Why Fukushima is worse than you think
August 30th, 2013
09:02 AM ET

Why Fukushima is worse than you think

By Mycle Schneider, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mycle Schneider is an independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy based in Paris. He is the coordinator and lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. The views expressed are his own.

“Careless” was how Toyoshi Fuketa, commissioner of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, reportedly described the inspection quality of hundreds of water tanks at the crippled Fukushima plant following the recent discovery of a serious radioactive spill. China’s Foreign Ministry went further, saying it was “shocking” that radioactive water was still leaking into the Pacific Ocean two years after the Fukushima incident.

Both comments are to the point, and although many inside and outside Japan surely did not realize how bad the March 11, 2011 disaster was – and how bad it could get – it seems clear now that we have been misled about the scale of the problem confronting Japan. The country needs international help – and quickly.

While the amount of radioactivity released into the environment in March 2011 has been estimated as between 10 percent and 50 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl accident, the 400,000 tons of contaminated water stored on the Fukushima site contain more than 2.5 times the amount of radioactive cesium dispersed during the 1986 catastrophe in Ukraine.

So, where has this huge amount of highly contaminated water – enough to fill 160 Olympic-size swimming pools – come from? In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the reactor cores of units 1, 2 and 3 melted through the reactor vessels into the concrete. Nobody knows how far the molten fuel went through the containment – radiation levels in the reactor buildings are lethal, while robots got stuck in the rubble and some never came back out.

More from CNN: What Japanese leaders can learn

The molten fuel still needs to be cooled constantly and the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), injects about 400 tons of water into the perforated reactor vessels every day. That water washes out radioactive elements and runs straight through into the basements that were flooded during the tsunami. By 2015, over 600,000 tons of highly radioactive liquid are expected to have accumulated in temporary tanks, some underground, many bolted rather than welded together, and none ever conceived to hold this kind of liquid over the long term. The dangerous fluid is pumped around in four kilometer long makeshift tubes, many of them made of vinyl rather than steel, and plagued with numerous leaks in the winter when the above ground lines get hit by frost.

TEPCO’s account of the discovery this month of the leak of 300 tons of highly radioactive water showed a frightening level of amateurism:

“We found water spread at the bottom level of tanks near the tank No.5... Therefore, we checked the water level of this tank, and… confirmed that the current water level is lower by approximately 3 meters than the normal level.”

TEPCO reportedly admitted that only 60 of 350 tanks in that area are equipped with volume gauges. “Inspection” is done visually by a worker with a radiation detector. Meanwhile, the soil around the leaking tank delivered a dose per hour equivalent to the legal limit for nuclear workers for five years. No remote radiation measuring devices, no remote handling.

The tank leak is just the latest in a long list of signs that things are going fundamentally wrong at the site of what could still turn out to be the most serious radiological event in history. And the situation could still get a lot worse. A massive spent fuel fire would likely dwarf the current dimensions of the catastrophe and could exceed the radioactivity releases of Chernobyl dozens of times. First, the pool walls could leak beyond the capacity to deliver cooling water or a reactor building could collapse following one of the hundreds of aftershocks. Then, the fuel cladding could ignite spontaneously releasing its entire radioactive inventory.

More from CNN: Japan ponders freezing ground

TEPCO’s inability to stabilize the site, and the dramatic failure of the Japanese government, now majority owner of TEPCO, should come as no surprise. Indeed, so far, the Nuclear Regulation Authority has seemed too busy trying to help restart the country’s stranded reactors to put adequate attention on stabilizing the Fukushima site.

The fact is that the Fukushima Daiichi site represents challenges of unprecedented complexity. Maintaining the cooling of three molten reactor cores and five spent fuel pools in a disaster zone is a job of titanic proportions. That is why two weeks after the crisis first erupted I suggested the creation of an International Task Force Fukushima (ITFF) that would pull together the world’s experts in key areas of concern: nuclear physics and engineering, core cooling, water management, spent fuel and radioactive waste storage, building integrity and radiation protection.

Two and a half years on, the need for such a taskforce has only grown.

An ITFF would need to be established for at least two years to be effective, and could have two co-chairpersons – one Japanese, one from abroad. A core group of about a dozen experts would work full-time on the project and could draw at will on the expertise of several dozen corresponding experts that are carefully selected by the core group. A significant share of the core group should be independent experts (i.e. with no link to corporate or state interests). In addition, the ITFF would work in an open expert network, free to draw on any expertise in any field that it judges pertinent. It could openly invite feedback to its recommendations and would do its utmost to assess comments and suggestions.

Of course, such a taskforce would not “supervise” or “control” – the responsibility for this would remain with the Japanese government and the regulator. But the ITFF could provide recommendations on short-, medium- and long-term strategies for site stabilization.

Will the call for such a taskforce gain any traction? I have presented the basic concept to safety authorities of several countries, acting and former ambassadors, ministers and the European Commission. But while some officials have pointed to some ongoing limited bilateral assistance, so far, the main stumbling block appears to be the “pattern of denial” in Japan, a problem that has affected not only TEPCO, but apparently the Japanese government and the safety authorities as well.

Thankfully, there have been some small signs in official declarations by TEPCO and the Japanese government in recent days that offer hope for a change in attitudes. And Japan’s image in the world – and the Japanese people’s trust in their institutions – would greatly profit from an explicit and concrete international project. The question is whether members of the international community can muster the will to put their own interests aside, and help Japan conquer the denial that is risking catastrophe.

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Topics: Japan • Nuclear

soundoff (513 Responses)
  1. vince


    Should Fukushima's radioactive water be dumped at sea?

    Updated 13:15 28 August 2013

    August 31, 2013 at 6:37 am | Reply
    • Heather

      Well Vince, that would be supremely irresponsible & damning to the planet & our future survival, but it seems to be what TEPCO is doing anyway.

      August 31, 2013 at 8:54 am | Reply
      • Jim


        August 31, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • Chernobyl wasnt enough

      Any chance that the water can be dumbed through a pipe into the Mariana Trench?

      August 31, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply
    • Vince

      Why don't we burn our garbage like they do in europe? And generate power, Just a drop in the bucket but its a start

      September 9, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  2. akita96th

    The human experiment has come to an end.....We lost..

    August 31, 2013 at 7:19 am | Reply
  3. Jorge washinsen

    There has and always has been a safe and natural fuel to generate power and we have plenty of it. It is called coal.

    August 31, 2013 at 7:48 am | Reply
    • zylofone

      That's a very disingenuous comment. Coal is indeed "safer" than nuclear power in terms of its potential for large scale disaster, but then again so is just about any other energy source. And although coal is a useful energy source, it also has plenty of its own drawbacks, such as being highly polluting of the environment.

      August 31, 2013 at 8:02 am | Reply
      • Big Muskie

        Coal WILL come back. It's only a matter of time when technology will be advanced far enough to perfect emission cleaners and economic means to convert it to gas. There is a lot of exciting research going on.

        August 31, 2013 at 9:01 am |
      • George

        I would call Global Warming a major disaster. And 80 or more dead in a single mining accident. And giant toxic coal ash ponds devastating spills. And large areas of countryside destroyed in strip mining.

        Nuclear is by far the safest and cleanest source of energy.

        September 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • Kes

      You must be a paid shill for the coal corporations, Jorge washinsen. I think at this point everybody with an ounce of information knows that burning coal leads to seriously increased rates of cancer, lead poisoning, asthma, and other problems, not to mention the poor conditions under which coal miners work. We have to find other solutions for the economies of coal-mining areas, and renewable, green methods of powering our societies.

      August 31, 2013 at 8:12 am | Reply
      • Oh

        Bingo...you nailed it Kes.

        August 31, 2013 at 8:31 am |
      • are122

        I first heard this about 50 years ago. I wonder if in another 50 years you will be saying the same thing. I hope not.

        August 31, 2013 at 9:06 am |
      • Vaux

        Obviously, you only have "an ounce of information". How are your unicorn farm plans going?

        August 31, 2013 at 9:22 am |
      • vinilxpatel

        we need to consume less...that is the ONLY solution. Drive less, work less, buy less, become more in synchronicity with a natural lifestyle...while there is still some nature left.

        August 31, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • Nick C.

      Please do research before you say coal is safe. If you go to the US Department of Labor's website you can see how dangerous it is for the miners based on fatalities, injuries, and lost work days. In addition, coal combustion releases mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. Many responsible companies have put in back-end technology to scrub these toxins during the process, but others just do the bare minimum to comply with the clean air act and still allow a large amount of the pollutants out. Is that your definition of "safe"?

      August 31, 2013 at 8:40 am | Reply
    • Jt

      Unless of course you're the one 1 mile down digging it up in a glorified coffin known as a coal mine.

      August 31, 2013 at 9:59 am | Reply
    • ted

      Coal is dirty..

      August 31, 2013 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • Bob morrison

      I love when people say "clean coal". How can burning coal be clean? It's an oxymoron like "wild boar". Come on america, wake up. We are getting way screwed by politicians and BIG business.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:25 am | Reply
  4. Franklin jay

    Natural disasters are one thing but arrogance to accept the truth is another. This situation will only surely get worst unless world experts come together to find a permanent solution. If not, we as a human race will suffer the consequences of this nuclear disaster for future generations. And yes, that scares me.

    August 31, 2013 at 7:54 am | Reply
  5. Dave

    Oh yea? Well Fukushima you too!

    August 31, 2013 at 8:02 am | Reply
  6. ZweiStein

    BUT...BUT...But...but They said it was SAFE! I say that whoever it was that declared it SAFE to operate this place, should now go in there and do whatever is needed to try to "Safe" it for real. I mean, personally go in and do it!

    August 31, 2013 at 8:13 am | Reply

      That would be GE

      August 31, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
      • RCrocker

        I can assure you, GE did not tell Fukishima to put ALL of the emergency diesel generators on the 1st floor. Someone else did that to save money.

        August 31, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  7. Billy

    China’s Foreign Ministry is shocked at the release of pollution.

    August 31, 2013 at 8:30 am | Reply
  8. Bad Boy

    No, many have known this disaster was going to be a life changer. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out.

    August 31, 2013 at 8:36 am | Reply
  9. nicole

    I can't believe CNN is reporting the truth for a change. Alternative media has been reporting about this for a long time.(about the Fukashima spill into the ocean)

    August 31, 2013 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • Laura

      My thoughts exactly. Sadly, the author of the article doesn't realize that we have more important things to do than worry about Fukushima, like starting and escalating wars (how many wars are we in right now???).

      August 31, 2013 at 9:14 am | Reply
    • Bob morrison

      Let's hope CNN does a MAJOR prime time story and pray the report it ACCURATELY!! I agree, CNN reports stories like a 6th grader doing the news.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:27 am | Reply
  10. gravometric

    It's not worse than I think but since the news media is frigging useless these days these fools at cnn are just figuring it out.

    August 31, 2013 at 8:50 am | Reply
  11. t byrne

    please anyone in a position to get this noticed go to http://www.ceramiccementcorp.com this company has a patented ceramic cement with boron which sets quickly and can contain this horrible nuclear poison. thanks and our children also thank you

    August 31, 2013 at 8:54 am | Reply
  12. fayray11x

    anyone who thinks nuclear power is worth the risk should be forced to work the clean-up of this disaster until they die of the radiation. The world does not need these monsters.

    August 31, 2013 at 8:59 am | Reply
    • hz

      and yet ever single power sources other than nuclear killed thousands times more than what nuclear has ever killed

      August 31, 2013 at 9:00 am | Reply
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      Unfortunately the world has 7 billion people, most of whom want all the comforts and amenities of the developed nations (e.g. ELECTRICITY). How do you propose to supply that power to them all? Hydroelectric, a la China's Three Gorges project? Nuclear is the most cost effective.

      August 31, 2013 at 9:23 am | Reply
      • SandyC

        Where I live we have Zoto's , a very big company that produces all kinds of shampoo and body products. It went free from using electric shipped in from the local power company last year. It uses windmills. Just two of them support this factory that runs 24 hours a day. They don't run 24 hours a day to do it either. there are healthier solutions.

        August 31, 2013 at 9:39 am |
      • man4earth

        More electricity was added to the grid last year by wind and solar than any other source in many countries, including the U.S. Things have changed dramatically in the last couple years and the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries are painfully aware of this as their piece of the energy pie shrinks, they will fight hard to keep as big of of piece as possible.

        August 31, 2013 at 11:33 am |
      • man4earth

        Nuclear can't do it, but solar, wind, hydro and other renewables can.




        August 31, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  13. hz

    Godzilla is coming xD

    August 31, 2013 at 8:59 am | Reply
  14. justrealnews

    Reblogged this on R.C.N (Reality Check Newsroom).

    August 31, 2013 at 9:00 am | Reply
  15. Organic1

    Hey CNN – why moderate every post I make ? You scared of my words?

    August 31, 2013 at 9:03 am | Reply
  16. boungiorno

    tasteless odorless and deadly and yes its still leaking and having a serious effect on the planet

    August 31, 2013 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • Vaux


      August 31, 2013 at 10:00 am | Reply
  17. Willie

    Personally, I'll take nuclear power any day. Why? Because it IS SAFE! How many people died due to radiation at Fukishima? ZERO. Expected long-term effects from radiation exposure? NEGLIGIBLE. There are over 200 operating nuclear reactors in the US (commercial and military) that have been operating for DECADES. How many radiation deaths from this? ZERO. Now compare that to mining accidents, oil platform accidents, oil and air pollution, fuel spills, and the THOUSANDS of deaths annually to all those causes, not to mention global warming. Chernobyl? An unsafe reactor design that is not used in the West, and the only accident that caused short-term and long-term casualties. Clearly both Chernobyl and Fukishima are environmental disasters, but compared to the total environmental and health impact of oil and gas industry, nuclear clearly wins.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • dean

      In an ideal world with every system running at perfection, a nuclear reactor runs then shutdown down then runs again, cycle after cycle. I don't think comparisons between different industries should skew or reduce the risks of either type of energy or industry. The world would be better off with no coal mines or any other high risk industry, including nuclear. I would like to see what your feelings would be if you lived near a commercial nuclear power plant in an area that could have 1-2 million people and have an accident like fukushima hit... a coal mine disaster doesn't typically evacuate 1000s of people but a NPP has the highest ASSURANCE that 100s, 1000s or millions of people will be affected, billions of loss in property, industry, employment, health issues for generations. I am certain you would have different thoughts if you were a VICTIM.... regards

      August 31, 2013 at 9:27 am | Reply
      • Willie

        dean, I agree and I would love to get rid of coal and other carbon sources. But the renewable energy sources just won't make up the difference. And btw...I used to sleep about 40 feet above a nuclear reactor while in the Navy. I fully understand the technology. And I would have ZERO concerns if a nuclear power plant were built in my backyard. Most people have a skewed view of safety and risk because they put a higher level of risk on something that is not understood or under their direct control (eg: flying vs. driving). Nuclear has it's issues and potential for disaster, but when you look at it logically, it beats out other carbon sources.

        August 31, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • dls2k2

      And if a means can be developed to put to use the radioactive waste materials and thus greatly reduce their amounts, nukes will look even better.

      August 31, 2013 at 9:34 am | Reply
    • SandyC

      Three mile island nuclear facility had an unexpected shutdown via computers recently. while i tried to google it's information it was reporting about it's own meltdown in 1979. One i never remember hearing about. Nuclear power has to go.

      August 31, 2013 at 9:47 am | Reply
      • dean

        Sandy you may like to visit our web site

        August 31, 2013 at 10:02 am |
      • Vaux

        You are unfamiliar with the most significant nuclear accident to occur in the US, an accident that happened less than 35 years ago, and you consider yourself qualified enough on the subject to declare that nuclear energy "has to go"? Does the word "arrogant" mean anything to you? Feel free go Google it.

        August 31, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • Bob morrison

      Willie, it's safe? Maybe? But when nuclear power plants are built on ocean front locations, I disagree. In California we have a nuclear power plant built on a MAJOR earthquake fault. So is that safe? "IF" that plant get's rocked by an earthquake, WE ARE TOAST!!! It's not a matter of "if" it's a matter of "when". Yes, this may happen after I'm dead and gone, but my children and their children are TOAST!!!

      August 31, 2013 at 10:32 am | Reply
      • Willie

        Bob, that nuclear power plant was designed to withstand that earthquake. At Fukishima, it wasn't the earthquake but the "once in a thousand years" tsunami. And even then, no has died from radiation, and few if any people are expected to have long-term effects or shortened lives from cancer. There may be some long-term higher risks to cancer which is unfortunate, but that is NOTHING compared to the deaths and shortened lives from carbon fuel disasters or air pollution.

        August 31, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
      • Willie

        Oh yeah, and IF that plane taking off from my local airport hits my house my family is TOAST. And IF that home intruder enters my home and kills my family they are TOAST. And IF that semi-truck hits me head-on on the freeway my next family vacation my family is TOAST. I'm sorry but I don't fear or worry about something that is so unlikely as that. If an earthquake hits so big that the nuclear plant has an accident, your family will most likely be TOAST not from radiation but from your house falling on them.

        August 31, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • man4earth

      About one million are estimated to have died from Chernobyl and thousands from Three Mile Island, these studies were conducted by leading experts and are rejected by nuclear industry insiders, yet they embrace studies that use similar methodologies to estimate deaths from other power sources.

      August 31, 2013 at 11:50 am | Reply
      • Willie

        Hey man4earth, you need to seriously look at your sources. It's completely false and misleading which is one of the reasons nuclear power gets a black eye.

        August 31, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • George

        "...by leading experts..."

        You mean Greenpeace. Yeah, right. You know the guys that are adamant that the Greenland Ice Sheet will be gone by 2030.

        September 1, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  18. dean

    The report has some good information but does have some technical inaccuracies, one being that TEPCO isn't pumping 400T of water into the units 1-3 per day. Tepco actually has the equivalent of 2 garden hoses worth of water being put into 2 places (reactor spray and inlet lines). I belong to SimplyInfo.org and we have just released an indepth article on the leaks and storage issues being faced by TEPCO. Please visit our web site and read the article which will bring clarity to this critical issue. http://www.simplyinfo.org

    August 31, 2013 at 9:17 am | Reply
    • TruthInReporting

      I trust you realize that 400 tons per day is but 67 gallons per minute, which is only 50% more than would be supplied from a residential 3/4" garden hose, 100' long, with a60 psi supply.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:14 am | Reply
      • dean

        i realize the flow rates etc... TEPCO isn't putting out that water volume equivalent tho... around 18 gpm is going in

        August 31, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  19. gisthatright

    More evidence that greed rules the world. We all gathered how bad this was at the time. The corporate media has taken an ignore it and it will go away approach. So CNN, don't tell us its much than we thought. WE KNEW ALL ALONG!

    August 31, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply
  20. Susan

    This is the crisis that the international community should be stepping in to lend help with, not attacking Syria.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:20 am | Reply
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      Nice to see you're cool with the use of chemical weapons.
      Chemical good.
      Nuclear bad.

      August 31, 2013 at 9:25 am | Reply
      • Susan

        No, not 'cool' with chemical weapons but War is bad and neither side in Syria is our friend.

        Helping an ally recover from a natural disaster is good.....

        August 31, 2013 at 9:51 am |
      • TrueBlue42

        Nice spin on Susan's statement, even though she obviously wasn't "condoning" chemical weapons. But, ya know what, if Syria bothers you so much, feel free to enlist in the service branch of your choice and go to Syria – stop the baddies, tough guy. We grown-ups, in the meantime, continue helping with the Fukushima problem. You're welcome.

        August 31, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • TK

      Agreed Susan.

      August 31, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  21. FactChecker

    "suggested the creation of an International Task Force Fukushima (ITFF) that would pull together the world’s experts in key areas of concern" - That is a good idea. But remember that not all problems are solvable after the fact. When the reactors melted down, the damage was done. Maybe now we can only wait and see how bad it gets.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:30 am | Reply
    • dean

      We (Simplyinfo.org) have done extensive research on Fukushima since the beginning on 3-11-11. .We feel that TEPCO has not managed the crisis well and continues to have problems in attacking the problem. We believe that much more needs to be done to inhibit the ground water from reaching the reactors and become contaminated and leaked to the Sea. There are immediate concerns about the melted coriums within units 1-3 reaching out beyond the buildings underground and contaminating the water going directly to the Sea. Contamination of the Sea and Pacific Ocean will be a guarantee that the plume path will likely end in contaminating Guam, Hawaii, Alaska and the west coasts of Canada and the US... International help is imperative to having a chance

      August 31, 2013 at 9:40 am | Reply
      • DinkyPink

        Thank you for all of your research. Thank you for posting your link, as well. Great site!

        August 31, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • mikey

      international task force recommendation by an international task force consultant...imagine that!!!

      August 31, 2013 at 11:28 am | Reply
  22. Chris

    I think numerous indigenous peoples around the world would take serious offense at the idea that nuclear power is safe and without injury or death. Their communities have suffered terribly over the last 60 years of uranium mining. EVERY power source has real-world consequences – even solar and wind. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4248

    August 31, 2013 at 9:36 am | Reply
  23. josh

    Okay, misinformed reporting and fear mongering. Would you expect anything less from CNN these days?

    August 31, 2013 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • mikey

      this guy reads a few newspaper articles and then states the obvious...what a journalist.....then recommends that he go and fix the problem. louse what a louse

      August 31, 2013 at 11:31 am | Reply
  24. Bruce

    I agree with many others here. CNN assumes we all believe it is worse than we think because we "believe" everything the main stream media tells us. Most people with some level of common sense knew this was really bad and that the effects of a nuclear plan disaster was much more than was being reported. The part I can't quite figure out is why would CNN and other main stream media outlets not do their job to investigate and report on this? What is the benefit to them to misreport, under-report and gloss over the facts. I can't believe how much CNN has fallen. Their headline news network is a total joke. I remember the day when you would go to CNN Headline news to get the lastest 30-min thread of current news. I can't figure out if it is even a news channel anymore.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:42 am | Reply
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