Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fukushima still a mess

At the end of last year the Japanese authorities announced that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex's devastated reactors had been brought to ‘cold shutdown’, nine months or so after the disaster. But that just means that temperatures are now lower, not zero, thanks to continued cooling and reduced melted core activity levels. Much still needs to be done however to make the plants fully safe, and some reports say that, since no one really know exactly what happened inside the cores, it’s not clear how to move to the next set of issues, which include locating and stopping the flow of toxic water and removing the melted nuclear fuel and radioactive debris. Reuters noted that ‘Fukushima Daiichi is hemorrhaging enough radiated water each month to fill four Olympic-size swimming pools’ and quoted Hajimu Yamana, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyoto University, who heads a government committee studying how to decommission Daiichi: ‘We don't know what we should do. After all, we don't even know what's happening inside the plant.’ But they are doing their best, although its been claimed that it will take thousands of people, and decades to clear it all up: TEPCO’s current plan is for final full decommissioning of the site by 2041-2051.

Possible US Impacts

Joseph J. Mangano and Janette D. Sherman, writing in the International Journal of Health Services, (Vol. 42, No. 1, pp 47–64, 2012) note ‘an unusual rise in infant deaths in the northwestern United States for the 10-week period following the arrival of the airborne radio-active plume from the meltdowns at the Fukushima plants in northern Japan’. They say that ‘U.S. health officials report weekly deaths by age in 122 cities, about 25 to 35% of the national total. Deaths rose 4.46% from 2010 to 2011 in the 14 weeks after the arrival of Japanese fallout, compared with a 2.34% increase in the prior 14 weeks. The number of infant deaths after Fukushima rose 1.80%, compared with a previous 8.37% decrease.’ They add ‘Projecting these figures for the entire United States yields 13,983 total deaths and 822 infant deaths in excess of the expected’. They say ‘these preliminary data need to be followed up, especially in the light of similar preliminary U.S. mortality findings for the four months after Chernobyl fallout arrived in 1986.’ They suggest that while impacts in Japan will inevitably be much higher, the impact of exposure to low levels can also be significant elsewhere, especially for infants. See

This report was rubbished by the US nuclear lobby as being unreliable and based on dubious use of statistics and it may indeed be a little premature. Similarly the views of Prof. Chris Busby have also attracted a lot of criticism. He is ardent in his belief that low-level internally absorbed radioactive particles are more dangerous than is officially thought, but he has his detractors. Make up your own mind. For an overview see : http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/Christopher_Busby. And then his web site: Also see and Then, from a hostile but anonymous source:
The most balanced overview of the issue I’ve seen is this:

Clearly there are conflicting views. Prof. Gerry Thomas at Imperial College told New Scientist that ‘not an awful lot got out of the plant – it was not Chernobyl.’

This seems wide of the mark. According to recent estimates, 770,000 terabequerels of radiation seeped from the plant in the week after the tsunami, more than double the initial estimate of 370,000 and about 20% of the official estimate for Chernobyl, rather than the 10% initially claimed. The amount of plutonium released is said to be 120 billion Becquerels, plus 7.6 trillion Becquerels of Neptunium-239. As neptunium-239 decays, it becomes plutonium-239.

But even that may be an underestimate. Nature noted that the Norwegian Institute for Air Research found that, in fact, the accident released more total radioactive material than did Chernobyl, though some was in the form of xenon which is less harmful. Even so it claimed that caesium emissions were in total about half that from Chernobyl.

It is perhaps not surprising then that there have been huge demos around the country, with a 60,000 strong gathering in Tokyo last Sept kicking off a whole spate of ‘Occupy Tokyo’ actions. In parallel, rail workers went on strike to resist the re-opening of the track from Hisanohama Station to Hirono Station, which they say is still highly contaminated by radioactive fallout from Fukushima.

Their concern is that rolling stock is contaminated- its been passing through the area reguarly. The Trade Unions have become increasingly active, organising an International Workers rally:

They are not the only ones worried about radioactive contamination. Local residents in Tokyo, unconvinced by government reassurances that all was well, have been measuring radiation levels themselves. The Tokyo citizens’ group, the Radiation Defense Project, which grew out of a Facebook discussion page, in consultation with the Yokohama-based Isotope Research Institute, collected soil samples from near their own homes and submitted them for testing. Some of the results were shocking: one sample collected under shrubs near a baseball field measured nearly 138,000 becquerels per sq meter. Of the 132 areas tested, 22 were above 37,000 becquerels per square meter, the level at which zones were considered contaminated at Chernobyl. Hot spots are of course different from full scale contamination as at Chernobyl, but Kiyoshi Toda, a radiation expert at Nagasaki University’s faculty of environmental studies and a medical doctor, told the New York Times ‘Radioactive substances are entering people’s bodies from the air, from the food. It’s everywhere. But the government doesn’t even try to inform the public how much radiation they’re exposed to.’…

There’s also been strong opposition to radioactive debris being brought to Tokyo by train to be burned and dumped in Tokyo Bay:

Studies by a US scientist Marco Kaltofen of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) of air filters from car air-conditioning units sent from Japan, evidently show high levels on contamination by hot particles in Tokyo. Studies have also been made of shoe laces gathered from kids in Japan- they pick up dust.

Some of this may be unduly alarmist, and some may be unreliable, but given that few now trust official pronouncement, it’s understandable that fears mount and pressures for a nuclear phases out increase.

As you may have guessed from the above, I’m writing a book on Fukushima. Stay tuned!

No comments:

Post a Comment