sured in the re­ac­tor at 73 siev­erts per hour. That’s over seven times the pre­vi­ous mea­sure­ment.

To put those num­bers in per­spec­tive, ex­po­sure to just one siev­ert of ra­di­a­tion can ren­der some­one in­fer­tile, cause their hair to fall out and make them sick. Four siev­erts in a short pe­riod of time has an es­ti­mated fa­tal­ity rate of 50%. Ten siev­erts causes death within three weeks.

Hu­man deaths are not the only is­sue. Even the re­mote­con­trolled cam­era sent to record the melt­down is only set up to han­dle 1,000 siev­erts of ra­di­a­tion. Based on its de­sign spec­i­fi­ca­tions, that cam­era would fail after two hours of ex­po­sure to Re­ac­tor 2 as of the Fe­bru­ary 2017 data.

Fur­ther anal­y­sis of the pho­tos TEPCO recorded with

the cam­era also showed what were de­scribed as “black chunks” on the grat­ings un­der the pres­sure ves­sel. This could be the first ev­i­dence ever of melted fuel rods. These could be the fuel rods that had been miss­ing since the orig­i­nal melt­down de­spite nu­mer­ous searches to find them. The hope at the time was to ex­tract the rods and dis­pose of them prop­erly. Now that they may have melted down in this fash­ion makes mat­ters worse.

Find­ing the melted chunks of fuel rods, if that’s in­deed what the pic­tures have spot­ted, is very bad news. It means that some molten ura­nium melted down through the steel pres­sure con­tain­ment ves­sel and then burned through the re­in­forced con­crete con­tain­ment and likely past the re­in­forced con­crete foun­da­tion of the en­tire fa­cil­ity. The next step is leach­ing and burn­ing fur­ther down through the rock and soil un­der­neath the foun­da­tion, with even­tual con­tam­i­na­tion of the soil and ground­wa­ter at high ra­di­a­tion lev­els.

If these the­o­ries are cor­rect, there are two ex­tremely dan­ger­ous routes for fur­ther pas­sage of the ra­di­a­tion to the out­side. One is to the ocean it­self, which has al­ready been con­tam­i­nated by ra­dioac­tive cool­ing wa­ter re­leased con­tin­u­ously for six years. With molten ura­nium, rather than just cool­ing wa­ter, ex­po­sure to the ocean – or an un­der­ground aquifer – could re­lease ra­dioac­tive steam as well as con­tam­i­nate wa­ter, air and many forms of life very quickly.

A step be­yond that is that when molten ura­nium strikes wa­ter, es­pe­cially in an aquifer, the wa­ter will dis­as­so­ci­ate into hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen. Those com­po­nents, once sep­a­rated and ex­posed to heat, could ex­plode. Just as with frack­ing chem­i­cals used to re­lease pe­tro­leum re­serves in rock, these un­der­ground high-power ex­plo­sions could have very dan­ger­ous rip­pling ef­fects. Ground con­tam­i­na­tion might be the least of the coun­try’s wor­ries if that were to hap­pen, es­pe­cially since in this case the re­leased ex­plo­sive wa­ter/gas com­bi­na­tions would be heav­ily laced with highly ra­dioac­tive ura­nium dust. And earth­quakes might also en­sue if the ex­plo­sions were strong enough. That is yet another es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous prob­lem in seis­mi­cally ac­tive Ja­pan.

One of the is­sues that all of this af­fects is TEPCO’S plan to de­com­mis­sion the re­ac­tor. As­sum­ing they had fi­nally found the fuel rods in­tact, the plan had been to take them out, dis­pose of them ap­pro­pri­ately and then start dis­man­tling the plant in 2021. That dis­man­tling, be­cause of the many com­pli­ca­tions this kind of ac­ci­dent brings with it, could have ended up tak­ing 50 years to com­plete. With the fuel rods likely hav­ing melted down and/or dis­in­te­grated, the whole plan to take down the re­ac­tor has be­come far more com­plex.

After all the above was dis­closed – and in ad­di­tion to all that the NAIIC had con­cluded ear­lier – the courts in Ja­pan have taken on the case yet again. That case had been filed by 137 Fukushima cit­i­zens in 2014, claim­ing neg­li­gence on a grand scale by all par­ties in­volved. This time, when the court they had come to is­sued its rul­ing on March 17, 2017, metaphor­i­cal seis­mic shock waves spread over the en­tire Ja­panese nu­clear power in­dus­try. That rul­ing said, in the strong­est words, that both the state and the op­er­a­tor failed to take preven­tive mea­sures against the tsunami and were li­able.

The judges in the Gunma Pre­fec­ture’s Mae­bashi District Court said that TEPCO and the gov­ern­ment were well aware of both earth­quake and tsunami risks in the re­gion but did vir­tu­ally noth­ing to pro­tect any­one against those risks. They said there was plenty of sci­ence-based ev­i­dence of ma­jor risks to the plant. They fur­ther said that both TEPCO and the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment were aware of much of this data but ig­nored it and took lit­tle in the way of ac­tion to do any­thing about it.

The court cited the fol­low­ing as spe­cific ex­am­ples of that kind of ev­i­dence:

A 2002 gov­ern­ment re­port say­ing there was a 20% risk of a mag­ni­tude 8 or larger earth­quake off the coast of north­east­ern Ja­pan within 30 years

An es­pe­cially damn­ing 2008 in­ter­nal TEPCO re­port en­ti­tled “Tsunami Mea­sures Un­avoid­able,” which de­scribed the like­li­hood of a po­ten­tial 15.7-me­ter tsunami hit­ting the Fukushima nu­clear site

The judges went after the gov­ern­ment fur­ther, say­ing that if it had used its pow­ers as a reg­u­la­tory force to re­quire TEPCO to put in pro­tec­tions such as sea­walls to guard against such a tsunami, many parts of the dis­as­ter might never have hap­pened.

Be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal blow­back after the Fukushima tsunami and nu­clear melt­down, only three of Ja­pan’s orig­i­nal batch of nu­clear re­ac­tors that had been sup­ply­ing power to the na­tion in 2011 are cur­rently op­er­a­tional.

There are also 28 other civil and crim­i­nal law­suits cov­er­ing what hap­pened in Fukushima that are still pend­ing in 18 pre­fec­tures across Ja­pan.

This is one tsunami whose real phys­i­cal dam­age costs – and real im­pact on Ja­pan’s en­ergy fu­ture – are go­ing to con­tinue to add up for decades to come.

Photo by Sim­ply Info, CC

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