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. Get Educated

    I've been reading some disturbing posts on here by people like Grouch. These posts are at the very least uninformed and at the worst they are put there as disinformation by someone inside the industry. And please, to people who are still using the background radiation equivalency argument, GET EDUCATED. This is radioactivity not radiation. There is NO comparison with radiation from the sun, or electronic devices at all. Even a small amount of a radioactive substance can do massive damage over the course of several years. The truth is that Fukushima had three full China syndrome meltdowns. THREE. The molten cores have melted into the ground and have most likely contaminated the water table (hence the massive uptick in radioactivity at the test wells near the plant in the last month). At least 80 tons of radioactive groundwater have been pouring into the plant and subsequently into the Pacific Ocean every day for the past 2.5 years. There is no end in sight for this. The Tepco plant was built on the most active fault line on Earth, and will almost definitely experience another severe earthquake long before Tepco is ever able to 'contain' this disaster. If that happens, Fukushima will lose the spent fuel pools causing an open air chain reaction of the spent fuel rods. Some scientists have said the entire northern hemisphere of the planet might become uninhabitable if this occurs. This is the real deal people!

    August 31, 2013 at 10:16 pm | Reply
    • eyezen

      Thank you for your informed and educated response. As a layman I've had the opportunity to sit with physicists at a conference on new energy and listen to them talk about the dangers of nuclear fission, not only the energy itself but how poorly it has been understood and handled by humanity. Once again, we are seeing the results.
      Just embarrassed for Grouch's arrogance and ignorance.

      September 2, 2013 at 3:15 am | Reply
  2. George Schaefer


    Why isn't CNN talking about this???

    August 31, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  3. ABCD

    These are all very dumb comments

    August 31, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  4. robertapthorpe

    Lovely, yet another obscure anti-nuclear policy "consultant" given an uncritical venue in the media. Does the author have any education or work experience in health physics, epidemiology, environmental remediation, radiological analysis or any relevant field?

    The situation at Fukushima is bad but it's not going to kill anyone, it's not going to injure anyone, and it's not going to have any noticeable impact on the Pacific Ocean. Cleanup will be long and difficult, a job not made any easier by self-styled "nuclear experts" whose only hands-on experience with nuclear technology is changing the batteries in their smoke detector.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:02 am | Reply
  5. BK

    Arne Gundersen has been warning governments since the accident? And no AIR TIME? Your all cowards for not reporting this.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:04 am | Reply
  6. Real Numbers To Look At

    Let's do some simple math to check Nuclear statistics.
    Also, we will compare TEPCO's laughable numbers to industry numbers.

    These are facts:
    Water is poured on to a melting core is 30,000 gallons per minute – scientific estimation during emergency meltdown
    – 7 pounds is the weight of a gallon of water.
    – 210,000 pounds of water flow per minute
    – 2,000 pounds equal one ton
    TOTAL WEIGHT of one minute of water flowing over a melted core is 105 tons.

    So, the one-hour flow is equal to 6,300 tons of water flow.
    – 151,200 tons of water flow per 24-hour day, 7 days week.
    – 1,058,400 tons of water flow in a 7-day week.
    In one year, 55,036,800 TONS of water flow over ONE reactor.

    Then in one year, 165,110,400 TONS OF WATER FLOW OVER THE THREE MELTED CORES.

    There are 3.5 million tons of water in a cubic mile of ocean.
    To keep it simple –
    – 50 cubic miles of water is run over the 3 melted cores a year.

    TEPCO says that 400 tons water flows over 3 melted cores in a day.
    They are only off by 5,900 tons of water flowing per day over one melted core.
    Or added together – 17,700 tons of water flowing over 3 melted cores!

    So they are also saying that 146,000 tons a year are flowing into the Pacific.
    They are only off 54,890,800 tons a year of water flowing.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:10 am | Reply
  7. FayeKname

    Seems to be a a lot of people here trying to downplay the seriousness of radioactive water leaking into the ocean. The nuclear lobby's paid posters? I hope so, cuz some of these comments are just too stupid to be anything but.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:24 am | Reply
  8. Wagons East

    Wagons East for those of us on the West Coast. It's probably better to leave now than when everyone suddenly starts dying of tumors and cancer and turn into zombies, I mean it. Radiation sickness = zombies.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:28 am | Reply
  9. OneInOneMillion

    So this is where all the dumb people comment. Disturbing how many people are treating this like it's harmless. The wildlife matters as much as humans do. Most of you are just to selfish and childish to realize it. Barely an ounce of wisdom in all your brains combined, and few of you have any heart worth mentioning. Wake up and grow up you morons.

    September 1, 2013 at 1:07 am | Reply
    • And thus

      "He who carries self-regard far enough to keep himself in good health and high spirits, in the first place thereby becomes an immediate source of happiness to those around, and in the second place maintains the ability to increase their happiness by altruistic actions. But one whose bodily vigour and mental health are undermined by self-sacrifice carried too far, in the first place becomes to those around a cause of depression, and in the second place renders himself incapable, or less capable, of actively furthering their welfare. In estimating conduct we must remember that there are those who by their joyousness beget joy in others, and that there are those who by their melancholy cast a gloom on every circle they enter." Now put on your glow in the dark sunglasses and stand on the Pier and be our lookout sonny..

      September 1, 2013 at 3:25 am | Reply
  10. 808

    Need to check the 1st paragraph. The 2nd sentance makes it sound like Toyoshi Fuketa is from the China’s Foreign Ministry.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:11 am | Reply
  11. Ravi

    Yeah if only these guys had listened to mycle Schneider's unique ideas they'd be on the right track. Right. Never mind that, as usual, a private energy corporation is responsible for the immense contamination of the environment and everyone else has to suffer/pay. Because we're trying to cut corners to boost profits. Yay capitalism.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:21 am | Reply
    • bushpoverty

      Exactly, Thank You GE who designed the poison power plants and labeling them safe, Thank You Tepco for killing our ocean and people, Thank You conservatives for endorsing it all. Now I suppose they will try and blame everyone else for it like they always do, they never listen but somehow are always right.

      September 1, 2013 at 7:20 am | Reply
      • unretired05

        Not to mention fracking.

        September 1, 2013 at 9:38 am |
      • greenislanddreams

        They will claim it was a liberal government scheme to embarrass capitalism.

        September 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
      • Gregg

        Let's get Obama to do something about it then (GE's CEO is one of his supporters), instead of just more rhetoric.

        September 1, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
      • Tom

        Not only did the conservatives endorse these, they said that this type of accident could NEVER happen. Too many safeguards, they said. I don't see many of the supporters from the 70's chiming in now.

        September 4, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  12. Richard

    The Venus Project would have prevented this.

    September 1, 2013 at 5:11 am | Reply
  13. bushpoverty

    They need to stop simply reporting their issues and start coming up with some permanent, viable, effective solutions, like now, before the whole thing blows and kills everyone and everything. How about building newer more solid, fortified tanks and transferring the waste water to them if the tanks they are in are now leaking, or maybe jettison the tanks into space far away from Earth where it can't kill us all, stupid, clueless idiots.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:16 am | Reply
    • Andy

      The problem with sending nuclear waste into space is if the rocket explodes on the way up. Then you contaminate the whole atmosphere ...

      September 2, 2013 at 12:25 am | Reply
    • jeppen

      I think you're being to hard on yourself. You're not clueless. But they are treating the water and the spills are not significant.

      September 2, 2013 at 10:22 am | Reply
  14. Kimberly V. Davis

    The continual flow of groundwater through the site, picking up a witches brew of mixed contamination, is the biggest problem. While TEPCO published a "groundwater bypass plan" in January of this year, the scale of this horror was only "revealed" the end of July. Then the leaking tanks took over the news cycle – and that concept is easier to grasp than the hydrology of an oceanfront water table.

    I've been trying, without success, to find some grownups in charge of ongoing monitoring, including the plutonium from the MOX from Reactor 3. Use care in reviewing reports – those that only model expected dispersion from the 3/11/11 incident, for example. We need monitoring and modeling based on the revelations of groundwater flow.

    (BTW, "Simply Info" has a much more insightful name on the actual website! Cute, in kind of a horrible way....)


    September 1, 2013 at 8:02 am | Reply
  15. anonymous

    You might want to assure the public you can clean this up somehow and explain the process. What kind of concerns do we have with fishing,swimming, boating, etc.....If there is no process you should advise precautionary measures, and send a team to help clean fuku...... Up and stop the bleeding.....so to speak.

    September 1, 2013 at 9:08 am | Reply
  16. Ace

    What if we used a kiloton level nuke to vaporize the whole site? Would the overall radiation be less than 40 years of leaking into the ocean and groundwater?

    September 1, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
    • jeppen

      No, the current leaks are insignificant, but your suggestion would increase them a billionfold or more. Vaporizing the site would not transform the radioactive isotopes to non-radioactive ones. Instead, you would just release the entire inventory of the cores and used fuel pools, along with some extra radiation from the nuke, in one go. Even I, who am very pro-nuclear, think that would be truly, truly catastrophic.

      September 2, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
  17. Patchwork

    TEPCO is a utility. They are only concerned with money. You can bet the already high KPH they are paying will double or triple. This whole episode is being treated like a leak in a garden hose. You can be sure al Qaeda will be blamed and the US will consider bombing.

    September 1, 2013 at 10:49 am | Reply
  18. atomiczx2

    It looks like Walter White in that suit.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:41 am | Reply
  19. Al Colic

    I want to see TEPCO management bowing apologetically to the theme song from Mario Bros. until this problem is resolved.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  20. Anthonie Muller

    From wikipedia, on steam explosions:

    The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Soviet Union was feared to cause major steam explosion (and resulting Europe-wide fallout) upon melting the lava-like nuclear fuel through the reactor's basement towards contact with residue fire-fighting water and groundwater. The threat was averted by frantic tunneling underneath the reactor in order to pump out water and reinforce underlying soil with concrete.

    The reported leakage of the storage tanks, bad in itself, would not be as bad as when one of the reactors 1 to 3 blew up: in that case much highly radioactive material would be thrown into the atmosphere. MOREOVER, IN A KIND OF CHAIN REACTION AMONG REACTORS, REACTOR 4 CONTAINING A HUGE AMOUNT OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE, could in turn blow up, as it seems very vulnerable. In that case even much more radioactive material would directly be released into the atmosphere.

    I hope that those responsible have prioritized events; if they had to chose between contamination of the ocean, or an explosion that covered the land, what to do? Such a list should have been made a long time ago. Clearly nuclear explosions should be avoided (also because of, again, reactor 4). But even steam explosions are dangerous. No tunneling similar to Chernobyl has begun.

    It all reminds me of the stonewalling by Nixon during Watergate, which only could result in some problems for a small group. But here the problem could seriously affect the health of maybe hundreds of millions of people.

    But I hear there is some news on Miley Cyrus – have to check that first.
    So long people.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  21. carmen

    Here in France we hear NOTHING about what is happening at Fukushima, remember we were the country around which the chernobyl cloud "stopped before our boarders".... It is terrible, only american channels or some european channels (german within others) talk about this terrible accident which is for sure far more serious than we were told... France is the country where the nuclear debate is not even thinkable, some activits have proven you can go inside our nuclear plants as easily than you go inside any shop, our plants are so old and badly built a huge cataclysm will occur sooner or later, this is terrible. I did not have a very good opinion of the media in my country, but on this particular subject, it is very simple, there is NO information.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Reply
    • Jack Archer

      Plus, France has a rapidly-growing Muslim population. Add that to loosely-guarded, unsafe nuclear reactors, and the greatest danger of nuclear energy becomes clearer: much more dangerous than the accidents are the deliberate misuses by unstable governments and factions.

      September 2, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  22. Jerry Okamura

    How much radiation was released when the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed?

    September 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Who knows

      Well, from what I've heard, a nuclear bomb releases less actual nuclear material or radiation overall than Chernobyl or possibly Fukashima. But the big issue is that the radiation is sent airborne by the explosion.

      September 1, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Reply
      • hmm

        i heard that it was more but...

        September 3, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  23. JayJ7

    The series of designs we use as power reactors was always a bad choice for civilian power. They used the basic design because the US government already tested them. The government used the design because they needed to produce material for atomic weapons. China and India are building Thorium based reactors that should be better in every way, and unusable for weapons. The USA has twice as much Thorium as Uranium, and for once we can copy some other countries design. There are other possibilities to make reactors that will not melt or have a steam explosion. The biggest obstacle is an ignorant congress who will not fund what they don't understand. I think if we tell them it will disprove evolution we will have them next week.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  24. dmlane

    Karma plays no favorites...this is reaping of irresponsible sowing on a most horrendous level...

    September 1, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  25. Eben

    So the problem is radioactive material. How do you get rid of radioactive material? Either you contain it (which doesn't really get rid of it, but anyway) or you make it undergo fission.

    If the problem is the reactor cores slowly emitting radiation and the constant danger of a spent fuel fire, which would result in even more radiation being emitted, why not just hit it on the head? Evacuate a wide area around the site (which is already partially done anyway) and then nuke the site. If you can get the radioactive material in the reactors and the spent fuel pools to undergo fission and release all that energy at once, why not do that? Sure, you still wouldn't be able to use the site and a margin around the site, but at least there would be no continual need to cool the reactors (creating more and more contaminated water) and the threat of a spent fuel fire would be eliminated. It's not an ideal solution, but it's far from an ideal situation.

    Okay, so on the surface it sounds completely insane, but Fukishima is going to require some out of the box thinking and the political will to take decisive action. Or we could just spend the next few centuries irradiating the Pacific ocean.

    September 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • vickster339

      Nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure....

      September 4, 2013 at 4:40 am | Reply
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