Fukushima Today August 24, 2014 – An Excellent Summary
In July, when the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced it would move forward with its plan to construct an "ice wall" around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's failed reactors, it seemed like a step backwards. In June, the utility company in charge of decommissioning the plant—which was ravaged by a tsunami in March 2011—indicated that its initial attempt at installing a similar structure had flopped. Its pipes were apparently unable to freeze the ground, despite being filled with a -22°F chemical solution.
Similar techniques have been successfully used by engineers to build underwater car tunnels and mine shafts. But Dr. Dale Klein, an engineer and expert on nuclear policy, isn't so sure it'll produce the same results on a project of this magnitude. He says that although freezing the ground around reactors one through four might help corral the water that's being used by TEPCO as a coolant, there's little technical understanding of how the natural water sources surrounding the plant might respond. "As the water comes down the mountains towards the ocean, it's not clear to me that [TEPCO] really know how it is going to move around that frozen barrier," he said in an interview with VICE.
"But it has to go somewhere," he continued. "It's such a complicated site and problem, and I don't know if they fully understand that yet." It's worrying to hear doubt from someone like Klein, whose expertise ranges from politics to pedagogy. He was appointed to chair the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President Bush in 2006 and, after stepping down in 2009, he served as the organization's commissioner in 2010. Now, in addition to being associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, he's part of an international TEPCO advisory panel and visits Japan three to four times a year to work with officials as they struggle to helm a largely ad hoc clean up effort.
Aside from TEPCO's unwillingness to consider other engineering solutions, his main point of criticism about Japan's largest utility company is rooted in one that countless others have voiced since the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami): a suspicious disregard for keeping the public informed. "When rumors start circulating, TEPCO needs to come forward right away and say, 'This is what we know, this is what we don't know,' rather than staying silent," Klein said. "They give off the perception that they're covering up something, when that isn't what they're doing at all."
But it's hard to give TEPCO the benefit of the doubt when misinformation, lying, and a sub-par approach to safety culture have been central to this quagmire since before the natural disasters. While it's rarely constructive to point fingers in a time of crisis, it's worth noting that TEPCO has been reprimanded by the Japanese government, international scientists, peace-keeping organizations, global media outlets, and both anti- and pro-nuclear advocates for its unwillingness to disclose key details at a time when they are desperately needed. Coupled with the unmitigated radiation still pouring into Pacific waters, this helps explain why a Japanese judicial panel announced in late July that it wants TEPCO executives to be indicted.
This negligence can be traced back to the Fukushima plant's meltdown. Just three months after the plant was crippled, theWall Street Journal came out with a report culled from a dozen interviews with senior TEPCO engineers saying its operators knew some reactors were incapable of withstanding a tsunami. Since the Daiichi plant's construction in the late 1960s, engineers had approached higher-ups to discuss refortifying the at-risk reactors, but these requests were denied due to concerns over renovation costs and an overall lack of interest in upgrading what was, at the time, a functioning plant. In 2012, it came to light that one such cost-cutting measure was the use of duct tape to seal leaking pipes within the plant.
A year after theWall Street Journalreport, TEPCO announced that the Daiichi plant's meltdown had released 2.5 times more radiation into the atmosphere than initially estimated. The utility cited broken radiation sensors within the plant's proximity as the main reason for this deficit and, in the same statement, claimed that 99 percent of the total radiation released from the Daiichi plant occurred during the last three weeks of March 2011. That last part turned out to be untrue—a year later, in June 2013, TEPCO admitted that almost 80,000 gallons of contaminated water had been leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day since the meltdown. As of today, that leak continues.
This year marked the disaster's third anniversary, but new accounts of mismanagement and swelling radiation levels continue to surface. In February, TEPCO revealed that groundwater sources near the Daiichi plant and 80 feet from the Pacific Ocean contained 20 million becquerels of the harmful radioactive element Strontium-90 per gallon (one becquerel equals one emission of radiation per second). Even though the internationally accepted limit for Strontium-90 contamination in water hovers around 120 becquerels per gallon, these measurements were hidden from Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority for nearly four months. As a response, the national nuclear watchdog agency censured TEPCO for lacking a "fundamental understanding of measuring and handling radiation."
And last month, TEPCO told reporters that 14 different rice paddies outside Fukushima's exclusion zone were contaminated in August 2013, after a large piece of debris was removed from one of the Daiichi plant's crippled reactors. The readings were taken in March 2014, but TEPCO didn't publicize their findings until four months later, at the start of July — meaning almost a year had passed since emissions had begun to accumulate at dangerous levels in Japan's most sacred food.
The list, unfortunately, goes on. This is merely the abridged account of TEPCO's backpedalling and PR shortfalls. It begs many questions, but the most perplexing one is: Why? Why has a crisis that is gaining traction as the worst case of nuclear pollution in history — worse, emission-wise, than Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Chernobyl—being smothered with internal censorship? If omission of information isn't intentional, like Dr. Klein suggests, why haven't these revelations led to a stronger institutional effort to contain Fukushima and reduce the chance that irregularities go unnoticed or unreported?
When I asked past Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Helen Caldicott these questions, she was quick to respond: "Because money matters more than people." Dr. Caldicott was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School when she became president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an American organization of doctors against nuclear warfare, climate change, and other environmental issues, in 1978. The organization, along with its parent body the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, a year after Caldicott left.
Last September, Caldicott organized a symposium at the New York Academy of Medicine entitled, "The Medical and Ecological Consequences of Fukushima," and has a book coming out on the issue this October. Her expertise on the subject is founded on academic research, but also her lifelong role as a doctor practicing preventative medicine in the nuclear age.
"Japan produces parts for nuclear reactors, like reactor containment vessels," she said in an interview with VICE. "They're heavily invested in nuclear power, even though they actually have access to nine times more renewable energy than Germany." Although Caldicott says what separates Fukushima from Chernobyl is the continuous leakage of radioactive material, in her eyes they're unified by an institutionalized effort to keep the veil from lifting. "The Japanese government took three months to tell the world that there had been three meltdowns, even though the meltdowns had taken place in the first three days," she said. "They're not testing the food routinely. In fact, they're growing food in highly radioactive areas, and there are stories that the most radioactive food is being canned and sold to third-world countries."
"Some doctors in Japan are starting to get very worried about the fact that they're seeing an increase in diseases but they're being told not to tell their patients that the diseases are related to radiation," she continued. "This is all because of money. Bottom line."The money she refers to isn't only rooted in Japan's export of nuclear reactor parts, or the fact that the economy is starting to reclaim its reign over Japan's national consciousness. It's threaded throughout a history of collusion and secretive deals that extend beyond TEPCO's record. Late last month, a long-term vice president of the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), which sourced nearly 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power sources like Fukushima before the 2011 accident, revealed to Japanese reporters that the company's president donated approximately $3.6 million to seven different Japanese prime ministers and other political figures between 1970 and 1990. The amount officials received was based on how much their incumbency profited the nuclear and electric energy sectors.
And if it's not money that lies beneath these multi-faceted attempts at obscuring information about Fukushima, it's the fear of mass hysteria. When it was revealed that the United Nations-affiliated pro-nuclear group International Atomic Energy Association made a deal with local government officials in Fukushima to classify information that might stoke public concern (like, observers speculate, cancer rates and radiation levels), civilian fears of a cover-up campaign crept out of the mischief associated with conspiracy and into the gravity of a situation that feels more and more surreal.
Despite these efforts, plenty has come to light. As of August 2014, we know that radiation levels around the Fukushima area continue to rise, even after three years of containment attempts. We know that doctors have found 89 cases of thyroid cancer in a study of less than 300,000 children from the Fukushima area—even though the normal incidence rate of this disease among youths is one or two for every million. We know that Japanese scientists are still reluctant to publicize their findings on Fukushima due to a fear of getting stigmatized by the national government.
We also know that US sailors who plotted a relief effort in Fukushima immediately after the disaster have reportedly been experiencing a well-up of different cancers, that monkeys living outside Fukushima's restricted zone have lower blood cell counts than those living in other parts of northern Japan, and that the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War's thorough critique of a recent Fukushima report by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation shows how the international community is severely underestimating the effects of the crisis.
Whether or not TEPCO's ice wall will be as successful as the company's lead engineers expect is ultimately dependent on trial. But Dr. Klein, Dr. Caldicott, and others have their own ideas of what should have been done, and what might still need doing in the near future. "I would like to see them try external pumps a bit more to see if they can slow the inflow of water," said Dr. Klein. This would involve placing mechanical pumps upstream from the water sources and away from the plant, to collect and contain the water before it passes over the damaged reactors. "Before the accident occurred, they were moving about 27,000 gallons of water a day around the site."
"The problem is that TEPCO has hardly invited in the international community to help to try and solve the problem," says Dr. Caldicott. "A huge company like [Florida-based engineering group] Bechtol, which makes reactors and is a very good engineering company, should have been invited in by the Japanese government to try and propose a way to deal with these problems in an engineering fashion." At the same time, she recognizes that it's not only up to Japan. "There should be an international consortium of global experts from France, from Russia, from the United States, and Canada, putting their heads together with the Japanese and working out solutions," she said.
Others believe that Japan needs to look northwest, towards the Kremlin. Chernobyl gave Russia and Ukraine a level of experience in handling nuclear failures that stands apart from most of the world. But even though the ecological effects of Fukushima continue to be hotly debated by scientific organizations and the public, Dr. Klein wants to take a step back from the conversation in order to move towards the endgame. "I'd like to see a completely safe operation. It's complicated," he concedes, "but we need to help support the Japanese clean up efforts whenever we can."
How the Cover-Up Works
An article entitled “Concerns Over Measurement of Fukushima Fallout” by DAVID MCNEILL | THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, MARCH 16, 2014
TOKYO — In the chaotic, fearful weeks after the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, in March 2011, researchers struggled to measure the radioactive fallout unleashed on the public. Michio Aoyama’s initial findings were more startling than most. As a senior scientist at the Japanese government’s Meteorological Research Institute, he said levels of radioactive cesium 137 in the surface water of the Pacific Ocean could be 10,000 times as high as contamination after Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Two months later, as Mr. Aoyama prepared to publish his findings in a short, non-peer-reviewed article for Nature, the director general of the institute called with an unusual demand — that Mr. Aoyama remove his own name from the paper. He said there were points he didn’t understand, or want to understand,” the researcher recalled. “I was later told that he did not want to say that Fukushima radioactivity was worse than Chernobyl. The head of the institute, who has since retired, declined to comment for this article. Mr. Aoyama asked for his name to be removed, he said, and the article was not published. The pressure he felt is not unusual — only his decision to speak about it. Off the record, university researchers in Japan say that even now, three years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, they feel under pressure to play down the impact of the disaster. Some say they cannot get funds or university support for their work. In several cases, the professors say, they have been obstructed or told to steer clear of data that might cause public “concern.”
“Getting involved in this sort of research is dangerous politically,” said Joji Otaki, a biologist at Japan’s Ryukyu University who has written papers suggesting that radioactivity at Fukushima has triggered inherited deformities in a species of butterfly. His research is paid for through private donations, including crowdf-unding, a sign, he said, that the public supports his work. “It’s an exceptional situation,” he said. The precise health impact of the Fukushima disaster is disputed. The government has defined mandatory evacuation zones around the Daiichi plant as areas where cumulative dose levels might reach 20 millisieverts per year, the typical worldwide limit for nuclear-power-plant workers. The limit recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection is one millisievert per year for the public, though some scientists argue that below 100 millisieverts the threat of increased cancers is negligible.
In an effort to lower radiation and persuade about 155,000 people to return home, the government is trying to decontaminate a large area by scraping away millions of tons of radioactive dirt and storing it in temporary dumps. Experts at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology put the cost of this project at $50 billion — widely considered an underestimate.
The chance to study in this real-life laboratory has drawn a small number of researchers from around the world. Timothy A. Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina who has written widely on Chernobyl, studies the impact of radiation on bird and insect life. He has published papers suggesting abnormalities and defects in some Fukushima species. But he said his three research excursions to Japan had been difficult.
In one case, a Japanese professor and two post-doctoral students dropped out of a joint research paper, telling him they could not risk association with his findings. “They felt it was too provocative and controversial,” he said, “and the post-docs were worried it could hamper their future job prospects.” Mr. Mousseau is careful to avoid comparisons with the Soviet Union, which arrested and even imprisoned scientists who studied Chernobyl. Nevertheless, he finds the lukewarm support for studies in Japan troubling: “It’s pretty clear that there is self-censorship or professors have been warned by their superiors that they must be very, very careful,” he said. The “more insidious censorship” is the lack of funding at a national level for these kinds of studies, he added. “They’re putting trillions of yen into moving dirt around and almost nothing into environmental assessment.” Long before an earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima meltdown, critics questioned the influence of Japan’s powerful nuclear lobby over the country’s top universities. Some professors say their careers have been hobbled because they expressed doubts about the nation’s nuclear policy and the coalition of bureaucrats, industrialists, politicians and elite academics who created it.
Mr. Aoyama, who now works at Fukushima University, sees no evidence of an organized conspiracy in the lack of openness about radiation levels — just official timidity. Despite the problems with his Nature article, he has written or co-written eight published papers since 2011 on coastal water pollution and other radiation-linked themes. But stories of problems with Fukushima-related research are common, he said, including accounts of several professors’ being told not to measure radiation in the surrounding prefectures. “There are so many issues in our community,” he said. “The key phrase is ‘don’t cause panic.”’
He is also critical of the flood of false rumors circulating about the reach of Fukushima’s radioactive payload. Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Department of marine chemistry and geochemistry, in Massachusetts, who has worked with Mr. Aoyama, said he has spent much of his professional energy fighting the rumor mill. The cause is not helped, he added, by institutional attempts to gag Japanese professors.
“Researchers are told not to talk to the press, or they don’t feel comfortable about talking to the press without permission,” Mr. Buesseler said. A veteran of three post-earthquake research trips to Japan, he wants the authorities to put more money into investigating the impact on the food chain of Fukushima’s release of cesium and strontium. “Why isn’t the Japanese government paying for this, since they have most to gain?” One reason, critics say, is that after a period of national soul-searching, when it looked as if Japan might scrap its commercial reactors, the government is again supporting nuclear power. Since the conservative Liberal Democrats returned to power, in late 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun trying to sell Japan’s nuclear technology abroad.
Much of the government funding for academic research in Japan is funneled through either the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science or the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Proposals are screened by government officials and reviewed by an academic committee. Yusuke Shoji, a spokesman for the ministry, cannot say how many proposals for studying the impact of radiation had been green-lighted, but he insists that the application system is fair. ‘‘The screening is conducted by peer review, so we don’t direct or don’t favor one particular research field,’’ he said. ‘‘We assess applications purely from the scientific point of view.’’ The Japan Society also says its applications process is not politicized.
Professors, meanwhile, say that rather than simply defend what is a piecemeal approach to studying the disaster, the government should take the lead in creating a large, publicly financed project. If we’ve ever going to make any headway into the environmental impact of these disasters, statistical power, scientific power, is what counts,” said Mr. Mousseau of the University of South Carolina. “We get at it with massive replication, by going to hundreds of locations. That costs money.”
TEPCO failed to disclose crops over 20KM from Fukushima were contaminated
Fourteen different rice paddies outside of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant evacuation zone were contaminated with radioactive material in August 2013, Japan’s agriculture ministry has found. Despite the findings – which blamed the removal of a large piece of debris from the Fukushima No. 3 reactor building for the contamination – Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) is moving ahead with plans to remove more highly radioactive debris from the No. 1 reactor building later this month.
According to the Asahi Shimbun, TEPCO’s removal process was halted when the agriculture ministry informed it of the contamination back in March, but operations are set to begin again soon. The ministry instructed the operator to implement protective measures for future work, but it’s unclear how extensive those changes are. One thing TEPCO officials will do is deploy more anti-scattering agents than they did before, but the company cautioned that “a large amount of radioactive substances” would likely be released anyway.
If TEPCO hopes to resume rubble-clearing operations), providing information on the possibility of the spread of (contaminated substances) is a major premise,” Takehiko Murayama of the Tokyo Institute of Technology said to the newspaper. In addition to the fourteen paddies contaminated beyond the Fukushima evacuation zone, five sites within the zone were also contaminated. The rice paddies are located in the city of Minami-Soma – more than 20 kilometers away from the nuclear plant itself – and government officials said that crops gathered in August featured cesium levels beyond Japan’s safety limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram
So far, officials believe Minami-Soma is the only city within Fukushima prefecture containing multiple sites with such high cesium levels. Although the agriculture ministry’s findings were completed in March, neither the government nor TEPCO opted to inform the public about the situation. As a result, residents – including Minami-Soma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai – are voicing anger over the lack of transparency.
"We cannot help but distrust the agriculture ministry, which did not promptly let us know of the matter, despite it being a serious issue," Sakurai said, as quoted in a separate Asahi Shimbun report. "We protest (TEPCO's) irresponsible clearing of rubble that raises concern among farmers. We demand an explanation." TEPCO officials claim it’s not 100 percent clear that removing debris from the No. 3 reactor building was to blame for the incident, noting it still doesn’t know just how far away the cesium spread. Government officials, meanwhile, said an uptick in contamination readings following the August 19 operation would only make sense if radiation was dislodged and spread during the removal process.
“We cannot think of any other factors,” a prefectural official told the Shimbun. “It is almost certain that the rise in readings was caused by the clearance work.” The news comes after rice harvested from several fields in Fukushima prefecture was fed to government officials last December, as a way to show that decontamination efforts had been successful. As RT reported then, that rice was collected from Kawamata Town (about 40 kilometers from Minami-Soma) and Iitate Village (roughly 27 kilometers away).