The News From Fukushima Just Gets Worse, and the Japanese Public Wants Answers

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NOBORU HASHIMTO / POOL / EPA

A Tokyo Electric Power Company employee in protective clothing works around tanks filled with radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, June 12, 2013.

Earlier this month, at a symposium on the Fukushima nuclear disaster held at the Tokyo International Forum, an unlikely cast gathered to vent fears now gaining traction in Japan. The panel included a bank president, investigative journalist, world-renowned symphony conductor, teenage pop star and the mayor of a radioactive ghost town.  For all their obvious differences, this motley crew agreed on one thing: that the damage being caused by the crippled No. 1 nuclear plant is far worse than government officials cared to acknowledge.  “It’s time we faced the danger, ” said Takashi Hirose, a writer shocked by the under-reported radiation levels he found on recent trip into the evacuation zone. “So many terrible things are not being reported in the news.”

But now it seems that the bad news keeps coming. Just weeks after the Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted that 300 tons of radioactive water has been leaking from the crippled nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean each day, the utility is saying that as many tons of highly toxic water have seeped out of a large storage tank, without identifying the source. After months of denials, Japan is about to designate the leak as a “serious incident.” It is the gravest setback yet in the effort to contain the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. On Wednesday, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Shunichi Tanaka, ominously told reporters that “more surveillance won’t be enough to keep the accidents from happening.”

(MORE: More Than Two Years After Meltdown, Doubt and Fear Remain Over Fukushima’s Safety)

There’s no more hiding the fact that TEPCO has botched attempts to manage the massive amount of contaminated water plaguing the facility since a powerful March 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused three reactors to meltdown. An underground barrier built to stop the leakage was breached, and storage tanks designed to hold up to 1,000 tons of toxic water for at least five years have degraded within two, drawing criticism that they were poorly constructed and vulnerable to spillage should another earthquake strike — entirely possible in such an active zone. Then there are the nearly 2,000 people who have worked at the plant. According to some experts, they are at high risk for thyroid cancer despite company attempts to downplay their exposure.

Unfortunately for them, there are no quick fixes. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the government will intervene and staunch the outflow of tainted water, without specifying how. Existing plans to release low levels of contaminated water into the ocean are fraught with technical problems and gathering resistance from area fisherman, who have seen livelihoods slashed by consumer fears about food safety.  Another proposal to surround the plant with a subterranean ice wall would cost some $400 million of public money to complete, part of a cleanup expected to take four decades at a cost of $11 billion.

(PHOTOS: Too Close to Fukushima — Inside the Exclusion Zone)

Building public consensus on any costly clean-up measures is sure to become a tougher proposition following TEPCO’s latest embarrassing admissions. For those who still have doubts about the social and health-related costs of the disaster, Tsunehiko Kawamoto of Green Cross Japan, an environmental group working to phase out all nuclear power in the country, says the staggering price of a clean up with no end in sight, along with the indefinite loss of farmlands, property, and jobs, should act as a “wake-up call” for those who have taken official pronouncements at face value. “There are a lot of hidden facts that are now being revealed,” he says.

Back at the packed auditorium in downtown Tokyo, Tsuyoshi Yoshihara, president of the Johnan Shinkin Bank, stood on stage and made a similarly passionate appeal to practicality. Today nuclear power provides just two percent of Japan’s electricity, down from thirty percent at full capacity pre-Fukushima. While supporters say it’s the only option given rising energy import costs, the dapper executive said an honest analysis must take into account the long-term costs of Fukushima, which continue to multiply.  Addressing the notion that country’s economy will fail without nuclear energy, he boomed into the microphone: “This is a kind of mythology, and it must be defeated before we defeat ourselves.”

MORE: Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs

12 comments
JohnBentley
JohnBentley

This is a runaway Nuclear catastrophe that cannot be stopped the 3 reactors are going to explode with the effect of 14,000 Hiroshima's that will spread nuclear radiation all around the world contaminating all the land, all the seas and all the air.

JohnBentley
JohnBentley

Japan will eventually cease to exist as a country, this has been an expensive lesson. Over 1 million people have died from Chernobyl. What does it take to stop history from repeating itself.

GRLCowan
GRLCowan

"... this motley crew agreed on one thing: that the damage being caused by the crippled No. 1 nuclear plant is far worse than government officials cared to acknowledge ..."

Actually it's far less bad than government officials are willing to acknowledge. Their paymaster is making billions a year in additional fossil fuel revenues. This windfall will go away when it allows the 48 reactors that are safe to restart to do so.

They're a motley crew of astroturfers.

zz1
zz1

We said from the start that they should drill the core into the mantle and cover the wholes site with a super reinforced concrete bubble. No one listened then and now it's too late the entire area has been saturated with radioactive pollution after two and a half years of constantly pouring water on what is now eft of the reactor cores. The Japanese people must realise that it only takes 1 micron of radioactive substance ingested or absorbed to cause cancer.  The whole country has now been exposed for two and a half years. Do they really think they are invincible or impervious to Nuclear radiation?

Rototime
Rototime

OK, just talking about the science and engineering after a natural disaster at a nuclear power plant. When containment fails, which it clearly has here, control options are limited and far from perfect. You have enormous volumes of water contaminated with long and short life radionucleotides with very high radiation flows (flux). Plus you have to keep adding even more water in large quantities to avoid a hydrogen explosion or core meltdown. How do you contain a mess beyound any normal description? Multiple countries have already given their best technical advice. Yes, Japan has done a very poor job at implementing. That compounds the situation. But even under the best of situations this thing will drag on for years, possibly a decade, without complete, effective control. And it will cost 10's of billions. Will it eventually be contained? Yes, at least as well as Chernobyl. But it will be very nasty for the foreseeable future.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

The government/corporate alliance of Japan is notoriously secretive. What is taking place in Japan will have an impact on the entire world. The Japanese frequently adopt the stance that anyone questions what they do it is somehow disrespectful of their culture and an internal matter. They should not be permitted to hide from the inquiries of the rest of the world any longer. It seems to me the power company and the government really don't know what to do. They have no way to shut this down, and have only developed inadequate management solutions that are failing. They need to stop covering up and lying to their people and the rest of the world.

MargaretBartley
MargaretBartley

Nuclear energy doesn't need a new design, it needs a new politics.  Until we get rid of the profit motive, and the hidden proprietary mentality that goes along with it, we will continue to be held hostage by lying officials and do-nothing company technicians.  We need an open and honest discussion of issues and designs and protections from the get-go, not AFTER the damage is done.  And it if costs too much money, then better to find out before it's built that after!

limmil
limmil

@MargaretBartley It is not possible to get rid of profit motive in capitalism... When humans overdo, the nature hints and then curbs... Its time to consider... Do we really need so much of per capita energy... Politics change will not work... But the entire human race has rethink the policy of how to live...

ViableOp
ViableOp

Of even greater concern is the fact that Japan's geological setting creates a situation where another high intensity earthquake is very likely as shown here:

http://viableopposition.blogspot.ca/2011/03/explaining-japans-earthquake.html

With much of Japan's key infrastructure located along the coast, the nation is highly vulnerable to a repeat of March 2011.