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 (509 Responses)
  1. Sharon Kurth

    I wish the USA would provide more coverage in the media about this topic.

    September 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Reply
    • Tim

      Incredibly they're more concerned with Syria.
      They have their priorities so wrong....

      September 2, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Reply
  2. Myron Chris

    Strangely, Fukushima situation is NOT worse than I thought, because I am fully aware of the amateurism (as the blog post author writes) of the people handling this situation. Right NOW I heard on CNN that "previous erroneous readings" or "faulty radiation levels readind devices" are blamed now, when VERY high radiation levels are found at Fukushima site. I agree that an INTERNATIONAL team of EXPERTS need to be gathered to tackle this now GLOBAL problem of Fukushima nuclear plant. Capable robots and remote-controlled cranes HAVE to be used in order to remove the nuclear fuel from the site and CLEAN the place. If you DO NOT know how to do this, just write me at the e-mail address I left together with my name on this comment FORM.

    September 1, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  3. Timothy Hayes

    I remember being told that this was "Safe, Clean Energy" !!!

    September 1, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  4. RST

    At LAST a main media outlet letting someone actually write, 'melt through' not melt down. I and many others have been screaming for that to be established in the reporting coming from the world's WORST nuclear catastropheS. It desperately demands an international response. YESTERDAY.

    September 2, 2013 at 8:07 am | Reply
  5. John H

    I will say like others that this doesn't surprise me at all, a nuclear disaster like this will take years to get resolved. Chernobyl happened in 1986 & the reactor in that building is still unstable & burning to a degree, the Fukishima disaster will take 50+ years to get contained, there also should have been more international help in this matter but it was Tepco who thought they could handle this on their own. Its a very sad situation that wont get better anytime soon.

    September 2, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
  6. Kismet

    Factual errors in this article abound:
    1 – fuel rods cannot spontaneously ignite, they do not combust, it is impossible. Zirconium as a metal does not combust, but it can melt (and produce hydrogen)
    2 – the reactors do not still require cooling, cold shutdown happened in December 2011
    3 – Caesium release is 42% of Chernobyl, not 250% (http://www.ippnw-europe.org/en/nuclear-energy-and-security.html?expand=705&cHash=30fceaa6f9)

    September 2, 2013 at 11:31 am | Reply
    • Dustin

      Cool shutdown happened in December of 2011, huh, that's interesting because that is impossible. When a reactor core melts, there is no cool shutdown, ever.

      September 2, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • Jackryan

      Hi, a few points about your post, Firstly, you are talking out of where the sun does'nt shine, 2nd. Ignorance and denying what is staring you in the face will not protect you, 3rd. you have lost all credibility for any future posts when you said the reactors are in cold shutdown, if they are cold, then it is only because the corium is no longer in the containment – it has melted through and is in the ground, god knows where. Goodnight.

      September 2, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  7. Captain Toho

    I look forward to an onslaught of Godzillas in the next few years.

    September 2, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  8. Dcam

    http://hothawaiiradiation.com/at-the-very-least-your-days-of-eating-pacific-ocean-fish-are-over.html – another (similar) view of the situation

    September 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  9. Isobel

    I wrote to a nuclear expert one week after Fukushima and suggested there should be a thinktank of international experts advising and working out how to manage it!, didn't get a response but I'm not in the nuclear business. The nature of the damage at Fukushima, and news coming out of there, made it immediately obvious that this was a disaster. I just cannot understand why the world has been so complacent, it's catastrophic and a good indication of why nuclear power is a bad idea. Truthfully, without being able to get into building due to radiation levels, how on earth are they gong to be able to do anything.

    September 3, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  10. derek

    Come on people just think bigger. Start installing cofferdams around the site until the reactor area is completely walled off. Then tunnel underneath and rebuild the foundation with lead and concrete. That will seal it. It may take twenty years, but it will save the ocean.

    September 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  11. derek

    Start building cofferdams around the reactor sites until the area is completely walled off. Then tunnel deep underneath and re-build the foundation with concrete and lead. This will contain it.

    September 3, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  12. Koruchan

    How anybody in their right minds can still defend nuclear energy as a viable option after Tchernobyl and Fukushima is a mystery to me. The technology in itself is clearly too dangerous for our planet. The money and power games are disgusting, as are the blatant lies and the unbelievable incompetence of power companies and governments. Anybody still advocating nuclear energy today is either out if his or her mind, or has a hidden agenda.

    September 5, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
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