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. Moirraine

    Two years of leaks and some here don't think it's going to affect sea life and our FOOD chain?



    August 31, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • Ike

      I can hear it now from the conservatives, Oh no! That would be socialism enforced by an Obama food czar. Regulations hinder our freedom.

      August 31, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  2. Name*Aware

    Hmmmm interesting that cnn brings this to light, conveniently, during a time when the President is making a decision on whether or not to go to war with Syria. What makes this interesting is that independent news organizations have been bringing this up for the past 2 years and the mainstream media has completely ignored it.. until right now. Why right now? F×#*ing distraction. F#!k you Cnn.

    August 31, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  3. Corey

    Should have cold cement shutdown like Chernobyl immediately after the disaster........

    August 31, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  4. Redeye Dog

    Meanwhile, back at the nuclear disaster on the other side of the world...

    August 31, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  5. Don Cheade

    Thank you CNN for actually reporting important news. This is the only issue any government or world leader should be concerned with. Go to war with Syria for chemical attack on a thousand people? How about we go to war with Fukushima before it destroys our planet? Will the president ever address this problem?

    August 31, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • Michael Hogan

      Well said mr. Cheade. Love ur body of work. God bless u and yours sir ;~[}

      August 31, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  6. ug

    I don't think about it...

    August 31, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  7. abdallah

    ((( O mankind! Say No God But Allah, Achieve Eternal Salvation )))

    " Laa ilaaha illallah " (There is none worthy of worship except Allah.)

    ( I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger )

    ( Introduction to Islam )

    August 31, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Marc weisberg

      Insightful and relevant to the issue.
      Enlightening on the problems with radiosctivity.
      Just like in the 9 th century.

      August 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Reply
    • Vinod

      Misled words from a misled fool. You sir are a fool.

      August 31, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  8. ScottCA

    After having lived and worked in Ja-pan for many years. I can attest to the fact that cover up and lie is the first response for the majority of Ja-panese companies when confronted with an embarrassing mistake. this is a part of the culture in Ja-pan and it is how the people deal with the majority of matters. cover up and try to deal with it internally, without letting anyone else know what they have done wrong.

    August 31, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  9. ScottCA

    After having lived and worked in Ja-pan for many years. I can attest to the fact that cover up and lie is the first response for the majority of Ja- panese companies when confronted with an embarrassing mistake. this is a part of the culture in Ja- pan and it is how the people deal with the majority of matters. Cover up and try to deal with it internally, without letting anyone else know what they have done wrong.

    August 31, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  10. LillyMunster

    A couple of things that must be understood right now is that the actual amounts that have leaked out to the sea and via the air are still being determined. I am working on a project that is compiling all of the academic studies that have estimated the air and sea releases and also the plume expansion across the Pacific. What we are seeing so far is estimates for both sea and air that are far larger than the initial estimates put out. Also many of the early reports of Fukushima releases only estimated the early weeks or months of the disaster. The plant has been leaking to the air the entire time and as TEPCO has admitted recently it leaks to the sea considerably still today. So those early estimates are just a section of a bigger picture. This explains all the ways the plant leaks to the sea. http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=11302

    We hope to have something done within the next month that compiles all those new studies and comes up with some longer term estimates of the total releases to date From Fukushima. I do find it sad that so many media forums like this get over run with pro-nuclear industry talking points, like changing the subject to coal.

    August 31, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • googoopachoo

      Yah, I remember a number of nuclear scientists were saying from the beginning that it was a lot worse than what we were told. Keep up the good work

      I wish that public relations people were required to disclose their conflicts of interest. One of the reasons for the spread of misinformation is that companies like TEPCO hire PR companies, and those PR companies go out and hire people to write op-eds and spread misinformation. The problem is, the public doesn't know who's being paid by the PR companies and who is actually offering an unbiased opinion.

      August 31, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • Wendy P

      I just do not understand why something so severe was not addressed sooner, its leaking into the ocean, will this not affect CA? Why is no one held accountable for such a terrible cover-up?

      August 31, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Reply
      • gager

        Go back to your cave and leave the rest of us to progress.

        August 31, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
      • Zayah V

        Do you realize just how large the ocean is? Granted its a lot of radiated water but if you spilled all of it into the ocean right now it would be completely diluted by the time any of it got to CA. The main concern would be to countries nearby.

        August 31, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • Grouch

      Yeah, if you want to worry about REAL significant radiation levels, get cancer. I've had enough radiation to kill me 5 times over. Fortunately, dosages were spread out over time. The point is, the radiation levels as you get away from the plant it becomes hardly noticeable over background. People hear nuclear and panic - It's not the boogieman you think it is if you really understand it.

      August 31, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
      • hp

        Hard to understand an even which is unprecedented in human history.
        Three simultaneous reactor core meltdowns.
        But all is well, eh? Wow. Thanks. I feel so much better.

        August 31, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
      • Zayah V

        HP you are silly. Just because something is the worse that's ever happened does not mean its freak out time. In fact, if you detonated a nuclear weapon in the pacific right now and it was no where near anyone it would not do any harm by the time it reached anyone, it would be way diluted. The ocean is a pretty colossal place. I had the worse ever diarrhea dump I've ever had, im not rushing to the doctor panicking.

        August 31, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
      • Reedy

        Are you willing to drink water purified from the seawater off Fukushima Daiichi? If not, maybe you should shut your mouth and let someone who isn't a hypocrite talk.

        September 1, 2013 at 2:43 am |
      • Get Educated

        Unreal.....you people are still desperately trying to use that tired old "background radiation" comparison. People: this is what nuclear industry public relations (a.k.a. Lying) looks like. Take a good look...you'll see this "background radiation" nonsense in lots of the pro nuclear industry arguments. DON'T BUY IT!!!

        September 6, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Jim Wery

      Please at hurry............we need to stop this leaking, if only we can. This reminds me of the movie "The China Syndrome".

      August 31, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Reply
    • Andrea

      What I don't understand is why this article (I realize you didn't write it) is not warning us as many others have about ingesting fish from the Pacific. Apparently most fish should not be eaten from Pacific waters. I applaud you on your continuing work in researcing this disaster.

      August 31, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  11. BajaGreg

    I caught a six-eyed marlin yesterday that glows in the dark–I'm sure its just a coincidence though....

    August 31, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Reply
    • MercuryCrest

      Bah! Everyone knows our mutant marlin only have 3 eyes.

      August 31, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Reply
      • Grouch

        It's the mercury you have to worry about, not the radiation. 😀

        August 31, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  12. Xibo

    Buy a large Nuclear Bomb from the U.S. and blast the area fighting fire with fire. The more complicated you make it the less that will be done about it and the more damage the world will suffer.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Reply
    • dewey

      Brought to you my the Congressional Military Industrial Complex and the Nuclear Advocacy Network

      August 31, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Reply
    • gager

      Learn about nuclear before posting bs.

      August 31, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Reply
      • Grouch

        To bad there aren't up and down arrows on this type of posting board. Good response. Most people don't have a clue about radiation except someone told them it's really really scary.

        August 31, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
      • Pseudotriton

        Relax, dude. You're looking for serious information on an internet forum, especially one with traffic like on CNN's? Just sit back and have some sense of humor.

        August 31, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
      • Get Educated

        The only BS I've read so far comes from your computer.....most likely located in the Tepco or GE public relations wing....somewhere safely removed from the multi-generational catastrophe your industry has caused.

        September 6, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  13. tracigee

    Oh, I think we all knew. We also knew we were probably being lied to, and we knew there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • gager

      Nuclear is not the problelm, ignorance of nuclear is the problem.

      August 31, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Reply
      • Grouch

        Again! Touche!

        August 31, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  14. lobo joe

    A good amount of this radiation may be due to tritium combining to form triitiated water, a weak beta emitter which decomposes rapidly( within a few days and poses no significant threat to the public. The EPA and NRC see this leakage as no significant threat. A significant number of nuclear plants emit this water in streams, though not intended. similarly, tritium gas is constantly released from nuclear plants, once the radiation level becomes low enough.

    I hope much of this leaked material is triatiated water.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Reply
    • Interested Canuck

      Surely you are not suggesting that response should be based on your "hope" that much of the release is in the form of tritiated water.

      August 31, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • F. R. Eggers

      Actually, tritium has a half-life of about 12 years, not a few days. That means that it will be around for a while. However, unless it is taken internally, its risk is very low because its radiation cannot even penetrate skin.

      August 31, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply
      • gager

        The longer the half life the less the radiation. A short half life like radon is a real danger which most people ignore.

        August 31, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  15. blow da beeches up

    worse than I thought? Not hardly. They are still getting to the low end of what they should be admitting. This was a major disaster and cover up.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  16. US_DOJ_Gov

    Why is Chernobyl only now, 26 years later, building a concrete dome over the nuclear reactor plant?

    Nations refusing international help for disasters out of concerns over embarrassment & incompetency, only further their embarrassment & incompetency throughout the world via condemnation & historians.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
    • FinnGoDo

      It's a steel dome, and it's replacing a temporary concrete encasing that has been used for too long.

      August 31, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  17. Alex

    Google the author Mycle Schneider he is generally regarded an "anti-nuclear activist". I have no idea how much of the article is true, but the author is not credible as an objective source. Shame on you, CNN.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      CNN states in the 3rd line that the author's views are his own. Alex, maybe you should tell us where your bias lies. Shame on you.

      August 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Reply
      • gager

        Is the want of truth a bias?

        August 31, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
      • Alex

        I very well saw the introduction, but it didn't indicate that the author is clearly biased and partisan. I don't have anything against opinion pieces, but it should be made clear that the author has an agenda. Instead CNN is introducing it as an independent international consultant who publishes status reports. This is like introducing Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church as an "independent consultant for gay studies".

        September 1, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  18. TK

    Have read news reports re fuel rods at reactor 4? needing to be moved. Any word on this?

    August 31, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  19. bill39

    Huge mess. ITFF sounds like a good idea, but there is still a major problem with making decisions and funding them.

    Every form of energy we use suffers from being priced at the level of production cost, leaving the downstream costs (such as global warming or nuclear waste disposal) to be ignored or born by the government and/or future generations.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  20. dd

    Surely you meant, its worse that we've been told.

    August 31, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  21. Thunder Lizard

    ....and they wonder where all of these giant fire breathing lizards and moths come from.

    August 31, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Reply
    • Dan


      August 31, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  22. Tekelder

    Any article that compares Fukushima to Chernobyl is pure agitprop. You cannot compare the 40 metric tons of core material released by Chernobyl with the roughly 10 pounds (mostly cesium) that has been released by Fukushima. This article is pure agitative propaganda issued by a paid advocate to terrorize the ignorant into panic action. CNN should be ashamed. Zakaria needs to read this stuff before allowing it to be posted under his banner. It makes him look ignorant.

    August 31, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Reply
    • Grouch

      Up Arrow! The anti-nuclear crowd has been trying to scare people to death since Einstein opened the door. Well, the ecofreak crowd was finally coming to the conclusion that Nuclear was the way to go to reduce global warning (another wild issue). So the anti-nuclear crowd found this situation to be delightful to stop it in it's tracks. What people don't understand, is that with modern technology, this kind of accident (or one like chernobyl – pure stupidity) is almost totally preventable now.

      August 31, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Reply
      • RicoTorpe

        And yet they BOTH happened.

        August 31, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
  23. Bob Maschi

    Fukushima Nuclear Disaster – We are all ‘On the Beach’


    August 31, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  24. IpseCogita

    It is not worse than I think, but it is getting close.

    August 31, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  25. Winston5

    ...at least they shuttered San Onofre in Southern California.

    August 31, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  26. Elam Garak

    If ever there was a time we should all put our differences aside and come together to do something to save ourselves.... this would be it. We had a good run didn't we 😉 ??

    August 31, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  27. Fezzile

    In the US, government officials measured concentrations of I-131 in precipitation up to 211 times above normal during the weeks following the meltdowns. There were increased concentrations of all beta-emitting radionu- clides in the air during the six weeks following the be- ginning of Fukushima fallout. Compared to the same period a year earlier, the fallout increases were more than seven times greater in the five Pacific/West Coast States, compared to just over two times in the remainder of the US.

    August 31, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Reply
  28. Dima

    There is more: All Sharks are now radioactive just like tuna. That means that all Shark Fin is radioactive as well. Tell that to all Chinese who eat shark fin. It may finally occur to them, that now it is a matter of having cancer and dying if they were to continue to consume Shark Fin.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  29. Humpy

    Just nuke it already

    August 31, 2013 at 9:35 pm | Reply
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