Fukushima - a year after

By Daniele Pestilli on March 9, 2012
IAEA and TEPCO workers side-by-side in March 2011 (IAEA Imagebank - CC)

Following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant maintained by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) faced a severe meltdown, resulting in the release of radioactive materials. Fears of contamination led to a 20 km (12mi) exclusion zone around the affected area. The result: 20,000 dead, 400,000 homeless and more than 250,000 buildings destroyed. On December 16th 2011, the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the stabilization of the plant. However, complete decontamination will take decades.

Today is Fukushima's one-year anniversary. To commemorate, the emperor, the prime minister, the people throughout the country, and even the trains will fall silent, in order to remember those who lost their lives in the country's worst post-war disaster.

Recently, Tokyo University held a symposium called “What to do? 3.11's rubble” concerning the disposal of the debris caused by the two consecutive natural disasters, Jiji News reports. The Ministry of Environment as well as several provincial governing bodies gathered in an effort to discuss, understand and think of the best solution to clear the 20 million tons of rubble, which many people are afraid may still be contaminated with radiation.

Furthermore, the lower house of the Diet unanimously decided to enact measures within March to curtail or exempt businesses in the affected region from corporation taxes. The measures will also offer preferential employment to citizens of the Fukushima prefecture, and starting this fall, residents under 18 will be absolved from paying for medical expenses, Asahi News reports. Whereas the conservative Jimintō party is keen on having the country spend 78 billion Yen (U.S. $956 million) in financial support to Fukushima, the governing social-democratic party, Minshutō, prefers acting with more discretion. The total cost of cleaning up the remains of the nuclear disaster and financial compensation to the victims is estimated to be more than $250 billion, a price that Japan cannot truly afford given its hefty debt.

TBS News reported that an increasing number of marine products imported from Japan to the neighboring South Korea have been found to contain radioactive cesium. Since the radiation is said to be below Korea's safety limit, the products have been sold on the market. There were more than 50 detected cases, which hints to the fact that many more have been either unnoticed or undisclosed.

An entry on the Fukushima Diary informs that although nuclides such as Caesium 134-137 and Strontium 89-90 seem to be decreasing, Tritium is still leaking about 3 to 7 times more than cesium 137. Tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides, but as with all ionizing radiation, exposure can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Has the world learned?

The Three Mile Island incident in 1979 should have been enough to prevent subsequent failures of this type. But it did not.

The Chernobyl disaster, which occurred in Ukraine in 1986 and was of catastrophic proportions measuring a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, should have been enough to put an end to the use of nuclear energy. But it did not.

Most recently, the Fukushima disaster – the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl which was also judged a level 7 phenomenon – seems to have done little to perturb the development of nuclear reactors worldwide. Sixty-three new nuclear power plants are currently being built, and 163 reactors for the production of energy are either underway or have been given approval and financing, according to the Italian daily, La Repubblica. Rosatom, the Russian nuclear complex that holds the leading position in the world for nuclear technologies, produces and exports nuclear reactors, provides 40% of the world uranium enrichment services and accounts for 17% of the world’s nuclear fuel market, announced that following the Fukushima incident, not a single order was canceled or revoked. In fact, contrary to what one may think, it is the Asia-pacific region that seems to be investing most heavily in nuclear power now.

The European Nuclear Society elucidates: as of February 2nd, 2012, there are 435 nuclear reactor units in operation worldwide, 104 of which are in the United States. Japan is in third place with 50; South Korea is fifth with 21; China comes in ninth worldwide with 16 reactors. However, China holds first place in terms of nuclear reactors under construction: 26 units are being developed compared to 5 in Korea (fourth worldwide) and 2 in Japan (seventh worldwide). Even India is increasing its dependence on nuclear power: 20 reactors are currently in operation and 6 are under construction.

Nuclear power plants in operation and under construction
Nuclear power plants in operation and under construction

The old continent, however, has seemingly become more wary of the ills brought by dependence on nuclear power: the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK have all halted the construction of nuclear plants. Even France, which has the largest number of nuclear units in Europe (58) is thinking twice about the dire implications of this type of energy, and has slowed down its construction to only one new plant.

Koide Hiroaki’s perspective

Japanese engineer and scholar at the University of Kyoto, Koide Hiroaki, held a lecture called “Everything you wanted to know about the nuclear plants” (subete shiritai genpatsu no koto) which was posted on YouTube on February 12th, 2012. He explains that according to the IAEA, the amount of Cesium 137 released into the atmosphere following the atomic bomb over Hiroshima was 170 times less that what has been released by Fukushima Daiichi plants 1, 2 and 3. Frightening as it may sound, he believes this to be a gross underestimation. What is more, he thinks that the radiation dispersed into the sea is almost equivalent to that dispersed in the air, which would double the figures. Also, whereas the radiation from the A-bomb over Hiroshima exploded into a mushroom cloud which largely went into the stratosphere (thus not falling back on Hiroshima), Fukushima’s radioactive substances spread into the city’s environs, blown by the wind. On another occasion, Koide also warned that the contaminated cooling water in Fukushima Daiichi could potentially leak and pollute the underground water system in the surrounding area.

Map of radiation in Japan
Map of radiation in Japan

Prof. Koide explicates that although the government claims it is safe to live within a 20km radius of the Fukushima plants, MEXT (the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) show dangerous levels of radiation up to Tochigi, Gunma, Ibaraki, Chiba and Tokyo prefectures in the Kantō region. He cautions against the outrageous claim by committees such as the ICRP, to whose opinion the Japanese government subscribes, that there are no data to establish unequivocally the occurrence of cancer following exposure to 100 milli-sieverts (mSv) or less.

The professor‘s critique becomes even more powerful and harsh as he asks his audience, is Japan governed by law? Despite the illegality of the Japanese government’s maneuvers during and after the Fukushima incident, nobody has or is punishing it. Two major legal violations regard surface contamination and radioactive exposure. The Japanese government has violated these laws by having defined a 20km exclusion zone around Daiichi, when the surface contamination levels well beyond that point exceed the safety limits. They are also encouraging the residents to return home, when they would clearly be exposed to unhealthy amounts of radiation.

In Japan, there is a law stating that it is illegal to expose people to more than 1 mSv per annum. According to promoters of nuclear energy, out of every 10,000 people exposed to 1 mSv, on average 1 person in their 30s and 4 toddlers die (the young are statistically more affected than the old). According to the American professor J.W. Gofman, the figures are quite different: 4 people in their 30s and 16 toddlers would die. In other words, 1 mSv is not a safe dose. One-hundred mSv would essentially wipe out 160 babies and 40 adults for every 10,000 people (not counting other age groups). Koide suggests establishing an honest health standard and obliterate that which exposes us to more radiation. This includes the elimination of contaminated foodstuff which nobody wants to eat, but is being sold on the market nonetheless.

As for responsibility, he claims the biggest culprits are undoubtedly TEPCO and the Japanese government. However, those who were deceived by these institutions, organizations and their informers should also bear responsibility. Professor Koide includes himself in the count. He asks his countrymen to look beyond what is being fed to them by official informers and take action to create a better Japan.

Koide Hiroaki speaking
Koide Hiroaki speaking

In a bitterly-ironic statement (to which the audience chuckles), Koide says that to assume full responsibility for their actions, all those who bombastically promoted this technology – government, corporations and individuals – should eat the contaminated food that nobody in Japan wants to ingest.

As per the tons of waste caused by the tsunami, one solution he proposes is to send it to all parts of Japan to be incinerated. However, he claims, this is not ideal as the incineration factories are not equipped to deal with contaminated materials. Alternatively, he proposes that a new incinerator with decontaminating technology be built near the most affected region. Since the government seems to not want to take this course of action, he says that at the very least a filter should be devised at the incinerators that captures the radioactive substances. As for the ashes, he suggests the most contaminated parts should be used to make concrete and buried thereafter.

Because the “graveyard”, as he calls it, caused by Fukushima Daiichi’s meltdown is largely TEPCO’s fault, as much contaminated material as possible should be returned to TEPCO before being buried.

In the past few days, the Japanese Meteorological Agency reported consecutive quakes of about M4.5 in Fukushima. The entire island is seismically unstable and an even more devastating earthquake is predicted in coming years. The risk of another tsunami is real, and the reactors, which are mostly situated on the coastal areas, are constantly at risk. Japan has to face a crucial decision: create more nuclear complexes that produce energy to sustain its enormous population or protect its population by decreasing its avarice for energy, production and profit.