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Wolf Richter: “Who Could Trust Such A Company?” – The Big Fat Lies About Radiation Exposure Of Workers At Fukushima

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Yves here. This post is yet another reminder of how most companies’ first line of defense when they have engaged in seriously bad conduct is to lie, no matter how flagrant the lie is. Recall during British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon crisis when the oil producer repeatedly and grossly misrepresented the flow rate from its out-of-control well.

By Wolf Richter, a San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Cross posted from Testosterone Pit.

The nuclear fiasco playing out relentlessly in Japan since March 2011 has shaken the previously omniscient and omnipotent nuclear industry – and the government agencies that aided and abetted it. Yet they still obfuscate and minimize the consequences of the triple melt-down of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Latest revelation: the number of workers at the plant who had cancer-inducing radiation doses in thyroid glands from inhaling radioactive substances during the early stages of the crisis was elven times higher than disclosed last December.

Not 178 workers, as TEPCO, the bailed out and now partially state-controlled owner of the nuke had said, but 1,973 workers, as the Asahi Shimbun has “learned.”

Despite its erstwhile omniscience and omnipotence, TEPCO has been publically baffled by an endless series of mishaps, surprises, and occurrences that left it mostly helpless. For example, in mid-March, it disclosed that a month earlier (!), a greenling with 740,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram had been caught near the plant. That’s 7,400 times the government’s food safety limit, highest ever measured by TEPCO’s testing program. The prior record-breaking TEPCO fish had 510,000 becquerels. And they’re all part of the food chain.

Then, early last week, researchers determined that several Japanese sea bass caught off the coast of Hitachi, a city about 60 miles south of the plant – halfway toward Tokyo – had radioactive cesium levels of 1,037 becquerels per kilogram, over ten times the government’s food safety limit. It was the first time since April 2011 that such high levels of contamination had been found in that region. The researchers claimed they had no clue why this mega-dose was now showing up again, over two years after the accident.

Alas, cesium-134 and cesium-137 in groundwater at the plant suddenly started soaring in early July. When measured on July 8, levels were 90 times higher than those found on July 5 and reached 200 times the legal limit for groundwater. TEPCO was baffled. “It is unclear whether the radioactive water is leaking into the sea,” a company official said.

On June 19, TEPCO had already admitted that groundwater contamination of highly toxic, radioactive strontium-90, a by-product of the fission of uranium and plutonium, had increased by more than 100 times between December and May; and that the level of radioactive tritium, a somewhat less harmful substance, had increased by 17 times. And when the cesium levels were spiking in early July, it admitted in the same breath that tritium levels in seawater had soared to 2,300 becquerels per liter, the highest ever detected, and more than double the contamination measured two weeks earlier.

All this came at a very inconvenient time: TEPCO is cooling the reactors and spent fuel rods with a constant flow of water – 400 metric tons per day – and then stores that contaminated water in tanks on site. But some of them have been leaking due to sloppy workmanship. Plus, it cannot indefinitely build new tanks for that endless flow of water. So, it is trying to get approval to just dump that contaminated water into the Pacific. Whatever isn’t already leaking into it.

This is the backdrop to the revelation that TEPCO’s admission in December of radiation doses having exceeded the “safe” level of 100 millisieverts – and going as high as 11,800 millisieverts – in only 178 workers was a lie.

TEPCO might not even have studied the issue at all. Despite warnings from international health experts about the risks of radiation exposure, it didn’t launch an investigation into thyroid gland doses until it was essentially forced to by international pressure. So it finally collected thyroid data on 522 workers – of the 19,592 workers who worked at the plant over time, of whom 16,302 were employed by often shady contractors and subcontractors. It submitted the results to the World Health Organization last year but still refused to release the results until it learned that the WHO would publish them. Hence, the disclosure last December.

But no one believed the results. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation questioned the reliability of the data; and Japan’s Ministry of Health pressured TEPCO to give the data another look. Which it finally did. The Asahi Shimbun reported:

TEPCO and its partner companies not only re-evaluated the readings from thyroid gland dose tests, but they also estimated doses when the amount of radioactive iodine that entered the body was unavailable. These estimates were based on cesium intake amounts, the airborne iodine-to-cesium ratio on the days they worked, and other data. The latest study showed that doses topped the 100-millisievert mark in 1,973 workers.

For how long had TEPCO been dragging its feet? Since most of the exposure occurred during the early stages of the disaster, TEPCO had taken 28 months to admit that nearly 2,000 of its workers had cancer-inducing radiation doses in their thyroid glands. The workers themselves told the Asahi Shimbun that TEPCO “has provided little or no information about radiation doses in their thyroid glands.”

So when push came to shove, TEPCO leaned over backwards to help these workers. “We will provide and pay for annual, ultrasound thyroid gland tests to all workers with thyroid gland doses in excess of 100 millisieverts over their lifetimes,” a PR person explained. “We have already notified those who are eligible for the checkups.”

True to its formerly omniscient manner, TEPCO didn’t know how many of those workers had actually taken the tests. And what if abnormalities were detected during the tests? TEPCO didn’t say. Hand in glove with TEPCO, the Health Ministry itself hasn’t examined the thyroid gland doses of the workers; it would be up to TEPCO on a “voluntary” basis.

Some workers complained that TEPCO hadn’t carefully explained the risks of radiation exposure in thyroid glands; and some employees of subcontractors complained that they’d never been informed about the radiation doses or the thyroid gland tests.

In July, Masao Yoshida, the plant manager, died of esophageal cancer. He was 58. He’d stayed at the plant for nine months, struggling to contain the accident and keep the reactors from overheating. He’d prevented a much larger fiasco. He resigned in December 2011, after having been hospitalized for what turned out to be cancer. TEPCO, suddenly omniscient again, and true to the manner of the nuclear industry, announced that his death was unrelated to radiation exposure. As in all such cases, no one could prove the opposite; it’s impossible to determine what exactly caused each individual cancer – the mantle which the nuclear industry hides behind.

“Who could trust such a company?” said an exasperated Hirohiko Izumida, governor of Niigata Prefecture, after TEPCO’s board had decided on July 2 to restart two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in his prefecture, despite a survey that showed that only 27% of the residents in his prefecture supported it. “There is no greater disregard for local people than this,” the governor said.

Researchers of Tokyo Woman’s Christian University presented a survey to the Cabinet Office’s Atomic Energy Commission on July 17. Among other results, it showed that 87% of the Japanese thought that Japan should get out of nuclear energy, either abandoning it as soon as possible (33%) or phasing it out over time (54%). And a full third thought that information propagated by the central government about nuclear issues was the most untrustworthy.

But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a staunch supporter of the nuclear industry [though he might face some dense pillow talk at home: read.... Akie Abe, His “Anti-Nuclear” Wife]. Reestablishing the glory of the nuclear industry is high on the Abenomics wish list – even as the true cost of nuclear power will gnaw away at Japan for generations.

Such catastrophic nuclear accidents are very rare, we’re told incessantly. But when they occur, they’re costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with estimates, kept them secret. But the report was leaked: the total cost over time of an accident in a thinly populated area could exceed three times France’s GDP. Read…. Potential Cost Of A Nuclear Accident? So High It’s A Secret!

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21 comments

  1. Hugh

    From the kleptocratic perspective, it is clear why TEPCO acts the way it does and why the Japanese government lets it.

    From a social purpose perspective, TEPCO is a text book argument for a corporate death penalty. Corporations only exist if they fulfill some social good. When they cease to perform any good or when indeed they become outright destructive to society, they should be put down. As we saw previously with BP in the Gulf (or the banks and the meltdown), companies that create disasters through their negligence or malfeasance should not be trusted with their clean up. That role should fall to government with the costs falling on the company. The social purpose perspective, of course, assumes that government works for the benefit of the people, something which current governments under the regimes of kleptocracy obviously do not.

    1. Dirk77

      If you can come up with an alternative to perpetual LLC, I’d like hear it. Ryan states below that charters can be revoked, so in our society today perhaps an automatic limit would be best. I remember Lambert writing that corporations originally had a fixed lifetime of 20 years (and the company could not expand into other markets.)

      1. patb2009

        it could be as simple as limiting charters to 7 years, and then the company has to dissolve.

        it could be more complicated in how assets are held or requiring a distribution of all profits every year and require the company to go to the shareholders to rebuy every year?

        1. Dirk77

          Or just end their liability exemption after a given number of years. I remember Yves writing (I’m too lazy to read up on thingd myself) that Wall St investment houses were all partnerships at one time with no LLC protection. That doesn’t seem to have hurt their ability to make money, considering only honest ways that is.

        2. Uwe Ohse

          >it could be as simple as limiting charters to 7 years, and then the company has to dissolve.

          this is far too to short to finish *big* projects, like power stations (even non-nuclear ones), or slow ones like reforestation.

          Regards, Uwe

          1. Nathanael

            Purpose-specific charters are traditional. A company can be organized to do something specific. When it has done that, it is dissolved. If it fails to do that within a fixed, reasonable number of years, it is dissolved.

            A lot of the trouble came from the generic “Companies Act” sort of company. There was a period in the UK when every corporation needed an individual act of Parliament.

  2. psychohistorian

    The nuclear payload at Fukushima is 10 times what Chernobyl was. Much of that is/was in pools above the reactors.

    3 of the reactor cores are out of the containers.

    23% of domestic water consumption is from groundwater and I read somewhere but can’t find the cite that all groundwater in Japan is interconnected.

    Japan is in denial about the coming death of its country.

    The world is in denial about the threat Fukushima poses to humanity.

    So, what else is new? I sure wish I would have had a choice of prudence over greed when nuclear design commitments for hundreds of future (or not) generations of humanity were made.

    And fuck the faith breathers that convinced their fellow humans that we are some sort of gods with the universe as our playground to abuse.

    I am thankful for the knowledge that the universe will barely burp as we eliminate ourselves from the cosmological gene pool.

    To think, we coulda been a contender……..

  3. Ryan Langemeyer

    It has always been my understanding that corporations are “chartered” to operate in states and I imagine in countries. I continue to be baffled as to why state or national Attorneys General (or their equivalent) do not pull those charters and ban specifically abusive corporations from further operation in those locals. Is it simply that the AGs have no honor and no courage or is there some other reason for this lack of oversight? I would appreciate a lawyers perspective on this.

    1. Mr. Jack M. Hoff

      I don’t think any corporation could be guilty of malfeansce. However their officers, employees, and directors could certainly be. So whats with crucifying the corporation? Thats like the murderer walks while the cops lynch his gun.

      1. hunkerdown

        I imagine the thinking is something like “Your privilege to hide behind the corporate veil exists at our pleasure”, or “If you can’t play with your toys right, then you don’t get to play with them at all.”

  4. Kevin

    Japan’s Ministry of Health or the court jester.

    Japan’s Ministry of Health use only The whole body becquerels readings instead of say thyroid gland dose tests
    per; The Asahi Shimbun report.

  5. YoJimbo

    TEPCO has deep connections with the Yakuza, the Japanese gangster mob. Any more questions about their corporate ethics?

  6. LucyLulu

    First, allow me to start by saying Tepco’s behavior has been abominable in many respects, as has the Japanese government’s, who essentially punted most of what should have been their share of the responsibility for management of the disaster, to Tepco. Unlike what would have happened in the US, Tepco received minimal support from the government. Tepco has behaved rather predictably as far as large corporations go, minimizing the extent of the problem, with the complicit support of Japanese regulators.

    One very important problem during the initial stages of the disaster was the lack of dosimeters, the devices worn by workers to measure exposure to radiation. When the tsunami was approaching, the workers fled without first turning in their dosimeters (lack of time). Many of those workers never returned. Dosimeters were found scattered on the hillsides surrounding the plant. There weren’t enough left to go around at just the time exposures would be the highest. That introduced difficulties ascertaining doses received. Still, that isn’t to say Tepco wasn’t negligent in its followup. Fortunately, annual thyroid checks will now be provided. Thyroid cancer has a high rate of successful treatment if caught early enough.

    There is some cherry picking though in the presentation of information in this article that leads to wrong conclusions. There was ONE known worker who received a dose of 11,800 mSv, two over 10K mSv. These were thyroid doses, not full body doses, which were in the half sievert range (still ~7x recommended, but nowhere close to thyroid dose). To add a little perspective, assuming the workers were in the highest risk age group of 20 y.o. (highest exposure was to 30-39 yr old), the doses translates to a 4% lifetime risk of thyroid cancer, and about 1% by 40 y.o. Of course, if YOU are that one in 25 or 100 affected, statistics matter little, and there aren’t extensive studies done on high dose exposures, but enough is known that the numbers aren’t far off. Is Tepco understating the number of exposures? Wouldn’t put it past them. Add to that the unwillingness of the Japanese people themselves to admit exposures, as being exposed has a cultural stigma attached resulting in being shunned by others, dating back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Japan has a long history, before Fukushima, of an oppressed class of migratory nuclear workers, rather akin to gypsies, who travel to different plants and have been used to clean up contaminated spills, etc. with little concern for exposures or oversight. They are Japan’s dirty little secret, who nobody wants to talk about, especially the media. They have high rates of radiation sickness and cancer, and if they seek help, their symptoms are denied and pleas ignored. Typically they live and die impoverished lives. They shouldn’t be confused with the large number of temporary workers that were being used by Fukushima at the time of the earthquake and tsunami. One employee working that day estimated they represented the large majority in her blog that was removed from the internet within a week or so (which I personally read, she never returned, but her boyfriend remained). Tepco claims half of the early exposures were contract help.

    Yes, there is a significant amount of water being used to cool the reactors and contaminated. The amount requiring storage defies imagination, measured in terms of what would fill an Olympic pool every week, now totalling hundreds of thousands of tons. Tepco says they are running out of room. I’ve posted on this before. It isn’t just dumped in the sea as implied by Richter however, or stored indefinitely in tanks. It undergoes a decontamination process which removes the majority of the radioactive products. They are seeking permission to dump water with low levels of contaminants. That isn’t to say some won’t debate the wisdom of that, too. Again it’s a matter of perspective, given the options available and other risks on the site. Does Mr. Richter have a better proposal? Sometimes, the reality on the ground is that TIN(good)A.

    Re: other risks. First, there have been leaks since the beginning. The integrity of the containment structures that hold the reactors were breached during the initial crisis stage. They continue to leak. Repairing them presents a logistical issue given the exposure levels. Other structures also were also compromised. Secondly, lack of power during the initial few days required the use of sea water to be pumped through the pipes of the cooling system and used to cool the reactors. Sea water, namely salt, is very corrosive on pipes and metal. Extensive work has already been done to wall off leakage areas, block access points to the sea, and place filters and absorbers at critical sea port junctions. Yet latest reports suggest contaminated water is still making it into the ocean. The more time that elapses, the more breaches likely to show up. Until the damaged fuel can be removed, will they be trying to bail out a sinking boat with a tin can?

    At Three Mile Island, the extraction of the damaged fuel had to be done entirely underwater, and it was 10 years before the last of the damaged fuel could be removed. It’s estimated to be 20-25 years for Fukushima as decontamination of existing structure followed by rebuilding new structures with necessary large equipment in place at at least two of three reactors will be necessary, with far more challenging conditions and requirements since unlike TMI, containment integrity isn’t believed to have been maintained at any of the first three reactors (last I heard). Final cleanup is estimated to not take place for 30-40 years.

    Hopefully it’s more clear why the large amounts of contaminated water, whether stored temporarily in tanks to be processed with filtration byproducts requiring disposal, more permanently in underground storage tanks, or escaping into subterranean groundwater and on into the sea, is what experts see as the primary and ongoing threat, with the ability to affect the largest number of people and most difficult to mitigate the effects of. Richter exaggerates implications of reports of some high exposures to radiation early on (duh! with meltdowns, explosions, and fires at four reactors it’s a miracle there were no acute fatalities) and repeats false claims of a death from cancer being caused by the crisis. All evidence points to the two being coincidental (e.g. minimum 20 year latency between exposure and esophageal cancer, manager was fairly advanced stage at diagnosis 8 months post, 5th most common cancer in Japan too). Once again with Fuskushima, sensation trumps science.

    Asahi Shimbun articles (most detailed coverage)
    December 2012 article on Thyroid exposures:
    http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/life_and_death/AJ201212010050

    Yesterday’s article:
    http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201307190080

  7. tulsatime

    The fact that government ever allowed commercial development of nuclear power shows how long said government has been in the pocket of corporate interest, as well as the degree of ‘that could never happen’ denial that dominates risk planning. If it sounds too terrible to fix, just deny it.

    Scientists knew there was no way to contain a meltdown in the 50′s, but business always knows better. And they just knew that the future would figure it out. Looks like they were wrong. Again.

  8. RBHoughton

    Its not just fish in waters nears the Japanese coast.

    The plume of radioactive water extends round the Pacific rim passed the Aleutians and Alaska to California, with some progressive decrease in hazard the further it moves from the site.

    Nevertheless, fish should be off the menu although it is in fact being sold cheaply all around the world.

  9. allcoppedout

    This lying thing is in very deep. In economics we encourage chances to do it by saying transparency will adversely affect liquidity and that corporations and rich people stealing tax is wonderful because at least it keeps the money from being squandered by government. They once told us fission energy would provide electricity as cheap as water, not pollute most of it.

  10. UWD

    UWD has a broad portfolio of clients, and this includes organisations in both the private and public sectors, that sell B2B or B2C, offering products or services.

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