Image from Wikimedia commons, credit Digital Globe

Fukushima Daiichi’s multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns started ten years ago. They are not over. They are not even close to over. Nuclear disasters don’t ever end. The radioactive danger slowly decays over decades, during which it needs constant safety management until radiation measurements are below “acceptable levels.” That’s still not safe.

Fukushima continues to be a low-level nuclear disaster, as it has been for ten years. The initial explosive accident has been mitigated, but the danger has never been fully contained. Recent news from Fukushima is hardly reassuring.

On February 13, a major earthquake hit the region. Not as powerful as the 2001 earthquake that led to the Fukushima meltdowns, the 2021 earthquake nevertheless unsettled the unstable nuclear complex. This caused one or more leaks of radioactive water from the damaged reactors, according to public broadcaster NHK. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that owns and operates the Fukushima facility promptly denied that there were any new leaks. TEPCO acknowledge radioactive water spilled from the fuel rod storage pools but said that caused no danger to the public. Two days later, TEPCO was reporting: “Currently there are no abnormalities at TEPCO’s nuclear power stations that would have an impact off-site.”

More than a week after the earthquake, TEPCO acknowledged that seismometers at Unit 3 were not working. TEPCO admitted it has been aware of the outage since the previous July.

There is an unknown number of old leaks in the Fukushima containment buildings, dating to the original collapse and since. Clean groundwater infiltrates the reactor buildings, comes into contact with the melted cores, and is contaminated. Some of this contaminated water is collected in tanks above ground at the facility. The rest of the contaminated water filters out of the plant and into the Pacific Ocean. No one has a reliable measurement of the radioactive water draining continuously into the ocean.

Maintaining the coolant water level inside the reactors is critical to prevent further meltdown of the cores at the bottom of the containment structure. TEPCO pumps 3 tons of water per hour into the reactors to cool the fuel debris (a ton of water is about 240 gallons). A week after the earthquake of February 13, TEPCO acknowledged that the water levels in Unit 1 and Unit 3 had dropped by a foot or more and that water levels continue to drop every day. TEPCO does not know why the water level is dropping or where the water is going. TEPCO is responding to the water drop by pumping more water into the reactors to keep the water level up. While this will keep the melted nuclear fuel covered, it will also create more contaminated water for TEPCO to store in surface tanks that are running out of capacity (about 1.37 million tons, or 328 million gallons). Ten days after the earthquake, TEPCO reported that the quake had shifted 53 of them (out of 1,074), but that there were no leaks.

TEPCO did not know whether the water level in Unit 2 was dropping because Unit 2 instruments had been removed.

Another source of contaminated water is the numerous nuclear fuel pools on the site. The stored fuel rods also need to be covered in water to keep from melting down.

On February 28, TEPCO announced it had completed the two-year process of removing 566 fuel assemblies from the fuel pool at the top of the Unit 3 building. The fuel is now stored at ground level in another part of the facility, where it still needs to be cooled to be safe. While this is relatively good news, it is a miniscule part of the decommissioning of the Fukushima plant. Even with Unit 3, the hardest part is ahead: locating and removing the melted nuclear core under water at the bottom of the building.

Media coverage of Fukushima is generally scanty, and much of the mainstream coverage is little more than press-release-based happy talk, like the Washington Post story on March 6 with the headline:

A decade after Fukushima nuclear disaster, contaminated water symbolizes Japan’s struggles

Little about that headline is based in reality. It is not a decade “after” the nuclear disaster, it is a decade after it began. It is a decade into the disaster, with decades to go before it can be even close to over. Arguably, “contaminated water symbolizes Japan’s struggles,” depending on what that might mean. Contaminated water is hardly the biggest part of the Fukushima clean-up or the most dangerous or the most expensive. Contaminated symbolizes the “sorcerer’s apprentice” aspect of Fukushima in the way it self-multiplies without actually accomplishing anything more than making the situation worse. The Post doesn’t explain what its headline is supposed to mean.

The Japanese government and TEPCO have been trying to dump their radioactive water in the Pacific at least since 2019. They claim that the water will be treated, most but not all radionuclides removed, and that dumping it will be perfectly safe. The Post treats this claim as if it were reasonable, but the Post talks to no nuclear scientists (rather relying on non-nuclear environmentalists for “balance”). As far as this “perfectly safe” dumping goes, the Post quotes unnamed experts as saying, “The only thing holding them back appears to be the Olympics and the bad publicity it could generate before the Games begin in July.”

While outlining the government position in sympathetic details, the Post is more dismissive of the opposition, which is led by the regional fishing industry, which is only halfway recovered from 2011. “Also angry is South Korea, even though it is more than 600 miles away across the sea,” snidely reports the Post without mentioning that South Korea has banned Fukushima seafood. The Post also omits Japanese resistance from the Coastal Science and Societies and other environmental organizations, as well as the Catholic bishops of Japan and South Korea.

As for the routine sampling of fish caught off Fukushima, the Post writes rather dismissively: “Tests routinely come back clear, although last month a solitary black rockfish was found to have cesium levels five times the national standard, the first fish to fail the test in 16 months.” Cesium at five times the “safe level?” Not important? Perhaps it’s an anomaly, but the understanding of Fukushima’s radioactive particle is still rudimentary. In 2011 it became well known that Cesium particles spread as far as Tokyo. In 2021, a team of international scientists has announced the discovery of a previously unknown, larger and more radioactive Cesium particle. This Cesium particle was apparently formed in the Fukushima Unit 1 hydrogen explosion and spread to the northwest of the reactor. Ten years later and they’re still discovering what needs to be cleaned up. That’s on land. So how much more is unknown about radioactivity in the ocean?

On March 3, Yonhap News Agency summed up the status of Fukushima radioactive water dumping this way:

A Japanese government official said Wednesday that Tokyo cannot continue to delay the disposal of contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant due to tank storage limits, though it has yet to decide when and how to release it.

There is no plan in place but the government and TEPCO argue that they have to carry it out because they will run out of storage space for contaminated water by the summer of 2022. At the same time, the radiation level at the perimeter of the Fukushima facility is already eight times the “safe level” set by the government.

TEPCO told press that the predominant reason behind the sharp increase in radiation at the plant was X-rays coming from storage tanks holding radioactive water that has been leaking from the Fukushima facility. The water in the tanks contains traces of radioactive strontium along with other substances that react with the materials the tank is composed of, producing X-rays, said officials.

Apparently they didn’t know how the tanks would interact with radioactive materials before they set about filling more than a thousand of them. Or if they did know, they went ahead anyway. That would be consistent with the government’s allowing TEPCO to build the Fukushima plant in 1967 at sea level rather than on a bluff less vulnerable to tsunamis or groundwater flow. And it would be consistent with the government allowing TEPCO to ignore safeguards in the government’s 2002 long-term earthquake assessment.

Nuclear power has always been a corrupt enterprise, but in Japan now that corruption is coming back to hold its perpetrators accountable. On February 19, the Tokyo High Court ordered the government and TEPCO to pay damages of $2.63 million to 43 people who were forced to evacuate from their homes by the Fukushima disaster. The presiding judge called the government’s regulatory inaction “extremely unreasonable.” There are as many as 30 more such suits pending in Japanese courts.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

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