Fukushima’s Nuclear Mess Is Only Getting Worse
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.