March 11, 2016 will commemorate five years since the catastrophic disaster at Fukushima, Japan. In spite of the fact that there has been sparse mainstream media coverage, the situation remains a stunningly dangerous and expensive challenge for Japan and the whole world.
In the past five years, basically nothing resembling cleanup and/or decommissioning has really occurred. The quiet “official” consensus is that it will be 40-50+ years and hundreds of billion of dollars before any type of stable condition is achieved. Other experts predict that the site can/will never be cleaned or decommissioned. As with so many aspects of nuclear power, there are no easy solutions or fixes, which enforces the belief that nuclear power is potentially dangerous, complex and beyond our current technological ability, extremely expensive, and a moral albatross we place upon all future generations.
Four reactors at the site were damaged in the earthquake and tsunami, three suffering the ultimate complete meltdown of fuel forcing the unprecedented challenge of what to do. The fourth reactor had damage to the fuel handling building, and two years were spent moving the fuel rods from the damaged spent fuel pool to a new pool at an adjacent site. No one knows what is really going on with the other three reactors, since they are so radiologically hot that the electronics in the various robotics attempting to survey the damage fried within a few minutes of exposure. No one/nothing can get near the internals of the reactors to see what has realistically happened, let alone begin to figure out how to disassemble/dismantle/stabilize the melted fuel. The situation is similar, but more severe than Chernobyl; and a simple solution would be to entomb the site…bury the whole area with sand, build a sarcophagus of some sort, and just walk away from it. However, it’s not that simple. Meanwhile, thousands of “workers,” ranging from nuclear professionals to common laborers, have been knowingly exposed to higher than acceptable levels of radiation, endangering their own health and that of their offspring.
All the reactors were bermed into the adjoining hillside, and groundwater runs downhill and below the buildings. The explosions and meltdowns cracked the bottom concrete layers, so that this water infiltrates into the substructures where the melted fuel has probably congregated, and picks up radioactivity. This water, as well as the water that is continuously being pumped into the reactors to keep the fuel cool, amounts to an enormous volume of contaminated water that needs to be treated before being released to the environment. Unfortunately, the treatment processes cannot begin to deal with the 80+ million gallons of water; so the majority of it is being stored in 1800+ makeshift tanks, some of which are already starting to fail and leak. A lot of the contaminated groundwater cannot be captured, and just seeps out into the ocean, releasing radioactivity that is being detected in ocean currents on the west coast of the US and Canada, in the fisheries off the coast of Japan; and in air monitors around the world as some of this radioactivity evaporates into the atmosphere. An attempt ($250+m) to build an ice dam to exclude the intrusion of groundwater into the buildings has failed some preliminary trials, but they are still moving ahead with the 1½ mile project. We’ll see what happens there. They are running out of room and the ability to construct new storage tanks for the contaminated water, and it is inevitable that they will soon have to deliberately dump huge quantities of radioactivity into the ocean. How this plays in the international arena of nuclear treaties, global water pollution, etc. remains to be seen.
The bottom line is NOBODY knows what to do! There have been no real concrete ideas from the US, China, Russia, or the European nuclear powers, because these three “meltdowns” were never supposed to happen. The chief engineer at Fukushima just died of cancer at the age of 58, and he really didn’t have a clue as to what they could do. Three former executives of TEPCO, the responsible utility, have just been indicted on charges of criminal negligence. Fukushima was not an accident, but a ”failure of the safety analysis” which the global nuclear industry has falsely prided itself on. In a way it’s very similar to the Flint lead water crisis here…silence, hoping nothing bad happens, and that it will all just go away. The nuclear industry is notorious for its mis-statements, cover-ups, silencing critics, and absolute lies…just like the Exxon campaign against climate change, Monsanto and its dangerous chemicals entering our food supply, and, just now, France’s cover-up of serious malfunctions at its nukes near the German border.
Back to Japan…it is a small island with little room to store not only the radioactive water, but also the thousands of bags full of contaminated soil and debris. Here in the US, we have Utah, Texas, and Nevada to put the stuff! Add to this the ultimate storage of spent fuel and decommissioning wastes from the remaining 50+ reactors and nuclear infrastructure, and Japan is in quite a quandary. All 54 of their nuclear power plants were shut down in 2011. Two have recently been restarted, and a third was briefly started and re-shut down, even after five years of theoretical safety upgrades and fixes. The costs of Fukushima has so far topped $113B, with the actual work still ahead. This will far exceed the initial capital investment in their entire nuclear plants and infrastructure, and will continue to be a huge drain ($500B?, $1T?) on what was once a model economy. In addition, there are/have been tremendous impacts on the various ecosystems on this small island; and what that means for future land use as living space, agricultural use, mineral extraction, and recreational use, and ocean and fisheries has yet to be determined. Add to this that the unknown costs of their entire nuclear program decommissioning, waste management, environmental cleanup, and human/social costs, and it’s difficult to see where they will be down the road. Their economy has limped along, aided by building and implementing available renewable energy technologies, which have filled in for the loss of nuclear electricity. But in time, it is the backend costs that will hurt Japan, as well as all the other global nuclear powers. We all HAVE to deal with the man-made radioactive atoms…their neutrons, protons, electrons, and morons.
What have we in the US learned from all this? Interesting that the Fukushima reactors were all US technology, the GE Mark I design, many of which are still operating here in and other countries around the world. We continue to blindly believed the industry and have faith in this “superior” technology by re-licensing old reactors and running them well beyond their appropriate life. It is just a matter of time before one of these old dinosaurs drops dead, and its huge tail continues to flail and wreak havoc for years to come.
Aside from occasional stories in the mainstream media, here are a few sites for more updates: