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. Tom

    If it was spewing radioactive waste up through a six mile high tornado where it would coat the earth and exterminate all life, then it would be worse than I think (though imagine what the Sharknado folks could do with that plot). Nothing in this article made it seem worse than I already thought it was.

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

      The fact that it's still leaking is news to me. They've had years to take care of this but they are still poisoning the Pacific Ocean due to false pride. That's news, but what do you expect from a country that still kills whales and denies the Asian Holocaust for which they are responsible?

      August 31, 2013 at 11:07 am | Reply
  2. howie

    This is a non-issue. How many deaths so far? None. Pump the water into the ocean. There is more natural radioactivity there than what would be added. There is a LOT of water in the ocean, what is released in fukishima would be negligible in comparison. Dilution. Simple science.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:53 am | Reply
    • VedX

      Yeah, the solution to pollution is dilution. Let's just all dump our toxic nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean.

      August 31, 2013 at 11:19 am | Reply
  3. dean

    I would like to add a couple of things here, at the present time units 1-3 have cooling water going into 2 locations each (the reactor vessel internal spray header line and the reactor coolant inlet line). Each of these locations is currently putting in the equivalent of a garden hose (roughly 6 gpm). The water is not at sufficient pressure to be sprayed normally and is basically trickling and flowing down the debris left from the fuel melting. TEPCO does not know where it ends up down in the reactor vessel or below. The temperatures they monitor are from temperature elements that are not in direct contact with normal measurement areas however, they still seem to be low. We want TEPCO to halt water flow while a remote camera is in the area near the containment vessel and watch to see what happens....
    The other water that is going into the buildings is from the groundwater streaming into cracks/holes/fractures in the substrates of the buildings. This water, (400 tons per day or 75 gmp) has thus far been uncontrollable and is being highly contaminated and needs to be stored in the tanks we hear about.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:56 am | Reply
  4. dean

    Another point to be added, We have looked at the spent fuel pools and our current assessment is that IF the spent fuel pool at unit 4 were to be drained "completely" for what ever reasons, the nuclear fuel heat currently has decayed to the point that the increased temperature levels would not be sufficient to melt the cladding and cause the POOL FIRE that the whole world has been dreading.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:00 am | Reply
  5. Jim

    The reason is to not incite panic. We have these in the US too you know, and they are just as much of an issue as Fukushima, just not yet.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:02 am | Reply
    • dean

      agree on the panic Jim, we have tried to use our platform for education, find the facts and don't report just on hearsay

      August 31, 2013 at 10:04 am | Reply
  6. Sean

    BS... Everyone suspected how bad it was and how bad it could get.. it was the MEDIA once again lying or simply failing to get the real story that was telling everyone that it was not that bad.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:08 am | Reply
    • dean

      Sean, we have found that he media tends to lean towards stories that will lead to ratings and reporting exagerations to boot. Fukushima was long forgotten in the main line press when there were no more huge explosions to show. The world has basically gone for 2 1/2 years with out daily changes, leaks, releases, earthquakes etc at the Fukushima site. Now that there is some leakage that alarms the world with news that water may reach the ocean,,, news outlets will cover it with GUEST writers,,, but it won't last long. We cover FUKUSHIMA daily and research to prepare articles ongoing. The debris removed from the top of the unit 3 reactor building is a good example.. items were dropped into the spent fuel pool that impacted the fuel racks and had to be removed. After the bulky debris was removed that left the small pieces and airbourne contamination which was spread and contaminated 10 workers. Those are the daily things we see... Try to find a source that does real research before reporting and watch for people who scream the sky is falling evacuate the northern hemisphere...

      August 31, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply

    I thought nuclear was a safe clean energy.... LOL.

    Keep drinking your republican Kool-Aid.

    Timie to power our lives with wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean wave energy.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:11 am | Reply
    • eee

      Nice, but where will the baseload power come from? Yep..fossil fuels.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:43 am | Reply
      • brokenpinata

        Human hamster wheels? That help solve unemployment too.

        August 31, 2013 at 11:48 am |
      • Margaret

        Energy can come from many sources other than fossil fuels. Much of the world has an abundance of SUN. There is also wind and thermal power. I watched an interesting program on Ice that was converted into energy. And they are doing amazing things with batteries. We keep supporting the coal and oil industries. We should be encouraging alternative energy sources, and if the company pulls a Solendra? then prosecute them but don't throw out the whole program because of some bad apples. Just look at the coal industry, how many polluted and destroyed for years.

        August 31, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • agadvice

      Gee, I didn't know France, the UK, Russia, Germany, etc. etc. etc. were full of Republicans, since they all have nuclear power plants.

      I would have expected better...thorium reactors, for example. Safe, impossible to melt down, and you cannot make nukes with the waste.

      August 31, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
    • Blursd

      You do realize that more nuclear powerplants were built under the direction DEMOCRATIC presidents and governors than republicans by a factor of about three to one ... :s

      August 31, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • Cassidy S

      Or even just the smaller, far safer Nuclear reactors we are now capable of producing. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Power-Reactors/Small-Nuclear-Power-Reactors/#.UiDDkz8qdI0

      August 31, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  8. MK54

    The good news is that nearly all of the cesium will eventually decay into non-radioactive substances.....with a cesium half-life around 30 years Fukishima should be in pretty good shape in a few hundred years. The real question is how many more nuclear "accidents" will happen in the interim? If the current rate of one major event every 25 years or so is maintained, the Earth might have a dozens new uninhabitable zones by then. Using nuclear fission technology for energy seems to me to be insanity on a global scale, the real cost is far too high.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • Kyle G.

      The United States Navy has been using more than 100+ nulcear reactors on warships without a reactor related incident since the 60s. No release to the public, no meltdowns, etc.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
      • concernedandappalled

        None that have been reported to the public. Keep that in mind as you take the news as the all inclusive of things happening around you. Many more things happen than what is made known to the public or makes or is allowed in the news.

        August 31, 2013 at 10:45 am |
      • eee

        It goes back even further to the 1950's with the USS Nautilus.

        Judging reactor safety based on accidents from antiquated designs like Fukishima is like crash testing a 1964 Mustang and declaring automobiles an "insanity" to our transportation problem.

        August 31, 2013 at 10:47 am |
      • Gamthin

        That may be true, but just imagine if we ever actually fought a war, and if even a few of ships were sunk. Each nuclear ship sunk would be a future environmental disaster.

        August 31, 2013 at 10:52 am |
      • Margaret

        There have been nuclear subs that have sunk. No one is talking about all the nuclear waste that different countries have sunk by the barrel into the oceans. They better hope they can find a new planet that people can live on before we push this one paste the breaking point.

        August 31, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • concernedandappalled

      You failed to consider that cesium is only one of the many radioactive isotopes present in this nuclear incident.
      Plutonium is a by-product of nuclear power generation as well. The isotopes of plutonium have a half-life ranging from thousands of years to million of years. This is not something that is going to go away in a few hundred years. Plutonium, Cesium, Strontium, and Uranium are but a few of the radioactive elements present in this catastrophe. There are many more that haven't been named or reported on.
      The pacific ocean has been contaminated over the past two years and has continued to this day as they dump radioactive water at sea away from their country and as it leaks from these tanks and washes into the ocean.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:43 am | Reply
      • eee

        ...and in the meantime 1000's of fossil plants around the world spew radioactive particles and mercury (among other things) into the environment, unmonitored and invisible to the media.

        August 31, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • ShingoEX

      " If the current rate of one major event every 25 years or so" That's not a "rate". You're using too few examples to establish an estimate.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
  9. ted

    The Sun and Wind are free, will always be there, and do not pollute.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
    • John

      The sun will not "always" be there. In ~7 billion years, its fuel will be spent. 😉

      August 31, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply
      • John

        Haha Good one!

        August 31, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  10. Joe Regular

    How do you pronounce Fukushima?

    August 31, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
    • Dave

      Not the way you're thinking.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:26 am | Reply
    • Colin


      August 31, 2013 at 10:28 am | Reply
    • Louis

      Fnck you shima..

      August 31, 2013 at 11:36 am | Reply
  11. fakefakefake

    MANY of us knew well that it was a catastrophy, but the global corporate elites and their lackeys in governments blacked out all information, in a concerted effort to deny and avoid their criminal culpability and their financial obligations (in terms of insurance payments that they couldn't handle). profits before humanity, any day.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:19 am | Reply
  12. 44thbtgh

    this is a disgraceful example of private industry self-regulation vs government.regulation. WE NEED GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:23 am | Reply
  13. Rob

    As long as there is profit to be made elsewhere, we will never see a real serious push towards developing the FREE RENEWABLE energy that is abundant to EVERYONE.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • Abraham Ben Judea

      There exists a modernday steam engine...look up EZEE03

      August 31, 2013 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • Kyle G.

      It's not "free." If it was free...there wouldn't be companies trying to push for them. Companies are there to make money, even off of "clean" energy.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
    • AW_66

      People who seriously believe that solar and wind, and geothermal, are ever going to be enough to provide the baseload power for the world is severely delusional. Not to mention, most of those solar panels and wind turbines you are so fond of? They are made in china. Maybe you don't care, but I do. My dad has worked for 20 years in the US Navy as a Reactor Mechanic, and guess what? He doesn't glow in the dark.

      I wish news agencies would start reporting with facts, not with sensationalism to get views. Let's look at the facts, shall we? Yes fukushima is bad. Pretty bad. Not nearly as bad as chernobyl. But what happened here, is not actually possible to happen with new Generation IV reactor designs like the Westinghouse AP1000, of which there are currently at least 3 under construction in the US. One at Georgia's Vogtle plant, and two more at South Carolinas Virgil C Summer plant. The new designs make it pretty much impossible for this to happen.

      Not to mention, the biggest problem here was that they didn't have the diesel generators in a place that would avoid being destroyed by the tsunami.

      Let me be frank for a minute. "renewable energy" is a pipe dream. It will NEVER be able to supply 100% of our electricity. It's too unreliable, too expensive, takes up too much space. Do you realize how big the wind or solar farm would have to be to match the output of even a single nuclear reactor? How about a plant with 3? You would need tens of miles.

      Did you know that wind power is worse for your health than nuclear? The infrasound emitted by the turbine blades as they spin have the same effect on people as electro-magnetic fields. That is to say, they cause paranoia, they cause mental health problems.

      Did you know, that living near a coal power plant gives you more radiation than a nuclear power plant does? Did you know that you get exposed to more radiation from a day at the beach, than you do from a day living next to a nuclear power plant? Nuclear power is by far the best option we have, and new designs are far better than they were when these Gen I plants were built decades ago. And if you apply Chernobyl to anything, you are a fool, because it shows you really don't understand nuclear power.

      Go read about what happened at Chernobyl, WHY it happened. Because their reactor design they used, the RBK 1000, was FAR FAR different from what we use. If Chernobyl had a containment structure, there would have been no real release of radiation. But this was the soviet union, they were cutting costs and corners, therefor they had no containment structure. They also used a very stupid design that promoted runaway reactions. go read about it. But you won't, because you are too stubborn to believe anything but silly wind and solar power.

      August 31, 2013 at 11:32 am | Reply
      • ex-pronuke

        I can see someone is still drinking the Kool-Aid! How much radiation is released when a coal plant blows up? How can you scoff at someone who compares Chernobyl and Daiichi? Lets see....all three containments breached and three cores melted and location is unknown. Coolable and subcritical geometry is not known. You cannot have confidence in a water-soluble neutron moderator if you aren't sure where the water is going. It is all conjecture but I would assert that Daiichi is 2.5 times worse than Chernobyl simply because of the ratio of the core loads involved. If it turns out spent fuel was damaged, then increase that. The mitigating factor at Daiichi is that prevailing winds minimized immediate impact to the environment. However, substantially more will be spent on decommissioning Daiichi because of the enclosed nature of the accident. I hope this type of accident never repeats itself here but I see a lot of it can't happen here rhetoric that is simply not supported by "the facts". This industry needs to realize that even the AP1000 is susceptible to severe core damage and stop being so defensive. We have to stop putting money into more of them because the fact is that we are humans and cannot control every single variable which can change. A wrong assumption of probability of events transpiring CAN reduce the core damage frequency to where an earth-sized planet with 300 reactors will have severe damage on one reactor every 25-30 years or so.

        August 31, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
      • soupfork

        Well said.

        August 31, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  14. nedwright

    Fukushima is worse than I think because news organization barely cover it. Seriously – 3 years? Send somebody over there and investigate this thing.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:25 am | Reply
  15. Abraham Ben Judea

    Warning, Warning. The Pacific Ocean is the major source for KELP. Kelp will and is absorbing the radio active particles. Where and what uses Kelp have? Ice cream and Toothpaste filler. How are we to know that Colgate Co is not selling us radioactive toothpaste?

    August 31, 2013 at 10:29 am | Reply
  16. drew

    why not make a tomb, just pump it full of concrete and call it a day

    August 31, 2013 at 10:35 am | Reply
    • Justin Fisher

      Because the cores are generating a lot of heat, which the concrete could not dissipate.

      August 31, 2013 at 11:36 am | Reply
  17. Bill Rogers

    I can see just by reading the "colorful" remarks, they are trying to overly dramatize the disaster. Comparing Fukushima to Chernobyl is like comparing apples to oranges. "Highly radioactive" is a meaningless remark, as it gives no accuate data.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:44 am | Reply
  18. Marcus


    August 31, 2013 at 10:44 am | Reply
    • Chris

      You my friend are everything that is wrong with this world...get stoned some more and suck yourself in to the conspiracy theories it's working for you this far.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:56 am | Reply
      • Mark

        Actually, stoned people are sometimes quite intelligent. I'll take a stoned guy over a Tea Bagger any day.

        August 31, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Hiker

      Marcus, just had to get that little rant off, didn't you? Feel better now?

      August 31, 2013 at 11:30 am | Reply
  19. rizzo

    Let's start looking into spending 10 billion or so on a prototype thorium reactor. A few billion now would save trillions down the line.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
  20. LukeB

    While I agree that it is stupid of us inhabitants of earth to continue to build these 1920's technology pressurized water reactors when we have known how to build much safer reactors since about 1960, I am very annoyed by the alarmist statements in these articles with no actual facts to back up the alarm. We have only one fact: There is a lot of water that has some radioactive isotopes in it from the reactor. Is it enough to actually be a hazard?

    The 'No Radioactivity is Safe' premise of most anti-nuclear reporting has been thoroughly shown to be incorrect, and the way this (and other articles like it) is written leaves me unconvinced that the problem is as bad as presented.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:51 am | Reply
  21. The Outlier

    Wow, does CNN's 'comments' functionality completely suck or what?

    August 31, 2013 at 10:52 am | Reply
  22. Mickey D's

    I think McDonald's food is more radioactive.

    August 31, 2013 at 10:58 am | Reply
  23. rickdday


    August 31, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply
  24. ruser

    "nuclear power is a hell of a way to boil water" A. Einstein

    August 31, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
  25. Charley

    I always new it was much worse then ever published anywhere. I think the fallout cloud was much worse then ever was let on. only one tiny particle lodged in a persons lung will or could eventually lead to cancer in 10-15 years

    August 31, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
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    August 31, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • kmac

      seek medical help soon

      August 31, 2013 at 11:50 am | Reply
  27. nibirutruth

    Rense period com has had articles about the dangers of these leaking plants since the disaster happened and CNN is just now getting on board. What a joke this publication has become. They broadcast the fluff all the time, but the really important news stories they ignore. They are part of the reason Americans are so poorly informed about what is really going on in the world.

    August 31, 2013 at 11:30 am | Reply
  28. jethro bodine


    August 31, 2013 at 11:32 am | Reply
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